“I never attended a creative writing class in my life. I have a horror of them; most writers groups moonlight as support groups for the kind of people who think that writing is therapeutic. Writing is the exact opposite of therapy.” —Zadie Smith
I remember seeing this quote bandied about on the internet an awful lot a while back. It was usually there to illustrate the sort of article that then went on to debate the extraordinary proliferation of new courses; from academic master’s degrees to those set up by the industry, like CB creative and Faber Academy, all of whom were charging significant sums to help you write better, more publishable books.
The debate was stoked in 2014 by Hanif Kureshi – Professor of Creative Writing at Kingston University, declaring that creative writing courses were ‘a waste of time’ And that ‘it’s probably 99.9 per cent who are not talented and the little bit that is left is talent.’ Nice one Hanif! Wonder what his students thought of that…
Seriously though, I studied over two years for a master’s at Birkbeck College, and I’ve sometimes wondered about the effect taking such a degree has had on my work. There are people I’ve met who have served on prize panels who say that the work of those who have passed through these courses are easy to spot. When I question them further though their answers are vague, but seem to be along the lines of edges being planed off, of an essential wildness being lost from the work. This concerns me, but is it really true? As a reader I’m not at all sure I can tell if a writer has passed through a creative writing course or not.
The workshop model in which creative writing is taught at master’s level hasn’t changed much from its first incarnation at the University of Iowa in the 1930s; each week a couple of students have their work read and discussed in front of them by their peers and a teacher. They usually have to keep quiet until the discussion has run its course. ‘Workshopping’ has often been derided for criticism by consensus, a dangerous method for shaping the work of an emerging writer. (Check out the episode in the last series of GIRLS where Hannah is in workshop at Iowa.) And there’s a fascinating long-form essay by Chard Harbach of The Art of Fielding fame, on the emergence of what he sees as two distinct literary cultures in the U.S.
In my own experience I can only say I loved those first workshops at Birkbeck. I come from a theatre background and the workshops at their best were a sort of theatre, unique and unrepeatable. Waiting to have my work discussed was like waiting to go on stage, complete with the increased heartbeat and sweaty palms. The rush when I got decent feedback was as good as any audience applause.
Before I started my degree my writing heroes were the modernists – they still are in many ways, that hasn’t changed – I was going to write elliptical, beautiful prose; to conjure a mood, not a three act structure. But being forced to read and take the relative merits of genre fiction seriously, for instance, was a really valuable exercise. Coming back to my own work I began to see how a driving plot and a feel for language didn’t have to be mutually exclusive. In fact, a driving plot was probably a great idea. (I read Middlemarch for the first time last summer and was delighted to see that, however many lengthy disquisitions Eliot gives us on the changing nature of rural life, she gets that love triangle up and running pretty damn quickly. She knew her way around a plot, that one.)
More than anything though, that master’s brought me a writer’s group. Eleven people who have been, yes Zadie, a support structure. They are not only fine writers, but extremely fine readers. We still meet every week in term time to read and critique each others work. I have no idea what my work would be without these eleven, not much different perhaps, but there have been times, many times, when, stuck with a knotty narrative problem, I’ve submitted to the group and come away, not perhaps with the ultimate answer – only your gut can tell you that – but with a whole new perspective on the draft.
By now, too, we know each other well enough to say what sort of feedback will be useful. It may be much more general ‘would you turn the next page?’ if we’re working on a first draft, or, later in a book, we might want closer line readings. We sometimes take term long, year long sabbaticals, knowing when our work is too nascent to be submitted to the gaze of others. But we return, to read and be read. When I submit work to the group I still get the sweaty palms, the raised heartbeat. I still get the rush when they praise what I’ve written.
I’m sure the debate will rage on, but I was given an interesting perspective on it recently while visiting France to promote Wake. A journalist told me that when she interviews British and American writers, they talk often about how hard they worked on their novels. She said that the French have a different sort of aura around their writers, they tend not to talk about their craft in such terms. I found this really interesting, and asked if there were any creative writing courses there; very few, I was told.
Perhaps creative writing courses are worth their money for one simple reason, they de-mystify the process of writing. I’d disagree with Hanif here. I think, deep down, he believes that there are geniuses (him and maybe a few others?) and the rest of us. But I reckon talent is actually a much smaller part of making a writer than stubbornness and hard graft. Embarking on a course can give you an inkling of how bloody hard and long and and lonely you have to work to get a novel anywhere near ready. How writing is, as the saying goes, re-writing. Drafting and re-drafting, again, and again and again. And again. But hopefully too, in getting you to write, to actually write, they show you that however tough it can be, whether make it to publication or not, writing is also one of the most exhilarating, life affirming things you will ever undertake.
I’d be interested to hear your thoughts. Find me on Twitter @anna_hope.