WRITING: Teaching Creative Writing


This year I’ve been teaching a creative writing course at the LGBT Foundation. Actually, I’m halfway through. It’s been a great learning experience and has really shaped what and how I want to teach later on. The following post is basically a set of comments very obvious to anyone remotely involved in teaching. Don’t expect revelations.

It helps that I’ve been lucky with my fiction tutors myself. In particular, I’ve had a couple who’ve managed to nail exactly what I needed as a student. For me it’s a mixture of things: from building a student’s confidence in their work, assessing where and how a specific piece can be improved, and also suggesting a more broadly the next steps the student might take with regards to style, tone, content, etc. etc.


Now I’m on the other end of things, I can safely say that it doesn’t simply just ‘happen’. It is, after all, a kind of work. It takes work to prep a class so it feels seamless. It takes work to correctly establish how much support/management – emotional, technical, and aesthetic – is appropriate. What’s interesting, obvious, even a little mundane is that the output (what your labour nets you) is, in theory, the expansion of another person’s creative capacity. Who can argue with that as a worthwhile way to spend your time?

I don’t want to over-egg the pudding – after all, teachers are also just people – but it feels nevertheless true to me to say that a good writing teacher is given abstract rewards for their efforts and that these can include but are not limited to: a student’s willingness to persevere through rejection, criticism, and failure; an understanding that weaknesses are to be expected and can be overcome with time and work; a fortified sense of self.


These all feel pretty key in my opinion to writing. Sure, good feedback is one thing a strong and committed writing group can supply (and I have just the group for that) – but a path out of the mire, or a map for when times get bad is something invaluable to an emerging writer. It is this – the map, the lamp – that I feel most crucial.


WRITING: The Nested Story


The nested story is a form I really enjoy playing around with. Perhaps I am obsessed. My interest from a writing point of view comes partly of something that Adam Marek said about how he writes short fiction – he often takes two things that don’t belong together (testicular cancer and Godzilla, for example) and then goes on to figure out if there is a logical way for them to work in harmony.

I wouldn’t dream of speculating on why this works for Adam. But for me, taking two at-odds things and bringing them into conflict seems to jumpstart my creative juices – as if, possibly, the creative part of my brain really needs a puzzle to work out in order to run properly. Perhaps this isn’t the most elegant way of putting it; what I think I mean is – creativity is the forming of connections, the bringing of things together, or at least a central aspect of creativity could be described as this. So, starting from a position of at-odd-ness supplies me with a readymade fuel.


Nested stories – where one story contains another story, seemingly different – work on the same principle. But instead of unusual objects contained within a single narrative (and the accompanying challenge: how do these things fit) we have two narrative threads that, somehow, have to resonate with each other. It comes with additional challenges – how do you convince the reader to stay with you through both? – and restricts the kind of stories you want to tell. It forces you, at some point, to have characters sit and talk to each other for a period of time.

The key thing to remember for me is that the story must come first. Too often than not, the nested story starts something off – an idea, a plot, a set of feelings – but, like scaffolding, must be discarded in subsequent drafts because it impedes the overall piece. On the plus side, if you do scrap your nested story when you come to polish the thing up, you can always use it as the seed for the next piece. A sort of narrative propagation, perhaps.

SHORT STORY: ‘The Loss’, David Constantine


David Constantine’s ‘The Loss’ is in one way a story “where nothing happens”. There is no real plot. The premise is (turn away now, all those who have not read this marvellous piece): a man loses his soul, and nobody notices. Nobody notices, nobody cares. His own wife, who does not lose her soul, who’s soul remains tied to her body and to her worries, does not notice. As a premise it seems a tad melodramatic, perhaps. No soul. Poor me.


His prose possesses a quality I can only describe as radiant. I’ve felt the same about his prose I did when reading Pale Fire, Pnin, and Lolita. More than a ‘command’ of language, Constantine’s prose exhibits language – sentences, paragraphs, phrases – so deftly controlled it seems more like a sea. I don’t want to have to use figurative speech here, but I admit that only figurative speech will do. Take this image:

