My Cup Runneth Over

Well that was intense with a capital ‘INTENSE’. A whole week of writing and interacting with other writers at the summer school for the Lancaster University Distance Learning MA in Creative Writing or DLMA to those in the know. My brain has only just stopped hurting. I now have shares in Syndol and have been indulging in a daily afternoon nap in the manner of old people since I came home.

But, oh, it was good. Well worth the pain, the ocassional humiliation, the requirement to sleep in a bed that was riddled with bugs that bit and had probably been home to strenuous casual student sex days earlier. But I don’t like to dwell on these thoughts particularly. It was even worth the separation from my daughter (although I won’t be doing that again in a hurry).

Pour quoi? I hear you ask. Well, for so many reasons that come to me now like a line of poetry, the cup of inspiration is so full. For now though, I will keep my head firmly out of my arse and tell you that it was mainly because of the people, my course peers, A ‘big up yourself’ to all my new friends whereever you might be in the world at this moment in time. You made that week for me. Our group of writers came from such diverse diasporas and cultural backgrounds. It was amazing to read and listen to their writing and to hear what they had to say about mine.

And the poetry. Who knew how good that was? Well apparently alot of people knew, at least nine people on the summer school anyway. But I am converted. I think my previous stumbling block might have been something to do with the rhythm. But listening to it read out, the penny dropped. I get it now. I will be writing it now. I am writing it now. I can’t stop myself. It’s bordering on being annoying actually. Every sentence uttered to me, every object I look at has become the first line of a poem. It’s almost like that time, I started thinking entirely in the second person. Now that was annoying : You hear the doorbell. You walk down the stairs to answer it. The vestibule door sticks against the new wood floor that has been laid so that you have to yank it hard to open it. For a brief moment, you wonder if your husband has rung the joiner about it, but you know that this is not very likely and that you will have to do it yourself. You have to do everything yourself. See what I mean?

And let me not forget  the staff who led the course, the supreme Dr. Graham Mort and the very gracious Dr. Lee Horsley. All hail! And all the other visiting tutors – to be surrounded by passionate, clever, articulate people who were willing to impart their wisdom and experience was nothing short of mind numbingly amazing (hence the post summer school week long headache).

I’ve come away with a real sense of how I want to approach my writing in a different way. How the technique of constructing a poem might be used to fine tune pieces of longer prose . How to use dialogue without interrupting the flow of the prose. How much more work I need to do to embed the key themes of my novel into my narrative. And so many other things. Tiny nuggets of gold that I could not have come by without the input and interaction of my course tutors and peers.

So you see, I felt quite bereft when it came time to go back home and work on my own again and for a few days I desperately tried to resist getting pulled all the way back into reality, because as I said to my new friend, Clare, when you’ve considered the theory of mind, everything else is all a bit snore isn’t it?

But then the real world began to beckon me. Work offers suddenly started to roll in; I realised the house, which I left in a state of cleanly order was no longer that way; the onslaught of torrential rain exposed my very leaky roof and a waterfall appeared in my kitchen and then finally, yesterday, my car died a death in my daughter’s nursery car park.  The magic of last week is now well and truely on the wane. Going, but still not quite gone. And so I sit here writing this, worrying that I haven’t done a coloured wash all week, but also thinking about an idea for a poem I might try and write and how I want to improve a section of my last chapter. And that’s a good feeling. I’m going to hang on to it as long as I can.


3 thoughts on “My Cup Runneth Over

  1. Hi Alex – first of all I have to thank you for this post. I’ve been searching for some information on the course for ages so I felt I had hit the jackpot when I stumbled on this. Why? Because I’m about to embark on the course in October and I’m absolutely terrified. I haven’t a clue what to expect and have been out of the formal education system for thirty years. To make matters worse, I’ve no real writing background apart from a poetry workshop I did last year, which taught me a lot. So basically, it’s just me with my pen and my passion for poetry. I console myself by saying that they must think I can manage if they have accepted me but my optimistic attitude is starting to wear thin as October approaches. From what I gather, you’re about to embark on your second year so good luck with that. I was wondering, if you find the time, would you be able to give some tips on how to prepare before the course.

    I loved this post – you’re obviously a talented writer with just the right dose of humour. I for one will be interested in reading your finished book. Once again, thanks and the best of luck.

    p.s. the name o’Toole suggests some Irish roots – I live in Athens Greece but originate from N. Ireland.

