Can writing be taught? The proof is in the publications

Perhaps the question to ask is, do writing courses produce writers? Belinda McKeon, Colin Barrett, Claire Kilroy, Sara Baume, Andrew Fox ... so that’ll be a yes

Belinda McKeon: one of many authors to graduate from a creative writing course

Belinda McKeon: one of many authors to graduate from a creative writing course

 

In the 1980s the Man Booker winner Anne Enright had to take the boat to England; so did the short-story supremo Claire Keegan. John Boyne had to take the emigrant’s trail, too. They were all bound for UK universities offering master’s degrees in creative writing.

Nowadays no aspiring Irish writer has to travel far to find creative writing being taught at third level. Trinity College Dublin led the way in the mid 1990s; now University College Dublin, NUI Galway, Queen’s University Belfast, University College Cork and the University of Limerick all offer master’s in creative writing.

Despite the plethora of opportunities, the old – and rather tedious – debate about whether writing can be taught persists. Instead of reheating those arguments here, perhaps the question to ask is, do writing courses produce writers? The answer is another question: do the names Sean O’Reilly, Chris Binchy, Susan Stairs, Jamie O’Connell or Belinda McKeon mean anything to you? Or Colin Barrett, winner of the 2014 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Prize, the Guardian First Book Award and the Rooney Prize with his first book of short stories, Young Skins? Or Claire Kilroy, author of four acclaimed novels, including All Names Have Been Changed and Tenderwire? All of them are graduates of creative-writing courses.

This month two recent TCD graduates, Andrew Fox and Sara Baume, launched their debut work, Over Our Heads, a collection of stories and the novel Spill Simmer Falter Wither. Madeleine D’Arcy, a student on the inaugural UCC master’s course last year, went one better: she published her first story collection, Waiting for the Bullet, while still attending classes.

Cherry-picking from the successes of such courses can be misleading, however. What about all the other students who’ve passed through creative-writing courses whom you’ve never heard of? But who’s to say you won’t hear from them? If there’s one thing that can be taught about writing, it’s that it’s a notoriously long game.

Most third-level creative-writing courses prepare students for a much wider definition of being writers than that of scribes penning masterpieces alone in their rooms. Many creative-writing graduates are employed in writing-related work that doesn’t attract the spotlight. Former students of mine edit literary magazines, run award-winning blogging sites or write scripts for TV. Some still write fiction; others have migrated into broader definitions of what it is to be a writer in the 21st century. Postgraduate courses recognise this changing profile. UCC, for example, offers options in radio production, journalism, new media and film.

Even the hard-nosed corporate world recognises the value of creative writing. Ideo, a global Silicon Valley design company that creates services, spaces and interactive systems for international brands, insists on having 10 different “types” on its design teams, one of which is the storyteller – someone who can create compelling narratives. It’s a skill that can be used in a broad range of careers, from advertising through journalism and into technical writing.

There will always be writers who don’t opt for schooling and succeed anyway. But what the literary record of those who go down the academic route shows is that writing by degrees works.

Mary Morrissy is a novelist, short-story writer and lecturer in creative writing at University College Cork

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