Guest Post: Can Creative Writing Be Taught? (Bridget Whelan)

Ladies and gentlemen, we have reached the end of our epic guest post marathon! To wrap up this insightful month, we have Bridget Whelan discussing creative writing, and why taking a class on the subject isn’t the end of the world.


Can Creative Writing Be Taught?

Musicians take lessons and artists go to art school, but people frown if you mention casually that you’ve enrolled in a creative writing course. It’s almost as if writing is like charisma – you either have it or you don’t.

The great writers of the past didn’t go back into the classroom before they penned their masterpiece, non-writing friends mutter darkly, but it seems to me that courses are another way of doing something writers have always done: learn their craft, experiment while they learn, and share the results with others who understand the challenge, before sending it out to the wider world.

Yeats set up The Rhymers’ Club in the last decade of the 19th century, long before he became a celebrated playwright and poet. He and his friends met at the Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese just off Fleet Street in central London and, like writing groups today, they (self) published two anthologies.

While art comes from within, you can learn literary techniques that will help you to be the writer you want to be. Against-the-clock writing exercises might seem very contrived, but the poet Ted Hughes believed that they help writers to overcome their inhibitions:

“The compulsion towards haste overthrows the ordinary precautions … Barriers break down, prisoners come out of their cells.”

But I have to admit not always. Ten minutes can seem like an awfully long time when it’s the wrong exercise, you’re in the wrong mood, or you’re saddled with the wrong tutor (It happens). Mind you, even that experience is an important lesson for writers. We are too ready to beat ourselves up if a passage of writing refuses to sing. What we need to do is accept and move on. Work through it. Write.

And that is exactly what you have to do in class.

There is another benefit to attending a course. Until a publishing house is breaking down the door, desperate for a completed manuscript, we have to make our own goals and deadlines, and classroom assignments are one way of doing that.

I teach in Brighton and London, and believe passionately that creative writing is the most vocational subject on the timetable. It always helps to be able to use words effectively – especially when faced with the most intimidating blank page you are ever likely to see: Why do you want this job?

This autumn, creative writing is being offered as an A Level class for the first time. I’m delighted that being creative is officially recognised as a good thing in schools. However, I know that one size does not fit all, and taught courses are not right for everyone.

There is only one certain way to learn the craft of creative writing, and it applies to 16 year olds, post grad students, and retired factory workers with a story to tell and no desire to go back into the classroom:

Write as much you can and read as much as you can.

And keep on keeping on.


OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABridget Whelan’s first novel, A GOOD CONFESSION—about a love affair between a priest and a young widow in 1960s London—was called “unputdownable” by Miriam Stoppard.

Bridget has run workshops in art galleries and museums, at community centres, and in adult education institutes. Three years after graduating from Goldsmiths College MA programme in Creative and Life Writing, she returned as a lecturer in non fiction writing. Bridget has also been writer in residence at a centre for the unemployed and low waged.

You can find her blog at She publishes a writing exercise every Monday, and on Safari Friday she highlights websites that are useful to writers and readers.

You can follow her on twitter at @agoodconfession, and she would love you to come over and be friends on facebook.


Unrelated media of the day:

I recently discovered this song whilst wandering the interwebs. It’s Japanese, and very odd — full of vampires and very intense guys rocking out on guitars and whatnot. After watching this with my brother, we had to go look up the lyrics, because we wanted to figure out what the connection between the video and the actual song were — turns out, the video is an extremely accurate representation of the lyrics (as in, the song really is about vampires and epic battles and whatnot). Who knew? Anyway, listen and enjoy, and I’ve included the translated lyrics below for your entertainment.

In the gloomy darkness,
The black storm roars.

My only wish
After the battle of destiny
Is to see you.

Why are you devoted
To my loathsome blood,
Is this thought a sin?

Now I will fight
So that the days when we rusted
Can shine again.
With these fangs.

Each one of us
Is burdened with the permanent past.
As we repeatedly seek repentance.
Enduring the unhealable scars.

But still, without hesitating,
We can change our fate.
Tell me, my girl
Is there any hope in tears?

Let me revive
The stole days of love
With my hands.
Dream of that much.
We will keep walking,
Towards the thoughts of our hearts.

I lie in despair.
Tear the shield apart,
And send the light forth!
Open your eyes, rusty hearts

Only you were there.
You taught me about the love that was beginning.
If I devote my life to it,
I will be the one to save you.

Now I will fight
So that the days when we rusted
Can shine again.
Even if I don’t have the you of those days,
I can still love forever.

