Creative Writing Class Clichés

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Creative Writing Class

If you’ve ever taken a creative writing class, you’ll probably recognise some of these characters:

The Undiscovered Genius

Andrew is Hemingway reincarnate. He feels it deep in his troubled soul. His new build one bed flat is a homage to 1920s Paris. He starts every piece he writes with a drink and works into the night, making sure he hones the pallor of a struggling artist: dehydrated, and starved of sun and sleep. At weekends he sits in a local cafe writing by hand about impotency. His writing class are far too bourgeois to understand him. They haven’t even heard of Gertrude Stein. After class, Andrew sits in the corner of the pub, wearing a cable knit jumper, drinking whiskey and challenging anyone who comes near him to arm wrestle. By day he’s a chartered accountant.

The ‘I’m Too Busy’ Writer

Iris joined this class to give herself a deadline each week to write to. But she’s always so busy; she just hasn’t had the time to type. She’s had to do so many things. You know, all those things that just have to be done. Next week she will definitely write. Next week will be different. (It isn’t).

The Grey Haired Lady

Marjorie has been coming to this writing group for six years. Each week she travels up to town in her knitted cardigan and sits in the same seat. When the youngsters go out for a cigarette, she eats the ham salad sandwich she’s packed. Now they insist you type all your work, she’s had to dig out her typewriter. She spends an hour before class randomly pressing buttons on the photocopier to coax it into life. She finds something positive to say about everyone’s writing, and always lets someone else read first. Now she comes to think of it, it’s been years since she actually read anything. The teacher and the other students are mildly patronising to her, but they don’t mean any harm. When she finally reads, Marjorie recites a tender homosexual sex scene from her second novel. Everyone is speechless.

The Know-It-All

Jim is a writing god. His command of the English language is unsurpassable. He knows how to use an Oxford comma and he’s not afraid to tell you. He doesn’t need any criticism, idiots. He came to this group so you could appreciate his literary magnificence, idiots. Only a fool would question his loose sentence structure, indecipherable prose or complete lack of plot. Jim could teach this class better than that idiot teacher. He could give Hilary Mantel a run for her money, idiot. Huh! He could give Proust a run for his money, idiot. (Idiot).

The Newbie

Jane really enjoyed creative writing as a child. She’s been meaning to start again for years. At school the lovely Mrs Brownlee, her old English teacher, always said she had natural talent. There are bound to be one or two good writers in this class of thirty, but Jane’s quietly confident she’ll be in the top ten at least. She visibly shrinks as one after another incredibly talented, hardworking writers who’ve been at it for years, read. She shoves her piece back in her bag. She has a lot of work to do.

The Journalist

Louise is a sub on a national newspaper. She hates telling her writing group what her day job is because they get overexcited. ‘A paid writer! How amazing! How wonderful!’ Louise knows she spellchecks for a living, but she dreams of writing the last great Fleet Street novel. After years of generating copy in high-pressured, professional environments, her daily word count is staggering. She can’t understand why everyone struggles to layout a simple page. How hard is it to double space? And what’s with all these gaps between the paragraphs? She out drinks everyone else in the pub after class, and goes home to dream of the Pulitzer.

The Sci-Fi Geek

Geoff works in IT. He often breaks off during his reading to explain the finer points of Artificial Intelligence. He spends every night, weekend and holiday writing, because his created world is much better than this one. He only leaves the house to attend his writing group; the rest of his social life is online. If you refer to sci-fi as genre fiction he’ll quote Orwell and Huxley at you. His classmates take the piss out of him and his glasses, which are stuck together with sticking plaster. He lands a six-figure three-book deal and celebrates by buying voice recognition software.

The Writing Mum

Anna gets up at 6am to wake the kids. Then it’s; breakfasts, washes, hair combing, teeth brushing, bags packed, coats on, and off to school. Back at home she puts on the washing, strips the bed, makes soup for supper, before going to the shops for supplies. Just after 11 she sits down to write. At 11.30 the phone rings: one of the kids has forgotten their lunch. She gets in the car drives to school, delivers the lunch, drives home, just in time to take another call: one of the kids is sick. The evenings are swallowed in a whirlwind of homework, dinner, costumes to be made for the school play, story telling, teeth brushing, refereeing fights, baths and pyjamas. At 9pm she collapses into bed. During the half hour she managed to write, Anna will have produced far more quality words than anyone else did in a week.



