Postgraduate writing courses: with love or money?

I listened to an episode of the Guardian Books podcast last night. It was about first novels and included interviews with students on UEA’s MA Writing course, arguably the most influential and acclaimed creative writing programme in the UK.

What caught my attention was how many of those students, when asked why they were doing the course, either said that they a) didn’t want to be published, or b) were only there for fun. Two of them said that they were on the course simply to see if they could write.

I found myself incredulous. My flabber, it was gasted.

Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with writing for pleasure, or not wanting your work to be published. I’m down with both of those things. But these people are on a prestigious writing programme – a course that costs £4,500 for one year of study. That’s a pretty pricy pastime.

Listening to those students, I was reminded of a throwaway comment I made several years ago when asked about my own experience of taking a postgraduate writing course. I think it applies now more than ever. It went roughly as follows.

There are two types of people who embark on a postgraduate writing programme. Those who genuinely want to be writers, who want to make writing their career, and who are prepared to suffer great sacrifices to get there. And those who do it because they have spare time and money. Far more money than sense.

Essentially, good writers with potential and ambition are fighting for places with people who can afford an expensive hobby. That makes me feel uncomfortable. Most uncomfortable indeed.

4 Comments 28 October 2011 Reply

I think that if you pressed those who claim to “not be interested in publishing” you’d discover that they’re being disingenuous at best. Of course they want to be published, but they doubt their talent and haven’t made the commitment to their own success. They’re covering themselves.
I’ve found myself doing it and it feels awful to say such things.

Very few people take on graduate level programs just for fun 31 October 2011 Reply

I’m not so sure Randy. I’ve found that those with the most talent and drive are often the ones who have the most humility. 30 October 2011 Reply

I take Randy’s point above, but I certainly had the same reaction when listening to that podcast. If I weren’t currently on my Creative Writing MA of choice I would have been doubly shocked to hear people describing doing it just as something to fill time. What bothers me is exactly what you say about there being people out there without funds or time to do the course, while others take the spaces for a jolly. I know because for a long time I was one of those people wanting to do it but unable. 31 October 2011 Reply

I would never be able to do a course now that I’m older, married, about to buy a house, have a career, that type of thing. But yes, I agree that there is something wrong if places are being taken by people who aren’t really fussed either way about a future in writing.

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