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Can great writing be taught?

A host of books

By Sarah Keating
Today programme

"There is nothing to writing," explained that master of minimalist prose, Ernest Hemingway. "All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed."

But this year marks the 40th anniversary of the first university in Britain offering a course in creative writing, an event which suddenly threw open the possibility that a writer could be taught their craft.

The creative writing course at the University of East Anglia (UEA) has produced an impressive list of alumni, including Booker Prize winners Ian McEwan, Kazuo Ishiguro and Anne Enright. But is creative writing really a skill that can be passed on in this way?

The popularity of the formal teaching of writing is evident in the sheer number of courses currently available in Britain.

As Giles Foden, the current professor of creative writing at UEA, points out in Body of Work, a book celebrating the course's 40th anniversary: "Ninety-four British universities now offer a range of postgraduate degrees in creative writing and in any one year there are usually more than 10,000 short-term creative writing courses or classes on offer in the UK."

Ian McEwan, whose highly-regarded output includes The Comfort of Strangers, Amsterdam and Atonement, was the only student in the early days of the UEA creative writing course and maintains that "part of its success is creating this extraordinary and lively atmosphere.

Ian McEwan
Pioneer student: Ian McEwan went on to huge success

"It all ran on the momentum provided by [the course's founders] Sir Malcolm Bradbury and Sir Angus Wilson, who back then were doing quite a daring thing. Universities were deeply sceptical of creative writing courses that were very well-established in the States."

There has been a rich history of similar courses in the United States with the first one - the University of Iowa's Writers' Workshop - being founded in 1936. This particular programme attracted literary heavyweights from the start, including the poet Robert Frost.

But these courses have been the source of controversy over the years, with a debate centring on how far creative writing can be seen as a discipline in the same way as, for instance, literary theory.

Indeed, the late American writer Kay Boyle, who ran the creative writing programme at San Francisco State University for 16 years, once wrote in the New York Times that "all creative-writing programmes ought to be abolished by law".

The most important thing to learn is to write a book that people want to read
Christie Watson

But others take a far more upbeat view. Christie Watson is a recent graduate from the creative writing course at UEA and her first novel Tiny Sunbirds, Far Away has been shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award.

She says of her time at UEA: "I was certainly immersed in a culture of writing and I was surrounded by hard-working people like me who had some degree of natural talent, whatever that is.

"But what I did learn at UEA and what they did profess to teach me was my craft, and that's structure, tense, plot, dialogue, style. I learned to read as a writer and to edit my work as well as others' work. And I think, perhaps more importantly than that, I was surrounded by people who were as obsessed with writing as I was."

And the influence and guidance of experienced writers is also important. As Ian McEwan says of his mentors at UEA: "Most of my contact with Bradbury and Wilson was very informal.

"Bradbury was a high-powered don, rather inaccessible, utterly charming, and most of our meetings were either in a pub, very quickly, over half a bitter, or in the hall as he was running off somewhere else. And I'd hand him a piece or work and he'd say: 'Yes, this looks jolly good. When can I have the next one?' And that was about it."

Christie Watson
Christie Watson's debut novel has been nominated for a Costa award

That sentiment is echoed by Christie Watson, who says: "The best piece of advice I had while I was there came from one of my favourite teachers who was actually a Royal Literary Fund fellow at the time. And he told me the most important thing to learn is to write a book that people want to read. And I think that will stay with me always... so I was very conscious of writing a book that I myself wanted to read."

However, even after 25 years teaching at UEA, Sir Malcolm Bradbury was still not convinced that writing could be taught, or that "writers of small talent can be transformed, by the touch of a hand or the aid of a handbook, into significant authors".

But, as he wrote in his book Class Work, he believed that what could be created was "a significant climate around writing, in which talented and promising authors are taken through the problems, general and specific, universal and personal, of their form and ambitions, shown the options and the possibilities, challenged, edited, pressured, hastened, treated as members of a serious profession".

Forty years on, the UEA course is as successful as ever. It has just received The Queen's Anniversary Prize for Further and Higher Education, as well as launching its New Writing website.

Giles Foden feels that the role of the creative writer may be a significant one in the digital age. "There is," he says "a growing need to use narrative and metaphor and the other tools of creative writing to concentrate the flux of information."

In a sense the art of creative writing is about learning, either formally or otherwise, how to write by becoming a better reader.

As the late Angela Carter, whose own form of magical realism shone through in works like The Company of Wolves and Nights at the Circus and who also taught on the UEA course, once put it: "Reading a book is like re-writing it for yourself. You bring to a novel, anything you read, all your experience of the world. You bring your history and you read it in your own terms."

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