... in my mind, at least.
I’ve talked about creative writing courses before, most notably over here.
A writer friend of mine was coming to the end of his MA in Creative Writing when he was offered his first publishing contract. It was, if memory serves, for three genre novels, and remuneration was in the high five figure bracket. Not bad going. He chose not to talk about the deal, or couldn’t while the contract was agreed, I don’t remember which. Anyway, to qualify for a first in his degree, his work was required to be of a standard worthy of publication. The work, in this instance was the novel that had got him the publishing contract.
The contract was not announced until after the degree was marked. My friend was awarded a second class degree by an examiner who had not published a novel for over twenty years.
Awarding marks at any level is going to be difficult when the work is open to subjective appraisal, but that isn’t really my worry.
My worry is that I’ve just learned that an A’level in Creative Writing has been proposed.
When I was a teenager, the last thing I wanted to do was share my work with a class of other teenagers and with an English teacher assigned to me at random. I wanted to shout and scream, and rant and rave. I wanted to diarise and theorise. I wanted to conjure with ideas and contradict myself. What I didn’t want to do was expose myself. I did write, and I did share some of that writing with one of my teachers, but the choice of teacher was mine and all of the activity was extra-curricula.
My English lessons were about what they were supposed to be about, they were about reading and deconstructing, and trying to understand themes and ideas, and language and rhythm. They were about structure and grammar. For crying out loud, at seventeen I was studying Chaucer and Shakespeare, and Austen and Stoppard, and Pope and Larkin, and I was getting it. I had learned about pace and sub-plot and characterisation, and I knew the names for various poetic forms and how to identify them. At fourteen I was conversant in the use of the semi-colon, brackets, speech-marks and the ellipsis, and I knew how to vary the lengths of sentences and how to paragraph effectively.
I wonder what else I might have needed to know at that stage to become a decent writer. At seventeen I had some pretty effective tools at my disposal. What else might I need? The will to write and a fertile imagination are pretty good starting points for most beginners.
When I learn now that some universities taking students onto their English Literature degree courses are beginning their first years with remedial grammar, I am aghast. I am more aghast when I hear that those same educators are advocating for an A’level in Creative Writing. Why not teach a better English Language A’level instead, or a GCSE for that matter. When I learn that Chaucer and Shakespeare are no longer taught at GCSE because they are considered too difficult to tackle, and yet the educators too daunted by some of the greatest writers in the English language are advocating for a school-based qualification in Creative Writing, I am aghast, and I am more aghast when it crosses my mind that teachers who have no experience of writing expect to be able to teach that course.
Are we going to put a writer in every school that wishes to teach a Creative Writing A’level? If that’s the plan, how is it to be achieved? I look around at Creative Writing courses, which pop up all over the place, at all levels of ability, and few of the teachers offering their services appear, to me at least, to be qualified for the task.
Creative Writing students take up places on these courses to become writers, by which they invariably mean that they want to earn a living from writing. Trust me, that isn’t going to happen for the vast majority of them. People who want to write better letters, or keep a coherent diary, people who want to write better business papers, or better scientific reports, should probably be taking English language courses. Hell, they might even be able to get what they need by reading a decent English primer, and save themselves a lump of time and cash in the process. People who want to write for their own pleasure could simply learn more by reading more, or by taking a literature course.
Creative Writing courses are new. Not having them in the past didn’t stop any of our great writers becoming what they were meant to be. Not having a decent education is an impediment to being anything at all, so could we work on that first, please? Thanks, that’d be great.