Thursday, January 06, 2011

Faber Academy discussion on creative writing: Sue Gee's view


What's the point of writing? Why do we do it? And what's the point of teaching it? Is there any point in teaching it?

All the time on the web we talk about writing but these are the radical questions we rarely ask. Faber Academy is now asking them, and I'm delighted to host the discussion they've instigated, and to introduce the first of two pieces from the leaders of the upcoming Faber Academy course Getting Started. Marcel Theroux will contribute next week, and today's post comes from Sue Gee (left). Sue is the author of several acclaimed novels including the Orange Prize long-listed The Mysteries of Glass (Headline) and a forthcoming collection of short stories (Salt). Here's Sue:


'In the end, it's just you and the page.'

It was Ishiguro who said that, in a radio broadcast some years ago, and no writer ever put it better. But why should we seek that musing solitude? What is the point of creative writing?

As with any other creative activity, I would say that there is simply nothing else in life which offers what such an endeavour can: a secret life coursing through your bloodstream, an entry into another world. In writing, whether alone with the page or screen - and when you're away from them too, just thinking - it's the wrestle with words, finding the voice - that style which is right for your material. It's an engagement with something which is both mysterious and visceral, operating both in the mind and in the gut; something which both takes you away from yourself and demands that you engage yourself at the deepest level.

No one ever said it was easy - you often struggle with despair. But when it does come right, the reward is a joy like no other: the feeling of touching the real thing at last.

I actually have a bit of a problem with the term 'creative writing', and I don't think I'm alone in this. How many writers describe themselves as 'creative writers'? I don't know any. None the less, 'creative writing' has come to be associated with writing fiction, and the big question is then: But can it be taught? (No one ever asks this of painting, or sculpture, or musical composition, you notice.)

Broadly speaking, I think teachers of the art, craft and development of writing fiction - the short story and the novel - divide into two camps. The first contains those who see it as their job to generate ideas: to give exercises which will help students find material they might not otherwise have done: a psychological/emotional approach. The second, which is where I mostly locate myself, assumes that students will come to class with their own ideas, and that the tutor's task - through examples and exercises - is to offer technique, editing, appraisal. Of course they do cross over, but my experience from the first Getting Started course is that students who arrived saying that they had never written any fiction, and didn't know where to begin, had by the end developed work as original, memorable and strong as any I have encountered in many years of teaching.

A good creative writing class will inspire, nurture, develop. It will send you away to that quiet communion with the page; it will bring you back to encourage, to look for what is best in what you've written and see how you can make it better still.

Writing fiction can take you over - and if you're serious about it, it should. The short story and the novel, in their different ways, can go anywhere, and tell the profoundest truths about what it means to be human. Writing fiction can nourish, extend and excite - once you've found what you want to work on, just thinking about it can make you happy. But as someone once said: Thinking about writing is not writing. Talking about writing is not writing. Only writing is writing.

That's where everything happens.



Thank you to Sue for this. Your own views on the issues will be most welcome and in
a later post Sue and Marcel will be happy to answer questions raised on the comments thread. You can also discuss the issues on Twitter on #whywrite.

38 comments:

Dan Holloway said...

I think probably people started using the term "creative" because almost everyone "writes" every day but that isn't what we mean by "writing" - whereas most people don't sculpt or paint whilst doing their day job. From that innocent beginning, though, all kinds of fancies and dogmas have arisen.

It's interesting what you say about the two camps. I ran a course at a bookstore in oxford last year, and what I found, like you, was that most people came with some kind of idea but no idea how that could be worked into a story, or whether it was sufficient to bear a story. I wonder - the question bit, whether you think it is worth exploring, early on, some kind of distinction between short fiction and novels in the context of what kind of initial ideas are suitable for each? When I was an eager teenager, I kept starting novels only to get stuck because the story had, essentially, finished. I'm not sure how it happened, but these days (many many years of trial and error later) I tend to know, when an idea pops into my head, where I should file it - flash, short, novella, or novel. But I'm not sure what knowledge the trial and error has given me, and it would be very useful for a new writer to be able to make this kind of decision. How do you approach the question? Theoretically, or by letting people experiment and find that a short story won't work because the idea is too complex etc?

