There’s an interesting debate going on in British universities at the moment about the teaching of creative writing. Some argue it can’t be taught – that the best writing derives from a slow process of trial and error conducted alone at one’s desk. Others point out it involves a good deal of craft and insist that just as a painter learns perspective – or a composer scoring for different instruments – so a poet must study metre and a novelist plot.
There is disagreement even among those in favour as to the form such teaching should take. Broadly speaking, the dispute falls into two camps: those who advocate skills-based classes (such as scrutinizing different plot-lines) versus those who champion the workshop (where participants take it in turns to read their work aloud and are given feedback by the group). Both clearly bring benefits. Skills-based sessions offer insight into the technical aspects of writing and often help prepare the writer for the harsh realities of the marketplace. Workshops encourage critical self-appraisal through a tough kind of love.
Each model has detractors. Workshopping (now a verb) can damage as well as build confidence, and can mean a piece of writing is dissected by others before it has acquired its own identity. At its worst, technical courses produce formulaic writing which leaves most industry professionals running for the cover of their slush-piles.
So far, most UK university undergraduate and masters programmes have privileged the workshop over skills-based classes, supplemented with plenty of individual tuition from published writers. Those – like the recent masters at Napier (which foregrounds technique and specifically orients its students towards genres of writing) – remain rare.
But what about the newest and most controversial university course in creative writing: the Ph D? This has taken a while to establish itself in the face of fierce opposition from those who contend creative writing doesn’t belong in the academy at all. And as with undergraduate and masters programmes, even those institutions who now offer the degree have conflicting views as to how it should be assessed. Some require a finished piece of writing – a whole novel, a full collection of poems – reasoning that it’s impossible to judge part of a work. Others propound the Ph. D. has an obligation to include critical analysis, and consequently insist on a sample piece of creative work together with a commentary. The critical component can be as little as 10%, or – as in the case of the University St Andrews where I teach – as high as 50%.
Few of today’s literary giants began with a qualification in creative writing, though there are plenty of stories of writers enrolling for degrees and writing instead (Ian Rankin, for one, has famously described how he used his Ph. D. funding to kick-start his career as a novelist). So is the debate about the precise form creative writing courses should take beside the point? Maybe what’s important has less to do with acquiring technique or gaining feedback from others – and more with giving participants permission to carve out time to write.