Creative Writing Courses – Is the Bad Press Fair?

A GUEST POST BY LIZ MONUMENT

Before I enrolled on a Creative Writing MA, I’d written several novels, none of them to a publishable standard. But instead of getting progressively better, I seemed to have reached a glass ceiling I couldn’t break through. The worst thing was, I had no idea why. I’d published non-fiction and competition-winning short stories under my belt, and my novels seemed to begin OK, but the endings repeatedly fell flat. Cost or not, an MA seemed to be the last option I had before I accepted that I was doomed to fail. This is every writer’s biggest fear: the monster that lurks under the bed; the shadow that sneaks into your darkest thoughts as it dawns on you that you might just not be up to the job after all… and I had to find out.

Only a few weeks into my MA, I realised that I’d been writing the kind of fiction I thought I should write, rather than the kind of fiction I really needed to write. My novel endings were hollow because I simply hadn’t gone the extra mile to make my fictional worlds vivid enough. As an experiment, I wrote a test piece to assess my tutor’s and peer-group’s reaction, and was delighted to find they had as much fun as I did venturing into my make-believe world. From that moment onwards, I began to concentrate on Sci Fi Fantasy, something I’d not written since childhood. I’ve never looked back.

The MA’s critiquing process worked, for me, far better than slogging away alone hour after hour. Two years of part-time study later, my MA novel was shortlisted for a competition and signed by an agent. But, without the camaraderie of my critique group and the wise comments of my tutor, I felt adrift. So, the following year, I returned to university to begin a PhD in Creative Writing. Six months in, and I’m back in my comfort zone – in fact, I’m positively thriving on the experience. I’m exploring women in Sci Fi Fantasy, and writing a dystopian novel in which I’m being encouraged to push boundaries and experiment freely. This is what creative practice should be all about. My tutors were, and are, published novelists, poets and short story writers with a plethora of industry awards to their names. And between them, they have a huge amount of educational experience. Just because you write doesn’t mean that you can teach people to write, so publishing and teaching skills are essential for good tutors. So, I simply don’t agree with the angry voices in the aether who blog or post that CW courses are over-priced and pointless. I sometimes wonder whether those dissatisfied customers resent the fact that their MA taught them they don’t make the grade as professional writers. After all, it’s a fact that not everybody with a Creative Writing MA goes on to get published.

So why do we need CW courses at all?

In the old days, an agent would pick up a new writer and would be prepared to work with that writer for up to two years, to produce a polished debut. Then, things changed. A couple of serious recessions impacted the publishing industry, and the internet altered the nature of publishing. Publishers became more risk averse, and agents followed their lead. Today, agents will only take on a novelist who is ready to be put straight out into the public arena. In other words, authors have to do their training somewhere, and the system has conspired to ensure this is at the author’s cost (both in terms of time and money) rather than at anybody else’s. Case in point, Robert McKee (Story, Methuen, 1999) notes that apprenticeships used to exist in the world of film writing. They don’t any more. So, welcome the Creative Writing course…

Now take a look at the Universities who run the majority of CW programmes. I studied for my degree in the days when every UK citizen was entitled to state funding. Student loans were only introduced in my final year (and the maximum amount you could take at that time was £350). Today, Universities are run in a different way. Students take out huge debts to study, and universities have to balance their books, which means courses have to appeal to applicants who will be paying out of their own pockets. And what better way than offering would-be writers the chance to realise what is, for many of us, a long-chased dream. Education is no longer simply a system: today, it is an industry, and universities are smart enough to use it to cash in on those dreams.

You may have read that Stephany Meyer wrote Twilight in three months flat. Combine this with the maxim that ‘everybody has a novel in them,’ and you’ve a heady combination of possibility and promise aimed at the would-be writer. Of course, dig a little deeper and you’ll discover that it actually took Meyer ten years to write Twilight, with only the final edit being put together in three months. As I writer, I know it is simply not true to say that anybody can write a novel to a publishable standard, but it’s fair to point out that if most people think they can, then English departments have a guaranteed audience for CW courses. So there you have it. A simple equation, but an equation non-the-less. Add to this the fact that on-line (distance learning) courses have answered the demand for students to keep costs down by studying from home, and you can see why, at the end of 2011, an internet search for CW on-line tuition brought up only two distance learning courses whereas two years later, the same search listed a screen-full of possibilities. Now, in 2015, there are even more. So, if the education industry is providing what we as consumers are asking it for, can we really complain?

I can only talk about my own experience, and it’s been extremely positive. I perform best with repeated reviews of my work, intelligent and structured comments from a feedback group, the overarching guidance of a supervisor, and a recommended reading list. Yes, it’s true you can learn to edit your own work (you have to!) and trawl websites for book reviews but for me, that’s never been a substitute. Every writer benefits from mentoring at some stage in their career. I wouldn’t change my path one bit. I remain a champion of Creative Writing courses, and of distance learning. I’m sure I would’ve got there in the end, but I have no doubt that my MA shaved two or more years off the process. Long may the CW course continue!

Liz Monument is a novelist and PhD student at Lancaster University. Her novel, The Eternity Fund, is published as an audio exclusive by Amazon Audible on the 17th February.

www.lizmonument.com

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