Creative Writing Professor Calls Creative Writing Degree “A Waste Of Time”

A professor who teaches Creative Writing at a university in Kingston had some decidedly harsh words for his field of study:

Creative writing courses are a “waste of time”, according to the novelist – and creative writing teacher – Hanif Kureishi, who says that “a lot of my students just can’t tell a story”. . . They can write sentences but they don’t know how to make a story go from there all the way through to the end without people dying of boredom in between. It’s a difficult thing to do and it’s a great skill to have. Can you teach that? I don’t think you can,” said Kureishi.

Ouch.

But is he wrong?

I graduated from the University of Arizona in 2010 with a Bachelor’s Degree in Creative Writing. I feel that this gives me some perspective on Kureishi’s criticism, even if novelist Lucy Ellman agrees with Kureishi and claims that she “can’t stand it when authors announce they have a degree in creative writing. So what? They’re a dime a dozen.” I guess she’s talk about people like me. Again, ouch.

I don’t think a Creative Writing degree is going to make you into a writer any more than getting a Music degree will turn you into a world-class musician.  Most of the students who enter such programs will likely stop writing once they finish. Few who graduate with such a degree will go on to publish.

Even when I was in the program, I could tell that many of my peers weren’t going to be writers and that there was nothing the professor could do to make them into such. I would even go as far to say that some of my classes were relatively worthless to me as well.

However.

I had the same professor for my final two classes. I won’t post his name out of respect for privacy, but he’d published a few books before teaching those classes and last I heard, he’d gone on sabbatical to write another book. His comment on the first day of his class stuck with me to this day: “if you need to get an A in this class to keep your scholarship or keep your GPA up, register for another class.”

It was a terrifying and sobering warning.

His were the best two classes I ever had. It took me five years to get my degree and all of that time was worth it just for those two classes.

That sort of speaks to Kureishi’s point in that an entire Creative Writing program isn’t worth it. His advice is to find one really good teacher. And he’s right, that would be better. I think of how much time and money I could have saved if I’d been able to pair up right with my one professor from the very beginning.

Sadly, that’s not something that most of us can do. You don’t know who’s going to be “that one professor” for your work and often you don’t realize it until your time with that individual is over.

So while I agree with Kureishi’s point that most of the people who enroll in Creative Writing can’t tell stories and I agree that having a mentor would be better than a program, I look at my own choices and I see the chain that led me to a teacher who helped me write the best work of my life.

I’m hesitant to ever make judgments about my fellow writers because such things reek of ego-massaging. Author Matt Haig said something similar in the same article”

“To say, as Hanif Kureishi did, that 99.9% of students are talentless is cruel and wrong. I believe that certain writers like to believe they arrived into the world with special, unteachable powers because it is good for the ego,” said Haig.

More has been said about the relationship between talent and hard work than I could ever hope to summarize in a single blog post. I try not to believe in some mysterious, super-special writing powers to describe why I do what I do. I like to imagine that what I’ve managed to do so far comes more from the fact that I read a lot and I write a lot and over time I’ve managed to learn a few things along the way.

The Creative Writing degree may not be valuable for everyone who earns it. It might be a waste of time and money for 99.9% of the people , exactly as Kureishi says. If I had the choice to start over, I’d still study it. I don’t know if I’m worthy enough to be considered in Kureishi’s elite 0.1% of students according to his estimation, but I certainly feel that way about myself.

On a side note, I also can’t imagine how emotionally cutting it would be to have be one of Kureishi’s students and read this article. It certainly can’t feel very good to know that your professor basically told the world that you suck.

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3 thoughts on “Creative Writing Professor Calls Creative Writing Degree “A Waste Of Time””

  1. I like to draw a distinction between knowledge and skills. And while knowledge can be learned and memorized, skills must be practiced. In my mind, writing is a skill, and standard schoolroom educational practices are woefully unsuited to truly honing skills.

    Knowledge is fairly straightforward. If you remember a piece of knowledge and can recall it at the appropriate times, then you’ve got it down. It’s very easy to teach knowledge in a classroom setting, because you simply tell the students the information you want them to know, have them demonstrate that they’ve memorized and can recall it, and that’s all there is to it. History is a perfect example of knowledge, because if you can remember the who, what, when and why, then you’ve got a working knowledge of history.

