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Studying Writing
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Studying Writing
Life after Graduation
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Creative Writing Can Change Your Life
Raoof, Adam
Adam Raoof writes about studying on the BA and MA in Writing (Prose Fiction) at Middlesex University with tutor Maggie Butt.
Before and After

I left school with two interests; playing competitive chess and writing. For some time I combined love of both: I was a professional chess tournament organizer and became Captain of the England Team; at the same time I wrote a book and many articles about chess and edited two national magazines. Eventually I began to feel jaded. With the millennium approaching, I decided that the time had finally come to change direction.

I always loved reading just for sheer self-indulgent pleasure, but writing never came easily. Nothing truly worthwhile ever does. I never had artistic skills to talk about, and no musical ability, and on top of that I'm totally exam phobic so when my girlfriend told me I could do a degree in Creative Writing at Middlesex University and never sit a single exam it sounded too good to be true!

It proved to be a unique course - yes, a degree for tyro novelists, but also for anyone with a yen to develop their creativity and their writing skills - there were optional courses in scriptwriting, radio and television journalism, editing, horror, crime and romance. The tutors were incredibly proactive, constantly engaging students in the organization of events such as the annual literary festival, hosting the NAWE Creative Writing conference. They took a lot of time and trouble introducing professional writers to us, promoting our students to agents and publishers; inviting graduates who had gone on to fame and fortune to come back to Middlesex and inspire current students. There were work placements.

I am glad that I committed myself to three years at Middlesex University. It wasn't an easy option. The continuous assessment by class work and portfolio was a demanding, full-time, regime. Nevertheless I graduated this year (BA Writing, First Class) and liked it so much I even stayed on as a Sabbatical Officer for the Students' Union and to do a part-time MA in Writing.

A Typical Day

There should be no such thing as a typical day on a truly engaging creative writing course! I began keeping a diary in my second year as part of a creativity project and an extract from one particularly crowded entry looked like this:

7.30am - woken by girlfriend leaving for work. Once my eyes can focus I get up, check my timetable for the day and pack my bag and jump in the car.
10.00am - Arrive at the Campus. Walking in the door I see students I know from Latin America, France, Spain, Italy, Germany, Sweden and the United States!
10.30am - Creative Writing workshop; the lecturers here are also writers and professionals in the media and publishing industry. Last week we wrote to music with a visiting theatre producer, next week we visit the National Portrait Gallery for our writing session.
11.45am - I put some work into my tutor's tray, and put my name down for a tutorial next week for feedback.
12.00 noon - Lunch in the canteen; an opportunity to discuss work in progress with three fellow students. We all find the University is very understanding towards students and very flexible; everyone has different backgrounds and needs. For instance, in our small group three of us are mature students: two have families to look after; one is part-time and another has a job to support herself through college. We're doing a web magazine for writers at Middlesex as part of our assessments. In one hour Jane Rogers is due to speak to us and we're keen to think up some challenging questions for her!
1.00pm - Writers for Lunch; that's what it's called; no lunch, but plenty of writers. Last week it was a hilarious talk from a leading Sci-Fi Writer (now crime writer), Michael Marshall Smith. This week it's Jane Rogers, author of Mr Wroe's Virgins; these contacts are useful. It also brings home the fact that writers are human beings, too. Really. We've also had talks by a fiction editor, a travel writer and a Booker Prize nominee (Magnus Mills)! Our writer-in-residence runs writing workshops and regular tutorials to inspire our own creativity and to begin to iron out our hang-ups.
2.30pm - In the library to do some research for my Feature Writing module on the CD ROM newspaper catalogues - collecting travel articles from the Telegraph and Independent newspapers.
3.30pm - As I had some experience of publishing, I volunteered for one day a week's work at a local secondary school acting as 'mentor' to a bunch of bright kids who want to produce a school magazine. Obviously useful for my CV but mainly a lot of fun.
5.00pm to 7.00pm - Back at campus where I work ten hours a week on the computer helpdesk. The same building houses the library, language centre and computer centre. All are available to all Middlesex students, whichever campus they are based at. Most students also have jobs, but Middlesex offers their students opportunities for part-time work on the campus.
7.00pm to 8.00pm - I've got a free ticket for a gig at a local nightclub run by an ex-student and I'm reviewing it for the student magazine, MUD.

The Work/Life Balance

I was 33 when I decided to return to college and I wasn't looking for a traditional, vocational course. I wanted to develop myself. Luckily I have a supportive partner who worked full-time. So right from the start I made sure that 1) I devoted most of my time to the course - I took a part-time job at the University - and 2) that my study would both challenge and complement my own interests. So, on the one hand I had never written poetry or scripts, but there were compulsory modules in each. I had never formally studied journalism, but there was a module about writing feature articles and I did a work placement with The Evening Standard. On the other hand I took advantage of every proposition module that I could to suit myself! One was about London theatre (an excuse to go out a lot), another involved organizing the annual literary festival by myself (contacts), others involved writing radio drama and writing a dramatic script that I turned into a film using University video equipment, all available free.

Reading and Writing

I have always been fascinated by storytelling whether in film, theatre or novel form. When I hear a good story, I want to write. When I hear a story I don't like, I rewrite it in my head. I've been doing that ever since I was a child. Writers fascinate me - every writer takes the same words that we all use in everyday life and rearranges them to tell their unique story. It's literary alchemy. It's what makes me want to struggle towards the same goal. Luckily I love reading; I discovered quickly that it is near impossible to be a good writer without also being an avid reader as well. However, once I'm writing I tend to put fiction aside until the project is finished.

Development as a Writer

I often wonder - can creative writing be taught? I sincerely hope so, since I'd like to do just that. The best tutors at Middlesex are facilitators; helping students understand the fickle nature of creativity; helping them identify what they want and achieve it rather than trying to channel them. One exercise which really helped me understand myself better was the use of a writer's diary; in the second year we were invited to be part of a project (eventually published by NAWE) run by Dr Maggie Butt which obliged a group of students to keep a reflective diary and which monitored their progress. Those of us who persisted with the exercise actually found that our general academic work improved. I've kept a diary ever since.

I have observed such a wealth of good practice on this degree that could benefit any course and any subject - and any employer. I'm not surprised that a higher proportion of students from our creative and media writing courses find jobs than from, say, computer science; our graduates are truly creative and flexible individuals.

The Work Produced

I haven't yet been published - but is that the point of a degree in Writing? I know so much more about myself after three years than I ever would have done. I've had the opportunity to experiment and take risks with my work in a safe environment where I can get continuous feedback from professionals. I've been able to produce a theatre website, write a web-based fiction project, write one radio play, single-handedly organize a major literary festival, write a script which I was then able to film with a professional actress, and write decent poetry for the first time!

Now I am on the MA Writing, which is supervised by professional novelists and short story writers and certainly much more clearly focused on being published. I have a list of aims for 2004, one of which includes getting an agent for a novel I've partly written. This should be easier given all the contacts I have made at Middlesex!

Adam Raoof was the Captain of the English Olympic Chess team, Editor of the British Chess Magazine and one of the most prolific tournament organisers in the world as well as the author of Know The Game: Chess. A lifelong crime fiction addict, his favourite writers include Raymond Chandler, Reginald Hill and Tony Hillerman. He lives in London with his girlfriend, his cat and two thousand chess books. His hobbies include sailing, photography and, of course, playing chess.

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