A good half of the contemporary writers I admire have studied Creative Writing. Many of them cut their teeth on the Creative Writing Masters at UEA or on American MFA programs. Some of them have a full set of writing qualifications: BA, MA and PhD. A few of them are creative writing teachers and fellows at universities with prestigious writing programs - Cornell, UEA, the Iowa Writers' Workshop. I hesitate to make the statement that such formally-trained writers now dominate the field of literary fiction, because I tend towards the view that fiction is not a field with fences or a field of competition but a room whose walls need constantly expanding (to borrow Salman Rushdie's metaphor). However, I do believe that such training has become a formalised apprenticeship of sorts in the past thirty or forty years (even longer in the US). It offers an induction into the craft on many levels, both artistic and practical, and is also often a useful stamp of a writer's quality and seriousness for literary agents and editors - and this is now reflected in the distribution of publishing contracts, fellowships and prizes.
To give one small example: when the shortlist for the Booker Prize last year was announced, three of the writers out of six had MFA degrees in creative writing. The reverse point to be made, of course, is that three of them did not. It might look at first glance as though these other three writers - the older writers, interestingly - followed a DIY, 'university of life' approach: the traditional apprenticeship every writer has apparently followed since the beginning of time. Jim Crace, the author of Harvest, worked as a journalist and travelled all over the world, especially in Africa. Ruth Ozeki, the author of A Tale for the Time Being, lived in both Japan and America, worked as a film-maker and somehow along the way became a Zen Buddhist priest. Colm Toibin, who wrote The Testament of Mary, travelled in Spain and worked as a journalist and editor. But though the older writers may have had more time to travel and pursue other careers, they all studied literature at university. So that still technically makes six writers who have formally studied their craft - three through university Creative Writing programmes, the other three through university Literature programmes, and at least three also through an apprenticeship to another storytelling medium (film or journalism). Interestingly, all the writers on the list have also lived in more than one country. Clearly, there are parallels in the road each writer on this list has travelled.
This made me think more widely about whether my own 'apprenticeship', part DIY, part based on a university Literature course, part gleaned by starting early and keeping my eyes and ears open to everything my agent and editors had to tell me, has equipped me well as a writer. And actually, I think it has. I've ended up seeking out, in the roundabout way of the partly self-taught writer, most of the things that the writers I admire have encountered. It's been a 10-year process, and it's continuing, but here are the ingredients I think make a difference, whether you make your own apprenticeship or pursue it in some official hall of learning!
1. Give yourself time and space to write.
This one is very important - it's the single thing that I've heard Creative Writing MA graduates say time and again about why they valued their course. Finding time to write is not just about scraping together the required hours in a week or a year to produce the same kind of work you've always written, whether you are published or unpublished, a 'good writer' or looking to improve. It's also about letting yourself progress through various phases of style and subject-matter in your career as a writer, not getting stuck somewhere along the way. It's about giving yourself time to try, to fail, to innovate, to slowly get better, until you feel that you are close to being the kind of writer you set out to be in the first place. As an example - I began writing nine years ago, and I began by writing a certain type of book, books for young adults that trod the boundary between speculative fiction and realism, and dealt with ideas about family and poverty. At the time, this was exactly what I wanted to write, and I established a career for myself with these particular books. Now, I'm ten years older and inevitably I'm a different person and a different writer. It wouldn't be right to continue writing exactly the same books. A couple of years ago I began to realise that my work was going in a new direction. I left my part-time job and set aside a year to work on a new project, spending eight or nine hours a day at my desk. I'm past the halfway point now, and I can see that this time and space to write has paid off in a great leap forward. I'm no longer a young adult writer, and the book I'm working on no longer belongs to a particular, clearly-defined genre except the pseudo-genre of 'literary fiction' - and that's fine! For me, financially and practically, it made more sense to pursue this development within the framework of my existing writing career than to apply for a Masters or a PhD, which would have had its own time-frame at odds with the time-frame best suited to the project. However, if the best way to get this time and space for yourself is to take a Creative Writing course, then that in itself is a cast-iron reason to take one! If I had been able to study a Masters programme at some natural point in my development as a writer - either before writing The Eyes of a King, or before beginning this new project - I know it would have helped.
