David Belbin, novelist and Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing and English at NTU, discusses his new novel – and how you can get a limited edition signed copy.
This month marks six years since the publication of the third Bone and Cane novel The Great Deception. Many readers assumed, not illogically, that the third novel marked the final part of a trilogy that had begun five years earlier with Bone and Cane. But that was never my intention. Indeed, back in 2015, I had a sabbatical from my part-time academic post to work on the fourth novel in the series. That October I was 20,000 words into the first draft when my oldest friend, Mike Russell, died of cancer, which took me off track. I was getting going again in December when, against our expectations, Nottingham won UNESCO City of Literature accreditation. I was, until recently, chair of the board, and found myself running things for nine months until we secured the funding to employ a director. Meanwhile… well, people close to us know what happened next, and I’d rather leave it there.
Death in the Family‘s first draft was, therefore, written over three to four years, after which it took several drafts to work out the ending, something I only managed this autumn, after a tough edit. In the meantime, my publisher, Freight, went bust within a year of The Great Deception‘s publication. Happily, John Lucas’s excellent Shoestring Press, who published Provenance,my new and collected short stories, offered to publish the fourth book, and I benefitted enormously from John’s rigorous editorial work, so that’s all to the good.
The new novel is completely self-contained, like the previous Bone and Cane novels, and is plotted in such a way that if you’ve not read or have forgotten what happened in the previous novels, there’s extra intrigue. The novel is also an experiment in use of point of view. It’s written in four sections. The first has two points of view, the second four, the third six and the final one, eight. We don’t get to see into the mind of one of the titular protagonists – a murder suspect – until halfway through. This technique ups the suspense – though getting the continuity right in a novel of this nature was an absolute bugger.
Why did I write it that way? Because I like a challenge and it suited the story. The other way I challenged myself was in exploring an area that I knew was fraught with potential pitfalls -that is having two Asian point of view protagonists and a third as a potential murder victim. But what’s the point in writing anything that doesn’t challenge or even frighten you?
Death in the Family begins with the death of a dentist, Omar, whose wife Nazia, went out with Nick Cane back in the 1980s. At the time, Nick was her younger brother Bilal’s teacher. In 2001, Bilal suspects that Nazia is having an affair with Nick, who may have murdered Omar. Meanwhile, Sarah Bone MP, who went out with Nick when they were at university, is standing for re-election in her Nottingham seat, but is expected to lose. The last thing she wants is to be drawn into a case with heavy racial elements. Sarah needs Pakistani votes though and Omar was one of her constituents. His brother Fahd is making accusations.
There are also ramifications from the events in the previous Bone and Cane novel The Great Deception that may or may not lead to the arrest of the person behind the double murder at the core of that novel. Death in the Family brings to its conclusion a storyline that began in the second novel What You Don’t Know. Although there are loose ends. There are always going to be loose ends. Is this the final Bone and Cane novel? I hope not, but if turns out to be, the story does reach a satisfying end point. Do Nick and Sarah get back together? You’ll have to read it to find out. Are your favourite characters in it? If they’re still alive, yes.
Please buy a copy! The pandemic keeps pushing back the date for in person events (I’ve just had a gig cancelled in February) and we’re still discussing launch plans, but publication has now been announced for March 2022. However, the book’s ready now, and I hope to take its dedicatee a copy next Friday. We’ve decided to publish a limited, signed edition with a hundred numbered copies that will be available in time for Christmas. This edition costs £12. You can also buy additional copies for £10. These will be unnumbered but can be signed with a dedication if you ask for this in your letter or add paypal ‘instructions to seller’. You can purchase copies here or by writing to Shoestring Press at 19, Devonshire Avenue, Beeston, Nottingham NG91BS. Make cheques payable to Shoestring Press. Postage is free. To buy a signed, limited edition by PayPal, use this link paypal.me/davidbelbin/12gbp To buy an extra copy (unnumbered but can be signed and dedicated) use paypal.me/davidbelbin/22gbp Make sure the address on your PayPal account is where you want the book delivered. The address doesn’t always show up so probably best to put a message including your address anyway, plus any requests. You can also get £4.99 off a copy of my Collected Short Stories (usually £12.99) by buying a copy alongside the signed edition ie £20 for the two. Use this link paypal.me/davidbelbin/20gbp
Or you can wait until March and buy a copy in person at the launch or at independent bookshops. The paperback won’t be available on Amazon (except via second-hand resellers) but the ebook will also be available on all formats in March. This novel, along with the previous three Bone & Canes, which I now own the rights to, will be published by my ebook imprint East Lane Books (one day I’ll explain that name). Reviews on social , Good Reads, the dread Amazon etc will be much appreciated.
