Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Creative Writing

I was recently asked by a friend of mine if I could recommend some creative writing courses and since being made redundant a couple of weeks ago I’ve finally found time to do it. I post them here as they may be of some use to those of you quivering to pen the Great British Novel:

Despite Hanif Kureishi's possibly highly accurate contention that creative writing courses are the 'new mental hospitals', I've compiled the following list of those that I rate. Right, here goes:

1. The Faber Academy

For those who want to really take their writing seriously, this is the place to go. Where else can you be tutored by John Sutherland in the subtle art of memoir writing, coached by Marcel Theroux and Erica Wagner on the strategy of writing or be instructed by Tracey Chevalier on the ticklish issues that come with writing historical fiction? All in all Faber offers perhaps the highest level of targeted course-based CW education. Not cheap, of course, but feel that quality.


2. The Arvon Foundation

Arvon, as it is popularly known, offers residential creative writing courses in locations from Yorkshire to Devon, Shropshire to Inverness-shire. Like Faber they cover all aspects of creative writing from poetry to screen-plays, novels to short stories and attract a fine and established cadre of published, successful writers to tutor. Indeed if success can be measured by the number of students who have gone on to be published then Arvon is impressive indeed.


3. West Dean College

Set in beautiful surroundings in Chichester, West Sussex, WDC runs a number of CW short courses which are tutored by two successful writers, wife and husband team Kate and Greg Mosse. Greg is something of a peripatetic CW tutor and also runs courses through the SouthBank Centre. Kate has written two bestsellers as well as being one of the founding mothers of the Orange prize. Needless to say they both know what they're talking about. They are currently running a competition giving the winner the opportunity to write undisturbed in the rather luxurious surroundings. I’m entering, why don’t you? Good luck!


4. Ty Newydd

Ty Newydd is the national writers’ centre of Wales and is set in an inspiring wooded location with views over Cardigan Bay. They attract tutors of the calibre of Patrick Gale and Tiffany Murray both of whom are fine writers and damn fine teachers. That they can also attract Kevin Crossley-Holland tutoring on myth, Horatio Clare on life writing and Carol Anne Duffy on poetry gives you an idea of just how good they are. They also have a lovely pay-by-instalment plan for the more impecunious author-to-be.


5. The London School of Journalism

Although unsurprisingly focussed on mainstream journalism courses there is a very good short CW course tutored by Andrew Taylor which covers the basic building blocks of writing creatively. The next of these three-day courses is due to run in March 2010.


6. The Open College of the Arts

An educational charity devoted to the arts, the OCA runs a number of rather good correspondence courses that encompass basic beginner themes to more advanced material for those who wish to hone already practiced skills. Each of the courses is 12 months long and requires some 8 hours per week of study.


7. University of East Anglia

The Ur-course of creative writing and still the most highly regarded. For those who want to do it properly then nowhere can be better than here. Since it's founding in 1970-71 by Angus Wilson and Malcolm Bradbury this MA course has seen a hugely impressive list of former alumni go on to be the bestselling, award-winning writers of at least two generations; Ian McEwan, Kazuo Ishiguro, Anne Enright, Tash Aw, Richard Beard, Andrew Cowan, Joe Dunthorne, Andrew Miller, Owen Sheers, Tracy Chevalier, Trezza Azzopardi, Panos Karnezis, Suzannah Dunn and Susan Elderkin to name but... well, you get the point.


8. The Writers' Workshop

Run by writers for writers the WW offers a fairly wide range of courses in London, Manchester, Glasgow and Oxford and covering the intro courses for complete beginners to seriously advanced stylistic stuff for the seasoned pro. They have one of the best teams of editors who between them have been responsible for winning damn near every award going.


Happy writing.



Monday, 12 October 2009

Good Story Tellers vs Good Writers – will they ever be reconciled?

A little musing I wrote a few weeks ago but couldn't find a home for:

The six-year wait is over. The fanfare has faded. The circus has left town and bookshelves across the nation heave with the latest offering from Mr Dan Brown.

The Lost Symbol is his first book since The Da Vinci Code. Within hours of its publication 300,000 copies were sold in the UK alone, more than any other hardback novel for adults since Gutenberg invented the moveable type printing press. Of the six and a half million copies printed, a million have been bought worldwide already. The e-book sales have broken yet more records and the pirates were hard at work offering hooky copies just a day after it was launched. So surely all those people handing over their hard earned credit crunch cash can’t be wrong, it must be brilliant mustn’t it?

