Strange Bedfellows was the tagline for a series of seminars and discussion events on the theme of the boundary between the creative and the critical, organised by some graduate students in the University of York English department. On Thursday I attended the final event, which focused on the place of creative writing in the university (broadly speaking). There were three very enjoyable speakers: Andrew Cowan, who leads the UEA MA in Creative Writing as well as being a graduate of that course and the author of a number of novels; Stephen May, who works for Arts Council England and is the author of two novels, including Life, Death, Prizes, shortlisted for the Costa Novel Award and (more or less prestigiously?) the Guardian’s ‘Not The Booker’; and an academic from Manchester Metropolitan University’s English Literature team, Angelica Michelis. Fifteen (or twenty!) minutes from each was followed by a brief discussion.
I made some notes of some of what was said which I’m about to put down here – basically fairly straightforward reportage. Another way to go looking for the information is to go to Twitter and search for #strangebedfellows (although you may also find some other strange bedfellows suggested!). It’s worth noting that the context of this talk is over 500 university creative writing courses in the UK, and an A level in CW being launched in September by AQA.
Andrew Cowan was first up and despite finding what he had to say very interesting I wrote nearly none of it down. He mentioned that the idea behind UEA’s MA was summarised by Malcolm Bradbury as the creation of a ‘significant climate around writing’ where intending writers could go and immerse themselves in that climate. Cowan is the ‘keeper of the list’ of alumni, and spends hours googling former students to update their entries on the UEA website. He reckons they have about a 30% publication rate (where publication = book), in contrast to a more normal 10% (May later confirmed that he and two others off his course – including Adrian Barnes whose Nod was shortlisted for the Arthur C. Clarke award this year – out of 30 on the novel writing track, are now published writers). He was very grateful for the poets, whose chapbooks count.
Cowan addressed the criticisms of Creative Writing courses (‘you can’t teach writing’; ‘everyone who comes out of UEA sounds the same’) and pointed out there was some extremely varied writers on the list of graduates. He suggested that there was perhaps a difference between ‘writing’ and ‘creative writing’ – the latter being a set of institutionalised practices, a programme of study, a set of learning methods and strategies, for academic credit, while the former is ‘what writers do’. An interesting distinction, and one he made at far greater length than I have.
Stephen May began by quoting Flaubert, who said that you should ‘be a bourgeois in your life so that you can be an anarchist in your art’. He went on to explain his trajectory into writing, beginning with a life as an English teacher. He suggested that “Everyone should have to their national service years of teaching and then no one would complain about teachers’ pay or the long holidays…. and like the Swiss Army, you’d have to go back every year for your two weeks… you’d keep your brown teaching corduroys under the bed.’ Seemed like an excellent idea to me!
He said when looking for an MA he’d decided to go for one which would only give you your MA if you finished your novel, rather than just a part of one! (This struck me as an extremely smart idea.) He ended up doing the MMU online MA, in which he found a supportive yet competitive group. I found this interesting as one of the things that has held me back from doing a part time MA is finding a local one – I always thought that the face to face contact would be a major thing for me, and that it would be impossible to make the same kind of connections in an online environment.
In connection to whether Creative Writing can be taught, May said ‘creativity, like sport, can be improved.’ He said writing was like boxing – ‘You get better in the ring, very very fast.’
Finally Dr Michelis talked about an innovative module she has created as part of the undergrad degree at MMU – a unit on Crime Fiction which is taught and assessed both creatively and critically. She does the lectures and the critical seminars, and a colleague teaches the creative element. (There is a similar Gothic module at UEA, and I’m trying to think of what I could do along the same lines.) She had a few stern words for those of us who think that all English literature lecturers must be novelists manqué: ‘A lot of creative writers pity the rest of the department because they think we are envious… I was astonished. I’ve never dreamed of writing.’ For her, her critical work is very much a creative thing. She also rather cuttingly suggested that many creative writers who taught at university saw it like prostitution – they do it for the money.
The final discussion mostly focused around the critical requirements on MA courses in Creative Writing, and whether they are useful. Stephen May criticised the fact that many Creative Writing teaching positions require a PhD – he thinks it is more important that the teachers be excellent practitioners. Further discussion was held on the poetry/prose question at MA level – is one easier to teach? Andrew Cowan revealed that applications for the prose pathway at UEA outweigh the poetry fivefold (is this because more people want to write novels? Or because they can see that novel writing might make a career but poetry is unlikely to? Or because it is easier to get validation for prose writing than it is for poetry? – poetry is a personal thing. It is somehow more respectable to say you are a writer of prose than a poet – a poet is a particular, crushed velvet coated, long-haired ‘artist’).
Finally, I’m going to pinch a Stephen May anecdote. He once asked Simon Armitage how it was that he seemed to write so quickly – he was publishing far more than other poets, as far as May could see, at the rate of about a book a year rather than an ‘ice age’ in between for others. Armitage replied that he should ask those other poets – poems are only short, he said. You should be able to get one done before breakfast, and then the rest of the day’s your own.