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Shoreditch Literary Salon 4th Anniversary: Craig Taylor, Taiye Selasi, Thomas Keneally and A.M. Homes.

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Tuesday night at the Shoreditch Literary Salon I watched Craig Taylor read an extract, centred on the word laconic, from his new book. He’d written it that afternoon.

Then we enjoyed Taiye Selasi’s beautiful kimono, some delicious stories about Toni Morrison, and a reading from her novel, Ghana Must Go (named after the plastic red and white striped bags Ghanaians often use at airports, and what was shouted at the Ghanaians as they were hounded from Nigeria).

Next up was Thomas Keneally, launching his new book, The Daughters of Mars (which tells the stories of Australian sisters who become frontline nurses during World War I). You know Thomas Keneally? Australian, won the booker in 1982 for Schindler’s Ark… THAT Thomas Keneally. 77 years old, with a robust sense of humour, Keneally read heartrending extracts and revealed he’d been inspired to write in a female voice by the final guest, A.M. Homes.

Homes premiered her new novel, May We Be Forgiven. Her reading was dark and humorous, and punctuated with her own stand up comedy routine tangents. Though she was keen to impress the book is a hefty 203,000 words, I shouldn’t let it put you off.

I love the Shoreditch Literary Salon. It’s a free event, where you can get a free cocktail, and a slice of pizza (if you’re lucky, have sharp elbows and nerves of steel. That pizza is good). You only need to be a member to attend – of the Facebook group, not the club. I know, how cool is that?!

The erudite Damian Barr conducts proceedings with a Manhattan and a healthy dollop of wit. Tuesday night he and the rest of us celebrated the salon’s 4th anniversary. There was cake. It was marvellous. As per usual the room was packed to the rafters, a heady mix of body heat and books. You can’t beat it.

Many authors, including Thomas Keneally, comment on the audience. They use words such as: young, hip, fashionable, and beautiful. And whilst all of those things are true of the crowd (does L’Oreal style hair flick) what they’re really commenting on is how unusual that is. Your traditional book-loving crowd are like the Tamara Drew stereotypes: earnest, older and wearing some form of knitted brown clothing. I don’t wish to be rude or disparaging, but if you’ve attended a number of literary events up and down the country, as I have, you will recognise the ‘type’. Huzzah to the cardigan brigade who embraces the written word and salivates over a beautiful sentence: I salute you. BUT it’s refreshing to know enjoying books is not the preserve of a particular generation, or the elite intelligentsia. Books are trendy, stylish, fabulous and sexy, and all those other words usually reserved for the fashion and lifestyle pages of magazines. Reading is hot. And if that doesn’t deserve a huge chocolate cake of celebration, I don’t know what does.

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Review: Giselle, Mariinsky Theatre, St Petersburg.

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When in Russia, do as the Russians do: go to the ballet. The Mariinsky Theatre, St Petersburg is an oversized peppermint cake of a building, fitted internally with glittering chandeliers, golden cornices, and enough cloakrooms to house the many layers necessary to move about in this city.

My friends and I arrived at the theatre a little late, no great surprise there. We need not have panicked. Instead of just a two-minute warning bell announcing the start of the performance, there were a series of bells.  Having witnessed the subsequent quick gulps in response to one, I like to think it was the ‘drink up your champagne’ bell. There is plenty of time to enjoy the caviar blinis, smoked salmon and copious quantities of champagne in the many bars peppered throughout the building.

There were a number of English speaking staff and numerous signs written in English, more than perhaps anywhere else we’ve visited during our stay. Ballet and Opera clearly attracts an international crowd.  We were even able to purchase an English program. We were shown to our seats on the balcony; they were green velvet padded dining chairs, rather than the pull down fixed seating I’d normally expect in a theatre. The view was only partially obscured by an unusually tall man who sat in front of me.

This version of Giselle is the same that’s been performed in the Mariinsky, by the Kirov ballet, since 1884.  The only minor tweaks added were those for Anna Pavlova’s debut in 1903. This is history dancing, in it’s birthplace.

The orchestra sounded heavenly to me, and I drifted off to another world by the time the curtain rose. The scenery was quaint and hand painted, perhaps a little bit dated compared to the more experimental and flashy set design you see in the Royal Opera House or the Coliseum, but charming nonetheless. Though it’s the traditional way to perform the piece, I found the melodramatic hand signals, which indicate the story between the dancing, a touch pantomime.

