Tip one was “you do not back up your work enough.”
Tip two was “being a writer isn’t actually all that bad.”
Wait…isn’t it? It’s an interesting, hypnotising, terrifying question, for someone who spends a fair bit of their time scribbling down stories and another sizable chunk wondering whether anybody could want to read them. Especially a young person, in the latter stages of a broadly non-vocational university degree, who would really like to be able to get away with making things up for a living.
The tips came from my creative writing tutor, in our final class of the semester—my final university class in Australia. They were something of a riposte to the concluding lecture the night before, in which our lecturer, the brilliant Kim Wilkins, had sounded a note of caution to the huddled masses before her. Creative writing, she told us, is not a vocational course. It’s not dentistry, where you learn how to fix teeth, get a piece of paper allowing you to fix teeth, and then hunt around the job markets for a vacancy as a tooth-fixer.
This makes it a bit out of step with the latter-day graduate ideal. For the past thirty years, in Australia and worldwide, universities have ceased to be places where you learn and develop, and become places where you train. Schooling what gets you a job. And yet, while literature courses drop like flies in American and Australian (put in a pin in that bit) universities, professors of creative writing are being hired left, right and centre.
This doesn’t seem to make sense. Let’s review the data…
- Universities are increasingly geared towards vocational courses.
- Liberal arts degrees such as literature and writing are non-vocational.
- Creative writing degrees are thriving.
If A then B, A, therefore not-B. Does not compute!
Part of the explanation is commercial. Mugs like me sign up for creative writing courses en masse, meaning that even if they don’t profit the markets or economy the way that a degree in Executive Business Fatcattery Banking (EXEBUSFACABA1104) might, they profit the universities plenty. And the reason we do that, is in part because it seems like easy marks, in (large) part because studying writing is rewarding and fun and fascinating, and maybe a little bit because we just don’t quite believe bullet point two. Loath as I am to contradict Prof. Wilkins, there’s definitely a part of me sitting thinking hah, more fool you, Kim. Just wait ‘til you see my books down the Co-Op Bookshop.
Not that I entirely put my hypothetical success down to creative writing courses. I’m not saying that posting story outlines on the UQ discussion forum has turned me into Tolkien material. But I do take these courses with a few little ulterior motives in mind. I want to get better, thinks I naively, so that then I’ve got a better chance at writing things which people want to read.
Which is exactly what the eighty people around me in the lecture theatre are thinking too, not to mention hundreds more doing literature, writing and journalism courses at every single university in the world. Hence the constant notes of discouragement, the emphasis on transferable skills and other careerist gubbins. And then I get told, by a small-league but professional writer that writing isn’t actually that bad? Nice.
What he meant, he explained, was that although it may be true that only one person in a squillion actually gets to be Pratchett or Gaiman or…Stephanie Meyer, it’s not actually that impossible to make a living from wordsmithery, if you’re prepared to put a bit of grind in and accept that a fair whack of income will come from writing-related jobs—editing, writing copy, teaching at university creative writing courses—rather than directly from advances and royalty cheques. Furthermore, he noted that writing really is a field where dedication pays off—if your ten first published stories make nary a ripple, they’re still sitting there when number eleven catches someone’s eye, ready to be sold off again (tip five or six: keep control of your reprint rights) without you having to write another word except ‘yes’. And then if novel number three gets a little resurgence down the line (possibly likelier in this ebook age where things never go out of print) then that’s a little trickle of royalties coming in too.
All of which is really quite encouraging enough to reinforce my you know what, let’s actually try this and see if it works. So I’ve started to submit things to magazines (via the brilliant www.duotrope.com), in the hope of collecting those first few vital rejection letters, and I’ve got a wee novel to send around over the summer, and a novella which could be done by next week if I don’t get too distracted by, um, not having to fail university. Which has a year more to go, of course, but I’m not going to fall into the trap of laying scribbling things down aside for a year in the assumption I’ll pick it back up again. Got to keep the ball rolling.
To end on an aside (terrible literary practice or bold modernist statement? You decide!), how interesting is that stat about American and Australian universities adopting creative writing as their new favourite child, while the old ivory towers of the U-of-K are, as far as I know, still backing the old battleship of English Literature even as it founders amid the waves of vocationalism? I will be studying writing at Edinburgh next year, but only as a one-off component of an overall English Literature degree, whereas in Brisbane you can do an entire ‘extended major’ in creative writing, as well as a ‘writing, editing and publishing’ masters program. I’m optimistically going to hypothesize that maybe I’ve taken the best of both worlds—plenty of highbrow academic literary theory to allow me to learn from the greats and to fuel my natural inclination towards pretentious literature-as-high-art writing styles, and then a healthy injection of writing-centred pragmatism (‘writing actually isn’t all that bad’ ) from this brash young nation with its brash young universities.
If anyone’s actually read this far, I’d be interested to know what people think. Is there any point in a creative writing degree, even just if it forces you to focus on your creative potential? Is literature a more worthy course of uni-level study than writing genre fiction, or vice versa? Am I inevitably going to find that the more practical linguistics edge of my degree is the one that helps to shape my future, as I slave away my years studying the phonology of our forthcoming alien invaders? Is writing, actually, all that bad?