Wednesday, 30 May 2012
Are Creative Writing Courses A Waste of Time?
A couple of years ago journalist Lisa Pryor created a bit of an uproar in Australia with an article about creative writing courses in universities. The gist of her argument was that "if you can't work out what good writing is by reading widely, if you need it spelled out slowly with the benefit of a circle of plastic chairs and a whiteboard, you lack the mettle to be a great novelist."
She also claimed that university degrees in creative writing attract "those who are everything a good writer is not: compliant, institution bound and approval seeking. Thirdly, and most importantly, good writers risk becoming institutionalised."
Pryor echoed the belief many share that writing is not something that can be taught in the same way that other creative skills can be. Rarely do you hear people railing against the teaching of painting or sculpture at university level, but it seems writing is considered an inate ability that is best nurtured through starvation in an attic.
I have several problems with this article, not least of which is the claim that university writing courses will lead to "compliant, institution bound writers" who "other-think things." As if thinking and writing are mutually exclusive! During my years studying English and media studies at university I was trained to be anything but compliant and approval-seeking. A good university education teaches people to be critical thinkers and not accept things at face value. To claim these are not good skills for a writer to develop is ludicrous.
Obviously formal training is not required for people to become great writers, but it sure doesn't hurt. I've recently reached a point with my own writing where I don't feel I can go any further without some feedback and guidance. I hope to get accepted into a graduate certificate in creative writing in the near future. I really thrive on formal education and even though it's going to plunge me into thousands of dollars more debt with the tax man, it's worth it for me.
Here's a really interesting article by Jeanette Winterson about the explosion in the number of people who consider themselves writers and the increase in university creative writing courses. She shares Pryor's concern that these courses will create homogenised writers, but she is also hopeful that "this movement towards creativity and self-expression is really the start of a kind of Occupy – that it could be dangerous and confrontational, not homogenised at all."
She asks: "Is the world of work plus the leisure offerings of mass entertainment now so banal and unsatisfying that creative writing offers a fight-back? If the society we are making – that is, the society unelected big business is making for us – is both soulless and soul destroying, then micro solutions such as creative writing could return some sense of both individuality and community."
This is a really interesting way of looking at the increase in creative writing courses and self-publishing, and it is a refreshing change from most articles you will find on these subjects. Maybe I'm hopelessly optimistic and romantic, but I do believe there is something to be gained for society as a whole as more people get the opportunity to creatively express themselves.