An MA in writing – is it worth it?

April 14, 2014 | By | 18 Replies More

DappledLight - CopyLast month, the novelist Hanif Kureishi declared creative writing courses ‘a waste of time.’ The statement seems counterintuitive – Kureishi himself is a teacher of creative writing at Kingston University. Nevertheless, his statement sparked an energetic discussion, with Jeanette Winterson defending her professorship at Manchester University, while the novelist Lucy Ellmann wrote ‘I can’t stand it when authors announce they have a degree in creative writing. So what? They’re a dime a dozen.’

The influential blogger @dovegreyreader contributed to the debate, responding to a reader: ‘Sadly, I am even starting to avoid the books which tell me the author has an MA in Creative Writing now. Worse is the fact that if you do some checking, the cover puffs … often from very good authors about virtual unknowns, turn out to be their tutors.’

All this has led me to reflect on my own experiences of writing courses. They began at an adult education centre in Acton, where I attended an evening class. One of my fellow students was a feature-writer for a national magazine, and she persuaded me to produce a couple of short stories for the journal.

After moving to Reading in Berkshire I signed up for an evening course at the University, led by the novelist Leslie Wilson. She brought a friend along one evening, to offer some helpful tips to us students. The friend was Hilary Mantel, who has – of course – gone on to twice win the Booker Prize.

When I explained to Hilary that I wanted to write a novel, but felt daunted by the enormity of plotting and sustaining such a long piece of writing, she replied that a novel is nothing more than a collection of scenes, framed by plot. Her own technique was to summarise episodes on post-it notes and pin them to a board; the advantage of post-it notes, was that the scenes could then be moved around to fit new twists to the plot.

Taking time out of paid work, I completed my first book. Full of optimism, I sent it off to an assortment of agents, some of whom said kind things, but all of whom eventually said no. I felt despondent – as if I had fallen into a kind of vacuum – and though I had an idea for a second novel, I felt too demoralised to carry on.

I looked online for a course where I could meet others who were serious about fiction, while at the same time I could learn to improve my writing skills. An advertisement for an MA Writing (Prose Fiction) at Middlesex University offered ‘a rich interaction between new writing and the broad literary landscape,’ so I sent off a sample of my work, went for an interview, and joined a dozen other students on the campus at Tottenham.

7205200The course was run by Sue Gee, herself an accomplished novelist. Somehow, Sue managed to combine a formidable attention to detail, with unfailing humour and grace. I was introduced to novels I had not read before. I marvelled at the rich imagery of Bruno Schulz, and the sparse, elliptical prose of Raymond Carver.

The curriculum was designed to be cohesive; we were given writing exercises which reflected the work we were reading. For example, alongside an analysis of Carver’s ‘Are you a Doctor?’ we each had to produce an original story, based on a character who had telephone conversations with three different people.

From other students I gained the support and stimulation that I had sought, and from the tutors I learned to examine the elusive nature of ‘good writing’. We were encouraged to consider certain rules, such as the importance of viewpoint and the avoidance of cliché.

Perversely, we were assured that all rules could be ignored if the question ‘does it work?’ could be answered in the affirmative. (An example might be Don Marquis’ book, ‘Archy and Mehitabel’. Supposedly the work of a cockroach, who could not manage to hurl himself at the shift key and a letter at the same time, the concept might seem ridiculous. Instead, the novel is a classic because of its charm and energy. It works.)

Our final submission was a 20,000 word extract from a new novel, which we were expected to complete, once the course was finished. We were invited to read an extract at a showcase to which various agents and authors had been invited. One of the agents spoke to me afterwards. ‘You write very well,’ he said. ‘What you need is a big-themed subject.’

When I opened up my great great grandfather’s wicker box and found the story of how in the 1860s, my great great aunt travelled to Africa at just eighteen, to set up a multi-racial settlement with her dashing medical missionary husband, I knew that I had found my story and wrote ‘Dappled Light’ which has been published by Matador. Does it work? I do hope you’ll agree that it does.

Jessica Markwell was born in Ghana in 1954. After graduating from Manchester University with a degree in Medieval Studies, she worked as an archaeologist, a nurse, a midwife and a family mediator. She completed an MA in fiction writing at Middlesex University, and now lives high on a hillside in mid-Wales with her husband and two chocolate Labradors.

Find out more about her on her website and follow her on twitter @JessicaMarkwel1



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Category: By Current and Past Sponsors, Contemporary Women Writers, On Writing

Comments (18)

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  1. As an aspiring writer, I found a class I took in Creative Non-Fiction to very helpful in building my perspectives and confidence. I was always apprehensive to write even though I had a strong desire and passion to pursue writing. I think benefited from having a great teacher and classmates who were perceptive and encouraging about the elements I needed to fix. At this point I am looking for just that, a writing group I can submit my work to who will critique my work and help me develop my writing effectively and constructively. The class helped give me a foundation to explore and develop my skills, and now I am developing on my own. If another workshop or event is available and peaks my interest, I will consider it, but I don’t think you need a degree to be a writer.

    • I absolutely agree that you don’t need a degree to be a writer and people like Charles Dickens, Harper Lee and Augusten Burroughs prove the case. I hope you find the sort of group you are looking for Brooke – one that offers encouragement as well constructive criticism.

