Staring at the allotment I’d just taken over, I was filled with a sense of overwhelming fear. I couldn’t see any soil, just overgrown weeds the size of bushes, discarded plastic bottles, broken pallets and empty plant pots. How was I going to grow anything?
I didn’t think I could do it. It was too much for me. What faced me was months of hard physical graft and, post-Covid, I was weak and out of condition. That first day, I spent perhaps ten minutes surveying my plot and then got back in the car and drove away. I’d made a mistake. I would phone the allotment woman, Karen, and tell her it wasn’t for me. I felt sad about this. I wanted that allotment. I wanted to make it work.
I recognised this feeling. This was exactly how I felt when I was staring at a blank page. That daunting, heavy feeling that I might not be up to the job. It was then that I realised that gardening and writing share many parallels. In order to start growing I’d need to clear the allotment and start with a blank plot. In order to start writing I’d need a blank page and an idea. With an allotment, clearing the ground takes time and hard work. With writing, putting the hours in, getting the words on the page, is the first step. Then comes the clearing – the editing. Crafting and sorting the rubbish, the extraneous vocabulary that has grown like weeds and cluttered the piece so that the true story gets hidden.
The next day, I went back and I began. I focused on a nettle-infested corner and tried to pull them out. Despite wearing gloves, my arms were soon prickled with red sting sites and I was tired. Covid had extinguished my usual energy levels and I was under GP orders to go slow and steady. After not even an hour, I was knackered and fed up. I’d hardly dented the mass of waist high nettles and my arms were sore. It was going to be harder than I thought. Much much harder. But the next day, I was back. This time armed with gauntlets. And the next day and the next. By the end of the week, I’d cleared a patch of earth and could see the fence and trees at the back of my plot. I felt an immense sense of satisfaction. I was doing it.
This also reminded me of when I’m writing. Some days are frustrating and I don’t get much done. Other days, I start to achieve some clarity and begin to understand where the story needs to go and what work I need to do in order to achieve it. It’s step-by-step work, writing and then chopping, writing and then editing, writing and then re-writing until it all starts to make sense.
The allotment too started to make sense. As I cleared the plot, I began to understand what I’d need to do next and how to do it. Sometimes, I’d plant something only to have to pull it up again because I’d put it in the wrong place. Like a word in the wrong place, or the wrong word all together, sense of meaning is lost but move it and meaning becomes beautifully clear and the magic begins to happen.
Janey Harvey is a part-time student on the MA Creative Writing at NTU.
During March, NTU’s WRAP invited students and staff to write a 250-word short story inspired by a bus journey. Entries were judged by a panel from NTU’s Centre for Travel Writing Studies, along with a WRAP Student Ambassador, and eight winners (four students, four staff) were selected to receive a £25 book token and publication in WRAP’s forthcoming online short story anthology.
There was suggestion from the judges they were looking forward to reading about ‘the conviviality of public transport’. However, conviviality is not my natural territory. I had been playing with the idea of all the empty spaces created during lockdown – sure, our homes were full of us, but other places were vacant. Victoria Centre, the Market Square, the Cineplex, Center Parcs: these are spaces designed by architects to contain people, their initial designs had figures painted onto drawings, tiny plastic people striding across 3D models. How long would it take, I wondered, for these places to be returned to nature, and used for something else?
In my writing I frequently return to climate fiction, describing possible events to draw people’s attention to the world we are sleepwalking through. I am a quiet Extinction Rebellion supporter, indoors at my desk, armed with a pencil not a mask. There is already much apocalyptic ‘flood fiction’ written and screened, but reminded of the hot weather we suffered in Lockdown v.1 in the spring of 2020 I went instead for drought: what if the water ran out, where would we go, how would we live? The bubbled domes of Centre Parcs seemed a perfect choice to me, as would the Eden Project, and here the idea for my story was born.
The title, ‘Let the Waters of Under the Sky Be Gathered to One Place’, is from Genesis 1:9, when God creates the seas and the lands. I titled the story after finishing it, as I often do, as I need to see where the story lands first. The sense of apocalypse worked well against the idea of Creation, and in many ways helped the reader access the story whilst not adding to the wordcount.
The bus journey in the story is of indeterminate length, from city to country. We travel with Charlotte, meeting her already on the bus, looking through the smeared window at ‘rolling zoetrope hedges’. Two hundred and fifty words doesn’t leave much room for explanation, and I left spaces in the story for the reader to fill in the gaps, travelling through time with brief sentences such as, ‘After what might have been another hour, she slept.’ Originally a story at 1000ish words, I extended it to 2500+ words before taking and editing just the opening 250 words for this flash. At all lengths the story began in the same place, travelling on the bus, but for this competition I left the reader with Charlotte as the bus pulled to a stop, thirsty and tired, on Midsummer’s Day.
I was surprised and delighted to discover I had won one of the prizes from WRAP. It wasn’t difficult to spend the book token, and I quickly ordered Jon McGregor’s Lean Fall Stand (available to purchase here) from Five Leaves Bookshop, where Jon was signing them at his launch. The launch is available to watch on their YouTube channel and is well worth a watch.
Lockdown has affected all of us. Some effects are immediate, some deeply buried, but like glacial isostatic adjustment (more simply, the land rising and falling after being weighted down in the Ice Age, rather like the impression one’s post-lockdown body might leave on a sofa cushion after a Netflix session) the movements are slow. Our landscapes are changed forever. I know there are more lockdown impressions within me, and that one day they will rise as inspiration to write. Whatever happens next, I intend to give them room.
There is also a review of it here. What I found interesting is that the seeds for Jon’s book were sown long ago in 2004, and like an itch waiting to be scratched he knew he would come back to make work from it one day.
Lucy Grace is a part-time MA Creative Writing student in her first year, and the recipient of the John Harwood Bosworth Creative Writing Bursary. Her profile is available under ‘Members’.
Throughout his placement with Nottingham Creative Writing Hub, Zach and I had a number of fascinating and wide-ranging conversations. One of the topics we discussed was the impact of social media, and another was letter-writing, which is a passion of Zach’s. It was his idea that we put together this blog post, with him going first. So we did!
A pastime I have become more fascinated by is letter-writing. Primary school was where I first tried this, and I still have vague recollections of sending letters to Santa and other people I could never remember, and I was all so easily impressed and excited about the concept.
