Can an online ‘safe space’ also be an accessible one?

English and Creative Writing Staff Tutor Natalie Lewis has been working with colleagues Lania Knight, Dónall Mac Cathmhaoill and Emma Claire Sweeney to explore staff and student attitudes towards the recording of online Creative Writing tutorials. They wanted to determine whether recordings can increase access to tuition without harming the safe spaces students need to develop their creativity.

We caught up with them to discover what they’ve learnt. 

Tell us a bit more about your project.

Prior to the 2022/23 academic year, undergraduate Creative Writing modules had opted out of the university’s recording of online tutorials policy. We’d made this decision because we wanted to protect students from potential feelings of vulnerability and inhibition in tutorials that involve sharing personal work.

However, the OU student body includes 70% of students working full or part-time and over 37,000 students with a declared disability. Attending live-streamed tutorials can for many, therefore, be a challenge in itself. We began to ask whether there might be benefits to providing recordings of tutorials, which could be accessed both by those students who’d attended the live-stream and those who’d not been able to make it.

What was your motivation for doing this project?

Creative Writing Lecturers and Staff Tutors had the OU’s strong commitment to accessibility in mind when designing the project. There are many ways in which tutorial recordings can enhance accessibility for those with disabilities, such as providing opportunities to stop and start recordings, to watch at a faster or slower speed, and to remove the need for notetaking in a live setting. Similarly, for those studying alongside work, family, and caring commitments, recordings can mean the difference between accessing tuition and missing out altogether. As Jilly MacKay says in her 2020 article You should record your teaching, the practice of ‘mainstreaming accessibility’ can benefit everyone.

On the other hand, there is a concern that student anxiety could be heightened by being in a recorded environment. This could lead to reduced participation or, worse, non-attendance.

In a practice-based discipline such as Creative Writing, students can benefit from a low-stakes environment where they can experiment with voice, style, structure, and character development. And there’s strong evidence to suggest that anxiety (including social and creativity anxiety) affects a significant proportion of the population.  The Mental Health Foundation report on anxiety in the UK in 2023, for example, found that one in five people (20%) are anxious most or all of the time. So, making evidence-based decisions about tutorial recordings is crucial to the student experience.

What were the key things you learnt from it?

  • When offered a choice, students did not avoid recorded tutorials in favour of an unrecorded equivalent.
  • Tutorial attendance was not negatively affected by the availability of tutorial recordings. Most students who attended a recorded tutorial (87%) interacted the same amount they usually would in an unrecorded tutorial, suggesting they felt safe in those online spaces.
  • Students were overwhelmingly positive about the provision of tutorial recordings, which were accessed by an equivalent of nearly 80% of the cohort, showing their popularity in the first year of being available to students.
  • The steady pattern of students viewing recordings throughout the academic year suggests recordings have a legacy value for those who have fallen behind the study calendar and those who have postponed submission of their final assignment due to extenuating circumstances.
  • Recordings were particularly valuable for students with work or family commitments and for those with disabilities. The availability of recordings had increased their ability to access tuition.

“[Recordings are] useful for me because I work a lot and have a toddler so attending a tutorial isn’t always an option … and they’re such a good resource.”

“I often find live sessions quite stressful due to interaction, anxiety, and trouble focusing because of ADHD. A recording gives me an opportunity to take breaks and rewind if I didn’t understand something.”

Did anything come as a surprise? 

Rather than being a barrier for students with anxiety, recorded tutorials enabled some students to access tuition in their own time and potentially benefit from vicarious learning while listening to their peers participate in academic and creative discussions.

Inevitably, recordings weren’t popular with everyone. For a minority of students who were not in favour of recorded tutorials, concerns were focussed on recordings not providing a full and interactive experience, and recordings acting as a deterrent from attending or interacting in live tutorials. These students are catered for by providing unrecorded tutorial options and maintaining alternative ‘safe space’ environments, such as asynchronous forums, for developing new writing and sharing peer feedback.

A comparison of different Arts and Humanities modules revealed some surprising differences in the numbers of students accessing tutorial recordings. Students of Level 3 English Literature viewed recordings above the average level, as did Music, Art History, and some History students. Whereas Creative Writing, Classical Studies, and interdisciplinary students viewed recordings at below-average levels for Arts and Humanities students.

Tell us about next steps. 

The project findings were presented at a recent tuition-planning conference in Milton Keynes to support OU Arts and Humanities colleagues to find the right balance for students in their discipline areas.

A Caucasian woman with long straight dark hair, standing in front of a bookcase.

Natalie Lewis

Natalie Lewis and Lania Knight are Staff Tutors in English and Creative Writing. Natalie is the Lead Cluster Manager on A215 Creative Writing and is a module team member. Natalie has contributed to recent scholarship projects supporting Creative Writing Associate Lecturers and full-time intensity students. Lania is Lead Cluster Manager for A803 Creative Writing MA (Part 2) and is a module team member. She is also Cluster Manager for A363. 

