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Posts from the ‘Studying’ Category

To tell or not to tell.

Last night I dreamt someone I was chatting to had offered me a job. He said he liked my attitude and my intelligence and knew I would be good at the job (I don’t know what that job was). Although it was someone invented by my dream, I was supposed to know him; it was someone from my past who I hadn’t spoken to for a few years. But the important thing to note is that based on past knowledge of me and a current conversation, he saw something that would be an asset to whatever this mystery workplace was.

What happened next was very close to how I react in real life: I panicked, I stumbled, I felt the answer was probably no thanks but didn’t know which part of me, my life and my personality I needed to extract in order to say no. The first thing I told him was that I have Asperger’s. It wasn’t the first thing I wanted to tell him but it was going to lead on to how and why I get exhausted easily and how and why the way I’ve arranged my life and what I do suits me better than being employed in any regular conventional way. The real truth is that I have work, and I am busy. I don’t currently have time to do anything else anyway. But me being me, I can’t separate out what’s needed and what’s not. To me everything is connected. Everything is significant, everything is important. Once I’ve heard myself say something I usually know then which bits I’d like to erase and which bits I’d like to leave in but my first reaction is to say everything that’s forcing itself to the front of my mind. (Well it’s that or nothing. Saying nothing is my other cool trick).
The person in my dream didn’t wait for me to finish my sentence though or for any other explanation. The word “Asperger’s” immediately had him physically backing away uncomfortably and nodding knowingly. I continued talking and explaining and yet he raised his hand as if to say no further explanation necessary. He feigned listening politely but I could tell he was gone. The offer was gone too. Someone who 30 seconds earlier had seen me as capable suddenly saw a liability.

Everything faded and I woke up.

Why did I tell him that?

Why do I tell people? Even in real life I tell people. It’s all over my blog, it’s on my twitter bio; when I first completed my autism assessment I wrote an open letter to the world. I wanted everyone to know. I guess I needed a “Well done, you. You’ve coped with so much.” I guess I also needed to self-obsess for a while. I’d spent a lifetime avoiding talking about myself because I couldn’t pin myself down. At the time it became the reason I had found life so hard.
But it’s not the only reason I find life hard and by no means does it make everything difficult or impossible. People told me it didn’t change me and it didn’t change who I am. It was an affectionate way of saying they knew me and still cared about me and wouldn’t look at me any differently. But it does change me and people do look at me differently and people do assume I have certain limits without even bothering to ask me.

Next time I get offered a dream job (<- autistic person doing humour), I’m going to be flattered and concentrate on the positives: someone’s noticed I have talent! (God only knows what it is!) But I’m also going to point out that I’m doing lots of things already and thanks but no thanks.

And by the way, man in my dream, I wouldn’t want to work for someone who sees autism as a liability anyway so I’d say I had a lucky escape.


Thank y’OU!

The only chance I was ever going to get of gaining a degree and some sort of belief in my own intelligence was through the Open University.

On Saturday 27th October 2012, at least twenty years older than the average brick university graduate, I attended my degree ceremony in Portsmouth (Just). It was one of those rare, gloriously sunny days that have been in such short supply this year – but incredibly chilly and windy too. We left the house half an hour later than intended and took an hour and a half longer than we intended to get there. My one hour contingency plan was well and truly out of the window, we arrived flustered and distraught, we missed lunch and very nearly missed the photographer. I left the camera in the car in my hurry to get to the Guildhall. My best and oldest of all my OU friends was supposed to be there but had to cancel at the last minute and I really missed her. But I got there. My six guests got there and I graduated with a massive grin on my face.

This is how I explained my feelings about the day in an email to a friend later:

The graduation itself was nice and moving, and kind of weird – lonely almost. But not a bad lonely. It’s difficult to explain. I suppose it was because we sat with other students and away from our guests for the ceremony – and with the OU that means sitting with strangers. And we’re all adults and not just starting out in life – so many of us have to be proud of ourselves whilst also being someone’s parent. I almost felt selfish!
It’s when I was sitting there surrounded by strangers wondering where my guests were sitting that I realised it was me and only me who had got my degree and I’d done it all by myself, and only for me, and only I knew how it felt. I was charged with mixed emotions, and obviously missed my dad (who died in 2009). Some of the pomp made me well up with a combination of tears and laughter at the pageantry. The ceremonies at these things are a bit daft, aren’t they? I held a plastic fake degree certificate for the photo and was presented with a card at the ceremony because our certificates were sent through the post. So in a way it was all just pretend! 😉

But it was the ceremonial icing on that big cake of a degree. Without it it would have been like having a birthday without a party, Christmas without school plays, like landing on the moon without plonking a flag into the ground.
It says, “I got there. I did it. Look.”

