The First Semester of my Masters Degree

Now that I’ve finished my assessments, I thought it might be an interesting idea to sit down and write about my experience of the first semester of my Masters Degree. Because I’m doing it part time (mainly to protect my mental health), I’m only doing one module rather than two, which is what the full-timers do. The module I did was called ‘Creative Process’ and it was four hours of uni time, a two hour seminar where we talked about different areas of the creative process and then a two hour workshop where we played the songs we’d written based on the ideas and concepts we’d talked about the week before. It was a really interesting module and I wish my mental health had been better so that I could’ve focussed and enjoyed it more.

I feel really lucky when it came to my group and my tutor.

My group was only about nine people (when the other groups were much larger as far as I know) and they were all absolutely lovely. We were all really different, both musically and life experience wise (but I guess that’s what happens when you get to Masters level), which was really interesting when it came to writing and socialising and… just everything. It was a completely new experience and one that I’m really grateful for. Up until now, I’ve mostly been surrounded by people my own age with similar experiences.

Everyone was so, so good, all in their own way. They all had their own style (some had particularly beautiful musical signatures, some wrote from interesting perspectives with thoughtful lyrics, and so on) and it was so interesting and exciting to see how they developed over the semester. We were and I know will continue to be so supportive of each other’s music and development as songwriters. It always felt safe to bring in something I felt unsure or insecure about and the feedback was always constructive and because the person wanted you to get better; I never once felt like someone was being mean or looking down on me. It was such a supportive atmosphere and I’m so grateful because I think that was a huge part of what helped me to grow so much as a writer.

I made two really good friends in particular, both of whom I’m still in the same group with to my absolute delight. They’re truly beautiful souls. One of them, Luce Barka, wrote this amazing song during the semester and has said she’s happy for me to share it with you guys. I really, really recommend it…

I also had a fantastic tutor, Isobel. She’s a really cool, independent singersongwriter, which I think made her an especially good teacher because she’s very immersed in the industry we’re all trying to get into, in her own, distinctive way. She’s also dealt with serious health problems (which she has talked about publicly so I’m not breaking her confidence or anything) so I felt like she was a really good tutor, especially for me. She understood, or had a kind of understanding, of what I deal with. She was a really, really great tutor, in discussions and when giving and guiding feedback. But for me personally – and this is my blog after all – she was incredible when it came to helping me manage the course against all of my issues. When my anxiety was overwhelming, she helped me adjust the tasks to make them easier while still allowing me to do the task and learn the skills. I am massively appreciative of how accommodating and generous and kind she was, even before  she received the Student Support Agreement (the document with all my information and recommendations).

Anyway, she was amazing. I learned so much, obviously from the course but also from the way she delivered it and the feedback she gave me. I feel like I’ve grown so much as a writer and I feel like she’s a really big part of that. Plus, I’ve never had a teacher who was so understanding, who helped without hesitation, with just my word to guide her. I can’t properly express how much I appreciate that. It’s never happened to me before and it felt so wonderful to be treated as if it was something you just do, rather than being made to feel like a burden or an obstacle to be manoeuvred. So, as much as I learned (and I learned a lot), that is what I’m most grateful for and one of the things that I will always remember about this semester.

The first few weeks were really, really tough. After my massive meltdown in Victoria station, I was having meltdowns every day (as I wrote about here), which was having a big impact on my mental and emotional health, also leaving me physically exhausted. That significant meltdown was triggered by an email from the Disability Coordinator (who was also an Autism Specialist), suggesting a very last minute change of plan for our scheduled meeting which still leaves me bewildered. As an autistic person, sudden changes of plan are known to be highly problematic. That, plus my existing anxiety, caused a massive meltdown that took a very long time to recover from. And it left me feeling less than confident in her ability to support me even though we had had a positive first meeting and I had left feeling cautiously optimistic that this time it might be different. It then didn’t improve as actions promised at that meeting didn’t get done, leading to more meltdowns. So that was a real complication and painful part of the semester.

Having said all of that, I loved the classes. We learned about songcraft, collaborating, imposter syndrome, professional practice, perfectionism, and so much more. It was fascinating and fun and the briefs, while often stressful (with only a week to write the song), were interesting and challenging. I wrote some songs that I’m really proud of and I feel like my songwriting grew a lot because the briefs were challenging.

We watched this video in one of the classes and I thought it was really good so I thought I’d share it:

I loved it – loved getting better at songwriting – even the bits that pushed me and made me feel uncomfortable.