Vanessa Gebbie said...

Great topic - thank you E and thank you to Sue Gee for a great starting post.

I dont really know, on reflection what 'creative writing' means. Surely, when we write anything we are creating something? A letter, a summons, a shopping list. Maybe it should be called 'making things up and writing them down'. Only thats doesnt sound snappy, and anyway some journalists do it all the time.

I like the way Sue divides creative writing tutors into two camps - the idea freers and the technicians. Maybe a very good tutor does both. I try to.
Craft will always underpin what I do as both writer and tutor. The ideas/creative spark - harder to define the sources... harder to 'teach'. But being able to 'give permission' to create something, when the writer themselves is assailed by the demons, in this world where so much external noise is criticism too, is the real gift.

litrefs said...

Let me throw in some quotes from The Author is Not Dead, Merely Somewhere Else by Michelene Wandor

"If CW were to disappear tomorrow, it would make no difference to literature, though it would affect the bank balances of many writer-teachers"

"In today's 'how-to' CW books, there is an uncomfortable slide from the unteachable genius to the teaching of imaginative writing as - in effect - a form of therapy. The tone of many books is uncomfortably patronising, using a form of address which is very similar to registers appropriate for talking to very young children"

She dislikes "CW's persistent hostility to, and rejection of, anything remotely resembling historical, critical and theoretical study" (p.224) and thinks that "for imaginative writing to be taught effectively, teachers and students need to make a decisive break with the impossible ideology of CW as caught in the double bind of the Romantic/therapy axis" (p.174)

She seems to think that the way CW started in the UK means that it's less well grounded academically (compared with the US experience).

Sue Guiney said...

It's great that you are hosting this fascinating discussion. In my own teaching I have found that the best I can do is help students access what it is inside them that they need and want to express. Access is the key word here. then, when they have found it, there are "tricks of the trade" which I can pass on that can make their writing more polished. If I can teach that, then that is quite a lot. As far as calling it "creative writing" - well, people seem to need terminology. This term works as well as any other, although I never actually say that that is what I do.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Very interesting comments, folks. It seems to me that there are an awful lot of threads that need teasing out when we come to talk of teaching 'creative writing' (or whatever we want to all it).

Sue does make an interesting and useful distinction between two different teaching methods and aims. I haven't yet sorted all of this out, but I wonder, does the first possibly dovetail Michelene Wandor's concept of therapy? Because we could ask, What makes a professional writer? does it involve the kind of personality that doesn't need that kind of encouragement? I'm an educator at heart and I don't like even writing that, but do sometimes think it takes a great deal of grit to be a professional writer, and if we're fitting people to be professionals when we teach, rather than just providing therapy...Or maybe we should be just providing therapy? People go to the guy round the corner learn the guitar to play in their own living rooms after all...

But then I think the big unspoken secret of the creative writing 'industry' is that most people go on creative writing courses in the hope or expectation of becoming professional writers, and I think far too many are taken on without this being acknowledged, and in the vague (again unspoken) justification of providing some kind of therapy...

Anonymous said...

It seems to be generally understood that creative writing as a teaching/learning process is all about literary fiction - and that it's terribly, terribly serious. Elizabeth's comment about the unspoken desire to be a professional writer is something I recognise from my experience of hanging out with serial-creative-writing-course-attendees.

But why so precious? People can pick up a guitar or tinkle away at piano, and take lessons in same, without being expected to make music their career or principal passion.

If the explosion of writing on the internet shows us anything it's that many people have a yen to play with words and arrange them into pleasing shapes just for the hell of it.

That's the attitude I took with me to the Getting Started course last year - one of play rather than reverence. I've no desire to be a professional writer.

As for the therapeutic aspect of creative writing courses... that's something for the pub after class has finished.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Yes, I thought after I wrote the above that I should have made a distinction between therapy and just doing something for pleasure, which of course playing the guitar in your own living room etc can be.

jimgraham said...

Trying to find an answer to the question, What’s the point of creative writing? is like trying to answer the question ‘What is the point of Art?’

There is no answer; just a shuffling and a jostling of ideas in the zeitgeist as suits the economics and politics of the period about which any point is being made.