This is the point at which most people congratulated me on my achievement of gaining a BA honours.
I love the look on people’s faces when they ask what the degree is in and I say it’s an open degree and actually I could have a BSc because I studied lots of ‘ologies as well as arts and humanities. Studying with the OU is a unique experience where one can choose a specific named degree course or explore lots of different subjects.

But what they didn’t congratulate me on was the courage it took me to sign up for my very first module in 2000, when all through my life formal education had been a fairly unhappy experience, and I seriously doubted myself and my abilities to cope in many ways.
And they didn’t congratulate me on managing to find 13 modules to suit my interests that had no exams to sit in a public place – so I could see them through to the end without panicking.
They didn’t congratulate me on managing to pass 13 modules without attending a single tutorial or meeting a single tutor either.
Nor did they congratulate me on managing to learn to interact socially online and make new, life-long friends.
They didn’t congratulate me on using my educational and online social experiences to improve the way I approach my thinking about life and society.
They didn’t congratulate me on my bloody-mindedness when self-esteem hit an all time low, and I had to fight to not let fear pull me out of something yet again.
They didn’t congratulate me on managing to find time to study when I got weeks and weeks behind because the rest of adult/family life had taken priority.

What a lot of non-OU-students probably don’t grasp is that however important it is to us, for mature students with a family, study usually comes last. It’s often finding the time, motivation and the staying power that’s the difficult bit.

They didn’t realise that learning stuff was the easy bit. In comparison.

They didn’t congratulate me on battling against an onslaught of recurring unexplained physical and mental symptoms – such as headaches, exhaustion and brain fog – that regularly left me unable to function.

They didn’t congratulate me on simply getting dressed on the day of the ceremony.

People who know me congratulated me on managing to attend the ceremony and getting through the 24 hours prior to the ceremony. That was one magnificent achievement, only made possible by a swift prescription of beta blockers the day before.

You see it’s just become official that I have anxiety – and have probably had it for 40 years. The GP used the word “anxiety” in a sentence when talking about me, passing me a leaflet, and discussing therapy yesterday so I know it’s true. It was thanks to my degree ceremony that I made the call and began to start accepting help.

All my life I have let fear stop me from doing things because of the immense physical relief I gain when I back out of things. Life has taught me that not doing things is better. Facing your fears is not good; it hurts and doesn’t come with reward. It became clear to me in my late teens that it was easier to not turn up for A level lessons, it would be easier not to plan to go to university, not to have too many commitments. I feel overwhelmed and exhausted coping with a room full of people for any length of time, and can’t concentrate for long, so what would be the point anyway?

The Open University’s unique “openness” answered all of my problems: study in my own time, at my own pace, no lessons, no social commitments, no compulsory tutorials, a choice of online modules with no exam, tutors who can be emailed, online social areas.

It’s been awesome and I’ve been on the OU website 3 times this week drooling over all the subjects I’m still interested in or think might be useful.

I will really miss the OU – it’s been my lifeline. But I simply can’t afford it anymore.

I got there. I did it. Look.

Who packed your head?

When I finished my degree with the Open University in May, I decided that as soon as I got my final result – and if I passed – I would write about studying with the OU.

My result arrived at the end of July but I realised I didn’t know what to write, or – more to the point – what not to write. It’s been an on and off experience that started twelve years ago with the last three years being the most intense so there’s a danger of a lot of back story. I sat down and started to write something two weeks ago, but it became a rather dull account of the courses I’d taken, and as I was writing it I was saying to myself, ‘No, this isn’t it. This is crap.’

I don’t want to jump up and down yelling, ‘I’ve got an honours degree!’ I never began adult learning to get a degree and I’m glad I didn’t take that approach. I took courses because I wanted to know stuff and I wanted to use my brain. I became addicted to opening my head and tweaking with the wiring. The degree has been a bonus – which has arrived just at a time when I can’t afford to take any more courses (now called modules).