This is the number one piece of slightly vague advice every aspiring writer receives. It took me a whole degree in Literature, plus several years of reading, to understand what it meant. I think the point of all this reading, really (beyond the reward of reading the books in their own right), is to see what can be done with writing, to make a personal map of literature, and to work out what you could add yourself, as a writer, that might expand this continent of writing by some small degree. Is there something that hasn't been written about but should be - think Derek Walcott putting St. Lucia on the map through the very conventions of English Literature that first submerged it? Or is there something that has been written about endlessly, but not in the one particular way that might illuminate a new facet of it. You can only know this by reading, and reading critically, and reading so many books that you start to form patterns and make connections and see where your own work might fit in. That, for me, is why reading matters.
3. Read about how to write.
When I was starting out as a writer, I checked out of my local library every single book on writing. Many of them were dated, half of them only applied to writing Mills and Boon romance, and a good proportion of the helpful ones were only helpful in certain, very specific ways - for example by informing me that there was such a thing as 'point of view', or by explaining the complexities of free indirect style. But taken together, they gave me a good picture of the tools of the craft. I'd recommend How to Write a Damn Good Novel by James N. Frey because it strips the commercial dramatic novel right down to the basics. I'd also recommend the UEA Masters textbook, The Creative Writing Coursebook, for the opposite reason - it deals particularly well with the concerns of craft, inspiration and style. A good recent book, wise and comprehensive, is Scarlett Thomas's Monkeys with Typewriters. Then, when you've read everything you can find, you get to the borders of the 'creative writing' section, and discover the books which are only obliquely about writing, and this is where magic is to be found. I've learned more from Virginia Woolf's A Writer's Diary and Derek Walcott's essays and poetry than any book directly about 'the craft'. But I needed the more straightforward books about craft first, to give me the pegs on which to hang the complex pictures of writing the other, more challenging writers gave me.
4. Cut your teeth early in your career by experimenting with genre conventions, even if you don't want to write 'genre fiction'.
This is a strange one, but I think it's crucial. It's an interesting truth that writers early in their career are experimental, just as the first English novels were experimental: think Tristram Shandy, possibly the weirdest book in English, written before anyone even really knew for sure what a novel was. Because how can you know what a novel is, working in the dark, unless you shine a torch around all its boundaries? And in the process, you get vibrant, fascinating work. This applies to the individual writer as well as the community of writers. It means that your first books, especially if you begin before the age of forty or fifty and so can be considered a 'young writer', working out your mission along the way, won't be the same as the books you settle into writing when your voice is secure. Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen's first book, isn't 'vintage' Jane Austen. Salman Rushdie's first book, Grimus, was science fiction. This is true for all writers, great and small. Probably none of my later books will look like The Eyes of a King, and that's fine. Experiment is good. So is discovering your mission as a writer and saying the same thing over and over, only hoping to make it a little clearer in each book you write. In any career I believe both phases are essential. (Note: if you write in a single, well-defined genre, the process is the same, but a lot of it is also about innovating and becoming a master of your particular genre, pushing the boundaries of that form, or building an intricate world across an expanding series.)
5. Challenge yourself to see from more than one perspective.
Most writers set out to make something new, to show the world to itself in a new way. I think living in more than one country can probably help with this (though I haven't). So can talking to people with varying points of view and even people with whom you fundamentally disagree; so can reading and hearing about experiences you have never had and trying to inhabit those experiences imaginatively. All these things help you see at an angle, to hold your world up to a closer scrutiny, but it's really a question of approach, of the thinking that these experiences force you to do. Spending a significant length of time with my Italian family-in-law was the first time I looked at Britain from a distance, and understood the ways in which it was particular and small and the ways in which it was universal and connected to other places. Moving away from my home town was how I understood properly what it signified to me - without that leap, it would have always just looked like the world. Every writer needs to see their own existence from the outside once in a while.
