The simple and obvious truth is that you do not need a Creative Writing MA or MFA to be a writer. However, they can be very beneficial to many people. The key is clarity about your own personal reasons for wanting to do a post graduate degree. Ask yourself what you want to achieve and whether or not you can achieve those goals in some other way. If you want all the benefits of a Creative Writing MA, but don’t actually want to do one, there are some alternatives that you could consider.
BENEFIT #1: Legitimising Your Writing
One of the major advantages of embarking on a Creative Writing MFA is that you literally buy yourself some time to write. You pay your university fees and you can officially say ‘I am studying Creative Writing’, legitimising the time you spend focusing on your craft. Psychologically, many people find it hard to be accepted as a developing writer. A lot of people will assume that you’re not really working, or judge you as a dreamer and not a realist. This can be tough to deal with. By embarking on an MA, you help overcome this stigma. Whether this is a fair reason to embark on a Creative Writing MA is up to you.
THE ALTERNATIVE: Create your own schedule for setting aside time to write, read and embark in developmental activities for your writing. Stretch it over a time period that suits you. Be extremely disciplined in ‘showing up’ to your ‘classes’. Call yourself a writer – to yourself and other people. Stick to your guns.
BENEFIT #2: Learning From Professionals
All Creative Writing tutors at university must be established in their field of writing. University offers a unique environment in which you get to mix with numerous writing professionals and learn from their knowledge and success. Depending on the writers who work in your university and how much you ‘click’ with them, this can be one of the biggest perks of doing a Creative Writing MA.
THE ALTERNATIVE: Some writers offer private coaching services. Some literary consultancies offer writing mentors. Unfortunately, this can be expensive – but MAs are very expensive, so consider how much you would spend on university fees and how much contact time you might get with a professional writer/mentor vs. this alternative. You might be restricted by location, but a lot of professionals use Skype for remote coaching. It could be difficult finding the right mentor for you, but it is likely to be worth it as a substitute for this part of the Creative Writing MA.
BENEFIT #3: Learning & Support from Your Peers
One of the major benefits of studying on a Creative Writing MA is that you will immerse yourself in a creative environment with other like-minded writers. You’ll discover that you can learn as much from your fellow students as you can from your tutors. The emotional support and comradely felt between you will be invaluable, and you may well make some life-long writing buddies.
THE ALTERNATIVE: Join a local writing group. Join an online writing group. Find a select few who want to get the same thing as you out of the group – being as strict or as flexible as you decide. Set yourself writing theory books to read and discuss. Set up a workshop environment and a rotor of work to be submitted and developed. The main drawback is that you won’t have a professional writing tutor to chair the group, but if your group is thoughtful and committed, you’ll still find it an invaluable resource. Just because you are not on an MA, it doesn’t mean you don’t have valuable insight to share.
BENEFIT #4: Resources
Your university will have a major library resource full of books, articles, audio archives, etc. You’ll have access to computer and other technical resources. The university is also likely to host literary events and lectures that you could attend, and your course might offer guest speakers (industry experts, famous writers…) and special field trips.
THE ALTERNATIVE: Join your local library – they might not have many relevant resources, but they can order books for you from all the other libraries within the county. Second hand books can also be found incredibly cheaply online on sites like eBay or Amazon Marketplace. Ebooks can also be cheaper, sometimes. If you are in a writing group, pool some money together to create a shared library. Keep in touch with your local library, book stores, university and art centre to get information on up-and-coming literary events open to the public. If you have a writing group, get in touch with local authors and industry professionals and ask whether they would guest speak at your workshop – offer to pay for expenses and whatever fee your group can afford.
BENEFIT #5: Teaching
Some MAs offer the opportunity to teach undergraduate classes. This experience could be invaluable to those wishing to become Creative Writing teachers or tutors in the future. Realistically, most writers do not earn a living from their writing alone and teaching is one of the main incomes for working writers, so having access to this kind of experience is extremely useful.
THE ALTERNATIVE: Enrol on a PTLLS course (Preparing to Teach in the Lifelong Learning Sector) to develop basic teaching skills. This costs around £300-£350. Set up your own free class in a local venue, or even your own living room, to gain experience. Your lack of educational qualifications may be a barrier to teaching so make sure you have a developing publication record to endorse your course.
All of these things work together to improve your writing craft and knowledge. A Creative Writing MA is not for everyone and they are extremely expensive. However, the Creative Writing MA wraps up all these experiences in a tidy package for you, one that is much easier to follow through with since you put yourself in the hands of the system, and it might be that you are the kind of writer who will benefit from such an environment. However, if you want a more flexible development scheme with similar benefits to an MA, these alternatives are a good place to start.
