Recently, in Southerly’s blog (which I always enjoy reading), I came across a post by Belinda Castles on the value of creative writing courses. Belinda is author of Falling Woman, The River Baptists (which won the Vogel, and was awarded Sydney Morning Herald Best Young Novelist in 2008), and Hannah & Emil, recently released by Allen & Unwin. I’ve put this novel on my reading list but, given the amount of writing/paid work/travel I have to do between now and the end of the year, I probably won’t get to it until Christmas.
In her post, Castles, who is a teacher of creative writing, gently refutes some of the comments made by Lisa Pryor in an article titled ‘A novel idea turns creative writing into an academic racket’. Pryor refers to an article in The Guardian containing advice from writers, in which none of them suggest doing a creative writing course to get ahead. I was surprised to find I had this self-same article rattling around in a box beside my desk, for H had sent it to me while he was still in England. I have asterisked little bits, viz. ‘Have regrets. They are fuel. On the page they flare into desire’ – Geoff Dyer; ‘If you have to read, to cheer yourself up read biographies of writers who went insane’ – Colm Toibin; and ‘It’s doubtful that anyone with an internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction’ – Jonathon Franzen (Franzie, you must know this downright wrong).
Pryor speculates that these writers’ failure to endorse creative writing courses is ‘because they know that if you can't work out what good writing is by reading widely, if you need it spelled out slowly with the benefit of a circle of plastic chairs and a whiteboard, you lack the mettle to be a great novelist.’ Her complaint is largely regarding ‘the baggage that goes with luring writers into universities’. Although she has no problem with writers striving to get money any way they can, she concludes that ‘[s]tudents may not realise when they enrol that that the greatest contribution they will be making to writing is providing charitable financial support to the writers who teach them.’
Castles acknowledges these criticisms, but notes that her own experiences weren’t in accordance with them. While undertaking her PhD in creative writing, she was stimulated and challenged by her peers and the variety in the work they produced, while her contact with academics the ‘careful supervision of long projects is an echo from the old days of close and continuing involvement with publishers’.
Pryor writes that there is a risk of creating homogenised writing if writers are formed in universities, but Castles suggested not, writing that ‘There is an incredible spark that comes from being in a room with people from many different backgrounds writing about fascinating and urgent subjects.’
You cannot teach someone to write. In my opinion, the only way to become a good writer is to read incessantly, write obsessively, and observe. However I do believe that creative writing courses are good starting points, most certainly for me. I was a young, sheltered country girl with a disability – there was no way I could have taken a year out and starved myself to write a novel. In fact, the disability was largely the reason why I decided on creative writing, as a careers advisor suggested I needed some way of processing my frustrations. I enrolled in Creative Writing at Wollongong and, because I wasn’t getting enough stimulation, took on a Bachelor of Arts majoring in English as well.
What I learned in that undergraduate degree was discipline and exercise. John Scott was my prose teacher in second year and Tony Macris in third year, while Alan Wearne my poetry teacher in my second, third and Honours years. John was often lugubrious, but sometimes dropped gems into his musings. ‘I suppose if I wrote the way a professional footballer trained,’ he trundled, ‘I’d be way ahead of my game by now.’
I took that on board, and I wrote and I wrote and I wrote. After the summer between second and third years, he asked, ‘Have you been drinking or something?’
‘No, just writing,’ I replied, a little embarrassed.
Tony Macris and Alan Wearne also exposed me to different genres every week, so that my writing became elastic as I tried out new forms. I wish I still had the luxury of time and money to practice like this. As Belinda writes, ‘For three years, my real job was being a writer. If you have the chance to do the same, and know that you will do something valuable with that rare time, space and encouragement, take that privilege, and make something with it.’
This was largely why I did the Masters at the University of Technology, Sydney. I finished at Wollongong with first class in double Honours and a university medal, so I could have gone on to a PhD, but I knew that if this happened I wouldn’t be able to write my novel. So I agree with Pryor that academia is one way for writers to stay alive and write, for I had an Australian Postgraduate Award to write that book. Castles also observed that writers move in and out of academia. In my case, my movements are prompted finances (ie I have to teach when I run out of money, which I’ll need to do next year as I’m flat broke, which also means I won’t be producing much work) and boredom (I thrive on the stimulation of new ideas, and universities are where I find them).
Yet one thing neither Castles nor Pryor comment upon is the possibility of creating professional networks through universities. Through my Masters course I made a good friend who put me in touch with an editor, who put me in touch with my now-agent. I’m still in contact with another two friends from that course, and they have both provided invaluable feedback on my novels. In turn, I also workshop their work, and let them know about any publishing opportunities that I come across.
Castles also notes that she learned to frame her criticism in writing workshops, a trait which helps her as an editor. I would argue this is definitely a benefit of such courses, but for me, the real means by which I learned to analyse and review texts was through my BA in English Lit. I also love the mental acrobatics of literary criticism, and to date my tutoring has been in this field, rather than creative writing.
Thus I was delighted to be asked by Elizabeth Lhuede to participate in next year’s Australian Women Writers challenge by keeping an eye on texts and reviews about diversity. I’ve almost finished a review of several books by Indigenous and white women writers about Indigenous subjects, and will write another on diversity in the 2012 Challenge by the end of November.
Finally, I was left thinking of a comment author Louise Doughty made in her non-fiction book, A Novel in One Year. (Interestingly, Doughty canvasses the same arguments in the above two articles in their UK context here). I’ve lost the reference to this (or rather, it’s in one of the many folders in my bookshelf), but essentially she was saying that people take up tennis or piano playing because they enjoy it, so why should those who want to write be any different? Those who want to go on to succeed as writers or winners of the Australian Open will, because that’s what they were born to do, regardless of their circumstances.