‘I now help many people find their own pleasure in writing. You can't put a price on that'
Linda Cosgriff, a longstanding member of Stockport Write Out Loud, wrote an article for this website five years ago about her excitement at embarking on a creative writing MA at Manchester Metropolitan University, and working with the then poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy. In this follow-up article she details how it did not go to plan and, along with serious health problems, sapped her confidence as a writer and poet. She only regained her confidence after leaving academia, going back into the wider community and becoming involved in a host of new writing projects. She now feels about her MMU experience that “my head was in the wrong place at the time”, and realises that “it's okay to have some faith in myself”. This is Linda’s story:
Back in 2017, I wrote an article for Write Out Loud about my first three weeks on Manchester Metropolitan University’s creative writing MA: I was nervous but excited. Almost five years on I can tell you that I completed the degree but hated nearly every moment of it.
When I wrote the article, I was still feeling thrilled to have been accepted on such a competitive course, even if I was notified at the last minute: I believe I was on a waiting list and someone dropped out. For various reasons, I had problems sorting my student finance: I don’t do well with official forms, I'm afraid. I should mention at this point that I have Generalised Anxiety Disorder but it was in abeyance at the time. I was in such a good place, in fact, that I ticked the ‘no help needed’ box for students who suffered from anxiety. That was a mistake.
I was eager to begin on the following Monday evening. However, I didn't know where I was going or what I needed to take with me - including any textbooks - as the introductory email sent out during Freshers Week naturally never came to me.
One of my anxiety triggers is using public transport. I arrived on the first night completely flustered by the train journey; by not knowing where I had to be or what I had to bring with me; and by not being prepared with a poem for the session because I hadn't received that email either. Then, of course, everyone read out their work and I was overwhelmed by the amazing talent. Cue: Imposter Syndrome.
The confluence of last-minute notification/official forms/a new journey to navigate/the realisation that I had no right to be there with people who could actually write, meant that I spent the year with crippling anxiety as constant background noise. My tutor Carol Ann Duffy was very nice but when the poet laureate used the word 'simple' to describe my language in one poem, I heard, 'What on earth are you doing here, idiot?' and spent fifteen minutes trembling in the toilet afterwards.
‘Having said all that, I really enjoyed writing my dissertation. Andrew McMillan was my supervisor and he was lovely: keen to help and always available to answer my queries’
Having said all that, I really enjoyed writing my dissertation (safe at home). Andrew McMillan was my supervisor and he was lovely: keen to help and always available to answer my queries. I asked for him after he filled in for two sessions that Michael Symmons Roberts was unable to make: what a dynamic man and poet! If you haven’t read any of Andrew’s work, you absolutely should.
I chose the theme of Intertextuality – how one text shapes another - for my dissertation. David Keyworth from Stockport Write Out Loud was in Carol Ann Duffy’s critiquing class with me. We had to write a pastiche of a poem we were studying. I'd never been able to manage a sonnet but I chose Edna St Vincent Millay's What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why, and wrote my first (CAD liked it, incidentally). David, who knows my work well, said: “'I enjoyed that, Linda, but I'd have liked to hear it in your own style,” and a lightbulb went off in my head. I chose poems from the course; wrote pastiches; and then used the pastiches to inspire new poems. I'm really proud of the whole thing; I think it's some of my best work.
I'm also proud that I managed to complete the degree at all, because I was a basket case by the end of it, living on my nerves. I did consider giving up several times but my family were very supportive and encouraging and I didn't want to let them down; or let go of my dream to have a masters in creative writing. There's zero chance I'll ever apply to do a PhD, though.
I did reach out to the university for help at one point, but I was fobbed off to another person, who never followed through, and I left it at that. If you've ever suffered from anxiety, you'll understand how difficult it was for me to reach out in the first place; there was no way I'd try again. I was so disenchanted by the whole experience that I didn't attend my graduation ceremony; I was just glad to see the back of the course. I managed a With Merit but I didn't write another thing for over two years. Absolutely nothing.
