Writing

The word is always less than the thing it is meant to represent. No matter how complicated, exact, true and beautiful the language may become, it is always a diminishment of the reality described. (Stephen Dobyns, ‘next word, better word, the craft of writing poetry’)

So true – and possibly why I like to write fantasy. In the made up world there is no reality to be diminished into language, and the word can rule.

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Finally here!

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This is a very lovely paperback collection of poems in which Slug and Quicksand appear. I obviously bought it for self-aggrandising reasons, thus wiping out the £6 I was paid for them, but actually it’s a beautifully produced book and there’s some excellent poems in there. As usual, the part I read first was the biographies – I just love those mini-essays that give you an insight into other people’s psyches, through what they choose to include, omit, or give in detail. Mine tend to the (extremely) short. I can tell you the only interesting sentence (which has no new information if you’ve read my ‘about‘ page):

She has been both a tight-head prop and a Viking re-enactor.

Anyway, Journey to Crone is available now, either direct from Chuffed Buff Books, or from Amazon, or from the Book Depository.

 

Memory

I once said on the radio that I had grown up in a house without books and my father happened to hear the programme and he phoned me to say I was a liar.

‘We did have a book,’ he said. ‘I remember it. It was green. It sat on top of the fridge for ages.’

‘That was the Kilmarnock Telephone Directory,’ I said, ‘which doesn’t count as a proper book.’

Andrew O’Hagan (2013): Can You Make an Artist?, Changing English: Studies in Culture and Education, 20:1, 29-33

Identities

[Two posts in two days? Anyone would think it was a bank holiday weekend.]

Yesterday I posted something quite long which I had intended to link to on my twitter account, which is linked to my other life, the dayjob, because people who follow me there might be interested. But I didn’t, and it was because of a slight crisis of ‘do I have the right to call myself a writer?’

This isn’t a secret blog, and my name is the same as it always is, so anyone who knows me otherwise and stumbles across this, will know it’s me. But I still wasn’t sure about directly telling people about it.

Can I claim to be a writer? I haven’t published a novel, or a non-fiction book, and although I have more credits than appear on the ‘published work’ tab (mostly because I’m bad at going backwards in time), it’s not like I’m missing anything major. And I suppose at least part of the dayjob involves writing.

One of my new colleagues asked me the other day if I wrote poetry. I was so surprised I’d admitted I did. Then he asked if I’d had any published. To which I said yes, again. Then he asked if he could read any. To which I said no. I felt extremely embarrassed. It’s as if it’s easy to send out work to people who may reject it or judge it badly if they don’t know you, but the idea of being face to face with someone knowing they’ve read your work, and who knows you know they’ve read your work… brrr, shivers up the spine.

It took a long time to admit that what I wanted to do was write. Even though everyone else who’d ever met me knew that. Setting up this blog and claiming to be ‘a writer’ was another step forward. So why do I feel like I’m justified claiming to be a writer?

Well, there are different pathways to that identity. One is publication. I am published, in fairly minor ways, in various places, but I think that I would follow Andrew Cowan (in the previous post) in saying publication = book. You can call yourself an author (or a poet) when you have a book or a publishing deal.

Another is counting something else – spondulicks. I make a reasonable supplement to my income by writing. Mostly I make money by writing non-fiction educational materials, but I did earn £6 from selling poems last financial year (and let’s face it, in terms of poetry, that puts me in the 1% 😉 ). I realised that I probably had the right to call myself a writer on this basis when filling in a survey sent round by women’s writing magazine Mslexia which asked me how much I make from writing each year. When I looked back at my income I realised that I make a substantial proportion of my dayjob salary all over again from writing. Not enough to make me rich, and certainly now I’m wondering how on earth I managed to squander it all! But enough to validate this: I am a writer. I’m an academic too, but I’m a writer.

So why can’t I let people know that?

