I’ve often been asked by other bloggers on Twitter what I thought of the MA in Creative Writing I took a few years ago. I penned a few words in reply, but not being able to exceed 140 characters became a bit of a challenge even to such a Twitter Tart as myself. So I decided to write a blog about it.
Firstly, why did I decide to take a MA in Creative Writing?
Whenever people ask me when I started writing, I tell them that I’ve always written. This is obviously not true; I’d say that since leaving university I’ve sort of always written down stuff, and enjoyed it, be it diaries, short stories or long letters. It wasn’t until just after I turned thirty and was unbearably bored with my job in Finance when I started to pen down something that could be called a piece of fiction. Or it could be that I was bored with life itself, or that I was having an age-related crisis, or that I just finally found out what it was I was good at. Whatever, I decided I should try writing a novel.
Years passed but I persevered and finished my first manuscript. By now I was in my early forties. Life does that to you: years pass when you’re not looking. Children grow, you live, love, laugh and forget to write.
I can’t believe it took me nearly ten years to write that first manuscript (although I’m in good company with this one), but after the heady sense of achievement of actually having written a full-length novel settled down a bit, I happened on an article in the local paper about a MA course in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University. Reading about the ‘challenging, exciting, and versatile’ course, and the ‘professional tuition’ made me very excited. The university wasn’t too far from were we lived at the time, and it seemed the course was quite well thought of.
My hands trembled when I picked up the phone and asked if there were any places left. ‘No’ came the answer but the friendly woman said to send my application on anyway. Lo and behold, a few weeks later a place did come up, and after a gruelling interview with the course leader (who wore sandals and shorts in February), I got in.
I was over the moon; I’d only really applied to prove to myself my English was good enough, so I hadn’t actually thought about the course and what it meant to commit to a year of intense writing on top of my full-time job. But the shorts-wearing expert had told me I could write well enough to deserve a place, so I brushed aside any fears and awaited the start of the course.
The best way to describe that year-long MA is to say it was a true roller coaster. The first high was the place itself, but the low wasn’t far away. I missed the first week of the the course because my dear uncle in Finland died, and felt ill-prepared for my first critique session (which was the second one to my fellow students). When it was my turn to read from a piece of work – I’d chosen a passage from my finished manuscript – I was sweating buckets. My voice trembled, and when I’d finished there was an ominous silence. I didn’t dare to look at the other faces round the table.
The format of the sessions was that the person whose work was being ‘critted’ would only be allowed to speak if he or she was asked a question. Nobody asked me anything, but they did have some opinions about the work. The worst comments were, ‘It read a little like an Aga saga’ and ‘To me it felt like a translation.’ The Aga saga I could take – the genre sold millions of copies – but the ‘translation’ hit me where it hurt most. This was before Stieg Larson and the rise of Nordic Noir translated fiction, when foreign books were anything but a commercial option. If my English wasn’t good enough, there was no way I could become a novelist. But I managed to keep my tears at bay and my feelings hidden.
I am now good friends with both of the people who made these comments, so I really learned not to take things personally. (Though I still remember them; writers’ egos are very fragile). And I learned I wasn’t the only one who had bad critique sessions.
That first manuscript, which fondly became known as ‘The Hanging Nanny’ never saw the light of day after the first term of my MA was finished. And I didn’t do very well in that first end of term exams. It was clear I hadn’t understood what the tutors wanted from me, and hadn’t completed the writing exercises correctly.
But I persevered, and in the second term I suddenly began to find stories in me that worked. I realised that what I really wanted was to write about Finland, and as soon as I did that, the critique of my work improved. I got some wonderful comments from people whose opinions I really valued, and got good marks for the rest of the course. And passed!
There are 5 pieces of advice I’d give to anyone who is thinking about taking an MA
- MA in Creative Writing is a serious time commitment. I had a full-time job but could take the an afternoon and a morning off each week, and on Sundays I spent the whole day reading that week’s novel, while my husband cooked and took care of the children. So make sure you can give the time to your studies or you will not learn anything and waste everyone’s time. Be realistic and make sure you will have time to write, read and explore your creativity.
- While you have to learn from the critique sessions, don’t be disheartened. Not everyone – including the tutors – will get your writing. So don’t worry if some love it and some hate it; at least you’re getting a reaction. My first critique when no-one wanted to speak showed me that the text didn’t move anyone – only the passage which brought a reaction was where the nanny hanged herself (this story was bad) . But, ultimately, if you’re honest with yourself you will find the best stories in your head, and the best way of telling them with a little help from your tutors and writing friends.
- I was given an invaluable piece of advice right at the start of the course, which I want to pass on. Make writing friends and keep hold of them. Without the honest editing advice, critique and – most importantly – encouragement, you’ll never become a writer. I’ve had a huge amount of help from my tutors well after the course was finished. These same hard-working tutors were also kind enough to read and comment on my subsequent manuscript, The Red King of Helsinki. Writing is a lonely profession, so the friends you make during your MA year can give you life-long support.
- Apart from the constant writing during the year of my MA, what I most enjoyed was the many books we read and analysed. Husband sometimes says I’ve spoilt reading for him because before my MA year he never paid any attention to Point of View or other technical writing issues, but I disagree. It’s so much more enjoyable when you do find a well written book that totally absorbs you in a way that even you, the Queen of POV, do not notice whether it’s written in the first, third person, or omniscient point of view.
- I would definitely recommend a MA in Creative Writing. If you like writing, or rather, if you can’t stop yourself from writing, it’ll definitely make you a better writer. My manuscript, Coffee and Vodka, which came out of the MA, is some of my best work, I think, but more importantly since my MA I’ve had the confidence to write, to be a novelist, something I’ve always dreamt of. Dreams can come true…