Hanif you think creative writing courses are a waste of time…

Apparently Hanif Kureishi does. Which makes me wonder why he runs one, and why anyone would want to attend it!

I admit that I have some sympathy with his viewpoint. I think there are a number of problems with teaching creative writing. The first is that fiction, like painting, sculpture, etc., is art, and the value of a piece of writing is therefore, to a certain extent, subjective. Creativity seems to me to be instinctive. You can teach the basics of grammar. You can teach writers to think about continuity and accuracy, to make sure that when they are describing a city they get the landmarks in the right places, to make sure that when they set a scene at eight o’clock in the evening in midsummer they don’t try and tell the reader that it’s dark. These things are important. Every time you get them wrong you remind your readers that what they’re reading isn’t real – it’s been made up by you. You can teach style; analyse the different styles that are used by writers. The trouble here I suspect is that teachers tend to be dictatorial – they tell students which styles are good and which are bad, and direct them to write in a style that they think is current – fashionable – rather than showing them what can be done and encouraging them to develop their own style.

For me, one of the biggest problems with these courses is that I’m autodidactic – I tend to learn best when I teach myself. This has advantages and disadvantages. It can mean that I miss things that I would have picked up had I been taught by a good teacher. On the other hand, I think it makes me more creative, because I’m following my own path. Though this doesn’t work for everyone. It seems to me that a lot of new writers do nothing but ape the writing of authors they read – clichés and mistakes are sucked in from the donor author and spat out onto the page of their own masterpiece-in-progress. Almost every commentator tells us that if we want to become good writers we should read and read and read. While it helps to have read widely, personally I like to keep my distance from other peoples’ books while I’m working on my own, to avoid being influenced.

Perhaps the biggest problem is finding a good teacher. Sometimes very successful authors run courses because they have a passion for teaching and they want to pass on their experience. I suspect more often than not creative writing teachers are authors who have had limited success and are teaching to try and make up their income, or to bolster their self-esteem (like the fictional Ed Reardon). I nearly signed up to a course at the end of last year. It was run by a published author, at a reputable college. At the last minute I thought that I ought to try and have a look at the tutor’s writing. So I found one of their books on Amazon, clicked on ‘look inside’ and started reading. I managed about four pages. I asked Mrs Literarylad to have a look. She lasted two pages! We both agreed it was rubbish. The style and the language was irritating, and the central premise of the book just wasn’t credible (so much for the design cycle!) And the grammar weren’t great neither. And so, of course, I gave it a miss. It might seem arrogant, but I thought; ‘what can this person possibly teach me (or anyone) about writing?’

There is, I think, one major advantage to creative writing courses and qualifications – agents and publishers love them. So however pointless they might seem, they probably do increase your chances of getting published. It depends upon the course you choose. There’s a guy who runs courses at Bute Park in Cardiff (http://parkwrite.wordpress.com/). I can’t tell you whether he’s any good, because I’ve not been on any of his courses, but what he writes on his blog suggests to me that he probably is. His courses are good value for money, and he likes to work with ordinary working class people and the unemployed, which shows integrity. He has been very dismissive of Curtis Brown, who also run courses, but who charge something like £1600. I respect his viewpoint. I too am sceptical about the quality of these courses. However, Curtis Brown are a large literary agency, and by enrolling on one of their courses you are putting yourself in their way. If you are a good writer, it’s a way of getting noticed, though there’s still an element of luck. And of course being good isn’t enough – you need to be able to produce the kind of work that they want; to match their subjective view of what a good novel should be. And £1600 is a lot of dough to lash out when you don’t earn much! I doubt they make much profit on the courses mind, even at that price. I’d rather they spent more time and effort on their slush pile. I’m probably being unfair, but I can’t help thinking that their creative writing school might be something of a factory for turning out identikit writers in their preferred mould. But I’m prepared to be persuaded otherwise. Perhaps I should start saving my pennies…

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About literarylad

Graham Wright is an author whose first novel, Single Point Perspective, is set in and around the city of Manchester, where he lived and worked for more than fifteen years. It's a dramatic piece of literary fiction that is easy to read, imaginative, serious and thoughtful, but with a sense of humour. Graham now lives in South Wales, and is busy writing his second novel.
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