Learning And Studying And Writing: A DIY MA In Creative Writing

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In my work as a book doctor and writing teacher, I sometimes remember a friend who’s a publisher saying to me that she thinks that creative writing programmes ‘give false hope’.

Hmm. I think this is a valid concern.

However, I am a teacher, as well as an editor, so I do believe in the idea of improvement, and especially in the idea that people can learn.

An MA in creative writing is one possibility, and it can provide structure and community, as well as direction. Someone was singing the praises of such courses in the Guardian only this morning: ‘Will a master’s in creative writing get you a book deal?’ – a variation on a familiar theme of discussing whether writing can be taught.

But an MA can also be expensive, and very often you’ll probably only produce the 15,000 words required for an academic thesis to satisfy the academeaucrats. Which is fine if you want or need an academic qualification. If you also want to complete a novel, you might need to seek out one of the few MA’s that actually require you to finish a novel (and even then, know it’ll still almost certainly need revising). So: research such courses well. Look at their content, look at the teachers, speak (directly) to recent graduates, and go in with your eyes open. And remember that the guy who wrote the article above got his book deal because an editor liked his book enough to want to publish it, and not necessarily because he has an MA.

And don’t start me on the idea of marking academic work. A % attached to a piece of creative writing is an absurdity, but one that the academeaucracy requires. In my view, if writing has to be marked (and it is a big If), it should be Pass/Fail, with maybe (maybe) very rarely, like, every five years, a Distinction for that brilliant thing that is ready to go. After that success should be measured by the author: completing the novel, getting it published, winning a prize, making a living, finally getting the approbation of the disapproving father. A % (often based on pretty subjective criteria) just disappoints, and boxes you in, and that is useless for most any creative enterprise. So please: a Distinction might stroke your ego, but take it with a pinch of mixed metaphors if what you really want is to publish your book. (Not least, you have to finish it first. See: 15,000 words, above.)

One further thought: in the UK, I suggest part-time MA’s spanning a couple of years are often better than one-year courses, because writing and creativity take time to gestate. In the US, an MFA (such as the one I did at Naropa University) usually takes two years full-time, and maybe longer part-time, and I think that shows in the depth and quality of the experience. Plus, it usually takes at least a term/semester to warm up and readjust. One year simply feels too rushed! Spin out the experience, spin out the pleasure.

And if you are thinking of going to university for any reason at all, you really must read this.

Rants over. Let’s put the positive back into the world. Let’s make it new. Let’s not forget that most of the great writers we read had no MAs, but very different qualifications: life experience, yearning, a typewriter, a well-read library. Their writing courses were self-assembled.

With a bit of discipline and imagination, you too can build a course of careful study and reading for yourself:

 

DIY CREATIVE WRITING: SOME NOTES TOWARDS A SYLLABUS

1. Read. One of the more gratifying things that someone said to me at the festival this last weekend was that she was very grateful to me for making her go away and do a lot of reading after last year’s book doctor session. (And she might know a thing or two, as she did win this year’s prize for the best opening chapter. Though I’m not taking the credit! Her book idea is very good, and she really can write too.) I always always always dish out a load of reading recommendations, and sometimes I worry I am being a bit too schoolma’am. So this was validating.

I recommend a lot of good books and links on my Resources pages. Long lists can be overwhelming, so a short list might include:

* Ursula Le Guin, Steering The Craft
* Constance Hale, Sin And Syntax (for help with prose style)
* Alice LaPlante, The Making Of A Story (a super course-in-a-book, if you want that sort of thing)
* Stephen King, On Writing
* Susan Bell, The Artful Edit
*
Francine Prose, Reading Like A Writer
* John Gardner, The Art Of Fiction
* Harry Bingham, How To Write
* good books on story structure, such as various written on screenwriting, e.g., Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey or John Yorke’s Into The Woods (though remember that fiction is not film, especially with regards to narration – fiction writers do not have to rely entirely/mostly on foreground action)
* Sandra Newman & Howard Mittelmark, How Not To Write A Novel (much mirth here too)
* Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down The Bones (fabulous for inspiring people, especially when beginning)

The Writers’ Workshop has a fabulous advice page with lots of links too. And do seek out the many recommendations made by others.

