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’.
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.
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.
Sarah: I 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/