The rise and rise of creative writing

Creative writing courses are booming in Australia. AAP

The phrase “creative writing” is believed to have been first used by Emerson when he referred to creative writing and creative reading in his address ‘The American Scholar’ in 1837.

The first classes in creative writing were offered at Harvard University in the 1880s and were wildly popular from the beginning with over 150 students enrolling in 1885.

Today Creative Writing as a discipline is booming in Australia and the extraordinary rise in student demand is most visible in postgraduate writing coursework award programs of which there are over 70 in Australian universities.

What defines Creative Writing as innovative is its emphasis on praxis. Students learn how a literature is made, how it is put together, and what its cultural context is and then they recombine this knowledge to produce their own creative works.

Creativity is the key. Einstein called it ‘combinatory play’, a matter of sifting through data, perceptions and materials to come up with combinations that are new and useful. This is what happens in a writing workshop and what distinguishes writing as a discipline from other areas of study that are more critical than creative.

Teaching writing is really a valiant effort by the writing teacher to put into words what he or she understands about creativity and about creating a work and trying to pass this on and to guide and inspire others.

To be a good writer a student must first of all be a good reader.There is a special vitality that comes from the creative writing workshop and the way in which writing as a discipline overlaps with, and exists in, the public sphere, in a way that many other academic disciplines do not. This external engagement impact is important and brings considerable prestige to the University.

In the past Creative Writing programs in Australia existed merely as an adjunct to literary studies or cultural studies, and struggled within the academy for proper recognition.

It was sometimes thought that Creative Writing lacked a theoretical underpinning although the workshop model, developed at the University of Iowa in the 1930s, has long ago reshaped, refined and incorporated theories of narrative, literature and creativity into a unified and successful pedagogical approach.

It has been a struggle for Creative Writing in Australian universities to gain the same degree of acceptance that it receives in colleges and universities across the US.

Despite opposition here it has gradually emerged as one of the leading disciplines in the Humanities and one that encourages students to think and create with integrity.

By 2010, Creative Writing had a higher national rating in the Australian Government’s Excellence in Research (ERA) report than either literary studies or cultural studies, and produced twice as many research outputs.

In recent years Non-Fiction has become a significant growth area for postgraduate coursework students, with the first Australian Masters of Non –Fiction introduced at UTS in 2011, and creative non-fiction and literary journalism classes overflowing at many of the 36 Australian university writing programs.

The interest in non-fiction has being driven in part by the desire for a greater number of professionals to communicate more lucidly with a broader range of people.

Genre writing, short fiction, novel writing, novella, memoir and life writing, poetry, writing for multimedia and scriptwriting, all continue to prove extremely attractive subject choices for a wide range of students, including a disproportionate number of lawyers and journalists who have returned to university to take up higher research degrees based around their creative practice.

In terms of coursework students, creative writing has always paid its way; now under ERA it might start to receive appropriate research funding.

We have been teaching writing in the academy for over a hundred and twenty five years, and Ian McEwan who first studied creative writing with Malcolm Bradbury at East Anglia in the 1970s, or Raymond Carver who was mentored at Chico University by the novelist John Gardner, or our own Tim Winton who was taught by Elizabeth Jolley at Curtin University, are all testament to the fact that not only can writing be taught at university, but also that writing actually flourishes in a university environment.

Writing is thinking. The great novels, poems, stories and films from our many graduates have helped shape our culture and allowed us to reflect on the way we live.

The future of Creative Writing in Australia is in good hands.

John Dale

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