So I was reading this piece in The Guardian - and the comments after it and, having done so, felt that though I had explored this territory often enough before, there were some things that maybe I should have said more clearly, so I am trying again. First, a confession.
I confess! I taught creative writing. I enjoyed it. I inhaled and am still inhaling. I also seem to have written a lot of books. But surely, they must be crap, otherwise I wouldn't have been caught dead teaching on such an obvious scam. I confess this crime but I would like the following mitigating factors to be taken into account:
As a young poet I had no access to courses such as creative writing but was lucky to find poets who helped me both in the small groups they ran and as friends. Very lucky indeed. I would like it if others were as lucky as I was. I can't guarantee that they will be, which may be my fault, but it won't be for lack of trying on my part. The poets who helped me in youth joined the poets I had read and loved and already lived in my head as well as those the live poets introduced me to. I hoped to do something similar for my students.
People who complain that creative writing courses produce relatively few writers don't complain that history degrees produce few historians, that music schools produce relatively few world renowned soloists, that art departments don't necessarily produce a lot of major artists. I spent 16 years in schools teaching art. Are people asking how many of those are 'great' artists now? I sincerely can't see why writing is different from any other art.
The principle of creative writing? Simple. Put those who want to write together with a writer who can both write and teach. The students learn from each other under the chairmanship of the writer. Thinking about writing also helps to think about reading since what is being read had to be written first. The skill of writing is as much in the reading as in the writing itself.
The history of any subject is that those sharing a mutual interest in it get together, formally or informally. I think of the Renaissance courts, or the idea of masters and guilds; I also think of those groups of writer friends like Keats and Leigh Hunt and Reynolds , or indeed Pope and Swift, who would get together to discuss their writing if only because they were interested in and respected each other. It is not outrageous to suggest that people may stand a better chance of writing well if they have access to intelligent opinion and discussion as they develop.
Contrary to rumour, students are not promised anything except the opportunity to conduct intelligent discussion of what they care about with other people who care about it. There is no guaranteed outcome. Courses are not a version of show biz or target led business. Nevertheless the courses seem to have consistently risen in popularity and even straight English degrees seem to do better when there is Creative Writing involved. For reasons for that see (3) above.
Objections to creative writing come from two chief sources:
a) writers (generally novelists, not poets) who have made a living in writing without any course and are for one or other reason financially independent (albeit possibly supported by a partner or with family money). They like to keep a certain mystery about their dark art. They regard themselves - and they may well be right - as especially gifted people who have achieved everything through individual genius and the sweat of their noble brow. They couldn't possibly discuss their art because it is too high for normal people to understand and maybe they themselves prefer not to understand it or even think much about it. (There is something genuine and true in the notion that the arts and their procedures work by a sort of mystery but not all who proclaim themselves as possessors of secret gifts actually possess them.)
Such successful and comfortable writers resent both the courses and the writers who teach on them because the writers who teach are not properly struggling, not alone, the way they think they were alone and struggled, and because they think (not having taught such courses) that the writers are teaching systems and tricks. Systems and tricks are, I myself freely declare, quite useless and furthermore, having examined a decent number of other MA courses in the past I can declare that I haven't come across a single one that offered a bunch of tricks as a prescription for success.
b) people who know nothing about writing and probably read very few books. These include a number of commenters on such subjects (see the comments under The Guardian piece). The level of intelligence shown in discussing Creative Writing by such people is roughly the same as that found in comments following a Chelsea defeat.
These are my true confessions. Further let it be known that a number of people - many of whom I have never met - keep sending me their work for an opinion in one form or another and that I still go to meet younger writers when they think they'd like to show me work in progress. I find that flattering but also exciting. It's nice being with the young - putting aside children and grandchildren the rest of my life tends to be with my own age group. I can't devote my life to the young orindeed others with manuscripts on the go (I never could) but when it is possible I would like to continue seeing and reading others.
There is in fact a list of witnesses I would call should the court require it in order that it might lighten my punishment but I will not ask for such witnesses now (it would be somewhat distasteful), nevertheless I want to assure the court that such a list exists.
One last list in link form as a mitigating plea. Not my list but the list of a single university, the UEA, where I was proud to teach. Let them be witnesses too. And beyond them all those who did not become famous and maybe never published much but whose experience of reading and writing on the various courses enhanced their human pleasure and potential and who might yet go on to publish and be successful later.
Click here for the alumni and explore.