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David Nath version 2.0

Post by Cagla Kuru

Seeing David Nath for a second time was just as refreshing as the first. As an overwhelmed, panicked and stressed out second year, I can honestly say that listening to David speak about his experiences as a producer and director reminded me of why I was studying English with Creative Writing in the first place. It can be very easy to become unmotivated and often a little lost, sometimes even questioning your ability to write or follow your dreams. But there is something about the way the BAFTA-winning writer talked which was both reassuring and inspiring.

unspeakable
‘Unspeakable’ Channel 4

Perhaps that’s because he gave such useful advice, as well as brilliant insights into his experiences and the lessons he has learned along the way. One of my favourite parts of his talk was when he discussed the importance of making contacts and looking at companies to work with, while all the time working to put ourselves out there! Standing out is key and this goes for all areas of life. Another thing that really stuck with me was, “If you have a problem, don’t stop – keep on going”. Having inspiration in your life is important as it can influence your work ethic, and I know many writers can relate to the difficulties of being unmotivated some of the time. When I started University, I often felt bad about having ‘writers block’ and assumed that it was something made up in my head. Of course, it can be real for some and non-existent for others, but David dropped some tips for how to deal with it when it strikes. For example, taking some time away and appreciating other things a little more, as well as talking to other writers on how to deal with it.

It was definitely a good experience to have David Nath with us once again – he’s truly inspiring to up-and coming writers and directors who may want to take the independent route in life. He currently has his own independent documentary and drama production company, which goes by the name of ‘storyfilms.tv’. If you’re ever looking for someone to encourage those ideas for that ground-breaking documentary, or brilliant drama idea, that you have, I can promise that visiting his webpage will start you off…

Cagla Kuru, 18 December 2017

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‘Sit down at a typewriter and bleed’: meeting crime writer Phil Viner

Post by Marta Sobczak

For a successful crime writer, Phil Viner turns out to be surprisingly amusing in person. His sense of humor made us burst into laughter more than once when he came to visit the University of Westminster in November, even though the subject of his talk included a recipe for describing the perfect crime. Not a typical Friday as we know it.

VinerOne of the greatest things about meeting a successful writer is that we get to learn about the publishing world and its rules first hand.  Phil talked us through the realities and responsibilities of being an author, the tough work, and tight deadlines. And since writing seems, to most of us, a long process,  full of ups and downs, I’ll admit that I was shocked to hear that some writers have contracts for two or even more books a year. When I spoke later with my colleagues, everyone (including me) seemed to be asking themselves the same question: Could I ever be that writer?

Phil’s story is material for a good novel in itself. Almost twenty years after he wrote his first unsuccessful novel, and following the financial crash which forced him to look for a new job, he took a risk and asked his wife if he could take two years to write a new book. Luckily for all of us, she said yes, and the incredible adventure began.

During our creative writing studies here at Westminster we debate what inspires us and what it take to be a writer. In Phil’s case, it was his two year-old daughter and the terrible vision of what would happen if she got hurt. He asked himself the question that we all do at some point in our life: what would we do for love? How far are we able to go, how dark can we become in the name of revenge for our loved ones, and lost ones? Phil created characters who are driven by these questions, and prepared to sacrifice their lives to find a killer. In doing so, he takes us into mysterious corners of human nature, where love can mend or break one’s heart and change a person forever.

Robert Frost once said ‘No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader’. You must be the first person to love your story, to feel attached to it to the point when you can’t stop thinking about it. When your characters are alive, and their fate is in your hands, you must be the first one who cares about them. The emotions we put into the stories we tell are the most powerful way of reaching others’ hearts and minds. This is the passion I saw when Phil Viner introduced us to the worlds he has created in his books. It was empowering, honest and fascinating.

By his example, we can also learn that finding the one perfect story that others will fall in love with can take a while. But we should never stop trying. Stories live within us. When there is one that moves you to your bones, all you have to do, as Ernest Hemingway once said, is to ‘sit down at a typewriter and bleed’.

Marta Sobczak, 5 December 2017

 

Banishing Lies and Writing with Heart

Post by Maddie Kalta

For the majority of people, Friday 13th is a dark and dreaded day. It happens often enough to cause mass panic in the hearts of our nation, but not quite often enough for anyone to realise that the threat is an empty one. On Friday 13th October 2017, however, I was lucky enough to be in a lecture hall to hear guest speaker, Amy Alward, tell us about her career as an author and editor.

