Don't stifle our children - let creativity flow

29th August 2008 at 01:00
Creative Writing and how to teach it.Joining the academic community late in life as I did, and asked by my line manager at Brunel if there was any way in which he could "further my development", I asked if I could go to classes on how to teach creative writing. I was only half joking.

Being appointed a professor - as I had been - suggests you know a lot about your subject, but not necessarily that you can teach it. I am not trained as a teacher: the degree of trust invested in me was remarkable. I was not even sure creative writing was something that could be taught. The writers I enjoyed as a child had not attended classes. They just did it, and got into the history books.

Now, two years down the line, as Creative Writing comes in from the cold and joins the English Language curriculum, I feel confident enough to talk to A-level teachers on the subject. This I will do at a conference at Brunel next weekend - `Creative Writing and how to teach it'.

And I will do so as an enthusiast, buoyed by the simple conviction that at the end of the year students write "better" than they did at the beginning.

They write with more confidence, grace and style. They throw adjectives and adverbs around more cautiously. They are less self preoccupied - their levels of empathy are higher. (Writing fiction is a training in knowing what it feels like to be other people.) They understand that writing is an act of communication as well as self expression. This is "self- development" to the nth degree. Without a doubt some are `better' at it than others - those who enjoy reading will be more skilled at writing - but all will improve.

If this is so for university students, it will be the same for the younger ones. Really we could usefully go down to primary school level. The cat sat on the mat - okay, what did the cat do then? Saw a mouse and chased it? That's fiction, invention. Did the mouse get away? Different children will have different answers. Let them persuade others through (legible) words on the page that their answer is viable.

The obligation to teach to the test does nothing to help - as early as key stage 2, Ofsted suggests that of the three Rs, children end up more proficient at reading and `rithmetic than at writing. There will always be a tension between helping the pupil to get things right - spelling, grammar and so on - and the teacher's reluctance to dampen the creative impulse. Even at university level it's a worry that what gets written at the beginning of the year, lively though largely unintelligible, might end up at the end of the year laudably correct but stiff and dull.

It is a matter of tact and time to make sure it doesn't happen, and is not easy, but then whatever was?

Creative Writing is not a soft option. On the contrary. Creating something where there was nothing there is one of the hardest things a human being can do. More, our country needs us. The fostering of individual creativity, skill and talent brings enormous benefits to Britain - we seem to have a natural talent for imagination and invention unequalled in the rest of the world. See it in the level of our "creative exports". Films, computer games, novels, theatre, fashion. Five years back, our creative industries' exports totalled pound;13 billion - 4.3 per cent of all goods and services exported - and seems to have been rising exponentially since then. A little funding goes a long way. Look what happened in Beijing. Training minds works the same way as training bodies.

Fay Weldon, Novelist and professor of creative writing, Brunel University.

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