Sunday, 12 July 2020

Why do a Creative Writing degree? by Vanessa Harbour

Unusually, I am going to start this blog post with a caveat for clarity and openness. I need to declare that I am a senior lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Winchester. My English degree had
creative writing modules embedded within it. My Masters is an MA in Writing for Children and I have a practice-led doctorate which included writing a novel, in my case a piece of young adult fiction. As you can imagine this piece is coming from a certain perspective and the views voiced are very much my own.

University of Winchester Campus

We all know that you don’t need a degree to become a writer. There is no argument about that. You can pick up a pen and a piece of paper then write. With a whole load of tenacity and potentially a good dollop of luck, you could get published.

Doing a Creative Writing degree should not be about getting published. No course I know of will make any promises about getting published at the end of it. What a Creative Writing degree is about is finding out who you are as a writer. It gives you a chance to experiment – something you won’t necessarily do at home on your own. It challenges you and allows you to hone your craft. 

When I first started studying I had a very set idea as to what sort of writer I thought I was. It very definitely wasn’t a children’s writer. That idea had never entered my head, don’t ask me why not as I had children, but it hadn’t. During my undergraduate degree, I had some modules with Judy Waite
and Andrew Melrose. They both encouraged me to have a go at writing for children and young adults. When I did, it felt like coming home. My voice felt natural and the stories flowed. I never looked back. That is what a Creative Writing degree can do, it can challenge you to try different things. Take you outside of your comfort zone. Allowing you to find a new voice.

PhD graduation with Prof Andrew Melrose

Those that teach on Creative Writing degrees are well aware of the reality of being a writer. Most are writers too. They ensure the students are aware of this reality and prepare them for it. A Creative Writing degree is not all about writing the next bestseller. It is about showing them what can be done with writing. The different careers and opportunities that have writing embedded within. It is about employability as much as being a writer. Some students go onto to have very successful careers as writers. 

For example, our students go on to work in the following areas, not limited to but including publishing (all areas); teaching (primary, secondary, further and higher); PR and Advertising; all aspects of Media e.g. TV Script editor, documentary maker, video game writer, web design and content creators; the charity sector and so on... There is so much more. People often ask me 'aren't you limited by doing a Creative Writing degree?' So far I don't believe my students have experienced that. I have heard of organisations who target CW students because they think outside the box, forgive the cliche. My students will often hear me say, you are only limited by your imagination.
A CW degree is all about what you do with it.

I should add, there is no point doing a Creative Writing degree unless you are passionate about writing and reading. It is not a soft option, but then those of us that are writers know that that is the life of a writer. To be a writer of any sort you need passion and tenacity, you need to read – a lot - and you need resilience.

I have written this blog post because I find myself defending Creative Writing degrees regularly so I thought I would just put my point of view in a blog post. I am sure many of you will disagree and you are welcome to. As I said, this is purely my perspective. I would just ask that if someone you care about says they want to do a Creative Writing degree think twice before dismissing it.   

Dr Vanessa Harbour


Penny Dolan said...

Thank you for this post and all the points you're making. It's good to read about the benfits of doing a Creative Writing Degree from someone working in that field, and familiar with all the questions.

Ness Harbour said...

Thank you Penny

Nick Garlick said...

Great post. You made me see the whole subject in a new light: the chance to take writing and reading seriously, and to commit to them.

Ness Harbour said...

Thank you Nick.

Anne Booth said...

I did an MA in Creative writing in the evenings when our children were small, and I am so glad I did. It gave me permission to write and to experiment and learn and to believe in myself as a writer - I didn't actually write anything for children then - I wrote short stories and started a novel - and read other people's work - and I thought it was wonderful. I really valued sharing my work with the other students and reading theirs and feeling part of a community. We all took writing seriously, and were guided and given helpful and challenging critiques by tutors, who also encouraged us to read great writers and analyse their craft, so we weren't left without direction. I am actually back working on the novel I started then, but after that I went to 2 Arvon courses on writing for children (including one where Linda Strachan taught!) and felt at home, so that's what diverted me into children's writing up to now. My daughter is now doing an English and Creative Writing degree at Birmingham, and I know she is really enjoying it, and I am proud of her doing it. I can see how hard she is working and the discipline she has to have in order to create a writing portfolio, and the creative writing part is definitely not easier than the straight English part of her degree. I just did an straight English degree and I think it would have been good for me to have had a Creative Writing element as it might have given me self belief and focus and confidence in my writing earlier . Can I ask you where you did your PhD?

Gill James said...

My trajectory is very similar to Ness's. I also have an MA in Writing for Children, (also with a photograph of my graduation at Winchester with Andy Melrose)and a PhD in Creative and Critical Writing (University of Wales, Bangor) for which I wrote a YA novel with a critical commentary that sought to establish the definition of the YA novel according to the texts themselves, publishers, book sellers, educationalists and young people - in several languages and across several continents. I too was a senior lecturer at a UK university until I retired. I still am a writer and widely published and though not rich or famous, am comfortably off partly because of income from writing. I know a lot about children's literature that goes beyond but also includes knowing how to get published. The value added from the degrees, I think, and I hope is also the same for my students who graduated with BAs and MAs, is the development of a deeply critical reflective process, a joy that the deep exploration of the literature and creative process brings, and permission to spend my time doing what I love. They pay me or grant me a loan to do this? Wow!

Ness Harbour said...

Thank you both Gill and Anne for your comments. Much appreciated. Anne, I did my PhD at Winchester. I how have supervised and am supervising a variety of creative writing based PhDs, not all children/YA based. My PhD looked at the representation of sex, drugs and alcohol in young adult fiction. My degrees and my teaching have allowed to experience so many different aspects of writing and explore the world of publishing.