Creative Writing in Relation to Formal Essay-Writing Skills and Understanding of Literature/ Language and Literature: explorations along the border

Creative Writing, Literacy & Writing skills

Introduction

A project to explore the connections between creative writing and writing skills in English Literature led by Kathleen Bell with research by Heather Conboy

Using interviews and questionnaires as well as samples of student work, the project examines student perceptions of the way in which a Creative Writing component, taken in the first term of their university degree, provides skills which are relevant to the study of English Literature, particularly in textual analysis and the production of clear written English for academic purposes.

An eleven-week Creative Writing course, Writing English, designed by Kathleen Bell, is made available on this site for use by interested teachers and student writers.

If you do use or adapt these materials, we would be grateful for your feedback or suggestions on the Creative Writing in University English Blog.

Preface

New approaches to teaching any subject are usually contentious. This is particularly true in the Humanities where students are expected to engage with debates which are not merely technical and analytical but which also fall, implicitly at least, in the broad area of ethics.

It is not surprising that the rapid expansion of creative writing courses in British universities has caused debate and mistrust. The subject challenges all sorts of assumptions: about the nature of literature and authority as well as the future popularity and prestige of English as university subjects. Debates often emerge in such questions as: can creative writing be taught? can it be taught to our students? or, more brutally, what’s the point?

The tension also derives from the idea that universities are for thinking, not doing, and that practice-based, craft disciplines are out of place in the academy. There is no doubt that creative writing is practice-based although, disconcertingly, it not only employs language – just like contemplative and theoretical disciplines – but even argues that it uses language with greater precision and complexity. While apprentice artists and musicians are welcome at universities where their studies combine craft, history and understanding of the field, the apprentice writer is a relatively new arrival.

The Scope of the Project

While the scope of this project, which looks at creative writing within English, may seem narrow, it touches on wider questions. For instance, if literary texts are what English students study, why is the creation of literature so often treated as an inferior discipline to criticism? The American scholar Tim Mayers calls for academics teaching composition and creative writing to band together “to invert the traditional hierarchy of English studies, which privileges interpretation over production.” (Tim Mayers, (Re)Writing Craft: Composition, Creative Writing and the Future of English Studies, University of Pittsburgh Press, 2005, p.xv) This may not be an entirely serious call, since his aim, stated in the same paragraph, is no more than equality of treatment. Elsewhere he acknowledges that there is much to cherish in the “privileged marginality” enjoyed by creative writing tutors in the academy, since they are “insulated largely from the turmoil of English studies” and have the benefit of drawing little attention to themselves. (Ibid. p.21) Nonetheless, the plausibility of Mayers’ argument shows what is at stake for English academics – and his argument on this point is clear enough for first-year students to grasp.

While this project’s focus is on a short creative writing course delivered in the students’ first term at university, at least one student, reflecting on the course in an interview, began to rethink the way in which English literature is taught at universities, suggesting, “I think more than anything we should do things from other courses in the creative writing classes – instead of moving into other groups – keeping it here.” (See appendix)

Preface: The student view

Most students, however, saw the benefit of the course either in terms of their study of literature or their own writing practice. Disappointingly few saw advantages for their practice of formal essay writing although such advantages are implicit in their responses to survey and interviews. None seemed to make connections with English Language as studied at AS and A2 level. This may be explained by the recent English Subject Centre report (Angela Goddard and Adrian Beard, As Simple as ABC: issues of transition for students of English Language A-Level going on to study English Language/Linguistics in Higher Education, English Subject Centre, 2006, 3.2.5 p.13) which indicates that creative writing involved in 6th form work is mainly imitative or strictly functional (e.g. to assist students’ grasp of genre) although this may change as English Language A-level offers a greater opportunity to practice and reflect on creative writing.

While most students’ reflection on creative writing within English was, so far as the aims of the project was concerned, confined to the relatively narrow area of its impact on their study of literature, there were other, unanticipated benefits which deserve mention. The most significant of these was undoubtedly the way in which the creative writing workshop eased the path of students into higher education – and this was particularly marked in the case of mature students and students who were less certain of their abilities. While confident students, accustomed to gain good grades as critics, were sometimes uncertain of their abilities when asked to write creatively, others experienced the workshop as a place of equality, where everyone had a chance to excel. The experience of emerging from the workshop with one or more pieces of creative work evidently played its part, as did responses and appreciation from peers. Given the trepidation with which students approached the workshop, this result was surprising. It may be the most significant result of the project.