There are points I want to make about learning and thinking; about the connections between learning and society, and about how less statistical, less mechanical-based learning and a bigger focus on discussions, ideas and theories might not only make us more curious and open-minded but might also make us better and more useful members of society ready to consider new ideas and with the skills to challenge things.

Of course there are facts, of course there are statistics, of course there are rules in any field, but I think they should all come with a zipper like a luggage bag that we can open up in order to challenge the contents and ask who put them there. And, I think most importantly, that this “Did you pack your bag yourself?” type question should apply to our own brains too. We need to examine what’s in our own heads: Did you pack your own brain? Did you look at what went into it and why? Do you know what’s in there and who put it in there? Is it all stuff that you need and is useful to you? I see you have the times tables and periodic tables in there – is that really going to be useful to you where you’re going? And your holiday reading: ‘Exact and Accurate Facts About the Romans: you’d better believe it.’ by Professor Pompous N. Narrow-minded – Hmmm… are you sure you wouldn’t prefer ‘How to Make an Interesting Picture of Roman Life Through Archaeological Finds’ by Many and Various?

School seems to have tried (pretty unsuccessfully) to teach me who did what and when, what happens when you mix this with that, how to sit quietly, how to obey rules. How not to think for myself… I didn’t see the point of carrying on with this kind of education and I still don’t find it very useful.
I remember sitting in a physics lesson and the teacher telling the class “this does that” and “that does this” and me thinking, ‘Why…? Why though?!?’
In history lessons, we were told, “So and so did this”, “another person said that”, “the people thought something else.” ‘But, how do you know?’ I thought. ‘You’ve only given me one person’s word for this.’ And as for telling me we know that God and Jesus said and did things based on some books that a bunch of blokes wrote down years later…! Well…

Other people seemed to accept the “facts”, the rules, the processes as sets of information to be memorised and regurgitated. They repeated them in tests, they scored the points. I didn’t learn like that. I don’t learn like that. I needed a point, a reason; proof of how we know something and how it might be useful. I want to see things working, being applied to life, otherwise what’s the point?

I don’t mind uncertainty, experts having different opinions, and having to weigh up a rough probability based on different evidences. I wish I could go back in time and try this approach on the young Rachel. Would she have responded differently? I know that when our youngest comes home from her Church of England primary school telling me that God did this and Jesus did that I want to shake her and say, ‘Question your sources! Don’t accept things just because that’s what the person telling you believes! Your beliefs should be a result of looking at all sides of things.’

Some people’s studying always has an end goal by choice or by financial/career necessity. But having an end goal, studying for that one purpose, concentrating on what it takes to pass, managing to stick with that, achieving that and getting the desired job that requires that set of knowledge doesn’t fit with the way my mind works. It doesn’t fit with my idea of educating people for life.

What I’ve found through studying many and varied courses with the OU is how to take a good look inside my own brain. It’s taught me to think about what I think and why, what I want to know and why, and how new knowledge from many different academics in many different fields has helped me not only to see that learning is not the same as facts, but that being anxious about memorising stuff was seriously hindering my learning process.

I don’t think I would have come to the place I am today if it wasn’t for the Open University. Where else can you chop and change course like that, have many many interests like that, obtain a degree that’s in not one, not two, not three but several different areas like that? How else can you improve yourself like that without even leaving your house, fit everything around family and work, and send assignments sitting up in bed at midnight? I’ve realised that I don’t come easily packaged, I don’t want to shine in one area, I am happy to be a jack of all trades – easily distracted by something I haven’t tried before. I am a human being first and foremost. An imperfect, curious, questioning, open-eyed, open-minded person. I’ve learnt to question myself, and challenge my intolerances (most of which I had no right to have) and preconceptions. I’ve learnt that poetry is not actually scary or that difficult! I’ve learnt that statistics are a feeble way of trying to prove an argument, and I’ve learnt that people can’t be trusted and yet people can be trusted. I’ve learnt that having a degree is not necessarily the same as knowing loads of things or the same as being a good learner.

I think it’s really important not to plonk ourselves in one field in life: to only look at things from one perspective. I think it’s important to see thinking and information as unfixed, as fluid, as never-ending.
I studied technology, social sciences, the arts, psychology, health and social care, literature, creative writing, and in my daily life I am interested in music, in writing, in taking photographs, how the news is reported, how we are affected by TV and media. I’ve seen how philosophy runs through all of these things: how we think the way we do, why we live the way we do, and most importantly how we must observe ourselves and all of humankind and discuss these things.

