Saturday, 17 October 2015

Ann Quin: prose as a form of expression

This final posting by Nonnie Williams Korteling about the British experimental writer Ann Quin explores why Quin’s work was forgotten and is only now making a comeback:

‘I was at an English Association conference yesterday, talking about the subject of English, about the transition from A level to undergraduate work.  One of the Keynote speakers talked to us about post-2000 fiction, and one moment in the history of British writing he identified as being against ‘realism’ (that loose and baggy monster) was the Avant Garde writing of the 1960s – he mentioned Ann Quin and B. S. Johnson in particular -- and advised us to ‘buy shares’ in them.  These writers, he assured us, are most definitely going to be the next big thing in discussions of twentieth-century British literature.  Hurrah!  And, as if to confirm it, the very same day a friend emailed me to say that Quin had been recommended for a 'retrospective reward' in the New Statesman this week (it’s on pg. 75 if you want to have a look) for Berg.  So Quin is most definitely making a comeback….
But why was she forgotten anyway?  In my posts so far I’ve talked about Quin’s life and some of her writing – this time I’m going to think more about this question of why Quin, though initially acclaimed, was so soon rejected and forgotten.  Published as they were written in the 1960s and ‘70s by Calder and Boyars, the books were then out of print until the early 2000s, when Dalkey Archive republished them.
In Aren’t You Too Young To Be Writing Your Memoirs? (1973), B. S. Johnson named Quin as one of few he saw as ‘writing as though it mattered, as though they meant it, as though they meant it to matter’.  These writers were, he said, in opposition to the ‘stultifyingly philistine […] general book culture of this country’.  Whatever we think of his bombastic tone, the sentiment is persuasive: Johnson wanted to rescue British fiction from stultification, to foster a literary culture where experiment and risk would be better allowed to flourish.  More recently, Gabriel Josipovici’s much reviewed, sometimes contended What Ever Happened to Modernism? (2010) identified similar problems.  According to Josipovici, British book culture remains disappointingly mundane.  Modernism’s legacy of risk, he says, has been largely ignored by the essentially conservative and anti-continental nature of ‘the prevalent English view’, which is ‘fuelled by anxiety rather than anything else’.  While I’m not sure his thinking is entirely fair or even correct, Josipovici does have a point in that on the whole in this country there does seem to have been a neglect, a shying away from really experimental writing.  He calls for this to be redressed by the story of British writing in the twentieth-century expanding to include its ‘the blind alleys’ as much as ‘achieved successes’.
            As I hope my brief discussion of Quin’s Berg and Three have suggested, these are unusual, vivid, strange and highly creative books.  The later books -- Passages (1969) and Tripticks (1972) -- are not only startlingly unusual; in places the writing is so familiar it becomes clichéd.  While to me the deliberate use of cliché is a success of the writing, for many reviewers such qualities were its downfall.  Those responses interpret the increasingly conscious experiment and inclusion and repetition of source texts in Passages and Tripticks as following behind 1950s and early ‘60s American and European Avant Garde writing in a derivative manner: they saw Quin’s later writing as too much and too late.  While Berg, and more cautiously Three, had been seen to evidence a compelling and instinctive storyteller, this later prose was claimed to put off and alienate the average reader, who was all often disinclined to carry on.
This apparent difference, between original creative writing and experimental pastiche confirms Johnson’s claim that ‘‘Experimental’ to most reviewers is almost always a synonym for ‘unsuccessful’’.  But, rather than dismissing Quin’s fragmented, repeating, resistant writing as failed experiment, I prefer to think of the risks the writing takes by deliberately playing with earlier forms in a similar manner to John Cage’s thinking about experiment in Silence: Lectures and Writings, when he says: ‘the word ‘experimental’ is apt [when] understood not as descriptive of an act to be later judged in terms of success and failure, but simply as of an act the outcome of which is unknown’.  This kind of thinking about the experimental artist as shaper rather than maker, an observant ‘tourist’ whose creative process is ‘inclusive rather than exclusive’ is useful for reading Quin.  Rather than focussing on ideas of ‘success’ or ‘failure’, it is worth paying attention to the writing’s inclusivity, openness to risk and the unknown of its outcome without reductive value judgements.
The growing vogue for writers like Quin confirms, of course, that I am not alone.  Such appreciation follows in the footsteps of those fellow writers, publishers and reviewers who were able to see the value of Quin’s approach, who understood that her writing’s following of, its being behind fashion, was a form of processing, questioning and responding to earlier writing.  As well as the example of Johnson’s praise above, the writer Alan Burns placed her among counter-cultural British writers ‘riding the crest’ – as he put it to me: ‘we felt we were the heart of the matter’.  This ‘we’ was the ‘Writers Reading’ ‘collective’: Paul Ableman, Alan Burns, Carol Burns, Barry Cole, Eva Figes, B. S. Johnson, Jeff Nuttall, Ann Quin, Alan Sillitoe, and Stefan Themerson.  This very loose and diverse group of writers were united by ‘a profound interest in prose as a form of expression and not simply as a medium for story-telling’.  With this focus on form, such writers – with Quin as an excellent example – mark a transitional point between Modernism and Postmodernism (and indeed, as the Keynote speaker put it yesterday, ‘post-postmodernism’ !!): a not so much ‘blind’ as fascinating, thought-provoking and alternative-route of an alley along which our thinking about twentieth-century British writing certainly ought to take a wander.'

