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Have questions for a Creative #Writing Lecturer at Birkbeck?

As part of my ongoing series with experts from the publishing industry,  last week I hosted Jayapriya Vasudevan, Founder of the Jacaranda Literary Agency. Today, I bring you Julia Bell, Senior Lecturer, teaching the MA in Creative Writing at the prestigious Birkbeck College, UK. I’ve had the good fortune of having her as my mentor under the Writing the City Programme, and I have to declare that she’s a fab creative writing teacher for you if you’re a noob like me attempting a novel.

Today I ask her a few questions, and encourage you to add yours in the comments– I hope to get you your answers. So without further ado, here goes:

1. Hanif Kureshi recently said that Creative Writing Courses are a waste of time. As a Senior Lecturer of Creative Writing at one of the most prestigious creative writing programs in the UK, what is your comment on that? What do you look for in a potential candidate for your program?

Julia Bell: Creative Writing Coursebook

Julia Bell: Creative Writing Coursebook

Hanif Kureshi sounds like part of an older generation of writers who preserve their position through adopting an attitude of superiority. Creative Writing programmes have created a new democracy in literature where anyone with a story can learn how to tell it and I think it’s evident now that Creative Writing can be taught. This is an interesting article from Publishers Weekly explaining exactly how and why MFA programmes are a necessary part of the Literary Culture in the US.

I would say that CW MA/MFA Courses are a vital part of finding and developing new voices in literature. I can’t teach boring people to be interesting, but I can help interesting people to write better, to develop their work into a voice. I’m looking for openness to feedback, a sense of the experiential nature of storytelling and a felicity for language. Raw talent can always be shaped through editorial feedback and there is nothing more exciting than watching someone finding their real voice, their point of view on the world.

2. How does your experience as an author feed into your teaching? What do you like best about teaching creative writing and what puts you off? (The lecture she links to is fab– give it a listen if you’re an aspiring author)

I would teach by example – I write every day and I try to encourage students to do the same. Being a ‘daily artist’ is what it takes to sustain a career as a writer. There is quite a bit of my teaching available for free on the Birkbeck website Writers Hub – here is a link to a lecture I gave on a writer’s territory.

3. If you had to give just three pointers on ‘writing technique’ to aspiring authors, something general creative writing books don’t tell them, what would they be? (Here are a few she’s already spoken about)

It’s hard work. It demands your full and complete attention. And sometimes you write crap but there is always something good even if it’s only a sentence in a bad day’s work.

4. If you had to choose three of your favorite authors and their best works, which would they be? Why did you choose these in particular?

I don’t know if these are ‘best’ works but these books have hugely influenced my thinking about writing and my life itself:

George Orwell The Clergyman’s Daughter His prose is so clear and clean I would aspire to the same clarity of vision, but the story of a vicar’s daughter who is oppressed by the faith of her father was both a warning and a portrait of what I didn’t want for myself.

Jeanette Winterson – Oranges are Not the Only Fruit – I was jealous when I read this it seemed to articulate something about my own life, and I wondered what I could add to the story. It’s interesting how she returned to the subject in a memoir 25 years later – Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal – the two are companion pieces to my mind and make up her best and most interesting work.

Virginia Woolf – Mrs Dalloway – Oh I how I love her – what a writer – she understood that good prose also contains good poetry. Her essays are also a delight in the fluency of articulation and the way she approaches her subjects. Clarity and rhythm are for me what I want out of good writing. Something that sings in my head.

5. For those new to your work, which of your novels would you recommend they start with? 

Massive, by Julia Bell

Massive, by Julia Bell

I write novels which are the equivalent of British Indie films. I want them to have a realism like Orwell and a voice that has the a poetic flourish – but these effects must be earned – too much poetry and the prose becomes dense, not enough and it’s too plain, too staccato. I’m very proud of my first novel, Massive which is to be republished next year in a revised edition with the cultural references updated from 2002 to 2015. It’s a real privilege to get to do this – there will then be two slightly different editions of this book out in the world which I think is a delight for a writer. You can find out a bit more on my website.

