Candid confessions of a writing school junkie


Essay: Not content with doing a master's degree in creative writing, poet Nessa O'Mahony signed up for a three-year PhD in the subject. Here she explains why

Some mornings I feel positively blest. The sun rises behind the peaks of the Snowdonia mountains and through my bay window I catch the first blush colouring the whitewash of the terrace facing out on to the sea. I glance at my watch; it's 8.30am and I've the whole day ahead to think of the right words to describe this idyllic scene. At this hour four years ago, I would have been trapped in a tin-plated cell of a super-mini, slow- crawling my way to my paper-strewn office, stuck behind hundreds of other armour-plated commuters. But now I'm a PhD student studying creative writing, no less. Which is a licence to play, isn't it?

But then there are other mornings. It is 10.15am on the first day of the new semester at the university. For Class QXP1001 the horror of acquainting themselves with "the art of writing fact and fiction" has resumed. They stare with undisguised disdain at my attempts to draw them into discussion about autobiography, the genre for discussion in today's class, and adopt their favourite tactic when asked a question directly: they lower their eyes and stare fixedly at the blank jotter lying open before them. Selective deafness is an undergraduate artform.

I try again. "Has anybody read any autobiography?" There is silence, followed by a hesitant cough from one of the girls in the group. "I've just finished Jordan's autobiography. It was . . ." she pauses, searching for the precise adjective, as all writers must ". . . deadly." For the briefest of seconds I assess the potential of a discussion about dialogism in Katie Price's first prose work but dismiss the notion. Instead, I pass around a photocopied extract from Hugo Hamilton's The Speckled People and hope for the best.

In my final year as a PhD student in creative and critical writing at the University of Wales, Bangor, I have the rare opportunity of experiencing life both as a student and as a teacher. I teach because the reality for most PhD candidates in the humanities is that there aren't enough grants to go round, and most of us find ourselves working part-time to support ourselves. The lucky ones get teaching hours, the unlucky end up with night shifts in Tesco. And, although the PhD isn't a teaching qualification per se, most of us are aiming at that elusive teaching job at the end of the process. So the more experience at the coalface of university teaching, the better.

Teaching has certainly helped me make sense of my own learning experiences since I embarked on this mad adventure four years ago. I had believed, when signing up for my master's in creative writing at the University of East Anglia in 2002, that by doing so I would join the ranks of a literary community who cared passionately about the practice of writing and that the university would be a place to nurture writing talent.

The University of East Anglia (UEA) creative writing programme was set up by Malcolm Bradbury in 1970 and has an impressive list of former students: Kazuo Ishiguro, Ian McEwan and Anne Enright are among the glittering list of alumni. Among more recent graduates, Diana Evans and Tash Aw, classmates of mine at UEA in 2002-03, have won awards for their first novels (Evans won the Orange Prize for New Writers for her debut work, 26a, while Aw won the Whitbread First Novel award for The Harmony Silk Factory).

BUT, AS I have written previously in the pages of the Cork Literary Review, when I attended UEA in 2002 it was not the optimistic place it had been in the early 1990s. There was an atmosphere of profound gloom caused by the early deaths of its most prestigious and influential teachers. Malcolm Bradbury, Lorna Sage and Max Sebald had all died within the previous few years and their absence was tangible in the corporate-brown corridors of the 1960s-designed university. Andrew Motion, the genial poet laureate who now ran the writing programme, was in the process of concluding a mid-season transfer to another university and the other staff poet, Denise Reilly, was on sabbatical. I came expecting a vibrant, event-filled programme for poets, providing opportunities to sit at the feet (metaphorically of course) of some of the greatest writers around. I found instead a somewhat lacklustre schedule of weekly workshops and a distinct uncertainty about what to do with novice poets.

But it wasn't all disillusionment. I met some terrific writers (George Szirtes, Richard Holmes and Michèle Roberts, to name a few), made good friends and learned a lot about my own writing.

Never having spent much time outside Ireland before taking the UEA course, it was particularly interesting to see how my style and my preoccupations were responded to by a non-Irish audience (my class group was made up of American, English and Indian writers). I couldn't take shared knowledge of culture for granted any more and that helped me to clarify what was important to me, in terms of my subject matter and style.

THAT GREATER OBJECTIVITY, more than anything else, was the reason why I decided to extend my furlough beyond the initial one year of the master's programme and sign up for a three-year PhD in creative and critical writing at the University of Wales, Bangor, where I began work under the supervision of internationally renowned poet Carol Rumens. I'd caught the scent of freedom in being able to spend time immersed in the world of writing. Outside the university system, I might have been called a shiftless shirker of responsibilities. Within the university system, I could read, write and think to my heart's content and legitimise the process by getting a degree at the end. Deadly, as my students might say.

But, of course, life is never that simple, and the competing demands of writing and teaching continue to impose a strain. As universities enter the 21st century with a whole new set of requirements in the areas of accountability and transparency, university-based creative writers must adapt to an environment where research audits, learning outcomes and administration threaten to overwhelm their creativity. As Carol Rumens, now professor and head of the new Philip Larkin Centre at the University of Hull, puts it: "Poets and novelists teaching in universities should be far more forthright in their criticisms of the system, and far more insistent about precise and honest terminology. Writing poetry or novels is not a 'research interest' - it's a vocation. Let's say so. And, when filling in learning outcomes, I propose that 'pleasure' should be at the top of the list."

I don't think you can teach somebody to become a writer; I believe one is born with the gene to observe, to analyse and to want to describe the world. But I do believe that writing is a craft that can be taught like any other and, overall, the pleasure Carol Rumens mentions remains on the top of my list of experiences, both as a PhD student and as a teacher of creative writing to university students. And when I return to Ireland later this year, I feel sure that I will have become a different kind of writer, and teacher, as a result.

Nessa O'Mahony's latest poetry collection, Trapping a Ghost, was published by Bluechrome last year

Creative habit: getting a fix

There are currently around 70 masters in creative writing programmes in the UK, with some 20 universities offering PhD programmes.

In Northern Ireland, Queen's University students can study for both an MA and a PhD in creative writing at the newly established Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry. Teachers there include Daragh Carville, Medbh McGuckian and Glenn Patterson.

Trinity College Dublin became the first university in the Republic to offer a postgraduate programme in creative writing when it launched its M.Phil in creative writing in 1997. The current course director is poet Gerald Dawe.

NUI Galway offers an MA in writing, the course director of which is Adrian Frazier.