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.
A few days ago we had the launch party for our MA anthology, Bedford Square 5. The anthology is a showcase of the work produced by two years’ of Royal Holloway’s Creative Writing MA, and includes a mix of prose and poetry. It contains the first chapter of my novel.
The launch was a lot of fun. It was great to see lots of my MA group there, and also to meet a number of other students I hadn’t previously had the chance to meet. The event was organised by Susanna Jones, one of the tutors on the course and whose latest novel, When Nights Were Cold, has just been published. Adele Ward, the publisher of the anthology, was there, too, as was Andrew Motion, the MA director. I spoke briefly to him about Angela Carter, as she is one of my literary heros and he knew her before she sadly died, and about the poety taught in schools. There was at least one literary agent that I spoke to, but as I had expected from such an event, she was only interested in literary fiction.
I see the publication of such an anthology as less of an ego stroke, and more of a momento of the course. As I’ve said before, an anthology of extracts is not the kind of publication that will fly off the shelves, but it provides an example of the MA’s work for prospective students and for potential agents and publishers. For me, the launch party was more of a chance to see my fellow writing buddies again, and to imerse myself in the creative buzz of such a crowd – something that’s always energising to me.
But it’s also nice to know that part of my novel is already ‘out there’, waiting for the rest of it to join it one day…
… to paraphrase a certain Hobbit.
So, I have eight weeks left of my Creative Writing MA. As usual, I have no idea where that time went. Things didn’t really pan out the way I’d planned (I had hoped to earn at least £250 freelancing per month… pfft… I am now many hundreds of pounds in debt, scraping together my application for emergency boffin funding from the university), but most importantly, my ultimate aim was to have a completed novel draft by the end of the year.
Ten months later, and I only have 20,000 words. Quite frankly, that isn’t good enough. I know, I know – novels come at their own pace, etc. But seriously, I gave up full time work for this and I should have a lot more to show for it. Now I’m starting to apply for jobs again, I can’t imagine how much more slowly the words will flow.
A few things that I didn’t take into consideration: the sheer amount of time and effort the academic essaying side of the course takes; the sheer amount of time and effort I spend on Inkspill Magazine; my limitless ability to procrastinate on Twitter, Facebook and this blog. And perhaps the biggy: how the method of writing and revising in chunks in order to submit periodically slows down the completion of a first draft.
Those are my excuses anyway.
Part of my problem is that I’m hugely indecisive about what I really want to do in life. Do I want to be a novelist? Do I want to be a freelance editor? Do I want to work in publishing? Editorial? Design? All of the above? None of the above? I don’t really know.
So I’ve been keeping my options open (sensible, you might think), but in doing so, I’ve been spreading myself too thinly. I’ve not been focusing on one thing when, perhaps, I should be.
My dissertations should be taking priority right now. But I have a new issue of Inkspill due.
I’m going to create the fifth issue of Inkspill Magazine, though I really should be focusing solely on the dissertations. It’s going to be a labour of love. I have most of the content sorted. It’s going to be an awesome issue. I’ve already closed submissions, and I’m going to sort through the remaining subs and reply to everyone as soon as I can. But then those subs are gonna stay closed. For a while. After issue 5, Inkspill Magazine will go on the back-burner. (I have plans to resurrect it in the near future, like a shiny phoenix.)
I had interest from a publishing company that wanted to take Inkspill Magazine under their wing, but it seems to have fallen through due to lack of investment. It would be most awesome to make Inkspill Magazine my full time job, but I’m afraid I’m lacking in business know-how. (At the moment, at least.) So. Back-burner it goes.
Then I’m going to totally destroy my dissertations (in the affirmative modern-slang way, rather than literally). And then I’m going to attempt to bash out the rest of the novel. Proper first draft kinda way. Resisting editing (which is gonna be a challenge). A complete draft by the end of the year.
Then I will be happy.
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.