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Are Creative Writing Courses Worth It?

October 28, 2018
October 28, 2018

In this blog post, our founder Louise Dean interrogates the question of whether creative writing courses are worthwhile. She thinks about how some of the great writers of history think about the craft of writing, and considers the different values and benefits that creative writing schools offer to budding novelists and seasoned pros alike.

Writing is a skill and a craft

We all learn to write.

If you’re serious about something, generally you will want to learn how to do it well. I wonder why some writers feel they need to look down on aspiring writers once they have been published and claim writing is some ‘mystical gift’. It’s not; it’s a skilled craft. It’s one you need to keep learning; you never reach a golden plateau.

Hanif Kureishi famously dismissed the teaching of creative writing, saying that writing a story is:

a difficult thing to do and it’s a great skill to have. Can you teach that? I don’t think you can.
—Hanif Kureishi

(According to Philip Hensher, Kureishi teaches creative writing at Kingston University, ‘ineffectually’)

Serious writers have always sought and will always seek teachers long before their work gets to an editor’s desk.

In defence of teaching creative writing, Kurt Vonnegut said:

A tough guy, I forget which one, is asked to speak to a creative writing class. He says: ‘What in hell are you doing here? Go home and glue your butts to a chair, and write and write until your heads fall off!’ Or words to that effect.

My reply: ‘Listen, there were creative writing teachers long before there were creative writing courses, and they were called, and continue to be called, editors.’

Great writers have long been students

Ernest Hemingway apprenticed himself to Gertrude Stein; T.S. Eliot to Ezra Pound. Tennessee Williams and Flannery O’Connor took courses at the University of Iowa. Ian McEwan, Kazuo Ishiguro, Anne Enright, Tracy Chevalier took classes at UEA. Kit de Waal studied creative writing at Oxford Brookes. The list is long. Few are the published authors of fiction who didn’t learn their craft.

A writing school formalises the apprenticeship that, throughout history, has been valuable to artists. But digital technology and the internet mean the school can come to the student, extending good schools to those who can’t up sticks, quit jobs or travel long distances.

Of course, one of the perks of a school is association not just with students but with published writers, and usually, that’s what’s missing on a creative writing course. Ideally, you will want to find a course, or a school, where you can rub shoulders with published authors and of course get personal feedback from a writer whose work you like.

Most writers would prefer to be writing than doing anything else, but many good writers teach. They wouldn’t do so if it wasn’t exciting to watch writers become authors, to learn the skills and craft.

Grace Paley says she likes the company of her students; she says it mitigates the solitude of writing. But there’s more to it than that.

The really good thing about dealing with novice writers is that it keeps you in the mind of a beginner. It is a way of staying honest and preventing complacency and hardness from setting in.
—E.L. Doctorow

Wallace Stegner taught Larry McMurtry and Ken Kesey to write. Michael Cunningham teaches, as do Zadie Smith, Salman Rushdie, Tobias Wolff, Toni Morrisson, Jonathan Safran Froer, Maya Angelou, Junot Díaz, E.L. Doctorow.

If I could have chosen any writer as a teacher, it would have been Kurt Vonnegut.

Start as close to the end as possible.
—Kurt Vonnegut
Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them – in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
—Kurt Vonnegut
Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
—Kurt Vonnegut

Writers write and teach, and not for entirely altruistic purposes but because, as E.L. Doctorow says, it helps. It helps you, as a novelist, see better what doesn’t work, and what does.

It’s a symbiotic relationship between teacher and student and although J.M. Coetzee used this phrase to describe a more illicit relationship between teacher and student, this is a quotation with which my writers are familiar as I have made the observation a few times when working with them:

The irony does not escape him: that the one who comes to teach learns the keenest of lessons...
—J.M. Coetzee, Disgrace

At The Novelry, I am not the only ‘teacher’. Within the community, our writers, some aspiring and some published, teach each other, and that makes it hugely enjoyable.

The very best thing you can be in life is a teacher, provided you are crazy in love with what you teach...
—Kurt Vonnegut

In Fay Weldon’s recent book of advice to would-be novelists, she pointed out in the first pages that writers need to up their game, as so many are benefiting from creative writing courses. (She, herself, teaches.)

Vonnegut said he wished he had attended a good creative writing course at the beginning of his writing career: ‘to have done so would have been good for me’.  

He quoted an author who regretted not having taken a course when he was starting out as a novelist:

That would have saved him, he said, the several years he wasted trying to find out, all by himself, the best way to tell a story.
—Kurt Vonnegut

What should you be looking for in a creative writing course?

You should be looking for a serious course with a community where publication is the acknowledged end-game to ensure you learn good habits and working skills.

You should be looking for a real-life working method because it is necessary for all writers, not just those starting out, to keep a backstop day job to enable you to be free to write what you want.

An online writing course, created to offer what schools offer – a good tutor, the company of working authors – can be just the thing if it gives you personal feedback and attention. You can associate with your peers and ideally better writers, on your own terms in your own time, and that’s my idea of heaven. Solitude, when you have time to write, and support round the clock.

But the clincher, the deciding factor, has to be wit.

Look for a course with nerve. Where determination is matched by good humour.

The founder of the Writers’ Workshop in Iowa, Paul Engle, told Vonnegut that if they ever got a building, he’d have this motto above the door.

Don’t take it all so seriously.

Enjoy your writing. Learn to enjoy laughing at your own jokes; for that’s what it’s about, day-in, day-out. Good times and bad. When you write, the bad times are at least ‘material’.

Someone writing in a notebook
Members of The Novelry team
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