Thursday, June 11, 2009

Up For Discussion

Anton provided this link to an article in the New Yorker discussing the merits of creative writing courses. It's a long article, but worth the read,I think. (Thanks, Anton)

It seems to be centred on mainstream literary fiction, and it seems to argue against itself with the evidence it presents, but it does touch on some home truths, the main one being that creativity can not be taught but it can be encouraged, and this is what I think creative writing courses at all levels are endeavouring to do.

I'm becoming a little disillusioned with my course because I'm not learning a great deal and it's not inspiring me to write more or better. This may have something to do with not fully trusting some of those teaching me.

When I do modules on screen writing, or writing articles - things I'm not naturally lured towards, then I focus more because I'm learning new things. When I'm doing modules on writing short stories or on writing the novel, I'm not learning so much because I've learned much of it over my growth as a writer over the last three years or so. That's not to say I learn nothing, but I do have to sift through a lot of chaff to get to the good stuff.

So does this make writing courses not worth the Latin inscribed parchment you get from them?

I think that depends on where you're at in your writing journey and what you're aiming to get out of the experience.

Creative writing courses will not make you a writer. They will give you tools to add to your writing toolbox, some you will keep, some you will adapt to your own needs, and others you will discard, but at least you will learn of their existence and be able to make decisions about them.

They can give you a sense of community in a profession which is mostly a solo affair, and writers need each other, but a blog like this one or joining a writing group does the same thing - and probably does it better.

It can prod you into producing work. This isn't always quality work due to the time constraints placed on you, but it does give ideas you can work on outside the course framework. Of course your time is so taken up with doing assignments and reading, you have seriously reduced time to follow up on those ideas, and by the time you do, often the spark of inspiration has died and you tend to discard those once flaming gems.

The dream of writing for a living is dying. I'm becoming, sadly, more in tune with the idea of writing only because I want to. I've always wanted to, I just wanted my cake and to eat it as well. Now I'm happy enough to get my work published and track my career as it moves through better quality markets which may one day equal better pay, but it will 'probably' never be enough to live on. Still, a nice bonus occasionally is a good thing.

So do I think creative writing courses are a good thing?

For new writers, for people who, like I did back in 2006, suddenly decided to start writing, then doing a six or twelve month writing course could put you on the right path, but I would suggest doing an English class at that point would be more beneficial.

When you get to the point of submitting work to market, then it may be useful, but then putting the butt in the chair and writing is as useful if not more so. Finding writers who are better than you and who are willing to share their wisdom, help you learn, and pass honest judgement on your work, is infinitely more useful.

As you progress into more focused work in the longer courses such as the four year one I'm currently doing, you will dedicate more time producing a single work which is a good thing, but then with everything you've done with other writers outside the course structure, you'd be doing this anyway and with a better base of opinions to offer guidance rather than a single mentor who you have been paired with - someone you didn't pick and who you still have to learn to trust.

If you're doing the course for the other modules to expand your knowledge across all possible writing careers, then you're diluting your creative juices and this is not a good thing. Decide on what you want to do and put your energies into that.

Creative writing courses may teach you some technical parts of the writing process. They may encourage you to produce work and move forward with your art, but they cannot teach you to be creative.

My advice is to take an English course as early in life as possible and become good at using the words you intend to be creative with, and then get out and experience life. Take note of the world around you and encourage your inner child to make up scenarios about the things you see.

And then write - a lot. Read a lot as well. Seek out writers who are better than you. Your goal is to learn from them and eventually surpass them, unless they are just as focused and then you should all rise together. Critique other people's work and get your own done as often as you can.

Spend some time as a member of Critters (or similar large critique group) where you will read a lot of work. You need to read the good and the bad. You need to be able to pick the difference at ten paces so you won't make the same mistakes - or at least be less likely to :c)

Unless a specific job you're aiming at requires you to have that Latin coated piece of dried and pressed wood, then don't bother. There are better ways - in my opinion (and experience).

What do you think?


  1. I think the main benefit of doing a course, even if I don't plan on doing one, is that it signals to you and the people are you that you a serious about this writing thing.

    It's not just a hobby. You're prepared to put time and money into it.

    On a lesser example, that's why I go to writer's festivals.

  2. I think it depends on the writer's personality. Some really respond/flourish under writing programs. Others don't. For me, I've learn more efficiently by reading different kinds of fiction (from literary to yaoi) and reactions to my own stories.

  3. I'm in a similar situation to you, BT. About half way through last year I started writing again, after a twenty year gap, did the NaNoWriMo, and am making a real effort to get better.

    I thought about doing an Open University (distance learning in the UK) course on CW, and I still might, but for now I'm just concentrating on writing any old carp just to see words on the screen on a regular basis.

    My real regret, however, is that I never studied English Literature, and I feel like I've missed out on decades, or centuries even, of other people's experience, because I've been reading rubbish for the past many years. What is it they say about standing on the shoulders of giants?

