Creative writing MAs are proliferating and, in an effort to lure students away from competitors, universities are increasingly offering the chance to study with a well-known author.
But are working writers the best kind of tutors for students to have? By their very nature they are people who are most happy communing with their own thoughts. So are they simply engaged as high-profile bait? Or can they offer students real and practical help?
Hilary Mantel, who won this years Man Booker Prize for her historical novel Wolf Hall, believes that they can. She has just come to the end of three years as a visiting professor at Sheffield Hallam University, which recently awarded her an honorary doctorate. She is on the advisory board of the creative writing course at City University, London, and has had long experience of teaching on courses run by the writing charity, Arvon, as well as of teaching writing at Washington University in St Louis, in the United States.
At Sheffield Hallam she took tutorials about three times a year. Students sent her their manuscripts and then I tried to help them see where they were with their work and to point them towards solutions to their writing problems. This is probably rather different from what tutors, who are working constantly with students, can or should offer. I was focussing on their work first, before I met them, I was confronting their work on the page, so in a way I suppose I was simulating how an agent or an editor might come to it.
I also often start at the end of the process, and offer people help with contacts and how to go about finding an agent, and suggest which agent might be the right one for their work. And Ive also found I can help people to pull the potential out of their ideas -- people dont always know where stories are, or what there is within their story.¸
She has been impressed with a process used on American writing courses where students listen in silence as other students critique their work. The whole discussion is conducted as if they are not in the room. Then the writer goes away and sifts it all coolly, and evaluates whats valuable and what isnt. It takes away all the stress of having to fight back and defend your work. Ive put the idea to several people over here, but no-ones taken it up. I think you cant imagine the process if you havent seen it in action. You cant see how it could work. But, then, teaching writing in America is generally a very different thing from here. Its a very concentrated process, very business-like, polished and proficient, and students have many more potential small outlets for their work.¸
Recommending reading and building confidence are essentials of her teaching. I try to tread delicately and be encouraging. After all, you are dealing with the raw stuff of peoples dreams. Everyone can improve, although that is not the same as saying everyone can be a successful writer. The business of making a living from writing needs more than just talent. You need the right personality. You need stamina, and a bit of luck as well. But I have never said to anyone that they should go away and take up crochet -- although there are students whose talent is so obscure that you can see it is going to take a long time for it to shine! In my own work I have a penchant for dramatic story-telling, so I tend to think that if you cant write a scene you are probably in the wrong profession, but thats just me, and other writers might think quite differently.¸
Rachel Cusk, another prize-winning novelist, whose latest work, The Bradshaw Variations won rave reviews last year, is a senior research fellow on Kingston Universitys one-year creative writing MA and its two-year Master of Fine Arts course.
Teaching writing is definitely evolving as more people come forward to do these courses and the area of creative writing is scrutinised more. There is definitely a move away from the more academic modules, where people are asked to write critical essays, all sourced and referenced. People on these courses often did their first degrees more than ten years ago. They dont want to go back to doing that. What most people really want to do is get on and write their novel.
I teach a generic workshop module, which is very free and unstructured, and also a multiform workshop, where students have to express themselves in drama, poetry and prose. At the moment the novel is riding very high in our culture and people assume that is the form their work will take. They are often frightened of writing anything else, but I want to see them writing drama, poetry and prose. I have them writing sestinas and villanelles and all sorts of things. I want them to feel what form is.
With writing, the most you can hope to do is to steer somebody in the right direction, eliminate their mistakes and help them learn to do it for themselves. You can show them what they are capable of, and what is possible -- thats the thing that Id have most appreciated when I was starting out -- but you cant change people, and you cant make someone mature if they are not.
The thing I am most didactic about is subject matter. Obviously they are free to decide what they write about in their own long pieces of work, but in the exercises I get them to do my forceful guidance is that they should write about ordinary life and contemporary things. I cant have one person writing sci-fi and another person writing something historical. I need to get everybody in one place, into one shared location, to see what it is we are talking about.
I also try to limit the amount students criticise each others work. I keep a very firm control over these discussions as it can be very confusing and befuddling to have so many different opinions. I prefer the critique to be coming mainly from one place.¸
She also believes that, although the whole question of assessment is tricky when it comes to creative writing, it is right that things such as grammar and spelling should be taken account of, believing it is a universitys role to uphold the highest standards.
This article first appeared in The Independent, 14 January 2010.