Famous British author Hanif Kureishi has just recently said that teaching creative writing is useless, and that most of his students are talentless. And sometimes I cannot but agree with him. However, I persist, along with my friend and collegue, Srđan Srdić, in that "futile" activity. We have been teaching creative writing for four years now and, in spite of everything, I think that we achieve quite a lot.
First thing, and probably the most important, is that no kind of teaching is a one-way street. Quite the contrary. It is a highway that flows in both directions, loaded with information and emotions. When you are involved with people who are eager to learn and to progress, then you are forced to act accordingly, namely you have to learn and progress along with them, or your course will end in disaster. Moreover, you will lose them. In other words, it is not only about what I give in the classes or through tutoring, but also about what I take back, what I adopt, what I, as a kind of vampire, drain out of these “poor creatures.” I may say, without any hesitation, that I made more than a few friends in the process, and that sometimes seems even more important than literature itself. I also practice patience, and with every new generation of students I am going back to basics, which is always an opportunity to check oneself, to question the fundamentals that we usually take for granted.
The people who attend creative writing courses are kind of a sect. In Serbia, and in most of the Europe, only a very few authors can live off of writing, solely. But here we are confronted with some people who are trying to make literature their profession and passion. Are they delusional, are they mad, or they are simply infected with a virus which they cannot resist, the virus of fiction? I like to think of them, of us, as a bunch of nerds, zombies, aliens who are having fun while trying to cope with the harsh and sometimes blatantly stupid reality through things we love to do. The passion and energy shared in the closed space of the classroom is so intense that one can really forget about all the Trumps of the world, all the inequities fueled by capitalism, all the disastrous environmental threats. And more than that, literature is a field in which one can exercise life without any risk. No one is endangered by fiction, by imagination. We can love and hate, die and be born again, we can rule millions and be ruled by the fiercest emperors, and still enjoy it. Texts are rare places of absolute freedom, which is unfortunately almost unthinkable in today’s world. And in creative writing courses, we learn how to use that freedom to create works of art. Let’s not forget that every artwork is, at its core, a praise of life, of the force that holds this planet together, and by that we are making a small step toward making this world a better place. I know this sounds silly, but just think about it.
However, the most important skill which we are trying to teach our students, and it turned out that the ones who progressed the most are those who accepted exactly that, is reading. Because writing is just the by-product, or maybe consequence of profound and excessive reading, of plundering other people’s texts, learning and enjoying them, living among them, feeding off them. Just after one has become a great reader might he think of becoming a writer. In other words, reading is necessary and enjoyable, writing is optional, hard and more often than not tiresome for writers. It is very important to grasp that literature stems not only from personal experience, although it is very important, but from other literary texts. It is not possible to write in the 21st century without knowing or choosing your tradition, to paraphrase Eliot. In that sense, we are trying to open our students to all kinds of literary texts and traditions, to get them acquainted with the Great Canon, but also with many other texts that may be interesting for them, and allow them a choice. Because one cannot free oneself from the tradition, if one does not know it. Only very well-read people can become writers these days.
And that is exactly the place where Mr. Kureishi's words fall to pieces. Literature, like many other things, is not about talent, because the real talent, Rimbaudesque, is extremely rare, taking the form of a writer only once in every twenty or so years. However, we are all talented enough to try. That means simply that there are lot of things achievable through learning and exercise, through sweat and hard labor, (and I am not exaggerating, literature sometimes looks like mining, or ploughing, especially when one is searching for the right expression) through willingness to improve oneself, and finally through the sheer enjoyment of sitting in an armchair and reading a great book.