05 March 2014

Are creative writing courses a ‘waste of time’?

Anna Davis CBC Managing Director and Rufus PurdyRufus Purdy (right) with CBC director Anna Davis
by Rufus Purdy Course News

So Hanif Kureishi’s said something controversial again. While this probably induces the same sort of collective shrug as Prince Philip delivering a new gag at the opening of a multi-faith college, Kureishi’s assertion that creative-writing courses are a ‘waste of time’ and that 99.9 per cent of the students he teaches in his role as a professor at London’s Kingston University are ‘not talented’ and ‘can’t tell a story’ certainly made us at Curtis Brown Creative prick up our ears. Yesterday, I was interviewed by The Independent for a story that included several quotes from writers who’ve found success after doing the sort of courses that Kureishi derides. And my colleague, CBC director Anna Davis, wrote a wonderful piece for The Guardian in which she speaks thoughtfully about the proliferation of creative-writing courses now available to new writers. So we’ve said our piece, right?

Well no, actually. As Anna mentioned in her article, we are incredibly proud of what we do here at Curtis Brown Creative. Though it’s our 34 former students with book deals that inevitably grab the headlines, we’re equally supportive of the others who’ve studied with us – both in our offices and online – and we continue to work with them as they hone their manuscripts, meet with agents and in some cases put their work aside and start all over again. ‘The truth is that all writers struggle to improve their work, and other writers can help,’ says six-time novelist and CBC head tutor and creative consultant Christopher Wakling. ‘But find the right course, and you’re likely to make headway turning your ideas into compelling stories faster than you would on your own.’

Many successful authors – Ian McEwan, Eleanor Catton and SJ Watson among them – have taken creative-writing courses on the way to producing their debut novels. But don’t these writers just represent the 0.1 per cent of students that Kureishi believes have the talent to succeed?

‘Lots of people want to write, most of them aren’t very good at it, and you can’t turn a duff writer into Dostoevsky over a weekend retreat in the Cotswolds,’ says Christopher Wakling. ‘But to say 99.9 per cent of aspiring writers are talentless, and that those with some talent can’t be helped to make the most of it, is rubbish. It suggests there are a chosen few into whose heads perfect stories arrived fully formed.’

‘It may be true that writers are born, not made,’ says Antonia Honeywell, a former CBC student whose debut novel The Ship is to be published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson in 2015. ‘But very few are born with an ability to honestly evaluate their own efforts, and very few are lucky enough to write in a dedicated and constructive environment. No writing course can create a writer, but the right course can create the conditions for talent to thrive.’

At Curtis Brown Creative we strive to create exactly that environment for our students. We provide them with expert tutors – all of whom are published novelists – and we introduce them to literary agents, publishers and successful authors in an attempt to demystify both the writing process and the publishing industry in which, we hope, they’ll all eventually have to hold their own. We select students on the basis of their writing talent and storytelling skills as – when they workshop their novels-in-progress with each other and the tutor – we want the environment to be one of mutual respect and a place where others’ opinions can benefit and improve a student’s writing. It’s a professional approach that we’ve worked hard to get right.

‘The difference between an amateur writer and a professional is the ability to cut out the boring bits,’ says ex-CBC student SD Sykes, whose debut novel Plague Land is to be published by Hodder & Stoughton this September. ‘You can’t teach talent, but you can help a writer develop the craft of writing, so they have the tools to create the narrative, the characters and the tone which will pull the reader through the novel. The Curtis Brown Creative course gave me those skills and stopped me from floundering at 30,000 words. Basically it taught me how to identify the boring bits.’

We’re all for getting rid of the boring bits. Which is why we’re going to put Hanif Kureishi’s comments behind us and concentrate on running the best creative-writing courses we can.

For an in-depth course as part of a group of 15 (in which students are selected on the basis of their submission) with a great tutor and participation from our literary agents, apply for:

Three-Month Novel-Writing Course in London with Charlotte Mendelson (deadline for applications is Sun 8 October).

Three-Month Online Novel-Writing Course with Nikita Lalwani (deadline for applications is Sun 1 October).

For a dedicated online course for those writing for young adults or children as part of a group of 15 (in which students are selected on the basis of their submission), with a top children’s author, apply for: 

Writing YA and Children’s Fiction with Catherine Johnson (deadline for applications is Sun 17 Sept).

We also offer two low-cost ‘taster’ courses, featuring tuition from CBC director Anna Davis:

Starting to Write Your Novel course (deadline for enrolment is midnight on Mon 11 September).

Write to the End of Your Novel course (deadline for enrolment is midnight on Mon 18 September).

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