I’ve been very quiet lately – always the same at the start of the academic year when I’m chasing my tail – but I’ll be back on the gig trail soon and have a few film outings to report.
However, I’ll be workshop leading at the Aberdeen City Council’s annual “Northern Writes” event – my third year in a row, so they must be getting sick of me by now – on the 19th September in the Belmont cinema. It’s a day I always enjoy because of the creativity of the young people I get to work with.
Videos of last year’s event are available online. In part 2, at around 18 minutes, you can see me reading “Bellflowers”, which was published in the “1000 Cranes” anthology in support of Japanese earthquake relief. You can get a good sense of the workshops we all did, as well as an interesting Q&A which showed just how perceptive these young people are. Unfortunately, sound and vision don’t always tally.
Then on the evening of the 17th October, I’ll be leading a workshop as part of North Lanarkshire’s “Encounters” Cultural Festival. I worked with a creative writing group last year, and they were kind enough to want me back to do some more work with them. The workshop will be at the Sir John Wilson Town Hall in Airdrie, from 6.30 to 8.30pm. It’s free, but if you fancy coming along, book up at the Encounters website. Perhaps see some of you there…
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.
Had an interesting day at the Write Now! 2012 conference at the Mitchell Library. Run by the University of Strathclyde, this year it became part of the Aye Write! festival.
Thanks to having to deal with problems at work, I missed the opening keynote, but got there in time to hear successful novelist Sara Sheridan talking about narrative drive. She was suitably down to earth, encouraging writers to put away their preciousness and concentrate on the story. I found her advice on storyboarding and auditing particularly useful, running through passages of my own and being depressed about how few pictures I could find in them. Back to the drawing board, it seems. Literally.
Next was a short session from Helen FitzGerald, Sergio Casci and Claire Mundell was a bit short on the specifics of how to adapt prose for screen (and vice versa) but was nonetheless entertaining in rich anecdotes that stressed the need to network and collaborate. Certainly, my best experience as a writer was working with the wonderful Clara Glynn and Carolynne Sinclair Kidd on an adaptation of my short story “The Practicality of Magnolia” just because I got to work with people who had the vision to turn my story into something far more beautiful than I could ever have imagined.
Nicola Morgan, hugely prolific author and all round guru (check out her fantastic blog, Help! I need a Publisher!) offered advice that was pin sharp and refreshingly lacking in any sort of bullshit. She calls herself The Crabbit Old Bat because of her reputation for telling it like it is: thank god someone is prepared to do that. I’d heard much of her advice on submissions to publishers before, but it was good to hear it reiterated so succinctly.
Finally, Christopher Brookmyre was hugely entertaining in conversation with Kapka Kassabova. Brookmyre is also from Barrhead; he’s a million times more famous and successful than me. I don’t mind.
Tomorrow should be interesting, with a range of panels and research presentations. I’ve got a slot at 1.30 on creative writing teaching in secondary schools based on the work I’ve been doing with Education Scotland. I’m looking forward to it.
Nice to to see some pals, including Iain Paton and David Manderson. Iain’s “By the Sword” has recently been published by Wild Wolf Publishing, while David’s “Lost Bodies” was one of my favourite reads of last year.
ps – the photo is from an exhibition in the Mitchell of puppets from the collection of puppeteer John M. Blundall. The characters are from the Mabinogion , which is, he tells me, the Welsh precursor of the Arthurian legend. I love the green face: she is, apparently, a mad queen.
My second stint at the very rewarding Northern Writes conference for young adult creative writers. It’s now in its eleventh year and is brilliantly organised by Aberdeen City Library’s Curriculum Resources and Information Service, especially Helen Adair and Jacqueline Adam. Hosted by Steven Knox, the Head of English at St Machar Academy, it’s a terrific event. The kids are, of course, fantastic. As usual, so many write better on the day than I do; honorable mention to Hannah of the final group of the day, who conjures up the most vivid image of anger as a slithering, red-clawed, sharp-toothed beast in the belly. Lovely stuff!
The other writers on the day include Pam Beasant, Keith Gray, Stuart McHardy and David Smith
Had an interesting day at the annual STEC conference. Highlight for me was the opening keynote, delivered by Tara Fenwick of the University of Stirling. Looking at the issue of teacher education with an “outsider’s” point of view – she’s Canadian, and had worked mostly in workplace research rather than teaching per se – she looked at the issue from the perspective of globalisation, with trends in the blurring of boundaries, conflicts over territory, authority and rights and mobility and migration which characterise the global flows that present us with new challenges. She posed various questions: why prepare teachers only for school when most will end up in some other form of education job at some point in their lives?; what do we do to counter the damaging stereotypes of teachers as, for example, hero-rescuers or healers which limit the ability to respond to a variety of contexts? ; how do we prepare true professionalism, which often works between the codified criteria of “professionalism” imposed by an accountability culture?; why on earth do we flog Kolb’s learning cycle to death?
