Dave Rudden talks to Professor James Ryan, getting to the heart of the UCD MA in Creative Writing.
The UCD Creative Writing Masters receives over fifty submissions a year from hopeful applicants. The guidelines ask for ’25 pages of original work’ and ‘a personal statement,’ (the most nebulous and terrifying document in human history) but what does that mean for those panicking about how to put their best foot forward? What are the course heads actually looking for?
‘Something we can work with,’ is James Ryan’s reply. ‘There’s no sense in taking on a student that’s won the Booker Prize. We look for potential – for students we can do something for, students who need the course. There are three different people on the selection panel so we all have slightly different criteria but one criteria shared by all is the extent to which a piece is engaging.’
The UCD Creative Writing Masters was started in 2006. Professor James Ryan studied Education at Trinity College, his focus the development of creativity in the context of formal education. He then taught in NUIG before joining UCD in 2006.
Students accepted for the course will work with James in the Craft & Composition module, digging deep into the raw mechanics of writing week to week. I remember bringing in a short story for feedback one morning and being impressed (and a little embarrassed) at how he interrogated each word, its effect, and what it meant for the story as a whole. However, it’s this kind of meticulous editing that really improves a writer. He also teaches the Single Text module as the UCD Masters is quite literature-based ‘in the belief that creative writing students learn a great deal from considering the ways in which great writers construct their work.’
‘We aim to create a notably student-centred programme,’ James continues, ‘in that the creative development of each individual student – whatever direction that takes – is the primary concern. Happily, this concern is shared by my great colleagues.’
James is joined in the course by Eilis Ní Dhuibhne, (The Bray House, The Dancers Dancing, winner of the Bisto Book of the Year Award for Blaeberry Sunday) Frank McGuinness (one of Ireland’s most important playwrights, with work including Factory Girls, Dolly West’s Kitchen, and adaptations of Ibsen, Chekhov and Euripides) and Paul Perry. (The Drowning of the Saints, The Orchid Keeper, The Last Falcon)
Weekly workshops in the second semester are run by a Writer-in-Residence – authors such as Molly McCloskey. (Protection, Solomon’s Seal) ‘We look for an established reputation as a fiction writer, a student-centred approach and teaching experience in a similar institution.’ When asked about his wish list for potential writers, James proves more reticent. ‘My wish list? There are many great writers capable of doing this job really well. Each brings a different combination of skills, knowledge, approach and experience, so it isn’t possible to create a hierarchy.’
One of the big questions that comes up when people consider Creative Writing Masters is ‘can talent be taught?’ The answers vary depending on who you ask. Vonnegut famously said that that he couldn’t teach people how to write but, like an old golf pro, he could sometimes help them take a few strokes off their game. James seems to be of a similar opinion.
‘It’s singing school,’ he says. ‘We can show you the exercises but you have to have pitch. I think it stands to reason that people wishing to take an MA in Creative Writing should have a facility to write creatively, just a person enrolling in a music academy for a voice or instrument course necessarily needs to have some level of talent in their chosen field of study. We try to accelerate the pace at which a student is developing, but I don’t think anyone supposes that we provide talent in the first place.’
Their approach seems to work – alumni of the Masters include Helena Nolan, (2008) who went on to win the Patrick Kavanagh Poetry Prize in 2011 and was shortlisted for the Hennessy Awards for Literature in 2013, as were graduates Jessica Traynor (2008) and Mairéad Rooney. (2012) Jessica Traynor won the Hennessy Emerging Poet Award and the Hennessy Writer of the Year Award in 2013. Graduate Susan Stairs launched her first novel, The Story of Before, in June 2013. Jamie O’Connell (2009) published his first collection of short stories in 2012 and Colin Barrett (2009) has recently launched his first collection of short stories in 2013 with Stinging Fly Press. Alan Timmons, the winner of the inaugural Irish Writers Centre Novel Fair in 2012 launches his book Here In No Place (New Island) this month.
Prof. James Ryan is the director of both the undergraduate and postgraduate Creative Writing courses in UCD. His novels are Home from England (London, Phoenix House, 1995); Dismantling Mr Doyle (Phoenix House, 1997); Seeds of Doubt (London, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2001); and South of the Border (Dublin, Lilliput Press, 2008)
Read about Dave’s own experience of the Creative Writing Master in ‘Go Big or Go Home Studying Creative Writing at UCD’
Dave Rudden is a writer and performer currently based in Dublin. He was recently shortlisted for the Bath Short Story Prize and is the winner of the Fantasy Book Review 2011 Short Story Prize. Contact him at https://www.facebook.com/