On learning

23 Feb

Okay, so I’m just going to write one more thing about the process of learning to write – and thank you for your interest in the plotting post which took me by surprise, and I’m sorry if this makes you roll your eyes and go, ‘Oh my God, that woman is taking narcissism to whole new heights’, I’m just sorting a few things out in my mind and then I’ll go back to the washing (sheets, several of – youngest boy who has never, not once that I remember, ever wet the bed before, did it twice last night, though admittedly, the first time was when they’d just got into bed and instead of going straight to sleep like they were asked to do, they were messing around as they are wont to do, and eldest boy made youngest boy laugh so much he wet himself). Though as you will see, I didn’t actually sort much out.

I want to write a quick something about creative writing courses and in particular creative writing courses at university and in particular about the question, ‘Can creative writing be taught’.

I myself have desperately wanted to enrol in such a course, but have not been able to justify the fees, especially because when I have enquired, scholarships are not available for part time study and full time study has been impossible for me over the last few years. I have whinged about this quite a lot, and it has not been uncommon for people to say to me, ‘But you can’t teach creative writing’.

Of course this is ridiculous. No teacher could provide you with the spark (of talent, desire, natural tendencies or whatever it is) whether your field be maths, music, history or dance, but a teacher of anything can provide you with an objective eye and guidance based on knowledge and experience. And until I wrote this post, I thought I would be writing about why my experiences provide a perfect example of what is to be gained from enrolling in an MA or PhD programme. That is what I intended to write about.

Why would my experiences provide a perfect example? Because while many people did point me in the way of learning to plot, none of them (until I reached the agent and editor stage) had the job of providing guidance in a sustained, long-term way. As I said in my plotting post, I came across a good number (three or four) of excellent people who provided excellent advice in one form or another, but none of them were in the context of repetitive rigour. None of them had the job of waving their arms in the air and saying, No, no, you’re not listening, go back and try it again.

It is true that enrolling in university does not guarantee rigorous guidance. Much hinges not only on the assigned teacher, but on the relationship between the teacher and the student. I did write a 40,000 word thesis for my MA (in development studies, not creative writing), so I understand the complexities of this relationship. While I had one completely uninterested supervisor, the other was generous with both intellect and time and taught me a lot. And then, of course, if the relationship is going to work, the student has a responsibility to be receptive and flexible and willing to experiment with new methods and to not lead their teacher to too often say, No, no, you’re not listening.

But if all these things are in place – interested teacher, interested student, respectful relationship (stop laughing, PC) – then I reckon a creative writing course would be invaluable. Because yes, plotting can be taught and I imagine so can a lot of other things.

Now, I have always know that I idealise both the teacher-student relationship and learning, but a bit of idealising has never bothered me. Both my parents were passionate teachers and my mother was also a passionate learner (not that they would teach me anything – the cobbler’s children have no shoes – and not that I would let them teach me anything – kids these days).

But in writing this post, I have begun to think that maybe my idealism has left me educationally dysfunctional. I hardly dare to do anything if I haven’t first studied it. Under someone else’s guidance. I have a BA, two Grad Dips, an MA, and half a Grad Cert (over half of this pre-Dawkins and the other half in New Zealand when it was still reasonably cheap). This could be an eldest child thing. I don’t push boundaries and I do what I’m told.

And here is the point where I started to think that I’ve written myself into a total pickle because until I wrote that sentence about my ‘qualifications’ (which I had not known I was going to write and have written and deleted three times now), I fully intended to conclude with a sentence along the lines of, ‘And that’s why creative writing courses are ace’.

I still think they’re ace, but maybe it’s been good for me to work outside a formal study environment. Maybe I’ve learnt more about learning than I might otherwise have done.

So, the best moral I can come up with is: eat your beans.


26 Responses to “On learning”

  1. meli February 23, 2009 at 11:53 am #

    thanks very much for sharing this – and your plotting post too. sounds like you did a brilliant job of sorting it out for yourself in the end, and maybe it’s best actually to take your own time with things…

    i was always adamant that i wanted a literature phd rather than a creative writing one, because i would figure out the creative writing by myself, thank you very much.

    but then when i was struggling getting together my phd upgrade submission (15,000 chapter and four page thesis plan, which they look at nine months in and decide whether you can upgrade to full phd student status or not), i was at the same time finishing (well, finishing a draft of) a novel that i had been working on for years. my supervisors kept telling me that my upgrade chapter wasn’t working. i’d go away and work on it, and then they’d tell me the same thing. and i’d look at this big fat novel and think – but look! i can do it! and i wished i was enrolled in a creative writing phd because not only would i be nearly finished, but someone would help me with actually plotting the damn thing. (i think my novel may have similar flaws to your early versions.)

    anyway, the upgrade went fine and the novel is still sitting in a drawer. (soon to be attacked once again!)

    and yes the phd has been a huge learning curve and i’ve had brilliant supervisors.

    ah, i don’t have any moral either. but i love beans.

