Creative writing: What makes a good creative writing course (book?)
The updated edition of the 'gold standard' Creative Writing Coursebook reflects the needs of today's creative writing students
Julia Bell, writer and creative director of the MA in Creative Writing at Birkbeck, co-edited the original Creative Writing Coursebook back in 2001. She describes why it's been updated to reflect what has changed – and what is timelessly relevant – for today's students of creative writing.
It’s been nearly twenty years since the first edition of The Creative Writing Coursebook which I edited with my colleague Paul Magrs when I was teaching on the creative writing courses at the University of East Anglia. We put the book together because to our amazement, nothing of the sort existed then. We had no coursebook to hand to our students – nothing except handouts that we could give them to take home. We were invited to take part in a programme called The Art of Writing for the BBC World Service which forced us to think more clearly about the structure of a good course, and what we were actually trying to teach our students. The resulting notes formed the structure for the coursebook.
Since then, much has changed in the world of publishing – the means of sharing your work has been upended by the digital revolution, submissions to publishers are no longer by post, work can be published almost instantly online, blogs are legion. But what hasn’t changed is the means by which we write. The basic principles of the book, which contains essays and exercises by writers such as Ali Smith, David Lodge, Nell Dunn, and the late, great, Malcolm Bradbury, founder of the UEA course, have stayed the same. Basically, to write well, you need to write something, anything, even if it’s a shopping list. Once you have gathered some material, then you need to understand how to structure it – to think about form, character, point of view and time management. Shaping a piece of work is the art of understanding how stories and poems work on the mind, how language transmits knowledge.
None of this is changed by the digital world and over the years the advice in the coursebook has become something of a gold standard on the art of writing creatively. Partly because of the variety – forty-four authors contributed to the book – and partly because of the soundness of the underpinning structure. The book is gathered into three sections – Gathering, Shaping and Finishing – which cover all the bases of production, and each represents a different approach or idea about how to write well, whether it be poetry or prose.
The Coursebook is a book you can follow at home, each essay containing ideas and exercises for your own writing, which is certainly cheaper than paying for classes – although if you’re serious about your writing you certainly might wish to consider investing in studying the subject. The new edition reflects the changes in publishing, but also some of the new forms that have come to prominence in the past few years – notably Flash Fiction, Performance Poetry, Life Writing and writing for the internet.
There are now plenty of other coursebooks out there on the shelves, from Creative Writing for Dummies to serious tomes which try to emulate writing courses, but what is different about this book is its variety. We are not pretending to have all the answers, and that all writers are the same. Although the basic principles are the same, the way we might think about and develop our work is as individual as the individual author. Acknowledging this has given us a uniquely rich book, a full polyphony of voices, some of which will speak to us more loudly than others. It’s an honour to have worked on a book deemed worthy of updating. I’m as proud of this coursebook, as I was when it was first published in 2001. I hope this new updated edition will go on to inspire, inform and encourage a whole new generation of writers.
The Creative Writing Coursebook is published by Macmillan.