Wednesday, 4 May 2016

Do you need a Creative Writing Course? Kathleen Jones explores.



A friend of mine who is an author has recently signed up for an MA in creative writing.  It's going to cost her a lot of money and won't necessarily make her a better writer, but she's convinced that it is the magic ingredient she needs to be successful.  A lot of people seem to think so, and universities are currently making a lot of money out of their creative ambitions.  But, as someone who has taught creative writing in universities and tutored students at MA and Ph.D level, I'm not convinced that it will. In fact, it might be counter productive. Here are some questions you need to ask and a run-down of the pros and cons.

1. To begin with, there's the Cost  - a part time course at a small university starts at around £3,000 a year. Most charge much more. That's quite an investment in your future, considering that the average author earns less than £10,000 a year.  £5 - 6 thousand would be quite usual.

UEA has turned out some bestselling authors such as Kazuo Ishiguro

2. Check out who is Teaching it?  Are they going to try to turn you into a writer like themselves rather than the writer you need to become? How much experience do they themselves have of the writing world? What's their publishing history and how long have they been teaching?  If the answer is not much and not long, then you have to ask what they are going to be able to do for you.

3.  Does an MA course have real Value? - students think they are going to be exposed to agents and publishers and walk straight into lucrative contracts.  A few, a very few, do so, but of those (usually young) writers many are dropped after a couple of books because they haven't lived up to expectation and the disappointment can be devastating.

I have two friends, both very good, award winning authors who had a negative experience of MA courses.  One had her confidence so damaged it took her months to begin to write again.   Another, the best-selling author Jane Davis, who won the Daily Mail first novel award, developed writers' block and walked away.   I interviewed her here on Authors Electric two years ago.

4.  Potential for teaching/earning a living - I think this is probably the only justification for doing it.  But if you're a published author and have academic qualifications, they don't need to be in creative writing. Mine aren't.  You just need enough published work and an MA or Ph.D.  Remember you can get a Ph.D by submitting one of your own books and writing a methodology. Teaching creative writing outside the university system doesn't need such a high qualification.

Personally, I much prefer running creative workshops where we can all produce pieces of work that differ wildly from each other, but which take each writer further along their journey to perfect their craft.  You can check these out at your local arts organisation or in your local library.  I also like mentoring - working one-to-one with a writer on a piece of work discussing and developing it to its full potential.  You can get a mentor for much less cost than an MA course. You get their full attention, and you can work on a novel or a poetry collection from beginning to end, benefiting from the feedback that only an experienced author can give you. Organisations like Gold Dust, the Faber Academy,  Literary Consultancy and the Poetry Society come with excellent references from happy customers.  They don't come cheap either, but you get to work one-to-one with top names. Alternatively, if there's a writer you particularly admire it might be worth contacting them and asking about mentoring directly.

Students on a writing holiday in Italy

Then there's the Arvon Foundation (Ted Hughes was one of the founders) which provides week long retreats with two experienced authors in a glorious location -  you get a holiday and a creative writing course all in one. They're very reasonably priced and there are scholarships for anyone who can't meet the fee.

Now back to university courses!

5. Question their Reasons for Existing.  The idea that if you follow a certain set of rules you will end up with a best-seller doesn't really stand up to scrutiny.  Most best-sellers are mavericks.  But it may help your writing to study narrative structure, character creation and the basics of good writing, though you can probably do this at a local writer's workshop for much less money!

6. Course Method?  Have a close look at it and particularly at how the work is going to be graded.   Creative writing doesn't lend itself easily to assessment.  Many universities adopt a tick box system to reduce the element of subjectivity.  It's based on quantifying and grading Show v Tell, characterization, dramatic tension, narrative arcs, complex prose, metaphors and linguistic devices - you get the picture!  A very dull piece can have all these in spades but not have any attraction for a reader at all and zero originality.

