Creative writing, theoretically

In my far-off youth, if you wanted to write creatively, you learned to do it by yourself, as there were no creative writing courses in Australia. Did it do us any harm not to have studied creative writing? Would we have become better writers if we had? Who knows. If Creative Writing had existed at my university I’d have done it, certainly. Since then I’ve watched the rise of dozens of these courses, admired the talented writers they produce, envied the grants and residencies they get, and longed to have my time over again.

Carl Seashore, a Swedish-American Dean of the University of Iowa, believed creative capacity could be cultivated, measured and assessed. In 1922 he set up the Writers’ Workshop, which remains the Everest of aspiring writers. Its graduates have won 17 Pulitzer prizes and include six US Poet Laureates. At the University of East Anglia in 1970, Angus Wilson and Malcolm Bradbury followed Iowa’s example with an MA in prose fiction writing, and offered a PhD in 1987. The program is much more inclusive now. But the same question still nags: if Nam Le hadn’t studied creative writing at Iowa, could he have written The Boat? If Kazuo Ishiguro hadn’t studied at East Anglia, would he still have produced The Remains of the Day? If Patrick Allington hadn’t done a PhD in creative writing at the University of Adelaide, might Figurehead not be with us? Are these better books because of the writers’ research and their supervisors’ guidance? And the answer remains the same: who knows?

Seashore (lovely name!) was a psychologist and an enthusiastic communicator, not a published creative writer like Wilson and Bradbury. But none of them in those troglodyte days had ever studied writing. Nor, for that matter, did JM Coetzee, Nicholas Jose, or Brian Castro, the prime movers behind Adelaide’s creative writing degree. Alex Miller hadn’t studied it either, when he taught writing at La Trobe; nor had Gail Jones, before she began teaching it at the University of Western Sydney. We are still in the precious foundation years, when creative writing flourishes as if on a master/mistress and apprentice system, with students flocking to courses where the famous writers are. That of course is how universities themselves began. But how long, I wonder, do we have before the academically ‘unqualified’ practitioners – who teach to survive what Richard Flanagan recently called the obscurity, adversity and chronic poverty of writers in Australia – are replaced by real academics properly furnished with PhDs and long lists of published scholarly articles about creative writing? Will that matter? Will the courses be better?

Certainly, theory will be included. And why not? Students ought surely to be taught to understand what their discipline is about, and should be aware of what others have said and are saying about it. Without inside knowledge of their métier, students will stumble around reinventing it. What music course omits theory? Fine arts students do theory, as do those studying dance, acting, film and architecture. And without theory, what distinguishes their courses from TAFE? The universities, hungry for enrollments, can be expected to pose these questions about creative writing, and to opt for theory, as some already have.

As if to challenge them, the Professional Writing and Editing Diploma course at RMIT does not include theory. It’s described as ‘vocational’, which means students don’t have to run up all the theoretical steps to the top of the 78-storey academic treehouse. They can get their fiction published, and have every chance of further success (despite poverty) as writers. Knowledge of writing’s theoretical complexities may be individually enriching, but interest in authors’ motivation and admiration of their work are what bring readers in record numbers to our writers’ festivals. The purpose of creative writing is above all to be creative, no matter what theoretical underpinnings it has.

Readers can now judge for themselves the output of the RMIT writing degree (which does include some theory), thanks to a project of two of its associate professors, who chose 21 new and experienced writers from Australia, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, the United States and Vietnam for their Writers Immersion and Cultural Exchange (WrICE). This involved residencies in Penang, Vietnam, and Australia. The result, edited by David Carlin and Francesca Rendle-Short in The Near and the Far, includes some writers’ responses to the places of residency themselves and work produced by others on quite unrelated themes. Some adopt experimental writing techniques, with varying success. Singaporean Alvin Pang, making no concessions to bemused readers, begins his story thus:

Having lost her vada to the sea, she kept watch every dawn on the beach where she had last caught sight of him, adrift in his skoyak midway between shore and horizon. Every morning at the third ori, before the sun called the world to its labours, she would add a piece of dried kan to her rice phut in an oiled nanal leaf and depart the house without waking chibu …

9781925321562Pang explains in an afterword that these words are from his invented language, Kantiyan, used in an imagined future when modern Singapore has crumbled. But his inspiration came from a visit to Cebu and this, he says, reflects ‘the inclusive, pan-cultural spirit’ of the WrICE project.

In Joe Rubbo’s memoir of his Australian suburban childhood, two brothers with different fathers and a dog called Nintendo have been shopping with their Mum on a day so hot that the opened car boot ‘lets out a fart of banana-scented heat’. Yet he wrote it in a riverside hotel in Hoi An, Vietnam, where in the late afternoon, as the writers shared their morning’s work, ‘other worlds came rushing in’. Observing street life in Penang, Omar Musa from Queanbeyan took a ‘small and subtle snapshot’ of how Malaysia’s colonial-era penal code and religious intolerance towards LGBTI people play out in the secret lives of a group of young Muslim men. Accomplished author Cate Kennedy records a young poet from Melbourne, Melody Paloma, saying of the WrICE program: ‘It’s made me realise that this is what I want to do’.


Image: ‘Research’ / flickr


This is part of a series responding to our recent Pitch Page query about whether writers need literary theory, a topic that received an unusual amount of interest. Read the other two responses so far:

Alison Broinowski

Dr Alison Broinowski has written and edited twelve books of fact and fiction, and countless articles and reviews. She is vice-president of Honest History and of Australians for War Powers Reform.

More by Alison Broinowski ›

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  1. It makes no difference whatsoever to the article, but I found it interesting that Coetzee studied creative writing ‘informally’ when at the university of Cape Town in the 1950s, and that the academic involved was Australian poet and former editor of Southerly, Guy Howarth. (See Kannemeyer’s biography of Coetzee.) Also, Coetzee ran creative writing seminars while an academic at Cape Town. In such an atomised society as ours, beginning writers – writers generally – need to find a milieu, or even just one person, who will take their efforts seriously, even if in the final analysis the work is not yet there. Of course, this relies on academics/writers/tutors being honest with their students – before census date? Even while there are more subjects to sell? – rather than finding that everyone’s work shows promise. On that note, does anyone know the failure rate for creative writing courses? It seems unethical for universities to churn out graduates who have little chance of being published, but I suppose similar happens in many other disciplines (eg lawyers who never practice). And so the hymn to ‘transferable skills’.

  2. Early sixties in New Zealand there was a University course for Journalism. It/they had one practicing journalist, Jill Shadbolt, who worked for NZ Truth.

    Wellington Polytech had a journalist course, run by working journalists and to get in one had to be already working for a newspaper. This course was fully subscribed and existing journalists often expressed the wish that such a facility had existed when they were starting out.

  3. No house of literature will ever suffer from the number of rooms that are added to it. The excellent article by Dr Broinowski (and the two replies)clarify a topic I have often wondered about. As publishers and editors have become less involved in the nurturing of individual creative writers (because of market forces), universities in Australia have stepped-in to offer relevant courses and mentors. I remember being told at Nida that some individuals write as a ‘therapy’ and others for money. Over the years I realized the quality of the work will inevitably be its only validation. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

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