Language is who we are to the world. Our ability to tell our story with clarity and panache will make the difference between being heard and being ignored. We are born writers in the sense that we born storytellers. All writing is, at its best, creative writing.
The reputations of some of our most glamorous writing programmes are based on the perception that such programmes create writers who, on graduation, receive contracts from literary publishing houses and become the next rising generation of writers. The reality is most students of creative writing do not go on to become writers – just as most students of, say, biology, physics or mathematics do not become research leaders in their fields (I write as a trained zoologist – who has published six award-winning volumes of poetry). That does not mean those graduates are not flourishing or fulfilled.
At Warwick University, we stress that publishing is not the gold standard, and that one of our aims to create generations of great readers as well as good writers. Most of our students progress to leading roles in the creative industries of writing, publishing, the media and journalism, education and arts management. Some of them have indeed become prize-winning authors. But ambition in creativity can take many forms in the world, and the design of a university creative writing course should not only reflect the world; it should enact the world; or even open up possible new worlds.
The most surprising and thorniest ideas are often simple. Simplicity of this type is reached through processes that are complex. Such ideas might seem beyond rational thought, wrung from realms of intuition and feeling. Yet, like the mind’s own “muscle” (the brain’s ultra-complex synapses), fluent feeling and intuition are made ever more pliant and receptive by practice and, without exercise, they atrophy. The same can be said for creativity in any field of endeavour, including science and mathematics. We know that creative ingenuity is the product of 10,000 hours of practice combined with talent and luck. Yet in essence all our children are nascent geniuses. What they are waiting for is permission to mature their precocity. If they are fortunate, the value of a receptive imagination is encouraged and enlarged in the early years of education.
But as a student moves through the educational system they are required to specialize. By early adulthood the cast is set. As part of this process the receptive imagination is undervalued or simply devalued. As Ted Hughes wrote, ‘this immense biological over-supply of precocious ability is almost totally annihilated, before it can mature’. This annihilation is often carried out with the best of intentions but can be deadly for the maturing complexity of the imagination’s synaptic hard-wiring. Imagination needs to be wired through intelligence; intelligence to be wired through imagination – through the practice of creative writing at every level of education and within every field of knowledge.
At Warwick, creative writing students are encouraged to move across disciplines. They explore subjects for language and material that they might use later in writing. They develop a more worldly-wise profile of qualifications. And they act as ambassadors for creative thought and practice among students and professors they might not otherwise encounter. Some of the most dynamic students of creative writing come from business, computing and mathematics. They borrow the concision and play of poetic technique to understand and communicate their work; and they use imaginative play to expand their understanding of their field.
Are these ‘practitioners’ writers? Some of them become part-time writers while carrying out research in their fields. Some go on to become teachers of physics, computing and mathematics, and they use creative writing games as a means to teach their subjects. Entrepreneurial students from our business school have done the same. They understand that the practical magic of business games (icebreakers, creativity exercises) is close in spirit to that of the generative writing workshop. For physicists, a ‘thought experiment’ is also a writing experiment, and vice versa.
Creative writing can also be an education in the arts of entrepreneurship: in business, publishing, and building communities and audiences. Writers will need to innovate if our art forms are to flourish in the storm raging within the publishing industry. Part of the answer lies in the design of any creative writing course: it must be redesigned and rethought almost every year – in the eye of that storm. I would argue it must create the storm.
I began my working life as a scientist, one who also wrote creatively, and I would say that if what you do requires you at best to write clearly, then we are all writers. The Two Cultures, the division of knowledge systems into Arts and Science, was a splintering of the processes by which knowledge and language move and grow. Creative writing as a discipline is helping to shift the debate into a more constructive set of engagements, and course design is the key to making that shift. Such an approach recalls Leonardo da Vinci’s Principles for the Development of a Complete Mind: ‘Study the science of art. Study the art of science. Develop your senses – especially learn how to see. Realize that everything connects to everything else.’
Einstein wrote in 1932, ‘When the world ceases to be the scene of our personal hopes and wishes, where we face it as free beings admiring, asking and observing, there we enter the realm of art and science’. It’s not about what creative writing can offer to science, nor what science can offer to creative writing. It is about values and experiences we have in common across all fields of knowledge: all writing is, at is best, creative writing; you can teach and learn creativity; and our imagination is the most important thing about us.