Staff and students from the Manchester Writing School are once more preparing to look back on another enormously successful academic year. Notable highlights have ranged from alumni novel launches, to the Let in the Stars anthology’s shortlisting for the Children’s Poetry Prize, and of course the Writing School’s Creative Director Poet Laureate Dame Carol Ann Duffy’s inclusion in the Queen’s New Year’s Honours list.
Here, Humanity Hallows catches up with a number of current and former students of the Creative Writing MA at Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) to discover what it is that makes the Manchester Writing School experience so special.
Maggie Mackay is studying the MA Creative Writing (Poetry) at MMU. She is a member of the ‘52 Group‘, led by Jo Bell, and a contributor and editor within the collective which published the Still Me… anthology which won the Writers’ Circle Anthology Award 2014. More recently, Maggie became a co-editor of Word Bohemia and has seen her work published in numerous magazines and publications. She told us,
“I may have retired from a responsible role as an educator in a school environment, but I have not retired from learning, or teaching. The MA in Creative Writing (Poetry) is a central part of my mid-life experience. Just as adolescents mature and move into adulthood and all that entails, so I regard this phase of my life as a time to step up to an affirming challenge.
The course stretches my brain, lifts my energy levels and gives me an important focus. I am combining lifelong skills with new goals and fresh ideas, enjoying a kindred spirit environment of all ages and gaining a zest for knowledge and self expression which fulfils me personally, and out there in the world of words, projects and publishing. Life is full of wonderful surprises and the MA at MMU is one of them.”
Robert Harper read with Dame Carol Ann Duffy at the Royal Exchange Theatre in January , and arrived home the next day to discover that he had been highly commended in the Poetry Book Society National Student Poetry Competition. He is currently completing an MA in Creative Writing (Poetry) with Pedagogic Studies. Robert said,
“I think it’s an obvious combination of the in depth study of a handful of 20th century and contemporary poets alongside excellent workshops with fellow students and spot on insights from tutors. All those things have pushed my writing development much more than I could have done by myself.
“The course has given me the freedom to experiment and also the ability to allow myself not to try to succeed too quickly. There is a big feeling of needing to get out there and get published as quickly as possible. The course has shown me that actually, I can do better if I give myself time. I don’t often submit work to magazines and anthologies at the moment, so it is even more rewarding to garner the occasional approval.
“I most certainly would recommend MMU to anyone considering a course in Creative Writing. The breadth of abilities and standing that the staff have is outstanding. I’m thoroughly enjoying studying here.”
Since Eileen Pun began the Creative Writing MA at MMU she has been awarded a full-time, publishing traineeship at Carcanet Press, Manchester. That experience led her to important freelance work for New World Press and Renmin University Press, Beijing.
Her poem/piece ‘Runner’ won the 2009 Rosamond Prize for the best collaborative piece of poetry and music. Following this, Eileen was commissioned to write a libretto as part of a four-way collaboration between MMU, Royal Northern College of Music, Central School of Speech and Drama (CSSD) and the Manchester Chinese Centre (MCC). ‘The Red Knot’ is based on the migrant Chinese deaths of Morecambe Bay in 2004. The opera premiered in May 2010 and raised money for their families, prompting interviews with BBC Radio Manchester and Lancashire.
In 2013, Eileen was selected for The Complete Works II, a national competition of emerging Black and Asian poets. The programme culminated with the anthology Ten: The New Wave (Bloodaxe, 2014). Now a Complete Works Fellow, Eileen has the opportunity to support upcoming poets as a mentor, seminar leader, or editor. She told us,
“I can’t find any reason why a person who has an inclination for poetry could not spend time continually writing, finding ways to access feedback and then find their work flourishing. Nevertheless, I’ve had to acknowledge that … for all the reading poetry and dabbling in my journal that I have done, I truly began to give my writing certain commitment under the pressure of the [MA Creative Writing] course.
“The chance to evaluate your work with peers, or a poet that you respect is a useful way to deal with the inevitable insecurities that come with writing. When I enrolled onto the MMU Writing School I not only wanted to develop my writing, I also had a strong desire to fill the massive gaps in my literature knowledge and to put myself under critical assessment. I was also already an admirer of the poetry of Michael Symmons Roberts.
“The standards at MMU are high, the Writing School is very well connected and supportive. So, considering my specific circumstances and motivations, the course had a profound impact on my poetry. (The) Writing School’s relationship and proximity to the Royal Northern College of Music Composition Department and the Anthony Burgess Foundation is somewhat unique. I didn’t expect to finish my course making friends and professional connections with composers as well as poets. Writers that are thinking about starting a Creative Writing MA and have an interest in music or collaboration might find extra incentive to choose MMU.”
