Creative Writing as an Academic Discipline

by Andrew Crumey


The writer Hanif Kureishi (research associate in creative writing at Kingston University) was reported in the Guardian (May 27 2008) as having told an audience at the Hay Festival that, "When you use the word creative and the word course there is something deceptive about it... I always give people the same mark - 71% ... But how can you mark creative writing?"

We are all familiar with the problem of art versus craft, and we all know how difficult it is to assess writing. But are these problems so intractable that they make the notion of academic rigour wholly incompatible with artistic production? This essay will argue to the contrary.

Kureishi's suspicion of linking "creative" with "course" is one that I share, though possibly for different reasons. The concept of "creative arts" (as distinct from performing ones) arose in the early nineteenth century: Wordsworth wrote of "creative art" in his 1815 poem 'To B.R. Haydon'. But what began as a pragmatic contrast between differing forms of artistic practice gave rise to a further distinction, in which "creativity" (a word first recorded by the OED in 1875, referring to Shakespeare) was accorded a privileged role. George Eliot wrote in Daniel Deronda (1876): "A creative artist is no more a mere musician than a great statesman is a mere politician."

A clear hierarchy of literature was explicitly (and retrospectively) delineated: "Aristotle has once and for all characterised the method of creative literature, and distinguished such literature from all other branches of letters." (W.B. Worsfold, Judgment in Literature, 1900). In a 1907 commentary on Pickwick Papers, G.K. Chesterton took such stratification for granted: "In creative art the essence of a book exists before the book... The creative writer laughs at his comedy before he creates it."

With the rise of creative writing, the category of belles-lettres sank into decline. This habit of thought still persists: non-fiction is allowed into the arena of creative writing as a special case (usually as life- or travel-writing; rarely as speculative essay). Yet alongside this hierarchical ideology of art (whose theoretical underpinning was already stated in Kant's Critique Of Judgment), a new egalitarianism emerged in America, where the term "creative writing" made its earliest recorded appearance in a 1922 book significantly titled The Business Of Writing. "There is comparatively small demand for creative writing", its authors warned; but by the end of the decade, the first "courses in creative writing" were being advertised. Thus a link was firmly established between art and commerce; creative writing was a commodity, a vocational skill available to anyone who could pay for it, in contrast to the academic "composition" and "stylistics" of school and university. Yet the Kantian legacy remained: creativity was still associated more with intuition and expression rather than reason and analysis; something you did with the heart, not the head.

Poe had already done battle with that way of thinking in 1846, when he purported to show how 'The Raven' was composed "with the precision and rigid consequence of a mathematical problem". Yes, he was being ironic and paradoxical, but we have to ask why he felt it necessary to highlight the analytical side of composition and downplay the intuitive. Surely it was because he knew that while both are equally important, the fundamental matter of technique is the one most easily overlooked.

We would all agree that a person might become a very fine writer without ever stopping to wonder about the theory of writing. Someone else might wish to abstract such a theory (however loosely) from their own writing practice, and from that of others. Both positions are equally valid, but the second matches what was done by Poe, and by numerous other writers since. It is what I understand by "creative writing" as an academic discipline.

We could say that everyone has their own "theory of writing", meaning an internal system or process through which writing is performed, though the process is usually unconscious, and the theory adopted by imitation. Young children asked to write stories will commonly employ standard formulae such as: "Hello," said John. Verb inversion is a convention of written, not spoken, English; children pick it up from reading stories, and use it imitatively. Most creative writing is learned in this way. Proust said that as writers we should all start by doing voluntary pastiche, in order not to spend the rest of our lives doing it involuntarily. The study of creative writing could be seen as a way of mastering the involuntary, for the benefit of those who require such mastery.

There is no reason why writing done under such conditions should not still be essentially intuitive, because intuition itself need not be some Kantian ingenium; it can be more like the reflexes of a sportsman who knows from experience where the bat needs to be in order to hit the ball. Ultimately those reflexes come down to the biochemistry of the human nervous system and the laws of physics: a problem too complicated to unravel in its entirety, yet one that can be studied analytically. If you think too hard about hitting the ball then you'll miss it: but thinking about it afterwards might help you do better next time.

Raw talent is always a more attractive concept than hard graft, but anyone who has achieved excellence in any field - be it sport, art or anything else - knows the truth of the inspiration/perspiration ratio. Creation is not an act of pure will; and sincerity - as Wilde observed - does not make a poem good. So, yes, perhaps there is, as Kureishi claimed, something deceptive about combining the word "creative" with "course"; but the deception - or false perception - is one we can deal with straightaway in the first session. To our students we can say: you bring the enthusiasm, talent, hard-work and "creativity", whatever that is. We will give you something to apply it to.