6. Tell us about your forthcoming novel.

My new novel is called The Dark Light and is the story of a girl who has grown up in a strange religious cult. It’s a bit like a reworking of the Wicker Man with a bit of Lord of the Flies thrown in. It comes out in May 2015 from Macmillan. Follow me on Twitter @juliabell for updates as the process moves towards publication – first I’ve got to do some editing . . .

7. What was the spark of the story, and what was the writing process like? Who is your target audience?

I think it’s a story about my childhood, but also it’s been inspired by an increasing sense of religious fundamentalism in the world. I’m interested in how rigid religious thought can become like a trap even as it purports to set people free. Ironically my upbringing fostered a sense of fairness which rails against religious fundamentalism where women are seen as subordinate to men and sexuality is seen as something to be feared rather than enjoyed.  I’ve also been writing a memoir in verse which I see very much as a companion piece to the novel. You can see me reading some of it here.

Julai Bell, author

Julia Bell

Julia Bell is a writer and Senior Lecturer at Birkbeck College, London where she teaches on the Creative Writing MA and is Project Director of the Writers Hub website. She is the author of three novels, most recently The Dark Light to be published in May 2014, the co editor of the Creative Writing Coursebook as well as three volumes of short stories most recently The Sea In Birmingham. She also takes photographs, writes poetry, short stories, occasional essays and journalism, and is the co-curator of spoken word night In Yer Ear.


Tweet: #WriteTip from a creative writing lecturer at Birkbeck via @damyantig

Do you have questions for Julia Bell? Have you come across the Creative Writing Coursebook? Read Massive? Have you done an MFA/ MA in creative writing, or worked with a creative writing teacher ? Would you recommend it?





Damyanti Biswas

Damyanti Biswas is the author of You Beneath Your Skin and numerous short stories that have been published in magazines and anthologies in the US, the UK, and Asia. She has been shortlisted for Best Small Fictions and Bath Novel Awards and is co-editor of the Forge Literary Magazine. Her literary crime thriller series, the Blue Mumbai, is represented by Lucienne Diver from The Knight Agency. Both The Blue Bar and The Blue Monsoon were published in 2023.

I appreciate comments, and I always visit back. If you're having trouble commenting, let me know via the contact form, or tweet me up @damyantig !

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  • good morrning every body so I have many story in my mind how can starting to write ??

  • kmandana says:

    Great interview Damayanti…it really addresses this snootiness some people have about ‘learning’ creative writing. Going to art college is seen as such a necessary step to becoming an artist…learning all the techniques available out there; discovering what best suits your talent and temperament; understanding where you fit in the grand scheme of things c/o learning art history, etc; and using all that you’ve learnt to put forth your ‘personal vision’ to the world.

    I see exactly the same process happening when aspiring writers join a creative writing programme…only instead of the personal vision, its a personal voice they’re looking for. So why is this less ‘acceptable’??!!

    I’d have given an arm and a leg to have been able to attend a course like this when I was young. Just one single playwriters workshop I attended a decade ago (when miracle of miracles, I actually got a 2-week window in a crazily chaotic life) gave me such a shot in the arm and was so stimulating.

    • Damyanti says:

      Yes, sometimes someone who works on you in developing your own voice can be so helpful, be it a course, or a single mentor. In my case, Julia has been gold.

  • shivani says:

    Thanks for sharing this too Damyanti…and for a long time i was under the impression that Creative writing is something which only, ‘ Gifted’ people have.
    Have read few by such a lady who too teaches the same though…
    Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni (born Chitralekha Banerjee, 1956 is an Indian-American author, poet, and the Betty and Gene McDavid Professor of Writing at the University of Houston Creative Writing Program. In fact one of her novels was made into a movie too starring Aishwarya Rai, ‘The Mistress of Spices’.
    Haven’t read Massive because i had not heard of Julia Bell. Thank you for making me hear not only the name but actually making me hear her.
    Now two actually to be read…Massive and The Dark Light…have noted them down.
    Grateful indeed for this post of urs. 🙂

  • I always find creative writing courses inspirational.
    Great interview.

  • ashokbhatia says:

    Good one!

