Monday, 13 April 2009


a) this is a big one: get coffee and some of your Easter chocolate
b) there are very few bits of coloured font. You'll discover why soon.

So. Learning to write?

Thomas Huxley first posed the monkeys and typewriters thing - that if enough monkeys tapped at enough typewriters for long enough, you’d eventually get Psalm 23. In 2003, scientists at Paignton Zoo in Devon gave six monkeys six weeks to come up with the goods and at the end of it were presented with mostly the letter S. Nothing even approaching a small word. Though I suppose S is one third of the word She, which is the first word of Henry James' The Wings of a Dove, so they were getting there.

OK, so the scientists weren’t trying to teach them to write - they were trying to show the difference between machines and animals. As the project designer said, “The monkeys aren't reducible to a random process. They get bored and they shit on the keyboard rather than type." Which real authors would never do. Another similarity with real writers: distractions. "There's loads of stuff for them to do in there, they've got climbing frames, ropes and toys." See, even monkeys do Work Avoidance Strategies.

Now, I know, you’re jumping up and down wanting to point out the obvious flaw in this as an experiment: the researchers should have kept half the monkeys there crapping on keyboards and sent the other half on a Creative Writing MA. Then we’d have seen some serious creativity going on. We could easily have got some Ts and Bs along with the Ss.

OK, we haven’t got all day to monkey around so let’s get to the point. Can you teach someone (human) to write? As in not just spell and stuff but really be a writer. If so, what can you and what can’t you teach?

There are plenty of books and courses out there, and plenty of people going on them, so a lot of people think you can. But aspiring writers should be very careful not to infer from this that a course (of any sort) can turn a non-writer into a writer. Unless by writer you mean someone who can do no more than pen some crappy saccharine greeting card fodder. Which you don’t.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently, partly because I’m involved in an event at the Edinburgh International Book Festival (sorry, have to use full EIBF title - corporate branding blahdy blah) called Monkeys and Typewriters, in which we’re going to discuss this. And I have a good friend, Sam Kelly, who’s heading up a brand new Creative Writing MA at Edinburgh Napier University. And I used to be an English teacher, during which time I attempted to teach some little monkeys to write. Moreover, I was recently contemplating (until sanity returned) offering an online tuition course.

So, do I think you can be taught to write? In a monkey-nutshell or three:

  1. A good course will take someone who already has the required talent and will improve his/her skills so that said talent can be revealed to all - ie become worth reading.
  2. If you already have the required talent, a course can show you what you are doing wrong.
  3. A course is not the only way to improve your skills and show you what you are doing wrong, but it can be a good one. Or it can be a seriously rubbish one. Not much better than sitting in that zoo with those monkeys.

What do I mean by “required talent”?
The bit you can’t teach. You’ve got it or you haven’t. It includes inspiration, originality, imagination and the desire to write. If you could invent a talent detector, it would analyse neural activity at that moment when the idea in your head transmogrifies into the words your brain comes up with to express that idea; before the internal editor is kicked into gear. Give a hundred people a topic and ask them to write thirty words about it (which I am about to do to you ... Be patient, please) and you’ll get a hundred different responses, and not just different in small details - what went on in the head of each person as they came up with the chosen words is the mysterious bit that can’t be taught. In a way, all that can be taught is the subsequent editing of those words by the writer. (And then how to take them to market.)

So, I am saying that a course can teach you to self-edit. Which is a damned fine thing and a very good raison d’├ętre for good courses.

I asked Sam Kelly (Edinburgh Napier CW MA - pay attention at the back, please) to give a couple of aspects of a writer's craft that she thinks can and can't be taught. “The key term here is 'craft' …. Craft, in any area, is the set of practical skills that you can acquire. Everything else is what you can’t teach: talent, originality, energy, commitment, intellect, etc, etc. But seedling talent can certainly be grown, through the judicious application of challenge and encouragement." (I said “couple”, Sam - see, she can write but she can’t read. Like a lot of writers …)

I agree, apart from the seedling bit. I think you need something a lot less weedy than a seedling to start off with if you want to grow into any kind of half-decent tree. And the bigger and stronger the seedling at the start of the course, the mightier the resulting oak. Sam told me “We want students to come up with amazing original ideas and be able to write brilliantly.” Quite, and you don’t get amazing original ideas from just anyone, nor can you teach just anyone to have amazing original ideas. Forget seedlings, Ms Kelly - I’d say the Edinburgh Napier MA is certainly looking for pretty damned sturdy saplings for its course.