Defining a discipline

Any academic discipline can be seen in terms of the questions it asks, and the means by which it proposes to address them. For creative writing students, the core questions are:

1. "How do I become a writer?" 2. "Is my writing any good?"

Question 1 touches on composition ("how do I write?") and professional practice ("how do I get published?"). And since the simple answer is "read a lot and write a lot", it implies context: understanding how our own writing fits into the bigger picture.

Question 2 is one of evaluation, and we all know how tricky that is. What our students need from us is something that falls safely between the unhelpful extremes of relativism and dogmatism. Students on a philosophy course don't expect to be taught whether it's right or wrong to kill another human being; they expect to learn ways of discussing the question intelligently. Discussing value in writing could take us into poetics, aesthetics, cultural studies, psychology... the possibilities are endless. What we will mostly draw on, of course, is our own experience and professional expertise.

As a further question we can add:

3. "Can writing be taught?"

This involves not only pedagogy, but also the question of what "knowledge" means in the context of creative writing (i.e. epistemology). My own short answer would be that writing can be taught to the extent that anything can be taught. How for example, do we learn to play an instrument? The teacher tells us what to do, points out our mistakes, then it's down to us to practice. And even then we still might not be able to do it. The basic reason why it's so hard to learn to write is that everyone thinks it's easy, requiring only time, a quiet room, and an idea. Perhaps this is a legacy of the splitting of "creation" from "performance", with the implication that the former is innate while the latter is learned.

Aristotle's distinction between theoria, poiesis and praxis (creation of truth, product or action) is reflected in our own discussions of "form", "craft" and "artistry": categories we split too readily (though more recent philosophers have seen them as fused). Similarly, the distinction between "academic" and "vocational" learning is problematic. "Vocational" study can be highly technical: an evening class in car maintenance, for example. And a university-level course need not be academic: there are institutions that offer vocational degrees in acting. Rather than start from a division of categories (such as "natural talent" versus "acquired skill" or "technical ability" versus "artistic quality"), perhaps we should reconsider the categories themselves.

In most academic traditions, knowledge is recognisable through its embodiment in a corpus of scholarly literature. But what is the literature of creative writing? Is it literary criticism or literary art?

Intuitively we feel that it must be the art, and we can certainly look at works that have moved our subject on. Proust said of Flaubert that in the use of certain tenses and participles he advanced human knowledge as much as Kant did with his categories, and any reader of Jane Austen or Walter Scott can see that these people were inventing something fundamentally new. We can't expect to make contributions like theirs - but no physicist expects to be the next Einstein.

We would then say that the basic academic corpus of our subject is artistic literature itself, with criticism seen as an important secondary activity reflecting the kind of contextualizing and evaluation we all conduct as part of the composition process. Howard's End and Mrs Dalloway are primary contributions, Aspects Of the Novel and A Room Of One's Own are secondary. Well, this is reassuring: it tells us that all we need do is carry on doing what we were doing anyway - writing - and we are somehow adding to the knowledge-base of our subject. Somewhat like Monsieur Jourdain, we can rejoice at the sudden discovery that we've been doing creative writing theory all our lives.

My worry about this is that it's like saying Napoleon was an historian because he made history: Austerlitz was his PhD. No university offers PhDs in warfare, but we can reasonably ask what distinguishes a PhD novel from a non-PhD novel. If knowledge-value is equivalent to impact within the discipline, we should be judging the quality of the output alone: nobody gets the Booker or Nobel Prize for giving the best account of their creative process. But we do not consider only output. An academic writing course cannot simply be a talent contest (though some students think it is).

Perhaps our corpus is not artistic literature as such, but literature seen as a form of problem solving. We can certainly find examples of writers who have viewed their own work in this way: Poe's Philosophy Of Composition is an extreme example; the "reflector novels" of Henry James are more moderate in their problem-solving claims. Of a PhD novel we might ask: what problems does it pose, and how does it address them? To a student we might ask: what sorts of problems can writing hope to address?

This approach falls well within normal literary criticism; but it is worth considering how the orientation of "writers-on-writing" differs from that of "readers-on-writing". Roland Barthes' famous observations on the "death of the author" are problematic for us. The existence of the author is something we need never doubt - in most cases the author is sitting in the same room as us. It's the existence of readers that we worry about. At the dumbest level it's the problem of finding an audience; at the more sophisticated level it's the question of how the notional existence of a reader is reflected in the texts we produce: who do we write for, and how do we do it?

