Judging Milton Keynes LitFest’s Writing Competition

Open University PhD graduand, Patrick Wright, and current PhD student, Gwyneth Jones, acted as judges for Milton Keynes LitFest’s  MinK2023 Writing Competition. All the shortlisted entries will be published in an anthology, and the winners will be announced at the Anthology Launch at Milton Keynes Library on 15th April 2023.

To mark the announcement of the shortlisted entries, we caught up with Gwyneth Jones, who judged the flash-fiction categories and is a prize-winning author of flash herself.

MK LitFest Springs back launch banner

What is flash fiction and how did you first discover it?

Flash fiction, in a nutshell, is a very short story. Exactly how short is debateable but certainly less than 1000 words, perhaps as few as 200, and it should feel absolutely complete in itself. Flash can be any genre it chooses. It can dress up, dress down, dress to impress, or go commando. It’s a delinquent midget-gem that resists pigeonholing.

Very short fiction has been around for ever – just think of Aesop’s Fables. But flash fiction really began to gain traction as a genre in the late 1980s. Today it has a wide international fanbase and is published in literary magazines, anthologies, single-author collections, and also, of course, online. The immediacy and connectivity of the internet has proved an excellent forum for these punchy bite-sized fictions.

It was on the internet that I stumbled across flash fiction competitions. Entering gave me a way of finding out if my writing was any good – which it wasn’t at first – but I learned by reading the entries that were better than mine, the ones scooping prizes. After a while, I got hooked, got listed, got published.

As a writer, what attracts you to the form?

The chance to experiment in a way that might not be sustainable in long-form fiction. Flash can be very disruptive, disregarding ‘rules’ about writing, such as having a beginning, middle, and end. Scrap that! Flash hardly gets past the beginning. Flash is always close to the end. You might start in the middle, in media res, or you could squeeze that out altogether and trust the reader to fill in the gaps. Another rule: ‘create original characters’. Or you could use archetypes to save thousands of words. Take Goldilocks: your reader already knows she’s an adventurous, entitled, blonde who’s very, very picky. With only a few hundred words so much is possible; you could write about a nanosecond, a lifetime, or an eon. You could write from an unusual point of view, or in the negative, or in a Fibonacci sequence. Flash can handle some serious subjects, but the form is very playful.

You have won the Wild Words competition and been long/shortlisted for the Bridport, Bath Flash Fiction, Reflex Flash, and the Quiet Man Dave prizes, and now you have judged MK Litfest’s flash fiction competitions. From your experience on both sides of the process, what would you say makes for a prize-winning flash?

A title that works hard – something that interacts with the text; pin-sharp specificity, nothing anodyne, clichéd, or generalised; careful attention to the sound of the words because flash is great for reading aloud; and, of course, absolute economy – not one single wasted word, no lazy word choice. As with all great fiction regardless of size, voice is important. Voice is the thing that snags the reader from the start. It’s in the vocabulary, the syntax, the imagery, and the things left unsaid.

After that, the elusive prize-winning quality is something that’s hard to describe – but you know it when you read it – and you want to go back and read it again, and again. Roland Barthes called it the punctum. He was talking about photographs, but I think it translates. It’s some unexpected detail or moment, some splinter beyond the ordinary subject that pierces you and isn’t easily forgotten. Julio Cortázar talks about this power as a story ‘rupturing its own limits’, spilling out and illuminating something beyond the page. The best flash fictions do this; they remain with you like an earworm or a bruise.

Tell us a bit about some of the flashes shortlisted for MK Litfest.

The theme was ‘Green Spaces in the City’ and there was a lot of inventiveness in the shortlist with some writers speculating on the future and about how our relationship with the natural world might develop. One that made me laugh out loud, was written as an email to mankind, warning of an imminent plant-life revolution. There were also some finely penned observations of present-day concerns including one about a woman with a young child searching for a new home and measuring spaces both urban and green with the span of her hands. My personal favourite came from the younger age category (14-19 years) and it was the shortest by far, just 188 words. A quirkily voiced stream of consciousness that exactly captured the crowding and leaping of thoughts, and how one thing leads to another. It had slant, and resonance, and compression; I just adored it from the very first read.

How has your study at the OU shaped you as a writer of flash fiction?

I’ve learned a lot about the craft of writing and applied that to flash fiction, but the most surprising thing is discovering that a ‘being a writer’ isn’t the solitary endeavour I first imagined. I did an MA in Creative Writing here at the OU and was lucky enough to be part of group of incredible, talented writers; we’re still in touch on a regular basis, swapping work and cheering each other on. Now, I’m doing a PhD, and the circle is smaller, but the support and the camaraderie is every bit as good. My time at the OU has spurred me to get involved and make connections out in the wider world where the flash fiction community is vibrant and welcoming with a multitude of workshops, discussion groups, and festivals. I’ve benefitted enormously from the advice and generosity of other writers, and hope to pay that forward. But still, all this sociability and joining in is learned behaviour; if I wasn’t a writer, my dream job would be lighthouse keeper.

Headshot of Jupiter Jones

Jupiter Jones

Gwyneth Jones lives in Wales and writes short and flash fictions. Under the pen name Jupiter Jones, she is the two-time winner of the Colm Tóibín International Prize, and her stories have been published by Aesthetica, Brittle Star, Fish, Scottish Arts, and Parthian. Her first novella-in-flash, The Death and Life of Mrs Parker was published by Ad Hoc Fiction, the second, Lovelace Flats by Reflex Press and the third, Gull Shit Alley and Other Roads to Hell by Ad Hoc. She is currently a PhD candidate at the OU researching form and narrative purpose in the novella-in-flash.


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Adam Baldwin on helping George Griffith wing his way into modern critical consciousness

We are proud to announce that this year’ s Peter Nicholls Prize has been awarded by the Science Fiction Foundation to Adam Baldwin. Adam is a fourth-year PhD student here with us at the Open University. He completed his BA and MA at the OU too, so has been with us now for almost 20 years – testament, he says, to the addictive nature of studying here.

Adam’s PhD focuses on the once popular but now little-known novelist George Griffith, and his role in the development of early science fiction. Adam’s prize-winning essay ‘Secularizing the Destruction of Gomorrah in George Griffith’s Hellville, USA’ will appear in the Science Fiction Foundation’s summer 2023 issue (no. 145).

Today, he shares with us how this fascination began, and where it has taken him.

I have been working on a PhD thesis on George Griffith, a little-known science fiction and adventure writer, as well as journalist and globe-trotter, from the late-nineteenth century and into the first few years of the twentieth. Born the son of a country vicar in 1858, George Chetwynd Griffith-Jones (he changed his name by deed poll to George Chetwynd Griffith in 1894), was an immensely prolific author, writing around 44 novels across multiple genres between 1893 and his early death in 1906 at just 48, as well as a stream of innumerable short stories, poems and articles.

