Hilary Wilce meets authors Hilary Mantel and Rachel Cusk

Creative writing Masters courses 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, practical help?

Hilary Mantel, who won the 2009 Man Booker Prize for her historical novel Wolf Hall, believes 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 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 US.

At Sheffield Hallam, she took tutorials about three times a year. Students sent her their manuscripts which she would use “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 focusing 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 often start at the end of the process, and offer people help with contacts and how to find an agent, and suggest which agent might be the right one for their work. I also help to pull the potential out of their ideas – they don’t always know where stories are, or what there is within their story”.

Mantel 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 what’s valuable and what isn’t. It takes away all the stress of having to fight back and defend your work. I’ve put the idea to several people over here, but no one’s taken it up. I think you can’t imagine the process if you haven’t seen it in action. You can’t see how it could work. But, then, teaching writing in America is generally a very different thing from here. It’s a very concentrated process, very businesslike, polished and proficient, and students have 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 people’s 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 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 work, I have a penchant for dramatic story-telling, so I tend to think that if you can’t write a scene you are probably in the wrong profession, but that’s 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 University’s one-year creative writing and two-year fine arts Masters courses. “Teaching writing is evolving as more people come forward to do these courses, and the area of creative writing is scrutinised more. There is a move away from the academic modules, where people write critical essays, all sourced and referenced. People on these courses often did their first degrees more than 10 years ago. They don’t want to go back to 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 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 – that’s what I’d have most appreciated when I was starting out – but you can’t change people, or 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 can’t have someone writing sci-fi and another writing something historical. I need everybody in one place, in one shared location, to see what it is we are talking about.

“I also limit the amount students criticise each other’s work. I keep firm control over these discussions as it can be confusing 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 university’s role to uphold the highest writing standards.