The hottest new writing degrees are in specialist non-fiction

Nick Jackson
Thursday 10 July 2008 00:00

It sounds like a piece of Orwellian doublespeak, but creative writing (non-fiction), which started in January at City University, is in fact the new Master's degree of choice for writers eager to document their lives, or the lives of others.

Until a few years ago, all an aspiring author needed was a British Library pass. Like other vocations, though, writing is going pro, and writers now have their own postgraduate qualifications. Attention usually focuses on the precocious graduates of fiction programmes, but in the last few years specialist non-fiction courses have started to emerge, first at the University of East Anglia with a creative writing Masters in biography, then at Imperial, whose postgraduate programme for science writers is being axed this year for lack of interest. City is the first university to apply the practical methods of the workshop exclusively to non-fiction of all kinds.

"There are things that are particular to non-fiction writing," says Julie Wheelwright, who teaches the City course and is the author of books on Mata Hari and on female cross-dressers. "You have to deal with these questions of where the truth lies."

Travel writers, they say, always lie. And non-fiction writers, particularly life writers, have different questions over memory, structure, dialogue, description, and of course libel. Non-fiction writers often deal with more than one story, and balancing those narratives can be the difference between a gripping memoir and a mess. For example, one of the books that Wheelwright teaches as part of the course's literary criticism module is Anthony Lloyd's Another Bloody Love Letter, in which war stories blend with the story of his mother's death and his heroin addiction.

That balance also often involves an ethical question: when to let the story dictate the tempo over the facts. Wheelwright defends a certain creativity in plot, but stresses limits. She holds up Jon Krakauer's Into the Wild as a model in this regard. "He's incredibly careful that you know when he's speculating," she says. "That's better than wildly inventing and not telling the reader."

The course is already proving popular, both with students looking at straight non-fiction and those who, at first, aimed to write a novel. "I'd always wanted to write a novel," says Ali Hall, who is writing a memoir of her life as a single, pregnant, Jewish woman in Salt Lake City, home to the socially conservative Mormon religion. The book will, Hall hopes, have resonance beyond single, pregnant, Jewish women in Salt Lake City. "It's more of a universal story, for people who get to their thirties and think, 'How did I get here?'" she says. Hall herself washed up in Utah to snowboard, with little idea of what she was in for. "They were talking about the LDS, and I thought it was something to do with learning disabled," says Hall. "Obviously they meant the Latter Day Saints."

Hall is still friends with some of the characters in her book so she can capture their speech patterns, and she draws heavily from a detailed journal. Even so, she admits that writing about events that happened several years ago requires a certain creativity. "I'm trying to write it with great integrity," says Hall. "But at times, I have to invent the dialogue because I just don't remember, word for word, what was spoken." This is a balancing act that both Wheelwright's tutelage and other students' input has been invaluable with, she says.

As part of the City University course, students are expected to produce a 60,000-word dissertation – in effect, a book. It is not the only model out there. At the University of East Anglia's biography course, students do not pick up a pen, or type a character, until halfway through the course. Instead, they focus on working their way through the canon, from Plutarch through Boswell to Julian Barnes' Flaubert's Parrot.

"It's half-academic and half-practical," says Kathryn Hughes, author of The Short Life and Long Times of Mrs Beeton, who teaches the course. "A lot of people still have the idea that you point your journeyman prose at a subject, and start with the birth and end with the death." She argues that the history of biography could not be more different. Biographers have long played with chronology, voice and time periods. In fact, rather than being more constrained than fiction writers, Hughes believes that non-fiction writers are sometimes freer.

"Biographers have all the best stories," Hughes says. "All these amazing things have happened. It's the absolute fantastic-ness of the real. If I invented it, I'd be told not to be so silly." Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction.

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