This image of George Griffith is in the public domain.

I came across his work around eight years ago when I picked up a modern reprint of his first novel The Angel of the Revolution (1893). I was fascinated by this story of an underground revolutionary group, led by the mysterious and mesmeric Natas, who, having exclusively obtained the knowledge of heavier-than-air flight (the novel is written some ten years before the Wright brothers finally succeeded at Kittyhawk), end a catastrophic world war and go on to impose a world-wide socialist utopia. The edition I read was edited by H. G. Wells specialist Steven McLean, and he ended his introduction with the words: ‘The Angel of the Revolution deserves to wing its way into modern critical consciousness’ (2012).

This comment was made only a couple of years before I read it, and I was interested enough in the novel to see if any work had been done on George Griffith’s work since then. The short answer appeared to be No. There is a handful of modern pieces on Griffith’s writing, but nothing substantial, and he certainly hadn’t winged his way into critical consciousness. I sought out reprints of his novels from small publishing houses and read what I could. McLean’s phrase stayed in my mind, and I decided I would take up his challenge. Luckily, the Open University agreed.

I have been drawn to Griffith’s work not because he is a great writer of extraordinary prose and delicately drawn characters, quite the opposite: Griffith writes thrilling novels, exciting page-turners, full of action, romances in the vein of H. Rider Haggard of King Solomon’s Mines (1885), She, (1886) and Allan Quatermain (1887) fame.

His great innovation was to build on the adventure romance, bringing in various other popular genres: the future-war dramas that followed in the wake of George Chesney’s The Battle of Dorking (1871); utopian writing such as Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward (1888), William Morris’s News from Nowhere (1890) and Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s The Coming Race (1871); the apocalyptic dramas of Richard Jeffries’s After London (1885) or Mary Shelley’s The Last Man (1826); and the voyages extraordinaire novels of Jules Verne, such as Twenty-Thousand Leagues under the Sea (1869, trans. to English 1873). This combination helped to form the emerging genre of scientific romance, an early form of what is now called science fiction.

All this is set against a backdrop of what Sally Ledger and Roger Luckhurst called ‘an epoch of endings and beginnings…a time when British cultural politics were caught between two ages, the Victorian and the Modern; a time fraught with anxiety and with an exhilarating sense of possibility’ (2013).

Within this new genre framework Griffith examines contemporary anxieties: the fear of invasion, the rise of socialism, the extension of suffrage, both male and female, evolution and degeneration, and the rise of the New Woman, a proto-feminist figure. Griffith’s portrayal of women is fascinating, if complex. Many of his women characters possess an unusual degree of personal agency over their lives and marriage choices for the time. In one extraordinary scene Natasha, the titular Angel of the Revolution, dispatches an unwanted suitor with a well-aimed gunshot to the head.

Natasha despatching her unwanted suitor, illustration by Fred T. Jane, 1893.                                       (This image is in the public domain).

This is no spur of the moment action by a hysterical figure, but calm, controlled, if not quite cold-blooded. The remarkable part of this is that Natasha is permitted to do this, and she does not suffer punishment within the novel for her actions.

Reading further across Griffith’s novels, I frequently found similarly strong, independent female characters. An exploration of these, and how much freedom they actually have, is central to my thesis. Closer reading of the novels shows that women were still subject to patriarchal authority, they were just lucky enough to have father’s and/or erstwhile suitors who allowed these women unusual personal agency.

This may not seem like a great victory for women’s rights, but glance through the works of H. G. Wells, H. Rider Haggard, Arthur Conan Doyle or other adventure writers of the period, and you would be hard-pressed to find a female character who was not merely decorative, or a victim in need of rescuing – often both.

My mission is to rise to Steve McLean’s challenge, slightly modified, and help George Griffith wing his way into modern critical consciousness.

Adam Baldwin is a PhD Candidate at the Open University, studying the role of Victorian writer George Griffith in the development of science fiction. Adam has studied with the OU through his BA and MA since 2004. He is a recipient of the 2023 Peter Nicholls prize for early career researchers, awarded by the Science Fiction Foundation.

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Sketching in Shadow and Sunlight: Writing Multivocal Historical Fiction by Sarah Law

Today, we hear from one of the Associate Lecturers who teaches on our Creative Writing MA programme. Sarah Law draws back the curtain to reveal some of the choices and happy accidents that lie behind the final form and title of her recently published novel Sketches from a Sunlit Heaven.

Sometimes writing allows us to meet characters who we don’t correspond with in terms of time or culture, but who speak to us anyway. My novel, Sketches from a Sunlit Heaven, arguably falls into this category: historical fiction where my characters, based on real people, tell their stories.

July 1896, in the sacristy courtyard. Licensed for non-commercial use by Copyright Office Central de Lisieux

By way of an introduction to my subject matter: I have an endless fascination with the ‘Little’ Saint Therese. She lived in a Carmelite Monastery in Lisieux, France, for nine short years before dying of tuberculosis in 1897 at the age of twenty-four. Her own memoir is full of sweetness but granite-tough underneath. Rare archive photos reveal lively eyes and a subtle smile full of some secret I still want to hear. Most unusually, three of her blood sisters and a cousin joined her in the same monastery. One sister was an artist and photographer. Another became prioress for much of her long life, and together they supported the cause of Therese being canonised, which she duly was in 1925 when, had she lived, she would have been fifty-two years old.

I started writing a fictionalised biography, hoping to deepen my knowledge of this young nineteenth-century nun. Then, as I read about her family, particularly her blood sisters, I heard their voices in my head (I mean this figuratively, of course). Pauline, the prim, practical community leader. Marie, the warm-hearted dreamer. Celine, the fiery-tempered artist. And Leonie, the difficult loner. Add in cousin Lucie with a beautiful singing voice, and Maurice, a missionary who fails and fails again, but with whom Therese, toward the end of her life, corresponds with the tenderness of an ethereal lover. Six different perspectives emerged: six distinct, but related, takes on Therese. But how were they going to work together? As each character’s narrative grew, so did my concerns about a clunky jumping from one chapter to another, from one account to the next, especially as they would substantially be going over the same events as each other.

I paused to reflect. I decided that my options were:

  1. Change the novel’s narrative perspective back to the third person, potentially becoming an authorial presence in my own right;
  2. Revise my narrative strategy to just one sustained first-person voice;
  3. Somehow intercalate my various first-person speakers (or at least some of them) into one chronological narrative.

While I considered each option seriously, I decided I wanted to retain the polyphony of multiple voices, even if they weren’t the longest-lived or most substantial in terms of narrative length. I wanted the book to offer a multidimensional account. A series of fragments mapped over Therese’s life and beyond. A mosaic.

Something clicked into place: this was how the novel itself wanted to emerge. A mosaic or a series of sketches, as each speaker passed the narrative between themselves. Sketches from a Sunlit Heaven had found its form and, incidentally, soon afterward, its title.

