Day 2 of the Write Now conference is devoted to panel discussions and research papers. The first I attend is on Fact, Fiction and History, with three historical novelists talking about the process of writing. All – especially Sally O’Reilly talking of her research into a re-imagining of the “Shakespeare legend” – are really interesting. I do, however, have a little bit of a problem with this form of reflection on the methods of writing, not because it is not useful but because it seems to me to perpetuate a monolithic university structure that actually has more to do with a self-referential and self-perpetuating academic culture than it has to do with adding to the sum of human knowledge. More of that later.
My own session goes well: however, with my “little often” approach to stimulating writing of teenagers at school, fellow presenter Maeve Tynan worries that we are in total disagreement, given her “strategic imitation” approach that is based on using the work of “master” writers to hone craft. Of course, we’re not: I’m absolutely in favour of learning from exemplars and models as essential practice in school or university. She describes her own practice, which sounds fantastically stimulating; it’s a far cry from the practice I’m trying to change, whereby school teachers spend two weeks forcing every child in their class to complete a twist-in-the-tail story “for their folio”, and giving them no other opportunities to write creatively for the rest of the year.
The Scottish Writers Centre also announces itself. It’s a relatively new venture driven forward by lovely people like Gerry Loose and Ron Butlin. They are absolutely passionate about providing a non-academic forum for writers and it is, I think, much needed.
A lot of activity now revolves around university creative writing courses: magazines are springing up as undergraduate projects to provide outlets for students at particular universities to publish their work (Octavius, for example, will, in its own words, “feature a range of prose and poetry written by student writers from colleges and universities across the country”); many of the fine new publishing houses have close links with universities; and live events such as the excellent From Glasgow to Saturn (linked to an online journal) and Words per Minute (along with some other quite dire live projects) arose from university student activity. This, I have to say, makes me worry about access, diversity, inclusion and democracy.
While no-one who works in the university sector has any intention of excluding anyone – I know and respect hugely a great many individual university creative writing teachers, and they all have the very best of motives in everything they do – nevertheless, the structure of universities is essentially hierarchical and elitist. Looking at person specifications for posts in any department, the prime consideration is research. Therefore, to become a university creative writing teacher, you first have to be a researcher, second a creative writer and third a teacher.
I have always suspected that what this does is fuel activity which supports an industry of academic articles, peer refereed journals, conferences and promotion structures leading to professorial chairs based on research “output”. Many researchers I know and respect in the education field blithely talk of “playing the REF game”, and it is a game in which the rules and access to play are made up and controlled by those who are already at the top of the leader board.
Now there is nothing essentially wrong with this: if it is what universities do, it is what universities do. And there will always be a demand for acknowledgement, accreditation or certification by those who learn in that way. But by collaring the market – and let there be no doubt, universities are interested primarily in the bottom line – then those who have no access to universities will be excluded. In addition, courses which become “unviable” or which are deemed not to fit with a university’s strategic plan may find themselves “disinvested” or even closed, and the corresponding infrastructure can be drastically affected; if it can happen to courses in nursing and community education, it can certainly happen to creative writing.
The end of the conference is marked by talks from three big guns in Scottish literature, Alan Bissett, Ewan Morrison and Zoe Strachan. Strachan ably defends the notion of universities being involved in creative writing programmes, and points to her own course which, she says, was populated by a mainly working class cohort (although David Kinloch, at the SWC meeting expresses concerns about the demographic of creative writing courses). However, she also casually admits that publishers and agents like to build relationships with writing departments because they have access to a pool of talent which is already developed, already edited, already vetted. That worries me, because in a world in which publishing opportunities become more and more scarce – Morrison paints the bleakest of pictures of a so-called “democratized” industry – it may soon be the case that a creative writing degree is the minimum qualification to even get into the slush pile.
At events such as this, I am often asked, “And where are you studying creative writing?”, as if a graduate qualification is the only worthwhile mark of a writer. On a couple of occasions, eyes have glazed over and gazes have swept the room for more worthy and interesting contacts when I say I have never studied creative writing at university; on one occasion, someone came back to me and breathlessly said, “Raymond, I didn’t realise you had a BAFTA!”. The first magazine I was ever published in was Rebel Inc.: it wouldn’t have been seen dead in a University department. At that time, there was a vibrant community group culture (magazines like “Cutting Teeth” from the Castlemilk group was another great publication) that I am worried may now wither as a result of swingeing public sector cuts combined with the rapacious acquisition of creative writing activity by universities.