After primary school, I remember every Sunday we had to write letters to our parents whilst I was at boarding school in Lancashire. During the time, I have to admit that I always took the opportunity for granted and would rather have been doing anything else. It made no sense to me why I had to even letter write at the time when I had no idea what to write and Instagram was becoming more and more popular. Why on earth would I want to write letters that would take forever to receive? I mean, at least they were, right?
My thoughts have drastically changed since those preteen years. In a world full of endless ways to communicate, which is an ever-changing sea of emojis and filters – and in the midst of a paralysing global pandemic – it is no wonder people are not as happy. As a result, I have found people to be just way too judgemental in my experience, more and more, and about any and everything.
But I decided to restart letter-writing when I started university, and it has been a rewarding experience that I could not be more grateful for. One would think sitting down and writing a letter is considered ‘old fashioned.’ You would not believe the amount of people, both from my generation and older, who ask: Why write a letter when you can text, call, or FaceTime? They first offer a glance of confusion, and quickly assume you meant something else, before asking again. But writing letters is still just as important and a billion times more meaningful to me now.
Since the beginning of the first lockdown last spring, I have written more and it has made me feel a range of emotions, from anxiety to nostalgia, which I will always cherish. Personally, whenever I receive a letter in the mailbox it just brightens my day. Just grabbing an envelope out of the mailbox with my name on it in actual human handwriting (rather than fast food leaflets or bank statements that make me feel guilty for all that I have spent in a month) puts a smile on my face.
Reading a letter is like reading a small chapter of a person’s life story written especially for you. There is a feeling of personalisation when I look back on the letters I have received. I feel so honoured knowing that someone has taken the time out of their day to sit down with just a pen and paper to write to me. That someone was thinking about me longer than debating to send me a two-sentence Snapchat message while waiting in line at the drive thru. I cannot even express this enough (nor should I have to), but no matter what is inside, the thought is always what counts most of all – not that I wish to deny the popularity or significance of social media to many people, especially at this time of enforced distance.
However, I hardly ever feel any of these things from a social media message. Only when I am holding a handwritten letter rather than my phone does my day become twice as bright. If you ever feel like making someone’s day, grab a pen, notecard, envelope and a stamp, write something and send, and rest assured they’ll feel the same way.
(Send me one, any day. I will automatically love you and be a very happy chappy).
I rarely write ‘proper’ letters these days, but I used to write them all the time. Holidays or trips to see my father in Ireland when I was in my teens included the frequent dispatch of envelopes stuffed with numbered, scrawled, defaced postcards to various friends, my girlfriend, sometimes even my mum. Every now and then, someone shows me one of these documents. They are infrequently silly, a bit rude, mawkish, navel-gazing – and sometimes genuinely witty. I’m impressed by the kid, embarrassed by him. He was me. He wasn’t me. I’m glad he belonged to a world that couldn’t bestow upon him a Twitter account.
Letters also spawned teenage – and enduring – friendships. Apart from a few people in Ireland, my first friend who grew up more than a twenty-minute bike ride from my rural Lincolnshire home was a kid in London who wrote to me when I advertised myself as a potential penfriend in a music magazine. We were both fifteen. He’d always put his phone number on his letters, so I decided I would too. Then one day he called me: would I like to come down to his house and go to some gigs? We never wrote to one another again, and I got very used to saving up my money and taking exciting train journeys to That London instead.
It will come as no surprise to anyone who knows me that I’ve always loved writing, though. Language is primarily a spoken medium – writing is just a way to make a record of it. And I like talking to people too (which will come as no surprise to…), but for me the primary pleasure in writing is in the control it gives me to say precisely what I want in the way I want to say it, however contradictory that might be. And there I go using the word ‘say’ for writing, too – because, dear reader, I want my words to hit you in the ear. Or the mind’s ear.
We often talk ourselves to what we think – stumblingly, falteringly. We might say things we don’t mean, or that we come to realise we don’t mean any longer, and we should be permitted to do so – or to have different responses from one another to complicated things. We should think very carefully before we write people off for saying things we don’t agree with – not least because they might not mean what they say, and we might not have considered every angle either. Communicating, deeply and openly, is important and rewarding. If we don’t talk – about our problems, our desires, our beliefs – we often struggle to think as deeply, because we aren’t testing our thoughts out. When we write for an audience of more than one, we can delete our pauses, our missteps, the things we don’t quite mean or don’t mean at all. Letter writing exists somewhere between the two, or can do. We are talking to someone in private – about ourselves, our feelings, our hopes, maybe about our world. And we can take our time.
Zach mentions the shadowy past in which Instagram suddenly came to prominence. He is 20, and I am 39; in my conception of the world, Instagram appeared about ten minutes ago, and Twitter about ten minutes before that. Tweeting is a bit like speaking – or at least a bit like proclaiming. However, tweets cannot be edited once they’re posted, and the format lends itself to quick-fire. A million people might see our quick-fire, but probably only about three will do so. The possibility of making an impact is, potentially, overwhelming and stifling all at once, and I wonder what my fifteen-year-old penfriending self would’ve made of it. He probably wouldn’t have sought a penfriend, because a bewildering array of people would have been at his fingertips already – within reach and yet often also out of it. Would he have been more lonely? While social media can certainly bring people together, is it good at helping us to be social, or to be ourselves? Are we hardwired for this kind of narrow yet vast communication? And what do we make of the people harvesting our data and pushing us together and apart through algorithms? Do we think about them and their impact enough? Are many of us being coerced into an addictive behaviour in which we talk past or through one another too often?
Answers on a postcard, please. Or, for added security, in an envelope.
Social media hasn’t destroyed the letter, though. Email did that, with its practical instantaneousness. Almost all of my long-form correspondences now are conducted by email. At any one time, I either owe or am owed emails from all over the world – at present: New York and California in the US, Australia, South Korea, Germany, Zimbabwe. It’s very exciting. But these epistles all look the same at first glance, more or less, and affect no other senses. I don’t get to unfold their pages, keep the stamps, smell them (that sounds odd), hold the photos folded inside their pages, struggle to tell a j from an s or to follow an asterisk to its insert. I don’t want to shave away at my personality in any medium, for that way be dragons – but it is in my private emails that many of my ideas come alive, in the company where I am most allowed to be a full and fully-flawed human. But there is more of myself in a handwritten letter than there is in an email. Or there would be, if I still wrote them.