Mark Pajak‘s poem ‘Sheet Music’ was published last month in The Rialto. A further poem of his, ‘Cat on the Tracks’, was recently commended in the National Poetry Competition. Mark is currently studying an MA in Creative Writing at MMU. He told us,
“The course has developed my writing ability in innumerable and often surprising ways. However, most importantly, it’s the structure of tasks and deadlines, encouraging self-discipline while pushing me again and again beyond my comfort zone.
“The lecturers on the course are very encouraging, making you want to work hard and then nudging you in the right direction. I wouldn’t have submitted work to anywhere if The Rialto and the National Poetry Competition had not first been pointed out to me.
“I would wholly recommend this course because it’s all-consuming. It becomes your life after a while, the reason you get up early or rush home at night. Everyone is pushed to go the extra mile and I don’t know a single fellow student who hasn’t had to work extremely hard. One thing we’ve all learned is that no poem is beyond improvement or utterly hopeless and all a writer needs is a genuine drive to improve. If you have that drive then the Manchester Writing School will help you no end.”
Sylvia Horner studied the first of MMU’s online MA Creative Writing (Novel Writing) courses. She has recently seen two of her short stories, ‘The Philosopher’ and ‘My New School‘, published as well as a book of short stories entitled The First Noble Truth. She is currently working on a novel about an elderly woman suffering from Alzheimer’s. Sylvia told us,
“I think MMU was ahead of a lot of universities at that time as very few people were offering that type of course. It’s a good course and one in which you have to finish your novel. It’s well supervised. Linking up by computer every Tuesday was such fun – even if it was your turn to be the star. This meant that your piece was critiqued.
“The staff are great and very helpful. There is a residential school where you meet everyone – and exchange ideas. Towards the end of this you meet on a one-to-one basis with a tutor and get personal advice and encouragement and criticism – this is particularly welcome in respect of the online course.”
Bee Lewis recently had a short story, ‘The Iron Men’, published in a Danish magazine called Anglofiles. Since then, the story has been picked up a second time and will feature in this year’s Best British Short Stories anthology published by Salt. She has also had a number of other short stories and flash fiction short-listed for various competitions. Bee studied the part-time, online MA Creative Writing (Novel Writing) course and is currently in her writing up year, working on her novel The Hare and the Hunter and preparing to submit it in January 2016. She told Humanity Hallows,
“The course has made me think more deeply about my writing. I still believe that writing is instinctual, that it comes from a place within. That seed of an idea, whether it be for a poem, short story or novel, is unique to the person experiencing it. But the treatment of the idea is the most important thing I will take away from the course. I’ve been exposed to works I wouldn’t ordinarily have read. I’ve been able to discuss ideas with people (both tutors and students) who have helped me shape my thinking. I’ve been allowed the freedom to experiment, to decide what works and to test out different approaches. For example, the novel I will submit is not the novel I started the course with and I can trace the genesis back to influences and events that I have experienced as part of this course.
“I also think the length of the course has worked very well for me. I am the kind of person who likes to ponder and deliberate – to take my time. By studying over three years, I’ve had the time I needed to think about approach, structure, characterisation and plot. I think my novel would have been weakened if I’d completed the course in a shorter time, but I also think it’s great that MMU offers the flexibility to do so.
“I’m braver than I was and now that I’ve had some successes behind me, I feel more able to take risks. Before starting the course, I knew (or thought I knew) the basics of writing, but I think that over the time I have been studying with MMU, my writing has matured. The stories I used to write were very cosy and bland, whereas now, my writing has more depth. My style has matured over time, as I’ve discovered my voice.
“I was looking for an MA which would allow me to teach Creative Writing, would enable me to focus on a novel and which would fit in around my life, so this course fitted my needs perfectly.”
Marita Over‘s poem ‘Spider’ from her second collection Not Knowing Itself (Arrowhead Press, 2007) has recently been published in an anthology which has been chosen by the examination board, Edexcel, as the poetry set text for English A-level this year. The poem appears in Poems of the Decade: An Anthology of the Forward Books of Poetry 2002-2011 which will be reprinted in March. Marita is currently in her second year studying the MA Creative Writing at MMU. She told us,
“I’m new to writing fiction and while the novel’s form excites me enormously, moving into such a big space after crafting poems for more than 20 years was pretty daunting. That’s why it’s been very important for me that the course should provide the right mix of challenge and support in friendly workshops and online forums. I’m happy to say that I’ve felt free and been encouraged to stretch my imagination and experiment with different techniques, voices, structures and so on.
