As someone who embarked on the first year of an MA in Creative Writing with Manchester Metropolitan University in September of this year, I have been reading a recent flurry of posts about the worth of Creative Writing courses with great interest. Tom Vowler, author of a prize-winning debut collection of short fiction (The Method and other stories) is not only the product of just such courses but has recently begun teaching on one himself. In his post ‘Learning ‘Em To Write‘ he focuses on what many see as the key issue surrounding such courses, ‘whether the production of fiction can be taught,’ an issue he first dealt with back in 2009 while himself in the throes of a Creative Writing MA: Can You Learn Folk To Write? In both posts Vowler takes a positive view of the discipline:
‘once committed to the MA….I took my writing seriously, adopting a more professional and systematic approach. I began to regard writing as a craft (something you had to graft hard at), rather than an art that could be visited when inspiration should happen to breeze through.’
Longtime readers of this blog will know that I undertook a pair of courses with the Open University between 2008 and 2010 finding pretty much the same experience. Previously I had allowed my writing to be something I did from time to time, less and less as my responsiblities as a teacher, a husband and a father grew in the years prior to taking on the first course. While earning my diploma I found myself taking a more ordered approach to my writing, as Vowler describes. This focus on craft that creative writing courses foster is at odds with the mainstream view that good writing is simply product of talent, a view I was myself perhaps guilty of adopting in my twenties, but if a writing course teaches one thing, it is that great writing is writing that has been worked and worked to a very fine polish. Talent can’t be taught but good writing craft is another matter. As Vowler says in ‘Can You Learn Folk To Write‘:
Instead of teaching ‘creativity’ per se, such courses look to develop skills, crucially teaching the writer to be self-critical.
It is for exactly this reason that I decided to take the leap and enroll on an MA in Creative Writing. While I am confident in my ability to craft a half-decent story, I understand that I have quite a way to go before I am at the level I want to be. The MA route offers exactly what I am looking for, clear, focused teaching on the key features of fiction writing at the end of which I will have completed a novel. I am very grateful for the opportunity to learn my craft alongside like minded people. And while I have no illusions about achieving overnight success with my fiction writing, my aim, clearly, is for my work to see publication. Something that the MA on its own cannot guarantee, but the course will certainly help speed me along that route, I am sure. That’s why I am making the investment, both financial and temporal, in my writing. For me this is serious stuff.
Which is why I read Iain Broome’s Postgraduate writing courses: with love or money? which itself comments on the recent Guardian Books podcast featuring interviews with a number of students of the prestigious MA in Creative Writing offered by UAE with not a little incredulity. As the post describes:
many of those students, when asked why they were doing the course, either said that they a) didn’t want to be published, or b) were only there for fun. Two of them said that they were on the course simply to see if they could write.
While I can understand people taking on a writing course to see if they can write, I had a similar mind-set when embarking on my first OU course, listening to the podcast I felt some of the discomfort Broome describes in his closing when discussing those taking the course simply for fun:
Essentially, good writers with potential and ambition are fighting for places with people who can afford an expensive hobby. That makes me feel uncomfortable. Most uncomfortable indeed.
If I weren’t currently on my creative writing MA of choice I would have been gutted to hear people describing doing it just as something to fill time. What bothers me is exactly what concerns Broome, there being people out there without funds or time to do the course, while others take the spaces for a jolly. I know because for a long time I was one of those people wanting to take up an MA but unable. While I would agree that people can spend their money how they like, the idea of committed, talented individuals being squeezed out in favour of those with too much time and money on their hands is a little worrying. Perhaps as Randy Murray, commenter on Broome’s post points out, those quoted in the podcast were simply being disingenuous for fear of sounding over-confident or because of self-doubt. I certainly find this explanation more appealing than the alternative.
Whatever the individual reasons driving folk to sign up for these courses the most prevalent debate centres around their perceived worth, with criticism aimed at what some have described as the cookie-cutter fiction that emerges from the graduates. Hanif Kureshi, a few years back, even went so far as to describe creative writing courses as ‘the new mental hospitals,’ while other, less extreme views focus on what is seen as the impossibility of teaching someone to be a great writer. Personally, I like Fay Weldon’s pragmatic take on teaching creative writing:
‘If you can teach writers that ‘the fewer adjectives and the fewer adverbs the better, you’re just doing the world a favour.‘
In their recent posts on just this subject both Gabrielle Kimm and Emma Lee-Potter quote Richard Francis’s thoughts on the value of creative writing teaching/courses:
‘You may not be able to teach people to write, but you can take people who are capable of writing and provide them with the space and structure within which they have to write.’
Kimm, in her post ‘Are writing courses worth it?,’ describes a dilemma I am familiar with as a father of three and part-time teacher:
‘struggling with guilt, at the amount of time and energy I was devoting to what to other people was still tantamount to a hobby.’
