Creative writing courses are still on the rise. Why are they so popular? Do they breed cookie-cutter writers, or can they develop a deeper social and political power?
According to the Higher Education Statistics Agency, the number of students attending ‘imaginative writing courses’ has steadily increased over the past ten years, from 2745 students in 2003, to 7455 students in 2011 – and that number doesn’t include people who take additional modules in CW… though I am very interested to see how the higher course fees this year will affect the number of students who pay to study CW at university.
And that’s just higher education. Arvon courses, the Faber Academy and hundreds of adult education/recreational courses are flourishing.
Recently, The Guardian posted an article by writer Jeanette Winterson on teaching creative writing. This is something I’m deeply interested in, as a student of HE writing courses and as a potential future tutor myself.
Winterson first muses at how the role of writer has changed from solitary craftsman to social and communal tutor.
Writers are out of the study and on the road – and when they are not entertaining readers they are invited to enlighten would-be writers. The most solitary of pursuits has become communal, organised, live, extrovert and competitive.
Is this because writing has become a commodity – “cult cargo”, as Val Mcdermid puts it?
I wonder if there has been a genuine rise in people’s interest in creative writing, or whether people’s interests were always there and universities and companies have simply been increasingly filling the demand.
The creative writing moment/movement baffles me and it intrigues me. What does it signify, all this creative longing? And why through language? Specifically fiction, poetry, memoir?
If you keep a notebook or blog or even tweet, you call yourself a writer. Is it about recognition? Contribution? Identity? It can’t be about money, because it costs more to go on a good course than most people will ever make back from their writing. It isn’t about fame in any obvious X Factor way either. Few writers are well-known. Almost none of them are stopped in the street.
I think there is a direct correlation between the development of the internet and social media, and the amount of people who want to be writers. Blogging and writing forums provides immediate platforms for writing with immediate potential for engagement with readers and other writers. Social media has suddenly made a solitary profession incredibly social, allowing writers across the globe to connect with each other while they sit at their desks tapping away at their latest novel or blog post.
The crazy part of it is that we are breeding professional, competent, homogenised writers who will go on to teach writing that is professional, competent and homogenised. The intriguing part of it is whether this movement towards creativity and self-expression is really the start of a kind of Occupy – that it could be dangerous and confrontational, not homogenised at all.
Creative writing at university is often criticised for producing cookie-cutter writers who go on to be tutors instead of writers – creating a incestuous and self-cannibalising cycle of writer-clones. I don’t believe in this notion. If creative writing is taught correctly (and the definition of that is widely debatable – as it should be) then students should be provided with a space to breathe and take risks, where original thought and academic challenge should be encouraged.
Is the world of work plus the leisure offerings of mass entertainment now so banal and unsatisfying that creative writing offers a fight-back? If the society we are making – that is, the society unelected big business is making for us – is both soulless and soul destroying, then micro solutions such as creative writing could return some sense of both individuality and community. And if learning to communicate goes beyond talking to yourself in a private language, then it might become an instrument of change.
I like this idea. I like the idea that creative writing is not just a banal hobby, but can be political, powerful, an instrument of dramatic change.
The arts are responsive to social change. Writing isn’t something handed down from a big brain in an ivory tower – that’s the academy, not the rough and tumble of creativity. Writing is a conversation, sometimes a fist-fight. It is democratic.
If the new writing phenomenon is to be positive it needs to be bold. I believe that we are all part of the creative continuum, but I am sure that there are different doses and dilutions of creativity. We are not all the same and we do not have the same aptitudes or talents. I can’t make you a writer. What I can do is show you how to strip a piece of text like dismantling an engine – and put it back and see why it roars or purrs.
Teaching creative writing is not just about transferring knowledge from one mind to another. It’s more about teaching the skills to assess writing, deconstruct and reconstruct, challenge and discuss. It’s through these methods that creativity is nurtured and writers become powerful.
I recently went to a seminar called ‘The Rise of Creative Writing’ that explored the impact of university Creative Writing courses on the short story. It was an interesting evening, which I’ll write up in more detail soon.
However, during the discussion at the end, one comment caused a spark of instant retaliation in my mind. Unfortuntely, before I could say anything, the seminar was quickly drawn to a close.
The comment was from a university Creative Writing tutor, and it went something a little like this:
‘The thing that is most annoying is getting students who join the course in order to get published.’ *splutter of annoyed indignation*
A ripple (not a wave) of agreement went through the room.
