I’m taking a blog break to do another Project October. In place of my normal blog posts during July, I will be posting in nine parts a writing journal I completed as the major assessment piece of my final master’s subject called The Writerly Self.
This is Part 4.
27 March 2007
Okay, I think I’ve decided on the replacement for the assessment piece. A journalistic article on the postgraduate writing course, advantages, disadvantages, the opinions that are out there (because I know Jenny Darling hates the idea of postgraduate writing courses, so I’m sure there are plenty more insiders with just as fervent views), etc.
28 March 2007
Jacqui has approved the revised proposal for the assessment piece so now I’ve got to do some Googling. I need to find out what people actually think about postgraduate writing courses.
30 March 2007
Son of a bitch! I did the research. I started writing. I wrote about a thousand words and then I realised that the way in which I was going to reflect on my journey as a writer and The Writerly Self module in particular just isn’t going to work. I wouldn’t call it writer’s block exactly but I’m stuck and I don’t know how to move forward. This is becoming a recurring theme, but I think abandonment is my only option. Judge for yourself. This is what I wrote before I threw up my hands in total and utter dismal failure.
Can writing be taught?
Even as the decades old question continues to be asked, postgraduate writing courses are multiplying exponentially across the world, popping up in the most hallowed of educational institutions. Louise Truscott, a soon-to-be graduate, explores from the inside what many consider to be an unanswerable question.
These days the likelihood of professional success without a university education is almost as remote as winning the lottery. Many companies refuse to interview (let alone employ) candidates without tertiary level qualifications. Mathematicians, physicists and even philosophers get nowhere without at least a master’s degree and preferably a PhD. So why do the merits of postgraduate studies in writing – creative or otherwise – continue to be debated with such fervour and ferocity?
The most obvious answer is, of course, that the vast majority of commercially and critically successful writers – the household names of today – never found it necessary to wander down this educational path. Virginia Woolf was entirely home schooled. Ernest Hemingway refused to attend university after high school. John Grisham studied and practised law for nearly a decade before turning his attention to writing without ever feeling the need the head back to university. Thomas Keneally entered a seminary to train as a Catholic priest but left before his ordination, later becoming a schoolteacher and a university lecturer before becoming a writer.
But for those who know they want to write without the proof provided by years spent in a different and often unsatisfying profession, undergraduate and postgraduate studies in writing seem a clear way in. A would-be lawyer studies the law. A would-be doctor studies medicine. Why shouldn’t a would-be writer study writing?
‘People often seem to think that writers should just be able to do it naturally, without being taught,’ says Tracy Chevalier, author of Girl With A Pearl Earring. ‘Why don’t people say this about musicians, or painters, or sculptors? All of us sang at some point when we were children, but no one would suggest that a professional singer doesn’t need to train since they already know how to sing! I should think the same would apply to writers, yet people somehow expect writers to write well instinctively.’
Tim Waggoner agrees. ‘The guidance students receive from an experienced writer-teacher can be invaluable.’
Adding to the credibility of opinions such as these, in October 2005, the renowned and respected Oxford University began offering a Master of Studies degree in Creative Writing, boasting the program would be supported by ‘leading literary figures…prize-winning fiction writers, poets and dramatists’. The press release announcing the creation of the course led with the words, ‘For the first time talented creative writers will have the opportunity to study for a postgraduate qualification in their craft at Oxford University.’
Despite this seeming acceptance of the worthy place of creative writing in universities, and particularly in the staid and sober halls of Oxford academia, there remains a vocal chorus of dissension. Jenny Diski, a prize-winning British writer herself, cynically describes creative writing courses as a ‘marvellous money-spinner for cash-strapped universities’, ostensibly ignoring any possible benefits. ‘The dream of the book that could be written seems to be pretty universal… It’s always been the case that people will find a way to cash in on daydreams. What’s new is that educational institutions are ripping off their students – customers, these days, like any other business.’
Here in Australia there are mixed feelings regarding the postgraduate writing courses. Literary agent Lyn Tranter says they are ‘churning out people who are led to believe they are going to be published’. Fellow agent Jenny Darling agrees, complaining those employed to impart wisdom upon impressionable young (and sometimes not so young) minds ‘seem to have no idea of what’s publishable’.
Jenny Sinclair confesses that she ‘enrolled in a university writing course to give a socially acceptable face’ to her compulsion, even as she rails against the proliferation of ‘writing courses, writing workshops, writing weekends, writing holidays’ and the armies of half-wit graduates…
I guess what I’ve written is okay. The only problem is that it’s heading somewhere I don’t want it to go i.e. nowhere near me reflecting on my journey as a writer. Dammit.