And so it begins. The first seminar with my new MCW comrades, a reassuringly motley group of diverse ages, backgrounds, nationalities and even languages; four poets, five novelists, two short storyists and one ‘memorialised creative non-fiction’-ist. The first incomprehensible handout: “What is the primary representational force of the given excerpt? Is it a version of normative mimesis, an ‘invisible’ or ‘transparent’ language describing a situation that might obtain in the extra-textual world? Is it a nameable alternate mimesis: quantum mimesis, psychological inner space, objectism, myth or allegory?” (These career-academic poets like their discourse with a hefty dollop of semiotics, presumably designed to keep themselves in tenure.)
Also the first unexpectedly gruelling session with my supervisor, who, it becomes clear, is not going to pull any punches in forcing me to locate, and confront, the ‘affective centre’ of my work, and is going to make me change all my characters’ names because the symbolic resonances are insufficiently meaningful. I make the mistake of referring to ‘the reader’, but am exhorted to focus on the internal purpose of the work instead. A lifetime of writing for an audience is going to be hard to undo.
The outcome of this session is that it is now settled, somewhat alarmingly, that I will be writing the most difficult and ambitious of the three projects I pitched. Sensible, of course, to take advantage of the course’s focused critical environment, and tackle the project I’m least confident of being able to pull out of my arse on my own, but once again I have the queasy sense of my bluff being called… (Just kidding! Please let me go back to the short story collection I’ve already half-written!)
At least now I’m rescued from the project-indecisiveness limbo of the last few months, which has seen me becalmed between two novels. With a looming deadline of 1 July for a complete first draft, I set myself the goal of 1000 words a day, and pray for the visitation of mildly incapacitating illnesses, workloads and personal crises on my clients, to keep their threatened projects at bay. (Also for employers with benevolent dispositions and large budgets to take pity on/see the excellent potential in Hapless.)
Being back on campus for the first time in twenty years has been a strange experience: moving through a place both recognisable and foreign, the ghost of the old place – and an old self – eerily present under the new. While parts of the university are unrecognizable (glossy new buildings, market-standard consumer services), other parts are almost unchanged.
Climbing the echoing stone stairs inside the Clock Tower, smelling whatever it smells of – floor polish and dust and age – I was suddenly, viscerally, transported to exam week in maybe 1992, sitting contract law in one of the Princes Street-level rooms; assailed by a sense memory so strong I could taste it, of those yellowish exam booklets with their widely spaced lines and holes in the top right-hand corner and lengths of green string for if you completely filled one booklet and needed another (a feat I only managed once in seven years of arts exams); and the familiar sense of desperation as I invariably ran out of time and was reduced to bullet-pointing my last essay, a problem I never managed to solve in spite of all the practice. (For years I suffered phantom exam syndrome every October, the stress of all those dozens and dozens of three-hour torture sessions seared into my psyche.)
In the leafy spaces around Alfred Street, the clubs had set up their orientation tables, angling for recruits to their carefully nurtured minority interests: yoga, Christianity, football, Egyptology, French. Though I fell into the apathetic majority, interested mainly in drinking and sex, I remember what it felt like, reading all the orientation literature, the heady possibility of being able to choose, try on for size, one kind of fledgling adult self over another: the kind that likes Victorian novels or dabbles in politics or does good works, or the kind with a taste for the earnest, self-referential, deliberately abstruse conversations of those heading for academic careers in semiotics.
It reminded me that ageing ultimately represents a narrowing of possibilities, a ruling out of things you’ll actually now do and be, of places you’ll go and clothes you’ll wear and partners you’ll have and benders you’ll go on and types of home furnishings you’ll choose, as you progress further and further in one direction, down one set of branching paths, and the person you are becomes more and more fixed.
This isn’t entirely a melancholy thought; there was burden in the boundless choice and uncertainty of being 18. But here I am, midlife, in a place saturated with my own intensely-felt youthful experiences, of first real freedom and fun and mistakes, beginning a mad new challenge, and in the process recapturing a little of the excitement, dizziness and open-endedness of youth.