Why Hanif Kureishi might have a point about creative writing courses

So the media – OK, maybe just The Guardian’s Comment is Free – has been losing its mind over the comments of Hanif Kureishi. What exactly did Mr Kureishi say that is just so damn outrageous? Kureishi teaches a creative writing course at uni, and he has sent shockwaves through the Guardian-reading community (which, let’s face it, is very easy to outrage) by stating that creative writing courses aren’t really all that.

Never having taken one myself, I can’t make a fair comment, but if I’m totally honest, he has a point.

I’m not agreeing with his statement that creative writing courses are a waste of time. Not at all. My one true love in life is writing, and ever since I was a little four-year old sitting at the writing corner in nursery writing reams and reams of stories, I have wanted to write for a living. That dream has never died and probably never will, and I know I’m hardly unique in my lust for language. When I was younger, I always assumed I’d ‘study’ creative writing at university, until I realised I didn’t want anyone telling me how I should or shouldn’t write and I ditched the idea.

I don’t like the idea that one person (the lecturer) is imposing their preferences upon an entire group of aspiring writers. Just because that one ‘expert’ doesn’t like the way you write, it doesn’t mean anything. When you think about the mind-blowing range of writing found in the most successful books, it beggars belief that any one person should be able to hold that much power over someone else’s creative expression. It is far too subjective, and there are lots of very popular authors whose writing I just don’t like, and many underrated ones whose writing holds something so much more exciting for me.

Another issue I have is that the artificial academic environment of university differs greatly from ‘real life’. I believe that studying creative writing as a discipline would have sucked all the joy out of it for me. ‘I have to finish this bloody story by Friday, ugh’… ‘I got a terrible mark for my last assignment, ugh, I must be a bad writer’… for me, the joy is the spontaneity and the rush of words at all hours of the day and creating something that might not appeal to anyone or fit into an academia-friendly structure. I love the freedom and playing with language and I don’t believe I would have ever found that in a formal environment. If you’re a great writer, you’re still a great writer if you flunk your course, and equally, just because you pass with flying colours, it doesn’t mean you’ll sell books.

I must make it absolutely clear that I have nothing at all against creative writing courses and I wish anyone who wants to progress their career in that way the best of luck. Not all writing courses are made equal, and some are far more specialised and will offer much more tailored advice. Writing for children or writing historical fiction is very different to ‘creative writing’ in general, and it may be the case that these will offer the targeted advice that these future authors need to help them understand these styles.

I have no idea if I’ll ever make it big as a writer, and I may find in 20 years that what I really needed was a push from a creative writing course. But for now, I know it’s not right for me or the writing I want to do and I’m going to try seriously hard to do it my way first. I’m going to do it without formal training because I love the idea of writing something truly original and unrefined and strange, even if that’s not the writing that one lecturer enjoys.

I know I have a lot of writing fanatics who read this blog, and I know that some of you have taken creative writing courses. Whether or not you’ve studied writing formally, do you agree with Hanif Kureishi?

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7 Comments Add yours

  1. christievmud says:

    Couldn’t agree more! I’ve thought so many times about joining a creative writing course, or workshop, but I’ve always been put off by the thought that it might drive my own ‘style’ or ‘voice’ out of me. Plus, I think it’s more important to grow and learn as a writer for a few years before being taught to write in a certain way. Making mistakes is all part of it! :):)

    1. Absolutely! I know that almost any writing teacher would HATE the things I put in writing, and I know it would only be damaging to have them tell me that. It’s a scary amount of power they have to dictate what is and isn’t worthy of an arbitrary good grade, and it could easily crush the confidence of some incredible, yet insecure, writers. Bring on the trial and error!

  2. Creative writing is a difficult thing to teach, because, like any creative discipline, it’s so damn subjective. A particular writing teacher may hate detective fiction, but someone in their class has a dream of being the next Dashiell Hammett. That teacher’s never going to see that writer’s work as great, but does that make it bad? Not at all, it’s just not for that teacher.