By the end of the degree, I was completely burnt out; and then in the November I had a pulmonary embolism, followed by a number of other health issues. At the beginning of the first lockdown, I was going nowhere and doing nothing, spending most of my days sitting on the couch because that was all I had the energy for. I was diagnosed with sleep apnoea and put on a CPAP [Continuous positive airway pressure] machine, and my health and energy slowly returned.
‘At the end of 2020, a friend asked me to work on a writing project with her, to encourage us both to write every day. We took turns setting prompts … I found the joy again!'
At the end of 2020, a friend asked me to work on a writing project with her, to encourage us both to write every day. We took turns setting prompts and shared our work in Dropbox, five days a week. I found the joy again!
In March 2021 I began to participate in Zoom meetings for various groups; and even became poet-in-residence for Stockport Women's Networking Group, set up by Katherine Rosati from Stockport Art Gallery. Katherine has been a great friend to Stockport Write Out Loud and we have worked with her on many projects. Once my year with SWNG was up, she persuaded me to stay on, so I'm still doing that.
In the middle of last year, I thought about how miserable everyone was and how we could all use a daily smile, so I set up a new blog, Poetry Fluff. It's aimed at people who have no interest in poetry and I'm pleased at how it is growing. In January I offered one of my collections as a free download, and it's had over 400 takers - more than the number of copies my published collection has sold.
Once out of lockdown, and with my newfound enthusiasm for writing, I returned to the poetry readings and workshops I run with various community groups in Stockport on a volunteer basis. As I work with so many groups, I had new business cards made, styling myself as a 'Community Poet'.
I became writer-in-residence for a community group I attend, running drop-in workshops for non-writers. I've offered myself to various other groups for sundry readings and workshops, and been eagerly accepted; and I've been approached by others to run theirs. I have earned a miniscule amount of money, but how it boosted my confidence! I'm working on a couple of proposals for some ideas I have; and I'm asking the people I work with as a volunteer to write letters of recommendation, in case I decide to apply for funding at a later date. I've never felt more energised or confident in my abilities.
On the actual writing side, I write several times a week, and am ploughing through old notebooks and editing/discarding early drafts of poems that I find there. Since my first creative writing course with the Open University in 2008, when I began keeping notebooks, I've amassed 170. I have about 35 still to work through.
I love editing. The words are already there; I just have to craft them. I think that's why I love intertextuality and ekphrasis: the material is already there; I just have to re-shape it into something.
‘Working through the notebooks, I came across assignment marks and comments from the MA, and was pleasantly surprised to see that I wasn't nearly as awful as I had believed’
Working through the notebooks, I came across assignment marks and comments from the MA, and was pleasantly surprised to see that I wasn't nearly as awful as I had believed. There's a reason I managed a With Merit, after all, on par with quite a number of my fellow students whom I firmly believe are immeasurably superior poets to me. It is clear now that my head was in the wrong place at the time; but improving health and demand for my skills have shown me that it's okay to have some faith in myself.
To summarise: once my anxiety abated and my health improved, I had nowhere to go but up. I'm not earning anything worth mentioning with the writing but I am using my skills to impart my love of it to others, and I help many people find their own pleasure in writing. You can't put a price on that; and to me it’s worth more than any degree.
If you suffer from anxiety, Imposter Syndrome, or health issues that affect your writing and your self-belief, I hope you take from my experience that it need not last forever; that it is definitely possible to find the joy again. Otherwise, why do it?
Thu 25th May 2023 09:00
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Sat 25th Mar 2023 16:17
I've only just seen this, Linda. Thanks for the mention. My theory is that most of us suffer from some degree of 'imposter syndrome', apart from Donald Trump.
I really enjoyed the MA but I did it part-time, over two years and so had more time to settle in.
I'm pleased you enjoyed your dissertation though and you do some great work in encouraging others to be creative . .
Mon 15th Aug 2022 14:19
Nigel and Martin,
Thank you for your comments and your support.
I miss you all!
Fri 12th Aug 2022 11:47
Linda what a star you are. Right from the word go you have been a constant source of encouragement to me personally as you have to a number of others in Stockport WOL. I am so glad to see you are coming through all that you have been through. Keep on writing
Love and blessings
Wed 10th Aug 2022 01:33
Glad to see you back Linda your story shows the strong faith in yourself never left you.😀
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