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Can Creative Writing really be taught in British universities?

By Michelene Wandor.

‘In the past few years, British universities, polytechnics, schools and even kindergartens have seen a massive growth occur in a subject that not too long ago was regarded as a suspect American import, like the hamburger – a vulgar hybrid which, as everyone once knew, no sensible person would ever eat. It is called Creative Writing, and along with other latter day or postmodern activities like Media Studies and Women’s Studies, has turned into one of the subjects of the season. Besides achieving academic recognition, it has spread freely through the broader hinterland. Farmhouse seminars, weekend courses, evening writing workshops, postal courses and handy mercantile handbooks to encourage all of us to develop the obscure quality known as creativity or stimulate the belief that we can all soon be running off with the Booker prize…’

THE ABOVE WAS written by Malcolm Bradbury, in the Times Literary Supplement on January 17, 1992. In 2004, I wrote a report for the Times Higher Education Supplement on that year’s Association of Writing Programs (AWP) conference in the US. Creative Writing, I pronounced, was a success story in the UK, the number of its under- and post-graduate courses and degrees increasing by the year. 

While the fanfares in both articles were meant to grab the reader’s attention, we were also implicitly responding to a familiar question: ‘Can Creative Writing really be taught?’ Despite the fact that CW is now established in the academy, this sceptical inquiry continues to resonate – implicitly and explicitly. Media interviews with writers are obsessed with talent, inspiration, the presence of the muse – all imponderable elements. At a serious level, this does speak to the difficulty of knowing why one writer (musician, painter, etc.) does better than another. But the question still hovers within CW, because of the contradictions in its pedagogy. It wants a special status within the academy while refusing to understand its own provenance and disciplinary obligations. Overwhelmingly, it offers students (despite caveats) the ‘promise’ that they will become professional, published authors, suggesting that there is a shortcut via the one-year MA, or the occasional PhD.

IT MAY SOUND as though I think CW doesn’t belong in the academy. The opposite. I am passionately committed, in practice and in theory, to the teaching of imaginative writing in the academy. I’ve been doing just that myself for over three decades on a range of academic and non-academic courses becoming critical of its lore and pedagogy.1 I’m committed to the idea that there might be a genuinely radical overhaul of CW teaching methods, which are still based on the ubiquitous ‘workshop’. However, in order to understand why such changes are necessary – and for this to stand a chance of happening – some serious thinking needs to take place. CW is the final art form to enter the academy (following music, drama and the fine arts, which have much longer pedigrees). This is certainly to be celebrated. However, I suggest it’s more productive to think of it as an academic ‘discipline’, with its own provenances and imperatives.

The following principles, which still underlie CW pedagogy and may still appear as its ‘lore’ (‘instruction, education’, it says in my Shorter Oxford), but I think they actually are myths and misconceptions which obstruct a profound understanding and real change.

First, the lore – in no particular order of precedence:

1. It trains – or offers to train – students to become professional, published writers.

2. It is a better (the best?) way to teach criticism;

3. It might be the solution to problems of literacy;

4. Its pedagogical method (the workshop) is the only one;

5. It is the academy’s answer to the sterility of ‘Theory’ – indeed, that it operates against literary theory and literary criticism, even while claiming to teach the latter.

The institutional success story.

DURING THE 1950s and 1960s, Malcolm Bradbury taught in American universities. In the early 1960s he was involved with Richard Hoggart’s Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at the University of Birmingham. This postgraduate centre was established in 1964 under Hoggart’s Directorship. Its aim ‘was to inaugurate research in the area of contemporary culture and society: cultural forms, practices and institutions, their relation to society and social change’2 This cross-disciplinary development helped to broaden approaches to the study and production of literature.

In 1965 Bradbury joined the University of East Anglia (UEA) in Norwich, one of the ‘new’ universities of the 1960s. Here his internationalism and commitment to teaching and writing found a productive home. Along with other new universities, UEA’s School of English and American Studies, set up in 1968, helped to pioneer comparative literature degrees. Bradbury became Professor of American Literature in 1970. The same year he and Angus Wilson set up the first MA in creative writing in the UK.

