Tue 5 March 2024
Life after Graduation
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Studying Writing
Life after Graduation
Now What?
Vivien Jones
Vivien Jones reflects on who and what has helped her to forge a career as a freelance writer after graduating from the University of Glasgow with a MA in Creative and Cultural Studies in 2005.

So there I stood in the middle of the enclosed lawn on Graduation Day 2005, clutching my Degree certificate and my Muriel Carmichael Prose Prize certificate, freshly qualified at age 57 to embark, rather belatedly, on my career as a writer. But now what? Having taken to the writing business with a blunderbuss approach - I wrote in every genre I knew about (drama, short stories, poetry, memoir and non-fiction) and confusingly, done well, been published and performed in all of them - I had no clear idea of how I would acquire the focus I would need to become a freelance writer once separated from my support systems at university.

There was my writing group, Crichton Writers, who had formed after our inspirational Creative Writing course with Tom Pow was finished in 2002. Several students wanted to continue with the stimulus that the group had provided and the university supported its creation by hosting its meetings and workshops without charge. There were also the expectations and deadlines provided by the portfolio requirements of the course, sometimes argued with but always respected and met. The BBC Writers Room webpage has a logo - a pen and the admonition 'Use Your Weapon! At that moment of graduation, I felt that mine was a water pistol rather than a sword!

I did know that there is no formal career path for a creative writer other than to get published and get published again and so on and to gain experience of the interaction between writer and reader through leading writing workshops and in giving readings. I also knew that there were professional development agencies and arts associations at local and national level in Scotland that I could contact.

The first thing I did was to apply to be a writer on the Scottish Book Trust's Live Literature scheme. This allowed me to offer to lead writing workshops for groups willing to pay half the fee (£75 at that point) with SBT paying the other half and all expenses. The application process required my writing CV, a couple of workshop lesson plans and a statement of my personal aims as a writer. I was accepted straightaway. I also successfully applied for a Scottish Arts Council New Writers' Bursary (£2000) for the development of a collection of themed short stories and monologues, for which I also had the invaluable help of a writing mentor funded by Dumfries and Galloway Arts Association. This work was completed by 2006 and was published by Pewter Rose Press in 2009 - what's called a long lead time, I understand.

The Scottish Book Trust also acts as a partner for other organizations wishing to recruit and train writers, like BBC Radio in Scotland. Together they offer a series of workshops with media professionals in writing radio plays (called Radio Labs) leading to a test recording of the work produced. Placement on such a course is secured by paper audition and is highly competitive as are all the professional development opportunities in Scotland. Inevitably, they are delivered in Edinburgh and Glasgow so any writer from further afield has to add time for travel and overnight stays to the basic course schedule.

I was fortunate in starting my freelance time as a writer at a point where the Dumfries and Galloway Arts Association had just appointed a new Literature Development Officer, Andy Forster, who had an evangelical interest in poetry and whose three year tenure in the post was marked by several landmark events. He established a Poetry Doubles series of readings in which a professional writer would share a reading with an emerging local writer. I was lucky enough to read alongside Jacob Polley and Jen Hadfield in different seasons. This also led to masterclasses with George Szirtes and Annie Freud.

It was my first experience of being paid to read and was an important development in my sense of artistic worth, which is vital to any writer. It's all too easy for promoters to expect the arts world to perform for the privilege of doing so. I feel that the professional fee structure of the Live Literature scheme should be adopted by any freelance writer as a basis for negotiation.

I cannot over-emphasize how important the building of a writing CV of published and performed work has been for my development. There is a surprisingly hierarchical structure relating to the status of publications and my experience has been that shortcuts upwards are the stuff of dreams. I keep a notebook of submission and publication and update it weekly. A look back across a year can be uplifting and it will certainly highlight a piece of work that has been frequently rejected, indicating a need for revision. I keep my work in constant circulation in the certain knowledge that once a writer has acquired a certain level of competence, rejection is a matter of individual taste in the editor. It is also a defence against demoralisation. If there's always something under consideration with a publisher, your most recent rejection won't sting as much.

I have avoided the self-publishing route, aware that such credits, however brilliant the writing, are discounted from a writer's CV by publishers. There's less negative feeling about small poetry imprints produced this way because they're difficult to produce any other way and people like to have something to take home from a reading, but generally speaking, it's better to find a commercial publisher. Since I now have a single author collection behind me, my next step will be to find an agent willing to represent me as a writer and performance reader. There would be no point in doing this unless I had made a forward plan, a diary of the future, for one year and for five years (this was a piece of advice from my mentor which I have adopted). To work freelance requires a firm structure to working days with projects prioritised and frequent checks on progress.

To summarize:
  • Join a writing group. Listen to criticism without feeling you have to change your work. Keep in touch with other writers - it can be a lonely occupation.
  • Get your work into print as soon as you can. There are countless opportunities online as well as in paper publications.
  • Pay attention to the importance of networking - meet with other writers, go to launch events and writing workshops.
  • Contact the national and local professional development agencies that operate in your area of work and respond to opportunities they offer. 
  • Once you are being published, upgrade the publishing submissions you make to more selective journals. Most universities have connections with print journals.
  • Right from the start, be aware of pieces that make groups of work, that will form the basis for a single author collection.
  • Keep a one year and a five year future plan and revisit it monthly.

Vivien Jones lives on the north Solway shore with her husband and cat. She is a semi-professional early musician along with the husband. Her short stories have been widely published and broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and Radio Scotland. Her first themed collection of short stories, Perfect 10, was published in September 2009 by Pewter Rose Press. Autumn 2009 will see short stories published in The Yellow Room, Horizon (Salt Publishing) and Iota Fiction anthology. In 2008 she had poetry chapbooks published by Selkirk Lapwing Press (Something in the Blood) and Erbacce (Hare). She has twice performed as a Poetry Double with Jacob Polley and Jen Hadfield and devises collaborative readings with music in performance at Book and Arts Festivals in Scotland and the north of England. She is currently working on a first poetry collection.

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