Diary of a Creative Writing MA Student – The Final Year

MMU Creative Writing Summer School - coping with setbacks as a writerThere’s something inspirational about spending time with other writers, sharing a mutual interest in words and stories, poems and punctuation, and last week I attended the MMU Creative Writing Summer School – the perfect finish to my MA, after two years of study and creativity. I just have one final assignment to complete – a collection of 300 lines of poetry – and that will be it! I thoroughly enjoyed the summer school, and am now feeling re-energised and ready for a final burst of creativity over the summer…   

Discussing the Forward Prize Shortlists

I particularly enjoyed discussing the poetry collections which have made it onto this year’s Forward Prize shortlist for best collection and best first collection (the final judging takes place in September). Andrew McMillan is on the judging panel, so we had a fascinating insight into what it’s like to judge collections alongside each other (almost impossible!) and some very lively debates about the varied styles of poetry.

Although there was only time to look at a couple of poems from each collection, we all had a go at picking our favourites. Out of the four collections up for ‘best first collection’ I think I would vote for The Perseverance by Raymond Antrobus, and for ‘best collection’, I’d vote for Ilya Kaminsky’s Deaf Republic, though some might argue that this is more like a playscript. I was also stunned by David Cain’s poems, from his collection Truth Street, which focuses on the Hillsborough Disaster, and mesmerised by Niall Campbell’s poem ‘Clapping Game’, in which he uses asterisks to indicate where the reader should clap their hands. It felt somehow surreal, yet also perfectly normal for a room full of people to read a poem together out loud, interspersed with claps.

In John Fennelly's workshop - Developing a Pamphlet

In John Fennelly’s workshop – Developing a Poetry Pamphlet

‘The Golden Portal of Being Published’ – Responding to Setbacks as a Writer

I was really encouraged by a session in which three of the tutors shared advice about responding to setbacks and negative criticism. It’s so true that until you get published, you think that everything will be wonderful when you eventually get to the other side of that impossible barrier… but of course that’s not always the case, and writers will always have their setbacks and critics.

I was really encouraged by what Catherine Wilcox (who writes as Catherine Fox) said about her fourth novel, which publishers described as ‘unsalvageable’ and ‘a valid failure’. After this setback she went on to write a non-fiction book, realising, in hindsight, that she needed to move away from what she had been doing and try something new for a while.

Andrew McMillan described how long it took to pluck up the courage to write what he wanted to write, even though it wasn’t ‘fashionable’, and Gregory Norminton described how he eventually turned a novel that wasn’t working into one of the best short stories he’s ever written.

All three writers agreed that ‘writers block’ is not a helpful phrase, as all writers go through periods when they’re not actively writing, and that’s normal – we should spend the time doing other useful things, such as reading, and being creative in other ways.

Taking Risks with Your Poetry

Another helpful session with Mandy Coe involved assessing our writing habits, analysing how often we use the present tense, or the first person, for example, and then forcing ourselves to change what we normally do and try something different. I’d say the whole MA has been useful for me in that regard. My aim, when I began the MA two years ago, was to find my ‘voice’ and decide what style of poetry I should focus on, what style I am ‘best’ at, and at first I was a little resistant to tasks such as ‘write a sonnet’ or ‘write in iambic pentameter’ but the process of trying (and often failing!) has, I think, helped me to become more aware of my own poetic habits (good and bad) and to develop these in what I hope is the right direction…

Looking back over the last two years I do feel that I’ve made progress. I’ve certainly got better at coming up with effective titles, and possibly also a bit braver in accepting (or sometimes rejecting!) feedback, and I hope I’m a little more willing to ‘just write’ and try new things, even if I don’t know where they’ll take me! I’ve also had a few more poems published, and I’m really happy to say that I’ve been awarded funding from the AHRC to begin a PhD in the autumn, focusing on ekphrastic poetry!

Developing a Poetry Pamphlet

Developing a Poetry Pamphlet – how do you decide what order to put your poems in?

Read about my first year as a Creative Writing MA student here…