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I’ll be honest with you. Over the last year, I have spent far too much time dwelling on those lies that we all experience. The little ones that seem to pop into your head at the most inconvenient time and niggle away at you – endlessly. I have experienced the “you’re not creative enough for a creative writing degree” lie. The “this writers block will never end” lie. And of course, the ever-present “this piece of work is awful, don’t read it out in class” lie.

I would go out on a limb and say that we all experience these types of lie at different points in our lives. The lies change as we change, but they always seem to have the same effect – overwhelming paranoia.

One of the things I found most inspiring about hearing Amy Alward’s story first-hand, was her ability to address many of the ‘lies’ that creative writing students experience. She talked about her late arrival to the reading-game and admitted that, that even though she wasn’t a natural reader at a young age, once she found the right genre she couldn’t help but be inspired to write her own novels.

(“I don’t read enough to be a writer” lie = sorted.)

Amy then talked us through her career in publishing – the extreme competition, her lack of experience, the way that she finally got an editing job, but still not in the right genre. The ups and downs of her story gradually began to affirm, but also quell, the fears we students face: the “after graduation” unknown.

Amy’s ability to overcome countless rejections and persevere with jobs that weren’t quite what she had dreamed of, eventually led her to an excellent opportunity – to “marry her writing career with her publishing career”.

Walking away from Amy’s talk left me with something different niggling at my brain, not a lie, but a simple sentence: “I always start writing from the characters and the build the world around them, it creates heart.”

There are lots of things we don’t know. We don’t know what will happen after we graduate, we don’t know how long it will take to get that dream job. We don’t know which lie will take hold of us next. But what we do know, is that writing is an opportunity for each of us to create heart. I think that’s something to hold on to.

Amy Alward’s The Potion Diaries is a truly gripping series, written by a truly inspirational author and editor.

Not a bad Friday the 13th if you ask me.

Maddie Kalta, 9 November 2017

Bending Genre in Under the Shadow

Post by Shivani J. K. Rayat

Film is one of the most popular forms of art in this day and age, from fanatical franchises featuring morally challenged superheroes in worlds that always seem to be ending, to political and socially educational films such as The Big Short and Blackfish, as well as more artistically orientated independents like The Lobster and Under the Skin. And then there are those films which bring into question just how far we can stretch the limits of genre; Babak Anvari’s psychological drama Under the Shadow is one of the very few ‘scary’ films I’ve enjoyed for the simple reason that it does not constrain itself to the rules of a mainstream genre film.

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Anvari’s film deals with complex issues around ‘restrictions of freedom’ and ‘not being able to look after your child’ (as Anvari himself alluded to in the Q&A section of his talk at the University of Westminster). But perhaps most importantly it is also concerned with character ‘realism’. This is particularly true in a scene near the beginning which focuses on the family enjoying a meal. The film as a whole is extremely tense, but it was these little moments that created an intimate, and almost intrusive atmosphere.

An idea of invasion is also something that Anvari’s film explores, most notably through the Djinn, the ghostly presence which threatens the mother’s relationship with her daughter. This mythological creature seemed to ‘travel on the wind’, thereby finding its way into the home of the protagonists, which is also being threatened by war, missiles and solitude. At the same time, the female lead is struggling with the oppressive nature of her country and society and the looming fear that she is an unfit mother.

Such themes have also occurred in other psychological dramas. The Babadook, for example, is an Australian film which features a woman whose grief for the death of her husband becomes personified through her son’s book. Another film that features a grieving mother who turns on her children is The Others, which has an M. Night Shyamalan style ending, that I will say no more about.

In his talk, Anvari also spoke very interestingly about ‘world building’ and how more recent films, particularly action/adventure stories, do not take any time to establish the environment that they are set in. A film like Godzilla, for instance, jumps straight into the action and doesn’t give the audience time to catch up. On the other hand, as Anvari pointed out, in an older film like Jurassic Park, ‘you don’t see a dinosaur until about forty minutes in, and it’s not even trying to kill you!’ Under the Shadow builds its world very successfully, while also trying to keep us guessing as to what obstacles the protagonists are going to face next.

When you watch this film (it’s on Netflix by the way), do not expect jump scares or cheap shots to make you fear something around every corner. Consider instead the detailed world, the realistic characters and the terrifying way a safe space turns into something that is no longer a sanctuary. Overall, Babak Anvari’s Under the Shadow is an excellent example of a psychological drama that is really worth getting scared over.

