The past two years have been the best I can remember.
I have consummated my passion for France and my passion for writing in one 24 month period. First I ran away to France for six months. Then I applied for the professional writing course of my dreams. Then I got in! I’m more than halfway through and I never want it to end. This story was first published in the February/March issue of The Victorian Writer. David Brooks, columnist for The New York Times, once said:
people who live with passion start out with an especially intense desire to complete themselves.
It’s as good an explanation as any for my decision to go back to full-time study after an absence of 35 years. I’ve had a number of fulfilling careers in my life, but my burning ambition for the last decade has been to become a published author.
It wasn’t bravery that led me to apply for a course in professional writing and editing at RMIT; it was a compulsion akin to the drive to reproduce. Not everyone has it but those who do are helpless in the face of it. And so I left secure employment for the world of narrative arcs, omniscient first persons, squinting modifiers and penury.
I have always prided myself on my superior spelling and grammar. It turns out that pride is completely misguided.
The Introduction to Editing class soon taught me that my knowledge was based on gut feeling alone. I have absolutely no idea of prepositions, conjunctions or transitive verbs (or even intransitive ones). I wouldn’t know a passive voice if I fell over it. Our teacher assures us that by the end of the year we will be making gerund jokes.
Text and Image is even more of a challenge. In a sea of millennials, I am one of a small cohort of baby boomers with little more than a rudimentary grasp of Photoshop and no knowledge of design software. I am one of only two people who regularly attend the Wednesday afternoon optional ‘seminar’ in this subject; the other is the teacher.
And then there are the writing classes.
As eager new students we could hardly wait to put pen to paper for the five minute writing exercises. It came as a surprise to most of us that our written work was to be shared with the class. Reading your work out loud for the first time to a group of strangers is one of the most daunting things a would-be author can do. On the positive side – at least with fiction – you can pretend that what you’ve written is purely the product of your imagination.
Not so the non-fiction component of the course. A 1500 word personal essay is a mandatory part of the syllabus, as is workshopping it in class. The best you can do for protection is to write it in third person and hope you get through reading it to the group without sobbing. In preparation for this ordeal, we share our class writing exercises with a classmate.
One afternoon our task was to start a piece with the words ‘The saddest thing I ever saw…’. My writing partner wrote a beautiful piece about her mother. Unfortunately, neither she nor I could read it out loud. God knows we tried. My friend had to excuse herself and head for the bathroom to splash her face, followed shortly by me on the pretext of checking on her. We both knew I just needed a place to close the door and have a good howl. This course is like that.
Sharing your experiences and greatest fears with people who were so recently strangers creates a degree of intimacy in a very short space of time.
It’s a wonderful thing that rarely happens in the world outside our cloistered building. Gender, age and status are irrelevant when you are ripping your heart out and laying it bare. We are growing together as writers and the support of our peers is essential to the process.
Six months into a two year course, I’m still a long way off ‘completing’ myself but my passion remains undiminished. What drives me is impossible to keep trapped in a glass jar forever. I have yet to succeed in my endeavour, but I reckon I’ve managed to loosen the lid.
This piece was first published in The Victorian Writer in February 2017.