For Kimm her MA changed all that, ‘while I was on the course,’ she writes, ‘I could really begin to think of myself as a writer.’ This is something that I began to feel over the course of my two OU courses as I was forced to present and discuss my work with other students. It is something I am looking forward to doing more of as the first focused writing unit of my MA kicks off in January. Looking at the schedule of units heading my way over the next three academic years it is clear that, as with most MA’s of this type, I will be workshopping a lot of my writing, as well as reading a great deal of my fellow students’ work. It is also clear from the introductory novel reading unit that there will be a clear focus on the nuts and bolts of making a novel work; character, plot, subtext, imagery, et al. (Top tip: I recommend John Mullan’s How Novels Work for an overview of pretty much every factor that needs to be considered when writing a novel).
Veterans of creative writing MAs are clear when describing tangible benefits of such courses. Tom Vowler, writing as both an alumni of a creative writing MA and a lecturer of the subject explains in his post, ‘Can You Learn Folk To Write?‘:
‘A creative writing MA doesn’t guarantee you afternoon canapés rubbing shoulders with JK; it’s not a shortcut to the shelves of Waterstones (there are none). But it will make you a better writer.’
Most of the accounts I’ve read close with a similar sentiment, that an MA is no guarantee of publication, but it will help you get there quicker if you’re going to get there. Gabrielle Kimm goes a step further crediting her course with enabling her to achieve publication:
‘I don’t think I’d have been published had I not done the MA.’
I would be lying if I said I don’t have more than half an eye on publication at some time in the (I hope) not too distant future, but at present my main focus is on becoming a better writer, practising my craft in a challenging yet supportive environment while working toward a real goal (in my case a completed, redrafted and edited novel of, again I hope, publishable quality) by the end of three years. For my money and time (and I am sinking a considerable amount of both into this) that’s the best thing I can be doing right now.
21 Responses to To MA or not to MA?
I was also considering an MA in some kind of English/Writing, but I just couldn’t afford it. I just went straight into work in the writing world. Do you think they’re worth it??
I’m currently only in the first term of my MA, but based on what I have seen so far and my experience with Creative Writing courses on the OU I would say such courses are well worth the time/money. As Tom Vowler says in his posts I quote here, an MA is not a shortcut to publication but I’m sure doing one helps you’re chances by making you a better writer.
Goodness, what fantastic research you’ve done, Dan.
I can only talk about why I’m doing it. Publication? Of course that would be wonderful – though the odds are stacked against me (older women have additional hurdles, not least being invisible in almost all fields including publishing). But – more than that – I want my writing to ‘get better’ – I’ve no idea what that might look like, what shape it might be, but I’m very clear that’s what I’m working towards. (Is that a good enough reason to justify my place? I take your point about people being on the course for a jolly!)
Absolutely that is a good enough reason, and is pretty much the same reason I state in my closing. And don’t get me wrong, I realise people have the right to spend their time and money as they see fit. My comments about folks’ reasons for taking on an MA were intended to highlight the fact that there will be potential authors out there without the opportunity to take such a course, rather than as a dig at anyone on an MA.
And don’t sell yourself short. You are already a self-published author with an warm and engaging travelogue under your belt.
As for the publishers, everything I have read about the process of achieving publication agrees that the first thing publishers/agents are interested in is the quality of the book. While I take your point about the publishing worlds skewing toward the younger end of the author spectrum, someone’s age won’t stop them from publishing something they feel has an audience/market.
Thanks for this, Dan. Especially the ‘warm and engaging travelogue’ bit.
And I don’t think I’m disagreeing with you about digging anyone taking an MA. And haven’t met anyone on our course that looks to be out for a jolly. (Though I have heard advice to older writers – don’t mention your age in cover letters, as agents are less likely to even turn the page over and look at your writing. I only hope it’s untrue!)
I think that’s good advice – no law about putting your age on a query. Hook ’em with a brilliant book beforehand. That said, I would hope that things aren’t that superficial. But we do live in world where being an in-law to the Royals can snag you a six figure advance in an austerity culture.
Dan, a while ago I blogged about the invisibility of older women http://gapyearsthebook.blogspot.com/2011/11/it-can-be-fun-being-invisible.html
It seems we simply disappear from the radar. I was in a bar at Paddington station and a young women walked to the space beside me and gave her order. I interrupted – I was here first – and she said she hadn’t seen me, even though she had brushed against my shoulder! We can rage against it, or accept it and enjoy ourselves in our unnoticed corner. The problem comes when we dare to put our heads above the parapet and insist we are taken seriously. Too many people have forgotten how to do that. And that, I’m afraid, includes too many publishers.
I wonder if your experience at the bar is as much to do with a decline in manners generally (now I sound like my parents) as much as an attitude toward older people from the young. But there is also the fact that our media is geared towards revering youth (yet weirdly demonises youths themselves in many cases). Perhaps we need to take a leaf out of other cultures’ respect of their elders. Whatever is causing the problem needs challenging though. Seems as absurd to discount someone because of their age as for their sex or race or sexuality.
