Features, Interview

What do authors really think about teaching creative writing?

Huntley, a graduate of the MA in Creative Writing at UEA, is a professor of Creative Writing at UEA. Since receiving his PhD in 2007, he has written fiction for various magazines, journals and anthologies, as well as Radio 4. While Cowan is a graduate of UEA with a BA in English and American Studies, and an MA in Creative Writing, he is the author of six novels, which have been published in 12 languages, including Pig, a multi-award-winning success. 

Both Cowan and Huntley teach creative writing on a day-to-day basis. Huntley claims the most important thing to remember when doing something creative is, “your first attempt is not set in stone. Everything on the page is provisional. It’s just a draft, it can be made better.” 

He adds, “the key to creativity is getting something on the page, on the screen, on the canvas, and then seeing where you can go with it. It can always be improved.” Cowan builds upon this when discussing how crucial failure is in creative writing. “You can fail. You are allowed to fail. That idea that there is a critic over your shoulder is very inhibiting, and it can instil that fear of failure, which translates as perfectionism, which can translate as writer’s block.” He adds, “if you allow the critic into the room when you are trying to be creative, it is going to inhibit you. The one thing that any creative person has to bear in mind is that they have permission to fail, and nobody is going to come along and punish them for failing.” Huntley tells me “creativity is about crafting and shaping,” and, “redrafting and editing is the name of the game.” 

Cowan says writing is the process of, “constantly trying, constantly expecting [that] you are going to fail, and constantly trying to fail better.” Cowan also tells me as a writer, it is best to consider a few different elements. “If you are a serious writer, I think perhaps you are writing for two readers. One is an ideal reader, which is kind of abstract, and a projection of who you are as a writer and a reader, you are writing for yourself. But you are often also writing for a specific person, someone you know, a friend, a publisher. If you try and write for a generality of people, you can become a bit overruled.”

Huntley believes teaching creative writing courses at UEA has given him a better perspective on being a writer and impacted the way he writes. When running workshops, he says, “I’m very conscious that we are all practising writers together in that workshop. There’s not a hierarchy. We all write, and we are all in a position to offer a particular perspective on whatever we are talking about.” Huntley adds, “people will have suggestions, always constructive criticism, it might be that three or four people have good ideas of how to approach the ending of that story that doesn’t quite work and I very often find that what I’m suggesting is exactly the solution to a problem I’m currently experiencing with my own work.” 

However, Cowan sees writing and teaching as two very separate practices. He tells me “being a writer informs the way that I teach, but I don’t think it works in the other direction. As a rule, I feel teaching and writing are two separate things.” Cowan says when reading a students work, “you are thinking, ‘how can I make that better’ and that draws on the same place that your own writing draws from and there is a danger that you are going to empty the well through your teaching.” 

He emphasises there has to be a separation between being in a writing space and a teaching space. He adds, “they do actually feel sometimes as if they are competing with each other [rather] than fuelling each other.” Cowan, however, tells me he often sees things in others’ work he admires. “Occasionally with a very good student in the MA programme, I will see something I admire and consciously have to stop myself from stealing it. Sometimes you’ll see something in a student’s work, which is technically brilliant, and you think, ‘how have they done that?’ You can learn from that. You are always as a writer learning from what you are reading, learning from other writers.” Huntley also thinks workshops are useful. “Things can come out of that which are really helpful and really interesting. Sometimes people say things that are really useful writing practises to follow. For example, not perhaps writing a full draft of something and leaving dashes where you are not quite sure of something that is going to happen, but you know the following scene. I wouldn’t have thought about that myself if I hadn’t heard someone use that as a way of writing and I subsequently use that now myself.”

Getting Cowan’s first novel, Pig, published was quite a challenge. “I sent it off to countless publishers and agents, and they all rejected it for being too quiet.” Even despite winning the Betty Trask Award amongst other literary prizes, Cowan admits he, “had a really inauspicious and unconfident beginning. My lack of confidence had been supported by all the rejections, and then the success happened, and I didn’t trust it. I didn’t believe it, so I didn’t allow myself to enjoy it. Ever since then, I’ve been a kind of reluctant writer. I’ve since then published seven books, and yet even now, I don’t think of myself as being naturally a writer.”  He tells me not all his writing is healthy and he is a perfectionist when it comes to his work. “I write a sentence, and I don’t trust it, so I rewrite it. I spend ages rewriting the same sentence over and over again to try and get it perfect. When I’ve got it just so, I go onto the next sentence. As soon as I’ve got the next sentence, I start to doubt the first one – does it flow? I go back and rewrite. I’m endlessly rewriting, and I’m an incredibly slow writer.”

