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Primary Education News
News Creative writing: out of the garret, into the classroom and workplace
The new A-level in creative writing underlines the subject's academic and professional rigour, says Andrew Cowan
Creative writing means many things to many people. It may bring to mind the vision of a lonely poet scribbling away in a garret – the commonplace trope for creativity. But literary creation does not always have to happen in a vacuum.
Mary Shelley's Frankenstein was written in response to a group challenge to produce a short horror story, and many famous first drafts contain the marginalia of other writers. Williams Wordsworth's wife Mary contributed to his famous poem 'I wandered lonely as a cloud'; the original idea came from a diary entry written by his sister, Dorothy.
As an academic discipline, creative writing has spread rapidly through the higher educational establishment in recent years, becoming firmly embedded at undergraduate, postgraduate and research levels. Alumni of the UK's longest-running creative writing MA at the University of East Anglia include Booker winners Ian McEwan, Kazuo Ishiguro and Anne Enright. But this is a subject area that supports pathways into any profession that requires both exemplary communication skills and an acquired habit of creative decision-making.
The beginnings of the discipline are to be found in the USA at the end of the 19th century – at Harvard in fact, where creative writing began as an experiment in education, a means of gaining literary understanding through practice. It was 'learning by doing', and the relationship to English was central. The students' own creative endeavours would enhance their appreciation of the literature that preceded them; their study of the canon would inform their own creative work.
At undergraduate level this remained the case, and is characteristic of many BA courses in the UK, while at masters level the discipline has evolved as a form of literary apprenticeship, a preparation for publication.
Of course, no one needs to do a degree in creative writing in order to develop as a writer. Many writers learn their craft and achieve publication without doing a course. But a degree offers a means of accelerating your development and provides an antidote, for a few years at least, to the isolation that normally accompanies the writing of a novel, collection of poems, or a full-length script. Students also learn to be more effective as self-editors – another important skill that can be painfully hard to hone without guidance.
Creative writing at degree level imparts two distinct but complementary types of knowledge. The creative part of a degree is the organised study of literary technique, providing students with a practice-based, experiential means of acquiring literary knowledge and understanding. Individual self-expression, self-awareness, and the development of reading skills are informed by a hands-on engagement with the possibilities of literary language and form. The critical part provides the historical, contextual and theoretical context for this practical knowledge.
But then there is also a third, vocational, element, which involves the business of writing. Most creative writing programmes introduce students to the realities and opportunities of the industry. Presentations by publishers, producers and agents lay down the foundations for future employment or publication.
Some creative writing graduates do go into careers in agenting or publishing, for which their qualification is particularly useful. A significant proportion at UEA achieve publication. Many others go into the usual jobs that arts and humanities graduates gravitate towards: the media, teaching, communications, or arts administration. There are also some graduates who now go into careers in social media or games design, where a good understanding of narrative and communication is imperative.
The vocational and practical aspects of creative writing have made its graduates increasingly attractive to employers. This in turn has made creative writing courses increasingly attractive to school leavers. And clearly the introduction of the subject at A-level will provide an earlier grounding in the basics, and a pathway into BA programmes.
This new qualification has been enthusiastically received by universities, as it will help equip first-year undergraduates with some of the essentials: an understanding of the relationship between critical study and creative practice, an introduction to practice of reading as a writer, and a grounding in the fundamental disciplines of observation, journal keeping, automatic writing and critical self-reflection. The sooner students can engage with the subject, the better, both for the benefit of the A-level students themselves, and for the higher education establishments that will accept them onto their courses.
At every level – BA, MA, PhD – and in every genre – prose, poetry, scriptwriting, narrative non-fiction – the numbers of applicants to our creative writing programme has consistently exceeded the number of places we are able to offer. This will be the case at many other institutions. With AQA's new A-level in creative writing being taught from this September, those numbers are bound to grow further.
If creative writing ever was confined to the garret, it has now entered the world of academic respectability and become a staging post for the wider world of work.
Professor Andrew Cowan is director of creative writing at the University of East Anglia – follow it on Twitter @uniofeastanglia