Creative Writing is a pyramid scheme

(In 2009 I wrote some posts for The site in question is no longer available so I'm posting the pieces I have copies of to my weblog)

Creative Writing is a big business. A few years ago the BBC claimed there were more than 600 full time creative writing degree courses at British universities. These included options such as Accountancy with Creative Writing (currently available at the University of Derby).  Hundreds of less-formal courses are available, as well as shorter seminars and residential breaks. Requiring little more than desk space and a tutor, such courses are easy to put on and profitable.

These courses need to distinguish themselves in a crowded market and one way they do this is to offer access to agents. The courses are underwritten with the promise, not that you will be trained to be a better writer, but that you will gain access to the literary world, and through that achieve the dream: giving up the day job to become a writer. Inevitably, as Hanif Kureshi pointed out at a recent appearance, false expectations are created. Few courses mention how far the reality of writing is from the dream:

  • In 2001 the Society of Authors claimed that three-quarters of writers made less than £20,000 a year.
  • A 2006 Independent article asserts that “the average author earns less than £7,000 a year.Anthony Beevor describes one writer whose books were so heavily discounted that he sold 40,000 copies yet, financially, “he would be better off working the till in Sainsbury’s”.
  • In 2007 the Independent reported statistics from the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society that “£907.5m is earned by the 55,000 authors in Britain every year but 50 per cent of the cash goes to 10 per cent of the authors, meaning that the 5,500 bestselling writers share at least £453.75m of it, giving them an average annual income of £82,500 while the other 49,500 authors share the rest, typically earning £4,000
  • The same article includes a heartbreaking case study of a writer with a significant audience who is suffering financially. She concludes: “the best advice if you want to eat is: ‘Do something else.’"
  • Even those stories of huge advances can’t be trusted. The rumoured £1,000,000 advance given to Magnus Mills was, in reality, closer to £10,000.

Making a living from creative writing is difficult. As Lydia Towsey pointed out in a recent Literature Network post, a working poet’ now means to diversify… workshops, producing, directing, mentoring and other types of writing are all vital for the buying of bread.

So what about those creative writing courses that promise a route to literary success? Participants expecting to make a living from creative writing are most likely to achieve this by teaching. From this angle the creative writing industry looks like a pyramid scheme. At its worst I’ve seen people whose only credit was an MA from a good course going on to teach their own informal courses. Considering the economics involved, one wonders whether courses would be better off spending less time teaching structure and form and more on teaching how to promote and facilitate a creative writing course.

Of course I’m teasing – mostly. I’ve attended some courses myself and had a great time, making some wonderful (and some lousy) friendships. The creative writing courses have led me to performing my work in public and have undoubtedly enriched my life.

There’s a serious point here though, and that is that creative writing courses need to focus on the benefits they can guarantee to give students – ‘life skills’, for want of a better term. Through creative writing courses I’ve come to read my work in public, making me more confident in my day job and social life. An awareness of writing allows me to produce all sort of copy, and edit other people’s work. Furthermore, studying any subject in a serious manner hones a range of useful skills.

Like a lot of people who’ve taken creative writing courses I’ve written my own novel and I certainly want to see that published. But if it isn’t, and I’m still doing my day job in ten years time, I won’t feel like I’ve wasted my time with ‘creative writing’. What concerns me is that too many people start courses with the expectation of certain results, and leave with those notions intact, always disappointed with their lot.

Supported by Writing East Midlands

(It's interesting to look back on this article. Since this was published, I set up the Brighton Creative Writing Sessions with Ellen de Vries, experimenting with creative writing workshops that were self-contained and entertaining, focussing on writing rather than publication. I was always uneasy that we charged for these (although we intentionally made no profit after expenses). My main involvement with 'creative writing' nowadays is through Not for the Faint-Hearted, which is a good example of the sort of thing I was arguing for here).

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