Laura Southgate (Writing for the Page, 2018)

It was without doubt the best thing I could have done with a year of my life.

Laura writes: 'At first I was considering taking a year off work to "just write for a year". It made sense. I wouldn't have to pay fees, or waste time getting to and from university. I had a perfectly good space at home where I could do my writing. I could just shut myself in all year at minimal expense, and at the end of it I'd have a novel – a much longer novel, probably, than anything I could produce in an academic year crammed full of distracting workshops (I mean, look at the timetable – they go for hours, those things) and reading and – let's face it – other people.

'Lucky for me my husband (David Coventry) did the course in 2010, so he could tell me with some authority that my idea was foolish. I didn't believe him at first, but he managed to convince me to apply anyway, and so I did. To my surprise, I got in, so there went my plans of being an inexpensive shut-in for the year. I was going to have to meet some new people and do a whole lot of things that seemed an impractical waste of writing time and – expose myself.

'Well, I did squander a lot of writing time. I spent hours every week reading other people's work and composing letters of critique and eating in the quad with classmates enthusing about our course convenor and each other's work and going out for drinks and gossip and talking about books we'd loved or hated and commiserating about difficulties with structure or planning or plot. The workshops did take ages. I'd walk out of the room feeling like I'd been hit by a benign and loving and highly intelligent bus. There was even a class devoted to reading and discussing work that wasn't produced by anyone on the course, it was just about ideas and craft and whatever you wanted it to be (you take turns at running the session and preparing the reading material). And on top of that you have workshops with visiting writers and editors from overseas, and so there's their work to read as well, and you read books that are going to be relevant specifically to your project and maybe some that are pretty much irrelevant but you just love and you semi-compulsively reread. And then there's the regular meetings with your supervisor to discuss your work in detail, or sometimes, in my case at least, to tell her there's no way in hell I can continue with this project I've started, I'm going to have to abandon it and write something else, this whole thing has been a terrible mistake, and so she has to waste her valuable time nodding sympathetically and patiently giving out wise and excellent advice which is, among other things, to go ahead and abandon it if I want to, it will still be waiting for me later when I’m ready to come back to it – the subtext of which is, in my head at least, get over yourself and keep going.

'I spent a lot of energy worrying about what people would think about what I'd written and would they all be disgusted or look down their noses at me or pity me, or finally cotton to the fact that I should never have been accepted onto the course in the first place and forcibly expel me from the group. But the thing I learned, over and over, from the people I was lucky enough to spend 2018 with, is that it's normal to feel that way about stuff you've written, because creative writing is personal, it's coming from inside your head and from your heart, and there are feelings in there, and it's all frankly a bit embarrassing and shameful, or at least most of it is that's likely to be of any interest to others. And the best way to deal with that, it turns out, is with other humans who also feel things and think things and remember things and make stuff up and feel compelled to turn all that unpleasant mess into something else in the form of words on a page.

'So doing the MA at the IIML was nothing like shutting myself in a room for a year. I could have been writing away non-stop, without the distractions of regular feedback and encouragement, stimulating conversation, or the considered responses of a diverse group of really good readers. It was scary. It was draining. It was hilarious. It was an enormous privilege. It was without doubt the best thing I could have done with a year of my life.'

Bio: Laura Southgate did the Fiction class of the MA for the Page in 2018. Her novel The Boyfriend won the Adam Foundation Prize for Creative Writing in 2018 and was published by Te Herenga Waka University Press the following year. It has been picked up by UK publisher Fleet (an imprint of Little, Brown) and will be published in Australia and the UK in 2020.

Laura works as a technical writer for a software company and is currently writing her second novel.

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Te Herenga Waka University Press