 Shivani J. K. Rayat, March 2017

Writing the Other

Post by Zainab Dawood

Jemma Wayne, alumna of the University of Westminster, came to Regent Street campus on Friday 3rd March to speak about ‘Writing the Other’. Her new novel Chains of Sand is about the 2014 Gaza conflict, focusing on the points of view of two Jewish men, one living in London, one in Israel, along with a host of other perspectives. The book explores the themes of identity, politics, and war. In her talk, Wayne focused specifically on the topic of difference.

chains of sand

Writing about Difference, Wayne said, is writing about something very rich with emotion. In her novel, she writes from the perspective of many characters, switching point-of-view rapidly within chapters deliberately to create a sense of discombobulation. One minute, you’re reading about Udi, a veteran of the IDF, the next minute you’re reading about his mother, the next, from the perspective of Daniel, a Jewish Londoner. Reading it, Wayne’s goal has been achieved; it certainly is confusing. But through that confusion comes a sense of understanding, familiarising oneself with foreign thoughts and experiences. Reading the perspectives of people whose religious/national identity play such a huge part in their lives and decisions creates an appreciation for the figure of the ‘other’, and in fact makes them less of an ‘other’ and more of a ‘self’.

During the conception of her book, Wayne conducted interviews of various Israeli citizens to gather a diverse set of perspectives on life there and of the 2014 war. She said these interviews added a sense of authenticity to her writing, as it was like having a window into someone else’s life. The more genuine the work, the more powerful, Wayne stated. She compared fiction to journalism, saying that in journalism there is an assumption that there’s a hidden motivation behind a piece of writing, that readers of an article will feel either validated or confronted by the words. Fiction, however, is different – it connects to the person behind a story, and we see the art in the writing.

For a writer from a minority background, her words were reassuring – she showed that it is possible to write a story deeply rooted in ethnic and religious identity without skimping on relatability to an audience who doesn’t share the same background as myself. Wayne’s experience in writing the novel resonated with me because at times it can feel like some stories are off-limits. You cannot write from certain perspectives because you have not experienced it. Wayne showed me that this is simply not the case, that with enough research and authentic contribution, you can write a story that speaks about a totally unknown identity but that still holds a very human familiarity.

Zainab Dawood, March 2017

Choosing to write

One thing that has been drilled into me throughout my time at Westminster, from the moment I stepped through the Regent Street doors, is that your writing is only governed by your experience. The old tradition of the more you read the better you write is still at the forefront of any advice I have ever been given. Chloe Aridjis is a prime example of this; Aridjis is the author of two novels, Book of Clouds and Asunder, as well, as being a co-curator of the Leonora Carrington Exhibition at Tate Liverpool that opened in March 2015.

asunder

In her talk it was evident that her writing was heavily influenced by her life experiences. From birth she had been thrown head first into the literary world with her father being the famous Mexican poet Homero Aridjis. She spoke extensively about her childhood, during which she moved from the US to the Netherlands and to Mexico City. As a child, Aridjis would wake up to many great poets, such as Ted Hughes and Jorge Luis Borges, sitting round her dining room table having breakfast, and speaking in conversation with her family. She was also taken to different poetry festivals organised by her parents, with all of this falling into her day-to-day routine. As she has grown-up she has spent time in Berlin and England, but when talking about Mexico and her heritage she was filled with pride and passion. Again, this was example of her background and history moulding her writing.

It seemed to me that Aridjis had no choice but to be a writer. Her immersion in the literary world gave no option for anything else that wasn’t creative. Her influential childhood gave her a lasting impression that none of us would ever have had the chance to experience. Aridjis’ life is full of many different inspirations which, as a writer, I am in awe of. These inspirations have helped shape her writing and have drawn out ideas and creativity. With her own childhood seeming like something straight out of a book, how could she be anything but a writer? It posed the question why did I become a writer? For me, it was to be able to become like many of my own favourite and admired authors. I wanted to be able to provoke a change in the reader, like many great writers have made me undergo. For Aridjis it was like the path was already laid out before her. There was nothing else that she could have become and after hearing extracts from her novel ‘Asunder’, it seemed she would be wasted in any other profession.

Lucy Cranfield, February 2017

Watching the ending

In a chat about film-making, journalist, screenwriter and director Dave Nath discussed his transition from making documentaries to drama and answered his critics over the ending to Channel 4’s The Watchman.

