Teaching Creative Writing: a few whys and hows!

Yvonne Cullen



So what’s brought you to this page? Let me guess!

You write, and are considering teaching writing. You teach writing already and are hoping to pick up a few tips. You’re just curious. Or you write and are aware you’d love to enable others to. You write and are wondering if there could be a living in mentoring and teaching others to write. You write and wouldn’t mind at all being on a fairly low income once you could avoid a nine to five. (And that point re income is quite a key one to note, I should add. And add it nice and early, too, so if it really turns you off, you can get your coat!).

Against one or a combination of these backdrops above, the idea of teaching writing has been starting to beckon you lately, I’m going to guess. I’m going to go out on even more of a limb and suggest it’s been looking, to you—depending on the urgency of your situation—a bit like a lighthouse in the distance, maybe. Or a lifeboat.

And all these classes and kinds of interest in this gig are valid ones for getting going in it: that’s the next thing I feel the need to say! You see, in my accidental twenty-five years’ experience it’s not what leads you into this work that matters but what keeps you in it. Because if you’re lucky—and I’m going to guess that most people creative enough to write are fair candidates for this luck—then you might well find this is the best and most creative work you could ever do, apart from writing. Most especially if you’re allergic to the nine to five! (And don’t mind the nine to eleven you might find you are replacing it with. More where that came from in a while!)

So how do you do this work … Dynamically? Inspiringly? Healthily (both for your students and yourself, so you neither crush their excitement or in trying to motivate them, burn yourself out?

You could ask fifty teaching writers about this and they might all have a different wisdom.

Here is mine.

The way to make this work well for you is to do it the way you write. As creatively. And as honestly. With as much commitment and as openly. As open to the endless possibility of surprise and unexpected understanding as you are with your own pen in your hand. Open to surprise and shifts in direction and change of plan at every hand’s turn in a session; open to going where the energy is and the curiosity that could lead to the most growth for the group around you at THIS moment on this night.

Which is not to advocate winging it per se. The new and developing writers we work with deserve a heck of a lot more than that. No. Teach with great materials and great plans, I want to advise you. But teach, too, always ready to throw these over for a better plan, and one that may often be prompted by your group and sometimes by your best creative self.

And what you’ll set in motion in your classes, doing that, is a dynamic that you as well as your students can be inspired and learn in. Which will send you back to your own page more skilled and lead you back out to your students more skilled again. And again. And again. And again.

So now, to put something more grounded in under that theorizing:



It might seem obvious, but in case it isn’t:

Work out what you have to teach

What are your shareable skills? Are they the nuts and bolts of how to write a novel and stick at it until it’s done? Are they ways of finding inspiration or overcoming fear of a blank page?

Be prepared to keep learning, while you’re teaching

In my own case, my first class as teacher had, eight weeks earlier, been my first class as a student, too. When the teacher left, the group asked me to fill the gap and I’d say doing that made me a writer as much as a facilitator. I wrapped my head around a lot more aspects of writing, with my students’ hopeful faces in my mind, than I would ever have done just for myself.


Getting Your First Gig


As an absolute beginner to teaching, volunteering may be your best way in. Look to organisations like Fighting Words, which might want volunteers. With Garda clearance sorted out, you could volunteer in a local school. Or you could approach a community centre or library about running a group for them.


Thinking lateral

Anywhere you think a class or a workshop or any kind of a chance to write could make a difference to people of any age or stage of life, pitch a class there.


And more lateral again

Who is already creative but could do with more skill in words? Where are people reading who might enjoy writing? Where might sharing stories, memories, make-belief and play in language be valuable? Where might it help people find a voice or add a strand of currently missing creativity to their lives? Where would it thrill you to facilitate any of this life-enhancing activity? And, to be hard-headed about it, where could you do it and get paid fairly at the same time?