I speak as an academic, and as someone who may in the near future embark on a PhD, not, I hope, because I need a job in the university creative writing sector or because I want to call myself a Doctor, but because I want to have the support to help me develop my writing and my novel: and I am absolutely sure that is why everyone does a PhD. But, as I say, I worry about the culture that is being created, simply because universities are the biggest kid on the block. Only proper government funding for community arts activity in general and writing in particular through organisations like the Scottish Writers’ Centre can prevent what would amount to a privatisation of cultural development.
Dropped by Waterstones for the launch of “The Flight of the Turtle”, the 29th annual anthology of Scottish writing published by the Association for Scottish Literary Studies. This volume is an institution in Scotland; what is nice about it is that it allows new writers the opportunity to be published alongside some of the very best and established Scottish talent.
Youngsters Danni Glover (great name) and Leona Garry perform well, and Allan Radcliffe, who was a star at WPM 8, reads a lovely, sensuous tale of gay seduction.
Two poets steal the show or me, though. Jim Carruth is a marvelous rural poet. He reads three poems; best is a fantastic tale of the local barn dance, a young girl forced to dance with the same beery old worthies over and over because of the depopulation of the community. It’s lovely, as pin-sharp a recreation of a ceilidh as I’ve ever heard.
As an academic, Alan MacGillivray has a long career of championing Scottish literature, art and culture: he is erudite, fiercely intelligent, hugely well read and a fine gentleman. He was one of the tutors when I studied at Jordanhill College, and everyone wanted to be in his class. I have always admired him, and couldn’t understand why he didn’t write creatively himself. He’s sorted that out over the last few years, winning a slew of poetry awards. His poetry in the ASLS anthology is wonderful, encompassing a breadth of reference that includes the mythology of Shetland told in the lost language of Norn. His sonnet of a day in the life of Samuel Pepys is warm, witty, light and perfectly constructed. He’s the man.
This year’s anthology is edited by two writers I have enormous respect for, Carl Macdougall and Alan Bissett, so the quality is likely to be high. Unfortunately I have to bale out early and miss a couple of the readers, but what I heard was more than encouraging.
Ten months of the best west coast writers’ showcase, and still going pretty strong. Alan Bissett is a late stand in for a sick rapper, and is, predictably, the most polished and accomplished of the readers. His reading, from his first novel “Boy Racers”, is a fine scene of penile humiliation at the hands of the terrifying Rangers-supporting Wendy.
Juana Adcock writes in Spanish and English. Her work is lyrical yet tackles muscular subjects, such as the astronomical scale and inhumanity of Mexican kidnapping. The sound – which seems a bit echoey – doesn’t help her project, but she’s clearly talented, as is Hannah Nicholson, originally from Shetland. It’s fantastic to hear new young writers in proud Scots. Lost a little in the echoes and just perhaps a little fast in its delivery, nevertheless she does well. JL Williams, originally from New Jersey, has just had a collection of poems inspired by Ovid’s Metamorphoses published. Her work is clever and erudite; unfortunately, lovely though it is, I’m afraid I’d need accompanying notes to understand the layers of allusion and reference, but that is most definitely my fault and not hers. A retrospective showing of Swimmer One’s WPM3 slot completes the lineup: check out the WPM YouTube channel for more.
However, the show is stolen by the musical act, Shambles Miller, who sings of being angry about how kids misuse words like “epic” and “random”. Smashing voice, good guitar and intelligent, witty lyrics. Cannae ask fur mair.
Words Per Minute is a new monthly showcase of writing, film, music and anything else the organisers and charming hosts, Anneliese Mackintosh and Kirstin Innes, can get their hands on. This afternoon’s line-up includes Craig Lamont, a new young writer, Rodge Glass and Adrian Searle on their graphic novel project Dougie’s War: A Soldier’s Story, poet Emily Ballou reading from The Darwin Poems and a bizarrely compulsive sound performance from Iain Campbell.
The second half of the afternoon works really well. Sophie Cooke’s reading is as darkly elegant as her writing, and the short film The Shutdown, beautifully written and magnificently voiced by Alan Bissett and directed by Adam Stafford, is fantastic, and thoroughly deserves the Best Short Documentary prize it has just won at the San Francisco International Film Festival. Ending the day, Stafford performs from his current album, and the way in which he builds his vocal sound scape is mesmerizing.
This is a brilliant idea to offer a regular performance venue to new and established talent. Reading work to audiences has always been a joy for me, and I know how vital it is as an editing tool; you just don’t now what a piece is really like until you hear it and see an audience’s reaction. Anneliese Mackintosh and Kirstin Innes deserve huge praise for getting this up and running.