New Frontiers (The Creative Writing M.A.: Half-Time News)

Time sometimes moves uncomfortably fast. It doesn't seem like that long ago that it was late August 2013, and I was getting myself ready for the adventure that was going to be my first year on my Creative Writing M.A. at Manchester University. And now, due to the way that being a part-time student works… I'm done until September.

Basically, full-time students do two semesters (with two course 'modules' per semester) followed by a dissertation, while people like me only have to do one 'module' per semester, and get the summer off. It does mean that because of how the course is divided up, I'm not actually doing any course-related creative writing work until January 2015, but otherwise I've got the summer to work like crazy on earning money and getting my current book project in better shape.

Things I have learned:

1: I love libraries – proper, full-on academic libraries that you can get lost in, and where you need to know exactly what you're looking for otherwise you'll never find it because BOOKS BOOKS BOOKS. If there's one thing I'm going to seriously miss once the course is over, it's this.

2: Reading a book a week is heavy going – at least, it is when they're heavyweight examples of Contemporary Fiction, and many of them weigh in at 500 pages. Anyone thinking “Ha, a book a week doesn't sound too much like hard work”, go and read GB84 by David Peace (500 pages of aggressively modernist fiction about the Miners' Strike) and then we'll talk, okay? There were plenty of points in Semester 2, where all I was doing was reading stuff for seminars, when I was regularly thanking God that I was doing the course part-time. If I'd been doing fiction workshops as well, my brain may have exploded.

3: I'm a better writer than I thought I was. (But then, considering how my brain works and how I often have a ridiculously low opinion of myself, that isn't exactly hard). But seriously, I feel like the course has genuinely helped me already – I've got some of my confidence back, and I now have a slightly better concept of how I want to proceed, and the kind of writer I am.

4: Academic essays do not agree with me. At all.

5: Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell is a ridiculously fascinating book. It was one of the novels I wrote my essay about, and it's like staring at one of those Magic Eye 3-D pictures – the more you look, the more you find. I want to read more David Mitchell, at a point when my To Be Read pile is not quite so damn terrifying, so that'll probably be sometime around June 2024.

6: I really mean it about the academic essays.

7: Jeanette Winterson is a fiercely intimidating person – so scarily smart it's a bit like staring at the sun, and a bit like being around one of those whip-smart school teachers in whose lessons you always behaved simply because you Did Not Cross Them. She did a selection of voluntary seminars that involved reading a whole load of stuff I'd never have touched otherwise, many of which left me feeling as if I was attempting to catch butterflies with a hopelessly small net, but it was still an experience that was more than worth having, even if I did spend most of them ferociously taking notes while thinking “Oh God, please don't ask me a question, please don't ask me a question…”

8: An off-shoot of the academic essay stuff – I'm not sure a PhD is for me. I was thinking seriously about it, and I've done lots of research and finding out of info, but despite the advantages, I'm not sure if it's something I want to spend three years of my life doing, especially since it ain't necessarily going to guarantee being able to teach at a University level anyhow, and there are different ways of playing that route. And, frankly, I've got loads of writing that I want to do, and I don't want to put it off for three years in order to do something that I'm really not sure I want to do.

There were lots of other things, obviously, and while I've got three months of summer to look forward to, it's going to pass in the blink of an eye. And then I'll be back for another year, heading for next Summer, and my dissertation. I've done my best to make the most of this course – and now, with one year to go, I want to do even better. Only time will tell…



Fragments of Time (Creative Writing MA: Week One)

I don’t remember students being quite so young. Yes, I was that young once, but it’s still rather hard to believe. If you’re in your latter thirties and want to feel disorientatingly old, sign yourself up back to University and watch your brain turn somersaults. Last week was Fresher’s Week (or ‘Welcome Week’ as it was more officially referred to), and I spent a fair proportion of it trying not to think about how I was old enough to actually be a parent to most of the newly arrived students who were thronging around in a way that occasionally made me want to shout “For God’s sake, stop being so YOUNG!” like a crazy person. (My Dad was pretty much my age now when I went to University first time round. That’s certainly given me pause for thought.)

But thankfully, not all of it was spent consumed with going “Aaaarrrggghhhh!” at the concept of morality and time passing. It’s been a fairly action-packed first week, and the first day – last Monday – turned out really well. Honestly, I was kind of terrified before I went in – I’d been working towards this course for so long, and there’s a lot riding on getting this right, and there’s all sorts of issues connected with my writing confidence as well – but the day went well. A big meeting of the whole Arts, Languages and Cultures school was followed by the first official meeting of the Creative Writing MA, and while it was intimidating, it went well and also fired a ton of information at me. (I was also able to sort out the dates that I’m going to be submitting fiction in the first semester – dates that, considering I just decided to junk my original idea and start with something new – are thankfully far enough in the future to give me room for manouver.)

Then, there was a drinks reception where I once again discovered the socialising aid that is free red wine. I was soon talking nine-to-the-dozen to a lovely bunch of my fellow students, and the conversation continued into the Chinese meal that followed at the Red Chilli Restaurant just across the road from the University (where the food was pretty damn splendid), and afterwards there was an equally talk-filled session at a nearby bar. I even ended up having a pretty lengthy conversation with author (and course lecturer) Geoff Ryman about a dizzying number of subjects, and I came out of the whole day with my brain fizzing – both with alcohol, and with ideas, thoughts and writing approaches.

Since then, there’s been a lot of sorting out to be done – I’ve gotten myself a Student Union card (hellooooo student discount), a bus pass for this term, I’ve sorted out access to the University wi-fi, and gone to a relatively interesting lecture about coping with an MA as a part-time student. I also briefly visited the ‘Welcome Fair’ on Wednesday, the event where you can join up with any university society under the sun, and which felt like an even more intense version of a Comics convention, except where the stalls were all about Neuroscience, Board-Games, politics, religion and BEER. There was an excellent event on Friday at the Manchester Museum (which is also part of the University), where I got to hear a talk from one of the curators about their fantastic Egyptology department, and the whole week essentially left me with my brain spinning in a very positive way.

In certain ways, I’m wishing I could have gone somewhere like Manchester first time around. In other ways, I think it’s possible that wherever I’d gone to University first time round, it wouldn’t have been ideal – I was a naive late teenager who knew nothing about the world, and really needed to grow up. Sometimes, it takes a while to find your path. It took me a while, but I feel like I’ve found it now.

The real challenge begins from here onwards. I’ve already critted the first piece of work for my Fiction workshop (which officially kicks off tomorrow), and I’ve got an idea for what I’m going to be submitting that I need to hammer into something resembling a decent shape. I’ve even – shock! horror! – had an idea for a short story that I actually want to write. Balancing what I need to do with what I have to do (especially since I’ve got a trio of articles to complete over the next couple of weeks) may not be the easiest thing in the world, but it feels achievable.

For the last eighteen months or so, my life hasn’t been at its best. Lots of things have gone wrong, or not turned out how I’d hoped. My confidence took some major knocks as a result. But now, for the first time in a long while, I feel like I’m on the right path. And I think it’s going to be an interesting challenge finding out where it goes…