Why Study Creative Writing?

Zachary Omitowoju

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.’

Lauren Morey

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.’

Sarah Stamps

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 can [write] … but only the fearless can be great’

Teya Dancer


The quote: Origin and interpretation

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.

Source: ibid

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.


A friend of mine has been looking for a job in publishing for a while now, and we had a chat about how difficult it can be to find a job in this field. Jobs in publishing are, first of all, very scarce. Then, those few positions advertised as available are usually for interns and pay very little (if at all). And to top that up, these positions are almost always in or around London. Now, what does this tell you?

Source: ibid

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.

Writing Fiction From a Mental Image

Mathew Gallagher

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.

Image preview

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.

The piece ended up becoming a personal inspirational metaphor: do something you love, and you’ll give joy to others. I hope that, if you see my reading of Soul of the Dragon, you’ll recognise that message.

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.

From Spring to Autumn: Tales of magic on the Balkans – part 2

Teya Z. Dancer

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

Nevestin Most, built between the 15th and 16th century in Nevestino, Bulgaria. Source:

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.

From Spring to Autumn: Tales of magic on the Balkans

Teya Z. Dancer

‘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.

Topographical map of the Balkan Peninsula. The Balkan Mountains range is in the red square.

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.

Source: Georgieva, Ivanichka, ‘The Three Samodivi’,
Bulgarska Narodna Mitologia (Sofia: Nauka i Izkustvo, 1983)

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.

To PhD or not to PhD? That is the question

Julie Gardner

I retired in 2017, after 43 years in primary education, and signed up to do the MA in Creative Writing at NTU. I enjoyed the course so much I didn’t want it to end. So, a week or two after handing in my final pieces of work, I applied to do a Creative Writing PhD. Naively, I thought I could start in January 2020, but I’d left it a bit late for that. My start date was agreed for April Fools’ Day. I looked forward to getting back onto the number 4 from the city to the Clifton Campus. There’s something very satisfying about using my senior pass on a student bus.

Then lockdown happened, and I was asked if I’d prefer to defer. I replied with an emphatic NO! I had nothing else to be getting on with (apart from tidying my flat and sorting out all that boring paperwork). I was eager to get started, confident that I would be motivated and disciplined, that my days would be spent reading and writing. Maybe I’d even get ahead of schedule. So I was disappointed when I found out I had to defer anyway. There’s nothing to stop you getting on with it, I told myself: you know what you’re doing. But with the cafés closed, the trains and buses out of bounds, the city streets deserted, my ideas seemed to shrivel. Everything I wrote seemed trite. I decided it made more sense to concentrate on reading. I read a lot of novels. Looking back, I see it was all women writers: Ali Smith, Elizabeth Strout, Gwendoline Riley, Sally Rooney, Megan Hunter, Sylvia Plath. My ancient copy of The Bell Jar fell apart as I read it.

Hoping to trigger some inspiration, I re-read some of the poets who had inspired my proposal: Fiona Benson, Tom Sastry, Sinéad Morrissey, Andrew McDonnell.  But as lockdown continued, I decided to wait for the official start before getting on with ideas for the PhD. The world seemed so unpredictable and uncertain I wasn’t really convinced the official start would ever take place.

But it did, and I have been officially a student again since late June. I attended an online induction session and had my first supervision. The next one is due very soon. There’s work to be done and suddenly the whole thing feels very, very daunting. I squirm a bit when people ask me what my topic is. ‘Poetry,’ I say. ‘Fear and Hope.’

Three months in, I’ve got a lot of early drafts of poems and a couple of short stories. I’m not pleased with any of them. The easing of lockdown does not seem to have coincided with an easing of my confidence crisis. I’m still reading but I flit from text to text, pouncing on ideas and then failing to make headway. I felt I’d made progress when I learned how to spell Schopenhauer. When it all feels too hard, I settle down with a murder mystery. I’ve read a lot of murder mysteries. I often think I’m probably not clever enough to do a PhD. I hope I’ve got imposter syndrome.

Julie Gardner is a new PhD student, and is writing a creative-led PhD on the themes of fear and hope. (As her supervisor, and a champion of her talents, I’d like to point out that Julie is a shining example of what a great mature student can be: diligent, thoughtful, open to ideas, excited, and enthusiastic. The doubts she expresses above are common, especially when people start out on a major new project: how do we know what we are doing? As a community, we overcome these things together, as well as by ourselves. Rory)

A student writer in lockdown


Learning the craft is hard. Voice. Characterisation. Setting. Pace. All these skills must come together, push back against one another with enough resistance. Getting these forces to align is thrilling. Frustrating, excruciating even. But thrilling, nonetheless.

