Recently, Hanif Kureishi, an author and Kingston University professor, spoke at the Independent Bath Literature Festival. His words were controversial, and possibly self-sabotaging. They also raised a number of very important questions.
- What the hell is talent and who are you to say who has it and who doesn’t?
According to Kureishi, referring to his students, “It’s probably 99.9 per cent who are not talented and the little bit that is left is talent.” If you’re one of his students, Ouch. Self-sabotage strike one. Do his students still want to learn from him knowing he has so little faith in them? I know I wouldn’t. What makes him an authority on talent? And what is talent, anyway? It’s harder to define than love, if you ask me. In my dictionary, it’s “an innate ability.” Great. What’s ability? “Being able to perform.” Well, in that case, anyone who is able to write creatively has talent. I’m guessing every student in Kureishi’s class is able to write creatively, or they wouldn’t have been accepted. So what’s missing? Only Kureishi can answer that. Problem is, he didn’t.
- Can a student be taught how to write an engaging story?
Kureishi says, “A lot of my students just can’t tell a story. They can write sentences but they don’t know how to make a story go from there all the way through to the end without people dying of boredom in between. It’s a difficult thing to do and it’s a great skill to have. Can you teach that? I don’t think you can.” (same source as above) This one’s the nail in Kureishi’s coffin. It is his job to teach this, and not through simple lectures on plotting, character, and other basic elements of writing, but through brainstorming with the students. What’s lacking here? How could we make it better? Which leads to another question:
- If most teachers “are going to teach you stuff that is a waste of time for you,” what should they be teaching instead?
In my humble opinion, the classic lecture format is not useful for a course based on imaginative output, because the lecture is a one-way input process. Also, the competitive workshop format that is all too common in creative writing courses is counterproductive. Amateurs critiquing amateurs is not only a waste of time, but is discouraging to a process that is already very difficult and very sensitive. A metaphorical anecdote: When I played music for a living, I used to critique instrumentalists who ‘wanked,’ i.e. a player who played with themselves instead of the song. I always thought that every member of the band should be a slave to the song, doing all in their power to make the song better. Such an approach would be excellent in creative writing courses. Orient them collaboratively. Use the term ‘we’–How can we make this story better? Brainstorm each piece a student brings to the group. Which brings me to questions about approach that could be useful not just to students but pros as well:
- What should the creative writing professor make the primary focus?
Imagination; that is, imaginative output. Kureishi wrote a whole article on the value of imagination. A student should be encouraged to write as often as possible, and as much as possible. The professor could even take on a role as workshop curator, choosing pieces that show the most potential or promise or imagination for a group improvement effort. The whole idea is encouragement. From my own experience as a student, this was one element that was tragically lacking the majority of the time, leaving me on my own to battle creative self-doubt and still manage to be productive. Seriously–school would be so much easier if teachers and professors simply embraced and encouraged their students’ passions. Which leads to the next question:
- Who should take a creative writing course?
People who love and have a passion for writing, not people who ‘want to be a writer’. As Kureishi says, “You start off wanting to be an artist, and once you’ve got children, you’ve got to work in the market. You look at them and think: ‘I’ve got to support you through writing.’ It’s a real nightmare trying to make a living as a writer for a long time… ” If you sign-up for a creative writing course because you love writing and you want to write more and get better at it, you’ve done so for all the right reasons. If you sign-up because you want to make a career out of creative writing, you’ve done it for the wrong reason. If you want both, if you have hopes and dreams and tempered expectations, that’s fine too.
6. How else might one learn the ropes of writing?
On one’s own, by doing it. But better would be to do as Kureishi suggests and “try and find one teacher who can really help you.” And ‘teacher’ is a flexible term here. It could mean ‘mentor’ like Gertrude Stein was to Ernest Hemingway. It could mean ‘editor’. It simply means one person who you trust and look up to as someone who understands and loves your writing and knows how to help you make it better. Every writer needs somebody like this, for encouragement and perspective.
So what of Kureishi? What’s the final verdict on him?
Based on what he said, I get the sense he’s a better writer than a professor, and I wouldn’t want to be in his course right now. I feel sorry for the students who are. He sees “his relationship with his students as part-mentor, part-therapist,” which is all well and good, but he also said that “the idea that you’re in a school for producing great writers is not the point.” I would personally not want my professor to be so jaded. I would want him to have hopes for me, to encourage me, to do all in his power to help me become the best writer I could be, even if he thought that my chances of writing something truly remarkable were slim. If Kureishi’s mind thinks producing great writers is not the point, he is simultaneously on point and missing the point. Making his students writers is the point, and the only thing he needs to do to make that happen is to get them to write. ‘Greatness’ shouldn’t be a factor. For most that comes later in life anyway, and many after death.
“Hanif Kureishi: What they don’t teach you at creative writing school” — Hanif Kureishi