During my career, I’ve worked with a multitude of theatre-makers, actors, directors, dancers, choreographers, composers, musicians, artists and curators. I’ve never met one who considered themselves beyond learning. In fact, I’d say quite the opposite. The majority will have studied their chosen discipline in further and higher education and many will have later relished the opportunity to advance their practice at postgraduate level and feel all the richer for it. They might have arrived with talent, but it’s guidance, dedication and practice that will have transformed them from good to great.
It’s been a surprise then to find such contempt expressed for creative writing as an undergraduate and postgraduate discipline. The prevailing idea is that writers are born, not made. It’s a view that I’ve heard expressed by published authors who haven’t been down the bachelors or masters degree path. Moreover, it’s a view that I’ve heard expressed by published authors who teach on creative writing programmes and still judge them fairly worthless.
This seems a wholly miserable and negative position to take, devoid of generosity, kindness or appreciation for the multitude of reasons candidates might embark upon an undergraduate or higher degree, in any discipline.
MA in Creative and Life Writing at Goldsmiths College, University of London
I’m all for people pursuing learning, at any level, at any age, whatever their background and motivation. There’ll always be the negative naysayers who get a kick out of ridiculing others’ endeavours. But I say, ignore them! If one of the things you want to do with your one wild and precious life (thank you Mary Oliver) is to dedicate your time (and money, if you’re not fortunate to get funding), to the pursuit of learning or excellence in your chosen discipline, then why the hell not? I’m ever thankful that I did because it meant two thoroughly interesting years with a truly diverse group of writers. Whether specialising in fiction, poetry or life writing, each had their own authentic story, motivation and legitimate reason for being there. Bonds were formed and writing was improved.
In my case, the reasons I chose an MA in Creative and Life Writing at Goldsmiths were as follows:
To re-learn how to live:
After three major bereavements, a little under 5-years apart, I had a choice. Either get busy living or get busy dying. In the derangement of grief, the rules that once applied are forgotten. Grief makes infants of us and we must learn again, almost from scratch, how to walk and how to live in the world. For me, there was a great comfort to be found in the nursery that was Goldsmiths: new people to meet, interesting ideas to think about, even the 2-hour commute from Wivenhoe in North Essex, to South London was an important exercise in being in the world, negotiating and managing the overwhelm of the morning rush hour.
To gain confidence in my voice:
I’ve been scribbling my whole life – poems, songs, observations, stories, journals, ideas. It’s been my guilty secret. My Mum was a writer. My brother is a writer. Both, in my opinion, goliaths, in whose shadow my sloppy spelling and grammar shrunk my already small voice to a whisper. Nothing intentional, I’m sure. Mum was also an editor, and from her, my brother and I learned the discipline of the editor’s knife, a skill that’s benefitted both of us in our own fields. I took a couple of excellent creative writing courses at Wivenhoe Bookshop (my local!) with Petra McQueen. I wrote a few short pieces and I shared them with Mum. They came back with red pen and comments. Although grateful for the care she took, I just never felt that anything I could write would pass muster or be good enough.
It wasn’t until after Mum’s death in early 2014 that I allowed myself to entertain the idea of the MA. Once I’d been awarded a place I imagined sharing the news with her in one of our regular phone calls or emails. In my imaginings, rather than a doubting, judging voice, I heard her say ‘Oh, well done, love’. I felt that I knew she would have been thrilled. Her being there, but not being there, gave me the encouragement to go for it and the space to pursue it, which highlights one of the strange contradictions about love and loss, missing and moving on.
Over two years I was able to gain confidence in my voice, all the time hearing her gentle scolds about my grammar and spelling, which kept me on my toes.
To study with some interesting mentors and peers:
After decades of filling notebooks with the outer, observable world and my reflections upon my inner orientation towards it, life writing felt like my natural home. Of course fiction, too, is a reflection of the human condition, and I’m an avid escapist. I love a damn good story, well told. But in my own writing, I’ve always been drawn to the real and the possibility of language to get to the deep heart of the human condition. It’s about revealing the universal truths in the particular experience. Poetry does this for me too and I often approach a story as a problem space, trying different forms until I get to the nub of the thing. Sometimes this will be verse, sometimes prose.
I chose the Goldsmiths MA because of the opportunity to be mentored by Blake Morrison – poet and memoirist. The second-year Life Writing workshop with Prof Morrison was worth the rest of the MA put together. We were a small group that year, joined during the term by a couple of PhD researchers: all fascinating women with remarkable stories to tell. Small was definitely beautiful because we had lots of opportunities to share and give and receive detailed feedback on our developing projects. I’d already begun work on what was to become my portfolio and what will be my first book – the work that DYCP is providing the time to finish. The opportunity to bring this work before the scrutiny and gaze of my peers and mentor was incredible. I received encouragement like never before as well as astute, careful notes from all concerned, something I’ll be forever grateful for.
To Put my Creativity Front and Centre:
The MA was the first time in 25-years that I’d allowed myself free rein to pursue my passion. All that time focussing on other people, professionally and personally, and coming to terms with various things that life chucked my way, had dulled my creative spirit. I felt a terrible void at the core. Whilst the MA didn’t fill that void (that would have been asking too much), the simple act of enrolling and committing to it put my creativity front and centre. It was a tectonic shift, after which I knew nothing would ever be quite the same again.
Closing the Circle
To come full circle, being in a community of learning and experimentation is a joy and a privilege. Not all MAs are made equal and even the excellent ones will have lots of room for improvement. Choose wisely but manage your expectations. Tutors and peers are fallible humans and there’s a huge element of luck when it comes to connecting with your cohort. Will an MA turn you into a writer? No. Will it guarantee you publication? No. It can do neither of these things. Like everything else in life, what you bring to the experience and what you invest in it – your talent, time, passion, energy, commitment – is what, in the end, will make the difference between on the one hand a mediocre and on the other a transformative experience. Your improvement as a writer and the and creative life that follows your MA is in your gift.
On Giving Back
My MA was transformative. It put me on a new trajectory. I was freed from the doubting-mother voice and began to hear instead something more helpful. I realised I had a top-notch and encouraging editor forever by my side. It allowed me to face my truth and to write it with authenticity – to be seen and heard. I was even able to put my helping gene to good use, finding a natural comfort with mentoring and tutoring other writers at different points along their journeys and after graduating, co-founded a creative writing development project, Word After Word. I found my tribe, my creative home, my voice, my mojo.
It’s for these reasons that I say ignore the naysayers. If you want to devote your time and energy to the pursuit of excellence and learning, then do it, own it, whatever form that takes. In the end, I find myself disinterested in the debate about the value of creative writing MAs. It’s a rather pompous conversation happening in an echo chamber driven by a controversy-hungry media.
I’m much more interested in how learning shifts perspective, how it opens people up in new and surprising ways and ultimately, what people do with their experience, with their ‘one wild and precious life’.
A series of blog posts about my journey through my Arts Council England Developing Your Creative Practice project.