Unfortunately, there are forces beyond the student writer’s control. They turn up as uninvited callers, knocking at the door with heavy fists. They call themselves ‘Stressors’ and, if you don’t open up, they’ll force entry. More often than not then, front door handles get depressed. The stressors burst in with muddy boots. They walk all over the new cream carpet.

Should a writer wish to use these immediate stressors to inspire their writing, they are more than welcome to. But what happens when the world is gripped by one shared stressor, when all and sundry are plunged into lockdown? What does one write about? What does it matter?

For the more fortunate student community, the pandemic may feel more of a distant threat than other life stressors. Hopefully, no-one they know has been directly affected by this brutal virus. But even if the immediate effects remain at arm’s length, students do themselves a disservice should they say that they’re unaffected. They will soon be caught between graduand and graduate status, perhaps remaining in social distancing limbo until a vaccine is found. Anxiety bubbles, and the student writer isn’t exempt from feeling this intense pressure.

‘What you been doing?’ asks a Zoom user.

‘Not a lot. I’ve written a new poem,’ the student writer says, while cursing the third video call of the day. These started in the afternoon, slipped into evening and now infiltrate the night.

‘Oh right,’ feigning interest. ‘Just one?’

‘Yeah, I’ll do more tomorrow,’ a pledge made to the keyworkers who are working flat out, while the student writer scrapes together a few words for submission. In this context, writing seems to pale into insignificance, and that only increases the pressure to offer a more sizeable contribution.


As one of the student writing community, I’m fortunate to have a release from this pressure. I have a greenhouse to escape to. Or one I’ve commandeered, at least. Every afternoon (sometime after three), I flee the confines of one space (the house) to be held by the limits of another. But there is an important distinction. The greenhouse has become my space, my thinking pod and, occasionally, my writing shed. I sit in a wearied patio chair, almost holidaying with ‘Runner Bean x’ immediately to my right. It looks as though the tray of them is blowing me a kiss, but on closer inspection the x is there to denote the number being grown. The soil level disguises how many companions I’ll have next week but, for now, six have poked their heads into the world. I sometimes think about how future novels, poems, scripts will be affected by lockdown, but more often than not I leave those thoughts at the threshold. Inside, I tend to study the runner beans, the hopeful tomato plants, the early signs of courgettes, and admire how they’re busy growing in spite of the pandemic. And the pressure eases somewhat.

There will be others who don’t have the luxury of a greenhouse. Don’t have a garden. Are isolating alone. Seem to have no escape. But a Douglas Dunn poem reminded me of the hope that we can find in humanity’s fierce spirit. Taken from a series of observations made about the lives of Hull residents, Dunn writes in ‘A Removal from Terry Street’ that a man comes out of a house ‘pushing, of all things, a lawnmower. / There is no grass in Terry Street. The worms / Come up cracks in concrete yards in moonlight. / That man, I wish him well. I wish him grass.’ The poem may have been published in the late-sixties but it still resonates. Putting aside one reading that points to the imbalance of wealth and materialism, the man emerging from his front door with a ‘lawnmower’ (despite both his and the family’s anxieties) is spectacular. He might not have been able to use it on Terry Street but hope springs eternal. He’ll carry/lug/wheel it until he finds grass and the freedom it brings. He is resilient. He won’t be beaten.

Looking for inspiration.

The time is 16:09. I’ve resumed my privileged position. My knowledge of runner beans is modest at best. I don’t even particularly like them. And my writing output is equally modest. But I’m not going to worry about that today. I’m going to be thankful for the thinking-pod-writing-shed-greenhouse and remind myself that’s it okay to sit. I enjoy staring through its clear skylight windows. And I hope the man with the lawnmower finds comfort. I believe that he can find release.

John Rogers is a student on the MA Creative Writing at NTU.

Teaching Creative Writing in Community Settings

Those new to a creative writing session often have little idea about what to expect. I’ve been teaching creative writing in community settings for over twenty years and in that time have run workshops in prisons, with refugees, with the elderly, in schools, bookshops, libraries and village halls. These sessions have varied from one-hour tasters designed to get participants interested and inspired, to longer courses based around starting a novel, writing for radio or for the stage.

I recently ran a one-off session at a WI centre and out of the twelve people who had signed up, only one had previously been to a creative writing class. As people came into the room they each let me know about their fears for the impending class: ‘I wrote a poem last night, just in case’, ‘You’re not going to get us to write, are you?’, ‘I’m terrified but intrigued’, ‘Don’t make me read anything out’. Ten minutes later the class were writing away and after half an hour all were keen to read their work out loud.

