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A note on ethics in adult creative writing teaching

Article by Kate Dempsey © 5 May 2012.
Posted in Guest Blogs ().

Another in an occasional series on teaching creativity by poet, teacher and editor Dave Lordan

The ethical question which comes up most often and most forcibly for me as a creative writing teacher, with adult Beginner groups, is how honest one should be with one’s students as to their near or medium-term chances of becoming published writers. Not every adult student comes with the idea of publication, but many do.

For an adult to go from being a beginner to a published writer would be a rare and remarkable event in my experience.  It would take a number of years of dedication and hard work. This isn’t just to do with writing skills- although these are a huge factor. Normally beginners have to go through a long process of learning and reflection, not to mention hundreds of hours of writing, before they will produce anything potentially publishable.

It’s also to do with the nature of the contemporary publishing industry.

In my experience most adult beginners with publishing ambitions are trying to write novels, or short story collections. But even long established and highly regarded novelists are being told to forget about it by agents and publishers  these days.

There are only two or three magazines who will publish literary short stories in Ireland. I have about 300 stories to read for the summer issue of Stinging Fly that I am guest editing. I will be publishing two of them.

In my MA in Creative Writing class in Trinity College in 2000-01, there were perhaps 15 potential novelists. In 2012 one of them, Claire Kilroy, is actual. I doubt if any creative writing MA program in the world has a higher success rate in terms of publication. I am saying that, these days, fiction writers have to have something really special to get a book published.

Out of every five hundred adult students in beginners creative writing classes, one or two of them, at most, will ever be taken on by an agent or a publisher. There is, of course, self publishing, and indeed, self-e-publishing. These are paths to publication that I have mixed feelings on and will return to in a later post.

It’s actually a lot easier, in Ireland at least, to get published as a poet than as a fiction writer. This is because poetry is subsidised to a much higher degree than fiction, and because nobody expects to make a profit in poetry. Unfortunately, this also means that a lot of poetry that does get published in book form is, frankly, sub-standard. The lack of poetry editors in some areas of Irish poetry publishing is a chronic problem.

Most people I teach want to be fiction writers, not poets. I try to be careful not to discourage them, but at the same time honest about how hard it’s going to be to get a book out, and how long term a commitment it could turn out to be.

Overall though, for me, goaling a beginners creative writing class towards publication would be absurd and disingenuous. From what I’ve laid out above, this should be self-evident.

So what should it be about then?

For me, it’s about teaching adults to enjoy being creative, and to make a cherished space in their lives for creativity. My adult beginner classes are, therefore, about remembering and/or learning the pleasure of creative self-expression. They are about refining our capacity for self-expression and about responding in a thoughtful way to the creative self-expression of others in the class.

If someone ends up being a published writer, well and good, but that is not what gives substance or meaning to the overall class experience. The fact that everyone in the class has created, and contributed to each others’ creation, does that.

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KATE DEMPSEY runs writing.ie's Poetic License blog and is our poetry guru. She is a writer and a blogger living in Maynooth. She writes fiction and non-fiction as well as poetry and is widely published in Ireland and abroad, in magazines, anthologies and on the radio. She fits this around her family and a full time job, writing on the sofa, on the train and in that little coffeeshop on the corner.

Poetry can be a solitary activity and she appreciates the support she received from the online community, particularly when starting out. She is excited about continuing the dialogue with her blog here.

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