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.

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§ 22 Responses to Can creative writing be taught?

  • sara says:

    Honestly, in my decade of exerience people can either write or they can’t. Courses such as you mention will hone exisiting skills, but the ability to write well can’t be taught in my opinion. Folk talk about being mathematically gifted, I think the ability to write is similar.

    • Charlotte says:

      Hi Sara. I think there’s a lot of truth in that. Questions can be raised as to how that ability is gained in the first place – personally I think a lot of it has to do with reading voraciously for many years before you try to write – but it’s true that an arbitrarily arranged course can’t miraculously turn a person into a good writer if there’s no instinct for it already. I suppose an important question is, how far do the courses ‘hone’ skills and is it worth the expense of doing them? Thanks for those points.

  • Ellie says:

    I hand in my final assignment on friday for my creative writing degree. I have learnt so much, and honestly, if I hadn’t of taken the course, I wouldn’t be writing.

    I don’t think creative writing can be taught. The components however are broken down for the ‘starter’ writer. I remember the first thing we did was character bibles. I thought they were a waste of time. Now i use them ALL the time.

    I was fortunate that my lecturer is a historical fiction writer, but appreciates most forms of writing. Although extreme fantasy and chick lit does little for him. he would provide us with examples and abstracts from various genres, and took the time to help us discover where our talents lay. Voice (again, I really dislike this term) was a strong motivator for my lecturer, and he would read our work and say your heart wasnt in this – and we would have tried really hard! he was always right though.

    To be honest though, as great as he is, there is nothing he can do about the criteria for assessment. For me, writing crime, where literary fiction can struggle, I HAD to write this style, just to conform for the moderators. As a result, I shall be re drafting shortly to remove any ‘flouncy’ prose, to suit the genre.

    I was told in my course it is almost impossible to gain a first for creative writing, a mid 2.1 should be perfectly acceptable. For me it isnt. The rest of my grades as a whole are a first, and I know if the criteria was set for allowing for style of genre, rather than what the booker prize would like, I would have a real chance.

    So yeah, I have fully enjoyed my three years of creative writing, I have come away with a lot of useful information, and for that I don’t regret it. However, with the marking the way it is, I wish I hadn’t chosen this subject within my degree. I will be walking away with a lesser degree than I could have potentially gained. As for the MA, that was the plan. Now I am thinking an Mphil in Publishing would be the best route.

    • Charlotte says:

      Ellie,

      Interesting set of comments. Your creative writing lecturer sounds better than mine, certainly, in that he focuses on helping students find their own talents. That’s really important, and I think it’s often lacking. But ah, yes. The criteria.

      I actually have a lot of beef with formal education as a whole lately, having just finished a degree myself. By the end of it I felt more like I was being forced into a box than that anybody was trying to help me develop my own abilities and interests. I resented how much I had to change my approach based on which tutor was marking my work, and I resented the lists of boxes that have to be ticked in order to get the marks. It seems it’s the only way anybody knows how to construct a course, but if you want to do anything remotely original, it doesn’t work very well at all. It’s been said for years that the British education system aims to produce clones, essentially, and I think there’s a lot of truth to that idea.

      That model’s particularly problematic when applied to the artistic subjects. Perhaps especially creative writing, which is so nebulous it’s hard to set any straightforward, practical assessment criteria at all. I’m sorry indeed to hear that you really had to change your writing style significantly, and yet you still have little chance of gaining the top grades. That’s a dismal situation. I wonder where this widespread bias in favour of lit fic came from. It seems to pervade everything, and nobody’s got any qualms at all about telling people they OUGHT to be reading it and they OUGHT to be writing it. If a story outside of those conventions merely entertains people, it’s not ‘publishable’. That’s the message I heard over and over again in my course. Apparently the opinions of millions of the reading public count for nothing.

      The weird thing is, there are so many writing courses springing up all over the place now. There must be many thousands of people taking them all the time. I wonder why it’s become so popular, and why people keep on doing it when a lot of it is so unsatisfactory?