Would I have these correspondences by letter if email didn’t exist again all of a sudden? Letters are fiddly things. They take longer to write, send and arrive. You have trudge to the letter box – do you even know where the nearest one is? – or to one of our depleted stock of Post Offices, then pay money, then wait. I would if I had to, all the same, for those are parts of the process, parts of the joy. Still, I don’t have to and I don’t do it very often any more. And I am poorer for that, however many pennies or minutes I save.
So, Zach has the right approach, I think. The student can be the teacher.
Zachary Omitowoju is a BA Media Production student at NTU, and was on placement with Nottingham Creative Writing Hub January-April 2021, as part of the humanities-wide NTU ‘Humanities at Work’ module. Rory Waterman is a poet and critic, and is on the English staff at NTU. He convenes Nottingham Creative Writing Hub.
Zachary Omitowoju speaks to students about opportunity and diversity in Creative Writing.
Diversity is a hot topic at present. To conclude what I feel would be a friendly send-off at the end of my placement, I wanted to write about – and get some insight into – diversity in Creative Writing. So, with that task in mind, I asked some more NTU Creative Writing students: Paul Adey, Mathew Gallagher and Jess Parkinson.
‘My viewpoint is that the more backgrounds we are exposed to, the more we can learn about the world around us’, said Mathew. ‘How are we supposed to know what, or how, people on the other side of world, or even in our streets, think if they are not given the opportunity to tell us? As writers, we should be enriching ourselves with not just those from our own background, but with as many backgrounds as possible.’
He added what he thought we could do to achieve this:
‘We need to ensure that as many opportunities are available to as many people as possible. As a carer, and especially during the pandemic, I’ve been grateful for opportunities that have allowed me to participate in creative writing events I otherwise wouldn’t have been able to afford. I think the idea of offering spaces in events to groups who otherwise might not (or are unable to) attend would be a great first step for writers who may otherwise miss, or be missed, out.’
Of course, Nottingham Creative Writing Hub is one of the ways NTU does this: the events are free, and well attended by people outside the university – as was the one I chaired in January.
Jess essentially agreed:
‘Even though over recent years there have been projects and outreach programmes to get to these writers who might not otherwise have been published (for example), more can be done by more people to make sure everyone gets an equal opportunity and I believe that starts at the top – like publishing houses.’
Paul shared similar thoughts too, and said it was urgent:
‘Yes, I think there is a huge disparity in terms of class, race, and gender in the creative writing industry, often (historically) in relation to who gets a voice. I certainly believe that there is an urgent need for diversity.’
He added: ‘Whilst noticing this divide, I don’t necessarily resent it, as I accept that creative writing (book writing, poetry, and ‘higher forms’ of literature) has been structured in this way for a long time, as many people from middle and upper classes are drawn to it (reading/writing) as a passion, and form of expression.
Speaking in terms of increasing race and class diversity in the creative writing industry, I think people like Marcus Rashford, Skepta, and Akala are figureheads of movement and change regarding the introduction of literature (and its great power) to more working class people and more diverse audiences.’
I then asked whether they were concerned about staying true to themselves when writing to help others relate with them or their characters. Paul’s answer was refreshingly authentic:
‘Due to my background in (and study and practice of) ’90s rap, the trope of keeping it real remains at the forefront of my mind anytime I work creatively. Whilst this focus has had its negative effects on my work over the years (stopping me from branching out, trying new approaches), overall, staying real—staying true to myself, my background, my accent, my artistic values—has helped more than hindered me. With that being said, I’d like to be able to be myself without assumptions being made of me due to these aspects. In an ideal world, I’d like to be able to talk about what I need to and express myself in whichever way I feel empowered/confident, without those elements being questioned, or brought into the equation of my artistic output.’
He doesn’t want to be defined by his identity:
‘Under these circumstances, aspects of the human condition such as astuteness of thought, diligence, experience, and adaptivity are highly valued / prioritised, and elements such as race, age, gender, class, are less vital. I am very aware of the flip side to any coin, and whilst this perspective may seem valid to me, I completely understand that it might be contentious and/or often plain wrong for others.’
As for Jess, she stated that she used to be concerned:
‘When I first started writing that was a huge thing for me – making sure my characters were relatable. Then, I started writing genres that I personally had no interest in, or had to research heavily, and my characters became relatable to the people who knew that genre, but not necessarily to me, so my ability to characterise has improved massively over the years.’
‘No, it’s not something that concerns me, as my ‘self’ is what makes my writing unique. That being said, research is the key to authenticity when not writing about yourself.’
That sounds like good advice.
That being said, I then asked if these characters were easy to make relatable and got some very insightful responses. Mathew said:
‘You need to ensure that you’re researching effectively, asking people from those backgrounds questions. Only that way can you represent those backgrounds in an appropriate way. To give a personal example, my dissertation is a historical fiction looking into a battle during the Boshin Civil War in nineteenth-century Japan. As someone who is distanced from both the time and place, it’s my responsibility to ensure I both research and consider their lives as I write. The differences in class, societal roles, societal expectations, morality, religion, and so on. These are all things I need to think of and portray properly. Is it easy? No, but I think the effort will benefit both me and my writing.’
‘Going back to writing about what you know, I feel that if a writer writes on subject matter they are sure of, certain of its inner workings, their almost innate understandings of these subjects, and the minute details involved—aspects of that subject that others just couldn’t know—will show through on the page. When thinking of writing culturally relatable themes, and universal relevance and resonance in terms of the overall human experience, I think that most, if not all texts express these themes in some way, shape or form. When stripped back, I think that’s most authors’ intention, to shine a light on an aspect of humanity, as a way of helping themselves (and their readership) to grasp these aspects more firmly, to help understand themselves and their surroundings better.’
Jess summarised: ‘As long as a writer you’ve done your research and present things well and respectfully, there’s no reason you can’t write about anything.’
