My last course began with an adverse omen, or so it would seem in retrospect. All part-timers enrolled in the final subject, Professional Writing Project, met as a class just once, at the start of semester. Ten minutes late, I entered the room while students were introducing themselves and unknowingly sat at the wrong end of the row. So, after hearing from the student at the other end, Dr F addressed the room making eye contact with all but myself. As I sat taking notes, I felt like a leper.
Some minutes had passed when Dr F (for forgetful?) said sorry for having forgotten to ask me what my project was. I said sorry for being late. I regretted it more because I’d really tried to arrive on time: PWP was to be the high point, the whole point of the MA, the experience of my work being taken seriously for which I’d been waiting; access to a supervisor who’d be obliged to read my drafts in between a handful of one-on-one half-hour consultations; my chance, for which I was paying $2525 (less 10%), to pick their brains. Dr F (who seemed so nervous, I couldn’t take having been overlooked personally) made the whole deal sound like a contract – we’d be accountable for our process, not just our product. At our first one-on-one meeting we’d discuss my one-page project outline, which would need Dr F’s approval if I were to proceed.
Throughout my first visit to Dr F’s office I couldn’t seem to stop saying ‘Sorry’, even for such minor idiocies as overuse of long words in my outline. Later I came to see how Dr F’s authoritarian air might tend to prompt endless involuntary apologising; not that Dr F would be aware of that. Dr F’s main reservation re my PWP was that publishers don’t want novellas from first-time authors like me. Yet, Dr F showed interest in my premise and referred me to a novel with a comparably offbeat structure. I bought and read it before our next meeting so as to bring more to our discussion.
Late in the semester at our fourth meeting, having read five instalments, Dr F declared my project ‘publishable’ and professed to love one scene (in which the narrator waxes reflective), citing it as a benchmark with regard to developing the rest. Dr F even suggested a likely publisher (one that had shown repeated indifference to my short-story submissions). Meanwhile, Dr F encouraged me in the use of ‘telling’ detail and the fleshing out of setting, at both of which Dr F excels (if almost to the exclusion of plot). Certainly Dr F’s strength complemented my weakness in this context. While fleshing out the first third of my draft before I’d reached its end felt wrong, what do institutions exist for if not to negate individual instincts?
As with all previous subjects, the focus in this one cleaved to technique. We talked about how, rather than why (except for why publishers have certain requirements or why one technique might work better than another). Why I might dare to write on domestic violence, sex addiction, abortion and fertility control – or even why I’d want to write at all – was my business. So when, with an optimistic smile, Dr F finally voiced the belief that my pregnant narrator would opt to keep her baby, I got the distinct feeling that, as fun and constructive as our chats had been, and as flattering as Dr F’s emotional investment in my narrator might seem, we sure as hell weren’t on the same page. And yet Dr F not only read twice the amount of pages required of supervisors but expressed pleasure at doing so.
In hindsight, as at the time, it’s clear to me that creative writing MAs are structured on the assumption that students want to write to make money, and that questions of talent, aptitude, calling, motivation, the role of literature etc. have no place in, let alone relevance to, a pragmatic syllabus. Maybe I’d have found an MA in literature more fulfilling?
The novel I worked on (it outgrew my initial 30,000-word projection) wrestles on an intimate scale with a very big question: Why have a child in a world that’s already overpopulated, under-resourced and sundered by violent wars of all kinds right down to the most private and interpersonal? Is a happy ending one in which a woman decides to keep a baby to whom she’s formed a profound attachment though it’s unborn, or one in which she decides on abortion in a supportive, non-shaming environment, because she’s poorly equipped if at all to give a child a good start in life? The same sort of logic could, of course, be applied to novels: Why write one in a society that’s already oversupplied with literature, under-equipped to appreciate it, and sundered by ego-fuelled culture wars that suck oxygen from the space to reflect that depth psychology offers? Imagine if you (or women you know, if you’re male) needed tertiary qualifications to be socially sanctioned for giving birth to a baby; if, instead of rating a baby bonus from your refugee-phobic government, you had to pay 15 grand for an even chance at motherhood. Does that sound like a fun premise for a speculative fiction novel? And if so, what local publisher would touch it? Babies not only symbolise hope, they’re good for economic growth. Babies (and books) galore are PC in the capitalist paradigm.
At our last meeting Dr F said to get in touch when my draft was ready, and we could discuss to whom I might send it. Though offers of help beyond the call of a tutor’s duty weren’t unusual – and I’d seen students shamelessly waylay staff before, during and after classes – I’d ceased to dream that any tutor would volunteer such support of me, and thanked Dr F profusely.
Some weeks later my first 15,000+ words were mailed back to me with a high grade and Dr F’s barely legible assurance that I’d resolved the main issues. Towards the end of the next semester I emailed Dr F that I’d finished, and was invited to consign all 50,000 words to Dr F’s pigeonhole. I hadn’t expected that Dr F would desire, or have time, to read the rest; had imagined no more than a brief conversation or email exchange. That was late October. Three months later I emailed a tentative query and received a reply. Dr F, due to a publishing deadline, had been working 12-hour days for three months and had been ‘thinking about [me] guiltily’, but hoped to read my ms before the new semester. I invited Dr F to ‘banish all guilt’, which now seems pretty silly. Some people need guilt for motivation with any task not linked to self-interest. A few months later I sent a fresh query. No reply ever came. And so, a year after dropping my ms into the darkness of Dr F’s pigeonhole, I inquired by email if I might retrieve it. No reply again. No doubt Dr F was busy with publicity, riding a wave of critical acclaim.
What did I expect? In lieu of the promised advice, a gesture of closure from Dr F – say, a brief admission of human limits with an apology – would have sufficed. To this day, whenever I read or hear of Dr F’s impressive career, I can’t help but wonder what else remains lost in the bottomless staff pigeonhole of Dr F’s compartmentalised psyche.