If I hadn’t been to Milford, I might never have become an MA. When I retired after thirty-four years as a Government lawyer, I wanted to work hard at my writing of fiction, as I’d not had the time or energy to do before. But I did not want to work in complete isolation. When I started to write, a long time ago, I had assumed that that was the way to do it, that my efforts should be shown to nobody until I was completely satisfied with them. My first visit to a Milford workshop, in 2000, helped persuade me otherwise. I was almost too nervous to go. But when I made it there, I found the experience thoroughly encouraging. By then, the atmosphere had mellowed since the early days described by Chris Priest. The basic framework was the same but nobody made a big fuss about the rules or tried to tell anyone else how to rewrite their work.
I’ve been back to Milford several times since then but as I thought about retirement, I was looking for something more extensive. I discovered that Middlesex University was offering an MA in Creative Writing, with a specialist strand in Fantasy and Science Fiction. I wasn’t sure whether an academic approach would help me develop my fiction or kill it off altogether. But the course supervisor was David Rain. He had been one of the other participants at my first Milord and his feedback had always been perceptive and interesting. I went to talk to David and decided to give the MA a go.
I can’t recommend that particular course at Middlesex because it’s no longer available. I’m sure courses at different universities provide different experiences. Even so, some of what made my course worthwhile for me must also apply elsewhere.
At the most basic level, like Milford, the Middlesex course provided a chance to meet and talk to other writers about technique and ideas, not to mention book recommendations. And it’s always intriguing to read other people’s work in progress, even if, or especially if, it’s not the kind of thing I would normally tackle.
My creative impulses were not suffocated by the academic aspects of the course. Instead, I was pushed into trying things I would never have tackled on my own, with positive results. Writing for the screen, for example, has never been an ambition of mine. But the exercise of telling a story through action and images capable of being filmed had benefits I could apply to other kinds of narrative. For the novel writing section, Farah Mendlesohn got us all to provide a 90,000 word draft in three months, starting from scratch. I learned a lot from that and from the resulting discussions led by Farah.
The tutor for SF short stories was Rob Shearman. I’ve always found short stories harder to tackle than longer work but the sessions with Rob helped me grasp the different approach needed. I’ve had a number of short stories published since I graduated and I don’t quite so often receive feedback along the lines of ‘This doesn’t quite work as a story but would make a great start to a novel.’
The MA course led on to more connections with writing networks. I continue to meet a few of my fellow students once a month in a critiquing group, where we try keep roughly to the Milford system. (If anyone within reach of North London is interested in joining us, do get in touch.) I am also a member of the London Clockhouse Writers’ Workshop, led by Allen Ashley, which is not a critiquing group but a chance to look at market opportunities and to discuss themes and ideas. This has no direct connection to the MA or to Milford but I doubt I would have found it without them.
David Rain’s early death was a great loss to everyone who knew him. I shall always be particularly grateful to him for drawing me into the MA course.
Sandra Unerman is a retired Government lawyer who lives on the northern fringe of London. Many years ago, she had an Arthurian fantasy published as a YA novel. Since then, she has published a number of short stories, including stories recently in Midnight Circus and Detectives of the Fantastic, vol. IV. She has a draft of another novel for which she is seeking a publisher. She is a member of the Folklore Society and the Historical Novel Society.