Teaching creative writing within English may cause anxiety to academics used to more traditional approaches to literature. Although I had used creative exercises as part of my literature teaching, I found it challenging to set up a course that taught literature entirely through creative writing. Walking into a workshop and expecting the students to write creatively is quite different from carrying a book and set of notes and expecting the students to respond to a given text. Both I and the students derived unexpected benefits from the creative writing course.

As part of this project, I am making available the outline of an 11-week course with details of the three writing exercises which students found most useful. Other academics are welcome to use and adapt these as they wish.

Summary

The project looked for three main outcomes:

  1. increasing understanding of the ways in which creative writing and literature are mutually beneficial disciplines
  2. enhancing knowledge of student perceptions of the relations between the two disciplines
  3. enabling staff teaching literature to use small creative writing projects within their seminars

A further aim was to consider whether creative writing bridged the gap between students who had studied English literature at A-level and students who had studied English language.

Summary of findings

The findings go beyond the original scope of the project. In particular, they deal with the confidence-building aspect of the creative writing workshop – a subject repeatedly addressed by students in response to questionnaires, interviews and focus groups. I have included tentative comments that move beyond the craft-based focus of the project. This again derives from students’ comments. However, students are less articulate when addressing creativity and their personal experience of writing. A substantial selection of indicative quotations from students can be found in the Appendix. These findings are summarized below.

 

1. There is a beneficial relationship between the practice of Creative writing and the study of English literature.

This is widely recognized by students who focus on the following aspects:

 

  • an insight into the process of writing
  • a much better grasp of form and technique
  • a better understanding of genres, especially poetry

It may be helpful to observe that students identify considerable benefits in relation to areas of English literature which they perceive as “difficult”. The change from an “outside” to an “inside” approach diminishes students’ anxiety by giving them a grasp of process. As part of the course, students are shown manuscript drafts of Wilfred Owen’s poem “Futility”. They are also asked to compare versions of the Keith Douglas poem “Aristocrats”/”Huntsmen” and determine which is the later. Both of these are presented as creative writing tasks but while students see implication for their own work as writers, through understanding, articulating and debating the process of editing and drafting, they are also introduced, in the first few weeks of their literature course, to the kind of tasks which are more usually reserved for postgraduate students.

2. There are direct but unacknowledged benefits in relation to formal essay-writing skills.

Students identified the following gains from studying Creative Writing:

 

  • establishing the habit of writing with the effect of increased fluency
  • a concern with accurate and expressive writing
  • a concern for grammar and punctuation
  • work towards the establishment of an individual “authentic” voice
  • concern with clarity in writing
  • an understanding of the benefits of drafting and editing

3. In addition, students who realised the benefit of accurate grammar and punctuation said they would appreciate further classes on these subjects.

However the majority of students surveyed did not recognize that these aspects of creative writing were relevant to formal essay writing. While it might be worth informing students that these aspects of creative writing are beneficial in writing literature essays, it would also be helpful if these qualities, developed in creative writing, could be identified as valuable when formal essay writing is discussed by literature tutors. It is possible that a culture which explicitly values authenticity, voice and expressiveness in essay-writing could go some way to diminish the temptation to plagiarise.

4. Teaching Creative Writing within English at the beginning of the degree course may raise tensions between theoretical and practice-based approaches to literature.

While these tensions may be productive and raise important questions, they may also cause anxiety and discomfort among lecturers. Students are less likely to be troubled by the tension. Some students may find that they are happier with a practice-based approach to study; it is worth noting that one student called for the inclusion of literature within creative writing rather than the use of creative writing in more theoretical courses. One effect of teaching Creative Writing within English may be the movement of a few English students into Creative Writing, if the option is available. However, any such shift is likely to be in both directions since students who initially see themselves as creative writers may find that they do not enjoy the workshops and prefer to write independently. Since Creative Writing is not an A-level subjects, students arrive with little sense of what it involves as an academic discipline and descriptions of the course cannot do justice to the practice.

5. The practice of creative writing early in the English degree has significant benefits for the confidence with which students approach their subject.

This result was not anticipated but was possibly the strongest finding from the project. Students find the practice of creative writing, including the guided writing and collaborative workshop, an excellent way in to the study of English at university. Regular writing tasks within and outside the workshop are seen as a particular benefit as this inculcates the practice of writing. Students also appreciate leaving each workshop with pieces of writing that they have produced and gaining feedback on their work from fellow-students as well as from the tutor. This result is most marked in students who have least confidence in their own abilities (including students who have been away from higher education for some time). Conversely, students who are confident in their abilities as critics may be nervous at approaching a new discipline in which success if not guaranteed.