Note: these are books about writing. You might have to research other stuff too (what it was like to live in the 1970s, the workings of an astrolabe), but here I am talking about the focused study of writing. If you’ve not done this, you might gain from it.

2. Also reread your favourite books – but this time as a writer. See what makes them work (Francine Prose’s book listed above is great for helping with that).

3. Get circulating in that world of writing. Take yourself to conferences, writing festivals, or conventions. Join Twitter and use social media, and participate in online communities. Blog, review. In fact, in some genres this is almost a requirement. Plus, it’s fun, and at the very least you’ll make friends. You’ll also grow your writer’s instinct.

4. Think about taking a course, whether it is part of a festival such as York, or a weekend masterclass or weekly workshop offered by various outfits online or in person. Some are better than others, for sure, and creative writing is now an industry. I strongly recommend you get a direct personal recommendation from someone who’s actually taken a specific course with a specific teacher (and paid money to do so). Maybe try to talk (not email) with some of the teachers, and also consider who the other students might be (your peers can make a hell of a difference to your experience).

I am not an employee of the Writers’ Workshop, but I like and trust the people there a lot, and I have heard very good things about and seen very good results from their self-editing course. It’s short (six weeks), and focused, and more (I think) affordable than most courses, and it’s taught by two very good and very experienced teachers who really know what they’re talking about. It might be an idea to consider this class for once you have a first draft of a manuscript and it’s ready for more work.

And of course I am ALWAYS going to tell people that if they can possibly manage it they should spend a week (or even four) taking noncredit classes at my alma mater, Naropa University. Take thee to Boulder and immerse yourself in the love and crazy wisdom of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics Summer Writing Program. If that sounds a bit Let Them Eat Cake – or Millet Bars, in the case of Boulder – it’s cheaper than an MA, and quite likely more transforming, and maybe you can combine it with a holiday.

(And maybe some of you Boulderites and farther flungs can come to the London Getting Published day or the York Festival of Writing next year?)

It can in fact be good to attend a variety of courses and events: practical, commercial, artsy, academic. Even classes in other fields that could inform your work in some way. It’s very good to expose yourself to different styles of teaching or different views of writing until you work out your own process and needs.

5. Use time wisely. It’s also a good idea sometimes to put a limit on various activities such as courses, as you can become a writing groupie, and mostly we probably want you to be a writer. (Nothing against groupies, but that is more about community and socialising and friendships – do that on the side too, for sure.) Create long-term goals, with deadlines. And not just deadlines of daily word counts, and for The End. Among your deadlines, you might actually take a break from writing your masterpiece for a bit, and decide to spend six months reading some of these books on writing, and maybe taking a short course or two.

6. Oh yes, and among all this set aside time actually to write. Maybe even do something like NaNoWriMo. I have conflicted feelings about NaNoWriMo, but a bit of bingeing doesn’t hurt for one month a year.

(And if you don’t want to do NaNoWriMo, you can always grow a moustache in November instead.)

7. Find readers. Writing groups, reading groups, workshops. In person and online: I recommend working both ways, so that real time and eye contact can be balanced with reading that takes place at slightly more of a distance. Consider other potential beta readers among booklovers you’ve gathered down the years (and if you’ve not been gathering them already, maybe now’s the time to start). You can also get professional reads from writers or editors.

Integrate the different and sometimes contradictory things you hear, until your instinct knows what you need to do to make the writing the best it can be, or what you want it to be.

8. And reading and giving editorial feedback on other people’s work-in-progress will turn you into an editor, and you’ll gain perspective on your own writing too. Who knows, maybe you’ll even develop another career as editor or teacher yourself.

9. Most of all: listen. Listen to other people, but most of all slow down and listen to yourself, and listen to your own writing.

