Mslexia Feature – Creative Writing Courses

This feature was published in the Oct/Nov/Dec 2011 issue of Mslexia, the UK’s leading magazine for women writers. Order a back issue here!

There are three primary motives for doing a post-graduate degree in creative writing. They are: getting a qualification in order to teach creative writing; learning about the publishing business; and becoming a better and/or more successful writer. Unfortunately, creative writing programmes make no distinction between students who want to be the next Shakespeare and those who want to be the next Dan Brown; between aspiring teachers, and people who need help drafting a pitch. There is no logical reason why these students should be lumped together. It is a matter of convention and administrative convenience – and a recipe for dissatisfaction.

I did a Master’s in Creative Writing after a decade in journalism, because I wanted to improve my writing. My gut said if I wanted to write fiction I just needed to write fiction. But the lure of a qualification, with its implicit promise of employability, convinced me to forfeit a year of my life and several thousand pounds. My experience as a student illustrated the absurdity of trying to turn creative writing into an academic exercise. Writing can be learned, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it can be taught.

Workshop model
The centrepiece of all creative writing programmes is the workshop which, in theory, is an enlightened space where rough drafts become nascent masterpieces by means of peer review. Great literature is not written by committee, however. F Scott Fitzgerald rightly noted that ‘one has to rely in the end on his own judgement’. Critical feedback can be valuable, but workshops tend to bog down in irrelevancies. ‘You never get to the heart of a piece,’ says Patrick Holloway, a student at Glasgow University. ‘Everybody has to say something, so they say, “This doesn’t work for me”, or “I don’t like this line”, but that’s just personal taste. It takes away from what should be the heart of the discussion: What’s the piece trying to do and how does it do it?’

One-to-one tutorials are potentially more helpful, or at least less likely to degenerate into arguments over the use of italics, but they encourage a prescriptive approach to writing. Orwell writes that: ‘Every literary judgement consists in trumping up a set of rules to justify an instinctive preference.’ When instructors are obliged to coach their responses as instructions it leads to terrible nonsense, like one class discussion where a fellow student said, in all seriousness, that writers are ‘not supposed to use adverbs or adjectives’. I hoped our teacher would leap to the defence of the wild adverbial luxuriance of English, but she didn’t. Why would she? Creative writing courses have to justify their existence, and ever-increasing fees, by telling students something. Glib pronouncements are antithetical to learning, but they pass for teaching. The trouble is, the stuff writers really need to know can’t be taught, and admitting as much would be fatal to the current academic system.

There is no excuse for letting form rule function, though. Instead, creative writing courses need to figure out what is essential and how to help students access it. At a minimum, creative writers need: confidence, a solid grasp of English, discipline, problem-solving skills, literary resources, patience, and – above all – time.

Back to basics
Creativity demands confidence which has to be based in a profound appreciation of English. Computer programmes can correct grammar errors, but if a student doesn’t understand the basics of English how is she going to create something compelling? Unfortunately, the word ‘grammar’ raises hackles; students think it is old-fashioned and unnecessary. Being a good writer doesn’t necessarily mean sharing Gertrude Stein’s enthusiasm for diagramming sentences, though. Joan Didion, one of the finest sentence-smiths operating, admitted: ‘Grammar is a piano I play by ear… All I know about grammar is its infinite power.’

The goal isn’t to memorise linguistic formulae but to develop an understanding of the creative possibilities of language. That means reading, reading and more reading. Unfortunately it would be bad business for universities to tell students that the only thing they really need to become better writers is a library card; and a worrying number of students seem to think that reading will impinge on their writing. Mavis Gallant puts this notion firmly in its place in her essay ‘What Is Style?’: ‘I have never heard a professional writer of any quality… say he would not read this or that for fear of corrupting or affecting his own [style], but I have heard it from would-be writers and amateurs.’

If students are ever to be more than ‘would-be writers’ they must read, and creative writing courses should make it their business to supply fantastic literary resources. Students shouldn’t have to scrap over a single library copy of a novel, or traipse around town scouring second-hand stores for course texts. Anything assigned, or even recommended, by a tutor should be freely available to all the students. If that means handing out pre-loaded Kindles on the first day of term, so be it. Once they are armed with books, it is up to students to be disciplined, take risks, ignore advice and nurture their own creativity. A degree is no substitute for keen self-perception and the ability to work through difficulties.

