The old debate continues: can you teach creative writing and in particular can you teach it at university level? I think you can and I do. Every year we see several students achieve publication and many more writing at publishable level or beyond. They say it takes 10,000 hours working on your craft to get there. Our conscientious students will have spent about 3,000 as part of their course, though I suspect the more successful ones spend a good deal more on their writing. However, they probably do not achieve 10,000 hours whilst they’re with us, and except for a few mature students who have been writing for some time, they probably don’t even achieve this if one adds in what they do in their own time.
Our programme is a dual hons programme and the other half of the degree is English. It is perhaps here that they are introduced to critical rigour. They learn to use an appropriate tone in their writing and apply academic rigour to their arguments.
So, perhaps it is the critical reflection that we demand that makes all the difference. But what do we actually mean by critical reflection?
All writers are reflective. There is no doubt about that. We all engage in a constant cycle of action research. We write and edit, the work goes out into the world, we get reactions from our readers, we evaluate our work with this added insight, we adapt the way we write and we write again. I’m suggesting, however, that it goes deeper at HE level. How does that work?
We demand critically reflective works from our students. On almost all of our creative modules they have to produce a writer’s reflection, a self-assessment, an annotated bibliography and drafts of their work. At least one of these added elements is required in every single module. Students are awarded marks for reflection and writerly research. Those who get the higher marks in these areas apply the same academic rigour to their observations as they would in any close reading or essay about literature. The writer’s reflection can discuss influences and writing process and may even argue against what has been taught. To get good marks the student must illustrate and extend the argument. The self-assessment allows the student to show how their own writing fits into the bigger picture and here the student identifies her own next steps. The annotated bibliography shows how the student understands texts she has read – both primary and secondary – and good marks are obtained when the student shows a critical understanding of them. The difference here between the English literature student and the creative wiring one is that the latter is reading as a writer not merely as a reader. The drafts show a creative process. As the student selects and annotates the drafts to submit they develop an awareness of their own process and can apply to that process a similar cycle of action research to that applied to writing.
The fees and accumulated debt probably also help. Even if the student spends a lot of her time in the bars and coffee shops and chats to her flat mates into the small hours, this writing is serious business and the focus remains on it. The student identifies herself with it. It defines her.