Tue 21 November 2017
Life after Graduation
Studying Writing
Life after Graduation
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Following the Writer's Flame
Patsy Hickman
Patsy Hickman writes about the joys and demands of studying for a masters and doctorate in Writing after graduating from Birkbeck College, University of London with a Creative Writing Certificate in 2003.

In 2005, I applied for a Masters in Writing at Middlesex University. The two year certificate course at Birkbeck that had given me such a good grounding in the different genres of writing: drama, poetry and short fiction had also given me experience in reading my work and defending it in a group as well as basic skills in presentation. The year-long Writing Masters at Middlesex was more specialised and only concentrated upon fiction (the novel, short stories or short fiction) and literary criticism.

There were at Middlesex a cluster of first class teachers - Ferdinand Dennis, Linda Leatherbarrow and Josie Barnard to name a few - who opened up the world of modern literature and how to break down its devices into tone, voice, structure, characterisation, place, language, detail and mood. Writers as well as teachers, they could teach in a particular and sympathetic way that addressed the anxieties of the aspiring writer. The students were a diverse group and this added to the general interest of the course as did the variety of taste and shared experiences of literature regularly discussed amongst us. We learned how to present and were encouraged to do so, so that the nerves that go with presentation could become projected energy, rather than debilitating handicap.

We enjoyed readings from many accomplished and award winning writers who gave generously of their knowledge of writing but also insights into some of the difficulties for writers such as the need for a 'day job' to keep body and soul together. It became evident that the best writers are not always those who can establish themselves. Life kicks in on many levels and in many ways for writers - babies are born, money must be earned, health must be sustained. Over the years that I have studied writing, I have found that commitments with children and grandchildren, the selling of the family home and so on has meant that my writing often gets put aside frustratingly, sometimes for weeks. The professional writer has to learn how to cope with this kind of mental pressure and how to cope has nothing to do with the side of the brain that can write.
 
Armed with a merit from my Masters in Writing, I wondered what direction to pursue next. I enjoyed the academic atmosphere and the conversation with intellectual tutors and the mental discipline that goes with university courses but perhaps I had reached my scholarly ceiling. I cautiously considered a doctorate. The minimum time taken for a doctorate is three years and nowadays the limit is five. I knew I was not a patient sort. But nor am I someone who can have little to busy myself with. I decided to formulate an idea and see where it would take me. Middlesex offered me an interview and a place and I also applied to Goldsmiths and was accepted there to write a doctoral thesis of 100,000 words (70,000 words of creative memoir, and 30,000 words of critical commentary on the memoir submitted). My vague title was 'Women's Working Connections'.
 
A doctorate is very different from a masters. It is a long and considered effort of work that needs to find a way through a myriad of pitfalls: writer's block, flummox, frustration, too close, not detailed enough, red herrings, structure, strength of theme and many other knotty problems. It is as much a psychological battle as it is a construction of a piece of creative work. I am learning a lot about my shortcomings and my strengths. In memoir, writing is a case of evolving ideas on the past. What do you put in, what do you leave out? How does one present one's self? It is impossible to show all of oneself, so which bit is the relevant self?

Finding the 'Me' that could voice the narration and show my life's experience was central. I remembered The Go-between and Michael Frayn's Spies for examples of the child's voice; and Nick Carraway from The Great Gatsby, the ordinary man, the poor relation, the distant cousin. Then there was the 'I' from Nancy Mitford's The Pursuit of Love, again the quiet cousin, the shy observer. Some of my memoir is childhood, and my childhood self is a shy observer, in another sense, a limited observer. This limitation is allied to the means to show not tell. Later, when I am exhausted and later still, trying to find my way back into education after a lifetime of domesticity, my child's voice is replaced by that of a nervous, anxious adult. Humour is in both voices and lightens the sadness of some of the happenings. Once I had defined my variety of voices through my life, and linked them through enough essential similarity to cohere, I then had to decide what aspects of my life to write about. Well, the theme was women's working connection and the early part of the memoir addressed my loss of this ability to connect with women, through my difficult relationship with my mother. The middle of the memoir deals with the disastrous effects upon my life that result from this loss and the final chapter concerns my struggle to resolve my losses with education and the working connections with women that education can afford.

In another sense, my memoir is a study of the expectations of my grandmother's generation, my mother's and my own, and the effects of memory upon us, the finding of what is real, and what is only memory. For this reason, I asked Goldsmiths if I might do a psychosocial commentary on my memoir, rather than the usual literary criticism. This was an exciting but challenging decision. I had to do a vast amount of reading to fill in my lack of knowledge on women's history and women's literature, both fiction and non-fiction. Two months ago my thesis was accepted to be completed in June.

So far, so good. If my busy life and commitments allow, I shall submit my paper to the examiners and sit the Viva at the end of the academic year.


Patsy Hickman: I was born in Philadelphia Pennsylvania and came to live in England aged 5. I spent three years in my teens being educated in Switzerland, sandwiched between two convent schools here. I married at nineteen and brought up eight children. It was really hard when it dawned on me that they would grow up until I realised that this might be because I had no individual life to go back to. I returned to education and this led to writing, first at Birkbeck College, followed by a Masters at Middlesex and a doctorate at Goldsmiths College. I am an artist also. I contribute to Charleston Farmhouse's Quentin Follies fundraising auction, and have had three exhibitions, and now do portraiture as well as life drawing and some poster work.


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