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Writing a more equal world: why creative writing degrees matter

23rd June 2020

By Dr Ann-Marie Einhaus, Senior Lecturer in Modern and Contemporary Literature and Programme Leader for the B.A. in English Literature and Creative Writing

Writing is at the heart of building a more equal, diverse and thriving society. Whatever ideas or causes are close to our hearts, we need to be able to express them well to convince others to care. Especially for young people, developing a strong voice and effective communication skills is hugely important.

Just as reading a diverse range of literature helps us develop our own ability to see other points of view, developing your own voice enables other people to put themselves in your shoes. To give an example from my own teaching practice, British author Andrea Levy, whose work I teach on two of my modules, is a case in point. Levy was born the daughter of Jamaican immigrants in 1950s London, and grew up in an overwhelmingly white environment. She loved reading, but felt there were no books for her to read that spoke directly to her own experiences as a young black woman in Britain. In her thirties, Levy started Creative Writing classes, which helped her find her voice as a writer – and led her to become one of the most successful historical novelists in contemporary Britain, though she sadly passed away in 2019. As a teacher of literature who specialises in a topic that is typically still dominated by white, male voices – British writing about the First World War – I’m particularly grateful to be able to draw on Levy’s work to give students insights into an important overlooked aspect of the war: the little-known participation of West Indian volunteers. Levy’s short story Uriah’s War, written for the First World War centenary, brings this story to life in an accessible way.

In similar ways and closer to home, my colleagues Dr Laura Fish and May Sumbwanyambe also open up spaces for recognising that black history is everyone’s history. Laura’s novel Strange Music connects the history we think we know – the life of poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning – with the links between the poet’s story and the stories of those who had been enslaved on her family’s Jamaican sugar plantations. May’s latest play Enough of Him, commissioned by National Theatre Scotland for the Coalition for Racial Equality and Rights Black History Month 2020 programme, tells the story of Joseph Knight. Knight was an African man brought to Britain by a Scottish plantation owner, who won his freedom in an unprecedented Scottish court case in 1778 after no less than two appeals. Enough of Him imagines the man beyond the facts that we have on Knight’s life.

Other colleagues, too, give voice to issues and experiences that have been kept in the margins. Dr Elizabeth-Jane Burnett, in her poetry collections Swims, Rivering and Of Sea and in her recent nature writing memoir The Grassling, explores her personal identity as entwined with nature and the environment. Elizabeth-Jane has recently been named as one of the 10 writers today ‘asking the questions that will shape our future’ for the International Literature Showcase (presented by the National Centre for Writing and the British Council).

The writing journey of Dr Fiona Shaw began with a memoir, Out of Me, in which Fiona revisited her experience of severe postnatal breakdown and depression – a terrifying experience affecting many women that is still stigmatized, and too little talked about. In her later novel Tell it to the Bees, Fiona wrote about a lesbian relationship blossoming in the rather unforgiving social atmosphere of small-town life in the 1950s, and the novel defies the expectation that such relationships at that time must necessarily have ended in tragedy.

Of course, you don’t have to become a novelist, poet or playwright to make your mark on the world. An English degree opens up so many different opportunities to add your voice to a shared story – through scriptwriting for TV, radio and film, communicating ideas and information effectively through social media, journalism, teaching, developing internal communications in a large company or organisation, or writing copy for fundraising, public information or advertising campaigns. Whatever it is you have to say, you need to be able to say it clearly and persuasively, and that’s precisely what a Creative Writing degree equips you for.

Graduate employers and recruiters recognise the importance of strong, diverse voices, too. There is now widespread acceptance that companies and organisations of all sizes benefit hugely from having as diverse a workforce as possible. The more different perspectives, experiences and talents are represented on a team of co-workers, the more productive and innovative that team will be. Developing your ability to express yourself helps you contribute to a diverse environment in your chosen career, and enables you to make a positive difference not just to your own life, but to the success and wellbeing of others. Through writing, you can combine being an advocate for causes about which you feel passionate with forging a successful career for yourself.

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