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What's the Value of a Creative Writing Degree?

On the first day of my MFA in creative writing, I entered my first workshop and looked at my colleagues, the people who would critique my work and make me a better writer. Our tutor had us go around the table and introduce ourselves. 

Hello, I’m Sinéad. My favorite book is Dracula, my favorite fiction author is Margaret Atwood and my favorite creative nonfiction writer is Bill Bryson.  I write memoir and I've been blogging for ten years. I’m interested in writing a humorous literary travel memoir.

Hello, I’m M---- and I don’t read. I don’t really write either.

WHAT? What the hell are you doing here? This guy is never going to be any help to me. Cue eye-rolling, not-so-suppressed sighing and general outrage from me. I could not fathom what this man was doing in a postgraduate writing course and I took it as a personal affront that he did not have the dedication that I did.

He was not a particularly strong writer and I worried that his lack of talent was, somehow, a reflection on me. I worried that if I was not surrounded by people who were as good, as dedicated or, ideally better and more dedicated as I, then I was being cheated. Even as I sought and found writers who were and are better than I am, I quietly seethed that M----- was not alone in his lack of prior knowledge and raw talent. There were even more students whom I deemed unworthy and they all rankled me and contradicted my idea of who should study creative writing.

Several years on, I am now the teacher asking students to introduce themselves. I find myself saying to them all, the ones who are like me, the ones who are like my former colleague and all those in between, You must read as much and as widely as you possibly can and then read more. You must write as much as you possibly can and then write more.

Today, I am even more obsessed with the written word and with storytelling. I believe even more strongly in the power of words. But I also believe that I was entirely wrong about M-----.

Last week I was telling my undergraduate creative writing students, who have varying levels of talent and interest, what I believe about teaching creative writing: I cannot teach you to win a Booker or a Pulitzer or a T S Eliot. I cannot even teach you to write something good enough for publication anywhere. What I can teach you is to be a better writer, a better reader and a better editor than you were yesterday.

M----- does not now write for a living. I don’t believe he ever wanted to, but he is a better writer by tenfold or more. During his degree he read and he wrote and he edited the work of his peers. He tried and failed and tried again and failed better. And, really, isn’t that what any of us are doing anyway? He was, absolutely and without competition the most improved writer of that year. If I could have improved my writing to the degree that he improved his, I might actually win a Booker.

I do not hold such unrealistic or unfair expectations for my students. Some of them will be writers and some of them will go on to do other things. The decision to do something else is neither a failing on their part nor mine. It is simply their decision. Just as lecturers in mathematics do not expect every one of their students to become professional mathematicians, I do not hold expectations for my students’ lives and callings. Those are for them to find, to decide and to explore. My job as their teacher is to support them, to challenge them and to give them the tools that will help them to meet the world on their own terms.
Learning what you do not want to do is every bit as important as learning what you do want. I had several jobs before I came to what I now realize is my dream job, from a cattle station in Australia (which is still a close second) to working in construction. I have taken new knowledge and skills from everything I have ever tried, done or studied and I bring all of that to writing and teaching, now. I think, I hope, it makes me better at both. I also hope that my students who don’t become professional writers will take things from my classes that will help them and enrich their lives long after they have forgotten my name.