Do creative writing courses work?

The brilliant novelist, screenwriter and playwright Hanif Kureishi launched a withering attack on university creative writing courses in 2008, calling them “the new mental hospitals”.  And then there’s the wonderful Flannery O’Connor, who once replied when asked whether she thought writing programmes in universities actually discouraged writers, “Not enough of them.”

While I love the above writers, I disagree with them on this issue. I’ve been teaching creative writing for over ten years and I never stop being astonished by the number of students who seem hopeless at the beginning of a class but then end up producing a wonderful piece of writing. A course is not only an opportunity to develop and hone the skills of the fledgling writer,  it can also give her enough belief in her ability to carry on. This is so important because it is often the writers who do not  give up, who are the ones who succeed.

One student who never gave up was Jenni Fagen. Jenni was one of my students when I tutored at at the Open Studies Office of Lifelong Learning at Edinburgh University. Jenni was always a fresh and daring writer.  She was also very determined. After she finished at OLL she went on to study at Greenwich University and received  the highest possible mark for a student of Creative Writing and won a scholarship to the Royal Holloway MFA. She is now a published poet, she has won awards from Arts Council England, Dewar Arts, and Scottish Screen among others. She has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize twice and shortlisted for the Dundee International Book Prize. Most recently her novel The Panopticon has been picked as one of  Waterstones 11 best debut novels for 2011. This is brilliant news. I am so pleased for Jenni. And proof, if it were needed, that writing courses can and do work.

Follow the waterstones 11 link to download or read a sample chapter. And thanks to Rhian Davies and her blog It’s a Crime (Or  a Mystery …) for listing the waterstones 11 winners and summarising the books for us.

Anais Hendricks, 15, is in the back of a police car, heading for The Panopticon, a home for chronic young offenders. She can’t remember the events that led her here, but across town a policewoman lies in a coma and there is blood on Anais’s school uniform. Inside The Panopticon, Anais soon finds herself part of an ad-hoc family, but becomes increasingly suspicious of social worker Helen, who is determined to force Anais to confront the circumstances of her birth. Looking up at the watchtower that looms over the residents, Anais knows her fate: she is part of an experiment, she always was, and the experiment is closing in.

“Everything one could hope for in a debut novel; a strong, distinctive heroine, moments that make you laugh and the deft touch of a writer who can leave you with a lump in your throat.” – Mark Burgess, Fiction Team, Waterstone

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