Degrees of debt: the failure of creative writing courses

I have an awful lot to show for the Master of Creative Writing, Editing and Publishing that I finished at the University of Melbourne in 2014. Truly I do. I have tens of thousands of dollars worth of debt, a rather small but tasteful gold-embossed certificate, and a relentless niggling feeling of having wasted both my time and money. Not least of all, however, I have in memory of my creative writing classes the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, which sits heavily on my bookshelf.

When I first sat down to attempt the writing of this essay, I hauled that 3000-odd page white tome to my desk and flicked through its thin pages in the optimistic hope of finding a quote that would eloquently and concisely summarise its own indispensability to creative writing students. But it refused to open anywhere but underlined passages on feminism, indicating not necessarily studied course content but my own particular interests. I flicked on, doubtful I would find what I needed there, and on and on; but frankly I found it difficult to read when my eyes kept rolling back into my head. So, after a few more despondent minutes, I dropped the anthology to my feet, where it landed with a heavy thud. Evidently I find literary theory as impenetrable today as I did when I was studying it.

Literary theory is the ideas and methods available to you as a reader to analyse and interpret literature. Its study does not provide the possible meaning of a text, but the possible meaning through the lens of a particular field of study, such as psychoanalysis, structuralism, semiotics and queer theory; feminism, for example, could be used to gain a critical understanding of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. But not all universities find it necessary to the study of writing. While bachelor and postgraduate creative writing degrees, such as the one I completed, may offer classes that consider this theory alongside, and in supposed complements to, creative writing, many vocational writing courses, as a consequence of their nature, leave it out altogether.

The literary theory classes I took hardly scratched the surface of its vast teachings and, to be honest, a lot of the time just left me scratching my head. And if the glazed-over expressions of my classmates during theoretical discussions were anything to go by, they largely felt the same. It was not uncommon for the class to descend into an uncomfortable silence if the tutor was slow to answer the question he had intended for us to dissect. ‘How many of you have actually done the readings?’ he might venture. The show of hands was never more than a few. Our lack of engagement, in stark contrast to when it came to workshopping, was doubtfully a reflection on our abilities or willingness to learn, but our difficulty in perceiving the practical application of this theory. Certainly it would make us better readers, and academics if that was what we wanted to become – but would it make us more capable writers? And if so, how?

I had a lot of these sorts of questions when I graduated, so I went to one of my tutors and asked him, point blank, what was I supposed to do now? Was I just supposed to keep writing, as I had done before I had started my degree? On what? For who? Under what guidance? Should I start pitching? And if so, how and to what publications? Would Googling help me? He listened patiently. I had been introduced to new theories and ideas in regards to literature, but I hadn’t been provided with vocational writing skills in the same way that my editorial and publishing classes had – and which had made me not only employable but capable. I had a few short stories – soulless in every way and cringe-worthy in their re-reading – and a 12,000-word thesis on realism. Let’s face it, more or less I had nothing. The question I really wanted answered was, had I chosen the wrong subjects or the wrong degree?

Fortunately, I had completed my Graduate Diploma in Editing and Publishing several years earlier and was already working as an editor – I’d managed to get my foot in that particular publishing door just as it was closing. For this reason, I wasn’t panicked about my career prospects, but I was certainly worried. The writing subjects and thesis that the completion of my master required were supposed to set me confidently on a new trajectory, even if it ran parallel to the one I was already on – but I’m still an editor and I have a writing portfolio so small I am embarrassed to show it to anyone. ‘Oh I write,’ I say to people. ‘But mostly just for myself.’

Three of the novelists longlisted for this year’s Miles Franklin Prize – Peggy Frew (Hope Farm), Myfanwy Jones (Leap) and Lucy Treloar (Salt Creek) – are graduates of RMIT’s Diploma of Professional Writing and Editing. This does not surprise me. Graduates of this highly regarded course already included acclaimed writers such Carrie Tiffany (Mateship with Birds) and Graeme Simsion (The Rosie Effect). I can’t help but wonder whether it was the practical tutelage they received during their PWE studies that gave them the extra nudge to turn the imagined into something physical, with a front, back and spine.

But, really, who’s to say their success has anything to do with their qualifications, whatever the nature, and not their individual determination, dedication, talent? Perhaps next year’s longlisted writers will include graduates with the same qualities from any number of Australian universities now offering creative writing degrees, including my own classmates. And, of course, there will always be those who never stepped into a writing class at all.

We can only be certain of one thing they will have in common, and it won’t be that they all own a copy of that Norton anthology. It will simply be that they all sat down and wrote. And this is something I have yet to do in a serious and dedicated way – and perhaps that’s the real source of the relentless niggling feeling I have.


Image: ‘Writer’, by Mario Mancuso / 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:

Gabrielle Innes

Gabrielle Innes is a freelance editor and writer.

More by Gabrielle Innes ›

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  1. I appreciate your view, thanks Gabrielle. I wonder, would you say it’s a common frustration among your classmates, to now be working ‘in and around’ writing but not feeling dedicated enough to your own writing?