I completely agree that it needs challenging – and yes, it is so very different in other cultures (which took a bit of getting used to) – which would suggest that it is culturally determined. But I still think it’s common – don’t know if you have a mother or mother-in-law or grandmother around you can ask, Dan? I know when I mentioned it to my mentor he was horrified, but it’s something older women talk about among themselves.
(And I’m always happy to talk about my travels, if Nuala wants to ask!)
You are doing your MA for all the right reasons. I hope you have great tutors and enthused class mates 🙂
I didn’t do one. Kind of wish I had but it’s a bit late now!
The tutors and classmates seem top notch thus far and I am really looking forward to getting stuck into the writing proper in January. Have an essay to do between now and then.
As for you’re not having done one, it’s never too late – I’m fast heading to forty and loving the fact that I am finally doing something I have wanted to do since graduating my degree. I’m sure Jo would agree with me that you’re never too old to do something you always wanted to, just ask her about her round the world trip.
That said, you’ve already got a published novel under your belt, not to mention the short fiction collections and the poetry. Is there anything an MA could teach you that you won’t have already taught yourself completing that impressive body of work?
[…] Dan Powell on MA writing courses […]
A while back I began thinking about doing an M.A. I was already a published children’s writer (without other income) but wanted to improve. However, most of the courses that I looked at gave out so little information about the course content e.g. “Term X :The Art of Fiction” that the whole thing felt a huge and unaffordable gamble of working & writing time, my little money and the hours spent on travel. The college admissions office could not expand on this very basic framework so I did not pursue it further.
I do admit my reading of the MA course notes was more than usually critical as another published writer I know took on an MA course and had very negative experiences in the course workshops. Was very interested but the sums just didn’t add up. Maybe it’s different now? Hope so.
Hi Penny, thanks for your comment. I can totally see why you would hesitate when the course information was not clear. As you rightly point out, taking on an MA is a huge commitment both in terms of time and money. I’d be interested to know how long ago you were looking into courses. I know that while I investigated courses earlier this year, most Universities had very clear course breakdowns on their websites, while those I queried answered in extensive detail. Also, my interview for the course was actually a great opportunity to discuss the nature of the course prior to my formally accepting a place. Universities have to work harder now to sell their courses to students, so I would imagine or at least hope that my kind of application experience is becoming more commonplace.
Nice post. It seems like it’s always some debate or other about whether such programs are valuable, usually in considering the ends of such program–either publishing or teaching.
The real shame of the discussion is that it so rarely discusses the means of these programs. To wit: I’m a USC graduate, and though I went to USC hoping to emerge with both a solid professorial position and a lucrative publication contract with one of the big six, I instead became a better writer. Meanwhile, the more I learned about business, marketing, and reading, the less I wanted to participate in the late-twentieth century distribution model clinging to its place in retail.
So far as the talent question, my advisor was a guy named Sid Stebel, who teaches that “Talent can’t be taught, but writing can be.” Probably literary greatness can’t be taught, but what can be is competence with a certain skillset. It’s worth noting, too, that talent can be developed, which is one of the more valuable aspects of these programs.
I totally agree, having a talent that you refuse to work at or develop is going to get you as far as no talent at all. As you say, the opportunity to develop a talent is a valuable thing. Glad that your experience was a positive one and thanks for taking the time to comment.
You’re right Dan, it’s never too late. I’d left my forties way behind when I was accepted into an MA program as part of a small group of multi-published writers from different fields. Working with our peers stretched all our skills to the limits, and the academic process was a leap into another world. Both experienced enriched my writing and the teaching I love to do. After 70 published books, I didn’t need “teaching to write” but “teaching to think/challenge/research” and of course, hang out with others of my kind, made this one of the most valuable things I’ve done. And having MA after my name looks pretty cool, too.
The chance to work with like-minded peers is a major part of these courses, as you rightly point out, and one of the main reasons for my taking on my MA. I am looking forward to being challenged about my work over the coming months as what I learn from it will only help me improve. Sounds like your course had a very positive effect on your approach to your work. Great stuff. Thanks for your comment.
On the subject of writing students who say they don’t want to be published, just read this interesting article on why seeking publication is an important part of the process of improving your work:
Just found your post on a random internet search – I’m glad you found my post useful! I really enjoyed reading this – I hope that you’ve carried on enjoying your MA course, and that you are still writing well! All best – Gabrielle Kimm
Hi Gabrielle, nice to see you here and that you enjoyed the post. I am indeed still enjoying my MA. Since posting this I have been lucky enough to attend the residential week at The Hurst with fellow students and I am currently gearing up for the new academic year by plowing through the reading for this year’s novel study unit. Hope all is well with you and thanks for the thoughtfulness of your post, as you can see it provided food for thought for me.
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