But my main reason for having reservations about the creative writing course is that it so often generates writing that is too tame. It's writing in a strait jacket and I don't think this is the right way to encourage developing writers to become better writers.  You have to let the dog out of the box and let it run.  This is a quote from US writer Terence Hayes:-
"The poem/story is an animal, a wild child despite our fullest attention, our best intentions.  The poem/story is a beast, a monster.  You are Dr Frankenstein stitching it together to make it live.  Except, it jumps from the table and tears through the wall of your laboratory, stomping through the countryside, mauling sheep, and terrorizing villagers.  Alive with a dream of its own.  A dream you could not have anticipated."

Forget about an expensive piece of paper that says you can write.  Engage with the beast!





Kathleen Jones is the author of about 15 books (she's lost count!) of fiction, biography, poetry and general non-fiction. She is currently a Royal Literary Fund Fellow. She enjoys Blogging, frittering away time on Facebook and Tweeting @kathyferber.    Her latest book is about a journey to Haida Gwaii to find out how to live without killing the planet.  Travelling to the Edge of the World. 

More at www.kathleenjones.co.uk

19 comments:

Wendy Jones said...

Brilliantly put Kathleen. I agree that these types of courses may not be for everyone. There is also value in other methods of learning the craft

JO said...

A great post. I began one and gave up - my fellow-students were much younger and not interested in anything I might write or say, and the tutors just told me to carry on doing what I was doing. So it really wasn't worth the money.

Some of those students now have agents and book deals, but who knows if they'll recoup the money they spent on the course, And I've carried on doing what I was going, just like they said, with a modicum of success and more time to enjoy myself.

Andrew Crofts said...

Having left school at 17, (and waiting even that long nearly killed me), I have never done any sort of further education, which I think rules me out of having any sort of useful opinion on this, but I suspect it probably comes down to whether or not the person in question would enjoy the experience of doing the course in itself. My impression is that no qualification helps anyone to earn a living from their writing, (apart obviously from teaching), but the camaraderie involved in being a student might well be a good enough reason to do it. Reflecting now, I think it was the prospect of just such "camaraderie" which made me run so fast from the school gates to the excitements of adult life in London.

Catherine Czerkawska said...

Kathleen, I agree with you. Although when I first graduated, I might have been persuaded to do such a course if they had existed back then! This is an excellent post, detailing all the problems and pitfalls. I've noticed how many of these courses are now being taught by people with very little published writing. I remember the unpleasant realisation that Norman MacCaig, who had been Writer in Residence at Edinburgh University when I was studying there would not now have the required degree qualifications to teach creative writing. He just had the actual writing! But the most worrying thing of all is that there begins to be a dreadful sameness about the work. It can be very helpful to learn the craft of writing from those who have gone before, but I've begun to doubt very much if most of these expensive full time courses are the way to go. Plus, as you say, agents and publishers pilot in, cherry pick one or two hot prospects and leave the rest struggling. And up here in Scotland, at least, some universities offering these 'Creative Industries' courses are not now employing part time lecturers, so the few people who might have useful experience are excluded.

Penny Dolan said...

An interesting analysis, Wendy, useful at a time when applications are being advertised. I think there's a belief that such a course validates your writing. I know I have been tempted but have never been able to afford it. Your advice about investing money in specialist mentoring or private editorial support is a good one, as far as making your book the best it can be before submission. The PHD route looks attractive and much less disruptive too.

A friend of mine - a published novelist but who had left school early - took a CW degree course and felt very cross as all she could do was to carry on once she'd committed the money. She felt the main tutor (unpublished)had a dismissive attitude to her comments and work and gave most of his attention within workshops to students who talked about interesting personal problems whether their work merited it or not - the course seemed to be run as a branch of social services. She felt trapped, after making a couple of complaints, by the fact that if she spread the word publicly that it was a worthless course, her own degree would be judged worthless too. Always check out what's on offer.
The support of a group - as long as you are included, noting Jo's story - seems to be of great value and not easily found elsewhere. People often say that's what they most miss once the course is ended.

