Russell F. Hirsch
Reflections on a Creative Writing Degree
Next month I finish my Master’s degree, so I thought it time to weigh in on a question many aspiring writers ask : should I get a degree in creative writing?
First thing’s first, if you want to be an accomplished, published author, check out what accomplished, published authors have to say on the subject. Leigh Bardugo, for instance, has excellent info in her FAQs. She stresses that whether you’re getting a degree or not, persistently reading and writing on your own time is crucial. She also has very practical advice about $$$. For those of us in the Great White North, tuition costs are not as steep as in America, but we have to keep it in mind as well. More debt = less time to write.
Cheers to education, eh?
I got my BFA in Creative Writing at the University of British Columbia (Go T-birds! Boom-CAW!) Now, I’m on the cusp of an MA in Children’s Literature (name aside, it’s very similar to an MFA.) So, looking back, here are five things that stuck out most about my writing degrees, and whether you’re looking for a Master’s or a Bachelor/Padawan’s degree, I hope these will be useful for you!
1 – Share the love
Pretty much all creative writing degrees involve workshops: sharing your work with peers and profs in critique sessions. Yes, even for established writers, it can be nerve-racking to let someone read your new work for the first time, but workshops do make it easier. You get plenty of practice putting yourself out there and taking criticism, and despite our reclusive drafting phases, we writers have to put ourselves out there and take criticism. It’s how our words get around.
Thick skin + big ears for constructive criticism = evolutionary advantage
2 – Broad Scope
My MA in Children’s Lit was multidisciplinary, with creative writing, English, education, and librarianship classes. Many hands. Much jars. But even a more streamlined program can open up important parts of the writing community you hadn’t even considered before. Especially in Children’s Lit, librarians and teachers play such a huge role in getting books into the hands of kids. It seems obvious but actually being on campus interacting with people going into those careers gave me a much greater appreciation for all the players involved with a great book.
3 – We are family
Lots of writers are introverts. Even the most extroverted of us still spend a lot of time in their own heads with imaginary people. So, there’s certainly something to be said for having classes and a physical environment that brings you into contact with your fellow humans. From my own experience in a city that’s not a big publishing hub, university may well be the main spot to connect with other writers and bibliophiles.
4 – Stone Age Blues
The world of children’s and YA lit is very online savvy. Now, I’m a millennial (in the born in the 90s way, not the Medieval-world-ending-Y1K sort of way). But I was pretty behind-the-times when it came to networking through blogs and social media with the online kid-lit communities. If you’ve got the internet skillz, that’s rad, but if you’re a bit of a dinosaur like I was and haven’t tapped into those online areas, a degree can help out with book recommendations, critique circles, and writer friends in-the-flesh.
Respect to Shoshana Flax for this prehistoric pic! (https://tinyurl.com/y8ugbd9o)
5 – In Theory
My degree has given me greater insight into the mechanics of story structure (as have many books outside of my degree), but I’ve also been exposed to a lot of academic theory. It might sound dry. It might sound like something Professor Umbridge makes you do until your head turns to mush, but it’s not. Learning about Jungian archetypes, reader response, feminism, colonialism, and so many other interesting topics has given me a new way of looking at my work. Do I still fall into old tropes in my storytelling? Of course. But theory has made me better at recognizing when I’m thinking inside-the-box and it’s made me reconsider certain scenes and ideas in ways that are more thoughtful and interesting.
i.e. school rocks
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