By Pam Hamilton, MA Creative Writing & Publishing student
On the first day of my MA in Creative Writing and Publishing at West Dean College I was terrified. It was two decades since I’d been in formal education, I was worried the tutors had over-estimated my potential, and I was scared of the other students. I had spent my career in the corporate world and felt like a fraud. Who was I to do something this self-indulgent? What permission did I have to write creatively? It didn’t help that one of my relatives laughed when I said I was going to learn to write fiction, and another asked, ‘but what on earth do you have to write about?’, genuinely perplexed. All the critics inside my head rolled their eyes and nodded in agreement. I was also worried about time, like many of my fellow students who had to plan the part-time degree around full-time jobs and family responsibilities.
Two years later, I've almost finished writing my first crime novel, and I’ll be looking for an agent or a publisher in the summer. Our cohort are preparing an anthology of our work that we will launch in October. I now have a story I’m confident to tell, and I know how to write it, even though I have much to learn. There are plenty more stories to tell when this one is finished. The creative writing tutors at West Dean (all published authors themselves) have been endlessly supportive and encouraging, and my fellow students and I have become true friends. One of the biggest surprises has been that the course has improved my non-fiction writing, which has given me so much new energy and material for my work as a business author. I have emerged with a renewed confidence in my own creative self-expression, which had been eroded by years of all work and no play.
What brought me here? I found out about West Dean College on a day trip to visit its beautiful gardens. The fruit trees were in blossom, the pergola was heavy with flowers, and the sheep were grazing on the hillside, so when I saw that it was also an arts and conservation college, I signed up to do a Crime Writing certificate on the strength of the setting alone. Lessons take place in rooms like The Old Library and The King’s Room, both with views across the grounds. Students are surrounded by a 400-year-old collection of art, tapestry, furniture, textiles and natural history artefacts. In our creative writing course, we have an interdisciplinary module where we learn from, and are inspired by, the wonderful artists and craftspeople studying and working at the College. From clock-making to tapestry and restoration, the setting adds a deep richness to the learning experience, which is what Edward James had in mind when he created West Dean College as a charitable educational trust.
I’ve always loved reading crime stories, and for years I have dreamt about writing them too, not least to tell some true stories from the corporate world which for reasons of confidentiality I could never share in my non-fiction work. While West Dean is an excellent setting for crime stories (Professor Plum, with the Dalí phone, in the dining room!), I’m the only one in my cohort writing crime. My fellow students are writing historical novels, literary fiction, magical realism, book club reads and short stories. We enjoy experiencing the progress of each other’s work, and we have regular talks from the College’s diverse Authors-in-Residence who give us the benefit of their advice, insights and encouragement, consolidating the teaching from our tutors.
The MA has been very challenging at times, especially learning as a mature student with family and work pressures on top. However, I realise I’m privileged to have a job that allows me the flexibility to take days off during the week for the monthly teaching modules, and to live not too far away to make the travel onerous. I don't want my time at West Dean to end and thank goodness it doesn’t have to. The College has set up an alumni group so we can continue to support each other in the years to come, with optional monthly tutorials back at the College. I know we all look forward to meeting again in the Oak Hall for drinks and staying over to do some writing.
If you are thinking of doing something different from your day job and wondering whether you have the time and the mental space to do so, do consider this course, or indeed the many other short courses that the College offers in arts and crafts. My West Dean journey has been transformational on both a personal and professional level, and I am very grateful I found West Dean when I did.
Thank you Mark Radcliffe, Lesley Thomson, Elly Griffiths, Laura Wilkinson, Mick Jackson, Clare Christian, Bethan Roberts, Katie Fulford, Beth Miller, Anna Burtt and Sean Campbell for all your kind advice and expertise.
Pam Hamilton has a Crime Writing Certificate from West Dean College and is studying for her MA Creative Writing and Publishing. She is the author of non-fiction books Supercharged Teams and The Workshop Book.