Two good pieces about Creative Writing MAs: Jenn Ashworth's brilliant piece of educational satire and Tom Vowler's equally useful but serious one.

One interesting USP of the Edinburgh Napier course is that it is “replacing the traditional workshop with one-to-one mentoring, because we believe this is the most effective way to develop individual talent.” That will be interesting to those of you in critique groups. I’ve long shuddered about the advice sometimes given by unpublished writers to other unpublished writers. (See Jane Smith’s excellent piece here). It’s too difficult to be
professionally and constructively critical, when a) you haven’t proved that you’re not making lots of mistakes yourself b) you know that the person may be upset and c) you know that that upset person has also got to critique you.

My own preference (and this is really personal preference, though the bit after the "and" also constitutes advice), would be for one-to-one mentoring by a professional, and I’d want it to be someone who’d had proven knowledge and success, as an editor, agent or relevantly published and respected author. But I wouldn’t believe everything I was told - I’d
constantly critique the critique too. (God, I'd be annoying ...)

For those of you contemplating critique groups or writers' group workshoppy things, (and yes, of course there are good ones, and some very good ones) first read this.

As for other writing courses, obviously there are good examples at all levels - Daniel Blythe teaches one. (I mention it because a) I’ve heard good things about it and b) he’s probably reading this post. Oh, and c) he says sensible things and earns a living as an author so he knows what he’s talking about). Always check the credentials of the people teaching you and remember that no course will make you a writer if you don’t have the talent already.

I asked Sam what she thought were the greatest misconceptions about MA courses. (And her answer equally applies to other types of course, imo). “The most grievous delusion is that it will make you a writer. It won’t – it will make you someone who’s been on a course. If you have talent, choose the right course, and use the opportunity wisely, then what you learn on an MA programme can definitely increase your chances of success out there in the world. But there are no shortcuts: you still need to work on your writing for as long as it takes.” How true. And you noticed, I hope, the phrase “If you have talent” …

Talent is the sine qua non and there’s no course on earth can teach it to you. Please write out 100 times.

But a course is not the only way to learn the necessary skills. You can also learn from:

  • Comments from other writers - recently, Tom Vowler very delicately and charmingly pointed out that I use colours a lot in my blog (too much, methinks he was suggesting). Notice anything today? Really restrained on the colour front, don’t you think? Whether it’s an improvement or not, I await confirmation. Or not. But the point is, I heard, I listened, I thought he might have a point, and because I write for my readers and not for my own self-indulgence, I reacted. Did I have a hissy fit? Of course not. I analysed and decided I trusted him. Even though I liked the colours ...
  • Comments from readers - a teenage reader once asked me why my chapters were so long. I hadn’t a clue - I’d never thought about it. But her wish was my command and I drastically reduced them. She was right. Big improvement in pace.
  • Practising, reading, writing, growing up.
Now, that was a long (and almost colourless - thanks, Tom - she ungrits her teeth with difficulty) post so I’m rewarding you with a COMPETITION. Remember I talked about that moment between the idea and the writer’s brain coming up with the words to express the idea, and how the (teachable) internal editor would trot along afterwards to hone the editing of the words? And I said that 100 people given a small writing task would all come up with different words and approaches?

Well, let’s do it.
By lucky chance, while I was writing this post, I nearly had a heart attack. Honestly. Thing is, a pigeon exploded through my window. Lightning may not strike twice in the same place, but clearly pigeons do: this is the second time this has happened to me while writing erudite stuff in the last few months. (See my other blog, Ghostlygalleon). They never come crashing through the window when I'm out, only when I'm sitting trying to work. It's the magnetism of my writing, clearly. Either that or I smell like birdseed.

