Can creative writing be taught? Irish authors give their answers
John Boyne, Joseph O’Connor, Gavin Corbett, Henrietta McKervey, Mary Morrissy, Paula McGrath, Paul Perry and Máire T Robinson have their say on the MFA
Henrietta McKervey, whose second novel The Heart of Everything was published last month, did an MFA in UCD in 2012. “I wrote two books while doing it, so the practical advice and focus on deadlines was obviously a big help,” she says. “Having to produce work to show other people every week is quite the motivator, though what’s ultimately more important is that those people are the right ones. From what I’ve heard about some programmes, workshop scenarios can be unpleasantly competitive, more MMA than MFA. That wasn’t my experience”
Joe Boyle, Tara White and Dave Rudden, author of YA novel, Knights of the Borrowed Dark, at the UCD Creative Writing Masters Course anthology launch at the Workman’s Club in 2013. Photograph: Dave Meehan
Yiyun Li, alumnus of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the oldest graduate creative writing programme in the US, at its 75th anniversary reunion in 2011 . Photograph: Getty Images
Prof Joseph O’Connor, the Frank McCourt Chair in Creative Writing, with Ellen McCourt, wife of the late Frank McCourt at his inaugural lecture at the University of Limerick. “It isn’t for every writer,” says O’Connor. “I didn’t do an MA in creative writing myself. But nobody would say to a talented young violinist, painter or dancer ‘Do you know what you should do? Take no lessons.’” Photograph: Alan Place/FusionShooters
“It’s a private space where a group of strangers can share their most intimate ideas with each other and benefit from a workshop discussion,” says John Boyne. “I find it frustrating when novelists who have not been on one of these courses dismiss them as all churning out the same type of writer. Any list of graduates proves this to be patently false and there’s a certain smugness in the writer who suggests that he or she got there without any help or advice from others.” Photograph: Alan Betson
“Why are you here? Why aren’t you sitting at home writing?” John Steinbeck once asked a group of students he was tutoring in the art of fiction. As with other crafts, his point was that writers learn to write by writing. You don’t become a good cook by reading recipes, you don’t learn to drive by watching Top Gear, and you don’t sit in a classroom and emerge a few semesters later with the formula to the next Booker.
But as the growing number of creative writing programmes in Ireland and internationally in recent years shows, there is huge demand for mentoring in the craft. Creative writing has become an industry in Ireland over the past decade. There are evening classes, summer courses, weekend retreats, workshops at literary festivals and an annual Novel Fair at the Irish Writers Centre.
While Trinity College was the first to offer a creative writing masters almost 20 years ago in 1997, today each of Ireland’s universities features such programmes as part of the curriculum.
Everyone has a book in them, quipped the British journalist Christopher Hitchens, but in most cases that’s where it should stay. Opponents of creative writing programmes believe they encourage mediocre writing and result in samey, formulaic novels. Speaking at a literary festival some years ago, the British Pakistani novelist and creative writing teacher Hanif Kureishi said that his students at Kingston University could write sentences but not tell stories: “It’s probably 99.9 per cent who are not talented and the little bit that is left is talent.”
Kureishi and fellow detractors are ignoring the many benefits of creative writing programmes: the pleasure of studying and learning from established authors, a creative atmosphere, assignments that lead to inspiration, a like-minded community, feedback, mentoring, deadlines and perhaps the most important – legitimate time devoted to writing.
“It isn’t for every writer,” says the novelist Joseph O’Connor. “I didn’t do an MA in creative writing myself. But nobody would say to a talented young violinist, painter or dancer ‘Do you know what you should do? Take no lessons.’”
O’Connor was appointed to set up UL’s creative writing masters in June 2014. The programme, which has included Donal Ryan and Mary O’Malley as writers-in-residence, has had keen interest from students and is expanding by setting up a New York-based summer school in July. UL will also offer an MA in Song Writing, the first such in Ireland, from September 2017.
Among the benefits O’Connor sees in a creative writing masters are support from internationally published authors, a sense of belonging to a community of writers, the learning of skills like editing and structure, and the ability to read like a writer as opposed to a critic or academic.
“There’s also the discipline of managing deadlines, a qualification, and a forum in which to advance and develop a large-scale writing project,” he says. “And then there are the less measurable but equally important benefits: the sense of satisfaction to be gained from devoting a year of one’s life to something creative and enjoyable, the little voice in the head that says ‘to be able to write is a gift, which not everyone has, and I did something to respect and develop my gift’.”
O’Connor says that teaching creative writing has changed his reading. “I don’t think I’d have become so interested in the current generation of Irish writers had I not been teaching, but I’m knocked out by their skill. People like Rob Doyle, Sara Baume, Paul Lynch, Lisa McInerney, Colin Barrett, Gavin Corbett, Danielle McLaughlin, Henrietta McKervey, Elizabeth Reapy. Their prose is so impressive and assured.”
Many of the authors named by O’Connor have fostered their talents on various university programmes. Henrietta McKervey, whose second novel The Heart of Everything was published last month, did an MFA in UCD in 2012.
“I wrote two books while doing it, so the practical advice and focus on deadlines was obviously a big help,” she says. “Having to produce work to show other people every week is quite the motivator, though what’s ultimately more important is that those people are the right ones. From what I’ve heard about some programmes, workshop scenarios can be unpleasantly competitive, more MMA than MFA. That wasn’t my experience.”
One of McKervey’s classmates in the MFA was Paula McGrath, who published her debut novel Generations last summer. Her second book was recently acquired by John Murray. McGrath, who had two-year-old twins in 2012, felt that an intensive block of time would make a big difference to her writing.
