Tag Archives: creative writing

Tap Dancing, Poetry and Black Mascara

Birkbeck PhD student is one of four prize winners at the 2020 International Book and Pamphlet Competition for her collection: ‘Black Mascara (Waterproof)’

This is a photo of Rosalind Easton

Rosalind Easton

An English teacher for the past 10 years and an English, Theatre and Creative Writing PhD student more recently, Rosalind Easton has spent as many years deconstructing poetry. But it took the interaction with and observations of her young niece to inspire her to write poetry in the first instance. 

Just two and a half years ago, she penned her first poem about the birth of her niece and found other familial influences through her grandmother’s love of literature. She shares that her writing was sporadic- just one or two poems every few months but also notes that “when you get into a rhythm of writing, that’s when you get the lightbulb. That’s why it’s so important to try and write every day.”

Easton was able to source further creative expression through her love of dance; tap dancing, in particular. She points to the correlations and expresses, “The rhythm of my tap dancing comes through in my poetry.”

Having found her rhythm and routine, Easton would spend her mornings before going into work, writing in a local cafe for just under an hour, a process driven by “50% ruthless discipline, 50% pie-in-the-sky dreaming.”

Connections between things is a key component of Easton’s work. She draws the link between poetry and mathematics for its patterns and structures; as well as likening the visual elements of poetry to paintings and sculptures. Throughout her winning collection, objects seem to take on a life of their own with judge, Imtiaz Dharker capturing this most aptly:

Catching sight of a former lover makes my iPhone flicker/ with the ghost of a Nokia brick. All kinds of inanimate things come alive enthusiastically in these poems: the stiletto heel, the music stand, the microphone, a wand with no spells, making every poem a delightful surprise.”

It’s all a far cry from when Easton had worried about her poetry being publishable, acknowledging that she writes long lines; so she was pleasantly surprised when judge, Ian McMillan praised her for this. Indeed, both judges McMillan and Dharker were emphatic in stating the“final choices were unanimous”.

A Book & Pamphlet winners reading will he held at The Wordsworth Trust in Grasmere in Spring 2021, and the four winning pamphlets will be published in Feb 2021. Read more about the competition and winners.


“By the end of the course, Birkbeck felt like a second home to me”

Former ballet dancer Katie Willis completed an MA in Creative Writing and was due to graduate with her peers this week. In this blog, she shares her experience of studying at Birkbeck while dealing with illness and her plans for the future.

I am very excited to graduate from my MA in Creative Writing as this is my first degree.

I am a mature student and I’ve had no previous experience of university-level study as I followed a vocational path – I was a ballet dancer before my illness took hold. It is a huge achievement for me to be graduating.

If you want to write about a sick body you have to be comfortable with living inside of it. I have chronic fatigue syndrome and a rare form of cancer. I had to balance university with regular hospital appointments and the side effects of taking chemotherapy and other drugs. On occasions that felt overwhelming.

I faced quite a few physical challenges. I had to be very disciplined on a daily basis, managing the limited energy that I had. The travelling to and from university was physically demanding on a sick body. I had to rest up on the days preceding and the days following my lectures in order to be well enough to attend. I was sad that I was not always able to participate in social events with other students, but I always held on to the important part that it was such a joy and privilege to be able to attend university in the first place.

Throughout my studies I had the support of a close group of fellow students who were aware of my physical challenges. I had two friends who always offered to carry my bags and books to and from and class.

Creative Writing at Birkbeck

I began the MA writing stories which were mostly about magical realism but then in the second semester I took Julia Bell’s Creative Non-Fiction module and I realised that I was interested in writing about the self, using my experience as a dancer. I slowly learned to embrace my quirkiness which allowed me to write to my strengths.

I realised that my writing is poetic and kinetic, and I wanted to write about the body: the sick body and the dancing body, and the place where those two bodies meet. Similarly, I am interested in the place where fiction meets non-fiction meets poetry. I want to meld the genres in my own way but also reflect the shape of the body on the page.

I no longer try to write outside of myself or to become the writer that I’m not. I found my own voice on the course and also found the courage to write in it.

By the end of the course, Birkbeck felt like a second home to me, on a level with being in a hospital, which has felt like a second home for many years.

As awful as the current situation is, there is some sense of community in nationwide lockdown. If you have lived with a physical disability that has left you housebound for a huge chunk of your life that is a very personal and isolating form of lockdown.

It is quite extraordinary to look at the world now and see everyone else under a similar lockdown and huge organisations and bodies rapidly making adaptations in the way they function and impart knowledge. Such adaptations would have made a huge difference to me in the many years when I was housebound.

It is sad that our graduation ceremony is having to be postponed probably until November, but I plan to relish the anticipation of it, so it will be all the more exciting when it occurs.

Looking ahead

I was invited to continue my studies at Birkbeck and am currently doing the MFA in Creative Writing under the guidance of Toby Litt.