Conventional criticism is predominantly historical or thematic; but Forster imagined a random gathering of authors of every type and period in a "round room". For any writer, this metaphor has obvious appeal: I certainly don't feel myself to be part of a school, movement or topic. It is valuable if critics can isolate patterns that may not be obvious to the artists themselves, but the patterns of influence we feel as artists are too tangled and subjective to be isolated fully by anyone. If someone wants to label us (and shelve or anthologise us accordingly), it may make academic or commercial sense, but in many cases may not reflect the sort of reality we perceive as practitioners. It reflects another reality, existing on the other side of the curtain between writers and readers.

How is it taught?

The composer John Cage offered ten "rules and hints for teachers and students", number eight being: "Don't try to create and analyze at the same time. They're different processes." Theory, analysis, reflection (whatever we want to call it) is an activity that has to come after production rather than before. Cage's Rule Four is "Consider everything an experiment". Our own creative output is the experimental data on which we theorise, prompting further possibilities for experiment.

What lies between creation and analysis is a fault-line running right through our subject. We have to stand on both sides of it. To see everything as pure expression, pure feeling, is as unfair and unhelpful to our students as trying to present everything as a neatly packaged "how-to" formula. Our students, in most cases, aren't even aware that they're standing in an earthquake zone. We have to shake their ground a little.

I want to teach people to do what I do. They may of course decide, once they can do what I do, that they're going to do it all differently. But I'm a professional writer, and my students all want to be professional writers, so my guiding principle is that my teaching should be modelled on professional practice.

Curiously, the models we most commonly use don't come from professional practice. The "writing workshop" - the most entrenched of our subject traditions - appears to have been conceived more as rite of passage than as preparation for what really goes on in writing life, which we all know to be essentially solitary.

The word "workshop" has ancient connotations of craft and apprenticeship: the artist's atelier. But by the 1930s the "theatre workshop" had arisen, and the concept quickly became established in other areas. The OED quotes the New York Times discussing "the importance of the workshop idea to American education" in 1937. Along with the apprenticeship connotations of the old atelier model, the new workshop had a progressive air of experimentation and shared exploration, in contrast to the one-way didacticism of the traditional schoolroom or lecture hall.

My own first steps in novel-writing were private efforts that went nowhere - then I joined an evening class and immediately found what I needed: a sympathetic audience of like-minded souls. The therapeutic, mutually supportive, socially constructive, personal-growth aspects of the writing workshop are evident to anyone who has ever taken part in one. But I would also say that in all my years as a writer, I have never published anything that started out as a workshop piece. The point when I began feeling like a "real writer" was when I felt I no longer needed to be in a writing group.

I offer this bit of personal history as a way of explaining a personal prejudice. As a way of teaching novel writing (the only genre about which I can speak), I am deeply suspicious of our most hallowed pedagogic tradition. My suspicion is that the legitimate personal-growth needs of students would be equally served by giving them all a room to sit in once a week where they could share their writing; facilitated, if necessary, by a trustworthy postgrad in need of some cash.

We can also ask what difference there should be, between the kind of evening-class workshop I used to attend, and one that might take place on a university degree course. Should there be any difference at all? And what about the more traditional form of university teaching, the lecture - is this not just as problematic? Nobody is ever going to learn to write by hearing someone tell them how to do it, any more than one could learn to swim that way.

To some extent, workshops model a familiar "real world" literary activity - the book group. The only difference is that the texts are generated by group members themselves, and there's no wine (usually). So as a way of teaching evaluation, the critique-workshop has clear value. But we are still left with the question of how composition is practised, theorised and taught.

How does it work in professional practice? We write something, then we send it to a publisher/agent/editor/judging panel or other remote assessor. After a while, word comes back: thumbs up or thumbs down.

If this were to be a basic model of teaching practice, it would mean one-to-one mentoring as our primary mode. But unless students are going to pay even bigger fees (and unless we are prepared to give up even more of our own writing time), this is not an option. The workshop is a compromise: a way of dividing one-to-one time among a group. The group subtracts time and adds something else, in terms of shared knowledge, experience and opinion. But most learners, given the option, would prefer to have the full attention of their teacher, rather than only a portion of it.

An attraction of the workshop model is its air of democracy: every member is both teacher and learner. But if we believe that the concept of professional expertise and judgment has meaning in relation to writing, then the model fails: the students are not qualified to teach, and that is one of the things they are meant to be learning. We have all seen the situation where weak writing is applauded by a group, and a student is given advice we consider bad. What we also know from professional practice is that if we sit on a judging panel then our view of a work might change in the course of a discussion. This is the sort of process we want our students to engage in and understand.