“I have already recommended the Writing School’s online MA to a writer friend who I thought would benefit from the ease of distance learning. The quality of the teaching and the variety of ways in which technology is used is perfect for people like me, who live too far away to commute to any decent universities.”
Janet Olearski joined the Manchester Writing School’s MA in Creative Writing (Novel Writing) in 2008. She came to the course with a comprehensive track record in educational writing and publishing and currently teaches Communication 101 full time to university students in Abu Dhabi. Janet has had her work short-listed for the 2014 Harvill Secker Crime Writing Prize, finishing in the top six above thousands of other entries. A short fiction piece she submitted for The National newspaper and the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair Short Story Competition earned her third place. Over the last two years, her short fiction has won awards at the Winchester Writers’ Conference. You can find out more about Janet’s work at janetolearski.com. She told Humanity Hallows,
“I was aiming to take what I thought would be a sideways step into creative writing, and novel writing in particular. I talked to various people who had taken similar courses and their verdict was that a course of this kind would be as good as the effort you put into it – that is a given, I suppose – but also that it would be equivalent to something like five or six years’ worth of working alone on my writing.
“The course proved challenging with – surprisingly, I thought at the time – a heavy fiction reading component. I see the value of that now. The combined input of my reading, my coursework, feedback from experienced tutors and from fellow students served to accelerate the learning process. Now when I go back and re-read my earlier work, I am not entirely displeased, but I do see problems that need to be fixed. With the knowledge gained from doing the course, I can fix them. I’ve taken pieces of incomplete or unsatisfactory writing and overhauled them entirely with the result that many of those pieces have since been published or have formed the basis for other work. The course also provided me with a clear direction in terms of what I want to read and what I want to write. I continue to be astounded by the number of ‘new’ writers who tell me that they rarely read. We need to see what’s out there. We need to not reinvent the writing wheel and we do that by finding out what and how other people are writing. Since taking the course, I’m more likely to pick up ideas about style and structure from eclectic reading than I ever was before. The Manchester Writing School experience was a very important exercise in awareness raising.
“It’s significant, I think, that the book I wrote during my MMU course, which I liked then and still like, did not quite meet up to my personal expectations by the time the course was over. I’ve since moved on and have a book of short fiction – Evelyn’s Virtual Diary and Other Stories – that is ‘good to go’. I’m moving forward too with a new novel, Veneziano, based on research I gathered many years ago when I was teaching at the University of Palermo in Sicily.
“I miss the ‘virtual’ contact that I had with my fellow MMU writers. Being part of a Manchester Writing School course eases the sense of isolation. Participants in the MMU courses find they can be part of a lively cohort of focused professional writers while maintaining the privacy they need to develop their own work. They are ‘enlightened’ by new insights, which come as part of the learning process, and the pay-off is immediate because new ideas or solutions to problems that reveal themselves during the course can be fed back into their work-in-progress.
“So, my message to anyone contemplating applying for a place at the Manchester Writing School is, ‘Yes, do it, and, if you are committed to developing your writing, then the sooner you do it, the better’.”
Hilary Robinson began her part time MA in Creative Writing (Poetry) in September 2014. She has worked with schoolchildren to increase awareness of poetry and provide poetry workshops in schools. She has had great success co-ordinating public readings for her poetry group, The Seven Spelks, who meet monthly and set each other tasks for the next month. Her poem ‘On Bridge Street’ was published in The Interpreter’s House in February 2015 and she read at the launch in Leeds. Hilary told us,
“Even though this is a Higher Degree course the atmosphere is overwhelmingly friendly. Tutors and admin staff are all helpful and approachable and the MMU MA course offers lots of opportunities over and above your chosen course, like collaborations with RNCM students and short projects. Starting the MA gave me the confidence to start submitting to magazines.
“We have been enjoying workshopping our own poems with Michael Symmons Roberts … these sessions are making me weigh each word as I write and make sure it is working hard enough to earn its keep. We were encouraged to write pastiches of featured poets and this was really useful to ‘get under the skin’ of the poems and to appreciate the process of writing in a particular form.”
For more information on the Manchester Writing School and the MA Creative Writing at MMU, please visit manchesterwritingschool.co.uk
Neil Harrison is Editor-in-Chief at Humanity Hallows. He is in his third year studying History at MMU. Follow Neil on Twitter @looseriver