I have drifted off the social media radar in recent weeks. No blogs, no #sentencesaday, no feet appearances on Facebook. This is because I’ve been hard at work on my MA dissertation. The deadline has now been met. I have handed in the first thirty-seven thousand words of my novel and now I am free.
For the past two years I have lived with deadlines. Deadlines for writing workshops, deadlines for modular assessments and the biggest deadline of all, always looming in the back of my mind: the dissertation.
Deadlines are, of course, one of the main reasons for doing an MA. Although I like to think of myself as self-disciplined and committed to my work, and fully capable of pinning myself to my desk, there is absolutely no doubt that external pressure forces you to be more ruthless. Certain aspects of my life I have simply had to let go. I learnt what it truly means to prioritize my writing, what it takes to get it done and to do it well. I learnt how, in short, to be a ‘proper’ writer.
I used to be cynical about Creative Writing MAs. It was fine for painters to go to Art School, or composers to go to Music College, but writers were different somehow. I didn’t think they needed the same level of technical know-how or such an in depth understanding of form. I thought a writing programme would only serve to stifle originality and creativity and lead to a generic, formulaic style of writing such as I had sometimes come across myself as a reader of MA graduates’ novels.
What then, apart from discipline, did I gain from the course? And did it change my mind?
Exposure. I’m a solitary person. The life of a writer sits very well with me. But is that necessarily good for my writing? At some point, you have to show someone your work. You need, as Stephen King put it, to open the door. In the past I have opened the door to very few people, and only with work that has been thoroughly honed and polished (which doesn’t mean that it was any good). Opening the door during the writing process is a very different experience. Try producing a short story for workshop discussion over a couple of days. Or coming up with a proposal for a screenplay when you’ve never even thought about writing for film before. Or pitching an outline of a novel to a group of tutors to find out who will choose to work with you.
All these things I had to do and they did me good. They taught me not to be so precious about my writing. They encouraged me to treat it as professional output that, whilst personally dear to me, was ultimately for public consumption. That’s not to say I should permanently write under the glare of public scrutiny, but neither should I keep my writing hidden away as if it were something governed by the Official Secrets Act.
Support and affirmation. One thing you can’t over-estimate is the value of coming into regular contact with other writers, both tutors and students. It is so uplifting to spend time with people who take their writing seriously and who, even more astonishingly, take yours seriously too. When tutors start lecturing you on how to negotiate a good contract with an agent or publisher, you think, hang on a minute, I haven’t even written the book yet. But when you go back to your desk, it makes you think that you CAN.
A body of work. What exactly was I looking to get out of my course? An academic qualification? Brilliant grades? No, it was the writing that mattered. What I wanted most was to emerge from the process with one third of a reasonably decent novel under my belt. Did I learn much about technique along the way? Yes, I did. But most of all I learnt what kind of book I wanted to write.
For, whilst going on an MA course may, in some cases, lead to generic, formulaic writing, it can also free you from trying to be the sort of writer you think you ought to be, and challenge you to write the kind of book you’d actually like to read. Naturally, as with any course, there were annoyances and niggles, but overall, when I handed in my dissertation I felt a huge sense of satisfaction and gratitude.
On hand-in day, I celebrated by taking my dog, who’d been severely under-walked that last week, for a country hike. She celebrated by rolling in the biggest, wettest cow pat she could find. I then went and sat a while in a cafe with a real live, interactive friend, instead of my laptop. Hmm, yes, this is very nice, I thought. I’ll take the weekend off to just un-wind and recover. But within a couple of hours, I was feeling guilty. Why wasn’t I writing? What about the next scene? What if I let the momentum slip?
I still have the rest of the novel to complete. This is no mean task. And now I’m on my own. On the one hand, I won’t need to be quite as anti-social and neglectful of friends and family as I have been. On the other, I will need to be more determined and disciplined than ever.
What will life be like after an MA? I’ll let you know.