Tag Archives: writing

Writing in East London & London in general

I went on an Arvon course this year. It was one of those things I have had on my Life To-Do List for years, and I was very much looking forward to it.

Arvon courses are the Holy Grail of creative writing retreats; they get booked out very quickly and they also cost a fair amount – around £545 for a four and a half day course, not including travel.

As it turned out, I wasn’t overly thrilled by the experience. Sometimes writing groups just don’t gel, and this was one of those times. We did have Lionel Shriver come and read to us, which was great (it was going to be Hilary Mantel but she won the Booker Prize and pulled out).

However, I’m sure some Arvon courses are very good. And to be fair to the organisers and everyone else who was there, I wasn’t feeling the best that week and was in no mood to be among strangers, or indeed humans of any description. And maybe my expectations were just too high.

But for anyone wanting to dabble a toe in the world of creative writing courses without leaving London, I thought I would list a few courses that I know of or have been on. The single positive side-effect of writing being so badly paid is that most writers, even really good ones, have to supplement their writing income with other work, and tutoring is one such way. London is home to many brilliant writers and writing courses and organisations, much of it generously subsidised by the Arts Council, so I would urge all aspiring writers – and by that I mean anyone who likes sentences and words and reading and listening to stories and poems, not just those advanced types who plan to write a bestseller and retire to the Bahamas – to check a few of them out.

Our very own Baroque in Hackney blogger Katy Evans Bush runs various poetry courses, which you can find out more about on her blog and her website. I haven’t been on any, but I have her book, Me and the Dead, which is published by Salt, and she’s a wonderful poet and, I suspect from reading her blog, an honest, challenging and constructively critical teacher (the best kind: save the therapy, just tell me if it’s crap.)

Spread the Word is a great London writing organisation, with frequent workshops and talks by publishing professionals – I went to one a couple of years back where the head of fiction at Faber & Faber, Hannah Griffiths, talked to us about the business of getting a book deal while calmly breastfeeding her baby; she was refreshingly down-to-earth.

The City Lit is another solid London institution – not just for writing but for anything from pottery to German classes. Mary Flanagan – who lives in Hackney – runs a very good advanced critical workshop where you simply have your work critiqued every few weeks, and do the same for others.

Nick Quentin Woolf runs a few writing workshops at Brick Lane books – he’s a friendly fellow, gives sound advice, and is a shining example of how a good workshop should be run. This is a sociable group and there’s always a drink afterwards on Brick Lane.

Anyway, this is just a starting point: please feel free to add comments on any others you’ve been on and rate. Thanks.

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John Irving at the Southbank

So today we are taking a slight detour south of the river, as one of my favourite late childhood authors, John Irving, was making a rare UK appearance at the Southbank to promote his new novel, Last Night at Twisted River, which is inspired in part by Bob Dylan’s epic, beautiful song, Tangled up in Blue.

I don’t know if I would have fallen in love with his work quite so hard if I’d discovered it later. But my parents had a copy of The World According to Garp hanging around, and when I first discovered it, around the age of nine, it was the first adult novel I’d ever read. I only understood fragments, but I was blown away by the living-and-breathingness of the characters, the Americaness, the sex, the drama, the language, the passing of whole lives, the mother, the death, everything. I went on to read The Water Method Man, Setting Free the Bears, The Hotel New Hampshire, A Prayer for Owen Meany, The Cider House Rules and finally, on publication of A Son of the Circus, my love affair reached a sad conclusion, deciding that his early books had an energy and compression that seemed to have fizzled out (or maybe I just wanted a change. It’s not you, John. It’s me). He claimed the later ones are better as he had more time to work on them. I would argue that a shortage of time isn’t such a disadvantage, you cut to the chase, to the heart of the story, and the reader senses that urgency and keeps up. Having said that, his new one sounds good, and I’ll be buying it once I get past Mantel’s massive Wolf Hall. It seems the epic, doorstop novel is back in fashion. 

Anyway, it was exciting to finally see my first writer-hero in the flesh. He’s a bit of a silver fox, with a composed, sober, dryly humorous demeanour. The Elizabeth Hall was absolutely rammed, and he received a very, very long round of applause before he’d said a word. This was an uber-author reading, not the usual yes-I’ll-sign-your-entire-back-catalogue-and-make-polite-chitchat scenario you see with the Kate Grenvilles and Tim Wintons and even Hilary Mantels of the world.

He left the stage without a backward glance, as people moved towards it waving old editions helplessly at his sturdy, swiftly departing back. Anyway, I scribbled down a few of his comments, which I will share here. Continue reading

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A hive of activity at Cafe Oto in Dalston

cafeotoIs this the office of the future? I certainly wouldn’t complain. It’s amazing to see how many people run their working lives from cafes these days. I have never really liked the idea of taking my laptop to a café – I remember a story of a classmate in Holborn’s Starbucks having his stolen in the one moment he turned his back on it, and I’ve had my own wallet nicked while emailing in an internet café.

But I’ve taken to the idea lately because you get so much done. Plus Natalie Goldberg, author of Writing Down The Bones, is a big fan, and that lady knows her stuff. Continue reading

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