I came to literary theory and creative writing courses late. I had written as a teenager—the usual angst-filled poetry, maudlin short stories—but my adult life was mostly about working and paying bills, with very little time for writing. Then I had children, became a stay-at-home-mum, and suddenly I had some free time again. I went to writing courses, which gave me both confidence and inspiration, and after that I bumbled along independently—but with no success. I was producing work, but I didn’t know where to send it, and when I did it was always rejected. Something is missing, I thought. Could it be a creative writing degree? Is this something I should be considering?
At the end of my first undergraduate year, I won my first short story competition. Two years later, I won the university’s undergraduate writing prize. Since then I’ve been short-listed in comps, and published in a number of literary journals. I won’t go on. Whether I can attribute all this to one creative writing course is debatable, but what I can say with conviction is that university taught me many things, including to be disciplined. When friends phoned to ask me for morning coffee, I declined. I said I was working, and quickly learned not to take offence when they said, “Working? What are you doing?” “Writing,” I said. “Oh, that,” they said, as if I had told them I was doing needlepoint. I watched how other writers worked. I listened in class, I learned, and I read, and I read. I read stuff that I would never ever have read on my own, including things I didn’t even like, and I am a better writer for it.
I’ll be the first to agree that literary theory can be as dull and tedious as a writer stuck indoors on a rainy day without a computer … but it needn’t be. With the right teacher, literary theory can speak to you. It did to me. From the walls. The piece of writing was “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. I read it twice before the lecture, and didn’t get it. So what, I thought, a woman and some wallpaper. The lecturer went into it in depth. She started with Freud and psychoanalysis. Then she moved on to how the narrator discerns a ghostly woman in the sub-pattern of the wallpaper, how the narrator’s quietly going mad, trapped by her domestic life and her marriage, and so forth and so on. I was awe-struck. Oh, I remember thinking, Oh. Hooley-Dooley. Look what you can do with words! It wasn’t the proverbial penny dropping. It was a radiant light shining where before there’d been gloom and murk. It had never occurred to me that you could say one thing, but mean another. That you could hide secret messages within your writing. That, in quoting another literary work within your own, you could reveal the ending. Ian McEwan does several spectacular things in Atonement, and this is one of them. He mentions W. H. Auden’s poem Musée des Beaux Arts—about life going on in the face of suffering, and Icarus, the boy who fell from the sky—signalling to the reader that there will be no happy ending to this narrative. Literary devices such as intertextuality; stream of consciousness; the unreliable narrator; and theory such as psychoanalysis; postcolonialism; eco-criticism; all these should be learned to appreciate how good writing works.
As an aside, I’ll concede it’s possible that Barthes, Foucault, Woolf et al aren’t relevant to all writers. Commercial writers, for instance. I know at least two who have achieved publishing deals without any background in creative writing courses and, Whoo Hoo, I say, because they are my friends. But I will still argue that commercial writers are better writers for knowing the nuts and bolts of writing.
My point is, why assume you don’t need a degree to be a writer? Why should being a writer be any different from any other career? In today’s writing world, where publication is on knife-edge, book sales are wildly unpredictable, and even publishers can be surprised by what readers want—witness the explosive popularity of Fifty Shades of Grey, picked up by mainstream publishers only after its unexpected self-published success—you need every iota of help you can get. I think it also comes down to this: how badly do you want—not to write—but to be a writer? And not just any writer, but a good writer? If you really want to be that writer, surely you will make it your business to find out everything there is to know about your craft?