First Published on AerogrammeStudio
There are infinite online articles debating the ‘merit’ of creative writing courses. This is evidenced, for example, by the many articles responding to Hanif Kureishi’s apparent declaration that creative writing courses are (despite the fact he teaches one) a ‘waste of time’ because most students are talentless and simply can’t tell a good story. Kureishi’s claim kicked off an entirely predictable debate where professional writers, writer-teachers, students and nobodies-in-particular argued whether writers are ‘born’ or ‘made.’
The following article is not going to engage in this debate because, as Nell Stevens notes, the debate has been ‘done…to death.’ What follows is simply a description of how formal writing courses are taught, and what they have done for me as a writer.
The first course I did was a two year diploma in ‘Professional Writing and Editing’ at an adult education centre. This course gave me one year’s credit off a Bachelor of Arts at university, where I completed a major in professional writing. Both of these courses were run by experienced writers or postgraduate students who were generally very good teachers, and who genuinely cared about their students and the quality of their courses.
Tip: Teaching is its own art, and there is no reason why a great (or ‘famous’) writer should be a great teacher, so don’t be put off if a teacher seems like a ‘nobody’– give them a chance!
These courses had subjects focused on specific kinds of writing (eg: fiction, poetry, screenwriting etc.), as well as classes on such things as literature, editing and multi-media. The university also had weekly lectures. Each class was organized around analysing published work and doing writing exercises aimed at kick-starting the creative and critical work required for assessment.
Tip: The writing exercises that you baulk at (creative or otherwise) are often the ones that will challenge, and teach you, the most.
We also, of course, spent many hours workshopping each others’ drafts. We were being shown that a writer is, first and foremost, a reader. By critiquing the work of our peers and published authors, we were learning how to critique our own work.
Tip: The most effective workshops are ones where the writer shuts up whilst their peers justify their comments in a constructive manner – flattery and insults don’t teach anybody anything, and a writer who is defending and explaining their work is not listening.
My years as an undergraduate were positive and productive. Upon reflection, I realise this had everything to do with the fact that these two institutions were distinctly inclusive: my classmates and teachers were aged from their twenties to their eighties, there were people from all sorts of economic and cultural backgrounds, and from all levels of writing ability. The teachers somehow used this diversity to feed the class in a profoundly positive way, so that everyone felt welcomed, encouraged and challenged.
Tip: Think about who you want your teachers and classmates to be, and think about which courses and institutions are likely to put you in proximity to such people.
These courses grew my knowledge and developed my communication and critical-thinking skills. They also made me take my writing seriously by forcing me to delegate real time to my work, complete projects and submit writing to publishers. These courses showed me that writing is hard work and that persistence pays off.
Tip: A creative writing course can be a safe and respectful place for you to call yourself a writer for the first time.
A Graduate Degree
After getting qualified to teach in high schools (and realising I didn’t have the spine for such work!), and after doing an honours-equivalent course in writing (which manifested in literary analysis), I applied for a scholarship to do a PhD.
Tip: A scholarship might be the only chance you ever get to focus entirely on your writing – being paid to write is often the primary reason writers go to university.
Unlike many PhD students, I didn’t use my thesis to create a large piece of a creative writing like a novel excerpt. I wanted to do something I couldn’t readily do independently, so I focused on archival work, which resulted in reading literary and historical primary sources in a ‘creative way.’ This was very fascinating – and very hard.
Unfortunately, my experience of a postgraduate degree did not bless me with a life-changing mentor relationship as it did Rose Michael: after a year or so my supervisor just kind of… ‘disappeared.’ Oh well, I thought, at least, on my own, I can do whatever the hell I want! Which I did, and eventually – somehow – I got my degree.
Tip: Before embarking on a research degree be very clear in your mind what you want to do and prioritise finding a supervisor who is knowledgable and genuinely cares about you as a student (do change universities if you need to).
It wasn’t until I held my bound thesis in my hands that I understood what skills and knowledge my PhD had given me. It had forced me to research and write about a huge range of materials in a unified, sustained, coherent, logical – and creative – way. I’d effectively written a book! Most of all, my PhD helped me develop my own voice and clarify my own values. As Philip Hensher notes, universities don’t tell writers how to write or how to think – rather, they give writers something to ‘react against… with their own thoughts and creative principles.’
Tip: Academic work is like ‘strength training’ for the mind – it develops different muscles to creative writing and gives your mind huge amounts of new and unusual material to chew on.
Finally, as the first law of procrastination is ‘Do what you shouldn’t be doing!’ my PhD also saw me writing some of my favourite stories – I found writing them was an excellent way to avoid writing my thesis! It’s amazing what work you’ll do to avoid doing work!
A short course: The Iowa Writers’ Workshop
I’ve been writing outside of university for years now and, seeking stimulation, I recently attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop’s three-week summer intensive in fiction. I went there because the school has a very good reputation, I knew someone who recommended it, I wanted fresh eyes on my work, and I wanted a different cultural experience of reading and writing.
This workshop was focused on critiquing student drafts and using those drafts to discuss elements of craft. It was great to get unique perspectives from the writer-professor who lead the class, and from the variety of students who attended it. Our conversations reminded me of everything I already knew about writing – but had failed to achieve, or had ignored, or had completely lost sight of in the solitude of my own practice. I was able to see my work with new eyes – and renewed excitement – as I absorbed the enthusiasm and ideas of the serious writers around me.
This workshop ultimately reminded me that writing is a craft – a creative activity open to anyone who is willing to take the time and effort to acquire skills and knowledge, and to then practice, practice, practice.