November 17th, 2011

Should I get a masters in creative writing?

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!)

24 Responses to “Should I get a masters in creative writing?”

  • David says:

    Rebecca, thank you for these words of advice. I have been considering an MA in Creative Writing for some time now. Do you have any suggestions for how a person can build up a portfolio? What is your opinion of college level creative writing program, like the one at George Brown?


  • Rebecca says:

    Hi David,

    A portfolio should be the best of your work so far–doesn’t need to be published stuff, and usually can be excerpts from longer work if you like (individual schools vary on that one, so check). The work doesn’t have to be perfect–you’re on your way to learn–but should be stuff you’re proud of. If you don’t feel you have enough of that, keep writing!

    College courses are good for that, or university continuing studies classes in the evening. I have only taken one college level course, at George Brown, but it was quite instructive. The class was much larger than in university-level writing classes, and there was not a large workshop component–mainly it was just the instructor giving feedback. But she was quite good and I learned a lot.

    Part-time evening programs tend to be less cohesive then full-time programs. You don’t get to know your classmates as well, and are less immersed. But depending on your process, it might be perfect for you, and it’s a lot less expensive than enrolling in grad school…

    All the best with your writing!


  • C says:

    Thanks for this blog; it was very informative. I too have been contemplating a MFA in Creative Writing but the thing is, I’ve mostly been writing fan fiction. Would any of those stories be eligible to build a portfolio around? Better yet, can I submit a fan fiction story as my writing sample for my application?

    Any help would be much appreciated. Thanks!


  • Rebecca says:

    Hi C,

    Hmm, interesting question. I’m not an expert, but a things to consider about a fan-fiction portfolio:

    1) People are snotty about fan-fiction. It can be truly amazing writing (I know!) but there will always be those who say it’s not “real” writing. That could pose a problem, especially in an academic setting.

    2) This is a more legit problem: if you are not familiar with the canon the FF is based on (ie., it’s Harry Potter but the reader hasn’t read any of the books) a story can be hard or impossible to follow. Worth thinking about if you are presenting to an audience outside fandom.

    3) You can’t publish FF in mainstream/commercial publications, since others “own” the characters. You can put it on the web with disclaimers, but as far as I know unless you seek permissions from the copyright holders and have them granted, no literary journal or publisher will touch it. This isn’t a problem for actually working in an MFA program, since you certainly don’t have to publish in one, but it might be worth thinking about what your goals are long-term and, if they are publications, spending some time on “original fiction” (yeah, I know, I know) to see if you can submit a portfolio more relevant to the work you intend to pursue.

    As I say, these are just my thoughts–I would never discourage you from writing what you love, but if your true love is FF, you may have some challenges in an academic setting.

    All best with your work,
    RR


  • Malvika Kathpal says:

    Hi, thank you for writing this. I’ve been contemplating going to the USA to pursue a Master’s degree in Creative Writing (hopefully at NYU!). Like you said, my major concern was the cost involved. I am an Indian, and the application process along with the tuition fee becomes really cumbersome. I’ve been worrying about my decision, and if it is worth it at all. Here are the reasons why I want to pursue the degree, and I would really appreciate your opinion on them:
    1) I love to write. I write all the time. If I’m not writing, I’m jotting down ideas to write. If I’m not jotting them down, I’m mulling over them in my head. If I’m not mulling, I’m thinking about things to mull over. I have written a lot, and a lot of that stuff I’m really proud of. But I’m unsure if it’s publication-worthy. My writing can be extremely value-laden, and there may not be too many takers for that kind of work. It may not even be good enough for a portfolio.
    2)I love to be a student and only take responsibility for myself. Part of the reason why I want to go to university is the fact that I get to submit work that only affects me. Being a published writer means taking responsibility for public reaction to my work, and that is scary. The professor’s reaction to my work is helpful criticism, and I appreciate it.
    3)I want to learn what it takes to be a published writer. I know I’m not there yet, but I do very well with training, and I could be honed into a great writer, if someone would invest that effort in me.
    4)I love to read. I don’t know if that has anything to do with anything, but if we are supposed to critique other people’s work during the course, then that sounds really exciting to me.

