I know one thing: that I know nothing

My MA classes started two weeks ago and while some of the initial trepidation (read: screaming anxiety) has mercifully dissipated, I still feel rather daunted by the whole thing. This week, while reading a Karl Marx essay, followed by a Dorothy Richardson short story, I felt very much as though I had forgotten how to read English – or perhaps that the texts on offer were in Klingon. (I’m still not convinced that Ulysses isn’t in Klingon.)

Adding to that sense of intimidation is the fact that everyone in my seminar group has had some kind of educational exposure to modernist literature, whereas I, the intrepid Creative Writing graduate (why, 18-year-old-me, why) am approaching this brand new, treacle-dense subject on awkward, clumsy feet. So it was a relief to sit down this week next to an English teacher embarking on the same MA, and to hear her express how difficult she’d found the assigned reading. (And then for the seminar tutor to admit it had taken her multiple reads to penetrate the meaning of it.)

Perhaps….whispering, so that the imposter syndrome won’t hear…perhaps I’m not thick after all. Perhaps it really is just difficult.

That’s a small comfort – I still have essays to write and plenty of texts ahead to wrap my already-tired brain around (though having been diagnosed & started on thyroxine this very week I’m hoping the tiredness will abate enough to allow more study!) But it is a comfort nonetheless. As I have been reminded, I am here to learn. The point of an MA isn’t to go in knowing everything already. And although it can be a knock to the confidence when everyone else in class knows X writer, or has read Y text, and I am sitting there clueless, I have to remember that everyone has to start somewhere.

(It’s not all crushingly overwhelming. I’ve already found my love for Virginia Woolf reinforced and have discovered things about William Morris – designer, sci-fi writer, ecosocialist and all-round top bloke – that I didn’t previously know, and which I find fascinating.)

Adventures in University Study

As some may already be aware, I am finally embarking on a Master’s degree in October, ten years after graduating from Middlesex University’s ‘Creative and Media Writing’ degree programme. This time, I’ll be studying ‘Modern and Contemporary Literature’ at Birkbeck – a university which offers part-time study and evening classes, which is essential as I am (sadly!) in no position to give up my day job just yet.

Initially I was terrifically excited about the whole venture, and I still am, but a certain trepidation has begun to creep in. Can I do this? Am I capable? Will I be able to balance studying with a full-time job and living my life? More than that, though, my old friend impostor syndrome is making itself known, though not without basis. In preparation for studying at MA level, I’ve embarked upon a summer school programme offered by Birkbeck, designed to prepare the new intake of students for the intricacies of MA level study – the module covers research, seminar skills, academic English and so on.

I feel horribly out of my depth all of a sudden. Some of the academic essays contained within the programme seem almost impenetrable, both in their use of language and introduction of concepts I’ve never encountered before. I’ve always considered myself reasonably intelligent, but I’m struggling to understand quite a lot of what’s being presented to me – and I feel incredibly poorly-read in terms of schools of thought, literary conventions and concept, philosophies and even the texts themselves. (How have I got to be 31 years of age and never even attempted to read James Joyce’s Ulysses? Which, by the way, I am absolutely dreading.)

I know that this is probably normal, to some extent. I know that the entire point of me studying is to learn, and to broaden my mind; hopefully at the end of the course I will find all of this far easier to grasp, but for now I am trying to swallow down a quiet terror of failing horribly, or of being the only person on the course who doesn’t understand half of what’s being said. I’m worried I’ll study for two years, incur a vast debt on top of my existing vast debt, and emerge with barely a passing grade.

There’s also the matter of time, or lack thereof. The amount of reading and work entailed by the course almost guarantees that I will barely be able to read for fun, or to write stories. The fear here is twofold: how much will I miss out on? How can I support my fellow writers if I can’t read or purchase their work? How big will my TBR pile grow? And also, selfishly: if I don’t write for the next two years, will I fade into obscurity? Am I about to miss out on big opportunities? Will anyone even care if my stories disappear off the face of the earth? (And I assure you, I am not fishing for kind words here: I am aware of how daft my worries are, and how little any of this matters in any case.)

It’s not all bad. There is a horror module to be studied, which I am very excited about, and Angela Carter features prominently in the compulsory second-year module. Plus there are modules on postcolonial literature and feminist literature which look fascinating. I know this is a risk worth taking, but – sometimes, my brain is only ever able to focus on the word ‘risk’.