I embarked on an intense period of copying and pasting as I took what felt like brief but complete episodes from all six of my first-person narratives. I wanted to proceed in chronological order, but alert to the poetic magnetism produced by selective juxtapositions of my speakers’ accounts. Of course, I’m not the first novelist to choose multiple speaking characters (‘intradiegetic narrators’, if you will). From Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White to George SaundersLincoln in the Bardo, the polyphonic approach to narrating a novel has been successful across recent centuries. Virginia Woolf’s The Waves remains one of my favourite modernist novels. A very tall order to write anything on par with these great works! But, to paraphrase the words of poet Robert Browning in ‘Andrea del Sarto’ a writer’s reach should exceed their grasp, or what’s a heaven for?

As I continued to cut, paste, shape, and write, I imagined jigsaw pieces fitting together to make a whole picture. Neither mosaics or jigsaws are perfect analogies, but both echo images in the novel: pieces of mosaic from the Roman Forum that teenage Celine cherished, and later, Lucie’s imaginative consideration of the ‘jigsaw’ view of Normandy seen from above – looking down from a sunlit heaven.

Sketches from a Sunlit Heaven is published by Wipf and Stock.

Two more motifs appeared as the novel grew into its ultimate structure. Firstly, that of letters. Therese, her sisters, and others close to them or the family wrote to each other a lot. I haven’t framed any narrative fragments as letters per se, but their usual length—from a few hundred words to a thousand or so—is reminiscent of a letter. The epistolary novel is the earliest form of the novel genre in English, so there is perhaps an echo in my work of its literary ancestor. My characters write to each other, request letters, read, receive, and even dream letters. And then there’s the sketch. A sketch is brief, descriptive, often urgent, suggesting with few lines, and judicious shade and hatching, larger issues than itself. Something Celine literally does, as do the others, figuratively. Sketches from a Sunlit Heaven secured its place as my novel’s name.

Combing through my draft, I found it fell into fourteen sections, each bound by dates, and housing narrative fragments that developed the section’s essential kernel—Vocation, Discipline, Legacy, and so on. An introductory section, Glimmerings, also appeared.

It’s strange how, in the end, a novel largely emerges of its own volition. Despite the planning and researching, even historical fiction does too. Holding the published book in my hand, I can say the process of writing it is still part mystery.

With thanks to Writing Bad for permission to publish this blog, which is an abridged version of an essay Sarah Law originally published in Behind the Plots.

Dr Sarah Law is an Associate Lecturer for the Open University. As well as a novel, she has published six poetry collections and writes academic and creative nonfiction. She also edits the online journal Amethyst Review, for new writing engaging with the sacred. She lives in Norwich. 





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‘I shall shift my trumpet and take up my knitting’: Disability, Sex, and Self-Assertion in the Autobiography of Harriet Martineau

Today on the blog, we welcome our colleague Clare Walker Gore, who has recently joined us as a Lecturer in Victorian Literature. Clare offers us a glimpse into her research interests by sharing insights into the multiple ways nineteenth-century writer Harriet Martineau represented her experience of disability.   

I first came across Harriet Martineau’s ‘Letter to the Deaf’ (1834) when I was writing my book on representations of disability in nineteenth-century fiction. I had been drawn to Martineau as an example of a writer who was herself disabled, having lost most of her hearing in childhood, but whose life signally failed to conform to the expectations established by fiction of the period for disabled characters.

By 1834, when she published this article on her experience of deafness, Martineau was well known as a writer unafraid to tackle controversial and even ostentatiously ‘unfeminine’ subjects. In 1832 she had made her name, and indeed her fortune, by publishing a spectacularly successful series of pamphlets, Illustrations of Political Economy, and become a notable – in some circles infamous – champion of free market capitalism.

She went on to tackle a wide range of inflammatory subjects, apparently undeterred by attacks on her character in the press and even by ostracism from her own family.

Martineau was clearly a woman who thrived on conflict. As she admitted in her Autobiography (1877), she found hostile reviews more inspiring than positive ones, declaring that ‘the more brutal, the more animating’ they were (Martineau, Autobiography II, 158)

Harriet Martineau
by Richard Evans
oil on canvas, exhibited 1834
NPG 1085
© National Portrait Gallery, London

So it came as something of a surprise to me to find that in her ‘Letter to the Deaf’, Martineau advises her Deaf readers that they must ‘submit to be usually insignificant’, and accommodate themselves to hearing society in every possible way, recommending positively masochistic strategies of self-suppression (Martineau, ‘Letter’, 176). She promises that Deaf readers who mask their true feelings and adopt the rule of turning ‘every sigh into a smile’ will experience the ‘thrill of delight which arises during the ready agreement to profit by pain’ (Martineau, ‘Letter’, 177).

How could so self-assertive and combative a writer have integrated such a view of her own disability with the narrative of her own life?

An answer is offered, I think, by the way Martineau develops her apparently depressing advice as the ‘Letter’ goes on. She exploits one of the commonest tropes of disability in contemporary fiction to offer her Deaf readers a potentially powerful self-image.

Most nineteenth-century novels depict disabled characters as either exceptionally flawed or exceptionally virtuous. Martineau taps into this tradition, suggesting that her Deaf readers will emerge from their ‘trial’ as either ‘selfish in principle, sour in temper, and disagreeable in manners’ or ‘with principles strengthened, affections expanded … and manners graced by the permanent cheerfulness of a settled mind and a heart at ease’ (Martineau, ‘Letter’, 179).

The exceptionally virtuous deaf subject will achieve such perfect self-control, in Martineau’s account, that they will be able to withstand anything in the future: ‘If you have brought vigour out of this conflict … your cheerfulness will probably be beyond the reach of circumstance’ (Martineau, ‘Letter’, 179). In other words, Deafness necessarily entails conflict and possibly produces heroism; it also puts the Deaf subject beyond the comprehension or judgement of their hearing counterparts. ‘No one can judge for you’, she assures her Deaf readers (Martineau, ‘Letter’, 177).

It is this understanding of her disability which shapes Martineau’s self-representation in her Autobiography. She depicts the onset of her deafness as ‘about the best thing that ever happened to me’ (Martineau, Autobiography I, 78). In her account, the struggle it entailed formed her character and freed her from dependence upon her family, in both an intellectual and an emotional sense. In Martineau’s telling, deafness essentially made her the heroine of her own story, the self-reliant and resourceful woman who could reject the belief systems she had inherited, and the limitations imposed by her society.

Indeed, Martineau suggests that disability put her beyond the scope of conventional femininity and allowed her to draw on masculine forms of heroism – acting, as she told her mother in one letter of 1833, the part of ‘a professional son’ rather than a daughter (Martineau, Autobiography III, 91).

