Creative writing: a 'con job'?

Tim Leach
Opinion - Books Monday, 2nd August 2021

Novelist and teacher Tim Leach on what you will and won't get from a creative writing course

"The biggest con job in academia" - that is how Lucy Ellmann has famously described creative writing degrees. Hanif Kureishi said (ironically, given that he was a teaching writing at Kingston University at the time) that “most [teachers] are going to teach you stuff that is a waste of time”. Creative writing courses have always been viewed sceptically, and yet more than 100 universities in the UK now offer them. If it is a con job, it's certainly a popular and effective one. 

Perhaps not for much longer, though. Up and down the country, humanities and arts degrees are under threat from an increasingly hostile funding landscape. In a recent, high profile example, the University of Sunderland announced its intention to close a raft of degrees in the humanities. The government, keen to push students towards STEM and vocational training, has confirmed its plans to cut by 50% the subsidies to many creative arts courses. Hard choices lie ahead, and the case will have to be made anew that creative writing has a place in academia.

Can writing be taught? It's the kind of question that isn't usually directed towards other art forms - drama, music, and fine art all offer degrees and other forms of training in higher education. Yet writing is perhaps a more elusive art to teach, with fewer distinctive rules to follow or hard principles to adhere to. Misplay a chord on the piano, and even the untrained ear can hear it. Mess up the perspective in a still life, and the layman's eye objects. But no sooner does one try to lay down a writing rule than one finds authors who break it. Don't overwrite, unless you're HP Lovecraft. Don't underwrite, unless you're Hemingway. It would be difficult to pigeonhole Girl, Woman, Other into a neat, five-act structure, or any other kind of conventional narrative pattern, and yet it deservedly won the Booker Prize.

"A degree in creative writing won't magically improve your work"

Quite how good writing works is something of a mystery, and in both technique and process, varies hugely from author to author. Plan extensively, or not at all. Write 2,000 words a day like Stephen King, or settle for a dozen or so, as James Joyce sometimes did. So it's safe to say that a degree in creative writing won't give you any secret knowledge, foolproof method, or silver bullet that will magically and instantly improve your work. It won't teach you a password or handshake that will suddenly allow you privileged access to the opaque world of publishers and agents. It will not guarantee that your book will be published, or that you will even finish your book.

So, what can it give you? 

First, it's an opportunity to develop process and technique, under the guidance of experienced mentors and in the company of skilled, dedicated peers. A good course doesn't try to teach a specific methodology (these vary hugely from writer to writer), but instead exposes you to a variety of processes for planning, drafting, and editing, so that you may magpie together your own particular way of writing. It exposes you to texts you might not otherwise read and to gaps in your reading that you may not even know about, and challenges habits and preconceptions. Warning bells ring when a student says: "I had to write it this way because…” or “I can only write when…”. Nothing is fixed, and nothing is certain - the author can always change their mind and make different choices, and a lot of writing training is remembering this, over and over again. 

Second, it is a chance to build a community. You'll meet other aspiring writers who are in the same position as you, eager to learn and understand this mysterious, maddening craft. You'll have access to more experienced writers who still struggle with much the same problems as you do, but who have developed techniques or the sheer bloody mindedness to push past them. It's a kind community, built upon shared knowledge and experience. It will help sustain you through the difficult times ahead.

Joining a community
Writing is a lonely trade and, ultimately, it will always comes down to the writer alone in their room with the work. Years of quiet, private effort to try to create something that might have meaning to somebody else - an endless, solitary battle with the blank page. There is no cheating this, no way of avoiding this confrontation or getting somebody else to do it for you; but a good course helps to give you the skills and experience to be prepared for it. It gives you a community of shared knowledge and encouragement to see you through it. And it helps give you the hope that you might emerge with a story worth telling.

None of this is unique to universities or creative writing degrees. Writers have always shared knowledge, formed communities, developed relationships with mentors and peers. The growing expense of university education (especially in terms of living costs) is a significant concern, and there are many who will decide that their time and money should be spent elsewhere. 

But there is a reason why writers have been drawn to form creative writing departments - they allow the development of institutional knowledge in a way that's harder to achieve in a less formal setting. And there's a reason why students continue to be drawn to them - not to take part in some kind of academic pyramid scheme or nurture unrealistic fantasies of fortune and glory, but out of a longing to form a community and find a better way to express themselves. Creative writing courses aren't necessary, but neither are many other of the useless, beautiful pursuits in art and culture. It would be a shame to see them go.

Head of Zeus publishes A Winter War by Tim Leach on 5 August.