Last Saturday I was in Birmingham at the excellent Writers’ Toolkit annual event devised by Writing West Midlands. I chaired a session on Teaching Creative Writing with three writers who have a lot of experience between them of doing just that: Helen Cross, Richard House and Greg Leadbetter.
Greg Leadbetter kicked off by talking about his motivation to teach in the academy. Greg is a poet, critic and scriptwriter. He is the Director of the MA in Creative Writing at Birmingham City University. Besides the need to earn an income Greg valued the support of being part of an intellectual community, although he acknowledged the tension that exists between the creative and the critical departments in the university. Often he observed there was a perceived lack of intellectual rigour in the creative writing side of things. Greg emphasised that for a write teaching in higher education it was important not to neglect their own practice. It’s critical to keep on writing was his message.
Helen Cross is a novelist, screenwriter. She is currently working on her fourth novel. Helen is an Arvon tutor. She said that over the years she had worked out that in order to buy time to write she had to sell her time, but she had decided not to teach in an academic institution. She noted that when she first began writing seriously in 1996 there were three university courses, now there was barely an institution who didn’t offer it. The speed of the rise of creative writing was, she felt, like ‘a meteorite hitting the earth’. However she said that the publishing industry and the creative writing industry were very separate worlds. Helen described the creative writing world as ’like a lapdog jumping up at the legs of the stern publishing industry.’ Her agent had warned her that the publishing world would not look more favourably on her if she became a teacher of creative writing. Helen felt that the old-fashioned publishing world still focused on ‘the writer as genius’ phenomenon. She strongly recommends to her students that they do not self-publish as if they do, she feels, they risk losing all credibility with the publishing world.
Richard House, a a writer, film-maker and artist who teaches Creative Writing at Birmingham University, prefers the structure of teaching full-time to the precarious balance of temporary teaching work outside, which he described as ‘abusive for the writer’. He felt it was helpful to recognise who you are teaching and why they are doing it. He felt there were three main motivations of students. First ,those who were there because they had an idea and wanted to try it out; second, the ones who are really ambitious and who want to make contacts, and finally, the students who were learning transferable skills and for whom Richard felt he was providing useful tools. He said he was aware that some of those students had gone on to work in PR or publishing; had become charity workers, event organisers, Parliamentary advisers or lobbyists.
There were many writers in the audience who taught in community settings and they raised issues in the Q&A that gave a different perspective to the discussion. There was an agreement amongst everyone, however, that as Helen put it, ‘it was part of being a human being to have an imagination, and that the question for all teachers of creative writing was how to find ways to access it.’