So you want to be a writer…

I wrote this a few years ago, for the Guardian, shortly after Hanif Kureishi had dismissed Creative Writing courses as ‘a waste of time’. This, in my mind, is why they might not be:

Although we give classes on the technical aspects of writing, one of the most basic things we give is more basic. It’s permission. Permission, for example, for a student on the MA to say, ‘I’m sorry, I really can’t come out on Friday night – I have coursework.’ Because however supportive of a partner’s or friend’s or relative’s ambition to become a writer people are, they often aren’t very good at granting them the necessary time. And, for most of us, it’s easier to say, ‘I have coursework’ than ‘I’m writing a novel – it’ll take me about five years, and might not get published’.

We also give students permission to experiment, and encouragement to try things that they think might fail. Even quite late on in the course, when I’m advising students about what to write for their final dissertation, they will ask me, ‘Can I try this?’ They know it’s what they should do, they just need permission to do it. If they didn’t have someone they respected (because that person is a tutor, because they’ve been published) to say this, they might never dare – and much of their best work wouldn’t happen.

Finally, we – the teaching staff – give students permission to believe they might become ‘real’ writers. Because, by being in the room with them, week after week, we help demystify what ‘real’ writers are. Too many people write badly because they write up to their idea of what ‘real’ writing should be or what a ‘real’ writer should write. They put on literary airs. If someone holds writers in too much esteem, they’ll never become one.