Saturday, 28 March 2015

Does a Degree in Creative Writing make you a Creative Writer?


Flicking through a couple of writing mags, I'm struck by the number of creative writing courses now on offer. Anything from an MA to a BA to a short series of lectures. Even the Guardian is now cashing in and running all day sessions on how to write various types of genre fiction, non-fiction, blogs etc.

Many of these courses come with glowing endorsements from former students, some of whom have gone on to write best sellers/make small fortunes/land top jobs in the media profession. Call me Ms Cynic if you will (please do...) but I view the whole creative writing business with enough skepticism to refloat the Titanic.

I do not have a degree in creative writing. I don't have a certificate saying I attended any courses. Hell, I don't even have a badge saying writer. I just learned my craft as I wrote. Book after book after book. And as I read. Book after book after book. Because reading and writing was all I ever wanted to do.

So here's my take on the proliferation of degrees, second degrees, courses and 'Be a creative writer' stuff:

You can learn the structure of writing: how to balance sentences; how to vary action and description. You can learn how to construct characters, and how to write dialogue. You can learn grammar and punctuation.  BUT that spark, that inner drive, that ''talent" that separates the real writer from the creative writing clone is innate. You are born with it. And if you ain't got it, you ain't.

And as for the ''best seller'' newbie writers, who have probably landed their publishing contract on the back of their writing tutors' connections to various publishing houses, (shock horror .. did you not realise that's how it works?) once they leave the cosseted hothouse world of the degree course, and let go of their mentor's hand, it is rare to see them flourish beyond that first carefully nurtured book.

The finest writers in the canon of literature: Shakespeare, Keats, Austen, Dickens, Tolstoy etc never went on a creative writing course, and never passed a single exam in creative writing. Would their works have been better if they had? I think not.



56 comments:

  1. I remeber reading an article in a newspaper about the latest Granta-selected 'authors of the future'. Of the 12 identified, 11 had creative writing degrees. All 11 had written novels (which had been published) that had the same structure: two-person viewpoints told through alternating chapters. And it just made me question whether these degrees teach you about current fashions, rather than writing.

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    1. There was, a few years ago, a certain type of novel that was clearly 'School of East Anglia Creative Writing Degree' .. I'm nit naming names..funnily enough, a couple of the protagonists wrote much better books once they'd freed themselves from its diktats.

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    2. I've just realised. That was exactly the structure of the dreadful 'The Lie of You' that was at #86 in the Amazon chart when I gave it its 2* review last week.

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  2. Well said, well said, and well said again!!!! I am so fed up with seeing blog posts about hard work/perseverance being more important than talent. One is no good without the other, but you need both. Brings to mind all those X Factor contestants who spend a fortune on singing lessons but still have only average voices.

    I must have told you more than once about the literary agents at a writing conference I went to who laughed when asked about such courses - they said you can always tell the submissions written by these students, they're like novel writing by numbers. Yes, you can learn structure, etc, but, as you say, you learn by doing it, and observation. I would think many of these courses are run by people who have merely seen a market opening, ie, a way to make money from the hopeful.

    I think it was Zadie Smith who said "You can either write good sentences or you can't." Kind of sums it up.

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    1. Knew you'd have 'views'! What really annoys me, and I've only passed lightly over it, is the fact that so many of these degrees are linked to publishing houses..who use them to talent spot (see Simon's comment above). Agents may spot the creative writing pattern, but publishing house are not so vigilant, or lazy enough to use the qualification as a peg to hang publicity on.

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    2. You're not kidding. I listened to a bestseller the other day by someone who clearly has the right connections (you can tell from her bio) - the plot had more holes than my favourite leezure trousers, the characters were flat and unbelievable and it had many bad reviews - but, hey, it has the guns behind it to make it Kindle Deal of the Day and thus achieve Amazon Top 100 status. I am blogging this week on UKAD about marketing 'experts'....

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    3. I shall read with interest..... as I have advised many writers on marketing, and refused to be drawn into the seductive promises of various companies...

