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Life after Graduation
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To Cut a Long Story Short
Carolyn Thomas
Carolyn Thomas reflects on how competition successes have taken her career as a writer in unexpected directions since graduating from the University of Sussex with a Postgraduate Diploma in Dramatic Writing in 2003.

Did I ever think that I would be receiving an encouraging email from renowned Irish author Marian Keyes or be appointed as a creative writing tutor for the Open University or indeed be listening to my own radio short? Put simply, the answer would have to be 'No'.

My expectations and ambitions after finishing the course were to get something published, write a novel, earn money from teaching writing and make a living from my own writing. What could be easier? My writing skills were polished and I'd been taught about the writing industry. But if there's one thing I've learnt, it's that creative writing can lead you in different directions to any that you might have planned.

For instance, one opportunity I would always recommend for anyone starting out is to seize upon competitions, ideally those with a good reputation and likely to get your work noticed. In 2004, I entered the BBC's nationwide 'End of Story' competition. I couldn't resist the challenge of completing a short story started by one of eight well-known authors. It felt slightly odd when a call came from the BBC to say that I had been shortlisted but even stranger to have a crew filming in my humble cottage less than a week later. All this camera stuff was new to me - heck, I get nervous in a photo booth.

At this time I worked as a special needs teacher at a quiet, rural independent school. They even filmed me there and I did wonder if my career as a writer had perhaps peaked too early. I was soon jetting off courtesy of the BBC for more filming, this time with my five co-contenders. It was a huge learning curve of an experience where every emotion seemed to be provoked, filmed and aired. I didn't win but as joint runner up I was happy enough. I'd met with author Marian Keyes, made firm friends with my fellow writers and learnt how harsh the publishing world can be. 

Whilst developing my writing, I worked as a primary, then SEN teacher, so it seemed only natural to offer creative writing workshops as an after school club. If there is any way of introducing writing into your day job, do it - experience goes a long way. In 2004 I became a member of New Writing South, a Brighton-based writing organization and later, one of their creative learning team, whilst working as a teacher elsewhere. Through NWS, I was able to deliver workshops and residencies in schools and other settings such as the Aldershot Arts Festival. It was also a key turning point for me, as it meant that I was being paid as a writer and achieving one of my ambitions.

In 2005, I entered a 'sports short' radio competition for Five Live. The idea of writing a 10 minute play based around a sporting moment real or imagined really appealed to me even though I am not usually interested in sport. I was, however, being inspired by the build up to the Football World Cup and chose this as a backdrop for a tale of everyday family life.  The resulting play Cat-in-a-Box was aired in early 2006 on Southern Counties radio and I had the wonderful experience of working with a BBC production team and actors to see my words brought to life.

Following on from this, I decided to write another short piece, this time a monologue called Fly-on-the-Wall from an idea I had a long time before. I was then given a leaflet about a competition called Short Cuts which asked for pieces suitable for performance. My monologue matched the criteria so I sent it in and was delighted to hear that it was to be performed at Kingston University and published in a competition anthology by Borders Books.

My day job has always been teaching but I found that the two areas were moving closer together. By 2006, I had taken up a teaching post as dyslexia tutor at an FE college and would often be able to encourage and develop students' literacy skills through creative writing tasks. More recently I was unemployed for several months and this proved to be both a low point and a turning point. If I was more courageous, I could have thrown caution to the wind and used this expanse of time to get on with the business of writing. However, fear and poverty have a strange effect on my mind and on its creative process. All I could do was to put my energy into finding paid employment - of any description - but seeking work during a recession is not an easy or enviable task.

During this bleak time, the Arvon Foundation were offering places on their residential writing courses to anyone who had never done one before and was on a low income. This seemed like an opportunity made for me! All I had to do was write in stating why I felt I was a deserving candidate and I had plenty of recent material for that. I had always wanted to do one of their courses but never seemed to have the time. A friend suggested I apply to the Open University to teach creative writing and as I had nothing to lose, I added yet another application to the many I had already sent off.

The summer came and went, another friend paid me to read and edit her novel, the Arvon Foundation emailed me to say I had won a free place and at the last minute, I had a call from the Open University to say I would begin teaching within two weeks. At the same time, I was offered a part time 'day job' writing statements for pupils with special educational needs, which I gladly accepted - it is, after all, writing-related.

Teaching creative writing for the OU is another ambition realised, so now, it's just a question of getting on with that novel - or an anthology of short stories. Perhaps I need a further residential week with Arvon to work on that project.

Career Ladder

Teaching Work
Writing Work
SEN teacher, The Forest School, Horsham (mainstream secondary)
Diploma in Dramatic Writing (2002)
SEN teacher, Dorset House (independent school)

Joined New Writing South (2004) and NAWE
Runner up in BBC End of Story Competition (2004)
Joined NWS Creative Learning Team.
Worked as NWS playwright in residence with two Brighton schools.

Wrote radio short Cat-in-the-Box
Supply teacher for primary schools on an occasional basis

Associate Lecturer for Dyslexia at Central Sussex College, Crawley
Wrote monologue Fly-on-the-Wall

NWS writer in residence at Marlowe Academy, Ramsgate, for short story
Exclusions Officer, Surrey CC
NWS short story workshop facilitator at Aldershot Arts Festival
Advisory Teacher on temporary DCSF 14-19 Reforms Campaign
Jan-May 2009

June-Sep 2009
Awarded Arvon writing week retreat at Moniack Mhor studying fiction and poetry
Statement writer, Wandsworth Borough Council (part-time)
Oct 2009
Began work as creative writing tutor for the Open University

Carolyn Thomas has worked as a writer in residence as part of the Creative Learning team for New Writing South. She trained with NAWE as a writer in education to provide writing workshops in schools/colleges and has a diploma in Dramatic Writing from Sussex University. She is a qualified primary school and SEN/dyslexia teacher and a creative writing tutor for the Open University. She also works part time as a statement writer for SEN pupils.

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