First steps into Academia

18 09 2009

Tuesday was Induction night. The train to Glasgow takes me just over two hours and then I was running against the clock to see how long the short walk and tube ride to Hillhead would take. It took about half an hour. This is important. My Tuesday night classes will finish about 7.30 and I need to get back in to Central Station for 8 or I have a three hour wait for the last train home. Something I’d like to avoid as it would mean not getting home till well after midnight.

My stomach was in knots all last week and as I walked the last few steps up towards Gilmourhill I could feel the nerves taking hold. The campus was buzzing with Freshers, who all looked so young.

I had a rough idea where I was going but when I got to where I thought I should be I realised I’d wrong footed somewhere. I thought about asking somewhere but to be honest all the youngsters looked as lost as me. I retraced my steps and then spotted a tiny A4 sheet taped to the wall. ‘ Creative Writing MLitt’ and an arrow. Through the big old doors and in I went.


We were all handed our timetables, classes, and a sheet with a short biography of each student (nice idea, means we can at least crib up on our classmates and try to think of something to say when we meet). There are a few published novelists, a handful of journalists and a smattering of teachers, plus recent graduates and then the rest of us. I checked out my entry trying hard not to compare myself unfavourably but starting to feel more than a little out of my depth. At the introduction we got a chance to hear from the course team. We were gathered together in the Anatomy lecture theatre. I sat near the back looking down and wondering how many brain surgeons had once had their bum right where I was sitting and whether any of that genius might rub off!

The course team all sound passionate about the craft and this raised my spirits. And they want us to take risks.

‘Risk failing an assignment. It’s the best way you’ll grow and learn,’ said one.

Afterwards there was a Reading Party in the Anatomy Museum. A macabre setting full of skeletons, and body parts in formaldehyde. Wine was gratefully received and I sat to hear the first of many previous years students read short stories, poems and extracts of longer works. This resulted in me feeling intimidated once again. The stories were beautifully created, punctuated with just the right amount of humour, some grittiness, and some awe inspiring metaphors. To be able to hold someone’s attention with only the spoken word is a real skill I think. Words on a page you can backtrack and check if you missed something first time round. Spoken out loud you get one shot at entertaining the audience. The performance poetry in particular impressed me.

How am I ever going to be as good as any of them?

Oh. And I’m taking the Mlitt full-time now rather than part-time. Part time classes ended up being spread over a Monday and Wednesday evening (with occasional speakers every Tuesday). This would mean me either staying overnight in Glasgow two nights a week or else travelling up and down twice a week. I don’t really want to be away from the kids for that long and and at over £35 a journey I can’t really afford to go backwards and forwards.


Bilingual writing

2 05 2009

One of the things I’ve always wished I could do is learn to speak another language fluently.  I’m able to order a beer in French, German, Spanish and Czech and can say cheers in several others (including, for my sins, Klingon) but I envy people who are fluent in two or more langauges.  It opens up so much more in life, from being able to share jokes to being able to read more books as the author intended.

So I was chuffed to bits to have one of my short stories accepted by OFF_magazine.

OFF_ are a English/Polish collective based in London and the magazine aims to

bring writers together around an independent magazine/press
promote new literary talent in English and Polish translation
create a cultural bridge between Poland and the UK
publish books/anthologies under the OFF_Press banner
use multimedia tools/networks to promote literature worldwide

I feel really honoured to be involved with it.

Go check them out, and I hope you enjoy my latest short story.

Why is education only funded to a certain level?

6 04 2009

Good news, bad news. The good news, the amazing, wonderful news is that I managed to get an unconditional offer of a place in Glasgow University’s MLitt in Creative Writing.

Little old me, doing a master’s degree. Overjoyed isn’t the word.

And given fantastic reputation of Glasgow University, one of the top ten in the UK…how proud could i be?

The fees are £4k for the year.

But potentially I could apply for a scholarship and so I replied immediately. I sent off the information required to apply for a scholarship, I waited.

Last week I received the news. My application for a scholarship was unsuccessful.

Dreams shattered like cheap plates in the dishwasher.

In the UK, postgraduate education attracts very little in the way of government funding, far less than there are places. The poorest in society are ‘allowed’ to go so far in education but not too far. We have to know our place. Funding if we want to do good for society, be a teacher for example, but not if we are potential academics. Leave that to the ones with the power already.

