Monday, 24 March 2014

What I Learned In Creative Writing Class

A personal reflection on whether or not I should have just gone to Law School


I'm going to be controversial here and say that the first time I read Hanif Kureishi's article slamming creative writing classes, I was almost inclined to agree with him.  Kureishi, who teaches at Kingston University, was quoted in an article posted by The Guardian online on Wednesday, March 5th as saying that creative writing courses are a "waste of time" and that "a lot of [his] students just can't tell a story."

Now if you want to read an excellent piece defending the teaching of creative writing, I direct you to this piece by Annabel Smith, which includes several interviews with people involved in some way in a creative writing course.  This blog post is not designed or intended to be a rebuttal, but is rather a think piece in which I detail how my thinking about studying creative writing has changed in the years since I finished the course.

"a lot of my students just can't tell a story..."

Picture this.  You walk into a brown and grey lecture theatre through the front door and climb the stairs to the desk you've picked out for yourself.  It's not so close to the front that you seem over eager, but it's not at the back.  You take this seriously.  You are here to be a Writer.  Capital W.  But this first lecture, this first bite of the academic creative writing program pie is totally bland and tasteless.  The teacher reads the unit guide aloud to you, slowly and allowing dum-witted questions from the peanut gallery who just want to waste your time.  'I thought studying creative writing was going to be fun!' You think.  'I thought I was going to be asked to stand on the table saying "Oh Captain, my Captain" or given a licence to carry a moleskin and look troubled.  This isn't what I signed up for at all!'  Thankfully, the introductory lecture is once off.  Formalities aside, you're divided into a couple of classes and from then on, you meet once a week to have round table discussions on some of the more key elements to story crafting.

Some of the people in your class don't have a clue, and some of them are only there because they get an elective in first year computer science and they thought this one would be easy.  Some people object to being asked to read an excerpt from Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses, on moral grounds, but in week four, they read out a story that they say is autobiographical, all about the time they dealt heroin out of their share house.

You notice, as the weeks go on, that the discussions you have in class are helping the stories become more interesting.  The class is learning.

"They can write sentences by they don't know how to make a story go from there all the way through to the end without people dying of boredom in between.... Can you teach that?  I don't think you can."

When you love to write, like I do, you do it whether it's a homework assignment or not.  Every time the teacher sets a workshop exercise, it's like another person's voice is being channelled through you.  What's more, you feel confident that it's right.  It's good.  It has potential.  And the teacher is smiling at you, and the person sitting next to you is eager to swap with you and read your work while they read yours.  Are you being taught something?  Not in the traditional sense.  No one takes to the whiteboard and writes out a lesson for you to copy down.  If creative writing was taught that way, we'd be very bored by what the literary world was offering by now.

There is no formula for the creative spirit.  Combining A with B does not always result in C.  Your teacher knows this.  He or she takes your impressionable mind and fills it with examples of brilliant prose.  They nod, encouragingly when you read your work out.  They make suggestions, they open it up to the floor, so that your fellow students might be your teachers for a while.

People go on creative writing courses for a weekend and you think, 'A weekend?'

Creativity develops at different rates in different students.  For those who already have a good understanding of English and of writing composition, a creative writing course can be a space to let loose and get feedback from people who think about the same kinds of things that you do.  It can take the three years that it takes to complete your BA, or with the right teacher, it can take a weekend.  Really clicking with your teacher is key.

Midway through last year, I did a creative writing course through UWA Extension with local author Natasha Lester which I proclaimed taught me more in five weeks (fifteen or so hours all up) than I felt I had learned in four years of tertiary study.  At the point of saying this, I was feeling disillusioned with where my creative writing degree had led me, but Natasha's courses were genuinely fantastic.  The course was purely recreational.  Every person in that room was serious that writing was what they wanted to do.  Every person (bar a few who didn't speak much) read widely, and wrote as much as they could as if compelled to.  It was a room full of people who felt like they were or would be writers.  This is something that is currently missing from the tertiary creative writing environment.  Oftentimes, I would feel superior to other people in my university classes because they struggled with concepts like dialogue and plot that I had been familiar with for donkey's years because it was something that I counted as an outside interest.  (And then I felt bad for feeling superior, because I wondered, existentially, if I seemed as conceited and self-deceived, unjustly so.  Isn't there a Flannery O'Connor quote about people who think they can write generally not being very good at it?)

"...find one teacher who [you] think would be really good for [you]... most are going to teach you stuff that is a waste of time for you...."

Now that is genuinely conceited thinking.  Ever heard of the expression, you have to walk before you can run?

