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Muse vs. school

Krisha Kops, MunichJuly 15, 2014

All over the world, young bestseller writers start their careers with a degree in creative writing. These courses are common in Anglo-Saxon countries, and now Germany seems to be slowly warming up to the idea.

Calligraphy pen, Copyright: Fotolia/matttilda
Image: Fotolia/matttilda

I have written over a hundred songs and hundred poems, a few short stories, a couple of short movies, and two novels. But somehow success seemed to remain clotted in my pen. That's why I enrolled in the Bavarian Academy of Writing, one of Germany's few creative writing programs.

Here, in the country of poets and thinkers, the idea that top-class writing can be developed is slow to catch on.

According to Manuel Niedermeier, a fellow student at the Bavarian Academy of Writing, Germans still seem to be in love with the notion of the genius, which took root in the Romantic period. It was then that the ideal of the modern author was created: an artist awaiting the muse's kiss. Red ink was kept far away from the masterpieces.

Niedermeier takes a less idealized view. "I think that creative writing is learnable to a certain degree," he says. He published his first novel this year - "Durch frühen Morgennebel" (Through Early Morning Fog), written in part during his creative writing course.

Manuel Niedermeier, Copyright: Magdalena Fritsch
Manuel Niedermeier recently published his first novelImage: Magdalena Fritsch

Of course you need talent, ideas and discipline, but it is also a craft," says Niedermeier, adding that analyzing fellow students' work has taught him to be more critical of his own.

To hone our technique, we at the Academy also emulate approaches from bygone eras and break down the elements of style, from plotting a storyline and creating tension to controlling narrative distance and conveying precise emotions.

Practice makes perfect

Christiane Schmidt, one of our lecturers at the academy and an editor at C.H. Beck publishing house, often encounters writers who view themselves as the direct heirs of German poet and playwright Friedrich Schiller. "Many authors, especially those who are not even that successful yet, give the impression that any negative critique of their work is a disruption," she says.

In Schiller's homeland, however, the tide may be turning.

Successful young authors like Juli Zeh, 40, and Leipzig Book Prize-winner Sasa Stanisic, 36, are two examples of how the current generation of writers are standing up to criticism and pursuing the technical tricks of the trade rather than chasing after that fleeting muse. Both studied at the German Literature Institute in Leipzig, another one of the country's few writing programs.

Christiane Schmidt, Copyright: Jan Roeder
Christiane Schmidt is an editor and creative writing teacherImage: Jan Roeder

With a bit of luck and good connections, Niedermeier may follow in their footsteps.

What is just starting to develop in Germany is old hat in the Anglo-Saxon world. Emerging from courses in rhetoric, creative writing was first offered at Harvard University in the 1870s and later, in 1936, established as an academic discipline at the University of Iowa.

Today, there are few successful writers in the US who did not attend a creative writing program. The system is self-perpetuating: It is common that well-established writers become lecturers in these programs. One of them is bestseller John Irving, who taught at his alma mater, the Iowa Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa.

The academic programs in the US are myriad, ranging from creative writing and literary translation to poetry and creative nonfiction. Universities in Anglo-Saxon countries tend to be more progressive than their German counterparts when it comes to integrating non-traditional fields of study.

In the UK, more than 500 creative writing courses were offered at 141 institutions of higher education last year. While the Brits weren't quite as quick as the Americans in this area, the first course of the kind was established in 1970 at the University of East Anglia (UEA). With novelist and screenwriter Ian McEwan among the inaugural participants, the program must have got something right.

Participants at the Bavarian Academy of Writing, Copyright: Maximilian Meeks
Krisha Kops and Manuel Niedermeier subject their work to criticism at the Bavarian Academy of WritingImage: Maximilian Meeks

The director of the creative writing program at UEA, novelist Andrew Cowan, understands the skepticism that exists about the effectiveness of courses like his: "This dispute testifies to the continuing force of the Romantic legacy that assumes literary achievement to be the expression of natural talent, the outcome of a god-given faculty superior to reason and therefore to pedagogy."

However, he adds, "Oddly, the same suspicion doesn't apply to the teaching of art, music, dance, or any other art form."

Sales and the question of quality

So do the long tradition of writing schools in the US and UK, and the sheer quantity of them, make for better writers? Anna Stein, a literary agent with Aitken Alexander Associates in New York, says many German publishers tell her that her writers are "more polished" because of their writing training.

"That is to say, the work of US authors is more edited, revised and made as perfect as possible," she adds. Self-editing is one of the main skills taught in creative writing programs.

The extent to which trained writers are technically superior is a theory Manuel Niedermeier plans to assess in the doctoral thesis he is currently working on. He believes that, in addition to the surplus of works coming from the US, refined skill may also contribute to the disproportionate amount of English fiction being translated into German. Niedermeier hopes to prove this theory in his dissertation.

The most recent statistics available from the German Publishers and Booksellers Association, from 2012, indicate that 67 percent of the 11,564 titles translated into German came from English, while the number of German licenses sold abroad sank from 8,000 in 2011 to 6,855 in 2012.

Andrew Cowan, Copyright: Martin Figura
Andrew Cowan says the British book market remains 'parochial'Image: Martin Figura

Cowan and Schmidt disagree over the idea that quality plays a role in the sale of translation licenses. Cowan blames cultural blindness for the fact that English-speaking markets are less interested in translations than the other way around.

"British publishing is extremely parochial and nervous of the public's receptiveness to writing in translation," he points out.

For Schmidt it's only natural that books written in the lingua franca find interest abroad, adding that Germany has a particular affinity for foreign cultures.

More creative writing schools do not necessarily lead to more outstanding writers, but they do make it easier for talented students to find a publisher. For literary agents and editors, writing schools are an obvious place to scout fresh talent.

So even if my muse doesn't bother to show up, maybe an agent will. In the meantime, I'll keep editing and re-editing my texts - over and over again.