It’s almost two weeks since I handed in my dissertation, marking the end of two years venturing back into student life and what I hope will turn into an MA in Creative Writing. Looking back, some things were the same as the first time round, like the occasional (!) trip down the pub. Some were very different, like the amount of work I actually put in this time. Here’s the proof:
It looks so real all bound up in its pinkness. And yet, in some ways, it doesn't feel real at all, because this is just a snippet. There are another 50,000 words (at least) to go. Everyone asks what happens next? My answer? The rest of the novel.
Nevertheless, this snippet represents yet another major step forward for me. It is also another reminder of how this whole experience was borne out of a regret and a wish.
I may have mentioned before, but as a child I wrote terrible, terrible poems about birthdays and Christmas and Halloween and Easter – all the key dates in a seven-year-old’s life. I even started writing my Dad a book called The Magic Key. I never finished it and I don’t know what happened to the original manuscript (n.b. manuscript was written in my favourite Victora Plum notebook. I had a big thing for Victoria Plum). As a teenager, I wrote terrible, terrible poetry about boys and Marmite and struggling with homesickness at university.
Then in the last year of first-time uni, I had the opportunity to take a creative writing module. I didn't take it. I made the classic mistake of believing that feedback on my writing would amount to feedback on me.
It marked the start of a 10-year period where I didn’t really write anything outside of a professional capacity. I started a children’s book about a polar bear, but didn’t get very far. I filled notebooks with ideas for adult novels but refused to commit anything more than scribbles to paper.
And then my stepdad died. He was in his late 50s. I was 31. Turning 30 hadn’t bothered me at all, but, suddenly, life became ridiculously precious.
This is a cliché. But it’s my cliché.
I started thinking about what was important to me. It’s remains a pretty succinct list: my family, my friends, my cats and, to my surprise, my writing.
So, I signed up to a long-distance learning course with the London School of Journalism. I still couldn’t face the idea of direct feedback, but decided that maybe on paper it would be okay. It was. My tutor had lots of useful advice and was supportive throughout. I began to have a new idea for a novel. Or, rather, these two characters started following me everywhere, nagging me to write them down. I started to wonder if I could go a step further and, so, I applied to do a part-time MA. My LSJ tutor kindly provided me with an academic reference. I have no idea what she said, but it worked. They let me in.
It changed my writing life. Two years later, I have a better understanding of what I’m good at and what still needs a lot of work. I know that a week with Arvon convinced me that I really was serious about my novel. I have had two short stories published. I have a nine-page summary and 25,000 words of a novel. A year ago, it was just a list of terrible bullet points on a single sheet of A4. I even wrote a poem that doesn’t suck. And I have this blog and remain staggered when someone says they read it.
I’m still terrified, though. The hard work’s only just starting – I’m back on my own deadlines and worrying whether I have the stamina, the commitment, the ability, the ideas. That old chestnut just won’t go away. I confess I haven’t written a single new word since I handed in the dissertation. But I will. I am starting to trust the slightly sick feeling in the bottom of my stomach.
Slowly, very, very slowly, I have realised what this experience was really all about. There’s no getting away from the fact (at least for me) that feedback is nerve-wracking. I’ll be honest and say I didn’t always understand some of comments I received, but that's okay. It's the joy of reading - everyone has different tastes. The point is that feedback should make you think about why you’ve done something a certain way. Great feedback pushes you to become a better writer.
But feedback isn't the most important thing.
What matters is having other writers who will give you support when you feel wobbly, because it turns out they’re not convinced they quite know what they’re doing either; writers who will give you a kick up the backside when you’re procrastinating, because they’ve just had to [insert unnecessary chore] right now this very minute, too; and writers who are totally honest with you when the words aren’t working, because they know the words don't work every time but care about them as much as you do. Your job is to remember they’re not judging you.
Every so often, you get an article in the British press asking whether you can really teach creative writing. My belief is you can teach writing technique in the same way you can teach a pianist the right way to play Mozart or you can teach a fledgling chef the basics of bread making. It’s up to the individual to make them beautiful. I’ve learned a huge amount from my tutors and I would like to think I’m a better writer than I was two years ago because of it.
But the question misses the point. It ignores the importance of community, of sharing your ideas with other like-minded individuals or seeing new possibilities in your own writing that you’d never have spotted on. It’s about support networks and frankly, sometimes, it’s just about going down the pub and chatting about the brilliant/dreadful/weird book you’ve been reading and what you think the writer was trying to achieve. In my experience, writers like talking about writing A LOT and their non-writing friends – no matter how brilliant and supportive they might be – do not want you to go on about it all the time. With good reason. We can all get a little tunnel-visioned about our passions.
Over the past two years, I’ve met some brilliant writers – both students and tutors. I am grateful to all of them for their advice and for not laughing at my work (much). And I consider myself ridiculously lucky that some of them are now friends.