    Please let me know if you think doing a Master’s program would be worth it for me.
    Thanks and regards,
    Malvika


  • Rebecca says:

    Dear Malvika,

    I completely understand where you’re coming from–it’s fun and freeing to be a student, with your only responsibility to learn and get better at your craft. But if it would be financially burdensome for you to do this degree, it wouldn’t be worth it–and there are definitely other ways to improve.

    The first thing to ask yourself is have you tried to improve your writing without school? If you still feel you want to do more research, read more inspiring authors, try writing in different forms and voices, just write *more*, do that first. It’s not only cheaper than school, you can work full or even part time and save up some money in case you decide to go to school later. And you really should not be in grad school unit you’ve gotten as good as you can on your own–why ask others to make suggestions you could have figured out yourself?

    The next thing to think about is money. Do you have the savings or family support to take on the cost? If you take on some debt, will it be manageable and do you have some sort of idea how you would pay it off? By that I mean, do you know what job you’d want to get after graduation? An MA in creative writing is awesome, but it doesn’t make you much more marketable in the workplace. If you will be spending more money on this degree than you can reasonably afford *ever* you should probably take a step back.

    Sorry to so money-centric, but it is an expensive proposition with uncertain results. There’s also lots of funding options to explore and fellowships to apply for–I don’t know how this stuff works outside Canada but I know it exists. All the best with your work–and if you do go for the degree, have tonnes of fun!

    Best,
    RR


  • Jay Clayton Ross says:

    Do you have any information or statistics on the jobs graduates get after an MFA? Is publishing or teaching the only option?


  • Jay Clayton Ross says:

    Do you have any information on jobs that grads from the MFA programmes can get. Are publishing or teaching the only options?


  • Jay Clayton Ross says:

    I really need to know what the future will hold in terms of jobs after I complete an MFA?


  • Rebecca says:

    Hi Jay,

    You do sound a bit alarmed–three comments!

    I don’t mean this to sound unduly negative, but an MFA is not a direct pathway to a job. I have no stats, but most people I know who have them use them somewhat, in tangential ways unless they are teaching, as you suspected. They also use them in conjunction with other education, like journalism degrees, publishing certificates from colleges (what I have), or even less related fields.

    It’s a great degree to have, in terms of learning to work independently, critical thinking, networking, etc., so there’s definitely stuff you can apply elsewhere, but there’s no direct pathway to a job other than teaching at the college or university level…which can be fun.

    Hope that helps–and isn’t too depressing.
    RR


  • Allison says:

    Hi there,

    This is an incredibly helpful article, thank you for posting it. I am going into my fourth and final year of my bachelors degree in English, with a concentration in creative writing. I have never been published, but I have taken work shop classes through my concentration. I am considering pursuing a master in creative writing (probably an MFA? No sure) and I would really love to teach at a university level, or go into editing. I am really nervous about getting accepted to masters programs – do you have any advice besides editing your portfolio to make it as strong as it can be, to help in getting into these programs? Any schools you could recommend? If I am interested in going down the teaching or editing route, do you have any other recommendations? Sorry to ask so many questions! Thank you so much for you time and excellent writing,

    Allison


  • Rebecca says:

    Hi Allison,

    I have never sat on an admissions committee for a graduate creative writing program, so I can’t advise too much on the portfolio. In my own case, it seemed best to have several short pieces rather than one long one–it gives the committee a sense of your range, and it hedges your bets in case they happen to hate one piece. I believe the UBC program actually requires a selection from different genres even in the portfolio.

    UBC, University of Guelph, and Concordia are the MFA programs I’m familiar with; University of Calgary, University of Manitoba, UofT, and UNB are the MA ones I know about–there’s probably more of both. I know folks who have had good and bad experiences at all of these (actually, you know what–no one has ever said anything negative to me about the Guelph program except the commute sucks!) It’s more about researching what sort of options and structure program has, and which appeal. The UofT program was teeny when I was there, with pretty much no choices (there was one workshop, everybody took it–I believe this has since changed) but I still got a tonne out of it. Depends on personality, I think.

