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.
The simple and obvious truth is that you do not need a Creative Writing MA or MFA to be a writer. However, they can be very beneficial to many people. The key is clarity about your own personal reasons for wanting to do a post graduate degree. Ask yourself what you want to achieve and whether or not you can achieve those goals in some other way. If you want all the benefits of a Creative Writing MA, but don’t actually want to do one, there are some alternatives that you could consider.
BENEFIT #1: Legitimising Your Writing
One of the major advantages of embarking on a Creative Writing MFA is that you literally buy yourself some time to write. You pay your university fees and you can officially say ‘I am studying Creative Writing’, legitimising the time you spend focusing on your craft. Psychologically, many people find it hard to be accepted as a developing writer. A lot of people will assume that you’re not really working, or judge you as a dreamer and not a realist. This can be tough to deal with. By embarking on an MA, you help overcome this stigma. Whether this is a fair reason to embark on a Creative Writing MA is up to you.
THE ALTERNATIVE: Create your own schedule for setting aside time to write, read and embark in developmental activities for your writing. Stretch it over a time period that suits you. Be extremely disciplined in ‘showing up’ to your ‘classes’. Call yourself a writer – to yourself and other people. Stick to your guns.
BENEFIT #2: Learning From Professionals
All Creative Writing tutors at university must be established in their field of writing. University offers a unique environment in which you get to mix with numerous writing professionals and learn from their knowledge and success. Depending on the writers who work in your university and how much you ‘click’ with them, this can be one of the biggest perks of doing a Creative Writing MA.
THE ALTERNATIVE: Some writers offer private coaching services. Some literary consultancies offer writing mentors. Unfortunately, this can be expensive – but MAs are very expensive, so consider how much you would spend on university fees and how much contact time you might get with a professional writer/mentor vs. this alternative. You might be restricted by location, but a lot of professionals use Skype for remote coaching. It could be difficult finding the right mentor for you, but it is likely to be worth it as a substitute for this part of the Creative Writing MA.
BENEFIT #3: Learning & Support from Your Peers
One of the major benefits of studying on a Creative Writing MA is that you will immerse yourself in a creative environment with other like-minded writers. You’ll discover that you can learn as much from your fellow students as you can from your tutors. The emotional support and comradely felt between you will be invaluable, and you may well make some life-long writing buddies.
THE ALTERNATIVE: Join a local writing group. Join an online writing group. Find a select few who want to get the same thing as you out of the group – being as strict or as flexible as you decide. Set yourself writing theory books to read and discuss. Set up a workshop environment and a rotor of work to be submitted and developed. The main drawback is that you won’t have a professional writing tutor to chair the group, but if your group is thoughtful and committed, you’ll still find it an invaluable resource. Just because you are not on an MA, it doesn’t mean you don’t have valuable insight to share.
BENEFIT #4: Resources
Your university will have a major library resource full of books, articles, audio archives, etc. You’ll have access to computer and other technical resources. The university is also likely to host literary events and lectures that you could attend, and your course might offer guest speakers (industry experts, famous writers…) and special field trips.
THE ALTERNATIVE: Join your local library – they might not have many relevant resources, but they can order books for you from all the other libraries within the county. Second hand books can also be found incredibly cheaply online on sites like eBay or Amazon Marketplace. Ebooks can also be cheaper, sometimes. If you are in a writing group, pool some money together to create a shared library. Keep in touch with your local library, book stores, university and art centre to get information on up-and-coming literary events open to the public. If you have a writing group, get in touch with local authors and industry professionals and ask whether they would guest speak at your workshop – offer to pay for expenses and whatever fee your group can afford.
BENEFIT #5: Teaching
Some MAs offer the opportunity to teach undergraduate classes. This experience could be invaluable to those wishing to become Creative Writing teachers or tutors in the future. Realistically, most writers do not earn a living from their writing alone and teaching is one of the main incomes for working writers, so having access to this kind of experience is extremely useful.