‘When you hit a wall,’ Patti Smith advised, ‘just kick it down.’
Writing courses can offer encouragement, succour and space to think, but figuring out how to kick down walls is up to the individual. Hunter S Thompson tried to improve his prose style by typing The Great Gatsby; Ernest Hemingway said: ‘My working habits are simple: long periods of thinking, short periods of writing.’ As with grammar, there is no right way to teach problem solving skills, but they must be learned.

Individual challenges Perhaps the best thing universities can do is create challenges and leave students alone to work them out – an approach employed at Central Saint Martins, where fashion designer Ben Kirchhoff studied. ‘We didn’t have tutorials or anything like that,’ he says. ‘They just set us tasks and we had to figure things out our own way. People moaned but you ended up with very creative work.’

Time and patience are the crucial elements in transforming creative impulses into finished product. This means that writing courses need to shed the academic straitjacket and take a more relaxed approach. Creativity is not a horse that runs faster under the whip. Fitzgerald wrote to a friend that James Joyce was working twelve hours a day on Finnegan’s Wake and hoped to be finished in four years; it took Jonathan Franzen nine years to write Freedom. There is no need to cram a Master’s into a year. It is simply a matter of convention. Students should be allowed to use or misuse time at their discretion. No book or poem is better for being written in a rush.

In order to be truly useful, creative writing courses should be more flexible in terms of content and teaching, as well as time. Rather than offering one or two rigidly formatted programmes universities could act as facilitators for a kind of modern literary salon. Grades, which are pointless anyway, should be banned. Tutors should offer as many literary survey and composition courses as they care to lead, which would encourage students to read widely and allow them to spend more time with instructors they admire. For example, I would have happily taken half-a-dozen seminars with my course convenor, instead of the paltry one permitted by the schedule.

Courses for horses
There should also be ‘how-to’ courses for students who want to write commercial, genre, or children’s fiction, taught by writers in those fields. Finally, there need to be seminars on publishing, marketing, contracts and negotiation skills. But each part of the course should be self-contained, and students should be able to pick and choose freely, and proceed in their own time.

This would mean that students who want to earn an MA in order to teach could move quickly through the required elements, while would-be commercial fiction writers could learn the conventions of genre and how to tailor their writing to a particular market. Literature buffs, library geeks and indiscriminate lovers of words would be free to immerse themselves in books and literary culture, taking classes that satisfy their curiosity and feed their creative impulses. This pay-as-you-go approach would, if nothing else, force students to take responsibility for their own learning and find their own sense of direction – two skills no would-be writer can survive without. It would also liberate tutors from the pressure to teach and allow them to take the role of guide or mentor. This would make writing courses looser, even a little chaotic. They would be more reflective of writing than of academia. They might be less productive but ultimately they would be more creative. ■


HOW OTHER ARTS DO IT

Thinking about the teaching and learning of creative writing led me to wonder what the relationship is between education and inspiration in other arts. So I interviewed artists from two very different disciplines. Their conclusions were strikingly similar…
■ FASHION DESIGNER ’You can teach techniques but you can’t necessarily teach talent. You study to develop your taste, to learn how to become more yourself professionally. It took me 10 years to get to where I am, but I would have been a designer no matter what. Choosing your own path is hard, but it’s formative. The shit is horrible when you’re in it, but it makes you the person you are. When I was teaching I saw far too many kids who should never have enrolled in a fashion course. It might be brutal to reject students who don’t have talent, but it’s not something you can learn. People need to think about what they want to do, instead of being pressured to just do a degree. The whole point of doing a creative course is to encourage someone to be creative, not to give them a booklet that says: ‘this is how to be a designer.’ BENJAMIN KIRCHHOFF, from the award-winning design duo Meadham Kirchhoff

