Teaching and research
I teach creative writing in various ways
- As lecturer on the BA and MA programmes at Northumbria University,
- As supervisor on the Northumbria PhD programme,
- Through workshops and events,
- As personal mentor (through schemes such as that of Scottish Book Trust).
There's no universal agreement about what it means to "teach" creative writing, or even about what "creative writing" is. Every writer knows that the way to learn is to read a lot and write a lot. Success in writing, as in anything, is dependent on talent, hard work and luck - and we can only influence one of those.
I would advise anyone starting out to join a writing group - it's what I did, and I found it very encouraging. It got me into the habit of writing on a regular basis, gave me an audience to write for and feedback to ponder. If, like Flaubert, you have a few friends willing to sit patiently while you read them your entire novel, then that's fine; otherwise you could look for something more formally organised.
There are also, of course, countless books and websites claiming to teach the secret of how to write a bestselling novel. If you find them helpful then good luck. But you don't need to be published to be a "real" writer: you only need to be writing. Writing is an art, publishing is a business. Ask yourself if you're an artist or an entrepreneur and work hard at whichever you choose.
A university course in creative writing is not the same as an informal writers' group. For instance, in the latter, you don't get marks for your work. There are lots of ideas about what a creative writing degree should do; I offer a few of my personal opinions here.
Writing as research
As well as taught degrees (such as BA or MA), there also exist higher degrees by research (MRes, PhD), where the generally accepted definition (across all subjects) is that the resulting work should be a publishable contribution to knowledge. Obviously it's very hard to say what sort of knowledge is embodied in a novel: this is one of the questions of our subject, and there are lots of ways of addressing it.
My own experience as a writer is that any novel can be considered a kind of research project. I don't just mean content-research (finding out factual details that will go in the book). Rather, an art work can be seen as a response to various questions, which might be emotional, practical or philosophical. For the writer, those questions can only arise as the work is being produced, and they inform its progress, possibly changing in response. The articulation of those questions, and the development of a methodology for addressing them, is how I understand writing as research. We can of course write novels in an entirely intuitive and unreflective way, and the end result might actually be better than we would have done otherwise. In attempting to become self-aware and reflexive with regard to our work, we risk changing it, just as a deep awareness of our own motivations and actions can change us as a person. So writing as research can be an emotional risk as well as an artistic one. My belief is that risk in art is a good thing.
How do we articulate the questions of art? We start by reading a lot and writing a lot. There are various fictional authors who have influenced me a great deal, and also a number of theoreticians, among whom I'd particularly mention Bakhtin, Genette and Benjamin.
As writing researchers our primary output is the artistic work we produce: we study writing through writing. But there are also other ways in which we can communicate what we find, and the questions we articulate can often be of a quite specific kind (overlapping into the realm of "content research").
I would characterise my area of theoretical interest as the philosophy of fiction and the history of ideas. Because of my background in physics, I have a particular interest in the interaction (or separation) of science and art. Another long-term creative question for me has been the extent to which novels can be "musically" structured. So my overall concern has been around the inter-related triple of music, mathematics and fiction.