Tue 5 March 2024
Studying Writing
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Studying Writing
Life after Graduation
Changing Habits
Salway, Sarah
Sarah Salway writes about studying on the MA in Writing at the University of Glamorgan and a PhD in Imaginative Writing at Liverpool John Moores University. Tutors: Jenny Newman and James Friel.
I was nervous when I signed up for my first creative writing class in the adult education department at Edinburgh University.

Volunteering to study anywhere was a relatively new experience for me. I was a reluctant student at school. I'd always read, but I deliberately spent time with books of my own choice rather than suggested books. I did the minimum of set work, and sometimes not even that. Not surprisingly, I shunned the conventional university-from-school route most of my friends took, and as a compromise, picked a practical course at the London College of Fashion instead.

But mainly I felt like a fraud to be studying writing because I'd been making my living in journalism for fifteen years. Creative writing though was something different. Something other people did. Cleverer people than me.

So why was I there? I had started to write my 800 word articles rather like I'd once done the daily motorway commute between Edinburgh and Glasgow - on automatic pilot, and I wanted more. I used words as a tool, but it had all become so workmanlike that although I was doing well, I'd stopped enjoying the process. At this stage, I think I just wanted to be a better journalist.

I was - and have continued to be - lucky with my writing tutors. Anne loved everything to do with writing, and was generous about passing that passion on. I never expected to enjoy myself so much and her class soon became the main focus of my week. Although there was no pressure, I spent hours on my 'homework', waited impatiently for her comments back, and if a book or a writer was as much as mentioned, I'd have read it by the following week.

She didn't just open the windows for me, she blew the house down, and after a year of her adult education classes, I decided to take my studies further.

I applied for the Masters in Writing at Glamorgan University because it was a distance learning course and I needed to carry on juggling studying with working and looking after my children. To be honest, I wasn't sure I'd get on the course because of my lack of formal qualifications, and when I travelled to Wales for my first Masters weekend, all I could think of was how the other students were bound to be so much better qualified, better read and much, much better writers than me.

The weekends - held once a quarter - were a mixture of individual tutorials plus workshops where each student's work was commented on. It took several weekends before I felt confident about what I could usefully contribute to a discussion on another writer's creative work, although I listened closely - and often painfully - to what they had to say about mine.

In retrospect, the workshop process was simultaneously one of the most difficult and rewarding elements of the course for me. I learnt as much from seeing what was working - or not - in another writer's piece as from having my own discussed. However, my creative writing felt so different from my journalism, which had always just been 'work', that I struggled to separate from it and I had to learn that when people criticized bits of my text, they weren't having a go at me. It just felt like it!

But I'm equally sure if I'd received the same comments at that stage of my writing from an editor, or without the back-up support from my tutor, it would have been much more dispiriting. As it was, I was in an environment where it was safe to fail because it could be treated as a chance to see what I was doing wrong.

Before joining the course, I had started writing a novel but my tutor encouraged me to write short stories to allow experimentation with different fictional techniques. I soon realized I was turning out these stories to exactly the same length as my newspaper articles, and although the words flowed easily, this was part of the problem. I wasn't used to going back to edit, and then edit some more again. In my day job, I simply produced the article, and by the time it appeared I was on to the next one.

Now I forced myself to write much more slowly and carefully, even to the extent of thinking about each word I used. It felt unnatural sometimes, and frustrating often. Changing my writing habits was a long and difficult process - for both me and my tutor! It only became worthwhile when I finally wrote something I was happy with. I sent it straight to Rob and received back just the one word 'Yes!'. Over the remaining time left on the course I learnt to be more reliant on my own judgement and to keep pushing myself harder. I started a collection of themed short stories, one of which has been expanded into my first novel, Something Beginning with.*

Meanwhile, I was reading extensively, taking stories apart to see how other writers achieved certain effects such as time shifts, point of views and setting. I was surprised with how much I enjoyed this more critical analysis, and I was introduced to new short story writers too, particularly the Americans - Amy Hempel, Tobias Wolff, Raymond Carver, Joyce Carol Oates, Flannery O'Connor.

And this reinforces one of the main benefits of the course for me. Being able to say I was studying writing gave me time psychologically I've never allowed myself before in which to experiment with different styles and forms so I could find out for myself what felt natural to me. I remember with pleasure the workshop when someone said that they could recognize my writing style anywhere as it had become so distinctive and was very much 'my voice'. But above all the course provided us all with the stimulation of a creative environment where we were surrounded by people - tutors and students - who were interested in the actual process of writing, instead of just the commercial merit of any finished piece of work.

An unexpected result of my studies - especially so, I'm sure, for my old teachers at school! - was how much I enjoyed the academic side. After I completed my MA, I began my current PhD research with the Centre of Writing at Liverpool John Moores University. Here I'm continuing to study fictional techniques in autobiography at the same time as writing a novel based on the theme of family stories. The two strands - theoretical and creative - feed into each other continuously. I often put down textbooks to jot down notes for the novel, and it was reading Freud's Family Romances in the British Library that was the inspiration for my poem, 'Different Lives', a Poetry London 2003 prizewinner. So I am confident that analysing my creative process has stimulated rather than inhibited my writing.

I suppose one of the best differences for me now is that when people ask me what I do, I finally have the confidence to say I'm a 'writer', and not just a 'student of writing'.

* Something Beginning with, to be published by Bloomsbury Publishing, and An ABC of Love from Ballantine Books, US in April 2004.

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