Doing a Grisham – the opposite perspective

Last week Dr Russell Schechter was on the blog talking about the new MA devoted entirely to Writing the First Novel being launched at St Mary’s University this September. And this week our very own David Towsey follows that up as he lets you now the view from the otherside of the table as someone who has completed an MA and had their work published.

Towsey, David 1There’s been a lot of talk in the media recently about what Creative Writing courses can and can’t do for students. It’s not a particularly new discussion or one that will be going away any time soon. If I had a pound for every time I was asked: ‘Creative Writing, how do they even teach that?’ I’d be able to retire to a yacht somewhere very sunny and write a book every decade through a margarita-haze. One blog post isn’t enough to even scratch the surface of what is essentially an ongoing pedagogical debate both inside Higher Education and out. Instead, I’m going to take the easy route and just talk about me. Specifically, my experience of doing a Creative Writing Masters degree.

I began the year-long course as a fresh-faced twenty-two-year-old who’d managed to hold down a real job for all of nine months after finishing a BA in English & Creative Writing. Out of a student cohort of more than forty people I was the second youngest. And despite the good range of ages and experience, it showed. I was so green it makes me cringe when I think back to some of things I did and said. To my fellow students’ credit, they rarely held my lack of worldly wisdom against me and were plenty game when I was calling for shots in reputable family pubs.

The variety of people you tend to find taking a Masters degree is one of the real strengths of that kind of course. It makes workshopping and sharing work an infinitely more eye-opening experience – especially if coming from a BA course where almost everyone in the room is 18-21. If you want to take a rather cynical view, a Masters seminar makes one hell of a focus group. Everyone in the room is an active, often passionate, reader of all kinds of literature. They might not be into the kind of anthropomorphic cyber-punk you enjoy writing, but they’ll read it and tell you when your eye-patch-wearing fox is a bit flat as a character. In the same vein, if your reading habits are in danger of becoming a little narrow – and mine definitely were – a Masters group is a great place to expand them. Every student on my course was either working on a novel, collection of short stories, or their first collection of poetry. These were hugely diverse, not just in subject but style and delivery. My zombie-Western idea raised a few eyebrows but went on to become my debut novel, Your Brother’s Blood, and certainly wasn’t the wackiest piece discussed. A number of my classmates also turned their MA work into published novels, including the wonderful historical fiction writer James Aitcheson. Regularly, really helpful peer-feedback from this kind of group would begin, ‘I’ve never read something like this before, but . . .’ Sometimes it takes this kind of reader to highlight where we’re going wrong. And, boy, was I going wrong in all kinds of ways.

Before the Masters my handling of point-of-view was a mess. I was melting all over the place in scenes, which was hugely confusing, and my characters were seeing through walls. My dialogue was flabby, neither pushing the story forward or revealing character – yes people talk about the weather all the time, no, a reader doesn’t care. I had some pretty good ideas, but I was being far too subtle and expected the reader to grasp exactly what I meant with minimal help from me. I was also tying myself up in knots about how to write experiences outside of my own, one particular example being: how could I, a young man with no children, faithfully represent what it felt like for a woman to lose a child? I knew plenty of other writers managed this kind of thing, arguably some better than others, but I had no idea how I was going to do it.

Some problems can be dealt with concretely during seminars and one-to-ones with tutors. Thanks to those sessions, these days I’m very careful about what my characters can actually see or hear in any given room, etc. I’m hyper-aware of my tendency to over-rely on dialogue, so after discussing tactics with a tutor I now dedicate a whole part of my editing process to doing a sweep of unnecessary chit-chat. I was given a great piece advice by a tutor during my MA when I went to her with my problem of writing a grieving mother. She said, ‘Stop worrying what a mother would do, and figure out how this mother acts and feels.’ It sounds almost obvious now, but it was a revelation at the time. Other challenges I encountered on the course are now part of an ongoing battle I have with writing, as my fantastically patient editor will no doubt agree. But I can say one thing with some conviction: without the help of lecturers and other students I wouldn’t have reached this stage of self-reflective understanding of that nebulous term, my ‘writing process’.

In my opinion, something like a Masters degree isn’t so much about teaching you how to write, but revealing how you write – the good and the bad. Some people are honest enough with themselves to see this on their own. I wasn’t then, and I’m not sure I am now. A Masters is a lot of hard work. In fact, for me it was the first step into a world of a lot of hard work. There are plenty of ways of taking that first step without getting a degree. But, looking back, I know I wouldn’t have written – let alone managed to publish – my debut without the support I received during my Masters.

I’d love to hear about other people’s experience of their MAs – either in the comments or on Twitter!

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