Monday, 19 February 2018

Creative Writing Degrees - Are They Worth It?

When I was a lass in the United States, looking for a University to call my own, there was no such things as creative writing degrees or MFAs and such. 

Well, there were, but I didn't know about them, didn't know I would be interested in that sort of thing in the future. They were definitely there: the University of Iowa's Writers' Workshop has been around since 1936 and it's just down the road from where I grew up and the University of Montana near where I went to University is even older. I had never heard of them or any creative writing degrees.

I wanted to be a writer, but had been thinking along more practical lines. I signed up to a Wildlife Biology major with an English minor. I wanted to write for National Geographic, be the next Farley Mowat. OK maybe not exactly practical. After a year and a half of this I realised for various reasons that Wildlife Biology was not the field for me and switched to an English major. The University I attended didn't have a creative writing degree programme, but you could focus your degree electives on creative writing (or pre-law or education). So I doubled my focus on literature and creative writing. I attended every workshop and lecture I could fit in, every reading held in the town. I joined a writing group through the University. I loved it, but by the time I heard about creative writing degrees I was looking more to leaving the country rather than continuing my education. I signed up to a literature M.Phil in Scotland and the rest is history.

To be honest, looking back on my writing then I think I would have struggled to get a place on a MFA. My writing wasn't really that good and the programmes available out there were few and elite. Or so they seemed. 

So I slogged away on my own, writing away every free moment I had. I had no real goal in mind, I just needed to write. I craved it, used it to remember and celebrate the good times as well as sift through difficult situations. 

I was lucky enough to work in publishing early on where I got a first-hand look at rejection and publication from the other side. This gave me the confidence to start trying to get my poems published.

Around the late 90s, I realised how popular creative writing courses were and how they could benefit writers. I couldn't really afford a course, I needed to work, editing, waitressing, freelancing with teaching and other things. I didn't have a lot of free time. I slowly started getting my work published, took the occasional evening course, joined lots of writers' groups and workshops over the years and eventually began to teach them. 

All the time, I was glancing at the creative writing degrees popping up in Scotland, first St Andrews, I think, and then Glasgow and Edinburgh. I saw the success of writers connected with these programmes and wondered if it would be worth my while to join one. 

Doing a creative writing degree, at any level including PhD, has its major benefits. First of all, you suddenly have a tribe. No more the lonely writer in the garret. Well, yes, writing is still a solitary activity, but you have workshops to share your work, events to attend, like-minded people to talk to and most importantly teachers and mentors to guide your writing. You can get a bit of this from writers' groups and working hard to be in the literary scene, but walking into an already established programme saves a lot of hard work. 

The tribe follows you once you've completed the course. There are literary magazines that focus on publishing students and alumni of certain writing programmes and 'who you know' is as important in the publishing world as it is in any other field. Friends and colleagues promote and recommend each other, of course they do. 

You also get time to focus on your writing, to really break it down to learn the underpinnings of poetry and fiction and to discover and develop your own themes and interests. You write analytical essays on your own work as well as literary examinations of other writers. This time and focus can be so beneficial to improvement, but I'm sure it can also lead to burn-out. I know after spending 3 years dissecting writers I loved to learn their techniques in my literature degrees, I sometimes grew out of love with them. It must be more difficult if it's yourself and your own work. 

In a degree course, you get used to criticism and rejection as well. Not every piece will be perfect and you'll learn to recognise this and hopefully how to avoid or repair the problems probably faster than a self-taught writer. Good teachers will give a balance of support, encouragement and criticism. 

There are negatives, of course. Degrees can be expensive and in no way guarantee success. It's not just writing your own poems or stories, you have to read tons of other people's work, do proper essays and thesis just like regular university degrees. That's one thing that's put me off. I don't want to go back to university after having done two degrees already. I want to focus just on my own writing. And just because you walk away with a MFA or whatever in creative writing it doesn't mean your writing is good or sellable. 

And just because the tutors and lecturers and visiting writers are hopefully established and experienced it doesn't mean they will give you the best feedback for your writing. They are human and have their own interests and styles which may not mesh well with yours or with teaching in general. I've attended workshops from 'names' that were a waste of time because the visiting writer was drunk or had something else going on which were not helpful to giving feedback to novice writers. I've been shouted at, had poems torn apart in public with no consideration for my inexperience. I've also had poems praised to a false level which also didn't help me in the future as I thought I was good when I really needed more critical guidance. 

The explosion of creative writing degrees over the past 30 years also means your tribe becomes your competition. Universities continually churn out new 'writers', but publishing houses are publishing less, rarely taking on new names. With the internet, e-books and on-demand publishing anyone can publish their own books, so chances are you will be lost in the crowd if you self-promote. Jobs for writers like writer-in-residence or creative writing teaching posts are rare and highly competitive and with the economic down-turn community groups and arts funding agencies are cutting back on supporting them. 

I know a few writers who have done very well after finishing writing degrees, but I also know that they were good before they started the course. I'm sure the course improved their skills and saleability, but was it necessary to help them along. I'm also sure that lots of graduates from these degrees drop off the map. You'll find examples on both sides of the aisle, those who have succeeded after creative writing degrees, those who have done so off their own backs and those who have failed whatever their background. Would I be doing better in my own career if I attended a creative writing programme? No one can really say. 

It really is a personal choice. Creative writing degrees can translate into other careers, the skills of improving your writing, being able to read, analyse, comprehend and critique written text are essential in many careers. So it's not necessarily a waste to attend one, but it's also not always the most beneficial move. It might be the boost your writing needs, but they are a huge commitment and not for the faint-hearted. 

I'd love to hear from those who have a creative writing degree. Did it help or hinder you? Would you recommend it?

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