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Writer’s Block: Are creative writing courses a waste of time & money? Comment

Writer’s Block: Are creative writing courses a waste of time & money?
The pen is mightier than the course…

With Christie Watson being shortlisted for the 2011 Costa First Novel Award, it would seem that doing a creative writing course is a canny way of breaking into the world of publishing contracts, book awards and literary celebrity status. Christie joins a number of other successful writers, including Ian McEwan, Kazuo Ishiguro and Joe Dunthorne, who, like her, have completed the Creative Writing MA at the University of East Anglia. But does a creative writing course really help you to become a celebrated novelist? Or are creative writing courses just a waste of time and money?


Ok, I’m not going to mess around here. I have no intention of weighing up the pros and cons of creative writing courses before reaching a half-hearted conclusion. I’m going to make my point right here, right now and then I’m going to explain myself, alright? Sorry to be so forthright, but I’m in a particularly belligerent mood today.

In my opinion, creative writing courses are a waste of time. I wouldn’t say that they’re a complete waste of time, but the benefits of doing a creative writing course are far outweighed by the fact that these vastly overpriced courses are most definitely not worth the time or money.

Admittedly, I’ve never forked out the cash for a ‘full-on’ creative writing course myself; and therefore you may dismiss my scepticism surrounding the value of creative writing courses as being completely misinformed and unfounded. I have, however, experienced the creative writing course in a microcosmic form. Indeed, in the second year of my English degree, I opted to take creative writing module, taught by the late David Nokes; an admired novelist, scriptwriter and biographer of Jonathan Swift, Samuel Johnson and Jane Austen.

While my tutor’s expertise could never be doubted, the course left me immensely dissatisfied. In my first creative writing seminar, we were immediately told that everyone would get a 2:1 for the module; nothing more, nothing less. Despite the fact that this was a kick in the teeth for a student who was hungry for a first class honours degree, it was a positive sign that the module would at least be structured around the principle that creative writing is a craft and not an academic discipline.

This glimmer of hope was obliterated quite quickly, as I realised our distinguished tutor intended to use the course as a medium through which to brag about his own achievements. I swear if he’d mentioned his BAFTA-winning adaptation of Clarissa one more time, I would have forced my pencil case into my oesophagus to prevent myself from screaming out a barrage of expletives.

Beyond our tutor’s irksome trips down memory lane, the content of the module was, for want of a better phrase, piss-poor. The entire module seemed to revolve around the issue of crafting a winning plot; and no attention was paid to things such as style, tone, characters, dialogue, description or actually getting published.

What’s more, the man’s bizarre penchant for terrible adjectives made me doubt his critical faculties altogether. At one point, he almost wet his pants with excitement when a girl’s Roman centurion narrator (don’t ask!) described a tree as having “anorexic branches.” At this point, not only did I think about swallowing the pencil case, but I seriously considered regurgitating it onto his shoes as a bizarre, yet potent, form of protest.

Now, I’m sure other creative writing courses are far superior to the module that I took five years ago. I’m certain that students are given an insight into the nuances of structure, narration, character development, plot, dialogue and style. However, even the most well respected courses have inherent problems which cannot be avoided, no matter who teaches the course or how many prize-winning authors have walked the halls.

The common argument against creative writing courses is that creative writing cannot be taught. However, I don’t believe that the tutors who lead these courses even try to teach people. Christie Watson confirmed this herself in a recent interview on BBC Radio 4, “I’m not even sure if UEA and certainly most postgraduate courses claim to teach you to write because that’s not what they’re about.”*

So what’s the point of these so-called ‘courses’ then? Well, it would seem, as well as introducing students to simple writing techniques, that they simply provide a forum for budding authors to meet each other and discuss ideas, which, in turn, gives them the motivation to actually sit down and write. As Christie Watson tells us: “I learnt to read as a writer and to edit my work as well as others’ work. And I think perhaps more importantly than that I was surrounded by people who were as obsessed with writing as I was.”*

Ok, I don’t know about you, but I think spending £5,000 on a course just so you can meet other writers and get a little bit of a kick up the backside to actually start writing is absolutely preposterous.

