You can’t teach creativity.
So said Hanif Kureishi, speaking at the Bath Literary Festival recently.
It’s a sentiment delivered either with a note of resignation, or as a note of resignation; Kureishi teaches on the MA Creative Writing at Kingston University.
Either way, the author’s actual point, looking beyond the headlines which ensued (Hanif Kuresihi dismisses Creative Writing Courses as a Waste of Time) was that you can’t teach someone to have creative talent.
So is he right?
Perhaps it’s a question of separating the notion of creativity from talent.
Every person comes into this world with their own talent borne of their own genetic bent. When that screaming sperm hurtles, with an ironic lack of regard for life and limb, into that egg, two lots of talent combine and make a unique blend. The size of the resulting talent, and its inclination towards the arts, depends on those genes, and that bent.
But it takes creativity to ignite the talent.
And creativity is not an innate, God-given asset. Nor does it simply happen to you one day in a comic-book flash of lightning.
Creativity comes about through hard, gut-slogging work. From identifying a problem, immersing yourself in a subject, making endless connections between previously unconnected things. Throwing out 95% of your ideas. On a bad day, 100%. Until you’re left with that one idea, that one connection between two previously unconnected things, that one idea that knocks all the others into a cocked hat. The one that is brave, fresh and inspiring. That changes things, even if only just a little bit, from how they were before.
So, while Kureishi is right that innate talent can’t be taught, creativity can.
The motivation and discipline, the scrutiny and rigour, the crafting of lateral thought, the bravery and sheer chutzpah that it takes to get to the killer idea. All these are things that can be learned. And practised. And improved.
I studied the MA in Creative Writing at Birkbeck, University of London. Just being there was a creative act. For two years (part-time, ludicrously fitted around being a busy creative director, a new dad and a house renovator) I hung out with professional authors and a diverse and fascinating bunch of fellow students the like of whom I never would have consorted with in normal life.
Some of it was great, some good, some not so hot. But it was a creative process where I learned some tricks and tools. My fiction writing improved.
Sixteen years earlier I braved the Copywriting and Art Direction course at Watford (now West Herts) College. In ten months it turned me from a naïve, cliché-raddled, idea-monger wannabe into a hopeful purveyor of shiny things. Here, I learned how to get to the idea that knocks all the others into a cocked hat.
Of course, taught creativity won’t get everyone there.
You have to have enough innate talent for the creativity to find it.
How often do you hear people say of writing: “Everyone has a book in them”? In some cases, that’s exactly where it should stay.
And how many times have I seen a young team’s ad portfolio that’s so many country miles off being right that I just want to ask them gently if there’s anything else they’re interested in?
But for lots of other people, including a whopping chunk of the UK’s most coruscating authors and whizz-bangiest creative directors, a creative course works.
For them, taught creativity cuts the bonds of mediocrity or adequacy and lets their innate talent soar.
Ask Ian McEwan, Peter Souter, Kazuo Ishiguro, John Hegarty, Nathan Filer. They’ll probably agree that you can’t teach talent. But they might well have a good thing or two to say about creative courses.
While Hanif Kureishi waits outside the Dean’s office at Kingston University, his latest paperback tucked into the seat of his trousers in readiness, he can console himself with being at least half-right.
Jon Elsom is Executive Creative Director at the Creative Communications Agency Bray Leino.