Some Reasons why Creative Writing Classes Might Actually Be Good Things

There’s been an outbreak of anti-Creative Writing Course rhetoric causing a few ripples in the UK. This most recent bit has been kicked off by comments allegedly made by Hanif Kureishi at the Bath Literature Festival a couple of weeks ago. Go read his comments (in the Independent, or the Guardian, whichever you prefer), and come back. I’ll wait.

“Waiting” by Graham Briggs

There have been the inevitable series of responses, both for, against, and more generally in response to Kureishi’s position (including a rather good letter from my old Prof at Glamorgan, Tony Curtis – and now I can’t find the damn link. Sorry). But having just finished teaching a three session Poetry 101 class, there are a couple of things that I think aren’t getting addressed here, and which strike me as actually rather important. But first, the disclaimer:

vested interest warning

Yes, I am part of the racket. Not only do I have a Creative Writing degree, I also teach Creative Writing. I make money from it. Most of my income in the last three or four years has come from teaching. To give you actual proportions, my income last year was:

1.3% from poems (publication fees),
1.6% from reviewing,
3% from readings (reading fees),
5% from judging (competitions),
7% from editing (poems for other people),
12% from mentoring
and everything else – 70% – from teaching poetry classes.

Actually the mentoring was done for Hagley Writers’s College, so technically that probably counts as CW income too – make it 82%. (And tax has been paid on all of it, thank you very much.)

So what I have to say needs to be understood as coming from a position of some partiality. (Although making money from teaching CW doesn’t seem to have stopped Hanif Kureishi from bagging it.) But it also comes from the position of having experienced it both as a student and as a teacher.

a from %22Inspiration” by William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905)1. Legitimacy, and the myth that Real Talent Will Find a Way.

I admit that I do have some qualms about a writing degree being offered at university level. But, actually, why not? We don’t protest about degrees in Fine Arts. Do we? We don’t mind if people want to study sculpture, or painting. We don’t insist that visual art ‘can’t be taught’. And we don’t expect every member of the class to become celebrated artists. Or even many of them. (Which is just as well – genius is a rare thing. And not always healthy.)

Doing a formal CW degree gives legitimacy to the time spent. It makes it a ‘real’ subject, something to be taken seriously by other people. It isn’t just a hobby like knitting or stamp collecting. Ok, I know the response to that – a real writer doesn’t need anyone else to give them legitimacy.


The truth of the matter is, that this attitude, like the ‘anyone with real drive, real talent, will find a way to make it happen’ argument, is bullshit. Dismissive bullshit. Yes, it may be true in some cases that you personally know of. Hooray. But if you want to examine them for yourself, I’m willing to bet two things:

1/ the people involved are male,
2/ someone else is looking after whatever family they have. Or they don’t have any.

Actually lets add a third and/or:
3/ they’re selfish bastards.

I know some of you will be rolling your eyes, and will immediately switch off on the basis that this is another feminist rant. It isn’t really, although there is definitely a feminist aspect to this, because in every class I’ve ever taught, or ever been part of, by far the biggest number of people are women, and usually middle-aged women.

I think a lot of people who sneer at writing classes, or who don’t sneer but do genuinely feel they are a bad thing, forget or just don’t appreciate how damn difficult it is to take a chunk of your life and invest it in writing. Especially if you’re female. Sorry darling, could you cook dinner tonight? I’m trying to finish this stanza. A really huge number of people don’t even know that this is an option, let alone an option that they can choose to take. And women especially are brought up to believe that they owe their families their virtually undivided attention. It’s just what is expected. Because that’s how we raise little girls: to be thoughtful, and considerate, and unselfish. And the truth is, becoming a writer requires you to be a bit of a bastard. Especially if you’re trying to do it on your own.

And so there are all these people – women and men – who are made to feel ashamed of wanting to pursue writing. (Especially poetry.) You know, it’s not like you’re a real writer. You’re not published or anything. It takes a lot of courage to look at the person saying that and say Not yet. But I will be.

A creative writing degree gives some legitimacy to those people’s aspirations. They’re paying actual money, to an actual academic institution, and doing actual study. Just getting in means (or should mean) that they’ve demonstrated enough ability to convince someone else that they aren’t wasting their time. It is a million times easier to say sorry, I have to finish this piece for uni – can you get the kids’ breakfast? than it is to say sorry, I have to finish this sonnet. Even when it’s the same thing.

And there’s also the somewhat depressing fact that you are much more likely to put in the work if you have someone else setting deadlines, or laying out a course of study. It’s always easier to do your homework than nebulously write something. (Or maybe that’s just me?) One thing that I hear from students again and again when I ask why they’ve signed up for one of my classes is that they otherwise can’t put aside time to write. Signing up to a course, paying money and having to turn up to a particular place at regular times, can be incredibly liberating.

b from %22Inspiration” by William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905)2. Cooking Classes, Skill Camps and Exclusivity

Let us suppose that everyone in the world wakes up today and tries to write a poem …

(Dean Young, The Art of Recklessness)

When I first read this, I had a mild panic attack. Frankly, if you ever judge a poetry competition or edit a magazine you’ll be faced with the conclusion that everybody is already trying – unsuccessfully – to write poems. One of Kureishi’s main issues seemed to be that most of his students had no talent. Which may be true – I suspect most creative writing teachers all too well know that sinking feeling you get when you are confronted with someone who is eager as hell but who couldn’t write a decent shopping list. And it’s getting worse: getting ‘published’ has become easier and easier, and the rise of e-books means that the crappiest writers on the planet can upload their ramblings to an e-publisher and become ‘authors’ without ever having anyone suggesting that their literacy skills might need a bit of work. We’ve all seen them. And it’s incredibly depressing. I too wish to haul the wagons into a circle and start housing some arrows in deserving posteriors. We are drowning in crap.