My husband works in a factory to support me and the kids (while he studies for his own degree). Though we could just about manage for me not to earn for a year in order to study full time the fees are beyond us.

It’s so frustrating. If I were rich, if my husband or my parents were rich…I could take my place, take the place offered to me. But I’m not, we’re not. Poverty is standing in the way of me taking this wonderful opportunity. It’s not fair.

New story published

2 03 2009

First off, it feels  like this is going to be a good year for me.

My writing is going well and I’ve already had some good responses to pieces I’ve sent out.

My first publication of the year can be found here…

The Battered Suitcase – March 2009.

The rest of this week I’m going to devote to getting my assignment finished.  I’ve enjoyed the poetry I’ve been writing but not sure it’s suitable for marking.  Some of the subject matter is a bit heavy going and I’m afraid my tutor might not “get it”.  And because I’ve put my heart into it I’m really not sure if I want to risk that.

To put your emotional heart into a piece is part of the joy of writing.  It can be like therapy, even if (as with this poem I’m thinking of) you’re using a different experience, the emotions are yours, you feel them, as you try to put life into your characters.  And that’s part of what makes it so frightening to send them into the world to be read, and judged, by others.  If a person doesn’t “get it” it can feel as though they don’t get you.  As though your emotions aren’t valid.

I’m sure this is part of the reason why so many good writers do it in secret for years, manuscript after manuscript gathering dust in a drawer.  The writer too terrified of having the feelings inside his or her head held up to public scrutiny.

I may stick to the softer option.  I have another short story I’ve been working on, and though I’m not sure it’s as good I think I’d be less personally hurt if the tutor tears it to bits.  But am I just copping out?

Is it my job, as a writer, to lay it all out on the page and hope that whatever genuine experience I’ve mined and carved into a new shape, resonates with the reader?  Should I trust that if I write “the truth” as I see it, that the reader will sympathise with my characters?  Or should I play safe and only write about stuff that has less depth but which will hurt me less if criticized?

How do other writers cope with sending out personal writing?

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Writing Sestinas and Pantoums (and other mathmatical challenges)

22 02 2009

Part of me really enjoys the pressure of a deadline.  It’s too easy sometimes, as writer to find other things to do with your writing time.  I love writing but sometimes when it’s not coming out the way I hope I find myself fixating on “research” or playing online scrabble.

Having assigments to hand in by a certain date keps me on my toes.

For the next one, due 13th March, I have the option of submitting either a 2500 word piece of fiction/biography or 80-100 lines of poety.

I planned on writing prose but after diving into the section on poetry I’m becoming fascinated by some of the forms used.

For example, the Sestina is a highly structured piece of poetry.  For the best explanation see here.

The way it interconnects and seems to repeat itself is clever, and it’s clever because actually, the secret in writing a good one seems to be to find ways to use the identical ending words in new ways.

There are a load of Sestinas on this page

Some are great, some, not so great.

Myfavourite though has to be

How to Build a
Sestina Template
in Microsoft Excel.


from McSweeney’

Have a look, it does exactly what it says on the tin!

Given that I’ve already enjoyed trying out the Pantoum (another of our optional taught forms) I’m thinking I may have a go at submitting poetry.

But it’s a big 20 % part of our overall mark

And the tutor is a poet.  I don’t know if this means she’s more likely to “get” what I write or more likely to see my lack of experience.

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Time is a wasting

27 10 2008

..and I’ve my first TMA due at the end of this week.

Luckily though, after a slow start, my muse has been working overtime and I’ve been blessed with a pile of stories. The trouble has been trying to decide on which one is good enough for the TMA.

For instance, we had an activity on using research as a leap-board. We were asked to choose from a selection of subjects to look up. I chose rat-catching. (Why? I don’t know…it just sounded kind of interesting.)

After trawling the Net I found a wonderful book through Project Gutenberg. If you don’t know already, Project Gutenberg is a website dedicated to making the printed word accessible via the internet. It has loads of out of print and out of copyright works available to download, or browse via the site.

Anyway. On with my rat-catching research. Detailing the 25 year career of a Victorian Ratcatcher, it was a surprisingly good read. And short too. With my attention span at the moment its 28 or so pages fitted nicely thank you.