Lania Knight

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The Long And Short Of It, Session 4: The Novel and the Inconsequential

The concluding interview in the MK Lit Fest series, The Long and the Short of It, took place on Monday 25th March 2024, and focused on the novel form. Amit Chaudhuri was in conversation with OU PhD student, Rebekah Lattin-Rawstrone, in a discussion that touched on diverse topics such as the influence of Indian classical music on his writing, the (un)conventional novel, and the importance of the inconsequential. PhD student, Anita Schwartz, offers here a summary of the discussion for those of you who couldn’t make it.

Headshot of an Indian older male, wearing rectangular sunglasses, a blue shirt and a black gilet.

Amit Chaudhuri

Amit Chaudhuri is the author of eight novels, the latest of which, Sojourn, was published in 2022. His novels have won numerous awards, including the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and the Sahitya Akademi Award. He is also an acclaimed musician, poet, and essayist.

Rebekah Lattin-Rawstrone opened the discussion by asking how the structure of Chaudhuri’s novels has been influenced by his musical interests? Chaudhuri revealed that he is unaware of being a singer when he writes, and equally unaware of being a writer when he sings. For him, a model of ‘multifaceted’ creativity, the suggestion of unity between co-existing creative selves, just does not work. He likened this internal detachment to life in India, which for him is always decentred. Wherever you may be, you are listening (and therefore linked) to what is happening in another flat, or on the street outside, but are not distracted by the sounds. It is a disconnection, Chaudhuri said, that he finds fascinating. 

Yet, he pointed out, his novels follow a similar framework of improvisation that is present in the Indian classical musical form, the Raga. The musician moves up and down the octave, elaborating and expanding the scale, and finally arriving at the note in a ’round about way’. This, he says, is how he approaches his novel writing, the narrative trajectory is constantly deferred through an avoidance of ‘coming to the point’ that the reader may expect in a novel. 

As a teenager, Chaudhuri revealed, his novel-writing began as a rebellion ‘against my own interiority’. Never comfortable with the realist novel as a form, or with the idea that you pour an ‘inner life’ into a character, he instead narrates the modes of being which could have happened. His novels, he explained, depict unimportant everyday events where nothing of consequence has occurred, exploring how the senses inhabit or partake in life, rather than presenting the ‘sensational’ itself. Even objects – or the life of objects – are of great importance in his narratives. The novel as a genre, he elaborated, accommodates the possibility of the object playing a part in the milieu of the character, as they exceed the room where they are placed. 

Amit Chaudhuri - Sojourn Book Cover. Book Cover features a green ombre-effect cover with a tear revealing a man walking.In answer to Lattin-Rawstrone’s question about reader engagement, Chaudhuri explained that he rarely thinks of his audience, as to do so would cause him to freeze, or deliver a novel that wouldn’t please them. Every work, therefore, is based on immediate impulses and stimuli. However, Chaudhuri has a ‘vague sense’ of how the novels will unfold, a theme that is to be investigated. For example, in The Immortals (2010), Chaudhuri explores the precarious position of the artist after the onset of the free market through the relationship between the ‘puritan’, privileged and unkempt teenager, Nirmalya, and the ‘ambivalent’, unprivileged, knowledgeable teacher, Shyam Lal. The comedy and irony of that relationship, Chaudhuri says, ‘went to the heart of life as far as I was concerned’. In his latest novel, Sojourn (2022), a visitor to Berlin is absorbed in the city, feeling both a sense of recognition and a loss of himself and memory. As Chaudhuri explained, the character of the unnamed man emerges into the city as a ‘product’ of the end of the Cold War, and the novel is an exploration of the new world of market forces that energises the narrative. 

I will finish with Chaudhuri’s fascinating answer to a question on the personal process of writing and revision. When composing a novel, Chaudhuri reflected, he constantly asks himself, which sentences have a ‘future’ in terms of direction, that somehow hold a promise? He works, he explained, paragraph by individual paragraph, re-reading and deciding if they are ‘dreadful’ or not, and once again questioning: What am I doing? What has future? Every sentence and paragraph, he concluded, must have a life and sense of direction outside of the story. Pluck it out of the narrative, and it should possess the potential for a myriad of directions. It was a perfect note on which to end such an engaging discussion. 

Headshot of a middle-aged woman with brown hair wearing circular glasses, a blue scarf and cream jacket.

Anita Schwartz

Anita Schwartz is a part-time PhD student in the Department of English. Her thesis explores little-known texts in English by Indian women between 1870 and 1947, and the complex debates taking place around reform, nationhood, and women’s position in late colonial Indian society. Her supervisors are Prof. Alex Tickell and Prof. Suman Gupta. 

