Sunday 19 August 2018

My Experience Studying Creative Writing at Uni

I recently wrote a post, along with the help of my uni friends, about the lessons I learned while at university. These lessons were quite general, more about the personal rather than study. However today, because I clearly have uni on the mind, I wanted to talk about something more specific: studying Creative Writing. It's one of those subjects that gets a lot of debate. When I would tell people what I was studying, I would get the same questions. What's that like? What are you going to do with that? Isn't it too subjective? And it's true, I think there is an element of risk when you pick creative subjects in academia. However, if it's what you love, it's worth it. I had an overall positive experience with Creative Writing, but I will admit that towards the end of my degree I was questioning whether it was really for me or not.

I thought I'd start this post off, before looking at some pros and cons of the subject, by sharing the structure of the creative writing course at my uni, as I believe it differs from others. At my uni, you can only study Creative Writing along with English Lit, so through a Joint-Honours MA degree. Essentially, I could take English modules (which included Film Studies modules), and Creative Writing modules. Each Creative Writing module was a little different, but very simply put there would be a mixture of 2 hour seminars where we would be taught about a particular writing style through close-reading, chatting, and sometimes trying out the style ourselves, and 4 hour workshops, where we would be given prompts and have to write something on the spot. Everything was graded through coursework, either from essays or a big folio of creative work. In our workshops, after responding to our prompts, we would have to read out pieces aloud for immediate feedback from the tutor and other students. It sounds terrifying - and it definitely was at first, but within a few weeks we all got so used to it that we could enjoy it!

It's difficult to state whether a degree is right for someone or not, because obviously everyone is different. I know people who have totally thrived on Creative Writing, it being the highlight of uni (academically) for them, and some people who really struggled and wondered whether they had made the right choice. I feel like I fell somewhere in the middle. I loved Creative Writing for the first couple years, but in my final year I felt like my interests were shifting more towards English Lit - a subject which I have always had such an interest in and which I've decided to study in a postgrad starting September.

I'm sure it goes without saying, but this post is all based on my personal experience.

It's subjective. This is the argument that a lot of people have when it comes to studying creative subjects, or even when it comes to English exams in school. One tutor's opinion or preference will differ from another's. I've been to see a tutor who told me I was bound to get an A, and walked out with a C because someone else marked it. It's disappointing, but I honestly think you just have to grin and bear it, and if you are absolutely adamant that you should be getting higher grades, then universities will allow appeals with sufficient evidence. For example, I probably could have appealed my C because I've never achieved anything lower than a B for my entire university career. I chose not to, because it didn't affect me getting a First (because of the As and Bs I had in everything else), but if it had threatened my degree classification then I definitely would have gone down that route. I can completely understand why this would be disheartening for someone, I even wrote a post about this topic a few months ago, but it's important to remember that one person's opinion does not mean that you are not a good writer.

You have to write things that you're not interested in. One thing I loved about my first year of Creative Writing was that we got to try out a variety of writing styles. We learned about styles I had never even heard of before, such as prose poetry - a style I really love writing in now! Sure, there were times I really didn't get on with a style, but by the next week we were on to something different. I actually think this is a really useful way of teaching Creative Writing, as it gives those who are unsure what their style is to find something that works for them, and gives those who are set in their ways the chance to being introduced to something new. However, by my 4th year of uni, there were still classes where I had to write in a style that I had learned I didn't like. I was being asked to write reviews, which I hate (book reviews are so different to beauty reviews, who knew), or poetry which even though I like, I just know isn't really my thing. At this point, I knew what I wanted to write, but I was being forced into styles or formats which didn't appeal to me. At that stage in the game, I feel you should be allowed to focus on exactly what you want to refine.

Confidence. I mentioned previously how we would read out the work we had just written in class, and how it was terrifying at first. But what I didn't say was how thankful I am that we were made to do it. I've never really enjoyed reading out loud at school, but after doing it week after week it doesn't phase me too much anymore. I also noticed that I became so much more confident in my other classes. Instead of staying silent during English or Film classes, I found myself sharing my opinions more, so it definitely helped improve my uni career. I also sat on the English, Film and Creative Writing stall for uni open days, teaching potential applicants about the options at uni. It's something I never would have picked to do without becoming comfortable talking in front of people. Finally, it has also given me more confidence in my writing. Yeah sure, there are times when I don't like things I've written. But I can see such a steep improvement from my writing before uni, and my writing now, and it's down to feeling like I can actually do it.

Support. I know I've talked about how subjective Creative Writing can be in terms of grading, but I do have to give props to the staff for the amount of support they would give. They were happy to have one-on-one meetings outside of class to read work, to give criticism or guidance, and sometimes to even help facilitate work experience. I was also able to go to one of my tutors for general chats about life, and really appreciated a sounding board in times of need. To put it delicately, I felt that there were some tutors who liked the tough-love approach to teaching, but others were so kind and so willing to help. This is one of the amazing things about uni in general actually - tutors always have office hours where their doors are open to chat. Whether it's help with coursework or something you're working on out of class, they are such a good resource available to you.

Friendship. Never in my life have I found a more supportive group of people than in my Creative Writing class. We would always clap for each other after reading out, tell each other how much we loved each other's pieces, give constructive and friendly criticism, and that was just in the classroom. My closest friends from uni were Creative Writing students, and I think it's because we all learned straight away how to be supportive to one another. We also all knew the struggle of being nervous about work, sharing our personal histories through writing, and commiserating over negative feedback together. I'm sure we were the exception to the rule at times, considering how well we got on, but I will say that if you pick a creative degree then you will be surrounded by creative people. And, by nature, creative people understand creative people. They understand the stress and the pressure, and they also know how important it is to feel good about what you create. Hence, you'll find people who have got your back!

It goes without saying that university isn't for everyone, and that you don't need to study Creative Writing to be a writer. But if it's something you are considering then I say, keep considering. There are cons, of course there are, but I really do feel like I grew as a person and as a writer. It will be such a learning curve, and you can really get so much out of it if you're willing to go the distance. Studying writing also gives you the chance to learn from other writers (tutors, guest speakers, and your fellow students) which you may not have had the opportunity to do otherwise.

If you'd like to hear anything else about studying Creative Writing which I might not have mentioned, leave a comment below! And if you've studied it too, what are your thoughts?
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