    Skills are much more enigmatic. Skills require practice. Anyone can learn the phases of a hero’s journey, but without practice their story will still be crap. There’s still knowledge attached to a skill, but to advance in the skill, you have to put that knowledge into use.

    Classroom settings aren’t really good for building skills. Obviously, you can’t lecture someone into being a good writer; they have to build those skills alone. Homework has the potential to help with this, but thoughtfully grading the amount of homework needed to build a skill is often too much to ask. More importantly, since every student is at a different level and requires practice in different areas, much of the homework load will just result in wasted energy on the student’s part. Practice is not a “one size fits all” sort of thing.

    That’s not to say you can’t learn something from a class. Classes are great for getting people started on a skill, since you need to have the basic knowledge to even get off the ground. Seminars are great for kickstarting practice and illuminating sub-skills that might go neglected. And the practice given by homework is better than no practice at all.

    Still, for skills it’s much better to have coaching. I find it interesting that you bring up music degrees, because I think music colleges are the only ones that really understand the importance of coaching. Every music student is required to take private lessons, which is essentially coaching. You are given practice drills that reflect the areas you need to work on, and you are given direct feedback to integrate into your own understanding of your budding abilities. Wouldn’t creative writing degrees be better if you had a dedicated editor who asked to see some work from you every single week, and offered both critiques and ideas for additional writing practice to expand your abilities? What if you changed editors once a year to get new perspectives on your own writing? I can’t help but imagine the students who came out of that program would be vastly superior to their peers who didn’t have that.

    As to Kurieshi, I feel like this sort of statement is part and parcel to something being a skill rather than knowledge. You see people complain that engineers may pass their classes, but they can’t actually solve problems. You see people complain that programmers “know” a lot of languages, but can’t actually piece together working bug-free code. Writing is no different.

    1. I agree with the distinction between knowledge and skills and that conventional classes don’t really lend themselves well to teaching skills. Your suggested model for how a creative writing program should work is also a very good one; I think it would be much more beneficial to the students and I wish I could have gone through a program like that.

      The problem with Kureishi, though, is that he isn’t claiming that the current model is flawed and needs to be fixed. He’s essentially saying that the very idea of Creative Writing is a huge waste of time and that nobody except for a tiny minority should even bother to do it. The authors who agree with her are likewise dismissive of the idea of Creative Writing.

      There’s simply a very big gulf between “the current model needs to be altered” and “the current model is inherently worthless.” If Kureishi meant the former, he should have framed his argument more carefully. I don’t think he meant the former though; I think that he is approaching writing with the sort of attitude that too many creatives have. “You can’t teach talent.” Well, no, you can’t. That’s true. But talent isn’t the only thing required for success. Hard work, dedication, practice, the building of skill, the development of craft . . . these are all pieces upon which one’s identity as a writer is created. I simply can’t agree that writing is a mystical, supernatural power bestowed by divine muses and that if you lack that mystical spark, you simply can’t be a writer.

      Of course, my own professor would have considered one of Kureishi’s statement in the article nothing short of heresy. Kureishi was quoted as saying about his students: “They worry about the writing and the prose and you think: ‘Fuck the prose, no one’s going to read your book for the writing, all they want to do is find out what happens in the story next.”

      I completely disagree with this perspective on enough levels that I could write an entire post just based on this one point.

      1. As a culture, we happily mythologize artists and build an impossible narrative around the creation of art. Art is created in a burst of creative insight by a genius with immeasurable natural talent, or so the story goes. Prodigies are pointed to as examples of this truth. What’s usually left out are the years of deliberate practice that it takes to become a “genius,” largely because those years are invisible to the public.

        Mozart wrote his first symphony at the age of 8, but by that time had already invested a lifetime’s worth of practice into music at the behest of his father. And while J.K. Rowling was a relative amateur when she conceived of Harry Potter, she made such a marked improvement in writing over the course of the series that one can hardly claim she came into the art an immutable virtuoso. George R.R. Martin was a writer for pretty much his entire life.

        I think a lot of artists really buy into the romanticized view of creation. It elevates them beyond the level of mere mortal to something special, something of a prophet. The fact is, though, that great artists become great because they consume and create constantly. Great musicians always have prolific music tastes, great writers are obsessive readers, great game designers are tremendous gamers. All art is like a song…First, we listen to a verse. Then, we hum along to the tune. Soon enough, we’re singing.

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