Singing school: why to study creative writing

Article published on Jan. 29, 2013
community published
Article published on Jan. 29, 2013
Can creative writing be taught? Courses in creative writing are increasingly popular, but it's a topic that can prompt pursed lips and passionate diatribes. Jennifer Williams completed a masters in creative writing at Glasgow university and now works as the programme manager at the Scottish poetry library.
She tells us about the merits and pitfalls of doing an MLitt

'It isn’t necessary to study creative writing to be a successful writer and a good writer. You could certainly educate yourself in the things you need to learn without having to pay to go on an MLitt. However, if you find the right one for you and if you’re at a point in your life where the things an MLitt can do are useful to you than they can be great.

'A published-book-holding-serious poet'

I had done my undergraduate study in English literature with a creative writing major, and then I’d been out of university for almost ten years. I’d been writing that whole time but I still somehow felt on the outside of the world of published serious literature and I still felt like I didn’t know how to publish in that world. I had been published in magazines and I was going to events, but the performance poetry scene is very welcome and open-minded, it’s quite easy to kind of get into and find a place in. The ‘I’m a published-book-holding-serious poet’ thing felt kind of obscure and I didn’t understand how to enter that world, so the MLitt just seemed to me to be useful in that way. For one thing you’re taken seriously in some way once you’ve gone through that process and have that on your CV but I think it’s partly because you start meeting people and making certain connections. I’m sure that depends on where you are and what course you’re on, but you start having access to people and things in a way that’s useful.

Conditions of Fire I really wanted to get a book published and Michael Schmidt who runs Carcanet Press was running the course. Somehow I thought that meant it would help me get published. I don’t think that was true and I think if anything my hunger to be published was quite distasteful! I don’t think it’s very healthy to go into an MLitt thinking, ‘I’m going to get published if I do this’. A lot of the teachers on these courses are either writers themselves trying to get published or publishers who have to deal with a lot of writers and can’t publish all their students. So it’s not a mechanism or a vehicle to publishing. However, the amazing thing is that through a lot of hard work and nothing direct, through the experience of doing the course and the knowledge I learned and then winning the Edwin Morgan travel bursary and writing a book and sending that to a publisher, that did result in a book. Would that have happened had I not gone on the MLitt? I don‘t know – you certainly couldn’t say that was a direct result.

Do your homework

One of the main things I think is really useful about an MLitt is the peer group. That feeling of not being alone and having other people who were interested in writing in the same place as you is really important. It’s also worth learning how to work in a tutorial group; it was like training into how to do a workshop group. I’ve got a workshop group now with four or five friends which I find really valuable. It’s such a great way to test whether a poem’s working, or help get direction for a poem.

I’m so glad I did the MLitt and I would really recommend it but I think you have to be careful about your expectations. Really research the courses. Glasgow was traditionally a really fiction-heavy course but by the time I started Michael was running it and it was certainly advertised as having a poetry stream. Different courses are run in different ways. Some separate out their prose writers and their poets and some mix them up and make you do a bit of everything. You just need to think about what you want and what the course offers. Try and find out their history: who’s been going through it and coming out of it? Does it offer the kind of things you need in there and cater for them?'

Check out our interview with Jennifer here. Jennifer's band Opul will be playing at the Click Clack Club in Edinburgh on 20 February - put the date in your diaries now!