  • 007pandas says:

    Reblogged this on 007pandas's Blog and commented:
    Lots of great information for the novice writer

  • Peter Nena says:

    Creative writing and other arts in general are characterized by randomness, unpredictability, vastness, and diversion. I wonder: when they are taught within the curriculum do they still possess these qualities? I speak from the point of view that any form of teaching narrows perspective and limits choices, although it might seem to do the opposite. Usually there is a strain to have everything fit into a specific perspective and form; there is a model to be emulated–which is really the purpose of teaching–but the arts, they are like nature itself, natural, diverse, chaotic. How do you foster these qualities when teaching Creative Writing as a part of the college curriculum?

    Thank you. Your response will be highly esteemed.

    • Julia Bell says:

      Hi there thanks for your comment – I think one of the biggest challenges of teaching CW is to harness this tendency to wildness whilst also operating within the confines of an educational establishment. I take the view that teaching CW is not telling students what to write but enabling them to find the subjects that matter most to them and excite and motivate them to produce new work. Students who come on MA courses acknowledge that they want a reader or at least a conversation with like-minded readers and that’s what a workshop provides. I think our students at Birkbeck are are very diverse and we try not to create an orthodoxy in our approach. Good writing is good writing even if it’s in a genre I might not like (Sci Fi in my case) but I can still tell if it’s well written and engaging.

  • CJ Jessop says:

    I’ve taken a couple of courses, one at a local college and creative writing was part of the curriculum for my BA in English Studies. I found both invaluable, but I also gained a lot of insight through the literature portion of my studies–dissecting classics to find the elements that make them work has given me a lot of insight also.

    I tend to comb through ‘how to write’ books for nuggets of advice that help me, rather than trying to adopt everything I see–everyone’s advice comes from what works best for them and doesn’t always translate to others.

    Great interview, thanks for sharing Damyanti.

  • Tina Downey says:

    I took creative writing classes in college, and found them tremendously useful in developing my quirky writing process. Our instructor was very much about us as individuals and meeting us where we were in our journey, and that’s exactly what I needed.
    This interview was a fascinating read and I came away with a lot to ponder. I agree with finding a voice. It’s the authors whose voices resonate with me that I like to return to.
    Thanks for a great piece, Damyanti, and thanks for being here, Julia, very nice to meet you!
    Tina @ Life is Good
    On the Open Road! @ Join us for the 4th Annual Post-Challenge Road Trip!

  • There is lot of temptation of d CW MA, is there any such program in India ?

  • Anna Tan says:

    I have weighed the option of doing an MA in Creative Writing before… the end decision had more to do with not having enough money than whether it was worth the time.

    • Damyanti says:

      I’ve struggled with the same decision, and stepped back due to the money– I don’t think I’m talented enough to make the husband pay for such a course. I’m muddling around best I can, and taking small workshops here and there, which seem to help. Julia has been a great mentor.

  • I’m so glad you said that you disagreed about writing courses being a waste of time. I’m in a workshop with a well-published author and he said the same thing. Which makes me sad because I get a lot out of them. I wonder what that says.

  • First, thank you for this series. They’re informative, interesting and inspiring. I have a BA in Creative Writing. In all, it was worth it, but a major chunk of what I got out of it was because I was highly motivated. I was very disappointed early on when I realized that I could cruise through it “with my feet up” and still get B’s. Some students needed more intense help, too, which they didn’t get. Maybe at the college level you’re expected to help yourself, but I wished the professors could have thought creatively to help us break through.

    So would I do it again? Not at the same university. I would think there are better programs out there.

    • Julia Bell says:

      It’s always worth really researching your options – look at who teaches and if they are published and what other students might have to say about the quality of the teaching. Unfortunately there are some bad programs and teachers out there . . . But obviously we offer a great BA & MA (and soon to be MFA) at Birkbeck . . . 🙂

      • That makes sense. I fell into my program because I changed majors and didn’t want to leave my university. I’ll keep Birkbeck in mind if I ever go for a Master’s 🙂 .

  • Thank you for the interesting and informative interview. She sounds like a fascinating person.

  • dansandman says:

    Great interview, thanks for writing! Julia Bell certainly inspires me to pick up the pen.

  • naomiharvey says:

    I am working through an online creative writing course at the moment. It is with the Fairford Centre (which i think is american) and i found it on amazon local for just £39. Its not a degree, but I have found it immensely helpful for starting my journey as a writer.

