I was on a panel at the Bellingen Readers and Writers Festival recently and made one of those rather glib and throw-away statements that are becoming a rather predictable part of my repertoire when in public. It’s not that I want to be glib; it’s just that being in public spaces provokes acute anxiety and nervous exhilaration in equal measure so that I’m not really myself. It’s a bit like being a Catholic priest at a Gay Pride parade.
 

So, what I said was that I didn’t believe in ‘bad’ writing, just skilled writers and developing writers. Needless to say, that ruffled a few feathers, particularly among those whose job it is to tell the rest of us which books are bad and which are good. In other words, the reviewers and the academics who are often one and the same creature. So, I just wanted to make clear that I am not anti-critic or anti-reviewer. I am a huge believer in the value of cultural criticism and reviews.

Without reviews, we would be forced to spend endless hours of our lives reading the banal blurbs on the backs of books which are, unlike reviews, not written by objective and informed booklovers but by cynical marketing types who wish to plunder our pocketbooks. We would also find ourselves having to wade through mountains of published material to find those rare books that, like a voice from beyond, speak directly to us, tug at our heartstrings and inspire and comfort us. Reviewers make finding the kind of books we like to read much easier.

Reviewers also help to place a book in its social, cultural and literary context. That role is really crucial. Reviewers champion books and make evident the cultural significance of writing. Without reviewers and literary academics, penny-pinching governments would find it all too easy to write off literature as unimportant and thus cut support for it from increasingly constricted budgets.

I am myself an academic and so, predictably, I have no qualms about the role of academia in discussing and critiquing books and writing (mainly because I’d be doing myself out of a job if I did).

My statement was not about the role of criticism but about other things. I went on to say that as an academic in an institution in which writing is taught it is important to see the practice of writing in a certain way. Well, that’s what I meant to say but I probably said something much less lucid.

Traditionally, writing has been seen as an inborn ability, an aspect of artistic genius, which can be honed and refined but cannot be developed out of nothing. In other words, it is a talent not a skill. Skill is defined as the ability to do something well, usually gained through training and experience. Skill is not inborn but learned. If we see ‘good’ writing as the product of talent, an inborn ability, then a person cannot ‘become’ a writer. They either are a writer or they are not. If that’s true then what’s the point of university writing programs and all those workshops at festivals and writers' centres?

For me, saying that writing ability cannot be learnt is a bit like saying that one cannot become a doctor, one either is or isn’t one. That’s clearly ludicrous. Of course, it takes a lot of hard work to become a really good doctor. It also takes a lot of really hard work to become a writer.

The idea that writing ability is an aspect of genius, a mysterious internal quality, has been disproven by leading edge research into creativity and the arts by folk such as Dr. R. Keith Sawyer, a professor of psychology and education at Washington University in St. Louis. This research shows that creativity and artistic ability are skills, that they are learned and developed through experience. This means that a person can become a writer. It even means that a person can, with hard work, persistence and tenacity, become not just a writer but a great writer.

This makes the relevance of Creative Writing courses in universities very clear. These programs can support people in their journeys to become more skilled writers in a way that those people might not be able to achieve on their own. The research by folk like Professor Sawyer also shows that we are more creative in groups than alone. This is why creative writing workshops, both in universities and outside of them, are so beneficial to developing writers.

I know that there will be many, some of them my academic colleagues in writing programs, who will still insist that there is something, some ‘x’ factor, which makes some people more likely to be great writers than others. Some people have an ear for the music of language they’ll say, while others are incredible observers of the human condition. Well, that’s true, but I would counter that an ear for language and an ability to observe deeply and comprehend the human condition are also learned. Clearly, these things are not learned in a classroom and often the learning is not wholly conscious, but the research shows that these things are learned like anything else, learned from our parents, our family and our socio-cultural environment.

So, as far as I’m concerned, writing ability is a skill not a talent. This means that there are no ‘bad’ writers nor ‘good’ writers, merely skilled writers and developing ones. Furthermore, I believe that it is possible to become a writer, even a great one.

Cheers, ciao, thanks a lot :)