Arts

Creative Writing: Working the System

The question of ‘can you teach creativity?’ has been batted over ever since creative writing courses migrated across the Atlantic to the UK in 1971. The debate has been torn both ways: in an IMPACT ARTS survey, 74% of Nottingham students think that creativity cannot be taught. But 96% also said that a Creative Writing degree would make someone more likely to become a successful author. Ian McEwan and Kazuo Ishiguro (UEA Alumni) are held up as poster boys of these courses’ success. Alternatively, some argue passionately against the artificial production of ‘cookie-cut’ writers and battery bred poets.

UCAS offers 78 undergraduate courses relating to Creative Writing and UoN offers its own course of English with Creative Writing, launched in 2010. The biggest problem students have with their Creative Writing courses is assessment. 64% of UoN Creative Writing Students who took the Impact Arts survey said that the mark scheme was unfair. Their main issue is the extent to which tutors’ personal subjectivity comes in the way of objective marking. One creative writing student commented: “It’s not that the marking is necessarily unfair, it’s just difficult when your opinion of what good writing is differs from your tutor’s”.

91% of current Creative Writing students surveyed by Impact Arts say they are better writers than when they started.

Thomas Legendre, lecturer in Creative Writing at Nottingham, told Impact Arts that tutors look at: “1) technique, coherence, and control, 2) grasp of the medium, strength of aesthetic ideas, and imagination and 3) clarity of intention and execution”. A marking criteria which uses ambiguous and subjective concepts such as ‘imagination’ and ‘aesthetic ideas’ seems inherently problematic.

But Matthew Welton, lecturer in Writing and Creativity, told Impact Arts that it was possible to play the system: “There are fairly sure-fire ways that you could can get a First”. He hints that these ways include avoiding clichés, familiarity and being creatively experimental – a beautiful sonnet comparing love to a red rose may be emotionally relevant to the writer but will probably not score high marks. If creativity is aligned with individuality these assessments are potentially more formulaic than creative.

Tutors look at: “1) technique, coherence, and control, 2) grasp of the medium, strength of aesthetic ideas, and imagination and 3) clarity of intention and execution.”

This is assuming that all students enter a degree to achieve good marks. Welton prizes students who “don’t really care what grade they get” but focus on “success in their own terms”. For some students, a creative writing course may have little status as a degree and becomes simply an enjoyment, not that the two are mutually exclusive. A potential publisher will not consult an author’s degree, but instead consult their writing; they may not even know if this author has taken a creative writing course.

Success as a published author ultimately depends on popularity. At the lowest level, high ranking novelists adhere to a gap in the cultural marketplace. Presenting your writing in the public light of a seminar can only be a positive. Alix Hattenstone, 2013 Graduate of English with Creative Writing at Nottingham, says that: “the most useful thing for me was workshopping stories” in seminars and that “peer feedback was often more detailed than teacher feedback”.

It is undeniable, even the harshest critics of creative writing courses will not deny it, that practicing writing makes for a better writer. Kiran Benawra, another UoN English with Creative Writing graduate, says: “I find I can be quite lazy when it comes to writing, so doing the course with all the deadlines meant you couldn’t really make excuses for putting off writing”. Indeed 91% of current Creative Writing students surveyed by Impact Arts say they are better writers than when they started.

“there is no single purpose of Creative Writing courses, even for a particular individual”.

A top degree may not be the most important outcome of these courses. Doing English or language modules alongside Creative Writing may be useful for a career-minded student. One student told Impact Arts that they “would rather do a course on something that would give me a stable career to support my writing”. Aspiring authors should remind themselves that becoming the next J.K. Rowling is never a certainty and that the penniless novelist is not a cliché for nothing.

In this sense, paying £9,000 for three years of a degree may not be a wise financial investment if a career is neither guaranteed or the pay off is not immediate. But that £9,000 opens the doors to the wider university experience as well. Authorship is also not the only role which requires creativity; advertising, journalism, and teaching all require creative flare. Legendre stresses that “there is no single purpose of Creative Writing courses, even for a particular individual”.

“There are fairly sure-fire ways that you could can get a First.”

A writer reads, a writer writes, a writer improves and edits their work. These courses simply provide a framework, and a motivation, for writers to continue to do this. New writers who emerge from these courses are not formed into one standardised mould, they will not all achieve the same results, and they will not all produce novels or poems in ‘The Nottingham Style’.

Fundamentally, how these courses function is to provide a creative opportunity and experience, alongside the usual university experience, and it is down to the discretion of the individual student approach to the course, academic or experimental, to develop their own creativity.

Eve Wersocki Morris

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 Image by Waferboard via Flickr

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