Often, if there is an answer, the point of creative writing, like all art (Aesthetics), is to ‘transmit the culture’, ‘express what it’s like,’ and it largely depends on who pays as to who gets seen, heard or read.

The point of creative writing courses is like asking what’s the point of any course in any subject and in a way, what’s the point of Education? To which there is an answer.

The point of education is to indoctrinate into the ways and methods, the ideologies and conventions of a society and to enable students to learn to think and question those conventions. Often in practice, and at it’s best, it does both.

Education, even when we were back in the cave, was needed in order for people to survive. Copying the hunting and prepping of food being number one. (It’s no accident Jamie Oliver is in the bestsellers). You couldn’t ‘live’ without a basic education.

This has changed, we’ve evolved. Nowadays people also go on courses just for the fun of it. Enjoyment and fun should also be the part of any contemporary education. If it’s dreary, self righteous, vague or selling hope and potential there is no point. A good creative writing course is above all else, practical.

So. The point of creative 'writing' is to transmit the culture and the point of creative 'writing courses' is four fold:

1. to indoctrinate you into the practical methods of producing ‘work’
2. to provide stimulus for you to question and innovate those methods
3. to pass on experience and knowledge so that you might earn a living from it
4. and, these days, after so much evolution, to have fun.

JG

Ian Ellard said...

I like the different approaches that JG and Pinda have taken, and I think I agree with both. Creative writing on a personal level should be about enjoyment and, re Creative Writing Courses, I think the guitar lesson analogy is a good one. It is perfectly possible to enjoy playing the guitar without ever having a lesson, and it is also possible to get very good at it (cue lots of examples I'm sure). But a lot of people get a great deal out of having lessons, too. They achieve more than they would without lessons, and free up more opportunities to play -- in bands, live on stage, open-mic, whatever. I guess, on a personal level, creative writers come in a million different forms, some of whom will flourish with no tuition, some with self-tuition and some with organised tuition.
As for creative writing on a societal level, JG makes a compelling point about representing the culture. All personal responses to stimuli will represent the society their written in, and we learn so much from those communications that come from other cultures. Homer is as relevant, societally as Martin Amis, as they both represent their own culture in a personal way. I guess you just have to know what you're looking for.

I guess, ultimately, the thing is that the question 'What's the point of creative writing?' operates both internally and externally -- what's the point for me? vs What's the point for culture/history/humanity? And maybe one answer to that question is inherent in that dichotomy: the point of creative writing is to put ourselves at that crossroads, between the internal and the external, between the personal and the historical.

BarbaraS said...

Good to see this topic being aired. I've never been comfortable with the term 'Creative Writing' - it works, I guess, as a catch-all for all the genres of writing, but it still makes me squirm, as though it is a lesser entity - a little like that other catch-all term 'Chick Lit' - which I detest.

As for the teaching of it, having been a practitioner in this end of things, it is my goal to be an enabler: allowing people to pursue whatever ends they wish to gain from the course they undertake and giving them the means to do so: whether through giving strategies or simply the confidence to pursue an idea to it's end.

It's hard to pin down these tenets in so small a space (in my mind), but having been on both sides of the teaching divide, I can definitely say that it has improved my own work-practices, and those of whom I was lucky enough to be able to pass on some of those hard-earned strategies. Most of what I've seen, seems to boil down to a confidence in what you can do, within and without the CW framework.

adele said...

This is going to be a fascinating discussion with the comments as interesting as the posts that prompt them. But just in response to Dan Holloway: Whenever I do any 'workshops' with children, I always tell them that the very first thing you have to do is recognize what kind of creature it is you're dealing with: poem, short short story, novella, novel, trilogy of novels etc and I give them ways of recognizing what each one has about it which makes it different from the others etc. I'm sure that any technical help one can give or get from such classes is a help to one's writing. I wish I had my old English teacher on tap with her comments and red pen....she always ended up improving what I'd written, often just by deleting adjectives! Can't wait for the next instalment!

Elizabeth Baines said...

Adel, I have my old English teacher on my shoulder every time I write!!