If someday you decide to
Take back that smile,
It would be a sin.
If this body is corrupted,
Believe in love.
Shouting, rusty hearts.

Categories: Guest Post | Tags: , , , , , , , | 25 Comments

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25 thoughts on “Guest Post: Can Creative Writing Be Taught? (Bridget Whelan)

  1. Hi, Bridget and Michelle. Love the end, Bridget, when you say, “Write as much as you can and read as much as you can.” That wraps it all up, doesn’t it. Off to follow on Twitter, etc.

    • Hi 🙂 It was a great post, wasn’t it? Very inspirational. In fact, I’m off to write right now!

    • Glad you liked the post and I’ll look out for you on twitter. Yes, I think reading and writing are non-negotiable. Doing it and getting it wrong is an education in itself. Reading the writers we admire, the ones who keeps us up all night, is the best lesson you can get. Once you start reading like a writer I think it’s even useful to read the books that didn’t deserve to be published…a class in how-not-to.

      I sometimes get (adult) students on my courses who confess that they haven’t read any fiction in ages and I know there are times when life is so crowded with other activities (raising a family perhaps or when engaged in a stressful job) that it is hard to find pleasure in a book, but somehow you have to find your way back to it. Of course the ones who are a real puzzle are the students who say they don’t enjoy reading…. they are the ones who are looking for tricks and quick fixes AND who have an unrealistic idea of the average’s writer’s income.

  2. Pingback: Creative writing in the classroom – visit my guest post | BRIDGET WHELAN writer

  3. Great post. I went to college thinking I’d be taught how to write and it didn’t work that way. Took 2 years to come to terms with the fact that I had to depend on my creativity and was in college to learn technique. Another group that came to mind when reading this is ‘The Inklings’ that Tolkien, Lewis, and others were members of.

    • I recently joined a writer’s society, and it’s been just fantastic. The very first meeting I learned really important things about first chapters that none of my high school English teachers ever bothered to mention. Like, you I didn’t get any writing help in college — although that was all essays and reports and whatnot, which aren’t exactly “creative writing”. Actually, that’s not true — I feel I was very creative in the way I managed to knock out four 20-page essays each semester without suffering a nervous breakdown. What was my secret, you ask? Earl grey lattes. Yummmm 🙂

      • I took some writing courses after college that were more helpful. The problem that came about was that I was either the only serious author or the only fantasy author, so I found myself back on ‘technique lessons’. There’s a writing group around here too, but they tried to convince me that striving to be an author wasn’t a great idea. Again, I was the only fantasy guy there, so I was out of place. Thankfully, I have my WordPress family to help me out and keep me in line. 😀

    • Hi Charles
      There is a craft to learn but the art that makes the words sing on the page can’t be taught. It comes from within. However,that inner creativity can be nurtured and supported (or squashed if you end up in the wrong class).
      Thank you for teh reference to The Inklings. Forgotten about them & realise I don’t know enough. Off to find out more. Convinced it’s always happened in some way – sisters sharing work in a damp North Yorkshire parsonage, poets over a pint…
      I hope that looking back you found your college experience useful even if your expectations changed during the course.

      • They were very useful. I learned technique in the classroom, but it was during this time that I got involved in a lot of table-top role-playing games. I played Dungeons & Dragons along with several other systems. I learned a lot about storytelling and character development through those games. Got a lot of great heroes out of them too.

  4. My screenplay suffered in college because, well, I wasn’t that great at it, but to be honest, more than anything, too many voices complicated my thought process. Sometimes it is best to create alone.

    However, the classroom is a great way to learn how to harness your energy and teach proper form and technique. If you don’t know how to tell a story then no one can teach that to you.

    • Totally agree. I didn’t even think of taking courses in creative writing when I was in university — I regret that now, obviously. My History/Classics degree was interesting, but I suspect I would have gotten a lot more benefit out of creative writing — especially as I’m attempting to make it my chosen profession, lol.

      • I wonder if I should have done more myself, but I’m not sure it would have helped. I really didn’t like my screen writing class because the professor just didn’t understand my genre – horror. It really stifled me, a lot, when I could have used the help.

    • I’m sorry that the workshop experience was less than satisfactory for you. Maybe you are right that some people need to work alone – one size does not fit all. But even alone you are influenced by a range of different writing styles and approaches, even if you only ever read the authors you love or watch the films in the genre you aspire to work in.

      It is scary to submit your work for feedback but it can be a confidence boost to hear other people become involved in a real discussion about something that came from your imagination. It’s important to remember that it is not a democracy – you can disagree with everything said, but the exchange should make you have a better understanding of what you wrote and why you wrote it.

