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:
‘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.