Early creative writing courses
In New Zealand before the 1970s writing was generally not taught in formal classes (except in schools). Writers often clustered together informally, sometimes around a mentor (such as Frank Sargeson in mid-20th-century Auckland), sometimes simply meeting in pubs.
Writers continued to group together in more or less formal ways in the 2000s.
Day job for writers
Well-known authors who have taught creative writing include Owen Marshall at Aoraki Polytechnic, Man Booker Prize winner Eleanor Catton at the Manukau Institute of Technology and C. K. Stead, Witi Ihimaera and Albert Wendt at Auckland University. Catton was also a graduate of the International Institute of Modern Letters.
An undergraduate creative writing course was first offered at Victoria University of Wellington in 1975. Taught by English lecturer and poet Bill Manhire, the Original Composition course became increasingly competitive over time, with around 150 applicants for its 12 places in 1996.
Other early courses included an undergraduate writing course, at first mostly focused on poetry, at the University of Auckland (from 1984) and a six-month full-time fiction course at Aoraki Polytechnic (1993). High schools ran night classes in writing from at least the early 1980s. Whitireia Polytechnic in Porirua first offered a full-time year-long creative writing course in 1993.
Can it be taught?
People have sometimes debated whether writing can be taught. ‘I think writers are born, in a sense, rather than made,’ says fiction writer and long-time writing teacher Owen Marshall. ‘But their development can be accelerated.’1 Whitireia Polytechnic writing course co-ordinator Adrienne Jansen concurred: ‘I think people probably end up in the same place, with the same success, but it would take a lot longer … A writing course … greatly speeds up the process.’2
Playmarket (an organisation representing playwrights and their work) held playwrights’ workshops biennially from 1980 to 1994. In the seven-to-10-day workshops, new play scripts were tested by actors and directors working alongside the playwright.
International Institute of Modern Letters
In 1997 New Zealand’s first Masters in Creative Writing began at Victoria University. Three years later American businessman Glenn Schaeffer offered support to develop the university’s creative writing programme, and the International Institute of Modern Letters (IIML) was established within the university in 2001. The IIML offered a PhD from 2008.
Well-known graduates of the institute and of Manhire’s earlier courses include fiction writers Eleanor Catton and Elizabeth Knox, poets James Brown and Hinemoana Baker, and film-maker Tusi Tamasese. However, the IIML has had its detractors – in 2003 Canterbury University English professor Patrick Evans complained about the ‘growing dominance’ of writing courses and described the Victoria programme as a ‘conveyor belt’ producing homogenised writing.3
For many years Victoria University’s creative writing programme was known as ‘the Bill Manhire course’ after the IIML director. When Manhire retired in 2013, new director Damien Wilkins was asked how he felt about this close identification with his predecessor. He said, ‘I think Bill is now a brand. And actually the brand is free of the person. I think he’s like Colonel Sanders. People now know there’s not actually a white Southern gentleman cooking the chicken but they still go there.’4
Growth of creative writing courses
From the 1990s creative writing courses proliferated. In 2014 a number of institutions, including the IIML, Whitireia, AUT, the Manukau Institute of Technology, Massey University and Canterbury University, offered degrees in creative writing. There were many more courses around the country, focusing on various genres, including children’s writing, short stories, scriptwriting and poetry. Some courses were run online; others were part of community education programmes, held at weekends or in evenings by secondary or tertiary institutions. There were also privately run courses.