 

Strange Bedfellows

Strange Bedfellows was the tagline for a series of seminars and discussion events on the theme of the boundary between the creative and the critical, organised by some graduate students in the University of York English department. On Thursday I attended the final event, which focused on the place of creative writing in the university (broadly speaking). There were three very enjoyable speakers: Andrew Cowan, who leads the UEA MA in Creative Writing as well as being a graduate of that course and the author of a number of novels; Stephen May, who works for Arts Council England and is the author of two novels, including Life, Death, Prizes, shortlisted for the Costa Novel Award and (more or less prestigiously?) the Guardian’s ‘Not The Booker’; and an academic from Manchester Metropolitan University’s English Literature team, Angelica Michelis. Fifteen (or twenty!) minutes from each was followed by a brief discussion.

I made some notes of some of what was said which I’m about to put down here – basically fairly straightforward reportage. Another way to go looking for the information is to go to Twitter and search for #strangebedfellows (although you may also find some other strange bedfellows suggested!). It’s worth noting that the context of this talk is over 500 university creative writing courses in the UK, and an A level in CW being launched in September by AQA.

Andrew Cowan was first up and despite finding what he had to say very interesting I wrote nearly none of it down. He mentioned that the idea behind UEA’s MA was summarised by Malcolm Bradbury as the creation of a ‘significant climate around writing’ where intending writers could go and immerse themselves in that climate. Cowan is the ‘keeper of the list’ of alumni, and spends hours googling former students to update their entries on the UEA website. He reckons they have about a 30% publication rate (where publication = book), in contrast to a more normal 10% (May later confirmed that he and two others off his course – including Adrian Barnes whose Nod was shortlisted for the Arthur C. Clarke award this year – out of 30 on the novel writing track, are now published writers). He was very grateful for the poets, whose chapbooks count.

Cowan addressed the criticisms of Creative Writing courses (‘you can’t teach writing’; ‘everyone who comes out of UEA sounds the same’) and pointed out there was some extremely varied writers on the list of graduates. He suggested that there was perhaps  a difference between ‘writing’ and ‘creative writing’ – the latter being a set of institutionalised practices, a programme of study, a set of learning methods and strategies, for academic credit, while the former is ‘what writers do’. An interesting distinction, and one he made at far greater length than I have.

Stephen May began by quoting Flaubert, who said that you should ‘be a bourgeois in your life so that you can be an anarchist in your art’. He went on to explain his trajectory into writing, beginning with a life as an English teacher. He suggested that “Everyone should have to their national service years of teaching and then no one would complain about teachers’ pay or the long holidays…. and like the Swiss Army, you’d have to go back every year for your two weeks… you’d keep your brown teaching corduroys under the bed.’ Seemed like an excellent idea to me!

He said when looking for an MA he’d decided to go for one which would only give you your MA if you finished your novel, rather than just a part of one! (This struck me as an extremely smart idea.) He ended up doing the MMU online MA, in which he found a supportive yet competitive group. I found this interesting as one of the things that has held me back from doing a part time MA is finding a local one – I always thought that the face to face contact would be a major thing for me, and that it would be impossible to make the same kind of connections in an online environment.

In connection to whether Creative Writing can be taught, May said ‘creativity, like sport, can be improved.’ He said writing was like boxing – ‘You get better in the ring, very very fast.’

Finally Dr Michelis talked about an innovative module she has created as part of the undergrad degree at MMU – a unit on Crime Fiction which is taught and assessed both creatively and critically. She does the lectures and the critical seminars, and a colleague teaches the creative element. (There is a similar Gothic module at UEA, and I’m trying to think of what I could do along the same lines.) She had a few stern words for those of us who think that all English literature lecturers must be novelists manqué: ‘A lot of creative writers pity the rest of the department because they think we are envious… I was astonished. I’ve never dreamed of writing.’ For her, her critical work is very much a creative thing. She also rather cuttingly suggested that many creative writers who taught at university saw it like prostitution – they do it for the money.