■ CONCERT PIANIST ’My best teachers were the ones who allowed me to find my own way of expressing things. Rather than teaching me tradition and the ‘right’ way they taught me to draw on what I already had, accept who I am, and build on that. Good teachers encourage discussion and new ideas.
Practice is essential, but you can’t play well if you don’t have the right sound image in your head. If I find myself struggling with a piece I have to step back, not play for a while, and try to understand it. Once you understand something you can figure out how to translate it. Sometimes it is more important to imagine what you want to achieve rather than playing it constantly.’
NATALIA WILLIAMS-WANDOCH, award-winning concert pianist

Editor’s Note
One of the things I’m regularly asked when I’m doing events is whether I think there’s any point in creative writing courses. My usual answer is that it depends on the institution, the tutors and the course itself. Because, as Cila Warncke says, writing can be learned but it can’t be taught. But what’s the best way to create fertile ground for learning? I wondered if it would be possible to explore that idea in this issue. And then, serendipitously we got Cila’s pitch. ‘I would like to write a feature for Mslexia on teaching and learning in creative writing, comparing it to the experiences and learning processes of artists in other disciplines such as dance, music and design,’ she wrote. ‘I am not convinced, based on my experience, that writing courses necessarily get the balance right between providing feedback and encouraging students to develop their own standards and methods. On one hand, writers are encouraged to be highly individual compared to, say, musicians who learn by repetition and immersion. Yet at the same time, students are expected to submit their writing to the examination of a random group of peers – a process which I argue is antithetical to fine art.’ Irresistible, really. And it shows how often synchronicity plays a key role in the writer’s world.
VAL MCDERMID, Best-selling author & Mslexia Guest Editor

Creative Writing Courses – What Are They Good For?

Discouraged by an aimless and effortful morning’s writing, I go browsing for inspiration. Perhaps the University of Iowa Writing Center will have some wisdom. Sure enough, the first words I encounter are so to-the-point that I check to make sure the author isn’t peering over my shoulder:

I’ve noticed three frequently recurring traps that beginning writers tend to fall into when developing characters:
[First] The narrator or protagonist of the story will often be a barely veiled version of the writer himself (in this situation, secondary characters will often also bear a close resemblance to real-life people from the writer’s life). The first problem with this is that the story tends to become autobiography dressed up as fiction.

I feel exposed, caught red-handed making up a story about someone who talks, moves, reads, dreams, and fails like I do; someone who has friends, a sister, parents, and a house like mine. Disgruntled, I go to the beach, take refuge in the lee of an abandoned boat and pull my sunhat over my face. Footsteps pad along the wooden promenade; a bike creaks past. The protagonist is a thinly disguised version of the writer. Unbidden, my brain chirps: so what? Like the final click of a combination lock, this thought is succeeded by a heavy door swinging silently open. A stream of ideas tumbles out, insistent. I sit up, fish around for a pen and notebook, and start channelling:

Is that a bad thing? First novels have to begin somewhere – why is the writer’s life a less-legitimate subject?


I’m propped awkwardly on one elbow, holding the sunhat in place with my left hand. F Scott Fitzgerald – This Side of Paradise, Mavis Gallant – When We Were Nearly Young, Martha Gellhorn – The Fall and Rise of Mrs Hapgood, Evelyn Waugh – Brideshead Revisited, J.D. Salinger – For Esme – With Love and Squalor. I could go on, and on, and on, listing magnificent fiction starring protagonists who are quite patently “barely veiled version[s] of the writer” and are, unapologetically, “autobiography dressed up as fiction.” Plainly the implicit criticism of autobiographical fiction is nonsense. Why would a writing teacher suggest otherwise?

I continue:

The problem with [creative writing] MFAs is they make you self-conscious before you should be. By telling you the stages of a writer’s development they make you want to skip through [them] but knowing and experiencing something are two different things. The self-consciousness doesn’t automatically make you better it just makes you self-conscious – this is only intermittently useful. Making dire blanket statements is lazy, and promotes the idea there is a formula to good writing – [an] ideology designed to keep people fearfully shelling out for MFAs. If I had it to do again I’d have paid off my credit card instead, or bought a round-the-world ticket and a Kindle and had something to write about.

