No shame in lucidity

October 29, 1999

Students of all subjects should be offered creative writing modules to learn how to write clearly, says Paul Magrs

When I teach creative writing in universities it is to students of English literature. When I teach it elsewhere my students come from all sorts of backgrounds; I have worked with scientists, businessmen, housewives and athletes.

Wherever I am teaching, many of my students want to write a novel that will become a bestseller - that comes with the territory. Many, though, just think that learning to write is a good thing in and of itself.

What I am advocating here is my firm belief that creative writing modules should be taught to students in every university department. We offer skills that students on all degree courses desperately need, whatever subject they are working in. All universities could benefit from offering modules in creative writing to all students - to count towards their final degree.

As a student of literary theory I was always appalled by the prose of theorists and critics. These were people writing about language itself, and yet their writing was so dense and richly convoluted that even the simplest ideas were hedged and twisted around to sound far more complex than they really were.

The separate subject areas right across the university syllabus seem to brazenly gather their specialist discourses to themselves with the same neurotic aplomb with which the emperor donned his new clothes.

It does not have to be like that. I think anyone, working in any area, can benefit hugely from a creative writing course. And not just people working in geology or sociology or musicology; everyone in administrative and management roles, including the people who write the text of prospectuses. We all need to hack away the dead wood of cliche and received opinion and to write language that is vivid and alive.

We are supposed to be interested in interdisciplinarity and multidisciplinarity. What exactly is wrong with being accessible? When I was working on my PhD, in the notoriously jargonised area of postmodern theory, I was forever being told that my work was too lucid, too readable. It was too much like journalism; as if to be understood by too many people was a shameful thing. All the while, though, I was writing fiction as well. I never lost sight of my audience.

I want my writing to have coherence and clarity, whatever subject it is I am writing on. So do the business people and scientists who come on the courses I teach.

The basic tenet of any creative writing course is that there is no such thing as genius. Students from any background can be taught to write well, just as they can to mend a plug or make a

lasagne. When you teach people to write you are sometimes watching them discover that they are allowed to have opinions about their culture at all; they can cut across boundaries of race, class, gender and jargon and put their point across. Language comes alive for them again, in a way that it often has not since they were at school.

In a world in which "transferable skills" are celebrated and prized as a kind of professional Holy Grail, our writing courses remind us of the most valuable; that of articulacy. Writing courses are about the skills necessary to write reports, advertising copy, the imparting of the most specialised, esoteric discoveries. They are about the vital importance of learning to frame the questions we all still need to ask about the world.

We are living in the age of popular science - Steve Jones and Richard Dawkins find themselves on bestseller lists. They are communicating even the most abstruse ideas and concepts to a colossal audience. If scientists can temper their jargon and cut through the myriad separate languages that separate our disciplines, I think we all can. Paul Magrs is a writer and a lecturer in English literature and creative

writing, University of East Anglia.

Should all university degree courses contain a creative writing module?

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