THE ALTERNATIVE: Enrol on a PTLLS course (Preparing to Teach in the Lifelong Learning Sector) to develop basic teaching skills. This costs around £300-£350. Set up your own free class in a local venue, or even your own living room, to gain experience. Your lack of educational qualifications may be a barrier to teaching so make sure you have a developing publication record to endorse your course.
All of these things work together to improve your writing craft and knowledge. A Creative Writing MA is not for everyone and they are extremely expensive. However, the Creative Writing MA wraps up all these experiences in a tidy package for you, one that is much easier to follow through with since you put yourself in the hands of the system, and it might be that you are the kind of writer who will benefit from such an environment. However, if you want a more flexible development scheme with similar benefits to an MA, these alternatives are a good place to start.
As part of my Preparing to Teach in the Lifelong Learning Sector course, I had to present a twenty minute lesson on my chosen subject. Deciding what to teach was a difficult task. The hardest part was planning the mini lesson into the short time frame. My orginal ideas were far too long, and I had a feeling that the lesson I prepared would over-run, too. Eventually, I just had to go for it, realising that it was as much a learning experience for me as it was for my pretend students. I wanted to use the opportunity to test out a particular notion on a group of students, so I went for the idea: What is ‘Good’ Writing?
My lesson aim was:
To develop a discussion around what constitutes ‘good’ writing and help students realise there are subjective and objective ways of analysing creative writing.
I thought this would be a good way to start any writing course as it helps students realise that there is no ‘correct’ way of doing things when it comes to creative writing, but that there are some criteria that are used in a more objective sense to assess creative writing. Therefore it (hopefully) relaxes students who fear judgement on their writing, and also helps them understand how their writing might be marked.
Now, I had a few hiccups the morning I was meant to present. My printer is out of ink so, knowing this, I aimed to be at the college an hour early to give me time to print my resources in the library. Unfortuntely, the usual fifteen minute drive took me an hour due to exceptionally bad traffic (I think there was an accident somewhere, which caused a lot of people to re-route). I still arrived with twenty minutes to spare. I dashed to the library and started printing – and then the fire alarm went off!
We had to evacuate the building. Fifteen minutes later and I was grabbing my print-outs and rushing to the classroom. I had planned to re-arrange the tables into a ‘U’ shape to provide a more discussion-orientated layout, so did this quickly with the help of my peers. All in all, I had everything prepared just in time.
The chaos actually distracted me from my nerves. The relief I felt in overcoming all the obstacals thrown into my path before the lesson seemed to help!
I started with a brief introduction to the lesson, then launched straight into the first task. I had printed three extracts from novels and, after asking for volunteers to read them outloud, got the class to pair up and rank them in order of preference, emphasising that there was no right or wrong answer. I moved around the class and listened to the types of things being discussed. Once everyone was finished, I opened it up to a group discussion and noted the various criteria people had used to judge the extracts on the whiteboard (subject matter, language, genre, accessibility, etc). I only revealed the novels the extracts were taken from after the discussion was complete (more for the sake of curiosity).
I used a slideshow presentation to structure the lesson, and after the task I talked through the differences between subjective and objective ways of assessing writing, using the presentation as a focal point. Then I issued a mini three-question quiz and asked people to volunteer the answers before revealing them.
As expected, the lesson over-ran a little. But that was okay. I knew that, really, the topic needed longer as discussion always needs as much time as possible, and creative writing is such a discussion-based subject. I recived really good feedback, with the main criticism (other than I over-ran on time) being that I should have focused more evenly on the subjective/objective split and provided a more engaging task to involve students in the objective element of the lesson – I knew this would be the case, and I would have definitely done this if I’d had more time.
If anyone wants to use and/or adapt my power point presentation, feel free to do so but please leave the credit on the first slide. It would also be nice to hear if anyone finds it useful, so please leave a comment below. Click the link to open the presentation in Microsoft Power Point.
Power Point Presentation: Introduction to Creative Writing – What is ‘Good’ Writing?
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.