Henrietta Rose-Innes’s foreword to the 2019 UEA Prose Fiction MA anthology, published by Egg Box
One thing I’ve noticed about creative writing courses: people often sign up to them at a hinge moment in their lives, at a pivot or crisis. For some, it’s simply entry into adulthood, or a lunge at a new career; for others, a shift has occurred in their soul and they need to find the words for it. Both as a teacher and a student on such courses, I’ve met my fair share of survivors and seekers: divorcees, retirees, refugees, people in recovery (and, in one memorable instance, an alien abductee); those who’ve decided to write their way through a personal break, to fix it or perhaps to ensure it stays broken.One thing I’ve noticed about creative writing courses: people often sign up to them at a hinge moment in their lives, at a pivot or crisis. Announcing that you’re throwing it all in to be a writer is an excellent way to signal to the world that you’ve reached a point of no return. That you want to be new.
I was doing something similar when I came to UEA. By swapping my home in a sunny South African beach city for a Tombland shoebox in the wintry shadow of the cathedral, I was choosing to freeze my real life for three years, to take a look around and decide my next move (while also literally freezing). Norwich befuddled my sense of time, generally. When I did my MA – in another country, another century – I was the youngest writer I knew. In the PhD class, surrounded by brilliant youth, I sometimes felt like the oldest person in any hemisphere. But I was also pleasingly new-hatched: this was the first time I’d ever lived for an extended period in a foreign city, and the one I’d picked was so very, very old.
Despite our differences, I recognised my classmates as fellow hatchlings. We were all perched at the edge of the nest. Some had travelled even more miles to get there than I had; some, I fear, had almost bankrupted themselves to do the course.Every time you write a book, no matter how many times you do it, you never really know how. While some people seemed to arrive fully formed, with international book deals in place and more on the way, everyone was willing themselves into becoming this new thing: a proper writer.
I felt at a relative advantage in that I’d been published before, and so I already knew certain important things about the process, such as: every time you write a book, no matter how many times you do it, you never really know how; at least half of the time it feels like death, and it’s impossible to believe that the book is anything but a humiliating catastrophe; and that, nonetheless, you will get the damn thing finished. Yet, despite knowing these things, I had to discover them all over again, as one does with every book. Often I think the best thing a writing mentor can tell you is that this is all to be expected, that others have been through exactly this, and that it will all be OK in the end. You never stop needing to hear it.
And it was all OK. We took the stopped time that the degree afforded us and used it to make our own particular breaks with the past and contracts with the future. For a short while we were paused together, absorbed in the long, frozen moment of writing. Then time started up again and we were flung off in a dozen directions – Nigeria, Canada, Singapore, Japan, Colombia, even London; each of us, remarkably, with a manuscript in our hands.
For some of us, this may be the last book we ever write; for others, the first of many. But we all survived our life pivot, and the work we made is the proof.
Just as this book you’re holding in your hands is proof: these writers were here together, at a still point in their various lives, as they changed from being one thing to being another. In these stories and extracts, we witness them stepping into the new.