    • ThirdCat February 23, 2009 at 6:09 pm #

      “at the same time finishing (well, finishing a draft of)”…I know *exactly* what you mean

  2. innercitygarden February 23, 2009 at 2:34 pm #

    Beans are excellent.

    I’ve done more than a decade of tertiary study (mostly part time) and I’m a bit ambivilent about it, but it’s taking six kinds of self control not to enrol in something else.

    • ThirdCat February 23, 2009 at 4:38 pm #

      I know! Even today, I have been scouring the interwebs for late entry options for long-distance study. It’s only the thought of the mister’s eyes rolling back in his head that is stopping me actually emailing course coordinators to see what can be done. I almost feel like it *is* a disorder of some sort (not in your case, I hasten to add, because I would never cast such nasturtiums on someone until I knew them better – but in my case)

  3. kazari February 23, 2009 at 3:51 pm #

    This post was really topical for me! I start a creative writing course, at university, tomorrow. My previous training was all science, so we’ll see how this goes.
    I’m fairly sure I don’t have the discipline or building blocks to tackle a big writing project on my own. But on the other hand, I’m also an eldest child that’s always stuck to the stuff I’ve been taught…

    • ThirdCat February 23, 2009 at 4:39 pm #

      have fun, kazari – I’m envious

  4. Cellobella February 23, 2009 at 4:23 pm #

    Now that was a good post. I related to it because I am also an eldest child and wish there was a course for every difficulty I encounter.

    Not that keen on beans though.

    • ThirdCat February 23, 2009 at 4:40 pm #

      where there’s not a course, there’s a book…there’s a book for every problem

  5. elsewhere February 23, 2009 at 5:00 pm #

    One of the reasons why I decided to do a CW course based in the States was that I thought I would be subjected to rigorous, systematic teaching, rather than paying roughly the same amount of money for the vagaries and idiosyncrasies of whoever might be assigned me in an Aust CW course, plus some romantic shlock about writing which I could read any old day in a Carmel Bird book (not to mention standing up in a bookshop). That might sound cutting, but my gamble has paid off. Not only are the Americans rigorous and systematic in their teaching but they’re also polite and courteous. I think there’s case for CW teaching to be better regulated in Australia, but I’m wary of where that approach might go as well.

    ‘Repetitive rigor’ — it’s all happening in the world of scriptwriting. Not surprising that you got your plotting stuff from there.

    Know what you mean about the studious mentality but obv that’s problematic too (everything is!)

  6. elsewhere February 23, 2009 at 5:04 pm #

    Also — as someone who has taught CW in an Austn tertiary institution (ha!), it is possible to teach people how to write. I was totally surprised by this phenomenon: I thought natural talent played a far greater role. But, in fact, even the most uninspiring and annoying people can produce something good, if they’re suitably diligent and taught some writing basics.

    • ThirdCat February 24, 2009 at 7:46 am #

      you are so funny, elsewhere…being annoying doesn’t preclude anyone from success in any field…but I’m sure you’ve noticed that.

      Is the Iowa Writers’ Workshop still excellent? I’ve always dreamed of it, though I’m always out of date.

  7. Penni February 24, 2009 at 2:50 am #

    I have taught creative writing at uni and will be doing so again this year, I have done a Masters in CW at uni (when I was already published, I did it more to get back into academia than for the writing component) and I’ve done a diploma of prof writing and editing at TAFE (RMIT). Far and away the tafe course was the best. It was practical and hands on, it was all about technique and amassing a body of work but also exploring ways of getting work in the industry. For me it led to structural editing work in the industry which was far and away the best apprenticeship I could have had in plotting. People I studied with at Tafe have been published, work as editors, have created successful literary journals, and generally pop up all over the place at industry functions.

    I have never encountered anyone teaching plotting during my time at university (I am about to teach a Novels class and I’ll be very interested to see what its focus is and how it’s structured. I WILL be teaching plotting). Adult fiction here has been plagued with plotlessness (too many genre busting ‘geniuses’), and the university I study at is very Adult Fiction focused. I think you’ve taught yourself more about plotting than you would learn at university. Elsewhere’s comments about American PhDs make me feel sad, it’s hard to up a whole family to the US for a PhD, but at the same time I think any course is what you make of it and that you could have an amazing experience at an Australian university despite my cynicism. I just don’t think you NEED a PhD from any country to develop as a writer. I think PhDs are for something else.