The seemingly endless possibilities in creating plot can often be an obstacle for writers. Eliminating choices to reach the ones with the most authenticity, that propel the narrative, is essential according to Nath. A journalist turned dramatist, he admitted that writing fiction “can be paralysing when you’re faced with a blank page. But it’s useful to get material down even if that means getting it wrong at first”. He praised his training in journalism for giving him the ability to summarise a story quickly and concisely and with his first foray into drama, The Watchman, he had the core details of the story formed early on. From there it was a case of fleshing it out, working on dialogue, texture and tone and crafting it into the film, with some guidance from his older brother, Westminster University’s Michael Nath.

The 2013 documentary series Bedlam won him a BAFTA and was followed by another BAFTA-winning series last year, The Murder Detectives – part fly-on the wall documentary, part CSI – which explored the tensions and transmutations of real life murder investigations as they unfolded. His reward for moving into fiction was “absolute control over the storytelling”.

The WatchmanThe Watchman, filmed in just 10 days, gave him the opportunity to take the reins of the narrative. The film portrays a CCTV operator up against a vicious and uncompromising street gang, part of a generation “anaesthetised by violence on the screen”. 

After The Watchman aired on Channel 4 this year, the public took to social media to respond to the film’s finale in seething fashion. People were taken by surprise, some were upset, felt cheated or were loathe to discover there was no follow-up, while others found value for money in the open ending. Explaining his intent, the director said “What I wanted to ensure with the ending was that the character’s integrity stays intact. He’s a moral person, a father-figure who looks out for people. He buys his dignity in the exchange at the end.” The ending also opens up the possibility of a reboot in the future: “people were talking about the possibility of Carl working for them, running the cameras for the gang”.

There’s a nod to British gangster flick The Long Good Friday in the closing sequence, a reference perhaps lost on younger viewers, and Nath found his Bob Hoskins in an actor, who, ironically, has often been cast on the wrong side of the law – “Stephen Graham was my first choice.” Before The Watchman was filmed, the actor had performed in Boardwalk Empire and Pirates Of The Caribbean and it’s hard to imagine a setting further away from Chicago in the Roaring Twenties or CGI-heavy seas than a dark, singular monitoring room location – “It was all low budget but he was interested in doing it. He’s one of those actors who cares about supporting British film.”

Keeping to 45 minutes in length, The Watchman’s compressed action gives it a momentum exclusive to the one-off television drama format. Nath aimed to deliver as much as possible in that time-frame by trimming off the excess: “for the characterisation to work in that time there’s no room for the breathing space you’d find in a series”. As a storyteller he’s not one for giving too much away, which allows him to re-frame the characters later on – a writing technique that he relishes. An exposé on Carl’s relationship with his wife is revealed later on in The Watchman but it’s left to the viewer to infer how it developed: “I wanted it to be ambiguous, for people to think “is this the cause or effect of his detachment from the family?”

The filmmaker’s manifesto on writing drama is about being “counter-intuitive, driving it with the unexpected”. He wants to turn things on their head and to treat the audience with intelligence as much as he wants to grip and entertain. And as he found in the murder investigations he covered with the beat, real life often comes packed with surprises.

Nath is currently writing another single drama for Channel 4 due to be broadcast later next year.

Alex Hancock, December 2016

Truth is a trouser word

As the first fogs of autumn rolled down Regent St, I saw a figure take shape, and it was an agélaste.  Agélaste is a word invented by a great and very funny writer called François Rabelais (pictured); it means a person who does not laugh, and affects gravity. You probably know a few.

francois_rabelais-2_-_portrait

Consider what we want as writers …

‘Would like’, you mean – want is bad manners.

Very well. We ‘would like’ to make our readers feel, think, worry, fear, hope, fall in love, know themselves better. And see truth. Not much to ask, what? … Well laughter’s the wind that freshens thought, and feeling; and it may be a way to the truth. But for a long time, our culture’s been down on laughter. Look what happened to Parson Yorick, in the novel some of you are enjoying this autumn.[1]

Yesterday, or thereabout, the winner of the Man Booker Prize was announced, and it’s caused a stir. For why? Because the winner (The Sellout by Paul Beatty) is funny. Must be some mistake! The judges of the Booker, and other of our splendid literary prizes, never pick a funny book. The truth’s grim, right? History’s a nightmare. This is the worst year ever. So your judges have been afraid of seeming frivolous. Then they read The Sellout.

Now, you can be funny and win the prize! Maybe it’s the grim books that were frivolous, or hypocritico-sanctimonious. And for why? Because they were taking advantage of pain; because there’s more to being serious than wearing a long face … Meanwhile, the laughing books are doing what they’ve always done: making us think, training us for truth. At long last, the judges have understood the most famous sentence in philosophy …

‘Truth is a trouser word.’