I asked them about how they felt (personally) about the portrayal of diverse characters and storylines are being represented more fully now than it used to be. Paul started off by admitting he studied more previous eras of literature:
‘As a reader, I tend to study previous eras, so I might not be so well qualified to answer this question regarding contemporary creative writing. From my somewhat narrow perspective of mainstream media, however, I see a lot more diversity than I used to (even if only on surface level), in the movies, on television advertisements, etc.
I follow English football, and there have been changes made regarding football commentators’ and pundits’ vocabulary, in respect of narratives illuminated on social media platforms by the likes of Raheem Sterling, Troy Deeney, and Marcus Rashford. For me, when trying to think positively regarding this matter, just hearing these individuals publicly addressing issues surrounding diversity (such as racism in football) in the media, and seeing elements of diversity occur (incrementally, as a very slow, gradual shift) within large, predominantly white-owned industries, is really revealing, and uplifting. When thinking about the future and imagining a place in society for my son and daughter, I have high hopes that when they reach an age of racial awareness, they are able to negotiate life’s hurdles without their skin colour being a factor in any of their decisions.’
‘I do feel that more diverse characters are being represented more, especially with authors such as Eve Makis being very popular!’
Mathew’s answer was helpful and encouraging:
‘A lot of the time, good representation comes from people from a diverse range of backgrounds working on projects, especially as writers, or from other writers who are willing to research properly to ensure proper representation. I think there are certainly more portrayals available now, compared to when I was younger, but I think it’d be inappropriate for me to suggest that diverse characters and storylines are being portrayed ‘more fully.’ My opinion is to listen to people of those backgrounds as they speak on the matter themselves, and when I come to write, ensure that I represent them accurately.’
My closing question for this blog post was one I felt was the most important, especially moving forward: What do you feel can be done to improve diversity – in terms of viewpoints and demographics – within Creative Writing? After all, nationwide, a disproportionately small proportion of students from working class and/or non-white backgrounds take the subject.
‘Letting people know that they’re represented’, said Jess. ‘And that their own writing could be received no matter who they are or where they come from!’
Paul’s answer came from a slightly more musical angle:
‘From my perspective of musicianship and creative writing (rap, lyric, spoken word, poetry, and creative writing), it’s rare that practitioners of hip hop culture, or active members of the hip hop community are visible in higher education settings. This might be due largely to hip hop’s natural aversion to traditional forms of institutional educational, but until prominent members of popular cultures such as rap and hip hop are visible in these places, like-minded people (young people and mature students alike) may not view academia as a valid path to follow, especially when attributing their literary/creative values to a vocation/career. In the end, though, I think it’s important to note that many creatively minded peoples’ interests were/are fashioned outside of an educational environment. My interests were largely shaped outside of school. This was because I was inspired by artists who lived outside of mainstream ideologies, political agendas, and current affairs, in the narrow, often unseen, grey areas of society. As I said earlier, there is a flip side to every coin, and in my opinion, much of the important, if not vital elements of creative writing can only be learned outside of an educational setting.’
To me, Mathew’s answer reminds us to remember where we are in these challenges and gives me hope that everything will be alright:
‘Normalise diversity. At every level. We often say that children are born without thoughts of judging others, until we impart our prejudices upon them. I think it’s important to introduce children to people who are not like them. Books with neurodiverse characters, or characters of colour, or characters that represent LGBT+. If you can show these kinds of books to children, then it’ll help them understand people who both are and are not like them in these regards, and they’ll carry that on into their adult lives. More importantly, it’ll also help readers of those books who are of relatable backgrounds to feel represented. In turn, it might encourage them to write about their own experiences or write characters that represent themselves. We need to encourage this positive cycle, not just for those living now, but for the generations that follow us.’
Zachary Omitowoju is a BA Media Production student at NTU, and is currently on placement with the Nottingham Creative Writing Hub as part of NTU’s Humanities-wide ‘Humanities at Work’ module.
Studying Creative Writing does of course have its challenges – to embrace and to overcome. As I thought about what these might be, I found myself considering that mature students might have some that are specific to them – so I thought I’d ask a few of them.
I decided to start from the very beginning: by asking whether they had any fears or before starting the course.
Matt Biggs, a mature MA student, said: ‘Mainly excitement, but with a hint of trepidation. I was coming back into academic studies nearly twenty-five years after completing my degree, so I was worried if I’d be the oldest on the course or if I’d be able to adjust to writing essays again’.
‘In fact, because of that I purposely picked the MA at NTU, as I felt it had a good balance of creative and academic writing. I’ve also found the lecturers really supportive – they encourage you to explore your creative instincts and give you the tools to handle it. Regarding being the oldest on the course, I was nowhere near the oldest and it’s turned out that we all get on really well’.
Paul Adey known also as the musician Cappo) completed his BA and MA in Creative Writing at NTU, and is now approaching the final stages of his PhD in creative and critical writing. About his own beginnings as a student, he said:
‘I recall having fears and thoughts relating to my attending university, an environment and institution I was unfamiliar with. I remember being anxious about voicing/articulating my ideas in public (in seminars and lectures). Thinking about it, I guess my being a mature student also came with its own mental hurdles, being considerably older than most of my cohorts, I worried if I might not fit in. This issue never really arose during my studies in the end, as I was able to gain friendships with quite a few like-minded students, even if they were significantly younger than me. I am a believer that there is always something you can learn from a person, no matter their age, as long as you treat them with respect and have an open mind to their situation’.
The last sentence of Paul’s answer is definitely one I can resonate with personally.
Both students had initially had slight concerns about their age, but had found they didn’t struggle because of it. The NTU MA Creative Writing is taught in the evening, and has many part-time students, so it actually attracts a high proportion of mature students, as well as those who are fresh from undergraduate study. As a result, the NTU Creative Writing PhD student body is also very diverse in terms of age. Another current mature PhD student, the poet and archivist Panya Banjoko, said:
‘I had no fears before starting my PhD because I knew I had an excellent Director of Studies with a fantastic track record of supporting her students to completing their PhD. I was excited to undertake this new venture and was looking forward to learning and still enjoy it’.
It is important also to consider ‘writer’s block’: creative writing students of course have to complete assignments, and writer’s block does not sit comfortably with that need! I asked how they react to and overcome any difficulties they have with putting pen to paper.
