The creative writing racket

Belinda Castles

Funding writers through postgraduate creative writing qualifications…skews funding in favour of the gutless. Enrolling in a postgraduate writing course is a hedge against failure, costing thousands of dollars, for those who are too scared to take off a year to get on with it and write. It attracts those who are everything a good writer is not: compliant, institution bound and approval seeking. Lisa Pryor, 27 February 2010

I have a Masters in Novel Writing and am awaiting examiners’ reports on a Doctor of Creative Arts in writing. Only one of my three novels was written independently of an academic institution. I’ve taught undergraduate and adult education fiction classes. Next week I am participating on a panel at the National Young Writers Festival in Newcastle called ‘Are Writing Courses Any Use’. I am also running a workshop at the festival for writers trying to finish novels.

I am often asked about the value of creative writing courses. Sometimes the question masks a position already quite strongly held and based on suspicions of elitism, or at least partly based on a belief that writers ought to suffer for their work. Lisa Pryor’s column a couple of years ago on creative writing courses as a ‘pyramid selling scheme’, in which writers do PhDs in order to teach PhDs to writers who will compete for the chance to do the same, encapsulated several of the reasons they irk people. It’s for that reason I focus on it here. She was only saying what many think, I know.

A lot of writers move in and out of academia in a similar pattern to my own. Most keep it quiet in the commercial sphere of publication, because of this sense of mistrust. You can’t teach talent. It’s a rort to keep academics in work. Real writers aren’t afraid of starvation. Or as Pryor put it: ‘if you need it spelled out slowly with the benefit of a circle of plastic chairs and a whiteboard, you lack the mettle to be a great novelist’. This reminds me of another vividly drawn portrait of what happens at universities, this time from Geoff Dyer, in his book on DH Lawrence, Out of Sheer Rage. I’ll paraphrase because it’s very rude, but he also has academics forming  a circle, this time with their backs to the world in order to perform intimate acts on one another. Academic literary criticism, he says, ‘kills everything it touches’.

I laughed hard when I first read Dyer’s description. I’ve sat in conferences wondering what language people are speaking. But something about this argument, whatever its source, is deeply at odds with my own experience, so I’d like to suggest some of the reasons that spending some time at university is rich and valuable for writers and potentially rich and valuable for the culture.

Recently I spent three years full time at university completing a doctorate in creative writing. My thesis was a novel and an exegesis, which I think of as a long essay that puts your own creative work in context by making a small survey of the field in which you’re writing. The various institutions have differing affections for theory or self-reflection. Mine was a bit of both, but was mostly an examination of other novels that like mine explore the idea of history as an inheritance.

The point of doing this is that none of us write in a void, and if we are going to write in an academic setting, we had better demonstrate some thought and reflection on the culture in which we are attempting to participate. Pryor wrote of ‘overthinking’, of heads ‘swirling with academic jargon’, and again it’s not at all an unusual criticism of the requirement for creative writers to engage in criticism. At various times we all had minor freak outs about the bloody exegesis.

But, in the end, I found writing and researching my own work in parallel with careful reflection about others’ writing satisfying, challenging and worthwhile. There is an incredible spark that comes from being in a room with people from many different backgrounds writing about fascinating and urgent subjects. We heard about research on the conflict in Afghanistan and the division of Cyprus, from someone writing a creative memoir of life in Iran and others sharing pieces on migration and belonging. Listening to the papers and creative work of fellow students again and again I had those moments in which all the different ideas in the world seem connected. I went home ready to work, and if I ever felt discouraged, I would not have given up because apart from the many other reasons to continue, I would not have let my colleagues down. We wanted to see each other’s books. One by one now we are finishing our projects and taking them out into the world.

Access to the writers and academics we had on our faculty was a joy. The careful supervision of long projects is an echo from the old days of close and continuing involvement with publishers. Learning to accept (or reject) and use criticism as a necessary element of becoming more skilled – this is part of the training for all crafts and professions, except for the odd rare genius. But dig deep and they often have mentors too.

I’m an editor as well as a writer. I learned to frame my criticisms in writing workshops. There are ways of talking to writers that will help them do the work they need to do. We are not born knowing how to talk this language.

On the subject of funding, in a curious sense it goes both ways with creative writing courses. Basically, masters students contribute financially to the university, doctoral students get scholarships, because they are producing research (although quite a few continue to work away unfunded at their other careers while putting astonishing hours into their study and writing).

You will have your own opinion on whether writers should be funded in this way. Speaking from a partisan position, with the humanities under threat, and yet few seeming to worry quite so much about musicians and artists being trained and mentored within academic institutions (and ‘only’ emerging as teachers), if there is a place in which a part of our culture is flourishing, and students are learning to write, reflect, teach, edit, publish, philosophise and encourage and inspire others to do the same, I am thrilled. For better or worse, as literature courses wane, one place books are still read, analysed and appreciated is in creative writing workshops. A discussion for another day, perhaps.

Not all writing courses are created equal. I hope that the quality of postgraduates competing for places will lead to a very high standard of teaching and supervision across the board. I also hope that the postgraduates who do not become published writers continue to take their skills and knowledge out into the culture and make it richer in other ways. Pryor talks of the entrenched privilege of university graduates being offered funding to further qualify themselves. I worry too that writers who would benefit from the encouragement and intensity of a good-quality workshop don’t have access. To the mind of many, they’re better off without it. Some writers undoubtedly are. Not everyone wants to discuss their work as they’re doing it, and even those who do, often need to disappear from the world for long periods. But on the subject of privilege, why single out writing? Equity of access to education is a universal concern.

Criticisms from writers undertaking courses who feel they are not getting the support they need to become better writers are valid. Writers who feel left out of the system because they don’t have the time or money or first degree to get involved also have a strong case. I can’t let the word ‘gutless’ stand though for people who invest time, desire and money to put creative work at the centre of their lives for once, and to enter an environment where they are supported by others who have made the same decision. Sensitive as I probably am, this kind of thing feels like having a placard waved at me that says in large letters: GET A REAL JOB.

I’ve got several real jobs, and probably will have all my life. For three years, my real job was being a writer. If you have the chance to do the same, and know that you will do something valuable with that rare time, space and encouragement, take that privilege, and make something with it. I look forward to reading it.

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