“I enrolled on the MFA hoping for constructive feedback from more experienced writers, and I benefitted hugely from the inputs of Éilís Ní Dhuibhne, Lia Mills, James Ryan, Frank McGuinness, writer-in-residence Carlo Gebler, and my very talented group of peers. Best of all was the opportunity to troubleshoot problems with the work-in-progress, and to brainstorm solutions. I missed this sorely when I sat down to ‘that difficult second novel’.”
When it comes to the drawbacks of a MFA, McGrath cites the cost and “Belfield’s distinct absence of any romantic, artist-in-a-garret vibe”. McKervey says a potential negative could be the danger of producing graduates who have a house style, “though that wasn’t my experience, it worked out really well for me.”
The novelist Gavin Corbett, Trinity College’s Irish Writer Fellow for 2016, did a creative writing course through the Faber Academy in 2009, six years after publishing his debut novel. “I was despondent with writing at that time. I’d got sidetracked since my first novel, and figured that weekly seminars would give me the jolt I needed to get going again. I looked on it as a cheap MFA. It seemed everyone was doing creative writing courses at universities, for many thousands of euro, and the Faber course was considerably cheaper.
With the cost of creative writing programmes at Irish universities in 2016 in the region of €6,000-€7,000 per year, and rising significantly for foreign students, would-be writers may be better off trying evening courses or writing on their own time for a period before committing.
“You mustn’t think you have it made just because you’ve paid for the thing and got a place on one,” says Corbett. “Creative writing programmes are like homeopathy – you’re paying people to tell you that you’ll be fine and all will be great. But if you’re not putting in back-breaking hours yourself, it’s money down the toilet. You’ve got to write something while you’re on a CW programme, and it’s only by writing that you’ll improve your craft. You’ll learn nothing just nodding your head and scribbling notes in class.”
Corbett says talent is still the main thing a writer needs to get published. “What a course does is speed up the journey to publication; what might have taken 10 years now might only take three, as you’ll have gained confidence, got something written, and maybe made contact with useful people in the publishing industry. But only for those with gifts. For the others – well, they’ll have had a nice experience for the year.”
One of the most prestigious programmes in creative writing in Europe is the masters at the University of East Anglia, which counts authors such as Anne Enright, John Boyne, Gavin McCrea, Paul Murray and, more recently, Thomas Morris among its alumni. Boyne now funds a scholarship at UEA to support Irish students taking the MA.
“It’s a private space where a group of strangers can share their most intimate ideas with each other and benefit from a workshop discussion,” says Boyne. “I find it frustrating when novelists who have not been on one of these courses dismiss them as all churning out the same type of writer. Any list of graduates proves this to be patently false and there’s a certain smugness in the writer who suggests that he or she got there without any help or advice from others.
“It’s simply a way of glorifying themselves and their work, as if they have natural genius but writing graduates don’t. What’s wrong with advice, after all? We would never think of criticising someone for attending art school or film school but a writing school seems to infuriate those who have never been there and don’t understand the process that goes on.”
Many of those who mentor on creative writing programmes find the process beneficial to their own writing. “I don’t consider leading a workshop as lecturing,” says Paul Perry, a poet and crime writer who is part of the UCD creative writing staff. “It’s much more interactive than that. I see the workshop as a facilitation of a community of practice. I’ve learned so much – about people, about literature, writing and language, and about myself.”
Perry believes that the creative process is fluid, mysterious, and collaborative. “It helps define who we are as individuals and as a society, and that the creative act of making something, whether it is a poem, story or novel, takes courage, engages the imagination and helps shape the world we live in.”
The Dublin writer Mary Morrissy has lectured in creative writing at UCC since 2015. As a self-taught writer, she says she’s learnt the vocabulary of technique, “putting names on things I found by instinct”. Like Perry, she also finds the “hotbed of creativity, surrounded by students who are busily writing” stimulating to her own work: “I’m introduced to new genres all the time – steampunk is my latest discovery – that I wouldn’t have found on my own.”
And what do the students learn from the established literary voices? “Part of the course was a writers’ seminar where each week a different writer visited, read from their work and had a discussion with us,” says the novelist Máire T Robinson, who did the MA in Writing in NUI Galway in 2008.
“Every week we would ask them for their one great piece of writing advice. We would lean forward, notebooks in hand, pens at the ready. They all said the same thing: write first thing in the morning. We got pretty bored of hearing this ‘write first thing in the morning business’, but there was a reason every single person recommended it. It is good advice and advice I still try to follow.”
Robinson’s debut novel, Skin, Paper, Stone, was published last year by New Island. She’s currently working on a historical novel. Her experiences at NUI Galway were positive but she says that in hindsight it may have suited her better to do a programme that solely focused on creative writing.
“The MA in Writing covers a range of forms so I ended up taking modules in things like twentieth-century women’s fiction, theatre reviewing and crime reporting. While these were fascinating distractions, I knew Paul Williams wouldn’t have to worry about me coming for his job.”
Finding the right programme is important, as is acknowledging before signing up that a masters doesn’t mean a book deal. “Not every course is going to produce professional writers,” says Morrissy. “Nor is that their aim, necessarily. Nobody asks if we have too many French evening classes or music appreciation courses.
“Many part-time writing courses are aimed at exploring the creative impulse through language. I don’t see that as a bad thing. Even at university level, very few of the writers who go through masters courses become professional writers – this country can’t support that, anyway – but they may go into allied professions where those writing skills and creative imaginations will be used – in new media, television, script writing, journalism. Or they may write for their own pleasure, but with more skill and expertise.”
How does she feel about the old adage that everyone has a novel in them? “Everyone may have a novel in them but not everyone has the ambition, the courage, the endurance or the stamina to actually sit down and write it. Even writing a bad novel requires these attributes. It’s sheer hard work without any guarantee of reward. If you’ve got a talent for burrowing away in the dark without expectation or despair, then you’re a natural.”