Panya’s perspective to me sounded like it came from a rather philosophical approach:
‘Sammy Davis Junior once said “writer’s block is a luxury I can’t afford” and I agree. I don’t suffer from writer’s block however I sometimes need to stand back from my work and think differently. This is not writer’s block but taking time to process.’
However, it is not usual or unheard of for a writer to have writer’s block and need to take a step back. It is perhaps rarer for a writer (or musician) to pivot in the opposite direction – to leap straight into writing even more. This would be Paul Adey’s approach. ‘I suffer quite frequently with writer’s block’, he said.
Reading that came as a shock to me as it was from the legendary Cappo who recently performed as a chief support act at William Ivory’s Nottingham Creative Writing Hub event (which I chaired). He explains:
‘How I overcome this issue is by continuing to write, even when it becomes arduous, and often seems tedious, or pointless. I have found that by ploughing (or wading) on through these problematic moments in my practice, the issue is soon alleviated, and I unwittingly find a way to get back to a “normal” workflow. This might not be the formula for everyone, but I’ve found that it works for me.
There have been times when, looking back on the writing I have produced during these moments of writer’s block, I have found the work to be quite solid, meaningful, and worth using. Realising this has been another source of encouragement towards my working through writer’s block, as opposed to giving up’.
Matt Biggs shared similar thoughts:
‘I just have to force myself to sit down and write, even if I don’t feel like it. It’s better to get something written down, no matter how bad, than nothing at all. You can always re-draft it when you’ve finished’.
I next decided to ask these students a very important question – where they go to when they are struggling and need a break. Paul said:
‘I have two children who always provide me with respite from university and life issues! Music and books also help me to escape my current problems’.
‘Poetry and archiving are deeply ingrained into who I am, and I love them both equally so struggling does not feature. I am happy spending my life writing and archiving. In addition to this I like to do photography it helps me see the world in a different way’.
However, I think Matt Biggs’ answer is humorous proof that there truly is light at the end of what might at times feel like an eternal tunnel:
‘I don’t really have a muse as such, but I do have a friend that I’ve known for years. I guess the only way to describe him is as one of God’s fools. He seems to bumble through life leaving a trail of destruction behind him wherever he goes. Literally anything that can go wrong does go wrong for him, but he’s always laughing and happy and completely oblivious to the latest disaster that’s befallen him. I’ve seen him cut up a caravan with an angle grinder, to turn it into a mobile stage, and then watched as it unhitched itself as he was driving along – it left a big hole in a hedge and destroyed itself completely. Once he announced that he was opening an animal rescue centre and “saving” twenty-four guinea pigs, twelve rabbits and eight chickens. When I saw him a week later, he told me that all the animals were dead, as he’d accidentally left his dogs in the yard with them. His daughter was traumatised as she kept finding guinea pig heads all around the house! The man is a walking disaster zone. So, if I’m feeling down or struggling, I just spend a bit of time with him, and everything seems like it will be okay. I think I might even try to write a sit-com about him when I do the screenwriting module!
Zachary Omitowoju is a BA Media Production student, and the Research Assistant for Nottingham Creative Writing Hub, on placement with the NTU Humanities at Work module.
Have you ever wanted to be an author, journalist or work for a publisher? Even if you do not think of yourself as a writer, if you are unsure of how to choose an academic course then I hope this blog post might give you some ideas on where to start. Whether you are an undergraduate or a postgraduate, it can be daunting to figure out which university is right for you. Even more so, which degree is the best for you.
I sought out some of NTU’s current second-year BA Creative Writing students – Lauren Morey and Sarah Stamps – and asked them how they made the ultimate decision to pick their course. Lauren told me: ‘I enjoy the people and the little community we have formed, as well as the creativity I get to explore throughout.’
To clarify, the ‘people and the little community’ Lauren refers are her coursemates, and it is therefore no coincidence that there is an entire hub and online community dedicated to her passion. Regarding that passion, she stated: ‘I’m a very creative person and I have always enjoyed writing and I thought that if I am to go into work I may as well enjoy what I do.’
This is a statement that is equally as proudly bold and confident as it is re-affirming, asserting her independence. It is refreshing to hear, as I feel we do need more confidence in young people regarding the degrees they pick.
Sarah’s response is just as genuine. She said: ‘Through my two-year study in sixth form, I found a love for specific aspects within my subjects – English Language and Drama. With drama, I loved script work. I flourished in creating scenes with clever meanings behind them and having complete control over the decisions. I love the range of modules we get to delve into. Though I enjoyed all my modules I was so eager to just focus on Creative Writing and this year I have. I also really appreciate the creative freedom.’
Sarah elaborated on having opportunities within her sixth-form drama work: ‘Having the opportunity to create characters, and study ones in accomplished plays was something I always looked forward to. I also enjoyed Writing creatively in English Language.’
She was not afraid to give a shoutout to her lecturers either, saying: ‘It’s helpful to have complete support in the work I do’.
I also decided to ask both students about their reading and writing routines and aspirations. I first asked which writers influenced their writing.
Lauren was quick to frame her answer by explaining how the writers that influence her have broken boundaries: ‘Writers like, Holly Bourne, Rainbow Rowell, and more recently Patrice Lawrence, Elizabeth Acevedo, and Carol Ann Duffy have shown me the power of women writers in the modern era where they talk about taboo subjects such as feminism, mental health, LGBTQ+ and race and identity.’
In contrast, Sarah’s influences were more from classic literature: ‘A big influence on my writing has always been Audrey Niffenegger (The Time Traveller’s Wife). She was an artist before delving into the world of writing, and it shows in her books. I have always loved her attention to details and how she can make you feel like you’re in the book with the amount of clear imagery she creates. F. Scott Fitzgerald does the same, and I fell in love with The Great Gatsby the first time I read it.’
She then gave further insight into books she feels have inspired her from childhood: ‘I read Enid Blyton’s The Famous Five series over and over. Her work influences my writing as I always try and create new ideas for stories. It’s easy to have stories with similar plots or characters because it’s what you’re most comfortable writing. However, Blyton always managed to come up with new adventures for her characters. Her work never felt predictable.’
I felt it would be timely, both in a literal context and to potentially help out fellow writers and Creative Writing students, if I asked how both students do their writing and whether they have a routine. Lauren did not shy away from sharing the easy and not so easy aspects and admitted the process can be challenging: ‘Yes and no, this is because I have ideas in and throughout the day but also some days, I don’t have ideas.’
