Adam Baron is a principal lecturer in Creative Writing at Kingston University,teaching on the undergraduate, MA and MFA programs. During his versatile career he has been an actor, literary editor, comedy writer and performer. Adam is a published author and his crime novels Shute Eye and Hold Back the Night were both adapted into drama series on BBC in 2009/10. Here he shares his thoughts with Words, Pauses, Noises’ Boyana Petrovich about studying creative writing, feedback, grades, how to get published and more.
Adam, you’re a very experienced tutor and students love your workshops. What can Creative Writing MA students expect to learn or shouldn’t expect to learn during their course?
I suppose you can’t come here thinking I will have to do that and be a published writer. But what you can learn is to write from your own voice, to find that voice as a writer. You can learn which genres work for you, which kind of writing works for you, in a way that you will discover all sorts of new ways of writing and thinking about writing. And from my perspective, you can learn the practicalities of structure and form which you can then apply in your own work. And that is what I see most creative writing students do. Encountering feedback, feedback generally being about structure and form of a sentence, a paragraph, a chapter, a longer piece of work, they then see similar structural problems in the work of other students that means the work of other students isn’t as successful as it could be to them as a writer, and that makes them think, aha, I need to take this on board myself.
Students can also learn to take themselves seriously as writers, to gain confidence, to say – this is what I’m interested in as a writer – which is very hard to do. It’s very hard to have confidence to say I will write and this will be interesting. And you can see this growing confidence in students who get a good mark, then a better mark and genuinely see that other people like their work and it’s that boost of confidence that they can learn as well, learn to take themselves seriously.
What if they take themselves too seriously?
Well, that’s always a problem.
The next thing I want to ask you is regarding feedback. Often students want more feedback. How much feedback do you as a tutor think is enough? Are tutors editors?
There’s two things we do as tutors. We feedback on the work in hand and what we’re trying to do is make that work better, objectively better. We do this by asking the student to look at its formal qualities and to look at work that’s similar to it. To look at published work by very good writers and to look at the gap between those two things. But what we’re also trying to do is to get students to improve in an ongoing way as writers. And a lot of our students go on from here and we get emails two, three years later saying “Oh, I’ve got a great agent, I finished another novel”, which I got the other day. So we are, I suppose, editing the work at hand so that the students can improve it and get a good mark for it, but we’re hoping that this will be a holistic experience for the student and that they will improve generally in the work they do when we’re not around.
In terms of what most students need to hear, it’s not very many things that need to be worked on at any one time. People come to my office with their work, I give them as much feedback as they want. But, in the end you have to understand, especially if you are an MA student that you are doing this yourself. When all the dust has settled it is you and a piece of paper or a computer screen. And hopefully what we’re doing here is preparing you for that moment, rather than mollycoddling you all the way along. Which is why the program is structured to have the dissertation as the last module. Then you have less contact, it is just you and a big piece of work, hopefully taking all the practical lessons that you’ve learned forward into that. Because, you know, I’m a professional writer, I have a few people who read my work, but I might go six or eight months of writing a novel or something when no one’s read it at all but me.
Tell me about this phrase that goes around the KU writing department ‘feed forward’. What does this phrase mean to you?
Quite simply it means what we always do in creative writing workshops. We try to help you do well in your assessments by giving you feedback in the workshops which then feeds forward towards your assessment. Creative writing is unique. If you take an English Literature MA, the first feedback you get on your writing might be on your assessment. Because the seminar will be about discussing the text you’ve read and the reading you’ve done around it, but here it is your work that we are doing. So all this stuff about feed forward and formative and summative feedback, we’ve been doing that. Formative feedback is feedback which is not given a mark. I comment on your work and say to you this is what I think you need to do to your short story and that is feeding forward into your assessment and when you come take the assessment I mark it, which is a summative feedback. But even that will feed forward from your first to the second semester and the final feedback that you get on your dissertation will feed forward into your life as a writer. So it is university speak for what we already do.