    If you are interested in teaching at the uni level, an MFA is definitely your best choice as it is a “terminal” degree, and much more useful as a teaching accreditation. You can still teach in certain places with an MA, but it’s harder.

    To aim at a publishing job after your degree, definitely go work on the student journal and/or other literary journals in the vicinity. You’ll probably have to start as a reader, which is a fascinating education, but aiming for a titled gig is great on the resume. It will also teach you if you actually like the work! I have a publishing certificate, which many companies prefer, so you might wind up taking additional courses after your masters, but getting some good experience during your degree is an excellent springboard.

    Hope this helps–all best in your writing and your studies!
    RR


  • mallika says:

    Hi Rebecca,
    Excellent article. very informative.
    Can I ask you what was the tuition for MA in Univ of Toronto?
    Did the univ cover any costs through funding?
    Thank you


  • Rebecca says:

    Hi Mallika,

    This info is now old (I was at UofT from 2005-2007) but I believe tuition was just under $7000 per year, and we were able to earn about $4500 of that per year in TAships. Some students opted out of the TAships but I enjoyed mine, even though it was a lot of work. There was also a $1000 bursary in the first year. I have no idea what’s changed since then but I imagine the tuitions gone up a little. There doesn’t seem to be that info on the web site but it would be pretty easy to call and ask, I think.

    You’re also eligible for SSHRC and another kind of grant that I forget the name of, which are substantial. There’s a lot of support at UofT to help you write good grant applications, which helps.

    Hope that’s useful!
    RR


  • Nichole says:

    Hi!
    Thank you for your advice on the creative writing program! This has been something I have looked into doing for a long while and I hope to one day accomplish either an MA or MFA. I was wondering if you could shed light on some of the opportunities that the MA opens to you as a writer. Alongside improving ones work, do students get a chance to learn about the publishing world and network with different publishers? Are there greater opportunities to become a published author? Also, do you find that employers take you more seriously as a writer with an MA?

    Thank you for your time!
    Nichole


  • Rebecca says:

    Hi Nichole,

    All established programs are going to try to offer you some opportunities to network, either by organizing groups to go to readings and events or by actually holding them on campus and inviting publishing folks to present, hear readings, etc. Every program does this differently, though, and with varying degrees of success. Talk to current students in the programs you’re interested in (seriously, email the program and ask if they can refer you–they will probably hook you up!) MFA programs tend to be more vocationally focussed and include more on the business of writing than MAs.

    Yes, I found having an MA was an extra point in my favour when I was applying for jobs, but it is worth noting that it did not get me a job–I wasn’t qualified for anything post MA that I wasn’t pre MA (MFAs are different again here, as they are “terminal” and do qualify you to teach). As I’ve mentioned in the comments above, these programs are about time for your writing and aren’t really geared towards jobs. If you are very worried about work opportunities, my advice is to pursue that for a while, until you have some skills and sense of your career path, THEN go to grad school. It’ll wait, and you’ll have saved up some $$ to pay for it.

    I hope this is helpful and all the best with your writing and your studies!
    Best,
    RR


  • Julie says:

    Dear Rebecca,

    Thank you so much for this article. I actually found it on google by accident, while looking for more specific feedback about the masters of creative writing at U of T.

    I am a student at U of T, about to graduate with an English degree this coming June. I have always loved to write, and have quite a collection of poetry written. However, I have found that during my time at U of T, I have no been doing any creative writing at all. For this reason, applying to a creating writing program feels a bit disingenuous to me at this time.

    I have recently been considering pursuing a publishing certificate at Ryerson, as that seems like a practical step and would genuinely interest me.

    Okay, now onto my question. I am finishing my B.A in my 30s (late bloomer), do you think a publishing certificate is a useful choice? I believe you wrote that you have one also. I am not ruling out a creative masters program, but I feel strongly that I need to work more diligently on some writing before I can apply, and with a program as competitive as U of T’s small program, it seems like a potential candidate would have to offer something substantial in order to be considered. Decent grades are not enough.

    I really enjoyed your article. I want to thank you again for this invaluable information.

