Why it's never too late to go back to school

Annie Murray talks about her experience of returning to university to complete a Masters in creative writing.   

12/04/2015
4 minutes to read
Oxford, UK, view of the city from the top of a building

Annie Murray has written many successful novels, including the bestselling Chocolate Girls. Ahead of the publication of War Babies, Annie shared her experience of going back to school.

When I told friends I was about to embark on an MA in creative writing, quite a number of them looked baffled. Not that a creative writing degree is an especially unusual activity these days. What is less usual is someone attending one - as a student - when they have been writing professionally for over twenty years.

 "Shouldn't you be teaching the course?" they'd ask.

Well, no. For one thing, despite years of writing experience I don't have a teaching bone in my body. Apart from that, I wanted to learn. I wanted input. In all that time previously, my writing had been crushed into the side-pockets of time available around bringing up my four children. There had been very little occasion for branching out, or for playing around, which is one of the best parts of creative work. I had barely seen another writer for years because i was so busy. from my point of view, I was in a rut and, increasingly, a lonely one.

And what were all those people doing on those MA degrees? I took myself off to Oxford Brookes University, to find out by doing one part time, around writing my other books. 

I can't tell you if the degree at Oxford Brookes is good. I have nothing to compare with. It's certainly not bad. What's more important is who you are and what you bring to a course which is more creative than academic. All I can say is, I had a brilliant time.

We wrote. A lot. We read and discussed. We workshopped our final projects. My writing had developed through regular workshopping sessions and I had missed the process, having moved away from the city of my most formative workshop experience. So I was back home again. We did the usual moaning and grousing people do on any course, but mainly encouraged each other and we shared ideas.

Cliché alert! - the course was a journey, for all of us. 

Many people - myself included - arrived with a writing project in mind, only to find that in the passing of a few stimulating months, new ideas had hatched, fat and unexpected as cuckoos. We tried different, sometimes braver, things. Those projects, in many cases, learned to fly, drunkenly at first, but most stayed in the air. For me there were special rediscoveries, like the pleasure of writing by hand and of writing in odd, less 'professional' places: on the bed, the train, on the river bank fighting off swans; instead of being lashed to a laptop. I felt like a real writer again!

One of the things that I wanted from it, and have achieved in more magnificent ways that I could have imagined, was company. My classmates were great - supportive, unpretentious, brave and of course, talented. One, within a year of the course, achieved a major publishing contract. Others have also been published. And we did not want to part company!

From the MA course, two workshops have come into being - one in Oxford, a Brookes continuation workshop, another, Leather Lane Writers, in London. This has entailed meeting another shoal of impressive new writers.

On the wall of the room where I mostly write is a list: '33 ways to stay creative.' Number 12 reads, 'be open.'

There's always something new to learn, new people to meet.

I'm having a ball.

War Babies

by Annie Murray

Book cover for War Babies

Rachel Booker has a difficult start in life. When her father dies, deep in gambling debt, her mother must harden herself to make ends meet, but becomes so hard she has little room left for affection or warmth. Mother and daughter work at the open market in Birmingham, selling second-hand clothes or whatever they can find just to put a little food on the table.

But the market has a silver lining: it's there that Rachel makes her first childhood friend, Danny. As they grow older, the friendship grows into something more and their innocent romance gives Rachel the care and comfort she's always craved. But at just sixteen, as World War II breaks out, Rachel falls pregnant. They marry in haste but it isn't long before Danny is called up.

Left on the home front with a new baby and little else, Rachel must scrape by with the other residents of Sparkbrook. But if Danny ever makes it home, will he be the same boy she loved so fiercely? And if Rachel can sustain the family until then, will she end up as hard-hearted as her own mother?

Annie Murray's War Babies is a moving and insightful novel about hardships on the home front and how the war changed everybody it touched . . .