On a balmy morning in late August 2019, I handed in a bound copy of my thesis in Creative Writing. Finally, I had completed the last step in a year-long M.Phil (Masters in Philosophy) course at Trinity College Dublin, Ireland.
From the moment I understood the concept of a career I wanted to be a writer. After an undergraduate degree in Anthropology and two years of work, I decided to re-enter academia (and the accumulation of yet more student debt) and apply for a place on a Creative Writing course at Postgraduate level. I applied to a range of universities, was declined by some and accepted by others and finally chose to accept an offer from Trinity College Dublin in Ireland.
Before applying, I spent a fair amount of time on research. I was trying to figure out whether attending a course in creative writing at university level, would be worth my time or not. I read numerous articles that listed the pros and cons of creative writing courses, written by well-known published authors as well as former attendants of these courses.
Now, having completed a degree in Creative Writing myself, I figured I might as well give something back, to others who may be considering this life choice and wondering if it is worth the investment or not.
So, would I recommend attending a creative writing course at university level? In short, yes. However, there are various factors to consider when making such a decision. Below I will attempt to list my experience of the course I attended, and who I would recommend such a course to.
During my own research, the most common argument against creative writing courses that I came across went something like this; creative writing courses are a waste of time because talent cannot be taught. British novelist Hanif Kureishi is one of many who holds this viewpoint. In an article from The Guardian he says; …”Creative writing courses are a waste of time… A lot of my students just can`t tell a story.”
To a certain degree I can sympathise with the above viewpoint. But, to a certain degree only. There are of course aspects of writing and any other creative art form that cannot be taught, because they come from intuition and from the individual`s way of perceiving the world. But as novelist Matt Haig points out, in the same article by The Guardian, writing is part instinct, part craft, and the craft part can indeed be taught.
I must side with Haig. Talent and intuition are important factors for creating good art, but without practise and dedication the artist will not succeed. A common myth seems to exist around artists; the idea of almost otherworldly abilities to produce something extraordinary without seemingly even trying. But ask any novelist or musician for that matter, no matter how talented, how many hours practice they have put in every day over years and years. The number is sure to be astoundingly high.
Many to-be writers may have great talent and intuition, but they might still benefit from structured feedback and advice on how to better craft their work. And may I add, no one becomes a good writer without writing a lot. We all (some of us more than others) will have to wade through a lot of metaphorical shit before we get to the good stuff. And if there is one thing a well-structured creative writing course does give you it is the time and space to write, to practise your craft. For this very reason, I deem creative writing courses to be excellent opportunities for ambitious writers to delve into their practise and to become even better at their craft.
One piece of advice I would give to anyone considering applying for a creative writing course is, don`t take yourself too seriously. No one expects you to produce a contemporary classic on your first attempt at writing. But just keep writing. Stopping and lamenting at how bad your writing is won`t benefit anyone, least of all you and your wordcount.
In a creative writing course one of the things you are paying for is the time to write. So, make use of it! For most of any writer`s life, writing will not be an activity that is given endless space and time in everyday life. It will have to be squeezed in between full-time work, relationships, kids, break-ups, funerals and kitchen refurbishing. If you`re going to pay thousands of euros or pounds or whatever currency on a degree in creative writing, make sure you make the most of that time and write!
Another common argument against creative writing courses is that they weed out any form of authenticity in their students and create mass producers of similar content. Literary editor Jason Sanford made this comment, saying that editors looking through submissions to literary magazines, had to wade their way through countless stories that all seemed to resemble each other.
I can see the potential danger, especially for younger, perhaps easier influenced students, in wanting to please one`s professors and hence ending up producing content one thinks they will applaud, rather than what one really wants to write. But, as with anything else in life, you as a student should follow your gut feeling and make your own decisions about your writing. Your professors and peers will be there throughout the year to comment and give feedback on your work. You should listen seriously to this feedback and consider the potential ways it might benefit or improve your writing. But, at the end of the day, you are the master of your own work, you decide what advice to take on board as valuable and what advice to quite frankly flush down the drain.
My favourite part of the course was the weekly workshops. In these, the class was split in two and every week, two to three of us would submit roughly fifteen A4 pages of our own work. The rest of the group would have about a week to read the submitted work and give feedback in the following workshop. Before I attended Trinity College, hardly anyone had read my prose. Once I attended the course, my work was being continuously scrutinized and commented on in great detail.