Martineau’s choice to live by herself, when she could have lived with members of her family, shocked some reviewers. The novelist Margaret Oliphant, for example, clearly found Martineau’s preference for ‘bachelor life’ deeply unfeminine, suggesting that the Autobiography proved her to be ‘a very clever writer’ who was ‘not much of a woman at all’ (Oliphant, 52; 59).

Martineau anticipates and attempts to disarm such a reaction by insisting that her deafness effectively excepted her from ordinary rules, just as it excluded her from conventional femininity.

Interestingly, however, Martineau occasionally uses her disability not to circumvent but to re-affirm her femininity, in the face of accusations that her writing has in some sense unsexed her. She was criticised, for instance, for championing Thomas Robert Malthus’ highly controversial Essay on the Principle of Population (1798), in which he argued that over-population would lead to disaster unless drastic action were taken – often interpreted as an argument for the use of birth control. In an essay for the conservative Quarterly Review, John Lockhart accused her of having ‘no modest misgivings’ as she promoted ‘unfeminine and mischievous doctrines’ (‘Miss Martineau’s Monthly Novels’, 136).

Recalling how she dealt with such criticism, Martineau uses her ear trumpet – a nineteenth-century version of a hearing aid – to defend her impugned modesty:

Credit: Ear trumpet, 19th century. Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

‘I consider it, as treated by Malthus, a strictly philosophical question. So treating it, I find no difficulty in it; and there can be no difficulty in it for those who approach it with a single mind. To such I address myself. If any others should come whispering to me what I need not listen to, I shall shift my trumpet, and take up my knitting.’ (Martineau, Autobiography I, 202)

In this scene, Martineau’s ear trumpet becomes an instrument of self-assertion, just as her deafness, while cast as ‘affliction’, became a means of writing herself out of one, undesirable role and into an alternative, more heroic one. It’s an intriguing example of the multiple uses to which disability could be put in nineteenth-century texts, and into both the difficulties but also the possibilities opened up by an autobiographer’s dual identity as both ‘woman’ and ‘writer’.


 Clare Walker Gore has recently joined the Department of English and Creative Writing as a Lecturer in Victorian Literature. She is the author of Plotting Disability in the Nineteenth Century Novel (Edinburgh University Press, 2019), and is now pursuing a project on women novelists’ life writing in the nineteenth century.

Works Cited

John Lockhart, ‘Miss Martineau’s Monthly Novels’, Quarterly Review, 49.97 (April 1833), 136 – 152

Harriet Martineau, Autobiography (1877), 3 vols, repr. Cambridge University Press, 2010

Harriet Martineau, ‘Letter to the Deaf’, Tait’s Edinburgh Magazine, 1834, 174–79

Margaret Oliphant, ‘Harriet Martineau’, Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, 121 (April 1877), 472-96

Suggested Further Reading

Harriet Martineau, Deerbrook (1838), repr. Virago, 1983

Margaret Oliphant, The Autobiography and Letters of Mrs Margaret Oliphant (1899), repr. Broadview, 2002



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From academic to creative writing

Dean de la Motte’s name will be familiar to anyone who attended our February 2019 Contemporary Cultures of Writing event, ‘The lives of others: research and writing’. The panel’s chair, OU Senior Lecturer Fiona Doloughan, suggested that both Dean and his fellow speaker might be breaking out of their comfort zones by applying their intellectual and emotional energy to new genres. Fiona Sampson was turning from poetry to biography, while Dean was moving from literary criticism to the writing of fiction.

Now that Dean’s novel Oblivion: The Lost Diaries of Branwell Brontë has been published by Valley Press, Fiona D. catches up with him again to discuss why he made the transition from authoring academic to creative works, and what he has learnt in the process.

Fiona: Congratulations on the publication of your novel. Tell us about your long-standing interest in the Brontës, and how you came to be particularly interested in the sisters’ lesser known brother, Branwell.

Dean:  I read the Brontës in school, though I confess that I was not any more interested in them than I was in Dickens or Eliot, and arguably less so than in Hardy, whom I still love. In the mid-1990s I was designing a course called ‘Writing the Nineteenth Century’, where I paired works of fiction with works of history, including Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley and a book on the Luddite rebellion. I read Juliet Barker’s magisterial The Brontës and learned for the first time the full story of the family, including how Branwell fit into the family dynamic.

Oblivion: The Lost Diaries of Branwell Brontë published by Valley Press

I was utterly fascinated with him, perhaps because I could (at least in remembering my 20-something self) relate to him, if not to his actions at least to his character traits and flaws.

I conceived the idea of a novel called Oblivion, inspired by a) the oblivion into which he and his works have fallen; b) his own attempts to drink (and perhaps drug) himself into oblivion; c) the recurrent theme of a desire for oblivion (the word appears often in his poetry) or escape from the sorrows of existence, and d) his famous portrait of his sisters, where he painted himself out, or ‘into oblivion’. I wanted the book to be something of a tribute to the style, structure and themes of his sisters’ works, though I didn’t yet know that the book would take the form of a first-person diary.

Fiona: As an academic who specialized in 19th-century literature in France and England, in some ways your interest in the Brontës is consistent with your research expertise. But why did you decide to write a novel, rather than, say, a more conventional academic monograph?

Dean:  I must confess that like Branwell, I once had a burning desire to be known primarily as an author of creative works. Unlike the Brontë siblings, however, I had available the more ‘practical’ path of an academic career. I often think all of the Brontës, including Branwell, might well have become professors had they lived a century or more later! In addition, I really am a scholar of nineteenth-century France, though I have written one article on teaching Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights.

Oblivion arose from a never thoroughly defeated desire to write a novel, my fascination with Branwell (including his similarities of character to me, which allowed me a ‘safe’ sort of confessional or therapy space), and my love of the language and historical period of the Brontës.

I went into academic administration for nearly 15 years and shelved the project, but never stopped thinking about it or reading works by and about the Brontës. When I moved back to full-time teaching in 2014, I at last had the time (a sabbatical plus subsequent summers) to write the historically detailed (and long) novel you now have before you.

Fiona: One of the original impetuses behind the development of Creative Writing in the US had to do with sharpening and sensitising the critical faculties of academics and giving them the opportunity to understand ‘from the inside’ what goes into the making of a piece of literature. Did writing a novel allow you to put aside your critical faculties and venture into more creative terrain in a way that writing a monograph might not?

Dean:  The process has given me enormous empathy for all those who attempt to write and publish creative works. It is hard and emotionally exhausting work, especially if, as was my case, you are drawing on your own psychic life (which I think writers nearly always do, by the way).

I have, since finishing the book, been able to use my insights and discoveries in my teaching, notably to address the construction of characters and narratives generally, and the works of the Brontë sisters in particular. I don’t think writing a biography or study of Branwell’s poetry would have provided the level of awareness I have gained from writing Oblivion.

In addition, I’m not terribly interested in or impressed by Branwell’s body of work; rather, it was his life juxtaposed with the lives and works of his sisters, and the period in which they lived, that fascinated me.