Ultimately, I want to publish a collection of short stories. I am currently writing a collection of short stories about bones. I’m taking specific bones from the body and using the power of incantation I’m writing the stories that these bones hold and, in the process, shaping a new body that is neither a sick body nor a dancing body, but something else. Something strong and mobile.

I’d also like to share what I have learned on the course. It would be great if I could take creative writing into hospitals and offer it to patients who have had surgery, or are undergoing chemotherapy treatments, to help them as I think it is an outlet when you are going through life changing moments.

If you are mature student, if you have a disability, if you have cancer, if you have been housebound for many years, if you have something which makes you feel like an outsider just go for it. It may just change your life!






Zhanna Chenenk: studying theatre at Birkbeck

Moscow native and former MA Text and Performance student, Zhanna Chenenk reflects on her year at Birkbeck.

What made you decide to study at Birkbeck?

I was looking for an MA in theatre. I was intrigued by the Text and Performance course thanks to its mix of academic and practical disciplines with the bonus of being able to study at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA).

Could you tell us about moving to London?

When I was sixteen I moved from my parents’ house in a small town close to Saint-Petersburg in Russia. That was a very stressful experience; a big city, a different culture, a huge distance (2000 kilometres) between myself and my family. Before coming to Birkbeck I had moved and travelled a lot and lived in many different cities, but it is still very hard to start from scratch in a new place. I arrived just before the course began and spent around a month searching for the right accommodation. I encountered many different people which was an interesting introduction to London life.

How was it coming to study at Birkbeck at first?

Before I applied for the course I met with a Birkbeck representative in Moscow to clarify some issues and later, when I was in London she took me on a tour of the campus and RADA. I liked the arts building as there is no logic to the room locations and you can easily find an empty space for a rehearsal.

Have you encountered any difficulties? How is the British system different from your country’s? Have you been to study skills sessions?

It was hard getting used to the British system, and once you’ve learned to cope with it, the year is over. Writing in a different language is a challenge in itself, but in addition this you are writing in many different ways; academic and narrative style, essays, scripts and portfolios. You even have to perform on stage in English – but I finally feel very comfortable using it. Now I feel it in my body. My program involved constant switching between practice and academic lessons and I wish I had more time to perfect everything.

What is it like living in London?

It took time getting used to London. Sometimes I loved it. I enjoyed wandering through the jungle of a city with my sketch book, but sometimes it was very oppressive. To escape these feelings, I travelled to new places like Berlin or Paris or Palestine, or even within the UK. I especially liked going to Brighton, Liverpool and Manchester! Most recently I discovered the Yorkshire Sculpture Park! The transport in London is also tricky to get used to and although I loved the poeticism of night buses, I hated using them during the day. Ultimately, opinions of cities are always built out of the opportunities that they give, and the connections you make. Not just the bricks and mortar which make it up.

Have you made friends on your course?

My course was international, so I’ve gained many connections across the world over the year. I participated in workshops and took on internships, so I’ve been able to build up my professional contacts to build a career upon.  London has been good to me. Whilst here I’ve met people who I have connected easily with. And even if some of them leave the UK soon I know that I have gained a wealth of friendships. I found my tribe here.

What has been your highlight of your time in London and at Birkbeck?

I would say that it has been good for me to review some of my personal values. Some of the things which were once important to me suddenly became very small. The same with my relationships; I revised all of them. I started to draw and take photos again. And I started writing. I found my experiences in London coming back to me in Berlin, when my friend asked me write a short story for his magazine. Thanks to the development of my language skills I was able to do this in in one morning and drew a picture to accompany it.

Can you tell us a little more about your dissertation?

I chose a practical path for my dissertation. For this I did a presentation – a 30-minute production and an 8000-word analytical portfolio. I chose to focus on women’s choices and the freedom to shape yourself as an artist. I have really enjoyed it, because I have had time to focus on one thing that I find interesting. It has also allowed me to make mistakes in the safety of an academic framework. I’m happy that I have had time to make these mistakes as they have taught me valuable lessons.

What are you doing since you completed your studies at Birkbeck?

I took on a thorough research tasks for my performance and now I have material to extend the performance into a trilogy. But, for now I am applying to take part in festivals for emerging directors with the presentation I created as a part of my dissertation. As for my other plans, details of these can be found in newspapers.

Further information:


100 letters changed my life

When Alison Hitchcock decided to write a letter to a friend after he was diagnosed with cancer, she had no idea it would lead to a new venture and an MA in Creative Writing at Birkbeck. She writes about how these letters changed her life. cancerlettersBack in 2010, I would never have predicted that when my friend, Brian Greenley, was diagnosed with bowel cancer, the letters that I offered to write to him would change both our lives.

In 2009 Brian and I had met on a yoga holiday in India. We got on well, both equally inflexible and neither of us able to do a headstand, but we had little else in common. I was a City career-girl, and Brian had recently taken voluntary redundancy and was thinking of setting up his own gardening business. We met up a couple of times back in the UK, but neither of us would have described ourselves as anything other than acquaintances. When Brian shared that he had been diagnosed with cancer, perhaps because I didn’t know what to say, I offered to write letters to cheer him up. Looking back, I’m not sure what possessed me – I was no writer. But a promise was a promise!