She presented a far-sighted vision of what we can do that was really refreshing; I couldn’t help wondering, though, where, in our current bureaucracy, the leadership for such a vision was going to be found.
The rest of the day was fairly predictable. Graham Donaldson spoke to his recent report, a document in which a lot of sense is talked. However, he still persists in some of the old prejudices about the way teacher trainers do their job. For instance, he keeps saying that schools need a central role in the assessment of student teachers when they already have that role: students spend half of their time in schools, where they should be exposed to high quality formative feedback and clear assessment of strengths mapped on to the Standard for Initial Teacher Education (SITE) benchmarks, and where they should receive a detailed report that is at least as important as university tutors’ assessments. Whether or not they are doing it well enough is the real issue.
In addition, he parroted an insult I have heard from senior academics about university tutors “tootling” around the country to visit their students. Our own research into this clearly indicates that students value this visit more highly than any other feedback they get while on placement, and I suspect schools want us to visit more, not less. I’m all for finding ways of communicating better with students, but I haven’t seen an improvement on the present system yet, because most alternatives are driven not by pedagogical reasoning but by a cost-cutting university-driven agenda which has little sympathy for professional education courses or for what the paying students want.
The day finished up with some words of wisdom from a panel of the great and good, though there were worrying signs of the Newspeak flimflam so beloved of a cynical managerialist culture. For instance, I am all for the re-accreditation of teachers; everyone (including me) should be regularly assessed to ensure we haven’t become obstructive, lazy and ineffectual, and we do the greatest harm to education when we allow incompetent teachers to remain in the profession. However, even given that, it worries me when we are invited to view re-accreditation as a teacher’s “entitlement”. We are entitled to a pension scheme, to holidays, to sick pay; to say we are also “entitled” to have our competence assessed is simply disingenuous, especially when that assessment brings with it no “entitlement” to bonuses, promotion or other forms of professional recognition. Let’s call it for what it is; dressing it up as something it is so patently not will only create suspicion and resentment.
Similarly, the phrase “reinvigorating professionalism” seems to me to be a non-sequitur. Isn’t professionalism always vigorous? If the powers that be believe that teaching needs to be reinvigorated so regularly (McCrone, anyone?), can it really be called a profession at all?
So – good and not so to be taken from the day. Tara Fenwick, though, provided the freshest breath of air when she warned against being too “up ourselves” about the forthcoming Research Excellence Framework (REF) in case it obstructed our engagement with the real world. And she’s a Professor of Education. Good for her.
Had a good day working with Sixth Year pupils from Aberdeen’s secondary schools at the 10th annual Northern Writes conference. Organised by Aberdeen City Library’s Curriculum Resources and Information Service (thanks, Iona, Jacqueline and all) it’s an opportunity for Advanced Higher students to meet and work with published authors. As ever, some of the talent of the young people amazed me. Nice to meet five other interesting writers – Alex Gray, Tom Murray, Pamela Beasant, Tim Turnbull and Isabel Wright.
An enjoyable day that other authorities should think about replicating.
An interesting panel discussion this, chaired by Alan Riach. For decades, those involved in Scottish writing have been concerned about the lack of status accorded to Scottish literature and – even more so – the Scots language in schools.
There are, however, too many blind alleys in the debate. Should Scots literature be compulsory? Well, doubts were raised about how pupils would engage with being made to do something they didn’t want to, everyone forgetting, of course, that school is, by its very nature, compulsory. So how do we ensure that pupils do engage with Scottish literature? The fact is, they do (around half of Higher answers are on Scottish texts), but the range is very limited because teachers tend to self prescribe.
Put simply, every curriculum document says that teachers of English should study Scottish literature. Having compulsory exam questions will simply encourage them to study a narrow range of texts which will satisfy the rubric of that exam, a sterile experience if ever there was one. The key to ensuring real engagement with Scottish literature is to ensure that teachers do their job, and include quality Scottish literature experiences in their planning and in their teaching. That will mean head teachers, principal teachers and inspectors playing a much more active role in ensuring staff are able to deliver a curriculum that reflects the importance of the pupils’ own culture.
This was my second year at the National Association of Writers in Education conference, and it was again a thoroughly worthwhile experience. Workshops were varied and inspiring, and the venue was excellent. A great networking event, I’ve yet to meet anyone I didn’t immediately like.
NAWE is headed by the tireless Paul Munden, and offers a range of fantastic services every writer should be aware of. Find them at http://www.nawe.co.uk/metadot/index.pl?id=2383 .