"Murray is the best kind of literary biographer" – The Financial Times.
For more information about the books of Nicholas Murray
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Winner of the 2015 Basil Bunting Award for poetry

Friday, 7 March 2014

Creative Writing Courses: a Health Warning

I see that Hanif Kureishi has been at it again this time rubbishing creative writing courses and giving the media the pleasure of pointing out that he is a Professor of Creative Writing himself.  As if he cared.

The old Latin tag poeta nascitur non fit [the poet is born not made] which seems to say that writing cannot be taught, makes its appearance regularly, but the debate never seems to get further than the rehearsal of what was said last time so here are Ten Things You Won't Always Hear About Creative Writing Courses [from someone who teaches non-fiction creative writing].

  • Creative writing can be taught in the same way that sculpture, maths, pastry-making, carpentry and indeed anything can be taught. That's what education is for. End of debate.
  • Many creative writing courses are indeed a waste of time because publishing is in crisis, risk-averse, and incapable of thinking outside its crumpled cardboard box, outlets for your perfectly honed and blame-free work are few, and the chances of being published are slim. Unlike watercolour painting where you can hang your tolerably nice picture (as I do!) of some trees in the loo, an unpublished manuscript is very sad like a crumpled party frock at dawn..
  • Many creative writing courses – notoriously the Guardian and Faber varieties – are a rip-off, over-priced ventures in snake-oil marketing.  
  • Professors of Creative Writing are chosen because they are 'names', probably already overpaid, and most of the work is done by a class of low-paid, exploited helots
  • The contemporary university is motivated by only one thing, money, and creative writing courses are perceived as an easy way of relieving people of it.
  • Many of the classic nostrums of the creative writing courses are rubbish.  Here's John Donne, in one of the great poems of the English language, "The Anniversary", telling not showing: 'All other things to their destruction draw/Only our love hath no decay.'
  • The job of a writer is to break rules not to follow them
  • A regrettable consequence of the exploding creative writing industry is that writing, which is a vocation, becomes a career choice and taking one is like enrolling on a snobby MBA in the hope that you will found your own organic marmalade empire
  • The most serious case against creative writing courses is that they foster uniformity and dullness; students are taught what to avoid ['too many adjectives'] which results too often – one can see it most clearly in contemporary poetry – in a kind of toothpaste poetry, slickly oozing out in a uniform and colourless trail.  The stripe doesn't fool us.
  • Writers can benefit from sharing work with their peers and receiving constructive criticism – I missed out on this in my early writing years and regret it – but in the end one learns to write from reading with passion and creativity and from following the promptings of one's ungovernable creative imagination.
Oh, I didn't want the professorial job anyway.

PS No mention above of the actual students on such courses, working with whom, for those of us who teach them, is what makes the whole show worthwhile.

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