That was the last pure astonishment in Mr Silverman’s remaining years. A sparrow against the glass ceiling on the way to Baggage Reclaim! It was also, he acknowledged later, the last occasion on which he might have wept. Yes, he said, had I stepped aside and gone down on my knees on that thick carpet and bowed my head into my hands, knowing the bird against the ceiling high above me, then, God be my witness, I could have wept, the tears would have burst through my fingers, I might have cupped my hands and raised them up like a bowl, brimful with an offering of final tears. Mysterious, the afterlife, lingering a while between New York and Singapore, between landing and Baggage Reclaim, an afterlife in which he might have wept. (Constantine, David, ‘The Loss’ in Under the Dam, p. 4)

What moves me is the repetition of ‘wept’, the way it gets picked up by his fantasy, then the repetition, the insertion of an idiomatic phrase like ‘God be my witness’, the strange leap in place from Baggage Reclaim to the afterlife (which reintroduces the idea his soul has gone to the 9th circle of hell) to the fact he is unable to weep. Then again, perhaps it is actually the urgency of the wording that moves me. Or perhaps it is the combined effect of the paragraph’s rhythms. Perhaps it is the symbolic weight the bird holds/is made to bear. Perhaps…

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Actually, I don’t think it’s any one thing. My critical faculties basically fall apart in front of a paragraph like this. I am moved, affected, but I don’t know why – when I read it, my chest tells me I am experiencing a piece of beautiful prose but I can’t tell you exactly, with any certainty, where the beauty lies. A sign of my own limitations: definitely. A combination of things at work: perhaps.

Constantine’s prose challenges me. It exceeds me and what I know how to do. It moves me but I don’t know why. I do know that the quality of his writing – the skill – makes what is a nothing-plot, a non-event (even for the narrator) into something sublime. Perhaps that sounds like an exaggeration. Honestly. I could read pages of his nothing, his non-events, without ever caring that nothing, or pretty much nothing, has happened.

UPDATE: Avis, Avis, Avis

Work continues apace.

Avis Magazine’s issue #2 is now out. Avis Magazine’s issue #3 is on it’s way. The call for submissions has been promoted across the web, but you can find more information here.

UPDATE: Am I still alive?

Yes. I persist.

I’ve been extremely busy with work. Haven’t we all? I am, in no particular order:

  • Working to get Avis Issue 2 off-the-ground
  • Organizing a Short Story event all very TBC
  • Teaching a short Creative Writing course
  • Writing a novel (not really, as in, it’s like a trick-novel)
  • Getting shiz published, yo.

On that last point, I have a cluster of new things out in the world.

I have two stories placed with Queen Mob’s Teahouse, which is a primarily-US based kaleidoscopic cornucopia of literary wonder. The stories are:

‘Fallout’ – which is about, partly, a hard-to-remove stain

‘The Goats’ – which is about, partly, the End of Times.

I also have one story up with The Queen’s Head, which is smashing because it’s one of the only UK-based magazines that publishes the work I want to write (which is to say, I suppose, a kind of magical realism):

‘Exit Strategies’ comes with a warning, as it’s a little NSFW, and also might (I hope!) make your soul feel odd.

All in all, I have a lot more writing stuff going on than, say, six months ago.

Peace out, cats.


UPDATE: Avis Magazine

Just a quick one. I’m now one of the editors for Avis Magazine, a  literary magazine based. There are a few reasons I’ve taken up the editorship, not least because I believe that the provision and maintenance of more venues for writing and art is an undeniably good thing. It’s also a great opportunity to exercise my L33t (remember when people used to say that? Gah, age) administrative skills in a non-work pro-lit therefore pro-humanity context, and also because to produce a book-like object that bring to the eyes of other people work that I think is fantastic is going to be a lot of fun, hard work, but fun. The magazine has a bird-like look, and a bird-y name.


I’m pretty excited. We have a call to submission out on our website, here, so if you’re of a writerly nature please do submit something. The closing date for the winter/spring issue is 10 December 2015.  That’s it. Peace out and write something.

BOOK REVIEW: Gravity’s Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon (part 2)

This continues on from the post (see below) about what I liked, more or less. This is a little less positive. NB: I still liked it. But it left me with an puzzlement I can’t explain easily – the below is my attempt.


Perhaps it has to do with the fact that GR is very complex, steeped in theory, and very interpretable. What The Book Means is a tricky area for me. On the one hand, I have a more or less academic background, and can appreciate intellectual analysis on its own terms. But on the other, in my very limited experience, analysis tends to replace the object of art with another object, something that is half-artful, and half-intellectual, blends the boundaries between the two, perhaps, but nonetheless takes me away from what I am interested in: how to make a reader feel.

