Creative writing courses once suffered a similar reputation to media studies. But as their alumni start to swell the ranks of the literary elite, this is changingby Leo Benedictus / December 15, 2010 / Leave a comment
Published in January 2011 issue of Prospect Magazine
Ian McEwan: “My writing life has been one long uphill struggle to persuade the world that I didn’t do a creative writing course”
“I had a plain kitchen table,” says Ian McEwan. “A sort of small, pine, deal kitchen table. I laid out some pencils and pens, and a block of blank sheets. It was about seven o’clock in the evening, and I promised myself I would not leave this room, and I would not go to sleep, until I had written a short story.” At five the following morning, “a rather grisly tale” called “Conversation with a Cupboard Man” lay finished in front of him. In ten hours, spread evenly across the junction of his second and third days at the University of East Anglia, McEwan had written the first story ever to emerge from a British creative writing course.
That was the autumn of 1970. Today, McEwan is Britain’s most successful literary author, UEA’s creative writing masters is unrivalled as the country’s most prestigious, and the legend of how one came immediately from the other has itself become a famous story. In its unlikely neatness, it almost looks like fiction.
And it almost is. Not because the best-known facts of McEwan’s time at UEA are inaccurate—he did indeed study on Malcolm Bradbury’s new MA in 1970—but because they are almost entirely misleading. McEwan was not merely the first student of creative writing on that inaugural course; he was its only student. What he signed up to, as he remembers it, was a conventional English literature MA with one small creative writing option. “I don’t think the words ‘creative writing course’ were used,” he recalls of the prospectus, “but it said that you could submit, for one part of the MA, some fiction in place of an essay.” Nobody else but McEwan did.
Neither, while he was there, did McEwan experience anything that you could call a writing class. “I probably saw [Bradbury] fewer than three or four times over a year,” he says. “Once or twice in a pub, briefly, for half a pint of bitter. Once or twice in the university corridors. But at no point did he ever tell me how to write, or make any suggestions about my fiction… My writing life has been one long uphill struggle to persuade the world that I didn’t do a creative writing course. But I’ve utterly failed.” Why does he mind? “I don’t mind particularly… I was not being coached in the art of fiction by Malcolm Bradbury, that’s all.”