17 August 2008

The MA in Creative Writing: The Controversy Resumes

The Victoria University MA in Creative Writing is an object of desire (for those thinking of applying), hope (for those who have applied), envy, and controversy. It plays such a large part in the New Zealand literary scene, especially in Wellington, that it would be most surprising if this were not the case.

My own feelings about the MA (now joined by a PhD in Creative Writing) are mixed. For the record, I have neither taken, nor applied for, the MA. I have taken two undergraduate creative writing courses at Victoria: a Writing Short Fiction course taught by Robert Onopa in 2000, during which I wrote the first draft of "The Wadestown Shore", one of the stories in Transported; and the Writing the Landscape course taught by Dinah Hawken, in 2003.

Both courses were valuable, but I have particularly fond memories of Writing the Landscape and of Dinah's tutelage. About 1/3 of the poems in All Blacks' Kitchen Gardens were written for, or during, that course, and it sparked my most productive period as a poet. (I'm down to about three poems a year now!) So, on the basis of my own experience, I have no reason to think that the MA, being longer, wouldn't be even better.

The two complaints most commonly made about the Victoria MA (and creative writing MA/MFA programmes in general) is that they lead to work that is written for an audience of one — the assessor — or several — the classmates; and that the products of the course are too homogeneous. The second, if true, may well be an outcome of the first.

I'm aware that many fine books (such as Mary McCallum's The Blue and Johanna Aitchison's A Long Girl Ago) have come out of the Victoria MA. In my experience, the books produced are surprisingly diverse. So I'm not too bothered about those issues.

My concern is more about the market power of the Victoria MA and other such courses. Quite apart from the benefits to the participants' writing, there appears to be a clear commercial benefit to graduating from the Victoria MA. Graduates' work is more likely to be published in such literary journals as Sport, more likely to be published in book form, more likely to attract Creative New Zealand funding, and more likely to gain literary awards.

Viewed one way, that's a fair reward from the amount of effort and stress people have to go through to to be accepted for the course, let alone complete it; but from my viewpoint, in such a small literary market as New Zealand, the Victoria MA exerts an undue dominance. The published books of MA graduates are, in my experience, never poor, and often excellent; but what other voices might be heard, what other books might be published and promoted, if the MA did not loom so large?

These musings were sparked off by this post by Joanna Preston on the vexed subject of creative writing courses (and here's a contrasting viewpoint about the role of the workshop instructor). What do you think? Is the Victoria MA in Creative Writing good, bad, or indifferent for New Zealand writers and New Zealand literature?

11 comments:

elbowlina said...

Do you think it is possible to say that A Long Girl Ago came out of the MA course? A lot of the poetry in there was written in the intervening 10 years after Johanna had done the MA. Compared to many other books from MA grads hers was written over a much longer period.

I think that what is amazing about the MA, and probably the PhD as well, is that they provide a massive network of peers and betters. When you are writing by yourself it can be difficult to make valuable connections. It seems that people who say they are writers are in abundance, especially in Wellington. There is a sort of hierarchy and jostling around whether the person can legitimately call themselves a writer. Or so it seems to me. And the MA looks to be a shortcut around all of that other stuff, if you haven't written a book, etc.

I personally think it's great that there are a lot of good books being published but I do feel the same about the voices that must be missing.

Tim Jones said...

Elbowlina, point taken about Johanna's book - and also about the network the MA provides. But is the predominance of that network a good thing?

elbowlina said...

I'm not saying it's a good thing for the rest of us who haven't done the course. I, in fact, do not think it's a good thing. But most people would accuse me of sour grapes I guess. I think it's interesting to watch. But not so interesting to compete against. But seeing those inside it find it valuable, I guess can't begrudge it too much.

I am slowly working away at getting my own network. But I keep turning around and bumping into an MA grad! It probably doesn't help that my two closest poetry friends are graduates of that course that are starting to get a name for themselves.

I don't think there is ever going to be an answer to this argument though, because of course whilst there is demand Vic isn't going to shut the course down. The landscape of NZ poetry is changing and I feel like I just have to get used to it. Unfortunately!

greatkiwipoet said...

There are other ways to build networks, and MA Graduates are always going to turn up in them, especially in Wellington, because of their proliferation. Join a poetry group, make the effort to attend readings that feature local and imported poets (they're not all MA grads). Attend book launches. The Winter Readings in Wellington are excellent value, and need to be supported by those of us still working our way into the scene under our own steam. The 'network' is a direct result of proximity, not talent.