Well actually no. It’s rubbish. It’s poorly written, cast-iron clunky and with more italicised words to stress the really important bits in case you miss them than I’ve ever seen used in a single book. In short it’s has all the verve, grace and charm of a tractor, making it to literature what Massey Ferguson is to Ossetra caviar, utterly unrelated. If great writing could be likened to a gazelle, this is an ass and Brown’s fans will absolutely love it because he gives them all they’ve ever wanted from him. And that is a corking story.

I must confess that despite my innate snobbery and the offence to any critical sensibilities I may possess part of me enjoys what Brown and his ilk write. Jeffery Archer’s Kane and Abel is for me an example of masterful story telling. In fact I’d go so far as to say that Archer was one of the great storytellers of the late 20th century and I offer up as proof his collection of short stories A Quiver Full of Arrows. It’s just a shame that it’s so badly written. Another is Stieg Larsson who was a storytelling genius. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is magnificent – we shall perhaps gloss over the original title, which translates as Men Who Hate Women - the characters he created, the journeys he takes us on are unforgettable. But to tell the story he uses words as pile drivers, smashing the reader over the head to better drive it home. These authors are the Thors rather than the Freyas, Vulcan not Venus; the writers for whom the story is all and on whom the artistry of language is lost or at least temporarily misplaced.

And herein lies the rub. It’s the old Manichaean divide. Those authors that win the prizes yearn for the sales and those that achieve the sales wonder why they never get the prizes. It would be that never the twain shall meet but there is, on the micrometer thin dividing line between the two camps, that rare breed of authors that can do both; tell a great story and use language as art to do so rather than merely using words like the pieces of an IKEA flat pack, to be loosely bolted together to form something that looks like literature. Those few, win the awards and sell the copies but, boy are they few.

The corollary is that there are some writers whose prose is so beautiful, so a pointe; they are such gifted surgeons of the lexicon that you would entrust them with your last vowel. But they can’t tell a story for toffee. Or to be more precise they once told a good story so well that they set the bar too high for themselves and could never quite reach that dizzying height again. The one-book-wonders. Like bands whose first albums harness all the vivid teenage, experiencing-life-for-the-first-time energy, angst, love and hate, and sell many millions but then disappear when the second album turns out to be a squib, the energy having all been used up. One feels sympathy for such authors and often loyalty. We buy the books and read them, but more in hope than expectation, for we know the worst of it. They will write lovely prose for the rest of their lives but they will forever be trapped as the authors without a story.

So while it is possible to be a master storyteller and a good writer it’s also rare. Perhaps we expect too much. After all we wouldn’t expect a street fiddler to be able to play Mendelssohn’s violin concerto in E minor so beautifully that it bring tears to our eyes but we’ll happily throw some coins in his violin case and thoroughly enjoy his rendition of something by the Gypsy Kings.

Perhaps that is ultimately Mr Brown’s fate, that of an author-busker. For having read his latest volume I’ve worked out why he’s so popular, it’s that he makes stupid people feel intelligent, at that he’s a bleedin’ genius. Indeed ‘volume’ is a good word for his work as it signifies the space his writing takes up with no reference to mass; no artistic heft there, no depth to his work you see, no gravitas. But he does have a very large violin case for all the coin he’s collected so that’s alright then.



Saturday, 10 October 2009

Cross Training

Quite literally as I write this, I am on board a train heading west to chair an event at the Cheltenham Literature Festival. It’s a murky day beyond the window, all autumnal browns and muted greens under zinc-grey skies and drizzle. Not much to look at then and so, having finished the book I was reading, my attention has focussed on my fellow travellers.

Across the aisle from me is a long haired fellow in his mid forties who seems to be living under the misguided impression that it is possible to be a Goth while having grey straggly hair, appalling dress sense – largely a collection of five hoodies of various sizes and colours, all worn one atop the other – and a fascination with the inner geography of his nasal passages. While somewhat unpleasant, it’s his life and none of my affair, but what does get my goat and has for most of the hour and a half since we left Paddington is the appalling and regular sound of him clearing his sinuses. It’s been happening every 5 minutes now. I can almost set my watch by it. He seems completely oblivious to the fact that the honking, grating, echoey noise he makes while doing it has led to raised eyebrows, sighs of indignation and I’ll swear that one woman looked at the little knife she’s using to peel an orange with more than necessary longing the last time Goth-man honked. Frankly he’d almost deserve to have a lung punctured if it would stop him from making that horrible noise and us from feeling cross. I’m minded to ask him to stop but something’s holding me back. It would be easier if I could pass him a pack of tissues as a subtle hint but I don’t have any.

Some years ago now I found myself in a similar quandary. I had boarded the train, heading back to London from chairing another literary event, and had found myself the sole occupant of a table. A rare and special moment this as it allows one to spread out papers while writing and generally treat the place as one’s own. It was not to be however as just as the train pulled out of the station, a chap walked past all the vacant seats in the near empty carriage and plonked himself down directly opposite me. I nodded a quizzical but partially welcoming hello as I attempted to take up less space on the table and went about my work.

