Friday, 19 April 2013

Raw Head and Bloody Bones; does an MA in Creative Writing lead to success?

Increasingly, I get emails or letters from my students asking me to supply a reference for an MA programme in creating writing. Occasionally (but not always) they also ask me; will I gain anything from this? Is it worth they money and the time? Will I enjoy the experience? 

Almost without fail, my answer is; you will benefit enormously, both as a writer and a person. And, so long as you love your work to be honestly critiqued and you are the sort of person who would thrive in an academic environment, then, yes you will enjoy yourself. 

Not many people actually ask me what I think of the courses; are they well thought through, have good lecturers, are well laid out? If they do, I respond that I can, of course, only speak for the MA pathway at Bath Spa, and that's changed and grown quite a bit since I was there. Mostly, MA teaching is peer led; the students critique each other's work and the lecturer guides the workshopping experience. Lecturers may also lead workshops that investigate specifics; in my one year course, I did 'Writing for Children and Young Adults', 'Political Writing' and 'The Novel'. There are often extra-curricular events that allow 'networking' with publishers. Most students will create a long work which will be minutely mentored by a single lecturer. All these things build a good MA programme. 

I know this question is in every candidate's mind, but very rarely do they ask me; will my MA get me a contract?

And the answer to that one? Your writing will get you the contract. But you can certainly gain two things; help and mentoring to improve the basic production and a place to focus your mind on getting to the end of a piece of work.

Since I was on the Bath Spa MA programme, I've known several  students get published, but they will be the exceptions, not the rule. First up was Ally Kennon. She completed her book Beast on the MA, and she's gone on to write many books for children and young adults including Sparks and Bullet Boys both in the running for the Guardian Prize.  At the same time, Lucy Christopher finished Flyaway on the MA, and was nominated for the Costa Award, and has also published the acclaimed Stolen.
More recently, a friend of mine from Bristol has completed the MA, is back at Bath Spa to complete a PHd. The Tale of Raw Head and Bloody Bones, published by Chatto and Windus, is a startlingly imaginative story set in the world of Henry Fielding. I have described it as 'the thinking man's 50 shades', as one of the major themes in the book is an exploration of the desire to hurt and be hurt, but what stands it apart for me is its 'persona' or 'voice'. Wolf has chosen not to take the usual advice about writing an historical novel, which is to create a tone of voice that 'feels like', but does not emulate, the style of the day. Instead, he takes the speech and writing patterns of the mid 18th Century and runs with them, creating a fascinating first person character that could have stepped out of  Tom Jones - except that this is a darker tale told for the 21st Century..."What I did know, know for certain, was that I had wanted to cause Pain to Lady B. - I had wanted to heal her, too; but I had wanted to hear her Scream... We were Monsters, both of us; or perhaps fallen Angels" It is never perfectly clear if Tristan Hart is totally sane; the call of faerie is never far from his mind and he clearly sees things that others do not, and fears things that the Age of Reason had by then discredited. But at the end of the story, all feels real and substantial. This novel has the feel of a first attempt, but it is a stunning attempt. 

And myself? Weirdly, I didn't take the MA to get published. I was blocked by a book that was doing my head in, and knew I would either give up writing or push myself through it. But since then my published career has gone from strength to strength and I know I learnt masses on the MA that help the process. I also was told on the course, that I might have some skill in teaching - and that's mostly what I thank the staff at Bath Spa for. I love my job as a tutor with the OCA, and, as much as the MA itself, mentoring and tutoring other writers has made me a better writer myself.

I'd love to hear other writer's opinions - and their experience of the MA life. Do you think it's 'worth the money' Do you think most student assume they'll be published afterwards? And was it, as it was for me, the turning point in your writing life?

4 comments:

  1. Hi, I was published as a non fiction writer before I did my MA but I wanted to write short stories and poetry. Do I think it was worth the money? No. I learned more from the constant reading and writing I did during the course than from a series of very short tutorials, a few visiting agents and writers and workshops that only looked at extracts. I also seemed to be expected to write in a certain way; traditional plotting was all. I was wrong in thinking this would be a safe place I could learn to experiment and innovate; a nurturing space before you threw your efforts out into the world. I do think the novelists expected to be published and some were. It felt as if the poets and short story writers were the poor relations. The MA was far from a great experience but I did get published afterwards and the qualification does give you more credibility, especially if you want to teach. Was it a turning point in my life? Maybe, in that I learned that the published writers that were my tutors are not gods. Their opinions were just their opinions. I could take from them what I found useful, believe in myself and carry on.The upshot is that what you come to learn is often not what you expected.

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  2. A good point (almost 'warning') from Leseley Jackson to people looking to start; I agree, at least that MA's vary, and it's good to see what they actually offer. You wouldn't like to tell us at which university you gained your MAcw, would you Lesley? I might help others make up their mind. At Bath Spa we had a fair amount of tutorage and a lot of it thought outside the box. But the lecturers were left to their own devices; I wold say there wasn't an overall strategy with regard to theoretical teaching; and they each had their own opinions on technical skill. However I would point out that the concentration the the student has to do on reading and writing is part of the development within an MA; a really important part of it, as it's so hard to be the disciplined outside it; in fact, it taught me discipline and how to create good routines for writing. A cheaper way of doing this would be to commit to the National Writing Month which comes round each year.

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    Replies
    1. Hi again, Nina,

      I just want to say that I came to blog by accident and very much enjoyed reading the poems. I did say this in my original comment but then, when I had to sign in to Wordpress, I lost my comment and had to write it again, forgetting to say anything about the poems.

      I don't think I should say which Uni it was because again, it is only my opinion of the experience I had at a moment in time and working in a particular genre. I did feel let down for various reasons but there were tutors who understood what I was trying to do and I wouldn't want them to think I didn't appreciate that. It wouldn't be very professional of me.

      I would urge people to speak to a handful of previous students to find out the things that you don't get to know about from researching various courses. Find out what would be fine with you and what might not. My gripe was that I got a distinction at the first submission level, two marks off a distinction at the second level and then my marks fell drastically at the final level because of 'lack of plot' even though good things were said about my writing skills. Yet a large proportion of the last submission were stories submitted earlier. Why had they let me get to the final stage without someone saying, "actually, there is not enough overt plotting in these stories to please an external examiner"? The critique I received was very harsh and a tad more personal than it should have been. I tried to appeal but was told I could not. Such a bewildering end to what could and should have been a gratifying experience.
      Lesley

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    2. Hi again, Nina,

      I just want to say that I came to blog by accident and very much enjoyed reading the poems. I did say this in my original comment but then, when I had to sign in to Wordpress, I lost my comment and had to write it again, forgetting to say anything about the poems.

      I don't think I should say which Uni it was because again, it is only my opinion of the experience I had at a moment in time and working in a particular genre. I did feel let down for various reasons but there were tutors who understood what I was trying to do and I wouldn't want them to think I didn't appreciate that. It wouldn't be very professional of me.

      I would urge people to speak to a handful of previous students to find out the things that you don't get to know about from researching various courses. Find out what would be fine with you and what might not. My gripe was that I got a distinction at the first submission level, two marks off a distinction at the second level and then my marks fell drastically at the final level because of 'lack of plot' even though good things were said about my writing skills. Yet a large proportion of the last submission were stories submitted earlier. Why had they let me get to the final stage without someone saying, "actually, there is not enough overt plotting in these stories to please an external examiner"? The critique I received was very harsh and a tad more personal than it should have been. I tried to appeal but was told I could not. Such a bewildering end to what could and should have been a gratifying experience.
      Lesley

      Delete