You Can’t Always Get What You Want…

I was in my last year of school. I wanted to do a creative writing degree. At the time I only knew of one, at the University of East Anglia.
My parents said no. I think their main reason for this was because they considered UEA an oasis of left-wingery that would drag their daughter down into some frenzy of drug-fuelled protest and anarchic sex.
Looking back, I could have objected. I could have tried to go anyway. I could have applied for financial support, got a job…but I was a naïve, fearful, rather childish 20 year old. I was used to having my life run for me by other people.
So I applied for English Literature courses and eventually got onto one at Swansea; which, being as it was in south Wales and these were the Thatcher years and the era of the miners’ strike, meant I did get involved in left-wingery and protest. Though the sex wasn’t very anarchic and the main effect of the occasional foray into illegal herbage was to make me sit around talking rubbish and giggling a lot, rather than getting out and doing anything to change the world.
I enjoyed bits of my course. I wrote a little. I read a lot. I wondered what it would have been like if I’d gone to UEA, and blamed the fact that I wasn’t there for my lack of writing success.
But the real reasons for my lack of success were rather closer to home. I wasn’t actually ready, for one thing. I had a lot more words to write yet. Also, I was lazy and unfocussed. I didn’t spend the time to educate myself about publishing, I didn’t finish half the short stories I started, and I submitted even fewer. Nor did I get off my bum and actually complete the elephantine fantasy novel I would end up working on, on and off, for another nine years. It was so much easier to whinge to myself about how hard-done-by I was than actually to do anything.
But when I did write, it was stuff I wanted to write. Fantasy, with occasional excursions into horror and soft SF and poetry and even rarer ones into what might tentatively be called literary fiction.
Had I gone to UEA, I suspect I would have been…discouraged. Because everything I have heard about other people’s experiences of creative writing courses, especially at that time, suggests that my love of all things supernatural, of the swash and the buckle, the swooning romance and high adventure and happy ending (or satisfyingly gruesome one), would have been regarded as rather grubby, childish follies. That I would have had to smuggle my favourite books around hidden in the covers of The History Man.
And, (being naïve, and childish, and desperate for approval), I would have tried to please my tutors and fit in with my peers by putting fantasy aside and attempting serious literary fiction.
Maybe I would even have done well enough to pass. Maybe I would have got a story or two in literary magazines. Maybe. But even if I had attained that measure of success, I doubt I would have gone any further. I think it unlikely in the extreme that I would ever have succeeded in writing a publishable novel that would have been classed as serious literary fiction. (That in itself being as much a genre as fantasy is, or isn’t – which is a whole other discussion).
Because I read a lot of literary fiction, and I love a lot of literary fiction, but it isn’t what I love to write. And I believe all good writing, all readable writing, is driven primarily by passion.
I look back now and I think – I was lucky. I was also naïve and lazy, and far too ready to let other people run my life and then blame them when it didn’t go the way I wanted, but – lucky.
Because I’ve ended up doing what I care about. I write about issues not uncommon in literary fiction – sexuality and gender roles, culture and family and religion – I just do it in a way I enjoy. And I write about love and honour and sacrifice and vengeance, magic and swords and sex with two-penised lizard men. And I love it. And I don’t have anyone telling me I should be writing something else.
A creative writing course might have been what I wanted. But back then, as an under-confident writer desperately trying to find out who I was and what I wanted to write about? No. It really wasn’t what I needed.


You Can’t Always Get What You Want… — 5 Comments

  1. You sound a bit like me. I did the Creative Writing (and Publishing) degree at Middlesex because I didn’t have enough courage to try to get into art college again (after being rejected) and sadly was completely put off by it.

    What I did like was the subject I did as a minor – History of Ideas. It was fascinating and has been very useful for my art. I can’t say my degree has been very useful for my day-job until recently when I got into records management and a taste for history comes in handy.

    • History of Ideas does sound interesting – I didn’t even know that was a subject! As for one’s degree being useful for one’s day job . The only thing I ever found useful in the day job were editing skills I learned from volunteering on a Festival magazine. Knowledge on how to write essays on the Edenic imagery in Heart of Darkness, on 3 hours’ sleep and a hangover? Not so useful…

  2. 5. Don’t stress about it! Of course there is no point in worrying so much that you get writer’s block (and if you do, get hold of Jenna’s terrific book on the topic :-)). If you read great books, write fiction that is true to your own creative vision, and revise (with feedback from others) until the work is as perfect as you can make it, you will produce literary fiction. That’s all there is to it. Writing a novel is about as hard as writing gets. Writing literary fiction can take years, often with little reward, at least until the book is completed (and in many instances, thankless even after publication, assuming you are published). But if you can’t stop yourself; if the desire for producing something truly beautiful outweighs utilitarianism, then you are really and truly a literary writer and your work will have transcendency. I’ll look forward to reading and reviewing it!

    • Hi Rosemarie
      Thank you for this. I don’t know why it went into spam, sorry if the reply has been long delayed! I don’t know if I’ll ever achieve transcendency, (that sounds rather terrifying) but if I can achieve entertainment and maybe a bit of thoughtfulness, that will do me.