Answers, Answers

National Association of Writers in Education Magazine
Spring 2008

Andrew Cowan’s Questions Questions, published in the Spring 2007 edition of Writing in Education, brilliantly explored the divided loyalties of a practising writer and full-time lecturer in Creative Writing .  The article was entirely in the form of questions, some more rhetorical than others, sounding out the gaps between the aims of University Creative Writing courses and their outcomes.

More agonisingly, Cowan asks whether the full-time teaching of institutionalised Creative Writing might not actively inhibit a writer’s ability to write.  Cowan’s formal ingenuity allows each reader to provide their own response, but from where I sit, trying to make a living as a writer, the prospect of teaching Creative Writing in a University doesn’t look so grim.

There’s the money.  Writing books is a full-time job that doesn’t pay, whereas teaching Creative Writing, although it isn’t writing, is recognisably in the rightish writerly area. I know the work is manageable from teaching Arvon courses and University workshops, and going full-time seems less of a backward step than becoming, say, a full-time postman.  Let’s face it: writing books, or having written books, is not a qualification that opens many doors.

After four novels and three books of creative non-fiction, I can, with the minimum of inventiveness, frame the move as a well-deserved reward for years of hard work.  A full-time university post would be a welcome and significant validation of my writing.  Entering an institutional structure from the side, as it were, my books become credentials.  I have no PhD and no teacher-training, but at least my books, at last, have some concrete value.

Already Andrew Cowan’s question-marks start dancing before my eyes.  Is this really the best way to approach a new job?  Should teaching be a fall-back position, a safety-net?  But Cowan does the questions – I’m supposed to be supplying answers, from the point of view of a writer still, just about, viable outside the academy. 

I have so much to gain.  I can give my family a grounding sense of stability.  I can teach and write – why not?  There are writers doing exactly this in Universities all over the country, and not just here, because in America every writer alive seems to have been University-attached at one time or another.  The unattached are dinosaurs from the era BCW, Before Creative Writing, and suffered accordingly.  But why suffer?  These days isolation and poverty are no longer obligatory, and a possible job at a college is an opportunity not to be scorned.

The financial model favoured by publishing companies means that a mid-list book can make an acceptable income for the publisher which is not shared by the author.  The longer a writer stays mid-list (my next book is always a best-seller) the more the financial risk (and emotional investment) is shouldered by the writer alone.  This situation has partly been allowed to develop because of the flourishing Creative Writing industry.  Educational institutions take up the financial slack, so why not join in?  Don’t be so precious.  Get your feet beneath a faculty desk, because this is how writing works at this time.

Writers teaching Creative Writing is the most accessible contemporary template for a literary career.  It has superseded the less pleasant modernist saga of rejection and poverty followed by irresistible late acclaim, itself a throwback to the Romantic requirement for writers to go to the edge and look off the side.  I can’t be the only writer to start every day with a Do I have to?  Again?

So it’s not just the money.

The relationship of many writers to paid work is nicely expressed by John Irving in The World According to Garp.  ‘It was for his writing, in the beginning, that he had never taken the idea of a job seriously.  Now it was for his writing that he was thinking he needed a job.  I am running out of people I can imagine, he thought.’

Along with the money, and the spirit of the times, there’s the company.  Colleagues!  Conferences, meetings, coffee in plastic cups!  Gossip!  I look forward to a life of exclamation marks and conversation, the nourishment that comes from the simple fact of daily human contact.  I can divide my time between widely-read colleagues and students, learning from one and all.  This is very tempting.  This is very necessary.

In his Questions, Questions, Andrew Cowan refers to Malcom Bradbury’s Classwork, and Bradbury’s retrospective manifesto for his MA in Creative Writing at UEA.  Bradbury hopes his course created ‘a significant climate’ around writing, with students ‘treated as members of a serious profession.’   As a former student of Bradbury’s, I can confirm a mission accomplished, and the climate of seriousness felt like a preparation, or at least an imitation, of how the writing life might be. 

Unfortunately, in the profession itself – publishers, agents, booksellers, critics – the sense of significance around serious writing is often hard to identify.  Literary fiction, in particular, is not in fact a serious profession.  If it was, it would be rewarded as such.

It may be that MA courses in Creative Writing are now the only place where Bradbury’s significant climate reliably exists. 

A significant climate, money, security, the zeitgeist, company, social and professional validation – that’s a lot to gain.  All the same, Cowan’s eloquent questioning nags away, his doubting of the compatibility between teaching Creative Writing and just writing, his anxiety that either one or the other must suffer.

There is, I think, a central misgiving that informs all of his pertinent questions.  Despite the journal you’re now reading and the association that guides it, there is no such thing as a writer in education.  A writer in education is a teacher.

Adverts for full-time University teaching posts usually ask for ‘evidence of a strong commitment to teaching.’  I have no evidence of that, because it never existed.  What I do have is yards of evidence of a strong commitment to writing, including books, no house, no car, an impatient family and no sense of seriousness except that which I supply myself. 