The programme had a number of agendas. It was a CW course which combined the reading and study of literature with imaginative writing. For Bradbury and Wilson it was also a deliberate cultural intervention in what they saw as a crisis in the high-art English novel, compared with its American counterpart. They hoped the MA might produce new writing to reinvigorate the British novel (i.e., ‘produce’ professional writers). Following the example of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, started in 1936, Wilson and Bradbury devised a curriculum for UEA at the conclusion of which a ‘creative dissertation’ would be submitted for the MA.

It was, indeed, in the US that the so-familiar phrase ‘creative writing’ first came into being, as critic and historian D. G. Myers points out:

The term creative writing was coined by Emerson in “The American Scholar” (1837) and was explicitly adopted by Hughes Mearns, a progressive educator who taught at the Lincoln School, the laboratory school of Teachers College, Columbia University, when he introduced the subject of creative writing into the curriculum for the first time. (Mearns used the term in print for the first time in 1922.) When it was established on the university level—by Norman Foerster, not Wilbur Schramm—creative writing quickly replaced writers’ retreats like Bread Loaf. Writers no longer needed summer writing-stints, because they were paid to write full-time by universities. That development, however, belongs to the postwar period…3

Undergraduate CW.

MIDDLESEX UNIVERSITY SET up a CW undergraduate degree in 1991-2. It was called ‘Writing and Publishing’, and established by Susanna Gladwin, who had been teaching English Literature since the 1960s, when Middlesex was still a Polytechnic. In 1984, her growing dissatisfaction with traditional English teaching led her to incorporate CW elements into her classroom.

Anne Cluysenaar.

Gladwin was already connected with the Verbal Arts Association (VAA), chaired by poet and teacher, Anne Cluysenaar, and formed after a 1982 seminar on ‘The Arts and Higher Education’. In the seminar, a group of professional writers and radical academics (including Raymond Williams and Richard Hoggart) called for ‘Urgent reforms … in the teaching of English if the practice of verbal arts is not to remain for most people a missing subject.’ (The phrase ‘missing subject’ echoed Stephen Potter’s witty and passionate disquisition on the state of English in the 1930s, The Muse in Chains.) The VAA boasted an impressive list of literary patrons, including William Golding, Doris Lessing, Ted Hughes and Iris Murdoch. Here was a direct call to bring imaginative writing to join the study of English literature.

Institutional successes.

A SURVEY BY the British Council in 2000 showed some 40 postgraduate degrees (mainly MAs) in Britain. CW courses proliferated rapidly as options within undergraduate English, as full degree courses in CW, and as MAs and PhDs. In 2003, the English Subject Centre reported on CW as a ‘rapidly expanding province of activity’.4 The Centre sent surveys to all 135 higher education institutions teaching English (‘Survey of the English Curriculum and teaching in UK Higher Education’).5 On the basis of a 40 percent. return, the forms confirmed that ‘the exponential growth of creative writing courses (as separate awards or as pathways or pedagogies within English) has had significant effects on the shape of English nationwide.’6

In the UK’s thriving world of subsidised adult education, CW classes are heavily subscribed; there are dozens of residential courses, and made-to-measure magazines, such as Writers’ News and Mslexia (the latter aimed at women), cater for amateurs, who often also have professional aspirations. A 2005 directory of Writers’ Circles listed about a thousand. 7

Creative Writing teachers.

CW HAS BEEN an undoubted boon for many professional writers, expanding professional experience, and providing financial security. Additionally, English literature academics have also begun to teach imaginative writing, in the spirit of  Gladwin, who believed that the teaching of ‘Literature’ is better done when augmented by practice – i.e., you study and analyse the Elizabethan sonnet form, and you write sonnets as well.

I am one of the first group: a freelance professional writer, augmenting my skills as a university teacher. I’ve always earned my living from plays, poetry, prose fiction, journalism and cultural history books, with all the attendant insecurities which that entails. I taught a playwriting course at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, and at the City Lit from the beginning of the 1980s, developing my methods (as pretty well all CW teachers do) as I went along.

In the late 1990s I became a part-time Senior Lecturer, setting up a half degree in CW. It was a steep learning curve. University life was very different from my own undergraduate and postgraduate experiences decades earlier. I was thrown in at the deep end, framing my teaching within the demands of a degree qualification, with assignments, assessments and planning a course over three years.