    Every time I write a novel I know a bit more about writing them than I did the last time. At the same time, every time it’s a whole new invention. Making a coffee pot will teach you something about making a bicycle but not everything, and all novels have equally different demands – just as all writers have their own unique set of tools. It sounds like you are equipping yourself with an excellent set of tools all by your lone. No teacher could offer you more.

    Sorry, this is long and blah blah blah.

    • ThirdCat February 24, 2009 at 7:43 am #

      I didn’t think it was blah blah blah at all – I thought it was really interesting – I especially liked this bit:

      “I just don’t think you NEED a PhD from any country to develop as a writer. I think PhDs are for something else.” It made me feel a bit better about still wanting to do one, because you’re right. PhDs are for a lot of things.

  8. Penni February 24, 2009 at 11:05 am #

    I still want to too. I want to be in Possession and discover long lost letters and travel around the world solving literary mysteries and wearing fantastic tailored coats.

  9. Helen February 24, 2009 at 11:35 am #

    It’s surfaced!!

  10. Pen February 24, 2009 at 12:55 pm #

    Person here with a creative writing degree and no book. Just saying.

  11. suse February 24, 2009 at 2:20 pm #

    I’m not qualified to comment here, being nearly 45 and two thirds of the way through my second BA with no MA or PhD ever in sight, but I wanted to congratulate you on your mastery of the comment thread feature this time.

    Excellent work.

    ps. green or baked?

    • ThirdCat February 24, 2009 at 5:11 pm #

      which reminds me that when I was living in New Zealand, I was also enrolled in a science degree (distance through Massey) and in the second year, they got in touch and said had I thought about enrolling in an arts degree since soil science was the only science subject I had taken – the others being French and something I can’t remember.

      WTF was that about? No wonder I’d completely forgotten about it. Soil science! Though I did enjoy collecting samples of lupins and so forth.

      Can you tell I’m loving this comment threading function?

  12. Cristy February 25, 2009 at 6:09 am #

    I am the youngest child and yet I have this disorder that you speak of. I am almost finished my PhD after 11 years at university – which has included: a BA, an LLB, a Grad Dip, and a Masters (also in Development – where was yours?).

    Even now I browse courses on the net…

    I really need to get a life outside of study.

    Fortunately I really do like beans – of all description.

  13. Mikhela February 26, 2009 at 4:44 am #

    Broad beans are the best – and seem impossible to get in Brisbane.
    Eldest child.
    Many many courses.
    Still don’t feel prepared.

  14. Alby Mangroves February 26, 2009 at 8:52 am #

    I’m used to your short-sweet-and-funny posts, and the recent ones have taken me by surprise. Just because I didn’t expect them. Long-and-complex they are. How interesting.

  15. ampersand duck February 26, 2009 at 3:11 pm #

    For ages, my boss has been nagging at me to do a PhD to ‘formalise’ my relationship with the (art) space I work in, but after two undergraduate degrees and a lower postgraduate degree I’m a bit over studying and would like to just spend time BEING and MAKING. Besides, there are NO jobs in my workplace anyway, so I’d just end up being still in that particular working space on a crap wage with a fancier bit of paper on the wall and a funny-looking hat. Meh. I’ve decided I’m into the pudding part of life, not the learning how to look at a pudding.

  16. Penni February 28, 2009 at 12:45 pm #


    Imagine doing an MFA at the Eric Carle museum. Yearn.

  17. kim at allconsuming March 1, 2009 at 1:11 pm #

    started my MA (Professional Writing) in creative writing.

    Then had two more children.

    Have done two subjects – the first was awesome, the second not so much. Do I want to go back? Oh Lordy yes. Do I have the $1800 per semester? Oh Lordy no.

  18. Mike March 1, 2009 at 4:36 pm #

    Just passing by.Btw, your website have great content!

    Making Money $150 An Hour

  19. Ariel March 2, 2009 at 4:20 pm #

    I’m thinking hard about doing a creative writing course now (the RMIT TAFE course that Penni did, which I only hear good things about).

    Sounds like you can teach yourself about technique, as you did, but it’s obviously taken staggering discipline and determination. I’m thinking a course might get me (in addition to the obvious tips about technique, etc.) a kick up the backside in terms of motivation, to get me going; and a workshop group.

    I’m really liking this series of thoughtful threads on the business of writing. More, please! (You know, if you feel like it.)

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