W3 Wise Words on Writing

W3 is a monthly newsletter for writers on a variety of topics from technique to the psychology of writing. It appears by the 15th of each month. More information is available from www.wisewordsonwriting.com

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

No 29. Do you need a writing degree?

THEORY
In the last two decades university creative writing degree programs in Anglophone countries have cropped up faster than poppies in Afghanistab. Do writers need them? The answer is yes, no, maybe.

It all depends on what a writer needs to further the mastery of the writing craft.

What advantages and disadvantages can a university creative writing degree offer?

A publisher won't publish a novel just because the author holds a degree if the novel is bad, nor would they turn down a good novel because the writer didn't have a degree. However, the flicker of the idea that a person who held a degree was serious might cross their minds…or not. However, if the studies help someone write a publishable work, then the degree would be worth it.

If a person wants to teach creative writing, the degree is a plus. One university, Antioch in California offers a post M.A. in teaching creative writing.

Degree programs are varied. Some are heavy on theory and academics with courses called things like form and theory in literature, studies in short fiction, etc.

One of the most frequent pieces of advice given to new writers is to read. A degree program that insists students read the great writers and examine them for technique could offer an advantage to those writers who feel they are lacking in these areas. However, if a writer wants to devote as much time as possible to the writing, reading Nathaniel Hawthorne could be a time waster.

Other programs concentrate on writing itself putting students through writing workshop after workshop. These are ideal of the writers who want to do little else but write, but not so for those who want theory.

For many adults dropping back to full-time student-status is not financially possible. Distance learning programs or low-residency programs fill this need. Distance learning programs such as Humber in Canada pairs a writer and a student. Low-residency programs such as Goddard requires student to be on campus for short bursts of times then sends them off to write.

How important is it that a "name" writer is on the faculty? Working with a name writer might bestow status and may even result in an endorsement on the back of a novel when it is published. However, working with a name writer won't guarantee an agent or publisher introductions. Working with a university, however, sometimes brings connections. Many invite agents and publishers, but again it is not a guarantee of publication.

Writing students want to work with good writers (with or without a name) who can teach. The quality of individual teacher is only apparent after enrolment when students talk about who is good and who is bad. One writer, paired with a successful writer, spent six months working on the first twenty pages of her novel, but when she finished she was sure of every word and more importantly why the word was there. She could then go on with the novel and had a greater confidence in what she was doing.

The critiquing is a major element, but a writer involved with Open University felt that the criticism wasn't deep enough - certainly nothing like the woman who spent six months on twenty pages. In fact he felt the comments were so superficial they were almost useless.

Many of the people I talked with cited the major advantage for them was to be around other writers who could look at their work and see its strengths and weaknesses. They also cited the discipline. Having to write created or strengthened good work habits.

My own personal experience with two creative writing degree programs was mixed. One helped me make giant strides in my writing, thanks to the perceptive demands of my talented mentors writers Catherine Merriman and Siân James. Both pushed me to be the best I could be. The second program hurt my writing. I was caught between my own voice and what the school wanted and I dropped out.

Here are some things to check on:

  1. Do graduates have publishing credits?
  2. How much emphasis is there on writing vs. theory/literature?
  3. Is the program accredited (depending on the country)?
  4. What type of writing support is there?
  5. What writers will be working directly with the students (guest name writers can be inspiring, but will they evaluate student work?)
  6. Is it possible to take a test course?
  7. Who is on the faculty and how much involvement do they have with the students?
  8. How much professional writer-student contact is there?
  9. How are workshops handled?
  10. What needs to be produced for the degree (novel, play, chapbook, academic paper, etc.)
  11. How long is the program?
  12. Cost?
  13. Are there networking opportunities?
  14. Will the program help you improve your writing?

Only after you weigh what the degree offers with your own needs will you know whether to proceed or not. As for me I regret neither the program that brought me so much nor the one I didn't finish. Both advanced my own sense of my craft, albeit in very different ways.

EXAMPLES


Rather than samples from writers I have included samples from people who went through degree programs and were kind enough to share their feelings.

Lynne Rees THE OVEN
The MA was, both at the time and in retrospect, a very positive experience for me. I was at a very early stage in my development as a writer and the structure of the course - regular submission of work, feedback from my tutor and other students/members of staff at the weekend meetings, reflecting on my own processes and discoveries - gave me a much needed discipline and focus, and encouraged me to immerse myself fully into the world of contemporary poetry.

At the end of the two years, while I had a number of very strong poems and a few publication credits, my work was, generally, still in an embryonic stage and the submitted collection a long way from being ready for publication, though I was still awarded the degree. I like to think that my potential was recognised (my poetry has been widely published and anthologised in the last six years, this year my first novel was published, and a poetry collection is forthcoming in 2005) and I value that a great deal, and hope that tutors and leaders of all creative writing courses keep this in mind when assessing creative work. It's something I'm aware of as a tutor myself now.

No writer's development can be confined to a particular time scale. Some graduates…published very quickly and very successfully, others, like myself, needed more time and/or have published more in the world of the small presses, some are yet to place their work. But we have all succeeded in our own ways.

I understand that MA programmes thrive on the recognised publication successes of their graduates, but I'd still like to see a continuing place for the nurturing and encouragement of new voices, the recognition and celebration of 'good' writing regardless of it's ability to find a place in the current market.

Tony Curtis THE ART OF SEAMUS HEANEY, THE LAST CANDLES LOVE FROM WALES, THE ARCHES, WAR VOICES, TAKEN FOR PEARLS, The POETRY OF SNOWDONIA (and more)(Note: Curtis is a graduate of Goddard in the US and went on to found the creative writing program at Glamorgan University in Wales)

I decided to enrol in the Goddard program because it seemed like the right thing to do at my stage - I'd published one book and won a couple of prizes, but needed a kick. Goddard fitted in with my family and professional commitments (my college also paid the fees!!). Also, I was open to the American confessional approach because I'd dealt in my poetry with the recent deaths of my father and grandmother.

