Getting to Know You: Barbara Henderson

Today I’m thrilled to have my lovely Twitter friend Barbara Henderson (@berwickBabs) here on the blog to impart some of her Creative Writing wisdom onto us. I really hope you found her article as interesting as I did.

Vic x

Can ‘magic’ be taught?

By Barbara Henderson

When Victoria invited me to do a blog post for her wonderful site, the journalist in me asked what I should write about. Writing or teaching, Vic suggested – so I thought I might combine a bit of both, by discussing that fraught and perennial question of whether creative writing can actually be taught.

I’m in the very final stages (I hope) of a Creative Writing PhD. Friends will be aware that I’ve been in those “final stages” for around two years now, although there are very good reasons for this, I promise. But eventually I will gain the title of Doctor of Creative Writing, which always makes me smile. I’ll be absolutely hopeless if you have a heart attack, but I’ll do a wonderful description of your symptoms.

I’ve been asked quite a few times why I want or need a qualification in something as apparently ethereal as creative writing. One rather rude person even told me: “I thought about doing that, but I’d rather spend the time actually writing!” In fact, she was misguided, because as anyone who’s done a creative writing course of any kind knows, you’re made to write and write and keep writing, until your muses ballot on industrial action.

Writing can be an isolated experience, although social networks and the internet in general have certainly made it less so. A course can help by making you feel part of a cohort of other writers. But for me, it was also about the mentoring. I was lucky enough to have the amazing Jackie Kay as my creative mentor and every session I had with her was inspirational. My research was supervised by Professor Kim Reynolds, a respected world authority on children’s literature. Putting your work in the hands of those you trust and admire is one of the most rewarding aspects of a course like this.

So I personally feel that I’ve been taught some things about writing that I would not otherwise have known, and that every creative decision I took while writing my children’s novel was considered and, in my mind, justified. Result: a better book.

I’ve also sat on the other side of the desk. I’ve taught creative writing to undergraduate and M.A. students at Newcastle University and I’m currently teaching creative non-fiction at Northumbria University, which is a wonderful combination of journalism and the creative techniques more usually associated with fiction.

So does everyone really have a book inside them? I reckon so. Getting it out, in a good, readable, entertaining form, is where teaching the craft comes in. Of course some people have more talent than others and some people have a bit of a tin ear. But that’s often because they’ve never been taught to use the techniques that lift their writing up from the floor. Didn’t we all start off using flat descriptions or too many adverbs? Haven’t we all lapsed into clichés before someone stopped us for our own good? Sometimes all it takes is to have a technique pointed out – like ‘showing, not telling’ or using all the senses in our writing – to transform the banal into something magical.

No one thinks that it’s odd to go to art school to learn how to paint, or to music college to perfect the playing of an instrument. Why should the art of writing be some magical, innate quality that we must be born with? Of course creative writing can be taught. It’s about technique and practise and studying the masters, just like any other skill. I’ve seen the amazing work that gets produced when students really learn.

What’s more, I’m conscious that some students are for the first time learning a craft that they will always enjoy. So given the apparently therapeutic qualities of telling our stories, maybe the idea of a Doctor of Creative Writing isn’t quite as daft as it sounds.


One response to “Getting to Know You: Barbara Henderson

  1. Someone told me once that any poor plod could write, but if one wanted to be read… there was a certain skill required and if you weren’t born with it, it could be learnt.

    To me, there seems little point to writing if no one reads it – or, is that just my ego talking? – so I would say that being a Doctor of Creative Writing isn’t daft at all.

    Thank you for the caution, Barbara… and should I experience symptoms of a possible medical condition, I shan’t rush to you first thing; I will go straight away to my physician, Dr. ‘Cold Hands’.

    But if it’s really gruesome, perhaps you might write a few words on it if my pen fails me? 🙂

    Veronica Marie

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