The moment the prima ballerina, Evgenia Obraztsova (from The Bolshoi Theatre), floated onto the stage the crowd went wild. When she performed her pas de bourree (travelling on-point in a series of tiny steps across the stage) the crowd went wild. She was a feather dancing on the breeze. I forgot all about the scenery, and the hand signals, and was swept up into the romance of Giselle and her story.

When Giselle discovers the man she loves has lied about who he is, and he’s betrothed to someone else, I felt her heartbreak so strongly I cried. I’ve been to the ballet several times, but I’ve never been driven to tears by the strength of the emotion conveyed by a dancer. It turns out I’ve been misusing the phrase ‘it took my breath away’ all my life. Now I’ve felt it. Seeing Obraztsova fly across the stage, caught in the agony of her emotion, I felt it, like a punch.

All the dancing was exquisite. The kind that makes you lean forwards in your seat, hungry for more. The beauty, the skill, the pain, and the impossible are all there on the stage. It prompted a physical reaction in me. It was a new and incredible sensation for me. I urge you; if you’re ever in this neck of the woods get a ticket.

Tickets can be purchased in advance on the website. There is an English language version.




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A swimming pool in a church and other St Petersburg secrets.

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The Lutheran Church of Saint Peter & Saint Paul, St Petersburg.

Today was odd. I’m in St Petersburg, Russia with a friend who is researching Georg Wilhelm Steller, a German scientist who accompanied Vitus Bering on his Second Kamchatka Expedition in 1740. The expedition was organised by the Russian Academy of Sciences, St Petersburg and took Bering’s crew from St Petersburg to America, via Siberia, over nearly ten years of travelling.

We’ve been conducting a treasure hunt round St Petersburg, with no ability to read or speak the language, looking for references to Bering or Steller. It has led us down some interesting rabbit holes.

Today we visited the Lutheran Church of Saint Peter & Saint Paul, which was built on the site of the original Lutheran church of the same name. Steller was likely to have been a member of the congregation. We were looking for his story, but we found someone else’s.

Nevsky Prospect, St Petersburg.

The church is on the Nevsky Prospect, St Petersburg’s buzzing main thoroughfare. It’s a stone’s throw from what must be a contender for the world’s largest Zara store. As soon as we entered the quiet foyer of the large, symmetrical yellow building something felt wrong. Instead of stepping into the nave of the church, we were funnelled to the side and into a small exhibition. Here we discovered something unexpected: during the soviet regime, when religion was banned in Russia, the church had been converted into a swimming pool.


Image of swimming pool, with diving boards, in the church. (Postcard image).

The exhibition was written in Russian and German so, as I’m away from home, the following dates have been largely sourced from Wikipedia. Do tell me if you know more.

The present building was built in 1833 – 1837. By 1917 the church had 15,000 members and ran a school, a hospital and an orphanage. By the 1960s it had become a swimming pool.

Staffing the small exhibition was a white-haired man who spoke Russian, German and a few words of English. To our shame, my friend and I mainly communicated through pointing and miming (typical Brits). Perhaps he could sense our interest in the building (my friend was ecstatic at finding references to, and drawings by, Steller), or maybe he had a story he wanted to tell, I’m not sure. But what happened next will stay with me forever.

He signalled for us to follow him. Intrigued and still on the Steller hunt we trailed him through a corridor and several doors until we reached a room, where a lady with tight curled hair and glasses sat behind a desk. There was a brief heated discussion in Russian, and then the white-haired man took a key from a metal box on the wall. At this point I felt excited and anxious: what were we about to see?

We continued up a winding concrete staircase, the sound of a church organ growing nearer, until we came out into the main body of the building. The church is still there. Set up with pews. The new floor is clearly in the shape of the interloping swimming pool. The raised wooden spectator seats, complete with the metal bars of a lido, cascaded down. A strange combination of recreation and religion. The church is being reclaimed.


How the church looks today. Note wooden ‘spectator’ seats and metal bars round the edge.

We thought our tour was done, but the white-haired man beckoned for us to follow him again. Back down the winding staircase, through another exhibition, down further into a cellar. Down through a locked metal door, through fractured layers of foundation, concrete and metal. It took a moment for my eyes to adjust. The swimming pool is still there, underneath the church. It is still covered in blue tiles, and you can see the struts in the ground from the diving boards. We were standing in a very unique layer of history.


