Murder, Mirth and Care Bears: The uses of an Oxford English degree

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Photo copyright and courtesy of: Ian Fraser at Virtual Archive

Writing for news bulletins, writing for standup comedy, writing murders for tv drama, writing for comics and fantasy gaming novels. These were some of the uses to which a group of graduates from my old Oxford College have put our English degrees. This is a write up of a rather fun day we spent talking about it.

I was lucky enough to be taught English at St Edmund Hall, Oxford from 1986 to 89 by a triumvirate of remarkable tutors. Two were very close to retirement. Reggie Alton – who as an expert paleographer, was called in to authenticate the suicide notes of Kurt Cobain and Bill Clinton’s former White House counsel, Vince Foster.  Bruce Mitchell – a world authority on Anglo Saxon, had Bayeux tapestry curtains in  the room where we students made painfully slow translations of The Dream of the Rood.  But  the third was the newly appointed and very young and talented Lucy Newlyn. She’s an expert on the Romantic poets and now runs the department there. As part of how she’s refreshed and renewed the college’s approach to teaching and engaging with students about English literature, Lucy set up a Writers’ Directory and organized A Celebration of Writing at the Hall last Saturday — the college’s first Writers’ Day for English degree graduates. It was attended by a range of teaching and research staff, alumni and current post and undergraduate students.

The Guardian journalist and bestselling memoirist Emma Brockes  gave a talk on the challenge of writing longform fiction in the age of blogging.

Emma graduated in the mid 1990s when the internet didn’t really mean much. It gradually became a more important part of the way she works. She’s also sold shedloads of conventional books in the conventional way – her memoir What Would Barbra Do: How Musicals Saved My Life topped the NY Times bestseller list. Her new book She Left Me The Gun: My Mother’s Life Before Me is out later this spring. But as someone who started out as a reporter, and still blogs twice a week for The Guardian from New York, she there is a need to manage “stock” and “flow” as a non fiction writer.  It’s a concept first articulated by Robin Sloan. Twitter can be the “flow” that draws attention to the “stock” – the long form, deeper content of the book or the investigation.

“So what?” is, she believes, still the most useful critical question to ask yourself to assess the value of what you’re writing.

She suggested a kind of 3-field crop rotation system for re-freshing writing creativity –focusing at different times between twitter, blogging and writing the long form book.

Established names have found blogging and tweeting really helpful. But in a Q&A we discussed how far young writers starting out on their careers without an established reputation based on a real job, can successfully use personal blogging to get a break. I agree with Emma, that talent is the one thing that truly matters for longterm success. But I think it’s a harder path to negotiate at the start of your career.

Perhaps inspired by Emma, I found myself live tweeting the next session in which Dan Abnett and Johanna Koljonen held a marvellous conversation about the skills of writing – not drawing – writing for comics such as Johanna’s Finnish Manga,  2000AD and the Warhammer 40K fantasy novel sequences.

Dan got his first break writing for Care Bears comics. He said the “rules” he learned about staying true to each fantasy “world” still applied to everything he did. Another great one was about not depending on prior knowledge from the reader: “Remember every comic is somebody’s first comic.”

We got to see rather beautiful pages from Dan’s The New Deadwardians and Johanna’s Oblivion High – which had a Finnish mythic background to the story. It was fascinating to see finished comic pages of Johanna’s story line with no dialogue or words at all, along side the page of script notes she’d written to guide the artist. Both discussed the challenges of how to write for graphic artists they might never meet, and the need to be consistent with a strong defined visual world. Dan had written one of the first Torchwood novels, before the first episode was finished, based only on a set visit and some materials. He said he was relieved to see his novel had successfully matched it.

Dan said his rules boiled down to: “No more than 9 words in a bubble Not more than 3 bubbles a panel No more than 6 panels a page. Show the feet. Break the rules for a reason.”

Via twitter renowned comic artist Jamie McKelvie – an admirer of Dan’s (his work includes such titles as X-Men and Young Avengers) discussed whether that rule was even necessary, saying “Can do 20 on a page with no problem.” Dan said he’d draw 20 panels on a page for a reason, such as conveying frenetic action. We then got on to Warhammer 40K.  Dan, who’s one of their best novel writers, explained the joy of getting the “realism” right; making the stories and the “logic” of the spaceship mechanics – and mechanics are very big in Warhammer — ”better than it needs to be”. I think this is an essential message that emerged from the day. We were all used to making whatever we wrote – eve the Care Bears – as good as it could be. Not because we were necessarily fans, but because great writing is about the joy of making it as good as you can.