What the hell’s that supposed to mean?

Seven times seven are the meanings of the sentence, friend Agélaste. But today’s is as follows: as the leg to the trouser, so truth to hilarity … you can’t keep them apart. Especially in novels.

Think of Dickens, laughing so loud he kept the family awake, in those late-night sessions at his desk: he’d just invented Jaggers or the Golden Dustman. So what if your people move to another town because they’re sick of the sound of you hooting and slapping your thigh? You’ve been writing the truth! Take Franz Kafka. We think of Kafka as a fearful prophet, and he was too. But when his friends came round to listen to his drafts and Gregor woke as a beetle, or Josef K was arrested in his bed, they laughed till their moustaches burned off in the backdraft (which is why Kafka, Max and Felice, have smooth faces in photos).

Back soon with more nonsense, amigos

But for the moment,

Beware of the agélastes!

[1] Laurence Sterne, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy (1759-67)

Michael Nath, December 2016

Beating the block

On the 11th of November, the immensely talented Gwendoline Riley came to the University of Westminster for a Q&A and workshop. It was, for me, a truly inspiring afternoon, filled with discussion and affirmations. Gwendoline talked about how growing up she always had her head in a book, which I think resonated with most people in the room. We got to hear the story of how she was published after her tutor read something she’d written, and offered to put her in touch with an editor. I personally felt relieved after hearing her story about being published, as most people will tell you that it’s near on impossible to do it on your own. Gwendoline told us that as writers, we should read as much as we can, especially when it comes to the classics. I think, as students, it’s easy to get caught up in life and forget to read. But in order to hone our skills as writers, we need to read a whole range of literature, from the classics to the modern and all that comes in between.

opposed-positions

In the second half of the session we focused on setting and place, where we picked apart extracts that Gwendoline had compiled, discussing what we liked and what we would possibly adapt for our own writing. She told us how she had ‘borrowed’ a paragraph from another book once, and worked on it until it was hers, and nothing of the borrowed paragraph remained. She told us that this helped her get through her writers block, and that it’s a technique she occasionally uses when she feels that she’s really stuck. I found this extremely useful, as writers block is something that I’m sure all writers have suffered with, at least once. I’ve tried a range of techniques to break down my writers block, but this was new to me.

As she really caught my attention with it, I decided to give Gwendoline’s technique a try. I picked up one of my favourite books, took the first paragraph, and started moulding it. It took a while, but after 20 minutes of solidly working on it, my block had faded and the paragraph was my own.

It was a pleasure to take part in such an in interesting and useful workshop, and I’m very much looking forward to reading her next novel, First Love, when it comes out.

Rhianna Saunders, November 2016

LIVE writing

When it comes to creativity, it is tempting to seek affirmation. As a writer, seldom is there anything better than hearing your work praised. Fear of embarrassment, disapproval, or being told that, after so much effort, you’re not as good as you think you are, is common amongst creative writing students, and a constant source of anxiety. At best it strengthens our resolve, at worst it makes us transfer to economics.

mutantsFor these reasons, it is tempting to search for dictums – commandments to worship at the altar of creativity – that let us know we’re doing something right. ‘Show don’t tell’, ‘less is more’, ‘write what you know’: these are “rules” all of us have looked to for guidance— rules that we often forget aren’t eternal truths. But Toby Litt won’t let us forget. In fact, in his guest lecture last week, he was adamant that we should break these rules. For Litt, greatness in writing means embodying the spirit of free-form jazz; it is all well and good to be competent, to have the formal elements down and play a melody, but competency isn’t enough. There has to be more. There has to be risk.

Awareness of the self is also crucial, and Litt suggests that studying your own reading habits is vital to understanding and improving yourself as a writer. At the end of the lecture, he proposed four tasks writers should undergo to become better acquainted with themselves: writing, reading, re-writing, and re-reading.

More than anything, Litt’s creative philosophy is individualistic. He doesn’t want you to write to better the world, he wants you to “write for yourself”. What I took away from his lecture was: only adhere when it suits you. If the pressure of being yourself is too much, be someone else. Write with a pseudonym. Write what you love. Write what is LIVE, and be open to the process of growth and transformation, because thinking that there’s nothing left to learn is the biggest pitfall of all. Competency is boring.

Cameron Sherwell, November 2016