Last year Roz Morris interviewed me on the subject of creative writing courses, specifically, and more generally, how to learn to write. It was a long conversation, so we’ve divided the interview into four parts. This is Part One.
Roz Morris is a professional writer, editor and blogger. She is the author of the Nail Your Novel series, as well as the novels My Memories of a Future Life and Life Form Three. She is also the author of Not Quite Lost: Travels Without a Sense of Direction, (for which I interviewed Roz in this blogzine exactly one year ago, January 26th, 2018). She teaches masterclasses for The Guardian newspaper’s writing classes, and has ghost-written bestselling books.
RM: How did you begin teaching creative writing?
GCP: I had done an MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Arizona from 1998 – 2000. When I returned to the States in 2003, with my then-wife, who was American, I started looking for jobs. The first year I taught an evening course at a community arts centre. The next year I was offered a mix of composition courses, EFL courses, and creative writing, at the University of Central Arkansas. Gradually, that turned into a full-time job in creative writing, at first as a Visiting Assistant Professor, and then, after 2007, in a tenure-track position.
RM: We’ve talked before about graduate creative writing courses. What do you think are the benefits for writers taking such a course?
GCP: Obviously it depends what kind of course we’re discussing, and who’s teaching it. In my early twenties, I took a couple of week-long courses at Lumb Bank, Ted Hughes’ house in Yorkshire. I actually worked with Angela Carter, and met Margaret Drabble. That kind of thing is fun but too short to help you much. A longer course, like a degree course, ought to be able to help you to develop your craft. However, that depends on a number of factors.
First of all, what level is it? In the States, most people who become writers now do a Creative Writing major for their BA degree, then an MFA, and increasingly, a PhD. Ian McEwan, who has an MA in Creative Writing himself, from the University of East Anglia, regards the practice of teaching creative writing to undergraduates as ‘hideous’—because, he says, at that stage you ought to be reading, first and foremost. I think that’s true.
Most of my undergraduate students (and for the first few years I taught only undergraduates), were very poorly-read, although some were talented. For those students, the main benefit of such a course is that it gives them an opportunity to read. Even so, they might be better off with a literature degree, not only because they would have to read a great deal more, but also because it would likely be a more systematic programme of study, and would include the canon, which is essential.
RM What are the limitations of these courses?
GCP Far too many American writing programmes only teach contemporary American authors, and often second-rate but fashionable ones. The only real benefit of taking an undergraduate creative writing course is that it does expose students to some literature—and as English courses become increasingly unpopular, that’s not something to sneeze at—and it may stimulate and encourage the better ones.
Graduate degrees, if they’re properly taught, can be useful. I once asked Junot Diaz what he’d got out of his MFA at Cornell, and he said mainly the luxury of being able to do nothing but read and write for a couple of years. If you’re lucky, and have competent teachers, you might learn something about craft too. Obviously you could learn that on your own, as writers have done for thousands of years, without the benefit of formal courses, but a good course can accelerate the process.
RM Does a writer need a certain amount of experience to benefit from a creative writing degree? We’ve all heard the term ‘MFA novel’ – a book that looks as though it’s been stultified rather than enhanced. Any thoughts?
GCP It depends what you mean by ‘experience.’ Writing experience? Not necessarily. I don’t think having done a Creative Writing BA is an advantage—in fact, it may be a liability, because you’ve already internalised ‘workshop thinking’, and so you’re far more likely to produce the MFA novel. Obviously you need to have done some writing, not to be a complete beginner. But for fiction writers, having some experience of life is as important, or even more important, than experience writing. Most people who do a graduate degree in creative writing do so straight after their first degree, which means their only experience of life, generally, is as a student. So what do they write about? Inevitably, either their dysfunctional families, bad romantic relationships, or else they write about writing—metafiction, which is very popular, although it’s usually tedious, unless it’s incredibly inventive. The MFA novel is one that’s ‘safe’—it takes no risks, it offends no one, but is a bore. The big problem with workshops is that if you listen to every criticism of your work, and respond to all of them, you end up with a lowest common denominator story. It might be inoffensive—and this is perhaps the main goal of many educators in this new puritanical age—but it’s lost whatever spark it had. You’ve got to be able to trust your own genius. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t listen to advice. It means you only listen to the people who clearly understand what you’re trying to do.
RM Quick interlude: I want to savour this advice because it’s really about developing your own style. Trust your own instincts and genius. Find the people who understand what you’re trying to do – and listen to them.