But that’s actually something that creative writing classes can do something about. But first we need to note a bit of elitism going on. (For the record: I think elite is good: something to aspire to being part of. An uplifting concept. Elitism is something that polices boundaries, and is more concerned with preventing elevation. It’s a single-eyebrow-raising thing.) While it would be lovely to think that the only people in a creative writing class will be talented, it just ain’t gonna happen. There are’t enough of them out there. But that’s ok. Because it isn’t only about them.

Since when have we restricted study to the brilliant? What’s wrong with teaching everybody who wants to learn what a sonnet is, how it works, and how to appreciate a good one? Even if they never manage to write a real live poem, the hands-on practice means that they’ll be better readers. Maybe they’ll continue to dabble. Get published in little magazines that cater to beginners. Where is the harm to poetry from that?

An example. I live in a country where rugby union is the national religion. People really do give a damn, and a huge number of people invest astonishingly large amounts of time and energy and emotion in following the fortunes of their teams. The idea of one day playing in an All-Black trial is one of those aspirational things for adolescent boys. (And girls, although they dream about the Black Ferns. Substitute your own national or other preference.) Every weekend there are thousands of people all over this country playing rugby, at every possible level. Many of them are incredibly crap at it. Most of them, probably. And yet the All Blacks seem to be doing just fine. Coaching clinics give people who are good, bad or indifferent the chance to learn new skills, or maybe just to meet some of their idols. People who couldn’t kick a goal to save themselves. People who would rather drop the ball and run away than be part of a maul. People who have no talent whatsoever. And some who do. They pay money, turn up, take part. All of this goes on, and the game survives. Actually it’s usually thought to be because of this that the game thrives here. It’s called grass roots support. It’s not just that people are willing to pay to see it being done by the big guns. It’s because so many people either have done or still do dabble in it. Which makes it theirs, just as much as it belongs to the elite. And because they’ve tried it, they understand and appreciate the skills that go in to the work of the top guys and gals. And when the team selection seems to be becoming a bit too broad, a bit undiscerning, there are howls of protest. The general population is rugby literate, and invested in the game. And it thrives.

I want to live in a society that is poetry-literate. Who don’t feel frightened by the idea of poetry, or fear that reading poetry equates to being forced to dissect a poem for an exam, or that listening to poetry means eighteen hours of tedious dribble. Who don’t think writing it is silly or pathetic or weird. A country where people know the difference between good writing and bad, and care about the distinction. That’s the best defense against the rising tide of crap writing. More people knowing the difference, and believing that it’s relevant to their lives. More wiling and able bodies along the ramparts.

c from %22Inspiration” by William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905)3. Finally, some shorter points.

What about dishonesty? Courses that dangle the promise of becoming a published writer when they can’t possible think everyone who signs up either will be or should be? Yep, this one is a bugger. Realistically, courses probably need to either:
a. only take people whose work genuinely is definitely publishable (or only needs a little polishing to become so);
b. stop suggesting that publication is a likely (or even desirable) outcome.
(I was going to say that there is an element of ‘buyer beware’ here, and that students needed to be realistic. But if you apply to a high-powered course and get in, it is completely reasonable that you should expect this to mean that your work is either already very good, or shows some quite special promise. I guess you could always ask for details of the success rates of previous students. Or, if you really think everyone else in your class is rubbish, express your disquiet to the course organiser and suggest a refund. If you’re right, you deserve that, and an apology. If you’re wrong, you probably shouldn’t be in this class anyway.)

Another reason for signing up to a creative writing course is the networking aspect. It is a great way of getting to meet writers whose work you admire. (Presumably you wouldn’t be going to their course if you thought their work was rubbish …) And not just the tutors – I’ve made quite a few friendships as a result of classes. Writing is a lonely occupation. Meeting other writers in a controlled setting can be a godsend. (Especially if you aren’t good at post-reading mingling …)

And the third reason is one that critics tend to gloss over: time. They save time. They teach you the basic skills that definitely and demonstrably can be taught. The fundamental, nuts-and-bolts donkey-work of good writing. Some of it you’ll know already, some you’ll need to be reminded of. Some of it you may have had a vague feeling about, but never been able to formulate before And some of it will be new. And where a creative writing class beats self-instruction every time is that you have a real person in front of you, who you can ask questions of. I know critics say that workshopping is poem-by-committee (it isn’t, if you have a spine), and that all those competing voices drown out individual thought. But they certainly don’t have to. In a good class, they won’t. Quite the opposite – you get fascinating discussions, that tease out aspects of whatever it is you’re looking at that no teacher could ever timetable, and no writing instruction manual could even think of committing to paper. Those discussions are what make any sort of being-taught a worthwhile experience. And they occur in creative writing classes at least as often as in any other subject. You’ll walk away from the course with a real grounding in the fundamentals of your genre. You’ll save yourself so much time. And you’ll need it, if you’re going to reach your potential. Whatever that may be.

I’ll leave the summary to Stephen Fry (from ‘The Ode Less Travelled’). I don’t agree with everything he says about poetry, by any means, but this bit definitely gets my nod:

I believe poetry is a primal impulse with us all … Do you give up the Sunday kick-around because you’ll never be Thierry Henry? Of course not. That would be pathologically vain. We don’t stop talking about how the world might be better just because we’ll never be Prime Minister. We are all politicians. We are all artists. … Talent is inborn, but technique is learned. I write … as a way of speaking to myself. But most of all for pleasure.

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