As teachers we can find ourselves placed in the role of mentor, validator, counsellor, transference object, guru. None of these model the professional relationships we enter into with agents and publishers, nor can they, because our professional colleagues are not our teachers. But our most important professional relationship is the artistic contract we form with our readers. Gertrude Stein said she wrote for herself and strangers. Perhaps my most significant role as teacher is to be the stranger my students need.

How is it assessed?

Assessing writing is an everyday part of professional practice. Publishers and editors have to choose what to accept or reject; judging panels have to rank work; writers themselves must decide what to cut or alter. Percentage marks are a formalised, artificial version of something that happens naturally in the production of our art.

In marking a batch of scripts (or in judging competition entries), my own preferred methodology is first to rank work in order, from top to bottom. Obviously these rankings are not absolute, but they are a start. My belief is that there is no absolute standard of artistic quality, but that it is possible, using one's expertise and judgment, to assess relative quality.

Having decided on a ranking, it is then a matter of deciding individual marks. These are based around thresholds: the basic threshold that operates in the publishing industry is between "publishable" and "not publishable". For our purposes, "publishable" means something at the very highest end: perhaps 80%. The vast majority of work we deal with is unpublishable. Anyone who finds remedial teaching soul-destroying should never teach creative writing - or anything else.

If writing is a human activity analgous to any other then one would expect the spectrum of ability to be a "bell curve" (normal distribution), with roughly two-thirds of individuals being fairly average, and only about 5% really exceptional. Theory suggests the curve should be symmetric: the utterly bad should be as rare as the extraordinarily good. This may seem counter-intuitive, but I suspect it is only because we are apt to equate unpublishable with bad, when really we should be aiming to discriminate across the whole ability spectrum, finding value at every level. In allocating percentage marks we should expect to get a fairly symmetrical spread.

Every institution will have a marking scheme of some kind; some may have more formalised procedures such as marking grids (where scores are given for several strands and then averaged). I have experimented with these in creative writing, and personally find them unsatisfactory, because they work by averaging; whereas in reality, we know that if we feel work to be fundamentally strong then we will forgive its weaknesses, while if we feel it to be basically weak then its strengths cannot save it.

Judging panels do attempt some form of democracy (i.e. averaging), and the result is often the triumph of work that is everyone's second or third choice. As individuals, however, our judgments tend to be selective rather than averaging: we focus on the strengths and ask how good they are. One could incorporate this principle into grid-marking by taking the highest scoring strand as overall mark, rather than taking an average. However there is a still more fundamental problem, which is how to choose the individual strands for assessment.

In most academic disciplines one will have a single strand for "presentation" with the rest covering aspects of content. In creative writing we expect the reverse: one strand (or a small number) for "content", the rest dealing with aspects of form. A fundamental principle of multi-strand assessment is that you don't mark the same thing twice: if somebody can't spell they should be penalised for it only once. So strands need to separable. But it is not clear to me that a concept like "good pacing" can be clearly distinguished from, say, "effective use of language". Nor is it clear to me that the concepts themselves are well defined.

Whereas rank order is a matter of professional judgment (which can be discussed and moderated), actual percentage marks are a matter of arbitrary choice. But once we have decided that a certain piece of work is worth, say, 50%, then we should be able to take any other piece, make the comparison, and decide if this second piece is above or below 50%. In practice, of course, this comparison is fallible and not absolute - that is one of the facts of our professional practice. It is like the situation of the novel that one publisher finds unpublishable and another thinks brilliant. It is the kind of reality we need to teach.

I have tried teaching it in various ways. In one experiment, I pulled amateur stories off the internet and asked my students to rank them. In another, I asked the students themselves to pool their own (anonymised) work and (privately) rank it. In neither case did I ask students to attach percentage marks, because I do not yet have exemplars of moderated work which I can show them as examples of what would get 40, 50, 60 etc. This is something I plan on doing in future.

Peer-review is standard academic practice, and its benefit is that it empowers the student. What he or she is learning is how to do what the assessor is doing. We do not expect the student to do as good a job as the assessor, because the assessor has professional expertise that the student lacks and wishes to acquire. But we expect the student to gain an understanding of what those percentage marks actually mean (and what they don't mean). It is a way of making the whole thing a learning experience, not a talent contest.

What I have consistently found is that the students whose writing I judge to be the best tend also to be the ones whose ranking most closely matches my own. Those I would judge to be the poorest writers are those whose judgments deviate most markedly from mine.

Two possible explanations suggest themselves. One: I am favouring those who share my own prejudices. Two: writing ability correlates with critical ability. I believe the true situation is a combination of both.

