In a new series, Lizzie Hubbard writes about studying a creative writing degree remotely during a pandemic.
I’d been thinking about applying to study Creative Writing at Birkbeck for a long time, the owl-emblazoned tab seemed a permanent fixture on my browser. I finished my undergraduate degree in English Language six years ago and I was worried that I’d been out of the academic world too long. At work I spend all day writing press releases with my inner-creative-writer sighing in the corner, so I had to give it a go and apply, for her. I thought to myself “If I don’t do it now, I might never be brave enough. I could make 2020 the year of writing. What’s stopping me?”
When I pressed submit on the application, back in January, the world was a different place. When I look back at that moment now, it’s hard not to think about all the New Year’s Resolutions made all over the world, only to be scratched out. I’m so grateful that this wasn’t one of them. This year hasn’t gone the way I, or anyone apart from the epidemiologists, expected, I’m so grateful that I was accepted on the course and that it has been able to go ahead online. Although I couldn’t have predicted it, the timing of this course is simultaneously awful (who has the mental space to write while the world is on fire?) and (thanks to all that time alone) perfect.
While horror-stories of students trapped in halls and university-city outbreaks dominated September’s headlines, it felt surreal to be sat at my desk, safely at home, meeting my fellow writers through tiny online windows. But at least we were all able to log in. By its very nature, starting a new course and building a new writing community is scary. But somehow starting online was a bigger leap: skipping the small talk and diving straight into sharing our opinions, critiques and our own, personal, writing. It’s impossible to make eye-contact in an online class, so I’m trying to smile as much as possible, with the hope that one lands in the right place.
Perhaps because creative writing can be transposed to online learning more easily than other subjects, like music or chemistry, it has managed to work surprisingly well, without the class being in the same room. There is something wonderful about people logging into the classes from London, Sweden and Nigeria. I hugely appreciate that everyone is working round different time zones, day-jobs, families, political uncertainty, and a global pandemic — yet still finding the time and energy to learn and support each other.
Everyone is navigating the space between their expectation and reality of 2020. We’re all dealing with new restrictions and rules that seem to oscillate between too much and not enough. But being able to connect with people who want to learn and create, is something truly special.
Yes, this course hasn’t started the way I expected. Yes, I’m disappointed that classes aren’t running in Bloomsbury. But it’s so much more important that we’ve been able to start the course while keeping everyone safe. Perhaps our cohort of creative writers will work a bit differently than other years. Maybe we’ll have to think more carefully around certain problems. I’ve already realised that I’m writing more by hand, feeling better from less time on a back lit screen. Maybe long form letters will come back into fashion when we’re sick to death of Whatsapp.
If creativity thrives on limits, these restrictions may help us in ways we don’t expect. Perhaps the limits of face-to-face interaction will make us more expressive on the page or more enthusiastic to reach out to each other. Perhaps reduced access to the outside world will change our perspectives or help us explore deeper inside ourselves. This could be the best time for us to concentrate on the writers we want to become.