I have been pondering of late my new venture into teaching Creative Writing - which I will be doing this semester. It comes at the same time that I have been expending considerable thought on how to embed employability more explicitly into the English modules which I teach, and one of the first things I have had to address is the issue of how useful a Creative Writing module will be for students?
After all, the idea of Creative Writing on an English Literature and Language degree might at first seem a little incongruous. Even the images associated with 'Creative Writing' tend towards the archaic and the disconnected: Old type-writers, pencils and fountain pens scratching away on parchment-type paper. Unlike linguistics or the theoretical and historical weight of Language and Literature, the idea of sitting around discussing our own jolly wee stories might seem a little irrelevant - like an short vacation from the critical rigours of academic study.
One of the things I will try to explain here is the ‘literary’ nature of Creative Writing, and how it can be used in order to develop a critical understanding of both literature, and of the writing process itself. As Paul Dawson writes:
“Creative Writing functions as a discursive site for continuing debate over some of the foundational questions of literary studies: what is literature, what is the nature of the creative process, and what is the relationship between the creative and the critical?” (Dawson, 2004. p. 2)
With a Creative Writing course, there is often very little in terms of clear outcomes and structure. This is because the nature of anything ‘creative’ is that it is largely independent of such frameworks - while at the same time being integrally connected to the world around us. As Mary Luckhurst and John Singleton say, writings “establish our identity” as individuals, but at the same time they function as “the act of naming” and create “through mind pictures, the world around us” (2000, p. 1).
Usually, creative writing courses are targeted towards one of two kinds of student:
- Those who have a genuine interest in writing plays, or poems, novels or autobiographies - either professionally, or as a hobby.
- Those who might just to improve their writing skills in general.
Of course, both these aims can be accommodated in any Creative Writing course, and especially within the contexts of an undergraduate degree the development of generic as well as specific writing skills is something which can have wider benefits for:
- Developing better writing in academic essays / exams
- Developing better writing and communication as both a generic and a specific employability skill
In the case of writing better essays, the development of creative writing skills is (as Luckhurst and Singleton have already pointed out) about how each of us can understand the pictures in our own minds and relate them to the world around us. In one sense, this is the same when it comes to writing a good essay: We need to be able to frame our own understanding of a topic and relate it to wider contexts, theories and research. In academic terminology, this process is known as ‘synthesis’.
In a Royal Literary Fund report on the importance of writing in Higher Education, Ahmad and McMahon explain this relationship between creative writing and academic writing:
“At its most beautiful and complex, excellent writing crystallises into art. The lyrical poem, unforgettable play, haunting novel, powerful essay or compelling film are all collections of words. Even when writing neither seeks nor attains artistic status, for many of us it is the familiar and preferred route to self-expression and action. We use the written word to affirm and connect, to protest and defend, demand and proclaim, inform and persuade. Through writing we can explore, understand and formulate elusive and complex ideas, share information and engage in debate. This process does as much to elucidate our own thoughts as it does to communicate them to others.
But the most functional and elementary role of good writing is antecedent to its creative and expressive forms and modes. This resides in good writing’s capacity to transmit, interpret and extend our inheritance of learning over the ages, passing it on to future generations with as much clarity and exactitude as possible. This aspect of writing is the most pertinent to teaching and learning within an academic context.” (Ahmad and McMahon, 2006. p.1)
Creative writing then, can help us to understand the world, and ourselves, better. It can then help us to communicate that understanding effectively. How? Through developing a “command of structure, language and material [which] allows the writer to be bold and searching, to explore and expand an argument where necessary, to use metaphor and analogy, to make connections and to draw original conclusions” (Ahmad and McMahon, 2006. p.2).
These techniques, when practised, enable us to see problems from multiple perspectives, and to find multiple ways of explaining solutions. It enables to communicate in a way which is convincing and persuasive. It enables us to write in ways which can engage, excite and interest our readers - whether that reader be tie-dyed hippie reading poetry, a severely-dressed manager reading a report, or a tweedy academic marking an essay.
Whatever the circumstances, to be a ‘good writer’ is to have an edge. Good ideas sound better when well-written. Bad ideas sound not so bad, if well-written. Again, Ahmad and McMahon express this advantage well in terms of essays and exams:
“Instead of groping for the way forward, the student who can write well can use writing as a tool which both articulates meaning and extends the learning process. Whatever other circumstances – from perplexity or overwork to emotional turmoil – may obstruct their progress, at least competent writers know that their writing skills will not fail them. Quite simply, those who can write well have the potential to achieve, both in their course-work and in their exams. They are at an enormous advantage.” (Ahmad and McMahon, 2006. p.3)
Employability and Lifelong Skills:
If creative writing can be an advantage in academic writing, then it can also be an advantage in almost any employment. It is difficult to image a job where effective communication skills would not be advantageous - and not just jobs in creative industries, either. While it is manifest that creative writing skills are an essential criteria for work in publishing, writing, journalism, media, etc., the capacity for creative and critical communication skills is something which is highly prized by pretty much every employment sector - from government to high finance.
Steve May, writing a report for the Higher Education Academy (2003), visited a number of Universities exploring the kinds of careers which English and Creative Writing students appeared particularly suited. He found that, in addition to creative industries graduates have been employed in “publishing; teaching; personnel management; sales; banking; recruitment; postgraduate study; administration in a variety of work environments; public relations.” According to the Universities explored, graduates of English and Creative Writing are valued by employers because they provide "a range of key transferable skills” which includes a proven ability to:
"write well in a variety of formats; to organise workload and to work to tight deadlines; to convey meaning precisely; to summarise, argue and debate within contexts; to interpret, assess and evaluate sources; to develop opinions, propose ideas and theories; to think logically and laterally; to absorb and retain large amounts of information; to persuade others of your point of view; to think and act creatively.”
