On Studying Creative Writing at University

I want to let you in on a secret: I’ve been seriously thinking about going back to university.

When I was a teenager, there was one thing I wanted more than anything, and that was to go to Cambridge. I don’t, of course, just mean the town – I mean the University of Cambridge. I wanted to go where all of my heroes had gone, where all the cleverest and most worthy people went.

The first time I applied, I was pooled. The university wanted to accept me, but the college didn’t have room. I wasn’t picked out of the pool. The second time I applied, a year later, I was outright rejected. As someone who not only had very little self-esteem, but placed all my value on my intelligence, this was earth-shattering.

Fast-forward a little bit.

So I go to university, it’s a very mixed experience because I was so unwell, the degree I get isn’t amazing (it’s a 2:2). Years pass. I come into some money and decide to use it going back to university, except I’m too anxious to go to one where I have to see people, so I go to the Open University. I do two years of part-time study towards a MA in Philosophy.

Then the course fees go up. And up. And I can’t do the last year. Then they’re cancelling the course as I did it, so I have to do it now, or I’m never going to get to. That deadline passes; I still, unsurprisingly, don’t have several thousand pounds. Soon I start to wonder whether I wasted the thousands of pounds I did spend on the course.

I didn’t, of course. I learned a lot of awesome things that I still use now in my writing and thinking about things. More than that, it was one of the first things I did when I was starting to try and exist in the world as a functional being again. To find the motivation I had lost for so long.

But I still haven’t, you know, actually finished university again.

I’ve struggled in the year since that MA deadline passed to work out what my relationship with my ambition is. I do, genuinely, want to go back to university and get a second chance at it.

Though it’s taken a while to isolate that from the depressive part of my brain, I’m very certain of it now. I want to go back, and I want the university experience without the distorting lens of mental illness.

Then, the spanner in the works. Because whilst I was trying desperately to find a way to afford finishing my existing MA, I discovered that in the UK you can now get student loans for graduate degrees. But I had started my degree too early to qualify. I called to make sure, and here’s what they told me:

“You can’t get the loan for this course, but if you want to start a course from scratch you can get the loan for it.”

Hence: spanner. Suddenly everything is different. No, I can’t finish this degree, but I could do an entirely new one. Somewhere else. Somewhere where I would actually go into university for classes and have to socialise with people and get a chance to, finally, have the university experience I want.

So I look at the creative writing courses at Oxford and Cambridge.

The loans are enough for them. The courses, being similar, both cover everything that I would want out of a creative writing course. They have residency options where you can go on writing retreats as part of the course. They’re absolutely wonderful, and I start to think…is this dream still something I want? Do I still want to graduate from Oxbridge?

And just as my heart sings yes, yes, yes, I do I realise something: they’re not normal courses. They’re only writing retreats and residences. Yes, I will get to go to seminars and lectures – but only for those half dozen periods per year where I’m in residence.

In short? They’re not what I want.

They’re not what I want, and it’s like my heart is breaking all over again reading my first rejection letter, and sometimes – sometimes life isn’t fair.

So I think about it more. And more. And more.

I start to realise that it’s not just the course structure that’s the problem. I love my house, and my cat, and my fiancĂ©, and I don’t want to leave them for an entire year, nor can I afford to. My life has changed now. I’m no longer the 17-year-old who wanted to go to Cambridge just to say they started there before they even turned 18. The things I want are different.

But I still want to go and study it.

Which terrifies me, because I’ve never really studied ‘the thing I want to do’ before. My BA was in English Language and Literature, but only because it was the subject I was best at, so it seemed obvious. I applied to all sorts of other things too – Drama courses and more. My MA was in Philosophy because I found it interesting. Going to university to study creative writing? That’s terrifying. Because it’s the thing I want to spend the rest of my life doing.

Maybe that sounds odd. But I have always found that the things I feel most strongly about are the things I’m most afraid of. Even just writing up this post is making me nervous, because it means telling people about the thing that I want.

But that’s the first step towards making it real.

Here’s the next: I just put the open day for our local university in my calendar. They have a MA in Creative Writing too, and whilst it might not be precisely what I want syllabus wise, it’s exactly what I want in location and course structure and more. It’s all the things that the Oxbridge courses aren’t. I can stay here with my cat and get the train to university each day, and study full time for a year or part time for two. And I can afford it with that loan.

So who knows. Maybe this time next year we’ll be talking about the course I’m about to start. Because you can rest assured that if that’s a journey I end up going on? It’s one you’re going on with me.

Thank you so much for reading this post, and for supporting me in what has been the best month ever for this blog. That so many of you come and read the thoughts that fly incessantly around my brain means a huge amount. You make me brave enough.