What is MA Creative Writing really like at Queen’s?
Considering an MA in Creative Writing at Queen's? Ross McDonald writes about his experiences of the course.
Given the current state of the world, enrolling for any courses at uni is a risk. You don’t know how they’ll shape up or whether the quality will be impacted, which is fair. I for one was apprehensive about the jump to postgrad. Uncertainty is a killer. Since starting the Creative Writing MA at Queen’s, I’ve found that the quality of a uni course can be just as high as when the world was ‘normal’.
The subject matter.
Before coming to Queen’s, I did an undergrad in English Literature and Creative Writing and was lucky enough to study Creative Writing at A level before it was scrapped from the curriculum. 5 years of being taught about writing. What else was there to hear that I hadn’t already? As it turns out, tonnes.
For subject matter, we’ve been blitzed with new stuff. The largest chunk of new material has been about dramatic structure. I’d been taught snippets throughout A level and undergrad but never experienced such a structure-heavy approach to writing. I struggled to wrap my head around it for the first few weeks.
Of course it’s important. Of course it is. But does structure really need this much attention? Yes. Before long, it had been talked about and reframed in so many different ways that it started to make sense. Designing characters with needs, goals, and motivations was so far off my radar until I started the MA. Defining the inciting incident, crisis and climax didn’t matter if I was having fun writing. Now these things are set in stone before anyone ‘fades in’.
What I’ve gained so far.
I’ve gained (or regained) the ‘fun’ aspect of writing. At some point along the way, I stopped writing prose and script for the simple enjoyment of it. It became a tick-box exercise that I’d reluctantly do when uni deadlines were looming. I’ve got that back now.
I put this simply down to the environment I’ve been in at Queen’s. At postgrad level, nobody is here to make up the numbers or pass the time. Everyone is deadly serious about it. Almost every conversation I have with my course mates, even outside of classes, is about writing. They’re as obsessed with it as I am. Talking to and being around all those people every day has rubbed off and helped me to rediscover the fun.
Another thing that is unusual in teaching Creative Writing is knowledge-based learning. It’s not a knowledge-based subject – it’s skills-based – so teaching it is tricky. If you tell someone that you study Creative Writing, they will rightly ask “How do they even teach that?”
It’s a good question. As I mentioned, we’ve had dramatic structure hammered home since the first week. Sure, you need the skills to use it, but the tutors have done a brilliant job of cementing the ‘knowledge’ part in our heads.
On top of writing knowledge, we’ve had the chance to meet industry professionals – publishers, agents, TV producers and the like. The MA is the first chance I’ve had to peer through the looking glass at the real world of writing. It’s helped me to understand where I fit into the world and brought down the industry veil that had kept me in the dark until this year.
But the best thing so far has been the people – my tutors and peers. With everyone else being just as obsessed, I now have a sizable group of people who I trust to read work and tell me whether it’s the new Harry Potter or complete garbage. They’re people who I will hopefully still be exchanging notes with in 10 years’ time and longer.
We stand on the shoulders of literary giants really. All the tutors are already successful writers in every field. Crime fiction writers, TV dramatists, playwrights. You name it. One of the tutors will have done it and done it well.
They’re surprisingly open about their work too. They share current projects with us and complain about producers or publishers not calling them back. They’re human as well I suppose. Being around these discussions personalises the writing industry for us, showing that it’s not so far out of reach after all.
As people, I couldn’t ask for better tutors either. I’ve had emails off them after midnight for notes on a script in progress, plans for future classes, and snippets of interviews we should watch. Around the clock, they’re constantly helping us, constantly in contact. In the current climate, I value this highly. Uni life would feel a bit disconnected without the amount of communication and effort we share with the tutors.
How is all of this relevant to the future?
I now have my trusty writerly tribe to fall back on. Even after this year finishes and we graduate into the real world, we all have a safety net that we didn’t have in September. We’ll have editors to tell us when we’ve made horrible mistakes in our writing. We’ll have directors, producers, stage managers, novelists, and poets in the coming years to work with. Aside from all that, we’re going to leave with friends for the future which I’m the most excited about.