On teaching a creative writing course

The literary world can sometimes be surprisingly generous with the little rewards and favours it bestows. Stick around for long enough, be seen at the right festivals and parties, avoid hitting critics or sleeping with the wives of publishers while allowing a dribble of publications to issue forth under your name, and eventually you will be repaid.

Years ago, in another lifetime, I published a rather brilliant and affecting first novel called A Touch of the Other. Today its author Clare Morgan is Dr Morgan, course director of a brand new creative writing course that is to be run by Oxford University. Announcing the setting up of a two-year masters degree, Clare told the press that she was currently looking for tutors who would provide multicultural diversity, a range of writerly voices, imaginative engagement, and so on – all of which has conveyed the same message to me. It’s payback time.

It would be quite wrong, and unfair towards less well-connected applicants, to use this column as an open job application. On the other hand, to fail to point out my particular qualifications, having actually taught at creative writing courses and passed on the tricks and secrets of the inky trade to many a bright-eyed young writer, would be downright perverse.

As the new Oxford team will quickly discover, establishing a successful creative writing course can be a complex business. The components of the course need to be balanced in a holistic way that reflects the different aspects of professional writing – flair and dullness, excitement and boredom, self-promotion and obscurity.

The role of academics is to provide a backdrop of rumbling dissatisfaction for pupils. Since many of those who work in universities are by their nature dyspeptic and resentful, it might be thought that there is no particular difficulty here, but a writing course presents its own challenge.

It is strangely encouraging for pupils if the academics with whom they have contact are themselves frustrated writers who have never been able to get beyond the first 25,000 words of a novel started back in the 1980s. Forever trapped in the increasingly dull Chapter Three of their lives, these people can provide as telling an introduction to the ways of the literary life as any tutorial about metafictional narrative devices.

Most courses like to pull a professional writer off the street for a few months during the year in order to give young writers a whiff – usually metaphorical but sometimes real – of the life that lays ahead of them. It is traditional to choose someone whose marriage is in trouble for this task. Their behaviour on the course – inappropriate yearnings for students, excessive time spent in the university bar, sudden attacks of tearfulness during seminars – provides it with some much-needed writerly colour.

There will be a huge number for applications, many of which will be from those who have read stories in the press how writing a novel can bring wealth, celebrity, film deals and personal fulfilment. In order to cut the interviewing process down to a manageable size, it is useful to work out the various categories of writer who can be dismissed without further thought.

Anyone who has self-published a novel can be spared the cost of coming to an interview. So can the person who writes for reasons of personal therapy. A pupil whose mother rings up to check on his her little one’s application can safely be dumped.

For a lively and vibrant class, it is useful to have a balanced mix of potential writers whose varying attitudes will spark off one another, sometimes lighting up a merry fire of literary debate. If possible, one each of the following creative writing types should be included:

1. Someone, slightly bitter if possible, of late middle age, who will annoy the class by appearing to be patronising, will be touchingly clueless about anything written since 1985 and will be sensitive to any references to matters of age.

2. An intellectual who skulks in the corner, who likes to drop the name of obscure avant-garde French writers, whose writing uses literary tropes recently invented by a deconstructionist at Berkeley, and who refers sneeringly to “the general reader”.

3. A bright, kind type who is good and generous as a critic, whom everyone likes but who is utterly incapable of writing well.

4. Someone who has read about the way authors go off the rails and who has decided to work on the lifestyle before trying the work, sleeping with most of the men and women in the class..

5. Someone who sits in the corner, saying little, and then annoys the rest of the class by being the first of them to get a publishing contract.

Various events and excitements will punctuate the creative writing year. Quite early on, one of the students will crack up and leave the course. A feud will soon develop between traditionalists and post-modernists. Two of the class will fall in love but an imbalance in talent between the two will cause unhappiness. A student will try to explain that his idleness had been cause by “block”. A busload of agents will arrive and almost be lynched by career-crazed writers.

It is a soap opera, this teaching of writing, and even a venerable outfit like Oxford will need someone to deal with the tantrums and dramas that it will inevitably involve. I await the call.

Spring 2005