Ways into writing - queuing at City Lit by Judith Pearson
I started my first course at City Lit in September 1983. In those days there no on-line prospectuses, applications or enrolments - you turned up in person on specific dates. That’s because there was no such things as the internet.
All my friends who knew about City Lit told me if I wanted to do a creative writing course I’d have to get there very early or I’d stand no chance. And when they said early, they meant early – more like the middle of the night to me.
I arrived at Stukely (or was it Macklin) Street around 6am. I thought I’d be first in the queue (enrolment didn’t open until 9am). Wrong. My jaw dropped as I saw hundreds of people, some obviously had been there all night judging by the sleeping bags. I couldn’t believe it. So I joined the queue and waited.
It was a jolly place to queue, all the people were chatty, discussing the courses they had done and their hopes. I heard about so many unusual courses along with the usual line up – typing, book-keeping, shorthand and GCEs - there was trumpet playing, acting, clowning, sign language – the list was endless.
The hours passed by but the queue kept growing. When 9am arrived the lucky people at the front started to filter in through the doors. Finally at nearly noon, it was my turn; my heart was pounding as I approached the desk. Fingers xd. “Ways Into Writing” I said. He looked it up, manually, of course, no linked pcs in those days – floppy discs. He looked up at me – only two places left. Then he asked for my hand and proceeded to stamp a number on the back of it. He told me to return at 6pm on the dot or my place would be gone! There would be no queuing, I’d just enrol and pay.
I returned on the dot of 6pm. I was directed to a desk where I filled in the forms with a pen by hand! Then went to the cashiers office and paid. I was thrilled and nervous. The class was to be held on Saturday mornings starting in two weeks.
As the first Saturday approached I began to get nervous. What if I didn’t like it? What if I was no good? What if everybody was better then me? May be I was deluded about my writing? Perhaps I shouldn’t bother turning up. It wouldn’t matter, as there was a waiting list for the course.
Despite my anxieties I made it to the class. There were probably 20 students, waiting expectantly. As 10am approached the door open and in strolled our tutor, Mark Williams. He introduced himself, told us he had done a creative writing degree course in Wales and wrote poetry. Then it was over to us – introduce yourself and tell us why you’re here. Some of the students were eloquent and confident whereas I’m a bit shy and retiring and as my turn approached, I felt dizzy. I mumbled into my chest not daring to make eye contact with anyone.
The next phase involved Mark asking us to randomly shout out a noun. He wrote the words on the blackboard. They included: A colour, Animal, Furniture, Food
Then came the hard part, we were to write down which noun best described ourselves and why. Not easy.
Part 2 involved everyone reading out their list. Some were really clever, like the guy who said “armchair” because he’s easy and comfortable. Mine, I thought, were predictable: colour – rust because I have auburn hair. Animal – fox because it’s a similar colour to my hair. Furniture – a hat stand because I’m thin and angular. Food – stumped. Lamb chop, not because it best described me but because I couldn’t think of anything else.
Part 3, at the end of the class, was to go home and write a short story using all our own words. We were to hand them at the next class, then they’d be marked and ready to collect from The City Lit reception on the following Wednesday.
I wrote my story (I’ve still got it). Handing it in was excruciating. Waiting for Wednesday felt like a lifetime. I rushed off from work during my lunch hour to collect it. It was in an envelope. Sealed. I got the tube back to work but didn’t open it. I was too scared. What if it said… Maybe it was so awful he didn’t even mark it.
I got off the tube and walked to the office, envelope in hand, via the long route, through a small park. After a few steps I stopped. I undid the envelope and began to pull out the contents. There was something stapled to the top left hand corner - a small square of paper with neat handwriting on it. I pushed it back quickly and carried on walking but it was too late. I stopped again and pulled it out.
The first line said: Judith (double underlined). ''In the three years that I’ve been taking the Ways Into Writing class I rate your story as…''. Back in the envelope. I could guess what came next… the worst story, a load of rubbish, awful. Intrigue got the better of me. I took it out again. “In the three years that I’ve been taking the Ways Into Writing class I rate your story as one of the best pieces I have been given.” It must be someone else’s – can’t be me. But it does say Judith (double underlined). I read on: “You write with a spare but very effective style and your control of narrative pace is good”.
It went on to say the ending wasn’t great but we could discuss. Thrilled wasn’t the word. I couldn’t believe it. I skipped back to work, looking forward to the following week. I’ve been writing ever since, done lots of writing courses at The City Lit and other places but never summoned up the courage to submit any for publication but who knows? Maybe…
As a mature student I have completed a degree, a Birkbeck Creative Writing Diploma and hundreds of writing and drama courses. I went on to become an FE marketing consultant for Lewisham, City & Islington, Northampton & South Devon colleges. A big thank you City Lit and Mark Williams.