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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Memoir and Motherhood

Meghan Flaherty, Associate Lecturer on A215, has recently been awarded a Scottish Book Trust Ignite Fellowship. The fellowship offers talented professional authors practical and financial support for exploring new avenues or making new breakthroughs. Meghan will be working on her second book, a memoir about motherhood, memory, and the self – the stories we tell each other in order to live and how those narratives define us. We asked her to tell us about juggling her roles as mother, writer and OU tutor.

Motherhood is hard. It’s even harder (I tell myself) when your children are small and the world has gone haywire. The pandemic has forced so many of us to juggle so much, and in such claustrophobic space. How can you possibly be a person, a writer, a mother, a pre-school teacher, a playmate, a chef, a maid, a student, a professional and keep your family safe and healthy all at once? (Not to mention keeping up with all the latest parenting advice on Instagram—and falling ever short.)

I say this and I’ve had it easy. My family has weathered its particular challenges, but we’ve managed to tread water for the past two years. In all of the uncertainty, we’ve never feared for a roof over our heads, and despite a few nursery colds (when nursery is open) and the persistent stress, we’ve managed to fend off harm. We’re lucky. My husband and I have jobs that don’t require us to leave the house in lockdowns. Our kids are young enough to not mourn what they have lost in this new normal. (And young enough, thank heaven, not to require help with any maths homework.) We are not high risk (in any category), and so we’ve managed fine, despite the occasional storm clouds of depression and that niggling, insurmountable anxiety, the fatigue of functioning in so much flux.

Tango Lessons: A memoir by Meghan Flaherty

What I haven’t managed to do (apart from keeping my skirting boards clean and being perfectly patient with my children) is write. I sit here typing this beside a pile of pages—the mess of which I hope to call my second book. This lump of untouched draft, this tome of half-baked words, is the albatross of my pandemic, of my past five years. Granted, during that time, I also had two children under two (both of them nutters), moved across the world, and lost a beloved parent to leukemia. (Not to mention: made it through the Trump administration.) I’ve had my share of good excuses.

My kids came first. Then lockdowns. Then the move. More lockdown. Toilet training. The purchase of our first house. Another move. My husband’s thyroid surgery. Working to pay the bills. Grieving. More bills. When was there time to sit down at my desk and do art? And if I’d found the time, where was the energy? The inspiration (from the Latin ‘in’/‘spirare’, to inhale, to breathe in)?

I’ve recently been given the gift of an Ignite Fellowship from the Scottish Book Trust, which includes a much-appreciated bursary, the promise of a week’s retreat (!!!), and mentorship, but above all else: a vote of confidence. Someone outside of my house, my head, telling me to put my bottom in my chair and get this done. A reason to pick up this doorstop on my desk and make a book of it. Even when I think I’m too exhausted to access the part of me that writes. The part I’ve shaded over with these other roles, back-burnered and forgotten. You’ll understand why I fumble here for words; my gratitude feels inexpressible.

Since I started teaching at the OU, I’ve been so impressed by the tenacity of my students. Most of whom, I note, are juggling so much more than I. That they manage to keep pace against the current of this pandemic, managing their own families and jobs and stresses, their own mental health and learning challenges, to pursue their degrees (and churn out stories, essays, poems) is remarkable. As I steer them through their module this year, I hope to channel some of their resolve and pluck.

Meghan Flaherty

Meghan Flaherty (who teaches at the OU under the name Meghan Maguire) is the author of Tango Lessons. She has an M.F.A. from Columbia University. Her essays and translations have appeared in OThe Oprah MagazineThe Iowa ReviewPsychology TodayParents, and online at the New York TimesThe Paris Review, and elsewhere. Her essay ‘Ode to Gray‘ was included among the notable mentions in 2019’s Best American Essays. She is an Associate Lecturer in Creative Writing at the Open University, and teaches also at the University of Glasgow and Catapult.co in NYC. She lives in Scotland with her partner and their two wee boys.

 

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Launch of new Language, Literature and Politics research group

Group of feminist women with raised fists and shouting slogans in Mexico

The Language, Literature and Politics research group is a cross-faculty initiative, bringing together researchers from the School of Arts and Humanities in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences and the School of Languages and Applied Linguistics in the Faculty of Wellbeing, Education and Language Studies. The aim of the group is to investigate the relationship between language, literature (literary criticism and creative writing) and politics in the widest variety of contexts.

Co-directors Professor David Johnson and Dr Philip Seargeant founded the new research group to give oxygen to interdisciplinary research conversations and initiatives, and they see it as an exciting opportunity for new and interesting synergies to emerge.

