November 17th, 2011
This question has come up in my orbit a lot lately, and despite my inherent bias–I have one and I like it–I always attempt to answer the question usefully and honestly. Now that I’ve reheased my answer half a dozen times (seriously–it’s like the new hot topic) I thought I’d put it here, for posterity.
After I went through the University of Toronto’s Masters of Creative Writing program, someone asked me “But can you really learn to write in school?” and after so many years, I finally stopped that line of enquiry cold by saying, “I did.”
I was lucky that woman phrased the question that way, though; if she had said, “But can you really be taught to write?” my answer would be more dubious. But a masters program can be a wonderful stimulant, incubator, director, and fortifier of any inate ability one might possess. A masters can help some people get where they want to go, but it depends on a number of things–some people get nothing out of their creative writing education, or nothing but bitterness and alcohol poisoning. Here are some questions to ask–yourself and others–that might help you decide if grad school might be worth your while.
Do I want an MA or an MFA in creative writing? If you don’t know the difference, don’t worry; I didn’t either until long *after* my tuition cheque was deposited. Good thing for me I picked the right thing for me, albeit totally randomly. An MA in creative writing is, as far as I know, always affiliated with a standard MA in English, and you will have to take some of those critical reading/theory classes in the course of the program. This is great if you, like me, believe that directed reading, intense and critical reading, and writing about what I read totally feeds and inspires my writing. Not that I’ve ever tried to write like Virginia Woolf, Mavis Gallant, J. M. Coetzee, or Salman Rushdie, a few of the authors I studied in my MA. But I certainly believe those writers stoked my creative fires, and helped me strengthen my work.
If on the other hand, you don’t want to read in that way or write essays, then you could consider an MFA in creative writing like the one at University of Guelph. These programs concentrate on various workshop classes (UofT only had one) and professional development for writers. While profs might well ask you to read, it’s in a decidedly non-academic context.
Despite my marvellous fortune, I strongly encourage potential masters to figure out which of these programs you want. I knew folks in my academic program who saw the critical courses as a waste of time, and they take a lot of it. It’s extremely disheartening to struggle through classes you don’t care about. And it’s very hard to half-ass a graduate-level class full of critical masters students and PhD candidates.
MA students and MFA students also have different potential sources of funding: in MA programs you are eligible for the same sorts of grants (ie., SHHRC) that academic students are; it’s entirely different in fine arts programs, although honestly I don’t know the details. If that MFA sounds like the path for you but you are worried about money (more on this later), it’s worth looking into.
How far have I gotten in my writing on my own? Largely, the folks who haven’t gotten far enough on their own will automatically be selected out, because all masters in creative writing that I know about have a portfolio admissions process–you can’t get in without some good work already behind you. But honestly, if you’ve done barely any writing but happen to have enough pages of really good stuff to constitute a portfolio, I’d still advise against it. Grad school can only take you from where you are on the road to a certain number of paces more along. If you could’ve walked those paces alone just by bashing around writing more stories and poems, I think you should. It’s only when you see problems in your work and try to solve them and *can’t* that you should consider getting someone else’s help. I mean, I imagine grad school would be fun for some of us no matter what, but it is after all expensive–use it when you really need it.
Do I like to workshop? As far as I know, there are no serious creative writing programs that do not have a workshop component, a sizeable one. If you think that a roomful of your peers telling you what’s wrong with your work might make you cry, or would simply be useless to you, I would say you should try one out, and if you still feel that way, maybe you shouldn’t go to grad school. In my program, the first year was workshop and critical courses; the second year was mentorship and long-project writing. I think many Canadian programs are the same and honestly, I know people at several who largely blew off the workshopping and waited to get to the good stuff, ie., mentorship. Obviously, I would say don’t do this. There are other ways to find a mentor. And if you’ve never done a workshop, try taking a continuing education or community college one in the evenings, just to see how you like the vibe. That’s a much cheaper experiment. I took a bunch before deciding I could commit to a full-time degree.
Can you afford it? You notice I mentioned money in all of the above bullet points? Well, it matters–higher education in the humanties in Canada is not the soul-destroying financial burden it is in the States, but the financial factor is worth considering. “Afford” means different things to different people; there’s nothing wrong with taking on student debt if you are comfortable with that, and the first thing you wanted to do when you graduate is not buy a house. I was fine with working 20-30 hours a week along with my studies, but not everyone is–you’re there principly to learn, and if your various part-time gigs get in the way of that, what’s the point of any of it?
I know people who have educated themselves by workshopping with friends, reading hundreds of books in their genre, going to the occasional seminar, and just writing a lot of the time. That works too, for the more independently minded, self-disciplined sort.
It basically boils down to what do you want to do? No one is ever going to say you *need* that creative masters to be a writer. It could very well help you on that path, but that depends on you, on the program, and on the path.
(But I had a lot of fun when I did it!)