By Natalie Nera
It is a self-indulgent degree. Why don’t you study something proper? Like engineering or business administration? You are just a selfish person who has inflicted a great injustice upon your children and husband, your vanity project of getting a useless degree. You are a bad mother. You are a bad wife.
This is just an example of an array of abuse I have had to endure during my two years at Newcastle University. Please don’t misunderstand – no one at the university did this to me, it was certain people on the outside who did that, judging, pushing, pulling, dismissing, but ironically none of my critics offered any free childminding.
I must admit it got to me. After the first semester, I had, what I now recognise as a nervous breakdown. I was completely blocked, in tears every day, suffering from an imposter syndrome (which never quite goes away, as I am assured by much more accomplished, lauded, and award-winning authors). I very nearly gave up. For how can I justify my not cooking evening meals twice a week for three months when I don’t even get a distinction?
No, I was not considered the next best thing by my tutors and did not get any distinction mark until my dissertation. But I did my best, getting up at three or four in the morning, working flat out on my “university” days, making sure that the impact on my family life is minimal but still, the comments you have to put up with while you can’t wave your Pulitzer Prize to make them go away do get to you.
That said, my course, now hailed as the fifth-best in Britain in the Times newspaper, is the best thing I have ever done. I loved every minute of it, every session, every task I had to do. Even the modules that were not my cup of tea, taught me a lot about writing and about my own creative potential. Before you sneer and dismiss it as a soft option degree, perhaps you should try it, go and read one thick book a week for each module to try and keep up with the demand. Try to produce a masterpiece for each module accompanied by an essay each semester – 8,000 words if you study part-time, 12,000 on a full-time course. And then, having done all of this, you have to produce 15,000 words in about six weeks, if possible to a publishable standard.
Ask the dropouts or those who transferred to other universities and found the demands are not as high. Ask all of those students who ‘merely’ passed sweating blood. Of course, you can measure maths better than creativity but is it easier? No.
And then I look at some of my colleagues who as ‘students only’ produce award-winning poetry, get published in prestigious magazines all around the world. This is what a high-value and high-quality course offers – an environment where you can develop your skill, find your niche, find your inspiration and like-minded friends for life, with the same passion for writing.
So is it worth it? Some would claim it is not. I would say it depends on why you are there. If you are already an established author/poet, this is not necessary. If you study it to get ‘an easy ride’, you will feel disappointed and probably crash out. If you expect that you get to be held by hand without pro-actively creating opportunities to write as much as possible, to work on your craft, chisel it, hone it, then you will also be disappointed.
I set out to do my degree to follow my life-long passion with a question of whether I could do it in English, not my mother tongue. I also wanted to improve my written English enough to be able to translate literary texts competently. And I have achieved both, battling through various unpredictable life events, each of them could have meant the end of my degree. Following them plus some unfortunate political developments, this summer we moved the house and countries while I was working on my portfolio.
For me personally, it is a resounding yes, the degree is worth it. Every second of it, I would do it all over again in a heartbeat. I am envious of those who are about to start. I would like to be the fly on the wall, at least to listen to the stimulating discussions about literary works. But should YOU do it? I have no idea. The question is WHY you want to study it.
A dentist of mine, many years ago, told me his story why he became a mature student to pursue a career in dentistry. I could not protest much because at that very moment my mouth was open so wide that my jaws were practically dislocated and my tongue went completely numb. But his words stuck in my mind: “What would you want to do if someone gave you a million pounds? Now, you have your answer. What are you waiting for? Go and do it.”