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Teaching Creative Writing
Russell Celyn Jones

The controversy surrounding the teaching of creative writing is largely absent in the USA. Americans do not look on institutionalized creativity as an oxymoron at all. The creative writing course is an industry there, with thousands of students attending poetry and fiction sections each year. The American attitude is like any parent of teenage children who says, ‘If you’re having sex anyway, you might as well do it in the house rather than the back of a car.’

Anyone who has ever attended such a course can tell you that the American writers’ workshop is a party. The problem sets in when the party never ends. Some students go from three years of undergraduate workshops onto a two year MA course, followed by a year hopping around colonies, capping it all with a tenured position teaching creative writing, without publishing anything at all. That is taking a good thing too far.

The writers’ workshop was pioneered by Paul Engle at Iowa City in an attempt to replicate Parisian café society. When his first student Flannery O’Connor came along to enrol in 1940, she spoke with such a deep Southern drawl that he couldn’t understand what she was saying. ‘Write it down,’ he said, pushing a pen and piece of paper towards her on his desk. It was a good enough idea to have sustained itself for over fifty years.

I met Engle in 1983 whilst a student at Iowa. He asked me how my workshop was going and I complained it seemed a little over-polite. ‘Your prayers have been answered,’ he said. ‘We’ve got Barry Hannah coming next semester. He just got fired from Alabama for bring a loaded revolver into class. Of course we snapped him up.’ The story that got about was that Hannah, a chronic alcoholic and native of Mississippi, turned up to teach class, drunk and with a Colt .45. He placed the weapon on the table, saying ‘This morning I got up and read a $50 000 tax demand from the IRS and a $20 000 alimony bill from my ex-wife. The third thing I read was this piece of shit that someone done turned in. I don’t know which is worse.’

The British reservation about the writing workshop is based on the observation that the American model has produced a generic literature, almost genre, that it produces weal movements. They point the finger at American students who produce a standardised fiction aimed squarely at the New Yorker or Esquire magazines, who pay $4000 a pop. Technically smooth fiction, but stone cold dead. But Flannery O’Connor, Tobias Wolfe, Richard Ford, Kurt Vonnegut, Raymond Carver, Barry Hannah, Jane Anne Philips, John Irving in the US; Ian McEwan, Clive Sinclair, Kazuo Ishiguru in the UK, don’t make a movement and they are all graduates from workshops.

My experience teaching on the MA programme in East Anglia with Malcolm Bradbury and now Andrew Motion has, by and large, been a positive one. I would say that I do not ‘teach’ creative writing so much as edit what has already been written. There are no editors in this country any longer who are willing to spend time preparing manuscripts for publication. They just reject them. Creative writing teachers have replaced the editor; no more, no less. It is also incumbent upon us to help students become their own editors, objective readers of their own work. And for about 10% of graduate students lucky enough to get financial awards, the workshop is a form of patronage.

It is true that students often try and outdo each other in the remote or bizarre sentence. One of my students even made up his own language. He presented us with 25 pages of this incomprehensible stuff. Then on page 19 appeared this sentence: ‘He got up from the chair, walked over to the door and left the room.’ Suddenly everyone in the class got excited. ‘Great sentence, James. I really liked that.’

However experimental students are their problems with fiction are invariably conventional. They demonstrate weaknesses with craft, structure, character. More than once I’ve suggested that dispensing with narrative is OK providing something else is put in its place, like with a load-bearing wall, and I get accused of being a stuffed shirt. I get set up as the bad guy. I don’t see myself that way at all, and I don’t like the arrogant little shits who say it. On the other hand I recognise this arrogance as the first step on a long journey to finding a voice.

The trend in workshops, at least at a post graduate level, is towards the literary novel. Students like to experiment, keep their options open. They seem blissfully unaware of the crisis in English fiction. But I can’t help worrying about the one working on a six hundred page novel call Death of Meaning written all in dialogue between a supermarket trolley and a satellite dish. Who does he think is going to read that? Is it wrong to tell them to keep an eye on the market while also encouraging a climate of investigation?

It occurs to me that in this country we no longer train people in coal mining or shipbuilding yet we encourage students to write at the literary end of the market, even as that market is shrinking. Where do we put the blame for this? Who knows, but publishers should shoulder a large part of it for buying in too much general fiction and losing their focus, for scrapping the Net Book Agreement and for buying in the celebrity novel.

Why do celebrities pick on the novel form anyway? Why can’t they make textile collages, documentary films? Is it because the novel is so prestigious that they think one will beatify them? It is said of Naomi Campbell that not only did she not write her novel, Swan, but she hasn’t read it either. Paradoxically the proliferation of the celebrity novel has tarnished the form, cheapened it as well as taken over valuable shelf space in the bookshops.

As a teacher I can’t do anything about my students’ photographic ‘dust cover potential’ or supply them with in-built controversies such as with The Satanic Verses or The Information. For this is the way books get sold nowadays. And onto people’s bookshelves, as mementos to upheavals in culture. Writers have become the product now.

By what criteria should we be assessing the achievement of writers’ courses? If we judge them in the narrowest terms of publishing success, then we have all been miserable failures. Only 20% get published from UEA, the premier course in the UK. If it was medicine or law I was teaching I’d have lost my job by now. Personally I think we should broaden the goals, try steering some of the less gifted students into publishing. After all, reading is an art, too. Or we should fail more students at MA level. And no one should get a Ph.D. in creative writing unless it’s a racing certainty that he’ll also be nominated for a Nobel prize.

We trade in fiction but the despair that failure causes is a real emotional trauma. This is why the creative writing business is like the psychotherapy business, something Americans are more comfortable with than the British. At the end of a group session I try to console my students, trying not to make it sound like platitudes. I say that endurance is the key thing, that sometimes you have to write badly before you can write well, that it is often impossible to know who will win through in the end. And I tell them that after they leave the course for good, the wall of silence they’ll encounter will make them nostalgic for the criticism.

Copyright © 1995/6 Russell Celyn Jones

A version of this article was given as a lecture at the Royal Society of Literature in April 1995.

Russell Celyn Jones grew up in Swansea in Wales and now lives in London. He is the author of Soldiers and Innocents, which won the David Higham Prize for the Best First Novel in 1990 and the Welsh Arts Coucil Fiction Award, and Small Times (Penguin 1993). He has held fellowships at the universities of Iowa, USA, and East Anglia, where he currently teaches on the M.A. programme in creative writing.

Russell Celyn Jones’ latest novel is An Interference of Light – "…A haunting and absorbing tale…" – The Times


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