Many times over the last 2 weeks whilst thinking about writing this piece, I’ve thought how things I’ve heard or seen apply to what I want to say here. That just goes to show really how important learning and keeping learning, how thinking and discussing and challenging must be available to all and must be encouraged.

We can’t just rely on packing our brains with preconceptions, or unchallenged information delivered mechanically.

We need to know ourselves to improve ourselves.

I’m proud of myself. Very proud that I’ve looked inside my head and allowed it to be challenged, tweaked, added to and, for the purposes of being a life-long learner, I’ve had a zipper fitted.

I’m glad I’ve got a degree but above all I’m glad I improved my way of looking at things. I KNOW it has made me older, fatter, messier, untidier, frustrated, cynical… a much better person.

No Going Back


I’ve been waiting recently.
Waiting to get back to normal.
I’ve felt wrong – sometimes unwell, sometimes tired, sometimes exceptionally withdrawn and unable to communicate effectively. I thought this would go when my studying finished, when the children were all well at the same time, when summer came, when we’d recovered from the shock of losing both our fathers, when… well… I suppose I was waiting for a period of unease to become a period of feeling more light-hearted.

I’m not sure what I was expecting. I suppose some kind of lifting of dark clouds, a new energy, my mind and body sighing with relief. Cheerfulness maybe.

My plan was that every night I was going to go to bed with a book and read for pleasure again, free my mind of academic pressure, enjoy not feeling stressed or gloomy or overwhelmed by study pressure or family worries. I was going to spend more time with my husband and we would laugh more, talk more, and feel released from (some of) the confines of stress that we’ve had to deal with recently.

But it hasn’t come. I’m still not laughing. I still don’t feel released. I’m still not reading – books feel like a commitment for which I can’t promise my full attention right to the end. And I guess I’m scared: scared of reading something demanding – emotionally or intellectually – perhaps. And I don’t want to be disappointed either. Life has disappointed me too often in the last 4 years. God forbid I should read a disappointing book on top of everything else!

I still feel stuck in a new way of regarding life – as a serious of difficulties, stresses, worries and losses. I still feel uneasy and troubled. I am fluttery and nervous like a butterfly unable to land on wet ground for fear of drowning. I don’t trust life now. It’s as if there is no dry land anymore.

Maybe it’s something about being British – or English perhaps – a certain avoidance of the realities of life and death. So that when our lives do throw those realities at us it is so unexpected that we recoil and struggle to readjust. In seven years the very shape and makeup of my and Richard’s families have changed drastically through several deaths (and births, but mostly deaths). It’s not something we were ready for and maybe that’s a fault of our culture in this country: denial of the reality and brevity of life.

I now know how quickly life can change and life can go. I can’t assume old age will be awarded to everyone and I think throwing myself into things that demanded that I got outside of my own head for years and concentrated on other people’s words helped me avoid dealing with what had happened inside me and around me.

The shape of my life and the shape of me have changed. There is no getting back into my cocoon like an uneasy butterfly longing for my caterpillar years. I have to learn to deal with who I am now – what I have and do not have now. I have fewer of the people I love in my life now and so does Richard. We have both lost that youthful security that being surrounding by elderly relatives provided.
We can’t go back. We can’t ever feel how we did before. We have to sift those lighter moments from each day and enjoy them for what they are and live with less expectation.

So instead of living with a ‘Phew. I’ve got through that. Where’s my reward? Now let’s get back to normal’ mentality, and thinking I might go back to less stressful times, I now have to learn to flap my wings even though I feel heavy. And I have to land occasionally – even though I sense danger – because you can’t flutter forever.
I suppose a period of readjustment takes time as well as swapping expectance for acceptance.

Richard’s recently acquired a new catchphrase from somewhere: ‘It is what it is, isn’t it?’

It is.
😉

PS. Books: If you’re reading this and know of a cast-iron guaranteed page-turner that’s not too demanding intellectually or emotionally but also not disappointing please let me know. (Not a youthful rom-com that reminds me that I’m past it either!) I think it’s just the kick up the butt I need to get me reading again.