In fact, I’d argue that messing around at uni, pontificating, chatting and discussing other authors’ work, is a massive distraction from actually doing what you’re supposed to be doing: writing. Writing is a solitary activity, which requires a whole lot of self-discipline and personal endeavour. It’s all about doing research, developing a unique idea and then having the ‘stones’ to sit down in front of a computer and start writing.

If you really need some encouragement and you want to chat to other virginal authors who are yet to pop their first novel cherry, you should try and organise a creative writing group; kind of like a book group, but rather than discussing the books which Richard and Judy think will be the hottest reads this summer, you’ll get the opportunity to share ideas and discuss each other’s work.

Take the £5,000, put it back in the bank and get yourself on the internet. Build up a network of budding authors via literary forums, LinkedIn and Facebook, then meet up and have a chat. Trust me! It’ll be a whole lot cheaper and a lot more satisfying.

Bearing all of this in mind, it would seem that the tutors of creative writing courses are making incredibly easy money. If they don’t teach the students, then what do they actually do? Well, it would appear that they offer critical support and little titbits of advice. The advice they offer, however, could be given by anyone with a GCSE in English literature.

When discussing the benefits of the creative writing MA at UEA, Christie Watson said: “I think the best piece of advice I had while I was there came from one of my favourite teachers who was actually a Royal Literary Fund fellow at the time, and he told me: ‘The most important thing to learn is to write a book that people want to read. And I think that will stay with me always.’”*

Sorry, what? Yep, ok, I understand that I need to write a book that people will read. After all, that’s the point of books and the publishing industry. But do you actually have any useful advice? Nope. Ok…good.

Likewise, Ian McEwan, who also took part in the interview on BBC Radio 4, offers a rose-tinted view of the guidance he received: “I got very little advice, except odd things like superb reading lists. What all young writers need to do is read.”* SLOW HAND CLAP.

Ok, so if their shockingly thin advice is not really worth the money, then what other services do these tutors provide? One thing that instantly springs to mind is that some writers lack confidence in their own ability and thus seek some kind of validation of their writing skills. Craving what they perceive to be an impartial and discerning eye, they enrol on a creative course at a university where they believe they’ll receive the honest criticism they desire.

But who’s to say that a tutor is the right critic for your work? I would argue that writing for a course tutor actually hinders the development your own unique creative voice, and the work you begin to produce will be written for your tutor, rather than for yourself or, more importantly, for a commercial audience. More devastatingly, poor feedback and negative criticism from a course tutor may be the thing that actually puts you off writing altogether.

Arguably, there is also a certain amount of snobbery tied up with creative writing courses, where literary fiction is generally favoured over other genres. Consequently, course tutors may persuade you to avoid your impulse to write commercially-driven work, such as chick-lit or crime novels.

The fact of the matter is that creative writing courses are not worth the money which the institutions are charging. These courses may give you an insight into the writing process; they may teach you a handful of valuable techniques; they may give you a skeleton on which to attach your own ideas; and they may actually give you the impetus to start writing. However, in my opinion, you’d be far better off staying at home, doing research, developing your ideas and actually sitting down and writing.

Creative writing courses are just money-spinning ventures and institutions are cashing in on people’s desire to be the next Booker Prize winner. By dangling lists of impressive literary alumni in front of people’s faces, they are trying their best to demonstrate the quality of the course. But consider this: would these writers have been successful without doing the course? Probably. I’d be confident if we interviewed Ian McEwan or Kazuo Ishiguro that they wouldn't attribute their literary success to the creative writing course they did.

Just think how many successful authors haven’t done a creative writing course; and then think how many unsuccessful authors have done one. The odds of getting published are not going to be increased by wasting your time and money. Successful writers need raw talent and a desire to succeed; two things that a creative writing course can never teach you.

* http://news.bbc.co.uk/today/hi/today/newsid_9652000/9652677.stm

Image courtesy of jvleis, ‘Creative Writing’

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