Creative writing: what’s the point of an MA?

I’m mature and disciplined enough to self-learn most things, and the craft of writing isn’t that hard to get your head around


I moved to Lancaster recently, a gorgeous small city in the northwest of England. It has a lot going for it – old buildings, easy access to the lake district, the story of the Pendle Witches – but I moved here for the creative writing MA at a northwest university, which I’m meant to start in October.

The academic staff are well-respected, the university has a great reputation, and the thought of being able to play lacrosse more than once a week was a huge attraction. But then I spoke to a number of current and past MA and MFA students (from different institutions at home and abroad) and was left feeling uncomfortable.

Some comments made me wonder about spending £6,000 on an MA, and some made me question whether MA/MFA courses can breed a certain arrogance in favour of literary fiction.

I don’t mind high-brow fiction – The Great Gatsby is easily my favourite novel. The Catcher in the Rye, too, is another favourite. Literary fiction has its place. But that place should be front and centre, shared with mainstream fiction – not up on some altar, splendid in its aloofness.

Fitzgerald, Salinger et al are great, but there is also room for sci-fi and fantasy and historical fiction and books about vampires. Literature is the ultimate democratic practice – you can write what you want without fear, and some people will like it and some won’t, and that’s ok.

What’s the point?

So these conversations started me thinking: what’s the point of an MA/MFA?

Learning? Sure, but I can do that myself: I’m mature and disciplined enough to self-learn most things, and the craft of writing isn’t that hard to get your head around.

Yes, there’s the idea that you grow with feedback from other students etc, but with today’s technologies and online communities, do you need to do an MA to get that experience?

Publisher connections? Maybe – but then you hear different stories about how good (or otherwise) universities can be with that. I was lucky enough to know a number of traditionally published authors even before I started writing seriously, and in some respects my friendships there could be more important than any university connections.

It won’t be easy, but it’s not impossible.

So I came up with a plan to try some online courses and then decide whether to pull out of the MA. With all of that in mind, I started looking at online courses, and in particular with Gotham Writers (I bought the Writing Fiction title they published – a really useful guide to the craft of creative writing).

The good

I checked out Gotham’s site and was really impressed by the breadth of classes on offer online (be sure to check the syllabus for each course to get an idea of what’s covered and when).

I’m now well into a number of fiction courses, and one of the courses on article writing has led me to work on an interesting piece about an aspect of the Belfast Giants hockey team.

The courses cost about £300 each – much less expensive than the cost of a Masters. Each one provides weekly lecture notes on set topics – for example, dialogue in fiction or voice and body structure in article writing. As someone who has spent a small fortune on books about creative writing, I find the notes are a fantastic starting point.

The fiction series focuses more on short stories. Every week a number of students are required to submit longer pieces of worth to “The Booth”, and other students are required to comment on the work, two positives and then two negatives about the piece. The author is prevented from commenting on anything others have said until five days after the piece has been opened up to scrutiny, so it’s a good way of having to sit there and take it. The Booth is in addition to weekly assignments, which are in turn commented upon by the teacher.

The bad

There are some downsides. The courses are not particularly selective, so it’s pot luck as to who you have in your class. In saying that, with the numbers on the course (usually about 20) chances are you’ll find others at and above your level.

Another issue is the format in which the courses are delivered. Some courses in other fields involve a lot of video contact, whereas the Gotham courses are text based. That worried me a little: text chat and lecture notes by text doesn’t have the immediacy of video chat. But my experience has been surprisingly positive.

Each lecture has a comments section below and a question from the instructor to kick things off, and if you actively engage in the discussion, you can get a lot out of it. But in a digital age, I’d like to see an option for video-based lessons.

Horses for courses

So where does this leave me? I’m still undecided on whether to stick to my MA. Over the past few months I’ve come to realise that online courses have a lot to offer. I’m enjoying their flexibility and I’m beginning to wonder if they can offer better value.

The trick is to find a course that works for you, because ultimately it’s horses for courses – but I will definitely avoid the arrogance of the MFA graduate who told me they “wouldn’t read any books on creative writing, and certainly not anything recommended by Gotham”. It’s their loss.

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