So, this week I was back at the University of Auckland to start my Masters in Creative Writing. It’s been a long time since I was a full time student and over twenty years since I’d set foot on UoA’s city campus. Lots of things have changed. Some things have remained the same. It is a bit surreal. I feel like I’m old and over-dressed. I sense the young students looking at me warily, sizing me up, probably assuming by my age that I must be a lecturer. Sadly, no. That position is filled by the formidable Paula Morris whom I am slightly in awe of.
I think it’s going to be a good year. Paula has a dry wit and is a little irreverent and silly which I can definitely relate to. Silly is good. I have been and always will be the class clown. At one workplace in the UK, I was voted second most silly person in the office (first place went to the brother of the boss). On one occasion, the brother and I were at lunch when we were suddenly and unexpectantly joined by the boss. We proceeded to go on a bender and never made it back to work. The next day, both myself and the brother received a letter of warning from the Personnel Manager telling us our behaviour was unacceptable (fair enough – I believe it’s common practise for people to go back to work after lunch. It’s universally frowned upon when you get drunk instead). Anyway, the brother and I then decided it would be hilarious to write the Personnel Manager a warning letter in return. He didn’t find it as funny as we did.
Anywho, I digress. Back to the course. It’s going to be a challenge to keep my mouth shut this year. I have a tendency to speak before thinking, to open my mouth and let the words spill out before I’ve engaged my brain. I have been officially diagnosed with verbal diarrhoea. I say irrelevant things. I say irreverent things. I say inappropriate and controversial things. I say down right stupid and silly things. I sense a telling off is on the cards.
I like to swear but I’m going to have to rein that in. Unfortunately. I don’t get to play with adults very often so it’s extremely tempting. I can’t swear in front of my impressionable and sponge-like 3 year old son, I can’t swear (obviously) in front of the children I teach. I write educational books and YA novels and haven’t sworn in these either. I do enjoy a good swear. My first novel, Overdrive, which still makes me cringe, has more swearing in it than In Bruges which has the dubious honour of being history’s most sweary movie.
Good grief. Not really staying on topic today. The course. Yes. The other students on the course are pretty much what I imagined: undeniably talented and filled with life experience. Like me, many of them have pursued other callings before this point.
I love the fact that it’s practical and hands on. We have workshops and seminars. In the workshops each week, three students (there’s only 12 of us) hand in 5,000 words which we have to discuss, critique and provide formative feedback on. The author of each piece of work is not allowed to speak until the others have finished giving their feedback. This is going to be a challenge for me. When it’s my turn to be critiqued, it might be wise to seal my mouth with masking tape.
The seminars are fun and challenging. We have to closely read exemplars of great prose, deconstructing each word, each sentence and each paragraph, turning the text this way and that in order to examine it properly. This will be good for me. I don’t really take my time with reading any more. I have a tendency to skim, probably because I’m time poor and always in a hurry. Not so this year. I’m also going to read things I might normally not. I usually read a lot of sci-fi and fantasy, YA and the occasional book my wife throws my way. This will be good to get me out of my comfort zone.
We also have writing ‘exercises’ i.e. to describe an object or experience. This is extremely practical but also a little confronting. In addition, I’m paying close attention to pedagogy because I rather like Paula’s approach and I could easily adapt it when I work with younger students. This course will make me a better writer and as an extension of that, better able to teach writing. I still have a great deal to learn - not only about writing, but teaching as well.
I have one fear: to start doubting myself. Every time I start thinking this way, I recall Frank Herbert’s Dune:
I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I am and will be exposed to great writing and this, of course, can evoke feelings of unworthiness. Generally, I am a ‘pantser’ i.e. I write by the seat of my pants without much forethought or planning. I’m not going to dramatically change my M.O. at this stage. I’m going to write and write and write and then agonise over it later. Otherwise I feel that I may freeze up with self-doubt and indecision.
On another note altogether, I am meeting up with my agent, Vicki Marsdon, this afternoon. The owner of Wordlink literary agency, Dan Myers, is over from the States and he’s having a little soirée for authors and staff. I’m probably going to get drunk. It’s one thing I do well. Hope I don’t make too much of a tit of myself. I think I should take my own advice and keep my stupid mouth shut. The big fish authors will hopefully be there. Authors I admire like Ben Sanders, Donna Malane, Ella West and Keith Butler. Writing minnows like myself should be seen and not heard.
I trust getting drunk and falling into the swimming pool doesn’t count.
Phillip W. Simpson
Phillip W. Simpson is an author of YA and children's books.