Making Creative Writing Compulsory?
Posted December 11, 2006on:
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.