Creative licence

The prospect of writing a bestseller may not be the prime motivation for students of creative writing courses, but it has certainly helped them find a cosy niche, write JOHN CRACE. 

CHECK out the job ads of Norwich City (England) College's website and you'll find one going at £18.50 (RM115) an hour teaching creative writing to inmates at the nearby Hollesley Bay open prison. As most novelists are lucky to see this much money on their six-monthly royalty statement, £18.50 represents untold riches. 

The job might not place many demands on the possessor of the average school record, but the ability to write in sentences is one of them. 

Think “creative writing” and most people think oxymoron. Identikit relationship angst or overwritten magical realism. But whatever you think of the results, creative writing has well and truly established itself as an academic discipline. 

It started life in the pre-war years at the University of Iowa, and proliferated to almost every other campus in the United States before arriving in Britain at the University of East Anglia (UEA) in 1970. Now, creative writing is a mainstay of many UK university syllabuses, and you can sign up for any number of courses at colleges all over the country. 

A quick glance at the bestseller lists will tell you it's hard enough to find something halfway decent to read at the best of times, so no great synaptic leap is required to intuit that most writing courses produce writers who are only going to be read by those unlucky enough to be friends, family or fellow course mates. So there is a lurking feeling that many creative writing courses are driven by market forces rather than any altruistic desire to release untapped genius. 

Dilution of talent 

UEA got things off to a better start in the UK, with the course tutor, novelist Malcolm Bradbury, bringing on Ian McEwan and Kazuo Ishiguro in next to no time, and, in general, the standard at UK universities, such as Manchester, Manchester Metropolitan, Lancaster and Bath Spa has remained high. But as the number of courses increases, so does the dilution of talent. 

Richard Francis has heard all these criticisms many times before. “You can't judge a course simply by the number of publishable authors it produces,” he says. “You don't judge history or English courses by the number of history or English academics they produce. Obviously it's great when people go on to achieve within the discipline, but often the course is about giving people the creative and analytical skills they can use in other areas of their life.” 

Francis began life as a lecturer in American literature at Manchester, writing novels on the side, and got into teaching creative writing by default.  

“I went on a job exchange to the University of Missouri in 1989,” he explains, “and they took it for granted that creative writing would be part of my teaching brief. I enjoyed the experience so much I set up an undergraduate course when I returned to Manchester.” 

Power of imagination 

Since then, Francis has gone from strength to strength. First he set up the Masters programme at Manchester, before moving on to teach the postgraduate course at Bath Spa; and for an encore his latest book, Prospect Hill, has just been published to good reviews. He believes the distinction between the academic and the creative is often exaggerated. 

“In studying the works of writers such as Shakespeare, we often forget the act of creativity involved in the writing process,” he says. “Our students may not reach these highest creative levels, but just by concentrating on the act of imagination, they narrow the gap between writer and reader.” 

Motive and motivation 

So just who goes on these courses? At Bath Spa, there are graduates in their 20s eager to knock off their writing apprenticeship; people in their late 30s and early 40s on a career break and eager to make up for lost time; and a smattering of bods in their 50s and 60s. 

The demographics fit well with Francis's assertion that publication isn't necessarily people's prime motivation for signing up, although almost everyone will fork out the best part of £10,000 (RM62,000) or more for the pleasure of a Masters in creative writing, an awful lot of money to consign to a passing fancy. 

Anna Davis studied on the Manchester Masters course, repaid the debt by teaching on the same and has since gone on to make a career as a novelist, agent and journalist.  

“I personally found the course extremely helpful,” she says. “I had to write a whole novel within the year, and the deadline and the support I got enabled me to do it. I'm not sure I would have had the discipline otherwise. It also taught me how to read and edit my own work.”  

Act of self-teaching 

The big question is where the balance lies. The British writer Will Self starts with the proviso that writers like himself, who have not followed the “creative” route, are predisposed to trash it.  

“My intuitive feeling is that only a small minority of writers can benefit,” he says, “and these are the ones who you can convert from not being published to being published. There is only a very narrow range of writing skills you can actually teach. Writing fiction is largely the act of self-teaching, because the act of self-teaching is the act of imagination.” – Guardian Newspapers Limited 

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