People often come to a class with pre-formed ideas about what will be involved and might think writing is for someone else, for someone with ‘an education’, someone who has ‘something to say’, or someone who has had an ‘interesting life’. So many times people say they have nothing to write about then go on to produce a startling and honest piece of writing. I’ve seen this in prisons, with probation groups, with people for whom English is a second or third language.

There is a particular power when a group writes together: ten or fifteen people talking about the same topic, reading the same poem or extract then writing their response. There is the initial anticipation about the work they have just produced. Other pieces might sound more professional, more complete, more eloquent. So people tend to start their reading with an apology. ‘I’m sorry, I didn’t quite do what you asked’, ‘I’m sorry, mine’s just not very good’.  

The first time people come to a writing class can be a powerful experience. Quite often I’ve seen people overcome with emotion as they have not written or expressed themselves in this way for a long time. And then when they read, people listen. People value their experience, their story. I like the silence that follows after someone has clearly expressed themselves. There’s a short ‘wow’ moment before people start to speak or offer thoughts.

There can be a great sense of fun when running writing classes. Of course, people sometimes write about dark or traumatic moments. Putting pen to paper and organising words as a story, poem, list, or series of notes can help people reflect on and value what they have been through. We can all learn to improve style. We can re-work and edit pieces in order to make the work more presentable, more precise. But there is a beauty in rough ideas, the ones that often come out of nowhere, in ten or fifteen minutes.

Anthony Cropper, Lecturer in Creative Writing at NTU. If you want to discuss creative writing workshops in community settings with Anthony, please email him. You’ll find details on the ‘members’ page of this website.

Tasting the Good Light

Inyo National Forest, California, July 2019

Midday heat slaps our faces and shoulders and we pant for breath, oxygen slipping away as we make our way up the White Mountains, searching for Methuselah. It’s only 10,000 feet, but in the heat, the sky so blue, the view spilling out further than we’ve ever seen, it feels like climbing into the heavens. I read on a placard that the red rocks at our feet used to be part of a seabed. Here we are then, strange, soft, grounded creatures, lifted up, sweaty, breathless, and burned, to where the angels sit.

Methuselah, the tree, isn’t 900 years old, like its biblical counterpart. Methuselah the tree is far, far older, estimated to be around 4,850 years old. We don’t know which of the ancient trees is Methuselah – it is kept anonymous, as protection from potential arsonists. We know the trees around us are old, though. The oldest living things we’ve ever seen, twisted and white-gold, bleached and bare. In the brightness of the midday sun, they shine. There is an uprooted trunk lying by the path. The placards tell us that when it finally fell, it was around 3,200 years old. 3,200 years ago, this seed split, shooting into life; 3200 years ago, myths were alive – the Trojan war raged; Rameses III ruled Egypt; a solar eclipse heralded Odysseus’ return; the Phoenicians developed the alphabet. 3200 years ago, ‘Hannah prayed to the Lord, weeping bitterly. And she made a vow, saying, “Lord Almighty, if you will only look on your servant’s misery and remember me, and not forget your servant but give her a son, then I will give him to the Lord for all the days of his life.”’ 3,200 years later, my parents read Hannah’s name in an ancient book, pluck it out, gift it to me, and I place my hand on the trunk of tree that’s as old as myths. It is warm, and smooth to touch.

I have spent the past week at the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment (ASLE) Thirteenth Biennial Conference, ‘Paradise on Fire’, at the University of California, Davis. In November last year, California experienced the largest and deadliest fire in modern American history. The Camp Fire caused the deaths of 85 people, and the town of Paradise, in Butte County, was destroyed. The name of the conference had been coined prior to the Camp Fire as a general reference to climate change; in the wake of the fire it became something more – a real, tangible expression of the devastation climate change is causing. Consequently, the conference was haunted by fire; most panels referenced the loss, and there were special sessions dedicated to the wildfires and the firemen who tackled them. Alongside and underneath these overt expressions of grief, fear and loss, was a general sense of devastation, and a desperate awareness of the vast amount of political and social change needed even to begin to resolve things. 

