The Perpetual Student Gives Advice

This is yet another piece I have written for ShortbreadStories.

I have spent seventy-two percent of my life in formal education. Wow. That’s the first time I’ve ever written that down, and suddenly it seems like a lot. Now, I feel like I must defend my choice to be a perpetual student, as I don’t believe I’ve made it a ‘lifestyle’ choice. I don’t snooze until noon every day and hangout in pubs every night. I don’t sleep on a futon or eat pot noodle. Since leaving high school I have been steadily employed, often working full time to pay fees. I am an ‘adult’. I currently have a job that carries a bit of responsibility, a lovely flat, and a schmorgesborg of grown-up friends who have their own adult responsibilities like kids and mortgages; I help run a charity and I am in a very long-term loving relationship.

I don’t feel like I fit the image of the ‘perpetual student’; yet, with the exception of a nine-year hiatus between my undergraduate and postgraduate studies, I have spent the majority of my life as a student. Plus, for five of the nine years in which I was not enrolled on a course, I was a creative writing teacher; thus, raising the total percentage to eighty-five.

The question now arises, ‘Was it worth it?’ To be honest, I am in a lot of debt thanks to my educational interests, and I don’t know if I am any more employable than I would be without the series of letters behind my name. (I hope that I am more employable, but in this economy is anyone’s career secure?) I blame my weight gain on hours spent at a desk studying and researching, and it can’t be a coincidence that the grey hairs began arriving during the final stages of my postgraduate thesis.  Superficially, no I am no better for having spent so many years as a student.

Yet, education should never have superficial rewards. I must enjoy learning and being a student, or I wouldn’t keep matriculating. And, I know for a fact, that my academic background has had a positive influence on my creative writing.

While I do have one degree in creative writing, the rest of my qualifications are in other subjects, and I believe the non-creative writing training has had an impact on my writing. I know this because I recently discovered a short story I wrote before doing my master’s degree. I was not in school and was working as a cultural journalist, but the writing was hammy and the story was trite. Despite using the piece to secure a place on a creative writing programme, the work was elementary at best.

Since writing that story, I hope my creative work has improved, but even more importantly I believe I’ve gained transferable skills from a lifetime in academia.

  • I have the patience to write. I still get distracted easily, and usually I prefer to be outside in the sunshine than at a desk. But, because I’ve completed a difficult research thesis that took years to finish, I know the long-term rewards of finishing a writing project outweighs a little short-term dissatisfaction.
  • I know my limitations, and I am okay with them. I am a horrible speller, and when it comes to my own work I am an even worse copyeditor. I usually have to complete a project far in advance of the deadline, let it sit for a few days before editing it, and still have someone look over the piece before submitting. This is something that I began to learn as a journalist, but anything other than perfection is not an option in the judgemental world of academia.
  • I’m not hurt by rejection. Not all of my studies went smoothly. In fact, I had some unfortunate battles during my recent stint as a postgraduate, but I understand that art, writing and research are subjective. Now, when a short story or novel is rejected by an agent or an editor, it honestly does not bother me.  I simply move on.
  • I am a multi-tasker extraordinaire. Because I have always been employed while in education, I have learned to juggle jobs, essay deadlines, exam timetables, presentations at conferences, and extra teaching. Now, when I come home in the evening and the only task ahead of me is a bit of writing on my novel, I find it a treat. There is no down time for students or writers.
  • I know I have more to learn. Academic hubris is a bitch. As a student, I would complete a project, and think I was the top in my field. Then someone better, smarter and more talented would come along and knock me off my pedestal.  This is how I learned that jealousy does nothing to make you a better writer – or even a better person. So, when someone more talented steps into your life, the best thing to do is learn from them.

I sincerely believe that without education, especially higher education, I would have never acquired these skills, and I would not have progressed with my writing. However, not everyone has the opportunity, or the desire, to spend their entire life in a classroom. Yet, everyone can be a student.

Being a student is about more than a matriculation card. There are educational opportunities everywhere: free classes at the local library, online courses, books to help you study from home, free web tutorials. These days, options for learning are everywhere and are not limited to official University courses. In fact, we’ve always touted the wonderful learning properties of ShortbreadStories.

Take some advice from a life-long student. Go and study something, anything — learn a language, take tour on Renaissance art at a museum, check out books at the library on horticulture. Just pick a subject you enjoy, set yourself an achievable target (for example, within six months you may wish to be further versed on the monarchy of France) and do all you can to achieve that goal. I promise, your writing will flourish in the process.

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