6. The scope of the project included the difference in perception and experience of students who had studied English language at A-level and students who had studied English literature.

Because language study nominally includes creative writing, some difference in response was anticipated. However the differences which emerged from the small study group were not statistically significant. This is borne out by my experience as a tutor. Whereas I have sometimes been aware in teaching first years in the English literature seminar room that students with language A-level bring different (though complementary) skills from those with literature A-level, the creative writing workshop gave no insights into this difference and I could not tell which students were which. Creative Writing in current 6th form work seems to be mainly imitative or strictly functional (e.g. to assist students’ grasp of such matters as genre).

 

In addition, while the first year workshop assessment takes equal account of creative and reflective work by marking the two kinds of work together as complementary, the workshop inevitably takes the creative work as its main focus. The kind of analytical work undertaken in English literature A-levels therefore has less immediate relevance than in traditional English courses at university. Consequently, the only finding in relation to language and literature A-levels is that Creative Writing within English seems to produce an environment in which neither background is privileged. Similarly mature students and students without traditional qualifications regard the creative writing workshop as a place where they start at the same point as other students. This may account for some of the confidence students gain through Creative Writing.

7. The usual distinction drawn between creative writing and English literature is that creative writing is primarily a craft-based, practical discipline while English is chiefly analytical and theoretical.

Certainly the creative writing workshop instills craft and foregrounds practice rather than analysis as a means to knowledge. Creative Writing text books can be entirely practice and craft-based. For instance, The Creative Writing Coursebook edited by Julia Bell and Paul Magrs (London: Macmillan, 2001) sees the subject entirely in craft and practice terms. Consequently the cross-over with English is described in terms of criticism of technique and subject e.g. in relation to “the nature of character, narrative, point of view, landscape and ambiguity” (xii). However, the responses to the questionnaire and interviews frequently point beyond the craft-based approach, even though the questionnaire itself had a relatively narrow and largely craft-based focus. The Creative Writing workshop inevitably throws up complex questions, from the relationship between literature and daily life to the effect of the marketplace on literary production. It could be productive to recognize the way these questions recur in the Creative Writing workshop and develop their potential in more conventional literature courses.

 

8. Insights into literary analysis are fore-grounded in the responses to the survey (unsurprisingly because the questionnaire prompted such insights).

However occasional quotations from student feedback suggest engagement with the trickier subject of creativity. A number of students focus on the importance of experiencing creative writing. This could be explored further within literature. While the focus on craft goes some way to demystify author and text, to the extent that students gain confidence in analysis, the experience of writing has potential to spark off deeper investigations about the nature of texts and authority. This benefit might be developed within English literature in a number of ways: for instance, analysis of arguments about poetic inspiration might draw on practical experience and theoretical debates about authority might take examples from students’ writings as well as set texts.

Looking ahead

If Creative Writing continues to flourish within the teaching of English literature, there may be a change of emphasis in the subject. This could include:

  • an increased interest in areas which examine the process of writing and publishing, such as textual editing and book history
  • a greater focus on the role of craft, technique and genre in shaping meaning
  • a widening interest in poetic and literary practice
  • a shift in the way in which major theoretical questions are addressed (for instance in relation to texts and authority)
  • a greater interest in theories of creativity
  • a demand for more courses that offer relevant areas of English Language (including grammar)
  • a request for further creative writing exercises (and assessment by creative writing) in other English courses
  • a sense of creative writing as a proper university discipline

There are, of course, potential pitfalls in moving towards a craft-based approach in the study of English literature. Creative writing courses vary and it is, of course, possible and desirable to consider broader theoretical areas, including the ethical and social implications of both genres and writing in general. Too narrow a focus on the craft of writing can neglect such questions and it is plainly the responsibility of the lecturer to raise them.

It seems inevitable that the growth of Creative Writing at universities will give rise to further debates about the nature of literature, the role of the writer and the respective places of Creative Writing and English in the academy. These are important debates and should take place in the Creative Writing workshop as well as the English literature lecture and seminar room.

Kathleen Bell, Principal Lecturer, English and Creative Writing, De Montfort University, Leicester

Additional resources

An eleven-week Creative Writing course, Writing English, designed by Kathleen Bell, is made available on this site for use by interested teachers and student writers.