Can you teach creative writing?

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.

cixous note-1There 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.

Comments 7

  1. Really interesting post. Here in the US, MFAs in creative writing are as common as party nuts. I teach all levels of novel writing at UCLA online. I truly think that talent cannot be taught. Structure and toolbox techniques can, though. And so can discipline, which is why I think a lot of people take these courses. You’re forced to write every week. You’re forced to critique other peoples’ work, which can be invaluable in being able to pick out what does and does not work in your own work–and why. And sadly, getting that degree makes it possible to get a teaching job (those with publications, but no degree, are stuck as lower paying adjuncts.) I suppose this is funny: I hated creative writing courses and took only one, nearly dropping out. But I love teaching it because I love to talk about writing, love to read other peoples’s work, and it does help me in my own work to be able to figure out why my students’ work is not quite there. Plus, I like writers.

  2. that’s really interesting. A friend of mine has just taken a year off work to do a masters in creative writing, and for her the main factor in whether it was going to work for her was who the mentor (tutor) would be – as it was someone she admired, it was a way of getting one of her own writing heroes to give her a year of critique on her writing.
    I guess a funded and/or structured year to write is good enough reason to go for it, but what use is a qualification in creative writing unless you are going to write? And what difference does the qualification make in the end? seems to me the value is in whether it hones your skill, not gaining the degree.

  3. My MA in Creative Writing was disappointing because it had no skills-based courses at all – entirely workshop-driven, and the quality of the comment in many cases not much better than you’d get from the average local writers’ group. A skills-driven approach together with an element of critical commentary (and yes, some workshops too) would be the perfect balance. So few courses provide that. I think the other problem for many courses is lack of proper selection at the beginning. There’s some misguided sense of inclusivity that means they take on a lot of people who had no particular writing talent to begin with (it’s actually NOT that hard to judge, even unhoned…) and those people end up not having much more in the way of talent or skill when they come out of it – but they have an MA… All of which runs the risk of devaluing the whole academic basis of the courses. When (as a publisher) I get a submission from someone with a creative writing MA I no longer assume that at least it’s going to be readable or that there’s any guarantee of quality at all. Truth is, I often flinch! I think it’s so important to teach talented writers-to-be good skills, but so few courses do it well.

  4. I have recently finished the MLitt in Creative Writing (Poetry) at the University of St Andrews. After eight years in an American university, my experience here was refreshing at least. Our year was a relationship between weekly workshops, fortnightly one-on-one tutorials, and weekly seminars. The seminars were priceless. Topics ranged from ‘Metonymy and Metaphor’ to ‘Poetry and the Spirit’. We constantly looked at examples of poets, current and historical, who were doing all the things we were learning about, and doing it best. There was a unique opportunity to saddle up to the poets who were tutoring us and look in on their interests. I found this to be the best part of the year. We got to listen to them unpack what they had been thinking about, and get their unique perspective and agenda on any given issue. From there we could sort of look in and say, ‘Yeah, I really like that. I want to know more about it.’ or ‘Hmm, that does’t make sense to me. Can you explain it more.’ or even ‘No, I totally disagree.’

    I felt not only educated, but also empowered, if I can be so direct. I learned about things I didn’t even know existed. But more than anything else, I was confronted with tremendous amounts of silence and solitude, which forced me into the dark of my midnight desk lamp light to ‘grapple with the guard’ for myself. I think the year for an MLitt is priceless for someone who is looking for a year out to study their craft, or their potential craft. However, I would hold the conviction that it is entirely what you make it. You will get form your tutors what you want from them. You will discover only what you hunt to find.

  5. I’m now teaching students of 15 and 16 years of age. We’re going to expand our school to include 13 and 14-year-old students. In planning the curriculum, my school is looking at creating our own curriculum and there is the hope to cultivate budding writers. It is really a question for which there seems to be no definitive answer, but I think there is the starting point is the need for youngsters of today to read and read well which may be one of the biggest obstacles today.

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