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Can you learn to write?

Of course, everyone learns to write. I don't remember how it happened, though there is a picture of a little girl who used to be me, chubby pencil in chubby fingers stabbing at an exercise book with an expression of intense concentration on her face. It doesn't look comfortable and still isn't. Everyone has to learn to put the marks on the page and one way or another most people somehow do.

But that isn't what people are asking. People at drinks parties desperately trying to make conversation, may, on learning that I teach creative writing, pucker their brows and look quizzical: 'But can you teach creative writing? I mean, can you learn to write?' As if the knowing which marks to make and in which order and when and why and for how long is something that isn't learned just like that mark making. So, as I reach for my second glass of wine (red, if you're buying) and inexpertly spear an olive, this is what I usually say, in between refills: It is certainly true that most writers of my generation did not attend creative writing courses or study for MAs or MFAs. We were, by and large, encouraged to write in school. And maybe that's when we were taught, some time in the same murky past where we learned to use log tables and slide rules and how to knit a tea cosy and sew a peg bag. We had more incentive to practise too on endless wet Sundays when all the shops were shut and there was nothing on TV. It wasn't quite the dark ages, but in the pre-digital era, there was a lot more time to fill, a lot more silence in our heads and perhaps more boredom too. Everyone has heard the adage that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to achieve proficiency in any field. It used to be accepted on the Science Fiction board I used to frequent, that a fiction writer has to write a million words of crap before they produced anything of value. So, I hear you mutter, probably a little grumpily by now, 'You are saying that you can't actually teach anyone to write? No, that's not what I'm saying. You can't learn to write without reading and without writing, but reading and writing practice alone won't necessarily turn you into the next Booker prize winner, Sunday Times Best Seller, or even moderately unsuccessful midlist author. It is perfectly possible to write several million words of crap and never get any better. If you want to learn an instrument you don't generally teach yourself - at least not without recourse to 'how- to' books and youtube videos. That is not to say it is impossible to learn that way, or that those who are entirely self-taught are not capable of greatness. For most of us, however, it is helpful to have the odd lesson from someone who can already play, who has a slightly more practised ear for wrong notes, who can help with technique. The same goes for the visual arts and for drama. No one learns anything without having a go, without making mistakes and trying again, but many people learn better with a little bit of help. So that's where I come in.

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