Being brave: Everything I learned from my creative writing masters
I want to become a braver writer. On the first day of the Oxford University Creative Writing Masters, before we had even introduced ourselves, we were asked why we were there. I was stumped. I wanted to get a master’s degree that wasn’t numbingly theoretical, and had a loose idea it might make me a better writer. But I had no idea of anything specific, so I said what I thought sounded profound. People nodded sagely, but I didn’t know what it meant. Over the next two years, I learned.
The essence of the course is that it can’t make you a writer, but it can help you work out what kind of writer you want to be. It had a strong academic thrust - ten-novel reading lists for one class were not unusual - but was also surprisingly experimental. It was compulsory to play with unfamiliar ideas, and grapple with forms we’d never tried. I wrote my first poems since the sixth form. I was reluctant, but piecing those lines together taught me more about word choice than reams of prose could have gifted.
It was compulsory to play with unfamiliar ideas, and grapple with forms we’d never tried.
Courses like these are often accused of churning out a homogenous mass of writers. This couldn’t be further from my experience. My brilliant - and unusually successful - cohort contained a diversity of voices, experiences and approaches. Science fiction sat next to romance, black comedy and adventure. I felt more pressure to stand out than to conform.
On a practical level, the course gave me permission. So much of self-discipline is about permission - the permission to think of myself as a writer and to make the decisions that enable it. I learned how to make sacrifices of time and money. I learned how to narrow my focus. I became canny at fitting writing around full-time work, seeking out those nooks of time that lead to valuable words. (One particularly long conference call birthed an entire poem about a toad).
On a practical level, the course gave me permission.
Our egos were both shaken and built up. Classes often required us to write something in ten or twenty minutes that we’d then read aloud to fourteen peers; respond to this line about a bumblebee, compose a chase scene, write a page of dialogue that’s all lies. It was mortifying at first, but we became comfortable sharing things that weren’t ready, that were often not very good. It stopped the words being ephemeral, and made them objects that could be shattered and reformed. I’ve seen incredible things grow from the seeds of those sessions. If the skill of writing can’t be taught, the practical craft of the job can certainly be enhanced. It was in those sessions I became more confident; braver in what I wanted to write and how I wanted to write it.
It was mortifying at first, but we became comfortable sharing things that weren’t ready, that were often not very good. It stopped the words being ephemeral, and made them objects that could be shattered and reformed.
The advice of others was always the gold dust. I received one submission back with two words scrawled in red over the top of an admittedly pedestrian page. Be Subversive. This advice, given by a course mate, lives with me. It is what I go back to when a scene won’t come to life. And those course mates have proven to be the most valuable thing I took from the two years. The community of writers we formed still thrives. They are still the people I share my work with in its earliest stages. They have been my wisest critics and my greatest allies. They were the people who yelled at me when I wanted to retire the novel that became Heatstroke.
It would be remiss of me not to address the cost of such a course. I justified it to myself by saying it was the same price as any other master’s degree, but it is overwhelmingly expensive for a writing course. It represented an enormous sacrifice to me, and took years to save for. Whilst it was undeniably transformative, it did not lead directly to publication in my case - and there are many other, cheaper ways to find the riches it offers.
It would also be wrong not to highlight the workload. I completed the part-time course in two years alongside a full-time job, and to maintain the volume of output necessary meant giving up nearly everything else. It was all-consuming. Getting the most from the course meant working constantly. This was exhausting and overwhelming, and perhaps the perfect apprenticeship for a writer.
Those course mates have proven to be the most valuable thing I took from the two years. The community of writers we formed still thrives.
I began the course with a vague sense of wanting to write, and left it eager to do what was in my power to get my words published. I still had a long route to walk - and a whole new novel to create - but there’s no question that I achieved my invented ambition. I became bolder in my words and, crucially, in my determination to write them.
Heatstroke by Hazel Barkworth (£16.99 Headline) comes out on May 28th 2020.
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