Re the guitar anthology, on second thoughts I'm not quite sure it works altogether - or indeed, the painting and sculpture ones. Isn't writing more of a communication thing than the others (it's possible to sit privately enjoying the sound of your guitar or the sight of your painting, but is it really possible just to enjoy your words privately: aren't they inherently meant for communication and that writing thus inherently involves a stronger need for public recognition/professionalisation than the other arts? Or is this just the idea of someone (me) who simply can't bear the thought of not sharing what she's written, and as widely as possible? Pinda, do you feel differently?

Richard Lea said...

Interesting thoughts. I've always been struck by the similarities and differences between teaching creative writing and, say, composition. I don't think anyone would suggest there's any problem with Beethoven taking lessons from Haydn, or Zemlinsky from Brahms, but as soon as we get to writers we get all bashful (see McEwan's "long uphill struggle" to persuade people he "didn’t do a creative writing course” etc etc).

The financial aspects - for students, teachers and indeed institutions - also very interesting ...

Elizabeth Baines said...

I meant the guitar analogy, of course!!! Though come to think of it, a guitar anthology might be interesting...

Ian Ellard said...

I think Richard's point draws on what Pinda was saying -- there is a tendency for certain parts of the literary establishment to be either disdainful or bashful of the idea of teaching people to write. The big surprise there, I think, is Martin Amis, with his MA up in Manchester. But, as you say, Richard, in the haughtiest of traditions, classical music, apprenticeship and structured learning have played a crucial role for centuries. Perhaps it's to do with the way that writing has been taught in the past -- by rote, learning where the commas go, and who's best at the third person, rather than trying to free up the student's own voice so that they can write. Perhaps everyone needs to lighten up -- writing isn't just for those few tortured souls to express their innermost turmoils: it's a giggle and it's a challenge.. so why not?

Rish said...

Hello; I'm currently doing some poetry shenanigans at the Faber Academy, so hopefully I can bring a slightly different perspective to this fantastically lucid discussion:

1) My day job is in advertising, and there we take a more prosaic view of creativity and creative writing - we are employed to be creative on others' behalf. Part of what you learn is that you have to do it every day. Inspiration is teasingly linked to perspiration; the more you work at your craft, the better you get. If courses and schools allow you to do that, even better.

2) I was struck by what @Dan said about people writing every day, and the implication that people don't call that 'writing'. My view is that we should, and celebrate this - why shouldn't a memo be as well crafted as a sonnet? Implying that 'creative writing' only applies to some forms and genres I think is discouraging - you write, you create. And so you should treat *everything* you write as a creative act.

Anonymous said...

Elizabeth, you're right about the guitar analogy falling down - I suppose (if one were honest) playing the guitar to oneself for pleasure is more akin to reading than writing. Particularly if playing a song written by someone else rather than an original composition.

So CW must be about communication/an audience of some kind, otherwise there'd be no need for written language. Perhaps the crucial thing is the idea being expressed in the writing - I'm happy to have small, informal outlets for written expression because I like playing with a notion in words and moving on. But the effort involved in writing a novel that really means something (to oneself and ideally to others) is whole orders of magnitude bigger... such a long, lonely road needs the odd signpost (recognition/criticism/professionalisation) and resting place.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Yes, and this links with Richard's point about composition, which is a better analogy.

jimgraham said...

Running with the guitar thing. I used to be in a band, we gigged a lot around London. I can tell you there is a distinct difference between playing the guitar - or any instrument - for yourself and playing for an audience.

And so with creative writing.

If you want to write professionally the levels of focus, of discipline, of scale and practice are completely different from writing for yourself.

It’s the difference also, if I may, between having sex with yourself and having sex with someone else.

And of course, both are fun.

However, I agree with Rish’s ‘memo sonnet’ idea, right there, that’s the cross over. Nice.

JG

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

Also, if one does sit down with the intention of writing a novel (one particular subsection of creative writing) one can't really escape the fact that the art-form has for most of its existence been public and professional (rather than personal, folk or private). That knowledge in itself must have a bearing on one's need/desire to connect with writing professionals like CW teachers.

S J Watson said...

This is a fascinating discussion! I completed the first Faber Academy 'Writing a Novel' course, in 2009, and it quite literally changed my life - the book I was working on during that course has now sold to publishers in over 30 countries around the world. My story can therefore be read as evidence that creative writing courses are (or can be) successful (though I have no doubt that there will be some who read my book and take the opposite view!) - and I hope that my perspective might be interesting, at least.