The group launched with an online literary event featuring author Jim Crace, who read from his Booker-shortlisted novel, Harvest, and spoke to OU Lecturer in Creative Writing and fellow novelist, Dr Emma Claire Sweeney, about the interrelationship between politics and language in his own work.

A conversation between Jim Crace and Emma Claire Sweeney

This year, LLP will kick off with a series of public talks that take inspiration from Raymond Williams’s hugely influential ‘Keywords’ book to examine the terms and concepts that act as touchstones for today’s society.

Williams describes a keyword as one for which ‘the problems of its meanings seem inextricably bound up with the problems it’s being used to discuss.’ So the act of defining the word is part of the process of exploring and arguing for the values that the concept represents.

An animated video essay about Raymond Williams’s ‘Keywords’, and the relevance of the idea for today’s society.

With speakers spanning disciplines from philosophy to political science and lexicography to literature, the series will look at how Williams’s project is still highly valid today, and at what words – and the arguments around them – define society and culture in 2022.

All events are 4-5pm

27 Jan:    Professor Teresa Bejan on EqualityMore details and register via Eventbrite.

10 Feb:   Professor Tony Crowley on PrivilegeMore details and register via Eventbrite.

17 Feb:   Fiona McPherson on the Oxford English Dictionary and Words of the YearMore details and register via Eventbrite.

24 Feb:   Professor Tim Blackman on EducationMore details and register via Eventbrite.

24 March: Dr Sarah Marie Hall on Rupture/RevolutionMore details and register via Eventbrite.

7 April: Professor Kate Pullinger on LiteratureMore details and register via Eventbrite.

21 April: Professor Quentin Skinner on Three Concepts of LibertyMore details and register via Eventbrite.

5 May: Dr Lara Choksey on PeasantMore details and register via Eventbrite.

 

 

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Narrative Imperialism and Writing Home: A conversation between Rebekah Lattin-Rawstrone, a new PhD student, and Sarah Butler, a recent graduate

Rebekah Lattin-Rawstrone has just embarked on a PhD in creative writing funded by the Open-Oxford-Cambridge Arts and Humanities Research Council Doctoral Training Partnership. We put her in touch with Sarah Butler, who was recently awarded her own PhD in creative writing, which was also funded by the AHRC – in her case via the Consortium for the Humanities and the Arts South-east England. Here, Rebekah and Sarah let us eavesdrop on their conversation about their writing and research.   

Sarah Butler

Rebekah Lattin-Rawstrone

 

Rebekah: It’s a privilege to be given this chance to focus for three whole years on something that really fascinates me – narrative imperialism in the contemporary British novel. But that privilege brings responsibility with it.

Sarah: I’d love to hear more about the concept of narrative imperialism.

Rebekah: This gets right to heart of what I’m hoping to explore in both my critical writing and in the novel. I intend to unravel this concept from several angles: firstly, looking at the development of the novel during a time of imperialism and asking if that affected the narrative structures widely adopted in the form, particularly the three act teleological structure based around conflict and resolution; secondly, building on feminist criticism of narrative structures, thinking specifically of Ursula K. Le Guin’s wonderful essay ‘The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction’ in which she outlines the possibility of new story forms that don’t follow the spear, or the arrow model – the hero’s journey model – but the gathering, containing, holding model, arguing that the bag rather than the stick was the first human tool; thirdly, looking at the wide adoption in the creative writing industry, both academic and commercial, of the three act structure and the hero’s journey, especially under the influence of film theory, and asking whether, as the industry attempts to publish different stories it could also look for writing that tells these stories differently (put in another way, are we only interested in different stories when they fit into a certain story telling structure? Are we continuing to enforce a kind of narrative imperialism?).

Sarah: This is so interesting! I teach creative writing at Manchester Metropolitan University and have been reading critiques of the workshop model by writers coming from different literary/cultural traditions. I’ve been thinking about the assumptions I make about structure and form, and about how I support writers and writing from backgrounds different to my own.

I set off on my PhD thinking I was going to write about narrative and ageing and particularly about endings and death, but very early on in the process my supervisors asked me to ‘just write something’ reflective about my work. I ended up writing an essay about home across all of my published work, and realised that it is a huge and pressing theme for me.

So, I changed the direction of my research, exploring the relationship between the novel form and home. I thought about the impact of the loss of home (particularly through urban gentrification) and nostalgia, and how nostalgia can be a driver of narrative. I thought about the verbs to leave, to stay, to return and to settle in relation to home in my own work and in two novels by Anne Tyler, who is a big influence on my writing.

