A Day In The Life

By Sara Bryce-Gordon, MA Creative Writing & Publishing student, Second Year 

First things first, I get my temperature checked, sign in at the main entrance of the historic house and then head straight down to the dining room to grab a cappuccino, topped with an extra shot of espresso (a tip given to us by our tutor and award-winning crime writer, Elly Griffiths).  

I then walk up the spiral staircase, following the footsteps of Tilly Losch, the college founder Edward James’ wife (which he had woven into the green carpet), and into the bookshelf-lined room us creative writing students call home. It has greenery-framed windows which look out over the sheep-dotted hills in front of the house. It is our creative and supportive space. 

'Christmas 1900'

My favourite thing about this room is an easily-missed framed photo just outside the door. It shows one of the estate’s lavish Christmas trees adorned with hundreds of tiny lit candles, baubles and toys. It is titled ‘Christmas 1900’.

This is how my typical day as an MA Creative Writing & Publishing student starts, but everything that follows will always be different.  

It is in this room we talk about books we’ve read, ideas we’ve had, our own work’s trials and successes, read out prose we’ve written and essentially learn the craft of writing a book and everything entailed to get it all the way to publication.  

This is, in a nutshell, why I chose West Dean College as the place to complete my master’s degree. The course supports us through the actual writing of a novel and beyond, not just the theory of writing one.  

I’m writing a crime novel. Like trillions of others, I have always loved crime fiction. At not a very great age, I began to work my way through the stack of Agatha Christie novels and short stories in my mum’s bookcase. There’s something undeniably comforting about a detective story with a reliable coming together of the culprits and the eventual truth revelation by an infallible protagonist. I started the course with a rough idea and now into my second year, I’m editing my first draft and tweaking my ending.  

At West Dean we’re taught by published writers, who just so happen to teach. And because of that, we get an invaluable insight into not just how they successfully finish a novel, but how the industry works. I feel especially lucky, as not only are we taught by Mark Radcliffe (our course leader), Mick Jackson, Laura Wilkinson, Bethan Roberts, Beth Miller, among lots of others, we are taught by prolific and successful crime writers Lesley Thomson and the aforementioned caffeine-aficionado, Elly Griffiths – real name Domenica de Rosa.  

Our tutors really care about our work and our characters; it is not uncommon to receive an email from Mark saying he’s had a thought about one of my characters on his drive home. 

And that is where the supportive element comes into this course. At the end of the degree, we’re not sent off with a pat on the back and a cheery ‘good luck’, our tutors stay in touch, chase us up, light fires under us and work hard to get our work out into the world.  

Writing is an undeniable vocation, and this course is vocational.  

There is also a feeling of union at West Dean. Students and tutors eat together at lunch time in the big dining room, and we visit each other’s studios for inspiration. Though as writers, we get the much better end of that deal. Watching someone weave a weft though the warp (get me, that is actual technical weaving terminology, by the way) in the tapestry studios is much more interesting than watching me sit hunched over a sheet of paper trying to work out the best way to kill someone off (in my book, of course).  

No one is anonymous here, everyone is here for the same reasons, to learn new skills, and to create or restore beautiful things.  

To anyone who asks me what West Dean is like, I say ‘a bit like Hogwarts’. Only we whittle the brooms, instead of fly them, we write the spells instead of incant them, we’re surrounded by beautiful gardens full of plants and trees, only none of them want to whomp us over the head, our magical creatures are the sheep and wild birds, and we don’t actually study the dark arts anymore – though when the college first opened I believe witchcraft was on the timetable!