Tuesday, 17 June 2008

To teach or not to teach

Working in a university affords some bonuses, one of which is finding out about things before everyone else.

Accordingly, I got an email this morning which said the following ' Philip Pullman has agreed to be one of the new Fellows for the forthcoming MA in Creative Writing, and will be launching the course in September ... Teaching on the course will be novelist James Hawes and poet Jane Yeh, as well as other Creative Writing Fellows who will be announced shortly.'

What most people here probably don't know is that I recently completed my Masters at the University of East Anglia in Life Writing - or in layman's terms I studied the ways in which biography and autobiography are written. This course is sort of a side dish to the bigger, and more prestigious, Creative Writing course, set up by Malcom Bradbury which turned out such distinguished alumni as Ian McEwan and Kazuo Ishiguro. Whilst the CW course is geared to teaching people how to write, the LW course, it seemed to me, was more focused on looking at how the genre is written, rather than getting you to do it yourself.

This was fine for me - who had come straight from an undergrad degree in English and American Literature, where my favourite thing was to find how an author's life reflected on their work, but to the five other people on the course, the writing seemed to be the key, and they were most upset to find that we seemed to be the poor, ignored, younger cousin to the CW Masters.

The point, however, that started me thinking about writing the post was not to have a rant about the unlevel nature of UEA degrees, but to ask a more general question:

Can the art of writing ever be truly taught? I know there are courses people can go on to help them write decent reports etc, and they seem to work fairly well, because they need to conform to a formulae, but what about the art of writing in it's most creative and imaginative form? You may have some prestigious writers at the helm, encouraging those on the Masters, and helping them to define their work, but in the end, won't the general outcome be the same as those report writing courses? Won't everything turn out formulaic in the end? (And if it doesn't, will it go the other way and be so outrageous that it is simply unpublishable?

I know that there are a couple of published authors who read this. Do you have a strong view about these courses? What does everyone else feel? Has anyone been on a course to help their writing techniques?

Also, in conversation with one of the creative writers in the grad bar one evening, I mentioned I had a blog. This, apparently, proved that I wasn't a real writer at all - because if I were, I'd want to go back and alter it all the time, which would defeat the purpose of the blog, and hence I wasn't a writer.

To which I say balderdash and piffle! But what does everyone else think?


Rebecca said...

Great questions!

I think that writing courses help you in three main ways: by forcing you to write about things you normally wouldn't ever touch, to create a forum for discussion with other authors about their process, and in their most basic: to just MAKE you write! However, if you've already got the bug for writing, then you don't need a course to make you do these things! :):):)

Sarah said...

I don't have a problem with MFA programs, though I wonder sometimes if the colleges need them more than the writers do. If you are a writer that needs a schedule, constant feedback AND you are confident enough in your own writing style, then you would be great in an MFA. The biggest problem with MFAs, though, is that you run the risk of coming out with a writing style like everyone else's.

Paul said...

Writing courses do help a writer whether the course is of short or long duration.