It’s been a very long time since I’ve blogged, so you’ll have to forgive me if I’m rather rusty.
TL;DR: I am starting a Medieval Studies MA at the University of Manchester in September.
I’ve spent the last five to six years in a state of limbo, mostly trying to deal with being incredibly sick. This might surprise people who’ve met me, but I do have the kind of illness where for maybe a couple of hours with a person, as long as I’ve done a hell of a lot of background work, I can seem normal.
My life has mostly revolved around surviving from therapy session to therapy session, with awful gaps when there isn’t any therapy. I’m lucky, now, that I have a long term therapist in place, who is excellent, and a support worker who is also quite splendid. A lot of what they’ve had to listen to in the last year or so is me complaining that I should never have left academia.
As I reached the point where I could contemplate some kind of a future, I had to think about what I wanted to do. And every time I thought about it, I thought about how I’d walked away from an academic career at 26 and how this was a really dumb move. The more I think about it, I can’t understand what was going through my head between the ages of 24-26. Turns out recovering from anorexia shifted the underlying mental problem to psychosis. A whole load of no-fun.
I spent seven years, from ages 11 to 18, obsessed with going to university. It was really all I cared about. By the time I got there, for various reasons, I was severely anorexic and desperately underweight. I stayed there, all through treatment and hospitalisations, because it was where I truly wanted to be and I loved it dearly. I’ve heard cynics say that your dreams never turn out to be as wonderful as you imagined. They’re wrong. University was every bit as glorious.
Once I’d left, and discovered that I couldn’t cope with The Real World, I was convinced there was no going back. Having a PhD isn’t enough. You need publication credits and the like to your name. It never entered my head that I could get back in once I’d left. I thought it was all over. So I just complained about it, and harboured a lot of jealousy toward friends who’d never been as daft as I had.
Until about three weeks ago, when I woke up on a Monday morning after another spasm of severe depression in the night and thought, “I’m going back to university.” At the time, I had no idea how or what I would do. It was a weird week with a lot of discoveries. What seemed like an almost impossible fantasy turned out to be quite a reasonable next step, as I was reaching the point in treatment where I could probably tolerate doing something part time, if I had a hell of a lot of support.
My therapist did the practical thing and asked lots of questions, clarifying what I wanted. I kept quiet about it except to a couple of friends. By the end of week 1, I had established that an MA in Medieval Studies was what I wanted to do. It would serve as a step back into the academic world, either on to (another) PhD or to some form of associated work if I couldn’t immediately get a funded research placement.
By the Monday of the second week I had two referees. I emailed my former PhD supervisor and a professor who’d taught me as an undergraduate. I was in the middle of seventeen days without therapy, which was hard work when trying to change my life. I spent a week being entirely confused by the university’s guidance on references, before I found the right thing and at the beginning of week 3 (last week), I emailed them both the form.
Tuesday last week was the busiest, most nerve-wracking day of my life for quite some time. The application itself is all online now. I started university in 1997, when everything was still paper based and if you had an email address you went to a special room where they kept all the computers (like a sort of technological zoo), to read them. I’m sure my PhD application involved writing a proposal and seeing my dissertation supervisor for an interview.
The online application was nine pages long. Add to that, one referee was sending the reference direct to the university, the other to me. I’m now mildly traumatised every time I see a drop down menu for “nationality” and “native language”. I never thought these would be difficult things, or could be made hard. In the middle I had to rush out and get a passport photo, in which I look like a frazzled corpse, because the application required one but they didn’t include that on the “list of essential things before you start” page.
After submission, the reference going to the university came back to me. I swear, that thing has been sent to five different email addresses. I was terrified they’d never get it (I’m not prone to being rational about these things). Thankfully, the department seemed to know what they were doing, and exactly a week after I submitted the application, I had an email from them making me an unconditional offer.
It still hasn’t sunk in yet. I finally told people on Facebook and Twitter, but I’m indebted to the friends who knew beforehand, who were there in a supportive capacity while I tried to make this happen. Janis, Emma, Ben, Tannice, thank you so much for listening while I screamed at the never-ending admin of the last three weeks. Also thank you to the Director of Studies for this year’s course, who has put up with many a querying email from me recently.
I suppose a few people might want to know where this leaves my writing. As all this was going on, the Guardian article reporting on writing incomes was released, so a lot of my writing friends were discussing the fundamental problem: writing is wonderful, but writing doesn’t pay. What do you do, to support writing, that does allow you to live a life that doesn’t largely revolve around being sick of ramen noodles?
Possibly my biggest revelation is that I don’t want to write full time. Putting all the emphasis on writing made it a painful occupation, revealed a hell of a lot of insecurities, on top of not paying the bills. Looking back, I realise I wrote more, and more consistently, when I was doing my PhD than at any other time in my life. I know I need something else, and I suspect it’s healthier if you do have something else. In part, it’s because it spurs the imagination and keeps you thinking. I’d definitely never recommend to a writer they found a slog of a job and put all the emphasis on writing for fulfilment. Based on a lot of people I’ve spoken to and my own experience, that’s probably a little unhealthy.
Perhaps the best way to be a writer now is to be a little polyamorous. At 25, I knew a lot about my illness but the personal insight of a brick (so does everybody who’s 25). At 35, it’s possible to look back and say that my enduring love was always academia, which is not an easy road in itself, but suits me rather well in other respects. I know for me, personally, I need to be doing something else, something that can spark the imagination but also act as a financial and emotional break from fictional words.
Finally, I’ve resolved to try blogging a little more, although it will be more focused on Medieval Studies from now on. I can’t believe I get to take the subject Tolkien taught and studied. How appropriate, really.