Forget the muse, it's hard graft you need

August 6, 2004

Michelene Wandor looks at how creative writing has matured into a serious academic discipline since it was pioneered at UEA in 1970.

I recently attended the annual conference of the American Association of Writing Programs (founded in 1967) in Chicago. With 4,000 people attending more than 300 panel discussions and readings, the event was evidence that creative writing is a mature part of the US university landscape.

In the UK, too, creative writing is coming of age - the latest arts/vocational subject after fine art, music, dance and acting to develop its own training grounds. It is an interesting case study of how to develop a new discipline at university level.

There are about 40 creative writing postgraduate degrees, 85 degree courses in which creative writing is a component, boosted by more than 11,000 adult education classes and an unquantified number of informal writing groups.

More universities set up creative writing courses every year, and there has been an increasing number of complete degrees in the subject since the first such began at Middlesex University in the late 1980s. The well-known MA at the University of East Anglia (started by Sir Malcolm Bradbury in 1970) is no longer in illustrious isolation.

Creative writing is a success story. It is popular with students, with the increasing number of professional writers who find teaching a stimulating (and income-boosting) adjunct to writing (I am one of these) and also - a mixed blessing, perhaps - with departments, which see creative writing courses as part of the solution to falling recruitment in traditional humanities subjects.

In this rapidly changing climate, a number of issues are emerging. Where once they were faced with the cliche "Can you teach creative writing?", creative writing teachers are now more involved in the practical, professional and teaching issues associated with developing a new and rigorous discipline. This is partly the result of the accumulated expertise of the large and varied group of writers who have been teaching at universities. In the past decade, the National Association of Writers in Education, which services teachers in schools and universities, has run conferences and has set up an informal autodidactic network through which people can share skills.

Creative writing has also had to respond to its academic context, inventing assignments and developing assessment criteria and procedures. A distilled set of assessment guidelines was published in the NAWE journal to rationalise the complexity of combining technical, craft and aesthetic judgements.

In the US, related issues are being explored. With more than 300 postgraduate courses and many undergraduate options, the US combines a pragmatic writerly approach with attention to the principles and myths that underlie the establishment of creative writing as a subject. This throws up new issues. English literature and creative writing are, in a sense, two sides of the same coin; one a critical study based on the practice of reading, the other a critical study based on the practice of writing. This symbiotic relationship means there is potential to link cultural theory to the teaching of creative writing, not solely to the study of the literary canon and its alternatives.

At the same time, creative writing finds itself playing a role in the literacy crisis - the language skills improved by writing fiction may help to improve language skills. In US bookstores, works on creative writing are shelved in the reference section next to dictionaries and books on language usage.

Creative writing is not an easy way of teaching literacy, any more than it is the soft option desired by some students ("an easy way to get a degree" and "not much reading" are a couple of phrases I've heard). People who cling to a Romantic notion of the muse as the only key to writing fiction will be challenged as more of us convey the complexity and hard graft of writing. Creative writing is like everything else - most people can acquire the skills to do it, but not everyone will do it with the same degree of achievement. We do not expect all history students to become eminent historians, and we should not teach creative writing as if it were only about producing the next Booker prizewinner. Along with teaching an art form, we are teaching a writerly understanding of genre and encouraging passion about the potential of language.

One of the main difficulties we face is that most students arrive with virtually no writing experience. An A level in creative writing can't be far away...

Michelene Wandor holds a Royal Literary Fund Fellowship for 2004-05 at Hertforshire University, and is working on a book called The Author Is not Dead, Merely Somewhere Else: Creative Writing after Theory .

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