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The Benefits of Creative Writing MAs

Harriet Mercer

It was my own fault: if I had turned off wi-fi as part of my good-writing-practice, Hanif Kureishi would not have metamorphosed into the crumb that had me splattering my keyboard with choked-up cappuccino one March morning last year. Just a teensy peruse of the papers; you deserve a break, you’ve just finished a paragraph, I’d justified. It was seconds later that I happened upon Kureshei’s decimation of the creative writing MA; the degree which he was teaching at Kingston University and that I was midway through completing at Royal Holloway, University of London. He’d taken to the podium at The Bath Literature Festival and dismissed all such courses as a waste of time, and ‘99.9%’ of participating students as ‘talentless’; that the degree’s primary benefit was one of therapy. If I felt like my guts had been booted into the sun-bleeding horizon, goodness knows what his students must have felt.

Of course, Kureshei’s words didn’t tread on just one nerve; a whole network of them squealed. The MA had been a risk. In time and money. Especially at my age. What if I failed? Not such an unrealistic supposition - the critical components of the course in particular were leaving my flabby brain gasping for breath (it was twenty years since undergraduate essays). Ha! You think you can write? You’ll be left shivering in the chill of failure without a stitch of belief, I told myself. 

The rigours of the course put a stop to this navel-gazing. Irrespective of essays and creative pieces for submission - not to mention two dissertations - we were expected to produce 5,000 words every other week for workshop. It also helped that I felt inspired by my tutors - Kate Williams and Andrew Motion – and by my group. The MA was turning out to be exactly what I needed. I had embarked on writing a memoir but knew that my writing needed honing, if not a total overhaul. And as much as I disliked deadlines I craved them, to maintain momentum. I envisaged that I’d get the book finished in the duration of the course, that at its crudest level I was paying some brilliant people to crack their diamond studded whips at my fingertips. 

Universities galore offer MAs in Creative Writing and - as with every subject - some courses are better than others. My choice had been relatively easy as Royal Holloway was the only one to offer pure memoir, plus I was already a fan of Andrew Motion, having been captivated by the exquisite detail in his own memoir, In the Blood. Had I not been specializing in memoir, I think I would have approached the application with a similar criteria: I would have only applied to Creative Writing MAs taught by writers I held in esteem, who I knew to be proactive and hadn’t just lent their names to the course. I once did a comedy writing course run by a writer who had acted in comedies but had not had anything published himself. He spent the first twenty minutes of each session delineating the importance of printing out one’s work and organizing it in a lever arch file, and then describing in detail the layout of W.H.Smiths so that we would know where to buy said file. That was lesson enough.

My imagination had been at its optimistic best when it visualised me completing the MA with not only a certificate but also a completed manuscript. Ha ha ha ha. I ended up with the first five chapters and a box of tools ready to chisel out the remaining fifty or sixty thousand words. There is no doubt that the MA improved my writing. More specifically, I learnt to put my soul into words. That I benefited from superb, conscientious teaching and from the thorough, incisive, sometimes blunt but always honest feedback from my group and, of course, from their writing. I would also have to thank many of the numerous authors I read for the critical component of the course. Some writers prefer not to read when they are in the swirl of their own work for fear of muddying the voice. Perhaps it is down to my inexperience that I still believe the better I read, the more improved my own writing will become. 

A close friend recently wrote, 'You are not the writer you were two years ago. You were good then. But now you really are much more.' He’s generous, I’m not sure I was good then, and I’m not sure what I am now. Apart from perhaps more confident … thanks to a couple of pieces of paper: one is a certificate to say I passed the MA with Distinction and the other is a letter dated June of this year telling me that I won the University of London Creative Writing Prize, 2014. It still amazes me that I was awarded the prize: in spite of what Kureshei said, there was a glut of gifted writers on my MA. I am now around 89% through my memoir; and the two well-thumbed pieces of paper are certainly no guarantee that it will be published - there’s still a significant hike ahead. 

Harriet is not a dancer and is recovering well from the jig she did on reaching the final stages of her memoir. She lives in Teddington and roams parks, fields and concrete jungles with a camera slung over her shoulder. Her favourite reads this year are Max Porter’s Grief is the Thing with Feathers and Andrew Miller’s The Crossing. Find out more about her on her website and follow her on Twitter here.