At this point, Andrew Cowan’s questions become relevant as an examination of good faith – can any of us honestly, or satisfactorily, live with two strong commitments, a kind of professional bigamy?  Cowan surrounds this one core question with so many others that his own experience seems to suggest not, or not happily.

Personally, I don’t believe that good writing is created at three in the morning, drunk, by candle-light, overseen by angels.  In that sense, breaking writing down into component parts is not anathema to my own way of working.  I do believe there are learnable techniques that ease the writer’s task.  These include, but are not confined to, the syllabus stalwarts of characterisation, setting, point of view, ‘and the rest’ as Andrew Cowan puts it.

I also believe the disciplines and skills explored through Creative Writing are transferable, with the understanding that students training in writing are not being trained to earn a living as writers.  The writers, and there will always be one or two, will benefit from a comprehensive tour of the basics, and add the finishing and more important touches themselves (perhaps by candlelight, drunk, at three in the morning overseen by angels – there are no wrong answers).

I’m therefore in no doubt or denial about the educational value of Creative Writing in itself.  I just don’t believe it needs to be taught by me, or by any other practising writer. My commitment to writing (not teaching) has informed techniques and strategies that have worked for me, but I can’t honestly say that these individually evolved techniques are going to work more generally for anyone else on other projects.  If Creative Writing is to become a subject like any other, a repeatable set of established and assessable procedures, then a qualified teacher is best-qualified to lead the way.  As teaching credentials, my books are and should be worthless. 

Many writers do turn out to have a talent for teaching, but that’s good fortune rather than good university governance, and serving two masters is no more comfortable for a writer than for anyone else. Faced with the full-time teacher’s obligations to reading, reports, admin, institutional crises, budgets, departmental politics, as a writer I might be forgiven (might I?) for reminding myself, and perhaps occasionally my colleagues, that the position was offered as a reward for writing, and in every tight spot I may (perhaps should) shirk my paid responsibilities to concentrate on writing (to which I also have a responsibility, and in which my identity is invested, and for which I was in the absence of qualifications employed.)  Obviously, for a teacher, this is not an encouraging attitude.

Or perhaps it happens the other way round, in snatched moments at home and in the long vacation.  Faced with the writer’s obligations to the desk, concentration, truth, beauty, originality, endurance, as a teacher I might be forgiven (might I?) for reminding myself I am, after all, a professional University lecturer.  That’s what I’m paid for and what puts the bacon on the butter on the bread.  For a writer, this is the beginning of the end. 

Here is the fault-line that runs between writers and education, and I’m not sure it can be crossed with an association and a two-letter preposition.   

It’s not the only job in the world that most of its practitioners would give up if they could, but until the writing works out we’re just working, doing something we don’t want to do for money.  I’d like to suggest that this makes a writer in education a less than ideal employee.  The writer J.M. Coetzee spent many years at the University of Cape Town, an experience that may have influenced the attitude of the narrator in his latest novel: ‘I would cheer myself up by telling myself that at heart I was not a teacher but a novelist.’   J.M.Coetzee won the 2003 Nobel Prize for literature.  He no longer teaches.

This does not exclude writers from education, and remember we need the money, the company, the validation, ‘and the rest’.  Writers need these jobs, but whisper it, the courses don’t need writers.  This is going to become more rather than less true, unless writers in education are clear about what they can offer that teachers can’t.  Otherwise they’re just teachers, often without qualifications, and with an undeniably ‘strong commitment’ to a possibly conflicting discipline.

Given that practising writers are often gifted teachers, able to communicate with energy and urgency, there are ways in which institutions can continue to benefit from this vitality.  Along with Andrew Cowan (if I understand correctly one of his more rhetorical questions), I think I can be swayed by the anti-egalitarian idea of the masterclass.  It seems more honest.  Writers are then permitted to be experts on what they know best – their unique methods for solving their own problems as writers.

Other solutions have been pioneered by individual writers like Harry Mathews, the great American experimentalist.  In recent years Mathews has taught courses at the New School, New York, in Creative Reading.  In this way his talents and insights, his passion and energy, have been available to students without burdening Mathews the writer with the weight of a Cowanesque questioning.

Another suggestion is that writers should be employed in pairs on a four-year cycle.  Working two years on and two years off, this would confront some of Andrew Cowan’s anxieties about the creative limitations of entering the academy, while requiring the writer to renew, periodically, a commitment to succeeding or failing as a writer (by finding from writing the money to make up the biannual financial shortfall).  The students would also benefit from hearing a range of voices and approaches. 

It is by innovating, in this or other ways, that educational employers can recognise that a writer is not exactly, or not always, a teacher.  We can then make sense of being something distinct yet still of definite value: writers in education.


Andrew Cowan is Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at UEA.  His most recent novel is What I Know (Sceptre 2006).

Irving, J., The World According to Garp, Black Swan 1986 [First pub: 1976]

Bradbury, M (ed), Class Work, Hodder and Stoughton, 1995

Coetzee,J.M., Diary of a Bad Year. Harvill Secker, 2007