The following is an essay I am about to submit by way of arguing my way onto an MA.
Qualification. It’s a lofty word. Imperious. A mouthful; five whole syllables: qual·i·fi·ca·tion. What does it mean? The dictionary defines it, lumpenly, as ‘a quality or accomplishment that makes someone suitable for a particular job or activity’. My Roget’s Thesaurus spits out a long list of colourful synonyms: adequacy, competence, experience, skill, what it takes.
My son, MSc BEng (Hons), has a qualification as an environmental engineer, as described on his degree from Imperial College London. My signature wears no post-nominal letters , I have no pieces of paper framed upon my walls, winking glassy encouragement on sunlit mornings. But I am a mostly, hopefully, reasonably adequate, competent – mother. I certainly have the experience – 25 1/2 years and I’ve definitely got what it takes: three children. Does that render me qualified. Certainly. As Just a Mum. My eldest daughter, MA (Hons) Cantab, is always irked by the ‘just’; ‘don’t diminish what you do, what you’ve achieved, with that silly little word, just’, she says crossly, ‘say I’m a Mum’.
Once, a long time ago, when I was young, less belligerent (like Dame Helen I wish I’d told more people to Fuck Off when I was 25 Mirren, at fifty I do), less confident, I minded that I didn’t have a documented qualification. I thought it meant I was smaller, hadn’t tried hard enough, accomplished much. Oddly – or perhaps not so oddly, perhaps bloody-mindedly – it meant I was determined on two counts: to make sure my children – all my children, but especially my daughters – could always say they were something else, had been something else, somebody else, before they were mothers. If, indeed, they ever choose to equip themselves with the necessary accessories to be parents and then put in the gruelling hours that qualify them to be called Mum. And to busily prove myself. As something. somebody. Somebody other than Just a Mum.
So I began to write. Whilst the children were at school, I wrote. I wrote a lot. And I set my bar high. I will write for The Times, I told myself. I had no idea how to approach such an ambition. Naturally I did it wrong, with gauche naiveté. Happily – and very luckily – for me, my email landed on the desk of a female editor who, whilst she saw no merit in my advance (too wordy, too purple, too many exclamation marks, far too long for a busy editor on one of the UK’s most widely-read newspapers), she did spot the teeniest hint of value in my story idea. So she commissioned me. She daringly commissioned me; the measure of a real editor, bravely putting her neck on the line for new, raw voices. Over a year she coached me, usually quite crossly, always impatiently. I learned not to smart at her terse ticking offs. I learned, instead, to write, to pitch, to sniff out a news peg upon which to hang my ideas. And I have continued to write, my words number in the thousands now, hundreds of thousands. They’ve appeared in all the UK broadsheets, several fat glossies (my words perfumed with Chanel samples and L’Oreal shampoo sachets), across the pond in the Washington Post and in the ether at the Huff Post; I wrote to Arianna Huffington to get that gig; the submissions desk kept ignoring me. Ms Huffington wrote back directly and within days I was launching my own blog on the site.
I didn’t write to her – or anybody else – out of a sense of entitlement or arrogance and certainly not because I thought I had a special talent. I did it because I had a story to tell, because I loved playing with the language, putting a word in and then plucking it out when I found a better one, building a necklace of precisely the right colour and length. Because I had things to prove. What? That I had a brain? That I could fashion an identity all of my own, other than A’s Wife, B’s Mother? But mostly because I understood, somewhere, between the necessarily insistent demands of my children, school runs, eternal feeding and shopping, school plays, cricket matches, homework that one day there would be no happy – and sometimes unhappy – clamouring for my attentions, that one day my nest would be tipped empty and silent. I knew I had to – have to – sculpt another dimension to myself. And words were the tools I had to hand.
So? Have I proven myself thus far? What recognition is there for these, my roles. Mother. Writer. My educated, mostly happy, children? The ones I encouraged towards the university endorsements I do not have, could not have for myriad reasons but not because I lacked the resolve or the intellect. Have I demonstrated that I can write? Are by-lines proof? Possibly not given some of the journalists who wear them. Do commissions from illustrious publications attest to an ability to string a few words together coherently? Possibly not; journalism is fraught with nepotism, favouritism, plagiarism. All kinds of isms.