The more I think about it, the more creative writing MAs seem like an audacious con. Writing is like having love affairs. You go through good, bad, ugly, heart-breaking, stupid, euphoric, and catastrophic iterations. You learn by doing, by making bad choices, by making good choices by accident and only recognising them as such in retrospect. There is a certain, limited amount you can absorb through studying the experience of others but, ultimately, when it’s you and the page, nothing anyone tells you is going to make your writing right. At best, you might start off being a little less wrong, but I imagine a good writer only gains a few metres competitive advantage by taking an MFA, and a bad writer will still be a bad writer – only armed with jargon.

If you wish to have a faculty for reading, read; if for writing, write…
if you wish to acquire a habit for anything, do the thing. – Epictetus

If there is a justification for teaching writing it is that most writers need deprogramming from the rest of their education. After a lifetime of rote learning, exam scores, grades, etc they need to rediscover the ability to not-much-give-a-fuck what anyone else thinks. They need to unlearn the habit of respect for authority. They need to trust their instinct and learn from the language itself. In The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas (a work of fiction U Iowa would presumably disparage) Gertrude Stein writes: “The English language was [my] medium and with the English language the task was to be achieved, the problem solved.”

A useful, necessary writing course is one that begins from the premise that great writing cannot be taught. Its function should be to protect writers – especially from excessive self-consciousness and self-criticism; to guide them around obvious pitfalls; and encourage them to write joyously, with increasing control and confidence. Good writers are invariably readers. They will absorb all the linguistic nutrients they need if they just stay rooted long enough. Writing courses should exist to give succor and space to think. Advice and writing exercises are only aids, toys for children to splash around with while they gain the strength to tackle deeper water.


NB: All of this is written with respect and appreciation for the wisdom and support of my creative writing tutors. Among other things they prompted me to read a number of excellent books based entirely on the authors’ lives and experiences.

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man – James Joyce
The Things We Used to Say – Natalia Ginzburg
Another Country – James Baldwin
To The Lighthouse – Virginia Woolf
Goodbye to Berlin – Christopher Isherwood
The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas – Gertrude Stein

Cold Snap

snow-blind

Yesterday, I huddled beside the espresso machine at work and watched plump snowflakes slather themselves across parked cars, fences, hoods, pushchairs, scaffolding and an abandoned bicycle. Thick and clotting like poured cream, it smoothed the glaciers creeping across pavements and drew lacy gloves over the trees’ naked fingers.

I step out prepared for impertinent cold to slap me and run away giggling. Impertinent was yesterday. A new beast wraps around my legs as if my jeans aren’t there and holds my hand like death. Five minutes later I fumble keys and wrestle the black steel portcullis. Each routine gesture has new significance. Muscles contract like tormented snails. If my stomach could hide behind my spine, it would. Nerves tremble at destiny. I am 60% water; I should freeze.

At minus 12 the condensed breath of the city is pinned, molecule by molecule, against the brittle milkblue sky. It is illusive-soft as a whorl of liquid nitrogen. Put your hand to it and flesh crackles as if in flame. We huddle in the cupped palms of this inhuman splendour. Twitch gluttonous eyes at the frosted parabola of a hill, the wink of an stalactite. Behind ice’s poor imitator, we burrow for warmth in slabs of chocolate cake, chase it in creamy coffee swirls.

Biblocafe Glasgow – writer’s delight

Posted by Cila Warncke

Biblocafe


I’m a sucker for books, and coffee, so it was a foregone conclusion I’d love book/coffee shop Biblocafe. Especially once I got to know owner Lou, a writer, first-rate raconteur and creator of addictive caffeinated treats. The Spicy Mocha Abyss is a liquid work of art, but even better are Lou’s ferociously funny dissections of everything from media theory to the latest neighbourhood gossip. I spend far too many waking hours at Biblocafe because I can plug in my laptop, write and not only will Lou not make ‘you’re taking up valuable seat-space’ faces but she refills drinks, offers wise, wry advice on writing and life, and lets me hang around chattering till well after chucking out time.

Food for Thought

Posted by Cila Warncke

After managing to avoid waitressing for, oh, 15 years, I have tumbled into restaurant-work like a full pint glass pitching off a wobbly tray. Catastrophe, right?

