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.
Two events have coincided: I emailed all the mini-critiques for the Inkspill Magazine Short Story Competition and have been receiving feedback on my feedback, and our last taught term at university has come to an end!
Unfortunately, I was hit with the mother of all viruses the night before our last day, so I missed out. I was very, very annoyed (*shakes fist at fate*) as I missed my private tutorial, which had already been rearranged due to student protests hijacking our building, and I had spent the last couple of weeks preparing a presentation on the graphic novel Watchmen for one of our seminars. Also annoyed that I missed out on the general merriment.
So that’s the end of our ‘taught’ semesters. Next semester we’ll have special guest speakers every week or so. That should be interesting. Hopefully we’ll also continue to meet up to do our own workshops. I’m quite shell-shocked at how fast the year is going. The workshops have been so incredibly useful. It’s a shame to lose them.
As for Inkspill Magazine, part of the reason for offering free mini-critiques with every competition entry (man, that was a task and a half to complete!) was to encourage entries, but also because I’m in the initial stages of setting up a critiquing service through the publication. I wanted to know if people thought my feedback had any value before I started trying to charge for it. Turns out a lot of people were very impressed with the critiques, and I’ve collected some fab quotes from happy writers to help endorse the venture when it goes live.
I’ve been offering feedback on writing for… goodness, nearly nine years, since I first joined online critiquing sites. I did the same thing during writing workshops on my Undergraduate course, and I’ve been doing it again, much more intensely and with lots of academic consideration, with the Master’s. It’s something I enjoy: editing, analysing, picking apart and reconstructing, offering opinion (because let’s face it, all critiques are opinion in the end) and encouragement.
One of my classmates thanked me for my ‘superior editing skills’, which made my head swell, and then I had a really long and wonderful email in my Inkspill inbox about how useful my critiques had been. (My head is now the size of a space-hopper, and I’m typing this while said head is propped up on a pile of books as my neck can no longer support the weight.)
Anyhoo, I’d love to hear your opinions on critiquing services – what you’d expect to pay, what you’d expect to receive, if you would use them (if not, why not), any past experiences…? etc. Please leave any comments, or feel free to email me directly at sophie [@] inkspillmagazine [dot] com
Which is just as well, because the past couple of weeks have been slightly chaotic on the Creative Writing MA. First, we had Reading Week, so no seminars – fair enough. Then our tutor was ill, so we missed our first workshop. Again, fair enough. Then, student protesters took over our building, and all our seminars were cancelled. We weren’t too happy. My private tutorial was also cancelled, so I was even less happy. Our tutors were told they couldn’t teach outside the classroom because of liability issues. Pffft!
It had been a long time since we’d had a workshop. Deadlines were creeping up, projects were building up, we were developing a back-log of work, and time was running short!
So we arranged our own workshop. Tutor-less and classroom-less, we met up at The British Library at the usual time, and after a quick tongue-wag we re-scheduled the whole of the rest of the term, and got on with our workshop. I thought the workshop might suffer without the knowledgeable head of our group, but I think we did pretty well.
I felt rather proud of our group. All of us showed up, voluntarily and with vigour. We got things sorted quickly and efficiently. I feel very lucky to have such a good group – so much of the quality of the MA depends on it.
Sometimes, when I travel into London for sessions such as this, where I’m not personally receiving anything (I was geared up for a private tutorial to focus on my essay, and a workshop session in which I would get feedback on my novel – both of which fell through), it makes me think it isn’t really worth the time, the hassle of travelling, and the cost of the train. But it’s selfish to think like that. Because our whole group works on a system of give and take. We support each other, and that’s what makes our group so awesome.
This first term is divided into two units: the workshop, and supplementary discourse.
Both these units are taught on the same day. Three hours for the workshop, a half hour break (across the road to the nice Italian cafe), and then one and a half hours for the supplementary discourse unit. The lessons end at seven o’clock in the evening, and then we usually head to the pub for a quick drink.
This is very much like the workshops I experienced as a third-year undergraduate, though the amount of work we submit is much greater. We take it in turns to submit 10-15 pages of double-spaced work, which we then have a week to read and comment on, before coming into class. The work can be anything we want feedback on.
People’s projects are all at varying stages, depending on how much they have written, and how much they know about their own story. I feel sort of ‘in the middle’, as I haven’t written a great deal, but I feel like I know quite a lot about the world I’m creating and its back story, even if I’m not entirely confident about the plot at the moment.
By now, everyone has had at least one piece workshopped. Things we have discussed have included wider topics such as point of view, how much information to use as ‘hooks’ and how much to withhold, tone, expectations and predictions from what we have first been presented with, and smaller details such as limiting dialogue tags, using layout to its full potential, and where and how to end sentences and paragraphs for the greatest impact.
We discuss the work, one piece per hour, and the writer is encouraged to remain quiet.
After talking to a few people from the other group (there are two Prose MA groups), it seems they have the opposite approach. The writers spend 10-15 minutes introducing their work, explaining what they were trying to achieve etc. However, it seems that the other group would prefer to adopt our workshop structure, as they feel that the introduction too greatly effects the type of feedback they receive.
I have to agree, I think the ‘silent author’ technique is the best way to go about workshopping.
Once the discussion is over, we all hand our annotated manuscripts back to the author.
I’ve found it to be a very constructive experience. Not only is it great to receive feedback, but it’s also great fun discussing everyone’s work, bouncing ideas of each other and looking at things in different ways.