Inspiration or craft? Can writing be taught or is it an innate talent? Well, the answer to that may often be culturally determined. From what I saw at the Quais du Polar last week and, following a bit of debate about it on Twitter following this article announcing the demise of the British short story, it seems to me that French culture leans more to the ‘inspiration’ school of thought, while Anglo-Saxon culture believes more in the capacity to hone one’s writing talent. Hence the proliferation of MFA courses in the US or MA courses in the UK. Hence the different way of discussing the writing process and getting under the skin of the main female character (although Ron Rash seems to be more French than American in that respect).
As usual, I am somewhere on the fence on this topic. I believe no amount of tuition or feedback will turn a truly tone-deaf writer into a sterling one. But, on the other hand, I also believe even innate talent needs to be tamed: whether this is best done through courses or feedback groups or mentors or even self-study of other authors – whatever works for you. As long as you are aware that you can always learn something, that you can always do better. A musician or a dancer can become very competent if they put in hours and years of training – and so can a writer. They might not have the spark of genius that turns them into the next Mozart or Anna Pavlova, but they can run alongside many of their contemporaries. Sometimes stamina and resilience counts for more than that elusive inborn talent. (Another great recent debate has been around the failed novelist.)
Perhaps there is something else at work here other than definitions around the locus of talent.
In France (and Germany and probably quite a few other European countries), it is possible to make a living from writing alone: there is tax relief for writers (and other cultural contributors), book prices are fixed, writers are paid for festival appearances etc. Because the contract is directly between publisher and writer (literary agents are practically non-existent in France), authors achieve a larger proportion of the royalties. You cannot underestimate the freedom a modest income gives a writer to truly focus on their writing and perfect their craft. As most French writers do: they retreat to Provence or Dordogne in winter, when there are no tourists or book festivals to bother them, and work hard to produce a book in time for the rentrée littéraire, that publishing bonanza in autumn. Many of them produce something every year, or every second year, so they work as hard as their English counterparts (but often without the additional teaching obligations). There are some ateliers d’écriture in France, but these are either targeted at schoolchildren or else a kind of ‘writing circle’ organised by and for the local community, often heavily subsidised, without much expectation of future publication.
Meanwhile, costs of MFAs or their UK equivalent, MA in Creative Writing, are soaring, so it is difficult to justify them (to oneself and one’s family) if you do not have expectations of being published or at the very least working in the field. In the US in particular there is much discussion whether getting an MFA is ‘worth it’ or if it is a pyramid scheme designed to give employment to writers. Everyone dreams of being a writer, so a whole industry of publishing, editing, proofreading, coaching etc. has spawned alongside the official courses. Some of them valuable, some of them money-making schemes which prey upon the gullible.
However, things are beginning to change even in France. At the Quais du Polar in previous years there had always been a competition for best short story or dictation of a passage from a crime novel or reading out loud for young people. This year, for the first time, there were also writing courses for 12-15 year olds, plus workshops on self-publishing and Open Pitch sessions for adults.
In addition to this, the City of Paris has recently launched (with some fanfare) a writing school Les Mots which is specifically targeting innovation and publication, across all genres (from memoir to writing for children, poetry, theatre, graphic novels, blogging etc.). Authors, editors, literary critics will be helping budding writers to improve their manuscripts and some of the names on their list are truly impressive: Karim Miske, Jerome Ferrari, Antoine Laurain. The venue will also harbour a bookshop and a literary café. With a full price of 15 euros per hour (reductions available for students and the unemployed), it is clear that these workshops are deliberately designed to be accessible and inclusive. It remains to be seen how viable this price point really is and what success stories will emerge from this.