I have always written. The reasons why are many and varied and I've never really examined my motives too closely. Certainly it's not always fun (Atwood's 'wrestling a greased pig in the dark' strikes a chord) and yet sometimes, when everything is flowing, there is no feeling like it. It just seems to be something I need to do, as much as anything in order to learn about myself, to make sense of my world. What (or, more accurately, who) are we without narrative, after all? And surely fiction (which is what I assume we mean by 'creative writing') can get nearer the truth than anything else.

But, while I've always written, I haven't always been very good at it. My first attempts at fiction were juvenile, amateurish. But then, I'm not alone in this. I don't believe any creator of fiction wrote at the peak of their ability from day one. That isn't how it works. We learn our craft. We start off clumsy, we make mistakes, and in the early days we don't always recognise them as such. But the only way to learn is by doing it, so we practice. We improve. And then, if we stick with it, at some point we start to get a glimpse of our potential, of how good we could one day become. We see the mountaintop above us and get eager to reach it sooner.

That's what happened to me. I wrote for pleasure (though not always for the pleasure of writing), then, eventually, began to see that, perhaps, I had something to say. Something that other people might want to read. I wrote more, and more often. felt myself getting better. And as I did I felt myself growing into the person I wanted to be.

So, if I felt my writing was improving anyway, why did I do the course at The Faber Academy? I suppose it was to see whether I could accelerate that process. To start to realise my potential sooner. Unlike some, I don't believe that creative writing courses produce a stream of formulaic writers who have had their originality bludgeoned out of them. I believe they offer, as Sue said, "technique, editing, appraisal". They (or certainly the one I did) help a writer to realise his or her potential earlier. I can't ski, but if I found myself on top of a mountain with a pair of skis in my hand I'd eventually find my way to the bottom of the slope. Give me a tutor, though, someone who can ski, who can show me the mistakes I'm making, tell me how to turn, and stop, and so on, and you can guarantee I'll make it down the slope much sooner, and with far fewer broken bones. But I'm still free to choose which mountains to ski down, what routes to take, and whether, next time, I fancy trying it backwards or with my eyes closed.

So now I'm in the unbelievably fortunate position of having my book published around the world, of being able, for a little while at least, to earn a living from writing. But creating fiction is no more important to me now than it was before I did the course. I'm no more a writer now than I was then (even if it does feel a little easier for me to call myself one in public). I write today for the same reason I did when I was twelve years old - because I love it. Because it excites, fascinates and intrigues me, and because I feel more connected to myself and the world when I write.

Leo Benedictus said...

I don't mean to be an appalling self-promoter (or not only one, at least) but I've been reading this thread with interest as I have written a long article in the current issue of Prospect magazine that attempts to answer this exact question.

The conclusion I came to is that some technical aspects of creative writing can certainly be taught. (It is easy to explain how one escapes from the pluperfect that begins a flashback, for instance.) To be a good writer, however, one has to master so many of these little tricks that no course could possibly make an important difference. Reading and practising over many years really is the only way. Indeed, from speaking to successful writers who did courses, I'd say that it is striking how little effect it had on their technique. For instance, and contrary to popular belief, Ian McEwan, though he attended UEA's first course in 1970, learned nothing about writing from it. (Literally nothing. It was just a tiny module attached to an EngLit MA then, with no teaching.)

Instead, I'd say that writing courses function more like X-Factor than the Royal College - as identifiers and promoters of talent, rather than creators of it. People mostly teach themselves on courses, which give them time, and then the better ones have some prestige (and perhaps a prize) to attract an agent with. A hint of this can be found in the site of Britain and America's most prestigious courses: Iowa and UEA. These are two provincial universities with very little reputation in other fields (climate change leaks aside), yet they were the first in their countries to offer creative writing courses. As a result, they had a crucial advantage in attracting all the best students to begin with, which helped establish their reputations, which helped them attract the best students, which confirms their reputation... and so on. Even today, they still produce by far the most successful graduates, and no amount of high-quality teaching at bigger universities has ever changed this.

Right. That's me done.