  • Susan Scott says:

    Thank you so much for this Damyanti and to Julia too. It is an eye-opener. I’ve been tempted to take a writing course but they are seriously expensive here in South Africa, albeit with a good track record. I can understand the necessity of them – that the writer learns that his/her skills can be better shaped and formed and the voice made clearer.
    I’ll look out the books mentioned.
    Garden of Eden Blog

  • Vidya Sury says:

    Wonderful interview, Damyanti.
    Julia, a privilege to meet you! I like what you said about writing every day; I’ve found it helps tremendously even when the output is crap. It is funny – I have a draft of sorts in the words that has the working title “why be normal when you can be happy”
    I look forward to reading your books.

  • Orwell’s The Clergyman’s daughter is one of my absolute favourite books too. I am delighted to see that I’m in good company here! Really interesting interview. I shall check out the podcasts as soon as I can.

  • Reblogged this on Weave My Tale and commented:
    Great Interview

  • I have some of the same experiences as Arlee on this one. I had some excellent creative writing teachers during my undergraduate years, and although I used to yearn to get an MFA in creative writing, I’ve heard a few negatives about certain programs too. I think that, as with everything, to truly get a good education as a writer, there has to be a close look at costs and benefits, as well as the type of writing that is taught. Many MFA programs seem geared towards literary and contemporary writing – which can be great. However, if a writer is interested in commercial fiction writing which is usually genre writing then those programs may not offer everything that writer needs.
    It’s something I haven’t thought about in a while since I decided many years ago that getting an MFA was simply an unaffordable choice. I’ve done my best with writing books, writing practice, and informative posts like this one.

  • beachcomber says:

    Is there any easy way to begin development of plot?

    Can plot be eliminated in favor of a character driven novel?

    • Julia Bell says:

      Plot should emerge from character. You create a character with enough flaws and they will create story for you… Although if you are writing genre fiction – romance, crime for eg there are set conventions which are worth understanding. Robert McKee’s book Story is quite helpful on developing plot, though I think it is a bit programmatic and driven by a Hollywood methodology (ie commercial) but he’s really expanding on Aristotle – which to be honest is still the best and most coherent advice on developing a story – Aristotle’s Notes on Tragedy still contain the most astute analysis of plotting ever written.

  • Cat Amesbury says:

    This was an excellent interview – I like Julia’s views on the value of an MFA. As someone who writes both poetry and fiction, I enjoy the synergy between the two forms.

    I wish there was more ability to play with convention in fiction presentation. However, I am hopeful that as we build more integrated mediaworks, that there will be more interest in the combined strengths of poetic and literary styles.

  • Arlee Bird says:

    Very interesting read. I’m sure there is considerably more to Kureshi’s argument about creative writing courses and he might have some legitimate points. I can’t respond to the simple statement that creative writing courses are a waste of time without addressing a number of qualifiers. Then there are issues of cost, amount of time invested in taking a course, and what is being taught. Some aspects of certain courses and some course may be a waste of time while others could be valuable.

    I’ve taken creative writing classes that I felt were very helpful to me as well as opening my mind to authors and ideas with which I had previously been unfamiliar. The classes were an economical part of my college curriculum and were not burdensome to me financially. I would recommend those types of classes as part of a course of study.

    A degree in writing? Might end up being a waste of time and money much as many specialized degrees in fields of study that are primarily academic in nature, but each person and their situation is different so I wouldn’t want to make any generalized statement.

    There is certainly plenty to ponder here. I think I have a copy of Mrs. Dalloway somewhere on my shelves. I’ve never read it but now you’ve made me curious.

    Good to meet you, Julia and I wish you great success with the upcoming novel and poetic memoir.

    Tossing It Out

  • What a wonderful interview. Thank you for introducing her to us. I enjoyed reading your interview, and intend to adopt some of her tips.

    • Damyanti says:

      Mariam, Julia’s advice, a lot of it available online, is quite spot on. The podcast she links to it quite helpful as well.

  • fellino says:


  • Peggy Nolan says:

    Great introduction and interview with Julia Bell! I’ll be looking for her latest book when it comes out!

  • Great and informative reading! Thank you!


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