Anyway, so, a few minutes ago, this exocet pigeon attacked again. (Not the same one - the first one died.) It’s remarkable that you didn’t even notice, but such is the extent of my self-control. Such is the degree of my husband’s self-control that he came padding through in bare feet - funny, I never had him down as one of those glass-walking transcendental meditators but he is a man of many talents - and said, “Take a photo and use it as an inspirational creative writing task on your blog.” Excellent idea, young man. He now wants to enter the competition but I think I’ll get him to judge it. Much fairer. And less chance of marital discord.

The prize? Er, sorry but it’s a copy of my next book, Deathwatch. Which, since it’s not published till June, only has one review, and modestly doesn’t permit etc. But you can probably find stuff about if you’re that interested.

Anyway, please study the photo below and write no more than thirty words inspired by it. I am going to give you no guidance at all, except to say that it must be in English. And you are supposed to be showing that unteachable talent, coupled with that teachable editing craft.

No emails - all answers in comment box. As many entries as you like. Feed off each other, be influenced or be genre-busting - up to you.

The deadline is whenever I decide. And then my husband will train his talent-detector on you. Once he's finished bandaging his feet.

Sorry for such a long (monochrome .... yeah yeah, one day I'll get over it) post - I promise my next two will be short, partly because I feel guilty about keeping you for so long and partly because I'm starting a NaNoWriMo tomorrow. Oh foolish woman. The point of a NaNoWriMo (apart from nothing) is to learn to switch off the internal editor. So today's post was my last supper of self-indulgence.

And finally, here’s Flannery O’Connor: "Everywhere I go I'm asked if I think university stifles writers. My opinion is that they don't stifle enough of them." Sorry, you probably wish someone had stifled me before I woke up today.


Nicola Morgan said...

Oh, and of course, please DO comment on any of the above, even if you're not entering the competitionette.

bshanks said...

Receives food parcel by pigeon post

Police wish to question a mysterious Geisha Girl, seen lurking against garden wall. (Bottom left near corner of extension Roof.

Eric said...

Here you go:

The splinters of transparency clung to the pane with resolve, remnants of a fragile barrier now shattered; she could already sense the wispy tendrils of contagion flowing through the breach.

Nicola Morgan said...

Crikey, I see what you mean by the geisha. For ages I couldn't see it - you've enlarged the photo and used FBI equipment to enhance it, haven't you?? That's brilliant - not only am I under attack from pigeons, but I have a haunted garden. Love it.

So, so far, we have the literary stylist/postmodernist poet and the Secret Service agent - anyone else up for the challenge? It's not over till the Geisha Girl sings.

morphine-moniza said...

I can't believe a pigeon attacked you AGAIN! I was so horrifed when I read your first pigeon post I was literally laughing and squealing at the same time. I can totally sympathize with you because once a baby parrot tried to roost on my head during morning assembly (in school). I think it was confused by my Bad Hair.

I'll try and think of a nice description for the photo, but it will be pretty hard to beat the scary geisha story.

cecilia_peartree said...

This may seem irrelevant, but why are you starting a NaNoWriMo tomorrow? Why not November like everyone else?

morphine-moniza said...

see here's what happened:

The geisha stood still, her arm raised before her as the very air seemed to tighten. A large pigeon PINGED to squawking life.

“Go forth my minion. GET THE WRITER.”

Nicola Morgan said...

Moniza - ooh, this is now turning into a collaborative novel! But oh, the idea of a baby parrot nesting in your hair in school assembly is brilliant - I don't know whether to say "awww, how sweet" or "euuw, get away nasty bird!"

Cecilia - ah, I'd like to say there was an interesting answer to that. No, it's just that a group of writers is doing one now. I don't know why we're doing it now, as it wasn't my idea, but I do know that I couldn't do it in November. I THINK different people do it at different times, as private NaNoWriMos. I'm going to blog about it soon. Watch this space. Well, not this one, because this is a comment space, but you know what I mean.

Jan said...

o god look at your lovely garden
overwallcrawling and springalive –
did You do that? the yellow speckflowers
echoing the sunlight
starscatter in my heart.

Paige Bruce said...

To continue the Geisha story, since it amuses me too:


As the pigeon flew towards the window, it couldn’t help but wonder if this was how Stu had gone missing from the park a few months ago.

