The Secret of a Merry Christmas

After a month of festive food programmes, fairy lights and glossy perfume ads Christmas is finally here. According to collective fantasy we should pass the day in a booze-haze, flinging mince pies into our faces while the Queen mumbles on the telly. Every sentient being knows there is a chasm between Christmas Fact and Christmas Fiction, though, even for those of us fortunate enough to be spending the day in a warm house, with pleasant company and plenty to eat.

Family tension, memories of loss, or disappointment can tarnish holiday cheer, if we let them. It is vital to remember, as Ursula LeGuin said:

Love is not a thing that happens to us. It’s a thing we do…. It’s not an experience. It’s a way of relating.

If we expect love and happiness to wait on us we’ll always be disappointed. The secret to happiness at Christmas, or any day, is to make love an active choice, not a passive sentiment.

Christmas Recipe – Roast Red Pepper Hummus

Mark Reinfeld


I’m delighted to have a guest post from award-winning vegan chef Mark Reinfeld, of Vegan Fusion. A culinary wizard, Mark picked up a love of food from his grandfather who was a chef and ice carver. He has co-authored more books than you can shake a carrot at, including the lauded, best-seller Vegan Fusion World Cuisine, and runs vegan cooking courses around the world. He doesn’t know that hummus is one of my favourite foods but, serendipitously, that’s the recipe he shared. Yum.

Roasted Red Pepper Hummus
Serves 6-8

Ingredients:
2 red bell peppers (1 cup roasted)
3 cups cooked and drained well chickpeas
3/4 cup tahini, roasted (creamy)
1/4 cup lemon juice, fresh squeezed
3 Tbl wheat-free tamari or soy sauce
1 Tbl olive oil
2 tsp cumin powder, toasted
1 1/2 tsp garlic, minced
3/4 tsp sea salt, or to taste
3/4 tsp black pepper, ground to taste
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
1/2 tsp chipotle chile powder, optional

Preparation:
1. Preheat oven to 400°F/205C. Roast bell peppers
2. Place peppers in food processor with lemon juice, soy sauce, tamari and olive oil and process until well blended
3. Add garbanzo beans and remaining ingredients and process until smooth.

Variations
Replace red pepper with one of the following:
Garlic Lover’s – 1 1/2 cups roasted garlic, 1 1/2 tsp minced fresh garlic.
Sun-dried Tomato Basil – 1/2 cup sun-dried tomatoes, soaked & drained, 2 Tbl basil, minced.
Kalamata Rosemary – 1 1/2 Tbl fresh rosemary, minced, 3/4 cup Calamata olives, chopped.
Caramelized onions – add 1 cup caramelized onions before pureeing

Courtesy Vegan Fusion World Cuisine

You Say Failure, I Say Evolution

Over at Harvard Business Review Jeff Stibel writes about embracing failure. His office is home to a “failure wall” where employees are encouraged to: “(1) describe a time when you failed, (2) state what you learned, and (3) sign your name.” He concludes by saying: “If we hadn’t hired people who cherish failures, my entries on the failure wall would be very lonely. Often when interviewing, I poke around and see if I can get the candidate to acknowledge a failure.”

Kudos to Stibel for being several shades more enlightened than most anxiety-ridden American execs but I am puzzled by his persistant use of the word “failure.” Stibel got the failure-wall ball rolling by admitting to his “most memorable (and humbling) failures.” So these so-called “failures” were essential. Without them there would have been no wall. No learning, no growth, no progress.

If you take the long view, all life on earth is the product of failure. What, after all, is evolution but a series of failures? The aim of sexual reproduction is to create a faithful, functional replica. Nothing changes. Evolution happens when sexual reproduction fails, when a gene splices in the wrong place, when a burst of hormones creates a novel set of characteristics. Would you rather be a successful swamp creature than the walking, talking, cognating product of several hundred million years of nature fucking it up? I wouldn’t.

It isn’t just self-defeating to dwell on failure, it’s presumptutious. What do people really mean when they talk about failure? In a work context “failing” to make a sale, get a promotion, or get the numbers in that report aligned in a certain column simply means that a task or event did not play out according to one’s preconceived notion. Choosing to define that as failure privileges the individual’s view as objective reality. If I apply for a job and the role is offered to someone else so I say “I failed” (or, if I feel snubbed: “they failed”) I assume my perspective is the only one that matters; that the stars must align for me. What an arrogant nonsense!