However, out of class was another matter. We were expected to do research that would later become the foundations of our assessment essay and presentation. Except whenever I asked, they wouldn’t tell me what the assessment entailed and just said it was ‘self directed learning’ so I didn’t know what I was actually researching, which caused me terrible anxiety. I created a reading list of books, articles, and interviews about creativity and songwriting but as hard as I tried to do the work, my OCD – my need to write everything down – battled against it. And usually won. So if I wasn’t writing, I was reading. I had no downtime. I was constantly anxious, like, end-of-the-world-anxious. And I felt like I was failing.

They explained the essay and presentation in the last couple of weeks but I still didn’t really understand. The language was complicated and vague and while I understood the general idea, the grading criteria was pretty ambiguous. I didn’t know what I had to do specifically to get good grades. I need clarity. It was incredibly stressful.

It took a couple of last minute meetings with my module leader to really understand what was expected of me but I was now facing a myriad of problems. The research I had been doing had little relevance to the subject I was writing about so I’d have to redo all of that, as well as actually write the essay and prepare the presentation. Plus we were in the final two weeks of the semester and the university would soon be closed for the Christmas holidays so I would have no way of contacting anyone for any support. I was wound so tight I felt like my spine might snap. I felt like I couldn’t breathe. I’m really grateful for those meetings but I just wish the assessment had been clearer earlier in the module so the research I was doing could’ve been more focussed. With all the problems associated with Autism, like chronic fatigue and chronic pain, time is something I have to be incredibly thoughtful about.

I worked every day of the entire holiday (apart from Christmas Day, which I spent with my family – something I don’t often get to do) but the assessments were always in my head so I felt like I couldn’t take a break or have any time to rest and recharge. I still didn’t feel sure that I was doing it right but still, I worked hard on it and gave it everything I had. I finished both the essay and the presentation with time to spare, allowing myself time to redraft and prepare, giving myself the best chance of doing well. I submitted the essay, despite big technical problems with the system, and I did my presentation to the best of my ability, despite finding presentations incredibly difficult. Now I just have to wait for the marks.

Now, having run through the whole semester (and having reflected a lot on the difficulties), I just wanted to share a couple of specific, positive experiences:

  • For one of the early seminars, we had a guest tutor, who works primarily as an expert in Personal Transformation, come and talk to us. Because we were such a small group, he was able to really talk to each of us about our lives and our creative struggles. Considering how little we knew each other at the time, it was amazing how open everyone was and I think it’s part of the reason we became so close and supportive as a group. It was a real bonding experience to hear all of these personal stories and I personally felt really honoured to be part of it, to have been trusted with those stories.
  • One week I brought in a song that I was really proud of. It had a repeated line in it – “it’ll get easier” – and everyone picked it up really quickly, singing along and harmonising. It was beautiful and emotional and it was one of the most special moments of the semester for me.
  • During my research, I found a quote by Paul Gardner that I’m endlessly inspired and intrigued and excited by: “A painting is never finished – it simply stops in interesting places.” There are so many things that could mean. What do you think it means? Or what does it mean to you about a particular thing in your life?

Overall, it was a very mixed bag. The good moments were great and made me feel amazing. I got a lot out of it. But I spent a lot – A LOT – of the semester in crippling anxiety and I had a lot of meltdowns. It was fucking hard. And the marks haven’t even come back yet. I’m terrified that I’ve done horribly. But I’m trying not to think about it. I’m just trying to get through this new semester. Which may be even more stressful than the last.

Grateful 2019

This year has been a weird year, something I don’t really want to get into until I do my end of year review. But it has been a weird year and with all the medication changes and mental health issues, it’s only the last three months that are really clear in my memory. I’m very aware of being grateful – there’s so much to be grateful for – but having had such a fuzzy brain, I feel sure that I’m forgetting things, something that’s causing me a lot of anxiety. Pieces of the year are just missing from my memory, whether blurry or plain misfiled, and so I worry that there are moments in there that I should and would be grateful for if only I could get a grasp on them. But I can’t. So this is the best I can do. Please forgive me if I’m leaving things out.

My Mum – I always list (or shout out) my Mum because she is the person that I am most, most grateful for. Being the person I am with the disabilities I have, I couldn’t survive in any way without her and for that, for her presence, I am so grateful. She goes above and beyond to help me through the bad days and achieve on the good days and I’m just in awe of her. She is the most caring person I know.

Richard (my best friend and writing partner) – During the first part of the year, Richard and I planned an EP that we were both so, so excited about. And then suddenly, overnight it felt like, that excitement disappeared for me. It was replaced by paralysing anxiety, so bad that I couldn’t even talk about the project. It was awful. But we got through it and the EP – Honest – is now slowly being released, all of which is largely because of Richard, both practically and emotionally. And that’s just our working relationship. He’s always there to text me shitty jokes, to help me write songs when I’m banging my head against the wall, to eat sweets and watch The Good Place with. I don’t know what I’d do without him.

