Friday, June 15, 2012

Robert Shearman: "Writing is a bit of a sod"

Robert Shearman wrote Doctor Who: Dalek, the Hugo Award-nominated TV episode that revived the malevolent metal monsters. His short story collections have won both a World Fantasy Award and the Shirley Jackson Award. He's also an award-winning dramatist for theatre and the writer of numerous radio plays. In this special guest-blog he talks about being Writer-in-Residence on the MA Creative Writing course at Edinburgh Napier:
"Writing is, it has to be said, a bit of a sod. There are mornings I wake up, and remember I’m a writer, and the cold chill of that is enough to make me pull the duvet back over my head. It’s the only job in which the better you get at it the worse you realise you are. I started out twenty years ago, all cocky and ambitious, and a little bit rubbish – and the greatness I expected was just above my head out of my grasp.
I’m in my forties now, and I can knock together words with a little more proficiency, and I can see more clearly just how little I’ve yet achieved and how far I still have to go. I fully expect that when I’m ninety-five my prose will be the best I will ever craft it, and my ideas will strike the right balance between wit and pith – and the self-knowledge it will take for me to have got there will reveal just how bloody awful a writer I really am. 
Some days writing seems like the second worst thing in the world. And the first thing, annoyingly, would be not being allowed to write at all. So I grit my teeth and get to it and moan about it under my breath – moan quietly, too, for fear that someone might hear me and take it all away. 
The problem is that writers feel like frauds. When I pick up a book, any book that’s not by me, and I see all those pages filled with words, all that prose neatly laid out and looking so confident, I can’t but help believe there must have been something mystical that made it happen. And every writer I know, deep down, suspects that there’s some magic formula that makes it easy for everyone else... except him. Look at all the photos on those dust jackets. Look at how those authors smile! They know something we don’t.

So you can understand that when I was offered the residency at Edinburgh Napier I felt a certain amount of guilt. How could I tell people how to be a writer when after all these years I was struggling to work that out myself? And if I could feel like a fraud writing in my bedroom, with no one but the cat to judge me, how much worse would it be around a couple of dozen students all keen and eager and wanting to change the world?
On the first day of term I went to the introductory talk given by Sam Kelly and David Bishop, and I tried to look confident and accomplished, and I nodded sagely at the things they said. Inside I felt queasy. Because Sam and David were talking about the high standards expected for the course, the way that the students wouldn’t be mollycoddled, how they would be pushed and be required to push themselves. They were all given the opportunity to leave, right there and then, with no shame. No one took it.

