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‘Creative writing should be more than a hobby class’

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Should creative writing be a real academic programme at Utrecht University? A few teachers think so. The humanities faculty is going to evaluate the role of creative writing and if this could be upgraded. “Stanford, Harvard and Berkeley all have it.”

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Until last year literature students could add a piece of creative writing to their bachelor thesis. For example in the form of a short story, or a poem. Marlon wrote a thesis like this. She studied English language & culture, and for her bachelor thesis she researched how the language of various books is used to make the reader identify with the characters. She applied her findings to a self-written story. “I wanted to put into use what I learned about narratives: what does that language do, and how could I put that into use if I want to create a convincing voice myself? Marlon thinks the creative writing part felt like “an extra attachment”: “I noticed that the creative writing really came last. Moreover, this was not mandatory, and if I remember correctly, this part did not count towards the final grade, although it did feel like a cool addition”.

Mia You, creative writing teacher, explains that “there was already so much pressure to write a good academic thesis, that the creative writing component became this extra anxiety producing thing”. That is why it was abolished. Various teachers agreed that this was not the ideal way to explore creative writing. When David Pascoe, the head of the literature section, and You had to mark a few of these theses together, they started talking about this. “We thought that it would have been really nice to have allowed these students the chance to really pursue the creative writing project. Their work had so much potential, but the students seemed to not have enough space or time to really carry out their project.”

Creative writing for the advanced
This is why the teachers of creative writing came up with a new concept. Instead of a thesis with a creative component, there is now an individual course for bachelor students who, after completing the standard Creative Writing course, want to pursue creative writing further. The course takes one block, in which students will be supervised individually. Students can choose to work on one big assignment or multiple smaller ones. This course is only accessible for students who have already completed a creative writing course and have received approval from a teacher to continue.

The individual writing assignment is meant for more advanced writers, says You. “In the standard creative writing course it is really the basic foundations of creative writing that are explained. We ask, for example, ‘come up with a character’. Now you have to come up with a story with a character that you really feel like is relevant to the current moment. Now it’s all about developing your own voice, your own style, and your own set of engagements in the field.”

Last period You supervised three students that chose for this option. These students did not only receive one on one supervision, but also gave each other feedback. You brought the students to the Centraal Museum, a tarot card reader, and the public library to do writing exercises. “I feel like I spent much more time thinking about the creative writing projects of these students, than I would have if it was part of their thesis”, says You.

Marlon thinks it’s a pity that the thesis with the creative writing component is no longer an option. So does Nena. Two years ago Nena wrote her thesis on how dystopian fiction reveals ideas of the writers on, for example, politics. Then she added a self-written dystopian story to it. “Because the offer of creative writing at the UU, but actually at all universities, is so limited, a thesis like this was an extra opportunity for me to practice creative writing under good supervision”, says Nena.

Nena does think the individual course is a good alternative, but Marlon is not fully convinced. “It sounds cool, but I think it’s essentially a very different kind of project. This sounds like a more comprehensive version of what students do in the Creative Writing course, but not like the participants can also do research themselves. That is exactly what I found interesting. I don’t see my thesis as a short story; I see my thesis as a study about narratives, with a short story as an applied illustration.

Is creative writing academic?
If creating writing is even academic at all, and if it belongs on a university, is also up for discussion. “Within the university there is still a bit of resistance to the idea of creative writing being a valid kind of work within an academic context, but this is a very Dutch thing”, says You. “Creative writing is very established in the United States, the UK, Australia and a lot of anglophone countries especially. At every single university I went to, Stanford, Harvard, Berkley, they all had creative writing programmes within the university, but there is more resistance here for some reason.”

Nena and Marlon also think that creative writing is considered much more important abroad. Besides the creative writing course in Utrecht, Nena also followed a course about writing fiction at the University of Kent. There she worked in smaller groups and the feedback was better prepared. “Besides, there were many more creative writing courses in Kent. The people in my course often did an entire Creative Writing programme”, says Nena.

Marlon studied in Dublin for a while. Here she followed one course for which she was allowed to choose to write any kind of paper she preferred. “The teacher said something like ‘as far as I’m concerned you can also hand in a creative story’. We could even hand it in without footnotes or analysis”, in contrast to the UU, where a piece of creative writing should always be accompanied by an exegesis. “‘If you wrote it well, I will understand the references as they are’, my teacher said.

“In The Netherlands there is the idea that academic work should only be scientific”, says You. “You have to have a hypothesis, do an experiment, and then collect data. And then that is real research. Somehow creative writing is more associated with a hobby project. Okay, people can say that here, but the rest of the world doesn’t think that. I think at some point, things will have to change here.”

And it looks like these changes might even come. Martin Everaert, head of the Languages, Literature & Communication department, has asked You and a professor of Dutch, Els Stronks, to create an inventory of what creative writing resources or possibilities are there within the UU already, and how that could be expanded further.

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