The Creative Writing PhD is an odd and perhaps paradoxical beast. Since, as Thomas Keneally says, paradox is beloved of novelists, I'm hoping that it will stay that way. I've just submitted mine, after four years, and await the viva examination, at which the examiners can wave it through, ask for minor corrections, major corrections, or total revision, or fail it. In addition, I'm a working novelist, not an academic. So this, then, is a hopelessly partial (in the sense of 'incomplete', 'affectionate', and 'subjective') contemplation of a peculiar creature. But whether you're wondering whether to do one yourself, or wondering how on earth anyone could write a novel for an examiner, I hope it will give you some things to think about. I also hope that commenters will be able to add other thoughts and experiences, and that writers in other forms will forgive me for using 'novel' as a catch-all term for a major body of creative work.
If some of what I'm about to say sounds negative, it's partly because I'm playing Devil's Advocate. On the face of it, what's not to like about spending several years writing in the pleasant groves of academe, with a prestigious and an almost guaranteed degree at the end of it? (Failures are rare, as are wave-throughs) Unfortunately, perhaps, but fascinatingly for those who like living in liminal areas, it's not as simple as that. Nor is the situation even stable: as any biologist will tell you, evolution happens fastest in liminal areas, and the academic borderland that we inhabit is no exception. Even examiners, arguably, are still working out how and what they should be examining.
So what kind of creature is the Creative Writing PhD? Creative Writing (henceforth 'CW'), as an academic discipline, is the study of creative and imaginative work-in-progress, and so research is “practice-led”, using the act of writing creatively as a research process, as well as studying the process and product of that writing. It does this by means of some sort of large-scale creative piece – long fiction, life-writing, a poetry or short fiction collection, perhaps something in the new media – and some kind of commentary, critical essay or exegesis. There is usually basic standard for this first part, for example that the creative piece must be 'of publishable quality', though whether it gets published or not is a different matter, and for any given writer may well be beside the point.
The second part (which I'll call the commentary, as that's what mine is) is where there seems to be most variation between different universities, and so this is something to think about very carefully indeed. Some regulations prescribe only that the creative work is accompanied by a critical paper exploring a related literary topic. This seem odd to me, because it hardly classes as studying the work-in-progress, but so be it. Others tie the two tightly together, and demand that the paper is a commentary on the aims and outcomes of your creative project, perhaps including the history, theory and critical field associated with its genre, and so on. A third kind seems to stay closer to the original model for PhDs which are not practice-led, and to expect the creative piece to be an answer to a theoretical proposition or question: at least in principle, it would be possible to fail the exam if the creative piece didn't demonstrate the theory well enough. This seems odd in the other direction, since the very essence of writing is the making of a creative whole which may, or may not, bear out the original idea. Even more theoretically, I suppose the day may come when it's possible to research creative writing solely by examining other writers' processes, with no direct creative work by the researcher. But I do hope that day never does come, because I'll be first in the queue to re-train as a plumber.
You'll have realised by now that it's a lot of work: a full-length novel, perhaps, plus a 10-30,000 word commentary, and to do it most universities allow 2-4 years for full-time study, and 3-7 for part-time. It can also be very isolated: if you're looking for the camaraderie and workshopping of your Masters, you won't find it, partly because your and your fellow-PhD's projects are so different, and partly because you only have a handful of supervisions per term. It's possible to do a PhD at the other end of the country from where you live – and might well be worth it for the right supervisor and the right regulations – but then you're even less likely to bump into your fellows. On the other hand, if you work independently and at home anyway, doing a PhD can actually break that isolation, giving you an entry to that institution, not to mention its library, and also to other interesting people in other interesting discplines.
It's also worth thinking about where you are with your writing. If you've never written a novel (or whatever form you're working in) before, when things get difficult the bottom can drop out of your confidence: do you actually have a novel in you? Indeed, I would suggest that it's a big gamble to take on two huge, unfamiliar tasks at once: writing a novel, and researching a PhD. When you feel you're getting nowhere, are you just wasting all that money and/or loss of other work? If you have an earlier novel being published, that can be incredibly distracting, and confidence-denting in disconcerting ways, as well as time-consuming: at best the PhD will take longer, but if you're lucky enough to have a research grant (the competition is fierce) you must submit by a set date, or pay the money back. If you're trying something really new, can you contemplate the possibility of your not quite pulling it off: of its being, as it were, a really exciting failure? Are you willing to be examined by at least one non-writer, who need only be an academic 'from the field of English Literature'?
Another question is, what will having a PhD actually do for you? It won't help you to write a book that you're not capable of writing, though the gentle support of a supervisor saying “So when do you think you'll have the next chapter?” may be just what you need to make a big jump. As far as I can see it's not at all necessary for teaching CW, though it will help you to find a foothold in academic CW if that's your bent. I suspect that as hard-core university CW gains in size and importance, PhDs will become expected if not, I hope, ever required: if academic creative writing is to live and breathe, it must always be open to people who have no other qualification than being really good writers and teachers of writing.
[28th March 2018: edited to add that in the nine years since I first wrote this, I have not only used the ideas and texts about historical fiction that I first worked out in my PhD in dozens of workshop and with hundreds of students, I have grown not one but two books out of it: first Get Started in Writing Historical Fiction, and now This is Not a Book About Charles Darwin.]
And one other thought about what doing a PhD might do for you: that if you, personally, find it very difficult to claim writing time from the rest of your life, in the teeth of partners, children, and general disapproval at the writer's necessarily self-indulgent and OCD habits, then doing it as an academic course could be a good way of silencing these self-appointed judges, not to mention your own Inner Parent/Spouse/Domestic Goddess.
