In an Age of Storytelling, Why Do We Continue to Undervalue the Creative Writing Degree?

by Rebecca Slater

When I tell people I’m doing a creative writing degree there are two questions that people usually ask: the first is ‘Why?’ and the second, ‘How?’

The ‘how’ is an interesting place to start. With university course fees rising and incomes for writers falling, the financial outlook of a creative writing degree is at best optimistic, and at worst downright crazy.

In the USA, the popularised Master of Fine Arts programme at institutions like Columbia or New York University will set students back between $50,000–120,000 (£40,000-96,000). In the UK, programs like those at the University of East Anglia, Cambridge or Oxford cost around £12,000-15,000 for two years, or £20,000-30,000 for international students. In Australia, a masters in creative writing will put local students between AUD$18,000–$50,000 (£11,000-30,000) out of pocket in total, or up to $65,000 (£40,000) for international students.

A 2016 European Commission report showed average yearly earnings for UK writers to be below minimum wage at just £12,500, and in Australia the prospects are even gloomier: a 2015 Australian Book Industry report estimated annual earnings of less than AUD$13,000 (£8,000).

And that’s for writers who have ‘made it’ – writers who are published, who call themselves professionals. It doesn’t take into consideration the thousands of writers who are yet-to-be-published, who are stuck in that perpetual limbo of ‘aspiring’ or ‘emerging’ – or indeed, the writers who never make it at all.

For a debut author presenting their first manuscript to a publisher, advances can be as low as a few thousand dollars, with no further money paid until sales exceed that amount. For many as-yet-unknown authors looking at modest sales for a first title, that’s it.

Poor sales will also affect the author’s chances of a publisher taking on their second book. With economic uncertainty hanging over the publishing industry, multi-book deals and high-risk projects are becoming a rare species, as publishers are forced to play their cards cautiously.

I may be a writer, but my maths is good enough to see that those figures don’t add up. Years of work and a whopping student debt, for an income that doesn’t even come close to covering living costs. The trope of the struggling artist is nothing new, but the real-life financial and mental health implications of entering into such a field are surely cause for serious caution.

Which brings me to the second question: ‘Why?’ Why, knowing all this, would I – or the next young, hopeful writer – sign up to the creative writing course? Are we simply being played the fool? Or does this incompatibility between cost and gain signal a systemic problem with how writing is valued?

As a writer who values my craft, to have people continually question my desire to improve it is at best tiring, and at worst incredibly disheartening. To be viewed with scepticism by curious adults and potential employers, and looked down on in universities by students or teachers of ‘serious’ disciplines, is an insult to the practice and the time and effort its practitioners put into it.

It’s simple enough to see creative writing degrees as merely a matter of indulgence; to say that we students enter into these courses ‘for the love of it’, because ‘there’s nothing else in the world we could be doing’. And while this is true of many of the passionate students I’ve met, it’s also dangerously reductive.

For many of us, there are a lot of other things in the world we could be doing. We have students in our midst who were clearly ‘born to write’, but there are also those among us who have wilfully chosen and fought for the right to be here, and many who already are doing other things to support their passion. In my course alone, I have diplomats, school teachers, lawyers, academics and filmmakers, all fiercely trying to carve out the time and means to hone their writing.

To say we’re here to learn is also true, if not equally problematic. There’s the strong view from many quarters that creative writing can’t be taught – that you’ve either got it, or you haven’t. And in some sense, I agree: there’s certainly an element of ‘natural’ creativity, lyrical flair and imagination that seems at the heart of all great writers. But just because good writers appear effortless doesn’t mean there’s no skill involved – skill that can be harnessed, and built on. By ignoring that skill, we contribute to the devaluation of the craft itself.

We wouldn’t suggest a great musician could simply play without instruction or practice, nor the painter. Just as one is taught to read music or use a paintbrush, one learns to write and, like any skill, it can always be improved.

Time is the other major factor calling students to the writing degree. At a very basic level, writing takes time. A whole lot of it. In an age devoid of patronage, the opportunity to take the time out from work or other commitments to focus on one’s writing is a rare privilege, and unfortunately not one that everyone can afford. Of course, this raises other questions about the ethics of writers’ programs, which are available only to those voices which can afford to support their practice – but this is nothing new to the arts, nor higher education, where universities must make it their prerogative to extend opportunities to writers from all social and economic backgrounds.

Scepticism around writing degrees is fuelled by the underestimation of the time it takes to write. There’s a prevailing sense that writing should be something ‘done on the side’, in one’s ‘spare time’. For many students, the value of writing degrees lies in their acknowledgement of the work it takes, and the structural framework they provide for carving out that time.

For many writing students, signing up to these courses is also about taking ourselves ‘seriously’ as writers. It may seem ridiculous to pay this kind of money for a boost of self-confidence, but in a society that at once reveres and under-values the writer, it’s important to have spaces where writers can declare their dedication to the craft.

And not just as a writer in isolation, but as a writer working within a community of other engaged, serious writers. The practice can be lonely at the best of times, and being a part of a supportive and driven community of writers – both emerging and established – is perhaps one of the greatest gifts of the writing degree, not to mention the opportunities for networking with publishers and agents that an institutional body provides.

But at the end of the day these questions asked of the aspiring writer really boil down to how much one values storytelling. What keeps drawing so many students and practitioners to these degrees is the unfailing belief in the power of writing as a valuable contribution to society. In turbulent times, the need for stories is greater than ever, both in their capacity for change and for escape. And telling great stories takes time, it takes skill.

So instead of questioning our means and motives, why not be thankful for those of us willing to face financial instability and uncertainty in order to improve our craft? Those of us who value storytelling, and are willing to put in the hard yards to deliver the best stories we can tell. We continue to face economic instability, as well as judgement and scepticism at every turn, but in return we ask very little. Simply that you sit back and let us do the thing we love: tell you a story.

Originally published by The Guardian on 13/03/2017.

The Poor Print

The Oriel College Newspaper. Run by students, with contributions from the JCR, MCR, and SCR & Staff. Current Executive Editors: Alex Waygood & Aidan Chivers.

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