    But also, this stood out to me in the article:
    “”A lot of them [students] don’t really understand,” said Kureishi. “It’s the story that really helps you. They worry about the writing and the prose and you think: ‘Fuck the prose, no one’s going to read your book for the writing, all they want to do is find out what happens in the story next””

    I hugely agree with him here. And perhaps this is the problem with writing courses – to avoid the subjectivity, they’ve become focused on the technical aspects of writing and students who may have been curious about writing are therefore only learning the tools and not so much what to do with them, and they may have no idea and no guidance.

    This is why I feel that perhaps writing groups are more useful than courses, where people can get feedback from multiple people and still craft their writing in their own way without the pressure a course might put on people.

    1. I totally agree. I think that, further than equipping people with the literary devices and creative writing theory (which, incidentally, I don’t think is necessary at all for being a good writer), they can’t offer much value to writers as writers. I think that the advice tutors can give about finding agents and negotiating publishing deals and self-publishing can be valuable, but that’s some seriously expensive advice.

      Writing groups are almost certainly a better way to go. Discussions and throwing ideas around and inspiration in a supportive environment is much more productive for creativity and originality and motivation than being instructed to do something that is actually very organic and unresponsive to teaching.

      I love that this topic has entered the spotlight, and I hope it’ll get aspiring writers thinking a lot more about what they want to gain from their writing development.

  3. Gemma says:

    This is a great post! I always find this debate really interesting, particularly as I studied English and Creative Writing at uni. I think everyone’s experience of their course will be different, but I never felt as if I was told to write in a certain way. In my first ever seminar we were asked what we wanted to get out of our three years there and a few people said they wanted to be taught how to find their “voice”. I remember our tutor saying that that wasn’t what the course was about – there’s no way he could teach us our “voice”, but we would find it ourselves through writing. In my own experience, without my creative writing seminars I don’t think I would have pushed myself creatively as I did then and, for that, I think they were extremely valuable.

    I do agree with your point about writing and creativity being subjective and this is what makes the courses so difficult for tutors and students, I think. I did have seminars where the tutor preferred some writing styles over others which is a shame, but I think it’s difficult to be objective about writing unless perhaps you’re looking solely at technical ability which I don’t think writing is completely about at all. However, in an academic environment there are many academics and writers under one roof, so you have the chance to talk to the tutors who best match your style and can give you valuable advice.

    For me, I think that Creative Writing courses are more valuable if the course is structured like a writing group – a supportive and safe environment where you can share and discuss work. I really think this helped me grow as a writer.

    I completely agree with your point about being a great writer even if you flunk your course. There is too much pressure to get your writing “right” for the grade you’re aiming for and I think that writing is too subjective to be able to award it one grade or another. It would be great if some alternative system was put in place, but I can’t see that happening with grades being seen as such an important factor in university courses and beyond.

    1. Hi Gemma! Thanks so much for taking the time to comment 🙂

      I’m so glad someone who has actually studied creative writing commented on this! It’s great to find out a bit more about your experience as it’s not something I did myself. I totally agree with what you said about the value of a writing group-esque course. It’s not so much about the ‘teaching’ per se, but it is about learning – from each other and from being a critic and a defender of your own work.

      I also really struggle to think of a reasonable solution for the issue of grading. It’s the same as art – it is so very, very subjective that there is no fair way to assess it whatsoever. I absolutely agree that technical ability does not the best writers make! I personally love writing that twists the rules and rattles the standard formula of a story, so if I were a creative writing tutor I’d have grades all over the shop, inexplicable to anyone else.

      Are you glad you studied creative writing?

      1. Gemma says:

        I’m really glad I studied it 🙂 I’m also glad that I studied English lit alongside it because I think they worked well together! I completely agree with you about learning from each other and tutors and I think that’s one of the things I valued most about my experience studying creative writing.

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