Reading you under the table since 2012

Creative Writing Classes — Beneficial or a Waste of Time?

by

Vahini Naidoo

When I was in high school, I was adamant that I would never take a creative writing class. The pointers we received in English classes always seemed pointless and inapplicable to my own writing — creative writing wasn’t something that could be easily passed on from student to teacher. The best writing teacher, I thought, would be reading as many books as possible.

I still, to a large extent, think this. At the same time, I’m happily enrolled in a creative writing class. So, why the change of heart?

For me, it came about because I felt something was missing from my English major. I was being assessed on my ability to critically read and engage with texts, but not my ability to construct them, and as a result I felt like I wasn’t learning as much as I possibly could be about words. So I finally took the plunge this semester and enrolled in a creative writing class.

While I am actually — and somewhat surprisingly — getting a lot out of my class, I still don’t think creative writing classes are for everyone. In fact, they could actually be hugely detrimental to some people’s processes. So, what are the advantages and pitfalls of creative writing classes?

Firstly, and I think this comes up in a lot of posts about writing classes, if you’re studying creative writing at the tertiary level there does seem to be a preference amongst academics for literary writing. My own program is not like this, so I haven’t run into any problems on that front (although, admittedly, my writing tends to lean that way, anyway), but it would probably be a good idea to work out based on the experience of past students or what lecturers have published whether the program you’re considering is riddled with literary snobs.

The second thing that can be a pitfall for some is that writing classes often expect you to experiment with various styles. For someone like me who had become quite comfortable with novel writing, switching to forms like poetry and short stories can be really difficult. Whether or not this is a pitfall or an advantage, though, is entirely dependent on your perspective as a writer. I have wanted, for a long time, to get outside of my comfort zone, so the experimentation has had benefits for me.

Another major issue that turns a lot of students away from taking creative writing is, obviously, grades. My lecturer is always telling us to ‘be selfish’ about the course, but if you’re someone who is particularly concerned about their grades, it becomes harder in a writing course to do what you want and use the course to benefit yourself. You can easily become caught up in trying to cater to the demands of the classes by writing in a particular, favoured genre or in a certain style or voice that does not come naturally to you. If grades are an issue for you, then you might want to steer clear of such a subjective class.

Lastly, how much you get out of writing courses can depend on your personality. Workshopping is probably the key feature of most creative writing courses, but some writers are far too shy to handle in-person feedback. If you wouldn’t feel comfortable responding to people’s questions about your work, or asking pointed questions, or receiving harsh feedback face-to-face then you might not be cut out for creative writing classes. Of course, there are people like me who absolutely think that they’re too shy for workshopping but who wind up really enjoying it and benefitting from it — I think it’s really something you just have to try once or twice, to see whether it works for you.

For me, creative writing classes have been beneficial because they’ve allowed me to get outside my comfort zone as a writer, but this doesn’t mean that classes don’t have their pitfalls or that they’re suited to everyone.

If you’ve taken a creative writing class, what was your experience like? If you haven’t, do you think you’d ever be interested in taking one in the future?

Vahini Naidoo is a University student from Canberra, Australia. She spends inordinate amounts of time consuming instant noodles and novels. Her debut, Fall to Pieces, will be released by Marshall Cavendish in Fall, 2012. You can read more of her rambly thoughts on her blog.

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14 Comments

  1. Posted April 24, 2012 at 10:40 am | Permalink

    Great post, Vee! I love my CW classes but agree they might not be the thing for everyone :)

  2. Posted April 24, 2012 at 11:06 am | Permalink

    Lots of wisdom here — and I really agree that rather than saying classes like this are a great idea/always bad, what you really need to do is weigh up the factors involved in this particular course, and your particular needs. I looked at some when I was at uni, and realized very quickly that my spec fic inclinations weren’t going to find a home there! That said, my co-author went to Odyssey, which I know was the most valuable experience of her writing life, and I’ve loved getting her Odyssey lessons second hand!

    • Posted April 28, 2012 at 10:52 pm | Permalink

      It really is a very individual thing, although I think it’s such a shame (and so weirdly narrow minded of universities) that spec fic is just not welcome in so many of these courses! I really hope that that changes sometime soon — and ooh, Odyssey lessons sound super cool :)

  3. Ellen
    Posted April 24, 2012 at 11:49 am | Permalink

    I’ve taken a bunch of creative writing classes, and even within the same department at the same university, the quality of those classes varies. I took a creative writing class–straight up creative writing in a variety of forms–that was terrible, followed by a fiction class whose TA turned out to be one of the biggest helps ever to getting my WIP on track.