DanielB said...

Thanks for the mention! My adults' course is called "Writing A Novel" (WEA) and aims to be very nuts-and-bolts and to stop people having Silly Ideas and doing Silly Things. I only manage a sort-of living because of all the teaching I do as well...

I think any writing course is of most benefit to the talented person who wants to become an even more talented (and informed) person. Imagine a seasoned football pro like Bobby Moore giving a young Wayne Rooney a training session in 1995. He'd do wonders for Wayne, but the hour would be utterly wasted on a galumpher with two left feet like, er, me. Any notion that an hour's training a week with Bobby could turn me into a talented footballer - someone capable of playing professionally at league level, which is the equivalent of being a published writer - would be utterly deranged.

lacer said...

Rare sub species of Edinburgh chocolate targeting pigeon proven to exist.

cecilia_peartree said...

‘That shiny thing’s a gateway to another dimension, right? Where pigeons rule the roost, ok? I’m up for that, mate... See you in a parallel universe, suckers!’

Phoenix said...

I'm all for the not being able to teach talent to the talentless. But where do the talented go to learn about the other pods of the publishing tripod -- luck and timing -- eh? ;o)

Sometimes, simply opening the window isn't enough. Sometimes, you need to feel the glass shatter.

Uh-oh. Does that make me sound like a crappy, saccharine greeting card writer?

Paul Lamb said...

I think the whole point about the infinite number of monkeys at an infinite number of typewriters for an infinite amount of time was not to discredit creativity but to attempt to illustrate the concept of infinity itself, something out brains are not sufficient to comprehend directly.

Melinda Szymanik said...

Hey - just a comment on the whole teaching people to write thing - I know some monkey's who type a lot of 's'. Seriously though, I agree with what you've said. But the talent free zones will keep turning up to try and learn and I truly think with some people talent does eventually shine through when you thought there was none there to begin with. Everyone can improve.

Rebecca said...

The crash of shattering glass jolted me from the loveseat. Feathers drifted toward the carpet. And on the floor, a blue-gray pigeon shuddered with his last breaths.

Rebecca said...

Here's another one.

I told them not to roughhouse in the bedroom. And now, the broken window and a reddish brown stain is the only sign that they were here at all.

Rebecca said...

I'm having too much fun with this. Does this count as writing or WAS?

Sara watched the troll creep along the garden wall, a mischievous glint in his eye. He stopped to pick up a stone and-CRASH! Good arm, for such a little guy.

Ebony McKenna. said...

'Nicola' the gawky yoof called from the laneway. 'Nicolaaaaaaa'.
No response.
He looked for the smallest thing he could find to toss lightly against her window. Two options: A half brick and a dead pigeon.
'Orright, this'll get her attention.'
After the glass stopped falling around him, the yoof scratched his head.
'Well there ye go, it wasnae double glazed after all.'

Jane Smith said...

God, Nicola, just look at the dirt on your windows. Ha!

I agree with you that it's essential to consider just who is teaching if you're interested in taking a course: there are far too many writing MAs now taught by writers who have never been published, or who know little of the business, and I have to question the value of that.

I am intrigued by this new MA: one-to-one mentoring is great. But I wonder if they've considered the full value of workshopping, a lot of which is found in the process of giving critisicm rather than receiving it. It's amazing what a writer can learn by considering the work of others; and it's less painful, and feels safer, than hearing your own work commented on in any critical way.

Sally Zigmond said...

'I promised I'd prove just how much I loved you' he gasped, spread-eagled on my carpet, shards of bloodied glass glittering around his head. I stepped over him and left.

Sally Zigmond said...

Sorry about the missing comma and space, Nicola! I'll do better with my next attempt...

litlove said...

I've just started an online writing course organised through Write Words on the web. Mine is oriented towards non-fiction, and three weeks in (out of 10) I have to say it's excellent. My tutor is called Shyama Perera and she's a published novelist and journalist. She has really put her finger on the structural problems I'm having (I've been an academic for 20 years, and the way I've learned to organise material is different to popular literature). I do think you have to be ready and willing to change; it's not about finding someone to love your work and finally recognise you. And change isn't easy - my tutor very sensibly and helpfully said that it would take the full ten weeks to alter the conventions I'd learned. So, it goes slowly and nothing worthwhile is easy. But I'm really enjoying it, and it's extremely interesting.

