Almost everyone can benefit from some simple hints on creative writing. The hardest bit may be to practise what you preach
The reason for the sentence's ambiguity is that, unitalicised and out of context, it is unclear how the stresses work. It might mean any of the following:
You can't teach creative writing, but I can.
(As if said to oneself): I can't teach creative writing.
You can teach other sorts of writing, but not creative writing.
You can teach other sorts of creative stuff, but not writing.
I could go on …
I wanted to italicise the "you", as in my second option, because that is how I felt, two years ago, when I taught my first such course, entitled "creative non-fiction", for the Arvon Foundation. (Don't ask me what creative non-fiction is, because I don't know). I felt pretty sure that other people can teach creative writing – a lot of them are ostensibly doing it, presumably with some success. But I had serious doubts that I could, with any benefit either to my students or to myself, join their ranks.
I was wrong. It is probably impossible to teach anyone to be an excellent creative writer (if they already are, you might help them along), but it was clear, by the time my first Arvon week ended, that almost all the students were writing better after five days of intensive composition and revision. You can teach would-be creative writers to write better. Yes, there were one or two fairly hopeless cases who were intractably tin-eared, but even they had a good time and believed they had benefited.
The most inspiring instance came in the case of a teenage girl from Nigeria, who had (bravely) come on the course, never seriously having tried to write. She began a piece about moving to the UK – good topic – by noting that buses in London and Lagos are different. She loved the internal staircases in the red double-deckers, which she had originally read about, she told us, in Mr Enid Blyton's books. We foolishly corrected her, but immediately understood that her error – she'd never come across the name Enid – added to the accuracy of the story, and measured the distance between the cultures that she was attempting to traverse.
At the outset, though, her description of the buses in Lagos was unpromising: they were crowded, slow, dirty, and uncomfortable. After she was urged to close her eyes and imagine herself back at the bus station, details began to emerge: people sitting on the roof, a fat lady in a flowered red dress holding a struggling brown chicken, boys running round the vehicle selling water and samosas, a sudden storm of rain washing the dust in rivulets down the sides of the bus.
"You mean all that stuff matters?" she asked incredulously.
Absolutely, that's what makes it come alive. And, with such assurance, she produced a final piece that was full of life. She had learned something about creative writing, and although she may not become another Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie, she will never again write the sort of lifeless prose with which she began.
Asked to provide some hints to take away, my brilliant co-tutor and friend Selina Hastings and I offered the following: Rick & Selina's Hints can be read at The Guardian.