A Timely Quote

I’m sharing a quote I’ve just scraped from one of my OU books. It’s an amusing paradox because although it’s in my course book, I can’t follow its advice. In a way I have to do the opposite and write about a lot of literary criticism (some of which I’m not making sense of and I’m not sure I want to).

It’s from a letter written by Philip K. Dick in 1981 where he responds to a
critical article (about one of his own novels) he has been sent and confesses that he finds it unreadable.

He writes:

‘Criticism, to be valuable, must make sense and must relate in some way to that which it analyses … [E]verything bad about academic literary criticism is found in this article; it is dull, it is pointless, and its only purpose – if indeed it has a purpose – is to exhibit the education of its author, who, I feel, really should read fewer books and, instead, play frisbie in a park somewhere with some little kids (and I might take that advice myself, in view of my recent writings).

Perhaps we are all spending too much time thinking and reading and writing when we should be out in the sun.’

Dick, 1981

(From The Popular and the Canonical, an A300 coursebook)

Unfortunately,  I now have to spend too much time reading and thinking and writing.

Dear Children…

Dear Children,

Despite some things you might be told or you might hear or you might read about always trying your hardest, trying to be the best at what you do, and making choices in early life about how you might live your adult life, I – as your loving mother – see things slightly differently.

You see, I’ve thought a lot recently about this being the best thing and what I’ve noticed is that while people are trying to beat everyone else they are not necessarily being the best and nicest person they can be.
I’ve noticed too that constant testing makes children, parents and teachers anxious about performance. Performance? Isn’t that a word for the stage? For car engines? I don’t think you should expect yourselves either to act a certain way or drive yourself a certain way as if you are a machine.

No. I want you to be yourselves.

Over the last 2 years, the system which has taken over your childhoods, has made me worry that my youngest child hadn’t learnt to write and spell by the age of six (six?!), that my middle child was “lazy” because his handwriting isn’t neat, that my eldest child might suffer under the strain of having to choose a university and future career before she’s finished growing.
The system made me think for a time that always doing one’s best, always working hard was important.

Why?

So I stopped. I thought about this and I thought about you three and I thought about myself and I thought about those “at the top” status-wise, power-wise, money-wise, fame-wise, in all sorts of different areas of life and I thought, ‘Is that what my children want? Is that what I want?’
What do I want from you and for you? I wondered.

Well. I want nothing from you. That is my gift. It came when I gave you life.

But what I want for you is happiness, I want you to live, I want you to know about what is real, I want you to look around you and see other people and wildlife and the world you share with them. I do not want you thinking you are better than other people or lowlier than other people. I do not want you always striving for status, money, power or recognition. I do not want you worrying about performance but about reasons and enjoyment when you choose to do something.
I want you to remember that life is short and can sometimes be shorter than we expect.

I want you to remember to watch sunrises and sunsets, to listen to birdsong, to follow the waxing and waning of the moon, to fall in and out of and back in love. I want you to cry at the suffering of others not at a C instead of a B. I want you to be out of the range of judgement but because that is impossible I want you to know how false all judgement is. I want you to appreciate what you can do because it gives you pleasure not be constantly comparing yourself with others – or worse still a fake set of standards about what is better.

Striving for positions, for power, for a big bank balance, for notoriety, for the “top” always comes at a price. Being a good, genuine, caring, life-embracing human-being comes with rewards.

There are different types of respect that come with the different paths one can take in life. I can’t tell you which ones to take but I’m certainly not going to push you down one that gives you pain.

You were born with five senses and big brains on a beautiful planet surrounded by other creatures that could do with a bit more respect. I hope you come to realise that the rest is less important.

Don’t be fooled by what others – who are too caught up in made-up stuff – tell you is good and bad. Be happy, be good, be kind, be open-minded, and think of life not as giving, taking, and succeeding but as being for a while. Being you.

Enjoy.

All my love, always,
Mum

PS Please stop leaving the lid off the peanut butter

Wot OU Studying Learns You

Why is everyone telling us to keep calm and carry on so much recently? Have we decided that the war years were better than life today? From what I’ve heard it was vile for everyone and we’d do well to avoid history repeating itself.
As for keeping calm and carrying on, well I’ve recently discovered that stressing out a bit, questioning why you’re doing something, stopping for a while and deciding what your reasons for carrying on are is a much better option.
Carrying on is not always necessary.