Tim Jones said...

greatkiwpoet, I agree with you about all these opportunities to build a network - even though I couldn't make it to the first Winter Readings session (looks down, shuffles feet). But I'll be there for the next one!

harvey molloy said...

I think each individual needs to decide whether or not they want to take a creative writing course. (I've never taken one). Victoria does have its own channels for publishing creative writing graduates (VUP, Sport, Turbine and, to a certain extent, The Year's Best Poems). All tertiary institutions are now businesses so VUW needs to promote and expand programmes to ensure good business. That's just how it is nowadays, not just in NZ but the world over. You can't blame Bill Manhire! There's certainly an 'us & them' character about the poetry scene in Wellington--I say that as I see so few graduates and students from IIML at poetry readings and launches I attend. I don't think that you need an MA at all to write--to get an MA means that you have to have the money for an MA. You just have to write. As a school teacher, I acknowldge that IIML does good work for schools and does encourage student writers--a senior student from our school is participating in a workshop this weekend. As a writer, I try to ignore the politics of the local scene and just try to read each writer on his or her merits. I'm very grateful for non-academic channels such as Jaam, Earl of Seacliffe, Steele Roberts, etc, as these have really helped me to work as a poet.

Helen Rickerby said...

This post, and the comments in particular, have really got me thinking this week, and mostly in a positive way. So now I’m going to write a wee rant:

It’s very easy to feel resentful of something you feel shut out from, and for those of us outside of it, the whole IIML thing can sometimes seem like club that gives its members special privileges. And possibly it doesn’t encourage people to become involved in the ‘grassroots’ literary community. And there is certainly a publication track – do the IIML MA, get published in VUP. And perhaps there is a certain kind of style of poetry that gets published by VUP.

But of course nothing is so simple as that. For a start, a lot of people have done the IIML MA over the years, and many will in the future. They don’t all get published by VUP, and there are diverse voices, and probably most of the people who do the MA don’t feel like they’re in the ‘club’ either.

Actually, I was having a chat a few years ago with a friend who has done the MA, and has been published by VUP, and he was saying that he didn’t feel part of the literary community either. And we decided that no-one probably does – except possibly Bill Manhire and Fergus Barrowman (who I’m now envisioning at NZLIT HQ, bent over their secret plan for NZLIT, whispering seriously, but I’m sure they have much better things to do on a Sunday morning).

Since that conversation though, I have began to feel like part of ‘a’ literary community, because I’ve stopped being quite so shy with people and have started making connections with other people who are into the same stuff I’m into. Not for any particular strategic networking purposes, but because it’s nice. I’ve found most people are open and friendly if you’re open and friendly.

Things like attending launches, and readings, and the Poetry Society or whatever similar things are around, is good, and even just making your submission letter/email to the literary mags a bit less impersonal (editors are people too!) is good too. And I’ve been finding the literary blogosphere that we’re part of has made me feel a sense of community, and that has been really affirming. So, thanks.

End of rant.

Cliff Burns said...

I've stated for a number of years--and posted a very controversial article on the subject (see: below)--that the only possible use for taking a creative writing class is networking--connecting with fellow students or, hopefully, getting a career boost from a helpful instructor.

I have never believed for one second that creative writing courses "make" a writer or even make a good writer better. I've taught a number of courses and workshops on writing but I never will again. It would be dishonest of me and a disservice to my trusting students.

http://cliffjburns.wordpress.com/2007/04/06/writing-101

Tim Jones said...

Thanks for your latest comments, Harvey, Helen and Cliff. The whole discussion on this post has illustrated what a complex topic this is - how many sides there are to it. If someone were to organise an event in Wellington which brought together organisers, proponents and critics of the Victoria MA, told them not to get into personal criticism, and let them go to it under a good chairperson/facilitator, I think there would be a large and enthralled audience! Any takers?

template pink said...

I took one of the under grad summer workshops and found it invaluable. It was the first and only writing workshop I've taken so I have nothing to compare it to. What I loved so much about it was being with a group of people who took their craft seriously and also having a group of 10 people critique your writing, give you feedback. That and the space to write which is really difficult to create when you're new to it all. The pieces I wrote in the workshop which were the first two short stories I ever completed were published out of NZ.

As someone who had nothing much to do with any literary scene or didn't know anyone else who enjoyed writing, the IIML workshop was validating.

Tim Jones said...

Thanks, templatepink - that is very much the experience I had of the "Writing the Landscape" course in 2003 - five of us from that course met this past week, for the first time in a while, to catch up, share our work, and also, we realised, mark the fifth anniversary of that instance of the course. I think it still means a lot to all of us.