  • Lissa says:

    My undergrad writing course had wonderful texts that I’ve kept beyond graduating. They reinforced good points that I learned just by reading. My lecturer was a published writer of no specific genre. My tutor was high on his own sense of creativity. I think the course only helped to fine-tune, although I’m not sure it’s stuck with me. It certainly didn’t help me develop my own voice or support writing in different genres.
    I think you can teach the technique and craft of writing, but you can’t teach creativity. You can teach someone to write, but not to write well.
    Thanks for this post!

    • Charlotte says:

      That’s an important point there, Lissa – you learned a lot just by reading a lot. That, I think, is essential, and reading and writing a lot are the best ways to learn. What writing manuals (and courses) do, I suppose, is crystallise the main points so that the student can see the picture more clearly. It can draw out some of the innate knowledge of storytelling that one gains from reading, and present it in a clearly understandable form.

      I think we’re essentially agreeing, here, with the notion that writing courses mostly improve the skills of students in some areas. If you start out with nothing – no experience, no ability, no real grasp of any of it at all – you might come out with a slightly stronger understanding of the basics. Will it help much, without the rest? I don’t think so. People who graduate from writing courses and go on to be really successful were probably pretty good to begin with.

  • Nisha says:

    Charlotte, I want to pose another question to you.
    Do you think having some sort of ‘qualification’ will help if you trying to get published, or if you have already published, will it help in terms of marketing yourself and sales? Will a potential reader/agent/publisher really take you more seriously?
    You see, my boyfriend is forever pushing me to do some course similar to the one you mentioned but I point-blank refused, because I’m stubborn that way 🙂
    He’s the type of person who believes that to get ahead in life, you need to have as many ornate pieces of paper next to your name as possible. Yes I understand that with unemployment being so prevalent it helps to further your studies in most fields of work, but is it really necessary for a fiction writer?
    Sorry for the digression btw, its just that this point has really been bugging me, for a long,long time…

    • Charlotte says:

      Hi Nisha. No worries about the digression, it’s an interesting one. Let’s see.

      1 – Will having a qualification help you get published? Well, I can’t speak for the ‘gatekeepers’ – the ladies and gents who actually choose who gets published or not – but speaking from some varied experience, I think in most cases it won’t. There are exceptions. If you can say you graduated from the MA at UEA, probably it will help to open doors for you, but that’s because it’s hugely prestigious, taught by hugely prestigious people and it has a hugely prestigious alumni list. Just like a first from Cambridge is something of a golden ticket. Anything less than that, though, and I don’t think people are very impressed. There are too many writing courses cropping up in too many places and so many thousands of people are doing them every year that they don’t mean a lot in those terms.

      2 – Will having a qualification help you market yourself to readers? Eh. I’d personally put that in the same category as winning book prizes. I don’t know anybody who’s ever recommended a book to me on the grounds that it won a book prize. Not even the Booker. I don’t think most ordinary readers really care. (I say most – I’ve heard talk on the glorious internets of some people listing it among their relevant criteria in choosing books, but not often). I’ve certainly never heard of any reader being impressed by an author’s having graduated from some writing course or other – not even the MA at UEA. And I do talk books with a lot of people. I’m no authority here either, but I don’t think creative writing is the same as, say, taking up as a wedding dress designer and being able to say you graduated from a fashion design course. Readers are interested in the meat and bones of what you’re selling, not whether someone qualified you to write it. And that’s partly because the whole concept of creative writing courses is relatively new. I don’t think we’re used to thinking of authors in terms of whether or not they’re formally qualified, because you can’t really BE formally qualified as an author in the same way you can be formally qualified as a plumber or an electrician. The whole thing is too nebulous for that.

