Creative Writing MA’s have got a bit of a mixed reputation. Some see it as an exercise of the blind leading the blind, by which I mean unpublished writers telling other writers how to (hopefully) get published.
Others see them as ‘dalliances’ (which is a terrible word, because it implies it’s not being taken seriously by either the subject or the speaker) where hopeful writers go to waste a year or two before resigning themselves to “adult life”.
There’s also the dreaded MA ‘workshop’ which (apparently) churns out carbon-copy short fiction that loses all sense of the author’s voice after the cutting comments of their fellow classmates.
All of this adds up the overall feeling towards MAs… which is the equivalent of a shrug. Not the exciting, inciting push you might want (or need) before taking the plunge into a second degree. But is any of this fair?
I don’t know, is the honest answer. I can only speak for my specific experience on a specific writing programme (Stockholm University’s Transnational Creative Writing Masters) (damn that’s a lot of capital letters) so I hesitate to draw broad brush strokes across programmes a world over.
But I’ll tell you this.
I don’t regret it for a second.
And here’s 5 reasons why:
1. They give you the chance to take your writing seriously
This is especially important if you’re coming into creative writing for the first time, or are exploring whether it’s something you’d like to make a career out of. Having spent most of my professional career in marketing my ‘creative’ writing was limited to the backs of food packets and the occasional quippy tweet. It was actually NaNoWriMo (I’ll do a post on that later) that kicked my arse into gear and got me writing creatively, this time in long-form, for the first time since my failed Year 8 book project (I wrote a story where Naomi Campbell and Heath Ledger got trapped in a cave in the Yellow Mountains. Unsurprisingly, my teacher hated it and told me writing probably wasn’t for me.)
More than likely you’ll need to submit a sample of your writing as part of your entrance exam (Stockholm needed a 2.5k word short story) but it doesn’t matter if it’s not ‘ready to get published’ quality, after all – that’s what you’re there for.
2. They give you the chance to get feedback on your work
This is a double-edged sword. As someone notoriously bad at taking criticism (my first taste of feedback from a previous job ended up with me crying in a coffee shop whilst my boss shifted uncomfortably in her seat and asked if I wanted another frappucino) this can be a little hard to get used to at first, but it’s really good. And here’s why.
When you write something, you’re (eventually) intending other people to see it. And those people have opinions, just like you do. So you have to get used to hearing them, even if their opinion is that your character is flat, or that your story is lacking oopmh. Whilst these things can be difficult to hear, they’re often the things that are going to propel your writing to the next level.
After all, if we were all excellent at giving ourselves honest, critical feedback then our work would improve without anyone else’s input… and Editors wouldn’t exist.
3. They give you the chance to build a network
I cannot stress the importance of this enough. Writers need supportive writers around them. People who will give you a nudge and say ‘hey how’s the book coming?’ or send you a ‘you can do it!’ text when you’re five days deep into writers’ block. These are also the people you can bounce ideas off, ask (very nicely) to read short excerpts and ask for feedback from.
Writing is a solitary life. At least with a community, we can all be alone, together.
4. They push you out of your comfort zone
On the spot writing exercises. Genres you haven’t done battle with before. Writing in third person, first person, second person. Writing from the point of view of a potted plant, or a fly on the wall. Creative Writing MAs often push writers out of their comfort zones because it helps them improve. I discovered I’m not half bad at writing creative non-fiction, despite it being a genre I find deeply uncomfortable, and that has given me some great things I can take forward into my fiction writing.
There’s a quote out there somewhere about great things happening at the edge of your comfort zone, but I’ll spare you it.
5. They put you in touch with the right people
Most creative writing MAs are taught by published professors. Some of them, like Maggie Gee who ran our Creative Non-Fiction classes, have whopping double-digits worth of books underneath their belts, so it’s safe to say they know a thing or two about the industry, how tough it is to crack and how gruelling it can be trying to get published.
For someone like me, for whom writing was a pipe dream less than a year ago (somewhat of a crazy thought now as it’s taken over my entire life…) this is the first time I’ve ever even met published authors. So to then have them turn around and say ‘hey, if you ever finish that book, I’ll be happy to read it,’ is somewhat mind-blowing.
And it wouldn’t have happened without the MA.
But let me also make this clear.
You do not need an MA to achieve any of these things. Check back next week with my tips on how to ‘build your own’ MA.