Dear Hanif Kureishi

I’ve read your comments in The Guardian in which you question whether creative writing can be taught. Perhaps you were having a bad day in the creative writing tutor’s office. It sounds as if you do not enjoy that aspect of your job.

Others quoted in the article, and in subsequent responses to the piece, have answered your question in ways with which I agree. These other writer-tutors are, like you, published authors of renown. It is refreshing to hear that they put such energy and passion into guiding the next generation of commercially successful writers. They see the worth in encouraging would be writers to find out what sort of writer they might be and, in some cases, whether they are writers at all.

To be a writer is one thing; to be a teacher of creative writing and one who enables others to write is another. Hanif, you’re clear that you would never do a creative writing course yourself. Fair enough;  you’re one of the lucky ones who doesn’t need to. Talent and early commercial success have bypassed that stage of your career for you. For others, it is different.

Take me. I embarked on a creative writing MA after a long career in marketing. I had always wanted to be a writer but, when I did an English degree in the 1980s, creative writing was not on the academic agenda. We studied literature as critics, not as potential writers. The craft of writing was barely considered. We learned how to analyse and deconstruct, but not how to create. My writing habit was driven underground. For many years I simply did not know how to coax it into the light.

When I chose my creative writing MA, that changed. I steered away from the ‘write your novel or poetry collection in a year’ type course, of which there are many. I chose one that offered a module in how to be a writer in the community; in other words, how to be a writer in residence with a host organization and how to facilitate writing by others. Other elements of the course offered plenty of opportunity for me to explore form and genre and to work out what sort of writer I might be, but the ‘writing in the community’ module equipped me to go out into the wide world with skills to teach and support others attempting to write. Quite simply, whether I was published or not (although I soon was), it made me employable.

It probably helped that I loved this part of the course. I found the practical assessment, in which we had to carry out a structured writing workshop with the examiners in the room, scarier than my driving test, but I realized that there was real joy to be had in enabling others to write. Hanif, I wonder if that’s your problem. I imagine you love the writing part of your job, but do you truly love the teaching part? Many successful writers who become tutors have never received training in how to do it. No wonder they struggle.

Not everyone who embarks on a creative writing course does it to win fame and fortune. People are more realistic than that. From evening classes to one-day workshops and full MAs, you will find diverse intentions among the participants. I always ask people what they hope to gain from the experience, because it helps me shape the course content. Over the years I have heard statements such as ‘to write better dialogue’, ‘to give myself time to write’, ‘to learn about structure’, and ‘to do something creative because my day job is eating my soul’. These are all valid reasons.

For some, doing a course means they feel able to call themselves ‘writer’. It gives them confidence and validity. For others a course enables them to feel the way a musician, artist or athlete feels when they do the thing they love and are good – or good enough – at it. It is not about finding a fast route to being published, or making a living from writing. If those things follow on from learning about the craft and technique of writing, that is the icing on the cake.

So, Hanif, relax. Enjoy your teaching and do not worry if only a few of your students achieve literary success. If they do not, that is no failure; not theirs and not yours. I am glad to read, at the end of The Guardian piece, that your students value your tutoring. You are clearly doing it well. It is an inexact science and we can only offer students the tools with which to improve their writing craft. How they choose to use them, and what sort of writing life they make for themselves afterwards, whatever their degree of talent, is up to them.

5 Comments on “Dear Hanif Kureishi”

  1. smithwriting

    Well written Jane. The gentleman in question was supposed to speak at Kingston University on Monday to answer student questions about his comments. Unfortunately, he was unable to attend. I guess his students will just have to keep wondering whether they are amongst the 99.9 or the 0.1%.

  2. Cate Reidy

    At the risk of being seen as controversial I have a different point than the ones mentioned above. But here goes…

    I was actually experienced a sense of relief when I read this article in The Guardian, as it highlighted how it is not always necessary to attend courses, most of which anyway, are well beyond my budget. I agree that the achievement of any Masters degree does bring an increase of confidence, but so does the blossoming of a personal style which has been self-taught.

    Also, I think it is true that many writers are introverted in nature and not speakers, and therefore, teaching is not their forte. In contrast, I do know of more extraverted writers who profoundly enjoy the experience of developing their talent in a group. It really works for them.

    But, there are others, like me, who prefer to be alone when when putting pen to paper or when approaching the computer keyboard. So I can turn inward to listen in silence to hear clearly, those voices from my own internal group of commentators, gathered and waiting to communicate their messages from the deeper regions of my soul.

    1. joinedupwriters

      Cate, I’m glad you’ve made that point. Writing is – necessarily – a solitary activity and not everyone needs the stimulus or support of a group writing experience. And you’re right to point out the economic barrier that stops many writers going the MA or taught course route. It’s good that you’ve found what works for you.

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