An artist once told me, sincere as anything: “I’ve never, ever failed.” This, in the course of a conversation where he talked about selling LSD to his classmates, getting arrested for making a bomb threat, contemplating suicide, and going bankrupt at least twice. At the time, I thought he was a little crazy. Now, I understand what he was getting at: it’s only “failure” if you fail to learn. And it is crucial to understand that the lessons aren’t always obvious. One of my long-standing professional regrets was that I “failed” to ever write a feature for Q. If I had “succeeded” I would have likely spent the last five years in an office in central London instead of living in Ibiza and Mexico, travelling in Europe, driving across the western United States, getting a Master’s degree, learning Spanish and working at everything from production editing to project management.

That’s the problem with taking the word “failure” seriously: our definition is limited by our imagination, which is puny. “The universe is wider than our views of it,” Thoreau noted. We waste our time and work ourselves into frenzies over “failure” but the truth of it is we rarely, if ever, know enough to say what is, or isn’t, for the greatest good in the long-term. When it comes to work, we should jettison the notion of “failure” and replace it with something useful like “evolution.”

Higher Education Academy Winning Essay

In the spring I won the Higher Education Academy Student Essay Competition, which paid for my Kindle. Hurrah! Anyway, below, my winning essay on “What do English or Creative Writing have to say to an age of austerity?”

When the recession first bared its teeth a literary friend of mine was blasé. Writers are used to being poor, she said, what’s new? She was right. The age of austerity is simply the rest of the world getting a glimpse of life as lived by “lifetime English majors” (as Buddy Glass called us) and creative writers since – oh – just about forever. Writers ranging from George Orwell to Hunter S Thompson, Oscar Wilde to Mavis Gallant, have lived in – and written some of their most exquisite, lacerating prose on the subject of – abject poverty.

You will have to have another job, Italian novelist and poet Natalia Ginzburg noted matter-of-factly in her essay, My Vocation, a love-letter to the art of creative writing. Few writers are fortunate enough to be able to prove her wrong. Even when times were good for the rest of the world: when hedge funds grew into dense money-thickets and credit was easy, when house prices rose and investment portfolios swelled with promise, writers shared little of the bounty. There were – and are – exceptions, of course. Some writers sell enough to buy a house in the country, a few nab movie deals, or churn out novels regularly enough to enjoy life in a certain style. Once in a while, a six-figure publishing deal makes headlines. For most, though, the act of writing, even for publication, is so remote from any prospect of financial reward as to render money virtually meaningless. The best advice I can give you, a literary agent told my course-mates and I, is to marry someone with money. She was only half joking.

Writers take for granted that talent, education and dedication do not necessarily lead to material success. This particular reality has come as an ice-water shock, however, to those who followed the beaten path from A-levels to university assuming it would lead them right into a secure job in their chosen field. During the boom years this progression seemed irrefutable; like two-plus-two equalling four. All you had to do, in order to have a comfortable life, was learn something useful like business, banking, marketing, or management, and then sashay into a comfortable office, regular paid holidays and the eventual promise of a respectable three-bedroom semi somewhere on the commuter belt. When there were plenty of well-paid jobs available choosing to pursue English or creative writing was seen as at best frivolous, and at worst a dangerous brand of stubborn, self-defeating stupidity. Writers, like other artists, were asked: “Why don’t you get a proper job?” Now, there is no such thing as a “proper job”. Graduate unemployment is at a record high and it isn’t just humanities students who can’t find jobs. According to the BBC more electrical engineers are unemployed than are modern languages graduates, and fine arts is no worse a course, in terms of employment potential, than economics or civil engineering. The promise of the proper job turns out to be hollow.

Because English students and writers have never really participated in the collective fantasy of eternal satisfaction through consumption we are uniquely placed to help our stunned compatriots make necessary adjustments. Creative writers and English students don’t make calculations based on salary packages; we choose differently. We don’t talk about how much money we will be earning in five years, but about the novel we’re writing, our next article, or the screen-play we are going to adapt. Since we have no corporate ladder to climb, no water-cooler politicking to do, we spend our time reading, writing blogs, publishing journals, running workshops or teaching. We define ourselves by what we create in a world where the phrase “creative type” is commonly used as a pejorative. Compelled to question the petty orthodoxies about what we should or shouldn’t do with our lives, creative writers develop the habit of asking questions, of deciding for ourselves – day by day – who we are and how we want to live. “Freedom is a choice,” Hunter Thompson said, “You decide who you are by what you do.” Because writers have typically fallen outside of society’s casual assumptions about money and success we have learned the art of self-definition.