Dennis Hamley said...

I do have mixed feelings about this. For five years I taught on the Oxford Creative Diploma and loved it. The students were responsive and mainly talented. they did some really outstanding work and I did my best to extend them and make them go into places they didn't think they could. Feedback that I received suggested I'd managed it. However, and I think I can say this now, I was very disturbed about some things I heard. I took students over for the short fiction module in their second year. I was very disturbed by how some students confided in me. There was a surprising drop-out rate after the first year. Several who returned told me how they nearly didn't come back. The main reason they gave was that their confidence had been shattered. Yes, some tutors with good publishing track records only wanted writing which aped their own. Anything else was foud wanting. A reasonably successful chick-lit author was a big offender here. One student, who was plainly a writer of real talent, showed me a tutor's remark on a first year assignment: 'this is only fit for the slush pile.' Many of the tutors were great - quite outstanding. Others were, to be as gracious as possible towards them, not.

Did the course do what it said it would? Sometimes, yes. Two winners in the past three years of the Lucy Cavendish College Unpublished novel prize, one now published by Canongate. oner of the most despondent students I had to cheer up, is now crowd-funding her really excellent first novel with Unbound. Three novels by students I helped are now published by good publishers. Is this because they did the Diploma - and possibly the MSt which succeeds it? Well, possibly. The poetry was - is - outstanding, with superb tutors who are fine poets in their own right. The MSt contains a work experience module, where students work in a publisher's office, in a bookshop, with an agent, in a theatre or on a poetry magazine, which I think is of incredible value. The courses can teach technique, but does that help the writer to be a good one? For example, I found second-year students obsessed with the POV. I wanted to say, 'Sod the POV. If the story's any good the POV will sort itself out." In the end, I did.

Was the curse worthwhile? For some, yes. For others, probably not. Sometimes I wished there had been something similar in my day. Looking back, though, I think I'm glad there wasn't, because I would have hated making the decision. And finally, a question I've often asked myself but never satisfactorily answered, what made the directors decide to offer me the job? Was it that I had a PhD? The course director told me that the University wouldn't question my academic qualifications, which seemed very important to him. Was it because, as I found to my slight disturbance, I was the only tutor who actually had a teaching qualification? Or was it that I had written 74 books (Yes, I had lost count too, Kathleen, but I recently made a definitive check) over the last 53 years. I really don't know. After all, they were mainly books for children and perhaps the university might think they didn't count!

Dennis Hamley said...

PS. Yes, short workshops and one-to-one mentoring are very satisfying indeed and probably more use in the end. I've developed rally good long-distance relationships with some mentorees, to everyone's benefit, because they are learning experiences for both of us.

Catherine Czerkawska said...

Fascinating insight, Dennis. And I've heard tales of shattered confidence as well - in one case from somebody who went on to become a very successful poet, but who was floored for a while by unfounded and quite aggressive criticism from a professional who really ought to have known better. I too have been torn between wishing I had the chance to do something similar and being aware of potential disasters. A theatre writing course would have been very handy back then when I was shifting from writing for radio and wanted to write for the stage. Eventually I got some invaluable mentoring, but it took me a long time to find it. I should point out, mind you, with a few friends currently in the middle of 'Creative Practice PhDs, one an artist and a couple of writers, that they have devoted more than three years of their time to these projects and have been worn out with critical theory and analysis by the end!

Bill Kirton said...

Nothing much to add to the excellent post and comments. Looking at it from the teaching side (and that mainly as an RLF Fellow doing one to one sessions with students), there's no doubt we can help people to discover their own capabilities and when that happens, it's as satisfying for us as teachers as it is for the students. We don't call it 'creative writing', but that's still what it is. I'm not talking about coaxing someone into being an award winner; it's simply a question of helping them to realise how moving words, sentences and paragraphs about can hone their actual thinking. Once you show them the power of sculpted language, they have the confidence to trust their own creativity.