12 comments

  1. Debbie

    I’m interested to see this, Andrew, since I have already started a learning journal for what I am calling my DIY writing masterclass, entirely for me and made up by me, as an alternative to doing an MA in Creative Writing, which I have neither the money for nor the ability to commit time to. I’ve printed this out for my learning journal. 🙂

    • Andrew

      Debbie: thanks for the comment – I have to admit that I made this post somewhat off the top of my head, thinking firstly about the importance of investing in learning to write, but also about the ways in which writers can use their time purposefully and fruitfully. I’m curious to know what you’re giving yourself to do in your masterclass. Are you doing any of these things in any particular way already? Do you have any suggestions or recommendations for the rest of us?! One thing I might say, based on your comment, is that it might be good to commit to some time – it might not be as much time as an MA demands, but e.g., a couple of hours a week on a structured basis not only for writing but also for reading-about-writing and perhaps some writing exercises (just sitting down at the computer to compose our novels is usually not enough, if we don’t have some experience or training in the first place). One of the great things about an MA is that is forces you to make time. And also it can also force the people who make demands on your time to take your writing seriously!

  2. Debbie

    Hi Andrew, it’s very nice of you to reply to my comment – I didn’t expect that. I’ve already done a lot of the things you suggest, and am continuing. I’ve been learning to write for about 17 years now. I’ve done courses (Birkbeck, two at Arvon, OCA, Writers’ Workshop’s Self-editing with Debi and Emma), gone to Winchester Writers’ Conference twice, to Verulam, to WW’s Getting Published (where I met you this spring, in your role as book doctor and in one of your lectures). I have shelves full of books on writing. I’m a member of a face-to-face writers’ group and an online one (WriteWords), I set up an online crit group with people I met at Arvon, and have been part of two small face-to-face critique groups. I am also in several groups on facebook for writers and now have a network of writing friends, both in the flesh and virtual. I did NaNoWriMo about 3 years ago, succeeded in producing 50,000 words in 30 days, and am currently editing the resulting novel (now at 85,000). As you can see, I agree with all the points you’ve made. This summer, I felt a need to learn more – to learn at a higher level than I had been, and discussed my desire to do an MA in writing in one of the Facebook writing groups. There are a lot of very experienced people in that group – many of whom are published and teach writing. Because, after discussion, we all agreed that an MA was not possible for me (due to money and health constraints), they kindly gave me many suggestions for books to read (some of which overlap with your suggestions above) and which I believe are mostly at a higher level than the majority of books I had so far read on the subject, which were more “popular”. I recently bought The Art of Reading on CD from The Great Courses, which is proving to be a very useful way to learn while carrying out boring household chores. I have also decided that I need to focus on writing even more, to reduce my interests so that I am only focusing on those most important to me, and I have been listening to hypnosis CDs on self-discipline with that in mind.
    Sorry to write such a long answer, but I wanted to answer you and also I found it quite useful to look at what I have done and how I am trying to improve myself.
    As for the question about whether writing can be taught, I certainly believe competence and skills can be taught. I know I’ve improved immensely. What I don’t believe can be taught is the individual spark of creativity which lifts some writers (artists, musicians) above the competent and into a level which causes people to marvel, and which some would call genius. I don’t think anyone can teach that.

    • Andrew

      Hello, Debbie: Well, it sounds as if you have an MA or even a PhD’s worth of creative writing already! This is an impressive record, especially in completing NaNoWriMo and then continuing with further work to flesh out that book. I remember you at the Getting Published day – your novel is dealing with certain scientific ideas, right? (How’s it coming along?)

      And yes, this is an ongoing journey (that sounds corny, but I think it’s true). Something that you mention is this idea of improvement, and something that can be important is knowing how and why to measure your progress and check in with your own direction. One good thing about an MA is that its deadlines create thresholds where you can (ideally) take stock of your writing and also your intention. In other contexts, sometimes I think we can end up going round in circles a bit, when what we really want is some sort of breakthrough. The views of other readers (and professionals) can be important here, but ultimately writers have to have a certain faith in what they are doing. And at a certain point a writer might have to decide a book is done! At least for now. On to its next stage. Where are you right now, perhaps?

