On the discussion of creative writing, Ian McEwan once said, “One of the aspects that alarms me is the undergraduate writing programs. Seems… too soon to me. Seems like a vehicle for mass ignorance. People need to do reading.” While sitting in the little industrial room we Creative Writers had been given this week, musing at the front of the class and listening to the low drone of the projector above me, I thought briefly how manufactured my environment felt.
On one level, digressing from McEwan’s apprehensions, my concern with ‘the environment’ is aesthetically based. This concern was born from a somewhat rude awakening on Tuesday morning, as the three-hour long seminar, with intermittent drilling coming from the builders outside on Portland Hill, reminded me that our working environments today do not align with the connotations or our expectations of our degrees. With a few exceptions in Trent Building (the home of some English seminars) and a few quaint lecture halls scattered across the campus, the sentimental image I had of universities, perhaps brought on mostly by watching too many awful American films (The Social Network was good, though) in secondary school, was quashed. In an age of practicality and efficiency, the aesthetic of interior, the level of natural light, the sharpness in the air of the room and the idiosyncrasies that create identity are no longer of any relevance. To some students, this will be no bother. In fact, many students whom I have passionately discussed the significance of our working spaces look at me suspiciously, possibly thinking I’m mad.
I do think the aesthetic has some relevancy left, though—at least in the realm of my observation. To me, the dullness of so many of the rooms where we are expected to engage and develop our writing skills is synonymous with the way bachelor art degrees are approached in Western, 21st-century education. The bland indifference of ninety percent of my seminar rooms taps into the anxiety of feeling as if you’re being churned out, minced like meat in a factory, only you get a qualification at the end of it. The lack of charisma in working environments, in my opinion, has correlated with the devaluation of the degree itself. I am not venting my displeasure with seminar rooms as a way of excusing procrastination or complacency, rather as a much-needed reminder that in our current society, it is crucial to find your own identity and not rely on outdated pastimes and expired sentiments.
Back on the topic of creative writing (I hope the aesthetic side of things finds the logic), when McEwan speaks of undergraduate courses being a “vehicle for mass ignorance,” I can sense that he too is playing on the idea of such courses being too synthetic and simplified to produce good writers, or at least the standard of his generation. It may churn out lots of aspiring writers, but I don’t think it gives the key to success students sometimes believe, or at least optimistically believe before they’re sitting under the energy-saving lights on a drabby autumn afternoon. McEwan does go on to say, though, that as a postgraduate course or even a module on a wider course, creative writing can be of use—to compliment a wider engagement.
But in my experience with creative writing as a module on a course, I still find the attempts to teach abstract concepts in such a formatted and methodical way counterintuitive. I have realised creative writing is a luxury skill that while, yes, does require nurture and discipline, equally is very difficult to manufacture simply through pragmatic learning. Reliance on such a way of development may cause problems down the line. I find myself most stimulated always when I’m by myself, but additionally when I’m reading, walking or cycling, in strange or ambiguous environments, or drunk. By creating courses that will accommodate a plethora of students may be positive in terms of diversity, but it has makings of turning into a whirlwind of ‘creatives’ wanting their first piece of work to be transacted into success. Writing before reading seems like jumping the gun, as McEwan alludes. There are positives of studying creative writing, of course: it’s fun, laissez-faire, introduces you to authors and poets that haven’t seen the light of day, and you’re challenged with deadlines; but the overriding anxiety of being in a room of ‘creative writers’ in an age where such skills are no longer elitist or profound and instead are suddenly accessible results in, as aforementioned, the devaluation of the art itself. As someone that has always wanted to write extensively, I must also remember that just because the arts in institutions like The University of Nottingham have been made highly accessible at undergraduate level, does not mean that it casts the end for successful writers. In fact, the lack of complete trust towards creative writing undergraduate courses can be very beneficial in terms of perspective so long as it remains only a scepticism towards its potential.
I’m sure those who are gifted at writing will still, at the very least, go into a profession moulded to their expertise. My fear is just rooted from the possibility that we’re all going to get smothered and washed up by the ocean of aspiring writers we have created. It can be quite overwhelming at times. But I also think it’s important to perceive it as a positive—an opportunity. Competition spurs everyone on. It is a case, as with so many things today: adapt or get lost.
I am often cleansed of all my cynicism when I hear a fellow student reading a refreshing piece of writing. It reminds me not to be so snooty and unforgiving towards the system that put us there. I’d like to think my overall concern is with everyone who has or has yet to have these doubts. I’d also hope my concern is the same as McEwan’s: it still causes and will cause both disillusion and ignorance amongst young people if not approached with modesty and caution.