Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Why do a Creative Writing PhD?

A tutor can guide you across the creative writing rocks...
Ten years ago I would probably have mocked the very notion of a creative writing PhD. How could a few years of dashing out self-indulgent prose compare with the rigour and slog of ‘proper’ doctoral research? My poo-pooing might even then have been sharpened by a certain amount of jealousy. When I was doing my MA in philosophy and looking at continuing into postgraduate research, I was desperate to embrace creative writing as more than a secretive hobby. I was just too scared. How would I know if I was terrible or not without the kind of critical feedback that I received on my academic output?

Ten years ago there were very few creative writing PhDs around. It says a lot about the change in attitudes to writing that you can now find these courses springing up all over the UK, complimenting the ubiquitous creative writing MA courses. Debate rages in the press, and in the mouthsof those leading such programmes: can good writing really be taught? Surely you’ve got it or you haven’t; Raymond Carver didn’t need a seminar on narrative technique, Angela Carter just did it, and so on.

I still agree that there’s a degree of ‘you’ve got it or you haven’t.’ For every brilliant writer there are thousands that are mediocre or worse. But over the last few years I have witnessed genuine improvement in my own work and that of fellow writers that has without question been facilitated – or at least greatly accelerated – by attending writers’ groups and tutored courses. These kinds of activities provide pressure, expertise, critical feedback, and exposure to other writers and writing. Above all, they teach you to critique your own work by analysing that of others. The effect of having to read work aloud never wears off either; with an audience you can suddenly spot flaws and possibilities that you will never find alone.

So I do believe that creative writing improves with intervention and interaction. Back to the question though; why a PhD? My own reasons for starting one now are quite simple. Firstly, I have learnt that my work would benefit hugely at this stage from sustained attention from an expert writer – the kind I can only get from a long-term supervisor or mentor. I will never quit my writers’ group, but I need a new eye, and one that is motivated by more than writerly generosity! Secondly, I’ve learned how important it is to be surrounded by other writers, however new/established, good/bad, in order to keep the faith, and this is a way of extending my writing community.

Thirdly, I don’t just believe in creative writing teaching, I want to do it. Through my postgraduate Philosophy years, I taught many undergraduate seminars, and I loved it. Teaching and learning are things I value extremely highly, and while I never wanted to be a Philosophy academic, for lots of reasons, I do want to help other people learn. Creative writing feels like the natural arena in which to do this; I care deeply about the writing itself, but combining this with helping other writers to progress is pretty much my ideal job. There are obvious benefits to me as a writer, too; as all teachers will testify, they learn as much from their pupils as their pupils do from them.

So, I’m extremely excited to be starting on the slow (and rocky) path through a creative writing PhD, and will be posting on my progress here. What will it be like to study again, as well as working full time? Will my writing get a battering, and how will I cope with the analytical side? All will be revealed.