Young writers take heart: end of CityU course is not end of the road

Kelly Yang says living, not learning, is the key for writers and prospective students should not be deterred by closure of CityU course

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 12 May, 2015, 12:07pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 12 May, 2015, 12:09pm

People often ask me whether I think good writing can be taught. This question seems particularly relevant now, given the recent unfortunate decision to close City University's Master of Fine Arts degree programme in creative writing.

Writing can be taught, but good writing can only be encouraged. Good - and bad - writing can be spotted from a mile away. It can be fostered through a combination of guidance, hard work and inspiration. But a true literary voice cannot be taught.

The real tragedy of closing down CityU's programme is that it will take away yet another source of creative inspiration in a city that already lacks outlets for creativity. The course was arguably the only one of its calibre in Asia, one which brought to Hong Kong renowned and inspiring writers from all over the world; people like Junot Díaz and Robert Olen Butler.

That some of these wonderful writers taught and lived here, even for a semester or two, benefited not just the students but our city as a whole. Imagine if the next Pulitzer-Prize-winning book were to be set in Hong Kong. In a sense, the programme's impact extends beyond the 20 or so students enrolled a year.

On Twitter and Facebook this week, former students were asking questions like: "Where is the space for a new kind of story?" and "Who will write the stories of rising Asia?"

While it's sad to see such a promising course end, I remain optimistic about the future of stories in rising Asia. At its core, writing has more to do with living than learning. The best writers I know didn't learn their craft in a classroom; they lived it.

One of the most stirring articles I've read this year was called "Things I can say about MFA writing programmes now that I no longer teach in one" by Ryan Boudinot. Boudinot questions the usefulness of such courses, saying that "either you have a propensity for creative expression or you don't". He could count on one hand the students who "had it". And for those who didn't, the most they could hope for through an MFA course was to become a better reader.

That's harsh. As a writing teacher, I went through many emotions after reading Boudinot's essay - anger, denial, confusion. How could he dash people's hopes and dreams like that? In fact, a lot of amazing writers were late bloomers.

Yet, the essay stuck with me long after the anger and denial had gone. And I found myself digging for the morsel of truth buried beneath all the criticism. It was: if you're going to write, write.

Anyone who has ever tried to write more than 2,000 words knows how incredibly hard and heartbreakingly lonely writing can be. That's why Master of Fine Arts programmes like the one at CityU are useful; they allow like-minded individuals to come together, be inspired, and workshop their work.

For those prospective students who now have no course to attend, I hope they keep writing. Asia needs them to carry on because the stories they write today will help shape our future tomorrow.

Kelly Yang teaches writing at The Kelly Yang Project, an after-school centre for writing and debate in Hong Kong. She is a graduate of UC Berkeley and Harvard Law School.