TEXT review

Studying creative writing successfully

review by Sally Breen


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Studying Creative Writing Successfully
Stephanie Vanderslice (ed)
Creative Writing Studies, Frontinus, Suffolk UK 2016
ISBN 9781907076862
Pb 162pp USD25.00


Studying Creative Writing Successfully edited by Stephanie Vanderslice, Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Arkansas, is a collection of conversational, informal articles designed to introduce students to the particulars of studying a degree in creative writing. The text as a whole focuses less on writing instruction and composition (although this line of inquiry does feature anecdotally throughout); the concentration is instead on what to expect in a creative writing degree and how to ‘demystify the habitual practises of the field’ (cover), a kind of read and thrive survival guide. Each of the eleven chapters is written by a wide range of American creative writing academics with an impressive combined list of pedagogical publications. The chapters cover diverse ground largely split into three key concerns – context, practice and career advice. Context is established in a set of chapters which seek to outline the teaching and learning of creative writing in the academy including a lively feature on on-line study by Joseph Rein and an informative rationale of how creative writing is graded, by Julie Platt.

Discussions of practice deal with what appear to be a curated set of elements the contributors believe commencing students may not have considered at length already. Tim Mayers discusses the difference between reading as a writer and writing as a reader. Dianne Donnelly offers a broad breakdown of reflective and exegetical composition. Mary Ann Cain emphasises the importance of revision and drafting. The remaining chapters take a longer term view offering practical advice on how to sustain a career as a writer after study, how to read work to audiences effectively and the importance of good literary citizenship – essential inclusions not often covered in similar instruction manuals.

In the editor’s preface, Vanderslice stresses that the book will be useful for those studying at all levels of creative writing programs. The broad focus and accessible (if sometimes simplistic tone) is however, more suited to first year students and perhaps students embarking on postgraduate study without prior experience – a situation more pertinent to US based MFA programs and less likely to occur in other national contexts where students enter postgraduate study via honours programs or with significant industry experience. This is undoubtedly a first year text. In a sense Studying Creative Writing Successfully heads off many of those naive questions which often surface from new students – how is it possible for you to grade my creativity? Why do I have to write an explanation of my story? Everything I want to say is in the story. Why can’t every one of us be as famous as Stephen King?

In this way the book’s usefulness is immediately apparent – it is straightforward and works well by covering the key bases of creative writing study that teachers in the discipline can sometimes find themselves reiterating. The book may enable students to develop a strong base knowledge in these areas quickly by dismissing myths, managing expectations and explaining, often in didactic detail – how creative writing works. In this way the book could have a place as a supplementary text in an introduction to creative writing course allowing students to progress at a faster pace, by dealing in a comprehensive way, the institutional related confusions they often have. There is also the possibility that it could fall flat. The problem with deliberately designing a book to be accessible is that it can come across as condescending or reductionist to any commencing student with above average intelligence or prior knowledge of the field resulting in a depletion of that student’s passion for creative writing and their study rather than enhancing it.

In seeking to manage student expectations, to give them insight into the realities of a writing life many of the articles advocate a middle of the road approach: a book dominated by very useful advice for not dreaming too large. In a chapter on creative writing study preparedness ‘What Should I Expect and What Skills Should I Bring’ Trent Hergenrader shares his thoughts on ‘the handful of writers I know who draw a hefty annual salary … they all live rather modest lifestyles in unglamorous places in Ohio, Colorado, not New York City or Montreal. They do not party with rockstars. They have families and drive sensible cars’ (27). This is typical of the no-nonsense if rather dispiriting perspective reiterated throughout; a perspective that could be challenged relatively easily because the issue with any subjective assessment of the writing scene is that it can be contradicted. For every story there is always another one.

If students do everything in this book they will almost certainly be good students. They will achieve good grades. The might even end up good writers but not necessarily because of what they read here. My sense is the very best writers and thinkers amongst them will resist the instruction. There is a grating quality to the use of second person as a guiding narrative principle, and combined with the superior or overly enabling tone that permeates, some emerging writers might feel smothered or infuriated. The approach might work for a medium to large section of the cohort who respond to this type of guidance – particularly given the exponential growth of creative writing programs and graduates and subsequent focus on delivery. Twenty-first century creative writing programs are producing fewer writers per se and more people who’ll use writing in creative ways in other vocations and industries, which is fine, but what this state of play seems to require and what this book represents is a re-jigging of the initial promise, the great attraction of a creative writing degree in the first place. Here’s how to settle. Here’s how to feel good about a career in advertising or writing copy in corporate America or churning out poetic vignettes about light fittings for a company who outfits nightclubs and casinos. Here’s how to be an academic. Just because all of these pathways occur and that many of them have great rewards doesn’t mean the notion of the ‘Big W’ writer should be distilled. Very few students come into creative writing wanting to be the lovely people who teach them or the modest, sensible people in the case studies provided. They want to be more, even if that ambition is risky, unlikely or even misguided. It is worth noting here that as far as can be gleaned from the biographies, none of the contributors has published a novel. Only one has released a full book of poems. Most have released more pedagogical books and papers than they have book-length creative work and this leaning probably accounts for and in some ways justifies the approach taken – creative writing operating at the edge of something else and not the centre.



Dr Sally Breen is Senior Lecturer in Writing and Publishing at Griffith University. She is fiction editor of the Griffith Review and author of The Casuals (2011) and Atomic City (2013) both with Harper Collins. Dr Breen’s scholarly articles can be viewed at https://griffith.academia.edu/SallyBreen


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Vol 21 No 1 April 2017
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Kevin Brophy, Enza Gandolfo & Julienne van Loon
Reviews Editor: Linda Weste