Writing, in my experience, is not something you can ever be an expert in.  You're always learning, and sometimes your brain gets so full that some of the basic stuff gets pushed out one ear onto the floor.  Learning the basics in a group format can be a great way of resetting, of going back to the start and discovering new angles and approaches.  The creative writing class is a diverse group.  By thinking you are too good to research with the crowd, and seeking out a teacher who will stroke your ego and teach you the "difficult concepts" is not going to make you a better writer.  It will make you... (well I think the cliche here would be to say, it will make you Will Self, but in fairness to Mr Self, I haven't read his work, only the work of others which gives the opinion that he's got tickets on himself)...

"good writing courses will help you work out if you are a writer or not..." (Matt Haig)

I spent a good part of 2013 thinking that I had hurt my chances of ever being a writer by studying creative writing at university, completely forgetting that at the time, I had loved it.  I have vivid memories of crying whilst doing a reading of "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close", prescribed to our class by one of my favourite teachers, a woman who would return work that she had given a High Distinction to with red pen all over it, suggesting changes.  This woman later became my honours supervisor for the creative portion of my Honours thesis, for which I received a 2A.  (At the time, this devastated me, but I have accepted it, and will one day do my PhD, become a Dr, and say neh neh neh neh neh to anyone who doubted me.)  What doing honours revealed to me was that I hated academic writing with a passion, and loved creative writing.  I loved having time to write long sections of prose, and trying new things and looking at edits.  I loved the wrestle between what she wanted for the piece and what I wanted.  If I'd had more time with the piece, it would have been a masterpiece, but as it was I had a year and I was far too close to it.  But that year, I learned that I would be a writer, whatever it took.

"I can't stand it when authors announce they have a degree in creative writing.  So what?  They're a dime a dozen."

When I first read Hanif Kureishi’s article, I was reminded of that old Flannery O'Connor attitude that those who think they can write, can't.  But since then, I've learned O’Connor is also attributed this quote:  “I’m often asked if I think Universities stifle writers.  My answer is I don’t think they stifle them enough.  There is many a best seller that could have been prevented by a good teacher.”  It’s the good teacher of that quote which is key.

A good teacher is patient, and recognises in the student writer a desire to create, even if the student does not know what, how or why.  A good teacher gives names to the amorphous concepts that the eager student might already have tried, names like figurative language, theme, juxtaposition, intertextual links.  A good teacher makes reading recommendations.  A good teacher provides a safe space in which to write and share what has been written.  A good teacher mediates between constructive and unfair criticism.  A good teacher will return even a piece which has been given a High Distinction with red (or some other colour) comments all over it, knowing that there is always room to learn more.  I was very lucky for most of my undergraduate writing career, because I had teachers who did all of these things in their own way.  Since then, I have learned how to bend and break the rules of what I was taught, in order to find a stronger voice that is more ‘me’ than the academic one I developed when I was also writing essays on the use of setting in Wuthering Heights, and obscure 19th Century Japanese history.  There was a time when I thought having to do this meant that studying creative writing was a waste of time, but I have recently decided I was always meant to do this; a university creative writing course gives you training wheels, and it is up to the writer to decide when, and if, to take them off.

Which brings me to another quote, this time from Eleanor Catton at the 2014 Perth Writers Festival a few weeks ago.  When asked by an audience member what she thought of the teaching of creative writing at tertiary level, Catton (who teaches writing herself) replied, “I think it is very easy to do badly.”

Just like it’s easy to be a bad student, to treat the class like a cop out, it’s just as easy to be a bad teacher.  By deciding outright that the majority of creative writing students are untalented, and writing for the wrong reasons, a teacher is bound to be a bad one, and make their own course a waste of time. 


3 comments:

  1. Thank you Emily for your lovely words. I really appreciate what you said - you've made my day!

    ReplyDelete
  2. From what I've read of your novel so far, you made the right decision to stick with Creative Writing!

    ReplyDelete
  3. Em, I did a couple of creative writing units at UWA during my undergrad degree, and I remember feeling just like you. In saying that, I was a mere 19 years old and my 'voice' was a patchwork quilt of my favourite authors' styles: completely derivative and stale. I think it's very, very difficult to jump from academic writing to creative, and thus, my work at the time was VERY self-conscious and formal. I was working on a number of essays whilst trying to engage my imagination...tricky.
    My best writing lessons have been in life; the experiences that have given me my subject matter. But the kindness and mentorship of others in the writing community have been invaluable too. I attended a workshop with Natasha Lester and it was a great space for reflection.
    Annabel Smith's article was great: I'd do a Phd in Creative writing in a flash if I didn't love my teaching career so much. There just ain't the time! Maybe when I've retired...or when my kids grow up... :)

    ReplyDelete

Something to say? I love hearing from you.

(Click Notify Me to be told when someone replies!)