A year ago I made the decision to quit my job and start an MA in Creative Writing.
A friend of mine described this decision as “brilliantly random, whilst also being completely logical,” a sentiment that I felt summed it up well at the time, and continues to do so.
Coming in with a science based degree, I spent the summer before swinging between excitement and terror, and whilst I still have moments where I’m convinced I’m completely out of my depth, I’ve actually done far better results-wise, and learnt far more craft-wise than I’d ever anticipated.
Here’s some reflections on what’s working for me so far:
1. Pick your course to suit you.
I looked at a number of options, including the Open University. I wanted somewhere local that fitted in well with childcare and work, and that focused on improving writing skills as a priority over the critical and academic (ie. using the latter to reinforce the former, rather than vice versa). I narrowed my options down to two courses. The websites were great for finding out about the course, and heavily weighted my preference in favour of the more practical sounding course I finally picked. There was little information about the time commitments involved, but phoning up the university departments gave me not only that information, but also a sense of the people working there. Though both were friendly and helpful, I realised half way through applying for the more traditional, academically focused university with a fairly impractical timetable, that I was getting much better vibes about the course, the people, and the practicalities of the other, so scrapped that sensible “practice” application and went with what felt right.
2. Make the most of the opportunities.
On starting the course I told myself I was going to take every opportunity that arose. Though this led to a few dodgy submissions and proposals, and towards the end I had to modify it to “consider everything, but be realistic,” I’ve tried not to turn down anything because it’s daunting, even asking (probably stupid) questions of the numerous visiting authors and other professionals. Opportunities have cropped up that I never expected, all of which have improved my writing, and broadened my employability skill set in the creative industries. This year I’ve attended radio writing workshops, screenwriting lectures and iPhone film making masterclass, and helped edit our student anthology. Next year I’m hoping to sit in on a range of additional courses, which leads me to…
3. Don’t burn out!
I’ve had a few points this year where I’ve come close. Financial worries after quitting my job and failing to get much supply work, balanced against time pressures and general parenting exhaustion negotiating the terrible twos–>threenager stage etc. and cutting down nursery hours to help with aforementioned financial pressure. Add to this a close family bereavement, which impacted me and my writing both emotionally (obviously!), and practically, in losing most of my expected writing time for several months*.
There was also a greater intensity of workload for the course than I’d anticipated (always likely to be the case), and in the run up to assignments etc. standards have had to slip on the domestic front (never my strongest point, I’ll admit!). I also grew to expect a slump** after each deadline, and others on the course seemed to as well. Although “after my assignment” becomes a golden promised time of clearing everything that’s been pushed aside for the last few weeks or months, I’ve found it best not to put too much pressure on it and focus on a few important things (right now: family, health (mental and physical), reading ahead for next year and enjoying writing for myself again. The housework can wait another week or two!). This brings me to…
4. Remember why you’re doing it!
This will be different for everyone, but it’s probably a safe guess that the majority of people undertaking postgraduate study in Creative Writing will have some aspiration to be “a writer”, or at least work with words or stories in some way, be it in publishing, teaching or the film industry. My own ambitions are to improve my craft and broaden my writing scope into different areas***. It can be easy to get bogged down in grades and sidetracked by other projects. Learning so much in a short amount of time can leave you feeling disheartened about your own work and ability (at least it did for me, and Mary Robinette Kowal has talked about this on Writing Excuses), as you’re able to spot more flaws, without necessarily having cemented the skills to overcome them. Being conscious that this is an indicator that my skills are improving helps, even if I can’t necessarily see it in myself (wood, trees and all that lot!)!
It can also get disheartening when your reading and writing is dictated to by other people who may not necessarily share your literary tastes or aspirations. Though I chose my course in part because it felt the most open to genre writing****, a lot of the set texts are literary or mainstream works, a number I have wanted to read anyway, but a fair few that would be in the DNF pile were they not required reading!! The good ones (entirely subjective, obviously!) can make you question your own ability, whilst the nigh on unreadable ones are hard work and depressing! Whilst it’s certainly educational sticking with these to the end, it can become overwhelming at times. I’m currently reading ahead***** for next year, and A.S. Byatt’s Possession is making me question both my literary tastes****** and my ability to ever finish a novel again. *******
Reading and writing for fun has helped to keep these things in perspective, and remind me whilst I’m doing it. I switched to YA and short stories for light relief (both being fairly quick to get through whilst still getting a decent story), and dip in to Escape Pod and similar at times. Though writing time has been tight, working on short pieces in an alternative format (e.g. novel edits, a short script) from my course can help me stand back and gain some perspective before plunging back into things. The last thing you want is for the course to get so intense it puts you off writing!
*Mostly helping with funeral preparations and other practicalities, the chief of which fell on my mum, who whilst more than capable, should not have had to do as much as she did (family politics! 😤). Hard as things were for me, they were worse so for her (she’d lost her mum, after all!). My husband goes to the football every other weekend, and my mum had got into the habit of taking the kids for a “granny day,” assisted by my dad and Nanna, and I’d got in the habit of relying on these for guilt-free writing time. Understandably, these were too much, or impacted boy other commitments, and I lost them for about 3 months, at a time when Anthology commitments were picking up and taking most of my “nursery days” (we’re down to two at the moment, one of which was for lectures etc, the other for cramming in as much reading, writing, laundry and general life admin as possible before it’s time to start dinner!).
Dealing emotionally with sudden loss of my grandma also made focused writing very hard, and most of my creative energy at the time went into journaling, letters, a poem, a PowerPoint of photos for the wake etc. Writing for what should have been my favourite module became like pulling teeth, forcing one sentence out at a time. Not ideal when you’re meant to be honing 10k finely crafted words! I got there, but it was tough!
***the first semester was particularly good for this, trying screen and radio formats, and, pushing myself to try something new, branching into comedy writing for my screenwriting assignment. It was great to try these new things in a supportive and instructional environment. I’m pretty sure that it would have taken closer to a year to gain the same skills on my own.
****I’m hoping the timetable is such that next year I can gatecrash…I mean “audit” … the undergraduate fantasy and sci-fi modules.
*****I’ve found reading as far ahead as I can is the only way to stay afloat!
******I know there are exceptions, but having sent A Brief History of Seven Killings back to the library with relief when my borrowing term was up, I’m noticing a pattern of potentially good but in real terms unreadable novels being picked for Man Booker Prizes.
*******I was in tears when I realised at my initial rate of 1% a night it was going to take me 100 days to finish the damn thing! I’ve discovered daytime reading is far more productive, if no less draining, but I’m a proud 20% into it now! Reading an online synopsis has helped me to appreciate that there is actually a story in there, and not just a muddle of family trees and unnecessary photocopier descriptions. And bathrooms! How much detail do we need about people’s bathrooms?! Sorry, I digress…