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I need your advice

I’m thinking about applying to UBC to do a master’s degree in creative writing. I could do it part-time, through distance education.

I’m feeling conflicted, though.

Part of me says “If you want to write, just write. You don’t need a master’s degree.  Just write.”

That same part of me also questions the logic of digging into my meager retirement savings to finance a master’s degree when I’m a lot closer to retirement age than I am to school age. It’s not cheap. It’s about $18,000 spread over the two-to-five years it’ll take me to complete it. (For some reason I can’t fathom, tuition for distance education is even higher than tuition on campus.)

Tuition is a solid investment for young people, but not so much for the middle-aged. I doubt that I would ever recoup my tuition from paid writing gigs, so I can’t make a sound economic case for going back to school…especially for creative writing.

The only case I can make for it is that I want to do it.  I want writing prompts, ideas, stimulation, assignments, pressure, deadlines, guidance and feedback. I want to take my potential as far as I can and see where it goes. I want to immerse myself in that writing zone where the words flow and the time flies.

All my life – all my life – I’ve wanted to be a writer. Even before I could print my own name, I wanted to be a writer. With most dreams, there are real obstacles that need to be overcome.  If you want to be a doctor, you have to go to medical school. If you want to travel around the world, you need some time and money. But writing? It’s free, there are no pre-requisites, and no special equipment is required. Even a little kid has everything they need to do it. There are no barriers. No excuses.

Which makes it all the more puzzling – and frustrating – that I haven’t done it yet.

I don’t know what obstacle is standing between me and my dream of being a writer, but it’s probably not a master’s degree. Nevertheless, working on a master’s degree might help me plow through whatever the obstacle is.

When cancer brought me face to face with the possibility that I might die soon, it altered my perceptions of life. The shift was subtle, but its implications have been significant and lasting. Paradoxically, most of the things I learned from cancer were things I already knew. For example, I knew – just like we all know –  that quality of life matters more than quantity. But now I know it in a way that sometimes changes the choices I make.

I know that a person can die young after living a complete and rich life, and a person can die old without ever having really lived.

I know that money matters, but it’s meant to be spent on things that matter more.

I know that when my time is up and I’m reflecting on my life, I’d rather be thinking “I was a writer” instead of “I always wanted to be a writer.”

And even though this contradicts everything I just said, I also realized when I had cancer that I am already a writer.

These are some of the things I’m thinking about.

What do you think?  Should I apply? I’d love to hear your thoughts, ideas, advice and suggestions.







35 comments to I need your advice

  • I say, Wait one month (if you have not already done that) and if you are still excited about it, DO IT. In case you have not noticed, most writers do not support themselves by writing, but by having jobs that allow them to write, like teaching writing. With a masters, you would have the credentials. If you try it and decide you don’t like it, you can always do something else, but if you don’t even try it, I think you will regret it. (Now I have to examine MY life and see what I would regret not doing….)

    • Thanks Abby. This was something I gave some thought to a few years ago too but decided not to pursue at that time. It lay dormant for awhile, and now it has resurfaced.

      So…have you examined your life? :)

  • I think there are less expensive ways to get what you are looking for. Have you considered hiring a writing coach? Alison Gresik here in town (well, she’s travelling right now but will be home soon) has a business where she works with you, inspiring you to find time to write, to fit it into your daily schedule, and to find inspiration. There’s also a lot of writing classes offered at Algonquin which I hear are really good – places where they give you writing prompts, then analyse and give you feedback on your work. Also, a writer’s group can be amazing – if you’re meeting once a month or so, it gives you a “deadline” to work towards, and reading your stuff to your peers and getting feedback is a really enriching process. You might know of some other writers who are interested in starting a new group, or you could join the Ottawa Writers Association, which has various writers groups you can join. The Writers Assocation ( also has regular lectures you can attend that talk about everything from how to create good characters to how to handle a book proposal to how to market yourself online as a writer. It’s all free to members and I think membership is less than $100 a year.

    If you’re more self motivated (heaven knows, I am not, but you might be!), there’s also a few magazines out there that have regular articles on how to improve your writing, and that give you monthly writing prompts (and a few where you can submit your writing prompt result for possible publication). So just getting a subscription might give you a monthly boost and some focus.

    I think the only reason to do the masters is a) you really love the school environment, and want to go back, b) you want to teach or start some kind of business where you are a paid coach/instructor, or c) you have a great idea for a book and need to force yourself to write it some way. Otherwise, I think you should try these other resources first.

    • Thanks Lynn. I think you’re right about there being less expensive ways to get what I’m looking for.

      I’m on Alison’s mailing list, and I did a short writing thing with her at Raw Sugar one day.

      I’ll check out the Ottawa Authors Association. I’ve never been able to get past the their website in the past – it looks like it was built in the 90s and never updated, and it starts out with bad punctuation: Are you interested in “writing?”

      But I suppose you can’t judge an entire group by their website. :)

      Ottawa’s universities don’t seem to offer very much in the way of writing programs, unfortunately, but I haven’t looked into what Algonquin offers.

      Thanks for all the good ideas!

