Most universities now offer an MA in Creative Writing. They tend to be two-year part-time courses, aimed at mature students of any age (rather than students who have just graduated and are looking to specialise in a profession). With tuition fees rocketing, they’re a winner for the institutions that offer them – but are they a good investment for the aspiring novelist? Could you achieve the same level of mastery of your art by joining writing groups? Let me tell you a story…
Let’s go back to the Seventies and find out when the MA in Creative Writing entered the public consciousness in a major English-speaking country: the United Kingdom. The first flash into the public consciousness was achieved by Malcolm Bradbury’s course at UEA. Although he was a popular writer himself, it was Ian McEwan’s fame after attending the course that cemented its place as a must-attend destination for a generation of young novelists. McEwan played down the contribution of the MA to his success in one interview I heard, saying he barely saw Bradbury the whole year, but that it gave him time to write. Kazuo Ishiguro said much the same thing.
In that last sentence of the previous paragraph I revealed the real secret of success – once the initial buzz was created, other ambitious novelists flocked to UEA. The honest educationalist will admit that the single most important factor in a school’s success is its catchment area or, in the case of universities, the quality of students it attracts. Cambridge, Oxford and Harvard only take the brightest enquiring minds (presumably Harvard only took G.W. Bush for the patronage), so they turn out the brightest. Gold in, gold out.
As a postgraduate student at the University of the West of England, I had a term of seminars with novelist and UEA graduate David Peak, who was the writer in residence. For me, the possibility of classes from a writer in residence was the reason I’d chosen that institution over any other. I had been writing novels since the age of fourteen, and wanted to be stretched by a professional. Dave certainly did that, using exercises he’d learnt at UEA. For me, a year spent in East Anglia was an impossible dream: I was off into my marketing career.
Scroll forward a decade or two, and I was well into my career. Life wasn’t panning out as I’d wanted. I’d not sold a script to a publisher (not that I’d tried very hard), and I couldn’t write because my career was in the way – long days, plus weeks spent abroad at conferences or pitching to clients. Somehow, I found out about a seminar at the London Book Fair. A panel consisting of an agent, a novelist, and a publisher would advise on how to get a publishing contract. When I got to the venue I looked around. There were hundreds of people in the capacity audience, and I bet tickets could have sold many times over. It was a harsh dose of reality: not everyone in that room was going to get a publishing contract. Ever. What would mark me out as special? I won’t name names, but the agent who said, “All we want is to read a great manuscript” nearly got lynched. A great manuscript won’t get you published: you have to get an agent first. Getting an agent seemed almost impossible. I had to take radical action.
As luck would have it, I’d recently read an article in the Independent on Sunday. Two playwrights were talking about how they met. I was astonished to see that they’d met on the Creative Writing MA at Birkbeck, London. I’d no idea there were any Creative Writing programmes outside of UEA. Suddenly I didn’t have to make a move. A little more research and I found that City University had an MA in Creative Writing that had been founded the previous year by the novelist and broadcaster Harriett Gilbert. I secured interviews at Birkbeck and City. Harriett’s course specialised in novel-writing, and I cancelled my interview at Birkbeck as soon as I had secured a place on Harriett’s course: you just know when something’s right.
What did I learn on the course that I couldn’t have learnt through writing groups? Plenty. A few months before the course started I began working my way through the reading list. For years, my friends and I had been bemoaning the lack of decent contemporary fiction. That reading list was a godsend, and it was gratefully received by my friends. Once I’d finished the required list, I went on to the recommended list and read classics from periods and genres I’d never considered. It was a great mind-opener.
As soon as the course began, my writing was stretched by exercises. Although you can do that in writing groups, it’s really not to the same standard, and in most instances it’s not supervised by a professional. There’s also an element of pressure in knowing that you’re being assessed on your script. You’re also in with a more ambitious peer group, who have also had to pass a set of entrance criteria. Any psychologist will tell you how important peer groups are to development. There’s also a structure to your learning, and you’re all being taught at the same time – in a writing group you might get frustrated by the lack of structure, or the level of commentary. All this was, of course, tied in with the reading list. I was so lucky to have chosen Harriett’s course, because of the way it was tied to literary criticism (the prospect of which had terrified me). Indeed, one of our course tutors – an award-winning novelist who had graduated from the UEA course and taught at another leading institution – remarked that this was the course she would have chosen had it been around at the time, simply because of that close focus on the novel and literary criticism.
Through her literary journalism and her broadcasting career at the BBC, Harriett was exceptionally well-connected. The visiting writers were amongst the most successful of their generation, and there was someone for everyone’s taste: Will Self, Hilary Mantel, William Boyd, Frances Fyfield, Nick Hornby, Val McDermid and Alan Bennett to name a few. In our second year we did an entire term on the industry itself, and met leading publishers, agents and industry lawyers. Remember; this was in small groups, and we were able to ask extensive questions. I don’t know of any writers’ group that could achieve that. Finally, we had expert supervision and peer review of our novels. This must have been my fourth of fifth novel, so it wasn’t a new journey for me. However, Harriett gave invaluable guidance on upping the pressure on my protagonist and filling out a couple of minor characters.
We had a reunion last week, some six years after the end of the course. Other than by self-publishing, none of us have been published. Any industry professional will admit that there’s a large element of luck in publishing It was said several years ago that perhaps ten percent of MA in Creative Writing graduates get a publishing deal, and I would guess that very few would ever get beyond a second novel. So is it worth two years and several thousands of pounds? At the right institution, and with the right tutor, the answer is an unequivocal yes. You do learn a great deal about your craft. You also learn about the industry, and how to approach agents. In other words, your investment makes you ‘luckier’ because it helps open doors. An agent is far more likely to read a query letter from someone who takes his or her writing so seriously as to commit to an MA. The letters to agents I wrote after my MA all received prompt, personal, signed replies – these were from top-drawer ‘names’ in the industry. The quality of my writing and characterisation was highly praised, but the genre was dismissed as being ‘out of trend’. Without the MA I’d have just got a photocopied rejection slip after several months, and been none the wiser.
Of course, the publishing model has changed in the last few years, so you might argue that an MA isn’t necessary. True: the industry is in a state of flux and anyone can publish on Kindle. However, readers are discerning and will keep coming back to authors who deliver on the promise made in the blurb. An MA from a good institution gives you the skills you need to set the high standard required to succeed in an increasingly competitive market. It can’t turn a student into a literary genius, but the attentive student will at least be able to punch their weight. Agents know what a financial and temporal sacrifice an MA is. That marks you out as someone who’s committed to your art. I’d do it again just for the love and joy of writing.