The Protocols of the Elders of Creative Writing

Category: Writing

We are looking for a name for our writing group.

Despite the amount of gossiping and drinking that goes on, the main purpose is mutual criticism. We read each other’s stuff and give detailed feedback. It is all about red wine and red pens.

The group was formed over three years ago by fellow blogger hereabouts Allan Radcliffe, the poet and critic Theresa Muñoz, and myself. Pippa Goldschmidt, Mary Paulson-Ellis, and Jenni Brooks joined. Anne Hamilton and Roy Gill are the most recent arrivals.

We aren’t a movement. We are very different people writing about very different things. We happen to all live in and around Edinburgh and we trade honest opinions. So maybe there is no particular reason for us to have a name. But recently we realised there are people who know some of our work individually who were intrigued when they learnt we have this connection. Intrigue is good so what the hell, let’s get a name.

But people who commentate on writing sometimes get a downer when writers aggregate – whether it’s a loose wee grouping like ours or a formal creative writing course. Recent articles in the London Review of Books, and the Scottish Review of Books are good examples:

“Get a Real Degree” is the headline on Elif Batuman’s review of a book about post-war creative writing in the United States.

Sophie Cooke, who was briefly in our nameless group too, bemoans the fact her work is often portrayed by critics and journalists as the product of a creative writing course. Private Eye even suggested that as a former student of Willy Maley, she was part of the Great Scottish Creative Writing Course Literary Conspiracy.

Mwaaaah ha ha ha!

Sorry, I thought that phrase deserved an evil laugh.

Sophie met Willy Maley once in a bar. He teaches at Glasgow University. She went to University in Edinburgh and has studied ecological science, anthropology and philosophy, but not creative writing. Not even English Lit.

And yet the insinuation comes that there is a cabal at work and some Svengali like Professor Maley must be behind Sophie’s success. I suppose the fact that they only met once in a bar could be construed as proof positive of a massive furtive conspiracy.

I was also struck by some of the remarks made by Sean Bell in the SRB and his feelings that a couple of recent Scottish anthologies were marked by a lack of adventurousness. This he puts down to the excess of humility writers exhibit when confronted with other people’s views.

Sean feels writers should “turn inward and reject the advice and influence of their peers. Literature is not formed by committee, and writing, whatever some may say, is rarely, if ever, a joint venture.”

“But then again, the most important lesson of creative writing classes may be to teach young writers to ignore the criticisms of morons… This critic included.”

You might say that Sean. I couldn’t possibly comment.

I think the trick is to get all the criticism you can and then decide which to take on board and which to ignore. This is the only way I have been able to develop my work. If seven other people tell me that part is good but this part isn’t working, then I know it is probably true. To get the kind of detachment required to come to this conclusion by myself would involve putting the work away in a drawer for at least a year and probably longer.

The Great Scottish Creative Writing Course Literary Conspiracy has a wonderful ring to it. That might be a good name for us.

The fools! We’ll show them all!

Mwaaaah ha ha ha!


George Anderson

George Anderson received a New Writers Award in 2008.