I have in many ways, from workshops to residential and academia, taught creative writing since my mid-twenties. I have been proud to teach those that have gone on to success, those who continue to write but note at undergraduate level the high proportion of those writing students who never write again. My last year of teaching creative writing wasn’t merely peppered with these types of students but was flooded by it. Students who in review and evaluation admitted to taking creative writing because they were lazy and wanted an easy ride. Thankfully, they were as appalled as I was about their lazy comment at the sheer amount of work they had to do for me. A common complaint was the amount of reading that was required of them.
Now don’t get me wrong but if you are doing a writing course and you don’t read, what the fuck are you doing there? You’re wasting your time, the teachers and the fellow students on the creative writing course. You can be lazy at home and avoid a crippling debt too. This revolution in apathy has made me a little jaded when it comes to the teaching of creative writing. Sure, we teach them the rules, the books to read, the ways to think and analyse but therein lies a problem, the apathy factor, I came from the fuck you generation, the swagger of Stone Roses, the arse wiggling to pomposity that came with Jarvis Cocker. I asked fucking questions. Then I asked more. I was pointed in the direction of libraries, I consumed them. I found secondhand bookshops and boot sales, and my Mum worried her lounge ceiling would collapse under the weight of the books I had in my bedroom. Now I am not privileged. I did not come from some wonderful utopia. I was on the ass end of the collapse of Northern industries, the original Northern powerhouse and Manchester, Christ, not even Bolton was a go to destination. They just were. Creativity was worn like a badge of honour. If you weren’t creative you were missing out and no one could teach you it. Creativity meant breaking rules to be better, to do better, to embrace life, better. As I get older I know in my heart that I want to keep breaking the rules, I learnt them and frankly most of them are about conformity. I always taught students that their creativity came from them and if you don’t have creativity I can teach you writing, how to structure, how to put one plot in front of another but if you have no creativity you’ll never be a writer, you’ll be a hack and if that’s okay with you it’s okay with me but to be a writer is to be a breaker of rules. To be pissed off at something, at anything and being lazy just pisses me off because then the teaching of creative writing becomes about bums on seats, cheques on legs and those writers who are there drown in the apathy. I have seen this happen to some fine writers on both sides of the line, lecturer/student. They cease to write or instead bemoan the fact they have no time to write. It becomes another form of apathy.
Yesterday, I received my redundancy from an institution I taught creative writing at for eight years. I felt odd sorting the money out into savings and mortgage – yes, writers pay bills too, so buy a fucking book and bloody stop asking them to do things for exposure; Oates did exposure and we all know how that ended – it was the realisation that I wouldn’t be sat in front of undergraduates this year. Be they willing or lazy. There was a reason I was made redundant and that is the falling figures for creative writing. Creativity is being pummelled out of education. Books are something alien, even elitist, where when I was their age it was a way to escape both mentally and physically. A good education opened doors, even a mediocre one meant you could climb in through a broken window but with the privatisation of education it means that anyone can go to university if they get the money. There is then a lack of mobility in education, it becomes two tiered, the have nots and the have a student loan lot. Education ceases to be on merit, free thinking or questioning. It becomes about conformity, meeting the grading criteria or worse still, rote to meet percentages so that a school, this college or that university doesn’t look like it’s failing. Damn creativity, creativity is passé, creativity is the leper’s whore. This means the cull has started at A level and will quickly spread to universities. I remember one autumn talking with another colleague who also took the leap from teaching creative writing back into their writing. At that point the university was being rejigged, realigned and regurgitated into brand new shining spanky departments with new buildings, new ways of thinking circa 1984, creative writing had had the chance to abandon English Literature to go in with another department but they had declined. My colleague pointed out that if we’d gone in the new department would have kept scriptwriting, jettisoned fiction and taken poetry out behind the sports centre and shot it because the university wanted every element of a course to pay its way. Fiction was like black jack, the odds in favour of the casino. Poetry was just too damn creative and broke too many rules because it wouldn’t even sit down in the casino, it was on the strip talking to bums, drunks and prostitutes regardless of whether they knew those titles applied to them. Script meant television or film, and that was visible. Who reads anymore? The colleague asked, Who trusts anyone who can read? I like to add, Who trusts anyone who is creative? Therein lies the problem, the freedom to be creative vs apathy in achievement.