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  3. I began an MA - and gave up. I began because I knew I had a lot to learn, and wanted to do that learning alongside other creative, curious, skilled writers.

    I gave up because:
    1. The course cost a lot of money and I didn't feel the tutors gave a monkey's toss about me once I'd paid my fees.
    2. It was an online course - the only way I could do it. And that didn't work well for me - I was the 'old lady' in the group (and had to tackle agism from young things who thought everyone over 40 should be knitting) and most were much quicker with the technology than I was.
    3. The whole university, jumping-through-hoops, moving-the-goalposts thing. So when I began we just had essays and a final novel to produce. Then they decided we also needed to produce a modern-media project which involved a DVD and internet stuff and I keeled over at the thought of it. Those who did it found it useful.

    Having said that, I learned a lot about reading as a writer that I hadn't learned before - even though I'd read books telling me how to do it. Until someone actually asked the questions (how does such-an-author structure this scene and why?) I'd struggled with that.

    And I don't know anyone who doesn't speak very highly of Arvon.

    Even so, this proliferation feels like a con - someone has noticed all the aspiring scribblers out there and spotted a way to make money. And far too many scribblers believe that all these courses will guarantee success.

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    1. THANK YOU Jo - I really wanted to hear from someone who'd done one of these. Yes, Arvon has a great rep...and you reinforce what I said - you learned about structure and how to ''read'' a narrative. But you didn't ''learn''' how to write content..... because that comes from within.

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    2. Precisely, Jo - re the last paragraph. Which is something I'm mentioning in the blog post I'm writing too.

      One of my favourite writers, John Boyne (well known trad pubbed) did a creative writing degree. I asked him why; he said it was because he knew he could write but wanted to learn how to produce a publishable novel. Fair enough. The difference that so many students don't realise is that even if such courses are helpful, they can't provide you with talent you haven't already got - and it's that which you need to make people say something better than "Yeah, it was quite good. Not bad. Competent." about your book.

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    3. I had a really bad experience on an Arvon course, no direction, no tuition, just left to do our own thing. I complained when I got home but received no reply.

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    4. Heard of a lot of people who found courses of any type a waste of time.

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  4. Well said! I think this applies to all the arts. The truly greats in our history did not have the benefit of degrees, diplomas and courses; they simply had that inner passion and drive to create. The rest came from learning by doing!

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    1. Exactly..and still does, in all fields of the arts and crafts.

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  5. An absolutely fascinating blog and reply section.

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  6. The evidence speaks for itself, I think. You don't really need a piece of paper to prove what you can do.
    And Amen to that, for I don't have any either!

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  7. I've always fancied doing a Creative Writing MA but have never had the money or the time to indulge myself. However, as time goes on and the number of graduates from these courses grows & grows, I'm glad that I wasn't able to go down that path. I now realise a Creative Writing degree is no automatic pathway to publication and, as you rightly point out, without that 'inner drive' no wannabe writer will succeed. Carol, you and the previous commentors, make a lot of sensible points. Thank you.

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  8. I concur that true talent can not be taught and such a gift is indeed innate. I do, however, feel that some genuine creative writing courses can awaken certain aspects of an individuals latent abilities and thus aid them in nurturing skills which would have otherwise been left undiscovered. I say 'some genuine creative writing courses' because I too am a raving cynic who finds it difficult to accept the 'glowing endorsements' which accompany many of these programs. Actually, I'm both raving and cynical in general!.....and I managed to attain this level of madness thanks to the school of life........what a course that is!

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    1. Hahaha.. says it all...... I think, though what it says remains obscure and opaque

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  9. Good coursework never hurts, but to paraphrase someone, 'creative writing is the best teacher of creative writing'. I hope that sounds appropriately pompous, because it's all I've got... nice blog :)

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  10. I looked into doing an MA at my local uni a few years ago. When I saw the cost I nearly passed out! As a single mum I couldn't justify taking on such a debt. I love reading and I adore writing, and so instead of worrying about having a piece of paper with 'creative writing guru' stuck on the fridge, I just kicked my own backside and wrote. I learn more from reading than any structured class could teach me. Wonderful blog post Carol, thank you.