If teaching for organisations, clubs, schools, libraries, the Irish Writers’ Centre etc, they’ll provide your venue of course. If you’re starting your own events, you’re going to need s apace. So where will that space be? Well, you can rent rooms. (You can spend as much as a mortgage doing that if you’re not careful). You can try community venues for better rates. You can club together with other facilitators to rent space together (this was what led me to the concept for the Big Smoke Writing Factory in 2009 a collective which I co-directed from 2009-2010). In recent years I’ve personally side-stepped the rent by holding classes in quiet hotel bars, and spacious cafes, and for several months a year, running writing retreats in the West of Ireland. You might find a student with a large ideally located home who’s prepared to over this in exchange for a free fee. (back to the principle of ‘think laterally!’) And if self-directed classes are only a portion of your income, then combining a few of these solutions could see you through nicely. There is also always the option of running the odd class in your home – just be aware that if you do a lot of that, there may be CGT implications when you sell your house.


What and how are you going to teach?

So, you’ve found your classrooms, now what are you going to do in them? My over-arching kind of mantra on this would be: for sustainability in what you’re doing, design classes that thrill not just your students but thrill you too. One easy way to do this is to let your groups design their course with you. Give them a menu of options or, in advanced settings, invite special requests from the floor.


Ground rules

Set ground rules with your group for constructive and supportive dealings with each other, especially around sharing class-time and giving feedback. (The ‘feedback sandwich’ is a grand idea, especially if you can use it discreetly, with its suggestion of two compliments with a more challenging, still constructive truth about the work in hand delivered in the middle of them).


Don’t leave your people skills at home!

On top of that, (in the blindingly obvious corner): bring your people skills with you when you meet your classes. You’re going to be needing them: making sure everyone gets a fair share of the time and attention in class; judging who needs to be asked to read their work a second, third or fourth time after they’ve opted not to! And for the over-eager or potentially over-bearing in a class: learn crowd control. It’s the least your groups deserve from you when they’ve come out of an evening and paid for a class.


Acknowledge your students for their commitment and their hopes

For many new writers, the most daunting and embarrassing thing they do in their writing lives is signing up for a first class, or reading their work to their new peers for the first time. Never forget the commitment and hope with which your students arrive to you. Instead, take yourself back to the first class you attended, every single time you step into a classroom to facilitate. What would have helped you, frightened you, inspired, motivated or crowded your beginner’s ideas out? Something like the Hippocratic Oath keeps me going, with my groups. Do no harm.


Further approaches

Here’s a few more idiosyncratic approaches of my own, that might spark yours:

Try banning the word writing from your class. Sometimes I do this for the first few weeks. Instead I encourage students to come up with their own less threatening euphemisms for what they’ll be doing in this class and outside it for the coming weeks / months.

Ask for a few 5-10 minute bursts of writing only from your students, per day, as they get going.

Ask students to buy nice pens and stationary and to stack up inspiring books in various corners of their home where they get downtime. Building on this, ask them to type up and bring in copies of 5-6 paragraphs from favourite writers to share and discuss.

Get students to promise to go places in between your meetings that will ‘provoke a reaction’ from them and write this reaction up.

Ask students to write 20 pages on what they remember from their lives so far, or 50 if they are up for it, over your course timeframe. Ask them to write on what they don’t remember, wish they remembered, and any other variation on that theme they are comfortable with.

Bring in to your classroom everything you can think of that might provide a hook into imagination or memory or a sense of the fun to be had with words. (Things I’ve brought to classes have included: ads from the Buy and Sell, a gramophone; hats and headscarfs to wear to conjure up characters; old scent and aftershave bottles; textured objects to feel with your eyes closed; the contents of my mantelpiece swept into a handbag, on a particularly barren night (file under one woman’s trash = a night classes’ treasure: really!); recordings of music for students to write storylines to match or clash with.

