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Hemingway didn’t attend a low-residency MFA program. He just wrote…a lot.


THERE IS A STIGMA about studying writing. For some reason, cellists, ballerinas and sopranos are encouraged to learn from the masters. But writers should just know how to write.

“It can’t be taught,” said Joe, a tall, bearded English man living on Ireland’s tiny Sherkin Island. My husband and I were staying at his family’s bed and breakfast, Horseshoe Cottage.

Joe owned a yacht, and, over some cheap red wine we brought over on the ferry from Baltimore, he mentioned he’d written a novel about sailing. Joe had self-published his story of a man battling demons on the sea, and he handed me a copy.

“Oh. Wow,” I said, eyes fixed on the glossy waves of the cover. “I’d love to read this.”

“What are you two doing in London, then?” he asked. Our sign-in form indicated we were Canadian but had a UK address.

I told him I was seven months into a master’s degree in creative writing (narrative non-fiction) at City University London.

Joe, arms spread on an old sofa that seemed on the edge of the Celtic Sea, swallowed and smirked.

I blushed. I knew what he was thinking, and I half agreed: If I had any talent, I wouldn’t be doing a degree in creative writing. I would be writing.

But that’s the thing. I don’t know if I would have given myself permission to take the time to write a book if I hadn’t moved 4,725 miles away and spent nearly $20,000 CDN on the course. There was a lot at stake.

Reporting was supposed to be Plan B.
The book, I told myself for more than a decade,
was Plan Someday.

Until then, I had been working as a journalist in western Canada at small daily and community newspapers. Reporting was supposed to be Plan B. The book, I told myself for more than a decade, was Plan Someday. In the meantime, I had to work and (barely) pay bills. Then I got laid off. The recession struck and I decided to turn lemons into London along with the help of three very large student loans.

Was it money well spent? Sometimes I wonder.

I started the program thinking I was already a good writer. And I was, at reporting. Writing a book-length narrative, however, is another thing entirely, and after my first tutorial with the program director, I realized I had a lot (everything) to learn.

Here is why I’m glad I did a degree in creative writing:

Northampton Square in front of the main univer...

City University London’s Northampton Square in front of the main building where I studied. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

  • One of our courses was basically like a writer’s club, and we spent it sharing early chapters and giving feedback. My classmates said things that made me glow and things that made me ill, and on the whole, helped steer me towards being a better storyteller. The feedback was invaluable. When I returned to Canada and they were still meeting up, I felt so lost. How would I know if what I was writing was crap anymore?
  • I read heaps of books I wouldn’t have otherwise read, mostly by British authors, such as Stuart, A Life Backwards by Alexander Masters and Kate Summerscale’s The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher. The class in which we dissected literature taught me about the drip technique and flashback formulas and all of that. Mostly, though, some of those stories inspired me to want to tell something great, and something all my own.
  • Assignment deadlines forced me to write.
  • It was the sole focus of my life, aside from attempting to remain married to the husband with whom I was sharing a 10×13 studio. I think I would have got caught up with life if I were attempting to be a weekend writer. In London, I wrote several hours every morning every day, for almost 10 months. I was almost in a trance. When you’re writing memoir, though, it doesn’t take long to get sick of yourself. Enter wine.
  • We rubbed noses with some fancypants authors and editors and agents. I was never the sort who could strike up a conversation with said literary celebrities, but it was usually fun and educational to be in the same room as them.
  • A good many classmates signed with agents and publishers as a result of our program’s showcase, in which students read an excerpt from their book in front of agents and others.
  • My final project was to write a book. Not a thesis paper about a dead writer. So in addition to hands-on learning about the craft, I had a manuscript at the end of the course. I wrote a memoir about leaving everything in Alberta behind for Bangkok, a city that introduced me to a new way of life and the love of my life — a man from my hometown. I’m currently title and agent-hunting.
  • It was fun.

Wow. There’s a lot more reasons why I’m glad I did a degree in creative writing than I thought there would be.

The reasons I regret doing an MA in creative writing:

  • The looks, from people like Frank. Somehow, even after all I’ve gained, I’m a bit ashamed to be in this class of writers. They didn’t have low-residency MFA programs in Hemingway’s day, and heaps of writers managed to churn out classics (using quills and paper!). Why couldn’t I?
  • People think writing can’t be taught, and that those who try will emerge from these schools with a homogenized voice. In the eyes of those who subscribe to this school of thought, the degree can work against you.
  • The money. I’ll probably be paying for it for the rest of my life.
  • I think I could have done it on my own. I could have read all the books and found a writer’s group (They wouldn’t have been half as clever and funny and helpful, though). But would I have? I don’t know. I think I needed everything (and I mean everything) on the line.

Sometimes when I meet aspiring writers, they ask if they should study creative writing, and if so, where. I always start my answer with, “I don’t know…”

If you have done a degree in creative writing, what was your experience like? If you are a creative writing program director, what do you tell students on the fence to consider before enrolling?