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Let’s silence the creative writing course snobs

By April 20, 2018No Comments

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These days, it is normal for authors to go to writing workshops – or teach them. So why does the idea they produce derivative writers persist?


What makes a writer? How do you become one? When I was younger, even asking those questions seemed to disqualify me: a writer isn’t something one becomes, I thought, a writer just is. Despite writing, rewriting and reading all through my 20s, I was no closer to completing, let alone publishing, a novel. I realised I would need help if I was going to succeed, and I applied to several creative writing MAs.

This was, depending on who you ask, either a decision that condemned my writing to being forever derivative and tired, or, an important step on the path towards the publication of my first book. The debate about the value of a degree in creative writing has been done, one might think, to death – good writing depends on an innate facility that cannot be taught, versus good writing depends on devoted time, support, and elements of craft that can be studied – yet it continues to rage. This week, a much-lauded debut novel was criticised in a review by an author for its “MA creative writing-speak” and “oh so tediously writing workshop description”. For some, “writing workshop” is shorthand for bad. But why?

I enrolled on a fiction MFA at Boston University. My decision to study in the US had more to do with funding than anything else: I couldn’t afford to pay fees, and BU offered full financial aid. There, I was taught by the author Leslie Epstein, who distributed a document called Tips for Writing and Life at the beginning of the year.

Epstein’s “tips” were alarmingly specific. “One must have in mind between 68 and 73% of the ending” before starting a story, he advised, tongue only slightly in cheek. Writing about dreams was discouraged, if not outright banned, as were ellipses, abstract nouns and satire.

The purpose of Epstein’s approach was not to churn out Epsteinian clones, all writing identical books; it was to impress upon students the need to master strong, clear writing, to develop a foundation robust enough to support original ideas. It seems to me no different to musicians practicing scales, or artists studying anatomical drawing. If there are such things as institutional styles, they are likely because students choose to attend courses taught by writers they admire, not because their education has instilled in them an institutional formula. I now teach creative writing myself; nothing could be less productive or more boring than forcing all my students to write in the same way.

My MFA was about more than learning how to apply Epstein’s “tips”. It was also dedicated time for writing, spent in the company of other writers. I learned how to formulate criticism of other people’s writing that was pertinent to my own, and receive it in turn. I felt as though my classmates were holding up mirrors to my face; I saw myself more clearly than ever before. If “writing workshop” is shorthand for any kind of writing, it is work whose author has taken time to share, listen and revise.

Access to creative writing courses is, as with all higher education, an issue: funding remains sparse, so a writer’s ability to enrol can be dictated as much by finances as potential. Loans are a risky route into training that should not, and cannot, promise any financial return. But for those who can find funding, it’s an important path for under-represented writers towards publication. Fellowships such as UEA’s crowdfunded BAME writers’ scholarship seek to support voices currently chronically under-represented in publishing.

A creative writing degree is not necessarily, therefore, a marker of privilege. The ability to study, practice and network independently is equally dependent on resources not available to all. Those who are working or supporting families, particularly away from publishing hubs such as London and New York, cannot always dedicate energy to a job that so often feels fanciful. Many, nonetheless, do – there are countless ways, it turns out, to become a writer – but for those who are overburdened or lacking confidence, the respite and respect afforded by workshops can be transformative. It was for me.

At the end of a year of workshops, each member of my cohort at BU received a “global fellowship”: funding to travel anywhere in the world for three months. I chose to go to Bleaker Island in the Falklands, where I sat by myself and wrote. This experience informed my first book Bleaker House, which explores the journey I took to finally being able to call myself a writer: it was a route that wound through jobs I hated, experiences that challenged me, the MFA classroom, and a windswept island in the South Atlantic. The global fellowships were an acknowledgement of something very obvious about that journey: a writer does not emerge, fully-formed, from a degree. Writers must continue to hone their craft for the rest of their lives.

Writing, like anything – from athletics to nuclear physics – depends on a basic degree of talent, which can be cultivated through training. So let’s stop pretending that devoting a year or two to studying writing in the company of others is anything other than a valid step towards a literary career.

  • Nell Stevens is the author of Bleaker House. Her second book, Mrs Gaskell and Me, is published in September 2018.

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