I found chaos. There was no admissions policy, no conceptual shape to the modules, no foundational imaginative-writing skills provision. No matter what their other half–degree, the majority of the CW undergraduates had little idea about literature; hardly any of them were interested in reading, and literacy skills were often inadequate. Those whose other half degree was English rejected any connection between the two halves of their study, treating the CW component as somehow fun, a soft option, because you didn’t (they thought) have to read books or analyse anything. During my six years there, I was able to modify the course a bit. I met CW teachers from other universities, and soon realised that my approach to teaching – and my convictions about what CW was when it constituted an ‘academic’ subject – were very different from prevailing ‘lore’ and pedagogic practice.

New forms of patronage for writers.

THE NOTION THAT CW provides new forms of patronage for writers misunderstands the situation of writers and academics. Writer-teachers gain a financial security totally absent from the vagaries of the freelance writing life, but they also have to learn to work in institutions with bureaucracies and hierarchies. As they teach, they have to (or should) ‘theorise’ their practice as writers – or, at the very least, be prepared and able to explain what writing is as they teach others to do it.

Career academics (in all subjects) have traditionally been privileged by patronage, since that is built into their career paths. This goes under the name of ‘research’; teacher-writers are subsidised by research leave (paid time in which to write their articles and books), research support (postgraduate students who provide research material), and secretarial help (i.e., in administrative support, typing out manuscripts, bibliographies, etc.).

Academics have secure, full-time salaries, and thus can write books under the protection and sponsorship of their employers. Freelance writers are dependent on publishers’ advances and royalties for their income; academics are not. There is a painful industrial consequence to this, which is that career academics have already, in effect, been paid by the universities, and can thus be unconcerned about how much they may or may not earn from their books. Academic publishers are notoriously mean with advances, because they can be.

Until the arrival of CW, the occasional Writer-in-Residence post – not tied to teaching – was the only way in which a freelance writer could benefit from support/patronage. Now, when professional writers enter the academic career structure, they too can benefit from such traditional ‘research’ support. An irony ensues from this, which is often that, despite having full-time jobs, such academics often insist on identifying themselves as ‘writers’ rather than ‘teachers’. Of course, anyone can think of themselves as anything at all, but if one accepts that an occupation is defined by its earning power, then such once-writers have changed careers and become academics.

Writer-teachers are not being paid to write but rather to teach. Their imaginative output (poetry, drama, prose) is now called ‘research’ within the academy, while still being deemed ‘literature’ outside it.

It’s an issue which CW avoids: on the basis, I would suggest, that, in the ideological hierarchy of professions, the ‘artist’ is more valued (or at least envied) than the ‘mere’ teacher, and to be thought of as a ‘writer’ rather than an academic is an odd way of having one’s cake and eating it: benefiting from the financial patronage of the academy, while denying that one belongs to it. Of course, why shouldn’t we benefit from the academy? But at the same time, what does this say about the writer-teacher’s responsibility towards teaching?

Somewhere beneath this lurks a debating question about whether the teacher or the artist is more important in our society! I wouldn’t myself want to debate this, because I don’t think they need to be in competition – but they are. This is implicit in the way CW teachers primarily want to identify themselves as ‘writers’, showing something of a resistance to the ‘lesser’ idea that they are teachers. One easily could argue that this shows a possible contempt for the importance of teaching.

The relationship between English and Creative Writing.

IN THE NINETEENTH century, English literature at last came into its own as an academic subject. London led the way; in 1859, English literature was introduced into a degree course.8 As a discipline, in the UK, it soon became separated from studies of the classics and philology. This resulted in the ‘professionalisation’ of criticism in the academy, and began to alter the relationship between scholars and the secular literary world.

The validation of English didn’t only come from universities. The University Extension Movement brought education to working people from the 1860s, arguing ‘…with greater and greater indignation, that Oxford was gradually becoming the only institution in which English Literature played no part. The subject of English came into the Civil Service exams, it was among the papers set for the Oxford and Cambridge Local examinations…Above all, in the new Extension Lectures, so warmly approved of by the public, English literature was more widely followed than Science or History.’9

In the US, the development of university English retained its connections with philology and rhetoric. In the UK this didn’t happen.The University Extension movement provided educational opportunities for people outside the higher education system, and unfamiliar with the classics and philology. This encouraged the development of ‘appreciation’ as the foundation stone of the later development of literary/practical criticism. However, D. G. Myers has shown that the rise of CW in the US was intimately bound up with the shifting relationship between English, Composition and Rhetoric:

The story of creative writing began with the opposition to philology and resumes with the effort in the 1880s and 1890s to restore literary and educational value to the teaching of rhetoric…English composition was the first widely successful attempt to offer instruction in writing in English…it was formulated at Harvard in the last quarter of the century out of a constructivist belief that the ideal end of the study of literature is the making of literature…English composition established the autonomy of college writing and created a demand for courses in writing from a literary and constructivist point of view. And these were necessary preconditions of creative writing’s acceptance as a subject of serious study…Until about the 1920s, though, there was small need for creative writing per se because English composition and creative writing were one and the same thing.10

THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN ‘English’ and CW is thus necessarily historical and  curricular. Reading and writing are different sides of the same coin. As a result, their study is necessarily complementary. However, this symbiotic connection is continually denied by CW’s efforts to claim autonomy, and assert itself as either a serious alternative to ‘English’, or to theory.

In reality, there is a three-way relationship at stake: a) the traditional literary canon augmented by contemporary texts; b) literary criticism and theory; and finally, c) imaginative writing – language in its non-discursive, aesthetic forms. Somewhere the combination of the idea of involuntary genius, combined with the sheer familiarity of language, lends CW a resistance to thinking about language and literature. As Noel Minnis has observed, ‘In one way language is too familiar to us all; every normal human being has thoroughly mastered one language in childhood without knowing much about the process…’11

In my research for The Author is not Dead, Merely Somewhere Else, I found that ever  since English arrived, each decade has trumpeted warnings of a crisis. However, this has never been fully borne out. The early decades of the twenty-first century found that ‘… fears about a downturn for English were unjustified… English appears to be in a healthy position, staunchly holding its own in a highly competitive climate.’12 Even now, English is the second most popular subject, after Business and Management Studies. Anyone who claims that CW is the answer to this putative crisis is simply appealing to another myth.

Classroom practice.

WHAT ARE THE implications of all this for theorising CW, and for classroom practice? Certainly, CW cannot be offered as a competitive claim to improve on, or be an alternative to, literary studies, or to the important questions about language and writing which have emerged in literary theory. CW is more often an evasion of theory, not an answer to it.

Nor can CW be an answer to the problems of literacy. In the US, Composition courses provide writing instruction to college students. In the UK, scandalously, there is nothing of the kind. Since 2004, I have held a Royal Literary Fund Fellowship. The RLF places writers in universities to give one-to-one support to students who need help with their academic writing. It is an extraordinarily successful scheme, demonstrating how widespread the need is. Fellows can only deal to a limited extent with a problem for which universities either will not or cannot provide facilities and funding. This is not the job of CW – which deals with imaginative, rather than discursive writing.

What about the claim that CW is a training ground for professional writers, and a means whereby the elusive muse or talent, can be trained to find expression? While this sounds grand, lending a cachet to the student and status for the teacher (who, by implication, is conduit for the muse), it leads to a double bind. CW lets itself off the conceptual hook by asserting that ‘talent’ or ‘genius’ cannot be taught – i.e., it is either there or not. This leaves the student teetering on a precipice of uncertainty: while aspects of ‘craft’ or ‘technique’ can, apparently, be taught, the elusive essential remains exactly that. Besides which, the literary industry is overcrowded with submissions, and only a tiny percentage ever get published, with or without CW courses. Student ambition is not fairly matched with the professional realities.

The occasional English graduate may become an eminent, published critic; the occasional history graduate will publish for the trade market. In a conservatoire, a student violinist needs to attain a minimal standard to be admitted, and is then taught to have the fullest control of the instrument, to learn repertoire and to develop technical and performance skills. They are not ‘taught’ to become soloists, as a discrete pedagogic outcome. It is not the primary task of CW to find genius or produce professional writers, but to educate in imaginative writing in a grounded and productive way.

The workshop.

IT IS IN the ubiquitous workshop that the cluster of ‘lores’ is really shown to be a myth. Student writing is submitted to the ‘peer criticism’ of the group, with a tutor in charge. That this should ever be considered a way to ‘teach’ criticism is astounding, let alone a way to teach what is involved in relating the imagination to the page. What basis do members of the group have for their comments? Is there a shared method? Does the tutor first ‘teach’ different ways of reading before embarking on the workshop process? Even if some students are studying or have studied English, how do they transfer their critical understanding to the works-in-progress before them?