  • Just thought of one more – do you know of Brian Henry? He’s a well known writer and instructor in the Toronto area who has day-long workshops on writing. He doesn’t often come up to Ottawa but he does have an upcoming workshop in Kingston in August:

    It would give you a day-long “classroom” type environment and give you a better idea if that’s something that works for you. Plus I hear he’s a really dynamic speaker and very motivational.

  • Kate

    I think you should apply, but also apply for fellowships and bursaries. If you don’t get any, don’t go. The commenters above are right – there are a lot of ways to get where you want to bee without spending that kind of money. Writing workshops, online courses, and… well, just doing it. Writing, piitching. Really, you already are a writer. If you did a little networking I have no doubt you could get yourself some gigs just based on the strength of your blog alone.

  • I have been having the same conversation with myself for a while. Being 54 makes a difference in how I look at education and the money it will cost. Age didn’t used to matter but now it does.

    I’m happy in my current job but part of me always thought I’d go farther and I either have to get off my ass and go back to school or come to terms with where I am. I think that maybe I don’t really want to go and by letting time go by, I am narrowing my options.

    There are so many good suggestions in the previous comments! You write so well already that a masters degree may not make any qualitative difference. I have no advice, I just wanted you to know that there are others of us in the same boat.

    • Donna, I know exactly what you mean about age mattering now. I never thought it would, but it does in ways I hadn’t anticipated – this being one of them.

      And yes, there are lots of excellent suggestions here. I am always impressed by the quality of advice I get when I ask my blog readers for advice. The collective knowledge and wisdom here is impressive.

  • A few years back I really wanted to do an MFA, for many of the same reasons as you cite for an MA. I couldn’t justify it financially but I just wanted to do it. But because it would have required me to upgrade my general BA to an honours (which would take considerable time and money) first, I decided not to. Or at least not at that time. I may still do it, but I think the only reason I would do it now is to have credentials to teach. I think what I was really looking for was some kind of validation. School is considered a worthwhile use of time but farting around thinking on your own and making pictures (or writing as in your case) is harder to justify. I think for me I was looking for community and structure and someone to tell me what to do. But I don’t think it would have meant better art.

    Since then, I’ve done a lot of reading about learning and education, we’ve started homeschooling our oldest and I’ve even begun to question whether I want him to go to university. It used to be a given in my mind but I don’t believe it is a great investment anymore. It certainly doesn’t guarantee any new grads well-paying jobs to pay their student debt. Learning is great but I wonder if self-directed learning and seeking out mentors and community isn’t in the end a more effective way of learning than in the grading world of school.

    School is a lot of money. All those things you want to get out of school can be gotten in other ways for less money. After the MA you’re still going to have to deal with your resistance. Have you read The War of Art? It’s worth a read.

    Anyways, that’s my two cents.

    • Thanks Kate. I think there are at least two things you get from higher education – credentials (and the increased earning power that goes along with them), and knowledge/skills (which I’m using as a catch-all to include everything from information to critical thinking skills). In my case (at my age) the credentials are secondary and not worth the investment. The knowledge, however, might be priceless. But I think you’re right about self-directed learning being a viable alternative to a formal masters program.

      This insight resonated with me: “I think for me I was looking for community and structure and someone to tell me what to do. But I don’t think it would have meant better art.” I see myself in there….I want someone to tell me what to write!

  • You are a writer, Zoom.

    But if you need prompts, ideas, stimulation, assignments, pressure, deadlines, guidance and feedback, you could bring together a group of others who want the same and work with each other.

    Maybe use a resource book like the Artists Way or Writing Down the Bones.

    • Thanks 4D. An interesting development from this post is that someone from a local writing group emailed me yesterday to ask me if I’d like to come to the next meeting of their group. I’m going to do it!

  • If you are going to do a master’s degree, I wouldn’t recommend doing it by distance education. Most of the point of school is the people you meet and the in-person conversations you experience. That can’t be replicated at a distance.

    I would expect a few part-time classes at a local university to be a lot more valuable overall than a degree program done remotely.

    • Good point, Milan. But I wish Ottawa’s universities offered more in the way of writing programs and courses.

      By the way, is your blog going to be okay?

  • First of all – you already ARE a writer. Blogging is writing and you are one of the most eloquent bloggers I have ever read.
    Second – you don’t need to do a Masters program to get all those things you mentioned. There are lots of other options – college courses, writers workshops, writing groups. I’ve done all three – and the one I found most valuable was the writer’s groups. You get real-time feed back to you work – its in person and emotional. And you’re with people just like you. I found having a group to visit with was far better motivation to get the next chapter written than handing in an assignment for an aloof professor to pick apart and grade.

    Now – all that said – if you REALLY want that Masters – as an accomplishment to say “I have a Masters” than I say go for it. If you just want to be a writer – then go be a writer – no masters required.

    • Thanks Valerie. The prevailing wisdom around here all seems to agree with this approach. Tap into existing, less formal resources. It makes a lot of sense to me. Formal education is prohibitively expensive now.

  • Julia

    I am impressed by all the thoughtful advice you have received so far!

