Reading between the lines

As well as nurturing her writing, novelist Rebecca Connell believes, her university experience gave her self-belief

March 25, 2010

As with most major life events, going to university was something I anticipated with equal amounts of eagerness and dread. In the weeks before my first term, my worries were almost exclusively focused around the social side: would I fit in, would I make friends, would I find ways to occupy my time? Looking back, this angst feels like wasted effort. Yes, I met people who altered my opinions and who stimulated my thinking. What I didn't expect, however, were the many other ways in which university changed my life.

The first catalyst for change, and the most simple, was the shift in outlook that comes with living away from home for three years in a new place. Discovering the diversity of Oxford, from its ancient architecture to its modern night-spots, made such a powerful impression on me that six years later I set my first published novel, The Art of Losing, in the city. I felt different - possessed of a new freedom that made me react to my surroundings with intensity. The physical landscape of Oxford was the backdrop to everything that happened to me there, and the secretive, insular atmosphere of the place rubbed off on me and my writing to such an extent that I can see myself returning to it again and again.

The second change came through learning to read in a different way. At school, the critical focus is necessarily narrow, concentrating on a few set texts and exploring their major themes. Suddenly, at Oxford, I was faced with the necessity of writing regular essays on sweepingly broad topics, immersing myself in the canon of English literature, turning to literary criticism to reinforce and challenge my arguments, and embarking on entirely new lines of thought such as critical theory. It was a daunting prospect, but ultimately it changed the way I read, and wrote, for ever. After you have done an English degree, it becomes very difficult to read with complacency. I have not lost the knack of reading for pleasure, but there is always an unspoken awareness behind my enjoyment; a knowledge of the tradition from which a writer has sprung, a greater appreciation of the skill of their work, and a deeper sense of what may lie beneath the text. To put it simply, I learned to read between the lines...and with this new way of seeing, with little conscious effort, my own writing deepened too.

Third, and perhaps most important of all, university gave me the confidence to succeed. In today's job market, it is easy to suspect that a degree no longer counts for what it used to, and that time may be better spent entering the world of work. While I would never denigrate those who choose that path, Oxford gave me the kind of drive, focus and self-belief that would have been difficult for me to find elsewhere. I left the course not only with my degree, but with the knowledge that I could take what I had learned and use it for my own ends.

I have no doubt that the degree gave a stamp of authority to my CV that has stood me in good stead for the variety of "day jobs", in television and research, in which I have worked over the past eight years. More crucial for me, however, was the impetus that the university experience gave me to develop my writing. I knew that I wanted not simply to evaluate others' texts, but to create my own. In an environment where it seemed at one time that every second English student was writing a novel, these dreams were nurtured and given credence. I left Oxford feeling animated and optimistic, with a renewed faith that one day I would join the ranks of published authors - and for that, I will always be partly in my university's debt.

• Rebecca Connell's first novel, The Art of Losing, is available in paperback. Her second novel, Told in Silence, will be published in May 2010.

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