Why the MFA?

I’ve spent the last two weeks in Vancouver, at the University of British Columbia, on the UBC summer writers’ residency. UBC is a huge university, with a beautiful campus. It’s situated in a perfect location steps from the famous, or notorious, Wreck Beach, with its glorious sunsets over the Pacific. All in all, a great place to spend two weeks focussing on writing, and learning about the craft of writing.

People keep asking me why I’m doing an MA in Creative Writing. Everyone can write, right? Of course they can. But everyone can also hammer five pieces of wood together, and call it a chair. I guess it depends whether on not you want something functional or polished.

The arguments for are well encapsulated in a great book I read recently, New York vs. MFA. In North America, in order to make any sort of living out of being a writer, you pretty much have to get an MFA these days. Why? Because it shows you’re serious about craft, not just words on a page. And because you learn how to write work that will get read. Because you can learn where the money is, for example how to adapt your own novel into a screenplay. And because standards of writing are now so high that you need to learn the basics. Then you get a university job, as a writer. And then you get to teach creative writing courses, which, theoretically at least, then ‘free you up’ to write. In the US, that certainly gives you access to healthcare, a little bit of job security, and a sense of profession, as well as vocation.

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The arguments against are basically that this is all superfluous. Academia is no place for writers. Teaching writers standardises writers, and will kill natural expression. Did Orwell do a creative writing MFA? No, he washed dishes. Did Jonathan Franzen? No, he dropped out of college. Perhaps, as some of the essays in the book suggest, they just leave you drained, and with nothing to write about, other than ‘the writing life’, whatever that is. What you really need to to, say the critics, is get a life. Move to New York, live in a garret. Work nights in a seedy dive. See life first-hand. And write about it.

In the UK we don’t really have the same emphasis put on the profession of writing as in the US. Most writers had never heard of an MA in Creative Writing, when they started (though to be fair they have now). And I think if I had gone straight from university to a creative writing programme in my early 20s, trying to make it as a ‘professional’ writer, I would literally have nothing to write about.

But what the course has done, over the last couple of years, is make me rather awestruck, in a good way, about the level of craft a writer can bring to writing. Yes, you can just go and write. But will you write well? Perhaps. But most of us need to practice at lot, and get it wrong a lot. Or produce stuff that isn’t worth reading. And then to have it looked at, sympathetically and critically, by a group of other people trying to do the same. And to be told what works and what doesn’t.
A good example of this is what I produced on this summer’s residency. A short story – twenty pages – about a meeting between the Cambridge philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein and an unknown postdoc, claiming to have produced something new. I still think it’s a great idea. But it didn’t grip anyone in the workshop. In fact, it was so densely packed as to be confusing. In the end, I have concluded, I got it wrong. On one level, it feels as if I’ve wasted the ten days in Vancouver. That’s my focussed writing time for the next twelve months. On another level, getting it wrong has shown me something important – that writing is only as good as a reader thinks it is. And if people are confused, your job is not yet finished. So it’s back to the drawing board on this one.

On the other hand, the first chapter of my novel received lots of great feedback in the workshop. So there’s plenty of good stuff to work on. If I wasn’t doing this course, I’d probably think everything I produce is finished. Or that it’s good enough to go out. Now I know that finishing is only the start, and that, thanks to the careful, critical reading of a group of people I trust, I might rework it into something even better. Something good enough to be read. Something that carries weight. Something that is not, to return to where I started in this blog, just five pieces of wood knocked together.

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