  4. Yep - lots of people flourish in a writing course if it's intimate and concerned with encouraging the creativity of those involved. It seems to me that most institutionalized learning is a long way from that.

    I still think most writers would benefit more from being realistic with their own abilities, nurturing relationships with other writers, and doing the hard yards by writing, and writing, and writing some more.

    Every writer's ability is easily judged by how the market accepts them. Getting rejections doesn't mean you suck. Getting rejections from small exposure markets means you have work to do. Getting rejections from pro markets means the same thing, but if you're gaining acceptances from semi pro and paying markets while gaining rejections from pro markets, then I'm guessing you're moving forward nicely.

    Being stubborn and saying I'm not changing what I do and how I do it is fine as well - as long as you don't want to sell anything and are interested in writing just to be able to write - nothing wrong with that. It's all about priorities.

    Meeting and learning from others in the industry seems to be a life long journey for every writer - so crit groups, online networking, festivals, etc, etc are all good things for a writer to be involved with at any level.

    I'm rambling - again. Sorry.

  5. Many folks shell out the dough for the creative writing courses, but the most important factor isn't money, it's commitment. All the "coursework" in the world isn't going to take you anywhere if you don't want it...and aren't willing to work.

    My favorite bit from Good Will Hunting is when Matt Damon's character mocks a university student 'cause Damon "got the same education for twelve dollars in library fines".

  6. That sounds like excellent advice to me. Of course, 15-20 years ago if someone had given me that advice, I'd have thought, "Yeah, right." But then, I was convinced I was going to be a bestselling author by my 30th birthday. Excuse me while I laugh hysterically. :)

  7. I am a product of the American creative writing system having a degree (BFA in creative writing) and I can say that the best thing they taught me was to be grounded in reality, no matter what you write. They also taught perseverance and tried to coach us as best they could.

  8. That was a good read, thanks for the heads up. I agree with your assessment of it entirely, and I think a lot of the problems with it are because it's trying to extend its reach to contemporary literature in a weird way.

    Not that it's not worth looking at what the system is currently producing and how it got there, but I think the article's trying to frame its discussion of contemporary lit/the system in terms of its cultural impact (rather than as a product of post-war lit-- evidence of previous impact in itself), just like it did its discussion of post-war lit. That's academically impossible until we actually know what the impact of contemporary lit will be. Gums up the works a bit with conjecture, and therefore conclusions that seem contradictory.

    But it gives someone a chance to sound intelligent about an admittedly fascinating and hot topic. God bless the New Yorker.

    I think Aaron's point about commitment and your point about the most important thing being to get out there, experience things, and seek out other writers, are very key. Some might benefit from a writing course, some might find it stifling and irritating, maybe even counterproductive. Like any relationship with another writer, I reckon it's about matching up work styles. The right match can foster all kinds of creativity, no matter where it happens.

  9. Aaron - you scare me sometimes with how closely we match ideas on things.

    Is that a case of great minds, or another saying about fools...

    KC - 15-20 years ago, I was more interested in driving fast and chasing skirt. I'd even given up reading at that point! Remember, hindsight = 20/20 vision.

    Jamie - I think moving in writing circles will teach, if you have a relatively open mind, the same things. I've learned through interactions with those who comment here that writing isn't going to be a cash cow. I've learned to re-evaluate why I need to write. I write by the motto of being true within the lie. I'm all for any course encouraging writers to do everything they can for the craft, but I think I would warn anyone considering it, to research heavily on any considered course to ensure it's what you want now, and into the future of it extends over years.

    Katey - yep, Anton did good bringing that article to light. I agree it makes an interesting case about modern lit while trying to make a general comment on all fiction, as if the authors he mentions are the same ones making the biggest impacts on today or have done so in recent years.

    I think old academics, and some journalists, live for conjecture because reality tends to burst any other bubble they hold dear.

    I also agree that finding a good match is important. I hold dear my readers who write in the same genre, but I also have one special reader who doesn't write anything like the same stuff, and they have become invaluable to me. So I take this opportunity to expand on the pairing (or more) of writers, to suggest, like your reading, you don't limit yourself to only those within your immediate circle.

  10. Haha, so true about the bubble bursting reality! I definitely learned that the hard way in my academic years, and I've never forgotten :D

    That's an excellent point about the readers/writing partners/groups being extremely useful when as varied as possible. Amazing what a non-genre writer will catch in my stuff-- or even a non-writer who just reads a lot (like my husband, bless him). The pairings are many and varied, and all good for different reasons. Totally worth pointing out.

  11. And whether your path leads you into a more formal education and the "Latin coated piece of dried and pressed wood" or whether you go the informal route of learning by reading and writing a lot, *please* do yourself and your readers a BIG favor and spend some time regularly looking up words in the dictionary, eh? Even the ones you think you already know how to use? The nuances of proper word usage really separate the master from the grasshopper.

  12. See, this is why I love Pharo - even now they're willing to bust my chaps.

    But Pharo is right (as usual), and to combat this I've taken subscription in the Macquarie Dictionary and Thesaurus. Got to know the words we use :c)