Naming Names, Savant and Prom Queen

Naming Names, Savant and Prom Queen
The jacket pics I designed for my completed novels

Saturday, 16 February 2013

The debate on Creative Writing courses continues to rage...


... 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.

12 comments:

  1. I can see sense in a course like this, it acts as a more focused and direct path for someone interested in a specific direction. But they can also be like giving a person a toolbox with a notebook that has each tools name and nothing else. Then the expectation is this person should, logically because they have the tools, be able to build a chest of drawers from scratch with nothing but a few choice pieces of raw dead tree.

    But then I'm currently undertaking an MA in Writing for Screen and Radio so what do I know? Yes now I know more on the subject and I have the confidence to approach a career as a writer with more sense in my head, but I could also learn all this by buying a few books from Amazon. And someone who is self-taught can produce a piece of work just as good as someone who paid a few thousand pounds to get the same information from a different horses mouth.

    The only difference I can think of is I get to meet people in the business and have better chances of successful networking. For example, by asking a guest lecturer nicely I now could be interviewing someone from the production staff of Being Human. Possibly the head of the production company with whom he is an old friend and colleague.

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  2. I actually have fewer issues the further up the education ladder the courses happen, so you're not generally my target. It is a very tricky business, though, I think, and there are already so many gaps in our education system at the primary and secondary levels.

    I'm all for returning to core subjects and teaching them better. This sort of diversification doesn't seem to me to be good for anyone.

    Good luck with the MA and I hope you get what you want at the end of it.

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    1. Thank you. I've already gotten a decent amount out of it. And these subjects occurring at the lower levels is also trouble for the teachers, who are all already being asked to multitask as it is.

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  3. Ros Jackson16 February 2013 17:31
    I think it was at FantasyCon 2010 when Jo Fletcher, then working at Gollancz, said something along the lines of "we have enough great writers". I'm pretty sure the situation hasn't changed. To get fiction traditionally published is hard enough, but only exceptional writers get to make a living at it.

    So teaching teenagers creative writing is about as useful as teaching them how to be a government minister, or how to deal with the media as a celebrity.

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    1. I'm not entirely sure how much I agree with the first part of that thought, but the idea encapsulated in the final sentence is, I think, entirely apposite, and, perhaps, a little bit genius. I rather wish I'd thought of it. Brava!

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  4. Well, I disagree with some of your points, but then this is one of the rare topics on which we do disagree! I home educated my children, and learned that you can teach anything through what excites you as a learner. My kids never picked up a reader or an 'educational' book to learn to read - they did so through Dr Who, or Warhammer, or animal books. An A level in Creative Writing would show how it was done, and through that, can lead people back into what was done: the literature that ultimately will build their skills as a writer and a reader. I don't do creative writing courses to learn how to write, extensive reading does that, but it tells me what to improve, what could be stronger, how I can produce the effect that I want. So, we disagree, but that's intelligent debate for you! Rx

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    1. And your half of the debate is, as always, intelligent.

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  5. Fantastic post, Nik! Expect a link from my blog soon. :-)

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    1. Hi Jon,

      I was at an event at the weekend that got me thinking about this subject again, and my mind remains unchanged. Funnily enough all the pro writers in the room all felt the same way. The discussion on the writers forum attached to the event is over here if you'd like a look: http://forum.seh.ox.ac.uk/viewtopic.php?f=25&t=5

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    2. By which I mean all the pro-writers left the room feeling the same way about what happened in the room, and not necessarily that they would all agree with what I've said in this post... just to be clear. Smiles.

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  6. I've done a BA and an MA in Creative Writing. I think these types of courses teach you to do a few things well - editing and redrafting, most notably. They give you a good means of judging your own work against that of other talented people (there are usually at least a few talented people on these courses).

    Did they help me network? Not really. Did I learn about the writing industry? Only a little, and nothing that I couldn't have figured out online. Do I regret taking them? The BA, no. The MA, yes. Irritatingly, my MA course was converted to a doctorate partway through, and the requirements of the existing MA courses were substantially reduced. I graduated for my MA alongside people who were a year behind me, and who had done literally a tenth of the work for the same qualification. Sigh.

    I saw some of those remedial grammar classes on my BA. But the sad truth is, they were necessary. While I didn't make any errors in my writing, certainly I couldn't attach the correct grammatical labels to everything. I only really became aware of the grammar of my own language when I learned a foreign language. By the by, I find this vastly improves your awareness of the subtleties of your own language. I highly recommend that writers become somewhat bilingual.

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