A couple of weeks ago I went up to York to take part in an event at the university that involved alumni talking to current English undergraduates about potential careers. As all the others present seemed to be very successful in their own fields I felt a bit like the spectre at the feast; on one hand I could give people hope that it is still possible to get a book deal for a work of literary fiction, but on the other, I can’t earn enough from it to make a living. I was pleased to see from the questions submitted in advance that at least one person had read this blog, instantly doubling my daily viewing figures, but I had to admit to the students who questioned me about it that I don’t really know how to make the best use of the new media to promote my work. I don’t have a twitter account, I blog infrequently and look at Facebook maybe once a month. I’m aware of the possibilities, but like Tantalus, I’m unable to grasp them.
It was encouraging that so many students were prepared to turn out to hear us speak, and listening to the others crystallised my own thoughts regarding the benefits of an English degree. Too often English graduates (me included) are apologetic about the usefulness of our degrees and society encourages this, with Maths and the Sciences often referred to as ‘hard subjects’ as if the Arts and Humanities were somehow soft options. There’s a reason that child prodigies who take their ‘A’ Levels in primary school and complete their degrees before they’ve hit puberty are found exclusively in Maths departments: the experience of life and the development of empathy necessary to be a successful student of English take time to acquire. You need a far greater level of maturity to be able to understand and write fluently about works of literature than you do to be able to work out equations. I’m not seeking to denigrate mathematicians, but you have to admit that they are rarely great communicators, and that’s where we inky-fingered types come into our own: whether it’s writing a novel, composing a poem, putting together a CV or a personal statement – or just blagging your way onto a train when you’ve missed the one you had a reservation for and left your purse at home – being able to use words well is surely the most important of skills a human being can possess.
After we’d answered questions as a panel we went elsewhere to continue the discussion in a less formal setting. Groups of chairs were arranged in circles and each of us took up a position and waited for the students to come to us. I was worried that I’d be sitting there alone, watching tumbleweed blow across the room, but I just had time to grab a handful of crisps and a glass of wine before the questions started. I had wondered whether would-be writers who would once have studied English were now taking degree courses in creative writing instead, but it appears not – and in fact there were some students there who were studying other subjects. It was touching – if a little scary – to see how much faith people have in the ability of a writer to advise them on how to get their own work out there. The truth is, I know nothing. All I could give them was a distillation of the key things I learned from my MA course: keep writing, little and often, if that’s what you have time for and don’t wait for the
perfect moment to get your thoughts and ideas down, as it will never come; expose your work to the light, either via a writing group, taking part in reading events such as poetry or story slams, or by submitting it to competitions; never give up.
I recommended taking an MA in creative writing, or some other reputable course, because in addition to providing all the above it it can bring you to the attention of an agent, and you need one of those if you want to get published.
All the time I was talking I was aware of the crisps getting steadily soggier in my hot little fist, but I never managed to find an appropriate moment to eat them. It would have seemed rude to do it while the students were talking, and even ruder to do it while I was, so it was only when we were finished that I could dispose of them. I was staying on campus and assumed that I’d find somewhere to buy food, but everywhere was closed, and I had to resort to vending machines. I’d tell my student daughter off for eating a meal of crisps and chocolate, but it was that or nothing.
It had been a beautiful day when I arrived in York, but by the evening, mist had descended, and as I wondered across a bridge in the footsteps of my young self I realised that I might finally be cured of nostalgia for my students days. The intensity of the feelings attached to that period in my life arise from the fact that I was young. If I’d left school and gone straight into a job (which you could still do then) I’d probably look back with as much affection for my first workplace; now that I’m no longer in my salad days the attraction of campus life has faded.
It was interesting to talk to one of the few surviving faculty members from those days, though: I’ve often wondered whether my memories of some of the more colourful members of staff – and that would be most of them – had grown exaggerated over time, but it seems not: without naming names I can say that any bad behaviour on the part of we students paled in comparison to the excessive drinking, extra-marital affairs and drunken brawls indulged in by some of our esteemed lecturers. My daughter’s generation would never stand for it: they’re paying a fortune for their education – or will be – if they ever find employment, so they want value for money and exemplary behaviour from their teachers. Sadly, the tutorial system, where we had hour-long sessions with a tutor and two students – or if you were very lucky, one-to-one sessions – has gone from most universities now, and I wouldn’t swap my time with my often inebriated but frequently brilliant tutors for today’s more regulated set-up, not for the world.