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The Long and Short of It, Session 3: Significant Ideas in Slender Volumes

On Monday 18 March 2024, in the third instalment of the MK Lit Fest series The Long and Short of It, acclaimed writer Emily Bullock was in conversation with OU Associate Lecturer and PhD student Sarah Bower discussing the novella, sometimes dubbed literature’s ‘awkward middle child’.

Headshot of a middle-aged female with mid-length brown hair, small rectangular framed glasses and a black polka dot blouse.

Emily Bullock

A headshot of a woman with short grey hair, wearing a denim jacket and a white and pastel-pink scarf.

Sarah Bower








The novella is for some a bit of a puzzle; too long to be a short story and too short to be a novel. For many mainstream publishers it is a headache to be avoided. For some readers the novella represents poor value for money, for others, it is the most perfect literary form. Although shorter than novel in terms of word count, a novella is not necessarily easier to write, and to write well requires the intense control and refinement perhaps more often associated with poetry.

Interviewing Emily Bullock about her forthcoming publication For Always Only and the form of the novella, Sarah Bower (herself the author of a novella) asked questions that got right to the heart of the matter.

For Always and Only is about the process of reading James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, or at least it is partly about that because a novella is no one-trick pony and is never only about just one thing. There is a degree of irony, noted Bower, in using Joyce’s sprawling and notoriously difficult work as the organising principle for a short, tightly controlled novella. To explain how this works, Bullock gave an account of her own process of reading Joyce, not entirely for meaning, but as a kind of readerly ‘beach combing’, and how she makes Finnegan’s Wake her own by frequently interrupting Joyce with her own lines of thought. Roland Barthes also remarked on this aspect of reading in The Rustle of Language:

Has it never happened, as you were reading a book, that you kept stopping as you read, not because you weren’t interested, but because you were: because of a flow of ideas, stimuli, associations? In a word, haven’t you ever happened to read while looking up from your book? (1986, p29).

In the light of these descriptive accounts of reading and reading while looking up, the connection with Joyce begins to make perfect sense as the backbone of writing that is very much ‘about’ reading.

The process of writing this novella was notable for the amount of cutting Bullock found she was willing to do, such as cutting out her character’s backstory, cutting flashbacks, stripping back description, and ending chapters abruptly. All this cutting, she explained, leaves the remaining gaps to do more work and leaves space for the reader who must invest in the reading process. The reader needs to be particularly alert to what is not on the page. Writers often talk about the balance between showing and telling, but in the case of the novella, according to Bullock, what the writer is not showing and not telling become highly significant.

Bullock’s forthcoming novella is set in a claustrophobic bedsit in Bloomsbury, a location that gives a wry nod to Virginia Woolf’s ‘A Room of One’s Own’ and which is also perfectly sized to provide a counterpoint to Joyce’s Dublin. And yet, the setting offers a similar intensity to Dublin but, of course, achieved in far fewer words. In the reading Bullock gave, her use of lists of items economically created a whole world whilst leaving scope within the tight frame of narrative to express bigger ideas.

In answer to Bower’s question about how a writer might know that the novella is the literary form that would best serve the story they want to tell, Bullock explained that whilst a short story is very often the synthesis of two ideas, and a novel gives ample room for complexities of character chronology, and worldbuilding, stories that are of an experimental nature, stories with strong ideas and those requiring considerable reader engagement might find their ideal form in the pithy perfection of the novella.

In a lively Q&A session Bullock fielded questions on For Always Only (to be published later this year by Reflex Press) and on the form of novella more generally. Enthusiastic audience involvement would suggest that despite the lacklustre support from mainstream publishers, there is an enduring appetite for the intriguing form of novella, and many of the questions and comments raised could have kept us all talking long into the night.

Banner of The Long and Short of It: The Novella. Featuring a black and white headshot of Emily Bullock, wearing small rectangular framed glasses and a black t-shirt. It also features her book cover - Human Terrain.

The series will conclude with the novel form on Monday 25 March.

A middle aged woman with curly auburn hair stands in front of the tree and looks thoughtfully into the middle distance.

Gwyneth Jones

Gwyneth Jones is a writer of short and flash fictions under the pen name Jupiter Jones, and her work has been widely anthologised. She is currently a PhD candidate at the Open University researching (dis)connectivity in the literary hybrid form of the novella-in-flash. Her supervisors are Dr Jane Yeh and Dr Emma Claire Sweeney.

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Navigating Different Narrative Paths

Step into the enchanting world of Amit Chaudhuri, a literary luminary known for his exploration of diverse creative forms and their connection to the human experience. Join us as we uncover the secrets of Chaudhuri’s work, from his love for Indian Classical Music to his thought-provoking insights on storytelling. Prepare to be inspired and captivated by the brilliance of Chaudhuri’s literary legacy.