Two days into the conference, in a low, wooden building, tucked into a pocket of plant-life in a quiet corner of the campus, I attend a panel session entitled ‘A Nature Poetry Reading for the Anthropocene: Grief and Hope’. Maya Khosla, biologist, poet, filmmaker, and current Poet Laureate of Sonoma County, moves her bag so as not to accidentally squash a small, brown spider, and reads from her collection, All the Fires of Wind and Light (Sixteen Rivers Press, 2019). Her voice is intense, and filled, unexpectedly, with joy. Khosla is a field-based biologist researching the relationship between fire and wildlife. In the introduction to her reading, she explains that naturally-occurring wildfires are not to be considered harmful – they are part of a natural cycle of growth and rebirth. It is the non-naturally-occurring wildfires (those sparked by guns, cigarettes, climate change) that are damaging and should be grieved. Khosla’s poems, while facing directly into the realities of climate change, loss, and human illness, are poems of hope. In ‘Now You Can Set Down Your Fears’, she writes,

A sweep of brightness raises the mountaintops from sleep.
As if on cue, a rush of breath answers the stuff of ages,
the essentials, lands and gurgling waters awakened
by silences rising once the flames have fallen.
Now you can set down your fears.
Read aloud in Khosla’s intense, joyous voice, that titular line resonates.

Throughout the collection, Khosla writes of life returning to burned landscapes, guided by ‘internal instructions’, ‘inner eyes drawing from the Pleistocene’, ‘the mule deer, the lions. / All along, they knew to arrive. To shift and settle into place, / in a vast machinery of rebirth – tasting the good light’. In Khosla’s poetry, ‘Faith alights / on the sooty drapes covering trees. The birds cling, flash. / Announce the sap, the squirming meats, the great bounty.’ In ‘Diablo Winds’, ‘just weeks after the flames […] the rise of suncup, / biscuitroot, toadflax and whispering bells […] petals upon ash, / songbirds upon branches of charcoal, / black bear upon berries of abundance, fresh juices / trickling down the corners of her mouth.’ Sitting in that small, hot room, watching that spider move, I was struck by the power of her poetry. As a creative PhD researcher working in environmental studies, I am sometimes caught up in doubt – how can my writing, my poems, possibly do anything at all? What, in fact, is the point? There is a demand for a PhD to have impact – something tangible. What difference can a poem make? Listening to Khosla perform, I am called to awareness – through love and celebration – through hope – rather than fear. 

Once I began to look for it, hope was everywhere. Plenary speaker Nnedi Okorafor, author of (among others) Who Fears Death, Lagoon, and more recently, several issues of Marvel’s Black Panther, is asked how she stays optimistic in today’s world. She answers with a laugh. ‘If you don’t have any optimism,’ she says, ‘you don’t have any hope, and if you don’t have any hope, you’re not going to get anywhere.’ Laughter, for Okorafor, is how we stay alive. I am reminded of Robert Macfarlane, speaking at the Nottingham UNESCO City of Literature Lecture earlier this year, and his discussion of living in a world ‘post-hope’, his plea to resist this malaise. Hope, for Macfarlane, is an act of resistance: our responsibility, and a defence against climate change and environmental degradation. In an interview with Rob Hopkins, Macfarlane says that ‘Action is a fabulous remedy. Language is action. Language is a world-making, world-shaping force. […] The discourse we use shapes, of course, everything that we encounter in the world and the ways we frame the world to ourselves. The metaphors we use deliver us hope.’[1] This is what I am struck by when Kholsa is reading, and this, I believe, is the point.

In Cherry Valley, site of the 2013 Rim Fire, tiny fir trees are growing; they reach up to my elbow and are a bright, grass green.

In Yosemite, a bear, lumbering and golden, forages at the base of a blossoming tree. 

Baby chipmunks the size of mice skitter over fallen branches in a grove of redwoods, rolling themselves in the duff.

The California hills are rolling golden, and I understand that they are not dry and dead and brown – they are just summering over, waiting. 

Up here with young, old, Methuselah, surrounded by white rocks, red stones, it suddenly doesn’t seem impossible that the planet will survive all this. Maybe we won’t – but the earth, with its magical, mystical, ‘machinery of rebirth’ will just keep going on, regardless.

Hannah Cooper-Smithson, NTU MA Creative Writing student 2015-17, and current M4C doctoral candidate

[1] Rob Hopkins, ‘Robert Macfarlane: “the metaphors we use deliver us hope, or they foreclose possibility”’ (2018) <> [accessed 18 July 2019]

Twilight Realm


Before the internet, before gay people on TV, before gay people in the movies, there were only gay people in real life. Oh, and there were books. I was a very young gay person with a yearning for other gay persons, but with apparent access only to books. I was a bookish young gay person. I haunted second-hand bookshops rather than clubs and cottages, of which I knew nothing. I became a keen decoder of cover illustrations and back-cover blurbs.

