Ellen Storm

Writing the White and Purple Coats

What I’m Really Thinking: The Creative Writing MA Tutor

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Any thoughts on this short anonymous article from last week’s Guardian newspaper?

I see maybe two or three students a year who have what it takes. There are others who can barely string a sentence together, and I think, “We shouldn’t even be taking your money.” But that’s how the books are balanced. I hope I respect each writer’s ambition and sincerity, even if I despair of their work […] I’m teaching evening classes to make ends meet. You think I’d be here if I was JK Rowling?”

Originally I wrote quite a few adjectives to describe this piece, and all of them were negative. Thinking about it, my main sadness comes as someone who values education and genuinely loves teaching. I don’t get to do it that much, but when I do I always really enjoy it. I look forward to it, I volunteer for it, I do it for no extra fee. It’s always the best and most rewarding part of my day. Also, teaching isn’t easy: it is its own specialty, with its own underpinning theory and requisite competencies.

And when you teach someone, you know that they are a beginner, or at least, more of a beginner than you are. I mean, that’s the whole point of the teacher-pupil relationship. If I showed you some of my earliest pieces of writing from my teens and twenties you would likely despair of me too. Even now I am struggling on my MA course with having to submit work I know is imperfect: that I would much prefer to mull over for a few years before showing to someone only when I am certain that I have taken it as far as I can, and that it is the best that I can make it.

Then there was also this article by Ryan Boudinot in February 2015: Things I Can Say About MFA Writing Programs Now That I No Longer Teach In One. It caused quite a backlash (as was probably intended), including this piece by his “Real Deal” student J.C. Sevcik: I Was The MFA Student Who Made Ryan Boudinot Cry: A Response To The Insensitive Shit-Stirring Rant That Made A Lot Of People – Including Me – So Mad.

I may already be too old to be the Real Deal (although, inspired by Dannie Abse, I’m shooting for my 17th collection at the age of 90), but I am rediscovering the love of reading that a traditional exam-based education and medical school hammered out of me years ago. That in itself is more than enough for me, and if I manage to write a half-decent book in the process then that will be a bonus.

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