One of the most intriguing things about literary giant Amit Chaudhuri’s work, is his interest in the way different creative forms speak to human experience.  

Amit Chaudhuri - Finding The Raga Book Cover. The Book cover features a swirly red pattern with a North Indian classic design.Chaudhuri’s work has always reflected his interest in Indian Classical Music and in the non-fiction work, Finding the Raga, he writes about the difference between experiencing the world as language where the word ‘morning’ is only arbitrarily connected to what we understand the word to mean, and experiencing the world through the representational act of telling stories. He sees the first as akin to poetry and the second akin to narrative forms like the novel.  

For Chaudhuri, a Western musical tradition is wrapped up in a linear exploration of the human at the centre of things and the Indian tradition decenters human action and refocuses attention on experiences that slip out of standard narrative interpretation and linger in the present.  

Amit Chaudhuri - The Immortals Book Cover. Book cover features a small cut out image of a hand touching a flower.When I read novels like Afternoon Raag or The Immortals it is this ability to discard some of the strictures of beginning, middle and end, and to focus instead on those moments in which time seems to stand still, in which nothing dramatic happens and yet the sense of what it is to be a conscious, breathing human is elegantly brought to life, that makes Chaudhuri’s work so engaging and exciting. This is poetry working within the novel and as a reader I find my way into his work through this intense love of those moments, or moods of being. 

This is of particular interest to me as a writer in my third year of a creative writing PhD at the OU, writing my novel, All The Hollow Places, that centres around the last day in the life of Gertrude Bell, the archaeologist, traveller, linguist and political officer who helped to draw the lines around modern day Iraq.  

I’ve spent the last few years thinking hard about the ways in which we interpret the world through the many filters of our familial, social, educational and cultural backgrounds. I’ve wondered about how I can reimagine Bell for a modern audience in a way that not only brings her to life on the page, but encourages a reader to question her interpretation of the world and, by extension, their own. 

Some of this needs to be done through interrogating that representational, linear act, and just like Chaudhuri, thinking about how to embrace moments out of time that collapse the linear spatiotemporal structures we generally use to situate ourselves. In this way, we can understand what it is like to wake early to the call of the muezzin because we have all had moments of being that seem, in the words of Annie Ernaux in The Years, to ‘float on top of each other’. Annie Ernaux names the feeling of such moments ‘the palimpsest sensation’ and like her, I feel this sensation could be an alternative ‘instrument of knowledge’, one which the novel, that expansive, potentially circumlocutory form, has the ability to wield to startling effect. One which Amit Chaudhuri wields beautifully himself.  

Amit Chaudhuri - Afternoon Raag Book Cover. Book cover features 6 books, piled on top of each other.One of my favourite passages of Afternoon Raag describes the protagonist imagining his mother making and drinking her early morning cup of tea. This is something she does every morning and, just like this repeated act, we imagine that tea twice. We start with her boiling the kettle to a ‘solipsistic bubbling’ (p24), divert to other things she does throughout the day, other observations about her hair and character, and then we return to the tea: ‘there (on the veranda) she stands with the teacup balanced in one hand, pausing now and then in her thoughts (for she is always thinking) to sip her weak tea politely, watching the lane’ (p26). We are not sure how often the protagonist has actually watched this moment, and understand this rendition of her morning to be one collated over a series of specific moments that together form more of a generalised sensation of his mother moving about the house before dawn, waiting to drink tea as the sun lifts over the horizon. Her habits are the stuff of life, the background comforts of home that offer quiet solace to her son in a cold, damp Oxford, far from his parents’ Bombay flat. 

The memory reveals the value in the everyday, the meditative, undramatic moment that weaves through our lives and holds a sense of our identity unshackled by strict chronology and the events that we tend to use to shape our histories (births, marriages, deaths). This is the kind of mood and sensation Chaudhuri evokes with such gentle poetry. 

Being asked to interview Amit Chaudhuri for the MK Literary Festival is a dream come true. As he writes in Finding the Raga, ‘a creative work is engendered, almost always at a crossroads’ (p52) and I hope, in our conversation, to tease out the multiple creative impulses that generate his literary and non-literary work, and to find inspiration for my own work as I try to marry past and present, form and content in my novel. 

My creative practice PhD combines a novel and critical thesis centred around the life of Gertrude Bell (1868-1926). As a distant relative of Bell, my novel uses multiple perspectives – including a personal one –  to explore the controversies of Bell’s life, from her hand in establishing modern day Iraq, to whether her overdose was really suicide. Both novel and thesis examine the ways in which we tell and use stories of the past, searching for new approaches to collective and individual storytelling that might help us think and act differently in the present.