    I’d say it largely depends on who’s teaching the course and what the focus is on. I know that my university undergrad creative writing program isn’t a huge fan of genre. A lot of my friends go the “too stinking bad, I’ll write what I want to” route, but I know there are some people who hoped they wouldn’t have certain teachers reading their work because they don’t write genre and aren’t fans of it.

    I don’t know. I guess the big answer is that you should do your research first if you’re actually writing, and see what classes are best suited to your needs.

    • Posted April 28, 2012 at 10:55 pm | Permalink

      I definitely agree that there can be a huge variation just between different professors. Research is definitely the best way to go!

  4. Posted April 24, 2012 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

    I got a BA in creative writing. It was…mildly useful. I learned how to critique, which is a bril, solid tool–it teaches you how to be more objective about your own work. And I learned how to fight off literary snobs–this is valuable. A fellow student once asked me Why in hell I would choose to write horror, since NO ONE reads it. What? Yeah. The fool. Stephen King, baby. Stephen King.

    • Posted April 28, 2012 at 10:57 pm | Permalink

      Haha, how odd re the “no one reads horror!” comment! That person must have been living in a very strange cultural bubble. I feel like in comparison to a lot of CW programs, mine is very unpretentious. I think I picked up critiquing skills before the actual classes, but I’ve definitely worked out a lot about how to deliver critique in person and have it be well-received.

  5. Posted April 24, 2012 at 8:03 pm | Permalink

    You made great points about creative writing, especially in regard to literary writing. I myself am about to start an MFA at the Vermont College of Fine Arts in Children’s & YA writing, so I made sure it was the right fit for me (as opposed to an MFA from Columbia, where most people wouldn’t necessarily get my YA leanings).

    • Posted April 28, 2012 at 10:58 pm | Permalink

      Ooh, I would love to get an MFA at some point — you’re right that you’d need a program that’s the right fit for you, though. Vermont seems fantastic for YA. Good luck with it! I hope it’s brilliant :)

  6. Posted April 24, 2012 at 8:21 pm | Permalink

    I was a CW major (graduated in January). I enjoyed some of my classes, and others not so much. But, it was because of the professor. The first CW class was with a free-flowing, poetry, you can do no wrong professor. I understood her teaching method and it works for many people. However, it wasn’t for me. If I’m workshopping a piece I need feedback, not comments like “i liked the imagery”. My 2nd CW class worked out much better because I preferred that prof’s teaching style. He was harsh with his criticism, but it was always to the benefit of the work. It also prepared you for the real world – not everyone is going to like your writing and you WILL receive negative reviews.

    My college was one of those that leaned toward literary fiction. The professors made it clear that they wouldn’t tolerate any kind of genre fiction and ripped you apart if you handed in SciFi, romance, paranormal, etc. This was outside of MY comfort zone because I don’t like literary fiction (writing it at least), I prefer commercial fiction and think I would be able to reach more people that way. But, I did what I had to do and a new layer was added to my writing. (Truthfully, I’d be delighted to find a program that was a perfect blend of literary and genre fiction)

    • Posted April 28, 2012 at 11:01 pm | Permalink

      Argh, again with this genre prejudice! It’s so not cool and I wish Universities would just get over it and hold all kinds of fiction in equally high esteem. Quality over category, you know. I’m also a greater fan of harsh feedback than praise — definitely more helpful in terms of improving your work :)

  7. Teresa
    Posted April 25, 2012 at 10:03 pm | Permalink

    I’m a current CW major and I love it. This is a lot because my creative writing professor (sadly we have only one, tiny university that we are) is completely amazing. She is very open to different styles and voices and her goal is to get you on track with what you’re trying to accomplish, and help you accomplish it to the best of your ability. As some others have said, I’ve learned a lot about critiquing which is a truly invaluable skill – it helps me be more critical of my own work, but also helps me identify elements I like and dislike (and my reasons for them) in everything that I read.
    Truthfully one thing that I love about these classes is that they keep me writing. It’s easy to just let my writing fall to the side when I have so many other things going on, but since it’s a class, it’s semi- “forced” (really it just means that I have to set aside time to do something I enjoy). The various classes have also really helped me explore genres and find what I like. Nonfiction is not my thing, but (surprising to me) I’m actually a fairly good poet, which has helped my fiction-writing immensely, teaching me about compression, word choice, and the effects of punctuation.
    Overall I would say it absolutely depends on what your creative process is and what types of professors you end up with. So far, this major has been nothing but encouraging to me, bolstering my hopes to be a writer as a career, not a hobby.

    • Posted April 28, 2012 at 11:03 pm | Permalink

      I’ve actually been finding the forced writing aspect really helpful, too — although I’ve always sort of just been a very butt-in-chair sort of person, so it just bolsters that habit. And your professor sounds absolutely perfect! I hope the course keeps on helping you accomplish your goals :)

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