Fiona: Publishing and promoting your book this year was the culmination of years of writing, drafting, reworking and editing. Can you say more about how you succeeded in obtaining a publisher? And what did it feel felt like to engage directly with readers ?

Dean: I was fortunate to find a small independent publisher, Valley Press, located in Scarborough, a stone’s throw from where Anne and Branwell worked, and where Anne died and is buried. They do beautiful work and allowed me to publish the book – which, at 250,000 words, is admittedly very long – as I had envisioned it. I’m not convinced one of the large multinational corporations would have permitted it. In many cases, readers are great fans of the Brontës, so I am already among kindred spirits. The feedback I’ve gotten from people who’ve read the novel has been enormously gratifying, because I seem to have accomplished what I set out to do.

Fiona: Do you have plans to write another novel? If so, would it be rooted in 19th-century British culture or might you turn to a different part of the world? I know you’ve been working on Victor Hugo of late.

Dean: I don’t yet know, but I’ve got several ideas. One involves a Frenchman who sails to my native California in the 19th century, only returning to France at the end of the century. I continue to be fascinated by the enormous upheavals and transformations in France during the period 1830-1870 , as well as the ‘long 19th century’ of 1789-1914.

Dean de la Motte

Dean de la Motte was born and raised in California’s San Joaquin Valley, and studied English, French, and comparative literature at UC Santa Barbara, UNC Chapel Hill, and the University of Poitiers. He has published articles and books on 19th-century French literature and culture, as well as numerous essays on the teaching of literature, including Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. The father of two grown children, de la Motte lives in Newport, Rhode Island, and spends most summers in France.  Oblivion: The Lost Diaries of Branwell Brontë (Valley Press, 2022) is his first novel.

Fiona Doloughan

Fiona Doloughan is a Senior Lecturer in English (Literature and Creative Writing) and Qualifications’ Lead for English at the OU. She has a dual background in Comparative Literature (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) and Applied Linguistics (University of Reading). While her research focusses on contemporary narrative forms in literature, she is also interested in translation and creativity. She has published two monographs (Continuum, 2011; Bloomsbury, 2016) with a third, entitled Radical Realism, Autofictional Narratives and the Reinvention of the Novel, due to be published by Anthem Press in February 2023.

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From software tester to novelist, publisher and PhD candidate

Insurgent Press’s recent take over of the Barbican Library featured readings from Brian Kelly’s debut Murph – a novel about a virus that reveals everyone’s internet search histories, and a joke shop owner who finds himself swarmed with customers seeking disguises.  

Here, Brian lets us into his own journey from dissatisfied company employee to founder of his own press, host of longstanding literary night, novelist and PhD student. And he tells us about the crucial role played by the OU along the way.

At twenty-three I left Dublin to become a rock star in London. The big smoke kicked my ass for a couple of years and when the band eventually broke up on a rainy night in Liverpool (pathetic fallacy right on cue), I was left working as a software tester with no real creative output. It was around the time of the financial crisis, and I remember the CFO calling us in for our quarterly report. He advised us that money rarely disappears from the market but rather changes hands. As people in the know, he claimed, we stand to make large gains. At home, Ireland was going through a terrible time, unemployment and immigration back with a vengeance. I left the office and walked along the Thames to Vauxhall where I was renting a room over a pub. I sat down on my sofa-bed and decided I needed to do something else with my life.

My girlfriend at the time (now my partner of sixteen years) had given me a wrecked old computer from her parents’ attic and I had a vague impulse to write. Maybe it was the position above the pub, listening to voices below in the beer garden, the weird atmosphere of that bit of Vauxhall where gas towers stand cheek-by-jowl with cricket grounds and twenty-four hour gay clubs. I wanted to put down some words and make sense of it all, but I had no idea how to go about it.

Creative Writing: A Workbook with Readings, Ed. Linda Anderson

I remember the day I finally signed up for A215: Creative Writing and the little shot of adrenaline I felt. Would I have the discipline required to finish the course? How would it feel to have a proper writer reading my work?

Doing the daily writing exercises in my room every night, I came to a Colin Powell-esque realisation about all the things I didn’t even know I didn’t know. Step by step, the material demystified the various elements of the writer’s craft, and I was writing in unexpected and exciting ways. About halfway through the course, there was an exercise about eavesdropping on people’s discussions and using that to create characters. I was on a plane back to Dublin and a few rows ahead of me was a man from Roscommon giving out yards about something or other. The best material went in my notebook.

Murph by Brian Kelly

Back in London, I quit my job and was plotting a move to Korea to do a stint as an EFL teacher. While waiting for my visa to come through, I was spending my days in Stoke Newington Library reading and writing. My next OU assignment came up and the decrepit atmosphere of Stokey’s library merged with our man from Roscommon to create a short story about a psychedelic steam-of-consciousness librarian on the West Coast of Ireland. I remember feeling like I’d opened a door to a room I didn’t know existed. Could writing really be like this?

The guidance and encouragement from my tutor Emma Claire Sweeney egged me on. Moving to Seoul, I continued my writing and Emma started receiving pieces of work all the way from the Korean peninsula. I finished that first module and instantly signed up for the next, A363: Advanced Creative Writing. Life in Asia was fun, and I enjoyed teaching. The kids, the colleagues, the sense of purpose. I decided to pursue a BA in English at the OU.

I changed Seoul for Beijing but kept studying. Six years after starting my odyssey, I remember sitting my final exams in the British Embassy. The plan was to return to the UK to do a PGCE and start teaching in London, but the funding for third level had changed and unless I got a good degree from the OU my bursary was not going to cover my living costs. I studied like my life depended on it.  In the end I got the grades and returned to London where I started my career as an inner-city teacher in Camden Town.

But the OU was not done with me yet.  I had stayed in touch with my first tutor and when I mentioned being back in London, she encouraged me to apply for a novel writing course at City University. The people I met on that course were some of the most talented people I had ever met and became lifelong friends. The novel I wrote was a finalist in Penguin’s WriteNow competition and I continued on to do a Masters in Creative Writing, with the novel I finished winning an Irish Writers Centre award in 2022.

Verbal Discharge anthology launch

Along the way, I had met so many brilliant writers and wanted to create a space where we could all share work in progress and chew the cud. Club Verbal Discharge was born and has been running in the Perini & Perini bar, Oxford Circus on the first Friday every month for four years in a row. We publish an anthology each year and this in course led to the creation of The Insurgent Press. Our mighty little press has now published three anthologies, one collection of short stories by Tara Basi and my novel Murph. I sent a copy to my first OU mentor to say thanks, and on the card I wrote:

You sign up for one little OU course and looks what happens!! Butterflies, hurricanes etc. etc.