Scroll down for Nonnie’s earlier posts on Quin.

Nonnie Williams Korteling: Between 2008 and 2012 I was researching and writing a PhD on Quin at UEA. The project, called 'Designing its own shadow' - Reading Ann
Quin, ended up as a combination of critical readings of Quin's work
and biographical vignettes. I now teach at UEA and am particularly interested in twentieth-century literature, women's experimental writing, life-writing, and the essay form. My current writing projects include reflections from the classroom, a life-writing project reflecting on the women who made me, and a book on British Avant Garde
Fiction of the 1960s.’

Sunday, 11 October 2015

What is a Writing Coach?

Heidi Williamson, a Writing Coach based at the Writers Centre Norwich,  describes her role and what coaching could do for you:

'There’s a whole host of workshops, courses and groups where you can get help with writing skills – the nuts and bolts of sentences, character arcs and stanza breaks. But few places where you can get help with the process of becoming, being, and enduring as a writer –your development as an artist. 

Who do you talk to about the issues? The practicalities of trying to get published. Fears and confidence. How to get beyond where you are. Recognition. Getting un-stuck. The nitty-gritty of daily concerns – lack of time, space, cash. When you know you should do something, but for some reason just can’t….

People to help you work through this stuff are few and far between. That’s why the National Association of Writers in Education (NAWE) and Arvon decided to grow their own.

Several years ago I attended a development session where I was asked a series of practical questions about my writing practice. It fundamentally changed my work. Fast forward a decade and I still use the strategies and techniques from that session. So last summer when I saw NAWE and Arvon offering a qualification in becoming a Writing Coach – helping equip other writers with strategies for self-development – I signed up in a heartbeat.

Training was delivered by RD1st over the summer of 2014. We attended three very full days in York, then had a period of a few weeks intensively practising coaching and co-coaching, writing up case studies, a journal and reflective essay, then came back together for a further three days including a live assessment by an external examiner.

One of the first questions our trainer asked was ‘What is coaching?’ It turned out very few of us really knew. Vague notions of American cheerleading style ‘you go get ‘em baby’ clichés entered my head. ‘How is it different to mentoring?’ ‘What specifically is coaching writers, and how can it help them especially?’ After day one I felt I’d done a degree in psychology and wondered how on earth they were going to fill the remaining five days of training.

We learnt techniques for helping writers structure and develop their thinking. Spatial visualisation of goals. How to use metaphor as a powerful method for getting the subconscious to help out. How to work with and through self-limiting beliefs. Managing conflict. Strategies for dealing with difficult relationships that are holding you back. Thought, visual and spatial exercises to cover all sorts of eventualities.

