UTS exterior Damion Brown
Photo credit damionbrown.com 2014

Eight lessons learned while studying a Master of Arts

From 2013 to 2015 I studied a Master of Arts in Non-Fiction writing at UTS, while working full time. Here are the eight main lessons I learned:

Lesson 1 – Practice and discipline. 150,000 words in three years.
For three years I simply put one foot in front of the other. I didn’t really know where I was headed or what each semester would bring. I lurched from weekly classes to quarterly deadlines, shook off all the pressure in the breaks between semesters, and returned to do it all again, six times. A novel is usually around 80,000 – 100,000 words. Over the course of the Masters I submitted 50,000 final words, but had re-written those at least three times. If it weren’t for the discipline of the course I know I definitely would not have written this much.

Lesson 2There’s room for everyone.
Across the nine classes I probably worked alongside 250 different writers. There were cross-overs, of course, the reappearance of familiar faces in classrooms where I thought I would find none. The first class of our Memoir & Life Writing class was like a reunion, with seven of us having been in the same foundation ‘Creative Non-Fiction’ class together in the previous semester. But across all those writers, so many styles, voices, perspectives and truly wonderful talent, I found no-one who wrote just like me. And that was both comforting and a relief. The worst thing I could think to be is a cliché. That my style and voice is common and can be replicated anywhere. But it can’t. Only I can do it the way I do it. For beginner writers or any creative person, finding that clarity of personal vision, vitally drives the creative life.

Lesson 3 – Not to compare myself to others
Comparison truly is the thief of joy. It’s hard to remember that when someone else writes something so beautiful that it brings you to tears or leaves you gasping for breath at the end of their story. There are spectacular writers out there. And ones who can sit down and write out 10,000 words without any effort. Then others for whom each word, or story, is like blood from a stone. Those for whom you can see the story trying to break through, restrained by their self-doubt, or the lessons they haven’t learned yet about language or they just don’t have the natural ability to write a flowing narrative. Amidst all that I have learned not to compare myself to others.
I usually write in three drafts:
1) a lightning, ‘get it all out’ draft;
2) a second draft a week later (where I ask myself whether I am expressing myself clearly),
3) a final (restructure, rephrase, reframe) draft a week or more after that. Sometimes I’ll write another draft.
This is the way I work now, but may not do the same in the future. Some people write one perfect draft initially, then a painstaking second ‘perfection’ final draft. Others write seven drafts. But everyone is different, and there is simply no point comparing myself to them.

Lesson 4It’s worth the money, for me.
Postgraduate study is not cheap. The Masters cost me AUS$20,000. The cost was one of the reasons it took me almost 20 years to finally start. I wanted to do it as soon as I graduated from my undergrad degree in 1996. My boyfriend at the time, who had a TAFE qualification, was intimidated by my having any degree at all, so dissuaded me from doing so. I left him, travelled and when I came back to Sydney I flirted with the idea of doing the Masters. I went to two UTS open days, to discuss the cost and process . . . and found answers so unhelpful that I couldn’t commit to doing it. I thought that, for the cost, I could find a writer I admired and pay them to mentor me. I was working in advertising at the time and could not see a way through. There’s a clear divide between the creative and suits in advertising, never the line shall be crossed. I’d been freelance travel writing for years, but not taken either my writing or myself too seriously. But when I got a corporate job, with better work life balance, a less ruthless work environment, I saw my opportunity. I had more time than before, and it all seemed more possible. So I enrolled.

My only objective was to take myself seriously as a writer. It’s how I describe myself now. It’s the way I’ve positioned myself, and as I’ve gone from one corporate contract to another it’s one of my key skills that I sell. Doing the Masters has built my confidence in my ability as a writer. It almost feels that I have always been a writer, but in legitimising myself to myself I’ve unlocked strengths that were always there, but just hidden under the shroud of seeing my value as being anywhere other than the written word. I am proud to say that I now see that once hidden value as the one with which I lead.

Lesson 5 – Found my genre
I realised that I didn’t like writing fiction only when I had to write some. In my non-fiction work, before enrolling in the Fiction Writing module, I liked taking a non-linear approach to telling stories in order to create tension or a compelling narrative arc. I liked calling it a ‘tenuous relationship with the truth’. I enjoyed toeing the line and trying to work out how to structure the work to make it most interesting. When it came to writing fiction I was able to play up, to act without any responsibility to the truth, and I went too far. I gorged on details and characters and implausible events until the story was so tightly wound that there was no space left for the reader. I found it exhausting, so I dread to think what a chore it was for those who had to read it. At the end of the semester I ran back into the familiar embrace of non-fiction, glad to re-connect with truth-telling.