I flapped, lost the point, and gave up my literature module (see previous post: Flooded Engine ) I stopped for 2 weeks, had a think and started again. It was a mad rush getting back into it but far better than trying to keep calm when what I actually needed was a break.

I had to read masses of course materials and write an assignment in 10 days, then read loads more course materials in order to have another assignment written by this Friday (which I haven’t started yet… ahem…)

The latest assignment question reminds us to develop own our argument, and avoid recycling course materials and quotations.

This the point at which you know you have “done proper learning” and are ready to think for yourself. For course after course after course it has been, regurgitate, regurgitate, regurgitate the things that other people tell you until finally you get to a stage in your learning process where the stabilisers are taken off and you can ‘GO’ – pedal, balance and whoosh all by yourself with the techniques you have been learning for years.

I’d love to continue my learning and carry on expressing my own arguments based on what I’ve read. The next natural progression academically would be an MA but I can’t afford the time, the money or the stress.
What I can do, though, is apply that motto above to the rest of my life.

Study Burnout?

I’ve decided to sit myself down at my desk.
(Well… at a kind of surface)
To have a meeting with myself about why I’m not doing my work.
I am the student and the adult and the person who has had to dish out all the money for all these studies over the years. I am both frustrated with myself and in need of guidance.

It’s weird.

Facts:

I’m on my 12th OU module

I was 30 when I took my 1st course. I am now 42. (I stopped studying for 4 years when child No.3 was born.)

Although I have completed 11 modules successfully, I dropped out of 6 (4 of those were only short courses) before I knew in which direction I wanted to head.

I have stuck at and passed every single assignment and every single module in the last three years despite the grief of losing a parent and my son suffering from a head injury.

I now have a BA, and if I finish this current module, I will have a BA honours.

I’m already 3 assignments into a 6-assignment module.

The final 3 assignments are in Feb, March and April. Plus 1 end-of-course assignment (instead of an examination) in May.


But…

I have stopped opening my books.

I am worryingly behind with my reading.

I like what I have been reading but I don’t want to do the work bit.

I keep thinking, ‘Maybe tomorrow’ … ‘Maybe later…’ … ‘Maybe I don’t want to do this at all…’

I should have started work on the next assignment but I’m in no position to and I have no inclination to.


Why have I stopped?


What if I drop out? It’s no big deal is it?

If I drop out of this course I will not complete my honours degree. I will have spent A. Lot.
of money on a course I didn’t finish. I will have sniffed at but not touched the finish line.

The regrets may build over the years. The me in the future will be cross with the me of now.


What am I doing?


I know I can do it.
So why am I not?

I don’t know.

The student’s not talking to me.
I can only assume she has some sort of burnout.

Ludicrous Nostrils

My year laid bare.
Or, 2011: everyone else is doing it so why shouldn’t I?

Me

Me

I had no idea how to sum up my year. So I went through my blog month by month and this is what I’ve come up with:

2011 has been all about me taking myself more seriously. Getting learnéd, finding my own way and trying to accept myself for who I am.

In January, I had some short stories published on the Ether Books app, and I took part in a River of Stones. I felt like a fraud. Me? A writer?!

In February I began a Health & Social care module with the OU – overlapping it with the Advanced Creative Writing module I’d already started in October. It was also, very sadly, the month my father-in-law died and I wrote a poem for his funeral.

In March I started to really assess myself as a writer. I began to worry less about what I had to do to define myself as a writer and instead I found myself thinking and writing about what kind of writer I was and realising that success for me simply meant writing what I wanted to write. I felt I had advanced from budding/wannabe/potential/whatever and was giving myself permission to say, ‘I am a writer,’ instead of waiting for some sort of golden ticket to Writer Land.

In April I struggled with unwelcome feedback on my blog and began to see how when people read your writing they can sometimes try to own a bit of it. They see things you didn’t intend, they offer alternate ways of writing, and they can criticise where it’s not wanted. They can even dare to tell you that you are wrong! I also noticed how people can wave experience or credentials in your face and try to beat you down. When people say something you really totally disagree with you absolutely have to stand your ground and I find that difficult.