In my session — The World In Words: The Art of Newswriting — I discussed what I regarded as the underappreciated joys of great news writing – especially for bulletins and in under appreciated places, such as the BBC’s Newsround. Plus how the skills of critical appreciation learned  through years of comprehension, précis and deciphering the codes in Spenser and Wyatt might be essential for spotting the “real” story in the Old Bailey terrorist trial that helped inspire the film Four Lions.  I also talked about news“omissions”. How bulletins might lead us to think only certain stories mattered and keep us ignorant of others. I gave examples of editorial disagreements about how stories were prioritized and most importantly dropped. I argued that in my experience some newsroom editors and executives had a high brow snobbery about crime stories, and downplayed them in favour of a very narrowly focused Westminster world bias.

After lunch, music and poetry readings came a panel discussion about the rights and wrongs of putting Creative Writing on the English degree course as some kind of option (apparently Cambridge is doing so). There was also a lively argument about the whole “workshop” arena of reading out your work and getting it critiqued by fellow students. This has always struck me as an appalling idea and not what an English undergraduate degree is for. It’s bad enough remembering how I once started to cry in a tutorial after reading out my essay on Philip Larkin. My view has been further reinforced as I read James Lasdun’s horrific memoir of being cyber-stalked by his former Creative Writing student. It’s called Give Me Everything You Have.

In the coffee break after that session it was interesting to find all of us who made a living out of writing (mostly 80s students) Dan, Stewart Lee, and TV crime drama writer Lawrence Davey, together with Emma Brockes, gathered in a a corner vehemently opposed to the idea of “studying” Creative Writing as undergraduates. We felt learning to appreciate great writing of the past was what promoted original thought and style and should not be compromised. And news of a Creative Writing A-level filled us with dread. We also all speculated on how many of us would have got into Oxford today given the pressures on young people over tuition fees, the falling value of qualifications, and limited places.

Finally Stewart Lee – my old tutorial partner for Victorian literature, managed to pull off the trick of giving a talk about “not writing” for standup comedy.

The writer and standup comedian pointed out that his chosen profession relies still on the wild fantasy  (among most people)  that the act is not written at all. That it is merely the Real You extemporizing because you are so naturally witty and funny.

I’d already been tweeting in the morning with the writer, broadcaster and hugely successful comedian Al Murray who was at the Hall at the same time as Stewart and me, but as a History graduate, wasn’t part of this first  Writers’ Day. Perhaps live-tweeting Stewart Lee is rather unfair to the subtle nature of his act and performance style, but Al naturally raised concerns as Stewart suggested that “real” standups should really have written their own act, the odd paid-for joke aside. Al tweeted: “Keen to point out I don’t use writers for live stand up, use them for tv”. You can read Stewart’s book or check out his shows if you don’t already know about his rather lively views on such stadium fillers as Michael McIntyre; amiable Every Men who rely on large teams of writers. Stewart felt you can see the joins because the material isn’t coherent. He joked: “We can dream of them bring stripped of their awards like drug-taking Tour De France cyclists.” But Stewart was making the point that perhaps the concept of the writer-standup is what’s dated in the modern market place where there are fortunes being made. That it was in fact always a short term aberration; like the idea that emerged in the 60s of singers and pop bands like The Beatles writing their own songs. Go back to the 60s and 70s, he pointed out, and the comedians who emerged out of the working men’s clubs drew on a “tacitly acknowledged folk archive” of shared jokes. (You will have to imagine Stewart’s dry tone to the delivery here. Sorry, to Stewart, too, for even attempting to put his standup style into a news-style blogpost).

Via Twitter  I couldn’t resist asking another standup and former Channel 4 News colleague, Tom Greeves: “Where do you stand on the “all my own work” vs stand ups relying on teams of writers controversy?”

His replies were interestingly purist. He’s also a big admirer of Stewart Lee. “I think doing someone else’s jokes is a worthless endeavour. I’m not remotely interested in any [standup] comedian who uses writers. Singers can make someone else’s song their own. Comedians can’t do that with jokes. Comedy isn’t folk music. If it’s not personal and original, I’m just not interested in seeing a [standup] comedian.”

Many writers had submitted favourite quotes for the programme on the writing process. The one that sums the day up for me was this one, submitted by Tom Clucas. It’s G W E Russell quoting Matthew Arnold:

“Have something to say and say it as clearly as you can.”

I’ve already asked Lucy Newlyn to organise the event again next year. And to let us have an alternative panel on Creative Writing courses.

Further listening

The Strand Feb 28th 2013  My interview with James Lasdun about teaching creative writing and his book on being stalked

About samiraahmed

Journalist. Writer. Broadcaster.
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