Brian said...

Fascinating article, fascinating comments. To go off on a slight tangent: If you just changed the word 'Writing' to 'Theatre', the whole article would remain relevant. I have watched, with some distress as University after University jumps on the money bandwagon, creating almost completely worthless degree courses in 'Performance'. I call them Mickey Mouse courses. They offer a maximum of 14 hours per week of contact (one shameful University only gives three hours - half of which is devoted to discussing plays they have read). This to train actors. The minimum contact hours in the accredited drama schools is 28 - and even this has been cut down by the universities as they have taken over all the major drama schools. This has been a tragedy (and I am not indulging in hyperbole here) for the proper training of our future generation of theatre practitioners. Universities do not understand the demands of craft training. They want one person lecturing 200 students. When I worked in several of the best drama schools, the average number of contact hours was 32, some as much as 36.
Why am I getting too het up about this? Well, there has been a REALLY distressing development in this area. Parents are being seduced by these fraudulent courses because they want their children to have a degree 'to fall back on'. It doesn't matter that the degree is almost entirely worthless and will not prepare their children for any form of career in theatre. I know of what I rant. My granddaughter has just graduated from such a course. She has £24,000 worth of debt, no skills training to speak of, and now has to work full-time in a soul-destroying job to pay off the loan - no sign of the career in theatre of which she has dreamt.
I recently spent a day in a call centre, which only employs actors. I was there to give career advice. One after the other these young actors told me that they couldn't afford to take on any further training due to their massive debts. The majority were graduates of BA and even MA courses.
Our education system is broken, and nobody seems to notice. And the shameless universities continue to set up even more courses to take advantage.
Forgive this rant. It has been boiling up in me for some time now.

Brian said...

Fascinating article, fascinating comments. To go off on a slight tangent: If you just changed the word 'Writing' to 'Theatre', the whole article would remain relevant. I have watched, with some distress as University after University jumps on the money bandwagon, creating almost completely worthless degree courses in 'Performance'. I call them Mickey Mouse courses. They offer a maximum of 14 hours per week of contact (one shameful University only gives three hours - half of which is devoted to discussing plays they have read). This to train actors. The minimum contact hours in the accredited drama schools is 28 - and even this has been cut down by the universities as they have taken over all the major drama schools. This has been a tragedy (and I am not indulging in hyperbole here) for the proper training of our future generation of theatre practitioners. Universities do not understand the demands of craft training. They want one person lecturing 200 students. When I worked in several of the best drama schools, the average number of contact hours was 32, some as much as 36.
Why am I getting too het up about this? Well, there has been a REALLY distressing development in this area. Parents are being seduced by these fraudulent courses because they want their children to have a degree 'to fall back on'. It doesn't matter that the degree is almost entirely worthless and will not prepare their children for any form of career in theatre. I know of what I rant. My granddaughter has just graduated from such a course. She has £24,000 worth of debt, no skills training to speak of, and now has to work full-time in a soul-destroying job to pay off the loan - no sign of the career in theatre of which she has dreamt.
I recently spent a day in a call centre, which only employs actors. I was there to give career advice. One after the other these young actors told me that they couldn't afford to take on any further training due to their massive debts. The majority were graduates of BA and even MA courses.
Our education system is broken, and nobody seems to notice. And the shameless universities continue to set up even more courses to take advantage.
Forgive this rant. It has been boiling up in me for some time now.

Brian said...

Sorry, I don't know why it's posted twice. I've tried to delete the copy, without success...

Catherine Czerkawska said...

Brian you have my sympathies. There's a sense in which for too many universities the very idea of small group teaching seems to be an old fashioned and inconvenient concept. Faculty members have no power. Bureaucrats rule. All material is available online. So what are the students getting out of it other than debt? Back in the olden days, I went to university for the teachers, for the experts in my field, who opened my eyes to a whole new world!