My article is here, in case you're interested. Although, for now, you have to be a Prospect subscriber to read it. http://bit.ly/eRnz42

JO said...

This is fascinating. I'm chipping in as a 'consumer' or creative writing courses - I write because I love it, and want to learn how to do it better. And can see that there are differences in the way facilitators approach teaching - on the receiving end I simply soak up what I'm offered, then take it home and think about where it might take me.

But - my finances are limited, and so I need to be discriminating when looking at courses and conferences. It would help me if more tutors could be specific about their goals - for instance, I worked as a therapist with troubled children for decades, and definitely don't need a course that meanders into therapy.

In fact, I'd even go so far as to say that some courses open wounds in circumstances that leave people vulnerable and without the ongoing support they need. CW teachers are not therapists; it's not their role and they need to assume that participants have the resources to look after themselves; I wish that were always true.

Anonymous said...

Hi, I found this via Twitter and find it very interesting.

Two years ago I took an MA in Creative Writing at the University of London, Birkbeck. It is not the most established or prestigious of courses, but I took it with the understanding it would offer me the space and time to write.

Before I started, I looked to see if any of the alumni had been published. A couple had, but, to be fair, most of them would have been published regardless of taking the course or not.

I believe MACWs are good if you are on the verge of publication - such as Iowa Writers Workshop students in the 1970s - but not if you are just starting out. In fact, I would urge people not to take them if they are.

Why? Because they are totally destructive and soul-destroying. I say this as someone who has confidence in my writing, that has had good comments said about it, and know it has potential - I am not someone who can't take criticism, but the deluge which greets you on such courses is astounding.

Rick Moody (author of The Ice Storm) has spoken well about this elsewhere, and claims mentorship is a better pathway for aspiring novelists. I agree, as one-to-one help from an actual writer, as opposed to a collection of amateurs in a workshop setting, many never going on to be published, is so, so much more constructive, realistic and informative. After all, they are the people truly in the know - they are professional writers.

I have no idea of why the workshop has become the default setting for CW courses. It is meant to foster growth by looking at other amateurs' mistakes with leadership and hand-holding by the professional writer. But the reality, and what I found on my course, is that people have such loaded opinions that they can't see the wheat from the chaff. And the writers leading them are shouted down, ignored and so concerned about causing offense, that they rarely actually give sound advice to those that need it.

Crazy comments on my course included gems such as 'you can't write about fathers and children, your bourgeois idea of the family is totally redundant.' and 'I don't think you can write properly, this is a waste of my and everybodies time. You need to sit down and learn the basics of the English language, why are these sentences and paragraphs so long?' (to, what I believe, is a now published writer).

The problem stems from the quality of those that get onto the courses, which is often pretty low. The story which got me on, was, in my own opinion, not really good enough. There is no quality control, no development and little face to face time with tutors.

If you want to do a CW course, take up one of the mentorship programmes.

Harriet said...

Getting Started was the first creative writing course I've attended, and I took part in that because I wanted to see if I could actually break a deadlock within myself and start writing. Call it therapy if you will, but the result of completing the exercises set by my tutor (Marcel) gave me the confidence to start to write from my own imagination. I'm now doing a year-long certificate in writing a novel at City, which is providing me with the structure and the discipline to be now well into the process of writing my first novel. I agree with Pinda's point; it is a lonely exercise, and I like the encouragement that is provided by my participation on the course.

It's also caused me to consider more carefully aspects such as narrative approach and dialogue: straightforward, I always thought, having read extensively, until I actually came to write and found that I drew a blank as how actually to address those aspects.

Of course I have a dream of becoming a professional writer, but neither course made me any guarantee that this will happen. They have both provided me with an opportunity to make it just that little more likely that I might, though. And regardless of that, I'm really enjoying writing, and seeing my idea develop in ways I would never have anticipated.

Some things within writing can be taught, and some can't - it's exactly the same as teaching music. Someone can become an extremely competent musician through dexterity and determination alone, but without musicianship there will always be something fundamental missing. No creative writing course will create Tolstoy where he is not, but might find one or two Tolstoys along the way, while providing all the non-Tolstoys with a supportive environment in which they can enjoy putting words together, perhaps more melodiously than they could before.

Harriet said...