There’s a Sarah Waters quote out there that talks about how literature is a game of affects – assembling affects to produce an overall pleasing or beautiful experience for a reader. I’m not really qualified to set out some theory on literature, or to contest/examine her terms in real detail, but I still feel that there’s something in what she is saying: the ideas are good but the affects are the priority. A writer is a shaper of affects. Hence, in my last post, a focus on sentences, style, over the book’s hidden themes.


Pynchon is chock-full of Clever Ideas. I felt some symbolic resonance with some of these: the idea of paranoia, it’s relationship with meaning-making, with a repressed homosexual lust; the idea of a disruption to or overwhelming of cause-and-effect; the idea of death(drive) and life(drive), transcendence and immanence; the shifting perspectives and unstable point of view; the overproduction/mass/excessive production of narrative, personality, character, as a feature of late capitalism; the attempt to create a sense of how the world is now, in our society, with all its wild unstable complexity, it’s forces, its size. Even the idea of Slothrop as a character who eventually disappears into nothingness, his renowned ‘dispersal’ amongst the chaos of the Zone, is intellectually interesting to me – particularly in relation to the things I was interested in during my research.

But – and it’s a large, ponderous, hippopotamus but… I feel a little like this is beyond me – beyond usefulness, even pointless. Pynchon has interesting things to say about the world; but I suppose what I’m getting at is the book is often very unpleasant to read, dull, considered abstruse, and while of course continually interesting to the dedicated (academic?) reader, fails, I think, if it can’t communicate those things in a way to people other than a dedicated academic, interpretative reader.


It reminds me a little of my uncomfortable encounters with queer theory. Difficult, obscure, even purposefully abstruse style/prose undercuts, to my mind, the power of a theory centred at heart on liberation, makes it exclusory, makes it complicit with the structures it critiques. Pynchon’s book requires, asks for, even seduces, a certain kind of interpretative ambition from its readers – or at least, I felt it ask me to consider its ideas as intellectually fascinating, as masterable – which would draw us on to the same interpretative dance he (I think) aligns with a monstrous power/paranoia. I understand that he may be using this alignment to make a point about power/knowledge/paranoia, but it’s not the only point he makes in the book, and certainly not the most interesting/useful… so why, I want to ask him, force us towards interpretation? Why not focus on greater care for your reader? I’m not saying spell stuff out. But he could have cut, polished, attended to emotional connections. Do you really care about Slothrop? Mexico? Gottfried? Katje? Blicero? Not really. Not like I care about Don Gately, nor Mario Incandenza, nor Joelle van Dyne.

I think my reaction to GR is so mixed because, in part, I’ve been in – and more or less exited – a world that lauded intensive interpretation. Moving towards a world wherein assembling affects becomes the focus, most of the intellectual excitement I now find in literature comes from ‘how did they make me feel that’ rather than ‘what did that mean’; and that, itself, comes with its own value-shift – from a rigorous, logical, axiomatic/argumentative position to something fuzzier, less distinct, less requiring of intellectual mastery and more demanding of emotional sensitivity. I’m not saying by the way that fiction writing is some mythical Feminine domain (which I have access to and you, stupid academic, don’t). Or that we shouldn’t think about books. Maybe I’m saying I don’t have the capacity to theorize and disassemble (if disassemble can be taken for ‘look at how x does stuff, how x works) at the same time. Or not right now anyway.


I also think, having been through a Viva process, having seen and heard first-hand how academic arguments are put together, and how theses are defended, who makes meaning, who holds the keys to power, to argument, to interpretation, I’m currently perhaps somewhat suspicious of anyone touting an interpretation of a text, but particularly academics. I have, I think, at least today, a kind of paranoid response to this stuff: any and all theorizing is to be distrusted. Theorists are shadowy. You don’t know what they want, what they’re really like, why they’re pushing an agenda. Which makes GR a tough cookie, as the book lends itself so well to theory (and my response also somewhat ironic, I guess, considering the content). I embrace anti-paranoia – there is no meaning, nothing is connected.

My reading of GR also took place in the shadow of Infinite Jest. Foster Wallace’s book – pushing a less aggressive, more humanistic agenda but maintaining the anger and the intellectual challenge – made me think and it made me feel. GR mainly made me (asked/demanded me to) think.  The writing in both – informative in terms of style, weighting, imagery, and to an incredible degree. Only Infinite Jest really kindled in me a sense of awe.