    Yours warmly,

    Julie


  • Rebecca says:

    Hi Julie,

    So glad you enjoyed the post–I’m happy it helped! Yes, I do have a publishing certificate from Ryerson, though it is rather old (2004). The nice thing about that program is that you can take one course at a time, without necessarily committing to the whole program. So if you are working, you can take one (or two) evening a week to explore some aspect of publishing and see if you like it. I did, though honestly not every course is great. It really depends on the instructor.

    I found the program to be a good entryway into publishing work, but things have changed since 2004 and the job market is pretty small and competitive now. Not to say this couldn’t be a good path for you, just that it’s worth doing some research on what you’d like to do and how you should approach it before diving in.

    All the best with your writing, and other pursuits,
    RR


  • Fatima says:

    Hello!

    I’m going to be a 3rd year in my English BA degree and I hope to pursue an MFA degree at Guelph University and since you know of it I just wanted to ask some questions related to it. I was actually wondering what your opinion of the university is? (Since I’m a Pakistani I don’t know anyone there, I don’t really have anyone to consult about it) Also I’ve been writing non-stop since I was 11 and absolutely love it! And I’ve reached a point that I need professors to give me advice and guide my writing further which is why I decided to pursue an MFA degree…what I’m worried about is that what kind of writing level are the students over there of? These questions might seem trivial and probably are…but depending on the kind of writing level I need to have I still have time to improve which is why I’m asking.

    Also! Do you have any advice or tips concerning on getting a gig with a publishing company or anything? I’ll be an international student so I don’t know much of the opportunities available there that aren’t on the internet sooooooo if you could also give advice on that then that’d be great!

    Thank you!


  • Rebecca says:

    Hey Fatima,

    From what I hear on the street, the Guelph program has great faculty and classes, and has turned out some truly wonderful graduating writers. However, that says nothing about whether it’s the right program for you! You need to do some research to make sure the instructors and classes are appealing to you, that the funding makes sense for your situation, that you actually want to live in Guelph, and that the high independence structure of an MFA program could work for you. You could be a great writer applying to a great program and still be a bad fit–talk to faculty, staff, current students, and grads if you can. The department should be able to put you in touch with at least a few…

    It’s hard to define what level students are working at. It varies–in my program, one fellow already had a book out while many of us, upon starting, had published nothing at all. Everyone was pretty committed to craft, having worked for years on getting better, and were experienced receiving feedback. As I say above, I definitely don’t recommend the MA program be anyone’s first experience of workshop, or even of receiving criticism.

    In terms of work opportunities, there isn’t a lot of publishing work in Guelph but I’m sure there’s something. You might have better luck looking for jobs on campus or doing some tutoring in the community.

    All best with your studies!
    RR


  • Chimka says:

    The first time I read this post, I was battling with my characters and today, I have a manuscript. It has been a rough ride, I kept asking myself why do I want to write? Yet I couldn’t help it but to wake up 5 a.m. every morning to write. It is a good feeling to have a manuscript perfect or not. I’m eyeing MFA Guelph or BC, I pray I get selected because I need all the help I can get from professionals to polish my novel. Rebecca your blog has been helpful too, more especially this post. New writers like me should read a lot of novels, different genres, it helps a lot when creating yours.


  • Rebecca says:

    That’s so great, thanks and all best with your work, Chimka!


  • Nedda Sarshar says:

    Hello!

    Thank you so much for this post! I was just wondering if it would be at all possible for me to see segments of the portfolio that you had submitted for your application process? The reason that I ask is because saw on the U of T MA website that only 7 people are admitted into the whole program, with the less than 10% acceptance rate!!! I know that every candidate is different and every admissions process different, but i also find that by reading the work of other writers I learn so much about ways that i could approve my own writing.

    I apologize if this is an intrusive comment!


  • Rebecca says:

    Nedda, I doubt I still have the portfolio–this was 12 years and three computers ago–but I’ll take a look. And I’m semi-sure that some of the stuff from that portfolio eventually got published here and there so I can try to do a post with some links, if nothing else. Best of luck with your work.


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