The great cover, picking up a key story detail, is by my friend Graham Lester George, to whom, thanks.
The academic year has just started at NTU, and our new MA Creative Writing students have had their first sessions. In one, they were asked to write a metaphor or analogy for their creative processes, in response to reading Mark Strand’s poem ‘A Dress’. Here are some of the responses – each of which was written quickly, almost as a freewriting exercise. Enjoy!
Creative writing is an exorcism of sorts. It is the only way to deal with that intrusive, niggling narrator voice in my head that pops up on random days with a phrase, an image, an incomplete sentence while I’m cooking, gardening, trying to get through my dreary workload but all the time knowing that demon won’t be gone until I make time for the deliverance and commit those imperfect words to paper.
Words are fish and writing is fishing, its bait being the time spent staring at a white screen and its cruelty not quite serrated hooks through recently serrated cheeks nor drowning on an unfamiliar shore as a bald man with a thick jacket and an even thicker moustache takes a pointless photograph, but cruelty upon the writer, staring at a white screen, waiting.
During the exercise I tried to think of a succinct way of framing my words to eloquently describe my writing process. Which for me, can be both as easy as breathing and as painful as an asthma attack. The following metaphors/ analogies are my attempts to dissect what I now consider to be an intrinsic part of my existence.
The deep-sea dive. Writing for me is like deep sea diving, going into the unknown, the depths of one’s soul in order to find the treasure that was always there.
Farming-agriculture/giving birth. What comes out of me has to be produced from something activated deep within what I already possess. Like seeds pregnant with promise. These seeds are planted in my subconscious as I walk through my life. Locked within are the thoughts and concepts in my psyche that grow to maturity, watered and nourished by my day-to-day experiences and encounters. Finally, what I produce is harvested/extracted when I give birth to a composition.
Gem mining/excavation. My creativity, like all of the most precious elements and stones, is buried deep underground. The pressure of life creates purity and, once excavated, what is exposed can be processed. Once shaped, I can share its beauty with the world.
Reflecting, I noted the recurring theme. My mind just can’t release the concept, as I try to shake the apple of my thoughts from the proverbial tree of knowledge that is my brain; this is what I know to be true about my creative writing process:
“The whole process is about pulling out of me that which I didn’t know I had in me. The deeper I dare to travel into myself, the more I find to share.”
A rain storm in the sunlight – it drips until it pours and then the clouds reveal a rainbow.
Filed into a dagger’s point, my thumbnail scores a blood red groove across my forehead, slicing through hair as it circles my skull.
The top comes away like the lid of a boiled egg.
Strong, nimble fingers, quite unlike my own, winkle out the cephalopod brain, but it’s my clumsy hand that smashes it against the whitewashed wall.
Much later, I squint at the mess as I untie my apron. I shakily grip a piece of tea-stained silver and begin to spoon it back in.
For me, writing is like standing in a room where all the walls have collapsed. I must search in the rubble to find the first brick, then the second and third, to rebuild the structure. It’s a slow meticulous process, but eventually I am standing in a beautiful new home surrounded by people I love
Creativity is within all of us to some degree. It flows like water out of us. it’s an expression of who we are. Having the ability and opportunity to express ourselves is good for our well-being, and it’s very therapeutic.
Let me Find Myself
With a blank notepad, a pen, and an innocent dream of glory
I visit a sunlit ravine with distant views,
Preceding a tranquil lake in a basin.
The earth dare not move in this quiet place,
And besides the interruption that is me, all seems still.
With empty words I try to ensnare this strange world
During his keynote speech at the 2010 Writing Industries Conference, the novelist (and NTU MA Creative Writing tutor for Fiction) Graham Joyce warned that writers would need to be more flexible if they wanted to carve a successful (paid) writing career. The days of a large advance to pen your magnum opus were becoming more infrequent and so it was time to consider other formats and mediums such as mobile phones, gaming platforms and podcasts.
Fundamental to his call for versatility was technology and how this is radically transforming every aspect of lived experience. Fast forward eleven years and his advice has become more prescient. Social media platforms function as mini publishing studios and immersive technology, such as augmented reality and AI, are transforming how we tell and experience stories.
It’s with this in mind that I’ve been developing new modules at NTU to help equip emerging writers with the skills and knowledge needed to flourish in this ever-changing digital landscape.