Okay, back to the discussion. I think a teacher is essential at some point. We do the vast majority of the learning ourselves – by reading, writing, and even by living in an observant way. But self-directed learning always misses something. We don’t know what we don’t know.
GCP I’d agree that it’s useful, but wouldn’t go so far as to say that it’s essential. Tolstoy and Conrad didn’t have teachers, as far I know.
RM Which reminds us that great writing is an art, not an algorithm.
GCP Exactly. Admittedly you can learn faster with a good teacher.
RM And, returning to a previous point… although most writers benefit from having a teacher, it doesn’t have to be on a dedicated degree course. I went to a group workshop for several years that was run by a literary agent. Each week, a writer would read their work and the agent would guide a discussion about it. If we stayed the distance, we all picked up amazing skills in self-editing. And that’s one of the essential points – the length of study. It took years for all those small craft details to become ingrained.
GCP Yes, it usually does take years to develop those habits. And your workshop sounds terrific.
RM Are there any common misconceptions about creative writing courses?
GCP One is that an MFA degree will somehow magically make you into a writer. Some people finish the courses having learned almost nothing (which can be their own fault, if they’re too arrogant to listen to their tutors or peers.)
RM Sounds familiar. I’ve mentored writers who thought my job was to be the mirror in Snow White – and tell them they were the fairest one of all. Oh the tales a tutor (or editor) could tell…
GCP Yes, that’s common. Another misconception is that the degree is going to be all you need to teach at university level. A lot of people take creative writing courses because they want to teach, but although the graduate degree is a sine qua non for a tenure-track teaching job at the university level, it’s by no means sufficient. You’re going to need at least one published book too. And increasingly you’re likely to need a PhD—but don’t get me started on those! They may help you get the teaching gig, but it seems absurd to do a doctorate, a degree whose purpose is to produce scholars, for a creative writer, whose purpose is to become an artist—something altogether different.
Perhaps the biggest misconception about Creative Writing courses is that they’re taught by ‘experts’. The fact that someone has published a book doesn’t make him or her an expert. Plenty of awful books are published. And many people teaching creative writing, even at graduate level, are teaching courses in which they haven’t published a single book. I don’t see how you can teach a graduate writing course on fiction, for example, if you haven’t published a book-length work of fiction.
RM I’m surprised that one book is enough. Surely a writer who’s published only one novel is still learning. The real test is whether you can pull off a second or a third. How much to repeat yourself or whether you should try something new. What to do once you’ve quarried the experiences that made your first novel so rich. You might know only one writing process and not have encountered many other approaches to assembling a novel – and writing processes are very individual. Of course, editing fiction gives a breadth of experience. But surely a tutor who’s published just one novel is like a midwife who’s only delivered one baby?
GCP I’m afraid that makes me the midwife who’s delivered one baby—and means, presumably, that I was unqualified to teach—and perhaps I was! In defence of writers who haven’t published much, Marilynn Robinson had only published Housekeeping when she was invited to teach at the most prestigious creative writing school of all, the Iowa Writers Workshop. The Associated Writing Programs, the organisation that represents all university-level courses in North America, recommends a single book in each genre as a minimum qualification. But I take your point. As a student, you might be better off with an author who has published a number of novels and is skilled in various approaches. Even so, I’d have been thrilled to study with Alain-Fournier, the author of The Wanderer, or Harper Lee, who wrote To Kill a Mockingbird. They were both one-hit wonders.
RM Fair point. And actually, you’ve reminded me that some great teachers have never published a book. The agent who ran my fantastic workshop course, for instance. I’ve no doubt he was the midwife for many notable books. Good editors can be wise and useful teachers too.
RM Thanks, Garry! In part 2, we’ll look in more depth at how to choose a course.
- The main benefit of a creative writing degree is the opportunity to read. But writers might be better off with a literature degree because it would be a more systematic and complete programme of study, and include the literary canon.
- Obviously you could learn craft on your own, as writers have done for thousands of years, without the benefit of formal courses, but a good course can accelerate the process.
- What life experience are you writing from? Writers who go straight from a first degree to a creative writing degree might have a limited range of topics. It might be better to live a little, then return to study.
- Also consider how established you are in your style and vision. If you embark on a course too soon, you might not know which criticism will enhance your work and which will stultify it.
- Research the tutors carefully. Many people teaching creative writing, even at the graduate level, are teaching courses in which they haven’t published a single book.