In 2013 I began a Creative Writing PhD, studying part-time at the University of Chichester under the supervision of Alison MacLeod. Alison is Professor of Contemporary Fiction and writes both short stories and novels. Her novel Unexploded was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2013.
This page is here to explain briefly what a Creative Writing PhD is and how/why I came to be doing one!
The PhD is both creative and academic. I will eventually submit a collection of about twelve short stories, as this is my chosen form, but many people write novels for their PhDs. I receive feedback and supervision on these, as well as on the 25,000-word dissertation that accompanies them. At some universities, the dissertation can be a kind of critical commentary on your creative process, but in my case, I will be writing academic essays on the contemporary short story. At PhD level, these essays also have to contribute something new to academic debate.
My focus in both the creative and academic work is on the use of the fantastic in short stories, and in particular the influence of folk tales.
I started the PhD for several reasons. Firstly, I met Alison when she was tutoring on an Arvon course, and learned that she divides her time between teaching on fiction and writing it. This appealed to me, as one of the things attending Arvon courses has taught me is how important it is to spend time around other writers, even if they are creating very different work from your own, and to be thinking and talking about writing when not actually putting pen to paper. I also care very much about teaching and enjoy it.
Until meeting Alison I hadn't really registered that Creative Writing PhDs existed. I realised that by doing one, I could get expert tuition that would seriously improve my own writing, deepen my understanding of fiction by studying it academically, and end up with a qualification that would allow me to teach creative writing at universtiy level. This pretty much encompassed everything I wanted!
I researched the various PhDs on offer, such as the distance learning option at Lancaster, and then took a deep breath and approached Alison to see if part-time study with her at Chichester might be a possibility. I was extremely lucky with my timing, as a couple of her current students were due to be finishing (Chichester strictly limits the number of PhD students any member of staff can supervise concurrently, to ensure students get enough time and attention). I was also lucky that Alison liked my work and we shared some interests around the fantastic in the short story.
So far the PhD is everything I hoped it would be. It is a wonderful thing to spend a supervision session with a great and experienced writer focusing solely on how to improve a short story draft. It is also wonderful to have an extra reason to read short stories, and to write as much and as well as I can, in the hope that I'll be fit to teach others at the end of this process.