The final discussion mostly focused around the critical requirements on MA courses in Creative Writing, and whether they are useful. Stephen May criticised the fact that many Creative Writing teaching positions require a PhD – he thinks it is more important that the teachers be excellent practitioners. Further discussion was held on the poetry/prose question at MA level – is one easier to teach? Andrew Cowan revealed that applications for the prose pathway at UEA outweigh the poetry fivefold (is this because more people want to write novels? Or because they can see that novel writing might make a career but poetry is unlikely to? Or because it is easier to get validation for prose writing than it is for poetry? – poetry is a personal thing. It is somehow more respectable to say you are a writer of prose than a poet – a poet is a particular, crushed velvet coated, long-haired ‘artist’).

Finally, I’m going to pinch a Stephen May anecdote. He once asked Simon Armitage how it was that he seemed to write so quickly – he was publishing far more than other poets, as far as May could see, at the rate of about a book a year rather than an ‘ice age’ in between for others. Armitage replied that he should ask those other poets – poems are only short, he said. You should be able to get one done before breakfast, and then the rest of the day’s your own.

Does the person matter?

I know that no matter how much you like someone as a person, if their writing is truly terrible, you’re not going to buy their second book. But is the opposite also true? If you really like an author’s work can you continue to buy it (and therefore support them financially) if as a person that author is making what you consider to be reprehensible and even repulsive statements in public?

A fairly well-known indie-published author who has subsequently signed a traditional publishing deal for paperback wrote a blog post which he has subsequently deleted, in which he relayed a quite reasonable story of his own negative reaction to someone he met, but ended it with a misogynist/ somewhat sexually threatening remark. He has retracted and apologised, so I’m not going to name him here, but I had read the blog post – it was in fact the first thing I’d ever read by him. I had heard about him and thought about buying his book. This weekend I was standing in WH Smith’s, looking at this paperback and thinking about buying it. But I couldn’t bear to – the author had intruded too much into my image of the novel.

Similarly a fairly famous American sci-fi author whose novels I have read and loved in the past has made some fairly inflammatory remarks against gay marriage recently. This puts me in more of a quandary – in the first case I’m never going to know what I’m missing, but in this case I do and it hurts, partly because I’m the kind of person who finds an author they like and then reads EVERYTHING that person has ever written. But I don’t agree with him on this, and it’s not just a case of not agreeing, it’s a case of finding the way he has expressed himself in public – using his status as a well known author – to be extremely offensive and narrow-minded.

So, should the way an author behaves or believes affect my book-buying, if that author doesn’t put those behaviours or beliefs into their book-writing? I am afraid that for me, I cannot separate the author from their work. I am not bothered by differing politics, or differing beliefs, just extreme and offensive ones. I know that I am making a commercial decision when I buy a book, and my money is going more or less directly to the writer, or some portion of it is. I was interested to find that I feel this way. But these two authors have lost me as a reader.

Make Good Art (even if it doesn’t pay)

There have been two highly distressing anti-arts news stories this week: one from the US and one from the UK.

The first came two days ago in the form of an interview with two married artists (one poet, one musician) from Minnesota, who are under investigation by their state’s tax authorities. The argument boils down to: you can’t be a serious artist, because you’re not making enough money, so this must be a hobby, and your expenses are therefore not tax deductible. Art is only art if it makes a profit after a certain amount of time, and if it doesn’t you must stop and go and get a job in a biscuit factory.

The second one was a speech given by the UK Culture Secretary of all people, Maria Miller, who insists that culture must contribute to the economy. Sam West, Chair of the National Campaign for the Arts wrote eloquently about this here. Miller said government funding for the arts is less than 1% of total government spending in the UK. In fact it’s 0.01%.

The thing about arts funding from the government is that arts that are in themselves profitable and of direct economic benefit don’t need funding. The arts that need funding are the ones that don’t make a profit. The ones that inspire the children. The ones that benefit mental health. The ones that enable people to make sense of their lives. Art is valuable for what it is for us, what it does for us, and how it sits inside us. It’s a statement about what the world should be like. It might not pay. But it makes the world a better place in ways which money can’t buy. Because value is not the same as price (and I think I pinched that from Sam West, so apologies).

There’s only one response to make to either of these stories, once you’ve ruled out weeping in a corner and rioting in the streets. Watch this. And: Make. Good. Art.