She also added that when she had ideas, she will ‘write them down in my writer’s journal (which we are advised to keep)’ so that she can come back to them when she feels inspired to write.
She saved the best advice for last: ‘If I happen to lack in inspiration or ideas, I take on writing tasks, where I might design a random character or write a narrative using a line from a random page in a book. It depends on the day.’
Sarah’s routine is classic is one I myself use – and I find it works like a charm. She says: ‘I am very old fashioned when it comes to creating pieces. I like to stick to pen and paper before doing anything else. With abstract work like poetry or heavy description pieces, I jot down ideas, singular themes, metaphorical sentences relating to the context, anything that pops in my head.’
She references how her lecturer has taught her to have an active and creative mind, by stating: ‘Through the weekly exercises Andrew Taylor has taught me over the last year and a half, I never have an empty imagination. I like to develop ideas into storylines by using mind maps and writing lists.’
Her last piece of advice is what I imagine would be a good way to get started on your journey into Creative Writing: ‘I always reference back to lectures that look at the character, location and plot development; so, I know not to forget anything. Once I have everything on paper around me, I eventually feel prepared enough to type up the beginning of a piece.’
Zachary Omitowoju is a BA Media Production student at NTU, on placement with Nottingham Creative Writing Hub through the NTU Arts and Humanities-wide ‘Humanities at Work’ module.
Anyone who has seen Pixar’s animation Ratatouille will be able to recognise this quotation by Auguste Gusteau – France’s most famous chef. He dies of a broken heart at the beginning of the story after an authoritative but old-fashioned critique condemns him and his motto, ‘anyone can cook’.
Remy, an anthropomorphic rat, wants nothing more from life but to be given the chance to become a chef, following in the footsteps of his idol, chef Gusteau. He learns that in order to do that, he has to pretend to be something he is not. There is a happy ending, though (phew!).
On the surface, this is a children’s film about a cute little rat and how everything is possible, and anyone can be anything if they try hard enough. Through a closer look, however, it’s easy to spot concepts like prejudice, race- and class-discrimination, and the absence of open-mindedness and acceptance from those authoritative figures who decide the fates of the raising talents, and whether they should be called that at all. It’s easy to see why Gusteau’s quotation fits so perfectly when it comes to creative writing, right? If not, just replace the words ‘chef’ and ‘cook’ above with ‘writer’ and ‘writing’, and you’ll see what I mean.
What is good writing?
I find it very odd when someone who calls themselves a writer could say ‘this is bad, and this is good.’ Shouldn’t we, as writers, stay away from anything that suggests the world is black and white? Is there such a thing as good or bad writing, and if so, who decides?
The truth is creative writing is not a formula. It’s not something to be cut into with scalpels of arrogance. For me, creative writing is a language that you either grew up speaking, or you learned in time. You can be a great writer without ever having attended a creative writing class, just like you can speak a language without ever having studied what second conditional is, or when and why you should use present perfect instead of past simple. Just because you don’t know this, it doesn’t mean you can’t speak fluently.
Creative writing is a process of individuality, and each writer’s growth is unique. Just like with language learning – some learn by auditory memory and when the time comes to put a sentence together, they know exactly how to do it. But they don’t know why. And vice-versa, some learners need to know the structure, the grammar of a language. They need to know the ‘why’. There’s no right or wrong in language learning, and there’s no simple right or wrong in practising creative writing. And, although many would disagree, I say there is no such thing as good or bad writing because none of this exists without a reader. And a reader’s opinion is subjective. Art is in the eye of the beholder.
Black holes and rejections
So, what if a beholder doesn’t see your rusty piece of bent metal as a work of art? What if the literary critique labels your poem about suicide, or short story against all-fit-one, factory-produced communal behaviour as ‘bad’? And what if that ‘beholder’ is influential enough so that other beholders would copy their opinion without a question? Well, then you are screwed until you’re not.
I’m not sure many would agree, but for me, being disliked and rejected as a writer is actually a good thing. It’s a sign that you’re doing something differently. In fact, the best of the best writers have often been disliked in their own time because their ideas were either too frightening or too inconvenient. Think of books like The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov, The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, The Lord of the Flies by William Golding or Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. In some cases, it took decades (and connections to important people) for them to be regarded as masterpieces. It’s heart-breaking when an artist or a writer lives their whole life struggling to make ends meet and coping with rejections because their work is constantly turned down by publishers who only look for what sells to the masses.
Well, it tells you that unless you are from London or have money to move to London, rent a place and sustain yourself on an internship payslip, you simply don’t have the same chance. And my friend had a very good point here. She said, ‘this has a total knock on effect to the publishing industry. The people who can afford to live in London are going to be the only people qualified to get the jobs, so there’s no diversity of the kind of people in the industry which must affect the books being published.’ And then she finished, ‘Surely there must be a social and economic divide when that’s what a lot of these jobs are asking for.’
Sounds about right.
And that, in short, is the reason why writers like Bulgakov and Golding and Huxley had to go through hell with their novels. Well that and politics, of course. Same difference, right?
But they did it, eventually. It wasn’t easy for them, but they didn’t budge. They stayed true to their writing, their ideologies and their imagination. And thank goodness for that because the world wouldn’t be the same without them. Or without you, for that matter.
Do it as only you can
Sometimes, to be a unique writer, you need to think outside the box of rules on writing. You need to not give a sh** about what’s popular and what sells. You need to question what you’re told and what you think you know about writing, and experiment. Experiment like a mad professor in the basement of a haunted house. Writing by a strict formula leads to no originality, and no originality has never reached milestones in writing.
Be a rebel in your writing – try to achieve something different. Explore new ways and go beyond your comfort zone. See what you’ll find there and only after you’ve discovered that, come back to your comfy living room – the place you know so well that feels so at home – and write, and write, and write.
And remember Gusteau’s words: ‘What I say is true: anyone can [write] … but only the fearless can be great.’
Teya Dancer is a student on the MA Creative Writing.
Writers, and curious readers, often ask: ‘How do you start?’ Depending on who you ask, you’ll get a different answer.
‘With the plot, of course!’
