I have now tried twice to write about creative writing courses, and twice I have failed. I have failed because I don’t see the value of an undergraduate degree in the subject.
I read Danuta Kean’s blog about choosing a creative writing course, and I thought it very good, and still I couldn’t find a way to write on the subject, despite wanting to.
I know lots of writers who belong to groups and who go on writers’ retreats, and who love this aspect of the writing process. I get it, and I think it has some value, despite not actually wanting to do it myself. I don’t play well with others, except those I know intimately, and then I can collaborate all over the place and have a wonderful time.
I also know lots of people who have completed or are studying for MAs in creative writing. Again, I wouldn’t do it, but I understand why people do. Some people find it hard to impose structure on themselves, some need a little external pressure or encouragement, and some simply want to learn more about publishing, and that’s fine. The other reason that it’s fine is because it implies the student already has some formal education, probably a degree, and the whole point of an undergraduate degree, as far as I’m concerned, is to teach the student to think.
My real issue is with the BA in creative writing.
Getting an education is an expensive business. I’m glad I did my degree in Eng Lit and History (in those days we simply called it English, because by the time we got to university we were expected to understand how the language part worked... We’d had formal grammar lessons and everything!). However, I did embark on a fine art degree a few years ago, so I do have some idea how this works now, and, in particular, how the system works for the mature student.
My fears are these: The mature student will not pick and choose his degree, as Danuta Kean so wisely suggests, because of location. Many mature students are already well-established in their homes and probably have families and other commitments, so moving to somewhere that has a good degree course on offer might not be an option.
Criteria for mature students going back into education seem to be nebulous at best. The academic requirements for a mature student to qualify for any course can be virtually non-existent. In a worthy attempt to make themselves inclusive, courses often have students with a perilously broad range of abilities; the natural consequence of this is that the group functions at the attainment level of the least able. On my degree course, I found that I was learning alongside mature students who were functionally illiterate. Literacy might not seem crucial to success for a fine art degree, but I believe that it is. I found that the worked produced often lacked intellectual rigor and seemed to have little cultural relevance, both important in the arts. Despite being very fond of most of my classmates, I nevertheless found the entire process frustrating.
There is also the knotty problem of teaching. I have looked at a number of short creative writing courses with a view to broadening my own horizons, and found that the people teaching them, when I checked a little deeper, were less qualified to be taking the class than I was, and that some visiting speakers were self-published or had not been published at all. It might yet be a decade or two before teachers of creative writing themselves have specific qualifications in the field.
The whole thing seems rather troublesome, but I think, for those who want to write, there might be a simpler solution than finding an undergraduate creative writing course. My advice would be to study English Literature. If you have any talent, reading widely and learning to be critical will only increase your chances of becoming a better writer, and any decent degree course will teach you to think. If you’re a writer, you ought to be writing any way, and, if you’re really, serious, buy yourself a decent grammar primer and study that, too.