Sally Zigmond said...

I drink the sharpness of the dew, the wind through the pines, remembering, remembering. Soon he'll replace the glass and this time he'll tie my hands as he bandages them.

Elen Caldecott said...

DI Crow poked the body with his wingtip. He sighed. 'Murder or suicide?'
'The broken glass is inside the room, Sir,' DC Sparrow said.
'Right then,' DI Crow smiled. 'Murder.'

hee hee hee.

Sally Zigmond said...

'What do you think?' He waits; wanting me to praise it, praise another painting of yet another broken window. His only subject.

'It's good,' I say. 'Very good.' And sigh.

(I think I better stop before I'm really hooked.)

And yes, I agree that teaching can only do so much. The spark, the talent, the itch, whatever it is, has to be there first. Sometimes, though, it's only by undertaking some sort of course, workshop or joining a writing group that you discover whether you have that spark or not and more important, whether you have the stamina and interest to take it further and make it better.

Nicola Morgan said...

Paul - you're being too literal! I wasn't implying that the monkeys image was to discredit creativity (though actually it wasn't to illustrate infinity either - Huxley used it to defend Darwin and illustrate that things of apparent complexity were logically possible). I was simply using it as an image to intrdouce my own point, part of which was that talent has to exist before any half-decent literature can be produced, and that monkeys (and many humans don't have it, couldn't produce it and couldn't be taught it).

Everyone - am loving your entries, and you are proving what i really wanted to prove (and will post about) - the utterly fascinating differences between the ways that people's minds work when given the same task. Fantastic! keep them coming.

litlove - "it's not about finding someone to love your work and finally recognise you" AGREE!! Great that you've found such a good teacher.

Melinda - good point - I think that can occasionally happen, but it does have to be there in the first place, I fully believe. Can't be taught/created from nothing.

Thanks all - keep your comments and entries coming!

litlove said...

Okay, I'm not much good at this sort of thing, but I'll have a go.

He always thought the glass was the problem; it's nubbly flaws and smears obscured his vision. But afterwards, he still couldn't find the words, and admitted the obstacle was himself.

Sandra Patterson said...


Dear Ms Morgan
Please read my manuscript attached to the stuffed pigeon. I know it’s drastic but we wannabes will do anything for an endorsement.
Sorry about the window,

John said...

McIntosh was trapped by the miasma of experience until the winged messenger broke the grey veil spilling her life to bring colour to his page.

DOT said...

I never knew Ralph had a catapult or I might have opened the window first. Or washed it. Whatever. It’s the last time I flash my boobies for him.

Emma said...

I looked through the circle of jagged glass. Outside, where the neighbour's house usually stood, there was a strange tall building. The trees looked unfamiliar, and the garden was gone.

morphine-moniza said...

here's another one:

“Look mom!” I warbled tottering to the edge of the nest. “I can fly!”
A resounding crash.
“I’m ok! Ooh chocolate! CrooO. CroooOo.”

Nicola Morgan said...

Excuse me, but criticising the state of my window cleanliness will not help you at all, any of you.

Emma said...

Another from me:

The shattering glass woke Tosca. A breeze moved the curtains letting in moonlight, and on the carpet among the shards lay a dark object. She could hear whispered voices outside.

Sally Zigmond said...

They were closing in. Before he left, David held her shaking shoulders and said his men still commanded the bridge but when her window shattered she knew he had lied.

Helena Halme said...

He stood there, bleeding. The chattered window lay on the floor. ‘Why did you do that…your arm?’ she said. ‘Don’t go,’ he said and fell heavily onto the broken glass.

morphine-moniza said...

A literary novel with the picture as its cover:

When Pigeon Strikes Twice: A tale of unrequited avian love, a love that crosses all boundaries, even shattered glass and --- DEATH.

Clare said...



Suburban smashing spree spreads. First Fred. Now Nicola. Gorgie glaziers gloat....