Headshot of middle-aged woman with blonde hair wearing tortoise shell coloured glasses, a grey t-shirt and black dungarees.

Rebekah-Lattin Rawstrone

Rebekah Lattin-Rawstrone has a Masters in Creative Writing from Birkbeck, University of London, a Masters in ‘Issues in Modern Culture’ from University College London, and a degree in English from Cambridge University. Her fiction has received Arts Council funding and her PhD is funded by the OOCDTP.

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The Long And Short Of It, Session 2: The Richness Of Short Stories

On Monday 12 March 2024, we had the privilege to hear the writer Rattawut Lapcharoensap in conversation with OU Associate Lecturer Dr. Alistair Daniel. In this second instalment of the MK Lit Fest series The Long and Short of It, they explored the unique challenges and pleasures, and possibly also pains, of short story writing.

PhD student, Anne Wetherilt, offers here a summary of the event for those of you who couldn’t make it.

A headshot of a middle-aged bald male with a beard, wearing rectangular glasses and a floral shirt

Alistair Daniel

Black and white headshot of middle-aged Asian male author Rattawut Lapcharoensap. Author has short hair and is wearing circular glasses and a collared shirt.

Rattawut Lapcharoensap









Rattawut Lapcharoensap, Alastair Daniel wrote earlier this month burst onto the literary scene in 2005 with his debut story collection, Sightseeing. It won the Asian American Literary Award and was a finalist for the Guardian First Book Award. 

Short stories, Edgar Allan Poe famously wrote, need to be read in one setting. But this, Lapcharoensap argues, short-sells the short story. An avid reader of the form – he quotes James Joyce, Frank O’Connor, Sherwood Anderson, Flannery O’Connor, Alice Munro, Katherine Anne Porter and Junot Diaz amongst others – Lapcharoensap is drawn to the short story because of its ability to capture the individual and the collective experience, and its intense awareness of human loneliness. 

 His short stories have a strong sense of place. ‘I want to write the truth about the communities I felt part of’, he tells us. Indeed, in Sightseeing, he gives us a richly detailed picture of Bangkok in the 1980s and 1990s. The stories are rooted in experiences he witnessed as a young person and carried with him as an adult. And whilst they touch on topical political issues, his main aim is always to tell the truth about his characters’ lives. 

 When Sightseeing came out, William Sutcliffe, writing in The Guardian praised its ‘novelistic richness’. Lapcharoensap aims to achieve this richness through his characters. Even though a short story gives the reader only a glimpse of the character’s life, you can present the whole person: where they came from; what they have done earlier in their life; how they have lived their life. You can write beautifully and with great emotional clarity, he asserts, a short story need not be short in terms of descriptive power. 

 In Sightseeing, these stories typically narrate the experiences of young boys or adolescent men. But they are brought to us by older first-person narrators, who calmly observe and report their own earlier encounters with life. This older first-person narrator, Lapcharoensap reflects, brings an interesting perspective to the story. They may have greater articulacy, but often continue to be bewildered.

Given the centrality of place and character in his stories, it is perhaps no surprise to learn that Lapcharoensap usually starts the writing process with a scene or a character. Asking ‘who is speaking’, he expands on a notion, a feeling, a telling detail or bird’s eye view. The story line may emerge later – although sometimes it doesn’t. This early composition is like playing in the dark, he explains, and proceeds without a plan. But planning comes in when he starts revising and here we get a glimpse of the personal discipline Lapcharoensap applies to his writing. Revision is about looking for opportunities to exercise the imagination, he believes. The creative act is not just the initial inspiration – the artist struck by the imagination in his study. Rather, such moments occur in the sequence of drafts, when ‘something beautiful emerges from the lumps of despair’.  

 For all their promise, short stories can be prone to clichés and pitfalls. Lapcharoensap is particularly wary of the emphasis on epiphany. The Joycean epiphany can be beautiful, he argues, but as a narrative habit it can also be limiting. Not every character needs to act, stumble and learn from their mistakes. Weak epiphanies or false epiphanies abound in short stories, and as a genre requirement, it can limit a young writer in their development and imagination. Another pitfall, he admits, is to create characters like yourself, which you don’t allow to fail or behave foolishly. Invariably, this reduces the richness of the story, and the fictional narration becomes wishful fulfilment. 

 Part of the joy of being a short story writer, Lapcharoensap notes, is in seeing them published as part of a collection. Each story is written on its own and should stand on its own feet. But they are enriched by their neighbours, as the writer organises them in a particular way to achieve formal and thematic dignity. 

 Sightseeing closes with ‘Cockfighter’, which at 90 pages is closer to a novella. This particular one did not end, Lapcharoensap explains. ‘It just wouldn’t stop and I continued to be interested in it’. As a reader, he loves the novella – it has the expansiveness of the novel yet requires the rigour and economy of the short story. To this reader of Sightseeing, Lapcharoensap moves effortlessly across the two forms, offering us ‘novelistic richness’, as well as sheer reading pleasure. 

