I don’t recall which year it was. I guess it would have been sometime in the early 1980s, but I may be wrong – it might have been later. I applied, and was accepted, into a Bachelor of Science degree course. While it was something I wanted to do at the time, I wasn’t confident of completing it.
I could only do it part time, trying to fit its requirements into family and working life, and it would have taken six or eight years (I don’t recall which) to complete. That seemed a VERY long time to maintain a commitment to something I wasn’t sure I was capable of handling.
The opportunity soon passed by.
It was several years later that I considered University again, but the second time the focus was on something completely different: Creative Writing. The local University had a Bachelor of Creative Arts program, with one of the offered majors centred on the written word.
I applied, was accepted, and left my job of 10 years to study fulltime, hoping to never again be condemned to making a living from office administrative work.
Only one week of study passed before I had second thoughts. There were compulsory aspects of the BCA course that I found irrelevant to my goals. I think the defining issue was having to be involved in a group performance of some kind. Memorising lines and acting has never been one of my strong points, so I applied to change over to a Bachelor of Arts degree, majoring in Literature, that still allowed me to take all of the creative writing subjects I’d intended to take.
And so the academic journey to establishing a writing career began.
I started the course mid-year. Most of my classmates had already been there for the first part of that year and were familiar with the system and each other. I had a lot of introductory learning to do before I could confidently tackle the academic learning.
Somehow I got through that period and managed to work out how to write essays and stories in the required formats. Surprisingly I achieved very good grades and along the way even managed to include a science subject – introductory astronomy to the writing subjects I was studying.
My first creative writing assignments were stories loosely based on exaggerated, reworkings of personal experience. While they worked as gradable writing assignments, I was never personally happy with them as short stories. Later, confidence in my ability to write stories grew and came from a variety of unexpected inspirational sources.
One time I was reading a short story by a best selling author, and was sure I knew how the story was going to end. But the ending was different to my expectation. So I took my expected ending and worked backwards to create a suitable beginning.
Another time, a classmate told me how he’d overome “writer’s block” by taking a story from the bible and working the themes, plot and characters into a different setting.
I tried that approach myself using the account of David and Bathsheba as the springboard to a story of obsession, in which I was able to include knowledge I’d gained from an interest in film animation. That added element moved the whole direction far away from the biblical inspiration to an original story I felt proud to write.
After only a few weeks I was getting into the social side of university life, but not too far away from the course I was doing. There were frequent readings of student’s work in the university bar. Despite my earlier reluctance to do subjects with a public performance requirement, I found a liking for the opportunity to read my stories to the significant audience that attended these events.
While my first efforts were given a polite but restrained applause, I started to learn how to tailor a story for that particular audience and the response grew more enthusiastic and my enjoyment of the events increased.
For some reason my writing started to lean closer to the fringes of “horror” fiction – although restrained in many ways, possibly using “horror” tropes as a starting point, but holding back on the frequent excesses of much of the horror fiction of that time.
In one assignment that led to a satisfying story idea, we were told to take the elements of a ghost story and incorporate them into a non-ghost story. It was an interesting challenge, in which often cliched elements could be turned whichever way would best serve the story.
I used a similar approach in a later story of a man in his sickbed, whose perception of reality was clouded by his illness (or was it by whatever drugs his wife was feeding him?). This was very loosely based on the experience of my grandfather, who was bedridden on many occasions, and had a tendency to hallucinate faces in wallpaper patterns.
I wrote that story to a background soundtrack of Alice Cooper’s Welcome to my Nightmare, and included allusions to Stephen King’s Misery, a film version of which I’d recently seen at that time.
From memory, the lead female character was named Alice, but at one stage her husband jokingly refered to her as Annie (as per the antagonist of the King story).