The MSt in Creative Writing offered Patrick Toland the chance to immerse himself in a life-long passion - poetry - and a valuable opportunity to be pushed out of his comfort zone.
'Before the MSt programme I was a teacher and Housemaster in a Boarding School in Surrey. I then took a career change to become a Managing Director of a social care company and then technology company before returning to Education.
'The instinct to write was always there from a young age but, in many ways, I got side-tracked by career so returning to University to study writing was one way to validate that impulse. Growing up, it wasn’t wise among my peers to admit to a devotion to poetry and I always felt I missed a chance to really pursue my passions. Teaching was a good way to match my occupation to an enthusiasm for literature and the MSt course not only offered a proper ‘time-out’ to explore that eagerness but the opportunity to gain a highly respected professional qualification at a world class University.
'The biggest challenge was making sure that I did not come across as an ill-informed idiot in contrast to my exceptionally capable and clever classmates and tutors! This was something I failed at instantly. What lesson did it teach me? Everyone is nervous at Oxford to begin with and if you aren’t making mistakes, you aren’t strictly learning.
'In terms of what I found most engaging, I would say it would have to be the variety of genres studied, teaching ‘voices’ offered to you and the way the course is designed to push you out of your comfort zone. That is quite an unusual feature in that most Masters' in Creative Writing compel you toward specialism at an early stage. Making sure you have enough personal time to devote to your part-time studies is also a challenge.
'I think the first surprise was the approachability, good humour and solid support of the academic, pastoral and Kellogg College staff. Oxford can be intimidating to a novice but I was never made to feel that way and I think, considering the calibre of the staff, this was a truly generous gift. Secondly, the offerings of my classmates in relation to our workshops – so many great ideas, images and narratives worth stealing from them! Thirdly, it shouldn’t have come as a surprise but having an eclectic range of professional writers giving you their own patient, personal focus is a great boost to your own writing and ambitions. It means you end up surprising yourself with some of the things your write.
'Considering goals, of course, the MSt has pushed me onwards towards poetry, article and conference paper publication and I am very pleased with that. However, it has also taken me into unexpected areas such as writing the first ‘A’ Level in Journalism and developing a Citizen Journalism university course and an allied social enterprise. I think that has been one of the greatest bonuses of the course – it gave me the confidence to think and write my way into what would have stayed unfamiliar fields without the experience the course had given me.
'I want to continue to use my qualification as a stepping-stone into other activities and interests concerning writing and the Creative Arts. It still gives me great glee to tell people about my time at Oxford and it is strangely satisfying to see that look of respect that comes with mentioning the Oxford name.
'The qualification bestows that respect on you because it clearly signals your commitment to writing and improving your writing. I think that is what really stays with you in the long-term – the sense that if you have cleared the high hurdle that is a Master's at Oxford, you can take on other encounters with ease. I shouldn’t say it, but I am also keen to take a further qualification looking at the development of Creative Writing at ‘A’ Level at….Cambridge! I hope I can be forgiven.
'An MSt is a big commitment, especially if you are a mature or international student, and it is right and proper to consider all of your study options, various elements of cost and other pressures on your time and resources. Further to that, the course is demanding and expectations of commitment and involvement are high. There is a significant competition for places and, if you are successful in gaining a place, you are expected to be involved, alert and giving of yourself during all classes and residentials.
'However, those are the exact reasons why I think anyone should take this course. Like everyone, I was prone to the romance of Oxford study and the allure of being part of the University is an experience in itself (just see for yourself at Matriculation). Yet, I would encourage others to take this course for its thoroughness and the sense of ambition it instils in you rather than just the congenial extras of sitting in the Eagle and Child, punting or joining the Union.
'I would also encourage anyone to apply for another simple reason – think of the remarkable number of brilliant and skilled people you will meet and how you will be fortunate enough to become friends with them. That mix of good cheer and academic rigour is what really makes the course a special experience.'