Saturday, 24 March 2012

The Blues

Feeling blue? It's a beautiful day here, so the healthy have no excuses. Happiness should be our natural habitat, when the sun shines.

But it's never that simple, which is why a writer writes. Not feeling what you should feel, that's the starting point for wanting to find the words. That's  how it works for me, anyway. And I also feel as if the world we live in - the consumer, surface, smiling world - expects us to conform to an imposed idea of mental health.

Which is where 'the blues' comes in. Perky, positive, making it happen - no. Melancholy, moody, lost in your sad, bad feelings - yes. The blues can be a pause in the action, a resting place in gloom. The blues can be the time when you actually stop, and look around. The blues can be a chance to face yourself with something like honesty, and ask yourself the hardest questions.

If you are going to write anything worth writing - if I am - then we need the blues. We might not sing it, though I wish I could, but we can feel it. And write it. Happy people don't need to be writers, and the upbeat mood is great for the cover of a chick-lit book, but not for the inside of a writer's head.

With this in mind, I'll go off to the library with my overdue library book, wearing pink but feeling Goth, and brave the sun.

Sunday, 4 March 2012


This post is inspired by a very interestng discussion on Facebook - you can find my page here.

One of the issues when teaching creative writing, or studying it, is the question of the outcome. What should a student expect from a BA or an MA in creative writing? Clearly, not all graduates of such programmes will land a book deal. Not every graduate wants to be a published writer, but most do. Those who don't find a publisher may feel they have failed in their ambitions.

The problem here is that more people than ever are writing and seeking publication, and so competition is fiercer than it was even five years ago. But it's not only a problem of access to publishing deals, but of the arbitary nature of such deals. It's considered bad form to mention this, but not all books in Waterstones are well-written. Genre fiction is often anodine and repetitious; literary fiction can be self-indulgent and over-written. Publishing is not scientific; it's emotional and personal. Publishers publish books they like, or 'feel passionate about'.

In this context, I strongly believe that all creative writing students should be encouraged to aim high, and seek publication for their work if that's their goal. Conventional publishing, with an agent and a publisher behind you, is still the best way to find readers and establish a reputation. No student should be discouraged from this. Publishing remains the gold standard in professional terms.

But on the other hand, I also believe that because of the publishing industry is cautious and conservative, it's also a mistake to write too narrowly with a specific market in mind. If you are going to spend thousands of pounds on a degree in the creative arts, then it should help you to be more creative. Being creative means thinking wild and crazy thoughts, coming at things laterally, being bold and weird. I'd like to see more of that on creative writing programmes, more experimentation.

Also, in the arbitary world of Chosen and Unchosen writers, best sellers have a habit of coming out of left field. (And best sellers are what everyone wants these days.) No one expected Fever Pitch or Bridget Jones' Diary to be game-changing books, but they were. The 'another one like that, please' mentality that prevails in publishing at the moment can stifle originality.

So creative writing programmes can do something really important : help foster bold new writing in any genre. Or even a genre that a student has created for themselves.  This is how we can help the Nick Hornbys and Helen Fieldings of the future, as well as the Ian McEwans. The support and feedback of peers and staff, the sense that hard work, redrafting and attention to detail are an intrinsic part of the writing process, the feeling that one is part of a community of like minded people - all of this is vital. These programmes can and should set standards that are not just as high as those expected in publishing, but higher. All students will benefit from that, and the skills and confidence they gain will be useful to them in any future career.

Not every graduate can be a published writer, but the graduates that do get published might help extend the possibilities of what being published means.

Saturday, 3 March 2012


Saturday. Typically, what this writer's Saturday looks like is a bit of a mess. I usually get up early, have  a cup of Earl Grey tea, listen to a bit of hurly-burly on the Today programme, and do some work. This might be writing my thesis, which expands and goes sideways quite a lot, rather like a tent at the end of a camping holiday which doesn't want to go back in the bag. Or it might be some lesson prep for my lecturing. Sometimes, I write notes for new fiction ideas, or read around my big new novel concept, which I am secretly quite excited about.

Then the Actual Day starts - today it included going to a 'pre-loved fashion' sale with a friend, late breakfast in a cafe, a quick phone-row with teenage daughter who thought she should be in the cafe with us, exchanging Sim card in a new iphone, a trip to a flea market and then home again for more PhD work.

Then some Facebook and online stuff.  I try and look at this as an information gathering exercise, not a social thing, as it's very easy to spend hours and hours 'liking' and 'commenting' and then hoping to be 'liked' back. I think I am a tad too sensitive for social media; it reminds me of schooldays: trying to get in with the popular girls by saying really hilarious things, or measuring my social success by the number of people who clustered round my desk. (As soon as I came up with this measurement, all clustering stopped.)

I say all this not because I think all this is interesting, but because it fairly definitively isn't. One of the things that writers should do, in my opinion, is have the courage to be a tiny bit dull. Having wild adventures is useful (though not always possible in middle life) but so is The Everyday. You can't write all the time, you can't even think all the time, and sometimes the dailyness of things is a great life-saver, and sanity preserver.