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How useful is a creative writing degree? And 5 more answers from the University of Dundee

Are you curious about creative writing programs? Do you wonder if a degree is what it takes to become a first class writer? Or do you feel creativity can not be taught? These questions and more are answered by two of Dundee’s leading lights – Kirsty Gunn and Gail Low.
BY Skendha Singh |   22-11-2018

Professor Kirsty Gunn and Dr. Gail Low
Professor Kirsty Gunn and Dr. Gail Low at the launch of The Voyage Out anthology. Photo Courtesy: Morag Muir

We all need to write – academically, professionally and personally. But, can we learn to write? Especially as a function of creativity and not just necessity. Do creative writers need a degree in the subject? This is what we asked Kirsty Gunn, Professor of Creative Writing, and Dr. Gail Low, Senior Lecturer in English at the University of Dundee. We also asked them why Dundee is a great place to study and practice writing, and if they have any advice for aspiring writers. They had brilliant things to say.

Edited excerpts from the conversation are below.

Q. There's always been a raging debate on whether writing is a part of one’s DNA or built muscle. In that context, do you feel creative writing can be taught?

Kirsty Gunn: Creative Writing can't be "taught" is my thought. No amount of exercises or prescriptions or rules about how to write a short story or create a character can do the job of an individual being creative... One doesn't learn how to be imaginative. But one can create an environment where using the imagination more productively and freely becomes the norm. This is what I always aimed for in establishing Writing Practice and Study at Dundee: to instigate a creative space in the classroom.

Gail Low: I think what a learning environment does provide is to expose students to a diverse range of reading and writing outside what they would normally undertake themselves (that's why the programme is called Writing Practice and Study... If you are a sculptor, you need to need to hone your skills in a workshop... but equally you need to explore what other artists have done).

Q. Why should an aspiring writer go to university?

KG: They shouldn't.  Writers "shouldn’t" do anything - they can simply read and write, and there’s no need at all to take a degree in writing study - especially if one is already at home with one's writing and reading practice.

But, if a person doesn't have a practice and wants to develop the habit and facility and means to write, they might think then of coming to us to study. For we show our students how to develop their own practice, and their own approach... helping them learn what it is they are good at, and how best to make work that they will be at home with, and so will thrive... They learn the habit of writing, and then the habit of thinking about and making better that writing. 

GL: I'd also like to think the University learning environment might inspire an intense curiosity about poetics - the quiddity of and grappling with language - and stuff of what and how words move us in a more self-reflexive way.

Some students already arrive with that - and we hope to heighten that sense... Universities in this sense function as "cloistered" areas of thinking and working - where you can experiment AND think (to think through writing perhaps), and even creatively fail - without all of the commercial pressures that attend the publication process; we do, of course, like to help students link up to the networks of writing - the "writing life" - so to speak before they go out into the world.

Q. What is the inspiration behind the Writing Practice and Study program at the University of Dundee? And what are the key elements of the student experience?

KG: When I was interviewed for the Chair in Writing at Dundee, I talked about the Black Mountain College - and how I wanted to replicate that sort of experience: practical, communal, nurturing, supportive. I like to think that’s the experience our students have - that they are supported and part of a community - from day one until well after they graduate. Our "family" of students stay around us! Here we are in touch Skendha - because you are a member of that family...I was talking about your work and time with us with a student today, as though you might have been his big sister!

GL: I'd also like to think that students who exit from Dundee have a well-rounded set of skills - reading and performing in public, reviewing and interview skills (literary journalistic skills that you need unless you make a fortune writing), how and where to link to networks outside. But, above all, I hope that Dundee might show students that they can be bold with their writing - not afraid to take risks, to follow a line of thinking and writing, not to feel that they have to conform to a conventional sense of what fiction or poetry etc., might look like. We have developed a strand in creative non-fiction of late - the essay form - and here is where the thinking and the writing coincide especially.

Q. What qualities and skills do you expect a graduate of the program to possess?

KG: Confidence in creativity, intellectual know how and critical acuity, friendliness, kindness, a sense of esprit de corps... An ongoing understanding of, and commitment to, an exciting range of ongoing writing projects. 

Q. How does Dundee serve as a location for writing practice and study? 

KG: It sits in the centre of Scotland - and from here we can access easily the beauty of the Highlands and nearby beaches and hills, as well as the vibrant cultural centres of Edinburgh and Glasgow. 

GL: In Dundee too, there is the new Victoria & Albert [Scotland’s first] design museum; there is a thriving little press zine culture here [with Dundee Writes and New Writing Dundee], and quite a bit of get up and go about the place.

Q. Is there a message that you would like to share with international students?

KG: Make a time for your writing every day and stick to it - no matter how you feel, no matter whether you have any ideas or not. Then make another time, later in the day, to sit, with a lovely cup of tea and a biscuit, and go back over what you've written – editing, polishing, and reading aloud to test the rhythm of your words.

GL: Yes: never wait for the muse to visit!



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