    As you know, I am applying to to the MA program in philosophy at Carleton for the fall of 2013. Until then, I am taking undergrad philosophy classes for the background work. I could do the reading on my own but I wanted the discipline of attending classes and doing assignments and writing papers. The tuition is expensive! But ever since (last summer) I discovered that philosophy was my passion, and that everything in my life to date had lead me in the direction of being a philosopher, I have concentrated on this.

    I agree with 4th dwarf – “you are a writer.” Same with me – I am a philosopher. But I want to be a complete philosopher, I want the background, I want the discipline, and I want the credentials. Maybe you could see if Carleton has an MA in writing? I see they have a BA – maybe that is enough?

    I don’t mind taking the undergrad courses at all. I am not even enrolled – I just register for the courses I want as a “special student” and then immerse myself in the work. But I do want to write a thesis at the MA and then the PhD level as my contribution to philosophy, so I will be applying to the MA for next fall.

    Maybe you could see how you like taking a couple of the undergrad courses locally. That is what the prof I talked to last year recommended for me and so I ended up taking four courses and just loving it.

    • Hi Julia. Yes, I’ve been getting stellar advice here. I’ll look into Carleton’s BA program too. I read the other day that you can’t do a masters degree in writing anywhere east of the Rockies!

  • Sid

    I confess that I loath UBS for a variety of reasons so I’m biased, but that seems like a ton of cash to be paying for an MA. I also agree with the person who commented that the best part of doing graduate school should be interacting with other people. Is there another school closer and/or cheaper with a similar program? Or maybe consider auditing some undergrad classes at Ottawa or Carleton. I definitely understand the need to have a focus like deadlines and topics to get the creative juices flowing.

  • You are a writer. You write well and have an audience. You blog so are published.

    There’s all kind of cheaper places to get prompts and deadlines than a degree. Workshops, conferences.

    See what’s going on in the small press at the Jack Purcell Arena Saturday 12-5.

    A writing degree, or any degree these days, isn’t about recouping money.

    • Pearl, isn’t a degree at least partly about recouping money? Don’t young people expect a return on their investment? (I do understand that that’s just one benefit of education…but surely young people aren’t going deeply into debt without some expectation of recouping it in future earnings?)

      Maybe I’m wrong, and things have changed dramatically in the past couple of decades…

      • My impression is that most people get a degree, get an unrelated degree then do another unrelated work. Degrees while waiting for economy to improve or to explore ideas. Degrees to explore curiosity but unless its a tech-training, who recoups it?

        To make back money from a writing degree? Even newspapers and magazines want the work. no one ever checked my certificate. A degree is a way to network, just like any writers course or retreat or conference. Depends on who you want to fly among.

  • Lesley

    I agree with Milan. I’ve done distance ed. If you want an easy way to get the piece of paper, then distance ed is great. But if you want to be challenged and inspired – you need face to face interaction with other passionate people.

    But really, you need to ask yourself the question: How are you not already a writer? What more do you need to be happening in your life for you to be able to say “I am a writer.”
    Do you need to publish a book? a magazine article? Write a column in the newspaper? I think you might find it’s not about the MA at all.

    • Good points, Lesley. So I asked myself the question, and the answer was right there in plain sight…not even lurking below the surface: I need to publish a book.

      You’re right: It’s not about the MA at all. :)

  • sandra

    What about Nanowrimo?? Wasn’t that a book? LOL

  • felonious bunk

    word school costs more than money – there’s a lot of time spent pursuing ‘one size fits all’ expectations that don’t generally enhance the ‘write what you know’ principle – the informal alternatives suggested above may furnish a more functional social environment as well

  • Jan

    As my cousin says, “I’m closer now to the end than the beginning, and my time is getting finite, so I don’t want to spend a single day or minute doing something I don’t want to do or being with someone I don’t want to be with.” A lot of us late/mid-life women are in the same boat, and it’s exciting. Wanda, age 52, just got her MPH after seven years of night classes! Ronna, age 68, finally got her bat mitzvah!

    Now’s the time to get serious about whatever’s been bugging you for all these years. As they say, the next five years will go by anyway, and it’ll still be bugging you, so might as well find a way to get it done. Given the comments above, you have lots of cost-effective options, so go for it!

  • molly

    Zoom – did you happen to hear this piece on All Things Considered (NPR)? It’s about a man who started his writing career at age 48, among other things. I think you’d hearing his take on the writing life. By the way, I read his first book of short stories and loved it.

  • future landfill

    I was at a Nino Ricci book-readin’ event last evening. Following a question about advice to writing students he replied along the lines of: If there’s a book in you then you must write it. Just write it.

    Which has me feeling a bit lame for sitting so long on a half-baked idea.

  • Catching up on your blog – I’ve faced a similar dilemma regarding getting an mfa and my decision not to came down to one big thing – if I wanted to be in school for the feedback, the prompts, the community,the accountability built in with deadlines I’d be back in the same spot I’m in now in 2-5 years time. I just need to do it, and buckle down and build the support I need around me.

  • Gail

    Just write. You are great. I have two kids with over $100,000 education debt and no employment to equal. The Artist Way as mentioned above plus local groups will give you what you need.