How I spent the pandemic: MA in Crime Fiction Writing at University of East Anglia

I am not the kind of writer who gets to a certain point in their development and decides that they’ve learned enough, that they’re good enough. I enjoy studying the craft of writing and continuing to improve as a writer. But as I become a more knowledgeable and well-trained writer (a process which took many years), it becomes increasingly hard to find appropriately advanced learning opportunities.

In 2015, I stumbled on the announcement of a new low residency, part time creative writing degree– the MA in Crime Fiction Writing at University of East Anglia (UEA) in Norwich, UK. At the time, it was the only creative writing program focusing on crime fiction in the world. I was immediately interested, but I no sooner discovered its existence than I dismissed the course as impracticable and unaffordable for me in the United States. But for the next four years, I periodically revisited the UEA site and fantasized.

The discovery also set into motion an intermittent exploration and daydreaming about, what I initially thought, were more practical, low residency MFA programs closer to home in the United States. Off and on, over the course of a couple of years, I created a massively detailed comparison spreadsheet of pertinent writing programs. From time to time, I added to it with the results of my investigations– answers to questions I’d emailed to directors and alumni, notes about conferences I’d attended on various campuses, and even a meeting with a recruiter.

Gradually, I let go of preconceptions. You might suspect that I rationalized my initial intention. Maybe. But when I eventually analyzed and compared costs and did cold hard financial calculations, I came to an unexpected realization. UEA’s MA in Crime Fiction Writing was not more expensive than an American MFA; it was less. And it might be the best fit for me for a number of reasons:

  • No other MA/MFA specialized in crime fiction. In the past, I’d taken a number of workshops focused on genre fiction or fiction in general. While they were worthwhile and I learned a lot, I wanted to focus on crime fiction specifically and exclusively–to be with faculty who specialized in crime fiction and to be with classmates who shared my love of crime fiction.
  • I wanted a rigorous academic approach to crime fiction, to explore the theory, philosophy, politics, and socio-economics of crime fiction as well as the practice of writing it. (Take a look at the amazing reading list)
  • At the time, before Brexit, international students paid the same tuition fees to UEA as UK residents and that was a very good value, and much less than low residency MFA tuition in the U.S. I realized the money saved could be applied toward travel abroad for the short residentials.
  • The MA in Crime Fiction requires three brief residencies a year (September, January, May) in Norwich, UK. For students in the UK and Europe, this was an easy, convenient, and relatively inexpensive trip. For those of us in the rest of the world, it was quite a hurdle and had me stymied for a long time. (However attendance at residential turned out to be somewhat negotiable and once the pandemic hit, it became a non-issue as everything went online anyway). Gradually I came to realize that the extra expense of the residential trips could be combined with side trips in the UK and Europe, very much longed for and deferred side trips. And, the kicker– the cost of travel for the residential did not come to more than the cost of an American low residency MFA.
  • Attending would in fact be remedying a lifelong regret at not doing college study abroad and checking off an item on the bucket list that I didn’t even know I had. Win!

So, I applied to UEA, was accepted, figured out how to pay international tuition, obtain a short term study visa for residencies, and travel to Norwich.

UEA’s MA in Crime Fiction was the right decision for me.

The required fiction reading, literary criticism reading, and analytic writing were excellent. The creative writing module was excellent. Faculty (tutors in British-speak) were excellent and possessed deep and broad knowledge of crime fiction. Classmates were talented and hard working and generally all-round excellent people who were a joy to be around.

Attending was not only a taste of study abroad and a chance to travel, it was also a surprisingly interesting and satisfying chance to experience another culture.

The city of Norwich was fantastic with an incredibly rich history and lots of medieval buildings. In my two visits for the first two residencies before the pandemic hit, I became a huge fan of Norwich.

After the first semester of the two year course, the pandemic hit. Fun. Residencies became entirely virtual. Which worked okay for classwork (other than the time differences around the world. The morning session began at 5am Eastern for me and my classmate in Japan ended the last session of the day at 3am Japanese time). Online wasn’t as satisfactory for socializing. My classmates and I were sad that we couldn’t see each other in person for lunch and dinner and tea breaks and hanging out during residencies. It wasn’t possible to mingle, meet, and get to know the cohorts in front of us or coming up behind us. Fortunately we’d established a WhatsApp group before the pandemic and we instituted monthly zoom socials. But it wasn’t the same.

On the other hand, surprisingly, most of us agreed that it was great to be “on the course” (British speak) during the pandemic–it gave us something to focus on other than the garbage fire that was the current state of the world. It gave us goals and filled the hours spent confined at home. As hard as it was to concentrate sometimes during the pandemic, my guess is, it would have been even harder to juggle the coursework with life and work in normal busy times. So, an unexpected pandemic silver lining!

The coursework was substantial and a bit shocking if you’ve been out of school for a while as most of us had, but manageable. The final project is a complete crime novel that has been written and workshopped over the preceding two years. Also manageable.

For more info, check out my uncomprehensive twitter list of UEA MA in Crime Fiction alumni, current students, faculty, and guest lecturers, or tweet or email me any questions.

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