I’ve come late to the party about this but t’internet has been all of a flutter about whether or not creative writing courses are a waste of time. A debate started by Hanif Kureshi who teaches at Kingston University and the Faber Writing Course. Since part of my livelihood depends on them continuing I’m hardly objective about it but I’ve taught enough to be able to tell the difference between a good one and a bad one.
Just because you’re published (or broadcast) doesn’t make you able to teach. You need endless patience and enthusiasm.
A good cw course doesn’t make promises or even hints about publication, but provides you with a set of tools, a supportive environment and a few deadlines. Deadlines are vital because they force you to produce work. If there are no deadlines you’ll spend all your time faffing about avoiding work like me. It won’t make a bad writer a good one. But it will make most writers better and most importantly, better able to identify why a piece is not working, in both their own work and in another student’s.
How to tell that a creative writing course is probably going to be ‘A Kureshi’
The REALLY bad ones have a proliferation of exclamation points, phrases like ‘Yes You Too’ plus liberal mentions of JK Rowling, as though only a few marketing points stand between you and the Secrets of Publication.
There is usually a picture of an attractive girl with a pencil in her mouth looking wistfully into the distance. Or lying on her stomach, smiling gormlessly at her laptop for no apparent reason.
The word ‘secrets’ is used as in ‘secrets of publication’. THERE ARE NO SECRETS AND THERE ARE NO MAGIC TIPS. Writing is hard work. There are no short cuts. (I particularly like Jeannette Winterson’s pithy remark: ‘I don’t give a shit what’s in your head. If it’s not on the page it doesn’t exist. Reading isn’t telepathy.’)
Check how many people will be in the group. With online courses, there should be no more than 15 or 16. Online students need more support than face to face ones.
Check who writes the course materials. If the answer you get is vague then the chances are they are generic. One of the reasons why the OU CW course is respected is because the materials are rigorous, and updated.
If the course promises input from writers check the nature of this input. It could be that they will post a video of a writer giving advice as part of an interview this writer gave ten years ago. It will not be without value but by mentioning authors, it implies the author has validated the course which may not be true. The author might not even know his or her video is being used, if the publishing company bought up all the rights to it.
Check the credentials of the tutor. It’s true that being published doesn’t mean you can teach – and some great teachers may not have been widely published but if you are doing a course on script writing then you really need a tutor who has had a script broadcast or performed. A novel writing course should be taught by someone who has been published, and I don’t think that self-publishing counts.
How much is the tutor being paid? Ask yourself where the rest of the money is going. If the tutor is badly paid then they will either be a) unqualified, or b) desperate. Is that who you want to be teaching you? If there is a group of say 20 people and you are all paying £350, that’s £7000. If the tutor is being paid a wretched fee like £1000 (it happens) ask where the rest of YOUR money is going?
Check whether you will be expected to produce work to a deadline. If not there’s no point in the course. I often point out to my OU students that by the end of the (advanced) course they will have produced short stories, life writing, poetry and a half hour script. At the beginning, most of them see this as impossible. But at the end, they look back and cannot believe they have done this. But without deadlines, nothing would happen.
As for Mr Kureshi, apart from being very cruel to his students, I think that what he says is wrong! He says, ‘”A lot of them [students] don’t really understand,” said Kureishi. “It’s the story that really helps you. They worry about the writing and the prose . .’” But if you look at the stories of Raymond Carver, they are incredibly simple, about blue collar people and written in very plain accessible language. Fat is the story of a waitress who serves a fat man. Doesn’t sound like a ‘great story’. But it is – a story about connection and choices. And it’s all in the characterisation and language.
So I’ve been teaching with the OU for six years and I’ve learned about point of view, about theme, that stories and plays are built, they don’t emerge in a flash, that rewrites are vital. And I’ve that students can complete a demanding course while holding down a full time job.
I’ve also learned a little humility. Something that HK might benefit from.
And the most useful piece of advice ever, courtesy of Ernest Hemingway: