Twenty years at Winchester: Student | Lecturer | Author
Dr Vanessa Harbour
'I loved academic life and felt like I had come home.'
As her latest novel launches, Dr Vanessa Harbour, Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing reflects on her two decades worth of University of Winchester experiences.
Arriving as a student at the University of Winchester, studying initially a BA in English followed a serendipitous moment. In May 2002, a leaflet dropped out of the local free newspaper advertising an Open Day at the University that Saturday. I live in a village just outside of Winchester and on the day, I had to drop one of my children into the city and impulsively I continued up the hill to the University.
At the Open Day I was welcomed by Professor Phil Cardew, whose daughter, ironically, I taught many years later. I explained my situation and he looked at me and said, 'Of course, you can go for it.' And so I started my university journey.
Let me take a step back and explain my situation. Due to various things that had happened in the previous two years I had ended up disabled and being fed by a tube into my stomach. This had also meant that on top of losing my business, I was a single parent and a carer for my mother. When I was in sixth form I had planned to study law at university but I made some bad decisions back then and never went. I had a big chip on my shoulder about this fact. This seemed the perfect solution to that chip, plus I wasn't too keen on doing nothing for the rest of my life as some medical experts expected me to.
I wanted to do an English degree because I loved books, but also because the degree at Winchester had creative writing modules and writing was my passion. I had always written in some form, including in my previous jobs. Obviously, it wasn't quite as simple as 'go for it.' I attended an interview and had to complete an essay before I was formally accepted. Little did I know when I arrived on that first day of semester in September that it was about to change my life totally.
I found the course enthralling and all the lecturers were very supportive of my disability and my situation at home. I loved academic life and felt like I had come home. When I started I had quite a fixed idea of what sort of writer I thought I was, but the advantage of doing creative writing modules (and now a Creative Writing degree) is that you get a chance to try on lots of different voices. This is something that poet and critic Al Alverez says all writers should do. I had an opportunity to write for children and young adults. Something I had never thought about before, but it just flowed naturally. With the encouragement of, now colleagues and friends, Professor Andrew Melrose, and Dr Judy Waite, I started to focus on this area. Again, my life started to take a different direction.
'I enjoy sharing my experiences with the students, but I also love watching them grow in confidence and develop as writers too.'
Andy Melrose encouraged me first to do the University’s MA in Writing for Children, saying ‘if you can write for children you can write for anyone.’ Before going on to do a PhD, also after his encouragement. My PhD looked at the representation of sex, drugs, and alcohol in young adult fiction and how it changed over a period of time. I had a wonderful supervisory team with Andy as my Director of Studies and Prof Elizabeth Stuart and Dr Paul Manning. It was fascinating and relevant research. I could do all these because of the encouragement and support of the University while I was a disabled student who happened to be a carer. This has continued as a member of staff because being disabled means facing various challenges. I now have a support to work agreement which allows me to work to the best of my ability.
While I was doing my PhD, I was also given the opportunity to teach by my wonderful mentor and another friend, the late and great Prof Neil McCaw. This was something else I hadn’t considered and hadn’t anticipated enjoying it as much as I did/do. I love working with the students. Seeing the lightbulb moment as inspiration hits. Also, I have been able to share my past business experience with the students showing how writing can be used in many ways. This is vital because I am aware that being a writer may be the best job in the world but there is a reality to it. The average salary for a writer is £10,500pa (ALCS report 2018) so it is important for any writer to have another job alongside their authorial work.
This is why I liked being taught by practitioners and why I like teaching, I can pass on my experiences as an author. You don’t have a rose-tinted approach to the world of writing. I enjoy sharing my experiences with the students, but I also love watching them grow in confidence and develop as writers too. It is incredibly satisfying. In particular, I teach a third-year module entitled ‘Creative Vigilance’ which is about metafiction and is quite challenging, but we have such fun in that module and the students really push themselves producing some fabulous work. The satisfaction for me at the end of the semester when I see their faces and their sense of achievement is wonderful and why I love my job. I do my best to always take time to listen to whatever they have to say.
'The editing is where I will do a lot of my research too. I love doing research, which is good because historical fiction takes a lot of research.'
We know that as writers you need to wear multiple hats, particularly as a children’s author. You write the book, and you need to have a social media presence. On top of that, there will be school visits and festivals, so it is full on. It is not possible to hide away in your ivory tower to draft your books anymore. You need to be proactive, which is quite hard as most writers I know are introverts. Add to this my disability, which can create real complications. I must pace myself. One advantage of being a writer though is that you can sit on the sofa and write on your laptop, while feeding through your tube.
When I write I tend to write the first draft very quickly. It is basic and just has the story structure there to make sure it works. Once I have done that the editing starts. This takes much longer. It is where I add the colour and all the details. I see it as embroidery. The first draft is like the black edging and the editing is all about adding the colour and shading. The editing is where I will do a lot of my research too. I love doing research, which is good because historical fiction takes a lot of research.
I have now had two books published Safe (Firefly 2022) and Flight (Firefly, 2018, Feiwell & Friends US 2021). None of this would have happened if I hadn’t turned up at that Open Day and been made so welcome and supported by the University of Winchester. They truly changed my life in so many ways.
Safe, published by Firefly Press, has just launched and is the sequel to Flight, which was shortlisted for the Sheffield Children's Book Award and Branford Bose Award. It was also picked by EmpathyLabUK to be part of the Guided Reading for Empathy in 2020. Safe, like Flight, is based at the end of the Second World War and once again Kizzy and Jakob are off on an adventure. They are tricked and find themselves not only saving horses but a group of 'lost children'. It is a treacherous journey back to safety. Will they make it back with all the horses and the children?
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