Monday 10 January 2022

Kate Durban, "The Creative Writing Dissertation"

If you’re reading this now perhaps you are seeking wisdom and advice about how to approach your upcoming dissertation. I can’t promise any magic solutions, but I can offer my own insights into facing the fear and finding a route to actually enjoying the opportunities that writing the dissertation can offer. So here is an account of my own writing journey, together with some tips I picked up along the way. 

My name is Kate Durban. I’m 54 and I’ve recently completed an MA in Creative Writing at Leicester. As well as writing, I work part time as a Specialist Cancer Nurse and I am Mum to Rudi (25) and Tasha (23) and wife to Philip (60). I started writing in July 2015 when my first husband, Angus, was diagnosed with an extremely aggressive form of leukaemia. I wrote a blog to communicate what was happening to our friends and family. I quickly discovered that the act of writing itself became a means of self-expression, a therapeutic escape as well as a creative act in its own right. People started saying they thought my writing was good.  

Tragically Angus died in the December of that year and as I wrestled with grief, writing continued to be an outlet. I signed up for a course, and then another until eventually I found myself applying for the MA at Leicester. I did it partly for Angus: before he died, he encouraged me to keep writing. After his death I wrote about grief and hope and carrying on. 

Four years later, as I made my way to the university campus that first day, I was terrified. I’ve always wanted to write but, like many others, I’ve struggled to believe in myself. I love reading but the gap between the work of ‘real’ writers and my paltry efforts felt vast. Nevertheless, I was determined to improve and to see where the MA took me. I took heart from the generous encouragement of my tutor - and the fact that a life in nursing was a rich source of wonderful and inspiring stories. Meeting my fellow students, who came from a variety of personal and academic backgrounds and diverse writing experiences and interests, was a joy. We were in this together. 

There was an unexpected distraction in the Autumn and Winter of 2019. I met and fell in love with Philip, and I ended up juggling the first two terms of the MA with a whirlwind romance which culminated in a wedding in February 2020. And then came the pandemic. Nevertheless, I loved every moment of the course and I was determined to persevere. The first assignment, amidst wedding plans and Christmas, was so scary. I had no idea whether I would pass or fail. But I did pass, and more importantly I learned a lot in the process. As each semester sped by it was exciting to experiment with different genres whilst benefitting from the insights and feedback of all the tutors and fellow students, and at the same time learn about Creative Writing theory. In no time at all, it was time to start planning for the dissertation. Again, I was filled with trepidation. 15,000 words seemed daunting. So how did I tackle it? 

Knowing your strengths and weaknesses 

I think the key for me in writing the dissertation was in looking back at what I had learned throughout the MA, particularly knowledge about my strengths and weaknesses. This knowledge was essential in determining my approach. 


Strength: What to write 

From the very beginning I knew that I wanted to write memoir about my experiences when Angus became ill. I also knew I wanted to write about the conflict between my professional identity as a nurse and my identity as Angus’s wife as he was cared for in the hospital where I worked. I also wanted to write about my nursing career - the people I’ve met and their stories, entwined with my own, and to explore the concept of nursing and what I believe good nursing is. It’s something I’m passionate about. And so I had a lot to say. This was a strong source of motivation and helped me build and sustain momentum. 

Strength: Voice 

Throughout my MA, I received feedback to say I had a strong voice. I knew what I wanted to say and the impression I was striving to make on my readers. Creating the right tone - one of poignancy without clichéd sentimentality - was a fine balance, and took time to achieve. In order to do so I learned to challenge my tendency to over-write. 

Weakness: Over-writing 

This is a challenge for many new writers. The temptation to use five words where two will do is always strong. I love words - all of them - and paring down my prose feels like I’m losing meaning. But what I’ve learned is that a writer needs to trust their readers; let them fill in the gaps. A stripped-back narrative with the lightest peppering of imagery and a disciplined use of adjectives and adverbs is so much more effective in creating a memorable impact. Nevertheless, I love poetic and lyrical prose and that led me to think about form. 

Strength and Weakness: Form 

When considering form for my dissertation I made the decision, with guidance, not to be too experimental. This might sound like I was playing it safe but, in making that decision, I considered my aims. My first writing priority is to write a memoir that I can potentially publish. There are many other things I’d like to do too, but, in the end, I decided that the dissertation was an opportunity to develop the opening of my memoir: to give it wings. At first, I considered writing a mixture of prose and poems – but ultimately I decided that I was too inexperienced as a poet to risk experimentation. That is a journey for the future. Central to achieving my aim was mentorship. 

Strength: Supervision 

Having Jonathan as my supervisor was an extremely empowering experience. His guidance and experience were invaluable, not least having written his own memoir, Take Me Home, about caring for his father who had Parkinson’s disease. He was able to recommend many resources, and I felt that he really knew me and my strengths and weaknesses. He was always responsive and generous with his time and advice. By starting quite early I was able to get the maximum benefit from the relationship. One thing he helped me with specifically was my struggle with structure. 

Weakness: Structure 

Throughout the MA I found it a challenge to achieve balance in my writing: between scene and summary, and between description and moving the story forward. And so I read. With guidance from my tutors, I read what writers said about structure, and what teachers said about it. I read lots of other people’s memoirs - particularly those by medical professionals - to see how they did it. And I read about the art of memoir – its challenges both structurally and ethically in terms of the pursuit of truth - and its value. I was worried that I didn’t have a clear structure and plan from the beginning. Jonathan suggested writing scenes to start with - they could be knitted together later. This worked and felt so much less daunting than writing one long piece all at once. Gradually a structure emerged which interspersed the story of Angus’s diagnosis and illness with memories from our family life and my nursing career, providing a backdrop and a context for the story - my story and Angus’s story - that I wanted to tell. I learned that structure can evolve and to trust the creative process in allowing it to emerge, rather than having it all planned.  

Strength: Hard work and perseverance 

There’s no doubt it was hard work. But in the end the experience gave me great confidence, which grew as the piece developed. The critical reflection seemed to evolve as I read and wrote. I kept a record of resonant quotations and references around which to weave the reflection. In the end it almost seemed to write itself. 

What next 

You’ll be relieved to know that I passed. As was I. The challenge has been to keep going. I have to admit that I’ve hardly written anything over the last few months. But now that I’ve had the result and some very useful feedback, now Christmas has been and gone and we’re into a new year, I’m ready. I have ideas for new chapters and a way forward to the end. So, I hope to finish my memoir. And maybe, just maybe, it will be published one day. 

As you approach what seems perhaps a daunting task, try to think of the dissertation as an opportunity. Write something you feel passionate about, play to your strengths and work at your weaknesses, and get every bit of support you can from the supervision process. Read, read and read some more. Work hard and try to enjoy it. Good luck. This time next year it will all be over! 

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