It’s for you!

Don’t you love to receive a letter? A hand-written and just for you letter?

Jon McGregor, author of If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things, So Many Ways to Begin, and a short story collection, This isn’t the sort of thing that happens to someone like you is professor of creative writing at the University of Nottingham. He edits a journal called The Letters Page, which brims with humour, seriousness, great writing, illustrations and ‘paratext’ – those scribbles, alterations and random marks that make a page more than the words written/printed on it. The journal, though digital, prefers to receive hand-written letters (probably for the paratext). I was fortunate to have a letter published in the ‘in house’ pilot journal – compete with computer generated coffee stain on my subversively word-processed submission. I’m delighted to have now been published in Issue 6 of the www available edition, wonderfully illustrated by Gwen Burns.


The red bits, writing and margin lines, folds above = paratext. Read it and be thankful not to be selling windows (unless you do, of course, in which case you might be glad of the work, and who could blame anyone for that?)

The top left scribble, emblem, emblem print (bottom), folds and discolouration below = paratext



Oh the irony of it all

university_of_nottinghamThe University of Nottingham has taken the extraordinary decision to wind down and close the profitable and over-subscribed BA (Hons) Creative and Professional Writing course (CPW).

This closure follows that of two other honours BA courses in Humanities and Fine Arts. None of the reasons given so far by the University explain the decision. Though we (current and former students) understand and agree that the course is wrongly housed in the School of Education, we are puzzled as to why it has not been moved elsewhere given there are options such as the School of English or the Department of Culture, Film and Media. One reason the University gives for closure is staff changes. The course leader has moved to another university, but she gave six months notice and no attempt was made to recruit a replacement. Here’s a thing, though. The other staff remain in place and, if employed for more hours, could run it competently and creatively, as they were doing before the now departed leader was appointed.

In the absence of an “Ah yes, that makes sense” explanation, there is outrage and indignation about the closure flying around social and other media. The current students are unnerved and have been treated badly. They were sent a patronising ‘pastoral’ missive about disappointment, thankfully of such length most would not read it. UCAS applicants for 2015 have been told they need to look for something else, somewhere else.

A verb comes to mind – devalue. Axing under such circumstances and devoid of rationality devalues the degree itself, as though the university were saying the course has not come up to a perceived standard of something or another, away with it. In turn, that devalues the achievement of current and former students and their perception of the value others might place on their academic achievement, perhaps even employability.

For the last three years a student from CPW has won the University Prize for highest marks in an undergraduate degree course within the faculty. 

And what about the course tutors? The university employs most of them on an hourly basis rather than creating proper part or full-time posts. They are not paid for all the extra hours they give generously to conversations with students before or after class and in email correspondence. They are not employed far enough in advance of a module’s commencement to provide material for reformatting within the University for disabled students such as myself. Unfailingly they did this in their own, unpaid time, for which I am extremely grateful. In effect the tutors are workers on zero hours contracts, trying to work out whether they will or won’t be asked to teach enough to earn a living, should or shouldn’t take up work elsewhere in case the call doesn’t come.

The University is fully supportive of Nottingham’s current bid to become a UNESCO City of Literature. The idea for which came from a graduate of the course, Pippa Hennessy, and extends Stephen Lowe’s idea of Nottingham becoming a City of LettersPippa is now the Development Director of the thriving Nottingham Writers’ Studio in a city and locale steeped in Bryon, Lawrence, Sillitoe and contemporary writers such as Jon McGregor, Nicola Monaghan/Valentine, Alison Moore, Amanda Whittington, Michael Eaton and many others.

The arts are not a luxury. They are a crucial resource that we cannot afford to lose.

It seems the arts are being devalued by the day, along with life-long learning and education for education’s sake. Substitute Creative and Professional writing for Fine Arts in David Ainley’s excellent article, DIScontinutation about the closure of the Fine Arts course and be worried.

Fear of typing

When Jon McGregor* gave his first Short Talk About Lunch,
he insisted usb-typewriter-1all the students typed their names on his attendance list using the typewriter he’d brought on a trolley. (Along with doughnuts and Satsumas – there’s nothing like free food to motivate students.) Some of the students, being of a more conventional student age than myself, had never touched a typewriter in their lives.

There were questions such as: So how do you insert a space? How do you go down to the next line?’ What do you do to make letters into capitals?  I confess, I was amused by their lack of awareness that the invention of the computer keyboard was not original in concept, merely a development.

Though I’ve thought a lot about my radio drama script, written the synopsis of it, character studies, research information etc, etc, I hadn’t written much of it at all and was beginning to panic. Then it occurred to me, ‘Helena, you don’t need to have read every book about writing for radio that you can get your hands on BEFORE you write.’ Ah ha! That was it.

This week I’ve pretty much completed the first draft, it’s flowed and flowed from the heart. I gave myself permission to proceed in this order:

  • Write
  • Make minor changes to ensure continuity and consistency
  • Check factual accuracy
  • Read about radio and radio writing to inform the penultimate edit of the script
  • Penultimate edit
  • Gather feedback from mentor, Writing Group, any other willing reader, and the actors at a read through
  • Final edit
  • Done

A liberating process that’s revived my enthusiasm and flagging confidence. I’m hopeful that this approach has led to a script in which the emotions of the characters, and their voices, are raw and natural. Now I just have to guard against editing the life out them. That’s a post for another day.

* Jon McGregor is Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Nottingham, author of three novels and a collection of short stories, all of which I highly recommend. (Not that I’m a creep, you understand.) He is also editor in chief of The Letters Page, a literary journal in, as you might have guessed, letters. You might like to subscribe, and it is open for submissions.

Productive Inefficiency

Well I’ve been up to my neck in research data, the third year project temporarily out of mind. Fascinating stuff about what writers/poets and publishers think is the purpose and meaning of a book’s title. (Paper to follow once complete and marked.)

Last night, a visit to the East Midlands Book Award. Some fabulous books were shortlisted. John Harvey, celebrity judge, said it came down to two. Alison Moore’s Man Booker shortlisted The Lighthouse (the title of which I don’t forget, while we’re on the subject of titles) and Jon McGregor’s short story collection This Isn’t The Sort of Thing That Happens To Someone Like You (the title of which I have to check, and which I guess may not meet one publisher’s criterion for a title: ‘Must fit on a spine’. It may, but eBooks – the format I use – don’t, of course, have spines. Both books are worthy of great praise (she says, having read them).

And the winner? Jon McGregor.