However, while many authors end up with several drafts of their work, Cowan only ends up with one. “When I get to the end it’s finished.  I don’t do three or four drafts of a novel. It’s just one draft. Every sentence has been redrafted over and over. I know when I’ve finished a book, but I never know when to let go of a sentence.” Unlike most authors, Cowan tells me his favourite part of writing is finishing. 

“There is always at the end of something, that monetary lift and real euphoria having completed a project. I do know writers who enjoy every moment and every work and like writing. I don’t. I find it arduous.” 

Cowan compares writing to, “wearing a pair of really uncomfortable shoes for the pleasure of taking them off.” He explains his reluctant qualities as a writer allow him to be a better teacher. “I empathise with students lack of confidence and lack of self-belief, and I know exactly where that is coming from. It is very common among writers, especially student writers, that they feel imposter syndrome. They think any moment now anyone is going to tap them on the shoulder and say you’re a fraud, you’re a dreamer, you’re deluded, stop now.” Cowan tells me, “a writer is someone who rewrites. It is crucial that you are always trying to improve what you’ve done. If you just write something and think ‘that’s pretty good’, you are unlikely to improve it and unlikely as a writer to develop.” 

When discussing where they hope to see the Norwich literary scene going in the next few years, both Huntley and Cowan draw highlight the importance of diversity. Huntley says, “It is crucial that what we are getting is diversity in the arts and I think that goes way beyond the institution of a university. I think that assumption that its only people who have access to certain kinds of privilege can be writers is pernicious and utterly wrong.” He adds, “It’s really important that we have a socially diverse and inclusive society. We learn more by access to a plurality of voices than we ever do by hearing one monocultural voice echoing the same thing.”  Cowan draws upon the direction UEA is currently moving towards, with “a greater diversity and a decolonised curriculum”, but Cowan wants the Norwich arts scene to do the same. 

He tells me, “What we are trying to do at the school is to embrace and promote diversity. But we want to see that spread also into the complexion of the Norwich lit scene, so that there are more diverse voices being heard.” 

Huntley adds that to improve, Norwich needs to move away from financial focus. 

“Understanding the arts in economic terms purely is misguided, reductive and just wrong. The arts doesn’t work like that. We could do well to see the arts in a more holistic way and understand social value and cultural value rather than seeing it through the restrictive prism of profit and loss spreadsheets.” 

As a way of broadening the literature scene for the Norwich community, Huntley runs creative workshops helped by third year students in Norwich prison. 

He tells me, “There are not that many courses in the country where part of your degree involves being seen as responsible enough to participate in creative writing workshops in category B and C prison systems. It’s always fascinating to bring two parts of the community together who may not have the chance to talk together.” He claims, “I’ve had a few times, people who for whatever offence they are in for, and they’ll produce a blindly brilliant and clever piece of writing. An older prisoner given an image of a rusting car somehow abandoned in a forest used this as a metaphor for much older prisoners who have been in prison for decades and decades. It was a beautiful metaphor and could only have been his perspective that produced that.” Huntley says, “One of the points of commonality that students have come to recognise really early on, is that it is just like school. It is really wrong to think of people in prison as ‘them over there’ who have done something wrong and need to be locked away. It is really easy to come away from the workshop and think ‘but that person is so nice!’ Socially it is really important that these people are ‘some of us’ who have made a really bad life choices and have fucked up someone, but they are not ‘them over there’ separate from us, they are just some of us who have gone wrong in a particular way.”  In terms of rehabilitation, Huntley thinks, “it is crucial that there is some kind of rehabilitation and an opportunity for engagement in the arts with education, and the prospect of what people may do when they are back in society. 

“If somebody has been taught something of a valuable skill, or employment opportunities or in a fairly broad sense, they’ve produced a poem or piece of art, or they’ve discovered the have a love for reading even, what that might do for somebody’s self esteem, is really important.”

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Leia Butler

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December 2021
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