Sarah said...

Nicola, this is especially for you. You'd so wanted one in the last contest.

Please accept this rhyming query.
As you can see, I’m very
creative. (Ain't it dandy
also including Werther’s candy?)
Still, I might’ve overdone it a smidgen...
Delivering by carrier pigeon.

Anonymous said...

From the erotic sci-fi epic, They Came Through The Round Window

Letitia ducked under the duvet with a shriek. Having cleaned the window with his tongue, Bryan unveiled his whopping antennae.

Jo Franklin said...

'I didn't do it.' Her voice sounded small in the glassy devastation.
It was too late. The dark boots were already climbing the stairs.

bshanks said...


The figure in the garden is, in fact, Dick Dastardly in disguise.
Waiting for the return of his beloved pet pigeon.....Kamikase.

Unfortunately the Morgans have already eaten it. Done to perfection in a chocolate sauce, and followed with Brain Loaf.


emmadarwin said...

Very thought provoking piece Nicola (sorry, ducking out of the exercise for now.), and I do agree. Though I would add that as well as craft which you use to grow the sapling into a good, big tree, I think a good MA can help you to learn how to find the sapling in the first place. Maybe that's another aspect of craft, but a different one from plot/character/prose etc. Learning how to dip the bucket down into the well, as E M Forster puts it, and bring some stuff up reliably isn't as easy as learning control of complex sentences, but it's just as important, and a good course can help with that, too. Some of teaching writing is about teaching people to get out of their own way...

The Edinburgh Napier MA sounds excellent: just what the MPhil at Glamorgan has been doing for about fifteen years. One-to-one mentoring/supervising (by the likes of Gillian Clarke and Tony Curtis), as you describe - there are eight supervisors and only eight students in each of the two years. Glamorgan does have workshops, each with two supervisors as well as the rest of your year, so the standard is very high: I found the input from the poets, paradoxically, particularly illuminating.

Sally Zigmond said...

"The transparency of glass,' he continued,'is an illusion. Nietzsche writes...'

My boyfriend may be an intellectual but he's got no bloody idea how to mend my broken window.

emmadarwin said...

One other thing about workshops vs. one-to-one, is that one-to-one mentoring doesn't involve you flexing your critting skills on other people's work. One of the most important writerly skills is reading your own work as others read it, and that you can only really learn by practising reading others' work in the kind of critical detail you want to bring to your own. Of course you can do it to published work, and be helped by a tutor to do it to your own, but there's a feedback-loop in workshopping work which you can't get any other way.

Shoo Rayner said...

The pigeon flew past the window just as the hired assassin pulled the trigger. Why did the the creative writing faculty want the writer taken out?

Shoo Rayner said...

Now that the internal editor has been at work :

The pigeon flew past the window just as the hired assassin pulled the trigger. The creative writing faculty had failed to stop the truth being written again.

The Voice said...

She was a prisoner tied to the chair. Hands glued to keyboard no inspiration forthcoming. "Here is your escape." squawked the pigeon before ramming his body against the window’s pane.

Anonymous said...

Nobody seems to appreciate your new discipline regarding the use of colored fonts. I do. I think it's way easier to read. I've always taken the colors as proof that you really understand teenagers, but I've got no objection against growing up. ;-)

vicariousrising said...

Someone’d been spying on her. The evidence was staining crimson gore onto her manuscript. Shredded by the shattered glass, the ruined pomegranate was a bad portent of her stalker’s intentions.

Harry Morgan said...

"But Mrs Morgan", oozed the brown-suited loss adjuster, "the evidence clearly shows that the glass was broken from the inside. There is something fishy about this pigeon thing......

Rebecca Woodhead said...

Sometimes I saw through, though my eyes were closed. That circle of comprehension. All around the edges, the fog obscured sense. Senses reversed. Don't untouch my hand. Explain. Then darkness.

dreamscorer said...

Polly should have known.

Months of far-off looks, head cocked on one side. Soft cooing to himself. Endless hopping.

Then one day, Peter threw himself through a window.

At another woman.

PS Only just discovered your blog, Nicola - loving it very much. Richard.