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  11. That was a lot of blog writing just to be able to reveal your dominatrix name ;o)

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    1. Carol, give this guy the award for best comment!

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    2. He has a big enough ego as it is!! Hahahaha

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  12. I teach at degree level, yet I still agree with Carol. I don't think the basic 'voice' and understanding of language can be taught at all; the voice in your head is the one that should be on the page. Like Carol, I knew how to write before I took my MA because I'd also wrote and wrote and read and read. But after I'd gained it, and started work as a tutor, I realized that I was learning like mad, suddenly! I've learnt more about writing from teaching it than at any time before. I try to encourage my students to be relective on their own writing and listen to the way the words sound; to unpick things and rewrite, to learn the basic strategies and to read, read read. The rest is up to them.

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    1. Thanks Nina, very helpful. I think the problem lies in the perception by students that an MA ( or whatever) MAKES them a good writer, or gives them an edge over those who do not have a degree. Sadly, I think publishers agree with this, which is why it is becoming yet another barrier for the''ordinary writer' to mainstream acceptance.

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    2. Nina: Spot on. "the voice in your head is the one that should be on the page." I've been teaching that (and preaching that) for years.

      Carol: Interesting post. I think people need a combination of both of these things and you are absolutely right that if people think that taking a course or getting a degree is what makes than a writer (or a better writer than someone without), they are sadly mistaken. Like you said, "You can learn the structure of writing..." but that spark and inner drive is all yours.

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  13. Well said Carol.
    I completed the first half of an online Writing Course. The non-fiction bit helped me no end and I got my foot in the door. There was a change of tutor for my fiction section and he was rubbish. I should have asked for another tutor; but I walked away.
    Now, I'm trying to build up my fiction confidence again. I won't be taking any more time - wasting courses. I will read and read, instead.
    Great post and I will be back for more. :)

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    1. Excellent. I think non-fiction courses are good..there is s certain way & expectation for subbing. For fiction, you've either GOT talent , or NOT! No course in heaven or hell can teach you that.

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  14. I've never had a writing class (creative or otherwise). But I did have Sisters Mary First-Fifth-Grades. We learned—in English and latin, thank you very much—how to diagram a sentence, and what the parts of speech do. We learned all the rules of how to do it right, so that when we grew up to be writers, we would know how and when to break them.

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  15. As a Creative Writing teacher (not degree level, I hasten to add, but 'leisure class'/adult ed), I agree with much of what's been said. I often have a problem with students who think I'm going to teach them how to write. I can give them tips, advice, inspiration and steer them in the right direction but they have to do the writing themselves and I always tell them that they will learn the most, if they actually put pen to paper and write. The looks on their faces tell me that's not what they want to hear. They want me to tell them the secret of writing. And I'm sorry, but I can't do that...!

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    1. Thank you Helen ..I was hoping someone like you would chip in with your opinion. I have been aske at a writey thing whether I had a degree in Creative Writing. When I said no, the interlocutor's face spoke volumes. I had to add: but I have had 13 books published....... hahaha

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    2. Just come across this post, and decided this was the comment I would stick my oar in. Ahem. I used to teach "Writing for pleasure and Profit" back in the last century for the local Adult Ed dept and for the WEA. And exactly like Helen, they wanted me to teach them how to write. I couldn't. then, for some obscure reason I decided to do an MA in Creative Writing. This was before every shop on the corner was running them, and mine was a University of Wales one. I commuted from Kent every week for a year. It was run by Worthy Welsh Poets who knew NOTHING about commercial publishing. I actually took a couple of sessions to tell them about it... The only thing I got out of that course was meeting my publisher who was a fellow student. We have both been successful in spite of the course.

