The MA in Creative Writing
I’ve just completed my Master’s degree in Creative Writing.
Why did I study an MA? I’m a secondary school English teacher. It occurred to me a few years ago that although I was teaching creative writing, I’d never studied it myself. I decided to fix that, and return to something I used to love but hadn’t done for a long time, so I signed up for an online creative writing course with the University of Oxford. I enjoyed it, and wanted to learn more, so signed up for another online course, this time with the National Centre for Writing. (Other courses are available from the likes of the University of Cambridge, Writers & Artists, Arvon, and so on).
Both courses exposed me to some great texts, and the fundamental ideas behind creative writing, including thinking about characters, dialogue, beginnings, etc., but neither was technical enough for me – I have a first-class degree in English Language and Literature, and a University of Cambridge TESOL qualification (I used to teach English as a Second Language), and at work I teach students to analyse texts; because of this, I think of language and literature from a technical perspective, and I wanted to learn in-depth about the narrative and structural choices available to me as a writer.
I knew an MA would offer technical knowledge, and I would be assessed not just on creative writing, but also on critical writing. I love writing essays, and, as stated above, I have a technical language/literature background. This is something you should be aware of, if you’re contemplating a Creative Writing MA – you will be writing academic essays along with your creative work, which will require you to use analytical skills and terminology, and your ability to do so will impact the overall grade/classification you receive. I’m not saying this should stop you proceeding with an MA; I’m saying you need to know what to expect.
I enrolled on an online, part-time MA. I chose fiction as my genre, and focused on short stories (as well as dabbling with Creative Nonfiction). The MA gave me the inspiration and opportunity to try different types of writing – my assessed pieces have included a ghost story, a drama, a personal essay, and, as I found my feet, stories that moved away from realism through their choice of narrator, or their use of the uncanny, noir, or magical realism/fantasy. It’s worth pointing out that a Creative Writing MA will assess not only your creative ideas, but also your technical ability, and knowledge of your chosen genre. Some of my peers have felt the MA is more geared towards literary fiction; I disagree that you need to write in a certain genre, but you do need to demonstrate a certain degree of linguistic ability (which some people may refer to as ‘literary’), e.g. think of Ted Chiang’s use of language in the sci-fi genre, or Joyce Carol Oates’ in horror.
I learned a great deal on the course, but an MA pushes you towards independent thinking and learning. So, the course materials were a springboard – if something interested me, such as uncommon grammatical persons, I’d read around, looking for academic texts, craft articles or essays, short stories, and novels that used the technique/genre/idea I was interested in. A lot of my progress in determining what type of writing I want to do has been informed by my study outside the course, for example I attended Marie-Helene Bertino’s online lecture on ‘Disrupting Realism’ (her essay on the concept is available here), and an online writing workshop on ‘Weird Fiction’ hosted by Kirsty Logan (you can read some of her weird short stories here).
During the course, some peers have won or been shortlisted in writing competitions, or had work published in online magazines or journals, while others have had work published in print – but many had already achieved these things before they began the course. I’d say a Creative Writing MA can give you the knowledge to improve your writing, and the confidence to try and get your work published, but, unless your university connects you with agents (some do; mine didn’t – be aware of what your uni offers, if this is important to you), you have to make things happen yourself.
Ultimately, it’s been a privilege to spend two years focusing on reading literature and writing short stories. My highlights have been finding peers who appreciated my writing, which helped my confidence, and who gave me feedback relating to technical elements, which helped improve my writing. I’ve become bolder in my writing, and I’ve discovered a love for editing. Post-degree, after my brain has recovered from the effort of writing the dissertation, I will continue to write short stories and personal essays, and will use the knowledge I’ve developed to help my students develop their own writing.