In 2020, St Petersburg University opens admissions to a new master’s degree programme ‘Creative Writing’. It should be interesting for inexperienced writers, future literary agents, publishers, editors, critics and other specialists working with the book industry.

More details of the new programme were given by associate professor of St Petersburg University Andrei Astvatsaturov. He is the author of four novels, and was several times on shortlists and longlists for prestigious literary awards.

Mr Astvatsaturov, where do you study to be a writer?

The most prominent foreign writers, editors, critics and publishers all studied in creative writing schools. Creative writing programmes have existed in the West since the 1940’s. In each American University there have always been a couple of professional resident writers who would hold creative workshops. In the USSR there were also special institutions of higher education for people who wanted to work with literature. For example, in the Russian State University of Cinematography they taught screenwriting, and in Moscow there was a Literature Institute. Now the tradition lives on: several Russian Universities have bachelor’s and master’s degree programmes for future writers.  

They say that you are born to be a writer, and it is partly true. An eye for words is shaped at a very early age. Gradually people with literary talent may begin to feel the form of their future piece. However, this is only the starting point for a writer. As long as the plan is rough around the edges, it is no good. Using a metaphor, a new writer reinvents a wheel. And any help is very useful at this stage. The aim of a tutor is to show them spokes and tyres, and all the parts necessary for the wheel to function properly. And then the writer is capable of working on their own.

What is the difference between the academic programme of the University and, say, any other literary course or workshop?

Apart from practical points, our students will be able to get a general education. It is especially important for those who decided to change their field of study. We will do our best to combine the practical classes with teaching theory. From my point of view, it is the right approach for training future writers.  

Not only must unfledged authors learn to write books, but also to read them.

And this very skill can be acquired through academic education. I am talking about some core knowledge, like, for example, comprehending Balzac or Stendhal. 

At the same time, teaching writers should differ from teaching, for example, philologists. At the Faculty of Philology students study literature, they learn to understand the mechanics like poetics, or genres. However, all these rules and canons are not enough for a writer. At the ‘Creative writing’ programme I want to narrow the gap between theory and practice. For instance, close reading, which is taking a few texts and analysing them thoroughly, is very useful. Budding writers should understand what the aims of a particular author were and how they achieved them, how the narration is structured, how to make characters three-dimensional or one-dimensional. Literature scholars, unlike writers, never pay much attention to these issues.

What subjects will be included into the programme?

We are planning to provide lectures on stylistics, history and theory of Russian and foreign literature, and philosophy. These will be given by the teachers of the University, and among others by a professional writer, professor Andrei Stepanov (Department of History of Russian literature). Also, there will be a variety of elective master classes, which, I hope, will be held by eminent Russian writers Eugene Vodolazkin, German Sadulaev, Aleksandr Prokopovich, and Vadim Levental. Such master classes are, to my mind, the main element of the programme. My colleagues and I will teach students different literary methods used by classic and modern authors.

What entrants are you expecting? And what will they be qualified to do on graduation?

The most important is their desire to write and some certain evidence of this desire. We are going to give extra credit for pieces of fiction published in literary magazines, and for released books, which can be included in a student’s portfolio. Students can also attach unpublished short stories, snippets of novels, stories and sketches. These will be evaluated according to certain criteria such as genre match, credibility, usage of metaphors, and choosing the right words.

Apart from the entrants who want to become writers, the programme will be perfect for anyone whose future profession will be connected with literature. Sometimes publishers or literary agents reject good texts because they find them too daring or innovative. To appreciate a new piece one has to have a good taste for literature and no less good understanding of the art of writing. As for the work of, say, editors, it is essential not only to be able to spot and remove tautology and redundancies, but also to be conscious of the writer’s intonation.

We will try to help students develop their skills, and find their direction. The programme is to become a firm foundation and a good start on the road to literature.