The letters began and over the next two years, as Brian’s cancer developed to stage four, I kept on writing. I surprised myself, finding that I cherished the time I sat alone and wrote. It felt good to be doing something for someone else and it removed the feeling of helplessness that friends so often feel when a loved one becomes ill.

My enthusiasm for writing was bolstered by Brian’s response to receiving the letters. He once said: ‘Knowing that someone is caring enough to write, buy a stamp and put the letter in the postbox means so much. Your letters help me to feel reconnected with the real world.’

Enthused by my newly discovered passion for writing, I attended an Arvon Starting To Write course and began to understand what it means to want to write. From then on, as for so many who attend Arvon, everything changed. I wanted to write more and learn more. My letters continued but Arvon had given me an appetite for writing and letters were no longer enough, so I applied to Birkbeck’s Creative Writing MA. The MA not only confirmed my love of the writing process, it gave me confidence to explore different styles. By the time the course ended, I had had short stories published, written a novel and become involved with wonderful literary organisations such as Word Factory.


At the end of 2016, Brian and I were recorded for Radio 4’s The Listening Project. Such was the response to our story, we set up From Me to You, a charity which inspires people to write letters to friends with cancer; keeping them connected at a time when they feel most disconnected. At From Me to You we run letter writing workshops, speak at events and our website hosts writing tips on what to say and how to say it, and shares many inspirational stories from those who have received and sent letters.  Recently we have expanded the initiative so that people can write letters to cancer patients they have never met. The communications range from postcards and notes that say something as simple as ‘keep strong’ to longer letters recounting tales of everyday life. These letters are acts of pure kindness. There is no obligation on the recipient to write back.

Brian never responded to any one of my 100 letters and I never expected him to. The letters had given me the gift of writing and a whole new life. That alone was, and still is, more than enough.

Contact details for From Me to You:


Where are all the grandparents in modern fiction?

Helen-Harris-Jul-2014-0366-smaller-versionThis post was contributed by Helen Harris (MA Oxon), associate lecturer in creative writing in Birkbeck’s Department of English and Humanities. Her new novel,Sylvia Garland’s Broken Heart is out now from Halban Publishers. This article was originally published on The Guardian‘s books blog.

Grandparents-in-contemporary-literatureConsidering how important grandparents are in many modern families – plugging the gaps and picking up the pieces when the stresses and strains on working parents get too much – isn’t it surprising that we don’t find more of them in contemporary fiction?

There is, of course, no shortage of memorable grandparents in children’s literature, beaming benignly – or occasionally malevolently – from the bookshelves: from the four grandparents in Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, via Grannie Island and Granma Mainland in Mairi Hedderwick’s Katie Morag series to David Walliams’ Gangsta Granny, grandparents seem a far richer source of inspiration than boring old parents.

But look around current adult fiction and there’s little writing about grandparents as grandparents. You can find forever-young baby boomer grandmas falling in love at 60 and novels about spirited older women finding self-fulfilment, but novels about grandparents’ relationships with their grandchildren seem in short supply. One rare exception is Finnish writer and illustrator Tove Jansson’s magical The Summer Book. Jansson (of Moomintroll fame) here turns her shrewd gaze on the interaction between an elderly grandmother and her six-year-old granddaughter, spending the summer together on an island in the Finnish archipelago. The book is beautiful, astute and tells us a lot both about childhood and about old age.

When my novel, Sylvia Garland’s Broken Heart, which examines the relationship between a grandmother and her young grandson, was published at the end of 2014, my expectations were low: I hadn’t published a novel for 20 years, my (excellent) publishers are a small independent house and a number of mainstream commercial publishers had previously rejected the book, telling me that it didn’t fit on their lists. So I was quite unprepared for the extraordinary reactions that began almost as soon as the book came out.

front coverIn Sylvia Garland’s Broken Heart, Sylvia’s bond with her grandson is threatened when his parents split up, driving her to extreme measures. I was invited on to Woman’s Hour on Radio 4, together with Jane Jackson of the Bristol Grandparents Support Group, which helps those denied contact with their grandchildren after family breakdown. I was quite panicked at the thought of my fiction side-by-side with real-life heartbreak. During the programme, I learned that a million British children have no contact at all with their grandparents because of some form of family rift. After our discussion, Woman’s Hour received so many emails from listeners with their own stories that they opened the programme the next day with a family therapist talking about the issues raised.

Sobered, I went about my business (including getting on with my next novel). A couple of weeks later, I was interviewed by a journalist who told me her own story of a family breakup triggering a loss of contact with grandchildren. Then a neighbour who had enjoyed the book told me about the predicament of a close friend, denied contact with her beloved grandchildren after their parents divorced. Real life, it seemed, was starting to outstrip fiction.