In May, after a whirlwind of juggling two OU modules, I finally submitted my final assignment for my Diploma in Literature and Creative Writing. I wrote freely and experimentally away from the course and really enjoyed the release. I decided to stop entering competitions – which made me write total cardboard crap. I think I’ve entered three and also submitted to one magazine and when I look at that work it is the worst stuff I have written!

In June I wrote a blog post about my own late father for his seventieth birthday. I wanted to commemorate everything he was to me and how much of him has been passed down to me. He would have liked the me in my early forties that I am now, and it was a comfort to write positive things after two years of bad memories. I also found myself writing a lot of other non-fiction in reaction to things I saw going on in the world.

In July I wrote blog post after blog post after blog post, loaded with opinions and observations. Some fiction, some non-fiction and some a combination of the two. I was enjoying the freedom of owning my own words and knowing they were just to be read and not graded by an academic marker. I began to feel confident that I could say what I wanted on my own blog without fear of being judged. People that didn’t like what I wrote could bog off.

In August I found out I had passed my diploma and the realisation that I was only one module away from a degree began to sink in. I had taken courses to look at things more closely, discover things of interest, and on the way I was getting a degree. It is, to me, a wonderfully fulfilling way of learning – without a specific end goal. I sent in my final assignment for my final module a month early and celebrated the achievement. I wrote a blog post about the experience and had dozens of comments. I adore that feeling, like no other, of sharing and connecting that comes from writing.

I received my course materials for my Twentieth Century Literature module in September and have really enjoyed reading about other writers’ struggles, the way their writing was received in its time and how there is so very much disagreement between critics and writers about what is good and bad, right or wrong in writing. It’s quite reassuring really. I also turned forty-two and began to notice how much I was ageing. I couldn’t help noting how late I’d come to writing compared with famous and successful writers and it upset me. It still upsets me that I didn’t start sooner.

October was a time of more realisation. I started, and then pulled out of, National Novel Writing Month. I took part last year and managed to reach my target but think perhaps once was enough for me. For now I am a short story writer. The way my life is arranged and the way my head explodes with thoughts seems to suit the short story and flash fiction format. I was also very flattered to be invited to take part in the first National Flash Fiction Day which takes place next May!

In November I finally learned how to deal with negative feedback. I realised that if someone doesn’t “get” your writing you can’t make them. I realised that if you like something and don’t want to change it, even after taking onboard someone’s feedback, then you should get a second opinion. I realised that I mustn’t overreact or take feedback personally ( I’m still working on that one. I find comments about my writing very personal!) All writing needs a cooling off period. As do writers.

In December I haven’t really liked my writing. I’ve been bogged down with Christmas and a very demanding literature course (well, I think it’s demanding). There’s something about tension in my real life that screws up my creative flow. Having looked at December’s posts just now, I’m not very proud at all. It’s great to take nationally enforced time off with the family but I’ve had enough now and am starting to stress about everything I need to catch up with.
I had my degree confirmed this month, though, so I am now officially intelligent even if my writing has got worse!

So that’s brief snippets of my year. In summary: I am older, wiser and a kind of graduate-on-hold while I try to up my degree to honours.
I also noticed today – whilst trying to get a photo of myself, that I have started to sag around the jawline, I have a face that is too fat for my upper body and I have ludicrous nostrils.
Ludicrous, I tell you.

I have to write a writer’s profile for the National Flash Fiction Day site now and have no idea what to say… Should I mention the nostrils?

If you’re reading this, thank you. There are some fantastic people who I have met through Twitter that have given me much encouragement and support this year. I had absolutely no faith in myself or my own abilities and you have changed my life by reading and commenting on my blog/and/or my blipfoto journal. I can’t mention you all in case I forget someone but hopefully you know who you are.

If you’re a stranger – Hello!

The photo is a brave one for me. I usually like a facefull of makeup before I can even open the front door. It’s me, at home, at my usual end of the dining room table, in my favourite black jumper. (Check out the nostrils!)

A Celebration of Many Experiences

The art of avoiding being pigeon-holed.
I found out, by chance, yesterday afternoon that I have passed my final assignment in my previous Open University module. If I have done my sums right (and I’ve done them often enough!), this means I now have a degree.

‘What is your degree in?’ ‘What does it mean?’ ‘What does it do?’ I’ve heard recently. Oh, and, ‘Does this mean you can get a really well-paid job now?’ joked our 14-year-old son, who likes expensive gadgets.

