The funny thing about creative-writing courses is that they busily rush around teaching people how to express their banalities without teaching them how to source the things that they need to discover. If you go and study music or painting, you learn about the past. You learn where to look, you learn what to look at, how to look things up. You need creative-reading courses not creative-writing courses. Then people would have something that they could actually use in a positive way instead of rushing in thinking, How can I express myself?
You have to choose the best of the past—and the standards are very high in the English language—and ask yourself, Where do I figure in this, do I come anywhere near it? If not, you may as well stop. If you really think that you are nowhere compared with the people you admire—and that has to be a very ruthless and honest self-examination and not simply flattery—then really you should stop. It’s only by thoroughly knowing those other writers and daring to challenge them, even, that you would ever write. So there’s always this paradox of respect and challenge, of recognizing that work exists that you should always be striving towards, which you have to look up to, which is fantastic and which probably you will never reach. It is almost a balance—either you have got it or you haven’t. I don’t know how you really teach it to people who want to write, because there is always too much of the one or the other, too much reverence or too much audacity: either “I know I can do it all,” or “I’m so timid, I’m just going to copy.”
It is important, first of all, to be sure that you do have something to express, but also to show a care for language that suggests that it comes first, before you, before your personality, before your own ambitions. There is always that level of humility. Whenever we talk about writing, we start to talk about paradoxes. We’ve talked about respect and challenge. Now we are talking about chutzpah and humility. The writer is at once the most abject of people and the most arrogant. Because the person who really knows, knows the glories of the past and how significant they are to him or her, is at the same time prepared to say, And now I will add to them. - Jeanette Winterson