Next month I start a PhD in English Literature at Kings and so the wheel continues to turn…

Brian Kelly

Born in Dublin, Brian Kelly now lives in London with his partner and daughter where he works as an English teacher. After graduating from the OU with a BA in English, Brian continued to write fiction. In 2019, he was a finalist in Penguin’s WriteNow competition. In 2021, he received a Masters in Creative Writing from City University. In 2022, he won the Irish Writer’s Centre Novel Fair prize. He runs the monthly spoken word night Verbal Discharge, which publishes its third anthology this spring. He also runs the Insurgent Press, which does tiny runs of strange books and generally tries to cause trouble.



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Creative Writing MA Scholarship: Deadline 29 July 2022

Here at the Open University, we have recently launched a Creative Writing scholarship for our masters degree programme. These scholarships are aimed at low-income UK residents from Black backgrounds, and 16 students will be funded over the next 5 years.

This qualification offers opportunities to develop skills in fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction and scriptwriting. Students get to write in a genre of their choice and experiment with at least one other through practical and inspiring activities. By the end of the programme, students will have produced a substantial piece of their own creative writing to a professional standard, honing their practice through sharing, reading and critiquing the writing work of peers in online forums.

Since applications are open until 29 July 2022, we thought it might be useful for those still trying to decide whether to submit to hear from some recent and current Creative Writing MA students. We happen to have had a flurry of poetry success stories recently, so we have interviewed a group of MA students and graduates who have each won a high-profile award and/or published a collection or pamphlet.   

What was the highlight of your experience on the OU’s MA in Creative Writing?

Marian Christie:For the first time, I felt part of a writing community, with an engaged and supportive peer group and a tutor who was generous with insightful comments, suggestions and encouragement.

One of the exercises we were given during the MA was to write a poem that uses numerical sequencing in its structure. This was a revelation to me, leading me to explore the Oulipo movement and contemporary mathematical poetry. I started using mathematical imagery and visual elements in my poetry, and my tutor encouraged me to experiment with these forms further.

Viv Longley: The highlight for me was having my poetry taken seriously and critically particularly by my super tutor. I had never been appreciated in this context before.

Zoë Walkingon: The members of my tutor group have made each other laugh, squeal with outrageous delight, and feel genuinely touched by one anothers writing. I am always amazed by how such different responses and writing are generated out of the same prompt activities.

And what did you find most challenging?

Zoë Walkingon: The most challenging aspect for me personally has been the amount of time spent in front of a screen, because I also work full time from home at a computer all day. The fact that the learning is all in chunks means this screen-based activity can be spread out over each week though. Also, I tend to still write the old-fashioned way – into a notebook, and only use my computer to type up when something is looking half decent.

Marian Christie: Most challenging (but also very rewarding!) was preparing an extended and cohesive collection of poetry for the End of Module Assessment. This required me to reflect on my own relationship with the poetry that I write and the themes that preoccupy me, both consciously and subconsciously. It introduced me to the skills of careful editing and attention to detail, of making choices on inclusion and sequencing, and, above all, it served to clarify my own poetic voice.

Viv Longley: I had anticipated that it would prove challenging to write in more than one genre. But there was real power in having to take a different option in the second term. I produced some non-fiction that introduced me to another form of writing altogether, and I have returned to this genre a lot since.

How did your learning on the MA feed into your published writing? 

Viv Longley: It took me a long while even to consider that someone else might read my poetry, let alone publish it. Essentially, I used to think of my writing as ‘mine’ and ‘private’. The first step was to get used to there being a ‘reader’ – be that another student or my tutor.

Zoë Walkingon: I have been writing poetry as a hobby for a few years now, but until I started the MA I didn’t know much about the technicalities. I was always more interested in the ideas. Now, I feel I am developing a language to better understand how poetry works and am perhaps also developing an ability to edit my work.

Sue Butler: The module on poetics, particularly the poetics of bearing witness, was especially significant to me. Consideration of my own poetics – the material I might use from the lives of others, and the use I might make of it – led to some poems being returned to the ‘bottom of my computer’ while others were reworked. ‘The Work of Women’ is one of these.  I had learnt (been conditioned?) to consider my own needs, motives and concerns secondary to those of others around me. Now, I acknowledge and foreground the lens through which I wish to write – that of woman, mother, witness to suffering.

Which aspect of teaching from the MA comes back to you most often? 

Sue Butler: To turn early drafts inside out, upside down, chop them up and glue them back together. I still consider myself to be an insufficiently adventurous editor, but I no longer get over-attached to early drafts.

Viv Longley: It has given me a set of tools that I now carry around with me.  It is exactly what my work needed to give it polish, style and most of all, my voice.  Other people recognise my writing as ‘mine’. I learnt to trust the feedback of some of my fellow students, and we are now working on producing an anthology of poetry called Daughters of Thyme. A shout out for Jane Keenan and Sue Brice with whom I am sharing this venture.

What advice would you give someone considering embarking on the OU’s Creative Writing MA?

Viv Longley: Hush your busy mind saying that you are not good enough. Go for it, enjoy it, roll in it, do your absolute best at everything, never underestimate yourself.  You never know where you’ll land up. Such a challenge at my age too. The brain is now alive and alerted.

Sue Butler: I would say to a new student get over your shyness early. Relish the constructive criticisms of your peers. Give feedback yourself – you will learn to feed back to yourself on your own poems as well as building a supportive and effective tutor group.

Zoë Walkingon: One of the worries I had myself before starting on the MA was that writing was a hobby that I loved, and I worried that studying it in a more formal sense might kill the enjoyment for me, and, heaven forbid, might even start to make me fall out of love with writing! I have not found this to be the case. In fact, doing the MA has made me write more than I usually would.

Marian Christie: Make the most of your tutor group! Your fellow students provide a safe, supportive and welcoming community within which you can experiment with form, style, voice and technique, and in the process learn from each other. Members of my tutor group have kept in touch after graduating, sharing our work, celebrating successes and commiserating rejections, and meeting up both online and occasionally in person too.

If hearing from these current and former creative writing students has whet your appetite, you can find out more on our website about our masters degree programme. And remember that applications are open for our scholarship until 29 July 2022.

Sue Butler, a retired GP took up walking and Creative Writing in retirement – both unpredictable forms of meditation on life in all its grace, pain and peculiarity. Her pamphlet ‘Learning from the Body’ is published by Yaffle press. It reflects the intimate connection General Practice brings with many lives, the gift and burden of that connection. Her poems have been published in One Hand Clapping, Poetry and Covid, Spelt, and the Hippocrates Prize Anthology for 2020.


Viv Longley is now in her eighth decade. She was educated at Oxford High School for Girls, Hull and Warwick Universities. Her career culminated in Head of the Policy Unit in Kirklees Council. A secret writer for many years, Viv is a long-term member of Agbrigg Writers in Wakefield, and a contributor to their publications. Viv’s collection Tally Sheet was published by Currock Press, and praised by Ian McMillan for her use of ‘detail, rhythm, observation and a kind of “speech made visible” to underline and celebrate our common humanity’.

