I finished my final end-of-year assessments a few weeks ago, and the results are in ~ I did pretty well! It feels great to have made it through a year of university study again ~ next year is an open book at this stage, but if I don’t defer to focus on freelancing I hope to make it through more than three weeks of the second year.
In 2002 I started a bachelor of English and philosophy at Adelaide Uni, straight outta high school, and I left three weeks in to the second year because … for a number of reasons. I ended up working in publishing for nearly ten years after that, and had my first full-time in-house job by the time I would have graduated, so it was no great loss, but this time going to uni has a different … vibe about it: I’m really keen to not let my literary skills be spent entirely on editorial and advocacy work, as had happened by the end of my ‘first’ career in publishing.
I say ‘first’ because it feels like the first iteration ~ this time I hope to maintain stronger focus on having my own work published, instead of focusing on the facilitation of others’ ideas, which was and is a joy, but I like to write more than I like to edit, so here’s to hoping for the next iteration.
I’ve got some nag champa burning and some Carbon Based Lifeforms playing, which is nothing unusual for a morning of study, but it feels more ceremonial this morning ~ and instead of working on assignments I’ve been using my morning writing time to work on chapters for a novel I’m writing. For the next three months or so I will be waking up at 6 am to pour myself into crafting words on a page that won’t be assessed according to a university rubric, which feels liberating and exciting.
I like the rubrics ~ they help direct the energies I give to writing, and I think they are set up to reflect a nuanced (albeit arbitrated) judgement of what constitutes good writing, which is mostly considered a subjective question. Learning some objective notions of what constitutes good writing has been interesting and helpful, but sometimes such objectivity gets in the way of just letting loose on the page to see what happens.
The other benefit of a university writing course is that you’ve got deadlines imposed on you that force you to produce material. Of course I’m excited about maintaining a writing practice over the summer, but there’s something daunting about maintaining a writing schedule without the deadlines enforced by a faculty.
I was pleasantly surprised when I received an envelope from the uni recently, and inside was a certificate notifying me that I had been admitted to the Creative Industries Faculty Dean’s List, ‘in recognition of [my] exceptional academic performance in Semester 1, 2019’. I achieved a GPA of 6.75, which kind of surprised me ~ I understand that I’m a halfway-decent writer, but one of the reasons I left uni in the early noughties is that I struggled to get my head around the academic expectations of the assessors, so even after all my experience in publishing I was still a bit daunted by meeting these expectations in 2019.
But I did it, and it feels really empowering.
I was talking to my neighbour recently about the freelancing work I do, and how it’s pretty easy money once I do the leg work of soliciting clients. He reminded me of the Dunning-Kruger Effect, which, according to Very Well Mind, is ‘a type of cognitive bias in which people believe they are smarter and more capable than they really are’. It works in the other direction too: people who are good at what they do often diminutise the skills and experience required to do it.
Editing has always come naturally to me ~ I was annotating the books I was reading in late high school. And writing is something I’ve also always had a natural affinity for … with? 🙂
I was thinking about it this morning, and about how I would be likely to say to someone if they asked: ‘Oh, it’s just a creative-writing degree ~ it’s not rocket science or anything.’ But the things I’ve learned this year about the craft of writing have reminded me (thankfully) that, in fact, there is a kind of science to writing ~ you have to experiment with methods, and if they don’t work you need to amend the material you’ve crafted until it does work. It requires a great degree of lateral thinking, and also the ability to observe things as they are and wonder about what will happen if you put them together.
That’s a definition of creativity I encountered in a Netflix documentary: creativity is the ability to take two or more existing things and put them together until you’ve created something new. A nice and simple definition.
Doing this with, say, two different chemicals in a lab to make polystyrene (to use an example from the doco) is one thing, but doing this with concepts requires a whole other level of creative ingenuity. And the results I’ve been getting at uni this year seem to suggest that I possess this ingenuity, which is definitely affirming. After struggling to overcome intellectual insecurities in my late teens and early adulthood, I slowly began to realise that yes, I was in the possession of intelligence and creativity, but it’s still been something I’ve struggled to accept as valuable in a culture dominated by ideologies that seem to prioritise material creativity and productivity ~ in the form of, say, medical or engineering innovation.
But this year I’ve formulated the beginning of a thesis for a New Weird novel that I genuinely hope will ‘create room in our collective psyche for new and innovative institutional ideals’ (to quote from the exegesis), and I live now with the confidence that such work is both imminently and immanently necessary.
I’ve learned (or, rather, been officially reminded) this year that there is great power in the written word to change the way we think and act in the world. I’ve never been one for direct action in the form of, say, protest activism, but I certainly share the sensibilities and values that inform such dissidence. But I think I’ve always suspected that something needs to change at a level deeper than just the streets. I have deep admiration for the people who protest at the coal-face of our culture’s iniquities, but I’m also convinced now more than ever that the real protest has to happen in the structures of our minds, which are informed (maybe even just straight-up formed) by the language and neurological structures we use to tell ourselves stories about the world and our experience in it.
I never really expected a first-year BFA in creative writing to have this kind of deep ideological impact on me ~ I really only expected to learn some neat skills about how to improve the craft of writing. So I guess I need to send props to the profs at QUT for the way they’ve handled the material this year. It’s been really inspiring, and I’m super proud of myself for being able to respond to that material in a way that I hope has done it justice.
It’s been a hell of a year ~ super busy because I’ve also been adjusting to living in a full-time relationship with someone I adore, plus I’m a sudden-dad of an eleven year old now, who has a huge heart even though he’s troublesome now and then (but what kid isn’t ~ and we want him to be troublesome, because we need young people to speak and act out against injustice, so we try to encourage that when he does it at home 🙂
I’ve got a few short pieces of writing that I have started shopping around, so hopefully over the next few months I’ll have a few announcements to make about those. And I’m thinking about throwing up my exegesis here, because I’m proud of it and it constitutes the begin of the first major work I’ll try to produce. (Well, second — but the first one kind of flopped, though I’ve noticed that many of the ideas are beginning to leech into this one.)
Meanwhile, I’ve got a novel manuscript to edit for Paul Mitchell, a guy I worked with at Wakefield Press yonks ago. And compost to turn! And bikes to ride. And books to read slowly …