Last month I gave a reading at JW3, London’s new Jewish community centre. Grandparents were invited to come along and join a discussion of the themes raised by the book. Although the weather was cold enough to deter a much younger audience, the room was full and one after another the audience opened up with their own experiences. One woman, a grandma to 11 grandchildren, reduced many of us to tears with the desperate story of how her ex-son-in-law had denied her access to his children following the death of the children’s mother, her own daughter.

My humorous look at a warring mother-in-law and daughter-in-law suddenly felt rather light-hearted. It was a relief when another member of the audience spoke up: “You know the bit where Sylvia gives her grandson ice cream even though her daughter-in-law doesn’t allow it? I’ve done that.” There was a ripple of recognition around the room.

Other posts by Helen Harris:


9 Things You Need To Write A Novel

Toby LittIf your new year’s resolution was to finally write that novel, Toby Litt, writer and senior lecturer in creative writing in Birkbeck’s Department of English and Humanities has some advice for you. This article was originally published on Toby’s personal blog.

9 things you need to write a novel

Time-more-time-and-even-more-timeThe first thing you need to write a novel is… Time.

The second thing you need to write a novel is… More Time.

And the third thing you need to write a novel is… Even More Time.

This perhaps seems a bit obvious. But let me explain.

Time, More Time and Even More Time are all necessary.

I’ve divided Time up into three because you need Time for different things.

The first lot of Time is, as I’m sure you’ve guessed, Time to write. Time to sit at the desk with words coming out of you.

The second lot of time, More Time, is… Time not to write. Time to do stuff which doesn’t seem to be writing but which, in the end, turns out to have been writing all along. To the uninitiated, this may appear to be window shopping or people-watching, taking a nice long nap, or tracking down YouTube clips of something you once saw on TV – but, actually, it is when the writing bit of the brain does its hardest work. Believe me.

The third lot of time, Even More Time, is Time to rewrite, and rewrite and rewrite. But we’re not going to worry about that now. That’s for later drafts. For the moment, we’re thinking about the first draft.

As I’m sure you know, Time is never a neutral, abstract thing. Nor merely a clock-ticking-on-the-mantlepiece thing. Time for writing your novel is time not for other occupations, not for other people. It’s time stolen from your loved ones; time they will probably resent you not devoting to them. Time is closing the door behind you and not answering when people knock – not unless they knock very hard, and shout words like ‘Fire’ and ‘Bastard’ and ‘I’m leaving – I really am’.

In a way, writing is saying to your loved ones, ‘Go away, because I want to talk to you’. I want to talk to you in a more articulate and truthful way than I ever could if you were there in front of me. ‘Go away, because I want to talk to you.’

All of which explains why you’ll need the fourth thing, which is…

Some Selfishness
Some-selfishnessI could try to make this sound nicer – I could call it self-belief or determination or following your dream – but that’s not how it’s likely to appear to your loved ones, the ones outside the door, knocking, pleading.

Self-belief without justification is always going to appear selfish, and until you write your novel there won’t be any justification. In lots of people’s eyes, until your novel is published by a publisher they have heard of, and appears in shops they frequent, and is reviewed in a newspaper they read, then it is unjustified. And in the eyes of a large minority, a book isn’t really justified until it has been made into a film starring an actor or actress they have heard of – thus saving them the trouble of having to read it.

However, writing rarely has a proper justification. Not in the strictest sense. Writing with justification is the UN Declaration of Human Rights.

There is a story about James Joyce, made up by Tom Stoppard and included in his play Travesties. Joyce is in the dock. The interrogator asks him, ‘What did you do during the Great War?’ To which Joyce replies, ‘I wrote Ulysses. What did you do?’

The only real justification for a piece of writing is that it is worth reading – or feeling guilty about not having read.

But Selfishness is, of course, not enough. You will also need…

Some Generosity

Because, without making it sound like geriatric nursing or tin-shaking for the NSPCC, writing is an act of generosity. A novel that isn’t essentially for other people to read isn’t worth writing. This is the ‘..I want to talk to you’ part, the part that comes after ‘Go away.’

Many writers claim they write only to please themselves. And I believe them – but only so far as to say this is what they need to tell themselves in order to write.

A well-formed sentence has a direction: towards the reader.

So far we have: Time, More Time, Even More Time, Some Selfishness and Some Generosity.

The next thing you need is a little more prosaic. It’s…

The Means

The-meansBy The Means I mean the physical necessities of writing – a pen or pencil and some paper, or a computer.

What you use is entirely your choice. If what works for you is to write in crayon on old cornflake packets or in chalk on the gashouse wall, it doesn’t really matter.

There are some drawbacks to the gashouse wall (though in these days of digital cameras, who knows?) I would have a few cautionary things to say about word-processing.

The first is that it makes things too easy. Although I am telling you the nine things you need to write a novel, the most important is probably contained in these five words: There are no short cuts.

The sheer physical labour of rewriting a novel, start to end, by hand would certainly make one consider the necessity of every single word; copy/paste does not do this.