It seemed that most people agreed that a writing course was a space in which to experiment with writing and break away from the mainstream. Fair enough. So it should be. But what’s wrong with people wanting to make a living from doing what they love? To not have monetary ambitions from your writing means you’ll fall into several possible categories:
- The hobbyist, who makes the bulk of her money from other means
- The annoyingly wealthy person, who doesn’t need to make money at all
- The idealised impoverished writer, suffering for her art
Is there not room for the writer who wants to experiment with writing, break away from the mainstream, and define a new demand in the publishing world, enabling them to make a living from their writing? Must creative writing students be categorised into ‘those who want to improve their art’ and ‘those who want to sell their art’? Where’s the crossover? I can’t imagine that bad writers whose only ambition is ‘to be the next Dan Brown’ would even get on a university Creative Writing course, so where is this bitterness coming from? Who is it directed at? Why the stigma?
As part of my course, Preparing to Teach in the Lifelong Learning Sector, which I’m undertaking in order to give me a foundation in teaching skills, with the eventual goal of becoming a Creative Writing tutor, we have to deliver a micro teach. This is a 15-20 minute lesson in which we have to use all the strategies we have learnt throughout the course.
The most challenging aspect of this task is that the class will have a mixed ability and a mixed level of interest in regards to the subject taught. How can I deliver a short Creative Writing class to such a diverse group?
I’ve been thinking about this for a few weeks. At first, I considered tackling one of the major foundations of Creative Writing: what is a story? I had planned to teach the basic structure of a story (that it must contain a beginning, middle and an end, and have a conflict and sense of change) and provide the group with a series of short examples, including examples of what a story isn’t. I was then going to get the group to write their own one paragraph short story.
However, I think this might been too big a concept to deliver in 15 minutes, and it might be too daunting to get students to write a story – even a short one – if they have never done any Creative Writing or have no interest in it. I thought the lesson sounded a little bit dry.
I thought about exercises I had enjoyed, and remembered one called ’101 Uses for a Button’ (or something like that), which I read in The Five-Minute Writer Margaret Geraghty. It encourages you to think creatively, outside the box, and come up with as many different uses for the simple button. An interesting task to start a lesson with, I think. Something easy and fun.
But how could I build on this concept? ‘Thinking outside the box’ can be interperated in a different way: avoiding cliche. Cliche often creeps into writing, especially for beginner or unconfident writers, and it is something that most people are familiar with, even if they are not a writer. So I would then provide the class with a few examples of cliches, writing them on a flipchart, and ask them to contribute some more. I might incorporate an exercise here, asking students to re-write a cliche or two.
I would then develop this theme into a discussion on characters and stereotypes, including a little theory on flat and round characters (E. M. Forster), which would lead into the main writing task. I would provide photocopied photos of a variety of different people and ask each student to pick one. They will have five minutes to write a character sketch – I would provide a handout of prompting questions to help them if they are stuck. Then I might get the students to pair up and describe their characters to each other, or ask for volunteers to read out their character sketches to the class – I’m not sure which, yet.
I would end with a summing up.
These are just my inital thoughts for the micro teach. Over the next few weeks, before the micro teachings beging, we will be looking at course and session planning, so hopefully that will help. At the moment, I have a feeling this lesson is too long for a 15 minute slot, so I’m going to have to think about it some more.
Any feedback/suggestions would be welcome!
I’ve just started a new course entitled ‘Preparing to Teach in the Lifelong Learning Sector‘ (PTTLS or ‘Petals’, as it is sometimes referred to). It is one of the most basic qualifications often needed before becoming a teacher of adult education. I’ve been seriously considering becoming a Creative Writing tutor for a while now, and though I probably have enough expertise on the subject after studying it at BA and MA level, obtaining a handful of publications, running my own literary magazine, and generally just being obsessed with the theory of creative writing, I felt crippled by my lack of teaching experience.
I was discussing this with someone and they suggested ‘why not go on a course?’ It’s strange – I’d never actually considered it. I didn’t know anything about such courses. The only one I was aware of was the year-long, expensive university-based course, the PGCE, that prepared you for teaching in a school environment. I had no idea about more basic courses, or courses specifically geared towards adult learning. So I did some research and found some testimonials online from people who had become Creative Writing tutors after completing their MAs, and the PTTLS course was mentioned a few times.
