Creative writing, what’s it all about then? That’s pretty easy, isn’t it? One word, two words, three words, sentence! There you go . . . So, why study it?
Why do a post-graduate Creative Writing course?
For most writers, especially those beginning out, it is a rather lonely and scary period when you are first tapping away at your first novel or short story with no idea whether your writing is any good. Unless you are very lucky, the majority of the people you know will find it a bit amusing that you are trying to write. So discussing things like plot arcs, character development, scene beats, sentence construction, theme, symbolism, subtext etc. is pretty much limited to those nightly conversations you have with yourself. This is usually when you are trying to get to sleep, but suddenly have a brilliant idea and have to get up to write it down. Friends and family who do read your work are generally very supportive, without giving the critical feedback vital to developing your skills as a writer. Even online workshops are often more about encouraging writing, rather than giving an honest appraisal of your strengths and weaknesses. If you want to spend time focusing on your writing as a professional skill, that you want to develop, then perhaps you should consider a Master’s degree course in creative writing.
Which university or course should you choose?
There are a number of different things to consider when choosing the university you want to attend. Don’t be swayed by the name, but rather focus on exactly who will be teaching you. Do these teachers include authors you respect and admire? Does the department do genre fiction such as SF/F or just poetry or literary fiction? If they do support the kind of writing you wish to do, are the tutors going to be able to help? This is a tough question as most writing programmes have critically successful authors on their staff. But although the course may say that science fiction or fantasy is welcome, yet won’t include have any tutors familiar with writing it.
There are a number of shorter, more intensive courses available to those who don’t have a whole year to dedicate to a degree. For some examples, in the UK we have Milford and the Arvon Foundation. While in America, arguably the most well-known intensive genre writing course is Clarion West.
What do you actually do? Workshops, a lot of workshops...
Workshopping is a large component of a writing programme and it is very different to what you may have encountered before. For most, it’s a rather terrifying experience – as you sit and listen to other students and your tutor points out all the problems in your work. However, once you get over taking it personally, it is very liberating and I found it amazing how quickly my work improved. I was completely blind to many of the mistakes I was making. And only through my fellow students’ rigorous reading and critical feedback did I finally see them.
The corollary of this is that it sometimes can feel like you are writing for the group or your tutor rather than what you want to write. And it is true; you do ask yourself ‘how will this be received in the workshop?’ It’s a tough situation as literally everyone (literally as in literally, not as in the new definition of literally that is not literally literally, but, in fact, figuratively!) will be writing differently to you.
I was happily surprised to find other genre writers in my class, along with the more literary types more commonly associated with writing courses at a university level. This is one of the bonuses of studying in the UK, as genre is apparently more generally accepted on creative writing courses here than in the USA, according to tutors familiar with both. As a result, you may find more fellow students on these courses who are also interested in this area. In the USA, I’ve been told that the more ‘literary’ trope of family trauma as a central conflict device is apparently ubiquitous! But, back to my original point: you will end up writing for your audience, but it’s just one of those things of which you have to be aware. And resist the temptation to take the easy road that will ensure you receive back-patting. Good practice for when you publish that bestseller and have to decide whether to tread old paths or break new ground!
However, workshops aren’t the be all and end all of the writing course. More intensive theory modules are offered which vary wildly from class to class. Here you will analyse texts and deconstruct them from a writers’ point of view to see how the plots, characters and setting were constructed. You’ll see how language and sentence construction can be used with specific goals in mind. And you may do practical modules, such as teaching in schools, or you may look into research-based non-fiction, such as travel writing, memoir or historical non-fiction.
What can it do for you?
For me, I’ve always loved SF/F and, in the last few years, my reading has become more limited as I have become increasingly parochial – only going to the science fiction and fantasy sections of the bookshop and browsing there. When I was younger, I read far more widely, and I think it that was hugely beneficial to both my academic and creative progress growing up. Attending a writing programme exposes you to a multitude of styles and genres and reversed my path towards genre hermitage. Reading work by both published authors and fellow students will teach you far more than you can imagine – as you approach the writing as an author rather than a critic, which is what English Literature teaches. You learn to see what the author was trying to do and what techniques they were using and then give your comments on how to better achieve those aims.
You will read and write very rough first drafts, but you will learn to see the potential there. It is also enormously satisfying giving feedback on other’s work and seeing them work through to the final draft. But, like everything, there is a flipside. You can’t take on-board everyone’s comments and some writing you just won’t ‘get’ so you won’t be able to give good feedback. This is okay. There will also be people who want to rewrite your story their way. Avoid this at all costs! They are trying to be helpful, but you will end up in a quagmire of mangled words as you attempt to write in someone else’s voice.
But, what’s it really like?
One of the surprising things is just how much time you will have to yourself. Most days of the week will have no classes. You either become the typical student, leaving things to the last minute, or you develop a writing routine that will be one of the most important things you carry away. Guess who is more likely to finish the programme with a completed first draft?
Many published authors have come from postgraduate writing programmes, from Ian McEwan to Steven Erikson, and many authors teach such programmes. Yet, I think this can set up a dissonance between expectation and outcome when attending a writing programme. Yes, many great authors graduated with creative writing degrees, but the relationship between the two facts isn’t straightforward or linear. A person who is passionate about writing, who wants to make a career out of it, and wants to take it seriously and professionally will most likely enrol in such a programme and then go on to be a success. For that is what will make you a good writer: the work you put in to improving yourself. No one else can do it for you. And a writing programme will help you to do that, but again, won’t do it for you.
If you enrol in such a programme expect to write a lot, but probably less than you expect. You will basically be spending the year as a full-time writer and that takes a lot of self-discipline. This is the kind that most authors develop over years of writing part-time. That might be in the early hours of the morning before work, or for a few hours when everyone else has gone to bed. You will be writing things that are outside your comfort zone, reading things you may not consider your forte, and having to explain your thoughts concisely and clearly. None of this ‘it’s good’ feedback which you may find more familiar. You will meet published authors and other publishing professionals and start to develop a network that is key to success as an author. You may finish a novel, or a collection of short stories, or poetry. And you will finish with tens of thousands of words that have been critically examined and are possibly publication worthy.
You will love it.
Forget about the questions of ‘why’ and ‘what’s it good for’ and relish this chance to chase the dream of doing what you love.
* * * * *
If you've enjoyed this post, Craig Leyenaar also wrote a piece on getting published: 'Beyond the Gatekeeper: The Road to Publication', which you can read on torbooks.co.uk here.