If you’re an aspiring writer, should you do a degree, or an MA or MFA in creative writing?
There are now hundreds of creative writing courses, undergraduate degrees, MFA’s and MA’s being offered by American and English universities. Are they worth it?
There comes a time in most writer’s lives where they find themselves scanning University websites, searching for a creative writing course that will polish their native genius to untarnished brilliance. Why? What is it that motivates this quest?
Well, I think I can tell you. I’m a product of the UK university creative writing system and have lived and worked in it most of my life. I now run the Creative Writing Programme as an independent college and am no longer part of the academic system. As a result, I consider myself and the writers I work with to be in a much better place.
Forty odd years ago I applied to Malcolm Bradbury’s MA in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia. What motivated me? Here is a list of my hopes and aspirations and an account of the actual experience.
Firstly, I had the rather naïve idea that being accepted would be a recognition of my talent – that I would be part of a select community. Bradbury’s MA was, at the time, one of the first to be offered in the UK and, like the Harvard MFA, had real literary cachet.
The thought that I could finally share my uncontainable enthusiasm for writing with like-minded people was a great pull. On top of that I wanted to be challenged, to be qualified, to be recognised … Oh, yeah, and I wanted to learn how to write.
And that was the first big disappointment. There was no teaching of creative writing. Zero. It was simply assumed we could all write. There was a lot of teaching of LITERATURE. The great man (… and Bradbury was impressive) would extemporise long lectures on Modernism. They were mind-blowing in their breadth and, at first, we hung on his every word.
Until of course, we realised, that all the literary theory in the world was not going to teach us how to create a first person, present tense narrator, or to swerve narrative viewpoints in the middle of a scene from one character to another, or to learn how to write for the reader and not for ourselves.
It was like being on the raft of the Medusa. We clung to ourselves for support and managed to salvage something from the wreckage. We taught each other to write, commenting as best we could on each other’s work, eating and socialising together and we were fortunate to have the writer Rose Tremain as one of our tutors. Rose managed to inject some writerly reality into our workshops.
There is a LOT of literary theory in an MA or MFA in creative writing
As Bradbury and the other academics intoned in the background we prepared for our EXAMS. We crammed it in: Structuralist theory, Post-Structuralist theory, Deconstructionism … the ‘isms’ were endless. All the time muttering under our breath about the lost opportunity to get on with our writing.
It wasn’t that the theory was pointless. Some of it was quite interesting. It was just that it didn’t have anything to do with writing. That is the main point I want to make. University creative writing courses are great if you have an intellectual interest in literary theory. If you enjoy reading Jacques Derrida and Edward Said … go for it. If on the other hand you are more artistically inclined and want to learn how to tell stories, give them a wide berth.
I finished my MA in creative writing buried under a pile of incomprehensible literary theory. I read for a doctorate, partly to rid myself of the curse of Post-Structuralist theory forever and partly to work out whether it was actually possible to teach people how to write.
How do you, then, learn to write?
The first question I asked myself was: How in the past had writers learnt to write? I discovered that with the advent of printing they copied and stole each other’s stories and storylines: Chekhov copied Turgenev, Mansfield copied Chekhov. Literally copied. Taking whole stories and re-writing them sentence by sentence in their own words. Prior to the printing press, in the age of Renaissance rhetoric they apprenticed themselves to a master and learnt by watching and listening.
More recently, we have learned to write in other ways. Schools and colleges have taken over from the process of auto-didacticism. In the 1930’s and 40’s creative writing was encouraged in American and English universities as an extra-curricular activity. During the post-war consensus in the 50’s and 60’s, English became a popular subject. New, exciting working-class voices were finding their way into print and students flocked to universities to read the novel: the great book of life.
But English became a victim of its own success. Academics are only human and the popularity of literary studies caused a rush of blood to the brain. English departments all over America and Europe felt they were at the centre of intellectual debate and developed their own schools of critical theory, vying with each other for intellectual ascendency.
The result was an intellectual omnishambles of irreconcilable ideas that puts the Tower of Babel to shame. Along with the introduction of fees for students, the 80’s and 90’s saw a decline in applications to English departments.
The reality of Creative Writing in Higher Education
Creative Writing at the time was being taught on the fringes of academia, in local bookshops, community organisations, continuing education, the Workers Educational Association etc. but not in mainstream universities. Faced with a slump in the popularity of their subject, English academics held their noses and let the creative writing tutors in. Management, keen to keep the tills ringing supported the move and began to cram writers onto their courses.
I’ve met many people, who in the last twenty years have applied for university creative writing courses and been bitterly disappointed. Arriving at universities to find 30-40 (I once heard of 60) students in a seminar, packed into lectures with English students, being taught be academics with no understanding of creative writing.
The key take-away here is that creative writing and universities are not a natural fit. Their connection was born out of financial expedience. Universities, desperate for money and students opened their doors to writers. Good that writers can earn some kind of living. But not so good for people who want to learn to write and find themselves having to study literary theory that doesn’t seem applicable to anything they do. And all this in an intellectual culture that doesn’t, in the main, consider anything that happens below the neck to be of any real significance.
The Creative Writing Programme as an alternative to University
So, is there an alternative? In moving the Creative Writing Programme out of the university, we believe we have freed ourselves up to offer a course of study that focuses on creativity and an understanding of the creative process. We believe there is much about this process that can be taught and that the rest needs to be nurtured through support, confidence building and a careful and considered approach towards teaching. Our online and face to face courses are built like those in art schools and music academies. We start small, focusing on individual creativity and gradually build to the bigger picture.
We are a group of writers who want to share the writing process with others and we’ve worked hard to develop practical exercises that focus on particular aspects of technique, that allow the writer to understand how to render the effect they want to achieve and for that knowledge to become part of the intuitive flow of their writing.
We believe in being small. Existing outside of a large educational institution allows us to be more human, to treat each other with respect and to build up long term relationships with our writing students and the publishing professionals we work with. A consideration of the individual value of everyone permeates our teaching and our professional relationships. We keep our classes small. There is a maximum of 15 in a face to face class and that number is usually smaller for our online courses. This way everyone is recognised, is part of our community and is able to contribute.
If I was to sum up our approach, I would say that we aspire to teach creative writing as an art. Writers and readers are not academics. They don’t want to put everything they are reading through the meat grinder of critical theory. They want to be carried by the story and that process of being carried is physical and emotional as well as intellectual. So, we focus on how language interacts with the body and how you, as a writer, can dissolve your reader into the world of your story.
But, how do you nurture creativity and self-expression? I have long dispensed with the myth of perfection and have come to realise that the best writers are so good at what they are good at that readers don’t notice their imperfections. This is how we build individual style on the Creative Writing Programme. By getting to know each individual writer we can work to their strengths, make sure they have a comprehensive understanding of the craft of writing and encourage them to develop in the areas in which they excel. This is the best way, we believe, to encourage a strong, confident, individual style.
So, if you’re an aspiring writer, why should you study creative writing at a university?