‘No, no, I start with characters.’
‘Actually, I start with research.’
These answers always alienate me, though I can’t deny that the above methods are good starting points. I can’t develop a character or a plot that doesn’t have a world to live in, and likewise I can’t develop a world without an idea to build it from.
So where do I start?
For me, it starts as a mental image. I suppose you could call it a kind of dream. A moment when the chemicals in the brain produce a still image that, as I start to explore, begins to move like a dancer on a music box. The image tends to have a person in it, in a place I don’t recognise.
Then pen begins to move. It’s from those ensuing notes that questions arise. Who was that person? What was their name? Why were they there? From those questions, a world is born, and that world needs answers to its own questions. A plot starts to form, and the character’s place within it. Nations spawn, histories grow, antagonists arise.
A mental image becomes a notebook, and then the notebook becomes a story.
I’ll give you an example from when I wrote Soul of the Dragon for Nottstopping 2020:
A girl, in a blue and white polka dot dress, pirouetting underneath the skeletal remains of a dragon.
The first question you might ask is ‘why is the girl dancing under a dead dragon?’
Perhaps take a moment to give your own answer to that. What would you have decided upon? (Feel free to tweet me your thoughts @MatGalagaWrites.)
I considered a few options that ultimately revolved around some kind of ritual. In my mind, I watched this character dance as I tried to figure out why; if it was a ritual, what ritual? Looking around at the scene, I noticed that the skeleton that I was imagining was the ribcage, and that the character was like the dragon’s heart, or soul.
Liking the juxtaposition of life and death, I decided that the dance would give life to the dragon. Of course, without the muscles and skin, a dragon can’t move, so I explored the dragon’s sadness as it realises it can’t be again. If that’s the case, then why is the character doing this? From this thinking, I decided that the dragon would instead pass on its life in the form of an egg. Suddenly the piece had the beginnings of a story, had a reason for being told.
Then it is time to fill any gaps (a rather large one in this case: the central character). Daisy-Mae was the name I settled on, though I don’t remember why, and I decided she would be in her early teens, perhaps because I had been watching gymnastics during the Olympics. The dance moves themselves were based around figure-skating, and inspired by that, I made the ground a dewy grass so that the water droplets would mimic the ice that is flung up from the skates.
If you’re new to writing, my advice to you is this: write how you feel comfortable writing. Ideas come to us differently. The way we develop ideas will be different (you may have read my process and asked, ‘what is this madness?’). But that’s where the beauty of writing lies. If we all wrote the same way about the same things, everything we produced would be predictable and uninteresting. Don’t feel the need to write in the style of those who inspired you – I can’t imagine developing a language system like Tolkien did, for example. And also, don’t feel the need to pigeonhole yourself into one method.
‘Soul of the Dragon’, ‘Glass’ (which is being published as part of the 19-20 MACW student anthology Connections), and my current longform draft, came from the process I’ve explained above. Yet, the piece I’m working on for my dissertation is based on the findings of a research paper.
So perhaps my advice should be much simpler. Don’t worry. The blank page is intimidating but, if you think like a writer, you’ll begin to notice inspiration is all around you. It might come in the form of an image, or in the form of text, or perhaps something altogether more ethereal. The important thing is to write, and to write in the way that works for you.
Mathew Gallagher is a second-year part-time student on the MA Creative Writing at NTU.
Long before most currently practiced religions developed and spread across countries and continents, people honoured that which sustained their lives and made for an easier existence, that which meant more food, more warmth, more daylight. The predecessor and the essence of all religions: the all-mighty Sun.
Like all gods, it was both loved and feared, for its powers could reward or punish – give life or take it away. In fact, the sun was taught to have a life of its own, a state of existence, and, accordingly, a state of … inexistence. Each time, it was born out of the longest period of darkness on Earth, only to die again in the longest period of light. Our ancestors all over the world knew exactly when it happened, and they didn’t only celebrate the death and rebirth of their God. They celebrated the never-ending circle of life.
The Sun and its ‘opposite’, the Moon, are the cornerstones of every pagan religion. Everything happened for or because of them, and they still have their special place in folktales and traditions all over the word.
In Balkan folklore, the relation between the Sun and the Moon can be that of lovers, siblings or rivals. Whatever their connection, these two celestial gods were vitally important for the way magic worked on Earth.
The babi-healers were women who knew about this magic and that it could be extracted and applied to heal and help those around them. They were skilled herbalists, who knew when the powers of those herbs were strongest. They knew that they had to wake up with the first rooster’s croak on the morning of the longest day of the year, go into those Balkan forests that they knew so well, and find as many herbs as they could before the sun was at its highest in the sky. On this day, they knew, the herbs had the strongest healing properties. After that day, the day of the summer solstice, the herbs would begin to fade away, and their powers would decrease with the length of daylight on Earth.
Before witches were labelled as such, and before the term took on a widely negative significance with the rise of certain religions, those women were called healers. Baba (plural ‘babi’) literary means ‘grandmother’ in modern Bulgarian. In older times, also ‘the midwife was called “baba’” [and] she was treated as kin by the women she delivered and their offspring’ (Kononenko, 2007: 173).
In her novel Stopankata na Gospod, Rosemary De Meo writes about her experience in a Bulgarian mountain village, where she learned first-hand about the history and practice of Old Bulgarian magic. She explains that the syllable Ba meant ‘soul’ in Old Bulgarian, and Baba meant ‘old soul’ . With time, she writes, ‘baba was the name people began to give to those with magic in the village – witches’ (De Meo, 2017: 217).
Baene is another, perhaps older term used for women (bayachka/i) who help others with their powers. It is performed either against something (fear, illness, a curse, etc) or for something (fertility, good luck, health, etc). The ritual can involve water, the baking of soda bread, wax or lead pouring (molybdomancy), or simply, and most commonly, whispering prayers or charms to the person seeking help. The term is unique to the Balkan region, although a similar practice with different names exist also in Russia and the Ukraine.
The Immured Wife
The legend of ‘The Immured Wife’ (Vgradena Nevesta) is quite famous across the Balkans. It is the sad story of a woman offered as sacrifice by her husband so that the bridge he and his brothers were building would stop collapsing at night. She was tricked to jump in the water and then forcefully immured into the bridge’s walls. In some versions, the wife begs the builders to leave one of her breasts exposed, so that she can nurse her new-born baby for one whole year.
