Writers – are they born or made?

I have a confession – I’ve never taken a writing course. I didn’t go to university, was only too happy to leave the boring old classroom behind, and actually, thanks to a snide remark from a teacher (which I later realized was intended as a joke), I didn’t even take English my last two years of high school. As for Pam, she only wanted to be a farmer or work with horses.

So, although we were avid bookworms and lived most of our time in our imaginations, the idea of becoming novelists was as far-fetched as joining the space program. On the plus side, we had a mother who was a born storyteller and we constantly played creative games in which we acted out different characters and adventures. From the age of 5, I obsessively read every book in the library, plus cereal boxes, newspapers, billboards, soup can labels. By the time I moved to London, I was regularly writing ten page journal-type letters to the friends I’d left behind. Ah, remember the days of snail mail? Still I might never have dared to publish anything professionally if I hadn’t lucked into a job in a literary agency. Such is fate.

But then again, working in publishing, I met so many editors and agents for whom the reverse was true.  It was their life-long ambition to be a published author. They’d taken all the right steps – English Literature and Language ‘A’ levels, graduated with honors in English at Oxford or Cambridge, studied all the great masters and what was the result? Total inhibition. After years dissecting the works of Tolstoy, D H Lawrence, Dickens, Shakespeare, they were far too scared to pen an original piece of writing, too burdened by all that knowledge of sentence structure, plot devices, subtexts and character analysis to risk producing anything less worthy than the geniuses they admired. Instead their lives were dedicated to nurturing and guiding raw talent, helping literary novices and unabashed dreamers get their manuscripts on to the bestseller lists.

Which makes me wonder – are writers born or made? These days creative writing courses abound, something that barely existed when I was young. There are brilliant books on writing for those wanting advice.  I read those obsessively for a while: Writing Down The Bones by Natalie Goldberg, Bird By Bird by Anne Lamott, Stein On Writing… I could go on and on.  Mostly what they did was provide glorious encouragement while allowing me to pretend that I wasn’t just a hopeless procrastinator who’d rather do almost anything than take the disciplined, daunting action of putting words to paper.

Do I wish sometimes that I’d had more formal education? Often. Do I think it would have led me to penning incredible Pulitzer Prize-winners instead of commercial fiction?  I doubt it. I’d probably be like those editors I met, comparing myself to the greats and stultifying my own creativity for fear of producing second-rate work. The one-day local writers group I attended had me so terrified of reading aloud and being found lacking, I couldn’t scribble a single word. Which is probably why I’ve avoided writers workshops and novelist gatherings like the plague, while envying the brave souls like Sue Moorcroft who find in them inspiration, community and even lead retreats!

So what do you think? Is creativity something that can be taught? Can a brilliant teacher improve your craft? Or lead you from mediocrity to masterpiece? Or is writing a passion that will find a way to emerge despite the odds? And what about people like Jeffrey Archer who, with no previous literary ambitions, decide to sit down one day and pen a bestseller – indeed a long string of bestsellers – as a means to avoid bankruptcy? A born storyteller? Or just the type of bold lucky bastard we can all agree to hate?

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10 thoughts on “Writers – are they born or made?

  1. I was with you all the way through this article, until you cited Jeffrey Archer. There’s making money and getting famous which he does very successfully, and then there’s writing.
    Can writing be taught? I think some of the craft and structure can, depending who’s doing the teaching. Retreats and workshops may be useful, depending whose views you are having to share the space with. But ultimately you’re right, it all depends on you, wherever and whoever you are.

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    • Hi Jessica. I agree with your comments on craft and structure, those certainly can be taught. And I’m certain I miss out on some of the fun communal things with my own inhibitions, I’d probably love a retreat if I was brave enough to go. But then we writers are often shy people. Lol, I only mentioned Jeffrey Archer because his name is sure to get a rise as the bad boy on the bestseller list! Nothing wrong with writing to get out of debt, of course, if you’re lucky enough to make real money – not that many authors do. And his notoriety and rumors of ghost writers etc certainly hasn’t hurt his success.

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  2. I think you’re born to want to write, after all why would you put yourself through the whole process, just for fun!

    As for being taught, I do think you need to learn how to form your story telling.
    Especially if you’ve come from a background, where writing isn’t something you do. Where College is an impossible dream, let alone uni. You need to learn from workshops, books, and lovely people that share what they have learnt.

    I think writers are born, but writing is taught.

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    • That’s so true, Caroline. Writing a novel for most people would be a very slow form of torture. You have to love it and be willing to do it without any guarantee of success. And most of us don’t end up rich and famous from the effort. I think besides the things you mention you also learn a lot from reading other novels – I know I do.

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  3. Thanks Mary. One to one sessions with a tutor that you feel comfortable with sound fabulous. Agree you never stop learning as you go along. Pam’s doing the Aaron Sorkin course recommended by Sue Moorfield, which is absolutely great. Thoroughly recommend!

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  4. Well, that rang a few bells! I am that editor who did a degree in Literature and became completely inhibited by it all. Thankfully, after very many years, I’ve overcome the hangups and moved on.

    Education is a wonderful thing, and I strongly believe you should always keep learning – but you’re right: a university degree would not have helped you write a masterpiece or a bestseller. Nor would a creative writing course.

    Short courses and retreats are another thing – and if you can get to one of Sue’s, I’d certainly encourage you to do so! They can be hugely stimulating, whatever stage your writing career is at.

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    • Hi Jenny, Yes i think we’re at that stage where we would love to come on one of the retreats. Pam used to love doing short courses, while Lorraine was inhibited by them, so its definitely different strokes for different folks. Sue’s courses sound wonderful 🙂

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  5. Interesting post. I don’t think you can be taught to be creative – creativity (and imagination) something innate in a person – but the skills to improve and polish can be taught.
    I did do a Masters in Creative Writing but I’d already had one book published by then and was working as a journalist. The best thing about the course was the one-to-one sessions with my tutor while I worked on my novel. And poetry sessions with Tom Leonard.
    Aren’t Jeffrey Archer’s novels ghost written? Dickens and Sir Walter Scott both wrote prolifically to get out of debt.

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