I’ve just started a new course entitled ‘Preparing to Teach in the Lifelong Learning Sector‘ (PTTLS or ‘Petals’, as it is sometimes referred to). It is one of the most basic qualifications often needed before becoming a teacher of adult education. I’ve been seriously considering becoming a Creative Writing tutor for a while now, and though I probably have enough expertise on the subject after studying it at BA and MA level, obtaining a handful of publications, running my own literary magazine, and generally just being obsessed with the theory of creative writing, I felt crippled by my lack of teaching experience.
I was discussing this with someone and they suggested ‘why not go on a course?’ It’s strange – I’d never actually considered it. I didn’t know anything about such courses. The only one I was aware of was the year-long, expensive university-based course, the PGCE, that prepared you for teaching in a school environment. I had no idea about more basic courses, or courses specifically geared towards adult learning. So I did some research and found some testimonials online from people who had become Creative Writing tutors after completing their MAs, and the PTTLS course was mentioned a few times.
Hoping that it was just the stepping stone I needed, I researched local courses. I found one a few town’s over, and I enrolled online three weeks before the course was due to start. I didn’t hear back for a while so assumed I’d missed the boat, but two days before the course began, I got a phone call saying I had a place. The website said there is usually an interview, but the person on the phone asked if I had GCSE English, before realising that I had an MA in my subject area – and those were the only requirements. Unfortunately, the course also cost me £329 – though that’s nothing when you’re used to university fees. Often, if you are already employed as a teacher, your institution would pay for this.
The course is eleven teaching weeks with one week for half term. It is held in a college – seeing all the sixteen-year-old students around makes me feel obscenely old. There are about twenty students in my class – a lot of them are from the same music school, so I’d say there is roughly an equal split between people who are already teaching and those who are hoping to teach in the future. Everyone seems really nice.
The course is a very broad overview of teaching skills – from record keeping, understanding your role, planning lessons, etc. The assessment is based on weekly assignments that are collated at the end of the course to form a portfolio. There is also a ‘micro-teach’ that we have to perform at the end of the course.
You can aim for a Level 3 or a Level 4 qualification. Level 3 is roughly the equivalent of an A Level whereas Level 4 is roughly the equivalent of the first year of an undergraduate degree. I think quite a few people in the group are aiming for the Level 4 qualification, myself included. The assignments are all the same, but they require a slightly higher level of depth and a few references to established theories. We’re asked to analyse methods, with reference to theories, but we aren’t asked to analyse the theories themselves.
Each week there is a three and a half hour lesson. I’ve had three lessons so far. The content seems pretty simple and mostly common sense, but I appreciate that it is encouraging me to think about all aspects of teaching, and the assignments allow me to go into further depth and think about how I would apply the concepts to my own teaching, which is useful. I don’t think I’m going to learn anything particularly crucial, but having the grounding will hopefully increase my confidence and prove to myself that I have what it takes. The qualification will also (hopefully) help me establish my first teaching position.
Creative Writing is such a broad subject and it is taught in a variety of ways at a variety of levels. I’m using this opportunity to further research how Creative Writing is taught so I can build a clear and informed vision in my head of how I want to teach it. Though I think ‘teach’ is almost certainly the wrong word… But more on that another time.
This is such exciting news. Last week, Inkspill Magazine was launched on the Apple App Store, making it available via Newsstand.
Newsstand is a new app that brings subscription material, like newspapers and magazines, together in one place on your iPhone or iPad. It’s like the magazine’s version of iBooks, with the added feature that you can subscribe to a publication.
As far as I’m aware, Inkspill Magazine is one of the first literary magazines to become available on Newsstand. I’m hoping this will have a good impact on sales.
My main objective with Inkspill Magazine is, and has always been, to provide a highly accessible, good-looking platform for great creative material. I want to develop a huge readership, and this is why the magazine is still available to view free online. Instead of providing a PDF to view, I’ve moved the issues to a magazine host called Issuu, which makes them look really snazzy, with page turning graphics, easy click-and-zoom and the like.
The iPad version is priced at the lowest pricing tier. The extra effort that goes into the coding and development is absorbed by an external company – Appeal Software Ltd – and I think people who want the accessibility of a portable reading experience might be willing to pay a few pence towards the magazine. At 69p an issue and £1.49 for a three-issue subscription, I don’t think anyone can complain!
A hell of a lot of time and effort goes into producing the magazine. I want to have the means to develop it, and that means substituting my time with financial gain – otherwise I’m either losing money, or I can’t justify working on the project when I could be working to earn a living.
I’m hoping these two new platforms will develop the readership. The bigger the readership, the more I can charge for advertising. I’ve already secured a few adverts for the next issue, which I’m really pleased about. However, I can’t justify the amount of money I need until I get the distribution figures up. So far, each issue reaches around 1000 people. Ideally, I would like it to reach at least 5000 people.
If you want to help, you can do so in two ways:
1. Spread the word! Let people know they can read brilliant creative content free online at http://www.inkspillmagazine.com/readonline/ or buy issues to read on their iPad from the Apple App Store or iTunes.
