One in a series of guest blogs by Arachne Authors in Lockdown, in the run up to our Eighth anniversary.
This one is by Joan Taylor-Rowan.
We published Joan in our very first book: London Lies with Renewal.
Joan followed that up with Birdland in Stations, and she was one of five women authors to feature with five stories in Five by Five.
Joan also organised the sold-out Hastings leg of last year’s Solstice Shorts Festival, Time and Tide.
Over to Joan
I want my M.A.
I was the first in my girl-guide troupe to get ten badges. The next goal was to swim half a mile – and get a badge for my cozzy – even though I could only swim backstroke – very slowly. I think they gave me that one so we could all get in the coach and go home. So yes, I am a little addicted to certificates and awards, maybe that is one of the reasons I decided to do an M.A. in Creative Writing.
I’ve always written and have had success with short stories, and even self-published a novel but my literature qualifications end at a GCSE in English. When I moved to Hastings part-time, a few years ago, I set up an informal group teaching creative writing for beginners (that’s for another blog post), and really loved it. Perhaps, I thought, I could approach the local independent school sector and offer my services, and expand my teaching opportunities and my income? But would my publishing history of short stories impress the demanding parents of Cassandra and Bilious?
I had a couple of options: I could work with a writing mentor for a year and hope to come out at the end with a lucrative book deal (any book deal), or I could do an M.A. and brandish my certificate as confirmation of my literary abilities. In the process of doing the M.A., I might write a novel and get a lucrative book deal, but if I didn’t, I’d still have the M.A. Besides I enjoyed studying, and the possibility of discussion with other writing nerds appealed to me.
I chose Chichester, because they ran a part-time course with a good reputation, and I thought at the time it would be a manageable journey. It wasn’t. Southern trains were into social distancing long before Corona virus made it essential.
The course consists of a weekly three hour session divided into seminars and workshops. Some of the seminars were thrilling and inspirational, introducing me to writers I’d never heard of and ideas I’d never considered. I was obliged to discuss what I’d read and to write pieces inspired by themes such as art, or structure or time. I left tired and elated, full of words and sensations and empty pockets – M.A.s do not come cheap, and the five hour return trip plus three hours in seminars was fuelled by coffee and snacks.
The weekly workshopping of each other’s writing took some time to get used to. Feedback groups are only as good as the effort that is put into them; lazy students or careless ones do not necessarily give good feedback, but in my experience, most students were diligent and hard-working – juggling jobs, families and travelling. Sometimes students with the least impressive writing were fantastic at dissecting the work of others. They were also the bravest, giving in raw work and using the feedback to really develop. Getting and giving feedback is an art in itself: too harsh and you break someone’s spirit, too soft and you might as well be someone’s nan telling them, it’s lovely dear. No-one pays £6000 for that. It’s hard to hear it too: you’ve got to chop one of those adjectives. I can’t, you weep, like Sophie choosing between her children. The work will be all the better for it, but that’s hard to believe as you press delete.
Tutor input is craved and inevitably treasured. Their thoughts are the pearls and rubies. And of course you never get enough. I found it to be valuable not only for what it taught me about my own work, but for what it taught me about reading the work of others – to go deeper, to be thorough. Give to them what you would want them to give to you.
I didn’t realise how much I’d come to depend on this workshopping system until forced into The Great Isolation. I’m nearly at the end of my course and suddenly I am adrift, no face to study, no tone of voice to inspect. Is that really a compliment, or is their body language saying something else? Where is the shit in this delicious-sounding sandwich? Also I’m not able to see someone’s spirits lift if I give them a heartfelt compliment, or get a supportive hug in the artistic struggle. An emoji just doesn’t cut it.
Listening to someone explain their character’s motivation can be nearly as boring as listening to someone’s dreams (so my partner tells me). Even though we all know this, we still think that our ideas are thrilling. The great thing about a group of people in the same situation is that you can reciprocate – I’ll nod and look interested if you’ll do the same. It works and we’re both happy. Online and text, it just isn’t the same, even with the Dr Who weirdness that is the webcam. Listening to a floating head with a patchy convex face discussing the finer points of your character’s mental and spiritual breakdown, while a naked toddler scampers past chasing a dog, leaves the muse weeping in the corner, wailing I could have been a contender.
So I cannot wait for the sunshine or a vaccine to send Covid 19 packing, so that I can get back with my writer pals in person. And I promise, I will not moan, or complain, or bitch or be judgmental ever again… Ok, so I had my fingers crossed there.