Teaching creative writing: the elephant in the room

Elephant“The greatest thing by far is to have a command of metaphor. This alone cannot be imparted by another; it is the mark of genius, for to make good metaphors implies an eye for resemblance.”

Aristotle (330 BC)


Aristotle’s quote has challenged me, (a bit tongue in cheek) to use as many metaphors and similes as possible in this post.  It was like getting blood from a stone. The first person who tells me, correctly, how many there are, will receive a prize copy of The Psychology Book (published by DK and winner of the British Psychology Society book of the year in 2013. I am a contributing author).

The debate about teaching creative writing is like a pantomime, with opposing sides good-naturedly yelling: Oh yes you can! Oh no you can’t!  Or maybe it’s more like a game of tennis, as the arguments are batted back and forth with varying speed and power, until someone scores a point.

Hanif Kureishi thinks it’s all humbug: despite being, himself, a creative writing tutor. He recently put the cat among the pigeons by saying that creative writing courses are “a waste of time…. 99.9% {of students} are not talented and the little that is left is talent.”

Strangely, all other art and craft forms are taught without question: painting, drawing, music, dance, design, drama, sculpture, cookery.  Creative writing is seen  by some, as an innate and rare ability that requires no schooling.  If that’s true, what is the core talent of writing?

I must declare that I have skin in the game: I invested significant time and money in an MA in Creative Writing at Birkbeck seven years ago.  And I’m currently on an Edit Your Novel course at Faber Academy.  Clearly, I believe I have learned valuable lessons, and still have more to learn. One of my fellow students at the Faber Academy, Anna Katharina Schaffner, Head of the Department of Comparative Literature at the University of Kent, introduced me to Aristotle’s quote, above from Poetics:  ‘[…] the most important thing is to be good at using metaphor. This is the one thing that cannot be learnt from someone else, and is a sign of natural talent; for the successful use of metaphor is a matter of perceiving similarities.’

This reminded me of “over inclusive thinking,” a concept developed by respected psychologist Hans Eysenck.  One of my chapters in The Psychology Book was headlined: “There is an association between insanity and genius.”  Eysenck copyThe association is a shared thinking style between the clinically insane and those with a genius level IQ, in which many similarities and connections are seen between disparate ideas and concepts: everything is like something else. This kind of thinking is the foundation of metaphor.

It was like looking for a needle in a haystack, but eventually I found two books in my library about metaphor: Metaphors We Live By by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson (1980) who define metaphors as “…. understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in terms of another.”  Subsequently, their work was developed into a therapeutic method in Metaphors in Mind by James Lawley and Penny Tomkins (2000) who proposed that since metaphors speak to our emotional brain rather than our intellectual brain, they are like electrical conductors, sparking images, memories and emotional constellations. So understanding the metaphors that we live by points the way forward to new and more functional ways of thinking and living.

So have I got the gift, the talent? Am I one of Kureishi’s 0.01% of creative writing students?  The odds are stacked against me; and I did find it shockingly difficult to find an original metaphor to start this blog post – can anybody think of a good one? I’d love to know!

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