      Not sure I agree about what happens in a classroom. I think harnessing energy (great phrase) is an individual thing – discovering your passion, learning who you are and what you want and also how hard you are prepared to work for it. On the other hand, I do think that you can explore how stories work in an educational environment, and use that knowledge to sharpen your own story telling skills..

      Hope you are still writing and that you haven’t been discouraged.Maybe it wasn’t the right course for you or the right time to take it or may be things you encountered while studying will emerge in your writing in the years to come…

      • I am still writing and trying to get published. Hard for me to get discouraged because it really is my passion. Thanks again for the great post.

  5. Well Michelle, I don’t usually read guest posts but I thought I’d better read this one. It hasn’t convinced me; the useful advice in the post? – the ultimate six words in the penultimate sentence. What made the Rhymer’s Club ‘successful’ was the ‘membership’, not likely to be matched in a creative writing class and without ‘teacher’. I have to admit though that Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese was an inspiration to many before most publishers departed The Street; now we’d have sobered up by the time we got back to the Underwood and we never did know much about ‘creative writing’.

    • I know that a lot of people would agree with you and we should never forget that being a writer doesn’t require any formal qualifications and that there’s no upper or lower age limit: it’s all about what’s on the page.
      But all the same I think the classroom can be a useful stepping stone for many emerging writers – not just because of what they are taught but also because of the other students they mix with and the opportunity to explore
      It sounds as though you knew Fleet Street before the newspapers and news agencies moved out…it was where I started work aged 16 as an editorial assistant and I have many fond memories of those days. But the Cheshire Cheese wasn’t a journalist haunt in my time – The Olde Bell, The Devereaux, did you ever come across The Stab – short for stab in the back?

  6. Thanks for this repost, Michelle. Whether or not creative writing can be taught is a debate that will continue for eons to come. I’ve taken a number of writing classes: traditional brick-and-mortar classroom; online courses with a small group of students; long-distance snail-mail correspondence with a mentor; and online communities like The one thing that they all provided me (albeit in varying amounts and quality) was critique of my work. For me, that was always the bottom line: am I getting good constructive feedback on my writing, feedback that I can use to improve my wring? I have had that experience of good constructive feedback in traditional writing classes and in the long-distance correspondence course, but in these cases, the instructor/teacher/mentor were not just excellent and highly regarded writers in their own right, but also sensitive, generous individuals who really wanted to support and guide their students. So, perhaps, the key is who leads the learning?

    • That’s a very good point! The teacher really makes the class. And like you said, I’ve found that I learn the most about writing when someone is critiquing my work — then the lessons are specific to me, and I can see the immediate application of what I’ve learned. Although I supposed writing classes, even ones without a critiquing element, are good for if you don’t really know what you’re doing, writing-wise. The basics are, after all, important 🙂

      • The teacher can make or break a class and I have seen some bad creative writing teaching in my time. I remember one instance when the teacher – a highly respected and much published writer – insisted on everyone reading out the results of a classroom against-the-clock exercise. Most were happy to do so, but one young woman was reluctant…the teacher made such a fuss that out of embarrassment she did read out. It was an account of a rape she had suffered some years earlier. That’s an extreme example but inside and outside the classroom I think writers have rights and one of them is to choose when to let their work go and when to keep it back. The tutor’s job is make teh classroom a place of safety, a place where you can take risks and make mistakes and not feel demolished by them, but writing can be dangerous, going places you hadn’t intended and sometimes sharing is not appropriate.

        Saddened by Atotherwr’s comment that the tutor just didn’t get his or her chosen genre. Sounds as if personal taste came into it which doesn’t make a lot of sense… I’m not that keen on Thomas Hardy but that doesn’t diminish him as a writer or blind me to the breath of his vision or the power of his descriptions….

  7. What an inspiring post, Michelle and Bridget. Among all the courses I’ve taken, my creative writing course was the most valuable. I enjoyed everything from the workshops to the readings, the fiction and even the poetry. I’ll always remember my creative writing course 🙂

    • One of my favourite school memories is from grade 8, when I had this amazing teacher who made us do a creative writing exercise each day. We complained about it at the time, but looking back it was a great experience, and I think it’s one of the things that really got me started on writing! Go creative writing class go!

  8. Thank you Creative Mysteries for all the nice things you said….glad you felt the post was useful. Glad too that you’ve had such a positive experience of creative writing learning opportunities.

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