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March 03, 2011

As she start teaching creative writing Emily Kingham asks, can creative writing be taught?

Posted by Emily Kingham

Emily Kingham has moved from being a Writer-in-Residence at a prison to teaching creative writing at a suburban university.

It is a received wisdom that the teaching of creative writing is a growth industry. Everyone has a novel in them. This has always been a feeling or yearning for self-expression that has been shyly voiced and then dismissed. The joke comes to mind: two journalists in a pub. One says, "I'm writing a novel". The other says, "Neither am I".

That was then - when people had to work for a living. There is a different climate now. The imperative is to voice our feelings, celebrate our uniqueness, tell our stories. And, to give a shine to these voices, to impart confidence, an industry has grown around this cultural explosion of the confessional. But what about the disclipine, the craft of writing? Can this be taught?

A few years ago, a suburban university in the Greater London area received the funding to develop its Department in Creative Writing. It is now bursting at the seams with Research Fellows, Professors, Writers in Residence, lecturers, tutors, and PhD students like me. On a purely personal level, I know of several writer friends who are now teaching at university level in order to supplement their Gissing-like earnings. Let us be thankful for the demise of Grub Street, and its associated suicide rate (at least according to Gissing) and the proliferation of aspirational, regional universities. Lucky Jim indeed. The 1980s saw the vagueness of General Studies (an A-level course that offers essay-writing skills, comprehension, languages, awareness of current affairs and such) morph into Media Studies, and now we have BA (Hons) in Creative Writing. What does it mean? And can creative writing be taught? And didn't it used to be called just writing?

These are questions I am in the fortunate position to be attempting to answer given that said University has offered me a bursary to undertake a PhD thesis in Life Writing. Again, life writing is what used to be called Biography and Memoir. At least I hope so. What am I learning? - that I am employing the practise of prosopography to recreate my forebears' lives; that I am engaging in autobiografiction - a hideous portmanteau word coined by the writer Stephen Reynolds in 1906. Who he? Another "creative writer" in the vast pool of creativity who realized he was making bits up in order to write a story.

In other words, what I know is being given an authorised version. I see Creative Writing Studies as being a kind of General Studies with the emphasis on "Culcher". Rather in the manner of Hector in Alan Bennett's History Boys, teachers of creativity are imparting their passion for cultural expressions of love and life. Hopefully, without the groping. What I am learning is that other writers have been doing what I have been doing for centuries and there is a formalized language for it, and I am not alone. I quoted the sculptor Louise Bourgeois to the 115 students massed to hear my debut lecture:

We become [writers], let us say, because of our inability to grow up (and it is a blessing in disguise), but it is a fact that we remain beggars all our lives. Well, we can talk about it, and in spite of all the frustrations, be gracious about it.
What I was really thinking was: what on earth can 18-year-olds know about life that they can write about?

The answer, of course, as Richard and Judy (the F. R. and Queenie de nos jours) would be among the first to tell you is - being 17, silly!

But do they have the discipline to recognise that writing is a craft? Writing is a tough, tearing process that reduces the writer to shreds of blankness and despair before somehow, he / she pulls him /herself back onto shore again. Academic Departments are far too sanitary for such bloody toil.

The teaching of creative writing has its sceptics among practising authors (who have learned their practice the "hard way"). But even a graduate of creative writing, the novelist Flannery O'Connor asserts,

I am often asked if universities stifle writers. My view is that they don't stifle enough of them.
This is an excellent starting point for our debate. Despite what Richard and Judy and their Book Club copycats would have us believe, it is not a human right to create and publish literature. Knowledge does not necessarily make us publish-able; it makes us more discriminating readers. Maybe this is the point. Maybe Creative Writing really is teaching its students how to read. In the world of the internet this is a dying art. One of the first lectures I attended as a shadow (- more to come in next blog) was on How to Write a Book Review. I could hardly believe my ears: hack-writing has become an academic discipline!

I learnt to write book reviews while opening the post and inputting data at the Times Literary Supplement. It was a lowly job but I worked my way up to sub-editing, editing and reviewing. That was nearly 20 years ago. Having just had a book published, it was made clear to me that the reviews that really mattered weren't the ones published in the Sunday Times or the TLS, but the ones posted on the Internet by members of the public. The arts and crafts of Fleet Street hack-ery are dying. So, just like Ancient Greek, the best place for them is the University.

We are preserving ancient traditions in teaching Creative Writing. We are passing the parcel of Culture. Since the literary mind may prove to be the open and receiving mind, such courses may even create better communicators of other disciplines, such as the sciences, politics or business.

Lofty thoughts. It might just be as the French sculptress I quoted earlier said, we are learning to be gracious about our misfortunes.

Emily Kingham (a pseudonym) teaches creative writing to undergraduates and Masters students at a suburban university in the Greater London area. She formerly was writer-in-residence at a Category B prison in South East England. Her Notes from a Prison can be read here.

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Welcome back Emily!

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at March 4, 2011 05:54 PM

Thank goodness Emily has put into writing what so many of us feel.
The system is Gogol and Kafka rolled into one.
The answer - a General Strike of all prison educators but will we get it - NO.


Posted by: Keith A Mallinson at March 8, 2011 08:50 AM

Much food for thought here, Emily! The publisher of my debut novel, A Clockwork Apple, once said he was glad that I didn't go onto study for an MA in Creative Writing - I studied English Lit instead and without the knowledge gained from that I couldn't have written Apple. I am now 'studying' for a PhD in that hideous portmanteau word.

Posted by: Bel Webb at March 8, 2011 11:17 AM

I'm waiting for the post comparing teaching undergrads outside the walls and prisoners inside of them (oh wait, is it the other way 'round?).

Posted by: Angela at March 10, 2011 06:30 AM
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