Send students home to look at their old worlds with their eyes wide open; primed to write about all that’s actually profoundly curious about it; everything in it they don’t want to forget. (I’ve sent students home to watch soaps with the sound down and write their own dialogue and asked them to walk in a favourite park till a phrase of their own arrives to express the place they’re in, or mood. I’ve sent them walking around Parnell Square, out of classes in the Writers’ Centre, looking for odd cargo in peoples’ parked cars and chasing puzzling snatches of overheard dialogue. I’ve asked them to collect mental snapshots of body language between pairs of people seen during the week, in between classes, and moments of interaction which seem so ordinary you might think there was no potential in them. But what if those were the calm moments before storms? Or the peaceful moments, hard-won at the end of hard times? I’ve asked them to be most alert, as Maeve Brennan put it beautifully, to the ‘sense of impending revelation,’ we are always getting, as creative beings. When do you think you are about to understand something? Write then, I’ve said! Oh write then!)

And read as much as you write, I’d suggest you’ve got to be saying to your classes; and write to yourself about what you’re reading. What moved you in it, and why? And what are the shapes, the arcs and the spines of what you’re reading, the rhythms of them. What could you make of them if you stole and disguised them?

Gather a library of resources, handouts and links, and, of course, “recommended reading” you really do, hand on heart, recommend because you’ve learnt from it! Because we’re here, to some extent, to provide a little bit of a short-circuit, to let our students stand on our shoulders. But not all the time. To let them up there for a glimpse of what incisive reading or the disciplined doing of writing exercises can do for you as a new writer. And then to let them down to get on with teaching themselves to write. Because if I didn’t say that upfront and really loudly, I should have done. I think our real job is teaching our students how teach themselves, in the heel of the hunt. Yep! Our job’s to eventually become redundant for all the writers we teach, one after another!

Which might lead logically enough to this next couple of thoughts:

Refrain from playing God with your class, I would respectfully suggest and hope I’m not now contradicting my own advice. Nobody can guess a student’s potential. They’ll write, in the end, as well as they long to write. It’s not for us to put a lid on that.

As much as you refrain from playing God, hold back from having favourites in your class as well. (Obvious, innit!)  Give the same amount of time in feedback to everyone and dwell with the same energy if possible on the best points of each piece of work in the room. Little does as much damage to a new writer as silence or faint praise. We know this!

Shouldn’t need to be said, but as writing is solitary and we all have egos: refrain from making your class all about you and your achievements and skills or from using your class as an audience. Your role is not far off from a consultant’s in some ways, and not far off that of the master painter working with apprentices in a studio in another. But in general it is not about you or what you’ve written, now. It’s about how your skill and energy can now strike sparks and get new writers going. Which is, in the end, more rewarding than just listening to yourself recap on what you’ve done! (Unless you think it isn’t, in which case there is still time to get your coat!)

Deliver on your promises: get around to everyone’s work in the class, if you say you will. If you take something home to read for someone, read it. If you say you’ll teach topic X next week, do. (Or don’t promise to! Easy, really!) On that same note: set boundaries and guard them too. You could spend all week reading for your students for no pay. Give them what’s fair and generous to give but not at your own work’s expense. And on the same note: re-use lesson plans at least from time to time so you’re not hemorrhaging creative energy into your classes.

If you learn something in your own writing day, consider sharing it in your class tonight. It’s probably the tip currently most exciting you! Especially if it turned a hard writing day around. (You don’t have to be perfectly wise or the most gifted writer in the world to facilitate well, I don’t think. And that’s something else I probably could have said at the beginning. You might be the best teacher due to finding writing hard!

There’s a seam of gold in everything—a friend of mine in Inishbofin says. There’ll be a seam of gold, potential or magic in every session you do. And part of your job as the facilitator (no pressure) is to find it and mine it. For example: you may be starting a class with kids, with heaps planned to do with them. And suddenly it’s snowing. So what do you do? It’s obvious, isn’t it? You forget your plan and make the class about the snow.

