Stories we tell

Susanne Gervay with her book That's Why I Wrote this Song

UTS's creative writing courses have demonstrated that with a dedicated faculty and ambitious students, writing skills and techniques can be taught within an academic context. From its beginnings as a creative writing course offered as part of a Bachelor of Arts, the Creative Practice Group now runs four layers of writing education, from short courses on writing practice and an undergraduate sub-major for a BA in Communications (creative writing), to a Masters of Writing post-graduate course and a research-based Doctor of Creative Arts (DCA) program.

Professor John Dale, head of the UTS Creative Practices academic group and Director of the Centre for New Writing, says the University's writing programs have become the best and most sought-after in Australia because the speciality has been built over many years.

"UTS was one of the first Australian universities to have a writing program, in the early 1980s," says Dale, himself a successful author of novels such as The Dogs are Barking. "A strong track record means we have high demand for the programs and we put a lot of effort into retaining quality teachers and upgrading our curricula."

Dale says the creative writing programs at UTS now take in poetry, novel, novella, short story, screenwriting and creative non-fiction, as well as academic and theory work.

The undergraduate element of the programs – the most popular and oversubscribed – has evolved so that in 2014 the BA in Communications will change, from BA Comms (writing and cultural studies) to BA Comms (creative writing).

The dropping of the more theoretical cultural studies for a pure creative writing sub-major is a big step and one driven by student demand. "Our undergraduate students are looking for a learning and creative experience," says Dale. "A major like this is not for everyone, but it's what UTS has become known for and the students come here for these courses."

He points to the practitioner base within the Faculty that includes himself, Debra Adelaide, Robert Adamson (the Copyright Agency Limited Chair of Poetry), Gabrielle Carey, Delia Falconer, Sue Joseph, Anthony Macris and Leah Purcell, as one of the reasons the courses have been so popular. He says the Faculty spent many years fine-tuning its creative writing programs, weighing technique and craft against analysis, critique and theory. The Faculty also perfected a grading system so that course work would be properly assessed rather than relying on pass/fail marks.

"The creative writing programs at this University have enjoyed so much success because they emphasise both the practical elements of writing and academic rigour. Creative people come here to work on their writing, but they still want a quality BA."

Creative thought processes

An example of how the UTS creative writing programs affect a person's life can be found in novelist and UTS graduate, Bernard Cohen. Originally studying arts-law and science at university, Cohen was drawn to an alternative life doing a BA in Communications (writing and film production) at UTS.

"I was living in an inner city share flat with struggling artists and musicians and that awakened my long-held desire to be a writer," says Cohen, who won the Vogel Award in 1996 with his novel, The Blindman's Hat.

In the UTS writing programs Cohen found a core of fellow creatives who were passionate.

"UTS takes young people who are creative and driven," says Cohen. "And then they turn you up: you have to read, you have to discuss and analyse and you have to produce. Your brain is constantly turned up. You learn that creativity is something you can improve by doing the work."

Cohen specialised in short stories during his undergraduate studies and would later have some of them published in a collection called Snowdome. He went on to teach at UTS and then completed an MA (writing) at the University, which produced the book Tourism, published by Picador. In 2012 he completed his Doctor of Creative Arts, and the project for that doctorate – The Antibiography of Robert F. Menzies – was published in October.

He credits UTS with giving him a writing career – Tourism was plucked by one of his MA markers, Don Anderson, and shown to a publisher at Picador. However, he says the biggest lesson he took from UTS's writing programs is that creativity can be taught, if only to teach young people that creativity is a mental habit and putting ideas on a page is not really risky. It's a lesson he imparts to the kids who now come through his Writing Workshop.

"Creativity is a value taught at the dinner table," says Cohen. "It only develops if you think it's important. We can teach this to children."

It's a long way to the top...

For novelist Susanne Gervay, the educational opportunities of the Master of Arts in writing came after she'd taken the hard route to become a writer of young adult fiction. A teacher of primary school students for eight years, she ended that full-time career to have children and found herself working in the family business – the Hughenden Hotel in Woollahra.

While raising kids she converted her childhood habit of writing stories into an attempt to write a novel based on her experiences as the daughter of Hungarian refugees. Finishing a first manuscript – which would eventually be Next Stop the Moon – proved easier than finding a publisher.

"With my first manuscripts, I would send one off to a publisher and spend the next six months waiting beside the letter box," says Gervay, who now has 10 books to her name and a play based on one of her titles. "Trying to become published was agony for me and I made it very hard on my kids.

"When I realised that unsolicited manuscripts go straight to the slush pile, I started sending several manuscripts at once, so they could sit in all the publishers' slush piles. That was actually my strategy – be in all the slush piles!

Gervay's career, which now includes the I am Jack series on school bullying – which has been turned into a play and also a film in 2015 starring Deborah-Lee Furness – and the internationally published Butterflies, has developed to the point she has an agent in New York, as well as one in Sydney. But she remembers the pain of getting started.

"I once received a three-page rejection letter from a publisher," says Gervay, still incredulous. "It was three pages of hatred – I mean, why would you bother!"

She entered the UTS Master of Writing program after she had published two titles, in order to polish her skills. "Doing my Masters in writing at UTS was wonderful, not just for all the insights into my craft and the input from some very smart people, but because I got to meet all these other writers who were on the same journey.

"Some of the most important parts of being a writer are the things you don't know about until you are one," she says. "I wish I'd done that course first, because I would have learned a better way to go about things."

Creativity abounds

Another award-winning writer, Associate Professor Debra Adelaide, is now the undergraduate coordinator of the UTS creative writing programs. She says in 2014 the undergraduate writing programs will change from sharing a major with 'cultural studies', to becoming a six-subject major simply called 'creative writing'. The subjects are: Fictional Forms, Imagining the Real, Narrative Theory, Writing Through Genre, Writing Laboratory and Creative Writing Project, which will produce a portfolio of the students' creative work.

The change shifts creative writing into its own academic discipline and no longer ties it to cultural studies. Adelaide says a university cannot teach a person to write but a well-taught course can show developing writers how to construct plots, develop characters and move the narrative along.

"You can nurture creativity. There are shortcuts that can be taught, that show a new writer how to do it better," says Adelaide, whose latest book is a collection of short stories, Letters to George Clooney.

Adelaide says the interesting aspect of the undergraduate writing program is the academic quality of the applicants to the undergraduate writing program and how realistic and mature the students are. "I'm in awe of these young students. They don't come in asking for a publishing contract – they ask how many drafts they should write, how they can make their drafts better. They show a lot of patience and hard work."

Adelaide says that some of the smartest graduates in UTS creative writing go on to pursue successful careers in publishing, not necessarily writing. "I was at a publisher's meeting for my latest book recently, and two people representing the publisher were graduates of our undergraduate program."

She says the UTS writing programs have always sought a balance between theory and practice, analysis and redrafting. "Writing is about thinking," says Adelaide, "but it's also about doing. The UTS writing courses succeed because we've found a balance."

Words Mark Abernethy