Dennis Hamley said...

Brian, I can see exactly where you're coming from. Surely the way schools and universities are going is a dreadful example of 'trahaison des clercs'. Sometimes, as I watch everything I hold dear trampled on, when I see everything I worked for in my educational career devalued and sneered at so that I'm made as relevant as a cooper or a fletcher, I feel quite glad I'm the age I am. Still, in the Cotswolds just a few miles down the road, the best jobs promising creativity, craftsmanship and long-term employment are thatching and dry stone-walling, so perhaps all is not lost.

Brian said...

Dennis, sadly, it has been a betrayal. But not just at University level. I taught in various drama schools from 1986. At first, I had to run really hard to keep ahead of my students. Then, in 1989/90, they started to arrive with no frame of reference. They were not unintelligent - they WERE functionally illiterate. It never took all that much to light a fire under them and get them excited about learning. It got worse and worse over the next few years. I used to listen to the news that we had the best A-level results ever with a dropped jaw. It was not what I was seeing on the receiving end. I once had a discussion with academics on a panel that was validating my drama school. They were in complete agreement about the standard of the students that they were getting. I could tell you some really horrific stories of what followed. The very worst thing, however, has come with recent experiences while freelancing on two different of the BA/MA Theatre 'Performance" courses I mentioned. On three different occasions I have tried to fail students who had not done the work, had failed even to attend classes. Each time I was told that the University would not allow us to fail any students. The Course Leaders were all apologetic, but there was nothing they could do. "Even if I do fail the student," one said to me, "the University will move the marks up." I had the 'pleasure' of watching several really sub-standard students post photos of themselves in the graduation gowns. I am in real despair about our education system.

Catherine Czerkawska said...

I'm sorry to say that this is true. I don't know how many universities and colleges are infected with this, but failure is definitely not an option now in some institutions. And yes to the functional illiteracy. It's actually filtering through into professions which is why you see so many howlers - not just typos or slip-ups or infelicities but people who can't even write a reasonably coherent report. The people at the sharp end are afraid to speak up so the evidence is anecdotal but overwhelming. I often wonder what the situation is in other countries.

Dennis Hamley said...

Brian, this has been going on for years. I remember in the 70s, when I worked in a College of Education, that we had a student who was a lovely bloke but was 98% useless in the classroom. When the professor from the university which ran the old Area Training Organisation of those days arrived to moderate our teaching practice assessments, he came to his own assessment of that student, whom we unanimously recommended to fail and said, 'I recognise that his teaching competence is weak but he is a very nice person and as it is an important part of a child's education to be in touch with nice people, I propose that Mr X is awarded his teaching certificate.' Abrogation of duty or a magnificent example of liberal humanity? I'v never made up my mind about that. I lost track of the student. I don't know if he didn't last a year, or whether he ended up as a a Head - or even a Professor of Education. If either the second or third possibilities, then it's pleasing to feel that the top jobs can go to nice people. But I doubt it.


Catherine, I agree about the competence of so many reports nowadays. anecdotal evidence is very much underrated.

Kathleen Jones said...

Thank you all for your really illuminating comments - it seems that the problems I've observed are more universal than I'd imagined. I don't think budding writers are being served by creative writing courses. What to do about it? I haven't a clue, since we've moved to an education system that's motivated by money-making. CW courses are a lucrative source of funds for a university. Thanks everyone for sharing your experiences!

Elizabeth Kay said...

I've come into this a bit late, but my MA was one of the best things I ever did. I was on the first year of Bath Spa's intake, and whether it was because it was all new to them as well as me or whether I was just at the right stage - feeling stale, and not knowing what to do about it - I had a terrific time and made some very good friends who are still friends today. It got me out of a rut, and the distinction really boosted my confidence. I'd always been terrified of poetry, but 5 years later I won the Cardiff International. It does work for some people, honest.