As a child I loved to read and write but where did that come from?
Our story is a familiar one. Dad came over from Ireland in the 1950s as the farm could not support him. He met and married mum and as Irish Catholics, children kept arriving. Dad worked away from home supporting us and sending money back to his mother on the farm. When he was away, in the evenings to settle us mum would sit in the armchair by the fire, we would be in our pyjamas, huddled at her feet, the latest baby in the cot by her side. It is not a romantic memory. This was a council house and the coal fire in the living room was the only heating.
But I loved these evenings. She would read to us – Dickens’ Oliver Twist one of my earliest memories, then Louise May Alcott’s Little Women. I was entranced by the stories she read aloud so when I was old enough to read myself we shared the duties. It was a natural step therefore to put pencil first then pen to paper. I wrote stories, letters, poems, plays and stored them in a box under my bed.
I was good at English and my journey through school was a joy enhanced by that one teacher that everyone has; Don Whitby was mine. He took us from To Kill A Mockingbird, to more Dickens, Hardy and poetry that was not on the syllabus – sometimes song lyrics. He was a romantic figure who had been a dancer in a popular dance group in the early 60s and we adored him. He taught us drama and we put on fabulous productions. It was another easy step for me to apply to read English, Drama and Theatre studies and there followed the best 3 years of my life at Royal Holloway College, University of London. Graduating and needing a job I could not see how pursuing the Arts was ever going to earn me a living so I took a different path, signing up as a commissioned officer in The Royal Air Force – and that’s another story! But I continued to write, stuffing notebooks with my words and dreams.
Seven years ago, it was becoming clear that Mum wasn’t going to be around much longer. She was 83, in good health but frail and so I sat with her one evening grilling her on her childhood – stories she had told us from our early years but I was now thinking like a writer – I wanted detail, information, I was doing loose research before I lost her and her amazing mind. When she died, I vowed to myself that I was going to write something based on some of her stories and created a character plotline that I have been developing ever since.
In December 2019 I found a creative writing course in Ireland. This was it for me. It was in a farmhouse on an island off the west coast. I had visions of days sat around a large wooden table with other writers, swapping our daily output, reading aloud, challenging, feeding each other words and ideas. And at night musicians, the flames of a dancing fire, a bit of whiskey; I would be wrapped in a gorgeous cashmere shawl and wearing fingerless gloves. And then lockdown. I was offered an online version of the course and for six glorious weeks spent two hours every Sunday evening with the tutor and another writer who lived in Geneva. It was a lifeline in an isolated time. I live alone so it was me and the dogs and Zoom but those Sundays were wonderful.
As lockdown eased, I started to think about how I might build more formal writing processes into my life and then in November 2021, my 17 year old niece, Maeve, was telling me about her A level English course work and I offered to read it. The subject was ‘Compare and contrast Ibsen’s A Doll’s House and Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women and their depiction of ideological power’. Reading her work was revelatory. I had forgotten how much I enjoyed deep analysis of text and then committing to research. Thanks to Maeve I started looking for academic courses. I vowed years ago, on completion of my MBA, that I would never return to academia and yet here I was aged 62, researching MAs in creative writing. I wanted a fully online programme as I was still fearful of COVID, I have a compromised immune system and had stayed safe for the best part of two years so I wanted it to stay well. I looked at many programmes at various universities and then found one. It is a fully online programme and its biggest appeal was the international nature of the participants on the course. I applied, was offered a place and started in January 2022.
I went into the course clear about my objectives: to write my novel. I find myself half way through the taught modules and each time I sit down to write the strangest thing happens. I read the task assignment, weekly activity and then start to write. Stories appear, some based on events that are familiar to me, but mainly they are tales that spring out of my fingers onto the keyboard. When the task was to write using sensory detail I found myself back in the Belizean rain forest, a young female military officer in a beautiful, lush and challenging environment. Leaf cutting ants with their smell of formic acid crossed my path as I hacked through with my machete – humming birds hovered in the open mouths of scarlet hibiscus flowers. Where did it all come from?
The greatest joy of the course work is the writers’ workshop where each week we are set a task and assigned a small group. We submit our work to each other for critique and comment so that we develop our own critical thinking skills as well as our editing ability as we write. But that’s not the best bit.
At the end of the first week our tutor suggested that we might want to set up a private group to chat outside of the formal taught elements and one of the women set up a zoom call. Since that first week, in and out of term we have met every Saturday when able, on an informal basis, for our water cooler natter. This is where the real work is taking place as we develop relationships, support each other, challenge and laugh a lot. With more easing of restrictions, a summer school was proposed by the university and those of us who were able to, eagerly signed up.
It was with great joy that I headed up to the north of England to the campus for the residential in August. I booked an Airbnb and two of the women joined me. We had only ever met virtually but it was a breeze. We went to school each day together and met up with the rest of the gang – there was a group of ten of us. They came from Singapore, France, Majorca, Northern Ireland and various parts of England. During the day we were students, we did real time writing workshops and activities, attended some terrific lectures – my favourite being – writing the taboo. And in the evenings, meals out and more – suffice to say what goes to summer school stays at summer school!
Our last day was a Saturday so the water cooler natter was held in a room at the library and we zoomed in Macao, England and France to share our connectedness. Without a doubt, the most valuable and life affirming part of doing this MA in creative writing is meeting my fellow writers, making deep friendships, and working collaboratively to ensure that we all fulfil our potential and stretch ourselves beyond anything I certainly could possibly have imagined.
We have just received another marked assignment and the results have been mixed with some bitterly disappointed people, some mildly disgruntled (me for one) and others joyous. But in all of it there has been tremendous support, love and practical offers of help. This weekend’s water cooler natter will be an interesting one as we move forward into our next module – writing from life. Non-fiction!
My novel is put to one side as I explore another facet of writing that isn’t my natural medium but so far I have surprised myself and I look forward to seeing what this one brings.