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How I’m Going To Master this Writing Lark

Announcing a big life change: I’m going to be starting a masters course in a couple of weeks. An MA in Creative Writing, at Birkbeck, University of London.

Nine Months in Slippers

How did you get here, Martin?” I hear you ask. Let me take you back to November last year. I lost my job. The reasons are obscure and not that interesting, but I had been working at SPIKA for only six months, and suddenly I was out on the street.1

If that had happened a couple of months sooner, I might have been studying all this time. I had been vaguely musing on the idea of doing a masters in journalism. I love to write, and I sometimes think that I kind of missed a calling.

I was too late for 2019, all the university terms having already started. So I did a bit of job hunting, but mainly took a break till after Christmas.

When this year that we had no idea was going to be so terrible started, I started looking for jobs, but I also kept thinking about journalism. I started a distance-learning course. Learned a bit of shorthand, and read up on some of the other aspects of the craft. A journalism MA, starting this year, was still on the table.

Then Coronavirus arrived.

To be honest, the lockdown didn’t change things that much for me: I was at home all the time anyway. But the jobs market, as well as the rest of the world, was affected. It’s easy to work from home in software development, but recruitment was down. I had a few interviews, but no success.

Then somewhere in there I decided that journalism wasn’t for me after all. There are aspects of the profession that didn’t appeal to me: newsgathering and all that side of it, essentially. I’d like to be a columnist or maybe a feature writer, but not so much a reporter. Perhaps more importantly, it’s a terrible time for journalism, with newsrooms laying people off and cutting back.

I kept looking for jobs back in software development. But after a bit, Frances said, “Why don’t you do a masters in your own field?” It was a good idea: it would be intellectually stimulating, and possibly improve my employability. I started looking at courses.

Computer science itself (I’ve never formally studied it), or one of the various data science options? Both had their merits. Either would have been interesting and mentally challenging.

But they didn’t spark joy, to use a tidiness-related term that seems appropriate. I looked at the course outlines, and they were interesting enough, but I could tell I wouldn’t have loved doing them.

There were other subjects, though, and one kept prodding my mind; one that did offer the prospect of joy, the possibility that I would love it.

Like I said, I love to write.

Choosing

Quite a few institutions offer creative writing MAs, in various forms. I applied to all of them. All the ones in London, anyway, and a few others that offer distance learning. Each needed a personal statement and a sample of writing. Every single one had unique requirements of the sample, in terms of word length and type of piece. Royal Holloway, for example (who rejected me), wanted a short story extract and, uniquely, a piece of critical writing. Most just wanted the fiction.

There were differences in the course titles, too. London Met’s was ‘Creative, Digital, and Professional Writing.’ Westminster’s was ‘Creative Writing: Writing the City,’ though they had closed entry for this year.

City, University of London has several. But the plain ‘Creative Writing‘ was showing a message to the effect of ‘Applications suspended.’ I emailed to ask if this meant that they were full for the year, and was told that no, they had suspended entry for 2020 because there wasn’t enough interest. So I applied for another one they have, ‘Creative Writing and Publishing.’ They got back to me after a few days and said the course was full. Seems to be a slight disconnect there, maybe?

I got offers from London Met, Kingston (by distance learning), and Birkbeck. Birkbeck were the only ones who interviewed me first (I still haven’t heard back from several, and Glasgow’s website was too broken to let me apply — and they didn’t reply to my query). And just today, Teeside, another distance learning one, offered me a place. Far, far too late. I shouldn’t criticise, though, since I was very late in applying.

For a variety of reasons I decided Birkbeck was the best of the offers, not least that I liked Julia Bell, the course leader, who interviewed me from her shed. Birkbeck is ‘London’s evening university.’ It was set up to provide adult education to people who are working. All the classes are in the evenings.

Why, and Why Now?

This is probably something I should have done thirty years ago, but we didn’t know about masterses back then. Well, I didn’t, anyway. And I don’t think creative writing masters courses existed at all.2 Anyway, as the saying more or less has it, the best time was then; the second-best time is now.

Will it help me be a better writer? I damn well hope so. Beyond that, we’ll have to wait and see.

And Beyond…

What comes after this? In an ideal world I’ll make my living as a writer. I’m well aware how hard that is to achieve, though, so I might end up going back to programming. The best might be some sort of hybrid. We’ll see, but I’m not going to worry too much about it for the next year or so.

One thing I do plan to do is to blog about the course as I do it, so expect to see more here.


  1. Specifically Victoria Street, Westminster. It was a very convenient office for popping down to Parliament Square to protest illegal proroguing

  2. A little research tells me the famous UEA one started in 1970, so I’m wrong there. 

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