Tag Archives: University of Leicester

On being bossed around by Neil Gaiman

I’ve been outlandishly busy in recent weeks. So much so that I haven’t been able to post anything personal here on my blog. One of the costs of having more freelance writing than you can do is that it squeezes out the personal projects that you love. So here’s a round-up on some of what I’ve been doing recently.

You may have noticed (unless you are reading this in the Andromeda galaxy) that Neil Gaiman has a new book coming out. The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a remarkable story, that I was lucky enough to receive a very special edition of some time ago. My review is over on Medium, where I’ve been posting occasional things because I like their platform so much. I feel like Ocean is the start of a new phase in Neil’s fiction writing, and I’m excited about where it’s going to take him next.

Today Neil has been guest editing the Guardian books section, for which I write. He also edited SFX magazine, to which I am a regular contributor. Which kind of means Neil Gaiman has been my boss for the last few weeks. So what’s it like being bossed around by Neil Gaiman?

Well. I got to go on a tour of Weird London, chat with M John Harrison about weird fiction, and record the experience as an audio documentary.

And I got to interview Harlan Ellison. I have been reading Harlan’s fiction since I was a teenager, and I think All The Lies That Are My Life is possibly the only great meditation on being and SF writer ever written. It was an intense interview. You’ll have to go read it to find out what happened.

On Monday I’m heading to the Royal Society of Literature event ‘Magic, Memory and Survival’ where Mr.Gaiman is talking and copies of the new book are being sold. Super-excited about this, and will be live-tweeting the whole event at @damiengwalter

In and around all this I’m continuing work on my book, and also a couple of side projects. And teaching my course in creative writing at University of Leicester. And tweeting too much! It’s a pure joy making my living from writing and teaching writing at the moment, and getting to spend so much time around writers I admire. Happy days.

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Workshop : Imagination

Term has begun at the Certificate in Creative Writing at Vaughan College, University of Leicester, of which I am very proud to be course director. We have 20 new keen creative writing students this year, of all ages and backgrounds. As part of this year’s course, I am going to open a general discussion following each workshop for both students on the course and anyone else interested. As well as a general introduction to the course, this weeks workshop was on the theme of Imagination.

Workshop One : Imagination

“I am enough of an artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.” Albert Einstein

“It is above all by the imagination that we achieve perception and compassion and hope.” Ursula K. Le Guin

Where do stories and ideas come from? It’s the question every author get’s asked by readers, and as fantasy author Mark Charan Newton says, most of us don’t have a good answer. Harlan Ellison, the famously grumpy American author of speculative fiction, tells people he pays a regular fee to a little shop in the middle of nowhere, in return for which he get’s sent six new ideas each month. He get’s angry when people believe him, instead of realising the simple truth. We all have ideas, we all have stories to tell, we all have imagination. But finding our imagination and learning to use it isn’t as simple as just having an idea.

EXERCISE : Counting Breaths

Find somewhere quiet to sit, no TV or music! Sit comfortably, either in a chair or on the floor. Now. Close your eyes and breath. Try counting your breaths, in and out. How many can you count before a stray thought distracts you? You might be surprised how difficult this is! Every time you realise you have lost count, return to your breathing and start counting again.

It’s surprising how rarely we sit quietly in this day and age. We’re all busy people, work, family, social life and everything else make free time quite rare. And when we do have it we fill it with music, TV, video games and other things. It can be really interesting just to stop for a while and look at what is happening inside your own head. How many breaths could you count? What thoughts distracted you from counting? How long before you stopped, and why?

When we look at what’s happening inside our own heads for a while, we start to see what chaos it all is! Thoughts fly around like leaves in a storm. One moment you’re worrying about something at work, the next you’re wondering what’s happening in Eastenders. The inside of a even a relatively normal persons head is utter chaos. Writer’s heads are often even worse.

To cope in the world, we all have a part of our self that tames all that chaos. This is the part of us that makes ToDo lists, checks them off, fills out spreadsheets, makes it on time to appointments, understands how to read bus timetables, remembers passwords and generally makes civilised life possible. You can picture this part of your self as a smartly dressed, highly skilled office administrator, possibly called Ian or Clare.

But, we also all have a part of our self that loves the chaos. This is the part of us that dreams. It’s the part that loves how food tastes, or the feel of a summer breeze. It’s the part that makes friendships and falls in love. The part that cries at a piece of beautiful music, or gets angry when you see somebody being hurt. This is the part that makes civilised life worth living. Imagine this part of you as a free living, long haired hippie kid in tie-dye clothing called Sky or River.