    • Hi Deirdre,

      Thanks so much for your comment. It’s nice to know that this blog is read by someone who doesn’t actually know me! Firstly congratulations on getting a place on the DLMA at Lancaster. They get about 80 – 90 applications a year for it, so Graham Mort told me at the summer school, so you should be very pleased with yourself. They obviously see something in your writing and now that I have met them in person, I can say with all honesty, they do know what they’re talking about. Graham Mort, particularly is excellent and if you get a chance to read some of his stuff before you attend, do. Actually scrap that last sentence, I hadn’t read any of his stuff before the summer school and I’m glad I didn’t because I think I would have been a bit overawed by him if I had, which might have hampered my ability to speak up in any of his sessions. But all of the tutors were excellent. It was a very intense, inspiring week and absolutely worth going to (two of my course peers didn’t attend due to work).

      In terms of preparation, it’s very difficult to say whether you can prepare for the summer school. What happens to you during your first year will massively affect you expectations of it and the outcomes you want from it. It’s a very individual experience. The first year of the course is a massive learning curve – about yourself mostly. How you write, what is driving you, what influences the topics that you choose to write about. It’s quite cathartic. I will say that getting to grips with some of the key literary theories will help you in the long run, particularly if you go in writing poetry and then decide to tackle prose (be warned, you may be encourage to do this by your tutor and you will find that this is not a bad thing and it happens to most people on the course), or like me, you go in writing one novel, get encouraged to write short stories and end up writing another completely different novel. As a starter I can recommend, ‘Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction by Jonathan Culler (Oxford University Press: 1997) But don’t get too bogged down in it. Tis type of thing will help and enhance your understanding of writing and reading but not knowing it won’t hinder your experience of the course either. Having said all of that, Graham and Lee change certain aspects of the summer school programme each year in response to the feedback they get from the previous year, so whatever I say might end up being redundant.However, here are few things I wish I had known before I came, including boring practical stuff:

      1. Keep an open mind. Pretty much everyone on the course will be thinking they same as you, worrying that they don’t know enough, haven’t got enough or anything published / don’t know the jargon etc.
      2. Take a USB stick or hard copies of a selection of your previous work(s) that you are happy to have critiqued or to read out loud. This doesn’t have to be stuff you have produced during your first year. It can be anything that you want to improve on or just get some feedback on.
      3. If you can take a laptop / netbook do so. You may decide to volunteer or be volunteered to lead part of a workshop -don’t worry, this is not as bad / frightening as it sounds. You may want to do a bit of research for it (I can vouch for this and for some of the others that had to do it too).
      4. If Professor Michael Gilkes is on the programme, sign up for his workshop. As a poet, this is one workshop you should definitely go to.
      5. You only get one towel in your accommodation (which is ensuite)- if you leave a note on your bed for the housemaid in the morning, she brings you another one. Simialry for shower gels / shampoos etc.
      6. Take headache tablets, plasters and an umbrella. There is a bit of a walk from the accomodation to the place where they hold the workshops (both are on campus). It’s about a 15 minute walk. You can get the bus but if you do decide to walk, it seems longer the first day. After that you’ll appreciate the fresh air.
      7. Take a cup and spoon and other tea / coffee / milk with you or buy it when you get to the UK. This isn’t provided in the kitchens. You can buy it on campus, but so much of our time was accounted for, many people never got the time. Of course they may include more free time in the programme next year so….
      8. If you want to borrow books from the library while you are there, you need a library card. You can apply for one before you go, or you can do it while you are there.

      Finally, yes, I’m half Irish. My father’s from Dalkey near Dublin.

      Ok, that’s it. I hope you enjoy it. I know you will. If you want to email me when you know who your tutor is or at any time during the course please do:


  2. Hi again Alex – what can I say? Thank you so, so much for taking the time to give me all this really helpful information. I don’t know how many roles you have to juggle in your life but I have gathered that you are a full – time mother and that automatically means that time is very precious. I truly appreciate you giving me your email address – I know that probably very soon I’ll be knocking at your door for some more information when the course starts and I’d feel more comfortable laying bare my soul in an email.. Also, though I’m still feeling strong pangs of self doubt (most likely due to a very bad case of writer’s block), it was reassuring to know that I managed to secure a place on the course with so many applicants.

    Once again Alex, thanks a million – you’ve helped me more than you can imagine.


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