How a creative writing course inspired me

Published by Emma Lee-Potter in on Thursday 7th January 2016

TypewriterUniversity creative writing courses are getting it in the neck again – this time from novelist DJ Taylor.

In an interview with John Humphrys on Radio Four’s Today programme this morning he declared that universities have become “employment bureaus for novelists.”

In a spirited defence, Andrew Cowan, director of creative writing at the University of East Anglia, pointed to the success of a host of distinguished authors, from Kazuo Ishiguro and Ian McEwan in the early days to recent alumni like Christie Watson and Emma Healey, who have each won the Costa First Novel of the Year award.

Over the years lots of people have derided the notion that creative writing can be taught. I’m not one of them. I was one of the first intake of students on Manchester University’s MA in novel writing in the 1990s and the course inspired me from start to finish. Launched by novelist and academic Richard Francis and Michael Schmidt, the founder and editorial director of Carcanet Press, it gave me the time, space and confidence to write my first novel. It also encouraged me to study writers I would never have come across in a million years otherwise – Ismail Kadare and José Saramago for starters.

Richard Francis has always been a firm advocate of creative writing courses and was professor of creative writing at Bath Spa University till 2009. “You may not be able to teach people to write,” he once said, “but you can take people who are capable of writing and provide them with the space and structure within which they have to write.”

It was certainly true of my lot. We were a very eclectic group, some producing literary fiction, a couple dreaming up hard-bitten thrillers, one working on a comic novel about a game-show hostess and one (me!) writing about a Fleet Street reporter. Each week we read and commented on each other’s work, making suggestions and encouraging our fellow writers along the way.

The upshot was that out of that 12-strong group, at least five became published writers. The most successful are the highly acclaimed Sophie Hannah, who has written a string of bestselling psychological thrillers, TV scriptwriter Sam Bain, who with Jesse Armstrong (he did the course a year later) wrote Channel 4’s Peep Show and Fresh Meat, and Anna Davis, who is now director  of Curtis Brown Creative, the first literary agency to run its own creative writing courses.

This blog is an update from an earlier post and as I said then: If you’re an aspiring author who’s thinking of doing a creative writing course my ignore the cynics and get that application form off.

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