Rebekah: I read your response with real delight because the concept of home has been a driver for my work too. I was born overseas and my father then became a diplomat so I spent a lot of time abroad as a child and it has had a huge impact on how I think about where and what I call home and how that might relate to a sense of belonging. You can see how all of these things then fed into an interest in world literature and a wider storytelling practice.

My first novel is actually called Home. It is about a corrupt care home, and I was trying to explore the fractures in the English extended family unit. Age, death and home – more common themes with you. My second novel is about a white English woman trying to forge a relationship with her Malawian half-sister. The desire to create a sense of family and home across national boundaries is central to this book.

I’ve begun by investigating possible alternative narrative structures and am having a lot fun looking at Islamic architecture and the mathematics of tessellation as a possible model for my novel’s structure. As the novel is partly set in Iraq, there is a real wealth of early literature to draw on. It makes for an interesting contrast with my protagonist, real-life adventurer Gertrude Bell who, as someone very keen to contribute to world events, did her best to fulfil the hero’s journey – albeit the heroine’s journey. I’m interested in her life outside of the public eye and how what often really fulfils us in life isn’t always our achievements. In that way, both the subject of the story and the telling should cohere as they attempt to express something different to the traditional three act structure. There will be other threads to the novel too, adding to that sense of pattern and structure through tessellation.

SarahI am a bit obsessed about applying structures from different disciplines/places onto writing, so I love the idea of taking ideas from architecture and maths and using those to find a structure for your novel. The way the form and the content are working together also sounds fascinating (and very satisfying!). It’s also really interesting to me because I have an idea for a new novel that I’m struggling to impose a traditional structure onto – I feel as though this conversation has given me permission to think that might not be such a bad thing!

When I started out on my PhD, I worried that ‘over’ analysing my own work would somehow damage my creative process. In fact, it’s been just the opposite. Spending time really thinking about my themes and process has given me a certain clarity of purpose. It’s allowed me to be clearer about what I’m interested in and what I want to explore in my writing.

I’ve been doing some research work for some academics at the OU about the climate crisis and creativity and that’s got me thinking about how I might combine my interest in home with my concern about the climate crisis. I guess I think of myself as both a writer and a researcher now, and that feels exciting and full of possibility.

I wish you all the very best with your PhD. It sounds fabulous, and important, and I am sure it will be an adventure worth having!

Rebekah Lattin-Rawstrone is the author of short story collection Glitches (Acorn Publishing, 2014) and novel Home (Red Button, 2015, now Kindle Direct Publishing). The working title of her PhD is Longing to Belong: an investigation into the potential for alternative storytelling techniques, in particular from the Middle East, to challenge narrative imperialism in the contemporary British novel.

Twitter: @RebekahLattinR; Website: www.lattin-rawstrone.com

Sarah Butler is the author of novels Ten Things I’ve Learnt About Love (Picador, 2013), Before The Fire (Picador, 2015) and Jack and Bet (Picador, 2020). The title of her PhD is Writing Home: an exploration of the writing of Jack and Bet (a novel) and a consideration of what the novel – as a space and a practice – offers to our understanding of the concept of home, and what a consideration of home offers to our understanding of the novel.

Twitter @SarahButler100; Insta: sarahbutlerwriter; Website: http://www.sarahbutler.org.uk/

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Climate Change and Creativity: Interview with Sally O’Reilly

Sally O’Reilly is a novelist and Senior Lecturer here at the Open University’s Department of English and Creative Writing, where her role as Media Lead has included editing this blog. Before Sally’s appointment as a Central Academic in 2014, she’d already worked here for many years as an Associate Lecturer. But Sally’s long relationship with the OU is about to evolve as she is now making the leap to fulltime writing. Ahead of her departure, Sally’s successor as Media Lead, Emma Claire Sweeney, has seized the opportunity to ask Sally about her recent research into climate change and creativity – an area where Sally hopes to continue collaborating with OU colleagues.

Emma: How do you think creative writing might play a role in addressing the societal challenges posed by climate change?

Sally: Like so many people, I am increasingly alarmed by the climate crisis and I also feel unsure what I can do to help. It’s hard to see a way in which any one person can make a difference, and there are two default settings – thinking about something else, or assuming a position of nihilistic fatalism. But what I’ve realised is that it’s not about any one person, it’s about the power of collective action and social change, and while one person is powerless alone, if you can start communicating with like-minded people, astonishing changes can be made.

