I am a graduate of the MA in Creative Writing at UCD, and also the MA in Literatures of Modernity at Ryerson University, Toronto. Over the past few years I have had a wealth of experience in serious academic settings on both sides of the Atlantic. I am frequently asked about the “value” of Master’s programmes, particularly in Fine Art or Writing. My former Creative Writing classmate, Dave Rudden explored his experience in his article here. My reason for applying to the MA in Creative Writing was that writing had consistently been a serious part of my life since I was a child. I went through much of my twenties living abroad and hoping to write a bestseller while meandering through various dull full-time jobs. I went back to university at 28 years old because I realised that I was not so interested in the starving artist lifestyle after all, and I wanted to make a concerted effort to take my writing to the next level.
Part of the problem with being a writer is that it is hard to know how one actually becomes a writer. For example, if you want to be become a lawyer, you do a law degree and train as lawyer, but how does one practically “become” a writer? Is it necessary to formally train? There are diverging opinions on that point. My own is that while formal training for writers may not be an outright necessity, it certainly will boost your confidence, hone your writing skills, and show you how to pursue writing in a practical sense.
Up until I began my MA in Creative Writing, I had mostly been writing alone in my room. I finished a manuscript for a YA book when I was 19 and unsuccessfully sent it out to one competition. A few years later, I began writing another manuscript. I was 50,000 words into that manuscript when I started my MA. I had no idea what I was going to do with it if I ever finished it. I didn’t know how an emerging writer could get their name out or build their profile. I didn’t know which competitions are worth entering or which literary magazines are worth submitting to. I didn’t know what to put in a cover letter, or what to include in a bio. I suppose I naively thought that I would write a genius manuscript on my own and then someone would come knocking on my bedroom door with a book deal. As I write this article in my bedroom that still has not happened! My applying to the Master’s programme was a way for me to take my writing more seriously – to take me out of my own bedroom.
The step out from one’s own writing space is crucial – and daunting. Over the past couple of years I have participated in over fifty workshops, and it has done my writing and my character a world of good. At UCD I had the benefit of the experience, not only of my peers in the programme, but of renowned Irish writers who advised and mentored me throughout the year and beyond. The other thing I learned while I was at UCD is that I really want to teach Creative Writing. I enjoyed being in the classroom environment so much that it cemented my urge not only to write seriously, but also to build writing into my life and career in other ways.
Another important thing to keep in mind for those interested in writing and teaching is that the rise of Creative Writing programmes means that writing is becoming somewhat institutionalised. That doesn’t mean that a publisher is going to ask you if you have a Master’s degree in CW before publishing your book, but it does mean that if you want to teach at university level that there will be candidates who are formally trained in Creative Writing. In terms of teaching, an MA in Creative Writing could be that extra feather in your cap.
My advice to writers who wish to make writing their career is to be serious about it. For some people, that might mean doing an MA in Creative Writing. For others, it may mean working part-time so there is time to dedicate to writing. Of course, with enough personal dedication and effort, you can probably learn most of the lessons that you would gain from an MA programme by yourself, but the programme will significantly expedite your learning.
The MA programme is not an automatic guarantee of success in writing. In fact, many people find the years after an MA very challenging – you are essentially released to the world with your dreams, and a hopefully stack of completed work. For me, I’ve left my MA with a group of imaginary editors that sit on my shoulder in my room as I work. I now can (and do) fully edit my own work without anybody else’s opinion because all of those workshops have left me with a discerning eye and a strong understanding of my own taste, voice and style. I know when it’s working and when it is not. Maybe I would have learned that anyway but the Master’s in Creative Writing has saved me a few years of anguish at my desk.
(c) Julie Morrissy