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 was going to write a post about how my dissertation is progressing, since that’s the thing that’s been taking up most of my time lately (as many of you will have seen from Facebook and Twitter feeds) but I’m going to write about social media instead.
I recognise that I have a compulsion (annoying to some – perhaps many) to post progress reports and word counts via social media. To me, this is motivational. I justify and celebrate my progress by putting it ‘out there’ in front of viewing eyes. I think this is akin to the mentality I have with biscuits and chocolate: if no one sees me eat it, the calories don’t exist. Likewise, if no one sees me progressing with my word count, it might as well not exist. Obviously this is ludicrous, and probably says a lot about my mental state, but you get the gist of the psychology behind it.
Anyhoo, I was flicking through a copy of Grazia (May 2011) this afternoon (a very rare thing, and don’t worry, I didn’t own it) and I came across an article entitled ‘HELP! I’m a Facebook Faker!’. Needless to say, I found this probably the most intriguing thing amongst the many pictures of vomit-coloured dresses and adverts for shampoo in which the model’s hair had clearly been varnished, and decided to give it a read.
It was about a very sad individual who constantly lied on Facebook and Twitter about her social life, to the extent of saying that she was hanging out with celebrities and getting front row seats at London Fashion Week. The compulsion began as an innocent exaggeration, endorsing an average night out as ‘WILD’ etc, etc.
Many people do this, to a certain extent. And the reason behind it is obvious, yet a hard one to admit. According to a new survey, the article goes on to say, we now see social networking as one big competition. Who has the most amount of friends (to confirm that you are a cool person)? Who has the most ‘likes’ or re-tweets on their statuses (endorsing that what they’ve said is amazing)? Who has the most drunken photos (as evidence of having a good time)…? The constant feed of updates and photos paints a false sense of reality, and one that is in the control of the user.
But why do people do it? Why are people so desperate to be seen in a certain way? When it comes down to it, it’ s about in security.
‘You’re doing it for other people’s approval, but you’re also doing it to reassure yourself that your life is exciting’
…say psychologist Judi James in the Grazia article. But it doesn’t take a genius to work out that approval of a lie doesn’t exactly create a sense of self-worth.
Don’t get me wrong, I think social media is a great tool. I’ve made many friends online, I use it to stay in the loop about industry news and discussion, and I feel part of a large community of international writers – something that would be difficult to achieve without the use of social media.
And I think social media has revolutionised marketing in a good way, too, not only by providing a platform for direct engagement with companies and professionals, but by providing a platform for the most reliable and effective marketing tool in existence: word of mouth.
Even so, a part of me agrees with character Hank Moody from Californicaion:
People… they don’t write any more, they blog. Instead of talking, they text, no punctuation, no grammar: LOL this and LMFAO that. You know, it just seems to me it’s just a bunch of stupid people pseudo-communicating with a bunch of other stupid people at a proto-language that resembles more what cavemen used to speak than the King’s English.
Look at Facebook and look at Twitter. For the most part, if all those feeds and statuses were put together in a room and represented by the users that posted them, you’d have a room full of people shouting non-sequiturs, or pointing to things that interest them, or maybe waving a photo of a cat. Sometimes, one of these users will pick up on what another is saying and, thinking it pretty good, shout the same thing. In the midst of this, a few will be wandering around patting people on the back who are saying things that they like. Is this what communication has come to?
From an aspiring novelist’s perspective, we are always being told that we need to ‘build a platform’ for our work, even before we have work to show. Though I enjoy maintaining my site and writing my blog, I’d be the first to admit that I could be spending that time writing creatively.
So I guess this is basically a cautionary post. Because, as with all new technology, we should take a moment to reflect upon our usage of it. Now, if you like what I have to say, while I’m standing here alone on my cyberspace soap box (aka writing my blog), feel free to pass the message onto others with a re-tweet, or perhaps pat me on the back with a Facebook like. Better still, leave a comment and lets have a chat.
(But don’t come round my house for a chat because, well, y’know, that’s a bit creepy.)