Of the Evils of Word-Processing, copy/paste is Number 2. (Number 1 comes a little later. Read on.)

By Means I also mean a workplace. Ideally this would be, as Virginia Woolf put it, A Room of One’s Own. But if this isn’t, a library, café, train or park bench in spring or summer will do almost as well. Quiet, too, is probably recommended.

The next thing you need – there are only three more – is something much more abstract. It is…

A Discipline.

A Discipline. Not, I repeat, not a routine, though it might on the surface resemble one.

A routine is unhelpful because, when you miss it or mess it up, you are going to feel bad, and get disheartened, and stop writing.

I think the idea of a discipline is better than that of a routine, because it is more flexible.

A routine is ‘I need to be at my desk by nine o’clock and produce 400 words by lunchtime.’ A discipline is, ‘It would be nice if I could do about a page or so every day.’

Here are a couple of famous writers’ disciplines. They are American writers. I’m not sure why but American writers seem to be more open about the craft of what they do. Perhaps because they feel awkward when anyone emphasises the art aspect.

The first discipline is Ernest Hemingway’s:

“I always worked until I had something done and I always stopped when I knew what was going to happen next. That way I could be sure of going on the next day.”

This comes from his book A Moveable Feast – a memoir of Paris in the 1920s. It is perhaps the single most useful clue I have ever come across as to how novels get written.

The second discipline is from David Mamet’s A Whore’s Profession. Mamet is a notable dramatist, and also wrote the screenplay to Wag the Dog.

“As a writer, I’ve tried to train myself to go one achievable step at a time: to say, for example, ‘Today, I don’t have to be particularly inventive, all I have to be is careful, and make up an outline of the actual physical things the character does in Act One.’ And then, the following day to say, ‘Today I don’t have to be careful. I already have this careful, literal outline, and all I have to do is be a little bit inventive,’ et cetera, et cetera.”

American writers, particularly American male writers, can often go to extremes when they set their minds to a routine. Hemingway, later in his life, became very macho about things.

He wrote standing up, usually in his bedroom in his house in Cuba, using the top of a bookcase, on which room was cleared, to quote the Paris Review, “for a typewriter, a wooden reading board, five or six pencils, and a chunk of copper ore to weight down papers when the wind blows in from the east windows.” It gets better. Hemingway “stands in a pair of his oversized loafers on the worn skin of a Lesser Kudu – the typewriter and the reading board chest-high opposite him.” He told his interviewer, George Plimpton, that he began in pencil, then shifted to his typewriter when his writing was going extremely well or when he wrote dialogue. Each day he kept count of the words he produced: “from 450, 575, 462, 1250, back to 512, the higher figures on days Hemingway puts in extra work so he won’t feel guilty spending the following day fishing on the Gulf Stream.” Hemingway was a strange old man, as he himself might have put it, but, when it came to writing, no stranger than most.

Not to be outdone, here is John Steinbeck:

“He wrote eight hours a day, six days a week for forty years. He would sharpen twenty-four pencils each morning and write with them until each one was blunt. After many years of this regimen, he had to use his left hand to insert the pencil into the calluses on his writing hand because he was unable to pick up the writing utensil with his right hand. Every few months, he would sandpaper those calluses so he could continue to write.”

British writers are different. Ian McEwan, I heard, rewards himself with a Choco Leibnitz biscuit if he’s had a good morning.

I’m not asking you to sandpaper your calluses. But I might be able to give you a few hints about finding a good, productive discipline:

To start with, don’t count the hours (a person can easily achieve nothing in eight hours), but do have a set amount you must do before you finish: one page, two, more, of hand- or typewritten words.

Wordcount is an instrument of the Devil. Don’t use it more than once a week. Of the evils of Word-Processing, it is Number 1. Especially Live Wordcount.

If it’s a choice between writing badly and not writing at all, write badly. Your only responsibility is for the final draft.

Don’t try to make it perfect on the first draft. Roughness is a virtue at this stage, because roughness is easier to cut, to rewrite.

The penultimate thing you need is the one you’ll probably have thought of first…

A Yearning.

I’ve chosen this, rather than Idea. There’s nothing more likely to close you down than someone saying, ‘You have to have an idea. Now.’

But you need to have a strong sense that there’s something not quite there that should be.

A niggling sensation. A question. Okay, I give up – an Idea.

What does an Idea look/feel/smell/taste/sound like?

Well, you tell me.

But if it’s a really good one, it’s quite possible that, even if you told it me, I wouldn’t recognise it as an Idea – and certainly not as a really good one.

I would, incidentally, recommend that you don’t ever tell people your ideas. Unless they say, ‘That’s the greatest thing I’ve ever heard. Let me sell my house to finance you as you complete this great work,’ you are likely to be disappointed with their reaction. And this may put you off seeing the idea through to its end.

The problem of The Idea is the biggest one for writers just starting out. They return again and again to the question: What do I write? And this is, of course, the question I am least able to answer for you.

But the one thing I won’t repeat is the Great Wisdom of creative writing classes, i.e., Write What You Know.

