The creative writing world's collective hair has been set on fire by
Hanif Kureishi's observations on the life and education of the
contemporary writer at the Hay Festival this year. In particular, his
notion that creative writing classes are "the new mental hospitals."
Clearly, Kureishi didn't mean mental hospitals in the Foulcauldian
sense. At least for his own students at Kingston University in London.
They're all "very nice" people -- residents of the bucolic loony bins
of Thomas Dolby's "She Blinded Me With Science"video.
But Kureishi's also on to something about the function of writing
classes: from the heightened expectations of students (the notion that
writing classes are going to help you "solve" your life's unresolved
conflicts or "express" one's su/repressed emotions, or even become a
famous writer) to the high stakes involved in delving into such territory
in a classroom setting, graded or ungraded:
"One of the things you notice is that when you switch on the
television and a student has gone mad with a machine gun on a campus
in America, it's always a writing student," Kureishi told the audience.
That's a whopping exaggeration, of course. (Workshops don't kill.
People kill.) But in my own long experience (including obtaining
that "terminal degree" known as the MFA in writing), I've found
that the best writing classes are run like dance classes. There's an
emphasis on craft: exercises, repetition, execution. You acquire
tools and the confidence to face the blank page. Tricks to jump
start yourself. A formal vocabulary to articulate what it is that
you're up to. And you read read read read... a lot of different things...
but with an attention to the mechanics. How the poem or story or
play is put together.
There's absolutely a mentoring aspect to learning how to write. Ad hoc
groups also can be incredibly helpful at certain parts of the process. But
both of those things are *chosen* relationships. You can't hold a gun
to an established poet's head and demand that he/she be your mentor.
You like (and find helpful) the fiction writing group that you join,
or you stop going to it.
In my view, the entire academic infrastructure that's been built
up around creative writing (and there are similarities to journalism
here) has not really advanced the field much at all -- beyond merely
professionalizing it within academia. Workshops, in particular, are
among the worst venues in creative writing pedagogy. At best they
are a mild help to a writer's work -- and usually that help comes
from one or two participants. At worst, they can be vicious exhibitions
of the worst sort of pack mentality.
If Kureishi's remarks spur a look in the mirror in writing programs, they
might be useful. But I doubt that they will. Thus, they will be doomed
to be yet more snarky, bilious words uttered at Hay. Which makes them
nothing special at all.