A few weeks ago, all but one of the stories handed into my creative writing workshop ended with the narrator being murdered. I looked around my students, trying to spot a homicidal glint in their eyes. Was that human blood, or just a tea stain, on my Don DeLillo handout? Was he holding his pen like a flick knife?
Speaking at Hay-on-Wye last week, Hanif Kureishi said: "One of the things you notice is that when you switch on the television and a student has gone mad with a machine gun on a campus in America, it's always a writing student. The writing courses, particularly when they have the word 'creative' in them, are the new mental hospitals."
Looking up notable campus shootings in America, I can only find one committed by a bona fide creative writing student, though admittedly this was last year's Virginia Tech massacre, the deadliest in US history. However, I find it's more usual to discover that the reason a character is murdered at the end of a short story is because they couldn't think of any other way to wrap things up.
Undoubtedly, plenty of students unpack their traumas in creative writing classes. There are instances where students, if their story gets criticised for being sensationalist, protest that it's true, it all happened. To differing extents, all writers draw on chinks in their mental health. Kureishi said that when he goes to his desk each morning to start writing, he thinks to himself: "Why am I doing this? Shall I commit suicide?" If writing is therapy, then at least it's keeping his wrists closed.
Kureishi, who teaches creative writing at Kingston University, said such courses foster false expectations: "The fantasy is that all the students will become successful writers – and no one will disabuse them of that. When you use the word 'creative' and the word 'course', there is something deceptive about it."
In my experience of being a student of creative writing, few people have these delusions. Even with the track record of the University of East Anglia's MA, we knew the odds were stacked against us getting a publishing deal and, even less likely, a career. But I remember when I started creative writing classes, I was surprised how many straightforward, helpful things I learnt. In my first year a tutor explained that, by putting the tag and the physical description in the middle of a piece of dialogue, I could make characters walk and talk, rather than just walk then talk.
There were other simple bits of advice. Use fewer adjectives and adverbs. Fol
low David Mamet's dictum that writing a scene is like going to a party: "arrive late, leave early".
But as my course progressed, there were fewer moments of revelation. I became jealous of scriptwriters who, I imagined, were given all the answers on writing a perfect script via colourful diagrams: flow charts for character development – the Hero's Journey. Instead, there came the realisation that getting good at writing was mostly just hard work: practice and discussion and practice. The MA gave me a taste of what being a writer actually involves, posing the question: did I want to spend most of my days alone?
Kureishi also says, and this I can agree with, that studying creative writing will make you a better writer but it won't make you more content. "When I teach them," he said, "they are always better at the end – and more unhappy."
It's not a bad deal. As your unhappiness broadens, so does your ability to communicate it.
Joe Dunthorne is the author of 'Submarine' (Hamish Hamilton) and a creative writing tutor at the University of East Anglia
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