LEARNING TO WRITE BY DEGREES

LESSONS FROM MY UNIVERSITY DAYS by Owen Townend

From 2009 to 2015, I attended Sheffield Hallam University to learn the craft of writing. It took three years to achieve a BA in Creative Writing and another three for an MA in Writing.

            Many would call my degrees a ‘Mickey Mouse’ subject. Indeed a few other students certainly thought they could coast through the BA though most of these ran into overdraft in their first semester and soon dropped out. The Masters was a different story, most of my compatriots being grown adults paying out of their own pocket to learn how to craft fiction. It took four years but I finally found my crowd.

The most important lessons I learned were rarely part of the syllabus and more to do with the company I kept and the effort I was encouraged to apply. After all, formal education will only get you so far.

Here are a few of the things I learned in my six years of higher education in the art of writing…

Fellow Learners Make More Memorable Teachers

I was a rather naïve student. My dedication to attending lectures and seminars was more to disguise my fear of getting drunk and into danger than genuine bookishness. When it came down to it, I was too timid to really learn anything.

            Thank God I surrounded myself with students who struck a better balance! Through them I developed a lust for life that is vital to being a writer. When they weren’t easing me into the night life, they were impressing me with their ingenious approaches to writing.

            A dear friend who stuck it out with me for five of the six years, had the greatest impression. I admired his subversive approach to writing, how daring he could be with experimental prose. I inherited his love for Raymond Carver and Ernest Hemingway and sought to capture what I wanted to say within the same simple lexicon and sentence structures.

            This proved to be a very awkward fit. Sometimes my inability to write more like my friend or our shared literary heroes drove me dotty. I remember one time getting so frustrated with the unintentional comedy of something I wrote that I flung the sheets into the air and let them coat the carpet.

            I have since learned that I can’t expect my thoughts and interests to fit into sparse human drama with American inflection. Through the course of my friendship, I learnt that trying to write like my friend was foolish and did us both a disservice. Then again, whenever we reconnect, I do worry what he will think of my more recent efforts. I put that down to human nature.

Authors Rarely Make the Best Teachers

While Sheffield Hallam University had some excellent writers on the faculty, most of them didn’t make me feel suitably encouraged in my writing journey.

            Some were laid back to the point of being horizontal at one-to-ones, others were clinging to glory days and sneaking their out of print books onto the reading list.

            The teachers I felt least supported by were, unfortunately, the poets. One almost killed my love of the form with her disinterested critique. I can also recall an incident not involving me, wherein a male poet met with a student on the lift going down, heard their outline for a final project then promptly told them that he didn’t understand it before walking off to some other engagement.

            I do not intend to pick on poetry teachers, it’s just how I experienced them. Meanwhile my prose teachers proved more influential: two in particular sparking my passion for short story.

            What I am trying to say here is that you must be very careful which writers you accept as teachers, if you can. A bad fit could potentially ruin that childlike wonder where creativity begins.

Manuscripts Must Be Completed (If Only to Then Trash)

My BA Creative Writing degree required only part of a final manuscript, which resulted in a couple of stories that went precisely nowhere once the work was submitted.

            Not so with the MA Writing degree. Indeed Sheffield Hallam University prided itself on their course being one of the few that required a full final manuscript to graduate.

            This was a big selling point for me and I ended up creating my first short story collection through it titled The Aliens on My Mantelpiece. It proved an arduous task to compile enough stories to bulk it out and even more energy went into drafting them till they were of standard. Still I got there and claimed a 2:1 for my troubles.

            As for The Aliens on My Mantelpiece, it went no further. While this may seem a tremendous waste, it is widely agreed that a writer’s first official manuscript Is normally destined for the bottom drawer. Besides the journey proved infinitely more important than the destination. Without it, I would have never learnt how much work goes into writing a complete book or the sense of accomplishment at making the final touches.

            I may still extract a couple of worthy stories from The Aliens on My Mantelpiece but right now I am just grateful for the experience of getting them down and perfecting them. It really is what sets the professionals apart from the hobbyists.

Masterclasses Teach More than Formal Lessons

I have many happy memories of spending evenings with my MA Writing friends before going down to the late Masterclass.

            In a little lecture theatre tucked away in a corner of Owen Building (no relation), I was introduced to a videogame script writer, an ex-con diarist, a TV comedy writer and even an American poet who had recently been struck down by an owl.

            These interactions lasted little more than two hours but I recall them more vividly than all formal seminars put together. The best part was that the guest speaker varied from week to week and usually applied their writing talent to different fields, from children’s fiction to soap opera.

            It was there that I discovered the likes of Jeremy Dyson, Annabel Pitcher and Marcus Sedgwick. It was there that I had my eyes truly opened to the possibilities of where my imagination and world view could take me.

            My days were for improving present writing but my nights were for learning about the future.

So university was indeed influential in making me the writer I am today. It wasn’t a perfect fit at first but I did eventually improve. Higher education isn’t for everyone but I’m sure you will agree, there is always some way to keep learning.

9 thoughts on “LEARNING TO WRITE BY DEGREES

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  1. A fascinating insight into the writing/learning process. I’ve always said that people who learn easily, get first class degrees, top of their profession do not always make the best teachers. Those who have had to struggle/change/develop themselves have a better understanding of others’ problems.
    Thanks for sharing this.

    1. Hi Vivien,

      I wholeheartedly agree. A lot of the students who did better than me don’t write nearly as much as they used to these days. It’s the same old story: work and life get in the way and the old enthusiasm dwindles.

      Had it not been for joining HAC, I suspect I might have gone the same way!

  2. I had a period of envying people who had done creative writing for a degree. My own degree was called English studies, and was a mixture of literature, and approaches to criticism, and linguistics. Absolutely nothing about creative writing. So having trained mostly as a critic I felt hampered by my huge understanding of the deeper meaning of texts to write anything.

    However, write things I did, and I feel I have finally found quite a decent voice with which to do this, but my dreams of being a writer during the normal time period when people work for a living, i.e. between aged 25 – 65 are quickly dissipating as I only have 9 years left in that time space. However, with age comes wisdom, and I know it doesn’t really matter.

    Now I have to guard myself from feeling down when I hear that people don’t want old people to take on as a novelist as they want to make money out of you and want to be sure you have enough years left in you to make them want to invest in you. I find this deeply depressing. I love writing. I adore it. I love wrestling with the words to get them in the right order to create a feeling in a reader. And the story I am telling now, a true one that is amazing, I would love to be known as the author that brought this to the fore in its entirety.

    But I don’t think I could stand having any of those ‘teachers’ pulling my work to bits and interfering with my voice. yes, I will have any help going to be a better writer, but don’t mess with my voice! It took a long time for me to find it.

      1. Not at all. I agree completely. I followed advice from all the ‘experts’ to see where I ended up: at the end of a blank alley up to my neck in shit. However, I learned an awful lot, especially about advice. Digging my way out of that mess was perhaps my greatest achievement to date. Though, sadly, not publishable. Although I woke this morning with a great idea!

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