On Creative Writing Courses

Another day, another grumpy old writer proclaiming creative writing courses are rubbish and writing can’t be taught.

This time, it’s Hanif Kureishi. It seems I can’t go more than a few weeks at a time without stumbling over the same nonsense, albeit spewed from different mouths – now partly, that’s my fault for being plugged into the literary-arts cycle of blogs and papers. However, I’m getting real tired of seeing the same thoughtless drivel recycled. So rather than just be irritated and turn away, I figured I’d explain the value and purpose of creative writing programs, because if the thoughts of cranky old writers are anything to go by, they haven’t the faintest clue.

Considering I’ve been in no less than three creative writing programs, and I’m angling for a fourth, I think I’ve got more than enough experience to speak about this subject.

Where I’ve Studied

I completed a Bachelor of Arts in Communication (Writing & Cultural Studies) at the University of Technology, Sydney. During the course of that, I went on Exchange for a semester to the University of East Anglia, Norwich UK, host of a famous creative writing program, and most recently, I completed a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of Sydney.

Thankfully, I didn’t do all that back-to-back. I had a nearly three year gap between my BA and my Masters, in which I worked and travelled extensively. Now, I’m considering a third degree. You might be asking why, and if these courses are so helpful, what am I still doing in them? The answer is simple.

I’m An Idiot

I squandered my bachelor’s degree. I was taught the fundamentals of writing, from short stories to novels, from screen to sound and stage, and that training was essential. It was essential, but I was 17 when I began, and while I took it all in, I was your typical teenager: lazy and self-absorbed, more interested in drinking than building a credible portfolio of work or in networking with other writers and tutors.

I never really tried, throughout the course, because I was too used to coasting on ‘talent’, on my natural abilities, let’s say. Too used to waiting until the day before to just spit something half-decent out and get an okay grade for it. It wasn’t until I was working full time that I looked back and realised just how great an opportunity it was, and just how great a fool I’d been.

The False Premise

Most writers that criticise creative writing programs usually do so from a weirdly defensive position. They strike a pose and say, ‘It cannot teach you to be a writer!’ As though this was the conventional wisdom, as though anybody, anywhere, was promising that completing a course would ensure your publishing career. In fact, given the rather alarming rate at which authors do this (contrasted with the totally-opposing list of outstanding writers who’ve graduated from university programs), one can only assume they’re hearing this in their heads, all the time.

I have yet to be involved in, or even hear about, a writing program promising to turn you into Hemingway. Or Ulysses. Or anybody else. You know why? Because they’re often staffed by long-suffering editors or published writers – a sad reality (for which I’m grateful) is that most can’t live off their writing checks – and they tell you from the very first day that they can’t do anything of the sort. And you won’t make any money. And it’s going to be a very long time before you get anywhere. And you’d have to be mad to think you would anyway.

And you probably shouldn’t start your sentences with conjunctions.

But then, I’ve always been a little rebellious (and they also say, once you know what you’re doing, artistic license reigns).

How Most Courses Work & Why They’re Valuable

Most courses, and certainly the ones I’ve been involved in, work around a very simple structure of elective/compulsory theory or lit-history, coupled with a range of intensive workshops from screenplays, to poetry, creative non-fiction, and novels. This is where the magic happens. Having your work peer-reviewed under the supervision of experienced writers and poets is, as far as I’m concerned, a priceless experience for a beginning writer.

Deadlines keep you focused and productive, while the extensive reading lists and excerpts from your peers broaden your knowledge and understanding, while sharpening your analytic tools. Ideally, you’ll carry on this process. once you’ve graduated. Of course, that doesn’t always occur – it certainly didn’t with me. When I entered the workforce, I stopped writing. I didn’t take myself seriously enough as a writer, and I was terrified of actually putting my all behind the work because if I failed, that would be it. There’d be no excuses left.

I also found working 9-5 in a dreary transcription job left me dulled and empty at the end of the day, with absolutely zero desire to sit any longer at a desk or computer. It was two years before a Ray Bradbury speech inspired me to start a writing schedule with a weekly goal, to keep at it no matter what and develop the discipline necessary to survive in this line of work.

Once I did, I very quickly realised how far my skills had lapsed, and how far I really had to go. So I began considering whether to go back to uni, to re-engage and do it properly this time, I found myself asking, can I really afford to take this amount of debt on? It was daunting, but I thought, if I can’t back myself financially, I have no right to ask anyone else to either – like publishers for instance.

That determination was very important, and the resulting year was one of great growth both personally and professionally. I spoke up in classes, I engaged with the work, I connected with the writers and poets working at the university. Told them who I was and what I planned on doing, and actively enlisted their aid in accomplishing my goals.

While I was there, I stumbled across poetry. I’d always thought of it as my weakest art, and only took it on a whim, on the suggestion of a friend. Through it, I discovered my voice, and a whole new appreciation of the written word, a whole new prism through which to understand the mechanics of literature.

After the introductory workshop, I took up the Advanced Poetry unit the following semester, and my writing has gone from strength to strength. I have two poems due to be published in the next few months, and a third that was published last year while the course was on-going. A small start, but every bit of validation counts.

This is the other key aspect: writing while you work is incredibly lonely. You have to sacrifice a great deal, if not all of, your social life to manage to write substantially each week while working a full-time job. It’s draining in every sense of the word. Meeting fellow writers, people in a similar position, is a necessity. People who have felt the same crushing doubt, who are striving as hard as you, can make all the difference going forward. You keep each other upright, keep each other honest.

Informal writing groups can help in this regard as well, but they’re seldom as well-run, as dedicated and knowledgeable as those you’ll find in an established writing program.

A Third Degree?

Now that I’ve been writing poetry seriously for a year, and consider myself as much poet as writer, I’ve realised just how little I know about it. Last year wasn’t so much dipping a toe in the water as it was being shown the ocean after living in the desert all your life. I’ve read so little of it, I’m so far behind, and all I want to do is spend uninterrupted months exploring it and honing my craft. I can do it without an MFA, yes. I have the skills and the discipline, I believe.

It’ll just be so very much harder.

The top level MFA programs in the States support their writers. Most heavily subsidise or completely cover the cost of tuition, while also granting students an annual stipend. The result of which is two or more years in an academic and creatively stimulating environment among your peers, where you don’t have to worry about or be drained by work, and can refine your work. Basically, the best thing an MFA can provide a burgeoning writer is space and time.

They are invaluable.

The Iowa Writers Workshop, on its website, basically says it all:

Though we agree in part with the popular insistence that writing cannot be taught, we exist and proceed on the assumption that talent can be developed, and we see our possibilities and limitations as a school in that light. If one can “learn” to play the violin or to paint, one can “learn” to write, though no processes of externally induced training can ensure that one will do it well. Accordingly, the fact that the Workshop can claim as alumni nationally and internationally prominent poets, novelists, and short story writers is, we believe, more the result of what they brought here than of what they gained from us. We continue to look for the most promising talent in the country, in our conviction that writing cannot be taught but that writers can be encouraged.

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