Unfinished business

I recently received my final grades for my Masters degree in Creative Writing. I achieved what I had hoped for, and was pleased – though the numbers were likely cushioned by the allowances made for our ‘exceptional circumstances.’ This past year has been one big fat exceptional circumstance – an unbroken chain-reaction of strange and uncomfortable shifts in our reality which, for better or worse, have shaped my experience as a postgraduate.

Logging into the student system one slow Monday afternoon I didn’t feel butterflies, excitement, terror or relief. There was no momentousness at all. I was pleased, proud of myself, but only briefly reflective. Too much of that and I would dwell on everything I had lost. I supposed that it was finally over; fizzled out across the grey stretch of autumn without my even noticing. I knew that this MA was always going to lack such a thing as closure or completion. It was always going to sit in my mind as unfinished business.

Now before I go any further, I want to be clear that this is not a mope. I am working from the inside of the cloud outwards, towards the more silvery edges.

I am lucky. I was at university when 2020 reared its many savage heads: I had very little to lose except my social life, some of my freedom, and my learning environment. This, in the grand scheme of things, was not so bad – not compared to what others have faced (though I know we shouldn’t compare our lots too closely). I am also lucky to live with a man I can quite easily share a very small space with 24/7 without going nuts. But nevertheless, my degree took an instant and direct hit.

The year had already been knocked off its feet by university strikes – and I had fought bitterly with my own disappointment over that complicated injustice. My masters was this fairytale space where I could learn and write and be surrounded by people who actually wrote as well. Every hour of class, every minute of time with our wonderful teachers was precious to me… And then a large chunk of them had been taken away, never to be replaced or compensated… And it had happened twice. So I was already angry, not with my teachers, but with the universe. By the time the pandemic reached Manchester, the universe was just taking the goddamn biscuit.  

And so before classes could resume, they were cancelled again. Covid-19 was kicking my degree while it was down. I watched the news, the empty shops, the quickly emptying streets, all with disbelief. I gave up fighting. I had plucked up the courage to do this degree at exactly the wrong time, it seemed.

So no, as a student, I didn’t have much to lose. No money at least. All I had (and more) had just been poured into my degree, which was winded and injured – and which would never fully recover.

We’re getting to the silver edges soon, I swear.

When we started learning online, I remember lots of us were still optimistic. Personally, I had a horrible sense that I would never see most of my new classmates again. I felt that we had been separated just as things were taking root, and that there was little chance of those cuttings growing new roots in distant, varied soils. I was optimistic, however, about online learning. Unlike the strikes at least we were getting something. And besides, with all that time saved from travelling, socialising and decision-making, I would have more time to work, read, and focus on myself.

(Ha. It’s December now and I’m fed-up of myself! I want to focus on other people. I want to go out and learn and grow branches outwards the way humans are supposed to.)

My teachers and my department did an incredible job of transitioning, almost seamlessly, to online learning. Lessons were digitally exhausting (who knew body language was so important!) but always, always uplifting.

But then suddenly May arrived and lessons were over. Done. No study sessions, evening readings or pub trips to keep us together. We were on our own for the rest of the course. Most of my classmates had long since left the city anyway.

At the time I felt robbed of any kind of closure. And I still feel that way.

When I handed in my dissertation at the end of August (having traded my window of social time for writing and sea-swimming time instead) I thought I might feel a wave of finality wash over me then. But still nothing. Various pieces of my degree still poked at me – my student card was still valid, I still had my email account, and I was still working hard with a few other students on the annual anthology we had committed to publishing.

When the anthology was finally launched in October (online, via Zoom, of course) we all experienced an unsettling mixture of joy, pride, and severe loss. We acknowledged that this was the closest we would get to a celebration, or end-of-year party. Most of our teachers were absent, and there was a pub somewhere in Manchester standing empty and quiet. We tried to feel our way into an ending, but it wouldn’t happen. How could it? I had parted from most of them almost eight months earlier, with the words ‘see you later’ and ‘hope the strikes won’t last too long’. How could we accept that the whole thing was now done? We also none of us had our results. Yes. Maybe that would be the moment we could close the book and be content.

But here I am, sitting in the 3pm gloom, still wondering when it was I really finished that degree.

Silver lining:

When I started my degree I was eager to build good habits, and for the invaluable chance to make writing a priority for a whole year. I applied not so much to learn how to write, but to learn how to see myself as a writer. To take it seriously. Though with this ambition came a fear that at the end of the course the spell would break, I would slide back into the ‘real world’, and the whole experience would feel like a temporary dream.

But again, here I am, huddled up against the rainy northern winter, still very much a writer. I never left that world. It’s part of my reality and I won’t be shaking it off anytime soon – even when I go a whole month without finding time to write. It’s the people, of course, who mostly keep it going. Our time physically together might have been cut short, but our meeting can’t be undone. They’re real, that community I finally found. And they’re still there, on the other end of a Zoom call.

I also remember declaring, in my initial interview, that the reason I wanted to be there was because I believe writing is, in fact, a collaborative act, not a solitary one. I might have missed out on much of that collaborative aspect, but at least this year has proven, once and for all, that I was right. Writing is not solitary. It never should be.

My degree in Creative Writing will forever feel like unfinished business, but in so many ways that’s actually a good thing. The heart of so many lessons, tutors’ words, classmates’ encouragements, will continue to linger over me. ‘You are not alone,’ both Horatio Clare and John McAuliffe said to us from the flickering grid of a final Zoom. It can feel that way all too often as a writer, and especially in the darkest parts of these crappy times. But they were right. My ties to the people who in such a short time helped galvanise my voice aren’t cut off, thank goodness. And we’re well-equipped to weather long-distance friendships, that’s for sure.

And anyway, closure is overrated. Closure implies that studies like this can be finished like a chapter in a book and put neatly on a shelf. This is not the case – my degree is a notebook of inspiration and courage which will come with me everywhere, I hope. And I’m not alone, not in the slightest.

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