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Life after Graduation
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Life after Graduation
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Don't Give Up the Day Job
Helen Shay
Helen Shay writes about the challenges of balancing her writing with other commitments since graduating from Manchester Metropolitan University with a MA in Novel Writing in 2006.

Six years ago, NAWE published my experience of studying for a part-time online MA in Novel Writing through the Writing School at Manchester Metropolitan University. Taught aspects of the course finished in early 2005 and I wrote-up and submitted final work by late 2005. I graduated in 2006 with a Distinction and a completed novel under my belt. My subsequent writing journey has not been as I expected, with several set-backs but also some pleasant surprises along the way. I hope my account may offer help and practical guidance to others now taking a similar path.

The biggest challenge has been balancing writing and writing-associated work with other commitments. Soon after graduating, I left my day-job to concentrate on writing. However, several factors - including a more acute than expected sense of isolation - influenced me to return to work part-time. As a solicitor, my job tends to be demanding, full of deadlines and responsibility, but the variety sometimes gives sources of inspiration, so I continue to battle for the right balance. I may never quite win, but it is worth fighting for.

The main thing I have learnt is that you have to make things happen. Using writing completed for an MA exercise, I developed this into a short play, which was a winner at the Windsor Fringe (judge Hilary Mantel) and staged there. The actors and I then took this to Edinburgh, where it was performed at the Pleasance to good audiences and favourable reviews. Since then, I've put on other shows (see Career Ladder below) and reached the stage where I feel experienced enough to pass on my knowledge. From January 2010, I shall be tutoring a course at the University of York on Monday evenings entitled Writing and Putting on a Play.

It is important to keep getting your writing out there. Unfortunately in a recession, opportunities seem constantly to diminish. However, in addition to putting on plays, I've learnt how to perform my own writing, particularly poetry. This even got me a performer's ticket to Glastonbury Festival in 2007.

Thinking over the high points and low points since graduating, highs have been the two shows taken to Edinburgh. Lows have been the inevitable rejections and in particular, the run-around given over my MA novel by a small publisher who approached me to take it, then required substantial re-writing only for it to come to nothing (editorial changes, question marks over funding etc.). This left me dispirited and I turned from prose to drama for a while but having licked my wounds, I am ready to try again with the novel and will source a better outlet this time. (I'm also now writing another one.) From my university MA years, I learnt versatility. That's perhaps why I don't stay in one form or genre.

Support systems and survival mechanisms are needed to help you keep writing. Encouragement from a writing group can be invaluable. Getting involved in performing work has also kept my spirits up. Seeing people enjoying your words is very uplifting.
As for what the future holds, I really don't know. I take things one day at a time, one step after another, one word then another. The main thing is just to carry on.

Career Ladder

NB Please bear in mind that I still continue my legal career, albeit part-time, or as part-time as I can keep it. This pays the bills so I can be selective in writing projects, concentrating on what I really want to write. 

During 2005, my play Fit Piece was staged at the Pleasance, Edinburgh Fringe and then in Ilkley Literature Festival Fringe. On the basis of this, I was asked to write a new play Facing Up, staged at Ilkley Playhouse in Summer 2006.
Also around that time, my play Untame was selected and developed by Harrogate Theatre Youth Company and staged at Harrogate Theatre.
In Oct, having been a member of the Society of Authors for some time, I was voted on to
its Authors North committee, helping organize events/guest speakers etc.
I also won the Society of Women Writers and Journalists' Joyce Grenfell Award for a radio script.

Several short radio plays were broadcast on bcb radio, Bradford.
In June, I performed my poetry at Glastonbury Festival in its Poet and Spoken Words
Tent. (I continue to perform poetry regularly e.g. at Wicked Words' Seven Arts Centre in
Chapel Allerton.)
August, my show Escape Routes was taken to Edinburgh Fringe.   
October, my play Shakespeare in Terror was presented at Carriageworks Studio by CENTO Productions, Leeds.

I teamed up with another writer and creative writing tutor, Michael Yates, to form a theatre production group called ActONE. Through this, we staged a show Body Double at Carriageworks Studio, Leeds, which later won awards in a one-act play competition.  We obtained some financial assistance towards this venture from DIVA.
I was also asked to write a fourth edition of my Writer's Guide to Copyright, Contract and Law (Howtobooks Ltd, Oxford 2008 ISBN: 978-1-84528-321-6).
I have given talks on this and my writing work in general to local writing groups.

Work with ActONE continued with a second show Money Double staged in Leeds, Wakefield and as part of Ilkley Literature Festival Fringe.
In November, I shall be presenting some of my work to the 8th International Women Playwrights Conference in Mumbai, which I shall attend partly assisted financially by Arts Council Yorkshire, to whom I shall submit a report afterwards.
York Theatre Royal is currently recording my radio script Passing Through directed by artistic director Damian Cruden for its website.

I shall be tutoring an evening Lifelong Learning course on Writing and Creating Drama at the University of York from January 2010 www.york.ac.uk/lifelonglearning/

Helen Shay is a dramatist and spoken word performer based in the North of England.  Other hats include wife, mother, part-time lawyer, poet and non-fiction writer. She currently works at the University of York. Her plays have been performed at Edinburgh Fringe, Ilkley Literature Festival, Harrogate Theatre and other UK regional venues. She has worked on projects with West Yorkshire Playhouse and Theatre in the Mill. Her radio plays have been broadcast by bcb radio, Bradford. In 2004, she won first prize in the radio play competition by the International Playwrights Forum of International Theatre Institute. (Play published and translated.) She holds an MA in Creative Writing from Manchester Metropolitan University (Distinction awarded) and has also performed poetry, including at Glastonbury Festival. More info on Helen Shay at www.helenshay.originationinsite.com

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