      I also wonder about this idea of ‘a higher level’ – what was happening with the lower level, perhaps, and how might these books take you higher? To complicate the discussion, things can, in fact, sometimes get a bit academicised (is that a word?! well, it is now). Some of the best books, I think, are in fact remarkably simple (but not simplistic) in how they call for writers to return to their work with greater clarity of intention, e.g., in Steering The Craft by Ursula Le Guin. Another book I might recommend to writers at the revision stage is The Artful Edit by Susan Bell. The Art of Reading looks great – I have enjoyed other courses from the Great Courses.

      It is true that creativity and genius cannot be taught, but I do think imagination can be fostered, and I do think there are ways to find or restore a spark in our writing. This is something I’m really concerned with when I explore the idea of the Four Elements in my own teaching; this can, for example, be a way of going beyond mastery of the technical competencies (which often are not enough) to find more fire or emotional depth in the work. And we don’t need to be geniuses – most writing is not the work of a genius! Genius can be a burden (and an ego trip). I far prefer to think of the idea of a skilled craftsman – and a skilled and dedicated worker can in fact often show flashes of genius in his or her craft.

      Cheers!
      Andrew

  3. Mike Clarke

    I’ve just completed (about ten days ago) a creative writing MA that does mandate that you have to write a novel (Manchester Metropolitan University) and I exceeded the academic typical 15,000 word dissertation quite comfortably. I agree it’s very unusual for a creative writing course to assess students on a form that is probably the most commercial outlet for creative writing — mainly because of the time constraints on the tutors (and students).

    Tutor and peer feedback is immensely useful as part of an MA (or similar) course but is normally only given in 3,000-5,000 word sections (depending on the course). This works fine for openings but tends to get difficult as the novel develops and it’s not an accurate representation of the reading experience to periodically examine chunks of writing out of context.

    Despite (or because of) doing the MA (and many other writing courses) I can endorse some of the book choices you mention. John Gardner is brilliant and Francine Prose is very good, if slightly opinionated. I also found Harry Bingham’s book to be a very good primer on the many aspects of fictional technique required to write a novel, although I don’t agree with all of his points (especially his assessment of The Great Gatsby). Stephen King’s On Writing is an entertaining read but some of his advice needs to be taken with a pinch of salt — ‘the road to hell is paved with adverbs’. There’s a good game that can be played in creative writing workshops of spotting the person who’s just read On Writing and is regurgitating the contents of King’s toolbox.

    The John Yorke book is also very good at pointing out universalities of plotting, although he does tend to repeat himself a bit. ‘How Not To Write A Novel’ is almost too literal. Yes, lots of pitfalls are exposed in an amusing way but it would be nice if they could have majored a little more on the positive.

    Probably the best aspect of a course — and you give alternative ways of doing this — is the feedback you receive from the tutor and other students. A creative writing MA is usually a fairly efficient and potentially cost-efficient way of gaining this feedback — especially if you make friends who’ll carry on reading and commenting on your work after the course has finished.

    • Andrew

      Thanks for your post, Mike, and it is good that you emphasise that yes, some MAs (though not many) actually task their students on completing a novel. As you say, there are various practical limits on this. And, e.g., I’m not sure how much revising can be built in (for me, revision is key, and when I’ve supervised MA and MFA dissertations I’ve made sure that the manuscript goes through three drafts at least before its final submission – the writing certainly improves in the process). At Naropa, my friend and former teacher Bobbie Louise Hawkins occasionally taught a class called ‘Toward Accumulating A Longer Text’, which got everyone to write a 100-page novella/novel in a fifteen-week semester. People finally hobbled over that finish line! But that is a real accomplishment (not least, for the teacher …). And people do develop those works further, as they do with NaNoWriMo. (I do also note that Bobbie insisted that everyone start *new* projects in that class. No existing/reheated manuscripts. It’s supposed to be a learning experience, and thus fresh projects are needed.)

