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The Dusty Piano

Tracy Chevalier

I first heard about the MA programme in Creative Writing at UEA from a 1993 Guardian article by Louise Doughty, recalling her year there and how it helped her develop as a writer. I came across the article as I was flipping through the newspaper on my way to work, part of my somnolent commuting ritual, where articles were fodder that passed the time but did not stick.

Something must have stuck, though. When I got to work – as an editor at a reference book publisher  my boss came up to me before I’d taken off my coat or had any coffee and began talking about something I hadn’t done and should have. As she went on and on, a thought suddenly came to me: ‘I gotta get out of here! I’m going to do that Creative Writing MA at UEA.’ An idea I’d never consciously had, at least as an adult – to become a writer – in a moment of decaffeinated pique became a plan.

Some writers say they must Write Or Die. I am not one of those. Becoming a writer was not my singular goal when I was growing up. I remember at various times wanting to be, yes, a writer, but also a librarian, a teacher, a psychiatrist. Books were one of my favourite things, though, and I always liked the idea of being involved with them somehow when I grew up.

At university I pinpointed publishing as a practical correlative to writing, and in my twenties I became an editor. Writing was a persistent itch I scratched at night and on weekends, but slowly and inconsistently. By thirty I had just half a dozen finished short stories, with one published in a fiction magazine that went bust before it could pay me the modest fee.

There were eighteen of us in the UEA Class of 1993–4. For the most part people were in their early to mid-twenties, just a year or two out of university, with a sprinkling of us a little older. We met every week to read and discuss one another’s work in progress, led by Malcolm Bradbury one term, Rose Tremain the next. These sessions were the heavy lifting of the course, the only real demand made on us. It was a tricky environment: we wanted to be honest about others’ work, yet our own work would also be exposed to the treatment, and we feared being too cruel, as they might be in return. And frankly, all of us were more interested in our own writing than in others’. We read others’ work and commented on it only because we wanted them to do the same to ours.

The sessions were a sometimes bewildering mix of brutality and boredom. Malcolm Bradbury was a lovely man, but he took a laid-back approach to class dynamics that allowed some voices and attitudes to predominate. By the time Rose Tremain took over, the tone had been set. Though she did her best to mediate, some took the criticism of their work badly, because it had been presented to them badly. I suspect a couple of the students were so bruised by these sessions that they never wrote again after finishing the course.

To my surprise, years later one of the class members told me they were always relieved when I spoke up. ‘At last, some sense,’ they used to think. Perhaps it’s that I’d already had experience as an editor handling academic contributors to reference books, and had learned how to be kind and firm at the same time. Also, criticism needs to be practical – here’s the problem, how about this solution? If it’s abstract or waffling, it won’t stick. Maybe, though, I was just better at hiding my boredom.

Once I had read a bit of everyone’s writing and seen the mall in action as both critics and defenders of their work, I used to sit in class and play a game: if I were a publisher, whom would I offer contracts to? Excluding myself from the contestants, I admit I guessed right quite early on as to the two who would go on to publish solidly. It was based not just on their work, but on the way they approached writing. Rather than writing all night before the deadline, fuelled on caffeine and alcohol, or recycling old stories (one fellow student admitted to me at the end of the course that he had written nothing new during the whole year), these two worked steadily. Indeed, they treated it the way I do now, as a job – a fun job, but a job nonetheless, with deadlines and discipline.

I think it’s no surprise that the three of us from that year who have made careers in writing were older and hence used to working to deadlines and answering to bosses. Those just out of university showed flashes of brilliance, but lacked discipline and rarely took on board criticism. There were also at times breathtaking displays of arrogance. ‘If you don’t understand my writing, that’s your problem,’ a fellow student told me. Sorry, my friend, but that is your problem. No contract for you, and don’t wait around for that Nobel Prize you feel is due you.

I wouldn’t say it was a glorious year. To me UEA was a bleak, often rain-swept campus, with few places that raised the spirits. I was thirty-one, with a mortgage and a fiancé in London. I couldn’t bear living in a dorm or a clapped-out student house. So I commuted, renting a room for two nights a week, and spending most of my time on campus in the library or at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, where I sat amongst Modiglianis and Francis Bacons and Polynesian masks. I went for walks in the rain around the artificial lake, explored the old lanes of Norwich, visited the cathedral, drank a lot of tea at the central university cafe. Then I fled back to London to write.

But it wasn’t an unhappy year, either. Indeed, doing the MA was a turning point in my writing life. I felt like I was learning to play an instrument I had only ever messed around with before – the dusty piano no one has touched in years, the guitar with the broken string in the corner. I would not say my writing improved because of what I did at UEA. I did not write a better sentence after one of those painful critical sessions. My sentences got better because I wrote thousands of them. In other words, I practised. Six novels in, I still write dud sentences, every day. But I have got better at ferreting them out and fixing or cutting them. (Two mottos I write by: Less Is More; and, When in Doubt, Cut It Out.) Once you’ve written enough sentences, and cut out the bad ones, there’s usually something left that’s halfway OK.

Would I have practised the dusty piano if I hadn’t gone to UEA? I doubt it. It is very difficult to write when you’re working full-time, or are a full-time parent. I have huge admiration for people who manage to produce anything worthwhile under such circumstances. The MA course gave me the time in which to think and write, the deadlines and built-in critical audience I did not feel prepared to create for myself. It got me started, showed me how to set up my life around my writing, rather than my writing around my life. And once I had that piece of paper saying I’d got an MA I felt more able to do it for myself. The idea I had for a novel during that year – when before I’d never had the time to think up an idea big enough to fill a book – I could then take forward and make central to my ‘normal’ life. I wrote part-time and worked part-time for the next three years, then had my first novel published, and I was on my way, sucked into the enjoyable machine of writing-as-job.

Always I am asked if Creative Writing can be taught. The spark can’t, no, but the practising can – and you need both to write well. I have no idea where the spark comes from; none of us does. But the practising, the discipline, really started for me at UEA.


Extracted from Body of Work: 40 Years of Creative Writing at UEA (Full Circle, £28).

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