6. Talk to people about writing.
Many Creative Writing graduates I've spoken to say that one of the main benefits of the course was the chance to talk constantly to other students who were serious about writing. If you have friends who write, or a good creative writing group, this is excellent. Otherwise, you need to make connections. Luckily, the internet is full of writers who have interesting things to say about their work. Two writers' blogs which I regularly read for their serious engagement with the craft are Tim Clare, Death of a 1000 Cuts and Emma Darwin, This Itch of Writing. In the first, Tim, a poet, memoir writer and now novelist, dissects beginning writers' work with a fine eye for detail and a sharp sense of humour. The rigour of his criticism is like that which an apprentice writer might encounter in the best creative writing workshop, and he's wise and incisive about what makes a book worth reading. If you read this series every week, your work will inevitably improve. The second blog, Emma Darwin's, is a set of short essays about the craft of writing, also updated regularly. Emma is a university creative writing teacher and the seriousness which she brings to her discussion of the craft shines through in every post. Reading this is the equivalent of reading all the best books on writing I dug out of my local library, but better - because every post of Emma's is a gem and is based on real-world experience. I highly recommend it.
7. Listen to distinguished writers talk about their writing.
For this, I would suggest - in place of a university course - YouTube! I often spend my lunch-breaks watching online writing lectures from various creative writing and literature faculties around the world, as well as in-depth interviews with writers whose work I admire (both Isabel Allende and Salman Rushdie can be found 'in conversation' with other writers, for example). The Edinburgh World Writers' Conference in 2012 live-streamed all their discussions and keynote lectures, and the material is still online and very useful for building up a detailed picture of the issues of world writing today. Some of the writers who attended are extremely distinguished, at the cutting edge of the field, and have incredibly wise points to make about the writer in the world. It's amazing that all this material is out there, but there you go - the internet is amazing!
8. Learn about the publishing process.
This is another thing that the MA graduates I've spoken to valued most about their courses. On a Masters course, agents visit, the tutors are published writers, and students often compete for prizes which involve consultancy and even representation from major agencies. But the good news is, most writers forge a career without these connections. I met my agent by chance at a literary festival, and was taken on a couple of weeks later off his slush-pile. It does happen. The key thing, for me, was reading carefully about submission guidelines (using resources like The Writer's and Artist's Yearbook - good old library!), and understanding how to behave like a professional writer. Once you are published, you still have to keep up-to-date with the publishing world. I get my sense of it from various sources: the book pages of newspapers like the Guardian, conversations with my agent, trade magazines like The Bookseller. It's about knowing how to be a professional in a trade which is changing subtly all the time. When I first started writing, no one knew what an eBook was and self-publishing was barely discussed at all. That's what less than ten years can do.
9. And finally, be prepared to continue to learn!
It strikes me that for everything I've mentioned on this list as something I did when I was 'starting out', there's at least one other thing that I still do. I know of plenty of people who took a Creative Writing Masters, worked long hours like I've been working this year, and produced a piece of work which went on to be published the year after. I know of plenty of other people who took a Creative Writing Masters, worked another job for a decade, produced a few more manuscripts, travelled, had children and finally produced the book that got published, fifteen years down the line. Did the first writer benefit from the Masters more than the second one? Not exactly, at least I don't think so. There are a hundred ingredients that go to make a writer, and most of them, I believe, are just the things that go to make a human being - questioning the world, getting hurt, forming your own cherished points of view and meeting all the people who will fundamentally disagree with them, working exciting jobs and dull jobs and jobs with difficult colleagues, seeing new things, falling in and out of love, being a member of a family and a society, struggling to express your sense of reality, establishing your personal vision of the world. The writing apprenticeship is just what brings these experiences together - what's really at the heart of it is the long, patient struggle of learning how to put these things into words.
A long post this week, but I hope it was interesting! If you're a writer or an aspiring writer - or equally, if you're a reader - I'd love to hear your thoughts about studying creative writing and what makes a worthwhile apprenticeship to the craft.