      I don’t think your boyfriend’s wrong to think in terms of qualifications. There’s no doubt that having a strong writer’s CV will help, but writer’s CVs are more likely to be composed of previous publishing credits. I know, it’s a vicious circle. You need publishing credits in order to get publishing credits. It’s like jobs requiring previous experience in order to allow you to get the job and gain experience. In both cases, I think it’s experience that you need, one way or another, not another set of certificates. I’ve just finished my second reputable course with a reputable Uni, but I don’t expect it to help me much in the ways you mention. I’ve been able to put such things on my cover letters for a while, and it hasn’t apparently made my submissions any more appealing to publishers.

      That was a really long reply. So sorry. The subject is an interesting one. The short version is: if you can get on the MA at UEA – and finish it – maybe it’ll help a lot. Otherwise, I think it’s better for most people to gain experience by doing. Read/write a lot more and, if your goal is to be published via traditional means, keep submitting.

      Thanks for raising those questions!

      • Nisha says:

        Hey thanks for taking the time to answer my question.
        I dont think I have the means to do an MA at UEA or any other prestigious Uni so I will take your advice (which were my sentiments from the start anyway) and do what matters: write.

      • Charlotte says:

        Hi Nisha, that sounds great to me. I’ll be following the same principle from here on out. Best of luck with it, and enjoy the writing part 😉

  • Dylan Fox says:

    Well, literary fiction types have a questionable attitude towards the genres: http://sciencefictionworld.com/books/science-fiction-books/417-why-science-fiction-authors-just-cant-win.html (tl;dr: if anything has any worth beyond being pulp, then it’s not genre any more and becomes literary).

    I did a BA in English with Creative Writing and graduated with a 2:1 ten years ago this year. I write genre. I wrote genre throughout the course, too, including my dissertation.

    Creative writing in a skill, and it can be taught. The problem is that most writers don’t want to learn (I was particularly bad, and only appreciate what I wasted in retrospect… always the way, eh?). Some of it stuck, though, and I became a far better writer for it.

    Learning creative writing is like learning any creative skill–take music, for example. You want to play guitar? You can be taught, if you’re willing to learn. You can be taught scales, progressions, chords, rhythms, finger picking, slide, alternate tunings. ‘Music’ is just putting all those bits together (like the bricks you mention).

    Just like with music, though, the only way to master it and discover your voice is to sit down and practice, practice, practice and then practice some more.

    Some people don’t need the lessons–there’s always a Jimi Hendrix out there. But that doesn’t mean the lessons are worthless and the skill can’t be taught.

    • Charlotte says:

      Hi Dylan, thank you for the comment and the article – wow, it might have been long but I loved it. How stunningly, and depressingly, true. My favourite part:

      “When I was 18 it was a genre as accepted as other genres,” he said, but recently “it is in a special room in book shops, bought by a special kind of person who has special weird things they go to and meet each other.”

      That’s a quote that defies belief on every possible level.

      Anyway, in response to your comment that writers don’t want to learn, I’d say also that tutors don’t really want to just teach it. Everyone seems to be pushing the same lit fic agenda. As I said in the post, the bricks-and-mortar techniques for building a story can certainly be taught, but they can – and should – be applied to storytelling in general, not just to turning out more perfect literary fiction writers. I’m pleased to hear that you got a lot out of your BA while writing genre. Did you encounter any attempts to push you in another direction – or to encourage you to do as some of the authors in the article are doing, that is to stuff the book full of lit fic conventions and then deny that it has anything to do with genre? I’m asking because I’m wondering whether this lit fic obsession is something that’s really developed in the last decade. I’ve been reading some articles recently that suggested the notion that it’s a relatively recent craze (not entirely, of course. We’ve had accepted ‘literary classics’ since forever, but to categorise some current authors as ‘literary’ and therefore above all the rest and exclusively deserving of major, life-changing prizes is a different type of thing).

      True indeed about practice. An important point about that is you do the practice in your own time and according to your own judgement, which is the only way to discover your own style. Trying to do it under someone else’s direction is soul destroying. So: if there’s a course somewhere that can get over itself about literary fiction and just teach the methodology, great. I’d love to hear about it. I got tired of being told in my assignment feedback that I did really well on the storytelling techniques but my style and content weren’t appropriate. If people really can’t teach a writing course without trying to control what people are writing about, then perhaps we need some genre writing courses to specifically teach people to write science fiction or romance. I think it’d be a shame to have to subdivide an essential craft to that extent, though.

