We Don’t Need No Writing Classes
The playwright Dennis Kelly has credits that include ‘Matilda’ (co-credit) and ‘Taking Care Of Baby’, and his first play ‘Debris is being revived at Southwark Playhouse. He recently had this to say in an interview given to the excellent website What’s On Stage. He’s talking about plays and television, but I think it applies to all forms of writing, and crystallises my attitude to teaching ‘creative writing’. I’ve always felt that British writers tend to write as if their mothers were looking over their shoulders, and American writers write as if their professors were looking over theirs.
So would you advise aspiring playwrights against writing courses?
‘I would, absolutely. I used to be very circumspect about this but as I’ve got older I’ve become more militant. If I had my way there’d be no writing courses at all. It’s not about education – I think education is incredible and very valuable – but there’s been this weird explosion of creative writing courses. I think they can help individuals but they tend to teach stuff you’d find out yourself anyway. It’s not really that hard, it’s about practising and trying to be aware of where you’re getting it wrong.
We’ve got brilliant writers emerging who have been on courses but we’ve always had great writers. Pinter didn’t go on a course, he was an actor. Beckett and Shakespeare didn’t do writing courses. I’m not sure why a 22 year-old writer now needs to do one. I don’t think we should teach 22 year-olds how to write, they should be teaching us what we’re doing wrong. That said, education – and I speak as someone who didn’t really have an education who then did as a mature student – changes the way you think. Education is incredible, it’s amazing. I think there are loads of interesting courses you can do, but I just think courses that teach you how to write aren’t that valuable.’
The last decade has seen a huge expansion in creative writing courses. More than 90 British universities now offer a range of postgraduate degrees, and around 10,000 short creative writing courses or classes are on offer in the UK each year.
While I agree wholeheartedly with Dennis, I should add that teaching those with proven talent is a different matter; I gave a one-day teaching class at Southend’s Metal artists in residence and met a group of talented young men and women who wanted help with shaping their ideas, and we all learned from one another. A student with aptitude and interest can benefit a lot from mentoring and sharing their work with other students. But random ‘creative writing’ courses, which usually get dominated by the those with the least ability, are in my opinion a waste of time.
Having said all this, I’ve just read a book about professional writing which has genuinely helped me. It’s for those who are serious about avoiding bad ‘How To’ books and want to raise their game, and it’s more intelligent than most of the others. John Yorke’s ‘Into The Woods: How Stories Work And Why We Tell Them’ is a genuine game-changer and has helped me put past bad habits to rest – it’s not out in paperback from Penguin.