This is likely to make you think not of what you Know but what you’reCompletely Bloody Sick to Death of.

Henry James, my favourite writer, had something neat to say about the relationship between writing and knowing, expression and experience, in his essay ‘The Art of Fiction’:

‘The power to guess the unseen from the seen, to trace the implication of things, to judge the whole piece by the pattern, the condition of feeling life in general so completely that you are well on your way to knowing any particular corner of it – this cluster of gifts may almost be said to constitute experience, and they occur in country and in town, and in the most differing stages of education. If experience consist of impressions, it may be said that impressions are experience, just as (have we not seen it?) they are the very air we breathe. Therefore, if I should certainly say to a novice, ‘Write from experience and experience only,’ I should feel that this was rather a tantalizing monition if I were not immediately to add, ‘Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost!’’

This is a much more difficult, and useful, thing to aim for. If you aspire to being one of those on whom nothing is lost, then ideas will come to you, I promise.

An idea can be an area of mess or confusion in your head, or a line of remembered real-life dialogue, or an enticing title, or an exquisite memory, or a feeling of dreadful foreboding. It’s something, in other words, that haunts you.

A Yearning.

The final thing you need is…

A Tone

For the first-time novelist, consistency of voice is one the hardest things to achieve. You probably won’t, to begin with, have anything approaching a style, but you will have to settle upon a tone. This can range from ‘Once upon a time…’ to ‘For a long time, my mother used to…’

Here, though, is the ultimate and very simple secret of writing a novel: If you write 1,000 words a day for 75 days, at the end of those 75 days you will have a novel-length-thing. This novel-length-thing may not be a great novel, or even a good novel, or even a novel, but it’s a lot closer to being all three than the nothing you had before.

Or as Gertrude Stein said, ‘The way to do it is to do it.’

So, to conclude, let us go through the 9 things you need to write a novel:

1. Time

2. More Time

3. Even More Time

4. Some Selfishness

5. Some Generosity

6. The Means

7. A Discipline

8. A Yearning

9. A Tone

You have no more excuses. If it’s in you, it can now come out.

Let it.

Find out more about creative writing courses at Birkbeck.


Can creative writing be taught?

Helen-Harris-Jul-2014-0366-smaller-versionThis post was contributed by Helen Harris (MA Oxon), associate lecturer in creative writing in Birkbeck’s Department of English and Humanities. Her new novel, Sylvia Garland’s Broken Heart will be published by Halban Publishers on 13 November.

Creative writing lecturers are used to the scepticism – occasionally tinged with downright hostility – with which some people react when they reveal their profession. “Do you really believe you can teach someone to write?” Well yes, personally I believe that with patience and imagination it is possible to teach anyone to do anything.

What is more disturbing is when a successful writer who also teaches creative writing loudly announces – as Hanif Kureishi did earlier this year – that creative writing courses are “a waste of time.” Cue uproar. Even as he spoke, creative writing courses were proliferating in universities up and down the country.

What is perhaps even more puzzling is that this scepticism seems to be shared by a number of students who enrol on creative writing modules. Some of them insist to me, for example, that the marking of their coursework must be subjective, that their friends thought it was brilliant and if I have not given it the high mark it so obviously deserves, that is just because my taste does not coincide with their friends’. Reminding them that all the coursework is second marked has little effect; creative writing is an imprecise individualistic business they seem to believe, certainly not an exact science with its own measures and its own criteria.

I could not walk into the classroom, certainly not at 7.30pm on a wet and windy November evening, if I didn’t believe I was teaching my students anything worthwhile. But what do I think I am actually teaching them?

For the past three years I have been delivering an introductory creative writing module which is part of Birkbeck’s BA English: “Writing Fiction”. My students are second to fourth year undergraduates. I begin the module by outlining what I believe I can – and what I can’t – teach them. The “can’t” list is actually quite short. I can’t teach them what to write; the story comes from them. Similarly, just as they all speak in their own voice with their own accent and vocabulary and mannerisms, the voice in their writing will be their voice. I tell them that within a few weeks I will be able to identify which student has written which piece of coursework even without names attached.

What I believe I can teach them is essentially craft. I run through the list of topics we cover in the first term – character, beginnings, plot, dialogue, point of view – and I explain that I am here to instruct them primarily in technique, not in how to write but how to write better. It is, I sum up cheerily, not much different from plumbing. (My all-time favourite student feedback form read roughly as follows: “I was a bit taken aback when Helen said at the beginning she would be teaching us to write in the same way that you might be taught how to assemble an IKEA bookcase. But as an approach I found it worked.”)

Of course it’s not quite like assembling an IKEA bookcase (something of which I am incidentally incapable.) But my students – and I expect most creative writing students – finish their course with a deeper understanding of what makes good fiction and how it works. Some of them lament that the way they read has changed; they fear they have lost the simple pleasure of enjoying a ‘good read’ without watching carefully to see what the writer is doing and how he/she is doing it. I tell them that this is in fact an encouraging sign of their progress.

front coverThe last session of the year was payback time. My new novel Sylvia Garland’s Broken Heart will be published in November. Over the year, we have spent many evenings workshopping their writing. For our final class I put my money where my mouth is. I emailed them the first chapter of Sylvia Garland’s Broken Heart and asked them for critical feedback in our evening workshop. They set about the task with evident relish. As I listened to their feedback – “Is this really Jeremy’s point of view here or is it actually Sylvia’s?” “You told us not to include too much descriptive writing but you’ve got loads” – I could tell how much they had learnt over the year about writing fiction. And although I may have winced a couple of times, I am confident some of them will go on to write their own novels one day.


Twitterfiction can work, but David Mitchell’s story is a bit of a flop

BiancaLeggettThis post was contributed by Bianca Leggett, a research student in the Department of English and Humanities. It was originally published on The Conversation.

When an author who insists he is “not really a social media animal” writes a Twitter story, we should at least raise an eyebrow. When that same author goes on to say he wrote the story at his publisher’s instigation, we might question what the point is in reading on. You wouldn’t catch a novelist promoting his new book of poems by announcing that he never really liked poetry but, you know, he thought he’d give it a go.

But then, David Mitchell is an author who can afford to take risks. Since the publication of Ghostwritten in 1999, Mitchell has won, not only a succession of awards and a huge and ardent readership both within and far beyond academic circles. I can think of no other author who has won a Richard & Judy Book Award and also been the subject of two academic conferences and an essay collection.

Mitchell’s novels are typically of a genre which Douglas Coupland termed “translit”, made up of a vast number of narrative threads which are interlaced across space and time, sometimes extending into the realm of supernatural or futuristic. The reader is challenged to “join the dots”, not only revealing a skillful patterning at work in Mitchell’s writing, but also an ethical message about the interconnection — and interdependence — of all life. Twitter, itself a vast dot-to-dot playing out across time and space, ought to hold some promise for an author of Mitchell’s inventiveness.

The Right Sort, which began on July 14 and just culminated, is one such dot. Tweeted in a succession of twice-daily bursts for a week which leaves the reader hanging, it is itself a kind of teaser. The story is apparently set in the “same universe” as Mitchell’s upcoming novel The Bone Clocks, but until readers get a look at the novel when it comes out in September, we won’t know quite where in that universe it fits.

It’s 1978 and Nathan Bland, a sensitive teen struggling with his parents’ divorce, is being dragged to a “soirée” by his mother. On reaching the strangely out-of-the-way house, he is abandoned to the company of Jonah, a boy with a strange confidence and peculiar turn of phrase. Nathan’s senses have been skewed by the valium he sneaked from his mother’s supply that morning. This gives some elasticity to our reading of his following narration as it turns more macabre and fantastical. If the story begins by recalling Mitchell’s most straightforward novel, Black Swan Green, it soon steers us into darker territory, a place in which time begins to behave in a thoroughly unsettling manner.

In interview, Mitchell has gamely suggested some of the literary possibilities of Twitterfiction which he has tried to harness in this story. He has spoken of the creative possibilities of the “straitjacket” form of 140 characters, citing the famously obscure Oulipo movement as a parallel. The “pulse-like” quality of each Tweet, meanwhile, allowed him to mimic Nathan’s valium saturated perceptions.

Fair enough, but none of this suggests that Mitchell has actually read any Twitterfiction, nor really begun to appreciate some of its unique possibilities. He’s been missing out.

Ideally, tweets should be able to stand alone or be read together with equal fluency: Teju Cole’s sharply satirical Seven short stories about drones or Jennifer Egan’s futuristic spy story Black Box achieved this.

Twitter’s rhythm best suits a description of the present or imagined future and can be turned in on itself, as Cole and Egan use it, to question the direction in which we are moving. Hurtling by in a fragmentary form, tweets remain potentially intimate and can accumulate power by being played out over time. Jonathan Gibbs’s beautifully written @365daystory was being told over the period of a year and described the story of one woman’s life from birth to death. The project has now been handed over to new authors, suggesting another of the possibilities which Twitterfiction has opened up: collaborative authorship.

The noise surrounding Mitchell’s story suggests it has been well received, but appreciated in the manner we gulp down a taster at an ice cream stand. We were going to buy the full-sized portion anyway, but a little free sample has generated our good will and whetted our appetite. The Right Sort is a rich short story in itself, but remains, in essence, a Twitter story for people who don’t like Twitter. Its multiple cliffhangers frustrate more than they delight and will surely have confirmed for many first time Twitterfiction readers what they already suspected: that they’d rather curl up with a book.

The Conversation


World Poetry Day 2013

Today is World Poetry Day and to celebrate we are sharing a selection of poems by Birkbeck’s BA Creative Writing second year students and their teacher, lecturer Liane Strauss.

by Samuel Langworth

The bone of those high vaults
could not contain them.
They bled from the dark ink
of their deliveries, bigger
than whiteness. They outgrew
the walls of their birth-rooms.
They could not be housed.

