Assessing creative writing at universities
That hoary question came my way the other day: ‘Why ‘creative’ writing – why not just ‘writing’?’
The existence of creative writing in the Academy infuriates some people. A man challenged me at a public meeting in Plymouth during a networking session: ‘All writing is creative, even a sign to a public toilet!’ When I dared to respond, to suggest differently, he turned tail and sprinted to the far corner of the room, putting as much distance as he could between himself and all I stood for.
May is marking time in English universities. You’ll note this blog’s been quiet of late – the small matter of 350,000 words to assess and comment on in the space of four weeks. It’s a dawn till dusk job, thankful of lengthening days. ‘Surely you don’t actually read everything?’ some ask. The truth is that every word is read, scrupulously. If your mind wanders, you go back and start again.
Creative writing comes with a bonus, in that the marking is not a dry run of often dismally similar essays, much of it regurgitating your own teaching. Students have strained to give you the best of their imagination, study and craft. Marking-deadlines are severe, but in reality they’re always met so I’m learning not to let them trouble me. The piles of papers are not a mountain, but many individuals gifting you the best of themselves – that’s my sentimental reasoning, and holding to it works a treat.
So what am I assessing? How do I judge what is ‘creative’ or not? It’s that blending of imagination, daring, understanding born of reading, and crafting skills that lifts writing out of worthy dullness to being alive. Students aren’t assessed on areas they have not explored, so it’s fair to assess them on narrative drive, on their conscious use of tenses and voices and points of view, on their awareness of form at sentence and paragraph level, on the brazenness of their originality or the care that is evidenced in their choice and placement of words, in their use of rhythm or creation of silence, in the liveliness of dialogue or the easing of self-censorship. Sometimes, in judging competitions, I’ve formulated a grid and marked according to a range of different marking skills. It’s interesting that the results equate directly with the visceral ones, the degree to which a piece of writing has thrilled me. Times in this latest marking round my spine has rushed with the recognition of a writer’s truth, brought out from some depth and smoothly delivered. I’ve analysed, but I’ve also laughed and cried and be been brought into a powerful reflective silence.
And then comes double-marking, assurance that you are maintaining an objective stance. It’s a shame students can’t be shown a broadcast of one of these sessions, two lecturers discussing their work with engaged intensity. Debate on a single student’s work might last half an hour, no mere ‘splitting the difference’ but both sides coming to an agreed grade.
And then comes the summer, when creative writing tutors are released into their own work. That time’s coming, wonderfully it’s coming, but the marking of May is a fine if exhausting limbering. Analysis of the effects of writing slope into my unconsciousness, the perspective gained from studying others’ work slips into my own, and my own writing discovers new levels.
That’s soon, but later. First I have some more film scripts to mark before Sunday lunch.