Or a student may present a question about craft that turns out to be something everyone needs to grasp tonight. If at all possible, if you’ve got the wherewithal on the night, build a section of the class around that specific problem now. If possible, do this to include a writing prompt so your class can get to grips with this piece of craft in front of you.

And when they’re not in front of you? Network your students together out-of-hours to multiply the effectiveness of their class. Never be afraid to let them meet without you or stay in touch online. Do, however, encourage care if they crit each other’s work out of your sight. The road to skill can be paved with a lot of cockamamie notions that need weeding out or at least a fair old prune.

Look for feedback on how you’re doing and what you could do differently as tutor, and take it with some salt: new writers—if they’re going to be good—are going to be hungry and demanding, and that’s their job.

Look for feedback on your own creative work from your classes occasionally too. If that seems too risky, make sure you’re in a feedback setting from time to time with peers outside of your teaching life. Psychologists and counsellors do it. Why shouldn’t we, to remember what feedback feels like when you’re receiving it?

To do this work well, in general, I think you do need to be kind of endlessly hopping from your side of the table to your student’s side, to see how what you’re delivering is affecting and working for them. Return customers will help you assess how well you’re doing at all of this. But the beauty of this work is that you’ll hear it most clearly in the writing. You’re going to hear it there, ringing like a bell.


A Few Housekeeping Tips

Managing your energy

If you’re going to be trying to make a fair part of your living doing this, aim for a mix of bookings both with organisations that find the students for you, prep you your room, etc, and of the sort where you do all that work yourself. Doing it all yourself for every class could leave you with that 60-hour week I alluded to at the beginning, and that’s no fun. If you’re head chef and bottle washer for every gig you do, you may end up routinely working like a dog and still always short of your targets. Though they pay less as a rule, if some of your gigs are organized for you, they are closer to guaranteed income than your solo turns.


Diversifying: (especially into areas that excite you!)

As you go along, you may identify niches you’d get a kick out of filling. I run writing holidays and writing retreats in Inishbofin and Inishturk islands in the west of Ireland when I’m not teaching in Dublin. In Dublin over the years I also developed a niche business with long-running workshops I call Writing Train which participants can join and leave and rejoin over time. When you’ve dreamt up a niche scheme, do also try to keep it as broad as it can afford to be, at the same time. I’m aiming for e.g., over the next few years, to expand my island courses into kick-starting creativity in a more general way than just via writing. Teaching writing is niche-y enough without narrowing what you’re offering off the map!


Stepping up to challenges that could be good for your students, as well as for your business as a teacher

If organized readings for friends and family, or a broader audience, would be good for your students, suggest and play a role in organizing them. If a publication is the morale boost they need, look into kick-starting that, once the will is there amongst the group to do most of the heavy work!


Stay mindful of how the work works for you, of how it uses your energy and how it affects your own writing

Cut classes that drain you. Focus on ones that remind you why you write (or why you teach this skill).

There are a lot of ways to do this work passably. Far fewer ways of doing it really well. But if you can maintain the aim of thriving while you’re doing this, and leaving your students similarly thriving, you can find yourself rewarded both financially (where we came in!) and creatively, and energized for everything else you’re meant to be doing. And with writing colleagues too—because over time your students may well come to seem like those to you—whose writing reminds you why you also keep on doing this crazy magic trick we call writing.

The greatest of luck to you if you decide to try it!


And here’s one sample handout of mine for beginners, in case you’re curious!

Sample Exercise Yvonne Cullen Writing Train


About Yvonne

Author of Invitation to the Air (poetry), and A Winter Quarters (non-fiction, forthcoming), Yvonne Cullen has led writing classes all round Ireland with great success for the last twenty-five years. In 2009 she originated and drew together the directing team for the Big Smoke Writing Factory, co-directing it for 18 months before starting her WRITING TRAIN writing workshop programme which she still runs. Since 2008 she has hosted regular writing retreats in the west of Ireland under her ISLAND WRITING JAUNTS brand, on the islands of Inishbofin and Inishturk. She lives in Dublin.