A Proliferation of Writing Courses
Over the last five years (since I first applied to university), Creative Writing courses, degrees, MAs and the like have sprouted in untold waves across the public sphere. We read stories in the media about old, prestigious Creative Writing courses being challenged by newer institutions who have caught on to the trend; numbers of writing groups and people attending courses have, if the figures are to be believed, skyrocketed. But what does a creative writing course actually teach you?
Before I begin, I should make clear that I myself teach on creative writing courses, have helped teach creative writing qualifications, and my university degree was 50% creative writing. However, there have been times when I have steered well clear of writing courses or groups that I have heard of, so I'm a little selective with what I go for.
Firstly, creative writing courses for young people. There are TONS of these, if only you know where to look. In my part of the country, Kilve Court run Creative writing courses with fantastic tutors like Beth Webb and Lucinda Murray for young people aged 8-16. While these are advertised as Enrichment that fulfils all these criteria of English and communication, that is by no means where it stops. It is a space where young people can begin to explore their ideas about writing, experiment with ideas, and most importantly meet a group of like-minded people. I am an avid user of websites like NaNoWriMo, but meeting real people rather than virtual ones can really help young writers bond with others who have the same common interest, which may be harder for them to find in school. This nurturing of writers and the formation of a 'writerly' community from a relatively young age can support young people who want to develop their skills. And after all, reading each others' work and giving feedback is the mainstay of university-level courses and has been for years.
Secondly, the new Creative Writing A Level. This has been introduced by AQA, who have responded to a plea from universities to have something lower down the education system that actually teaches their students how to write. Creative Writing has been off the syllabus for many years, (no thanks to various government interventions for THAT one), and so students who want to try Creative Writing usually don't dabble in it until they are trying to mush together a portfolio of ideas to send off in the hope it'll earn them an offer at the university of their choice. The Creative Writing A Level is beneficial in many ways: it makes students experiment with a variety of forms; it introduces the idea of the workshop very early on; it encourages the use of peers to read and reflect on work outside of the workshop; and, most importantly, it recognises that reading is JUST as important as writing when you are a writer. This teaches good practice and habits - something distinctly lacking in our education system before students reach university.
Thirdly - the undergraduate degree. I'm personally a UEA Alumni, and spent three years sitting in workshops, completing written exercises, and offering feedback to my peers. There's no question that since the founding of the MA by Raymond Bradbury and Angus Wilson over forty years ago, creative writing courses have ballooned in popularity. But at degree level, I think you have to be careful about the benefits against the disadvantages. I feel that with undergraduate programmes, and I do speak from my own experience, that the tutors are predominantly looking at the MA, with one eye on their undergraduate classes. They also - and this is one reason the Creative Writing A Level was born - assume a certain level of know-how and ability. To me, writing courses should be nurturing spaces where even beginners can go and hone their craft - especially as very few of us may have had the opportunity pre-eighteen. I didn't find this was always the case at undergraduate level. That said, if someone asked me if I'd still do a 50% Creative Writing degree rather than switching to full-on Literature, I'd still bite your arm off. Especially in third year when we got to choose a dissertation, we had one-on-ones and a whole long term to focus wholly on our writing, which was far more successful than writing little snippets of something we'd made up in a workshop to fit a submission. I had a wrestling match with the Prose unit in my second year, for example. It was made clear the unit tutors wanted short stories very quickly after starting - but there was no space in this unit for the longer form of the novel (or extracts from). Of course, my experience at undergraduate level at UEA could be very different to other Creative Writing degrees across the country. But I find that the writing courses that are the most beneficial are the ones that give you plenty of time on your work, whilst also offering one-on-one mentoring and workshops that can be applied to any prose piece.
This brings me on very nicely to my fourth example: Arvon courses. I have adored both Arvon courses I have been on, and if I could spend even more time hiding away in a cottage in Devon or up a hill in the Pennines, I would. For me they strike the balance that the university courses don't: they teach you important skills in the workshop, such as plotting, character, setting, etc. I genuinely don't remember having seminars on any of these things at university. Balance that with extended time to work on your own project and in-depth one-on-ones with course tutors, and you've just described my perfect creative writing course. And there are also the benefits of it being set very rurally, so I can't get distracted by the internet! My most recent Arvon course this summer was so productive that something in my brain went 'click' and I've not stopped writing since! The feedback I got from the tutors was fantastically thought-provoking (I'm not just saying that - I practically bounced out of my tutorial with Malorie, I had so many ideas buzzing around my head!), and the exercises we did in the morning workshops could be approached from any angle, which in turn could feed back to my own story. We did one workshop on objects, and bam! All of a sudden a bit of backstory that wasn't clicking just slotted neatly into place, out of nowhere, without me having given it any particular thought in the session. It's amazing what a pretend bone can do for a story...
And finally: MAs. This whole blog post was provoked by a wonderful evening at the Bath Children's Literature Festival entitled Now We Are Ten!, which was a celebration of the MA in Writing for Young People at Bath Spa University. This does sound like if I were to do an MA, this'd be it. A course, designed much like Arvon, exclusively for children and YA writing? Tell me where I sign! From what I have heard from the press and fellow writers, it seems like many people who have done the MA have been previous students of courses like Arvon, or have simply been ploughing away at their writing and wanted the one-on-one and the workshop scenario that the MA offers. It's obviously a big commitment, and I can imagine the pressure to churn out a novel by the end of the course may get to you (it'd almost certainly do so with me!) but again, it's that idea of being part of a 'writerly' community. And that was the main point that came out of the panel this evening. They all appreciated being surrounded by similar writers, and experts who would nurture you and help hone your writing so that big ol' blob of a first draft morphs and changes into a novel that sits on the shelves in your local bookshop!
And I think at heart that is what makes a good Creative Writing course: a community of writers and experts, nurturing you and your work to help you improve and become the best writer you can be. Some can be a mixed bag, but some are absolutely worth every minute and every penny. I'm going to start saving mine now, in the hope that sometime in the future I can embark on another Arvon, or win the lottery and apply to Bath Spa's fabulous MA programme! Not all writing courses are as great as they're made out to be though - remember to select carefully, and think about what YOU want out of it by the end.
Kilve Court is a residential education centre and outdoor centre in Somerset. It offers weekend and holiday courses for young people in a range of subjects like languages, science and music, as well as their many courses in creative writing.
The AQA Creative Writing A Level is a post-16 qualification now being taught in sixth forms and colleges across the UK.
UEA's BA English Literature with Creative Writing course is the undergraduate prequel to their MA programme. It is renowned for the writers it has produced since first establishing the MA. Its Literature and Creative Writing BA is in high demand, as creative Writing courses boom across the country. It is internationally renowned for its MA Creative Writing programme.
Arvon is a charity that delivers residential writing courses and retreats across the UK. Writers spend five days on retreat with selected tutors who guide them through the week with a mixture of workshops, tutorials and one-on-ones.
The Bath Spa MA in Writing for Young People is a qualification for people wanting to take on the challenge of writing/completing a novel for the children's and YA market. Run by Julia Green, the programme also hosts a number of renowned writers as tutors including Lucy Christopher (Stolen) and Professor David Almond (Skellig).