Katherine Clements: Why I Developed the First A-Level in Creative Writing

I am very lucky to have Katherine Clements, author of The Crimson Ribbon* and creator of the A-level in Creative Writing here on my blog today as part of The Crimson Ribbon Blog Tour, talking about why she developed the first A-level in Creative Writing. Personally I took A-levels in every English subject I could get my hands on (English Literature, English Language, Theatre Studies) and the two months of English Language where we wrote our own pieces was my favourite. This led me on to start a BA in Creative Writing so I’m massively jealous of everyone who gets to do the Creative Writing A-level and was fascinated about how it came about. So without further ado! Katherine Clements.

I’m in an English lesson. Miss Taylor announces that she’s going to read a short story to the class. She waits for the class to settle and then begins. In one wonderful, terrible moment, I realise – the story is mine.

I feel a hot flush of pride as Miss Taylor reads on. Then, utter terror, as I understand that my story is about to be judged. It’s the first time I’ve had an audience, outside my immediate family, and I’m not prepared. I’m nine years old.

Many writers recount similar emotive memories: the book that kept them reading beneath the covers, the dutiful parent typing out manuscripts on duplicate paper, the passionate English teacher who first encouraged them to put pen to paper or, these days, fingers to keyboard. These early experiences help make writers. They are important.

A few years ago, I had the opportunity to lead the development of the UK’s first A-level qualification in Creative Writing. By then, I was a writer of short stories, with a few publications under my belt and a novel in progress. I felt passionately about this project. It mattered to me. Not only did I believe it was valuable, exciting and long overdue but it mattered personally too.

My early journey as a writer is fairly typical. I made up stories when I was a kid, devoured the contents of the library, and attempted my first novel when I was twelve. But then, sometime in my early teenage years, I just stopped writing. Life happened. Other things took over.

It took me another 15 years to pick up my pen.

It’s often said that you need life experience to be a decent writer, and perhaps I needed that time, but I sometimes wonder what would have happened had I continued writing. Think of all the stories that went un-written, all that practice, all that learning. Would I be a better writer now? I expect so.

The first time I read my work aloud, much later, to a small, friendly local writers group, I panicked. I couldn’t get the words out. In the end another member read on my behalf.

I couldn’t understand what had happened. In my professional life I regularly spoke in public and ran events for hundreds of people, so why couldn’t I do this one simple thing? Because, this time, it was personal. It was Miss Taylor’s classroom all over again.

I never had the chance to explore writing at secondary school, much less work towards a useful qualification in the subject. I could have made art, learned to dance, specialised in drama performance or music composition, but creative writing wasn’t an option. Now, here was an opportunity to change that for thousands of students.

Anyone who does something creative, and puts part of themselves into their work, becomes vulnerable. Any creative pursuit has value beyond the output itself. The drive to explore and make something new, the desire for self-expression, is a good human thing. There’s learning, growth and sometimes joy, to be found in the process. And sometimes there’s fear and self-doubt and an overwhelming conviction that the thing you’ve made is the worst thing in the history of the world, ever.

When I did eventually begin writing again, I joined an evening class. Since then I’ve been to writers groups, conferences, residential courses and writing retreats, of varying quality and usefulness. I’ve met and been taught by amazing teachers, read books on writing, seen some of my favourite writers speak and been lucky to find supportive and inspirational mentors. All these things have contributed in some essential way to my experience of learning how to be a writer, and that means taking the bad stuff along with the good. It means doing it when you think you can’t. It means facing that self-critical voice head-on, learning when to listen and when to ignore it. My teachers – and among them I count all the fellow writers I’ve met and talked with, in all kinds of situations – have helped me to do that.

There’s been a lot in the press over the years about whether or not creative writing can be taught. I’ve never been taught creative writing at a university, but I do know how much it’s possible to learn about the craft of writing from others. I’ve learned the value of intelligent, sensitive and well-judged feedback. I’ve learned by reading things that have been suggested to me, or by taking apart a well-loved piece and seeing it in a new way. I’ve had teachers who were perceptive enough to say the things I didn’t want to hear, who pushed and encouraged and allowed me to get things wrong, so that I could, eventually, get things right. Writing involves a set of skills, tools and techniques that can be taught. Regardless of innate talent, everyone can improve.

We need teachers, editors, mentors and other writers to facilitate this. Writing is so often considered a solitary pursuit but it can and should be a collaborative process. I don’t underestimate how challenging this can be, but it is so valuable. That doesn’t mean you can’t go it alone, but learning from others certainly speeds up the process.

So, convinced of the value of teaching creative writing, I still had many questions to answer: Could we get teachers and students working together, as writers, in the classroom? Could we create a meaningful, rigorous course that promoted genuinely useful real-world skills? Could we give students the time and space to take themselves seriously, as writers?

The first intake of students sat their first exams this summer and the signs are good. I’ve heard from teachers, examiners and students and they all report good things. Teachers are enjoying the freedom, flexibility and democracy in a course necessarily led by students’ individual interests. And students are embracing the ideology of the subject, reading, writing, sharing, improving their work and growing in confidence. I’m delighted, and just a little bit jealous.

Miss Taylor never knew it but she gave me something that day in the English classroom: a little seed of hope that maybe, one day, I might be good at this. Doubt is an intrinsic part of any creative endeavor and it took me a long time to find the guts and determination to put my own writing out into the world. I’m pretty sure that without the teachers who’ve helped along the way, I wouldn’t have got this far. And, perhaps, if I’d been given the chance at school, it wouldn’t have taken me quite so long.

Thank you Katherine! My review of The Crimson Ribbon will be up tomorrow. Spoiler alert: It’s great.
Do you wish you could take the Creative Writing A-level? Are you taking it?

*I received this book as part of the blog tour. It has not changed my opinion at all.

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