Sarah standing in the remains of the swimming pool, which is now beneath the church floor.

Then another door, more metal steps, down deeper, until we were beneath the swimming pool itself. There were holes hacked into the ceiling, explosions of plaster up into the base of the pool, to let the light through. On the wall was a series of recently painted vignettes. I don’t know who painted it, perhaps the white haired man. In broken English, mixed with German he told us the story of the mural, the story of his community, the story of his life.

There was a scene of the church we were standing in; women were crying as Soviet officials pulled the cross from the top. A banner of Marx’s statement: ‘Religion is the opium of the masses,’ was brandished by people and men in military uniforms. The next painting showed a train packed with religious dissenters bound for Siberia. Then there was a depiction of a clandestine religious meeting of the Lutheran church.

At this point the man indicated he remembered attending these meetings as a small boy. He would tug on his mother’s coat and she would tell him to be quiet. They were frightened. Persecuted. Scared. The next scene showed a hard labour camp.

The final painting was of a concentration camp: dark, hostile, a military watchtower, barbed wire, snow falling. The white haired man pointed and said: “East Germany. Camp. Mother, father. I born here.” He tapped the wall.

Scattered around this hidden layer, this witness to what happened to a persecuted community, this shrine, were bibles and candles. I did not take any more photos, it did not feel right.


With thanks to @geowriter, Wikipedia and the Lutheran Church of Saint Peter & Saint Paul for allowing us access, photographs and postcard images.


Top Leer – including Ode To Driving A Porsche

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Here is a link to the piece I wrote about male reactions to seeing a woman driving a Porsche for The Vagenda

And here is the poem I penned which inspired the piece:

Ode To Driving A Porsche, or What Rhymes With Penis?

I drive a Porsche, a Boxster, a soft top.                                                                                    I know, I’m a tit.  If I was a character in Midsomer Murders                                                      I’d be the flash bleeder that gets it.                                                                                    When I pull up at the lights some men do a double take;                                                        they grip their steering wheel, they grip their handbrake.                                                   ‘That can’t be a woman behind the wheel,’ they sneer, they hiss.                                      They don’t see a sports car; they see me driving a giant penis.

Is this a little bit of sexism, a bit of misogyny?                                                                       Don’t tell me a speedy car isn’t for the likes of little ol’ me.                                                  Don’t rev your engine, or cut me up,                                                                                       I’m not looking in my mirror to check my make-up.                                                               No, I don’t want a bigger boot to store my shopping in,                                                         And yes, I understand about the fuel-injection engine.                                                            Your banter is totes hilarious, you’re so very sharp;                                                               Yes, I am a girl, and yes I can parallel park.

I know you’d rather I drive a nice hatchback,                                                                         a nice 1.2 litre, with room for the nice kids in the back.                                                       Birds have a car; lads own a competitive machine.                                                                 My vehicle’s emasculated you, and now you’re being obscene.                                             Are you suggesting women can’t drive fast because we have vaginas?                              Women accelerate in rallies, F1 cars, fighter planes and airliners.                                       You drive a Fiat Panda, all covered in rust;                                                                         watch my giant penis go, and eat my liberated dust.

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Bank Holiday Books

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Make the most of the last Bank Holiday weekend of summer, and the year, and grab yourself a good book.

For intellectual posing by the pool or in the park: 

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller.

Forget Fifty Shades of Grey, the Orange Prize winner Madeline Miller will raise your temperature with this story about the love between Achilles and Patroclus (yes, they’re both men).  A tenderly written, beautifully described re-telling of a tale that appeared in Homer’s The Illiad.  The story runs in a golden blur across the sand like it’s eponymous hero; and despite knowing what ultimately happens, the book never loses its pace or tension.  I became so entwined and invested in Patroclus’ and Achilles’ destiny I couldn’t put this down.  I kept reading till the early hours of the morning before snivelling into a pack of tissues.  Stunning.

For making you appreciate holidaying with your family isn’t so bad: 

Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson

First, let me assure you Jeanette Winterson’s autobiographical Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal? isn’t the depressing tear-fest you might fear.  Then let me tell you that it is, at times, harrowing.  You cannot read the life story of a girl who was abandoned at birth, adopted by a borderline poverty-stricken family, abused by her religious zealot adoptive Mother and rejected for being a lesbian, without expecting a few tears.  But there is more than misery in this memoir.  There is survival and hope.  Winterson is a strong woman, a strong writer and this is a book to make you value your life.

