Saturday 31 March 2012

Why creative writing at university?

Why not just go and hide in the hills in a cosy cottage and pour your soul into your work? Why not painstakingly learn the craft in the evenings, at weekends and even on holiday whilst you hold down the day job. Those serious about it succeed in the end if they persist. It’s a big if, of course. The serious writer had to learn to cope with rejection, to keep going when the ideas run thin and to keep faith when the writing seems bad. It’s not easy. Those who persist get there in the end. The writers who have taken this route are by no means inferior to – nor indeed superior to those who choose to learn within the academy.   
Our undergraduates come to us largely unskilled. They mainly have good A-levels, including something in English, sometimes  English Language but more often English Literature, some mature students and a very few young ones will have a portfolio of writing and perhaps have completed an access course and most students will not have done any creative writing since infant school. Masters students tend to have either a BA in Creative Writing or portfolio of work, including some that is published.
I have to admit to seeing a remarkable growth in our students in their time with us. Even though they spend as much time as any student in coffee and other bars they are probably still quite immersed in the writer’s world. They have to read and write before each class. We give them plenty of food for thought in the seminars. We offer them many suggestions about which books they might read on the subject. Generally these books are much more than “How To” manuals. They are much deeper.
We teach our students to reflect critically about their work. That is probably the crucial point. The same rigour that must be used in literary criticism has to be applied to how they look at their own work. Yes, they must have some regard for craft. But they must also begin to become aware of their own creative process and their own strengths and weaknesses. We encourage a cycle of action research – experiment, evaluate, adjust, experiment again. We teach our students to be robust, unafraid of criticism and gracious about praise. They also learn how to identify what makes their text work or not. Is it perhaps the rigour involved in all of this that puts them on such a steep learning curve?
Whatever it that we’re doing right – and we’re still not sure - the transformation that happens between level 4 Semester 1 and level 6 Semester 2 is immensely satisfying. Perhaps they already have that commitment that makes them capable of coping with the big if.                              


  1. I wonder why someone who has not written anything since infant school would decide to do a degree in creative writing? What a bizarre thing to do! It would be like choosing biology when you have never bothered to look at any animals, or engineering without ever riding a bike or taking something apart. How do people know it is what they want to do if they have never tried it?

    Just curious....

  2. There is not currently an A-level in Creative Writing. Little is taught beyond infant school. Often, as a visiting writer in schools, I teach a little creative writing and can’t understand why the students’ own teachers can’t / won’t but they don’t. I’m guessing curriculum doesn’t allow space. One of my colleagues and I regularly deliver CPD to school teachers or go into schools an teach directly to give students a flavour. They enjoy it, then come to uni for more. Some mature students have a portfolio and our mature students begin at about 23 / 24. We have a lot of “young” mature students. Or they write as a hobby. They have had no formal instruction in creative writing.