A golden glow greeted me as I stepped out of the Percy Building in the quadrangle at Newcastle University last Wednesday afternoon. The setting sun in the west had a clear corridor past the Hadrian Building and The Boiler House and struck the willow tree (I stand corrected if it isn’t a willow) outside the Hatton Building in front of the iconic arches on campus and lit up its branches like a flaming torch.
I was feeling proud of myself. Usually full of self-doubt and self-deprecation, I allowed myself a moment of congratulation as I stood on the steps watching my fellow students scuttle home from lectures.
I’d done it. I’d handed in my first submissions: a short story and two reflective essays. The last pieces of academic work I’d written were done on a typewriter with carbon paper. I had fond memories of staying up all night with my flatmate Jane, who was on the same course as me, with a packet of Bensons, a bottle of gin and cherry brandy to make Singapore Slings and the toaster and a packet of Mother’s Pride on the table spring to mind; but that was back in 1984.
Who knew that there was a tab on my laptop for adding footnotes when referencing? It had taken me three days of cursing and searching for tiny symbols before I realised this. (I am now a dab hand at adding footnotes if anyone else is stuck!) I was pleased with what I had written, and how I had got to grips with formatting and word processing.
I wrote an email to my Prose tutor, Lars Iyer, at the beginning of term after fudging an answer like a politician in class. Not understanding the question, let alone being able to come up with an answer, I had felt inadequate and had waffled something in reply. I’d beaten myself up on the train on the way home that night as I mulled over the question and in hindsight came up with an understanding of what I was being asked and what I should have said. I felt so stupid, blamed my age and doubted my academic ability. I explained that I felt like I’d arrived in Switzerland and was at the foot of a mountain. In one set of lectures, ‘Process’ we are wandering the green lower pastures and are gently learning about the process of becoming a writer. It is fairly light touch as we learn about keeping a notebook, developing the habit of daily writing, reading like a writer and learning to listen; all very important skills, and all well within my grasp. However, in the ‘Prose’ workshops I felt like I had arrived at the rock face. I had no idea where to put my hands or feet, and the other students, some of the fresh from undergraduate studies, were scaling up the mountain, way ahead of me. I felt stuck, unsure if I had the skills to climb. I was no academic, I was a mature student, a grandmother, having last written an essay over thirty years ago. (Mind you, I was very good at writing essays back then, and used to help other students write theirs.)
A gentle and kind email came back from my tutor, thanking me for my honesty in what he said was a ‘moving’ email. He said to relax, academic thinking would come, and besides, creative writing was not all about academia. They took mature students such as me on to the course for a reason. We had much to offer in terms of life experience and the stories that came with that. (I certainly have a few stories to tell!)
Last week I had a tutorial with Lars, following the submission of the first thousand words of my short story. After correcting some syntax and formatting errors, he suggested I cut the preamble of my story at the beginning as he wanted to get straight to the character’s monologue, which he had enjoyed. He said I had a wonderful narrative voice and had skills as a writer that couldn’t be taught. You could have knocked me down with a feather!
I’d come a long way from the therapy session when it was suggested I do an MA in Creative Writing to satisfy the urge in me to be radgy, but also to give me a conduit to get my story told. Little did I know that that conversation would lead me to be on the steps of the Percy Building having handed in a piece of memoir writing about a very painful time in my life that I had not dared visit for an awful long time. Not being good enough has been a recurring theme throughout my life, but here I was, standing on the steps of the English Department, having handed in my first pieces of work.
Looking at the golden glow in the branches of that tree, I felt a golden glow inside of me too.
Enough of this self-doubt and self-deprecation. That’s the last you’ll hear of it. I am good enough.
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