Can creative writing be taught?
May 11, 2011 § 22 Comments
I’ve just about finished with the final assignment for the Advanced Creative Writing course I’ve been studying with the OU since last October. It is with a profound sense of relief that I’ll send it off at the end of this week. This is partly because I’ve been trying to run in three, and subsequently four directions at once for the last six months or so, and I’m feeling run down. I’ll be glad to permanently cross this off my agenda.
I’ll also be glad to get rid of it because it hasn’t been as useful or as fun as I’d hoped.
There were definitely some benefits to taking the course. The study materials offered some useful perspectives on how to handle structure, pacing, dialogue, character and all the various components of building a story. I view this like a course in construction: you can be introduced to the different types of bricks you can use, and given some guidance on how to put them together.
What it consistently failed to do was help me to develop my own style. To use a more pretentious word, my own voice. There seemed to be an inherent bias towards literary fiction from the outset. All of the course materials used literary fiction as examples, and while you were permitted to write in genres if you wanted to (I mostly submitted fantasy and historical fiction), they didn’t tend to give a good grade unless you stuffed the stories with plenty of the conventions of literary fiction as well. I ended up spending much of the course repeatedly banging my head against this brick wall. I refused to change what I was doing to that extent, because I refuse to be convinced that it’s wrong because it isn’t fitting someone else’s requirements for ‘the best way to write’. I certainly didn’t pay hundreds of pounds for this course to end up spending my time theatrically gripping my hair and throwing things out of windows.
I’ve ranted a bit about these things before, so I won’t go over my indignation all over again. But I was disappointed. I can understand why it happens; apart from anything, creating a syllabus has got to be a difficult job. You’ve got to set essentially arbitrary waymarks for students to reach, and arbitrary conditions for the grading of their assignments. It’s never going to suit everybody. But I think that pushing everyone in the direction of writing the same kind of thing is a mistake.
There was an article about this in the Guardian recently, featuring opinions from a range of writers and teachers. A couple of people pointed out that writers work in such different ways that it’s got to be hard (impossible?) to find an accepted method to try to teach to everyone. The widespread bias towards literary fiction is also mentioned. And some people think that those who emerge from a creative writing course and go on to do really well were probably inherently good to begin with; the course merely applied polish to an innate talent. All valid points.
The famous MA in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia came up frequently. It is about the most celebrated example currently run in the UK today, largely because of its very impressive list of alumni (Ian McEwan, Kazuo Ishiguro, Anne Enright and many more). Andrew Cowan, Director of the MA at UEA, says:
“One criticism that is often levelled at creative writing courses is that they produce “cookie cutter” fiction. But if you look at the list of published graduates from the MA at UEA, you couldn’t get a more diverse range of writers.”
Couldn’t you? Ian McEwan, Kazuo Ishiguro, and Anne Enright may all be very different in a lot of ways, but they’re all celebrated authors of literary fiction. I’ve heard of a couple of historical fiction writers who graduated from this course, but that’s it. I’d be interested to know if genre writers are accepted onto the course very often, if they graduate well, and if they get much out of it. I’m inclined to doubt it.
I don’t regret taking the OU course, because I think it has helped me to improve. But that was mostly via the practical techniques I gleaned from the course handbook, and an occasional piece of feedback from my tutor (when she wasn’t pushing me to change my writing style). I feel that I could’ve gained the same things by reading writing manuals in my own time, and it would’ve been less intensive and much cheaper. I had vague ideas about taking an MA in creative writing sometime in the future, but I’m not inclined to anymore.
What makes me concerned, and even mildly resentful, is that courses can end up trying to impose styles and methods on all writers across the board and I fear that this can actually stifle people. We’re all susceptible to doubting ourselves if we find we’re doing things very differently to whatever is presented as the “accepted” way – especially if that verdict comes from a perceived authority. But our own personal way isn’t necessarily wrong. It’s just wrong for someone else.
Has anyone taken one of these MA programmes, or any other ‘formal’ writing tuition? Did you feel that it was helpful? I’d be particularly interested to hear from anybody who has undergone formal writing training without being a lit fic writer.