 The series will delve into the novella form on Monday 18 March and conclude with the novel on Monday 25 March.

Banner advertising upcoming Monday evening online events: Short story, 11 March; Novella, 18 March; Novel, 25 March. Images of book covers by each of the guest authors.


Headshit image of a middle-aged woman with blonde hair in a ponytail wearing a black crew neck t-shirt

Anne Wetherilt

Anne Wetherilt is a part-time PhD student in the Department of English, funded by the Open Oxford Cambridge (OOC) Doctoral Training Partnership. Her thesis – ‘Decolonisation and the Female Middlebrow: Politics, Economics and the Novel’ – studies the work of women writers, who witnessed the end of the British empire. Her supervisors are Prof. Alex Tickell and Prof. David Johnson. 


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Apparently True: Writing A Novella By Accident

Creative Writing PhD student and Associate Lecturer Sarah Bower found herself inadvertently crafting a novella during the second lockdown summer of 2021. Ahead of Monday’s online event with fellow OU novella writer Emily Bullock, Sarah  unveils how writing a novella helped her uncover hidden layers of her larger literary endeavors.


Rather as Withnail and I went on holiday ‘by mistake’, in the second lockdown summer of 2021 I wrote a novella by accident. In August 2023, it was published by Story Machine as Lines and Shadows. Admittedly, it seems an odd sort of mishap, and you would be within your rights to doubt my assertion that it was an accident at all because who writes an entire book – even a short one – by accident?

Let me tell you how and why it happened.

I was in the first summer of my PhD in creative and critical writing, for which I am writing a much longer novel, part of which, set in 1968 and 69, is about the role of women in the manufacture of spacesuits for Apollo. End of year marking was over, there was little or no prospect of diversions such as test cricket or holidays. The PhD beckoned. I opened up the file…

Notebook with two pages of handwritten notes…and picked up a notebook in which I started writing, by hand and with no conscious forethought, something completely different.

I headed it ‘Ghost Story’ and wrote: ‘The letter from the Ministry of Defence was lying on Ginny Matlock’s plate when she came down to breakfast.’ Beyond that point I knew very little.

Fiction writing is a peculiar process. The writer is split between the mechanical brain which wields the pen or types on the keyboard, undertakes the research, knows how to spell and where to put a comma (most of the time). Then there is the parallel universe of the imagination in which she is not only not herself but may be many others. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, in The Last Tycoon, ‘Writers aren’t people exactly. Or, if they’re any good, they’re a whole lot of people trying so hard to be one person.’ The writer is never entirely in control of all these people and sometimes, the ones who have been waiting patiently in the background – perhaps for years – decide they’re tired of waiting and elbow their way to the front of the queue.

The character waiting for me was, in the Romantic tradition, a place: the Suffolk coastal town of Orford. I had lived in Suffolk and known I wanted to write about Orford for many years, not only for its bleak, beautiful and ever shifting landscape. I had written about the East Anglian coastline and its unpredictability before, in my novel Erosion. But Orford has a strange history, which transports the imagination from a medieval merman to nuclear weapons testing and Cold War listening posts. It had lain dormant in my subconscious for twenty years or more, and it was initially a mystery to me why it chose to rise to the surface in that particular summer.

Image from outer space looking at the Earth

Earthrise 1968

The novella is set between 1960 and 1962, culminating with the Cuban Missile Crisis, in a fictional village called Aldeford. This is closely based on Orford but the inability to conduct either location research or visit the relevant archives in Ipswich due to lockdown meant that I could not achieve the historical accuracy necessary to set my story in the real place. This was liberating, however, as was scribbling in a notebook in the unstructured spaces of my day – while waiting for the kettle to boil, eating breakfast, watching the bath run. I was daydreaming on paper. The characters conjured into being this way – Ginny, the mathematics prodigy from Manchester, her society girl housemates, the Korean war hero Philip and the mysterious Artist – had the freedom to do as they wished and to tell me what they wanted to.

It wasn’t until they had finished and fallen silent that I understood their function in the process of a whole lot of people trying to become me. I realised, during the course of discussions with my editor which helped to sharpen the novella’s focus, that its creative impulse was a means of delving into the deep backstory of my PhD. It prepared the ground for writing about the proxy war that was the space race and the real war in Vietnam that was the grisly underbelly of America’s triumphant moonshot. Kennedy became president in 1960 and made his ‘We Choose to Go to the Moon’ speech at Rice University in 1962, a month before the missile crisis. While my characters’ lives and loves and encounters with ghosts and spies were unfolding on a secret airforce base in Suffolk, the building blocks for 1968 – for everything from student riots to Earthrise – were being assembled in America.