I'm not trying to suggest I'm Tolstoy, incidentally. Far from it. But I am enjoying myself, though.

Virginia Moffatt said...

Hi - this is a great discussion.

I write because I love to write and I have to write. I write to tell the stories that I have to tell, the stories I hope people will want to read.

For many years I resisted the idea that writing could be taught. But in the end, I decided I wanted to be the best I could be. And that to do that I had to take my writing seriously.

I've done one 2 year academic creative writing course and 1 Faber Weekend. I'm inclined to agree with Leo Benedictus that while I picked up some useful tips on fiction writing, the main learning was in just doing it, and sharing with other writers who took it seriously. I did get frustrated by the academic course, which I felt constrained all of us into a pretty unhelpful marking regime, but it certainly helped me make writing a discipline.

I do feel I learnt about myself as a writer in the two years & the Faber course clarified what I had learnt (as well as being a lot of fun and in a great location at Shakespeare and Co in Paris). But I think I've learnt as much in the last year by being part of a regular on-line writing community called #fridayflash. Hopefully, the more I write, the better I get.

And, of course, the best teachers are the writers I love, who show me how they did it, every time I pick up one of their books. I hope one day someone will say that about one of mine!

litrefs said...

A fascinating discussion. As well as the difference perspectives of tutors and pupils, we've seeing the difference kinds of CW courses - from weekend finding-yourself retreats through evening classes to degree/PhD courses. Self-financing courses are one thing, but I don't know if I don't my taxes to go towards people you are in search of themselves. Sorry.

As I mentioned on Sally Zigmond's blog, Art and Music colleges have a long pedigree and are more or less accepted by society. Writers degrees are less established (no more respected than poets are nowadays), and aren't always respected even by other academics (aren't they just ways to keep EngLit lecturers in work now that lit student numbers are shrinking?). The "writing as therapy" aim is rather hard to justify in the current economic climate.

Someone said that writing should be about communication and that society needs trained communicators. I think that educators are aware of this, and aspects of CW appear in non-CW courses. I know of science and medical courses where there's an exposition module and access to writers-in-residence.

S J Watson said...

I think Virginia makes a good point with her comment: "But I think I've learnt as much in the last year by being part of a regular on-line writing community called #fridayflash. Hopefully, the more I write, the better I get."

I think that's the point - the more you write the better you get. For some the best thing about a creative writing course is that it gets you writing, forces you into a discipline.

To stretch my skiiing analogy even further towards the point where it snaps and smacks me in the face, a creative writing course can get you out there, on the slope, when you'd rather sit by the fire with a hot chocolate complaining that it's cold outside and you'd rather go tomorrow.

SJW

Adrian Slatcher said...

Going back to Sue's original comments, I think there probably needs to be a distinction between a creative writing course, and an MA. I realise its not always the case, such is the proliferation of the latter, but an MA (or even some of the short Arvon type courses) is clearly aimed at those who are already writing. I'd be surprised if their role was to help a writer "generate ideas" - though, the reading element of such courses (which some of my fellow students baulked against) can be very helpful in analysing useful models, particularly for a novel. I attended a symposium in Norwich a couple of years ago, where writers were discussing this very subject. Most were published writers who also worked in universities in some capacity. Two points stuck out: first, that the "over production" of Creative Writing graduates is something that should be looked at - why is this? Clearly not everyone is going to be a published writer. But secondly, that the spirit of creative inquiry that takes place (or shoudl take place) on an MA or equivalent (similar to a Masters in art or film)is actually a transferable skill. In other words, creative writing, as taught, should not necessarily be seen as a step to being a professional writer. That the courses are advertised as such is another matter. There were writers from India and elsewhere at the course, and the Creative Writing MA was seen as a very US/UK phenomonen - but in a very positive light; that aforementioned sense of creative enquiry.

My own thoughts, over a decade since I studied on my MA, is that theres a catch-all element to these courses, where commercial and avant garde writers might be cheek and jowl, when I'm as unlikely to buy a Dan Brown novel as friends would be to buy a Martin Amis. This "all writing" (and "all reading") is a good thing approach seems to be inevitable, yet doesn't really reflect our own thoughts and tastes as readers (or writers.) Creative writing should be a mature enough discipline these days to be more diverse in its teaching than I perceive it currently is.

jimgraham said...