      • Dylan Fox says:

        I guess my genre writing was tolerated a lot more than it sounds yours was. The interesting thing is that nearly everyone in the classes was writing genre. One of the modules I took was in ‘the novel’, and out of fifteen or sixteen people, only one person was planning a non-genre novel. There was certainly a push to literary fiction, but also an acceptance that you could take those techniques and use them in other places. Maybe the insistence on literary fic and only literary fic is a relativity recent thing.

        From the lecture’s point of view, it makes sense. The less variation in the student’s work, the easier it is to teach and the easier it is to mark. That would seem to suggest, to me at least, some kind of institutional pressure to deliver results above and beyond all else. So maybe you’re right: The teachers don’t want to teach (or they can’t, for some reason), they just want to tick the boxes.

        The methodology of writing are the same regardless of genre. It doesn’t matter if you play flamenco, blues, jazz or classical, it’s the same notes, the same chords, and there are the same problems and pitfalls. There are a few writing workshops in the UK, like alt-fiction (http://altfiction.co.uk/). And there’s Critters (http://critters.org/), which is an online writers workshop that’s very good. It would be such a shame to put genre into its own special room.

      • Charlotte says:

        Hi Dylan, thanks for getting back to me about this. I’m interested to hear that most of your class was composed of genre writers. Today it seems as though the majority are aiming at literary fiction, or they think they ought to be, or they’re pushed to be. Terrifically dull. Of course, lit fic has become its own genre by now so it makes even less sense to me that it’s viewed as so superior.

        I just submitted my final creative writing assignment and I was informed that the feedback I would receive would be minimal and not particularly individual. I will apparently receive a piece of paper with seven categories on it – including things like style, voice, language, etc – and I’ll receive a mark in each box. Literally box-ticking. I’ll only have vague idea what the invisible markers thought of the work, or why. This, I think, is evidence of your point – results above all else. Just getting the grades assigned, handed out and done with is the focus. Given that this final piece is worth 50% of my overall mark, I find this disappointing. One problem with the whole thing, perhaps, is that so many people are taking creative writing courses now – it has become so incredibly popular, for some reason – that staff are too pressured to be able to be particularly individualistic about any of it. And that defeats the purpose altogether.

        I noticed Critters recently and bookmarked it, I like the look of it. I’ll check out alt-fiction. I agree that it would be a shame to put genre in its own room, but at the moment it’s often being pushed out of the building altogether.

  • Darcknyt says:

    You know, I don’t think creative anything can be taught. Technique? Yeah, sure. Method? Yep. Structure? Oh yeah. But style? No, never, and never creativity.

    So, that’s my .02 of whatever currency you’d like to use. But it’s probably worth less after the exchange rate settles.

    • Charlotte says:

      That’s an interesting point, Darc. I wonder how it’s managed on arts courses, for example? Do they teach the techniques and leave students to create what they want? I think probably they do, from everything I’ve gathered from artist friends. At least they make a better effort at it. I wonder when writing became so pretentious as to have one fairly dogmatic ideal of ‘art’ pushed on everybody.

  • One of several reasons I didn’t get an English/Lit/Creative Writing degree in college was that I didn’t believe good writing could be taught. Correct grammar, usage, and structure and all, yes. But as to what constitutes good writing, or even great writing – it’s all so subjective that an academic study of technique seemed to me to be pretty ineffective. Writing, I reasoned, is a craft – and you learn and improve in a craft by doing. It helps to have someone experienced show you how to handle the basics, but once you’re out of the area of basic techniques and into the realm of using the techniques to create art… you just can’t teach that. You just have to practice it and do it yourself.