So there remains the niggle: I still apparently need that piece of paper. But more, much, much more than that, I need – want – instruction in my art. I want to learn more than I already know. I want to talk to others in the know about words and how to shape them and how to pull and stretch language so that it fits precisely the gap I am trying to fill. And sometimes, some bleak days when the words are elusive, beads spilt on the floor escaping my determined clutches to thread them neatly, I need inspiration. A kick up the arse. The desire, a deep burning that sits below my sternum so that I feel it palpably, as heartburn, makes me wonder: could I have borne the passion to learn anything as much as I do now when I was 18? It is not the yearning for A Piece of Paper, it is the longing for This Piece of Paper. How do I know? Apart from the fact I’ve already demonstrated to myself a passionate commitment to my words, to language, to framing the story? Ten years ago, rattling a little in the void borne of my emptying nest (as children grew up) and my emptying inbox (as commissions dried up) I said to my husband, ‘I think I might do a degree online’. Great, he said. ‘I think I might do a degree in psychology’. Don’t be a cliché, he said. He was right; my aspirations were about sterile, documented qualifications not burning, heartfelt vocations. Ten years later, last week, I said, I think I might do a degree online’. Great, he said. ‘I think I might do an MA in Creative Writing’. Go for it, he said.
But I face an obstacle. Degrees are like stepping stones it turns out. You cannot plunge to an MA or an MFA or an MSc without neatly navigating a BA or a BSc first. Those are the rules. You can’t short circuit the system. You cannot Pass Go. Cannot collect £200. You can’t get to D without going obediently via A, B, C. In that order. Which I think is funny (funnyanomalous, not funnyhaha): my mother’s neurologist told me that she would never learn to read again because her brain was too damaged post stroke; ‘messages will no longer route correctly’, he declared. I said, ‘I thought they’d learn to go D A C B?’. Not in the case of your mother, he retorted with finality, and stalked off. He was the expert, with the qualification, he was right. But he wasn’t; my mum can read again. The message got there in the end. It found a new road to take. And it did that because she refused to accept that rules are there for anything other than to be tested, leant against, bent, sometimes even broken. And that some rules are just stupid.
So the gatekeepers who stand at the river I am trying to forge, who guard the stepping stones, put a hand out when I rudely stretch ahead of myself in a bid to clamber aboard the rock marked MA Creative Writing. You can’t go there, they say. You need to spend time on rock BA first. I don’t want to, I say. Those are the rules, they insist. But I want to be on the MA, I say. It is expected that your spoken and written English will be of an adequate standard for postgraduate study. Please see the website for details. But it is, I say. And I have: looked at the website, a dozen times. I have written at The Times, the Telegraph, the Washington Post. In English. I know how to write, how to spell. I even know when to use colour and when to use color. Nobody’s listening. If you do not have a background in creative writing, you are strongly recommended to undertake some preparatory work. I do, I have! The MA in creative writing assumes that a candidate for a master’s degree already has the knowledge and skills usually acquired by pursuing the subject at undergraduate level. Why! Why? Why does an undergraduate degree prove I have an aptitude for this course? Why does the experience I have gleaned, the lessons I’ve learned, the commitment I’ve shown, the work I’ve already done not count? (Oh, all that stuff you picked up the University of Life you mean? Well yes, if you insist, though I hate the phrase – now there’s a cliché.) Because, as a friend told me thirty years ago, as I wept into my drink when I didn’t get a job I had applied for simply because I didn’t, don’t, have a degree, ‘you haven’t got documented proof that you can think; you’re never going to make the shortlist’. This is a module for candidates with experience of writing creatively and not for those who are just starting to write. Oh please, please listen to me: I write. I do. I promise! I have been writing for years, nearly twenty years. I understand the challenge of finding the right word, of testing it out, like a piece in a jigsaw puzzle: will it fit? I know the frustration of tossing it aside when it doesn’t, feel the fat satisfaction when it does. I see language in colours and shapes, there are words, single words, that I love for their vibrancy, their flamboyance, their sheer brilliance, the glorious way they roll from my tongue: onomatopoeia. I know the thrill that comes with reading a phrase that has used language so economically, so cleverly, that every single word bears significance so that a short, unassuming sentence is lent telling weight. The qualification will not offer remedial training for those who have an inappropriate undergraduate degree or inadequate experience. I know that. It’s also why I know this course is exactly right for me: no other course lends the opportunity to explore my passion in my genres: creative non fiction and poetry. No other course affords the indulgence of a sometimes compromised imagination but allows a delight in lyricism. Any such students beginning the qualification do so at their own risk. Is this a risk? If it is, it’s a tiny one. Writing to that very first editor, with my ill formed pitch, with no knowledge of how to interview a subject, no idea of how to navigate a style guide and only knowing I couldn’t ask any of those questions – how do I do that? (anathema for I am an asker of questions) for then I’d definitely prove myself the rookie I was. Now that was a risk.
So, I ask: have I proved myself adequate as a writer? Have I demonstrated competence? Do I have experience? Absolutely, yes. Does that mean I bear a qualification – qual·i·fi·ca·tion – the right qualification, the crutch to navigate my way from where I stand to the stone I’ve got my sights on, rudely pushing my way past the first? Depends on who you ask, apparently.
I told my children that their university educations were not a right, and definitely not a rite of passage. They were, I said, a privilege, to be earned, to be cherished, you had to want them, really, really badly, and you had to deserve them.
And I deserve this.