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    3. So something good came out of it - though not what you hoped. I do think you reinforce what I said..nothing against actual teachers...but students do have a very high expectation of outcomes. Look, we see it every day on social media..I wrote my book...why aren't I getting hundreds of 5 star reviews and thousands of sales? I have 'taught' creative writing to a limited extent on the old A level Lit/Lang course, which demanded a 5,000 word writing folder. Some students sailed through. Others thought they could sail through by being 'told' how to write. Can't be done, alas. Bit like brain surgery. Can only go so far, then your innate skill has to kick in.

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  16. I have a master's in creative writing and I taught fiction writing for a writers organization in the US. In spite of which I'm looking around for your Like button (sorry--couldn't find it). No degree makes a person a writer. No lack of degree keeps a person from being one. But a good class or six can save a person a lot of time, maybe even open up possibilities the writer wouldn't have considered. And a bad class--or a dangerously seductive one--can stamp out lots of little twits who all think they know what they're doing even though it's pretty much what all their little twitlet friends are doing.

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    1. I think it's the expectation that talent can be taught, and what is a gift can be acquired in a classroom. It can't. If it could, the world would be full of wonderful novels.

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  17. Couldn't agree with you more! I do some creative writing components in my communications degree, but I know I'm just not cut out to be a bestselling creative writer.

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    1. WELL DONE YOU!!! I wish other people had your pragmatism!

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    2. :-) I get so stressed out when I have to come up with something creative, but I'm fine with more informational or professional forms of writing, so best to stick with what comes naturally to me as much as possible. I have to hand in a personal essay next weekend so cross your fingers for me!!

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  18. For those who have, or decide they have, the time, opportunity and money to pursue a writing degree, hurrah. Lots of good contacts, anyway. For the rest of us? I'm with you. Get in the trenches and do the work.

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  19. It's a very expensive way of getting the contacts. Cheaper to be in a country where you just silver the outstretched palm. But that's cynical. A good writer is a good writer -- sooner or later.

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  20. I read recently that the theory behind the setting up of the first Creative Writing Masters Course at the University of East Anglia was that they'd give potential writers a year to immerse themselves in it, never mind if they weren't really taught anything, and after that if they had no talent they'd have realised it. Personally I believe that there are skills you can learn (if you can afford to!) but you have to have the talent in the first place.

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    1. Agreed Ros. If you have no innate talent, you can only learn the mechanics.

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    2. Another thought provoking piece, Carol. I started writing creatively, as opposed to technically, in 2006, which is the year the OU started their Creative Writing module. I experienced similar issues as Jo with online courses: very little interaction between students and problems with the technology. But the documentation and session notes were superb, especially for me as a scientist with no creative training, and I still refer back to the notes on occasion.

      Later I signed up for an MA, but with one specific objective only - to give myself the structure and discipline to get my novel written. I achieved that, plus it made me a better reader (rather than writer) and established a group of writing buddies who still meet monthly for critiquing lunches. So I was pleased with the outcome from that point of view. However, it did little for my knowledge of or contacts within the industry and it convinced me that CW should not be an academic subject. I'm not sure I would go down the same route if I was doing it again.

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  21. Excellent post Carol, or Ms Cynic, if you prefer! Enjoyed reading through the comments too :-)

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    1. The comments are turning out to be the best bit!

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    2. The comments often are the best bit! Great piece Carol. I don't have any degree. I have considered doing one, but it would be history/archaeology if I ever did it (funds permitting). Talking with other creatives online and utilising a writing group for critique are more accessible and probably just as effective.

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  22. In the US the MFA courses (which are even more horrendously expensive) have become almost a mafia gatekeepers' community for getting published - but still no guarantee, as there are too many alumni.
    Mind you, the one reason I'd like to do such a course is to have time to focus just on the writing and nothing else... So maybe a 'retreat' is better.

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    1. I just think and I go back t my core point: You have to have the talent there to begin with. All the expensive courses in the world will not lead to being a good writer. A competent one, yes. But not GOOD!

