Tag Archives: First Novel

My Writing Space

Have you read the advice to find a quiet spot and develop regular writing habits? Does it suit you? It is not what’s needed by all writers.

I am lucky enough to live on my own, so every room is potentially a writing space, including the garden and my summer house. And I write in both of these from time to time, as well as in the kitchen – as close to the doings for making coffee as I can get for my morning pages.

I mostly write in my studio. The Guardian did a feature about David Hare in which he referred to his writing studio. Ah – good name. The word studio lends an element of work, creativity, and older works propped against the wall. I call my loft space, my writing studio. What’s in a name? It also gets called office, study or writing room.

123 studio

My studio

I like to control noise in my surroundings, quiet at times, radio or CDs playing at others. Nothing incenses me so much as the barking of my neighbour’s dogs.

I’m not a very tidy writer. I sit at a much-marked Habitat pine table which I have owned for more than 30 years. It holds up piles of papers, pots of pens, my lap top, a light. I preserve my back with an ergonomic kneeling chair from the Backshop.

123 Writing wall

The noticeboards

In front of the table is my noticeboard, which I use like a notebook. On is for photos. The other holds the schedule for reading, blog posts, some photos, and the odd inspirational saying.

Tell me, what do you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

(Mary Oliver.)

There are several postcards, one of Cornelia Parker’s exploded shed, another some books by Rachel Whiteread. And an annotated post card from a Berlin museum:

Of all the worlds created by wo/man the world of BOOKS is the most powerful.

(Heinrich Heine.)

I’ve pinned up several copies of the Guardian Bookshop bestseller list, in which our book Retiring with Attitude has been featured for several weeks. That spot used to be occupied by encouraging e-mails from our editor. The most recent is a month old, however. I don’t think I even notice these things anymore. I’m not much of a believer in motivational notes to self.

123 viewMy view

It’s a loft room and the view is divine – out over the roofs and trees of my village. On a fine day you can see Dartmoor. But this is Devon, so it rains a lot. I know it’s there. Sometimes when I am walking on Dartmoor I look back and imagine I can see the windows of my studio. ‘That’s where I write,’ I say to myself.



A blog: TanGental The place where I write. It’s a personalised desk.

And see the advice by Irene Waters Writing Tips: Starting the flow about the undisturbed place in which to write, quoting John Creswell’s book Research Design.

There is an interest in where writers write. The Guardian ran a series about writer’s spaces, and these appeared now and again in Nicholas Royle’s novel First Novel.

This blog was a response to a suggestion by Norah Colvin. Can you learn anything from this? Is your writing space important to you?


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Filed under Books, Writing

Never mind teaching it – can you learn creative writing?

You’ve heard this question before I’m sure: Can creative writing be taught? Eminent writers periodically get involved in spats on this issue. Recently one was set off by Hanif Kureishi (who teaches creative writing at the University of Kingston).  He appears to despise his students, suggesting that the vast majority of them ‘are talentless’. Lucy Ellman, novelist and ex-creative writing teacher, joined in and called creative writing courses ‘the biggest con-job in academia’.

Teaching creative writing courses has its defenders: Jeanette Winterton (at Manchester University) and bloggers Emma Darwin and Shelley Harris. Tales from the Reading Room has an excellent post about learning on a writing course.

Let’s remember that writers need to earn enough to live on. Where would they be without us amateurs to add to their income? According to The Independent, Kureishi said that having three sons means that he has to earn money from writing in any way he can.

90 First NovelAnd some write creatively about it: the blurb for First Novel by Nicholas Royle says it’s a ‘darkly funny examination of the relative attractions of creative writing courses and suburban dogging sites …’ Hmmmm.

What success criteria do the doubters have in mind? I suspect that they judge a course by the publication rate. Kureishi however suggests he is offering therapy. Really?

I am concerned for those people who attend courses to improve their writing, and whose primary objective is not publication, or therapy. Moving the focus away from publication means emphasising improvements that the writer him/herself wants to make and this leads me to ask a different question about creative writing courses: can writers learn from them, and if so what and how? I’ve spent my career in education, and found that focusing on learning (rather than teaching) opens up many possibilities for thinking in new ways.

Learning on creative writing courses.

The best learning has four characteristics:

  1. It connects with the learners’ intentions,
  2. is active,
  3. collaborative and
  4. concerned with learning about the learning.

How does this apply to creative writing classes?

Learners’ intentions

Most participants (maybe all) come to classes and workshops wanting to improve their writing. Listen to those writers in that introductory round: I want learn to end my short stories, I have lots of bits but I don’t know what to do with them, I have some great ideas but I don’t know where to start, I write lots of poems but I don’t know if they are any good …

Active learning

Most writing classes are active and not just in the sense of the pen moving across the page, the fingers moving on the keyboard. I mean active in the sense that participants have to process the topic being explored, do something with it, exercise imagination, draw together some unlikely words and images.

Here’s an example of a 30 minute activity from RAM museum workshop last month: in 5 minutes, find an object; write three words about it and note the desire/want/need that a character associated with the object is pursuing; write for 15 minutes; take ten minutes to go over what you have done.

90 teapotI found this teapot. It stretched me to put it in a brief piece of writing, but the time pressure and the constraints of the activity worked for me. (I’m not going to share the outcome of the teapot focus, but the activity was helpful for thinking about objects, and some of it will be echoed in my novel revisions.)

Collaborative learning

This for me is the most productive aspect of learning on courses – working with other writers works. We are all writers, we can say. We can encourage each other, and provide responses and feedback. Our fellow participants can provide stimulating examples, innovative ideas. And from time to time you write something you wouldn’t have written without the presence of another writer. It might have been their example, a comment they made, an idea they sparked, an image they provided, a word they used.

Learning about learning

The best classes provide opportunities for reflecting on how different people learn, for being mindful about their learning: what are the effects of pressure, of a new approach and so on. It is a skill to reflect on process and be mindful of the activities that were helpful. It’s a skill that can be learned.

Now it is quite possible to experience all these four characteristics of learning in other contexts. This means, of course, that creative writing courses are not essential to writers’ development. There are books, magazines, blogs, and mentoring and editorial services. But none of these are quite as much fun, I suspect, as those Saturday morning assemblies of ten or so people (mainly women) who rack up in some poky room in a cold community hall and gaze in anticipation at the tutor.

Do you have anything to add to the debate about teaching and learning creative writing?


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Filed under Writing