At school, we were told that the legend was as old and as unique as the bridge itself, but I knew then as I know now that similar legends existed long before Nevestin bridge was built. As often happens, different historical periods and political interventions in how not only Bulgarian but Balkan history is read and written, has influenced a lot of what we know about these folktales. In a Yugoslav version of the story, for example, nine brothers are building a wall to hold off invading Turks.
Like all folklore, Balkan folklore is abundant in rituals, magical creatures, spirits and heroes. It has inspired timeless folktales and offers an amazing ground for exploration in both academic and creative writing. Researching the few existent ancient records of this early form of creative writing (or perhaps it should be called ‘creative telling’) has been an amazing adventure for me, one that has enriched my knowledge on more levels than I had expected.
And while we know today that the ‘birth’ and ‘death’ of the Sun happen because the Earth’s poles have their maximum tilt either towards or away from the Sun, we don’t – or shouldn’t – think of these events as less magical. On the contrary – the astrology, biology and chemistry of our world is the true essence of magic on our planet and beyond. Modern science doesn’t diminish or ridicule pagan beliefs that mark the longest and shortest day, the equinoxes and the changing of the seasons. It reinforces them. And the imagination which helped people to make sense of it all is, in my opinion, nothing short of the greatest creative telling there ever was.
‘The universe is full of magical things patiently waiting for our [senses] to grow sharper.’ Eden Phillpotts, ‘A Shadow Passes’
I have always been fascinated by pagan myths and legends of the Balkans. When I was a little girl, I couldn’t wait for bedtime. I didn’t want to stay up and play games or watch TV with the grownups. All I wanted was another tale of magic from those mountains right outside my window. I would snuggle up in bed and wait for my parents who would dim the lights, and, depending on which of them was the narrator that night, I would either sing along to magical folk songs, or listen with bated breath to tales of mystical adventures.
Almost every night I listened to those songs and stories of old that revealed magical worlds with strange creatures and deities, all of them living deep within our ancient mountains, in forests where we can find some of the world’s oldest trees, in caves that go so deep within the earth that no one who has ever ventured to find what’s at their bottom has come back, and in springs and lakes with waters so pure that they would heal your mind and ease your soul with a mere sip … if only you could find them.
What a blessed childhood it was, and how grateful I am that I was sung all those songs and told all those tales, so that now, I can tell them to you. Well, not all of them, not now anyway. I don’t want to run the risk of overwhelming you, so that you might end up leaving without ever knowing of the Balkan Samodivi, or the babi-healers, or the ghosts that live immured within ancient stone-made bridges. No. But please, stay. If you have a moment or two, I will tell you a little bit about them.
The Samodivi (sing. Samodiva) are my favourite characters of Bulgarian mythology. They exist everywhere on the Balkans and are known by different names throughout Slavic Folklore. In Bulgaria alone, they are also known as Samovili, Vihri and Vili (both words mean ‘whirlwinds’), Yudi and White-reds. In the stories I was told about them, though, they were always called Samodivi, which is why I tend to use this word in my own writing about them.
In a nutshell, the Samodivi are woodland female ‘fairies’ in Slavic folklore, similar in many ways to ‘nymphs’, or ‘goddesses’ in English. But a nutshell is nowhere near enough to describe them. Ivanichka Georgieva, who wrote Bulgarska Narodna Mitologia (1984), explains that the Samodivi walk the earth ‘from spring to autumn’, to be found high up in the mountains, meadows, near lakes and on tall trees’ (Georgieva, 1984: 155).
The Samodivi are known to guard man-made fountains in the mountains and bless the spring water that seeps through them. Travellers are welcome to stop for a rest and fill their flasks. If they do, though, they should always leave something for the guardians.
The Samodivi can be kind, and they often help people in the forests, but they can also be cruel and vengeful if one should disturb their peace or disrespect them. People who drink from their fountains, bathe in their lakes or stop under their trees should leave something for them before they continue their path. This can be anything from a red thread pulled off of a passenger’s clothing, to a small loaf of bread. They love music and if the travellers can sing them a song or play them a tune on their flute, they might even bestow further blessings upon them. The traveller should be wary of dancing for them, though. The Samodivi are amazing dancers and are known to join people dancing in the woods, and start the ‘Samodivian Horo’, a dance which is usually fatal for humans because it can last for a whole day and a whole night – or even longer if the Samodivi so wish – and people can rarely keep up with them, so they are compelled to dance until they collapse.
Do not pick flowers or leave meat as an offering for the Samodivi! They protect nature and its balance, and their souls are tightly linked to those of their woodland’s plants and creatures. If you want to find out more about Samodivi, I recommend Ivanichka Georgieva’s Bulgarian Mythology, where you will find a dedicated chapter on Samodivi in the Balkans and their habits, although this is a very concise and incomplete translation of the original book written in Bulgarian.
Meaning and importance of magic in folklore and creative writing
My own creative writing has been largely influenced by the folktales I was told as a child. The short stories I wrote for my undergraduate dissertation include myths of Samodivi, elements about the babi-healers, as well as the legend of the Immured wife and how human and deviant coexist. The texts deal with loss, growth and transformation, and offer an insight into how the Slavic people have dealt with these processes for centuries. A lot of these traditions, like the performance of a lament, are still practised today. If you would like to read more about Slavic folklore, Natalie Kononenko’s Slavic Folklore: A Handbook would be a great place to start.
Sadly, Slavic traditions and folklore remain largely unfamiliar in the rest of the world. Adult fiction based on these myths and folklore is extremely rare or remains untranslated into other languages, making it internationally inaccessible.
But more importantly, I think that there’s a message we need to take from these myths and legends so tightly intertwined with nature, from all tales of magic from all around the world – a world which is rapidly changing and losing its forests and its wildlife quicker than ever before. And this message is that we are all connected, and the more we sever that connection, the further we’ll stray from our ancestors, from our roots. We need to protect our forests and mountains because without nature, there’s no life. There’s no us. And there’s no magic.
Teya Z. Dancer is a second-year part-time student on the MA Creative Writing, and a graduate of the NTU English programme, for which she wrote a creative writing dissertation.