A friend of mine who is an author has recently signed up for an MA in creative writing. It's going to cost her a lot of money and won't necessarily make her a better writer, but she's convinced that it is the magic ingredient she needs to be successful. A lot of people seem to think so, and universities are currently making a lot of money out of their creative ambitions. But, as someone who has taught creative writing in universities and tutored students at MA and Ph.D level, I'm not convinced that it will. In fact, it might be counter productive. Here are some questions you need to ask and a run-down of the pros and cons.
1. To begin with, there's the Cost - a part time course at a small university starts at around £3,000 a year. Most charge much more. That's quite an investment in your future, considering that the average author earns less than £10,000 a year. £5 - 6 thousand would be quite usual.
|UEA has turned out some bestselling authors such as Kazuo Ishiguro|
2. Check out who is Teaching it? Are they going to try to turn you into a writer like themselves rather than the writer you need to become? How much experience do they themselves have of the writing world? What's their publishing history and how long have they been teaching? If the answer is not much and not long, then you have to ask what they are going to be able to do for you.
3. Does an MA course have real Value? - students think they are going to be exposed to agents and publishers and walk straight into lucrative contracts. A few, a very few, do so, but of those (usually young) writers many are dropped after a couple of books because they haven't lived up to expectation and the disappointment can be devastating.
I have two friends, both very good, award winning authors who had a negative experience of MA courses. One had her confidence so damaged it took her months to begin to write again. Another, the best-selling author Jane Davis, who won the Daily Mail first novel award, developed writers' block and walked away. I interviewed her here on Authors Electric two years ago.
4. Potential for teaching/earning a living - I think this is probably the only justification for doing it. But if you're a published author and have academic qualifications, they don't need to be in creative writing. Mine aren't. You just need enough published work and an MA or Ph.D. Remember you can get a Ph.D by submitting one of your own books and writing a methodology. Teaching creative writing outside the university system doesn't need such a high qualification.
Personally, I much prefer running creative workshops where we can all produce pieces of work that differ wildly from each other, but which take each writer further along their journey to perfect their craft. You can check these out at your local arts organisation or in your local library. I also like mentoring - working one-to-one with a writer on a piece of work discussing and developing it to its full potential. You can get a mentor for much less cost than an MA course. You get their full attention, and you can work on a novel or a poetry collection from beginning to end, benefiting from the feedback that only an experienced author can give you. Organisations like Gold Dust, the Faber Academy, Literary Consultancy and the Poetry Society come with excellent references from happy customers. They don't come cheap either, but you get to work one-to-one with top names. Alternatively, if there's a writer you particularly admire it might be worth contacting them and asking about mentoring directly.
|Students on a writing holiday in Italy|
Then there's the Arvon Foundation (Ted Hughes was one of the founders) which provides week long retreats with two experienced authors in a glorious location - you get a holiday and a creative writing course all in one. They're very reasonably priced and there are scholarships for anyone who can't meet the fee.
Now back to university courses!
5. Question their Reasons for Existing. The idea that if you follow a certain set of rules you will end up with a best-seller doesn't really stand up to scrutiny. Most best-sellers are mavericks. But it may help your writing to study narrative structure, character creation and the basics of good writing, though you can probably do this at a local writer's workshop for much less money!
6. Course Method? Have a close look at it and particularly at how the work is going to be graded. Creative writing doesn't lend itself easily to assessment. Many universities adopt a tick box system to reduce the element of subjectivity. It's based on quantifying and grading Show v Tell, characterization, dramatic tension, narrative arcs, complex prose, metaphors and linguistic devices - you get the picture! A very dull piece can have all these in spades but not have any attraction for a reader at all and zero originality.
But my main reason for having reservations about the creative writing course is that it so often generates writing that is too tame. It's writing in a strait jacket and I don't think this is the right way to encourage developing writers to become better writers. You have to let the dog out of the box and let it run. This is a quote from US writer Terence Hayes:-
"The poem/story is an animal, a wild child despite our fullest attention, our best intentions. The poem/story is a beast, a monster. You are Dr Frankenstein stitching it together to make it live. Except, it jumps from the table and tears through the wall of your laboratory, stomping through the countryside, mauling sheep, and terrorizing villagers. Alive with a dream of its own. A dream you could not have anticipated."
Forget about an expensive piece of paper that says you can write. Engage with the beast!
Kathleen Jones is the author of about 15 books (she's lost count!) of fiction, biography, poetry and general non-fiction. She is currently a Royal Literary Fund Fellow. She enjoys Blogging, frittering away time on Facebook and Tweeting @kathyferber. Her latest book is about a journey to Haida Gwaii to find out how to live without killing the planet. Travelling to the Edge of the World.
More at www.kathleenjones.co.uk