I did an MA in Writing, Nature and Place at the University of Exeter and I’ve been asked about it a few times now by people considering doing either a similar MA or one in Creative Writing. I know when I was deciding whether to do my MA I had a lot of questions and doubts. So I thought I’d come up with a list of some of the things I gained from doing a Writing MA, in the hope that others might find it useful.
1. Writers write
This is probably the greatest gift that the MA has given me – it turned me into a writer that writes. Of course I understood in principle that writer’s write before I did the MA, but somehow in never translated into me actually writing regularly. I’d write the odd poem and every now and then I’d come up with what I thought was a great idea for a novel, write a couple of pages and then give up. Now I write everyday. Mostly because I want to, because I’ve caught the bug. But sometimes I don’t feel like it – I force myself to do it anyway, because I know that every word I write will help me hone my craft.
2. Writing is a craft
This is an argument often made in response to the contention that Writing MAs are a waste of time because you can’t teach someone how to be a writer. I think in part this objection arises from a misunderstanding of the creative process. The ability to be a writer is seen as something you either have or you don’t and it can’t be taught. In a sense this is true. Think of all the thousands of people who say they’ve always wanted to write or they have a great idea for a novel, but they’ve never tried to put pen to paper. What’s missing isn’t necessarily creative genius, what’s missing is creative fire. I had always wanted to be a writer, yet I had never sat down and written an entire book. But for me this desire to write was more than just a passing inclination. It was something I knew I couldn’t not do and one way or another I had to get there.
So, I had the motivation, that creative fire that made it impossible for me to not write. But the MA taught me the value of viewing the writing process as a craft. The writing grows out of that fire, but it has to be a controlled process. You have a first draft (see 3.), then you edit and worry about things like the correct placement of commas and syntax. By being forced to edit and par down my own work, and also through having to provide critical feedback on my course mates work, I came to grasp (and even enjoy) the craft of editing. In a way I now think of myself more as an editor than a writer. The writing part is the easy bit, it’s in the editing that the real work happens. The writing is the master plan, the editing is the building.
3. Get it down on paper and don’t stop until you have a first draft
As I said, you need a first draft before the editing can begin. This was part of the problem I had before I did the MA. I never managed to get to the complete first draft stage. It’s a problem I think every writer must encountered when they’re first starting out – you get a few paragraphs in and suddenly the brilliant idea turns into a pile of slush. In the past so many of my ideas would falter after a few pages because I thought the idea must be flawed – how could a good idea turn into such utter rubbish? The secret I learnt from MA course – or rather learnt to really grasp in practise – was simply to get a first draft down on paper and then worry about re-working it. Even if at the time it seems like nothing will be salvageable, there is usually something that can be saved.
Believe me, the first draft of this finely crafted blog post you have before you was not a pretty sight.
4. Trust the judgement of others
My MA involved weekly writing exercises, which we then sent round to each other ahead of a critiquing session. This sort of workshop seems to be a common feature of most writing MAs and for good reason – they are invaluable. Being forced to put my writing out there wasn’t so much scary as excruciatingly awkward, but it taught me to be objective about my own work.
The rule of the class was that we had to think of one strength and one weakness for everyone’s work. Having other people point out the weaknesses in my writing – and they were often the parts of my writing I liked the best – helped me to be a lot less precious about my writing and accept that often, the editor knows better than I do. Although, I am still trying to figure out when to trust the editor and when to trust my ‘writer’s instinct’.
5. Finding your voice…
…is a phrase I dislike. But doing the MA undoubtedly helped me in that regard. Before I did the MA I hadn’t even heard of creative nonfiction urban nature writing and yet now that is how I would define my writing. I used to think I wanted to write novels, but the MA showed me that my strength was in nonfiction and that actually I preferred it to fiction. The weekly workshops also offered an opportunity to experiment with different writing styles and gave me a feel for the kind of style I’m best at and enjoy writing.
6. Landscapes are layered and complex
One of the first exercises we had to do on the MA was come up with a list of different ways you can view a landscape e.g. aesthetically, geographically, archaeologically, culturally – and this was a very valuable lesson for a nature writer to learn. Although the flip side is that I have been left with an inability to use the word ‘nature’ without surrounding it in quotes and I find it difficult to simply appreciate a place for one of its layers. But now whenever I start writing about a place, the first thing I ask myself is: what are the layers that need peeling back? I don’t know that there is any better way of getting to grips with a place.
7. Research is fun
One problem I always used to encountered when writing was that I never wanted to do research. Partly because I just wasn’t sure how to go about it and partly because it seemed like an interruption to the creative process. On my MA course we had to do a research methods module and although I didn’t enjoy it at the time – it seemed like the exact opposite of what I wanted to be doing – I did come to see the value in it. Instead of launching into a piece of writing we had to sit down first and think about which sources we’d like to use and plan out our methodology. I think this research and planning stage is important for a nonfiction writer – and likely also for a fiction writer – and doing the MA helped me grasp that. Now when I start a piece of writing I always ask myself: where are the sources?
8. Writers need other people
The MA bought lots of lovely people into my life. The people on my course are now good friends and I had the opportunity to learn from two great writers – Sarah Moss and Andrew McNeillie. Importantly, they were people whose judgement about my writing I felt I could trust. Writing is solitary work. Or at least, most writers prefer to write alone and without distractions. But the great thing about doing an MA was that I also had a group of people around me that I could share my work with when I came out of my self-inflicted solitary confinement.
So, my MA experience was a very positive one and I’d do it all over again in a heartbeat. Does that mean you should do a Nature Writing MA? I’m reluctant to come out with a wholehearted yes because I wouldn’t want anyone to base their decision on what I say. No one else can make that decision for you. What I’m trying to show is that there are some really valuable lessons to be gained from doing a writing MA and that the critics who argue you can’t teach someone to write aren’t necessarily right. Of course a writing MA isn’t going to turn you into an overnight success and as a nature writer you’re probably even less likely to reach dizzying heights of fame. But that’s not the point.
If you want a year to focus on your writing, if you want to improve your writing and start writing more regularly, if you want to read and discuss important texts in your area, and if you want to be part of a community of writers then I’d recommend doing a Nature Writing MA.
The MA in Writing, Nature and Place is sadly no longer running, but other similar courses seem to have sprung up since I did my MA. Here’s a couple for anyone interested:
If you need some inspiration to pursue what you’re passionate about, this video is great: