Education in the writing arts has not changed that much since the birth of the university, though the formalisation of this process within Higher Education has asked us increasingly to reflect on the nature of the subject of Creative Writing, and on how such a subject might be taught.
Likewise, the formalising of the relationship between creative writer and the academic literary critic did not come about until relatively recently in the history of the university. As Andrew Delbanco points out in The Decline and Fall of Literature(2), the scholar of Scottish and English ballads Francis James Child was appointed to the first chair of English literature at Harvard only in 1876; the English honours degree was not established in Oxford until 1894. These two things, occurring in tandem, have impacted directly on the construction of postgraduate Creative Writing programmes.
Today, a postgraduate degree in Creative Writing can be a variety of things. It can focus on any genre and be nominally a research degree (i.e. an individual project with supervision) or nominally taught (i.e. based on units of study or modules of assessment, some of which relate to critical or theoretical issues rather than involving creative practice’— though this split is not maintained in all programmes). Indeed, if nominally taught, modules of study might be based either on genre, critical or theoretical, cultural or literary, industrial or historical premises.
At their core, postgraduate degrees in Creative Writing, which can be anything from diplomas to doctorates, most often consist of a longer piece of Creative Writing with some response to it by the writer, indicating their critical awareness of their own
practice and/or the practice of others, not necessarily only the practice of writers. The response component of a postgraduate Creative Writing degree can come in a vast number of modes and with a variety of labels (e.g. critical essay, dissertation, reflective essay, analysis and so on).
The difference between one level of achievement and another in Creative Writing degrees is most often flagged up by reference to the length of the Creative Writing submission, with Diplomas and Masters level work not usually involving completed longer works (i.e. novels, collections of stories or poetry, full length screenplays and so on). There are variations, however, and there is a fundamental difference between the UK and USA experience.
In the USA, the Master of Fine Arts (MFA) degree is often considered the exit degree (i.e. endorsed as the final qualification in the subject) for a creative writer. Thus, although labelled as a Masters course, these programmes can involve work of some length. This brings about debate, particularly as PhD programmes in Creative Writing do exist in the USA and have done so now for some time. In light of the wide endorsement of the MFA qualification as an exit route, some have asked: Given the strength and exit profile of MFA courses what is the additional purpose of PhD's in Creative Writing? Suffice it to say, the PhD stands alone as the highest qualification in the subject of Creative Writing attainable in the UK, and is certainly available as an exit degree in the USA.
A typical example of what would be required for a research based Creative Writing doctorate in the UK would be: a) the writing of a novel, a collection of short stories or a collection of poetry with b) a critical response of between 20,000 and 50,000 words. For an MA: a) a piece of Creative Writing of between 15,000 and 20,000 words with b) a selection of essays or‘ responses’ or a ‘critical piece’ totalling 15,000 to 20,000 words.
These postgraduate submissions can be contrasted with work in an undergraduate module in Creative Writing, perhaps single genre or perhaps thematically, market-orientation or critical-definition based, where the student would either be expected to a) produce a portfolio of work containing pieces of Creative Writing or b) produce an individual creative work accompanied by a discursive piece or c) produce either of these, but also accompany this with earlier draft work or a diary or record of the writing process.
Thus, length of work submitted can only be taken as a guideline and many Creative Writing programmes make the point that there is a need for flexibility in order to cater for a wide variety of possible Creative Writing forms. Similarly, the creative-critical response‘ cross-over’ in Creative Writing programmes reflects the requirement that a creative writer be aware of their practice, the process of writing, and the practice and processes of writers, the industry or critics of finished Creative Writing. This does not negate creative practice as the core of these programmes, but it does reflect the opportunity Creative Writing learning on campus offers for the development of a writer’s craft and of a personal understanding of that craft.
The variety of methods of relating the creative component in a Creative Writing course to the critical response by the writer makes plain that, while the critical response can certainly be much like the critical work of a student undertaking a degree in English, it serves a different purpose, and should not be considered in exactly the same way as critical analysis in the study of English. For one thing, it can often be quite different in pitch, tone and focus, being generated by the student’s own Creative Writing and relating back to it.
Whereas at undergraduate level the workshop is the primary mode of delivery of Creative Writing teaching, at postgraduate level there is a relatively even split between one-to-one supervision of Creative Writing students by staff writers and workshopping within a larger Creative Writing course group. In addition, Creative Writing students, across the whole range of degree levels, are often involved in peer generated readings and/or workshops, in reading events involving visiting writers, in meetings with literary agents or other industry people, or in discussions with critics working on contemporary literature, film or theatre. These activities, more or less informal, can be seen as integral parts of the learning process in Creative Writing programmes.
The position of the campus as a place where creative writers can meet those interested in the writing arts actively continues to feed Creative Writing learning, as it has done since the birth of the university. The formalisation of Creative Writing on campus into degree programmes has not adversely affected this positive, informal, activity. What formal degree structures now exist endeavour to maintain a sense of the campus as creative space, drawing on the opportunities for reflection on individual writing practice, providing workshop or one-to-one discussion, and adding to this the opportunity to write, both in direct relation to the market for creative writing of all kinds, and in relation to the pursuit of great writing in and for itself.
(This article is reproduced from Creative Writing: A Good Practice Guide by Dr Siobhán Holland with contributions from Dr Maggie Butt, Dr Graeme Harper and Ms. Michelene Wandor, English Subject Centre Report Series No. 6, February 2003. The Guide is available on the English Subject Centre's website and paper copies have been distributed to all English Departments in the UK).
Andrew Delbanco, ‘The Decline and Fall of Literature’,
New York Review of Books, November 4th, 1999. The article is available
online at http://www.nybooks.com/articles/318. For responses to this article, see http://www.nybooks.com/articles/143.