Creative Writing Postgraduate Programs have long been a staple of the academic world in the United States. Prominent writers, among them Raymond Carver, David Foster Wallace, and Joyce Carol Oates, have worked as creative writing professors since as far back as the seventies. Yet despite Dublin’s literary heritage and wealth of authors, it has only recently come to be recognised as a centre of excellence for such courses; now it attracts scores of hopeful young writers from around the world every year.
“You can’t teach people to be creative. You can only accelerate the pace at which people are developing creatively, which is a very different matter.” These are the words of Professor James Ryan, Course Convener of University College Dublin’s MA in Creative Writing, which started in 2006 and now receives applications from all over the world.
One of the bigger pulls for me was the fact that I was going to be studying in Oscar’s house
UCD’s long association with Ireland’s greatest writers, James Joyce, John McGahern, and Maeve Binchy among them, means that successful MA applicants will go on to work with revered writers such as distinguished playwright, Frank McGuinness, a Professor here, and internationally acclaimed novelists, Colm Tóibín and Anne Enright who are Adjunct Professors. Alumni include Colin Barrett, author of the searingly popular ‘Young Skins’, and winner of The Guardian First Book Award. “The people who come to us are already creative writers, who really wish to hone their craft,” says Ryan.
I spoke with Dublin woman Helen Chandler, who attended the UCD MA in Creative Writing in 2007/2008. “I was 24 at the time, a year out of undergrad and flailing around without a proper job, wondering what to do with myself,” she says. After taking classes at the Irish Writers Centre and working various office jobs, “I decided I’d take the next step and do an MA.” One of a class of fourteen, she remembers her time fondly and credits Professor James Ryan as “a warm, kind and supportive presence. It was amazing to have someone like that at my disposal who believed in my work, who saw my work as legitimate. I ran into James at a party years after I graduated and he not only remembered me, but quoted the opening line from a story I’d written for his workshop to me – word for word! That’s dedication.”
Helen is now living in the US where she teaches Creative Writing in the University of Virginia. “There’s so much talk about how writing can’t be taught and about how MA and MFA programmes create a certain ‘type’ of writer,” she says, but for Helen, the course provided “the most crucial thing – time to write. You just have to be smart about it – don’t go into debt for a degree in creative writing. That would be insane. Save for an MA or get into a fully-funded MFA programme. And once you’re in, make use of every minute – conference with the professors, spend hours talking about writing and literature with your colleagues, write like a motherf***er!”
UCD is not the only Creative Writing postgrad in the city. The American College offers an MFA in Creative Writing under the guidance of such acclaimed writers as Mia Gallagher, Sean O’Reilly and Mike McCormack. And Trinity has the city’s longest established program, offering an M.Phil in Creative Writing since 1997, taught in the rooms at 21 Westland Row, the house where Oscar Wilde was born.
The people who come to us are already creative writers, who really wish to hone their craft.
I spoke to Dublin-based author Gavin Corbett who was a Writing Fellow at Trinity in 2016 and taught on the M.Phil. It was Gavin’s first experience of teaching in a university setting; his office was in the attic of the Wilde house. He sees Dublin as a natural base for courses of this sort, where beyond the classroom, the streets are steeped in literary history. Dublin’s literary culture is “one of our most strenuous exports really, other than stout, creamy liqueur and soda bread. It’s Dublin’s identity in a nutshell, its writers and writing.”
To what does he attribute the growing popularity of creative writing courses? He thinks that the momentum developed from the MFA culture in America and Irish third level institutions have recognised the “very unique commodity that we have, something that the wider world is interested in drawing from.”
Rohan Swamy from Bombay, India attended the Trinity M. Phil in 2016. The course was “on his radar” in India and he was familiar with the work of teachers like Deirdre Madden and Carlo Gebler. “I knew exactly how good they were.” Trinity was “more financially viable” for him than the U.S and he felt “spoiled” to have prominent poet, Professor Gerald Dawe, as his supervisor.
Dublin literature was a long-time influence for Rohan. “I drew upon Oscar Wilde and Bram Stoker when I was doing my own reading back in India. One of the bigger pulls for me was the fact that I was going to be studying in Oscar’s house. That was a big deal.” Rohan also believes “Ireland and India share a lot of values when it comes to cultural history,” citing the history of oppression, battles for independence and divisions along religious lines. “I chose to focus on the similarities rather than the differences.”
Rohan describes his first night in Dublin. He arrived not knowing a soul. “I met random strangers who told me they had never met anyone from India before and they showed me around and bought me a couple of drinks and wanted to listen to my story and it was so nice – even though I knew I was halfway across the world from India, I didn’t feel like I was in an alien land, it was more like home.”
Ana Arellano is from California and was a classmate of Rohan’s on the M Phil. She first fell in love with Dublin on a family holiday, and became determined to pursue a postgrad here. “I’ve always had a fascination with Ireland since I was a kid but I chose Trinity because of its literary history.” She calls Oscar Wilde her “spirit animal” and “went to Trinity specifically because I would be in the shadow of greats.” As a writer of young adult fantasy fiction, Ana wanted to “find my voice as a writer”.
On the possibility of returning to California, Ana says, “I don’t ever want to go back. I adjusted quickly to the Dublin way of life. There’s a very, ‘It’s grand’ attitude and that to me is perfect.” She hopes to pursue a phD on Seamus Heaney and the poet’s place within the political sphere.
Ana acknowledges the cynicism that exists in relation to creative writing postgrads, those people who say, “What are you going to do with that degree? Saying basically you’re going to be a barista for the rest of your life.” But she doesn’t let it get to her. “I’m doing what I love to do and I’m really proud of the fact that I got accepted into Trinity. I still can’t believe that.”