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Learning how to write

8 October 2012

'I went to classes at the college one evening a week. For the rest of the week I did my homework. I wrote stories, plays, poems, and read voraciously. We emailed our homework to our tutors and classmates, who gave invaluable feedback. I became obsessed. My flat is falling to pieces, the windows filthy, my clothes shabby, my friends have forgotten who I am, and my relationship with my partner, the writer Andrew Lycett, has disintegrated to the occasional grunt. And there is nothing in our fridge.

Although I had done some copywriting in a previous life, written newspaper articles, and won a pen in one of the weekly Spectator Competitions, at Birkbeck I found my writing "voice". I am never going to be another Virginia Woolf or Henry James, but I could be a rival for Pam Ayres, or perhaps become today's P G Wodehouse or Anthony Powell - without the balls.

Joanna Trollope said in the Guardian recently that no one should write until after 35, because she feels that writers need life experience. My years as a photographer have certainly influenced my writing. I've been to places, and met people, that I would never have had access to without my camera. Photography taught me to see. And hanging around at book events gave me plenty of opportunity to stand and stare, watch how people behave and move, notice what they are wearing and carrying. And eavesdropping has proved enormously beneficial with writing realistic dialogue!

I have met an enormously diverse and interesting collection of people of all ages on the course. Sometimes our only point in common is our love of books and desire to write well. Some people are born writers, but most of us who want to write benefit from being taught the technical skills. As well as weekly classes, and one-to-one tutorials, we had a wide range of lectures, including ones on writing style, digital developments, and the commercial realities, as well as talks given by experienced editors, agents and authors. And twice a term at a pub in King's Cross, "celebrity writers", students, staff and alumni read their work at an event, known as Hubbub.'

Susan Greenhill, photographer extraordinaire and now writer and contributor to MIR9, in Bookbrunch.

Birkbeck's website showcasing students' and ex-students' work: