Monday, April 27, 2015

Major project secures literary agent for another Edinburgh Napier MA Creative Writing graduate

Ever Dundas [photo © Chris Scott]
Hearty congratulations to graduate Ever Dundas who has just signed with leading literary agent Jenny Brown. It was Ever's stunning first novel Goblin that sealed the deal, which was her major project while studying MA Creative Writing at Edinburgh Napier University.

"I met Jenny back when I pitched Goblin in the Book Week Scotland at Looking Glass Books, back in November 2013," Ever recalls. "It seems so long ago now, but that event was a turning point."

When the time came to submit her full manuscript, Ever had no doubt about whom to approach first. "Jenny has such warmth and enthusiasm, and she's really excited about Goblin. Seeing her always cheers me up!"

Ever was a part-time student on the Creative Writing MA at Edinburgh Napier, graduating in 2011. But she hasn't been idle since then, with short stories published in various literary magazines and several first places in writing competitions [not to mention prize-winning photography and her gift for eerie collage artworks!].

We look forward to more news about the future of Goblin, a haunting narrative that spans decades and genres with breathless ease. In the meantime, you can visit Ever's blog or follow her on Twitter.

Friday, April 24, 2015

AWP 2015: despatches from the conference #5

Literary Citizenship: It’s Not About You

Sam Kelly writes: This event on the final day of #AWP15 was one of those I most eagerly anticipated - and it was the one I found myself fearing, the nearer it approached.

This phrase “Literary Citizenship” has, over the last couple of years, become central to my thinking about our Creative Writing MA. I use it to describe the foundational ethics of our shared practice, and to describe the place of the MA in its wider community. And (invariably accompanied by variations on a theme of “it’s not about you”, with more or less admonishment) I also use it as a perpetual challenge to students. It underpins an entire trimester of learning and assessment on a module I teach called Innovation and Authorship.

So why was my excitement at this discussion, on a concept so close to my heart, tinged with utter dread? Because it’s a phrase I nicked from Stephanie Vanderslice (someone I haven’t yet managed to meet, though her influence on our programme is mighty). I stole it with little forethought and scant research. I knew what it meant to me, and what it could do for students as an idea, and – since nobody else in the UK appeared to be using it – I just went ahead and attached to it all the values and aspirations I wanted it to express.

What if I was wrong? What if the first opportunity to hear people actually talking about this thing sent my beloved version straight to the bin, and my module along with it? The panel was to be chaired by the formidable Lori May who has done no less, it turned out, than write an entire book on the subject. Yikes.

The ensuring five-way discussion touched on more aspects of literary citizenship than I can possibly summarise here: the task is, in any case, made harder by the rash of increasingly jubilant exclamation marks all over my notes. So what follows is just a few quotes from the varied definitions offered by the panel.

It’s a way of creating communities, through active engagement in writing, reading, editing, project-creation and entrepreneurship. Its purpose is to enable change.

It’s an opportunity to “pay it forward”. Generosity is the new currency.

It’s an ethics of co-operation, not competition.

It’s a practice of humility; of learning from others.

It’s a way of finding out who you are, by discovering what you have to offer beyond the pages of your work.

It’s a way of sustaining yourself in the times when you can’t write, by attending to the relationships that nourish your practice.

It’s related to the Eight Stages of Charity.

And it can be neatly encapsulated in the following simple instruction from the panel: “don’t be an ass”.

But what do literary citizens actually do? The participants described an inspiring range of projects, enterprises and practices. 
If you’re looking for literary citizens, they’re the people creating mentoring relationships, fairer business models for literary journals, writers’ groups, accessible MFA programs, websites, residences, prizes, college scholarships and pop-up conferences. They repurpose buildings, set up small presses, run free community workshops, and invent new social justice projects. 

 Really, they’re everywhere.

Here at Edinburgh Napier, literary citizenship means all of this; maybe even a little bit more, because we also use it as a tailored journey of self-questioning, self-definition and self-development for students. As the session drew to a close, it was good to feel part of this community of literary citizens, and to feel that we too have something to offer to the growth of this concept. And now we even have required reading for next year’s cohort: Lori May’s The Write Crowd.