I would have. I really would. And that was my first understanding of how Edinburgh Napier worked. It requires a certain kind of courage. And the students I would be working alongside would be braver than me. Really, it’s hard enough some days just to write. But to write, and to be accountable for that, it’s another matter entirely. I’ve always been very suspicious of writing courses, because so often they seem to promise the earth – or, at the least, fame, glory, and publication. In essence, they offer their students that magic formula we all know doesn’t exist but suspect still somehow might.
Edinburgh Napier starts by asking you a question, and it’s an important one, and the one that artists don’t ask of themselves often enough. ‘So what?’ You’ve got a nice little idea for a story. Nice little plot, nice cute characters, nice turns of phrase. You’ve got a metaphor in mind for chapter three you’re itching to use, it’s so clever! So what? Because if you can’t answer that, there’s no point to it. Filling the shelves of a hundred thousand bookshops there are stories that have already been published – and if you can’t find some justification why your own deserves to be beside them, it won’t deserve to be.
If that sounds scary, it’s because it is. If it sounds harsh, it’s missing the point. The greatest gift you can lend a writer is the hope that what they’re working on might actually matter. What sets Napier apart is its emphasis upon the way that writers should assert themselves and find projects that define them: that’s the reason why we pull the duvets over our heads, it’s not the fear that the words are going to bite us, it’s the fear that all that effort has not a scrap of point.
Napier refuses to puts its students on to some easy conveyor belt to publication, smoothing out all the quirks and individuality. Napier doesn’t see that the purpose of story is some optional extra you graft on to course work once you’ve learned how to do good grammar and pretty structuring. I realised that what Sam and David had told me was perfectly true – that the selection process for the MA course was very rigorous, and that the students on it all had something so much more promising than a bland understanding of how language works. With these students, they might actually be offering something new.
And I would meet with them. I would see how they would wrestle with their ideas sometimes, trying to force them to be ever more ambitious, to get the most out of them they could. And I would go to my office, and I would try to exact the same standards on my work. I would sit down and start a new story, and find answers to that question: ‘so what?’
I decided that if they were going to work so hard then the least I could do was work hard too. I set myself a task. I would write a short story each week of my residency, and post it upon a blog for all the world to see, and the stories would directly bounce off conversations I’d had with students inside and outside the classroom, and they would be inspired by what inspired them.
As Writer in Residence the one thing I could do was write – and give them a demonstration that there was someone out there doing the same thing as they were. Prone to the same doubts and paranoias, and prone to the same bouts of laziness. To strip away the mystique. To show that what they’re doing is what all writers do, word after word, paragraph after paragraph, every single day.
Sam Kelly and David Bishop are an unlikely duo. Sam is small and excited and so burns with enthusiasm that in the classroom you can sometimes almost hear students’ minds pop with inspiration. Sam at first focuses upon the theory of writing, delighting in Derrida and psychogeography, and trains the student to see their work in a new context, as something which either embraces or challenges other disciplines. David is dry, thoughtful, and very funny – he approaches the business of writing with a fierce practicality that is the fruit of a career in television, books and comics.
It’s the way their two different styles work in synthesis that gives such flavour to the course. And right beside them, lurking in the Writers Room with its overflowing shelves of extraordinary literature, is Stuart Kelly – and Stuart has read just about everything in the world, has an opinion on it, and can tell anyone preparing their own novel what else to read for further insight and direction. I’ve been trying to catch Stuart out for nearly a year with obscure literature I think he might not have heard of; I can’t do it; I give in.
And I’ve seen how the students have grown in confidence. – No, let’s stop calling them students now, let’s say writers, because that’s what they are: they’re not working merely towards graduation, they’re working for something much bigger and bolder. Writing is essentially a solitary pursuit. No matter how much we plan, or discuss it, or offer support for others, the actual graft of it always is some single-handed combat with a blank screen and a bucketload of words. But it can never be truly solitary, because then we’d leave the reader behind; writing is a form of communication, after all, and if we get stuck just talking to ourselves why should anyone want to listen? That’s been my principle joy at Edinburgh Napier – watching how the writers interact, seeing how the enthusiasm for one person’s project can inspire someone else’s.

As it has mine. I came to Napier rather arrogantly worrying what I could give to the students. I never much thought about what I would take from them. What they’ve given me is a new fearlessness. A mind more open to new ideas and approaches. A greater sense of purpose. And a feeling that what we’re all doing in this job, silly as it may be, self-indulgent as it is, does truly matter. Yes, it’s still a sod. But I stare the sod into submission now with pride. And it’s with pride I’ll look back on my year at Edinburgh Napier. I can’t wait to see what the new friends I’ve been working with are going to write next, next week, and in the years to come. I’ll be there, writing alongside them."


  1. Writing a story yourself and posting it while teaching the course is a terrific idea. It's something that I do on a smaller scale - at the beginning of a course when students are terrified they'll get 'savaged' if they put their first drafts up on a forum. Now I put up an example of my own cringey first draft and the final, hopefully more polished version. It shows the students that a) their tutor does have a foot in the professional world, and b) their tutor can write unmitigated shite too and c) they aren't afraid to post it either.

  2. When I pick up a book, any book that’s not by me, and I see all those pages filled with words, all that prose neatly laid out and looking so confident, I can’t but help believe there must have been something mystical that made it happen.

    Solution: pick up more bad books.