Inspiration, motivation and pure hard graft, by Jenny Browning
It was a Monday morning. We weren’t in West Dean College’s historic house itself – so no dark portraits or gracious chandeliers. No ghost of Edward James giving us goosebumps.
Home for those on the MA Creative Writing and Publishing course was the Old Dairy near the entrance to the gardens – all white walls, functional furniture, thankfully a coffee machine and sometimes a challenging painting or installation left by one of the artists. We could see grass and trees outside, but none of the bucolic views of the South Downs with fuzzy white sheep and matching clouds you see from the main house. In fact, it was raining – a downpour pounded the windows and the car park tarmac outside.
Mark – or as it was our first year it may have been Mick – was talking about our favourite books and using their structure to help shape our novels. I suddenly had a profound feeling of this is where I was meant to be. Contentment, I suppose, mixed with a sense of privilege. A few months previously Monday morning would have meant dashing up the A3, stressing about difficult clients, listening to business clichés. How wonderful to be away from all that.
With hindsight, that time seems all the more golden as it was cut short by Covid. We didn’t think so then, but we were lucky as we only missed our last session and we could spend lockdown preparing our work and writing our novels for submission.
But perhaps I’m making doing a creative writing MA sound all warm and fluffy. It wasn’t. It was damned hard work. And having started something then, I’m determined to continue. So, it’s still a slog most of the time, with a few odd moments of joyful inspiration to help keep up the momentum. For most of us, the manuscript we submitted for our final assessment was just the beginning. Keeping on writing post West Dean has been a far sterner test than the MA itself.
This is why our year, and subsequent students, are grateful to our West Dean tutors for enabling us to form an alumni group facilitated by tutor Laura Wilkinson. It’s a monthly shot of motivation. And, by the way, this time we do meet in the gilded rooms of West Dean proper.
I now have a better vision of what I want my novel to be and it’s within reaching distance if I stretch my mind as far as it will go.
I was particularly in the doldrums about my work because it’s inspired by the daughter of a Russian Tsar (albeit one who ends up living on Hayling Island). I’d given up on it as untimely and started something new. Ironically, it’s about how public events impact private lives – and here I am being affected myself.
After talking to Laura, I’ve decided to carry on.
Apparently, the painter Frank Auerbach used to apply a new coat of paint on his portraits, wait for it to dry and then strip it back again down to the bones, revealing something different every time. The writer Sarah Moss is said to destroy the first draft of her work in progress and re-write from her head to help maintain a freshness.
I’m not brave enough to totally copy these ideas. But, I am re-writing and making big changes. Without the foundation of the West Dean College course and its ongoing input, I wouldn’t have the confidence to do this or even the insight to know it was needed. Being sure you are doing the right thing doesn’t mean you stop questioning how you do it.