On my course at uni, I have a creative writing module. Sounds fun, eh? Trouble with it was it just wasn't very good... Sure our teacher, Andrew o'Hagan is a Booker lon-listed author, very funny, and Scottish to boot, and his lectures were fun and informative, but somewhere long the way the actual process of writing was forgotten.
Ever since I was but a wee lad I've wanted, desperately, to write. I've been told I have something by teachers etc., but recently I've lost my confidence. I sit and write bullshit. Forced into a mould - 4000 words, title: The Ashtray. This doesn't feel to me like a valid way of testing my storytelling mettle. The title alone seems to force me down a contemporary setting, between the 18th and 21st centuries, Western in culture, urban, or at least close to it, in setting. What if I don't want that? What if that's not even close to my thing? I write SFF - science fiction and fantasy - I write the alien, the other, the different. As such I'm forced to liberally force an ashtray into a setting in order to justify it.
I feel that a better test of students writing abilities would be a theme, or a complex, abstract title. 'The Ashtray' is too mundane, too simple a figure. It's perfect for the Andrew o'Hagans of this world, but can you imagine Paolo Bacigalupi, China Mieville, Ken MacLeod, Arthur C. Clarke or Ian M. Banks latest, 'The Ashtray'? No, me neither. I see Raymond Chandler or Carver, Chekhov, Isac Dinesan - all masterful writers, yes, but all of a certain style or period - realism, the early 1900s, noir, etc. etc. - not speculative, not fantastic (in the literal meaning)
Further to this is the Western-centric approach. Suppose I want to write from the basis of the South American, the South-East Asian, the Central African. The Ashtray is a Western symbol, a western ideal. I can't even locate my story pre-1500 by historical necessity. Tobacco wasn't brought out of the Americas until then, and a quick google doesn't give me much prolific use of ashtrays until the 1940s, and of that mostly American and Western European. And even now, they are declining as smoking becomes less and less widespread. Why, therefore, should an Ashtray be the item to set my creative juices flowing.
You could argue its a 'challenge', something to take you out of your comfort zones, but I'd argue right back that this isn't a Creative Writing university course. It's one module, it's 4% of my degree. That's quite a lot really - £400 of my tuition fees. If it were a creative writing course, over a year to three years, then yes; bring me out of my comfort zone and make me a better writer that way. But to be fought out, you have to be eased in, and that I haven't been. I've written a small piece for class, and that was fantasy. I've written another piece which could be interpreted across cultures and across times, entitled 'My Grandmother's House was a places of constant danger". However, for my last piece I want to do my best. Get the best mark I can. And not to worry about my writing, how bad it is, how much it sucks. And that means writing what I know and what I want to write, what I need to write. The ashtray doesn't allow me that. 'Fear' would. 'Red' would. Hell, any abstract notion would.
It is my belief that such a limiting title is wrong, and not only that, it is actively limiting my ability to do well. I'll try my best, but if you want to teach, why not do it in a way more open to interpretation?