Marian Christie was born in Zimbabwe. She has an MSc in Mathematics and an MA in Creative Writing, both from the OU. Her work often explores the interface between poetry and mathematics. Publications include Fractal Poems (Penteract Press) and a collection of essays, From Fibs to Fractals: exploring mathematical forms in poetry (Beir Bua Press).

Marian blogs at www.marianchristiepoetry.net and is on Twitter @marian_v_o.

Zoë Walkingon lives in Bedfordshire. She has had work published in The North, Strix, Hinterland and various anthologies. Her collection, I hate to be the one to tell you, won the 2022 International Book & Pamphlet Competition. Judge Romalyn Ante praised Zoë’s poems for erupting with ‘beauty and emotional resonance’.

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On writing The art of The Faerie Queene

On their virtual stand at the Renaissance Society of America’s annual meeting, Manchester University Press recently featured Richard Danson Brown’s latest book, The art of The Faerie Queene. Richard is Professor of English Literature at the Open University, and Head of the School of Arts and Humanities. Here, he shares with us the longstanding obsessions, academic collaborations, and scholarly disagreements that informed his writing of The art of The Faerie Queene.

Published by Manchester University Press, 2018

If I believed in fate, I would say that I was destined to write this book, since it reflects obsessions I’ve had for most of my adult life and probably earlier: poetic forms, what those forms tell us, how skilful writers work with those forms to create new texts, what claims such formal work might have on us as readers. From first reading it aged 19, The Faerie Queene had seemed to me a formal structure—or rather a series of formal structures—of the utmost intricacy, where the liaisons between poetic line and poetic conceit were always shifting, always provocative.

As it is, I am not a fatalist, so there are other, more persuasive accounts for its genesis: firstly, my collaboration with Julian Lethbridge on the Concordance to the Rhymes of The Faerie Queene (2013) left me with an unfinished sense that there was more to say, even after the two comparatively long studies we contributed to that vast volume. Academic collaborations are productive as much for the swerves they induce in thinking as the moments of agreement around shared ambitions. While Julian and I very much agreed that form was a neglected category in post 1980s Spenser criticism, we were to take that thought in different directions. While for Julian, the evidence of the Concordance pointed towards Spenserian automation—what he calls the “non-expressive” aspects of The Faerie Queene—for me, those same data sets sent me back towards poetic particularity, and a sense that even if Spenser is often formulaic (and he is), readers can never take automatism on trust. Each instance of poetic usage at some level demands the reader recodes familiar lexis and stanza form in terms of “darke conceit”.

I was strengthened in this perspective by a different collaboration, with David Lee Miller, on Spenser Review. In between the pleasurable stresses of editing the journal for its three appearances a year, David and I would exchange emails and conversations about latest projects, with him gently insisting that he genuinely did want to see draft chapters from what was at that stage a much delayed and longed-for project. (As well as book reviews editor on SpR, I was at that period dean of a faculty in a university undertaking a momentous “change process”; “O pittious worke of MUTABILITIE!” indeed.) David’s readings strengthened the book at every page, demanding more craft, and broader sympathies, as I worked through a structure which one reader called an “inverted Christmas tree,” moving from individual words, via lines, meters, rhymes, and stanzas up to the larger forms of cantos and books and the poem as a whole. My book as it turned out was inconceivable without the input of Julian and David, which is why I dedicated it to them jointly.

Writing about your own work is always mildly queasy. (Maybe this is a scholarly version of the modesty topos, but I am not faking for effect.) For many years, I found it difficult to reread my first book (on the Complaints). With The art of The Faerie Queene, I have related but different feelings. In an ideal world, it would be more comprehensive—less tendentious and show-offy. But we don’t live in such a world, and I look at this book, with the beautiful painting of Titian’s Actaeon fatally raising his arm towards the naked Diana on the cover, with a kind of equanimity. Some of the things unsaid from the Concordance are contained within these covers.

Thanks to Manchester University Press for allowing us to repost this piece, which was originally published on their blog.

Richard Danson Brown

Richard Danson Brown is Professor of English Literature at the Open University, and Head of the School of Arts and Humanities. Throughout his career, his main research interest has been the poetry of Edmund Spenser, but he has also worked extensively on the poetry and drama of Louis MacNeice. Richard has had his own poems published in several magazines, and was an editor of The English Review, a peer reviewed magazine aimed at sixth form students.


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Researching truth in documentary theatre

Dónall Mac Cathmhaoill, Open University Lecturer in Creative Writing, has been collaborating with University of València colleagues who share his interest in contemporary Irish theatre. Together, they have been exploring the relationship between performativity, truth, and documentary sources.

Here, Dónall offers us a glimpse into this relationship, and tells us how these shared research interests have informed his recently published article in Platform: Journal of Theatre and Performing Arts.  

The University of València’s Rectorate (This image is in the public domain)

València in spring is generally a relaxing, pleasantly warm place to be. So I was very much looking forward to conducting a couple of seminars with the Departament de Filologia Anglesa during the month of Las Fallas – the Valencian festival to bid adiós to wintry days.

I came out expecting warm Levante breezes and two-hour terrace lunches with academic colleagues.  Unfortunately, València has been experiencing some of the coldest, wettest weather ever for this time of year: high winds and incessant rain. (Being Irish, I felt right at home.)

The research trip evolved through my connection with Dra Maria Gaviña Costero, an English literature academic who specialises in the literature of the Irish conflict, particularly drama.

Given my own research into theatres of conflict, we found we had many interests in common. Having contributed some suggestions of writers the department might consider for their new drama module, I was invited last year to speak at their annual conference.

The idea then developed to deliver a research seminar and workshop with the university undergraduates in English, looking at performativity, truth, and documentary sources in Irish theatre.

The plan was to develop this collaboration to create a research paper on the work of Northern Irish playwright Stacey Gregg, who I had recommended for inclusion on the undergraduate drama module. Gregg agreed to take part in the session I would deliver.

Scorch by Stacey Gregg

The design of the research process was simple enough: the students would take part in a drama workshop where the contingent and subjective nature of dramatic truth would be explored. This involved creating dramatic narratives from ostensibly ‘true’ and ‘real’ material: documentary drama by another name.

The credibility of the narratives was predicated on their affective and aesthetic qualities: on the extent of identification between audience and performer, and on the presence of aesthetic signifiers of truthfulness, such as simplicity and directness of presentation, what Elizabeth Burns calls ‘authenticating conventions’ (1972, p.108).

Importantly, though, the narratives would be considered truthful through the rhetorical convention of having them presented by ‘real people’. This is a technique which has been used in northern Irish post-conflict drama, and which has been subject to academic scrutiny (Upton, 2010; Weigelhofer, 2015; De Ornellas & Mac Cathmhaoill, 2021).

Some, notably Carole-Anne Upton (2011), have called into question the assumptions upon which this work is built. The workshop and seminar explored how truth, and indeed identity, in documentary drama are contingent and subjective, performative and in flux.

