Shelley Harris believes studying creative writing allows you to grow on many levels. Not only do students improve their craft, but they gain confidence in themselves and a host of other valuable transferable skills as well.
Shelley, a bestselling novelist, has a wealth of practical experience, and students benefit from her expertise in both writing and publishing.
Her first book, Jubilee, was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Book Prize. It was featured on Radio 4's Book at Bedtime and as a Richard and Judy Book Club Choice. Shelley is also the author of Vigilante. She has tutored in creative writing for the Oxford University Department of Continuing Education, the Arvon Foundation, Faber Academy and the York and Winchester Festivals of Writing. Shelley has also mentored for Writers' Centre Norwich and the Womentoring Project, and is a Royal Literary Fund Fellow.
"What's great at Reading is that we have staff who are currently publishing."
At the sharp end of creative writing
Students can take Creative Writing as part of a joint degree with English Literature, or as modules in a single-honours English Literature course, giving students many options when it comes to incorporating creative writing into their degree.
Shelley emphasises how studying creative writing has changed her approach to life for the better and aims to inspire students through her teaching. Creative writing teaches confidence and self-improvement which she practices in seminars.
"People think of creative writing as a 'soft' subject, but I think you've got to be tough to read out your work in front of other people in your seminar. I've had students who are really scared to do it, but they do it and they get better as a result, and I see them being really proud of themselves. It is so fantastic in a seminar to see the joy when somebody makes people laugh because what they've written is funny - and funny is hard. Or what they've written makes people cry or makes people say -'I'm desperate to know more about this - I wish you hadn't finished reading.' That is such an amazing feeling!"
"You improve your skills by internalising the idea that the first thing you write will never be the last thing you write on a piece. Published writers famously will open their freshly-printed book and the first thing they'll see is something that they'll wish they'd written differently!."
Her methods of teaching extend beyond the page as Shelley believes in a more stimulating approach to creative writing. Drama-based exercises and group work encourage students to engage with their text both physically and mentally.
"I get them to write what I call 'a dirty first draft' in the seminar and they go away and polish it a bit. Then they share it in peer groups and a few of them will bring back a piece to begin the next seminar with and we 'workshop' it. We all talk about what we loved and what advice we would give to that writer about making it even stronger. It tends to be quite cyclical - stimulating, generating writing, polishing it, sharing it and then we do that cycle again."
Shelley emphasises that the greatest strength of the Department's Creative Writing team is that you "learn from somebody who is absolutely at the sharp end of creative writing." After teaching all day, Shelley will go home and crack on with her own novel.
Having fun and building resilience
Shelley believes there is a myriad of reasons why students should choose Creative Writing at Reading, the first of which is because it's enjoyable.
She also highlights how resilient writing makes you. To write well you have to be really good at dealing with failure because so much of creative writing is about failing, learning, and growing. In common with most writer, Shelley puts her own novels through multiple drafts.
"Creative writing has also given me quite a calm approach to life. Now, if I haven't achieved quite what I wanted to, I think 'how can I get better', rather than 'just pack it in!' It teaches you a toughness."
Shelley encourages everyone to consider enrolling in the Creative Writing module. "The aim of the course is not to turn out published writers, but to improve people's writing. It's quite interesting that sometimes people who don't think of themselves as being good at creative writing produce the best stuff because what they produce is authentic, and authenticity is really important in writing. Every student should enrol in Creative Writing. You'll discover some amazing things about yourself.."
"The most exciting thing about teaching is watching students be better than they ever thought they could be - it's just brilliant!."