The routine of saying nice things first and then critical or nasty things second is no protection or help in the workshop exercise of rewriting (which is not the same as writing). It puts the students in the position of being copy-editors, without any training for such detailed work. Many deplore the fading of excellent  copy-editors in publishing – an indication that this is a sophisticated and highly developed skill, beyond the reach of undergraduates, and even, I would suggest of many postgraduate students. Inevitably, students will come up with relatively subjective responses, based on what they would do with the piece of writing under scrutiny. The process is inherently unstable. The tutor is often characterised as one among equals – a ludicrous claim, since the whole point of having a teacher is that the educator is more knowledgeable than the students. CW resists the idea that the writer-teacher is there to teach, and by denying this, the tutor abdicates responsibility, while retaining power – of final assessment and grading. This is irresponsible pedagogy.

Conclusion.

IRONICALLY CW HAS become a victim of its own success. If we look back to the aims of the VAA, the calls made by Bradbury and Wilson, Gladwin, Williams, et al., we can see how comparatively isolationist CW has become, refusing the essential and symbiotic connections with the field it completes – the varied aspects of English studies.

Some have tried to integrate CW, to make the missing subject come in from the cold, and complete the circle of literature. Anne Cluysenaar, pioneer of undergraduate CW at Lancaster and Sheffield Hallam universities, created a CW course composed of three elements: linguistics, stylistics and creative writing.13

The important and influential Iowa Writers’ Workshop, often touted as the original model of today’s thin imitation, hired critic and historian, Norman Foerster in 1930 ‘to assume control of the newly established School of Letters at the University of Iowa [when] creative writing on the university level was merely one track of a more extensive graduate program in English….Creative writing at Iowa was never intended to become a free-standing apparatus of courses, an autonomously constituted “workshop”, leading to a separate degree. It was to be only one branch of study in the literary tradition designated for all types of students – teachers, critics, scholars and writers….The school’s curriculum was to be a sequence of courses in noncontemporary texts and authors, criticism, literary history, and even the history and structure of the English language. Creative writers would do scholarship; scholars would creatively write.’14

If CW looked to its origins, it might find the understanding it currently lacks, and put its imaginative house in order.

We are still waiting.


Michelene Wandor is the author of a study of the cultural influences on creative writing in the academy, The Author Is Not Dead, Merely Somewhere Else, and, forthcoming, an “historical, literary and theoretical resource for creative writing students and their teachers” called Critical-Creative Writing: Readings and Resources (Continuum, November 2012). Her two most recent poetry books are published by Arc Publications: Musica Transalpina (a Poetry Book Society Recommendation), and The Music of the Prophets. A third collection, Natural Chemistry, will soon be added to Arc’s list. She performs with the Siena Ensemble and reports regularly for The Fortnightly Review.

 

  1. For a fuller account of the cultural influences on Creative Writing in the academy, and a critique of its pedagogy, see my The Author Is Not Dead, Merely Somewhere Else (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008).
  2. Culture, Media, Language, eds. Stuart Hall, Dorothy Hobson, Andrew Lowe and Paul Willis. (Hutchinson, 1980.)
  3. D.G. Myers, “Getting Creative Writing Wrong,” A Commonplace Blog. Retrieved 22 April 2012.
  4. Creative Writing:  Good Practice Guide by Siobhan Holland. Report Series No 6, February, 2003.
  5. Halcrow Group Ltd., with Jane Gawthorpe and Philip Martin. English Subject Centre, Report Series no 8, October, 2003.
  6. My own research in the summer of 2004, in preparation for my book, showed around 85 undergraduate English degree courses in which CW was a component.
  7. Directory of Writers’ Circles, Courses and Workshops 2005 ed. Diana Hayden. (Diana Hayden, 2005)
  8. Stephen Potter, The Muse in Chains (Jonathan Cape, 1937), pp.141-142.
  9. Ibid., p. 185. See also Anthony Kearney, The Louse on the Locks of Literature (Scottish Academic press, 1986), pp.36-37.
  10. D. G. Myers, The Elephants Teach (Prentice-Hall, 1996).
  11. Noel Minnis, in Linguistics at Large, ed. Noel Minnis (Paladin, 1972), p.15.
  12. Admissions Trends in Undergraduate English: statistics and attitudes. Sadie Williams (English Subject Centre, Report Series No. 1, April, 2002), p.1.
  13. Personal interview with author, 2004.
  14. Myers, pp. 124, 133.

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