Writes of passage

Undergraduates who see creative writing as an 'easy' degree dismay a tutor accustomed to the dedication of adult education students

July 10, 2008

After 25 years teaching an advanced creative writing course in adult education, I accepted a post teaching the same subject to first-year undergraduates at a new university. I expected the students would be younger, certainly, but with a similar love of literature and a desire to write. On my first day I discovered how wrong I was.

By way of introduction I asked the students what books they were reading and the authors they admired.

"Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire."

"The new Harry Potter."

"J. K. Rowling, 'cos she's made lots of money."

"Lord of the Rings."

"Watchmen. It's a comic book by Alan Moore."

"Don't read books."

"Haven't read a book since I was twelve, sir."

"Any Harry Potter."

And so it went on until near the end when a student claimed that he was on the last few pages of Don Quixote.

"It's a book by Cervantes. He's Spanish," he added helpfully. "Do you know it?"

Naturally, after what had preceded it, I assumed he was having a laugh at my expense.

Later, the same morning, we did a short writing exercise. When the students read out their work I was surprised at how good their stories were. They were gritty, realistic tales of lying, cheating, bullying and other childhood indiscretions with not a witch or supernaturally gifted schoolboy in sight.

Only when I came to mark these same pieces did I realise how poor their written English was, their work littered with basic errors of spelling, grammar and punctuation. How was it possible that students who had chosen to study creative writing had such a poor command of their means of expression: the English language? The answer, I think, was that most of the students were there primarily to get degrees, not to become writers.

As one student said: "Creative writing's a soft option. I thought it was the easiest way to get a degree. That's why I'm studying it."

As the course continued I gradually realised how naive I had been to expect the same commitment I had found in the students in the adult education course I'd taught.

I guess my naivety had been nurtured as much by my experience as a film-school student as by adult education. My film school offered successful students a diploma, but it was regarded as irrelevant by most students. We wanted to make films, not collect pieces of paper that meant little or nothing when it came to getting a job in the industry. After attending classes we would spend the evenings watching films. Then we would go home to work on scripts for student exercises and to dream of making our first feature. Getting the diploma was the least of our concerns.

I have found the same single-mindedness among my adult education students. Fired by a passion for writing, getting published and earning some money, they pay their own fees and give up three hours a week to attend my class. They also spend countless hours at home working on their novels and short stories. They may read graphic novels and J. K. Rowling but also Proust, Woolf, Eco, Byatt and McEwan.

Many of them make financial sacrifices to pursue their writing ambitions. Some, despite good professional qualifications, continue to live in rented bedsits well into their forties, taking badly paid part-time jobs to give themselves time to write.

My course offers no degree, diploma or certainty of publication. Some students do get their novels and short stories published, sometimes after spending several years in my class. Indeed, I picked up a copy of the second published novel of one of my students this morning from a local bookshop. But most students, despite their commitment and talent, remain unpublished.

At the university, in contrast, few students appeared to write anything or read much outside the parameters imposed by the course. Maybe it is because they were young? Maybe it is not considered sexy to be passionate about what you are studying?

Having written for most of my adult life, I have found it difficult to come to terms with this attitude. What is the point of spending three years of your life learning about how to do something you do not much care about? It is not as if a degree in creative writing is an automatic passport to getting a decent job.

But perhaps one day I shall walk up the hill to my local bookshop and find there a copy of the new novel by that creative writing student who claimed not to have read a book since the age of twelve. It could happen.

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