Note: This essay appears in the anthology Body of Work: 40 Years of Creative Writing at UEA, ed. Giles Foden (Full Circle Editions, 2011)
In 1984 I was living in Bowthorpe, on the outskirts of Norwich, sharing a flat with an entomologist who was conducting complex experiments with aphids; I had no interest in aphids. I had a BA in Humanities from Wolverhampton Polytechnic where the future Booker prize winner Howard Jacobson – terrifyingly articulate – had urged me in a seminar room in the back of the stands of Wolverhampton Football Club to voice my thoughts on Hamlet; I had had no thoughts, not in Howard’s terrifyingly articulate presence. No interest in aphids, no thoughts about Hamlet, just one desire: I wanted to be a writer, not unpublished but the proper published kind. You could say I was focussed or a bit mad, perhaps both.
To Malcolm: What was it that made you want to be a writer?
To Angela: Would you say that men want to be writers for different reasons to women? And does this type of question annoy you?
It was mid-September. I had a novel in draft about a very thin girl who was inclined to show her breasts to strangers. I had saved a year’s worth of wages from my job as a sorter in a film-processing factory. I was ready. I was readying, spending most days in Bowthorpe’s dental surgery getting my front-teeth fixed as I waited to take my place on UEA’s MA in Creative Writing, to share my novel with nine other students and my tutors Malcolm Bradbury and Angela Carter. I was nervous and gauche, a young twenty-three. I expected the MA to rescue me somehow. I expected the MA to turn me into one of Granta’s next ‘Best of Young British Novelists’, because hadn’t it managed that with previous students like Kazuo Ishiguro and Ian McEwan?
To Angela: What do you think of these statistics: ‘Best of Young British Novelists 1983’ – 14 male writers, 6 female; ‘Best of Young British Novelists 1993’- 14 male writers, 6 female; ‘Best of Young British Novelists 2003’ – 12 male writers, 8 female? And does this type of question annoy you?
I hadn’t been interviewed for the course; I’d been accepted on the strength of my work-in-progress. I’d won writing prizes and had received a small arts council grant. I’d achieved much more than any of the other wannabes I’d met in the many writing groups I’d attended. I should’ve had bags of confidence but I was nervous, gauche, and allowed myself to feel intimidated, almost immediately.
To Angela: How can I become as confident and as persuasive as you? Do you ever doubt your own abilities?
I was the worst kind of student. I made excuses. It wasn’t my fault. It was the room where we workshopped our manuscripts with Malcolm, the oblong room – with the line of office chairs and Malcolm sitting behind a desk, smoking his pipe – which was too grey, too corporate. It was Malcolm’s pipe smoke; it fogged the brain. It was having less time to write because the course had a critical component which had to be completed and completed satisfactorily.
To Malcolm: Will taking a module in post-structuralism really help me with my writing?
It was the guests Malcolm invited to speak to us.
To Malcolm: Do all agents wear bow-ties?
It was the tiny things in our work that Malcolm chose to focus on.
To Malcolm: Why is it so objectionable to split an infinitive?
I was the worst kind of student. Pressing the self-destruct and not prepared to accept responsibility. I wanted so desperately to become a writer – the proper published kind – but the MA required of me more exposure than I was able to risk back then. When it was the turn of other students to share their work I splurged my opinions onto their scripts – too hurriedly, with little consideration of my fellow students’ feelings – yet when it came to voicing these comments in class I couldn’t, just as in Howard Jacobson’s seminars I’d shaken my head and refused to speak. Then when I gave my work to the class for their verdict I wouldn’t accept – even hear – any criticism of it, no matter how delicately worded. I wanted – foolish for any writer at any level – my readers to go away.
To Angela: How do you stop yourself from shaking those students who are wasting your time?
To Malcolm: Does teaching interfere with your own writing?
It was a dreadful year for me. I’d been given an opportunity and knew that I was squandering it. I was with a bunch of people who cared so much about writing that one had moved from Italy and another had risked her marriage to take part in the course. I also had two experienced, kind tutors who were reading and thinking about my work, but I couldn’t value their experience …
To Malcolm: What would you say are the key differences between writing scripts and writing novels?
same as I couldn’t recognise their kindnesses…
Angela gave us individual tutorials in Malcolm’s office. On our first meeting she reached across to take a ruler from Malcolm’s pen-pot. The ruler was expandable. She played with it a little. Smiled.
Lynne, she said; Do you think Malcolm measures his penis with this?
To Angela: Why has it taken me so long to realise your cock joke was not about you wanting to embarrass me but was your way of putting me at ease?
I missed my chance to know my tutors not only as writers but also as people.
To Malcolm: Your leg’s in plaster and you are on crutches and yet you still manage to work the lift and smoke your pipe at the same time – how?
To Angela: What do you and Lorna Sage talk about when huddled together in the grad bar? You’re always laughing; do you tell each other – cock – jokes?
I missed my chance to thank them.
To Malcolm: Do you know I hadn’t a clue about pastiche until you explained it to us?
To Angela: Do you know that more than two decades on I will be giving my writing students the same advice you gave me, particularly those students who write from the perspective of angst-ridden introverts – remember, there are doors and there are windows and, no matter how preoccupied, your characters will need to use both?