My Family and Friends – I often give a specific shout out to Mum and Richard because they seem to be the ones who most commonly see and help me with my bad days and my anxieties but the rest of my family have also been amazing this year. They’ve always been there when I’ve needed them. I haven’t seen many of my friends as much as I would’ve liked to this year. Between the depression, the trying of different drugs, and starting the Masters, it’s been a messy and complicated year that I will write about more in my end of year review. Hopefully I’ll get to see them more next year.

The animals in my life – We started the year with our dog, Lucky, and three cats, Lucy and her kittens, Mouse and Tiger. We’d dabbled with the idea of Mouse having kittens, just to do the kittens experience one more time, but just as I changed my mind – it was too much change and I needed everything to stay the same – we came home and Mouse was having kittens, despite the vet telling us the week before that she wasn’t pregnant. And now we have two kittens in the house, two black furballs called Sooty and Sweep. They’re gorgeous and them, plus the rest of the animals, have really helped me with my anxiety (which has been overwhelming) over the last three months and that has been so, so important.

My Masters Degree group – Starting a new course or a new anything is always scary and for me, the scariest part tends to be the new people. Fortunately, I’m doing my Masters course at the same uni I did my BA so that was really the only new thing. But I got really lucky: I ended up in a really small group and they’re all really lovely people. It feels like we’ve gotten to know each other pretty well and we’re all so supportive of each other. The groups are going to change somewhat after Christmas but it became a really safe environment, creatively and personally, and I’ll really miss it. I know I’ll still see them and our friendships won’t suddenly end but I’ll miss our little pocket in space and time.

My benefits being renewed – Given how scary the political climate in the UK has become and continues to become, I am so, so grateful that my benefits were renewed before the election and will last until just before the next election, regardless of what happens in the next few years. That was such a relief to learn. I don’t know what will happen after that but for now, I feel like I can breathe a little bit easier.

Red Bull – The major side effect of my current medication is this overwhelming sleepiness. When I told my psychiatrist about it, he said that it should wear off but that it could take months. I’d been drinking Red Bull to help me stay awake and help me concentrate; we discussed the fact that it’s not massively healthy but it’s his opinion that the sleepiness will wear off, hopefully within a few months and then I can give up my Red Bull habit. So we’re keeping an eye on it and in the meantime, Red Bull is my best friend.

Fanfiction – In times of great anxiety, I’ve reverted to a major hobby of my early teenage years. I read stories from every film and TV show I loved and wrote reams of the stuff. I’m not writing it this time around but reading it and getting lost in new stories from familiar worlds has been a very effective calming strategy. It’s made me feel safe. And it’s kept my creativity (always stifled by my anxiety) burning low, in the background, for when I’m ready for it.

His Dark Materials – I have been in love with this show from the first episode. I honestly can’t remember the last time I was so impressed by and excited about a TV show currently airing (I’ve fallen in love with shows after they’ve ended, for example). Daphne Keen is an incredible Lyra and Ruth Wilson blows me away every episode as Mrs Coulter. The sets, the CGI, the characters’ relationships with their daemons, the complexity of the characters, even the introduction sequence are absolutely extraordinary. I’m so gutted that the series is over but I can’t wait for the next one.

Taylor Swift – I’m pretty sure I’ve always mentioned Taylor Swift but I probably always will. Her songwriting is incredible, she’s one of the hardest working people in the music industry, she’s generous, she’s intelligent, and she’s exceptionally kind. She’s one of my favourite singersongwriters and her recent album, Lover, is so, so good: one of my favourite albums of the year, possibly one of my favourite albums ever. It’s beautiful and vulnerable and special. She’s also been saying some very smart and very important things during her recent press cycle:

  • “I’m a woman, I’m not a coat hanger. I need to feel healthy in my life and I need to take pleasure in food and I need to not use my body as an exercise of control when I feel out of control in my life.”
  • “Do not let anything stop you from making art. Just makes things. Do not get so caught up in this that it stops you from making art or if you need to, make art about this. But never stop making things.”
  • “You’re not always going to be inspired and that’s okay.”
  • “If someone’s gonna take your hand, they’d better take your hand, scars and all.”
  • “I guess what I’m trying to say is that all any of the artists, or really anyone in this room wants, is to create something that will last, whatever it is in life. And the fact that this is an award that celebrates a decade of hard work, of art, and of fun and memories, all that matters to me is the memories that I had with you, the fans, over the years. We’ve had fun, incredible, exhilarating, extraordinary times together, and may it continue! Thank you for being the reason why I am on this stage, from the first day of my career until tonight.”
  • “I think that artists deserve to own their work. I just feel very passionately about that.”

