What is the value of a creative writing course? Mine was completed over three years, with an additional honours year for a creative writing thesis, and I still hold it to be largely responsible for the path I then took beyond university, and the career I have ended up with.
Or at least I did, until I applied a bit more thought to the matter.
In a conversation prompted by an article on the alleged ‘golden age’ in Australia for debut novelists, it was suggested that creative writing courses are failing in their role as instructive degrees for aspiring writers.
The general take on creative writing courses is that they promote and indoctrinate a particular style of writing for their students – a literary style – and that this is held as the pinnacle of the craft. This in turn is coupled with the literature degrees that either accompany a writing course or oversee it, and universities on the surface appear to be establishing a clear standard of what is ‘good’ writing, worthy of creating and worthy of critiquing.
Recently, Hanif Kureishi was quoted saying that creative writing courses were a waste of time, inculcating a culture of writing students who ‘just can’t tell a story.’ Kureishi continued on, committing the cardinal sin of teaching – blaming the students – when he said that the students:
don’t really understand…they worry about the writing and the prose and you think: ‘Fuck the prose, no one’s going to read your book for the writing, all they want to do is find out what happens in the story next.’
Kureishi’s comments were then countered by Jeanette Winterson, who in her role as a writing teacher, sees her job as one of ‘exploding language in [students’] faces…writing is a state of being as well as an act of doing.’ So where do we end up? Are writing courses useless? Are they snobbish, bastions of truth and art, offering little in the way of practical writing instruction?
Given that the publishing industry is changing, and the viability of writing as a career is being scrutinised, it seems fair to look more closely at whether educational institutions teaching creative writing are doing the best thing by their students.
I decided to take a look over all my old course readers from the four years I did of creative writing (yes I kept them all, what of it). Granted, this was completed ten years ago, but a brief investigation into the equivalent course at the same institution now shows little in the way of meaningful change, with only superficial alterations. Many of the same instructors are still in place.
In my first year, there was only one creative writing subject on offer. In order to complete second and third year subjects and qualify for the major, one needed this first subject. It was, of course, focused on writing about the self. Within this subject, students were able to explore such wonderful introductions to the art of writing as: imaginative inhabitation, writing as confession, writing the body, writing exile/dislocation, as well as surreality and the fabulous. We looked at Maguerite Duras, Jamaica Kincaid, Raymond Carver, Arthur Rimbaud, Anne Carson and Saint Augustine. And of course, Roland Barthes. No subject went without Barthes.
This subject was followed by a series of others, all exploring differing aspects of creative writing. To a degree. There was a theory and practice of fiction subject, which promised much (narrative, characterisation, time, order and sequence, image, voice, metaphor, and so on), but when it came down to it there was a lot of theory and the practice was left to the student. There was a subject about writing the image (still yet to work that one out), which covered concepts like fantasy and realism, framing, duplication, and ekphrasis. More Barthes was looked at, as well as Sigmund Freud, Julia Kristeva, Franz Kafka, Peter Carey, Virginia Woolf, Jeanette Winterson and Haruki Murakami.
The one subject I was really hanging out for, which was to cover writing extended, long works of fiction, came with weekly chapters on: montage and cinematic disjuncture, liminal momentum, intertextual resonance, didacticism, and spatial and visual imagining. There was to be one week on practical notions of style, grammar, editing and presentation, but instead it was delivered through terms like ‘consider the applicability of excess, cumulative amplification or adumbration, hyperbole and disjunctive or discordant montage.’ The brief discussion of grants and publishing opportunities was reduced down to a single instruction to go and purchase the latest copy of the Australian Writers’ Marketplace.
All of this, and more, and I got my creative writing degree. To what end?
I don’t recall much discussion of story at all, if any. I don’t remember there being any talk in the tutorials and lectures of the joy one gets from reading (and writing) a story, from the enthusiasm and excitement at finding out what happens next. And to this, it appears Kureishi has a point. There was a lot of learning to love the language, of placing expression and originality in language as a primary goal ahead of character, plot and setting. Which is not to say one is right and one is wrong, it’s just that the course only offered one opinion.
I undertook a screenwriting elective at the same time, and the instruction was clear and to the point. We discussed how the industry works, what the screenwriter’s role is, and how that would apply to anyone considering that profession in Australia. We looked at successful examples of the form, and non-successful examples. We covered topics like: stories on screen, storytelling structure and strategies, character and character development, imagination and craft, genre and style, culture and commerce, and then three glorious weeks on writing and rewriting. Is it any wonder this subject made the lasting impression? Is it any wonder I saw this style of writing as one I’d rather attempt to make a living from?
Kureishi is correct when he says that writing courses have their priorities wrong. But he is incorrect in blaming the students (some of which can be attributed to the out-of-context quoting of his statement). And while there does need to be an examination and promotion of language, in Winterson’s terms, to only do that is to do the students a disservice.
The role of universities and courses in the life of an aspiring writer needs to be more than just an exploratory dalliance with theories. It needs to be seen as a profitable and productive course that can provide students with the tools needed to become a writer.
Universities are reluctant to acknowledge the idea that one can make money from creative writing, lest it interfere with the process of learning about writing. But once the student is finished with the course, it is impossible to attempt a career in writing without considering where the money’s going to come from. To acknowledge this would conceivably be to acknowledge that the style universities promote – this language-heavy, ideology-laden literariness – is perhaps only one of a series of stylistic choices a writer can make, and one that perhaps isn’t sustained as a dominant style when pure sales are considered.
To do this, to reconsider their stance on what ‘good’ writing is, would be to also reconsider their idea of what a writer is. Currently, we all seem to be living in a deluded state where we aspire to be a certain type of writer, we teach others to become a certain type of writer, and we all like to imagine we read a certain type of book.
The reality of this is far different. While I can only draw my conclusions from what I learned and didn’t learn at university, I am reminded of a line about Umberto Eco’s bestseller The Name of the Rose, how it was the book that everybody owned but nobody read. I am concerned that we are too caught up in making ourselves be a nation of writers we would like to read, rather than finding out just what it is the nation likes to write and likes to read. Perhaps we need to be a bit more honest about what we read, and what constitutes good writing, if those who want learn how to write are to be taught a whole lot better than they currently are.