He had the air of an avid walker or rambler but without any of the equipment I normally associate with such fine folk. No rucksack, no binoculars, no woolly hat or stick. Indeed he wasn’t carrying anything at all. Not even a map. He was wearing an army surplus camouflage jacket with jeans beneath and what looked to be size 16 trainers on his feet and it was the footwear that was to prove the problem. Or rather the footwear’s contents. For he took his trainers off and released a stench would have felled lesser men. The cheesy, vinegary, sulphurous cloud that rose up from beneath the table would surely have contravened all the United Nation’s carefully drafted resolutions on the use of chemical and biological warfare. I have – and I’m not proud of it, but it’s true – smelled corpses that were less revolting. Truly this made me almost retch up my kidneys on the spot, even the perfume of rampant gangrene would have been preferable. I didn’t quite know what to do. Should I ask him to replace his footwear? Should I just move and forsake my table? I didn’t want to of course but in the event, and fearing him to be mad, packed up my things and moved on, feeling cowardly and confused.

Perhaps on reflection, regular flamboyant sinus clearing isn’t as bad as the alternative.



Thursday, 8 October 2009

The Importance of Being Nice

Here’s a piece of mine that the delightful and highly recommendable Mien Magazine have just accepted for inclusion.

The Importance of Being Nice

One of the great brands of Britain, up there with Marmite, Foyles and Bristol Motors, has as its logo a depiction of a dead lion with a cloud of bees rising above it and a legend beneath stating that ‘out of the strong came forth sweetness.’ You will recognise the quote as being from chapter 14 of the Book of Judges and the brand as Tate and Lyle’s Golden Syrup. But what’s the relevance of this to the subject of being nice?

Nice seems to have become unfashionable of late. While the very word encompasses politeness, kindness, thoughtfulness and decency, it also hints at a gentle affability, an amiable pleasantness and there’s little enough of that around. We live in a world where grasping insecurity and aspirational greed has all but won the day, where self is the overriding concern and where rights take precedence over responsibilities. All this works as acid corrosion on the unwritten contract of reciprocal humaneness that is the essence of nice.

Nice has had to put up with some fierce criticism over the years. There’s a Dutch proverb which states that ‘too nice is neighbour’s fool’, even Dag Hammarskjöld, the second Secretary General of the United Nations once commented that ‘It’s easy to be nice, even to an enemy – from lack of character.’ And here’s where the golden syrup comes into it because I believe that the Dutch and Dag were wrong, that niceness is actually grossly misunderstood and as result completely undervalued.

Niceness takes strength, moral fibre and confidence in one’s self to exhibit and enact. It is not an act of cowering weakness to be nice but the action of the evolved and compassionate. Bullies are nasty because they are weak, threatened and insecure. Rudeness is generally the default stance of the arrogant and thoughtless who care not one jot about their fellow man. Even the famed and over used Jimmy Durante quote “Be nice to people on your way up because you’ll meet them on the way down” completely misses the spirit of nice which is as close to altruism as is possible, doing the right thing because it is the right thing to do, not for any reward or recognition. Certainly not as any hedge against future descent. You see you can’t really fake nice. Nice is as nice does and much like honesty, although we are disposed to be tolerant to its simulacra when we see or hear them, we certainly recognise its true presence on some basic, hardwired emotional level when it manifests itself.

Nice is often not easy. It has a morality of its own which is supererogatory. It’s the quiet, persistent bell in your head that when heard demands that you act, often not only because it is the right thing to do – we’ve all walked away from such situations in our lives – but because to not act would play on our consciences. Nice is therefore demanding, a self imposed personal challenge that when met and met well can enhance our feeling of self-worth, that warm glow of having made the world a better place in some small way. It’s not the reason for being nice, of course, that wouldn’t be nice, but it is a secondary benefit, a modest, welcome reward.

And that gets to the heart of the importance of nice. No one should be above morality and certainly not the morality of nice. Bullies should feel weak and insecure until they learn to be nice. The arrogant should have their rudeness reflected back at them until they understand the enduring power of nice. Nice is the domain of the highly evolved; perhaps the highest expression of the art of community living and of course with niceness comes an understanding and tolerance of the weakness of others, because to be otherwise wouldn’t be nice.

And in case none of the above convinces you, perhaps this will; it surely can’t be an accident that the regional capital of Provence is a city in the south of France so good they named it Nice and that my mother brought me up to understand that while it’s nice to be important, it’s more important to be nice.