And lastly, she’s fearlessly standing up for artists and their right to own their music. It’s a big, hard fight but she’s using her platform and her power in the industry (“as your resident loud person”) to try and change that. Of course, she’s personally affected by it but she could handle it in private. Except she’s not: she’s speaking out and working to create change. And as a new artist, I really appreciate that she’s trying to make the industry I’m entering fairer and less discriminatory.

I think I’ll stop there. I’ve got my Christmas wrapping to do and a Christmas tree to guard from some very inquisitive cats. I hope you all have a safe, happy, and healthy Christmas where you feel as special and beautiful as you are.

EDIT: Honourable mentions to Nashville and the lovely people there, Agents of Shield, and fairy lights. But if I keep going here, we’ll be here until 2020.

Grateful 2018

Last year, I posted on Christmas Eve about the things I was grateful for (here) and I really liked it as a practice. Since we don’t have Thanksgiving in the UK, there’s no holiday directly related to being thankful and I think it’s important to make time to think and feel these things. And I always feel overwhelmed by how lucky I am at Christmas so this seems like a good time to do it, to do this post.

My family – I am endlessly grateful to my family. They have loved and supported me through some really difficult times this year and even though that’s what family should do, I’m so, so grateful to them for doing that. I don’t take them for granted. A particular shout out to my Mum for going above and beyond. She’s my hero.

My friends – I am also endlessly grateful to my friends. I haven’t seen as much of them as I would’ve liked this year but I’ve been doing my best to stay in touch. They mean so much to me and I hope they know that. Again, a particular shout out to Richard because he has been incredible this year, supporting me as a friend and a writing partner. I’m more grateful than I can say.

My therapist – I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I am so grateful for my therapist. My depression has been brutal this year and there were more than a few moments where I had no idea how I was going to survive (I say that like it’s over and I’m not sure whether it’s over or not). I absolutely wouldn’t have made it through that without her.

Song Suffragettes – If you don’t know what Song Suffragettes is, prepare to have your musical life changed. It’s an organisation in Nashville that focuses on boosting the up and coming female songwriting talent and they have weekly shows showcasing these awesome women. I was lucky enough to join them on my last trip to Nashville and it was definitely the best day of my year (and one of the best in my life). Everyone involved is so lovely and they are doing such important work. Check them out on Twitter here.

Claire Wineland – I’ve written about Claire quite a bit (here, herehere, and here if you’re interested) but she’s been on my mind a lot. I miss her – her presence in my life – more than I know what to do with but I am so grateful to have had her at all. That doesn’t make me okay with what happened (not at all) but I am grateful. She was an incredible human being and she’s still helping people even though she’s no longer here.

Flowers – This is a simple one but having beautiful, colourful flowers around improves my mood and improves my day. In a year that’s felt very dark and colourless, having flowers in the house has made a noticeable difference to my day-to-day life.

My bullet journal – Having somewhere to organise my thoughts and my life has been so helpful. Up until now I’ve never had a system that really worked for me so this is a big deal. I’ve written more about it here.

Lauren Kaech – I discovered Lauren on YouTube earlier this year and I have found her videos and her attitude really inspiring. I talked about her in my post about social media favourites and she makes videos about her experience of living with an eating disorder. And while that’s not an experience I can directly relate to, there are aspects that I can. She talks about facing the things that scare you, the realities of happiness, and a whole host of recovery related topics that apply to anxiety and depression as well as eating disorders. I’m so grateful to have had this in my life this year and at my very worst (in the very worst of my depression), looking forward to her videos got me through the day and kept me going.

Swimming – I’ve written a whole post about this (here) but I wanted to include it here because I’m so, so grateful for it. Almost every morning, I get up and go to the pool and do something that makes sense. Even if the rest of the day doesn’t, that does. I’m also really proud of myself for keeping this up for six months, especially given how bad my depression has been.

Taylor Swift – Miss Swift was on my grateful list last year and the reasons are all still relevant. But this year, I got to see her live (twice!) and that experience was so much fun in the middle of a really dark place. I felt all that weight lift for a couple of hours and that is a big deal. I’m also really grateful to her for voicing her political opinions (breaking her career long silence on the subject) and encouraging young people to vote. In the twenty four hours after she made her Instagram post on the subject, 65,000 people registered to vote, which is just incredible. It made me really proud to be a fan. I don’t think I can say more than, as always, I am grateful for Taylor Swift.

So there you have it. I could write more – there are so many things to be grateful for – but I’ll stop there. I’m wishing you all a safe, happy, and healthy Christmas and I’ll see you in the next post.