2. Advertise with us! (And/or spread the word about advertising!) Take advantage of our incredibly competitive rates and advertise your creative service or product, whether that’s a book you want to promote, an editing service, or a writing course. See http://www.inkspillmagazine.com/advertise/ for more details or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A new website is also in development. The current website has been around since Inkspill Magazine’s birth, two years ago (Happy 2nd Birthday!)
The 6th issue is due out on 15th January. Keep an eye out for it – we’ve got some fantastic creative writing to share with you!
The end of the year, for me, is a time of reflection, but the start of the year is the time for planning the action for the year ahead. I find that without a set of goals to maintain my focus, I can quickly fall into the lull of procrastination, and time quickly flies while I stand still.
These are not resolutions – which, as we all know, never last. These are milestones to reach for during the months ahead. But milestones are big concepts. They are scary and looming and feel far away. Often, we don’t reach for our goals because we see them as impossibly unattainable.
But, as the old Chinese proverb goes, the journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step. We all know that by braking big tasks down into smaller chunks, we can work through them stage by stage, until one day we realise that all the stages are complete, and we have achieved our goal.
This is common knowledge. It is easy to realise this theory, but strangely a lot of people find it difficult to put into practice. This is because in order to know what those manageable stages are, we have to put a lot of thought into working them out.
This year, I am focusing on my writing goals. For the past few years as I’ve reflected on the year before, I’ve always been disappointed that my writing life hasn’t moved further forward. As usual, I am paralysing myself by focusing on the bigger picture, and letting myself become overwhelmed by it. Why aren’t I a published novelist yet? Why haven’t I got an agent yet? Why aren’t I confident enough to run workshops yet? Why haven’t I obtained the authority to speak at conferences yet? And so on.
So to tackle this problem, I’ve devised a worksheet to help me work through my thoughts and create some realistic goals for the year.
The worksheet does several things:
- It focuses my thoughts on where I am today.
- It helps me materialise my ultimate writerly dreams.
- It makes me think about the milestones I need to achieve to get to those dreams.
- It then prompts me to chose the most logical milestone to focus on for the coming months.
- And then break that one down into smaller, manageable chunks.
- While thinking out a strategy to help me keep on track.
You can download the worksheet for yourself here:
Please do let me know if you find it useful. I’ll be tracking my own progress through this blog, and I hope you can pop by and let me know how your own goals are going – or you can let me know via Twitter.
For me, my next milestone is finishing my novel. Instead of setting myself word count challenges, which I usually fail, I’m determined instead to create a habit in which I write for several hours per week. I’ll write more on developing a habit in future posts.
It is useful to see course reading lists before the start of term, though most universities don’t provide a lot of time for this. So in case you are starting an MA and want to get ahead with the reading, or if you’re generally just interested in reading more theory about creative writing, then I hope this reading list is of use to you.
From our very long reading list, these were the core books, the ones we referred to again and again.
- Atwood, Margaret, Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing, Virago, 2003
- Culler, Jonathan, Literary Theory—A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press, 1997
- Eco, Umberto, Six Walks in the Fictional Woods, Harvard, 2001
- Lodge, David, The Art of Fiction, Penguin, 1992
- Baxter, Charles, Burning Down the House: Essays on Fiction, Graywolf Press, 1997
- Forster, E M, Aspects of the Novel, Penguin, 2005
- Wood, James, How Fiction Works, Vintage, 2008
As well as the books listed above, we’d also often refer to the following (or at least they would crop up in conversation or be recommended for something specific):
- Bennett, Andrew & Royle, Nicholas, Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory (2nd Ed.) Prentice Hall, 1999
- Booker, Christopher, The Seven Basic Plots, Continuum, 2004
- Lodge, David & Wood (eds.), Nigel, Modern Criticism and Theory—A Reader (3rd Ed.) Longman, 2008
- Rivkin, Julie & Ryan, Michael (eds.), Literary Theory: An Anthology (2nd Ed.) Blackwell, 2004
- Pope, Rob, Creativity—Theory, History, Practice Routledge, 2008
- Prose, Francine, Reading Like a Writer Harper Perennial, 2007
These weren’t on the list, but from the many books about writing that I have read, I have found these the most inspiring. They mostly deal with the philosophy, motivation and creativity of writing, rather than academic theory (though I have seen Short Circuit on university reading lists).
- Gebbie, Vanessa, Short Circuit: A Guide to the Art of the Short Story, Salt, 2009
- King, Stephen, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, New English Library, 2001
- Morgan, Nicola, Write to be Published, Snowbooks, 2011
- Naimark-Goldberg, Natalie, Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within, Shambhala Publications Inc, 1988
It is important to understand the theory of writing. Much of it is conflicting, and you might not agree with all of it, but it is useful to know what is being said and understood by informed individuals and literary movements, so that we, as writers, can take the most appropriate and informed direction in our own work.
Have I missed out your favourite book about writing? Leave some recommendations in the comments section.