Writing by Numbers

To listen to the Guardian’s podcast of the talk, click here.


The acclaimed and prolific author Fay Weldon kicked off the discussion with the frank statement that she had felt rather against teaching creative writing until she recently got a job at Brunel University doing just that: “It’s amazing how being employed changes your mind”, she explained dryly. Russell Celyn-Jones, author and critic, picked up on this to suggest that a key benefit of creative writing courses is that they give writers formal employment. Remaining sceptical, Terence Blacker, author and columnist for The Independent, claimed that such work is not a good thing. He drew on his own experience of teaching at UEA, recollecting that “the more I analysed what I was doing, the less I could do it.” Analysis, a key part of a creative writing courses, came under strong criticism from the panel, who found that it created a crippling self-consciousness; according to Terence, it was “almost quintessentially how to screw up a young writer”.


Louise Doughty, author, critic and writer of The Saturday Telegraph’s novel in a year column, was chairing the event. She posed the idea that although creative writing courses are relatively new, beginning in the 1970s under Malcolm Bradbury and Angus Wilson, they were only putting a formal structure around writing groups which have always been part of writing history. The rest of the panel disagreed, vehemently insisting that writing is a solitary activity. Russell conceded that creative writing workshops were useful in giving a writer some readers, but this was only a small part of the long process of becoming a writer. He warned of the “alcoholism” of creative writing courses, suggesting that some people can’t stop attending them. Fay quipped back, “let them stay there, they’re harmlessly employed”.


Witty anecdotes abounded throughout the evening. Terence found one of his students to be an exemplary solitary writer, so disengaged from his creative writing group that he almost fell asleep while his work was being discussed. Fay was full of praise for her line manager at Brunel University who supportively said “of course” when she asked if she could attend a course on how to teach creative writing. Louise told of an encounter with a cabbie who told her she should only write about what she knew, advice he’d picked up from Graham Greene. On the subject of cabs, or cars, Russell threatened to lower the tone with a rather dubious analogy of having sex in the back of one…luckily Louise called a halt to that digression.


Thanks to all members of the panel for such a lively discussion and to the Guardian for the use of their newsroom. And thanks to Waitrose for the wine which fuelled more animated discussion after the talk.


Report by Emily Rhodes

Originally posted with the url: www.englishpen.org/events/reportsonrecentevents/writingbynumbers/

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