Sunday, February 10, 2008

Same Old, Same Old

Once again, the Weekend Australian Review has trotted out an article on creative writing courses. It seems as if I've read this kind of thing several times in the past couple of years. It starts as a whine about how creative writing degree courses are taking over from traditional literature courses, and continues in that vein. Tony Birch from Melbourne Uni complains that new students come to the course "naive" about how difficult it is to get published. Er, they're just out of high school, mate. How much do you expect them to know? Isn't that what you're there for, amongst other things?

Another point is made about universities sucking up massive fees from students wanting to do creative writing, but not giving the "product" the respect it deserves. Ultimately, isn't it up to the publishing world to publish a book? Since when does a High Distinction guarantee that a student novel will be published and sell lots of copies? Um, never. Everyone pays HECS fees at our universities now, no matter what they want to study. I quote from the article: "There are numerous mature-age students willing to pay universities $100-plus an hour to sit in a postgraduate writing class."

I have a solution for them! Come and study creative writing at TAFE with us! There, it will cost you $1.37 an hour and you'll learn just as much. In fact, you'll probably learn more, especially if you're looking for hands-on writing, workshopping and industry knowledge. OK, OK, promotional spruiking is over. Seriously, what really annoyed me about this article (apart from the fact that TAFE courses were not mentioned at all) was that nobody bothered to ask the students about why they were choosing to study creative writing and not literature or history or engineering.

There were various academics who talked about and around the subject; some even acknowledged that a uni teaching gig was good to have, and helped to pay the bills. They talked about how important reading is for a writer, and how students have to be made to read more. I hate to tell them this, but most people who want to be writers have to be encouraged to read more. It's one of those weird anomalies. But the article writer, Rosemary Neill, never once asked any students - why are you doing it? Why are you studying writing, and not just sitting at home (for free) and doing it?

Maybe that's a whole other article, one that would be five times as long. Because we do ask that question of our students, and we get a dozen different answers. Everything from career change or following their passion to job skills (we are a professional writing and editing course) and wanting to learn something specific like researching and interviewing. Believe it or not, we actually ask this question in the selection interview, before they even get into the course! It's an important question. You might be surprised how many people don't give "getting published" as their first answer. It's usually in there somewhere, but most people are aware that their skills need improvement, and they want to learn the craft. It's a great start.


Lisa66 said...

I didn't read this particular article, but have read several others like it.

I think people who write such articles fail to understand that writing is a separate skill to reading. Reading and analysing literature helps a writer, but it's not the same as learning how to write. There are craft specific skills that many writers won't develop unless they are taught.

I am an avid reader, and I have studied literature at university. I'm sure this background has helped me in my writing, but I learnt how to write in a creative writing class.(Thanks Sherryl!)

I write genre fiction and often meet up with 'newbies' who are just starting out. If they ask my advice I always recommend that they do a course. I started PWE as soon as I made the decision to take my writing seriously. I feel like the course 'jump started' my writing journey.

Why did I choose a creative writing course? Because I wanted to learn how to write.

Sheryl Gwyther said...

Very insightful reply to that Review article, Sherryl. I reckon you could send it to them as a response to the article.

Regarding the reading books aspect, I do think it's essential for a writer. I don't mean the analysis of books, but the pure enjoyment of reading.

As an avid reader of all types of genres (and especially of children's and YA fiction), I've learned so much from other writers - by osmosis, as well as recognising what good writers do, and visa versa. It has definitely helped me become a better children's author.

Sherryl said...

Great point, Lisa. If someone wants to learn to write, and there is a good writing course there, why would they study literature instead? Maybe that answer was a bit too obvious for the people quoted in the article?

I find reading teaches me a lot too, Sheryl. No doubt you are discovering that as you go on, you are doing more "reading as a writer", and looking at particular aspects with a view to understanding how that writer achieved that effect. We are moving to a bigger emphasis on "workplace learning" where I teach, and I pointed out to the WL research person that every time one of our students reads a book, they are "learning in the workplace"!! And she agreed.