The follow-up seminar, just completed, saw Gregg joining us online from Belfast for a discussion and Q&A. The undergraduates had by this stage read Gregg’s play Scorch, which is written from documentary sources. Gregg outlined the strategies she used as a creative writer to ensure truthfulness and fidelity to source in a work that is both documentary and fictional.

These methods – including in-depth case research, interviews, consultations with subject specialists, and presentation of work-in-progress – allow her to write plays that do not claim to be ‘the truth’ but that are unquestionably truthful.

The themes of these seminars will provide the material for upcoming research papers. They are also explored in my journal article in Platform: Journal of Theatre and Performing Arts, 15 (2): ‘Boundaries: respecting authenticating limits in the production of a play on trans marginality’.

Dónall Mac Cathmhaoill

Dónall Mac Cathmhaoill is a lecturer in Creative Writing at the OU. His PhD examines modes of authorship in theatre for social and political advocacy. His research interests range from authorship in theatre for social change to advocacy theatre in post-conflict societies. As a writer-director he has wide experience working with communities in Ireland, the UK and beyond. He was director of Irish theatre company Tinderbox, a producer and Head of Education at Soho Theatre, and has worked with major theatre companies including Bruised Sky, London; 7:84 Theatre Company, Scotland; Jagriti Theatre in Bengaluru, India; and Irish language company Aisling Ghéar.  

Works cited

Burns, E. (1972) Theatricality: a study of convention in the theatre and in social life. London: Longman.

De Ornellas, K. and Mac Cathmhaoill, D. (2021) Addressing the legacy of inter-communal violence through drama: mainstream theatre and community action. In: Glencree Journal, 2021, 163-174.

Gregg, S. (2016) Scorch. London: Nick Hern.

Mac Cathmhaoill, D. (2021) Boundaries: respecting authenticating limits in the production of a play on trans marginality. Platform: Journal of Theatre and Performing Arts, 15 (2), 111-117.

Upton, C.A. (2010) Theatre of Witness: Teya Sepinuck in conversation with Carole-Anne Upton. Performing Ethos, 1 (1), 97-108.

Upton, C.A. (2011) Real people as actors – actors as real people. Studies in Theatre and Performance, 31 (2), 209-222.

Weigelhofer, M. (2015) The function of narrative in public space: witnessing performed storytelling in Northern Ireland. Journal of Arts and Communities, 6 (1), 29-44.

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A Writing Chance: Margins to Mainstream

Stephen Tuffin, Associate Lecturer on OU Creative Writing courses A215 and A363, has recently won A Writing Chance bursary – an award that celebrates fresh perspectives and great stories from people whose voices have not historically been heard in publishing and the media. This UK-wide project is co-funded by actor Michael Sheen and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, and supported by the New Statesman and Daily Mirror, with research into barriers to publication being conducted by Northumbria University

Recipients of Writing Chance bursaries

We asked Steve to tell us about how his own class background and experience of disability have both helped and hindered his journey into publishing and academia.

I first started writing when I was a road worker. I wrote on bits of paper in the days before PCs. I didn’t write much or very often because much of the time I was too exhausted. The days were very long and very tough.

But, knackered or not, I had this urge to write. I wrote fiction. Short fiction. I didn’t write poetry because I didn’t like it. I didn’t understand it, and, in any case, only posh people read or wrote poems.

Despite not having enough the money, I signed up for the Writers Bureau, and set about learning to write. I paid in instalments, completed several assignments, and was thrilled to receive feedback. But I defaulted on the payments and so was unable to continue.  I believe I still owe the Bureau so I’m hoping they don’t read this.

My life took me to Swindon in search of employment. I did a City and Guilds apprenticeship and became a carpenter. I worked on sites all over the place and eventually found myself working at The Institute of Directors in The Mall. I worked there as the lone maintenance man and so found plenty of time to read. I read thrillers and novels about barrel-chested men, with firm chiselled jaws, and women with hour-glass figures and names like Storm. In my spare time, I continued to write. I only ever shared my writing with my wife. No one else. I had trouble with my spelling – and still do.

One day I acquired an electric typewriter – it was being replaced with a new model. I set it up at home and imagined myself to be Hemingway even though I’d never read a word he’d written. I smoked while I wrote. One roll-up after another. I hung doors in the daytime and typed words out at night. Hanging doors is hard physical work but isn’t anywhere near as knackering as digging trenches.

Time passed and the PC came along. Now I could see my words on a screen, as if they were in print, and I could correct my spelling as I went along. I wrote short stories about working-class people – café workers, shop workers, road workers. I wrote what I know.

I fell ill. I was diagnosed with Ankylosing Spondylitis and so my life on site was over. I lost my job, my income and my dignity. I had no idea what I would do next. I considered work in B&Q or as a storeman at the building firm where I’d worked as a carpenter. But my wife had started a course at our local college, and I decided to follow suit.

I wrote my first full length play in the 2002. It was called Roger and Gerald and I didn’t have a clue what I was doing, but I did it. I sat up late into the night and I wrote. I heard their voices in my head, these two men, talking, laughing, arguing, loving. I finished the play and I sat back, and I rolled a cigarette and I felt good.

My college studies took me to Bath Spa University where I gained a BA and an MA in Creative Writing. Later on, I taught there on their undergraduate programme, and it was then that I saw an advert for Associate Lecturers with the Open University. And here I am.

It’s been an interesting journey.

If I am being honest, I’ve always felt a little apart from my colleagues. They are all lovely, but they seem very posh to me. And so much smarter than me, and well educated. In a nutshell, middle-class. And I, well, I was a road worker masquerading as a clever person.

I still am.

I lived too long in that world to suddenly become something else. And I am proud of that world too. I don’t see why, as a working-class man, I can’t enjoy these things that I’ve been led to believe can only be appreciated by the middle-classes. But don’t get me started on that.

You can listen to Martin Sheen read Steve’s work on the BBC’s Margins to Mainstream (about 14 minutes into the programme). This episode also features the work of another awardee, Maya Jordan, who studied creative writing at the OU.

Now I am on this wonderful programme fronted by Michael Sheen for underrepresented writers, and I am seeing my writing take off in a way it never has before.

And the thing is, I have my arthritis to thank for it. So, good things can come in painful packages. Had the AS not got a hold of me I would still be out on site. I wouldn’t be writing this and would never have met all the fine and good people I have taught and worked with over the 16 years I’ve been employed by the OU.

Stephen Tuffin

Stephen Tuffin was born in 1958 on a council estate on the south-east coast of England. A former butcher’s boy, cook, cab driver, door-to-door salesman, care home assistant, road worker and builder, he now lives in Swindon and teaches creative writing at the Open University. He is a working-class writer writing working-class stories inspired by the remarkable and raw world he has lived and worked in for most of his life.

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