History of Creative Writing
I think there has always been a feeling in this English Studies department that to be engaged with literature is to be in contact with a living experience (however ancient the texts being studied) and that part of that experience should also be an engagement with living artists and their work. This is why the University has such a significant art collection.
And this was why Norman MacCaig was invited to join the English department in 1970, where he worked with us for eight years before finally retiring. Students would talk with him about their own creative writing, of course, but he was also a regular member of the teaching staff, with a famously sharp humour and a quick ear for waffle in tutorials and department meetings alike. His old friend, the Shetland fiddler Aly Bain reckoned that Norman was ‘reborn’ when he went to Stirling: ‘They looked after him. At Stirling, he found the respect he was worthy of ’.
As part of the same respect we used to choose a new volume of poetry each year as required reading for the semester three module on ‘Poetry’, and invited the poet in question to come along to read their work in a lecture at the end of term. I especially remember Don Paterson in 1993 with his collection Nil Nil and Kathleen Jamie in 1994, with The Queen of Sheba.
Over the years, in fact, the department has taken five creative writers on board with contracts that have seen Ron Butlin, John Burnside, Walter Perrie, Iain Banks, and Sue Stewart all teaching for us and engaging with students’ own writing. Our academic interest in postcolonial literature brought us into contact with the Australian poet Les Murray, and through his friendship with colleagues he has made numerous visits and done readings for us, and the same links bring a creative writer from India to Stirling each spring, as the Charles Wallace visiting fellow.
It has long been our practice to invite poets to read for us at the University, including a memorable occasion when Seamus Heaney had standing room only in the Logie lecture theatre. On a still larger scale, the department has established a very popular series of international poetry conferences on major themes such as ‘Poetry and History’ (1996); ‘Poetry and Sexuality’ (2004); ‘Poetry and Politics’ (2006) and ‘Poetry and Melancholia’ (2011) with academics and poets from all over the world. Readings and talks from writers are a central part of these gatherings.
Actually, a commitment to creative writing was written into the constitution of the department from the University’s foundation in 1967—as part of a radical revision of the usual British degree. So a fully modular Stirling degree was based on the periodic assessment of each student’s best work, done in essay format. Instead of exams, the climax of four years’ study was a final-year dissertation, which could be a piece of creative writing. In those early days there were no classes in creative writing on our curriculum, or indeed on any curriculum in any university in Britain, but a number of students chose the creative dissertation route every year.
Now, creative writing options are part of the regular degree, and the creative writing dissertations are more popular than ever. Some notable writers, including Iain Banks, Jackie Kay and Alan Bissett, have come through the Stirling undergraduate degree. This is why it’s so exciting to see the postgraduate MLitt in Creative Writing, which will do so much more to develop the department’s original commitment to creative work and to working creatively.
The rise and rise of creative writing
John Dale does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
University of Technology Sydney provides funding as a founding partner of The Conversation AU.
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.