  2. Some of taking writing workshops is making sure that you get the right class for you. I’m an organic writer, and one of my challenges is that most writing classes are taught by people who outline. The instructors often boasted they wouldn’t have a problem with organic writers and then once they encountered me, they thought I was two-headed alien. I found that once I took workshops by people who were organic writers, I was able to learn a lot more.

  3. Jill Scarr says:

    I completed my MA in Creative Writing at Newcastle University last year and found it one of the most rewarding years I have ever spent. I read some wonderful literature, some of which I would never have looked at twice in a bookshop. The reading, together with first class teaching has helped me rework my novel and open up my imagination to other forms of writing. My fellow students, all ages and nationalities, brought different perspectives to writing. My only regret is that it ended.

  4. Great post and just been to buy your book from Amazon, as I’m thinking of writing a memoir of my parents experience as missionaries in Kenya during the 1950s and 1969s. Doing a BA in creative writing at Birkbeck and enrolled just before the fees skyrocketed. Have gained a tremendous amount from the course. Yes, I might have learnt the same skills, slowly and painfully on my own, but it certainly helps to have a structured and supportive class.

  5. Jo Carroll says:

    I gave up my online MA – it was expensive and I really didn’t feel I was learning enough to justify the outlay. Some of those I studies with have agents now, but none (as far as I know) have a publishing contract. Meanwhile I carry on enjoying my writing, and spend the money buying books!

    • Spending your online course money on books sounds very sensible Jo – all tutors seem to agree that the best way to learn is to read, read, read. Also, I don’t think I’d have found my MA nearly so helpful without the direct interaction I had with tutors and other students.
      Best of luck with your writing!

  6. Randy says:

    Talent cannot be taught but craft can be honed. And I especially enjoyed trying my hand at different genres and the inspiration of other writers in class. Is it worthwhile? Yes. Is it necessary? No.

  7. Gill James says:

    Well as a lecturer in creative writing currently marking assessments by first and third year undergrads and MA scripts I’m bound to have an opinion.

    I do notice a tremendous difference between the first and the third years. Would they have made that progress if they’d just practised writing? Perhaps, though I think we get them to push boundaries a little more and be a little more open to more risky opportunities.Alongside the writing we teach them critical reflection.

    A degree in creative writing anyway leads to all sorts of other things not just a writing career. There are many transferable skills.

    Many of our students become published BEFORE they graduate, with some even becoming published novelists before or shortly after graduation.

    Time spent with us anyway gives them space, time and permission for their writing.

    So, no, it’s not a waste of time. Nor is it necessarily a free ticket into the world of the published writer. It may – or may not – be one thing that helps.

    • A. D. Norton says:

      What school is it may I ask? It seems implausible that “many” students are published before they leave! It’s a tough nut to crack in a highly competitive field.
      If you can afford it, great. If not, don’t take out loans for MA or MFA.

  8. Aine Greaney says:

    Nice and thoughtful post. I think this is the primary role of MFAs or master’s degrees in writing. They fast forward us and immerse us in that world of literature and writing which can be antithetical (but a welcome relief) to/from the daily reality of the day job and other responsibilities. Like corporations, families and towns, I found that colleges and courses develop and foster their own distinct, between-the-lines cultures. For anyone considering a particular course or degree program, it’s important to look at that departmental culture before plunking down the tuition fees. I wish I had.

  9. Julie Brown says:

    Elaine – I like what you said – writing can be a very solitary occupation. It is. I find much needed support, encouragement and motivation in my writing group. For anyone who for any reason cannot take writing classes or workshops, writing (or critique) groups are another way to meet travels sharing your journey.

    By the way, Jessica, I am reading the pdf of your first few pages. You have a beautiful writing voice. Best of luck to you!

  10. Kira Elliott says:

    It is easy for someone who does have the education, experience and resources to say you don’t need creative writing classes or degrees. But for those of us who did not pop out of the womb knowing we wanted/needed to write, for those of us who life did not offer the support and structure to learn and absorb, creative writing classes and programs are the connections in a big puzzle. They take us forward, build our confidence and clears some of the doubt, as you have pointed out in this wonderful post. The greatest part of creative writing classes is the connection to other writers, it is good to find your tribe.

    To say classes are programs are not needed or don’t matter is elitist and will only serve to keep creative writing open to a select privileged few. So I say thank god the internet and for the proliferation of creative writing classes and programs. It levels the playing field, it give opportunity to those who otherwise stay silent.

    Thank you for the thought provoking piece, Kira

  11. Fran says:

    I’m studying a Creative Writing MA at the moment and I’m happy that I took the plunge. As writers we improve all the time and studying more about your craft in any way you can has got to be for the good. I actually got my publishing deal before I started my MA because there are no guarantees in publishing and I thought the MA would improve career prospects in writing related work. My dissertation looms and I’m looking forward to it. Well done on your achievements. Those who sniff at the MA may well have gotten some lucky breaks but we don’t all get them. But we can get some good contacts and experience via the Uni set up. From my little corner of West London I say keep up the good work!

  12. I agree with Jessica. It’s often as much about gaining confidence in your own writing and the realisation that every successful writer has had to start somewhere.

    A creative writing class can give you so much, as I have discovered and am still discovering (thanks to The Writer’s Workshop, Faber Academy and LitReactor). Writing can be a very solitary occupation; the joy of discovering and sharing the experience with others on the same journey as yourself cannot be underestimated. If you love writing, have a story to tell but aren’t sure how to tell it, join a class, I urge you. It may not ‘click’ straight away, but no education is ever wasted.

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