Creative writing unplugged

Another article I wrote for Headstuff a couple of weeks ago, this time on the subject of creative writing courses: “I wanna tell you a story”, catchphrase of deceased English comedian Max Bygraves, is it also the primary motivation for students of creative writing?
According to the novelist and professor of creative writing Hanif Kureishi telling a story, or more specifically, sustaining interest throughout your story, can be something that is difficult to teach some students wasting their time studying creative writing. That Guardian article that precipitated a flurry of responses had the temerity to question whether teaching or learning creative writing was even possible. It also raised questions about the concept of ‘Talent’.
Taking one step back, who teaches such creative writing teachers? We all know lots of excellent drivers (not in that Rainman sense) that couldn’t teach you or I to drive to save their own life. Yet there appears the assumption that if you have written stuff somehow deemed popular or successful, i.e. published in print, then you can teach others to do the same. That same may be part of the problem which in turn can lead to some similar conventional and ultimately outmoded assumptions about a growing field. The most basic of which is the assumption that creative writing can and should be taught to all who desire it.

I assume you have sympathy of sorts for excellent teacher Hanif Kureishi; for many, writing isn’t easy, teaching isn’t easy either, teaching writing isn’t easy, talking about teaching writing isn’t even easy, thinking that talking about teaching writing to students without talent isn’t easy and it becomes just downright confusing for everyone irrespective of how much you’ve written. Something a writer shouldn’t do, don’t confuse the reader, even if the aforementioned assumptions are mostly thinking rather than actually writing based assumptions. Yes all writers are readers but we are also thinkers. Not all thinkers are talented. Language connects thinking and writing. If learning is a journey and not a literal destination maybe linguistic lessons lie at latitudes beyond reach of lazy writers.
I think I can write. I have been writing for more than thirty years. Eight years ago I signed up for a Master of Arts in creative writing. I knew I could tell a story. The primary reason I signed up, and successfully completed it btw, was because it was an M.A. in Creative Writing and New Media. I had spent several years in the electronics, theatre, multimedia and computer games industries, and I knew that technology was impacting and disrupting every facet of contemporary culture, including writing, storytelling, scriptwriting, narrative design, and most specifically what is often called the traditional publishing industry. I wanted to see what a research degree could tell me about the then current state of writing. I then spent a further (almost six calendar years) in full-time pursuit of a PhD in Creative Writing (Electronic Literature) here in Ireland. I hope you will assume I know something of this subject matter and understand why I now stop writing about me.

Another persistent assumption is that creative writing education is symbiotically linked to the traditional publishing Industry. As we know symbiosis refers to a system of mutual benefit. Without doubt, the print book industry does benefit greatly, it gets headspace, attention and cultural ambassadors of sorts, seemingly knowledgeable insiders who get to understand, at first hand, how difficult this writing and getting published can be for any writer. The writer as teacher gets a salary. The university gets the fees. Unless there is a module on ‘self-Publishing’ or perhaps a ‘circumventing the traditional routes’ lecture series, most creative writing students today exit that creative writing course with more knowledge, more understanding, more practise, more contacts, perhaps more frustrations about traditional publishing routes, whilst possibly less money, less idealism and more debt.
Grants and supports for creative writing degrees are pretty much non-existent in Ireland. Grants for writers in the current economic climate are merely Juvenalian jokes. We now understand why so many writing chancers view ‘My get yourself published seminar’ or ‘learn to write poetry workshops’ as little more than a potential cash cow. Many such writers can be the artistic equivalent of the proverbial seagull manager who swoops in, shits everywhere, and swoops out again. Any fly by night teaching does nothing for students, damages the field and obliterates real talent. The same old same old gets trotted out and few if any of these teachers have experience of contemporary issues within the field. (but that issue is another article in itself)

“There are talents in everyone, and it is the teacher’s role to develop them” says Will Buckingham on the Times Higher Education website in the UK. “Everyone has a novel in them and in most instances it should stay in them” is an obvious counter-opinion I’ve heard more than once from writers who also teach. It sounds almost left brain versus right brain stuff, which modern neuroscientists now believe is a false dichotomy anyway. Further common (& incorrect) assumptions can be employed to support a position on either side of that central debate. A debate that initially focused on the talent or otherwise of students by a novelist that has since received serious flack in the comments section. However as you may have by now surmised, in my own view it is more about quality and access to talented knowledgeable teachers and the offer of properly structured courses than the idea of passing judgement on the talents of students.

Let me quickly employ one opinion from another writer on this debate, T.S. Elliot the poet and critic: “Honest criticism and sensitive appreciation is directed not upon the poet but upon the poetry.” So substituting, teacher for poet and course for poem, should emphasis be placed on academically framed work measurements, tangible outputs, metrics as measures of success, KPI and other TLA academic admin mumbo jumbo speak? There was a very recent kick-up about just such a system being open to abuse by UK based Irish academics in this very field: Thus we might assume that the answer doesn’t lie in the application of a performance macro, mechanical reconfiguration or other forms of structural organizational templates, more appropriate would be some kind of quality assurance of the creative writing teachers themselves, should you teach something if you haven’t experienced that something yourself? Most print authors are the equivalent of industry participants or in some cases industry experts. Not all have the (additional) benefit of first-hand experience in creative writing workshops or classes.

Not that long ago print industry expert Martin Amis thought creative writing courses were the new mental hospitals. Tim Clare (whom until this debate I didn’t even know existed) titles his own blog post on this subject: “Can Creative Writing Be Taught? Not If Your Teacher’s A Prick”. Eye catching, (semi-) offensive, informative, and yet succinct. Like other opinionated writers and teachers Tim strings a series of historical events together peppered with some names of writers, adds anecdotes about his path to understanding his own writing talent, he tells his own story and it makes perfect sense in that context. It is also entertaining because he is obviously well practised and feels passionate about ideas, his talent, his subject, and his use and command of language.

It is also obvious that other passionate author-teachers who appeared in the guardian follow up article have similar views to Tim. Most of them espouse the merits of their respective courses while leaving sufficient room for some humility in respect of their students. These courses are no longer just about writing or how one might get published, they are centred on offering real information, engendering learning, instilling (the concept of) discipline, providing space for personal growth and growing and encouraging a command of craft. While the contribution from Gary Shteyngart is entertaining and clever I was drawn to something Philip Hensher says in that article:

“it's an obligation on a creative writing course to keep up with new work, and we’re investing not just in new work, but in new digital techniques for writing.”

In a creative and literate society that prides itself on the ubiquity of technology and the future promise of that technology I am genuinely surprised that creative writing hasn’t made it into at least the periphery of every technology course on offer today. I am also surprised that the opposite isn’t true either, that technology should get featured on all these courses too. So many modern projects today begin as writing, as we have seen writing is about ideas, form and content, ideas are worthless until implemented. Unless you can clearly express your idea it will never be understood let alone implemented. Maybe this can and will change in the near future.

What becomes clear in respect of some learning adventures in creative writing is that in many instances, “I wanna tell you a story” might well be as much part of the motivation for teachers of creative writing as for students. And really what better way to impart knowledge and information than the ancient method of telling someone a story about it.