    1. Gabrielle, I used to often wonder whether studying a degree in writing would help me sit down to write. I had spent a long time, over ten years wanting to write but only dabbling. I have been totally inspired by my post grad degree experience and I am writing in a way that I could not have imagined without the support of the tutors and other students. My expectations were different I suppose; I went in expecting exactly the experience you describe and I am so pleasantly surprised that mine has been different. The thing that the degree has given me is structure and confidence in equal measure. Oh, and the most wonderful teaching staff at Sydney Uni.

  2. I personally found that the use of Literary Theory in my Masters Degree from Swinburn University of Technology was very useful. Not because I use it consciously when I am writing, that would be impossible. But having an understanding of Theory as a base layer, allows me to have a foundation to build on that a piece of writing that has only Literary Technique can lack when seeking to say something deeper than plot. It also allows me to interrogate privilege and prejudice which I may unconsciously bring to a piece of writing, and thus weaken the intent.
    Having said that Literary Theory isn’t for everyone. I would be hesitant to suggest Literary Theory for any of the Emergent Writers I work with because they are still struggling with Literary Technique and would find Lit Theory needlessly confusing.
    I do agree with you though in a wish for more career guidance from such degrees, though I have found good career guidance thin on the ground across many different platforms, not just Post Grad studies.

    1. ‘good career guidance thin on the ground across many different platforms’…understatement!I spent many years at uni and loved the social experience and the even the pressure…at times. But I have to say there is no doubt I am a master cynic when it comes to the underbelly motivation from most institutions. It’s about numbers, money and some delusional idea of superiority. I vomit in my mouth when I see and hear much of the language used in academia. Yep, travel…meet people, talk to strangers.I did well in my degrees, but my skill in almost anything and everything I do is …pretty much nothing to do with academic input.

  3. Why don’t the universities that offer creative writing courses do more to support the journals where many of their graduates should aim to publish, at least at the start of their ‘careers’?For example, by siphoning $150 worth of each student’s fees to mandatory subscriptions to (say) three journals? The journals already work together on joint subscriptions, so it wouldn’t be difficult to organise (even for a university!). I’m not suggesting that course fees be raised – the indebtedness is bad enough already. But universities that presumably use revenues from creative writing courses to cross-subsidise research should take a more generous position in this area – and of course, students (and tutors) should read their contemporaries.

  4. Just this morning I searched, once again, on the internet for a degree course in Creative Writing. One that would suit me, preferably on-line (because I live in the country) and one that I think I would enjoy. I did not find one. What I did find is that as the years have rolled by I have given myself permission to be selective as my own experiences of gaining a degree did not impress me to continue after the first 5 years.

    Whilst reading a number of recommended “How to Write” books with a variety of genres thrown in and learning that each writer follows then deviates with his/her own creative needs, I am, at this time, concluding that there are a few basic rules to follow when writing the magnum opus and then the muse takes over.

    I find Australia to be rather snobbish when it comes to pieces of paper according degrees of learning upon the recipients. In England it used to be experience that was worthy of a gold star, not so in Australia. Many degree holders display attitudes of superiority that seem to include more achievements than have been earned. How sad is that? How laughable even? Now and again, I decide that perhaps a degree in creative writing would be helpful to me. More of a case of, if you can’t beat them, join them.

    And then, I read your article which I found enlightening and encouraging. If creative writing courses are a “failure” then I am grateful for your comments and feel satisfied with my own achievements in this area. More so am I delighted that I have not paid for something that I feel would be wasted in my endeavours to become a successful writer (whatever that might mean).

    Dear Mr Albert Einstein is quoted to have said that our imaginations are greater than intelligence. So there it is. Some basic rules, imagination, willingness to read and write each day, a muse and a bit of passion thrown in and a smidgen of patience. A great remedy for the ailing Word-smith.

    Thanks Gabrielle, you have made my day.

  5. Amen to that. I feel the same RE: Bachelor of Journo from Monash that I have literally never used. Now I’m a chef for Topdeck with zero qualifications whatsoever. Cheers Uni debt!

  6. Full time creative writing, considering the supply and demand?

    I don’t know that we’re even up to the stage of hunting in the morning, fishing in the afternoon, rearing cattle in the evening, and writing creatively after dinner.

  7. I’ve just emerged from a Master of Arts in Nonfiction Writing at UTS (Sydney). While the learning was wonderful, this degree – since collapsed into the Master of Arts in Creative Arts – did not require me to take a literary theory course. I don’t know that this will make me any better or worse a writer than I would otherwise have been. I did take a professional editing elective and am very glad to have done so. Not only has it helped me with my writing, it recently landed me a job doing a structural edit on a coffee table book for a client in Germany! I can’t speak for other universities, but UTS was great at trying to point its students towards potential publishers, journals, competitions, etc. I know it’s a tough world out there – I’ve had several rejections – but all one can do is keep trying.

  8. Only ‘several’?!

    For approximately half my life I have made a living manipulating words. The most money is have made is for rapidly compiled efforts using journalistic skills I was taught long years ago.

    Things that I sweated blood over never sold.

    Right place, right time and grab your opportunities seem to be a workable plan.

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