Dear Martin,

February 23, 2007

Fay Weldon, who became professor of creative writing at Brunel last year, offers her new professional colleague some personal tips on teaching.

You start out rather doubtful about whether creative writing can be taught. However, you have taken the job, so you do what you can.

You then discover there is more to be taught than you ever knew - even if only that the rule that sentences have verbs in them cannot lightly be broken by beginners. That you cannot teach people to have ideas, but it is surprising how many ideas you can let loose in their heads and then help get under some control.

My students tend to think writing is more difficult than it is because they have been "doing" English literature. They think they should be aspiring to write great books and not to just getting one finished. I want everyone to be able to write "The End" and then discover what it is that they have written. In other words, stop "polishing", which they are good at, and somehow get beyond Chapter 3, at which they are not necessarily adept.

You will find the relationship between students and tutors has changed greatly since you were a student yourself. Once the emphasis was on students learning rather than on teachers teaching. But these days students pay for and expect a service to be provided. Tutors once just existed; students wrung out of them what they could. Now students take notes and expect to pass exams on the strength of them. Their futures are in your hands, and they let you know it. You become their advocate and parent.

Universities exist as strange bureaucratic entities to which you develop an unexpected loyalty and affection. They are self-contained mini-cities of Babel founded on mysteries called Modules, forever breaking up and reforming. Manchester is even more vast than Brunel. It will take a long time to find your way around. Your students are likely to be postgraduates: they will have jobs, babies, personal dramas - they can be hard to round up. The fiercer the tutor the quicker the assignments get done.

I think you will be surprised at how much you enjoy it.

As to actual teaching, you will find you are doing something very natural, which is passing on what you know to those who don't know but would like to. You will realise what a lot of teaching you have done over the years in more informal settings; enough people have asked you what you are doing and why you are doing it to have worked out what the answer is.

There is no shortage of things to say. You find you try to make your students write as you do. You have to warn them in advance that what you say is not a law, there are no rules, irrespective of what they may have been led to believe, and if they can get away with something then good for them. I personally think if a noun deserves an adjective then the adjective probably deserves a sentence to itself, and say so. Then a student shows you an Iris Murdoch sentence with 18 adjectives in a row and it works. That teaches you.

Advise them not to trust you. If at a loss there are all kinds of factual things you can tell students about the publishing industry, but that's not very cheerful for them to know.

Most will not become novelists. Some no doubt will become arts administrators, others will be more competent writers than they would be without your interference, even if its only chick lit. A few may become imaginative writers at a literary level, and many will be journalists. Some will go into the Civil Service and write reports, but at least the reports will be to the point, won't repeat themselves and will be grammatically correct.

Your time, in other words, will not be wasted.

Yours sincerely,
Fay Weldon

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