By Prajwal Parajuly
I signed with my literary agent three days before I started the two-year master of studies in creative writing at Oxford, and I signed a two-book contract with Quercus three days before the second year of the course began. Some people, however, assume that my book deal was wholly the result of the course.
At first, I relished being an undeserved poster boy for creative writing courses. My publishing contract – like all book deals coming the way of students enrolled in or fresh off a programmes – was a slap in the faces of those who said creative writing courses were a farce, factories where writers who have never been published teach writers who will never get published. Then the emails started pouring in.
They came from far and near: from north-eastern India, where home is for me; from Nepal, where my mother comes from; and from the US, where I spent many years. In each congratulatory message, well-wishers asked whether they should pursue a master's. When I asked them how they hoped to pay for their degrees many people, especially those from America and the UK, said they would finance their studies with student loans.
As an overseas student at Oxford, I must have spent more than £30,000. This, I understand, is about half of what most students on American creative writing programmes fork out and double what my EU counterparts at Oxford paid. What, exactly, was I supposed to tell people who thought they might take out a loan to pay for their studies?
Should I tell them about the student two years ahead of me who found an agent through the end-of-the-year readings and went on to publish a fantastic book with a well-respected publishing house? Should I talk about how one of the stories in The Gurkha's Daughter stemmed from a class exercise I wrote for a bestselling author? Should I describe the pathetic excitement that gripped many students when a lone tutor said he didn't mind receiving work from us even after we graduated? Or should I inform prospective students about the banal feedback process, during which platitudes such as "I don't usually get poetry, but this I totally loved" were bandied about? (Yes, the comment came from me, and it was 100% insincere.)
Maybe I could tell these hopeful writers about my early days on the course, when people said a collection of short stories wouldn't be picked by a publisher because … it wasn't a novel. Or how some tutors were extremely knowledgeable about the British publishing scene but less so about international publishing. To expect them to know the American, Asian and Australian markets was perhaps hoping for too much, but when you pay huge sums for a course, your expectations rise; you become extra-sensitive about some tutor not attending your reading, or not even knowing your name.
I don't believe writing can be taught, and I think people who design creative writing programmes agree with me. Such courses, however, are predicated on the idea that writing can be finessed with the help of the right tutors, the right peers and the right atmosphere. Did that hold true for me?
In a way it did. I joined the Oxford programme because I had nothing to do; I had quit my job and was halfway through a rough collection of short stories. I was tired of people asking me well-meaning questions such as "What are you doing?". Also, I come from a country where advanced degrees, no matter how frivolous, give people multiple orgasms, so a master's it was going to be. I wasn't about to spend three semesters studying postmodernism, so I looked at courses at places like Columbia and the University of Iowa. The latter was in the middle of nowhere, Columbia was formidably expensive, and a few other places I was considering met daily. (Going to class every day was unappealing.) Oxford's retreat- and residence-focused schedule suited my needs. We had two to three months between every block of classes to read and write – this was when I completed a large chunk of my second book – and then we would meet from 8am to 8pm every day for three or four days.
I dabbled with poetry and screenwriting – two genres I'd have avoided were it not for the course. To get my money's worth, I decided to write a screenplay for my final-year project. For assignments, I submitted my most experimental pieces. I brought in the weakest stories to be workshopped, reasoning that if I was spending so much money I might as well take to the course what I would be embarrassed to workshop elsewhere. Weighing the worth of every assignment, every reading and every tutorial against how much money you're shelling out is a common practice among students of creative writing.
I found two people on the course with whom I shall probably exchange work all my life, I published my first poem, and I have in my possession a puerile screenplay of which I am equally proud and ashamed. All wonderful things, yes, but not worth £30,000 of debt. (Fortunately, I didn't have to worry about interest rates, job placements and how to pay off my loans – a combination of savings and investments helped fund my education, as did the wonderful club that is the Oxford University Poker Society.)
I usually advise people to enrol in creative writing courses if they have the cash and the time. But to take out a loan to finance your studies? Considering the current publishing landscape – where a mid five-figure advance is considered a big deal – should give you an idea of where you might, if you're lucky, find yourself as a graduate. That is, of course, if things work out. If they don't, you could always teach.
Prajwal Parajuly is the author of The Gurkha's Daughter (Quercus). Land Where I Flee, his novel, is scheduled for publication in January 2014. This article first appeared on the Guardian website and is reproduced here with kind permission. Image by ToastyTreat under Creative Commons license.