Can Creativity be Taught? No, but Skills Can!

In Vienna, Austria's first-ever university programme in creative writing is entering its fourth year

News | Julia Lajta Novak | July / August 2012

Robert Schindel, director of Austria’s first creative writing programme (Photo: Matthias Wurz)

At first, it was all pretty overwhelming, admitted Nils Georg Treutlein, a creative writing student at the Institute for Language Arts (Institut für Sprachkunst) at Vienna’s University of Applied Arts. There was no formula, he knew, no simple recipe for turning out good writers – whatever that means.

"You come in with a lot of ideas, with things you’ve written, and then you’re forced to go back to basic forms," he said. "It can be unnerving."

Building skills and challenging assumptions is exactly the intention of Austrian author Robert Schindel, director of the first-ever creative writing degree programme offered by an Austrian university, now entering its fourth year.

While the teaching of creative writing has a long tradition in the English-speaking world, it has been almost non-existent in German-speaking countries. A single programme in Leipzig (Deutsches Literaturinstitut Leipzig) in former East Germany was founded as early as 1955, even today there are still only a handful of programmes in Germany and Switzerland catering to the needs of the aspiring writer.

Schindel has his own theories about the resistance to the formal teaching of creative writing. At the heart is what he calls "the German belief in genius" carried over from the Romantic era.

"People cling on to the idea of the artist-genius, whose gift for words is divinely inspired," Schindel told The Vienna Review, "from which it follows that literary writing cannot be learned" – a prejudice Schindel himself clearly does not share. He sees writing, like the other arts, as founded on a set of skills that can be acquired and practiced, that become the soil in which creativity can flourish.


A workshop for words

Along with the Leipzig Institute, Schindel modeled his institute on highly respected programmes like the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in the U.S. and the Graduate Creative Writing Programme at the University of East Anglia in the U.K., offering an MA or MFA, a Master of Fine Arts degree. These programmes are credited with having caused a revolution in writing.

"The creative writing programme stands as the most important event in postwar American literary history," Mark McGurl declares in his acclaimed book The Programme Era. Since the founding of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 1936, an MFA is now offered by some 350 universities, "all of them staffed by practicing writers, most of whom, by now, are themselves holders of an advanced degree in creative writing."

T.C. Boyle, Michael Cunningham, and Ann Patchett are Iowa graduates, for instance, having studied with writers like John Irving, Kurt Vonnegut, and Ian McEwan, who himself graduated from East Anglia.

In the U.K., novelist Martin Amis teaches at Manchester Metropolitan, Blake Morrison at Goldsmiths College London, and Jackie Kay in Newcastle.

The reverence for genius never seemed to bother the people in Iowa or East Anglia.

"Anglo-Americans have always been more pragmatic than we are, nurturing a healthy notion of ‘craft’ without separating it strictly from ‘art’," Schindel said. This gap is all the more astonishing when other art forms, such as music composition or painting, have long been taught here at a university level.

"The trouble is that in other disciplines, the aspect of craft is obvious," Schindel pointed out. "Most people will concede that you need to have knowledge of musical notation and be skilled in playing an instrument in order to compose.With writing it’s different. Everybody can read and write, they will say, so what would be the use of a writing degree?"

But Schindel is convinced that the technical aspects of literary writing can be taught, and mastered – for instance, "how to build up a character." Not that he denies the role of talent, but he insists, "the acquiring of technical skill is a precondition for the thriving of whatever talent or ‘genius’ a person might have."

Still, there are some detractors. Literary critic John W. Aldridge has complained that "assembly-line" writing programmes have damaged the originality of the individual authorial voice, resulting in "small, sleek, clonal fabrications of literature."

Haslinger, who himself took part in the University of Iowa’s International Writing Programme in 1994 and 2005, is critical of the fact that "in the USA there is hardly any literary life to be found outside of the university these days." However, he dismisses accusations that teachers "tell an author what to write." It’s about "helping [writers] develop their own style," he stated.


Feedback is everything 

And for those who had no professors to guide them? In an article entitled "Warum Creative Writing?" Austrian novelist and essayist Josef Haslinger, now Professor of Literary Aesthetics at the Deutsches Literaturinstitut Leipzig, reflects on his own early experiences learning to write.

"When people ask me in an ironic undertone who it was who taught me to write, I tell them: Gustav Ernst," of the journal Wespennest. "Above all, Ernst asked questions. What does this sub-plot really contribute to the story? Why is this sentence so long? Is this thought really the character’s or is it the author’s?"

Schindel’s experience was similar, learning through mentoring relationships with older authors. Thus he is realistic about the importance of the BA programme:

"If the department did not exist, there would still be new authors in Austria," he said. "They would be learning their craft elsewhere. What we offer here is to make it easier for them, to teach it in a concentrated form."

It also helps them focus. It’s a kind of "outsourcing of discipline," notes McGurl, "where the artifice of deadlines and grades helps the apprentice push through the quagmire that leaves untold thousands in the perpetual state of (not) ‘working on their novel’." Students compare notes and read each others’ work, and have established authors to give feedback and help build a professional network.

At the end of his second year, Treutlein values the Institute for Language Arts, but is also clear about what it can and cannot offer.

"It’s not a case of ‘learn these 10 rules and then everything will be fine’," he said. And while some of the feedback from the faculty was "very, very good," it was "the informal feedback you get from classmates that is often more important." They would sit together after class to compare notes. It was great that you could talk freely with someone of like mind, he said, someone in the same situation. Fellow students were supportive, but also critical.

"A classmate will say, ‘that piece was really great, how did you come up with that idea?’" Treutlein laughed. But then "maybe you could… or what if you changed… and what do you think about… To have that feedback in a creative environment is very important!"


The Programme Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing

by Mark McGurl

Harvard Univ. Press (2009)

pp. 466 

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