Yet, like the sound of smashing glass, strangely satisfying. It’s going to be messy. I’m going to hate myself, my colleagues and my customers on a regular basis, but there is a perverse joy too it. In the middle of a real rush waiting tables is like trying to put Jenga together, from the top, while someone pulls it apart from the bottom. There is the added frisson, in my new place, of the tables being nestled so closely I wind up swiveling between chairs like a drunk trying to line-dance. There are a dozen other delightful wee challenges. Tables too small to hold our giant pizza platters. A touch-screen computer you need a hammer to communicate with. Mountains of cutlery to be polished. Stairs strewn with laundry bags full of napkins, high chairs and random piles of crockery. Not least, there’s my inability to comprehend broad Glaswegian – especially when shouted by cooks.

The compensation is not the pay, which is rubbish, but the sense of being part of a large, harried, dysfunctional family that copes. This is what keeps people working in restaurants long after they could and should have found something better to do. Every day is a reenactment, in miniature, of the heroic quest: hope, strife, crisis, the struggle against odds, catharsis, and finally calm. It is conflict-drama-and-resolution, broken into shifts. Humanities students are particularly susceptible to the lure of this never-ending stories; hence why all restaurants are chock full of former English majors. We could get better, or certainly less strenuous jobs, but we can’t help falling in love with being involved in what is essentially a never-ending soap opera with added plates.

Glasgow Not Quite Fighting Fit

Posted by Cila Warncke

Two Scottish food groups


Experts say “The Scottish population seems to be living dangerously”. Unfortunately, not in a Aston-driving, sky-diving, lady-killing kinda way, a la favourite son Sean Connery. Instead, risk-taking Scottish style involves scoffing burgers, downing “the equivalent of 46 bottles of vodka each in a year”, smoking furiously and not taking any exercise (apart from walking to the offie).

Glasgow seems a poor place for a vegetarian long-distance runner to set up house, but this isn’t the first time I’ve spent in a city awash in cheap booze, bad food and hard drugs. I lived in Philadelphia for three years. If anything, West Philly is far less salubrious than the west end of Glasgow. If you wanted fresh veg there you had to go to the over-priced salad joint on campus. The only local supermarket was a hot, crowded, piss-scented emporium surrounded by iron bars. Grocery shopping usually meant going to the 7-11 on the corner and buying bagels, Kraft Singles, and breakfast cereal. The native delicacy is the Philly cheesesteak: fried steak, smothered in cheese, served up on foot-long baguettes drenched in mayonnaise. Makes Irn Bru ice cream floats look like health food. Glasgow, in fact, has health food stores. Within metres of my flat is an array of shops including Roots & Fruits and Waitrose where I can merrily fill my basket with fresh veg, oat milk (really), quinoa bars, posh olive oil, dense rye bread and all the things dear to my health-geek foodie heart. And you can go for a run here without worrying about crossfire, which is something of a luxury.

The difference: the west end of Glasgow is relatively upper-crust, West Philadelphia isn’t. The Glasgow University study reporting 97.5% of the Scottish population has at least one of five “major risk factors to health” – cigarette smoking, heavy alcohol consumption, poor diet, physical inactivity, and overweight – tersely notes “The most important determinants for multiple risk factors were low educational attainment and residence in our most deprived communities”.

Education is even more important than economics. Eating nutritiously is cheaper than eating processed food. I’ve fed five a homemade feast of sweet potato & cashew curry with rice, salad and chapatti for less than the price of a Supersize Big Mac meal. Yet people persist in thinking that eating well means spending big. A basic problem is that deprived areas lack access to fresh fruit and veg, or reasonably priced basics like rice, flour and pulses. Why? Because retailers don’t see a market there.

This is where education comes in: shop owners need to be educated that being poor doesn’t automatically mean wanting to live on crisps and cola. They need encouraged to open shops in poor neighbourhoods, otherwise people have no choice but to eat badly. Consumers need education too. Part of the problem is the machismo in British food culture. Men eat meat, salad is for girls, etc. Perhaps there is an argument for letting troglodytes who buy into that crap eat themselves into an early grave. But it wouldn’t hurt to get into schools and persuade the younger generation there is no glory in being a fat, wheezing, heart-attack-waiting-to-happen. If we (the government, parents, the medical community, volunteers, whoever has the opportunity to pitch in) could make that happen perhaps future health statistics won’t be quite so dire.