May’s report concludes that these essentially creative communication skills are “highly prized in every job or profession”.
As well as having value for both your academic writing and in terms of building employability skills though, creative writing can become an increasingly effective means by which you can engage with the world around you - it can function as a tool for both acquiring and communicating an understanding of your environment, your society, your relationships. It’s power to enable synthesis and to relate knowledge or theory to experience, means that can acquire value as a means for understanding the worlds you may encounter in the future. Again, as Ahmad and McMahon say:
“Good writing skills help the able student gain access to, and succeed in, his or her chosen career, facilitating communication with colleagues and competitors and negotiation through all the complexities of adult life, private and public life, as citizen or employee. The power to write well, like the ability to be articulate in oral communication, is an essential tool for survival in a sophisticated world. The actual body of knowledge which a student acquires at university is limited and may soon become outdated or forgotten, whereas the practical skills that a student learns may be applied to a diversity of environments and situations. Of these skills, good writing is arguably paramount.” (Ahmad and McMahon, 2006. p.4)
Writing as a skill:
Central to all that has been said so far, is the assumption that creative writing and good writing are somehow synonymous - that to practice creative writing is to develop good writing. This, for some, may require a re-definition of what hey think of as ‘creative writing’. Writing as a spontaneous and un-mediated act of creativity is rarely good writing, and even in those rare occasions when - Like Coleridge’s Kubla Khan - something powerful does emerge spontaneously, it is usually supported by pre-existing writing skills and experiences.
For those unaware of the story, Kubla Khan was a poem which was dreamed by the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge one night (after a couple of grains of opium). On waking, he hurried to transcribe his dream - but was famously interrupted by a businessman from Porlock, after which he couldn’t remember a word more.
This romantic story of how “an inspired work was mysteriously given to the poet and then dispelled irrecoverably” has gained a somewhat legendary status, influencing writers from James Joyce to Douglas Adams (Perkins, 2010. p.39). For many the story has represented the subversive and spontaneous genius of the creative writing process (see Julian Temple’s 2000 film Pandaemonium). However, for all the romance of the drug-addled moment of conception, Coleridge’s poem would not have been possible if Coleridge did not already have an extraordinarily developed set of critical and creative skills - built over years of tireless work and dedication - with which to shape his experience (Holmes, 2011).
The critical faculty - that capacity to think, reflect, synthesise and evaluate experiences - is fundamentally bound up with any effective act of creativity. As Graeme Harper writes:
“Critical understanding in Creative Writing occurs before, during and after the act of Creative Writing. The creative writer employs an active critical sense in order to be able to construct, review and edit their work. They employ this primarily because it is a key part of their survival as creative writers - without a responsive critical understanding, an understanding that can inform and seek to improve their engagement with their own work, and with the work of other creative writers, they would not be able to develop individual projects or to compare and contrast good or bad approaches to the work at hand” (Harper, 2008. p. 1)
In addition to this critical component, Creative Writing relies on the development of a confidence to manipulate words, in just the same way that a piano player can manipulate musical notes. This confidence can be helped by understanding certain structures, patterns and devices of writing - just as learning the piano can be helped by understanding scales, keys and melodies.
These structures, patterns and devices are generally the focus of a Creative Writing course. Practising them and developing them will mean a certain amount of bloody-minded determination, which is again quite appropriate. Creative Writing is only rarely fuelled by inspiration, and is perhaps better thought of as a craft. Luckhurst and Singleton paint a good picture of it takes to develop good, critical and creative writing:
“You don’t have to slick your hair or hang around chic cafés reading Hegel. Nor do you have to take to wearing a hair shirt. Being a writer means that you write and take your writing seriously. The credentials are persistence and passion. You will have periods of frustration and anger, but equally you will have times of delight and joy; what matters is that (a) you enjoy it and (b) you stick at it no matter how difficult the circumstances and no matter what anyone else says or thinks of you ... Writing is a craft and takes years of apprenticeship; with practice you get better” (Luckhurst and Singleton, 2000. p. 8)
Holmes, R. (2011). Coleridge: Early Visions. London: HarperCollins UK.Perkins, D. (2010). The Imaginative Vision of Kubla Khan: On Coleridge’s Introductory Note. in; Bloom, H., ed. Samuel Taylor Coleridge. New York: Infobase. pp. 39-50Harper, G., ed. (2008). Creative Writing Guidebook. London: ContinuumMay, S. (2003). Teaching Creative Writing at undergraduate level: Why, how and does it work?, The Higher Education Academy English Subject Centre. London: Royal HollowayDawson, P. (2004). Creative Writing and the New Humanities. London: Routledge.Teaching Creative Writing at Undergraduate Level: Why, How and Does it Work?, English Subject Centre Mini Project, Steve May for the English Subject Centre and Higher Education Academy, 2003.Brennan, J., Williams, R. and Blaskó, Z. (2003). The English Degree and Graduate Careers, English Subject Centre Report, 2,:4. Sheffield: Sheffield HallamAhmad, R. and McMahon, K. (2006). The Benefits of Good Writing: Or Why does it Matter that Students Write Well? in; Davies, S., Swinburne, D., and Williams, G., eds.. Writing Matters: the Royal Literary Fund Report on Student Writing in Higher Education. London: The Royal Literary Fund. pp. 1-6Woodring, C., & Shapiro, J. S., eds. (1994). The Columbia History of British Poetry. Columbia University Press.