Hoping that it was just the stepping stone I needed, I researched local courses. I found one a few town’s over, and I enrolled online three weeks before the course was due to start. I didn’t hear back for a while so assumed I’d missed the boat, but two days before the course began, I got a phone call saying I had a place. The website said there is usually an interview, but the person on the phone asked if I had GCSE English, before realising that I had an MA in my subject area – and those were the only requirements. Unfortunately, the course also cost me £329 – though that’s nothing when you’re used to university fees. Often, if you are already employed as a teacher, your institution would pay for this.
The course is eleven teaching weeks with one week for half term. It is held in a college – seeing all the sixteen-year-old students around makes me feel obscenely old. There are about twenty students in my class – a lot of them are from the same music school, so I’d say there is roughly an equal split between people who are already teaching and those who are hoping to teach in the future. Everyone seems really nice.
The course is a very broad overview of teaching skills – from record keeping, understanding your role, planning lessons, etc. The assessment is based on weekly assignments that are collated at the end of the course to form a portfolio. There is also a ‘micro-teach’ that we have to perform at the end of the course.
You can aim for a Level 3 or a Level 4 qualification. Level 3 is roughly the equivalent of an A Level whereas Level 4 is roughly the equivalent of the first year of an undergraduate degree. I think quite a few people in the group are aiming for the Level 4 qualification, myself included. The assignments are all the same, but they require a slightly higher level of depth and a few references to established theories. We’re asked to analyse methods, with reference to theories, but we aren’t asked to analyse the theories themselves.
Each week there is a three and a half hour lesson. I’ve had three lessons so far. The content seems pretty simple and mostly common sense, but I appreciate that it is encouraging me to think about all aspects of teaching, and the assignments allow me to go into further depth and think about how I would apply the concepts to my own teaching, which is useful. I don’t think I’m going to learn anything particularly crucial, but having the grounding will hopefully increase my confidence and prove to myself that I have what it takes. The qualification will also (hopefully) help me establish my first teaching position.
Creative Writing is such a broad subject and it is taught in a variety of ways at a variety of levels. I’m using this opportunity to further research how Creative Writing is taught so I can build a clear and informed vision in my head of how I want to teach it. Though I think ‘teach’ is almost certainly the wrong word… But more on that another time.
I’ve completed my MA in Creative Writing, and yet I still feel like a novice. Spending the year writing and discussing the theory of writing, critiquing and workshopping, delving into literary texts… it’s been fantastic, and I feel like I’ve become more knowledgeable, wiser. And yet. It’s the age-old story. The more you learn, the more you realise there is to learn, making the knowledge you have seem fractional.
My first goal – the goal I’ve had now for many, many years – is to complete a novel, get an agent, get it published. I’m edging closer. But I still feel as though there is a long way to go. That can be discouraging. Especially when you hear about people bashing novels out in a matter of months… or weeks, even. However, I’m understanding my own writing process more and more. My first drafts are more like second drafts, as I tweak and re-write as I go along. My pace is slow, but I’m striving for quality, and I would happily substitute speed for that.
And in the long run? I want to teach. Though ‘teach’ is perhaps not the right word. Guide… inspire… nurture? No, that sounds too Gardener’s World. I love the theory and academic side of writing, and I love being around other writers. I saw an advert for a Senior Creative Writing Tutor at UEA recently and I thought… I would love to be able to apply for that position. One day, I’m going to be able to apply for that position.
I am hugely disappointed that my university did not offer the opportunity to teach undergraduates, as I know many other universities do. I feel very lacking, inexperienced and incredibly unconfident in this area, and yet it is where I want my future to be. Preferably, I want to have a novel accepted for publication before I dip my toes in teaching. I have a few stepping stone ideas, too.
In the mean time, I just need to keep learning. At the time that this post will publish (I’m scheduling it the evening before), I will be in London at a ‘Bad Writing’ Symposium (I wonder if there will be libations?).
‘BAD WRITING’ is a one-day event bringing together scholars and practitioners to discuss the value judgements which accrue around genre fiction. Since the rise of a mass readership, the genre model has remained an obstinately successful and popular method of categorising fiction. Fictional formulas have been embraced by readers and writers alike. They have also faced accusations of laziness and inadequacy. But what claims are we making when we debate the worth of the generic? Is a bad detective novel necessarily a bad novel? Can we speak coherently of ‘reading for the plot’? ‘Bad Writing’ seeks to unpack these tensions and use the idea of ‘badness’ to explore the richly nuanced interplay of reader, writer, community, and market expectations in genre fiction.
There will, of course, be a future blog post about this. I’ll keep you posted.