The Social and Political Power of Teaching Creative Writing

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.

Jeanette Winterson

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.

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2 thoughts on “The Social and Political Power of Teaching Creative Writing

  1. Hi Sophie, excellent article.

    Creative writing as a form of communication, or establishing a conversation, is absolutely right. You have to have a reason for saying what you say in your creative writing, and there must be some form of message that you’re passing on.

    As I’ve started doing creative writing tutoring, the thing I’ve found most difficulty with is getting readers to take part in the “conversation” on a wider level.And increasingly, it seems to me, this is where the focus of the creative writing tutor must lie: in encouraging learners to read as writers. In my sessions we usually critique a famous short story, and it is revealing how little many learners understand what is going on, or what the writer is doing, or how theme and character are developed through a variety of writerly techniques. They can’t hope to replicate such skill if they can’t recognise it in the first place.

    To communicate, as well as having something to say, you have to understand the audience you are saying it to and know how to impart the information. That is what is lacking in most learner writers, and it’s here the creative writing tutor can most usefully offer assistance.
    Tom Conoboy recently posted..His Illegal Self by Peter Carey

    1. Thanks, Tom. Interesting comments. Yes, I think it is important to emphasize at the start of a creative writing course (especially a beginner course) that creative writing is not taught in a conventional way – that it is a conversation and not a lecture. Once people get their heads around this and open their minds, that’s when the best thinking and writing can take place.

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