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Setting the Alarm

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Creativity can be taught. We learn how to do everything from walking to writing books. No-one teaches you how to blink or breathe but we learn pretty much everything else. Imagination is the most basic feature of the human mind so teaching writing or creativity isn’t difficult. It’s more a question of how important it is to you to be creative all the time. To be professionally imaginative. Most people spend too much time just trying to survive.

Toni Morrison says she used to wake at four o’clock every morning, for years, so she could have a few hours before her kids got up and she had to go to work. How many people are going to set their alarm every day to 4:00am, just so they can write for a few hours? That’s hard enough, but this is a world before Toni Morrison writes any of the books that will eventually be rewarded with the Nobel Prize for literature.

The quiet hours before the sun, when it’s just some woman at a table and there’s a clock on the wall, the rest of the house is sleeping, and there’s a blank piece of paper that is ruined as soon as it is marked by ink. She has a belief in the ruin. She commits herself to this kind of inverted redemption. ‘Beloved’ hasn’t even been whispered in her mind yet. It’s just a blank page hours before sunlight.

If you can step outside the overwhelming push of the world, the constant demands of necessity and the unrelenting press of commitments, you will find that it is impossible not to be creative. If you can push the world aside for long enough the details of existence arise relentlessly. But the world doesn’t get pushed aside easily.

If you think writing stories, poems, novels, (or whatever you’d like to turn your hand to), is like carpentry and you simply want descriptions for the types of cabinets you can make, what woods to use, etc, then you might get a lot from a Creative Writing course. Everything else you need, you have already learned. Basic virtues like discipline and dedication, faith and courage, sacrifice and passion.

Being part of a Creative Writing course might help you find that kind of commitment but it probably won’t. All it can do really is show you how much is actually involved in stringing together a few sentences. Help you along with your craft but it still comes back down to those basic virtues.

It’s about as easy to teach creativity as it is to show a person how to set their alarm to 4:00am. Everything else has already been learned and it’s just a question of putting in those kinds of hours. Putting in those kinds of years. It’s not difficult to teach these things, but it’s monumentally difficult to live by them. It’s so much easier just to sleep in and pretend that there’s some kind of mystery to the whole thing.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

AS Patric is the award-winning author of The Rattler & other stories (Spineless Wonders, 2011), Las Vegas for Vegans (Transit Lounge, 2012) and Bruno Kramzer (Finlay Lloyd, 2013).

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  1. Recently, I lost my job as part of the economic crisis. At first I was devastated, but after a few weeks spent watching bad daytime T.V, I decided to start writing again. Writing has always been my one true love, I did the creative writing course, had a bunch of things published, but before long my beloved creative outlet was left behind and forgotten. I became so busy being busy, that I did not have time to write. Now, I wake up every weekday at 8am and write till 4pm. I don’t have any money, but the funny thing is, I have never, ever been happier! I have found that space for creativity and I have let the words out of their cage.

  2. Humans are born creative, Alec. Children have curiousity built into their survival tactic genes. You don’t have to teach creativity. In fact, most teaching is about reducing creativity and learning rules. Humans are born creative, that is how we have become the dominant species on the planet. Much as you would like it to be something that has some key that must be taught by qualified teachers, it isn’t. Creative writing courses do not teach creativity, they teach methodology.

  3. I agree Paul, I was born creative. Can’t teach it, no way. It may help inspire it, but you can’t teach someone that has no creative ability to be creative.

  4. I have to say that I agree that humans are born Creative. But this is neither here nor there. Creativity alone does not make you a good writer by any stretch.

    I’m going to throw this statement at you, though it’s not necessarily what I believe:

    I wouldn’t expect to be an employable lawyer without studying the law. Why should I expect to become a writer without having studied the craft? In law, there used to be a back door: essentially if you had worked in the field for a long time, and could demonstrate you knew what you needed to, had done some of the essential work involved, you could apply to in a sense become an honorary member of the Bar…

    Why should writing be any different?

    -Devil’s Advocate

  5. We were free and wonderful and creative when we were children. Bit if cliché, isn’t it Paul? We were also afraid and confused much of the time, and we were often petty and cruel, and our creativity extended to finger painting and sing-alongs and dancing in the grass. Childhood can be a beautiful time but let’s not pretend it was beautiful all of the time. I don’t know how many children outside of Mozart are capable of composing a symphony. Or how many don’t require to learn extensively before they can know enough about the language, or its history, to create a novel. Imagination, of course is inborn. Creativity though, is a method of developing and directing that imagination. Learning a methodology is helpful. Of course, for you, this is synonymous with the comprehensive system of indoctrination and cultural conditioning we get as part of our social programming, but it doesn’t begin or end with Creative Writing courses Paul. Your socio-political agenda is more at issue with the whole education system. For those that want to write, there’s no conspiracy of nepotism that comes with a secret handshake on leaving a TAFE or Uni. There’s no sinister agenda to join the cultural elite in most of their hearts when they arrive either. These are just people, like you and me, that want to write.