The Glamorgan Masters was based on the distance-learning program at Goddard. It was the first such in the UK.
Our course brings personal satisfaction, a professional qualification by a research degree and, for over two dozen writers, publication.

Kaytie M. Lee(Note: I have included this lengthy description to help those who want an in-depth program to share the experiences of one degree candidate.)
I am a thesis candidate…(for a) Master of Professional Writing Program. The MPW program is set up so that a student takes 15 units in a major, 9 Units of electives, and two mandatory classes, one with a thesis advisor and the other a survey course. The idea is that writers should be able to create in different forms, so diversity in electives is encouraged.
As a fiction major, I took fiction workshops with Gina Nahai, S. L. Stebel, Aram Saroyan, and Shelly Lowenkopf, and I was fortunate to take Hubert Selby Jr.'s last fiction workshop--he died in the spring, a few weeks before the end of the semester. Each instructor is a published and publishing author, and they each had very different approaches to fiction.
For electives I took non-fiction with Noel Riley Fitch, and two sections of screenplay development with Jason Squire. Though I had the opportunity, I did not take poetry, playwriting or technical writing.

I enjoyed the screenplay development classes. They helped me focus on dialogue and character development in a focused form because I was not able to rely on description and internalization for my characters. Story arc was more rigid than I was accustomed too - it's good for novelists to think in overall terms. Diversity of form is a benefit of the program--students are encouraged to try something outside of their experience--many traditional MFA programs limit a student to Poetry and/or Prose.

There are approximately 130 students enrolled in it at any one time, some just starting and taking three classes a semester, others at my stage, taking only a one-credit class with their thesis advisor. The large number of enrolled students is, I think, a benefit in the long run because every class affords a new opportunity for fresh perspective on writing, whereas I imagine in those smaller programs, the same faces across the table in each class might get a little predictable in commentary. Of course, it's difficult to develop camaraderie when people disappear after the class is over, but since I wanted to hear as many opinions about my writing as possible, the large student body worked for me - most of the time.

Some instructors used exercises and prompts, others assigned submission times and looked at whatever a student brought in.

Each workshop consists of a mixture of students-a fiction workshop is never just fiction students. While this mixture allows for a range of viewpoints, it became discouraging to me when students commenting on my prose claimed never to read novels because they were too busy watching films or reading poetry. It was when one (screenplay) student objected to an assignment that required reading novels in a fiction workshop that I began to long for a more traditional MFA program experience.

The MPW program wants its students to be writers, not scholars. Consequently there is very little emphasis placed on reading and discussion what's being published and virtually no study on literary critique. By not bogging down students with "homework" the program encourages students to "create."

While I am grateful for the extra hours to write, I think the program stunts its students by not giving them the vocabulary or even basic understanding of literary criticism that a Master's degree ought to deliver. It may not be a Literature Degree, but if we're trying to create it we damn well better know what's being said about it!

There were no novel workshops! As an aspiring novelist, I was looking forward to developing my novel and having the whole of it work shopped. This did not happen. Most of the instructors requested that students start new projects in their classes. I can see their point--it's difficult for a new teacher to take over where another left off, since comments and suggestions may be very different or even contradictory from one instructor to the next. And it never seemed to work when students brought sections from the middle of a novel that no one in the class had read-what could we say since we hadn't read the rest of it?

Since I wanted to take as many of the teachers as possible, I sacrificed continuity in my novel. I wrote more short stories (which was a good thing) and now that I've just got my thesis to complete (which is a novel) I am working solely with my thesis advisor. I suspect that novels would flourish more in a smaller program--but perhaps that's just me longing for greener grass.

My Own Bias: I prefer to read and write literary fiction -many of my peers want to write genre fiction. Nothing wrong with genres, and I'm pleased to know that there are writers of genre fiction who love to read and love to write and want to make their work of the highest calibre they can. I quickly found the other students who shared my interest, and we seek each other out when we feel we aren't getting the criticism we need. After the program that's what will last--the small community we created, our own salon of writers who write very different work but who share the sensibility that we want our writing to transcend the confines of genre.

I'm Terrified of the Creative Writing MFA Backlash: Now that I'm done I fear that my writing has ceased to be my own or that I have lost my "voice." Work shopping is a dangerous tool- if a person isn't stubborn or able to refuse suggestions (not belligerent in class, not that at all), she risks morphing into the sanitary graduate writer that some critics loath and deride. Is that me?

I don't know.

I think not--but the fear is there. Perhaps I'd have been better off toiling or traveling, working odd jobs and writing in coffee shops or laundromats.

When I get too angsty about writing I shut up, sit down, and just write. Better to do than to agonize over doing.


EXERCISE
Sit quietly and think what help you need to improve your writing: feedback from other writers, a single course, a writing group, a degree program. Then go out and find it. By the way the internet gives lots of degree programs if you enter university writing programs.


NOTES

We are coming into fall or autumn as my British friends call it. I've always thought of this season as the New Year, perhaps because this is the time of year to start school and new projects after the summer break. In the South of France cool weather alternates with leftovers of summer heat. Up in Geneva, a sure omen of fall is the appearance of the hot chestnut stands along with signs in restaurants announcing they are serving meals from the hunt. I divide my time between the two places, but it is one of the few times that I really miss the bright reds and golds on the trees of my native New England, Saturday night baked beans and football games.

Grammar questions? www.grammarbook.com.

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