- 5 May 2022
- 5 minutes
Laura Robertson (MA Writing, 2020) is a freelance writer, critic and editor currently working on her first creative non-fiction book. She discusses how the MA Writing programme built on her existing practice to open up a world of possibility, experimentation and raised ambitions – as well as the importance of finding the right support.
- 5 May 2022
- 5 minutes
“The RCA has most definitely opened doors for me – and showed me where the doors are.”
Prior to studying at the RCA, you’ve had a wide-ranging career as an art critic and journalist, writing for frieze, contributing to BBC Radio 4's Front Row and establishing your own publication, The Double Negative. Could you tell us more about your background and the work you do?
I’ve always been into art and writing; I used to make my own books as a kid growing up in Anfield, Liverpool, usually about animals, drawing from the encyclopaedia, writing little stories! I studied BA History at the University of Manchester, then swapped over to Salford School of Arts & Media and BA Visual Arts. That’s where I learned about text art and sound and installation and developed a strong writing practice. I still keep sketchbooks and journals. I never thought art criticism was a job that I could do – there just wasn’t anyone in my family or community who worked in arts publishing and I thought you had to to be posh or male to do it. That’s something to kick back against, isn’t it?
I ended up volunteering at galleries and art festivals, gaining experience in exhibition making and became director at The Royal Standard, a DIY art space and studio in Liverpool. That led me to interpretation, criticism and to start my own online magazine, The Double Negative (TDN), with my partner, Mike Pinnington, in 2011. The freelance magazine writing built up from that. I’m a strong believer in initiating your own projects – TDN was like a shop window into what I could do and editors commissioned me off the back of it. I can’t imagine my life without writing.
What made you want to pursue further study, and what drew you to the MA Writing programme at the RCA in particular?
I love being self-employed – it’s liberating. But it can also be precarious and lonely. A couple of years ago I felt I’d achieved everything professionally that I could up to that point and needed the next step or the equivalent of a promotion. I needed a peer group who were into experimental criticism, who were up for creative play outside of review writing. I researched Master’s programmes across the UK and Europe for about a year and MA Writing at the RCA was the one – others had recommended it to me and it was simply the best in its field. I loved everything about the staff, modules and interdisciplinary outlook, and the ambition was off the charts.
“I picked up so many specific, practical tools that I’m still using today – on building structure, paying attention to detail, writing in situation – and I continue to refer to the excellent reading lists!”
How did your writing practice develop or change over your time at the RCA? And in what ways has your practice continued to be supported by your experiences of MA study?
I felt confident in magazine journalism going in but what I began to realise was how much I wanted to learn about technical approaches. I missed the types of material experimentation that I’d learned at art school. I was keen to return to a state of mind where embracing failure was healthy and wanted to push my work into its next phase.
Writing short stories during the MA was a game changer for me. Usually we’d have very little time to write and submit, perhaps an afternoon, and be reading everyone’s work in a group crit the next day. I started to mash up criticism and fiction, a highly subjective voice and unreliable narration, and keep dream diaries. We went on residency together at Flat Time House, ran events and published books (Attention and NOIT).
I picked up so many specific, practical tools that I’m still using today – on building structure, paying attention to detail, writing in situation – and I continue to refer to the excellent reading lists!
What was the most surprising thing about studying at the RCA?
Stepping into such a prestigious school can make you feel like an imposter. During my first tutorial, [then course leader] Brian Dillon asked me: ‘So what’s your book going to be about?’ I’d never been challenged in such a direct way before. Even though my short form writing had been published widely and I had edited and self-published print anthologies of new arts writing, for some reason I didn’t have plans to write a book of my own at that point. I wasn’t sure how to navigate the traditional literary publishing scene.
He and the other staff – Jeremy Millar [now Head of Writing], Dr Emily LaBarge and Sally O'Reilly – made me realise that I could be more ambitious, more sure of myself and to grab the next dream project (in my case, a book) and make it happen. The RCA has most definitely opened doors for me – and showed me where the doors are.
“Studying at the RCA is the best thing I’ve done so far and I know I’ll be benefiting from the after-effects for years to come… I found the MA to be incredibly challenging, but absolutely worth it.”
You are currently working on your first creative non-fiction book, represented by United Agents. Can you tell us a bit more about the book? What is it about?
This is a major coup for me. United Agents is one of the biggest literary agencies in the UK. Seren Adams saw my work on the RCA graduation showcase website and signed me immediately. So, through all the uncertainty of the pandemic, taking our work online really worked out for me. I submitted draft chapters of the book, Alive~Asleep for my MA Final Major Project and it’s growing from there.
It’s about the horror of grief and contemporary art – I’ve been trying to articulate the comfort that art has given me ever since my dad died when I was just 22 years old. The death of a parent is extremely hard to navigate when you’re a young person and I was at art school, so turned to artists who ‘got it’ – Berlinde De Bruyckere, Gregor Schneider, Franz Kafka, Max Richter. Their work feels like a gut-punch. They still give me shivers. So far, the book is nasty, hyperpersonal and filled with black humour (I hope).
What advice would you give to someone considering study at the RCA?
Just go for it. Studying at the RCA is the best thing I’ve done so far and I know I’ll be benefiting from the after-effects for years to come. But I had a difficult time finding the money and accommodation to get me through the MA. There will be people reading this who may be in the same position. I ended up travelling between Liverpool and London every week sofa-surfing, and applied for charitable bursaries.
I think my background as a freelancer really braced me for the process which continued through the MA: I combed through the Alternative Guide to Postgraduate Funding gateway and found charities that could fund me; had Student Support and my tutors write references and read draft applications, reading every piece of advice I could find. The women-led PR company Crystallised even stepped in and paid for my fees one month after I tweeted I was struggling – I cried with relief.
Embarking on an MA is a once in a lifetime choice and one you need to prepare for not just intellectually and emotionally – the grades and feedback aren’t the only things to consider if you’re from a low-income background – but also financially, logistically.
Write a list of ambitions – an MA might be one of them – as if there were no barriers in your way at all. Then work backwards and problem-solve as many of those barriers as you can. Garner support. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Who in your life can introduce you to a key contact who might publish your work, or share advice on how to get into a specialist field? Who can read a draft for you and give you feedback? Where are the grants that you’re eligible for and what information do they need? Is there someone to mentor you through the hard times? Whose books can you borrow? Who can give you a lift in their car?
Surround yourself with people who believe in you and will elevate you. I found the MA to be incredibly challenging, but absolutely worth it.