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My Experience at University

And why I'm going back

Tomorrow, I start back at university. It’s a decision I hummed and hawed about, taking into consideration all the commitments I have in my life, not least of all the innumerous hours teaching full-time takes up – trust me, it’s a good deal more than the thirty-five I get paid for. Last year, I was on a career break, so being at university one day a week I still had plenty of time for writing, researching and engaging in the ever-necessary social media machine. It’s a different kettle of fish now, and I won’t lie and say keeping up with the work isn’t a concern. Why am I doing it then? To answer that, I thought about the reasons I went back in the first place and what I’ve got out of it, which leads us to the topic of this post.

Having no official training as a writer, I chose a level 1 course at the University of Glasgow – something to wet my feet with and gauge my ability. We all have moments where we think we’re writing War & Peace, although these are few compared to the times it feels like shovelling shit across the page. I’ve spoken several times about how writers suffer from chronic self-doubt, and a big part of taking the course was to assuage some of that doubt. It shouldn’t matter, but we all need validation from time to time and mine manifested in the form of a good grade. If I could achieve an A, it would be a confirmation I possessed an iota of real talent. I’m pleased to say I got my A and, I’ll be honest, it was a great moment.

Of course, I had other reasons. Taking a year off work, there’s always the risk of frittering away the days on YouTube and getting lost in boxsets. I’ve always been someone who works well to deadlines – they motivate and keep me focused – and a lot of my best writing comes under pressure. Attending university one day a week provided structure to my week and stopped the days from all bleeding into one. As my fellow authors know, writing can be a lonely endeavour and we often only have our characters for company. At times, I’ve found it to be a wonderful experience, falling headlong into world building and letting my imagination run wild, but it’s easy to become isolated. Meeting like-minded people, ones who understand the trials of what it is we do, is crucial. Coming across your emotions and innermost thoughts in another person is a freeing experience and, while your family and friends can support and encourage you, they can’t understand the blood, sweat and tears that go into your story. I didn’t connect with everyone I met on my course but there were a few, and I’m grateful for them.

Aside from the attestation and structural reasons, I am a firm believer in lifelong learning. No matter how long you’ve done a job or hobby, there’s always something new to learn. As someone who’s only been writing for a few years, I know I’m far from being an expert and I wholeheartedly embraced the opportunity to improve my skills. Assignments were only a part of the learning process, and I got as much out of the workshopping sessions as I did from the feedback my tutor gave me. Being the subject of a workshop isn’t always an easy experience, and there were moments where it felt like an endurance sport. Anyone who knows me personally will tell you staying quiet is a feat for me but doing it while a room full of people are criticising your writing is a whole new plight. Let me assure you, it’s worth it. You don’t need to listen to very piece of advice everyone gives you – many times, it’s simply a matter of taste and opinion – but if a bunch of people tell you something doesn’t work then it doesn’t work. Perspective is tough when you’re immersed in your WIP, so being prepared to listen to those fresh eyes is invaluable.

My fantasy series, The Transcendent Saga, is written in omniscient narration – perhaps not a common or popular choice, but that’s a discussion for another time. It came naturally to me and I’ve often claimed not to enjoy first person narration. As it turns out, I was wrong. Part of developing as a writer is trying out new styles and techniques. Every week, parts of the class were dedicated to writing tasks; being given a prompt and seeing what came of it. You wouldn’t believe how many different scenarios can come from one sentence, but hearing what my classmates had written, there’s no doubt it’s true. The only limitations a writer has are the ones they put on themselves. I expanded my toolkit and found I had skills I didn’t know were there. More importantly, I discovered the freedom that comes from stepping outside my comfort zone.

I have my favourite genres, as I’m sure you do too. I tend to avoid what is deemed ‘literary fiction’, partly because I don’t like the term, and partly because I get so little time to read I want to see what my fantasy peers are doing. I was introduced to a number of books during the course, books I’m not sure I’d have found on my own or read if I did. Not all of them resonated with me as a reader, but I’ve developed an appreciation for the expertise that went into writing them, especially for those authors who’ve thrown out the ‘rules’ with creative licence. At this point it’s also worth noting the difference between critical and commercial success. My personal goal is to have someone read my book and say they were entertained. My writing still needs to be of a high quality but if I could have that, I don’t care if I never win a prize.

Where I’ve developed most is creating more subtlety in my writing. I can’t deny a propensity for overtelling when I started out, compounded by a big dollop of overwriting. I’ve learned to pare back, say more with less and leave room for the reader. There are a thousand different ways a reader can interpret an author’s work, often affecting them in ways I’m sure the writer didn’t intend. When you’re writing your story, everything in it belongs to you. Once it’s out in the world, it belongs to the person reading it and what you’ve put on paper is only a guide to what they’ll experience. When I finished Awakening, after many revisions, I sent it out to beta readers. Every single one of them came back with a different favourite character, though none of them voted for mine. I’m happy with that – it means I created a wealth of well-balanced, believable characters to take my story forward.

Writing means more to me than any job I’ve ever done in my life, and I can say that without equivocation or doubt. My goal is to one day make a living from it, but I won’t stop if I don’t achieve those lofty heights. Going back to university made me a better writer, a more astute reader and deepened my determination to keep learning. I’m going to keep going, working towards a degree in creative writing, and doing what makes me happy. Will taking a more challenging course while being back at work be hard? Bloody right, it will. Will that stop me? No chance. I’m aware I may get to the point where I have to choose between one and the other, and I know my family and friends worry about which way I’ll go. Or they worry because they already know. A common piece of writing advice is to avoid clichés, but I’m going to throw caution to the wind and finish up with one …

… If you don’t sacrifice for what you want, what you want will be the sacrifice.

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