Now. To write anything worth writing, Ian/Clare and Sky/River both have to collaborate. The problem being that, by nature, they don’t get along. Ian wants to make loads of rules and have every part of the story worked out before you even put pen to paper. Sky just writes random words down because she likes the sound and expects everyone else to share her joy.

Imagination is really the act of getting Ian and Sky working together effectively. Sky grabs hold of things in the chaos of your thoughts and recognises how beautiful they can be. Ian applies the rules of grammar and structure to them so that they are expressed as strongly as possible in words. When both our logical, ordered self, and our random, chaotic self can work together, that is when truly imaginative ideas emerge.

There are two things that can help merge order and chaos. The first is learning. In creative writing that means learning what Stephen King calls the Writer’s Toolbox, which we start looking at in the second of these workshops. The second is practice. The more you work with your tools, the better you get at using them. That bit is really down to you!

Places I will be

Looking at my diary yesterday I realised that I’m doing a number of talks and public events over the next few weeks. This is exciting and , of course, a little nerve wracking. Most of us are drawn to writing as a way to spend large amounts of time alone, in our own imaginations, drinking tea. So it comes as a shock then that writing also involves loads of standing in front of people speaking about things! My next few weeks looks like this:

  • Wednesday 2nd March – Talk on Writing for Social Media and finding your online community  – Beyond Distance Reasearch Alliance, University of Leicester
  • Wednesday 3rd March – Talk on Speculative Fiction and workshop – Loughborough University
  • Saturday 19th March – Speculative Fiction as modern myth – States of Independence, De Montfort University
  • Thursday  31st March – Writing, A Portfolio Career – De Montfort University, Leicester
  • Thursday 3rd April – Writing a story in the window of Waterstones – Crawley LitFest

States of Independence and Crawley LitFest are both public events, so it would be great to see any of you out there at either.

Some thoughts on teaching creative writing

I get to start this post with some good news which I have been sitting on for a while now. As of later this year I will be taking over as Course Director for the Certificate in Creative Writing at the Institute of Lifelong Learning, University of Leicester. I was extremely excited to be offered this role, partly because the course is aimed at adult learners (who are my favourite people to teach writing to) and partly because I’ve found a real love of teaching creative writing over the last three or more years of teaching the subject in various settings.

(You can find more details of the course here. I will be developing the curriculum and also doing a fair amount of teaching on it, alongside guest tutors. The course is very practically focused – a big tick for anyone wanting to develop real craft skills as a writer – and also allows you to gain a fully acredited qualification from a university with an excellent academic reputation. Needless to say, I highly recommend enrolling if these things suit your interests.)

Some writers go their entire careers without ever teaching, for others it is an integral part of their own development. I fit solidly in to the second camp. I am in many ways as interested in the process of writing as in the product. Understanding the dynamics of human imagination and the techniques of fiction are continually fascinating to me. What I have found most fascinating is how teaching writing pays back in to my own work as a writer. You never examine your own practice as hard as you do when you are trying to teach others (even if you only teach them what not to do…) and being in close contact with other writers is as enriching in a teaching role as it is in a workshop.

One of the perennial questions with creative writing is whether it can be taught. Clearly I believe that it can, and I have benefited from good teaching over more than a decade seriously studying the subject. The ‘writers toolkit’ can certainly be taught, from basics of grammar and style, to issues like viewpoint and narrative distance. I think it is also possible to help students develop their ability to harness their own creativity and imagination (and this is probably the most ‘transferable’ skill they can develop because it is useful in so many other areas of life). The area that can’t perhaps be taught is a writer’s insight in to the world, other people and their own self, which is ultimately what we look to writers for. But I do think that writing is in itself a way of developing those insights, and that is perhaps the most valuable thing any of us gain from studying it.

Damo’s NaNoWriMo Write-In

 

The David Wilson Library at the University of ...
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I’m doing NaNoWriMo this year. I have a Work In Progress and want the progress bit to happen faster. NaNo seems like a good focus for achieving that.

My strategy this year is to throw myself body and soul in to the effort. To that end, I shall be at University of Leicester library EVERY EVENING IN NOVEMBER between 7-9, and quite possibly longer. In fact, almost certainly longer because I won’t be leaving until the day’s 1667 words or more are done. The only nights I won’t be there are Wednesdays, when I will be at the Speculators writing group.

And you all are welcome to join me. I love writing with company, so if anyone wants to come along and do some of their own writing, NaNoWriMo related or otherwise, you are all welcome. To join in you will have to get a UoL Library membership (these are free) and promise not to talk during writing sessions. There is a coffee shop open till 10 where talking can happen.

OK, announcement over. Be about your business now.