written by Gregory Leadbetter
Given the striking rise in the number of university courses in creative writing over the last ten years, it was probably only a matter of time. Students just starting out on Masters programmes in creative writing have begun to ask: ‘how do I become a creative writing lecturer?’
The question was put to me by one of my own MA students recently – someone whom, in fact, I can indeed imagine becoming a lecturer in creative writing one day, should he wish to. But at the same time, alarm bells rang – and what I said to him in reply forms the basis of what I have to say here.
I have written elsewhere on the moot role of writers in the academy. Quite properly, it’s the focus of lively debate: these things matter and, at the moment, everything is in a molten state. Leaving aside the contentious word ‘creative’ for a moment, my own view is that the presence of writers, and the study of the craft of writing in universities is – potentially – enormously beneficial, for all concerned. Needless to say, there are a lot of variables involved (not least the commitment of the student), but if the focus is on reading well as much as writing well; on writing as a way of knowing the world through language; on thinking with the imagination as much as the analytical intellect; on the inherent value of fine writing as much as finding an audience; on cultivating subjectivity itself as much as exploring principles of taste; then creative writing has just as much a claim on our respect as any of the other humanities – not to mention its cousins in music, fine art, dance, and drama.
So what might be wrong with doing an undergraduate degree in Creative Writing, followed straight after by an MA in Creative Writing, and then straight after that a PhD in Creative Writing, all with a view to becoming a creative writing lecturer – just as those choosing an academic career might do in more established university subjects, like English Literature?
The first is that when studying creative writing, the student’s mind should be focussed entirely on the writing as an end in itself – not as a stepping stone to something else other than the writing. This is fundamental. Students should be encouraged to use the precious freedom that comes with doing a BA, MA or PhD to make themselves stronger writers. That, after all, is what it is all about – and will define all that follows for the individual concerned.
The second point relates to one of the key things that writers bring to universities: namely, that by the time they join the academy, they have had an independent existence, as writers, outside the university system – and of course, that they continue to live that life, in concert with their university role. To lose that heterodoxical energy would be to lose the transformative, radical life writers (again, potentially) kindle within universities.
To put it another way: the university job should follow upon being a writer – the writing should not follow upon being a creative writing lecturer. Psychologically, it’s a crucial difference. A writer earns the right to be regarded as such through his or her own endeavours, as a writer and thinker – not by having a certain job.
It may be that anyone, no matter what subject, who plans to go straight through the university system should, ideally, do something else before taking up a role as a university lecturer – but given its crucial dependence on individuality, on the person of the writer, the dangers of careerism are more acute in creative writing. It may be that people can establish a writing career while doing a BA/MA/PhD in Creative Writing just as well as doing anything else. Maybe. But that isn’t the point.
Let me offer an analogy from contemporary politics. It is alarmingly frequent now for British Members of Parliament never to have worked outside politics: instead, they’ve worked as party officials, lobbyists, speech-writers, ‘thinktank’ researchers, and so on. Instead of representing the nation – the actual energies and activities of the people – becoming an MP has, for many, become just another career choice. Such so-called ‘professionalization’ increases the risk of a self-enclosed discourse – think of all those meaningless and evasive phrases with which we are constantly bombarded – and diminishes the possibility of authenticity. Creative writing in universities must be on its guard against any tendency towards a similarly self-enclosed, self-cloning production-line, cut off from vital sources of experience beyond the institutional apparatus.
A writer best serves their future, as a writer, by focussing on their writing. That in itself is as rich a vocation as one could wish for: to explore our plural, infinitely complex reality through the tactile intelligence of language. The possibilities are manifold – though it is, quite properly, a demanding way of life. I encourage my writing students to cultivate themselves as independent cultural agents in the world – to create the order to which they wish to belong.
Writers make themselves valuable to their fellow human beings by what they do – and if things go well, it is through that success that opportunities come.
A writer might even choose to reflect upon and articulate their ongoing experience – and teach creative writing.
Gregory Leadbetter is Director of the Institute of Creative and Critical Writing, and of the MA in Writing, at Birmingham City University. A pamphlet of his poems, The Body in the Well, was published by HappenStance in 2007. He was a scriptwriter for the BBC radio drama Silver Street (2005-07). His book of literary criticism, Coleridge and the Daemonic Imagination (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011) won the CCUE Book Prize 2012. He has been awarded a Hawthornden Fellowship for 2013. His website/blog can be found here.