Lesson 6 – Have faith in the process. It’s not always about the end result.
Sometimes there’s a story inside that needs to come out. It just wants to breathe and be alive amongst others. This doesn’t mean that the story needs to have a long life, or travel far. Sometimes this trapped story is blocking the way for another to come out. I only realised in the last semester of the Masters that not every word I write needs to be in the final version of anything. Sometimes stories will only exist for the first draft. A writer can pour 10,000 words into an idea which never gets beyond the first few drafts, and that’s ok because it’s the next 2,000 words that really matter.

Lesson 7Someone’s opinion is still only their opinion
Before doing the Masters I did not know how to take criticism of my work. It can be hard to hear someone say that the precious part of yourself you have chosen to show ‘isn’t working for them’. Not only does it feel shameful, but there’s nothing constructive in that. It’s a cheap shot. The way that UTS nurture the workshop environments means that feedback is both subjective and articulate. There’s no recourse against someone saying that they ‘don’t like your work’, but if they say ‘I don’t believe that this character would do this’ or ‘I need more of a backstory here’ or ‘you started exploring some emotion here, but then shifted to the next emotion too quickly’ then there is something you can do with that. The course has made me a more compassionate, supportive critic. And helped me understand that someone’s opinion is only their opinion. I’ve now had about 250 people review and provide feedback on my work. For everyone who disliked some part of my work, the same was defended by others in the room. I have had to ‘kill some darlings’ at the bequest of lecturers, but I’ve never truly killed any of my ideas, just tucked them away to be looked at later. Because even if someone is a many times published writer, that doesn’t mean they are right about everything they say. I’ve learned to take other’s opinions with a grain of salt and know that I am the writer, I am the author and I get final say.

Lesson 8Finding a community
I’m one of the lucky ones who made great friendships throughout my Masters. Writing attracts introverts and I know people who studied for the whole three years and didn’t work closely with anyone. It happens. Making friends with other writers was an important aspect of my studies. One friend in particular has been a great source of support. We met when we caught the bus together home on the first night, and we have worked together through every semester and the breaks in between. She’s an incredible creative support and motivator. There are other writers who I have met throughout the course who have provided great support as well. Those relationships are vital to creativity and need nurturing too. Writing can be a lonely business, and it’s important to have an active community to cheer you on, point out recurring themes in your work or stop you from beating yourself up or making the same mistakes again and again. I was happy to have found that during the Masters. Again, I doubt I would have found such a community, who have read so much of my work and seen its development.

So . . . . what next?
I finished the Masters in November 2015. I get to wear the mortarboard and gown in May 2016. I have a corporate job where I get to work with words every single day.

I still meet regularly with my writing group regularly. I want to write blog posts about my research, and anything else I like, each week. I don’t want to write for anyone but me. No publisher. No lecturer. Just me, just for a while. I’m worried about losing momentum, and losing the project I started. I’ve been overwhelmed by the amount of research I have to do, but if I can maintain the momentum I can keep on track with it. I don’t have to have all the answers, but I do have a good idea of where I want to go.

The details.
Here’s a list of the subjects I studied, who taught them and the major assessments I submitted. Numbers in brackets are the final word count submissions for the subjects.

Semester 1 – March – June 2013
Subject 1. Creative non-fiction – Gabrielle Carey. First class. Wrote about a Bathhouse & Miss Chu. 3,000 + 1,500 (4,500)
Semester 2 – July – Nov 2013
Subject 2. Memoir & life writing – Paula Hamilton. Persepolis review. History of Glebe house. 3,000 + 1,500 (4,500)
Subject 3. Freelance writing – Tony Maniaty. Critical essay – Scorcese’s Life Lessons (loosely based on Dostoyevsky’s The Gambler). Critical essay on Minimalism. 3,000 + 1,500 (4,500)

Semester 3 – March – June 2014
Subject 4. Professional editing – Alexandra Nahlous – Line edit. Developmental editing. Structural editing. 3,000 + 1,500 (4,500)
Subject 5. Writing Project 1 – Paula Hamilton – 11,000 words memoir work for smell. (11,000)
Semester 4 – July – Nov 2014
Subject 6. Writing seminar – Tony Macris – Joan Didion – Year of Magical Thinking. Travel chapter for Smell.3,000 + 1,500 (4,500)
Subject 7. Journalism – Sandra Symons – Perfume research story/profile.3,000 + 1,500 (4,500)

Semester 5 – March – June 2015
Subject 8. Narrative writing (fiction) – Ronnith Morris
Critical essay – Perfume. ‘Death Dog’ fiction short story. 3,000 + 1,500 (4,500)
Semester 6 – July – November 2015
Subject 9. Writing Project Two– Debra Adelaide (7,500)

My profile on the UTS website: http://www.uts.edu.au/rachel-alt