Last month, the novelist Hanif Kureishi declared creative writing courses ‘a waste of time.’ The statement seems counterintuitive – Kureishi himself is a teacher of creative writing at Kingston University. Nevertheless, his statement sparked an energetic discussion, with Jeanette Winterson defending her professorship at Manchester University, while the novelist Lucy Ellmann wrote ‘I can’t stand it when authors announce they have a degree in creative writing. So what? They’re a dime a dozen.’
The influential blogger @dovegreyreader contributed to the debate, responding to a reader: ‘Sadly, I am even starting to avoid the books which tell me the author has an MA in Creative Writing now. Worse is the fact that if you do some checking, the cover puffs … often from very good authors about virtual unknowns, turn out to be their tutors.’
All this has led me to reflect on my own experiences of writing courses. They began at an adult education centre in Acton, where I attended an evening class. One of my fellow students was a feature-writer for a national magazine, and she persuaded me to produce a couple of short stories for the journal.
After moving to Reading in Berkshire I signed up for an evening course at the University, led by the novelist Leslie Wilson. She brought a friend along one evening, to offer some helpful tips to us students. The friend was Hilary Mantel, who has – of course – gone on to twice win the Booker Prize.
When I explained to Hilary that I wanted to write a novel, but felt daunted by the enormity of plotting and sustaining such a long piece of writing, she replied that a novel is nothing more than a collection of scenes, framed by plot. Her own technique was to summarise episodes on post-it notes and pin them to a board; the advantage of post-it notes, was that the scenes could then be moved around to fit new twists to the plot.
Taking time out of paid work, I completed my first book. Full of optimism, I sent it off to an assortment of agents, some of whom said kind things, but all of whom eventually said no. I felt despondent – as if I had fallen into a kind of vacuum – and though I had an idea for a second novel, I felt too demoralised to carry on.
I looked online for a course where I could meet others who were serious about fiction, while at the same time I could learn to improve my writing skills. An advertisement for an MA Writing (Prose Fiction) at Middlesex University offered ‘a rich interaction between new writing and the broad literary landscape,’ so I sent off a sample of my work, went for an interview, and joined a dozen other students on the campus at Tottenham.
The course was run by Sue Gee, herself an accomplished novelist. Somehow, Sue managed to combine a formidable attention to detail, with unfailing humour and grace. I was introduced to novels I had not read before. I marvelled at the rich imagery of Bruno Schulz, and the sparse, elliptical prose of Raymond Carver.
The curriculum was designed to be cohesive; we were given writing exercises which reflected the work we were reading. For example, alongside an analysis of Carver’s ‘Are you a Doctor?’ we each had to produce an original story, based on a character who had telephone conversations with three different people.
From other students I gained the support and stimulation that I had sought, and from the tutors I learned to examine the elusive nature of ‘good writing’. We were encouraged to consider certain rules, such as the importance of viewpoint and the avoidance of cliché.
Perversely, we were assured that all rules could be ignored if the question ‘does it work?’ could be answered in the affirmative. (An example might be Don Marquis’ book, ‘Archy and Mehitabel’. Supposedly the work of a cockroach, who could not manage to hurl himself at the shift key and a letter at the same time, the concept might seem ridiculous. Instead, the novel is a classic because of its charm and energy. It works.)
Our final submission was a 20,000 word extract from a new novel, which we were expected to complete, once the course was finished. We were invited to read an extract at a showcase to which various agents and authors had been invited. One of the agents spoke to me afterwards. ‘You write very well,’ he said. ‘What you need is a big-themed subject.’
When I opened up my great great grandfather’s wicker box and found the story of how in the 1860s, my great great aunt travelled to Africa at just eighteen, to set up a multi-racial settlement with her dashing medical missionary husband, I knew that I had found my story and wrote ‘Dappled Light’ which has been published by Matador. Does it work? I do hope you’ll agree that it does.
Jessica Markwell was born in Ghana in 1954. After graduating from Manchester University with a degree in Medieval Studies, she worked as an archaeologist, a nurse, a midwife and a family mediator. She completed an MA in fiction writing at Middlesex University, and now lives high on a hillside in mid-Wales with her husband and two chocolate Labradors.