Friday, 31 October 2008

At long last I'm learning to write

THEY say you’re never too old to learn. That the day you stop learning is the day you die. So, 30 years after graduating, I have become a student again.
With the usual mixture of trepidation and excitement, I have enrolled on an Open University course in Creative Writing.
Hang on, you might think, this guy can write already. Well, I hope you think that.
Earlier this year I applied to UEA for a place on its highly prestigious MA course in the same subject. When I asked Evening Star editor Nigel Pickover for a reference, he replied: “Of course – but surely you don’t need to learn creative writing?”
Well, thanks for that, Nigel. Your support, as ever, was very welcome. But your confidence was obviously not shared by the tutors in Norwich, who turned me down without an interview.
So now I’m with the OU, where no acceptance is necessary, just the registration, the very reasonable fees and a willingness to study.
Oh, and these days a computer with internet access – something that was not required in the heady days of the 1960s when Barbara Castle, bless her, first set the OU ball rolling.
The Open University, I have to say, is a totally brilliant organisation. I’ve always thought so in principle, and now I’m finding it to be so in practice too.
I have my doubts about the sense of sending so many of our school-leavers to institutions that bear the name “university”. No, I don’t have doubts. I know it’s idiotic.
But to make further education available to ordinary folk of whatever age and with whatever previous qualifications is the very best kind of democracy in action.
I know that now, in my second half-century, I’m far better placed to appreciate and benefit from study than I was first time around, fresh out of school. (Actually, I think it should be obligatory for students to take at least a year out between school and university, but that’s another argument.)
Of course, as in all universities, there’s the strong temptation of the student bar to be avoided. Except that the OU bars are virtual ones. There’s no opening or closing time, no charge for the drinks – in fact there are no drinks – and no pinball-machine or pool table to absorb your attention. But the temptation is still there to hang out and waste time nattering.
For the first few days, as I got my feet under the table – well, under the desk in my study – I spent quite a bit of time in the course bar getting to know some of my fellow students.
Five weeks into the course, though, I rarely click on that particular link. I’m far too busy keeping up my notebook, practising clusters (mind-maps by another name), freewrites (just let it all hang out) and morning pages.
Far too busy, as it happens, getting on with my novel. Which was the chief reason I enrolled. This darned book’s been on my mind and on a scattering of loose pages for longer than I care to contemplate. I needed help getting it going, and already I can feel that happening.
And there’s another reason why this course is appropriate for me – even if, after three decades in journalism, I may be the most experienced writer to undertake it.
I’m a dab hand at dashing off a news or sport story of 150 words. I’ve even helped teach others how to do it. And after five years writing this column, I think I’m pretty good at shaping 800 words into something readable (you presumably think so too, or you wouldn’t have got this far).
But the discipline involved in writing for newspapers is almost the opposite of what’s needed to write 60,000 words or so of fiction. And I want to do that well enough to satisfy myself first and then hopefully a few other people too.
I’ve got a good story to tell. Even if it’s unlikely ever to reach as many readers, it’s a bigger story than any I’ve written for any newspaper. I hope with some expert help I can really make it work.
And, hey, I want to have a bit of fun along the way. As students do.

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