I found it immensely helpful, not to mention exciting, to have other people read my work. My workshop companions varied in age and background, from a Brazilian girl in her early twenties to a retired man from England. As a result, the advice I was given often varied. This meant I had to decide what advice was useful to me and my work. The feedback and not to mention support that I received from my lecturers and peers throughout the year, was without doubt the most rewarding part of the course for me.
I consider myself very lucky to have landed in a year where my peers were supportive and where we all worked hard not only on our own projects, but also to make sure we gave the best possible advice and feedback to each other. We heard from former students on the course, that it was no given that the group would be so supportive of one another. Previous years had apparently seen more antagonistic or at least, less helpful groups of students, where most were mainly focused on improving their own work and less enthusiastic about the work of their peers.
I would stress that the most important aspect of a creative writing course is the people in it, professors and students alike. Workshops especially, will only work if everyone is engaged and actually reads each other’s work before class. You can`t have a productive workshop if people have not read the work that is being discussed. Sadly, what your peers will be like is difficult to predict. However, considering the steep prices one pays to attend these courses, one would at least assume that the people attending them will take their own work as well as that of their peers, seriously.
Another positive aspect of the course was the friendships I made during it. Writing is a solitary act. As exhilarating and liberating as it can be to create a world that is only yours, it is also something you must do on your own. No one else is there with you when you write. And often, that`s hard. Enrolling on the Creative Writing course made the process of writing seem less isolating. Although I still had to do the actual work in solitude, my peers were never far away and we keenly discussed our writing processes, joys and struggles over pints or cups of coffee throughout the year.
Something that I found useful when attending the course, was that I had a structured idea of what I wanted to spend my year focusing on. Although I switched from writing a magical realism story to a contemporary coming of age novel in term two, I came to the course with a project in mind, something I wanted to focus on throughout the year. Although the project changed, I believe it was beneficial for me to have a specific goal during the course, in my case it was to write as much of a first draft of a novel as I could. An excerpt of my novel in progress became my thesis. You do not have to know what your thesis will be when you begin the year, but personally I found coming to the course with a project in mind, helped me retain my focus.
Finally, I cannot talk about a university degree without mentioning the P-word. Privilege. University education is a privilege. We need to think about who gets accepted to Creative Writing courses and why, who has the means to be accepted to them, and who is being left out of these opportunities either they want them or not. A degree in Creative Writing can be useful, but this alone will most likely not secure you a publishing deal. However, the prestige that comes with having such a degree will create advantages for you, and I believe it is important to keep such advantages in mind after graduation.
Getting into a Creative Writing degree is surely a result of your talent, as you will have been selected from a list of other candidates. But, also bear in mind that others who might be at least as talented as you, might not have the same opportunities to pursue the same life decisions as you do. So, make great use of your year, but bear in mind that there are several ways to become a published writer. So, when out there in the world, with your Creative Writing degree in your pocket, don’t look down upon and set yourself apart from other writers who don’t have an official degree for their efforts. Their work is as important as yours.
In short, I would say that attending a creative writing course can be beneficial to you if;
- You are willing to not take yourself or your work too seriously, but be open to constructive feedback from your professors and peers.
- You are of sound and set enough mind to be able to evaluate which advice that you are given is useful and which is best ignored. And that you maintain your unique voice while developing as a writer.
- You understand that a degree in Creative Writing will most likely not get you a publishing deal, that the hard work has only just begun once you graduate if you intend to be a serious and published writer, and that if you want to be rich you should probably study engineering or business instead.
- You intend to make good use of the time you are given and write and read as much as possible. Pick up that paperback and do not succumb to the allure of endless Netflix streaming!
- You understand that there are many ways of taking steps towards becoming a writer, a degree in Creative Writing is just one of many. Your degree is a privilege. Use it, don`t flaunt it.
- You are willing to make friends and support your peers, read their work and consider it as if it was your own. A good writing workshop is built on cooperation, not self-preservation!
If you agree with my six golden rules, I believe that a creative writing course might be the thing for you. If you, like me, are lucky enough to have the opportunity to do something like this, then do it and enjoy it and make the most of it! And if someone says you`re wasting your money on something that doesn’t need to be taught, tell them that practise makes perfect!
 Flood, “Creative Writing Professor Hanif Kureishi says Creative Writing Courses are a Waste of Time”, The Guardian, 2014. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/mar/04/creative-writing-courses-waste-of-time-hanif-kureishi
 Ellis, “The Cons of MFA Programs”, jenniferellis.ca https://www.jenniferellis.ca/the-cons-of-mfa-programs