Wednesday, 4 March 2009

CAN YOU LEARN FOLK TO WRITE?

The term ‘creative writing’ is a relatively new one, as is the concept of teaching it. Often just an extension of English in the past, the subject started to gain prominence in its own right following an MA course established at the University of East Anglia by Malcolm Bradbury in 1970. Today, UEA’s creative writing programme is one of the most prestigious around, with an impressive, high-profile alumni: McEwan, Ishiguro, Chavalier…to name some. There are now 200 post-graduate creative writing courses in the UK, yet writers seemed to have managed perfectly well without them before. So why are they so popular? And what do they offer?

Well, the cynical would say universities find them lucrative. The University of Manchester paid Martin Amis a salary of £80,000 for his teaching time (that’s £3,000 an hour). Applications for the course, though, rose by 50%. Further criticism has come from those suggesting students believe the MA will catapult them instantly to literary stardom, becoming the next Zadie or DBC. (Certainly unrealistic expectations of publication exist, but I’ve found these as prevalent among new writers who have chosen a less academic route.)

Hanif Kureishi is even more damning: “One of the things you notice is that when you switch on the television and a student has gone mad with a machine gun on a campus in America, it’s always a writing student. The writing courses, particularly when they have the word ‘creative’ in them, are the new mental hospitals.”

My own experience is a more positive one, entirely absent of murderous urges. It was only once committed to the MA that I took my writing seriously, adopting a more professional and systematic approach. I began to regard writing as a craft (something you had to graft hard at), rather than an art that could be visited when inspiration should happen to breeze through.

Instead of teaching ‘creativity’ per se, such courses look to develop skills, crucially teaching the writer to be self-critical. Classes take the form of workshops rather than seminars, where students critique each other’s writing. Although a fear of pointing out weakness in a stranger’s work often prevents this initially, students soon learn to give as good as they get. It sounds ruthless, and at times can be – good rehearsal for the real writing world, then. Just as with learning to paint, or playing a musical instrument, there are rules to learn – about structure, voice, character development, viewpoint, creating dramatic tension – yet nobody regards art or music courses as exploitative. I also learned to become a critical reader, essential for anyone hoping to understand what successful writers are trying to achieve and how they go about doing it.

Whether a student goes on to achieve publishing success will depend on many factors, almost entirely related to the individuals themselves: dedication, motivation, talent, luck, a willingness to learn, the ability to take constant rejection…

A creative writing MA doesn’t guarantee you afternoon canapés rubbing shoulders with JK; it’s not a shortcut to the shelves of Waterstones (there are none). But it will make you a better writer. In my humble opinion.

11 comments:

Vanessa Gebbie said...

THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU for saying that THERE ARE RULES TO LEARN if you want to write well.

I am hopping up and down with glee and have just spilled my tea on the desk.

I simply cannot understand those writers (often well published and successful writers) who assert that there are no rules.

They learned them, so why keep it all a secret?

How's it all going?

TOM J VOWLER said...

TALENT + DETERMINATION + HARD WORK + KNOWLEDGE OF THE RULES = POTENTIAL SUCCESS.

Sorry to be the cause of a tea-spilling incident, V.

All going well here, thanks. Sat at desk, vein open...

Vanessa Gebbie said...

TALENT + DETERMINATION + HARD WORK + KNOWLEDGE OF THE RULES + ORIGINALITY = POTENTIAL SUCCESS.

Tea missed keyboard. Make sure open vein hits the right keys!

Douglas Bruton said...

Yes, there are things to learn... the rules and the craft...

But some of your ingredients, and Vanessa's... can they be taught: Talent and Originality?

I am not sure.

And don't some original writers, talented writers, get away without studying the rules... or at least no more than anyone who reads?

Sometimes it can be more intuitive than the calculation of craft, perhaps? Asking the question here.

D

TOM J VOWLER said...

Absolutely, Douglas. I think we meant learning about your craft is one vital ingredient along with talent, an original voice etc...and that many of the mechanics of story-telling can be learned. Certainly great writers can emerge entirely absent of any 'creative writing' instruction; I suppose my annoyance is piqued when established writers ridicule the teaching of the subject, as if writing is some innate quality, the secret only available to a chosen few. I think, for me, an MA was both a financial and vocational commitment to my art; it both inspired and motivated me; everything about writing per se I absorbed on the course could likely have been garnered from books or online, but I found learning from others' mistakes and successes the most useful aspect.

Douglas Bruton said...

I have been to University and to Art college... it is surprising how many graduates leave behind what they have studied and do something else entirely.

Does that also occur with Creative writing graduates?

As to your issues of motivation and inspiration... these are not things that are taught as such. They arise as a result of a multiplicity of things. I like the idea of doing a Creative MA, because it gifts you time and opportunity for writing and critting and learning craft stuff... if the teaching is good... That is why I am a member of Vanessa's Fiction Workhouse - because it does all of that.... but the motivation is something inside and something personal, and I am not sure where that comes from exactly.

Btw (just worked out what that means!) good to see the novel word count is still increasing. That's my job for the summer holidays.

Best for now, Tom.

D

Douglas Bruton said...

And of course you can't teach imagination, but you can feed it and it can be developed... and a Creative Writing course can give a person space for some of this growth and development... but for full growth, that takes forever, a whole life, not just four years...

D

Douglas Bruton said...

And of course you can't teach imagination, but you can feed it and it can be developed... and a Creative Writing course can give a person space for some of this growth and development... but for full growth, that takes forever, a whole life, not just four years...

D

Hannah said...

Hey Tom, Hannah here. As a recent graduate of UEA's apparently prestigious course, may I state that nothing succeeds like success. The uni has an impressive list of alumni 'cause it was the first creative writing course in the country, and has therefore had its pick of students from the start. Now there are many other courses, but UEA's reputation keeps snowballing. However, I personally found that the uni sometimes protected its fine reputation at the cost of the students' experience. Impressive writers were selected to teach there, but they do not always make impressive teachers of writing.

Also: well, there technically are some rules, and these can often help, but there are always exceptions when it comes to creative forms. The other problem is house style - which you will always run into in one form or another. UEA's house style: first person, present tense and as many literary allusions as you can cram in. While it's not a terrible style, it does mean people who write in other forms find themselves occasionally banging their heads against a brick wall as they try to get tutors to respect other styles. A house style can be as simple as 'what your tutor likes to read/write themselves' - but it's always going to be there.

Finding the right audience can be half the battle, and trying to write in an academic environment won't always help with that.

TOM J VOWLER said...

Good to hear from you, Hannah. Thanks for your interesting and insightful comments on UEA.

Hope all well with you.

Paul Lamb said...

I'm not sure that creative writing can be taught, but I do think that it can be learned.