Black and white book cover featuring a white image of a satellite

Lines and Shadows by Sarah Bower

Lines and Shadows is my first novella. At 40,000 words it is long for the form but about half the length of a novel.

Perhaps, in the context in which I was writing, it took this form because the novella too shape shifts like the Orford coast. Neither novel nor short story, it is commonly seen as originating in fourteenth century Italy with Boccaccio’s Decameron. The word ‘novella’ translates from Italian as ‘a short story related to true, or apparently true, facts.’ What better way to describe a book written by accident, set in a fictional version of a real place and tucked into the corners of another book altogether.

Banner advertising upcoming Monday evening online events: Short story, 11 March; Novella, 18 March; Novel, 25 March. Images of book covers by each of the guest authors.

A headshot of a woman with short grey hair, wearing a denim jacket and a white and pastel-pink scarf.

Sarah Bower

Sarah Bower is an Associate Lecturer at the OU, where she is also reading for a PhD in creative and critical writing. She is the author of three previous novels. Her first, The Needle in the Blood, winner of the 2007 Susan Hill Award, was re-issued in September 2023. She also writes short fiction and has edited anthologies of memoir and of literary translations into English. She is currently working on a book of prompts and inspirations for creative writing for imprisoned people.

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The Long and Short of It, Session 1: It went in a flash!

A middle-aged Caucasian woman with short blond hair, wearing long multi-coloured beads and a floral headress. She is looking up to the left-hand corner of the frame, wearing a cheeky grin.

Electra Rhodes

A middle aged woman with curly auburn hair stands in front of the tree and looks thoughtfully into the middle distance.

Jupiter Jones







Just like a piece of flash, the session was compressed with wisdom about writing and enjoying this difficult but rewarding form. Electra’s ‘In Momma’s Shoes’ packed such a punch in three short paragraphs. Who knew that everything about child neglect and poverty could be contained in a 300 word capsule of flash – travelling at speed to the pinpoint precision (quite literally) of the end.

Electra gave us 11 quickfire features of the short, compressed narrative that is flash:

  • Under 1,000 words
  • Distinctive form – hermit crabs, for instance, are flashes made of different forms such as menus or surveys
  • The title really works, doing the heavy lifting
  • Compression and intensity
  • Language that is tight, bright and right
  • Like the after-image of a camera/phone flash
  • Use of image, metaphor, archetypal trope, fable and fairy tale to draw in extra layers of meaning
  • An ending that lands – if a story is like sewing, this is the thread pulled taut with a twang
  • Experimental
  • Plot involves a shift of some kind
  • Lots of stuff happens off the page

Like a balloon, you feel your way to the right length of the thing, containing just the right amount of air. Electra advises ‘Start late and get out as early as you can!’ Look for a chewy satisfying landing . It is the briefest invitation into a world, requiring intimacy to ‘read’ the space between the lines and off the page, to let go and trust the reader will get it.

Flash is thriving, many anthologies to read full of wonderful examples of form, style and length – and infiltrating other forms with its fracture, compression and oomph!

A final tip that stays with me: read it out loud, record it, play it back in your own and different voices, then you will see what lands, the final form. When you write something and someone else gets it, it is just the best feeling.

As Electra and Jupiter both say, read it, jump in, try it, be experimental … What’s the best that can happen?

A woman with chin-length grey curly hair smiles into the camera.

Grace Kempster

Grace Kempster’s  full-time PhD explores the representation of cloth and stitch in the mid-Victorian novel (1845-75).  She is examining 6 key texts by Thackeray, Dickens, Oliphant, Yonge , Eliot and Trollope to explore the tropes and consider a new paradigm of textile fluency affecting the novel. Her supervisors are Professor Delia Da Sousa Correa and Professor Nicola Watson.

Clips from the event will be included in the OU’s updated Advanced Creative Writing course (A363) launching in October. The series continues with events on the short story and novella, at 7.30pm on Monday 11 and 18 March, and one on the novel at 5pm on Monday 25 March. The series will conclude with an in-person panel event at Milton Keynes Central Library at 11am on Saturday 6 April.

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Revisiting Rattawut Lapcharoensap’s Sightseeing: Timeless Charm, Cultural Subversion

Enter the world of Rattawut Lapcharoensap’s “Sightseeing” through Alistair Daniel’s insightful biography. Lapcharoensap’s debut collection, born from his upbringing in Thailand and Chicago, challenges Western perceptions with its nuanced portrayal of life in Bangkok’s margins. Daniel’s exploration unveils the enduring relevance of Lapcharoensap’s work, making this biography essential for literature lovers.