So here’s a wee excerpt of a story I came up based upon it…

The places near the Clydeside docks had it worst. We did a lot of work in big warehouses there, catching what the local cats couldn’t keep up with, but I liked working in peoples homes best. I got to set foot into the homes of the Tobacco Lords and other grand merchants. Houses filled with more beautiful objects than I’d ever seen if my life. A less respectable man might have been tempted to pocket a candlestick here or a brooch perhaps, but not me. Mr Macintosh said he hired me because I had an honest face and because my ma had raised me a good Catholic boy and I knew stealing was a sin.

Mr Macintosh said the rats infected the houses of rich and poor alike except in the rich houses you’d often only be called in after some eejit gent had tried to poison the rats himself.

“Stupid, stupid wee man.” Mr Macintosh would whisper under his breath once the man of the house was out of earshot. “Jim”, he’d say, “What’s the first thing I taught you about catching a rat?”

At which I’d repeat,
“Never lay down poison in an enclosed space.”

Because the rats take the poison but then go off to find somewhere dry and warm to die. Mostly they end up under the floorboards or down inside the wall cavity. As a ratcatcher I worked in some unpleasant places with smells that would choke you blind; under floors, beside water-closets, in the drains. But the stench from a decomposed rat has to be one of the most stomach churning of all, as though death himself has caught the back of your throat.

The story goes on…Jimmy is somewhat naive and tries to help Mr McIntosh, but in doing so he nearly ruins the man’s business. How will he make amends?

One of the problems I had when writing it though was trying to make sure I kept up with telling the story rather than just describing the work. But the grimness of the work made for an interesting background. In my revised versions of the story I worked harder at trying to keep a balance.

Now I have to decide which story I’m going to use for the TMA.

As much as I love the rat-catcher, I think I’ll develop it for use later. I’ve a much better one up my sleeve.

Keep your fingers crossed for me when my marks come back.

Jumping right in

12 10 2008

For this exercise we were given a starting paragraph and a list of possible names for the piece.  By using the name we could create a piece in a variety of different styles. I had to look up what Peyote was (duh!) but once I did I imagined a Hunter S. Thompson style story.  The crying baby was a side-note in the original starting paragraph but (perhaps because I’m a mum) this stood out to me and so for my story I was thinking Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas meets Three Men and a Baby. Obviously it’s not a finished piece of work, I might develop it for later use in the course though.

My Problem with Peyote

The church clock struck eight, so those villagers who were awake knew without checking that it would be six. I think there was a cock crowing somewhere far off and there was me, strung out across the church doorstep, fedora over my face. Everything was peaceful, my world still same as it ever was. Alls I remember was a whiff of someone gliding past the church wall and then the silence broke hard by the baby crying.

I didn’t see him at first, just heard that noise. I read somewhere, or maybe Frank told me, when they worked out the noise for them ambulance sirens, well it’s exactly the same frequency.

Wheeah! Wheeah!

The sound felt like a truck roaring into my head. I sat up and adjusted my hat; squinting into the Texan sunrise. As I did so my hand caught on the edge of some sort of basket and I saw him.

Tiny purple face, all mouth screaming, “Wheeah! Wheeah!”

Now, I’ve woken up in some strange situations in my life. I mean there was that time me and Frank ended up in Fort Worth with them oil-baron heiresses. We guzzled champagne and hoovered coke like it was an end of the world party. Serenity or something she was called, peachiest ass in all of Texas but we’d went for a walk, you know how these things go, and in the morning she was gone and I was naked, surrounded by red-necks in her daddy’s oilfield. Never ran so fast in my life. But this… This time I knows I’m in proper trouble.

The little fella finally stopped bawling. I’m still only guessing at this point that he’s a he. Babies all looks the same don’t they? But he was looking up at me with them big blue eyes and his tiny hands all balled up into fists. That’s when I saw the note…

Dear Edgar,

I’m sorry to do this to you but I’ve got no choice. I’ve had to leave town for a while, just until things calm down. Please keep Dylan safe for me. There’s a bottle and all his diapers and things in the bottom of the basket. You’re the only one I can trust, and also, I should have told you this before now, but Dylan is yours.