Starting your creative writing MFA – 9 tips

For many a creative writing MFA and MA, it’s the start of the academic year, and writing students are about to get cracking with their studies. For 13 years, I taught on a university creative writing MA in the UK, and wanted to share some tips after working with hundreds of students on their writing. It’s a time of excitement, nerves, and lots of unknowns, and your precious time will fly past. Here are some thoughts on making the best of your time.

1. Realise that nobody knows anything

This sounds controversial. It’s actually a quote from the leading Hollywood screenwriter, William Goldman. He means that in the creative industries, no one has all the answers. If they did, every film and book would be successful. “Nobody knows anything” encourages confidence in doing your own thing, following your own path.

I think there’s an even more important aspect to this. Each generation and each person carves their own creative way. People often appear to have cast-iron answers, but these may not be right for you. It’s important to bear this in mind when encountering uber-confident fellow writers and even tutors. Creativity is personal, and while developing your writing craft, you also need to keep hold of a sense of your own interests, instincts and aesthetic. You may also be part of an emerging alternative or interesting niche that just hasn’t become mainstream yet (see 4). So keep hold of your own silver thread.

2. Meet your own needs as a writer

Truly acknowledge your own needs, and assert them. Get to know what works for you. If you’re methodical and meditative and roam the countryside talking to yourself, that’s fine. If you work only in the wee hours from a bar in a city, that’s fine, too. Your psychology, writing voice and needs in order to write well are different from everyone else’s. So don’t feel under pressure to conform to a ‘right way’ because you’re on a course.

You may already be committed to a specific mainstream genre, and writing prodigiously. You may be exploring, tentative, and still finding your writing voice. You may be doing an MA or MFA because you want to get published, for leisure interest, or because you’re interested in a media or academic career. Or you may not want to think of those things, and are following your instincts.

Students have so many different reasons for doing creative degrees. Don’t be waylaid by others on different paths.

3. Be aware that some writers don’t need writing as much as you do

Students come from different backgrounds. Some can easily afford to spend a year studying for a creative writing MFA or MA. For others, it’s a big financial risk, but you’re exceptionally passionate that this is something you have to do.

Some writers need to be more driven than others to make their opportunities. Publishing isn’t a level playing field. Nor are future jobs. This thought might feel challenging when starting your creative writing MFA in a burst of heady passion. But it’s good to keep some realism at the back of your mind, especially if you don’t have a financial cushion. Know yourself, keep your own counsel and make the very best of the time and opportunity.

4. Be open to non-traditional publishing

Most creative writing MFAs and MAs are run by writers who have gone the traditional publishing route. They’re typically of that generation. But a seismic shift is underway in writing and publishing, and there are many other alternatives now. Spoken word, audiobooks, performance, self-publishing and online platforms are just some of the ways that the next generation of writers are disrupting the traditional writing world, and making the future.

Most university writers and traditional universities haven’t got there yet, and may look down on some of these genres, and in particular, look down on self-publishing. Be aware that many university writers are making a living from teaching, not writing. So their viewpoint is informed by financial privilege, and a time when there were far fewer writers and far more university jobs to go round.

Be aware also that literary writing is very badly paid, and that many writers are making far more from self-publishing their own work. This is incredibly unpopular with traditional publishers, and incomprehensible to most university writers. Don’t absorb that prejudice. Keep an open mind. Do your own experiments. Self-publishing and multimedia are the future and you’ll probably need those skills.

Read Jane Friedman’s The Business of Being a Writer for an informed overview of some different professional creative writing paths, especially in fiction.

5. Build good relationships with writers on your wavelength

A creative writing cohort is a precious group for you, and can help to sustain you in future. Writing is an isolated kind of work, which is how many writers like it. But you do need a support system of people who understand your life choice and its ups and downs. Friends and family don’t get it. Writer friends do.

Make time to share writing and time with others. Remember this is a finite experience, and plan for the time beyond the course when you may want to collaborate and develop projects with people from your course. Or simply share a grouch and a coffee!

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6. Build good relationships with your writing teachers

Your teachers aren’t just doing a job, or your academic supporters. They’re people, too. They’re your fellow writers, writing peers and colleagues, and may become friends. They are there to help you and are interested in what you’re writing and doing. They’ll be especially interested if you’re doing something unusual and proactive, such as setting up a literary magazine, publishing your own work, or exploring multimedia.

Creative writing teachers are also interested in your creative development beyond the course, and have a stake in it. If you go on to have a successful career, they’ll be thrilled and share the news. Your success will also reflect well on their department. Writing teachers will become part of your professional network and may field opportunities your way. Build a good relationship and keep in touch.

7. Read and write a lot

This goes without saying. But I do come across students who don’t use the library, read deep and wide, get excited by new discoveries and propel their writing to a higher level. Or they hold off writing until the last minute, and rush something in just to fulfil the assignment.

I’m always amazed! For a writer, one of the most exciting things about university access is the wonderful library! And chance findings and serendipity. And a creative course isn’t about marks and assignments, even though you have to work within that formal context.

Again, make the most of the opportunity to really immerse yourself in books, reading and writing.

8. Your writing teachers aren’t daft

See 6 above. If a student is winging it and phoning in their assignments, tutors know.

9. Your tutors are excited for you

Each new academic year brings a group of new students with exciting voices, backgrounds and new ways of thinking and writing. It’s tremendously rewarding to meet you, work with you and see your writing develop over the MFA course. What will you bring? Go for it! Everyone is excited to meet you!

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