Tuesday, September 14, 2010

No Creative Writing in the House!

Two writers live in this house, and because of this, people sometimes ask me to recommend a creative writing program for their child. To which I have learnt to say, gently, "Oh, there are many good writing programs out there but we don't actually teach creative writing to our kids."

It's not that I actively discourage them from writing, and they have often written - letters, diary entries, stories, poetry, even plays - just that I don't teach them.

It's like painting, or music composition or mime. Everyone should be able to appreciate an art form, to have a language to think about it, discuss it, enjoy it...but we don't all have to produce art. It's nice to have the opportunity to participate in art but it isn't compulsory, or at least it isn't compulsory to participate to a professional standard.

How can I give my school-age  kids the language to enjoy creative writing without making them do it ? Well, really easily, just by reading to them. Reading often, different forms, different voices, always of a high literary standard and  by writers who know their craft. It sinks in, it changes their brains for the good, truly it does. It gives their minds a variety of models to draw on if they feel the urge to create. Writers need to be readers first, and they need to be good, careful, close readers for a long time if they are to write well.

Maybe my child is never going to write a poem. So what ?  Maybe she'll be a reader of poetry and buy the books of poets who really want to write. I cannot make my child love poems by forcing her to write one.

I'm not talking here about written expression. Everyone needs to develop the skill of expressing their thoughts clearly, orally and in written form. A story can be narrated. Essay skills can be taught. That's different. It's a skill at school level and not a calling of the type that talented adult academics and essayists develop and display.

What about the child who wants to write, who comes to you asking for resources in this area ? Well, keep them supplied with pencil and paper, read to them, choose great books for them to read, take them to the library often, set up a book club or a writers circle for them, give them an audience (let them blog or read their poem at a family event or host a reading of their play or find out about short story competitions or help them send their novel to an agent, find them a writing mentor or send them to college to do a writing degree), just don't make them slave over a creative writing program. It's expensive, it kills the joy, it gets them running before they can walk, it's unnecessary.

Especially for homeschoolers, it's just another area for conflict and stress. "No, you may not play until you've finished that haiku!" Ridiculous. If you have money to spend on resources, buy more books. Buy a book that teaches you how to think about books.  Remember that writers have a vested interest in getting you to attend their workshops/buy their 'how to' book/use their program. It's how they make a living. I sympathise with that. Making a living for most artists is hard.

Yet a child's imagination, their response to art, needs to live as well and the writer's mind lives and grows best in the pages of other writers, and in the consideration of those pages. And if your child doesn't write, they will surely grow up to read. Just as the music you play to your children, the galleries you take them to,  may not produce a cellist or a sculptor, your children may never write a creative word. Despite that, if they have the exposure and the tools to appreciate the creative word,  their lives and the world will never be the poorer for it.


  1. Very interesting ideas. I certainly agree with you on the importance of reading great books and reading a lot of them. Reading well and understanding the authors' intentions are important not only for the appreciation of such literature, but also for improving everyday communication skills.

    I can see your point about creative writing curricula. That said, I just purchased one for my home-schooled children and for a very specific reason. I wanted to have a formal creative writing program that will help them to develop their skills, that I can use for their state-mandated portfolio to demonstrate progress appropriate to their age/grade level in a structured way.

  2. I'm also a writer and I've even taught creative writing and I couldn't agree more. I think it's good to have someone to encourage and mentor you if you've got an interest in creative writing. However, I don't understand the focus on formal creative writing programs among homeschoolers. Most writers don't have MFA's. We learn from reading. We learn from critique groups. We learn from writing and experimenting.

  3. Oh, for sure, it's harder when you have to jump through educational hoops like portfolios and learning programs...I know what that's like! I use programs in other areas I'm less confident in for that reason too.

    Editing post to add FarrarWilliam's suggestion about finding a mentor for enthusiastic kids/teens.

  4. I've always been a bit sceptical about formal writing programs. Reading, belonging to a group where you can share your work and share constructive criticism, and keep writing. That's what I think works.

    I always wonder at the creative writing classes for adults 'Write your life story, in Fiji', or Paris. Because when you are in Fiji or Paris, you want to be thinking about your upbringing in Parramatta. And you couldn't write about yourself at home.