Are writing courses a waste of time?

Hanif Kureishi, novelist and creative writing teacher, while speaking recently at the Independent Bath Literature Festival was quoted as saying that creative writing courses are “a waste of time” and that most of his students cannot tell a story. Well… I must try and keep my head during this post. Forgive me in advance if I don’t.

First of all, creative writing is a skill that must be honed. I didn’t believe this until I began to study it, at which point I realised both my prose and poetry were clunky, awkward and sometimes a complete bore. I needed the feedback and direction my lecturers gave me to make my writing the best it could be. It still isn’t, but this is a process that never truly ends.

I do agree with him that creativity cannot be taught. I have experienced it myself in class. Some people have great ideas, can structure a piece in a way that tells the story in the best way and can create characters you immediately relate to and sympathise with. Other people quite simply don’t. Don’t or can’t, I couldn’t say, all I know is after three years of classes their technique may be better but their ideas aren’t. So here I will agree with him.

But it is blinkered to say there is no good in them. Even if some people don’t go on to careers in which they are writing for a living, knowing how to structure and spell and construct a coherent sentence is a skill that will go a long way. Not only has creative writing improved my creative writing, but it has improved my email, my letter writing and my overall essay writing skills.

I must disagree with Mr Kureishi again. He stated “Fuck the prose, no one’s going to read your book for the writing, all they want to do is find out what happens in the story next”. This, to me, is so completely untrue. If a book is poorly written, with no real sentence structure and spelling mistakes on every line it won’t get printed, let alone bought by people. The basic tools of writing are crucial to being taken seriously as a writer and you will not succeed without them. Saying they are unimportant is giving false hope to those who do not possess these skills.

Lucy Ellmann, another novelist and creative writing teacher, also commented about how universities in particular “go out of their way to ruin writers with admin, overwork, and other nonsense” and have the express purpose “to scupper originality and dissent. Universities have gone from being culture-preserving institutions to being culture-destroying institutions.” While this may be said of some institutions, I can honestly say my creative teacher has encouraged me and developed my skills in ways I cannot begin to explain. Instead of writing 5,000 words for my hand-in at the end of term, upon hearing my idea for my novel I was told “write the whole thing. You’re more than capable.” I haven’t seen a single piece of admin and only have as much work as I wish to put on myself.

I appreciate these writers are experts in their fields and should be respected for their hard work and perseverance in a very difficult industry. I do respect them, but I feel they cannot comment on this sort of subject with such broad statements. Some universities are awful with terrible lecturers. Within my own university there is a great disparity between the great and the god-awful lecturers but that is something to be expected in any institution. I just hope aspiring writers with great potential don’t take these words too seriously and reject all possibility of learning when it may benefit them. I have spent £9,000 on tuition fees alone but I could not put a value the things I have learnt.

To read more about Mr Kureishi’s comments the article on The Guradian website is very comprehensive. Read it here.

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2 thoughts on “Are writing courses a waste of time?

  1. Hi I found this really interesting as I used to think creative writing degrees were a bit useless because you either have writing talent or you don’t. But I’ve since realised that there are so many skills needed to be able to write well, it’s not just about creativity.

    • Yes that’s exactly what I realised. While I do recognise that creativity and originality is important so are the more mundane skills which do need to be taught.

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