Perfect end to a wonderful conference.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

AWP 2015: despatches from the conference #4

But I Need My Day Job: Creating a Kick-Ass Writing Education in Your Own Community
Sam Kelly writes: This session was delivered by two truly inspiring organisations: the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis and the Lighthouse in Denver. Putting aside for a minute my dream of extending our MA into community spaces - Edinburgh could really use a Loft or a Lighthouse – I came away with one important question. How can higher education be more like this?

In their enthusiasm for the ethics, values and successes of community education, the panel neatly nailed everything wrong with bare-minimum standards of Creative Writing teaching in the academy.

The exclusion of popular fiction from the majority of MA and MFA programmes was the subject of David Bishop’s panel, and that resonated again here. For the Loft and the Lighthouse, an absolute openness to all genres is a core principle.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

AWP 2015: despatches from the conference #3

Sam Kelly in Minneapolis
Teaching Artists Teaching Artists

This panel was a series of presentations on the outcomes of a particularly elegant and mischievously innovative research project by students and recent graduates from US  Creative Writing programmes. [The panel was almost too exciting for Sam Kelly, but she managed to write what follows...]

First, some background. The American model of Creative Writing teaching (which the UK inherited almost wholesale) is limited to two defining practices: composition theory, and the peer-review workshop. This panel at AWP was based on asking the same questions David and I faced when we started designing our MA at Edinburgh Napier University: Why? What exactly is taught, and learned, and assessed by this method? Might there not be better ways of doing it?

Each researcher who presented had done something similar to the long conversations David and I had over the blank slate that became our MA, during which we looked for all our answers outside the defining ideological assumptions of academic creative writing. But the cumulative effect of the project described was extraordinary.

Each student chose a different creative discipline: visual arts, music composition, dance, and architecture. They shadowed teachers, asking detailed questions about pedagogical theories and methods. They observed classes intensively, and drew informed conclusions. Then they applied them to the nature, purpose and potential of Creative Writing in the academy.

In the process, it seems we all hit on all the same inspirational junctures: the ethics of Paulo Friere, the concept of co-creation rather than teaching, and the challenge of enabling purposeful self-knowledge and self-sustainability in committed creators. These are the foundations of our MA at Edinburgh Napier, as well as the outcomes of the session at AWP.

So, what emerged?

AWP 2015: despatches from the conference #2

When Words Collide – How Creative Writing Programs Address Popular Fiction: this panel was among the first offerings at AWP 2015, scheduled at nine on the opening morning. Convened by Edinburgh Napier lecturer David Bishop, a panel of four discussed the place of popular fiction in Creative Writing programmes – still a rare topic at conferences like AWP.

David had invited three contributors with diverse experiences and energetically polemical views when it comes to teaching aspiring commercial novelists - Barbara Duffey from Dakota Wesleyan University, Nicole Peeler from Seton Hill University in Pennsylvania, and Vicki Stiefel from Clark University in Massachusetts.
Barbara Duffey, Dakota Wesleyan

David kicked off the panel by describing the Edinburgh Napier ethos: our defining love of ambitious, boundary-troubling genre fiction, and our abandonment of the traditional peer-review workshop in favour of intensive teaching in craft, technique and professional practice.

Nicole Peeler, Seton Hill University
A wide-ranging exchange followed in answer to three questions posed by David: Why is there such a distance between Creative Writing teaching and the practice of popular fiction? Are academic Creative Writing and popular fiction in fact different disciplines, requiring different teaching methods? And does popular fiction attract a different kind of Creative Writing student?

Barbara Duffey and Nicole Peeler both spoke about the ideological inheritance of Creative Writing as a university subject. On one hand, the adherence of traditional literary studies to the Romantic notion of authorship, which views genre conventions as anathema to “creativity”, and on the other, Creative Writing teaching as a practice still rooted in the Modernist experiment.

David Bishop limbers up
Against these tired but largely unquestioned assumptions, the panel offered quick-witted statements of the obvious. The galvanising relationship between constraint and innovation was described: the demands of genre necessarily force a higher level of originality.

Vicki Stiefel, Clark University
For panellists who successfully write both, high quality genre fiction is much more difficult to achieve than plausible “literature” in their experience. In any case, all agreed that “literary fiction” was quite clearly also a genre – one mischievously defined by Nicole as “non-popular fiction”.

On the topic of teaching methods, Nicole brought an unabashed vocational ethos to the table. She wants her students to make money, and expects strong business awareness and reader orientation. For her, the key to professionalism is finishing the novel – the defining requirement of Seton Hill's MFA.

