Creative writing is not new. It used to be a requirement of every student’s education for around 400 years, especially in the English-speaking world. In the nineteenth century, literary education was either weakened, or completely dropped from elementary and secondary education. Later on, colleges picked up all of literary education but creative writing. Creative writing was then missing for about a 100 years or so, but in the past 40 years, it has returned. Nowadays, there is a lot of controversy on the issue – some claim that creative writing courses are necessary and beneficial; while others claim that they are useless. I, myself, have participated in such a course, so I will share my experience and viewpoint. Keep in mind, however, that I might be biased because my judgment is based purely on one creative writing course.
As a devoted reader and not so devoted writer, I was curious about creative writing courses. When I heard from a friend, who is a poet, that he attends a creative writing course, I decided to join him. The course was held by one of the most prominent writers in my country. He had won many awards for literary fiction and poetry, and his books have been translated into English, German, French, and Hungarian. The course was for free and the only requirement was to be dedicated and hard working since it was an intense course.
The first day and every day following, he had us arrange our chairs in a circle so we could all see each other. We were not required to write our names on makeshift notebook paper name plates, instead, we had to remember them. The first lesson we were taught was that what is important for a writer is to remember the details and, most importantly, the names of people. This was a promising start that served to make me even more excited about the course. The class covered poetry and fiction, and most of the participants were poets themselves. I was one of the few who preferred fiction and, unfortunately for me, fiction was not discussed as often.
The course would usually last two to three hours with small breaks, since the material covered was quite a lot within the allotted time. The session would start with some theory on specific literary traditions and techniques. This would have taken up to an hour or hour and a half at most. The next half an hour to hour and a half would usually be spent in discussing written pieces by the participants and providing feedback, as well as distributing the subject topic for the next time. The meetings were held twice a week, which gave us enough time to prepare sufficiently for each session. As students, we learned about literature by writing it, and gained a sharper sense of literary form, making certain features of the literary endeavor—such as the effect of influence, the role of the authorial person, and the usefulness of specific techniques.
Nevertheless, there was something I did not quite like about the course. It was when a student would submit some work by saying: “I don’t think it’s very good.” Then they would proceed by reading it out loud. After a long silence, one of the student’s best friends would say: “I really like the way you … ” Then another would add: “I didn’t quite understand the bit where …” and the student would explain it. More often than not, the student would leave with the ego intact and the work unimproved. In the following sessions it became clear to me that the fiction from these creative writing programs often appealed to readers because they rehearse banal topics, such as “Who am I?” —issues that are already part of their inner lives. And contemporary fiction does have many readers.
Did I engage in self-observation and other acts of reflexivity? Not much. I just thought that being around other people who felt the same way about literature mattered more than anything else in a setting where all we were required to do was to talk about each other’s poems and prose. I do not think the workshop taught me much about the writing craft, but it did teach me about the importance of creating, not just reading. At the end, no one seems to agree on what the goal of good writing is. And students, however inexperienced and ignorant they may be, did care about the same things, they did learn from each other.
I left the course after four sessions. What happened at the end to me was that this course restricted my imagination instead of fostering it. Ironically, what I missed the most from this course was indeed creativity. It left me with the grim view that writers are products of educational systems, but stories are products of magazine editorial practices and novels are products of publishing houses.
In sum, while a creative writing course cannot turn someone into a writer, if you have the ability and are willing to work hard, a course can help you to improve faster. Although there has been a viral spread of creative writing courses, the teaching is not always necessarily good. Before going to such a course, consider whether it will be useful to you, since the desire to write comes easily, but writing itself is technical and hard.
Nesrin Nazlieva is a Psychology student at Erasmus University. She decided to follow the example of her predecessors who, back in 1460, left the Karamanid beylik and immigrated to Bulgaria. Instead of Bulgaria, however, she chose the Netherlands. Her short story with a not so short title ‘The Story of a Wanderer Who Traveled the World in Search of His Hat’ earned her a second place in one of the most prestigious national literary contests in 2015. When she is not glued to a book, she spends time working out in the garden, learning Spanish, and trying very hard not to be the worst player at Ludo.