Everyone on the course was an accomplished writer also working as a tutor, mentor, and in some cases life coach too. The training we had will stand us in good stead for whatever comes up in a session, and I’m grateful for that. The eighteen of us that completed it together really bonded, and I made some good friends.

So what exactly is a Writing Coach? Being a coach, working with a ‘coachee’, is a more equal relationship than mentoring. A mentor is someone more experienced showing you the way. You learn from how they did it. But with coaching, it’s about stepping along together, with someone keenly questioning how you can step further. It’s about what will work for you.

What happens if you decide to come along for a coaching session? Well, each session is usually an hour and can be face-to-face, by ‘phone or Skype. It’s entirely confidential. All you bring along is an idea of something you’d like to make progress on. A pen and paper is handy too for anything you’d like to note down. You don’t need to bring any of your work. Surprised by that? You’ll understand why if you read on.  

At the start your coach asks what you want to cover in the session. She’ll ask you detailed questions, probe your answers, and help you expand your options before helping progress towards practical steps you can take. This could all happen in one hour-long session. Or you might book another session for a few weeks later to explore further, or talk about something else. Towards the end of each session your coach will ask you to recap what happened in the session for you, and what has changed. 

Coaching isn’t about feeding back on your work at the level of the writing. So it doesn’t matter if your coach is in the same genre as you. They won’t edit your work in a session. It’s not about whether you can improve that sentence or ending on the page. It’s about how to get your head in gear and develop strategies for overcoming any issues and moving forwards. Which might well improve that sentence or ending. But the point is to help you stand back and come up with answers you couldn’t see before.

It does help that you’re working with a fellow writer – someone who knows what writing is, what it means. The processes that underpin any writing are the same. The issues writers face are common across genres.   

As a writer herself, your coach can help you shortcut to the nub of the matter. If you want to go there. Because the great thing about coaching is the ‘coachee’ is in charge. You call the shots for each session. If you want to explore a reason, a problem, unpick just how and why something worked so well for you so you can do it again… you’re in charge of how far you go with that thinking. The coach will give you a nudge, but you don’t have to say it out loud if you don’t want to. Or you can mull on it after the session. The coach is 100% on your side and working for you. Think sports coach and you get the idea.

I’ve found Writing Coaching to be a unique, rewarding occupation. I get to hang out with other writers. And to help them help themselves. I’ve since joined the Association for Coaching and gained AMAC status. I have regular supervision, CPD and meet up with other coaches. It’s turned out to be something I enjoy immensely.

If you want to find out more, there are Q&As and testimonials if you click on ‘Coaching Sessions for Writers’ at   

There are a couple of helpful blog posts about how Writing Coaching was useful for a couple of local writers too – read debut Penguin novelist Becky Done’s post at or poet, editor and tutor Julia Webb’s blog at

You can see me at Writers’ Centre Norwich, Dragon Hall, on a Monday sometime between 10 and 2. Or my fellow coach Katri on a Wednesday between 1 and 5. Writing Coaching works really well by phone or Skype too.

So what can writers really gain from Writing Coaching? Quite a lot I think. You could always come along and find out for yourself…'

Heidi Williamson (AMAC) qualified in relational dynamic coaching with the NAWE and Arvon affiliated RD1st Accredited Writing Coach programme. She is an Associate Member of the Association for Coaching, specialising in Writing Coaching. She studied poetry and prose at the UEA and has many years’ experience of teaching writing, including at The Poetry School, Writers' Centre Norwich, Poetry Anglia, and Virgin. Published by Bloodaxe, her poetry has been shortlisted for major prizes and received a Poetry Book Society Recommendation. Her next book 'The Print Museum' is due out with Bloodaxe in Spring 2016.  

Saturday, 3 October 2015

Why come to Norwich, England, to study creative writing?

