Thursday, 26 January 2012

What are Ma Creative Writing courses really like?

When people ask me if they should undergo an MA in creative writing, I'm never sure what to say. I can certainly tell them that is was one of the most exciting years of my life, but it was also one of the most stressful. I did get some advice, by mostly this was from my peers, rather than from the lecturers, and some of it (even from lecturers) was conflicting and counter-produtive. 
"My best piece of advice was that I should write a book that I myself should want to read," said Christie Watson, who's just won the Costa Prize new writer category with Tiny Sunbirds Far Away. She gained an MA from UEA, where, shortly after it was founded 40 years ago, Ian McEwan started his career. She describes 'being immersed' in an atmosphere of writing, and I would certainly vouch for that. Everyone was brimming with enthusiasm. But, when it came to getting my writing right, my personal tutor quickly told me to ignore what he'd said if I didn't like it... "I will try to make you write the book I want to write," he admitted, and followed that by showing me his manuscript, which, straight out of Michael Douglas' character in The Wonder Boys, was dog-eared and overlong...and unpublished.
"I got very little advice," Ian McEwan says on this BBC ipod discussion from the Today Programme about Creative Writing MA's. "
People go on MA's for very different reasons, from a genuine desire to learn to writer professionally, to a chance to network their skills. I signed up because I was 'stuck' in a book and longed to finish it. I did finish it...but what I actually gained from my MA was my work as a writing tutor, and that has brought me great joy and a part-time career I love.


  1. I've just spent the weekend at the Tynewydd writing centre and half of the students were from the MA at Bangor.

    Interesting that so many of them were very young - I had the sense that some might have got more out of it by waiting a few years. There are lots of distance learning MAs too that look interesting - Lancaster does a very good one.

    Another thought - perhaps enrolling on the OCA advanced courses might be a good 'tester' for those considering an MA but not quite sure, especially if they plan to do it by distance learning

  2. Mark's made a very good point in his last comment; as an OCA tutor, I'm absolutely sure most writers would gain as much if not more from the OCA creative writing courses than from an MA; even if they are sure they are capable of gaining an MA. As an aside to that, creating a portfolio of work from doing the two advanced OCA CW courses would be sufficient to gain a place on most MA's, as in my experience, it is the portfolio you present at interview that clinches to position.