There have been a few articles recently on how totally rubbish having a qualification in writing is. According to more than one source (including tutors on higher education courses), talent is born, not made and an MA or similar in writing is waste of your time and money.
I’ve got an MA in writing from Birmingham City University. Perhaps not the most prestigious institution, but I got my BA there too and though I do/did have some issues with the uni and the courses, I’m proud to have gone there. I chose the course because it was more interesting and varied than the one at red brick University of Birmingham, and although there was an MA with Fay Weldon as course director that was in London and really, who wants to be in that shithole?
Granted, quite a few of these articles have been based on the US MFA system, where academically accredited creative writing courses have being going a bit longer, but the points being made translate to the UK as well. So do the courses just encourage mediocre writers, taking their money to teach them nothing when all along they don’t have the talent to get anywhere in writing? Maybe. But who is out there shouting about fine art degrees being a waste of time? Most artists making a living out of art today have been trained at a university and this isn’t a surprise. For some reason art is a lot less democratic than literature – you don’t actually need an MA to get published, whereas in the art world you’re classed as outsider art if you don’t have the formal training and look on as a curiosity, rather than just someone who went their own route.
It would be a shame, of course, if literature became like this, with all the Booker-prize winners alumni of creative writing degrees. And I think it’s probably right that you can’t teach talent – but you can hone skill and learn new things, meet great new people and experiment with other genres and disciplines. My MA made me feel that pursuing writing isn’t a complete waste of time (others may disagree, but they are invited to kindly do one), it introduced me to a great network of writers, including two awesome people that I share an office with so we can all procrastinate together, and it directly led to me landing an agent for a non-fiction book proposal I wrote during the course. For me, it wasn’t a waste of time. Perhaps I would have managed to do all these things without the course, but I felt like it was what I needed to get going: sitting at home, alone, trying to be creative when you’re not sure if you should be bothering is hard work. I like hard work, but I also like a little bit of validation every now and then.
Whether, ultimately, the course and what I’m trying to do now results in a career getting paid to do writing isn’t clear, but I wouldn’t go back in time and save my money and time if I had the chance. I think, really, that’s the crux of the argument. The people who have slagged off academic courses in creative writing seem to be almost offended that untalented people are on the course. But firstly, are they the only judge and arbitrator of talent out there? Haven’t they heard the story of JK Rowling getting rejected by every publisher before she landed her deal? There are plenty of talented, published, authors I just don’t get and I’m pretty sure that creative writing tutors are the same – they might not see it, but someone else could. And there’s always the fact that being on the course might help them improve – it can teach you form if not talent, but really it gives you space to write and get better through practice.
Secondly, I doubt there are many courses where every single student goes on to get the exact sort of work they want in the field they want it. That’s certainly not the case in the humanities department, and you don’t hear many people suggesting a BA in history is a waste of time because not every student can be Mary Beard. That’s life and just because you’re not guaranteed success is no reason to abandon studying something you really love. The problem, if there is one, with creative writing courses, is the fact that they aren’t accessible to all. Like most higher education, creative writing degrees are becoming more and more the reserve of people who can afford it, and not just afford to pay for the course, but also afford to support themselves while they study. With creative writing being seen as more of a long shot than something more practical than, say, a business or computing degree, they tend to be made up of a high proportion of middle class, or at least financially comfortable, students. The problem is that we’re shutting people out of the courses, not that there are too many of them.
I really believe that studying is never a bad choice, no matter what subject, if that’s what you want to do. If you start an MA in creative writing expecting to leave with a three book, six-figure deal at Penguin, then perhaps you need to rethink your choice. Although you obviously have a fully functioning imagination and that’s always handy for a writer. Maybe if higher education were accessible to all and valued for the sake of learning rather than its potential to make you money in the future, then we wouldn’t need to have this conversation.