Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Creative Writing Courses - A Student Speaks

Another day, another criticism of creative writing courses. This time it is from a Nobel Prize judge, no less. And there's this. And then this. And this. And here I am, having just handed in my dissertation for a creative writing master’s degree. I was initially sceptical, but since I was being paid to do the course (lucky me) and since I planned on spending the year largely on writing anyway, I figured why not. And I got exactly what I hoped I might. I am a convert. However, the questions about creative writing courses remain, so let’s deal with them one by one.

Is it all just a big con, designed to allow writers to pad out their pay packet?
Well, yes about the pay packet, to a certain extent. I won’t argue that. Consider Hanif Kureishi, who regularly criticises the notion of teaching writing while collecting a pay packet (from the very establishment I attended) to do just that. Incomes from writing are decreasing year after year, and everybody has bills to pay. Offer me tenure to talk about writing and I’ll bite your hand off.

But can you teach writing?
Stop asking this question. It’s really stupid. Of course you can teach writing. Most of it is craft. I could paint your portrait now and it would be bollocks. I could study painting for 3 years and then paint you. It would still be rubbish and uninspired, but at a much higher standard because I would at least have some knowledge and experience of the skills involved. The same is true for any craft (writing, drawing, pottery, film making) used in the pursuit of what may well aspire to the status of art. The basic skills can be taught, practiced, criticised, practiced some more, upgraded. You cannot learn to be a genius, but you can learn to be competent and then add geniusness if you have it.

So, why didn’t all the old, good writers need creative writing courses?
This is the most frequent point people bring up. Problem is it’s just not true. Many great writers did take a course (um, Raymond Carver, anybody? Kazuo Ishiguro? Ian McEwan? Toni Morrison? Thomas Pynchon? There are many.) More importantly, this question ignores the fact that many old writers were taught by someone. Dig into any writer’s biography (Faulkner, Hemingway, whoever you want, really) and you find the same: people who criticised, edited, worked with the writer and helped them to improve. You know, taught them. Like you get on a course.

Because that’s what used to happen. Writers have always been guided by knowledgeable or more experienced literary types/writers. They have always been developed by agents and editors who could afford to invest a lot of time in a book or in the writer’s whole career. Years, even, if they thought the writer was talented enough, developing them to the point they were worthy of being published. This has always, always, always happened.

Until recently.

Now, fewer authors will take other writers under their wing because either a) they’re too busy on the promotional merry-go-round trying to earn a crust, what with incomes falling year after year, etc, and b) they might as well get paid to do it. On a creative writing course. Agents and editors, on the other hand, spend almost no time at all developing young writers because that’s the new economic reality. They can’t afford it. There are thousands of books to publish and millions of wannabe writers, so instead they just reject, reject, reject and wait for something already polished to come along.

Which will usually (or at least, often) be from somebody who has been on a creative writing course.

Basically, all writers have always studied creative writing from other people. Now it’s on a course, and the industry no longer does it in house. The model is different but the process is almost exactly the same. A creative writing course gives you exactly what all the old, good writers were given by other writers, agents and editors.

So can a creative writing course turn a shit writer into a great writer?
No. Of course not.
Yes, the institution will still take your money, because they have bills to pay.

To be a good writer, you still need talent. But talent must be developed. To develop as a writer, you must a) read, b) write, and c) receive informed feedback on your writing and learn from that feedback, with the help of a teacher. Whether the feedback comes from a knowledgeable person on a course or a knowledgeable person not on a course is not really important. Whether the teacher is a person or a book makes a difference, but both are possible.

So, can you do it yourself instead of paying all that money?
Well, yes. I’m sure you can. Same as you can learn rocket science by going to the library and studying really hard. It just takes longer, and it’s harder to make a living writing rubbish while you serve out your apprenticeship, the way many old pulp hacks did it.

Working without advice, by imitation of other writers, can take you to a certain level if you are critical enough and talented enough. Instead of a teacher, you can buy Stephen King’s On Writing, and maybe a few Chuck Wendig books as well, because he’s more fun. If you have people to give you quality feedback then you will improve further. Many people do this and reach a reasonable level of writing, from where an agent and then an editor will take you on and help you improve further. This is essentially the same as a creative writing course, without the skills of the tutor at teaching what he is paid to teach.

The truth is that a creative writing course is easier, quicker, and in the long term probably cheaper.

So, should I do a creative writing course?
If you want to be a published writer, then yes, unless you’d rather spend years doing it yourself and hoping to get lucky. Will the course be any good? I don’t know. Some of them are utter rubbish, I’m sure. But the main thing I learned on my course is that the course itself isn’t important. It’s all about the lecturers. I had lecturers who were very, very good but I heard about others on the course who I would not have been happy with and would have learned less under. All this is hard to predict. I was very happy with all my tutors, and one in particular who gave me exactly what I needed to take my writing to a much higher level. Other people will need different things, and they may not have gotten as much from the same lecturers. Bit of a lottery, really.

The most important things are still reading and writing, and books like King’s and Wendig’s can certainly help anyone. But if you are serious about being a writer, your writing is already at a reasonable but not quite publishable level, and you have the opportunity, then it is definitely a good idea.

And finally, have creative writing courses created a generation of nice, safe, samey literary figures all in the same mould as their lecturers but with less flare?
Fuck me, I don’t know. Probably. That’s a question for literary history students. I know that literary fiction in both the US and the UK has been pretty dull for the last 20 years, though thank god it shows signs of emerging from its slump. Whatever. If you’re a writer you are probably more inspired by what you read and your own imagination. And for god’s sake get some balls. The course didn’t change how or what I wanted to write, it just made me better at doing so. Write what you want to write regardless of what your lecturers like. Listen to them on anything else, but stick up for your own aspirations or you’ll only end up a bit shit anyway.

So you're saying that writers have always received the same advice and teaching only now it's on a creative writing course instead of not on a creative writing course, and that you can do it yourself by getting exactly the same advice and teaching from other people and books instead of on a course, if you want to spend more time and money or just can't currently do a course? And, further, that people who question creative writing courses just don't know shit about writing or the publishing industry or its history, or else they're hypocritical and/or self-deluded shits like Hanif Kureishi?
Yes. And yes.

Right, that's the creative writing question sorted for all time, then.

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