They were too big for their communities.
They stretched across boundaries,
monolithic capitals, more
than all cities combined.
They outgrew their horizons –

and they burned through borders,
illuminating tongues.

And Greece could not contain them,
and Taiwan could not contain them,
and Mexico could not contain them,
and Antarctica could not contain them,
and Sierra Leone could not contain them,
and the Solomon Islands could not contain them,
and Trinidad and Tobago could not contain them,
and the earth could not contain them,
and the sea could not contain them,
and they rose, they rose,
converging over the world,
and the sky could not contain them,
and they burst
in one
golden cry of light.

And the world listened.


A New Chapter
by Yvonne Stone

I hesitate,
then turn the handle,
opening a new chapter.
I enter the room.
I deflate my rubber legs
and collapse into the nearest seat.
The seat protests violently.
It avenges itself
and announces my arrival.
I smile politely,
Not even sure I’m in the right place.
My confidence drains
before I can plug the holes with “hellos”.
I need a witty remark
but my brain is ice,
frozen by the glare of the bright room.
A refrigerator full of talent,
freshly filled with youthful optimism.
I must be in the wrong place.


by Walter Jones

In spring on a mock piazza you built
A nest inside my heart and I built one
In yours and together we flew
On the ascent of summer, crossing continents
Where nests are built under the pokey-outey
Bits of castle walls, built for war,
So we do battle
Against the rain inside this other world,
Soft and persistent, like love,
With keen eyes fixed on the future:
Our journey home, reflected on lakes and rivers
And every grain of dazzling beach sand.

Descending to rest on neglected garden furniture
Washed up in the quiet tide of winter.


Blow in
by Kirsten McLaughlin

What do they really think?
They are friendly enough,
will buy you a drink, laugh,
and welcome you in.
You, who carry the sins of the father,
or rather, a Mother Country, in your blood.

What do they really think,
when, God knows why, you try
to justify your presence with a genetic link
to O’Neils on your mother’s side,
and spend hours talking about mackerel
and mullet, and earnestly discuss tides
with men who know exactly who you are,
and where you live, and what you drive;
even the colour of your swim suit this year
and the rock you sometimes dive off.

What do they think when you keep coming back;
prepared to open and shut an extra gate
someone put across the track; that you stack turf;
riddle the stony earth and plant potatoes.
When you push into the bar and heads turn,
or not, in your direction, what makes you sense
you are merely a tolerable interruption?

And what do they really think,
when you sink your fourth pint of Guinness?
Does it impress? Does it make you less
of a blow in? Does learning how to build
a dry stone wall that doesn’t fall within the year
endear you to those around? Or does the sound
of your English accent grate, and agitate old wounds?

You will never know, you will blow in, and out,
harbouring doubt, which could be unfounded,
hounded, by your own ghosts.


by c c bowden

He combs the shore,
strokes gold and silver particles
that glimmer from his gaze,
christened by waves
too long ago to remember.
Travelling light forever
daily dawn embraces.
Yawning je t’adore


by Guillaume Vandame

Sometimes it snows and seconds later the sky will shine.
The world becomes a pale blue moonstone
And you can see the thick silhouettes of the branches.

Then the snow melts and runs down the panels of glass in thin streams.
The sun reflects in low glass cells and glows for a minute.
The water dries and the sky settles into the bed of evening.


by Catherine Speight

These shoulders that you liked to kiss
Are raised towards my ears
To tell you that I heard you
But I’m going to hide my tears.

You’ve felt the falter in my voice
As the countdown scratches on.
It says Dubai’s too far away
And six months is far too long.

This little fleshy crease
In the corner of my mouth
Is there to stop the caustic words
From firing straight out.

Now, awkwardly my head tilts
As it tries to say I’m strong,
But you just said “we’ll be ok”
And we both know that you’re wrong.

Maybe I can shrug you off
And let this all fall down.
Your posting starts tomorrow
And you need to pack now.


by Bruce Coker

Some days I feel like
everybody’s looking at me;
other days, nobody.
I can’t make up my mind
which is worse.


Glass Bottom Car
by Liane Strauss

Windows are overrated.
I never liked fairs.  Landscapes
like a ground bass, scene after scene.
Auger bit developments. Mortis and beam.
Oak elm pine white green bare trees.

The high streets, the highways
go felly round spokes. Celluloid living,
a wooden-maned horse. Film frames on sprockets
cranked by telephone poles,
trick magic old-world lantern shows.

My windscreen was snow-blacked,
bug-juice grimed. I didn’t want windows.
I covered them up. The metronome wipers
couldn’t clean or keep time.
When you’ve seen this world once it’s enough.

I like to go fast
in my glass bottom car, the macadam moonscape
is never the same, the cracks in the craters,
they break my heart,
on the coal-colored lard milky way,

and never look up,
watch the road rush black, rich river oil
torrents in hard rain, streamers riding the wind
snapped and no way back
in my glass bottom beauty machine.