I’m now embarking on my second year on the Royal Literary Fund Fellowship Scheme. Now there’s an appealing set of words – fund, literary and, given my queenly aspirations, royal. And its reality, being a published author lent out to an academic institution to help students struggling with writing, is just as good.
My friend, the thriller writer Ali Knight, told me about the RLF having gained a place herself and it sounded perfect for me. Being a professional writer is undoubtedly a privilege and to complain about the life always has a whiff of, to quote Friends, ‘my diamond shoes are too tight’. But both my productivity and earnings were dwindling and I felt my world was becoming so small that I had little to write about, veering as it did between home and the primary school down the road with occasional forays to the British Library.
The RLF Scheme would provide a fixed income, structure and, perhaps most importantly, the chance to work with others rather than being confined to the pits of my own imagination. I spent days on trying to craft the perfect application to the scheme and then a few anxious weeks waiting for the yay or nay. It’s been so long since I’ve applied for a job that my confidence was low and the silence only confirmed my own opinion of myself. But whatever I wrote worked and I was offered a place to help students two days a week at the London College of Fashion, possibly my ideal location.
It quickly fulfilled my hopes of offering normality and a connection to the outside world. ‘I’m so excited about my lanyard and staff pass,’ I said to a bemused colleague when I started at the college. Photocopiers, door cards, workmates, commuting… how the horrors of office life have now become cherished after too long in the pyjamas of homeworking.
My retirement from what I call ‘a proper job’ coincided with the birth of my first child 14 years ago. Myriad articles, five novels, one non-fiction book and two further children followed. To combine the occasionally identity-crushing petri-dish of paranoia that is motherhood and writing has been a challenge. Both have also given me great joy, but I’m pleased to say that so has my fellowship.
I see up to self-referred students on a one-to-one basis for ‘psychiatrist’s hour’ each (50 minutes). Their issues are diverse. For mature students, it’s a lack of confidence on returning to academia after a break. The many students from China can struggle with English, though I remain in awe that they can write as well as they do in a second script. Others are dyslexic as art colleges have a high proportion and what they write can fail to live up to the genius of their ideas.
What they have in common is their charm. Ah, my students, how I love them. They are questioning, optimistic, ethical, thoughtful – the anti-Trump that everybody needs in their lives right now. As art students with visual minds, there’s can be a gulf between their intelligence and their ability to express themselves on paper. I have found a natural seat at this gap, which makes me feel I can make a difference with relative ease, sometimes formalising the ‘basically’s and ‘so’s that can pepper their work, at other times simplifying the baffling ‘academic-ease’ that thickens the forest of words.
But with a bit of nudging, tweaking and editing, they can all produce engaging work. I, on the other hand, will never be able to build eight-foot high concertinaed costumes representing Heloise and Abelard, refashion a 19th century military coat into a woman’s jacket or devise a water bottle with slowly revealing messages of sustainability.
Although I tell them to avoid clichés, I’m falling back on one myself: I’ve as much to learn from them as they from me.