  6. I wonder whether in the scheme of things creative writing actually make all that much difference.

    Personal experience can be misleading, I know, but here’s mine: I studied literature and music at uni, but stuck entirely on the critical/analytical side of things. I learned research and analysed great art, but that’s it.

    All my creative activities have been unrelated to my uni activity: I contributed to uni magazines, and, when I left uni, got involved in a semi-regular zine in Newcastle, and produced a number of issues in that. And after that I got involved in poetry, performance, and poetry slamming – which are certainly not exclusive events; you don’t have to have a degree, you just turn up – and blogging (again, not an exclusive medium).

    So I’ve found plenty of creative opportunities, but never once has uni work in creative writing been a necessary qualification for this.

    Even when I think back to those students that were, say, studying writing or music performance at uni, I can’t say that they were the ones most likely to become involved in the arts outside of uni’s narrow sphere of reference. The most successful musicians were often just shed bands, groups of friends who got together to play music for fun – like the English students who formed a rock band (The Whitlams went to my uni). The same was true of writing – the student publications were typically run by a small dedicated group of friends, and they only very occasionally got submissions from journalism students.

    So I think you learn by doing in the arts, by and large. Perhaps the biggest bar to learn creativity these days is not the lack of opportunity – there’s plenty of opportunity out there – but the attitudes amongst the practicing groups of performers and artists out there: sometimes cliquey, sometimes lazy, sometimes unable to accept fresh voices, etc.

  7. creativity can be learnt, so therefore it can be taught. the questions is just how creatively we think about the word “teaching”.

  8. Creativity is the easy part, was it Edison, “genius is 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration.” Lots of people dream of becoming a writer because it seems like an easy job, get paid millions like King or Rowling, get up at midday, stay in your slippers, bash out a few words for an hour or so, or maybe 1 month out of the year and you’re done! A wake up call is required in more ways than one!

  9. I’ve really enjoyed reading your comments Misha and Tim. It’s great to get personal experiences and it always amazes me when people give so open heartedly in these kinds of forums.

    In the course of a debate you can find yourself pushed to an extreme, and if you only read these posts, you’d think I was some kind of major proponent of Creative Writing courses. But my own personal experiences would lead me along a different route. I spent the decade after my own Professional Writing course saying it was bullshit actually, and still think I’ve learned everything by doing, as you say Tim.

    But then I recall how important it was to me, back in those long gone days, to get into a creative atmosphere where writing was significant. Previously it had been something that was, if not entirely irrelevant, then for a specialised few to practise. Who was I to call myself a writer? Which speaks to the kind of working class neighbourhood schools I went to I suppose. But I remember driving for half an hour each day, every time I went to Holmesglen TAFE, feeling I was on course finally. It didn’t feel like bullshit on those long drives.

    At the end of my two year diploma I didn’t have anything more than what I’d come with. Perhaps a few bits of writing and a handful of insights. It didn’t get me any jobs, connections and certainly no publishing deals. It took eight years in a basement, wrestling with a monster of a novel, before I finally felt I was even entitled to call myself a writer.

    What critics of Creative Writing courses don’t often take into account, is that some of us have been fundamentally disenfranchised from an early age, and that this disconnect can often last a lifetime. That this isn’t a philosophical position, but a painful severance from the social body. That some are interlopers and outsiders to their own lives, let alone to a greater community. A liminal existence on the margins of literature can be excruciating to an unvoiced writer. A writing course, for us that have known this kind of exile, can be the first open door.

  10. WOW you have just freaked me out, IT IS 4am and I SHIT you not i’ve woken up early to finish off an assignment for a creative writing course (although its kinda overdue). WOW

  11. I wonder if there’s a single writer on the face of this earth who *doesn’t* feel like an outsider, Alec!

    At any rate the people who take part in a writing course may be just as likely to be filthy rich kids who are able to spend their way through uni/TAFE as members of truly disenfranchised communities. (And fair enough – we should judge writers by their writing, not their personal wealth or income.)

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