The Books of My Numberless Dreams

Making Creative Writing Compulsory?

Posted on: December 11, 2006

Julia Bell at the Guardian Arts blog posted about The English Association‘s reports on the dire state of English [Language & Literature] at all educational levels. Part of the solution, she feels, is to make creative writing a core part of the curriculum to make language more engaging and interactive.

Jamaica’s educational system is British, having been a former colony and still a part of the Commonwealth. (A few have, occasionally and indirectly, told me that I should be grateful for this legacy.) England’s system, dealing with a larger, more varied population in a more “progressive” country must have had to be comparatively more dynamic. There is more money to spend on committees and experts to attempt at correctly assessing and improving the system–which usually leads to more standardisation and point systems. Jamaica’s education ministry does its assessments and reports but the major changes are aimed at making the system more “Jamaican” and increasing the enrollment of students in secondary institutions.

I have not been able to read any of the reports as they must be bought but the impression is that the subject’s vitality has been spent for the sake of government plans yet the reading, writing and comprehension skills of the young continue to fall. Bell proposes that to enhance the creative aspect of English students should do more of their own writing; besides enlivening, it would help them gain better insight into assigned texts. If one merely assigns this “impenetrable poetry” it will be used for soccer.

I am not against creative writing but am skeptical of this for a number of reasons. One can only write poetry by reading it. Again in England it may be very different but for me no serious literary reading and analysis was done until grade 7; the average age of the student was 11 and some months, I think. Before then the focus is on building reading, writing and comprehension skills. I find it hard to believe that at that level in England the students are tackling Eliot and Donne. We were doing Lewis Carroll, Mutabaruka, Dickinson and Tennyson. As you can see the selections were not obstructively complex or impenetrable. The poetry selection advanced but not in any drastic sense unless one made the leap to sixth form.

A concerted effort was made to pick a number of poems that had accessible ideas presented in fairly familiar settings or voices, whether it was a poem about the commercialisation of Christmas, the invasion of Grenada, or the all too typical single mother Jamaican household. Surely the British poetry curriculum isn’t all about lords and ladies and urns.

I wonder at whether Bell feels that her students found the poetry “impenetrable” because the book was truly too advanced for that level or they were not equipped with the skills to handle it. If the latter is the case then is it not better for them to acquire the skills first? Perhaps she does see it as helping–she was, I gather, covering abstract nouns with her poetry writing exercise–and I am being too pedantic and missing the forest for the trees.

But this brings me to my other point. I find the usual English language exercises: critical essays, descriptiving, persuasive and argumentative writing, the “What Did I Do On My Summer Vacation?” pieces to be creative writing exercises of varying extents. I remember writing short pieces where dialogue was required. I remember having to write a descriptive scene of a market or a person. I even remember writing one that somehow involved the lochness monster. I had to be creative in debates in order to have the most ear-grabbing, persuasive defense of my position. As I advanced I found my most creative outlet was my critical essays in which I had to engage with a creative work, this art with all its word play, imaginative settings, graphic, compelling imagery, distinctive characters and impressive, pointed structure to say how the letter’s in Pride and Prejudice did this or the sensuous, graphic imagery and symbolism in The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born did that.

Isn’t that creative? Is it not seen as creative in the teaching establishment? Is there not room to explore that idea within the present curriculum rather than adding another significant component? Perhaps there is room. Or perhaps British schools have tossed creative writing exercises–something I thought to be a standard–all together in favour of slogging through impenetrable texts all day.

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11 Responses to "Making Creative Writing Compulsory?"

I don’t understand myself why schools make such a fuss about teaching literature. But they do. You’d think that James Joyce and Mallarme were force fed to children and teachers alike from primary school onwards. I do remember, however, that the only books I have ever truly disliked were the ones taught to me for ‘O’ level. I do think that teaching large classes in literature tends to lead to droning teachers and comatose students. It doesn’t have to be that way. And I agree that creativity is in every response to language, be it lit crit or creative writing. My son detested all English studies, and then he moved school, had the good fortune to have a wonderful teacher, and he is a complete convert, getting his best marks in this subject and leaping up his class ranking. It ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it.

I am relieved that you folks aren’t force feeding “Finnegan’s Wake” on fourth graders–that would be a bit too enthusiastic. šŸ˜‰

Luckily for me I only ever despised one of my CXC (‘O’ level equivalent) novels so that was something of a relief. And it could be a bit much when doing readings in class which was followed by a dry Q&A session. However my English teachers were very good, worked hard at getting us involved in the books and in the class. We could tell when a teacher didn’t care.

I thought the point you make about the creativity involved in other kinds of writing than [mere] oetry.

It’s long been my view, to be honest, that the British education system puts too much emphasis on getting the students to express themselves and not enough on how to do that effectively.

Sorry, I don’t know what happened there: ‘…the point you make about creativity… was excellent.’ was how that was supposed to go.

And ‘poetry’ not ‘oetry’, whatever that may be, although it occurs that it could have been a little clearer that the ‘mere’ part was me being funny. *sigh*

Serves me right for being severe about people who can’t express themselves properly. But then I am a product of the British education system myself…

Hahaha, it’s ok Solnushika, I understood better the second time around. It is interesting that your take on the system seems to clash with what the educators think. (Although my take is limited having not read the report.)

Thanks for commenting!

They disagree with me as all the teachers of English are English Literature graduates and I’m an English Language teacher…

Anyway, an interesting post, I thought.

Ahhhh. Those subjects were separated in school, although in North America they simply teach “English”. Back home we would sometimes have the same teacher instruct both but often we would have two different instructors.

It’s separated in the UK too, but all the teachers are still Literature grads.

Thing is, I teach English as a foreign language. Not everything we teach is relevant for native speakers, but there’s a lot about the technical aspects of writing and text construction that is and that I was astonished that I didn’t know about until I was asked to teach it.

I did English (Lit and Lang) up to 18 too.

this so-called “dire” state of english is similar to the united states. my english classes here combine literature, grammar, and writing, so we do all within one class. i love the interdisciplinary nature of the course, since often times, we write literary analyses of the novels we are reading or finding pieces of grammar that we may had just talked about the day before.
is the situation in britain different? from what i got from your post & the comments, literature, language/grammar, and writing all seem to be different classes in the british school system.

whoops, sorry, i just realized you were jamaican!

I am but we still have the British school system. šŸ™‚

Actually it’s only separated into two classes: language and literature. In English lit. we study fiction and poetry, language is devoted to technical skills. Of course, they overlap. In language class we analyse poetry, story excerpts and so on, but we also spend more time on composition, argument, report writing so on. And as students we naturally apply this to our language classes.

I prefer this since we are able to devote more time to learn and improve in both areas. It’s pretty natural for the students to apply what’s learnt in one class, to treat it practically as interdisciplinary, rather than lose precious hours to learn valuable tools by having the curriculum do it for you.

Thanks for commenting!

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