Can you teach creativity? Poet Iain Crichton Smith tells Raymond Ross about the role of schools in his life and work
Poet, novelist, writer of short stories, essayist and playwright, Lewis-born Iain Crichton Smith was a teacher of English for 25 years, 23 of them at Oban High School. Now widely regarded as one of the country's leading writers, and a set author on the Higher syllabus, he took early retirement to write.
"I was a writer who had to teach rather than a teacher who wrote," he says candidly, "but I maybe helped a few people in my career." He says that as a teacher he was better suited to educating the more academic pupils. "But if you can get through to the non-academic ones they can be more rewarding. They can be more affectionate, more emotional and in some ways more authentic."
Crichton Smith's classroom strategy often involved encouraging pupils to create extempore plays rather than rely on set texts. "I found the non-academics were better at these extempore dramas. The academic ones felt more diffident, more uptight about them. They were frightened of making mistakes. It's about spontaneity and fear of moving outwith an academic circle."
His ideal classroom would include a stage or, at least, a performance space. "I always used music and photos and paintings when trying to teach creative writing - my vision of the English classroom is one with lots of visual stimuli as well as things for music. It's an ideal that no one can probably afford, but it would be a lot better than the relatively bare classrooms of my day. I think maybe primary schools are more advanced here."
He was an unorthodox teacher when it came to senior classes. "Instead of teaching literature, I'd get copies of Einstein's Principle of Relativity, also psychology books and Marxist books. I felt it was my responsibility to let senior pupils know about the major ideas of the 20th century. In fact, some of them abandoned English at university in favour of psychology." As a writer, he stresses the importance of school magazines. "It was for my school magazine that I wrote my first little stories. And to me that was quite important. I think it provides a release because it's not part of the official curriculum.
"Of course, in those days teachers were very remote presences and you didn't really feel you could confide in them. I started to write at the age of 11, but I never told any of my teachers that I wrote poetry. I think schools are more geared to creativity now, especially primaries. In those days, they were more concerned with neatness, grammatical exactitude and so on.
"I've got a story called 'The Blot' which is actually about what happened to myself when I was 11. I'd written this essay and I'd blotted the page - fountain pens, you know! I was terrified of going back to school with it because I knew the teacher would be more interested in the blot than in the quality of the essay. In fact, I was belted for it. So it's a story of a creative boy and an uncreative type of teacher."
While Crichton Smith agrees that creative writing can be taught in schools to a certain degree, he still feels that "it can be difficult to introduce creativity into a regime that is often monotonous and repetitive. This is not necessarily the teacher's fault. You might have to teach the same books for years because you can't afford new ones."
Since he has become a set author, he makes some 30 visits a year to schools. In introducing his poems, he tends to concentrate first on imagery.
"I tend to go a lot by imagery in both teaching and writing and even when I'm analysing poems myself. The image is important in my kind of poetry as well as in my short stories and novels. Some poets go by music or other linguistic varieties of things, but I tend to go by images really."
As a teacher, he was struck by the shyness or inarticulacy of some pupils, which he tried to counter by introducing regular debates. He says that he can see little evidence of improvement from his regular school visits.
"I still find pupils shy and not always good at questioning. In spite of Munn and Dunning, I still find pupils pretty reticent."
As for teaching literature, he says: "You have to have a fair amount of maturity before you can approach literature properly. Not all pupils are equipped for it. I sometimes think, in terms of exams, that there should be two English exams, one that is purely literary and another linguistic. But the idea of compulsion is not one that I particularly care for. But what are the alternatives in practical terms? Nevertheless, I think pupils would enjoy literature more if they didn't have to sit exams on it."