Rachel Noelle Sammons
(C) Feyi Fagade
Rachel Noelle Sammons is from Chicago, USA, and here she describes why she decided to make the move:

‘The sensible choice was to move to England and study creative writing at the University of East Anglia.  I could focus on my passion whereas my top American universities offered English only as a degree with a marginal concentration on creative writing.  At UEA, I could also sidestep the American liberal arts education which would have obligated me to take classes in science, maths, history, and even gym.  UEA was cheaper and a year shorter.  It only made sense to leave America for it. Unfortunately, my chances of going to UEA were slim.  In America, the universities and colleges (university without postgraduate options) need responses to their offers by April, much earlier than UEA.  I didn’t think I would be accepted to UEA because of its prestigious standards so I settled on my choices in America.  I said yes to Houghton College.

Houghton College is a cosy campus on the site of a former Caneadea Indian Reservation.  It’s currently in Amish Country.  My mother and I drove there from Buffalo, New York, on a gravel road, for three hours straight, occasionally pulling over to let a horse and buggy pass.  The town is named after the college and it boasts a Subway but nothing else.  I was charmed.  I loved the seclusion.  I marvelled at the thickly-forested hills and the students’ stories of bear sightings.  It was also a Christian college which meant the majority of my fellow classmates would be sheltered, churched kids like me, maybe even home-schooled.  There would be no drinking parties, no sexual misadventures, and no drugs because no one would choose Houghton if they were interested in those things.  It did not matter that the English Department was lacklustre.  This was a safe haven, an isolated bubble of piety.  We would be obligated to attend Chapel three times a week.  My mother liked that a lot.

I accepted Houghton’s offer, reviewed my timetable at a summer orientation, and got in contact with my future roommate.  At the end of May, I graduated high school and began to prepare for the Houghton life.  July rolled around and I received an email from UEA accepting me into their Creative Writing course.  My dad was stoked.  Within a week, we left for an impromptu flight to England.

My first taste of Norwich was the Prince of Wales Road.  As my father and I searched for our hotel, we passed an array of bars and clubs which somehow looked shadier than the ones in Chicago.  Once we gave Norwich a proper tour, England’s casual drinking culture became clear to us by the number of pubs we stumbled across.  My first impression of UEA involved the fact that there was a pub on campus.  I had no disapproval of alcohol consumption.  I just hadn’t expected its constant presence.

However, I was reminded of all the reasons that made UEA so desirable in the beginning.  Its course respected creative writing as a serious discipline.  I would be surrounded by passionate creative writers, while at Houghton I had yet to meet another student like me. My dad said to me, ‘You gotta be crazy to not go here.’

Despite how sensible it was to choose UEA, I was still bent on going to Houghton.  I came back to America torn between two radically different futures.  It didn’t matter that Norwich was the UNESCO City of Literature. I just didn’t have the confidence to bear the secular world.  In addition to that, I didn’t have the confidence to bear immersion in a culture beyond my home country.

Pushing aside my parents’ opinions, I considered what I was looking for in the university experience.  I realised that I wanted an adventure.  I wanted a series of unpredictable events that would fuel my creative writing.  But I knew that an adventure wasn’t an adventure unless you’re a little bit scared.  I cancelled my enrolment in Houghton and accepted UEA’s offer.

It was the best decision I could ever make.  I underestimated Norwich’s literary culture and it was thrilling to discover it through poetry readings and literature festivals.  My spirituality grew strong in its isolation and it motivated me to pursue my own, personal faith.  I relaxed in a culture that accepted me as an adult, one in which I can drink and ultimately make my own decisions.  Most of all, I became part of a community of writers.  It has been an encouraging, liberating, and challenging place to be – just the right kind of adventure.’

Rachel Noelle Sammons is from Chicago, USA and is entering her third year at UEA with the hope of staying in England.  She’s self-published a young-adult novel called 'Toni' and its sequel, 'Illusions for a Thief' on Amazon.  She has interned at the Writers' Centre Norwich, volunteered for monthly live literature events, and assisted in creative writing workshops with young students.  Lately, she finds herself writing about characters who struggle with their faith as well as what happens when the secular world collides with the Christian world.