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  23. Talent isn't a dirty word - in fact we should use it more often - but nor is the idea that mentoring and taught courses have something to offer. Artists go to art school and no one holds up their hands in horror. Musicians have lessons. In all the creative pursuits there is a craft to learn but the art comes from inside. It can be nutured, supported, brought out but the magic comes from within. Studying for a Masters in Creative Writing was one of the best things I've ever done. I left school at 16 and worked ever since while bringing up a family so it wasn't a natural step. I got my first degree (history) in evening classes age 40. I got my MA in creative writing part time a few years later and it opened my mind to books and ideas I've never come across before. It didn't turn me into a writer, I've been writing all along but it helped me. It gave me confidence. It allowed me to take risks. And now I lecture in creative writing at all levels from undergraduate to adult and community education, I want to pass on the encouragement and zest that I have gathered along the way. But in the end there are only two ways to become a writer. One is to write as much as you can. Dive in and do it. Two is to read as much as you can - the rubbish so you learn what not to do - and the great so you can see how they made you fall in love with their characters or chill your blood with their plots...we all have to learn. You don't have to do it in the classroom. It's one option that's all and there's no need to feel aggrieved about the ones who choose it. Trust me, it's not an easy route to publication. I can see from the comments that some people have had bad experiences (and bad tutors!) but that's no reason to damn the whole idea of a creative education, although it is a reason to complain

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    1. thank you Bridget for your long and comprehensive response. I am sure it will encourage people. What I find interesting (and I always do) is the way this thread is developing AWAY from my original point - which is however 'good' a course may be, it will never make you into the sort of writer cited in my final paragraph unless you have the innate talent in the first place. It almost appears as if we are so insecure that we are now so unsure of ourselves that we have to trust others for reassurance of out ability. Fascinating. I'm sure I'd probably ''fail'' a creative writing degree - as I work the way I do, not the way anyone would advise me!!

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    2. I find this often with blog posts - some readers pick up on one or two sentences of it and read them in a different way; comments on my blog sometimes make me wonder if I'm expressing myself properly, for that reason. All you were saying is that creative writing courses will not provide you with talent, which is the main thing you need to be a good writer. People who go to art school or music colleges or whatever already have some talent, or they wouldn't be accepted, but anyone who can write decent English can do a creative writing course. However, learning to structure a novel, etc, will not make the words on your page anything other than 'okay' if you .... oh, never mind. I refer back to my original comment. You can either write good sentences or you can't. End of.

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  24. Hi, Carol. I'm not a writer, as you know. But my belief is that these courses are a waste of money. Bit like the proofreading/editing courses they try to flog you. Sure, one can always learn a few new things that will be helpful. But you can either do it or you can't. I'm articulate, well-read, educated - but I couldn't write a book because I don't have that 'spark'. Wouldn't know where to begin. And I don't think I could be taught it!

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  25. I'm coming late to this, as I didn't see the blog post back in March, but I agree with your sentiments. I had been writing and wanting to be a writer from my teens, but I had such low self-esteem and lack of confidence that I always thought I would get nowhere even if I tried. Becoming a writer, I felt, was for other people, better people. It was taking a creative writing course with the Open University that made me realize I was good enough. Above all, that course gave me confidence and the impetus to finally keep writing past the 30,000 words mark (at which point I used to give up). The second writing course I took with the OU was a very unpleasant experience which almost destroyed all that confidence! (Different tutor and different course priorities than the ones I was interested in.) Anyway, I do attribute actually getting into print to that first writing course, but not because it taught me how to write. It gave me some worthwhile pointers and plenty of encouragement, and that was enough.

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  26. The thing is, surely it's obvious that you must want to tell a story. The story and the characters are pretty much all that matters, and 'creative writing' so-called skills are so much tosh. How about someone who's chatting to you over a cup of coffee who tells you a really interesting story? Did he or she go on a course? A course on having an imagination and stepping into a world you've created?

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  27. Love this post. I'm itching to do a creative writing degree because I know there is so much I will enjoy learning, but I also know that it will knock the very 'something' out of me. I also think that only successful writers like yourself or those who have taken such degrees can comment so accurately and confidently about this. Anyone else will be looked upon as seemingly resentful.

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