Is Creative Writing Teachable?

What is Creative Writing? 

Google ‘creative writing’ and you’ll read that it’s writing that falls outside the realms of journalism and academia, with creativity and imagination at the forefront (short stories and novels) and yes, poetry is included. Thoughts and feelings are at the heart of our creative expression, running through the veins in each of us- sometimes lying dormant and other times, very active.

Judging creativity

A lot of us obsess over the opinion that some children are natural born writers while other children will never be good at writing creatively, no matter how much input they receive. I wonder if this black and white thinking about creativity is something we should question, here? We have a tendency to place ourselves into ability boxes, such as, ‘I’m good at writing’, or ‘I’m not good at writing’, ‘I can do maths’ or ‘I can’t do maths’. Why do we feel we must limit ourselves and others to just one category, or the other? Why can’t we be somewhere in the middle or better still, on our own journey, furthering our skills and gathering experience along the way? Afterall, isn’t creativity more fluid than boxes and a part of human nature?

Can Art be taught? Can a musical instrument be taught? Can Maths be taught? Yes, of course they can all be taught I hear you say. But can lessons transform my child into the next Matisse, a top mathematician or best-selling musician? Well, that’s a different question! I believe talent, hard work, motivation and self-perception all play a part here. If we assume these things can be taught, why even ponder whether creative writing can be taught. When we ask this question, perhaps what we're really thinking is ‘yes, skills and story structure can be taught, but is there a magical element in stories we are scared our children will never have? Are we judging creativity too harshly, here? Is there a tendency to reduce storytelling to story structure and a series of skills that are transferred between teacher and learner? Followed by some confusion over why some children still don’t know how to write good stories, despite their neat application of technical skills?

 If a child attends a writing workshop, it would be very surprising if they didn’t improve on some level, however small. Although having said that...if a writing teacher is unable to put across what they know in the right way to suit a child, then perhaps the workshop will not have been of benefit…But this could be true of any workshop.

The right approach matters

I think the personal nature of creative writing means that the approach really matters. How you teach creative writing really matters. There’s an element of teaching creative writing that can be overlooked by creative writing tutors and that is the quality of the emotional connection between teacher and child. Do we put too much emphasis on the transfer of skills and knowledge in creative writing lessons, in order to tick boxes? Do we think the use of vocabulary banks and checklists equal writing success? A formulaic approach to creative writing is widely adopted, it’s seen as a gateway for teachers, parents and children to navigate their way through the mysteries of the creative writing process. But does it really work and whilst children follow these formulas what vital elements in the creative writing process are being diluted or in some cases, lost?

The impact of checklists and vocabulary banks

Handy checklists and vocabulary banks can be very useful aids in helping children to write. But perhaps we need greater realisation that we shouldn’t be heavily reliant on using them. Do they give children a false sense of security and discourage children from fully engaging with their imagination? We shouldn’t ignore what really matters when we allow children thinking time to ‘dream’ and write creatively, our unique perception of the world drifts onto paper where hearts and minds mingle.  Many of you will surely be thinking ‘wait, checklists are an easy-to-follow resource and are key to acing the 11Plus English Exam, right?’ Well, yes checklists are a useful aid to help ensure we have included key elements in our writing, but they shouldn’t drive the process.

No number of snazzy resources will ever be a substitute for a connection between a tutor and tutee. In this scenario, an emotional connection comes down to the basics…good communication, trust, an appreciation for individual characteristics and a knack for being in-tune with children’s mental state and how this can affect their abilities, whilst working your way around these hurdles. If we want children to be confident writers who enjoy the process well beyond exam day and for this creative confidence to become a part of who they are, we need more than useful printed resources, we need ourselves!

Checklists can sometimes mean children measure their writing success purely with what’s on a list, rather than how they feel about it. They may think their writing is being judged based on whether they have included sufficient adjectives or adventurous sentence starters. All of this analysis not only changes writing into just another formula to process at the expense of listening to their ‘own voice’, (which doesn’t get much exploration) but it can undermine children’s natural authority and ability to reflect and make their own judgements about their writing. Teaching children to take ownership of their writing, I believe, is paramount to their experience and success.  But here’s the tricky bit, no one can tell a child to ‘go and take ownership…’, instead as teachers and tutors, we can aim to facilitate a space that enables children to be actively engaged in their writing, so they feel safe, with a desire to really enjoy their story writing! This is where an emotional connection between teacher and child is so valuable because it has the power to make a whole world of  difference. 

Powerful Storytelling

The power of a good story resonates with us way beyond the time we first hear it. We may forget the details of sub-plots or names of characters, but the feelings that the story evoke in us endure. This hard to describe element of story writing can’t be easily included on a writing skills checklist… but nor should it be ignored, it’s the magic of the author’s voice that makes a narrative something special. Yes, teaching skills and vocabulary are elements of teaching creative writing but I think the most exciting part is the ‘voice’ behind the words, and this is what benefits so much from being nurtured and allowed to experiment.

Shouldn’t we be encouraging children to grow their self-awareness so they can make their own judgements about their writing without feeling really embarrassed? And shouldn’t children be given plenty of opportunity to feel that writing is good for their soul? A time for them to connect to their imagination, experiences and beliefs and explore them through their writing? If the purpose of creative writing is to convey our thoughts, feelings and ideas, how can children learn to do this to the best of their ability when they have a checklist next to them every time, detailing what success should look like?

Story writing is complex, involving multiple skills and techniques. We need to appreciate that all children are at different stages in their writing journey, ready or not, to take advantage of tips and strategies to enhance their writing. With this acceptance, what matters is that children learn to take ownership of their writing and grow in their self-awareness, the benefits of which will not only allow them to ace exams but will give them personal satisfaction. So, perhaps the real question is not can creative writing be taught? But how best we can use our expertise to teach children to write creatively?

Posted on October 29th 2021

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