Friday, February 26, 2010

A very personal defence of creative writing courses

Lisa Pryor writes in the Age today that creative writing courses at universities are effectively sideways schemes to insure incomes for writers and have no earthly benefit to the students, and indeed impoverish writing as an art and so are generally a Very Bad Thing and what's more ripping off the young and variously gullible who would like to be writers themselves.

Apart from the fact that my university degree in creative writing clearly didn't teach me to use short sentences, it was actually quite useful. While there were one or two writers involved in the process who I would have preferred my HECS debt not to have supported, I would say that it was a fruitful process all together. Here are some things I learned:

  1. You have to write stuff to be a writer.
  2. You cannot be precious about deadlines or editing.
  3. Lots of people who write are much better than me.
  4. Lots of people who write are much worse than me.
  5. Lots of people who write improve through writing and talking about writing and reading (including about writing).
  6. Some people don't (see points 1 and 2 above).
  7. There is more than one way to write a story.
  8. Being isolated in a garret is a great way for me personally to go a little bit crazy and depressed and working with other people is a great way for me to be motivated to write more.
  9. Don't talk about your story too early and don't leave your story too late.
  10. Your editor doesn't hate you or your work when they make changes.

I expect these are all things I would eventually have learned by myself. I expect it would have taken a much longer time than it would have if I had had to do it all on my own without other writers (both students and teachers) to crash into.

The thing that I would never have learned was how to have confidence to submit my work, to let it go out into the world. Lisa Pryor seems to imply that timid people (and people without the level of income to support taking a year off to devote to writing their novel) shouldn't be writers, because their timidity will show in the writing. She assumes that the writing will then be bad - narrow, limited, boring, derivative and so on. As someone who has taught in a creative writing faculty as well as learned in one, I must say that this is not the case. The timid and shy, those with no confidence, will surprise with sharp wit, amazing risk taking and originality. Frequently the confident and assured are those who will not learn and refuse to explore anything outside their own, narrow area of expertise. Contrary to expectations, they refuse to take risks, because they are confident that they do not need to. End of generalisation.

lf creative writing degrees encourage and support the timid writers, I would say that is enough reason for their continued existence.


ThirdCat said...

Just wrote a long comment, but have deleted it, on account it was long and rambling and possibly incoherent.

Suffice to say...agree with you.

Dave Felton said...


I just read your bullet list and actually laughed out loud. So true!

My girlfriend now thinks I have totally lost it.

Nice post.


Shayne Parkinson said...

As a timid and shy person who happens to be a writer (albeit without a degree in creative writing [such things did not exist in NZ universities in those long-ago days when I went to uni.]), I liked this post very much. I'm bemused at the attitude I've encountered at times, that one cannot become a competent writer unless one has a qualification in creative writing, but that's certainly not a reason to diss such qualifications.

Misrule said...

As someone who teaches creative writing, albeit it not at university (anymore: I used to teach in the MA at USyd but that's a long story which I can't go into in a public forum...!) I was rawther annoyed by this article too. There seems to be some deeply ingrained prejudice against the teaching of writing, along the lines of if you're really talented you don't need a course. Well, then, by that argument, sportspeople don't need coaches, and musicians and artists should abandon their lessons forthwith. It's tosh, but it's commonly held tosh. I'd write to the SMH (where this column was also published) but for afore-mentioned publicly unmentionable previous relationship with USyd!

Penthe said...

I wish you had written your comment, ThirdCat. I'd like to hear more about what you think.

Shayne, I couldn't agree more that a university degree is most certainly not needed to be a good writer - if anything I find that attitude even more annoying than people who dismiss the value of university creative writng degrees.

Judith, I would write to the SMH, except I didn't think of it. Oops.

So glad my list made someone other than me laugh!

Ampersand Duck said...

I love point 9. It made me hum 'The Gambler'.