Is it wrong for me to favour those who share my prejudices? My justification would be that this is what I do in professional practice, in the exercising of critical judgments. I write favourable reviews of books I find admirable, and unfavourable ones of those I do not. Evidently, in the latter case, my judgment deviates from the author's, the publisher's, and perhaps even from the majority of other newspaper reviewers. But I am not afraid to get it wrong. I have confidence in my artistic prejudices - and one of my professional aims is to persuade other people of their merit. If the word prejudice sounds unpleasant, replace it with taste.

Does writing ability correlate with critical ability? Most of us would instinctively say that it does, and my experiments appear to give confirmatory data.

The critics who panned Moby-Dick on its first appearance made what was doubtless a correct critical judgment at the time; it was only when critical orientation changed that the verdict changed too. The same swing has left other once-praised works forgotten. In teaching the evaluation and assessment of literature, the most important lesson is the relativised nature of judgment. But a single reference frame, no matter how limited in scope, is still better than none at all.

Why study creative writing?

For students, the motivation is simple: they want to become writers, and they see a degree in creative writing as a step on the way to fulfilling their ambition. But is this reasonable?

Shakespeare, Austen, Dickens, Tolstoy, Woolf, and just about any other writer you can name, never studied creative writing - and a great many people who have studied it have never had their work professionally published. A degree in creative writing is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for a career as a writer. In that case, what is it for?

People do degrees for all sorts of reasons. Love of the subject ranks high: I studied physics for that reason, and went on to do a PhD in it, despite assurances from professors that academic jobs were scarce and I would probably end up without one. Those who have a love of literature tend to study literature rather than creative writing; what we often find in creative writing students is not so much a love of writing as a desire to write.

This makes creative writing inherently aspirational. Do we want to do something because of an end result or because of the process of getting there? If we say we want to write, do we really mean we want to have written? If all we want is to have completed the task, then the task itself might not be something we enjoy doing - we might even hate it. I'm forever saying I'd like to lose weight, but I never do, because the attractiveness of the desired outcome is less powerful than the unattractiveness of the means of attaining it.

Another major reason why people sign up for a degree in any subject is career advancement. Qualifications enhance professional prospects. But as providers of writing degrees, how can we make this promise? One option is through the networking opportunities a course provides: meetings with writers and agents, a chance to have work published in a course anthology, and so on. No harm in that - though the power of networking is over-rated, and the proliferation of writing courses can only make it weaker. My own route into the business, not knowing anyone at all in the writing world, was that I sent an unsolicited synopsis and sample chapter to four publishers, having looked at their publications in bookshops and decided they were the nearest thing to what I was doing. The fourth one said yes. I was extremely lucky, but I also like to think that talent might have played some small part alongside chance and perseverance. This is why I am somewhat prejudiced against the idea that the literary world is fuelled entirely by patronage and favoritism (though it provides a comforting excuse for failure).

My own experience, then, is that a writing degree was unnecessary to me, either as a way of learning how to write, or as a way of getting published. The advice I got from the Writers And Artists Yearbook was sufficient vocational training. Other than that, I read a lot and wrote a lot.

But we have seen that creative writing is a perfectly viable academic discipline, covering subject areas I have outlined, as well as a great many that would occur to other writers with prejudices different from mine. And career enhancement never means the promise of a job, in any discipline. A degree is seen as evidence of a certain set of skills. So we ask: what sort of skills could be taught, and what sort of professional preparation do we give?

I would say that a degree in creative writing should, at the bare minimum, qualify someone to teach creative writing, at least at an elementary level. This is of course heresy, because it goes against the tradition that only published writers can teach writing. But it is an aspiration that helps me focus my mind on what I am hoping to teach. I want people to be able to do what I do - even if they chose to do it differently.

The skills are those most general ones cited by every discipline: powers of reasoning, an ability to weigh up evidence, present an argument, and so on. Obviously there are specific skills we could cite: I would want any student of mine to know how to produce examples of free indirect discourse or iterative time, because they're the sort of thing I do while writing, and being able to identify them creates new possibilities not necessarily available to the writer who only does them intuitively. Knowing how to do free indirect discourse is not the sort of thing you need in most jobs; but then, being able to solve differential equations is not the sort of thing accountants do very often.

My answer, then, to the question of why anyone should study creative writing, is as follows. If all you want is to write, go ahead and do it. If you want someone to tell you you're a genius, find an obliging friend. If you want to be famous then be a pop-star, and if you want money, get a job. If you want to get published, concentrate on quality control. A course in creative writing cannot promise to satisfy any of the preceding demands. It might and it might not. The reason why someone should study creative writing is the same reason why people should study anything. Because learning is pleasurable, challenging, intellectually engaging, mind-broadening, and useful. Or at any rate should be.

© Andrew Crumey 2008