Happy Birthday to Creative Writing at Lancaster University - and congrats on thirty years of your MA!
Such a long time ago. I wasn't in the first cohort. I was a few years later. I was on the course in 1991/2, when there were still only about twelve of us in the class, and everyone was working in different genres. We met twice a week for two hour long workshops and we had a wonderfully heterogenous mix of fiction, poetry and plays.
It was a golden time for me. For the first time I really felt I was devoting all my time to the exact thing that I wanted to be doing. There were no other distractions. I was getting fully funded by the British Academy (as it then was) and I was writing my third full-length novel. And I was writing it with a readership of peers.
I'd already been at Lancaster for three years, doing English Lit, for which I'd got a First - and I had absolutely no clue what to do about my life and about working or any of that stuff, apart from becoming a novelist. I went straight onto the MA - and that First I got didn't half help with getting the funding. I was at that point where all the books I'd ever read, and all the courses I'd ever done suddenly linked up and I was making connections and firing off in all kinds of directions.
And I began the term in October 1991 writing a novel about the council estates in County Durham I'd grown up in. I was writing Magical Realist fiction, because I knew from Marquez, Carter and Calvino that it was the best fictional mode for telling the stories of the poor and the disenfranchised. It was, for me, a way of channelling my love of all genres of fiction into a very character-based literary fiction about working class characters in what was, to me, a very ordinary setting.
Of course, taken out of context, on a Creative Writing course, I suppose it seemed quite exotic.
'These are more like characters you'd find in a television soap opera, aren't they?' was one of the first questions.
And then there was all the sexuality stuff. I remember very clearly the reactions of some of the more staid members of the group - on the day we were meant to be discussing the gay sex scenes and the transvestism of one of the main characters. 'I don't care if you don't believe she's a man,' i remember telling one prissy member of the class. 'It's my novel. She could turn out to be a ... donkey! If I decided that's what she really was!'
The poet, Alicia Stubbersfield, who turned out to be one of my best, long-term friends, phoned me that night, telling me crossly: 'This was exactly how they treated DH Lawrence..!'
It was great. It was a course where we all overturned each other's thinking and caused all kinds of ruckuses and changed each other's writing and lives forever.
And I think that's because it was taught in such a simple format. It was just a round table discussion, free-flowing, unstructured, twice every week. Three pieces of work each time, read beforehand by everyone. A workshop very gently led by our tutor, David Craig. Sometimes he'd deliver an opinion, or round up the discussion or set it off in a particular way. Sometimes he'd play devil's advocate or stir everything up. But mostly he sat there wryly, presiding over the squabbling, the factionalism, the agonies and the excesses of nit-picking. And the laughter. Uproarious, hysterical, blissful laughter. My hardcore team of pals - Alicia, Siri, Kelly and Joan - we were bonded and were put through the mill on that course - and we loved it.
There were no other extra course units that we were forced to undergo. That was a big plus. I’ve taught at UEA and MMU and the MA students were hampered with other courses and ludicrous projects. Pretentious courses taught by non-writers about ‘the European novel in the 20th century’ or Postmodernism or whatever. The kinds of things critics think writers need to know. They always screwed with the work the MAs were producing. You could trace what was on their reading lists for the other courses by the shadowplay of bad pastiche in their monthly submissions.
I used to be in favour of other course units – to ensure that the students are reading lots of stuff. Now I think – it’s best to choose well-read and committed readers in the first place. Like we were. Real readers don’t need cajoling. Second best thing about our course, after the friends I made, were the long afternoons of swapping books, author names, booklists and thoughts about books. We’d go off to town after each workshop – to the Whale Tail veggie café in Lancaster and talk about books, books, books.
Everyone apart from me was a Mature Student. I think that was one of the differences – in that everyone was treated as and expected to be an adult. We had to direct our own learning, set our own agendas, read what we decided to and write our own books. We were trusted to be adults. Universities aren’t really like that anymore. No one is trusted to simply get on with their work – faculty and students both. Everyone needs their hand held, is the assumption. Or spying on.
But this is over twenty years ago I’m talking about. Before there were so many courses with so many student places. Before universities saw Creative Writing as a cheap and easy money spinner.
Because it was Lancaster and in the north the course never got the attention that UEA did. For a long time these two were about the only MA writing courses in the country. When I started lecturing at UEA in 1997 I had to keep gently reminding everyone there that Lancaster actually existed and had done so for a long time. UEA wasn’t as singular as it thought it was. They had no right to be quite as snobbily superior as they often acted. I always fought the corner for Lancaster – its quality, longevity and success.
I’ve realized since that it was always a good thing that Lancaster wasn’t as caught up in the silly star system that UEA loved so much. Or that the metropolitan publishers and agents didn’t come flocking to its doors, eager to snap people up. It gave us space to write and think about our work a bit more before we even thought about making it public. During the early 90s, however, those agents and editors were starting to take notice of what was going on in the distant north. A few even came visiting. We once had a High Tea laid on for us in the newly-built campus hotel, and about four editors arrived like they were coming down from Olympus. We all ate cream buns together and we had to get used to finding decent answers to that most cringe-inducing of questions for new writers: ‘And what’s your book about?’
The fancy Londoners came and went. We were left feeling a bit used and trampled on and patronized, I think – those of us who weren’t completely ignored by our esteemed guests.
Our course was all fairly minimalist and lo-fi. We only had one visiting writer give a workshop. An extremely famous poet came in and gave us an hour-long session that amounted, really, to little more than, ‘remember to use your senses.’ At the time we were disappointed by the muted quality of the whistles and bells promised by the postgrad prospectus.
So, though we weren’t impressed by the content – that turned out not to be the point of the course. What it gave us – very deliberately, very determinedly – was time and space to write whatever we wanted. It made us take it seriously. And it gave us each other as a peer group of readers.
Everything else that goes on in these places now – all the jamborees and shark-feeding and breast-beating and prizes and bursaries and anthologies and mission statements and show-offy gubbins – all of that seems irrelevant to me compared with the very simple things Lancaster provided for us.
It all took place in a little study borrowed from the Linguistics department. It was very, very simple and unpretentious. And, in many ways, it set me up for my writing life. By that I don’t just mean my life as a novelist. I mean as a reader and a teacher of writing, as well. I learned how to teach and to listen and how to keep things simple. I learned how to draw work out of people. I learned that it’s not about me as the teacher, but about them as the writers. I learned how to instill confidence. I learned how to trust my intrinsic bullshit detector, too. Which is one of the most vital writing and teaching tools that doesn’t often get discussed.
Lancaster in those days was so great. I had already done an undergraduate degree in which they decided we had to do courses outside our major. So I ended up doing a unit on Italian cinema classics. On rainy Monday afternoons I'd be watching Fellini and Antonioni and Visconti in a dark lecture theatre, almost alone. When I was doing a course on Shakespeare's history plays it was during the very weeks of Thatcher's downfall and our beloved new-historicist tutor brought them brilliantly alive by holding those plays up against weekly political shenanigans and letting us draw our own conclusions. We were fired up by theory, by feminism and fledgling Queer studies. We were invited to write our own essay questions, formulate our own dissertation subjects, apply to do phDs in whatever we wanted.
And we were asked to write poems and stories and novels because it was an important thing to do. Not as a career move. Just because it was a fantastic thing to do.
So - thank you Lancaster University. Thanks for the whole caboodle. And I hope your anniversary bash that you threw on campus last week was fun and fantastic.
An invitation might have been nice…!
But never mind.
I still remember everything I learned there and I don't need to go back.
(Does it Show? The novel i wrote on the 1991/2 course, published by Chatto and Windus and then Vintage in 1997.)