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Life after Graduation
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Fanning the Writer's Flame
Hickman, Patsy
Patsy Hickman writes about studying creative writing at Birkbeck College, London University.
Life after bringing up eight children is fine, provided you can still function well enough to have something you want to do. I'd been lucky and I knew I wanted to write. I had kept my hand in by writing letters. Letters to family, which if I analysed, were letters about keeping in touch, information giving, description, narrative, and often expressing a view or trying to persuade. These letters were often very funny. There were letters to teachers, chivvying or encouraging, explaining the snags in my children's academic armour, and business letters helping my husband in his dealings with associates; all good practice at keeping my mind on the mechanics of writing.

But I had limited knowledge. Also, I felt quite lacking in confidence. Everything I had specialized in (child rearing,) was about other people, and not about organizing myself.

I yearned to do an MA, but felt in no way ready for it. So I decided to start gently. A friend suggested Birkbeck College and I rang for the prospectus, and it was nice to find the organizing staff very helpful.

With a stroke of luck, I fell on my feet when I chose a course entitled: 'Creative Writing for Women', tutor Dr. Miriam Hastings. If I had had one teacher of her calibre when I was at school, I would have been an academic. Imaginative, ever gentle but able to control a class with the inclination of her head, she drew out the talent in every single one of us. We practised devices to show a story rather than tell it. We had fun with Magic function, the 'voice' of a child, archetypal characters, parable, mythic and ancient fairy stories. We dipped into poetry, villanelle, and haiku, sonnets and some more modern free verse. I would also say, that the class were not just interesting people, but all had real integrity. By the time the year was up, it was hard to part, and I am in touch with several of the group and still exchange pieces of work. My confidence was growing, and with encouragement from Dr. Hastings, I applied for the more challenging two-year Certificate Course.

The Certificate course is much sought after. I was told I would be interviewed, but would not hear the result until the tutors had concluded all their interviews.

Needless to say in the days before the interview I forgot all my new confidence and I was very nervous, until I was sitting opposite Wendy Brandmark, head of the department. Dr. Brandmark is very professional, but for all this veneer, it is very easy to see that she is an approachable human being and at the interview I forgot almost all my nerves. I took a piece of my work, and told her about myself. I am always reluctant to mention the children, but she said it sounded like a lot. I said it was eight. She looked into the middle distance, and said quietly: "Eight?"

Eight weeks later I heard I had a place. I'd been reading through the reading list of the previous year, much of which was repeated in my year: The Writing of Fiction by Edith Wharton, The Artists Way, Julia Cameron, and Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande - classic stand-bys for the aspiring writer, and several other books of short stories for the first term. We did poetry in the spring term, with a short month's introduction to Literary Criticism, followed by Drama in the Summer term, followed by the four day action-packed compulsory summer school.

I chose Dr. Brandmark's class on Wednesdays. Again I was nervous as I started, but by now I was used to this, and one talented classmate from the Creative Writing course for Women had chosen to do the certificate also. This course has a higher percentage of professionals, and the writers are altogether more likely to have published or be journalists or have a definite plan to publish. They also seemed possibly a bit more protective of their own work, although this defensiveness was eroded by familiarity as well as enjoyment, as the year progressed.

To my surprise I found I really enjoyed the spring term of poetry. I had benefited from reviewing the familiar ground of the analysis of short stories in the previous term, but analysing poetry was something new to me, I found it streamlined my attention to language. I chose to specialize in poetry the second year. This was after having definitely chosen short prose in the autumn term, and before choosing to do drama three weeks into the summer term. (The pull to Drama was the analysis of pace in the unfolding of the plot.) The best teacher of the year, (a completely personal view) was Nina Rapi, she took us for Literary Criticism, as a warm up for Drama until she was taken ill and Drama was covered by the very competent James Charlton, and backed up by Jonathon Kemp. I was bitten by literary criticism, and found myself researching into the wee small hours for an essay on Roland Barthes' statement "The Author is Dead." It was my most rewarding assignment in the whole year, and has given me a totally new hobby I think that I will not tire of.

In the event I chose the poetry, Dominic Mcloughlin's foundation year, and his generous encouraging style of teaching persuaded me of this. Michael Donaghy has taken over the tutorial, and he seems to me to have the vast tableau of poetry right at his fingertips, and enough enthusiasm to inspire the most lethargic prose writer into unabashedly having a go.

By word of mouth, I have already been offered writing commissions on the strength of the above courses. Small though they are, I am very proud of them, and I have grabbed a place in a small independent writing group organized by Dr. Hastings to give and receive help in finishing a book that I am getting together.

Not at all bad for a mother of eight.

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