No not everyone will be a published writer. Agreed.

I imagine that some students of Creative Writing MA's will go on to be, or are, agent's readers, publishing editors, script consultants, commissioning editors, artistic directors, critics etc etc etc.

However some courses are targetted. Faber's for example.

"Writing a Novel From Start to Finish: a practical, workshop-based course for dedicated writers, covering all aspects of novel writing from first ideas for a book through character development, plotting and structure, to re-writing and ultimately publication."

The education market is as broad as any other and niche's such as Faber's are not in the same place as say UEA's MA where the students may not necassarily to go onto publication but into 'the arts' more generally.

The point of the Faber CW course is clearly targetted at writing Novelists.


JG
It's not

jg said...

dunno what that 'It's not' is doing there!

Jim Murdoch said...

I think that thinking about writing is vastly important. More than once I’ve sat down and tried to write before I’ve got things clear in my head and I’ve wasted my time. I’ve always likened writing to weight training: you take in food, digest it, exercise, rest and repeat. Anyone who skips any one of those steps will suffer in some way. Likewise with writing: you research, think about how you’re going to use the research, write, rest and repeat. I'm using research in a very broad sense. I'll be sitting watching TV and someone will say something, I'll make a note of it and work it into whatever I'm writing the next day.

Art Durkee said...

In my experience, writers seem to have real tunnel vision about themselves and their craft. Being someone who is in involved with writing and who is also a composer, I see this tunnel-vision all too often. Sometimes I feel that writers can be really immature narcissists, who need to get out more, thinking they have it much worse than all the other arts.

Because the idea that no one ever asks these same questions of painters, composers, or, say, dance choreographers, is laughably wrong.

These are the questions creatives in ALL artforms get asked, and ask themselves. The assumption that only (creative) writers have to deal with these questions is at best ignorant, and at worst ahistorically ignorant.

The other ridiculous bit of ignorance that writers seem to have about musicians in particular is that musicians don't practice or work in solitude. Writers fail to make the distinction between music composition and music performance. Music performance at a café or bar or concert hall is done in some sort of relationship to an audience, and to other musicians, that's true. But most musical composition, except for improvisation which can be thought of as spontaneous composition, takes place at home, in relative solitude.

Composers sit at the piano, or guitar, or whatever, writing their new music, usually in solitude, before presenting it to the rest of the world, or their bandmates. Writing in solitude as a composer is very much like writing in solitude as a poet—and the end result is a notated piece of music, or a memorized piece of music that one can teach others.

Another pet peeve of mine in these sorts of discussions: Writers often make the claim all the time that their artform is somehow more abstract than all the others, because it's based on wrods, which after all abstract signifiers of the real. But instrumental music is a heck of a lot more abstract than writing, precisely because it's non-verbal, non-narrative, and once the music is done being played, it evaporates back into the aether.

So the basic idea that "creative writing" is somehow different in terms of its issues and its questions from the other arts, is bunk.

Carrillion said...

I think Art is absolutely right. Although many bloggers disagree and elevate 'writing' out of the earthly realm of creating music, art etc... (i.e. http://artoffiction.blogspot.com/2011/01/paradox-of-writer.html)

I thought I'd also add the somewhat obvious point perhaps that even collaborations are essentially a lonely or individual act of creation. That is, the thoughts still occur within oneself - not in some ethereal collective subconscious born of both collaborators.

No. At the end of the day, man (and woman) interacts with the universe by themselves.

As Conrad says:
"We live as we dream - alone."

Elizabeth Baines said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Neezes said...

I agree with some of what Art Durkee said, but I also think that sort of attitude can apply to any artist - I have observed it in visual artists of my acquaintance.

Music is perhaps slightly different in that it is taught from a young age, and nobody is in any doubt that practice, hard work and the learning of key skills are necessary before any 'art' is going to be possible.

Partly because of the way writing is (not) taught in schools, a lot of beginner writers seem to have misconceptions about the amount of work required to do it well.

It may also be a misconception of the word 'creativity' - as if this means that all you need is to swim about in your own imagination and something wonderful is bound to result!

Neezes
http://wordingtheimage.blogspot.com/