Sightseeing Book Cpver by Rattawut Lapcharoensap. Book cover features a man sat on a brown bench with his legs folded reading a map.Rereading can be a hazardous affair. There’s nothing more disappointing than returning to a book you once cherished only to find that you and it have fallen out of love. The characters seem wooden, the dialogue flat, the plot predictable (even allowing for the fact that you already know how it ends). Your love of this book, you realise, had more to do with you – with the age you were then, the situation you were in, the things that were preoccupying you – than with the book itself. So one of the great pleasures of rereading Rattawut Lapcharoensap’s short story collection Sightseeing has been discovering that the qualities I admired in it the first time are all still there: the precision of the writing, the beautifully constructed plots, the compelling narrators and, perhaps above all, the indelible images: Priscilla the Cambodian’s golden teeth, Anek with his face on fire, or Clint Eastwood, the narrator’s pet pig in ‘Farangs’, swimming desperately out to sea.


Black and white headshot of middle-aged Asian male author Rattawut Lapcharoensap. Author has short hair and is wearing circular glasses and a collared shirt.

Rattawut Lapcharoensap

Born in Chicago and raised in Thailand, Rattawut Lapcharoensap burst onto the literary scene, in the US and far beyond, in 2005 with his debut story collection, Sightseeing. Published when he was just 25, the collection delighted readers and critics alike with the freshness of its perspective and the maturity of its voice. ‘Sightseeing is not mere reportage, but storytelling of the highest quality, profoundly human and universal,’ wrote William Sutcliffe in The Guardian. ‘Every story in this collection is dense with event, emotion and meaning.’ It won the Asian American Literary Award and was a finalist for the Guardian First Book Award. In 2007 Lapcharoensap was named as one of Granta’s Best Young American Novelists.


One of the great strengths of Sightseeing is the way it turns Western clichés about Thailand on their heads. This is not the Thailand of tourist fantasy. Though ‘farangs’ – Thai slang for foreigners – certainly feature, in all their inevitable crassness and cultural insensitivity, the stories in Sightseeing are told mostly from the point of view of the Thai characters: children, troubled adolescents and their just-as-troubled parents, often living hardscrabble lives on the edges of Bangkok, or running a motel on a resort island choked with tourists, or scraping by in menial jobs.


A lake in Thailand, surrounded by lush green hills with a red wooden hut standing on stilts in the water. The sunset and the light reflecting on the water surface creates a picturesque scene of natural Thailand.Lapcharoensap’s Thailand is a world dominated by gangster capitalists, a world in which the military runs a corrupt draft process, in which teenage girls work as prostitutes, in which whole neighbourhoods are falling into ruin; a world where drunk men conspire to burn down a refugee camp and rats rifle cheerfully through garbage. It’s a world the West has permeated in many ways, from tourism to films, even inveigling its way into the dreams and aspirations of the characters, though more often than not it only serves to disappoint (the eleven-year-old protagonist of ‘At the Café Lovely’, tasting his first American burger, is promptly sick). Yet it’s also a world of extraordinary beauty and human warmth, where two brothers can share a moment of tender solidarity on the back of a dilapidated motorbike, where a bicultural family can bond by playing bumper cars at their local Buddhist temple, and where, for one brief summer, two Thai boys and a Cambodian girl can make their own entertainment out of an empty swimming pool. A world where pigs can’t fly but they can swim.


One aspect of Lapcharoensap’s work that’s always compelled me, both as reader and writer, is the narrative voice. While his protagonists are often children or adolescents, flawed, fallible, and – like the lovesick narrator of ‘Farangs’ – somewhat lacking in self-knowledge, it’s their grown, or older selves who tell the story, often writing long after events, with all the melancholy wisdom that comes with knowing how everything turned out. These first-person narratives should really be called first people narratives, since often what we get are two voices – the young protagonist and the older narrator – and the challenge of capturing both of these voices on the page – capturing, in short, a sense of personal identity and how it evolves – is one Lapcharoensap navigates with aplomb. I’ve no doubt that his facility for narrative voices has influenced my approach to my own – very different – narrator, Simon Pritchard, the protagonist of my novel, Montreal, which I’ve just completed as part of a PhD in creative writing at the Open University. And it’s this – and many other – qualities that give Lapcharoensap’s work the novelistic richness that makes it feel so vital. I can’t wait to hear him speak about his work, and I hope you’re as excited as I am.

A headshot of a middle-aged bald male with a beard, wearing rectangular shaped glasses and a floral shirt

Alistair Daniel

Alistair Daniel is an Associate Lecturer in Creative Writing at the Open University. His short stories have been published in journals including The Missouri Review, Narrative, Litro, The Stinging Fly, The Irish Times and Stand, and he has held the Charles Pick Fellowship at the University of East Anglia. He has an MA in Creative and Life Writing from Goldsmiths College, University of London, and a PhD in Creative Writing from the Open University.



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