I’m willing to bet that if you are reading this post, you are beginning to think about choosing a degree. And that you didn’t know you could actually take a degree in creative writing. I didn’t. The degree choices I was seriously considering were dietetics (and I still hope to pursue this at some point), and straight English Literature. History was also in there for a while when I was much younger, as I have a fascination with oriental and ancient history. However, as my sixth form didn’t run a history A-Level, and I hated my teacher too much to take the GCSE, this was discounted pretty early on.
I have always written. Since the age of about seven, when during “quiet reading time”, I would in fact be writing my own novel. Luckily, my teachers indulged this, as by the age of ten I was reading Agatha Christie novels. Once they had checked I could read those aloud fluently, they allowed me to believe I was writing the next best seller as much as I wanted.
Creative writing, ask anyone studying it, is not a soft choice. English Literature itself is not a soft choice either. On the English Literature and Creative Writing degree we read at least three novels or collections of poetry per week from the English Literature side, plus at least three recommended readings, and then up to seven extra readings (I counted). Sometimes this is more or less, depending on the readings set by each module. We then also have to track down our own extra reading, to show that we have read around the subject.
Creative writing involves (like English Literature) reading around the subject to get used to the technicalities of writing, and also form a pool of inspiration to draw on. Within the creative writing side of the degree, when you read second year, you select a “strand”, these being poetry, prose, or script (during first year you will experience writing in all three forms, and at Newcastle we also had to take a drama module). In your second year you submit an essay along with a collection of creative work that is build up from one of these three (in first year you can submit a portfolio that is a mixture, as you’re still testing the water). The essay is called a “critical commentary”, and reflects on the process of writing, the inspirations, and also the form/technicalities. We then also have to attend poetry and writer’s events. This is then moderated twice in the marking process, in order to make our marks as subjective as possible. This means that two people mark our work, and come to an agreement on our mark. Following this all of the marks from every strand are discussed, so that a 63/80 in the prose strand, is the same as a 63/80 in the poetry and script strands.
As a creative writer you have to try and develop your own voice, but also be aware of the aforementioned technicalities. Doesn’t sound like the traditional “inspiration” idea, huh? Well, in creative writing you learn that any good writer doesn’t wait for inspiration: they go after it with a club. We were encouraged in our first lecture of our first year to carry a notebook at all times, in order to track any grand ideas. Ideas we would then continuously redraft. In my final collection for my second year, each poem had been redrafted at least nine times, most around twelve times.
Taking the joint honours degree has improved my writing, both creatively and formally. I hope that many of you that frequently visit this blog will have noticed that. Some feel that creative writing cannot be taught. I disagree. It can be taught, but as with any other subject, you do better if you already have a natural flair for it. One thing I have noticed is that creative writing students (there are about 20 of us on this specific degree in my year at Newcastle) have minds that work very differently to others. We tend to not so much think outside of the box, but set fire to it and set up a hog roast. This means that we do well at adapting to new situations, and what is expected of us work wise. In seminars we have to constantly experiment with new forms, and so are open to different ways of accomplishing tasks. Many alumni seem to have moved into the advertising industries, or other areas of the media.
On an English Literature with Creative Writing Degree you are taught in several different ways. Seminars for creative writing appear to be what most new students find daunting. The idea of reading out their work and having it critiqued can be a bit much for some. In actual fact, you usually develop a trusting relationship with the people in your seminar- when it comes to creative work at least. You are all there for the same reason. Your seminar leader will too provide feedback, and one piece of advice I live by is this: write down all feedback. Every comment. Every bit of your work that did or didn’t seem to be enjoyed. It comes in handy during the redrafting process, and also when you write the critical commentary. Nothing your seminar leader says will be a throw-away comment, believe me. Creative writing lectures cover more of the technical side of writing, and last around 2 hours at Newcastle University. During this time the lecture will deliver their talk, and you will be set exercises to do, but not to share or read unless you volunteer. My favourite lecturer always says the same thing about the exercises set in the seminars and lectures: he doesn’t care if what you end up with appears in no way directly related to the task set. But, you have to be able to explain why you did it/how you got there. Towards the end of the semester, when your portfolio is due, at Newcastle we have one-on-one tutorials. These are where you bring along the work you have collected up, and discuss it with your seminar leader. It’s a chance to iron out any kinks, ask questions, and think about the order/title/theme of your collection.
In a sense I feel that this degree helps to develop your motivation. In one module I am taking for the English Literature side of my course, the Independent Research Project, we must design and answer a question ourselves, working with texts of our choosing, and then doing a vast quantity of self-led research. Yes, this requires motivation. But with creative writing, when you are unmotivated, it isn’t so simple as going and methodically working through a collection of essays and taking notes. You have to actually force yourself to think creatively. This means that when it comes to projects we may not necessarily be interested in within the work place, creative writing students have some experience of forcing themselves to become inspired.
Okay, the negatives. The one and only, and probably biggest negative, that I can give you is very obvious. Bad feedback on work stings. It can be like a slap around the face. But it means I am now much more willing to listen to criticism when it comes my way. Many people from outside degrees (degrees that aren’t the joint honours creative writing one. And non-joint honours degrees are usually referred to as “straight”. So we have straight literature, history, music, philosophy, psychology, maths, and languages) found it much more difficult to deal with the criticism. Those of us on the degree shrugged our shoulders, went and spoke to our seminar leaders, identified our weak points, and began working on them. Again, this means that creative writing students are well formed for set backs in the work place, simply seeing them as a bump in the road, instead of a mountain.
If you are considering taking a creative writing degree then do your research; not all universities run the degree. It was only introduced around 35 years ago I believe, at the University of East Anglia (according to The Guardian, that is). Of course I am going to recommend Newcastle University, but York St Johns was my second choice for the degree. If you’re concerned about it not being worth the money, then I have to tell you: for the first few years after university I am (in true cynic fashion) not expecting my degree to feel worth the money. The majority of students (barring dentists and medics) leave university and end up in a job that may not be directly related to their degree. But creative writing has given me a bit of an edge when it comes to transferable skills, and it was also a choice that means I get to enjoy the three years I call myself a student.