For the day after murder on the dance floor:

The Fall by Claire McGowan

This is a murder mystery with a difference.  It’s not just the victim who meets a sticky demise; the middle class dream is butchered too.  McGowan joyfully destroys every spoil and sparkle of Charlotte, her spoilt protagonist, when a week before her £40K wedding her banker boyfriend is accused of murder.  Charlotte must seek help from unlikely sources: Keisha, an angry woman with a potentially deadly secret, and Hegarty, the police officer who arrested her fiancé.  I didn’t know crime could be this funny.

For reading on your Kindle, if you’re over the age of 21:

Diary of a Chav: Trainers v Tiaras by Grace Dent

Technically this is a young adult novel, but don’t let that put you off.  Dent nails the language, life and dreams of her Chav protagonist Shiraz Bailey Wood, from Goodmayes Estate, Essex with her trademark humour.  But far from ending up the joke of the book, Shiraz is a hilarious, intelligent young woman you really root for.  This is a stealthily clever read, which made me re-examine my own prejudices as well as laugh so much my organic herbal tea came out my nostrils.  But be warned: there are six books in this series, and once I started I had to read them all.  Worth a cheeky download, innit.

Have a happy bank holiday weekend x




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Perspiration As Inspiration.

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Feeling the Olympic love (with thanks to London 2012 official site for photo).

I’ve never been a fan of sport.  It started at school.  P.E. and I stared warily at each other across mouldy changing rooms and frozen playing fields, before I decamped to the library with a period that lasted four years.  Recently I’ve taken up swimming and Pilates as part of managing the inherited connective tissue disorder I suffer from (EDS III).  Were it not for the threat of immobility I’d happily avoid all Lycra-related pursuits for the rest of my life.  I regard people who compete in triathlons, marathons and fun runs with suspicion.  Watching sports doesn’t interest me: all that shouting at the telly looks insane.  Give me a good book and glass of wine any day, I thought.  Then the Olympics came to London.

It started with the tears.  The bit just after someone won a medal.  The bit where they scream, cry and run into the arms of their loved ones.  I sniffed and I snivelled.  I’m not fussed about sport, but I understand human emotion.  I can relate to that.  But London 2012 sucked me in further.  It whirled me into the excitement that spread from Stratford throughout the country, until I found myself shouting “Go Mo!  Go!” at the television.  I am one of the mad people now.

I love the swimming, the fencing, the jumping, the throwing, the boxing, the horses: all of it.  I loved Mo Farrah running into the Olympic mascot’s arms.  I loved Usain Bolt stealing the photographer’s camera and taking photos of the crowd.  I loved Andy Murray climbing into the stands to kiss his girlfriend.  I loved Jessica Ennis and the rest of the heptathlon competitors taking a lap of honour together.  I loved Tom Daley jumping up and cheering when the USA’s David Boudia scored higher than him and secured gold for diving.  So much laughter, so much joy, so much sportsmanship, so much humanity: I loved the whole thing.

Once you start watching sport you appreciate how hard these people train.  How much they sacrifice.  How many friends, family, coaches, sponsors, and supporters they have to thank.  How inspirational they are.  Look what sweat and tears and determination gets you!  There is hope.  Good people with pregnant partners, good people who’ve lost love ones, good people who’ve suffered tragedies like us do get rewarded for their hard work.  How many spectators will take up cycling, boxing, or even just speed walking to the shops since watching the Olympics?  My muscles have tingled with the genetic memory of speed and fitness: I want to run.

I can’t run, my condition won’t allow it.  But it doesn’t matter.  The perspiration these Olympians have shown is my inspiration.  A wave of positivity has washed over the UK.  I feel cheered, renewed.  I can do whatever I want if I work hard enough.  Write another book?  No problem.  Land another column?  Sure.  Increase my swimming from 20 to 25 minutes?  Go, Ange, go!  Whatever your own personal goal, whatever it is you want to do, the athletes have shown us the way.  The Olympics have made me come over all ‘self-help’: we can make dreams come true.  Take your positions, on your marks, get set, go.


Golden moments of London 2012 courtesy of a BBC montage:

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