Why Creative Writing Courses Work: A Response to Hanif Kureishi

Are creative writing courses a rip-off, a factory churning our same-y writers … or a valuable experience that might enhance your chances of publication - or at worst, give you an avenue for creative expression? Annabel Smith defends creative writing courses against Hanif Kureishi’s recent dismissal of them, and speaks to Australian writers, publishers and creative writing lecturers.

Image by matryosha

It’s rare for literary goings on to be considered news, but last week an article in the Guardian, which reported Hanif Kureishi denigrating creative writing courses as a ‘waste of time’, caused quite a splash.

Danielle Wood, who teaches creative writing at the University of Tasmania, and whose debut novel The Alphabet of Light and Dark (written as part of a PhD in creative writing) won The Australian/Vogel Literary Award, expressed bewilderment at Kureishi’s rant. ‘In my experience (three years of being enrolled in one, ten years of teaching in one), creative writing courses are quite innocuous things, giving pleasure to many and doing no harm to anyone, really.‘ She says that criticism of creative writing courses often ignores context; for many undergraduate students, creative writing may simply be an elective – a career in writing is not necessarily the desired outcome. Ryan O’Neill, who teaches writing at the University of Newcastle, agrees. ‘I don’t know if the necessary end-point of a creative writing course is publication. That’s like saying the end point of taking piano lessons is to cut an album.’

Angela Meyer, who recently completed a PhD in Creative Arts through the University of Western Sydney, acknowledges that it’s a tough industry, and it’d be a very small percentage of any class who would go on to be working writers, but maintains that if students graduate ‘as better readers, better communicators, with enhanced empathy skills, and a broader mind, then that’s a success.’ She has no doubt that creative writing courses can be enriching, but Meyer would also encourage people to explore ‘other humanities courses (literature, languages, history, social science), or even self-study and work experience as ways to develop your ‘voice’ and to find out what your interests are as a writer.’

Ryan O’Neill believes that while studying creative writing isn’t a prerequisite for becoming a writer, the odds of getting published are higher for someone who takes creative writing classes than someone who doesn’t. Author Kirsten Krauth is convinced her debut novel just_a_girl would not have been published without the framework of her Masters in creative writing, which gave her the confidence and time to write, as well as access to publishers and agents.

Georgia Richter, fiction editor at Fremantle Press, says that manuscripts developed in creative writing programs tend to have a ‘degree of polish’ that is often lacking in those that come from the general public. And in an industry where publishers are less and less willing to invest in extensive editing, that degree of polish may be the difference between acceptance and rejection.

Terri-ann White, director of UWA Publishing, complained that many of the submissions she receives are characterised by ‘an obvious lack of broad, deep and diverse reading by the writer’, something she finds especially perplexing in manuscripts that have come through formal writing courses. On Twitter, Matthew Lamb of the Review of Australian Fiction asked ‘Why do Creative Writing courses need defending? They aren’t in any danger. How about a defence of creative reading? That’s under threat.’

Indeed, the importance of reading was echoed by many of the writing graduates and teachers I interviewed. Short-story writer Laurie Steed is currently completing a novel-in-stories as part of a PhD in writing at the University of Western Australia, and has also attended the prestigious Graduate Fiction Workshop at the University of Iowa. He argues that a creative writing course acts similarly to the reading of quality literature, and should be considered alongside it.

Dr Donna Mazza, whose TAG Hungerford Award-winning novel The Albanian was written as part of a PhD in writing, now coordinates the creative writing program at Edith Cowan University in Bunbury. Mazza rewrote the program to become a major in ‘literature and writing’, adamant that it is studying literature that gives you an awareness of the things you do as a writer.

Amanda Curtin is the author of three novels, the first of which, The Sinkings, she wrote as part of a PhD in creative writing. She credits her writing studies as being directly responsible for her becoming a published author. ‘I was a lifelong reader and a publishing professional with more than 10 years' experience when I took up creative writing units at university, initially with the intention of becoming a better editor through greater understanding of, and exposure to, the creative process. I could have continued on forever, reading, analysing, editing – these things did not lead me towards becoming a writer; a creative writing course did that.’ Curtin points to inspiration and support from other writers (both teachers and fellow students) and having to work to deadlines as two of the key benefits to a formal writing course.

One writer I interviewed (who earned an MA from Sydney University) said that though he was ambivalent about some aspects of the course, the act of going to university made him focus on writing and got him into good habits of writing daily. Donna Mazza agrees that it is the discipline and deadlines that allow talented writers to reach their potential. She also cites the mentorship inherent in most creative writing courses as essential for aspiring writers to learn ‘the difference between self-indulgent crap and good writing.’

‘It takes an educated and critical eye to point out the flaws in a work with kindness and an awareness of keeping the student going – unlike an editor or publisher who will slice into work without feeling the need to be nurturing.’

Emily Paull, a recent graduate of a BA at the University of Western Australia which included creative writing units, echoed this sentiment: ‘a good teacher provides a safe space in which to write and share what has been written.’ Mazza says one of the aims of her course is to teach students about the business of being a writer, sending them after opportunities that sometimes lead talented students to their first publishing success, in story competitions and so forth.

Ryan O’Neill emphasises the benefits of understanding and experimenting with technical aspects of writing, such as point of view, structure, setting or style, which allow students to get to a better place in their writing more quickly, admitting that studying writing himself might have ‘saved me from writing hundreds of thousands of words of rubbish in my twenties’. Laurie Steed believes that what’s important in a creative writing course is not so much the program as the input from a knowledgeable, well-read facilitator. ‘Each teacher is only as good as the books, thoughts, and people that shaped them.’ Danielle Wood says her modus operandi involves ‘asking questions, being picky when necessary, and keeping up the encouragement’; Donna Mazza perceives her role in terms of ‘lighting the fire’ for her students.

Natasha Lester, whose debut novel What Is Left Over, After won the TAG Hungerford Award and who is currently writing a third novel as part of a PhD in Writing at Curtin University, teaches short writing courses for the University of Western Australia’s extension program. Though Kureshi’s article was particularly dismissive of ‘weekend’ courses, Lester is confident that, like good undergraduate programs, her courses provide students with inspiration and an appreciation of aspects of craft, as well as information about the publishing industry. Lester also points to the benefits (which last long after the course has ended) of meeting a network of other aspiring writers who can provide encouragement and feedback, as well as sharing information about opportunities.

Aspiring writer Melissa Davies was extremely positive about Lester’s course, describing it as ‘motivating and supportive’ and enthusing that ‘she’d do another one in a shot’ if she had time. Such responses indicate that for the majority of those who study writing, the introduction to craft, the discipline of making time to write and meeting deadlines, the support from a network of other writers, the mentorship of experienced teachers and the insights into industry make creative writing courses far from ‘a waste of time’.

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