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Revisiting the idea of studying creative writing …

A few years ago I mused on studying creative writing at university. I didn’t – I have to confess, I studied mathematics! – and I’ve often wondered if I should. In recent years the main reasons I haven’t have largely been cost (post-graduate study doesn’t come too cheap in Australia these days) and time. But of late several friends of mine have taken up both postgraduate and undergraduate creative writing studies and hearing of how much they enjoy it has got me wondering about it. Again!

At the Perth Writers Festival, quite a few writers I heard speak (particularly, it would seem, women of around my age who are now published novelists) had studied creative writing at postgraduate level. And some of the publishers I heard speak, when asked how they picked up new books beyond just agents and (rarely) the slush pile, mentioned that they quite often had manuscripts referred to them from university lecturers who recommended some of their students. So, as you can imagine, I was leaning back towards the “maybe I should study …” camp.

Until agent Lyn Tranter came on the stage and said, admitting that universities hated her for saying this:

Creative writing courses are cash cows for the universities.

Apologies to Lyn for quoting her on this but it really rang true for me. Having always had an interest in university courses (I did work at universities for years, remember), I’ve certainly noticed a dramatic increase in the number of creative writing courses being offered. There must be several thousand Australians doing a Masters in Creative Writing right this minute, or perhaps even more (I know three of them without even thinking longer than a second!). Obviously, not all of these prospective writers are going to go on and get published (except my friends, of course! Their books will adorn my bookshelves any day now).

I have no doubt that I could learn heaps from a creative writing course. More than anything, it would make me write more frequently. And for me, that’s the point. I do believe that practice makes perfect, along with some input on technique (I read books and follow websites to help with this), and then do lots of reading and lots of writing. I’ve come to the conclusion that’s a better use of my time for me than studying. But – there’s still a niggling voice in my head wondering if I’m wrong. So, writing friends, to study or not to study? Please, PLEASE tell me your experiences in the comments.

Amanda Kendle

6 Comments

  1. I am actually doing a BA majoring in creative writing at ECU MT Lawley – as you well know miss Kendle – and I am indeed enjoying it. For me it’s about that long march up the hill developing a ‘writing practise’, but also the mental metamorphises that seems to take place in a 3 year degree. There have been two good writing units critiquing and writing poetry and prose, drama writing too was great, but for me there just aren’t enough creative writing units. I want one for each semester! They seem to feel the need to package each creative writing unit in a different way with a different text book, but for me it’s about the practise, and simply doing as much of it as you can. My advice would be that if you are interested in the field and want to get started, a uni course would be good for you, however, if you’re already doing it then uni probably won’t offer you much more than what the 1000’s of writing books already out there do. Giles

  2. Ta Giles, your advice is exactly what I wanted to hear! And what you say about there not being enough creative writing units is what I also noticed when I looked at the structures of these courses – like you say, we’d be happy with “Creative Writing 1”, “Creative Writing 2” and so on for eternity!

    Your point about the effect of a three-year degree is good too – somehow that broadness would be interesting – rather than the focused postgrad programmes I have looked at.

    Anyway thanks for stopping by and giving some very handy feedback!

  3. Hi Amanda
    I am doing the Post Grad ‘professional writing and publishing’ degree through Curtin, but they also run a ‘creative writing’ stream as well and I suspect I will want to do a bit of both.

    My current unit ‘creative non fiction’ is where I see myself in the future – feature articles, pure fact, researched but written like a story. But next semester with a different unit, I might see myself in a whole different light!

    I went back to uni in response to an early mid-life crisis of confidence. I found myself at home with my two little girls realising that I could not return to the world of work unless I LOVED it and unless I was able to justify being away from them. Writing is one of the few things I love and enjoy and don’t think of as work, probably because I don’t earn any money from it, which makes it a hobby I guess!.

    I am back at uni because even though I love writing, I realise there is a lot about the ‘nuts and bolts’ and ‘behind the scenes’ that I do not know about. That, and as Giles says, it’s good writing practice.

    Yes, it’s not cheap – about $1,700 per unit, but you can defer it. No upfront costs, unless you count parking which is a bomb these days! I am doing one unit per semester, so my kids will be in high school by the time I am done, but I feel like the proverbial ‘new woman’ since being back at uni. It’s purely selfish, I love it, and it’s been good not only for me, but my whole family.

    One question though – why are you asking specifically about a university writing course? Are you interested in the qualification, the access to tutors, the time it takes, or the content? Why not start with something shorter and cheaper? I did the 5 week Creative Writing Course (online) from Sydney Writers Centre to tide me over until uni started, and it just whet my appetite for more. They have dozens of courses!

    best of luck
    shannon

  4. Again, very useful info, thanks Shan! I love your reason for wanting to do it – and can definitely relate, there’s no way I would go back to a 9-5 job at the expense of my darling little boy – or at least not just any 9-5 job (perhaps running a writers festival would persuade me!). It’s also good to hear how much you’re enjoying it and the old “mum’s happy, everybody’s happy” really does seem to be true.

    AND, I agree with your plan to try the Sydney Writers Centre! I have a $100 voucher there to use so plan to try one of their online courses soon.
    (To answer your question, I was looking at university courses mainly because they were discussed several times at the Writers Festival – both in very positive and very negative contexts!)

  5. I don’t know much about the state of things in Australia, but here in the US, writers are often debating whether or not getting a degree in writing (undergraduate or graduate) is “worth it.” I think that’s a really tough way of putting it, since value differs so greatly among people. To me, it was absolutely worth it, because it’s what I love, and I learned an incredible amount. I wouldn’t be the writer I am right now without it.

    HOWEVER. I would be a different writer. I wouldn’t NOT be a writer just because I didn’t study writing. And would I have been better or worse? No way to know. I would have been several thousand dollars richer though, lol.

    Maybe dip your toe into the waters first? Is there a workshop (NOT conference, or night class, but WORKSHOP) that you can go to? Where you will eat, sleep, and breathe writing for 1-2 weeks, guided by published writers? I would suggest that as a way to see whether or not studying writing is for you.

  6. Kristan, I absolutely agree with you when you say you’d still be a writer, just a different one. I have sometimes thought with regret about nobody encouraging me to study writing way back as an undergraduate – I was steered away from that (my real love) by my school/teachers etc because it wasn’t a “good career choice” for a “smart girl”. BUT, perhaps the path I took has given me a whole lot more interesting experiences anyway.

    Your point about trying a week-long workshop or so is a good one … but it’ll have to wait until my young man is a slightly less young man!
    Welcome back to the blogosphere, by the way!

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