Regardless of individual inflections, there was vehement consensus that writing a decent novel is absolutely nothing like practising literary criticism. Vicki Steifel pointed out that to write a book you need a toolkit that works, and recommended Techniques of the Selling Writer as a useful primer.

Barbara wondered whether toolkit-based methods shouldn’t work equally well for all kinds of fiction. She noted the important thing isn’t the differentiation, but understanding the systems of power that define the literary within the academy, and legitimate the privileging of this genre above all others.

Then followed Barbara’s masterstroke: unattributed extracts from one novel defined by the critics as pretty much chicklit, and one hailed as an “American Chekhov”. She asked the audience which – sentence for sentence – appeared to contain most well-crafted writing? And which did we think was which? Put to the vote, the canny audience got both answers right.

A brief analysis of genre students' tattoos and facial piercings followed, along with consideration of their arguably more singular focus and vocational commitment. As the session’s defining metaphor for the work of editorial mentors reached its peak (“picking the corn out of a great, steaming pile of horsecrap” – thanks, Nicole!) the discussion drew to a close.

Final score: Popular Fiction 1, Unpopular Fiction 0.

AWP 2015: despatches from the conference #1

Calm before the storm: Sam Kelly setting up our AWP Bookfair table
So, we’re back from Minneapolis, just about over the jetlag, and busily picking through all our notes from AWP 2015 - the world's biggest creative writing conference. Thank you to the scores of enthusiastic people who came to chat with us at our table in the bookfair. It was wonderful to meet you all and we hope many of you will become Edinburgh Napier MA students.

[By the way, this entry is being written by Sam Kelly, programme leader for the Creative Writing MA at Edinburgh Napier University. I don't normally write the blog, but I'm borrowing it to make a few quick posts about my favourite AWP conference sessions.]

We were overwhelmed with aspiring writers wanting to know more about our unique programme. The fact that we embrace writing science fiction and fiction at Edinburgh Napier, that we love fiction genres like horror, crime and mystery made us stand out from the crowd at AWP. There are a few programmes in the US that focus on popular fiction genres - but these are usually low residency course [called distance learning in the UK].

You don't like toffee? David Bishop welcomes visitors to our table
We got to meet and know a lot of fascinating colleagues from creative writing programmes across the States. We’re already in talks about some innovative potential link-ups with US universities in the coming years, and eagerly anticipating visits over the summer. Exciting times!

But it wasn’t all japing around with toffee and tartan on our stand: for us, the conference was also about learning, exploring and sharing teaching practice. We were lucky enough to attend some truly inspiring panel discussions, and they'll be the subject of two more posts. Watch this space...

Thursday, April 2, 2015

AWP 2015 - Minneapolis, here we come!

The Edinburgh Napier MA Creative Writing programme team is getting ready for AWP 2015, which is in Minneapolis from April 9-11 - that's next week! What is AWP? Just the world's largest creative writing conference, attracting thirteen thousand people to more than 500 events. 

For the first time we're having our own stand at the AWP conference - Table 754 in the bookfair. Programme leader Sam Kelly and lecturer David Bishop will be happy to talk about our course and its unique approach to creative writing. [Spoilers: we love genre fiction, graphic novels, and creative non-fiction; we don't have a poetry option or any peer-review workshops.]

We'll be at Table 754 pretty much all three days, but if we're not around you can always contact us via Twitter - Sam Kelly is @portykelly while David Bishop is @davidbishop. Don't be shy, come and say hello - we don't bite!

David is also hosting one of the first panel discussions happening at AWP this year. It starts 9am - yes, really! - in Room 208 A and B on Level 2. "When worlds collide: how creative programs address popular fiction" will feature four speakers from different universities - three US, one UK - discussing how they approach writing and teaching genre fiction. Here's the pitch:

"Popular fiction and creative writing programs have long been worlds apart on both sides of the Atlantic. But what happens when students on such programs aspire to write popular fiction? This panel will discuss the challenges of opportunities of working with genre writing in an academic context, with speakers drawn from programs that tend to eschew popular fiction and those that embrace it."
Alongside David on the panel will be Nicole Peeler from Seton Hill University, Barbara Duffey from Dakota Wesleyan University, and Vicki Stiefel from Clark University. Should be a blast!