To begin at the beginning

Twenty-five years after Malcolm Bradbury introduced creative writing co urses to Britain, the question remains: can it be taught?
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The Independent Culture
Twenty-five years ago, Angus Wilson and I - fellow professors of literature at the then new University of East Anglia - came up with a shared literary inspiration. In the previous two or three years, we had seen and worked with a good deal of rema rkablefiction that was being written by some of our students - notably Rose Tremain and Clive Sinclair. We were also worried about the state of the novel in Britain. The reports were grim ("The End of the British Novel") and publishers were growing doub tful about quality fiction's prospects.

Our notion was to start up a postgraduate programme in something that we decided to call "creative writing". We disliked the term, and certainly the idea then had a very negative aspect to it. In Europe, "creative writing" was generally thought of as a suspect American import like the hula-hoop. True, American universities had been teaching "creative writing" since the 1890s, and many distinguished writers had emerged from them. But they seemed to reflect an instrumentalist, technological, pos t -cultural view of the arts that wasn't shared in Europe The European notion of the literary arts was very different. Literature came from gifted individuals, innate talent, the divine fires of inspiration. It was born in bars and cafes, studios and salons. It came from an instinctive citizenship of the arts and a taste for the modern. It certainly didn't come from taught courses in cold classrooms or from the solemn world of the university campus.

These suspicions were shared among our academic colleagues. In most universities in 1970, "contemporary literature" was thought a contradiction in terms; after all, a signed death certificate was required to turn writing into literature Writing surely could not be taught. If it could be taught, it could, surely, not be properly examined. And even if it was taught and examined, it was hardly worthy of a postgraduate degree. The business of a university was research, scholarship and literary theory. Literature was what universities studied, not what universities produced.

Still, Angus and I started our course. It would last a year and be built around a writing workshop. It would take in writers of evident talent, allow them to work intensively and analytically on stories or a novel, make some academic study of literature,and, if all went well, award them an MA degree at the end, primarily judged on the quality of the fiction they had written. Good fortune struck at once. The first student was Ian McEwan, who in our trial year produced the contents of his first two booksof fiction.

Twenty-five years on, I'm now in the process of retiring from the programme which, after Angus Wilson left, I taught with Angela Carter and then Rose Tremain. Just short of 200 students - mostly writers of fiction but more recently also screenwriters - have passed through.

Of these something like a third are known and publishing writers. There is no school, no common way of writing and each generation has its own distinctive qualities.

A quarter of a century seems a useful time to pause for reflection. Has it all been a good idea? Has it made any difference? Has it done anything of value to the atmosphere of literary studies and the work of universities? And where does the teaching of writing fit into the changing cultural climate?

One thing is certain. Creative writing is no longer a distant American phenomenon. Like rollerblades and serial killers, it has crossed the water and is here to stay. Whenever I lecture in Britain or Europe, these days, I find the most common questions Imeet are those to do with the matter. Many people have written a book, aided by the technologies of word processing, the multiplication of handbooks and the myths of literary celebrity. The newspaper magazine sections are packed with advertisements for writing schools ("If you read this far you can be a writer"). Writers' workshops, writers' colonies, writers' weekends are everywhere. Tutors in writing work in women's groups, community centres, prisons.

In higher education too, the ancient romantic suspicions are dying. Courses, programmes, degrees undergraduate and postgraduate have become a common part of British higher education. There are now generally highly professional courses in fiction drama and screenwriting at something like 20 universities, including Lancaster, Birmingham, Manchester and Sheffield Hallam. Perhaps, as in America, the danger today is that the way to become established as a writer is to go off and take a course in it.

That, I think, would be regrettable. I have no doubt that the essential qualities needed by the writer are independent of anything that can be taught. There has first, I believe, to be a passionate motivation. Writing is a solitary, obscure, frequently disappointing way of pursuing a life, and it must be driven by profound commitment. Then there must be distinctiveness of vision. And since writing, in the end, is a form of exploration and discovery, there must be an instinct to discover and explore theworld and human nature.

So can creative writing really be taught? I believe, with increasing conviction, that it can and should be. For the novel, the story or the screenplay are complex forms and the making of narrative a complex process. It benefits most from a deep knowledgeof the resources and the many varied means of writing and from the analysis of the work of others, above all the great practitioners, and of the nature of the writing process itself. No two writers write alike; no lesson of the master is to be left unchallenged. The complicated history of narrative and its various forms and possibilities has to become an instinctive part of the repertory of the serious writer. And this is an important part of the business of teaching.

Today narrative is changing, at speed. We live in an age of multiplied narratives - as new means of writing and passing information fill the world, as our ambient culture grows more global and more complex.

A few years ago, gloomy analysts proclaimed the end of the age of the book. Nothing suggests this is true. The book, of course, is transforming, assuming a changing place in the age of new technologies and communications highways. But new technologies

themselves are becoming increasingly dependent on narrative. They are story-filled. Creative writing is among other things a way of adapting our own personal vision to this wealth of transforming narrative.

It seems to me that the great new age of creative writing contains in itself two great dangers. One is the cloning of stories - all the stories become types, genres, variants one of another, cliched myths, and writing itself becomes systematic and instrumental. The other is the stimulation of false illusions, the belief that every one of us really is a writer with success around the corner - so that just by a year's study the world of literary celebrity is open to all, that everyone can, with time and teaching, write the great novel.

The truth is that, for all the effort, good writers stay scarce, perhaps as scarce as ever. And the fundamental gifts of any fine writer are more than technical; they are, as I say ,the product of a vision and a power of human discovery which lie beyond and outside any act of teaching. But the art of fiction or drama or screenwriting is quite as hard and refined as any; and by meeting and working with others we can, as writers, often profoundly improve it.

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