What is it? Well it’s an ‘open’ degree. Because it includes technology, social sciences, psychology, health & social care, the arts, literature, and creative writing I got to choose whether to define it as a bachelor of science or a bachelor of arts. What is it a degree in? Well all of those things made up my degree, and I’m proud of that. Jack of all trades? Maybe! And what’s wrong with that?

What does it mean? To me it’s my degree in learning to learn, learning to think about lots and lots of different things. It means when I write, when I look at the world, when I talk to my children, when I make important decisions, when I read the news, when I make purchases, when I listen to the radio, etc, etc, etc… I have all this learning and thinking experience, all this knowledge, all these eye-opening lessons to draw on. I don’t believe the things that are passed to me though the TV screen or newspapers so easily anymore. I question things, I think, I see the point in finding out about things before jumping to a decision.

What does it do? It’s what it has done that counts. I didn’t start a degree with a chosen goal in mind, a particular job in mind. I didn’t even start with a degree in mind. I just wanted to know more about all sorts of things – and now I do. Things such as autism, the make-up of a family, lie-detectors, how to fiddle statistics, how to appreciate a poem… Even medical ethics!
Through the OU I have gained a Certificate in Social Sciences, a Certificate of Higher Education in Humanities, a Diploma in Literature & Creative Writing, and now, finally, I can call myself (hopefully, when my OU homepages updates) a graduate. That’s a lot of letters. And they all came as by-products – bonuses, if you like – of things I wanted to learn about anyway. I’m even glad I know how complicated a subject medical ethics is. I have thought how it relates to the losses of people close to me and my family.

‘Does this mean you can get a really well-paid job now?’ I doubt it! I want to write first and foremost – and that doesn’t pay well, if at all. But I do use much of the knowledge I have gained, and my multiple ways of looking at the world to write with insight into how complicated our heads are, how complicated accommodating differences can be, and I aim to write thoughtfully. I am inspired by what I have read and heard discussed. That’s good enough for me. I hope it’s good enough for other people… Because it’s a shame when you feel the need to explain yourself.

I’ve always had a problem with definitions. That’s why I like having a non-specific degree. I feel non-specific myself in many ways. Okay, so I’m clearly a woman and a mother and a wife… But having been born in a tiny flat in Hull in Yorkshire, spent 8 years living in the black country in The West Midlands, and 33 years living in Devon, I’m not clearly a Northerner or a Southerner; I’m just British. Having parents from different areas of the country and different backgrounds means I don’t feel of any particular class. There are teachers, miners, farmers, shop-keepers in my family – and my father was adopted. So there’s a feeling I wasn’t born into anything in particular. Being environmentally conscious and concerned more about our individual actions on each other I feel I don’t have a particularly definable political belief. I am just more left than right wing. I know what it is like to not know where your next meal is coming from and be so skinny I was accused of being anorexic. I know what it is like to have so much food that it gets wasted. I know what it is like to belong and be surrounded by people, I know what it is like to feel like a lonely outsider. I’ve seen the diversity, and sometimes nasty attitudes, within big towns and cities and the apathy and unimaginativeness of small communities.

I don’t like elitism, snobbery, inverted snobbery. Divisions, winners, losers. Labels, badges, badges of success. Status symbols. I don’t like the bitterness that can come from a feeling of difference or unfairness.

I am currently studying twentieth century literature, and if I pass that, I will have a BA Hons, sometime next year. I am pleased to mark my achievements but even more pleased about what I have gained from them. The workings of other writers’ minds and the way critics perceive them are very interesting and useful to me.

I’m just Rachel that writes and learns and lives in Devon and who likes to drink red wine, worries a lot, and loves music. I watch crap on TV, I watch interesting programmes on TV. I listen to Vivaldi, I listen to Stevie Wonder, I listen to Jeff Buckley, Dolly Parton, Oasis, Bach, The Detroit Spinners, Queen, Nina Simone, Mozart. I play the flute and the piano badly, I love singing and the feeling it gives me in my chest; if I could, I would play electric guitar. I’ve always quite fancied playing the drums. Too far? Yes, I think so.
I like to make up stories for people to enjoy and hopefully to make them think. And I now like to take photos too. I hope I never stop learning stuff. Growing is fun.

Rachel Carter BA Yeah, whatever! 😉

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