As to whether it'll make you a better writer...it depends. There's a strong argument that you'll be a better novelist on the far side of your next novel, whatever the conditions under which you write it: you learn something new from everything you write. But there's also a strong argument that exchanging the brute economics of the book trade for the creative rigours of a practice-led research programme will make you a better writer still, if not necessarily a more saleable one. What more proper place could there be than a university, for experimenting, innovating, exploring your art and your craft to the point of producing a creative whole without compromise?
Of course, writers have always sought out mentors, thought about their craft, tried things out consciously, and observed their own process. (More about mentoring for writers here.) But I do think that there aren't many writers who would sit down on their own to make a coherent story of the process of writing a novel, and the critical, historical and cultural context of its writing, in as much detail as a PhD demands: you could say it's unnatural. And yet, since part of learning to be a writer is learning to understand and manage your creative self, including your relationship to the rest of the world and its writing, then having to do just that may be very valuable in the long term too.
But one's creative self is a tricky creature. One thing to look at quite stringently is whether the structure of the course will be too alien to your process. Most PhDs initially register you for an MPhil, and only let you loose on the PhD proper by a process of upgrading, when you present an interim report, as it were: some of the work, some of the discussion. Will this suit you? It can be immensely useful to have a checkpoint in the middle of what can seem an impossibly long journey across a terrifyingly trackless wasteland. And if at that point you've decided that you've had enough, you can leave with your head held high and an MPhil in your hand. If, like me, you resist analysing your creative process while you're doing it, then it could cause genuine difficulties to have to do this. (I was lucky: I already had a MPhil, and so didn't have to upgrade. But as far as I know there's only one MPhil in Writing in the kingdom, and it's tiny and brilliant. These days you can extend the MPhil into a PhD, but you couldn't then.) Particularly if you're writing the novel to a contract and among the other complications of life, having to stop mid-flow and try to make something coherent out of the incoherence of your first draft may suck up time and energy you can ill afford, perhaps cause your creative self to stumble or even seize up with self-consciousness.
Obviously I can't speak directly of the experience of coming at a PhD from the other side, as perhaps a media or literature academic who decides to embark on a major creative project. I can only assume that you'd be less likely to struggle with the research side, not to mention the sometimes baffling workings of academic administration, and more at risk of finding the scale and nature of the creative work daunting or baffling. One complication I found was that, while it's standard academic practice to resist the personal and anecdotal, even to the gruesome extent of excluding the first person pronoun and - horrors! - writing everything in passive voice, what is an account of your own process of writing a novel but personal and anecdotal? And when you must back up your discussion of your own experience with that of other writers, in the cause of academic respectability, it can be extraordinarly difficult to know where to look, though the Paris Review archive is always a good place to start.
It seems to me that from either side, the fundamental issue is that the two parts of the whole are not only different but even, sometimes, inimical. A PhD in any discipline is a training degree: its purpose is to teach you how to do academic research to the proper standard, and even if you understand the principles and have the nitpicky, nerdy streak that all good writers must have, the different nitpicky, nerdy practicalities of research can be infuriatingly fiddly and frustratingly uncreative. This isn't just a tantrum about getting the footnotes and bibliography right down to the last comma and parenthesis, though there are plenty of those lying in wait for you. It's actually at the core of the paradox.
Creative writing is, supremely, a process of synthesising: we take bits and pieces of individual and collective memory and experience, and spin them into something new and whole (For the avoidance of doubt, that last sentence is not a personal view masquerading as a general fact, but a synthesis of the ideas of Richard Kearney and Margaret Atwood). We may not know where those bits come from, or we may be unable or even unwilling to track them, pin them down, acknowledge, footnote and reference them. A good creative piece resists analysis: however much you tease the separate threads apart, they coil back together again to make something which is whole, and more than the sum of its parts. But a good commentary is essentially analytical, even though it may attempt to synthesise a conclusion from the diifferent threads it has been discussing. So, on a bad day/week/month, it can seem as if the two parts of your task are actively sabotaging each other. On a good day/week/month, the tension doesn't go away, but seems to work as a creative spur, as thinking about what you're doing clarifies and energises both sides of your writerly nature.
PhDs in general are notoriously likely to get stuck, to stall, to grind to a complete halt. If you add in the uncertainties of creative work, it might seem as if any sane writer would be mad to contemplate doing one. Only you can decide, though I hope what I've been saying helps you to do that. But I would say that, despite all the costs, oddities, complexities and frustrations, and even though I have yet to survive the viva examination – fingers crossed - and receive the degree - more fingers crossed - I do feel that A Secret Alchemy and the commentary, together, make a body of work that I am proud of. It's opened doors in my mind and given me professional opportunities. I know I shall never regret having done it.
p.s: if you're intrigued enough to want to have a look at a typical commentary, mine is available to download here from EThOS, the British Library's online service for e-theses. Obviously every university has different regulations, but the University of London's do seem to be pretty mainstream, and my commentary was a straight-down-the-middle attempt to fulfil them.
p.p.s: For more tips on writing your PhD proposal, click through to my post here.
p.p.p.p.s: Two things I'm often asked are a) whether it matters if your first degree wasn't one which would naturally lead on to your PhD subject, and b) whether it's compatible with the rest of life. Three Doctors Darwin is a piece which my sisters and I wrote for our school's alumnae magazine. It explains the reasons for my answer to these two questions: a) no and b) yes.