And while, at first, I thought that trying to address these issues was something I must do outside my work and writing time, I saw eventually that writing creatively is directly related to the climate crisis, because writers can (perhaps) encapsulate what this means in human terms, and be part of a movement to reimagine the world.

I’ve talked about this in three videos recorded for the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences:

Imaginative writing can seem like an adjunct, a ‘nice to have’, rather than being essential to society like (say) physics. But if you look at the way people turned to books, film and TV during the lockdown, you see how vital narrative is to everyone. So writing can both help people process what is going on, and help communicate the situation – but without pushing an overt ‘message’ because there we have another pitfall,  becoming polemical or seeming to preach.

Emma: Can you name a few contemporary writers who you feel have navigated this territory particularly well?

I really like the way that a fiction writers like Jenny Offill can play on our sense of unease by weaving alarming statistics about climate, preppers and the coming apocalypse into a contemporary realist narrative. It is the very ordinariness of the story that makes it terrifying.

Right now, I’m in the middle of a fascinating book called Being a Human by Charles Foster, which isn’t overtly about climate change, but about the way in which humans lived for many thousands of years, as Palaeolithic hunter gatherers. They lived long, healthy lives, their carbon footprint was zero and they produced visual art of stunning sophistication. Our view of modernity as being part of a post-Enlightenment process of constant improvement does not stand much scrutiny if you take the long view, and the despoliation of the planet is part of that. What’s particularly interesting about Foster, who is an extraordinary writer, a sort of modern William Blake, is that he bends genre in this book. Ostensibly, it’s creative nonfiction, but he brings in the ghost figures of a character named X and his son, spirits from the Palaeolithic age. His writing reminds me of both Ted Hughes and Alan Garner, the sense of the numinous in nature, the mystery in being. And Foster also embodies the meeting of scientific, empirical knowledge and creativity – he has studied veterinary medicine, he is barrister, and he has a wild imagination.

Emma: You curated this autumn’s Climate Change and Creativity series for the OU’s Contemporary Cultures of Writing research group. Tell us a bit more about this series.

Sally: I invited poets, fiction writers, scientists and activists to talk about how distilling observations about the natural world and telling stories relates to the present moment and our choices about the climate. I’m aware of my own ignorance here. My writing has not focussed on climate previously, and so it is as steep a learning curve for me as it is for anyone. But in the research I have done so far, I can see how this issue connects with so many other issues – racism, social justice, education, equality.

Emma: So your own research interests are changing in the light of these connections?

After I leave the OU, I will be working on a series of essays about the contemporary world and climate, working tranche title Eco Worrier. And my current novel explores Victorian attitudes to nature and the way in which the ancient, shamanic understanding of the natural world had its last gasp at that time. It’s a book that has led me down a lot of surprising, twisty pathways, like walking through an ancient forest. Or so I tell myself when my energies are flagging.

Emma: Another area of your research relates to diverse voices in historical fiction. Could you tell us a bit more about that? Are there links between this and your interest in creativity and climate change?

Sally: I’m in the process of putting together a collection of essays about difference in historical fiction, and the way that previously marginalised voices are now being heard in this genre. Two years ago, I would have said this was separate from my interest in climate, but now I see a close connection. If you read about the British Empire and the ruthless way in which the British colonised and exploited people and resources, you can see how the foundations of climate injustice were laid. The Industrial Revolution paved the way for global expansion, which traditional British histories have said made the UK the ‘workshop of the world’, but we did this at the expense of disenfranchised groups in Britain – women, children, the working class – as well as in the global South. And the roots of Empire go back to Tudor England, to those glamorous swashbucklers Drake and Raleigh, that period of history that now seems so brightly coloured and picturesque.

Emma: Now that you are leaving your current post at the OU to write full time, how do you hope your new relationship with the OU might develop?

I’d like to find a new way of working, writing books that have academic rigour in collaboration with academics, perhaps in other disciplines, and also writing novels that reflect the new way that I see the modern world. One of the poets at the first seminar, Kristian Evans, talked about the way in which writing makes us more present to reality, and helps us experience life with more intensity, more directness. I’d like to channel that, into reading, thinking and writing. And collaborating. Because as I was saying earlier, this has to be about collective action. Novelists are good at sitting on their own tapping out sole-authored books, and writing novels is still my priority, but I’ll be looking for creative collaborations with OU colleagues whose interests relate to mine. I’d like to follow Foster’s example and work at the interface between fiction and nonfiction, a way of writing that seems particularly resonant at this time, when the facts are so extraordinary that processing them is an imaginative challenge.

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