See the source image
The Heart in Exile (1953): ‘the strange half-world of the homosexual’.

Here is a ‘found poem’ made of quotations from the blurbs of paperback fiction, mainly from the 1950s and 1960s. These books, most of which I still possess, were my bookish young gay person’s introduction to gay life. Now that I am a bookish old gay person, I remember I was able to read between the lines for affirmative messages. But all that negativity, too, is still deeply inscribed in my DNA.

Summer in Sodom
Summer in Sodom (1964): ‘the borderline world of normal and abnormal love’

The novels were often far more upbeat than their covers would admit, but publishers clearly felt they had to pretend to be disgusted by their own merchandise. They made it look as if gay literature was for disapproving straight readers rather than bookish gay persons like me. Or you.

Mercifully, things have changed for the better. Bookish or not, young or not, gay or otherwise sexually dissenting, you are far more likely, now, to find the blurbs you need, to find the books you need to read. Twilight is just a time of day.

  1. A story of a forbidden relationship.
  2. An adult novel of a love between two men that defied society’s strongest taboo.
  3. A man’s struggle against the dark powers of moral disintegration.
  4. A frank novel of life and loves in a strange twilight world.
  5. The strange, twisted love that developed between them.
  6. A disturbingly frank novel of homosexuality in London.
  7. Evil influences and perverted desires.
  8. An adult novel that unmasks the stark reality of the twilight world.
  9. This difficult, painful theme.
  10. A novel of unusual interest.
  11. The loving and tragic relationship.
  12. A brilliant, tenderly written story of forbidden love.
  13. A group of well-meaning neurotics and perverts.
  14. The hidden depths of an abnormal relationship.
  15. He strove for other ways to satisfy his desires.
  16. A daring novel of two handsome young men and their strange passion for each other!
  17. The story of a passionate relationship between two men and its tragic and terrible consequences.
  18. It’s not so much his success that people hate, it’s just that he’s different. And they can’t forgive him that.
  19. It avoids any suggestion of melodrama or sensationalism.
  20. They’re a queer lot.
  21. Never before has a novel laid bare with such raw honesty the borderline world of normal and abnormal love!
  22. The fire of deviation smoldered within him.
  23. An unforgettable—deeply moral—adult novel that asks the question: Can two men of intelligence and integrity live as respected members of a society that would destroy them if their strange love were exposed?
  24. It is a near nightmare world.
  25. Can love here become a saving force, or is it condemned to be possessive and demonic?
  26. He knew that he had sinned in thought.
  27. His pitiful pursuit of the object of his abnormal affection and its inevitable and pathetic climax.
  28. Success in this quarter leads to revulsion and guilt.
  29. Diving deep into the waters of perversity.
  30. A frank novel of today’s most controversial subject.
  31. Society cannot understand their strange attraction.
  32. Never before has a novel treated the contentious subject of homosexuality with such honesty and insight.
  33. Their relationship is climaxed by a scene of unbelievable brutality.
  34. Set against the strange background of erotic, forbidden acts performed on moonlit beaches.
  35. The strange half-world of the homosexual.
  36. It is a serious and moving novel, with a compelling theme.
  37. It is a novel that will provoke controversy for a long time to come.
  38. A starkly realistic adult novel of men who satisfy their desire in the shadows.
  39. A powerful, revealing novel of the pressures and conflicts of abnormal love—with a shock ending no reader will ever forget!
  40. The secret life of a teenage idol. Millions of fans treasured his memory but only half a dozen knew the sordid truth.
  41. The twilight realm of sexual inversion is the scene of action.
  42. Three men and a strange and beautiful relationship that grows up between them.
  43. The murky, lucrative underworld of the professional homosexual.
  44. Confused by his socialist principles and his homosexual inclinations.
  45. A man incapable of returning her affection.
  46. The whole homosexual world into which the boy is plunged.
  47. It is also, implicitly, as powerful a denunciation of perversion in all its forms as has ever been made.
  48. The strange compulsive attractions of the twilight world of sex tempted until he surrendered.
  49. How long could he be faithful to his beautiful wife when he craved a different kind of love?
  50. The flaming heart rips the veil of secrecy from a strange marriage torn apart by abnormal desires.

Gregory Woods, NTU Emeritus Professor of Gay & Lesbian Studies and poet

This piece was first published in Nicci Robinson & Victoria Villaseñor (eds), Desire, Love, Identity: from the Nottinghamshire LGBTQ Community (Nottingham: Global Words Press, 2019), pp.125-128.