Heading off to start a Creative Writing degree this September? Lucky you. If you’re wondering what to expect, here are some tips from Philip Bowne, who has just finished his degree in Creative Writing, and D.D. Johnston, who has taught Creative Writing at the University of Gloucestershire since 2010.
Phil: Studying Creative Writing has been worthwhile for me in so many ways. The lecturers and the course itself helped me to get my work published in magazines and anthologies, work for a month as a travel writer, and gain the confidence to read my own writing out on stage. But in my first year, I wasn’t so sure how to go about studying Creative Writing. I wasn’t even sure I was capable of doing it.
It took a long time for me to gain the confidence to submit my work to workshops regularly. In light of this, I thought I’d share a few things I wish I’d known when I started at University.
I didn’t read anywhere near enough in my first year. It’s difficult trying to juggle meeting new people, being in a new place and living independently, but if I could do it again I would definitely have put my head in a book more often.
D.D.: Phil’s dead right. Reading’s key to your degree for two reasons. First off, reading is the one thing that everyone agrees is essential to learning to write well. Second, for assessments you’ll need to write an essay to support your creative work. These essays are called different things in different places – a critical reflection, a responsive critical understanding, an exegesis, or something else. But the idea is pretty constant: you’re expected to discuss your creative process, to contextualise your work, and to discuss your influences. If you haven’t been reading then you won’t have anything to write about in your essay. And don’t just read one genre of popular fiction you may have enjoyed at school: your lecturers will expect to see that you’ve been reading texts that are appropriate to the course. You should always read and say nice things about whatever your tutors have written; most writing teachers are insecure egoists 😉
It sounds stupid, but Creative Writing degrees do involve a fair bit of actual writing. Like I did, you might cringe at every word you ever jot down, but you’ll get over that. Try to write every day. Even if it’s just for twenty minutes. If you make it a habit, you’ll find you have lots of material to work from. Most writing courses use writers’ workshops, which are round-table discussions during which you get feedback on your writing – and give feedback to your peers. It can be intimidating at first, but workshopping works!
D.D.: Yes, writing is pretty important for a Creative Writing degree, so how come students don’t always manage to write? Often students tell me they’re suffering from writer’s block, but I don’t believe it exists. A million blog posts have been written about it, all offering myriad cures for the condition. Type the same word over and over again. Open the dictionary at random pages and write the first word on each page until a sentence emerges. But whenever one of my students comes to me to discuss writer’s block, I chat to them about their general well-being, and in almost every instance it emerges that they’re suffering from some more standard mental health problem – most often depression or anxiety or both. Think about it: one of the questions on the NHS’s standard depression test is “Have you had some trouble concentrating on things like reading the paper or watching TV?” And if someone says that, yes, they’ve really been struggling to watch their favourite shows, the doctor doesn’t advise them to flick through all the channels one after the other for as long as it takes. If someone says they can’t concentrate on the newspaper, the doctor doesn’t tell them to read the words in random order until they start to focus on a story that interests them. Instead, the doctor aims to treat the cause rather than the symptom. So if you are suffering writer’s block, forget about the writing for a bit. Look after your mental health and when you feel better the words will come.
Where I studied, the Creative Writing course held regular Open Reading nights. These were for anyone to come along and listen to readings of prose, poetry and plays. They’re great. It takes some courage to get on stage, but it’s well worth the nerves. I’d highly recommend getting involved with reading nights, student publications, and any Creative Writing social society.
D.D.: That’s great advice. Writing is a solitary activity and some people find it a lonesome one. The Nobel Prize winning South African novelist Nadine Gordimer has described ‘The solitude of writing’ as ‘quite frightening. It’s close sometimes to madness, one just disappears for a day and loses touch.’ It is therefore important to support each other as writers, to offer constructive advice, to welcome criticism, and to provide encouragement. Nothing will speed your development as a writer like being surrounded by other enthusiastic and ambitious students. If you socialise with your classmates, hang out, discuss books and writing, then you’ll learn from each other and push each other to improve. If you also become best mates and stay friends for life – great. But don’t worry if you find you have nothing in common beyond writing: your best friend is unlikely to be your most exacting critic.
Again, this sounds stupid, but so many students just don’t go to classes. It’s a tragedy. If you can’t make a lecture, let your lecturer know, and make sure you get to the next one. Falling behind on classes and being absent from the course is very damaging both academically and socially.
D.D.: That’s huge. When students don’t come to my class I feel the same way I felt when I was a teenager and Tracy Henderson was supposed to meet me outside the Odeon Cinema at 7:30pm on a Tuesday night, and she never showed, and I had to watch Four Weddings and a Funeral on my own. Plus, from your point of view, it’s kind of crazy to waste classes that cost so much. Students sometimes miss lectures because they’ve been partying too hard, and I do have some sympathy: you are only young once, and of course you have to live your life (and earn your material). But you’ve got to find the right balance. In particular, remember that alcohol and writing don’t mix. ‘No one,’ said Ring Lardner, ‘ever, wrote anything as well even after one drink as he would have done without it.’ You may have nights of intoxicated inspiration, when you’ll type and scribble and clench your fist, shouting ‘Yes! Yes! This is the truth! This is art!’ And you may have mornings, mournful and overcast, when you try to interpret the weird scribbles on the wallpaper, and wonder where you left your trousers. The ideas may be inspired, but the prose will need your sober attention.
Phil: 5. Make the most of your lecturers
They can offer you some of the best advice you’ll ever get. They’ll give you brilliant feedback on your work, and help you out if you need any pointers. Your lecturers are there for you and they want to support you! Do your best to make the most of them. And remember that your relationship with your lecturers is very different from your relationship with your school teachers – they’re not going to give you rows, and nor are they going to chase you if you don’t work hard. The motivation has to come from you.
D.D.: University lecturers and professors may moan about many things – bureaucracy and bad management and increasing workloads and the commercialisation of education – but all the teachers I’ve met have a passion for writing and teaching, and they care a great deal about their students. Don’t be shy to get in touch with them especially if you’re having problems. Whatever’s up, your lecturer should be able to refer you to relevant support services, and you can expect them to be understanding and compassionate. But I hope your problems are few: in fact, I hope you have the time of your life.