One such module is Digital Storytelling, currently available to 2nd year Creative Writing students. This is very much built around experimentation, with students asked to adapt their stories to fit the grammar of different platforms and mediums. It quickly becomes apparent that what works well as interactive fiction on Twine does not translate well to a visual medium like Instagram. Understanding the relationship between technology, audience and story is vital if you are going to produce engaging and innovative digital work.
Another benefit of this module concerns the practical skills it provides. The visual essay at the top of this article was produced using the Werner Moron ‘real-imaginary’ path. (You’ll have to join the module to learn more about this method.) The visuals were sourced from copyright-free material and produced using free online tools. In creating a visual essay for YouTube, students learn to write a script, record audio, select images that reinforce the narrative, upload, tag, publish, share and promote. This provides a broad range of skills, all of which go some way towards helping them kickstart their digital writing careers.
The appeal of digital storytelling is the challenge of having constantly to adapt your writing to fit a medium. From interactive fiction on itch.io to Twitterature, each medium has its own form of constraint. A limited word count forces you to think carefully about what you want to say, whereas interactive fiction places greater emphasis on the experience of the reader (or user). Constraint is fundamental to creativity which is why I love jumping between mediums and platforms. It’s what maintains my motivation to write.
Back in 2020 when I applied to study for NTU’s MA in Creative Writing, I could not have envisaged that the Covid pandemic would still be with us as our cohort embarked upon the 2021 MA Creative Writing anthology. Our chosen title, Uncertain Truths, reflects something of the world we found ourselves in. A world already filled with the uncertainty of fake news, gossip, and stories spread by social media with the added anxiety of a pandemic thrown in.
Due to the pandemic, we have been a smaller cohort than usual – ten students form our main core of writers have contributed their writing and time to producing this book. One of us, Lee Skinner, a trained animator, has also designed the cover, layout, and website.
It has been an interesting time managing the production of this book at a distance. I have got used to regular meetings on Microsoft Teams with the two other project managers Matt Biggs and Claire Roberts, and messaging via WhatsApp and email to our group to ensure all tasks are completed to produce our book. Sometimes, we even managed to meet in real life! As well as contributions from some of the second year MA Creative Writing students and lecturers associated with the course, we are also very pleased to have work by five well-known authors connected to Nottingham: Alison Moore, Megan Taylor, John Harvey, Lynda Clark, and Jo Dixon.
The creative response to our title Uncertain Truths has been wide and varied, in fiction, poetry and memoir. Rumours of beasts and wolves, ghosts, a hand with a life of its own, strange fish and fishy tales, will all be found in the anthology. Fantastic and fanciful narratives have come together with darker work exploring painful truths of the human condition. The uncertainty of love has also found its place in our pages. In the foreword, the poet Jenny Swann, also a trustee for Nottingham UNESCO City of Literature, identifies one of the anthology’s strengths, which is rooted in the broad range of writing talent that exists on NTU’s Creative Writing MA:
One of the admirable qualities of Uncertain Truths is that it avoids the monotony of tone that can sometimes afflict, and spoil, anthologies. Rather, there are plenty of changes of gear, scene, and direction – one minute, the reader is enjoying a laugh about a post-Jackie-Weaver-style council meeting, the next, the mood and locus of a story or poem could not be more different.
Bringing together this anthology has been a huge collaborative effort amongst our small group. As well as Lee, our talented designer, we have: Abigail Cobley our fantastic proof-reader, aided by David Obiri; Lucy Grace, who brilliantly ordered the work for the anthology; and Kyran Wood, our social media manager, whose tweets prompt visits to our website, where we all regularly post blogs ranging from the sadness of sitcoms to the inspiration of archival newspapers for writing. There is also a blog about our collaborative short story, discussed below. Jade Curley and Jess Parkinson have also edited work.
In addition to the anthology, we have produced a shorter read: a collaborative short story by our cohort of ten.We can be followed each week via Twitter and on our website, as we post one or more ‘episodes’ of our story. This will build each week so eventually by the end of October the complete story will be able to be read on the website.This was intended as a fun writing exercise which we arranged between ourselves. Each of us took turns to write a piece of the story. We had no idea how it would develop but it has Nottingham references, a touch of fantasy sci-fi and a protagonist called Harmony Horatia.
Uncertain Truths will be published in the autumn and launched on 3rd November at Antenna in Nottingham. To book a place at the launch and to pre-order a copy of the anthology visit our website https://uncertaintruths.co.uk/. You can also follow us on Twitter Uncertain Truths @UncertainNTU
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.