After many months of worrying, changing my mind, filling in forms, editing, re-editing, accidentally surrendering my British citizenship, and being by turns wildly, exciteably optimistic and glass-is-pretty-much-empty-really, Eeyore-is-my-role-model pessimistic, I have now received an offer from Manchester to rush off to the northern reaches to study for an MA in creative writing. This means I will get to spend a year:
- Telling people I'm a writer.
- Being a student again.
- Not being in London.
- Pretending to be a minor character in Wonder Boys.
Also being fundamentally impoverished, but let's not mention that...
However, this has got me pondering. You see, one difficult part of applying (apart from getting my citizenship back, which seemed to involve more forms than a Japanese civil service exam) was deciding that a creative writing MA was definitely a worthwhile thing to do.
This was partly a result of all the usual MA nonsense about interrupting a career, being able to afford anything to eat that isn't made mostly of cardboard, and finding a new job afterwards. However, this being creative writing, there was another question too: what's the point? An impressive number of people have spent an equally impressive amount of time declaring that these courses are a big, fat waste of time, money and effort. Ask Madame Google, and she'll show you little but mildly sarcastic newspaper articles.
Since I'm about to accept a place on one of these contentious MAs, I of course am pretty sure these doubters are mad, bitter and wrong. Possibly fundamentally evil, too.
A few standard objections seem to pop up. Two are that you can't teach writing, and by extension that an MA will give you nothing you couldn't gain from taking a year off work to lock yourself in a tower with a typewriter, a bottle of whisky and a shedload of paper.
I disagree with both of these. Sometimes these claims are based on an assumption that great writing has no structure or boundaries, and is purely a product of an individual's guiding genius. But if people are happy enough to review books and say what makes them good or bad, can't similar thinking be applied to books that haven't been written yet? Criticism is a route to improvement, and an MA gives a structured environment and regular source for that criticism, broader than what you'd get from asking a couple of friends to read your work.
It certainly isn't about saying demanding that everyone write in the same way to produce the same kind of MA-approved good book. Even if you want to subvert the traditions, knowing them helps. Knowledge is never a limitation: being told 'X improves characterisation' doesn't mean you have to do it, but it can't hurt to have it in mind.
Anyway, let's face it, there's more to this than keeping a journal under the mattress - there's publication to lust after. If you're writing for nobody but your cat and your imaginery friends, it's fine to ignore any advice and carve your own trail through the written word, but if you want to ever become published, surely it will help to know what other people think? And to have that kind of input from a combination of keen, intelligent, fellow students, keen, intelligent, published tutors, and a host of visiting authors, agents and publishers sounds pretty good to me.
I agree that lessons can't create genius and can't do a lot with somebody hopelessly inept. However, anyone who's accepted for a course will be at least reasonably decent. To say that this kind of fairly competent person cannot be improved or taught anything by a combination of structure, practice and tuition (by people who know what they're doing because they have written, you know, like, books and stuff) strikes me as a little arrogant. Sure, if I were some kind of hyper-literary mega-god of words, I wouldn't be considering this - I'd be slouched in a chair at Penguin now, naming my terms. As it is, though, I'm mediocre, and would like to be better. I think a degree can help with this.
I've also bumped into the argument that if you're any good you'll end up published anyway. I don't find this terribly likely, just on sheer statistics. Look at the size of slush piles, the number of proto-writers around, and the number of people who actually manage even to get agents, let alone end up on shelves in bookshops people actually spend money in. There are bound to be fine writers who die undiscovered. And if an MA can help one or two of them come to light, surely they've succeeded?
What's more, there's encouragement to think about. It's easy to become disillusioned when you're halfway through a novel and you're the only one who's seen any of it. It's easy to panic, lose faith and give up, and an MA can help people with this by providing direction, feedback, the knowledge that there's a purpose to what you're writing, and the reassurance that people are taking you seriously and giving time to read, consider and respond to your words.
But sod all that. I'm doing it because it will be fun, because I love writing, and because even if I never manage to come up with anything publishable I can't think of a more entertaining way to spend a year.
(Okay, I admit that all I've done here is borrow a couple of the shoddier arguments against creative writing MAs and then feel awfully clever for cutting them down. Let me have my fun, alright?)