My twopence worth
It’s been a funny old week in the creative writing world.
On Monday, The Independent printed a report from the Bath Literature Festival (which the newspaper supports) in which Hanif Kureishi claimed that creative writing courses are a ‘waste of time’ and that most of his students are 'talentless'. It’s an interesting tactic from a man who is the figurehead for Kingston University’s own creative writing course and, indeed, is quoted on the Kingston Writing School page as saying: "Kingston Writing School has become one of the most dynamic places for students and writers in the United Kingdom. People there are full of talent, energy and bright ideas. It's a pleasure to be part of it and to have seen it grow so much in such a short time."
Kureishi is known for whipping up a storm, it’s his thing. Forgive the cynicism, but he has a book out. And to be fair, he’s not the first person to come out and question the validity of spending time and money in a classroom working out how to write.
I’ve spent all week debating whether to write something on this, whether to add my twopence worth to a digital world already awash with views both for and against his position. All I can tell you is, that as a former KU student – one who chose Kingston, in part, because Kureishi was on the bill – it has left a nasty taste in the mouth.
The stupid thing is that behind the shouty headlines, he does make a valid point – when declaring he would not take a course himself, he says: “I would find one teacher who I thought would be really good for me.”
Wise advice – not everyone is going to like what you write and the way you write it, so go find someone who cares about the process and the art of teaching rather than telling you why you should be writing like them.
But, here’s my problem: where does one to find such a teacher if one isn’t awash with literary contacts? Or, has come to the realisation late in life that they were meant to be writing? How do you know what that teacher looks like unless you try a few on for size?
As I have said before, I decided to start writing again about five years ago. I had no idea if I was any good and my self-confidence was miniscule. I couldn’t face the idea of having someone point out all my faults to my face. So, I did the distance learning thing through London School of Journalism. I learned loads. It built my confidence, highlighted my strengths and weaknesses. I decided to apply to an MA. I got in. I could have kissed the admissions lady when she told me.
In the two years I was at Kingston I had all kinds of tutors. Some styles I preferred to others, but I learned something from all of them – whether it was about technique, structure, or simply trusting myself a little bit more. I also met some amazing classmates who wrote wonderful things and who formed friendships as they struggled to turn their stories – good stories – into technically great reads.
I want to tell you that I don’t care as much as Kureishi clearly thinks we all should. But it’s not true. I care very much. I care what it means to other Kingston students who are outraged by his comments and I care what it means to all the tutors who work sodding hard to help students improve their writing.
We all have our opinions on the MA system. I will be frank and say not all of mine are positive. I had one particularly brutal workshop, after which two of my newly-discovered writing friends had to take me down the pub, pour beer down my throat and tell me it would be okay. They were right. The point is that eighteen months on, I realise I learned a lot from that afternoon. If nothing else, it taught me that I was serious about all this. It was excruciating and I don’t necessarily agree with the teaching tactics, but a part of me will always be grateful.
Equally, not all feedback is created equal and I can guarantee you that you won't agree with everything your workshop peers point out. But as far as I'm concerned we had a deal. We were all there for the same reason: to improve our skills and be as supportive of each other as possible. And as Stephen Fry says in the foreword to The Ode Less Travelled: 'Talent is inborn, but technique is learned.' We may not all end up being published authors but we all cared enough about improving our writing to dedicate ourselves to Kureishi's 'waste of time'.
Overall, the academic process is an incredible, emotional, downright ridiculous experience. Seriously, I spent one whole semester turning up to class saying, ‘I think this is where the book starts’ only for my very patient tutor and classmates to politely shake their heads and send me back off to try again. They were right, as well.
It gave me the chance to meet a range of visiting authors, not all of them tutors, but all of them willing to spend time reading my, sometimes dreadful, prose and giving me feedback. Not all of which I agreed with. But they had experience where I have none and I am willing to learn.
My dissertation tutor taught me a ridiculous amount about structure and technique and all the things that the other side of the camp claim are unteachable. He helped me see that the book still wasn’t starting in the correct place (after twelve months of this, I am pleased to say that – for now – the one thing I am absolutely confident about is the start of this beast). Most of all, he was calm when I was not and helped me pick out the wood for the ridiculously dense trees that I so often create when trying to work my plot out.
I’ve flipped back and forth on whether to write this post, because I know I'm not impartial (Tim Clare's blog does a much better job than I). I'm not sure anyone from Kingston is. But this has been nagging at me: Kingston Writing School encourages us to keep in touch, to form a larger community, to support one another, to share in each other’s successes, to carry on meeting other established writers who are willing to share their time and experiences with us. But that community feels like it’s taken a battering this week by someone who is supposed to support what we do. Or at least, take the money and keep his views to himself.
I will leave you with this: two days after Kureishi bemoaned how his students can’t tell a story for toffee, one of my former classmates politely announced on Facebook that she’d only gone and got a three-book publishing deal for her fabulous young adult books. As another student succinctly put it: Kingston 1 Kureishi 0.