      I think the real value of an MA is what you describe (beyond structured learning): the fostering of a real community among fellow writers. I have many friends from my MFA days, and we keep in regular contact – and not just about our writing. These feel like lifelong friendships, even though we’re now many thousands of miles apart. And you can’t put a price on that. But too I think these friendships feed our creativity.

      And you can also gain other writing-related skills, too – especially in editing and giving feedback.

      I concur with your take on various reads. If I had more space would have further caveats to add (one of them is quite carping about another book on that list in a way that becomes rather tedious and – to my mind – unfair). Have you read Le Guin’s Steering The Craft? Her take on adverbs and adjectives is probably not far from that of King or Leonard, but perhaps more forgivingly expressed: ‘Adjectives and adverbs are rich and good and fattening. The main thing is not to overindulge.’ And after a long day at the office, I think How Not To Write A Novel is hilarious! Its examples are, um, somewhat heightened, but various writers and publishers and teachers concur that it draws attention to many of the things people fail to see in their own work. What many of these books are frequently getting that is the fact that a lot of unpublished (unpublishable? or maybe self-publishable …) work is overwritten and stodgy, and could gain from some lightening. The voice, in particular, would become clearer and stronger, and voice is usually one of the most important things in a winning piece of writing. (Developing a prose style and an effective understanding of grammar can be important here.)

      Mostly I think all such books need to be read with imagination (aka pinches of salt). You take from them what you need. (In due course I hope to post reviews of some of the more useful books.)

      Good luck with your own book, anyway. I imagine that after a dissertation deadline you might want a bit of a break, at least for now?!

      • Mike Clarke

        I agree about the revising process. I was working on pulling together lots of separate sections worked on over a long period of time and it’s difficult to spot gaps and repetitions until it’s all put together in one long version — that’s why I’m revising the novel again.

        I would like to take a bit of a break but I’d like to get the novel properly finished first and to get on with something new. I’m interested in how I’d write without having to submit installments every few weeks.

        I’ve not read the Ursula Le Guin writing book but studied her novels at university.

        I’d also agree that events like the Festival of Writing are very useful — I think I spotted you in the one-to-one room this year.

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  5. Jan Hardy

    Hi all. I have just read all the comments above with interest. I have been writing, short stories, poetry and articles. I have won a number of competitions in the last couple of years and am looking for a course to guide me through developing my skills. I have been dithering over the writer’s bureau courses for about 12 months but keep seeing bad reviews everytime I make my mind up. I have been looking at the MA at MMU as a serious (very serious) option, so Mike’s comment s are really helpful as the novel course is what I want to do. Great blog! Really useful information and it’s good to hear views from real people. Thanks guys. Write on! Jan

    • Mike Clarke

      Jan,

      I just got my final mark from the MMU MA. If you’re interested in finding out more from a ‘user’s’ point of view then you can contact me via my blog, although there’s quite a bit of material on there that describes the whole process.

      I guess you need to pick a route that suits your needs — and that might be an MA or something more specific.

      Mike

    • Andrew

      Jan: Thanks for your comments on the blog. I have said various things in this post, but I would stress to you that it’s important to meet the tutors and current/former students, if you can. I also think part-time options are a good idea, mostly as a year passes very quickly, relative to what you might be learning, and as with many creative endeavours it can help to let things grow and develop over a longer span of time. Do your homework – then trust your instinct! Thanks, Andrew

  6. Jan

    Hi Andrew

    Thanks for the feedback. I have looked into a lot of different courses and study methods and have decided (well almost!) to go for the MA at MMU; the way I figure is that if it is run by the Poet Laureate it must be at least half decent! I also want to have something for me at the end, and I don’t feel that general creative writing courses, no matter how good would fulfill that personal need. With any luck, and a lot of hard work, this course will give me the direction to complete my novel and help me with the fine tuning that I know is needed. Sometimes can’t see the wood for the whatnot!
    thanks again and I will keep you posted on the outcome.
    Jan

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