    For the most part, I still believe that. I do believe you can, theoretically, be taught things like understanding themes, archetypes, conventions, plot structures, and so on. But once you have the basics of writing down, none of these are things that you can’t just as effectively teach yourself for minimal financial investment. Spending money on it just doesn’t make sense to me – unless you need the degree itself for some purpose (like demonstrating your ability to teach the subject).

    • Charlotte says:

      I think you’re right, Stephen – it is pretty ineffective. Fundamentally so. As a student I can’t help resenting that the subjective preferences of the few are imposed upon the many – even without their necessarily meaning to. It’s hard to separate oneself from one’s opinions and be truly objective.

      I took the course because I was doing an English Literature degree and a creative writing option at Level 3 certainly appealed to me. I wouldn’t have done it without that motivation. At this point I only consider the money well spent because it will contribute towards my degree as a whole; as far as the creative writing goes I don’t think it helped me enough as a writer to justify the fee. You’re quite right that it’s as effective and less expensive to purchase some books and learn the technique by individual study, followed by a great deal of practice.

  • Damyanti says:

    Three years of writing, and a few stories published in anthologies later, I find myself longing for a creative writing course.

    I really feel it would give me a sense of craft, because I did get that in workshopping with published writers who asked me questions and set me thinking about my work, and also helped me edit my work in terms of show not tell, actives, not passives, foreshadowing, tricks for characterization and for choosing POV. Basics, but basics that helped me a lot.

    I live in a country that offers no established courses, and I don’t have a situation where I can apply for MFAs and MAs in other countries.

    Given those limitations, I’ve found that practicing, and following writing exercises and prompts from books by published authors can be a reasonable substitute.

    I’ve benefited from books like What if? by Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter, On Writing by Stephen King, 3 A.M Epiphany, and 4 am Breakthrough by Brian Kitley, From Where You Dream by Robert Olen Butler…not specifically following all their advice, but by picking and choosing exercises/tips and going at them on my own.

    And when it comes to learning creative writing, I feel nothing equals reading, as widely and as deeply as possible….even the best lit schools recommend a lot of reading…and of course, the most important of all, writing.

    So till I can get on to a course, I’ll do the best I can with what I know and can teach myself. And who knows, by the time I can afford a course, I might develop the confidence and craft not to need one!

    Sorry about that long comment, sort of got carried away 🙂

    • Charlotte says:

      Thanks for this comment, it’s interesting to hear from someone who is really enthusiastic about the idea of a creative writing course. I can agree that a well-structured course can help give some direction, guiding you through a constructive series of exercises and projects. If they’re any good at all, you can get at least a sprinkling of useful feedback out of it as well. You just have to be prepared to wade through the mass of obstructive opinion. I do think a lot of the benefits can be gained from following a writing coursebook meticulously.

      Your list of books looks pretty thorough. I like Stephen King’s ‘On Writing’ myself, though I haven’t heard of a couple of the others. I’ve also heard the books of Donald Maass praised quite enthusiastically, though I haven’t had chance to try them out for myself yet. If you do ever get to do a writing course, do share how it turns out. I hope it will prove much more useful to you than I found mine to be!

  • DarcsFalcon says:

    I think if creative writing could be taught, I’d be a published writer of fabulous fiction. I always wanted to be a writer, but long ago I realized I just don’t have what it takes, talent-wise. I understand the techniques, I know and understand grammar, am a whiz at spelling – I know tons about the craft of writing. But I can’t tell a story, or a joke, to save my life. That part you have to be born with.

    My perspective on it anyway! 🙂

    • Charlotte says:

      Hi Falcon, thanks for visiting! I hadn’t really thought about writing this way, but it makes sense because it’s how I feel about drawing. I would love to be able to draw but I just can’t. I could spend years practicing and taking classes and I’m pretty sure I’d never get any better than mediocre. On the other hand there are people who have an obvious gift for translating what their eye or (mind’s eye) sees onto the page. You’re quite right – that kind of inherent grasp can’t be taught by any method.

      In which case… here’s hoping I’m a born storyteller. Somehow it’s harder to tell with writing!

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