Writers have valuable truths to share in an age of austerity. We can encourage people to stop chasing illusive financial gains and focus on building a life around work they love. We are here to testify that creative work is a vital and satisfying life choice, not a privilege of rich dilettantes. Most of all, writers are proof that poverty is not fatal. We know from experience that there are many ways to take the sting out of a scant bank balance. Our leisure time is different: most writers don’t spend Saturday afternoons shopping, or own the latest flat-screen TV. Instead of going to restaurants we have friends round for dinner. We cultivate gardens, learn to sew or cook, take the time to bake home-made Christmas treats or make our own marmalade. We are familiar with frugality, with library cards, discount vouchers, charity shops, battered trainers and hand-made gifts. Rather than feel deprived, writers and “lifetime English majors” embrace the challenge of freedom and creativity, and can help show society that there is more to life than scrambling up the property ladder, or wearing the latest fashion. As Henry David Thoreau, a writer who knew a great deal about austerity, so beautifully articulated: “It is life nearest the bone where it is sweetest…. Superfluous wealth can buy superfluities only. Money is not required to buy one necessary of the soul.”

Mslexia Feature – Creative Writing Courses

This feature was published in the Oct/Nov/Dec 2011 issue of Mslexia, the UK’s leading magazine for women writers. Order a back issue here!

There are three primary motives for doing a post-graduate degree in creative writing. They are: getting a qualification in order to teach creative writing; learning about the publishing business; and becoming a better and/or more successful writer. Unfortunately, creative writing programmes make no distinction between students who want to be the next Shakespeare and those who want to be the next Dan Brown; between aspiring teachers, and people who need help drafting a pitch. There is no logical reason why these students should be lumped together. It is a matter of convention and administrative convenience – and a recipe for dissatisfaction.

I did a Master’s in Creative Writing after a decade in journalism, because I wanted to improve my writing. My gut said if I wanted to write fiction I just needed to write fiction. But the lure of a qualification, with its implicit promise of employability, convinced me to forfeit a year of my life and several thousand pounds. My experience as a student illustrated the absurdity of trying to turn creative writing into an academic exercise. Writing can be learned, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it can be taught.

Workshop model
The centrepiece of all creative writing programmes is the workshop which, in theory, is an enlightened space where rough drafts become nascent masterpieces by means of peer review. Great literature is not written by committee, however. F Scott Fitzgerald rightly noted that ‘one has to rely in the end on his own judgement’. Critical feedback can be valuable, but workshops tend to bog down in irrelevancies. ‘You never get to the heart of a piece,’ says Patrick Holloway, a student at Glasgow University. ‘Everybody has to say something, so they say, “This doesn’t work for me”, or “I don’t like this line”, but that’s just personal taste. It takes away from what should be the heart of the discussion: What’s the piece trying to do and how does it do it?’

One-to-one tutorials are potentially more helpful, or at least less likely to degenerate into arguments over the use of italics, but they encourage a prescriptive approach to writing. Orwell writes that: ‘Every literary judgement consists in trumping up a set of rules to justify an instinctive preference.’ When instructors are obliged to coach their responses as instructions it leads to terrible nonsense, like one class discussion where a fellow student said, in all seriousness, that writers are ‘not supposed to use adverbs or adjectives’. I hoped our teacher would leap to the defence of the wild adverbial luxuriance of English, but she didn’t. Why would she? Creative writing courses have to justify their existence, and ever-increasing fees, by telling students something. Glib pronouncements are antithetical to learning, but they pass for teaching. The trouble is, the stuff writers really need to know can’t be taught, and admitting as much would be fatal to the current academic system.

There is no excuse for letting form rule function, though. Instead, creative writing courses need to figure out what is essential and how to help students access it. At a minimum, creative writers need: confidence, a solid grasp of English, discipline, problem-solving skills, literary resources, patience, and – above all – time.

Back to basics
Creativity demands confidence which has to be based in a profound appreciation of English. Computer programmes can correct grammar errors, but if a student doesn’t understand the basics of English how is she going to create something compelling? Unfortunately, the word ‘grammar’ raises hackles; students think it is old-fashioned and unnecessary. Being a good writer doesn’t necessarily mean sharing Gertrude Stein’s enthusiasm for diagramming sentences, though. Joan Didion, one of the finest sentence-smiths operating, admitted: ‘Grammar is a piano I play by ear… All I know about grammar is its infinite power.’

The goal isn’t to memorise linguistic formulae but to develop an understanding of the creative possibilities of language. That means reading, reading and more reading. Unfortunately it would be bad business for universities to tell students that the only thing they really need to become better writers is a library card; and a worrying number of students seem to think that reading will impinge on their writing. Mavis Gallant puts this notion firmly in its place in her essay ‘What Is Style?’: ‘I have never heard a professional writer of any quality… say he would not read this or that for fear of corrupting or affecting his own [style], but I have heard it from would-be writers and amateurs.’

If students are ever to be more than ‘would-be writers’ they must read, and creative writing courses should make it their business to supply fantastic literary resources. Students shouldn’t have to scrap over a single library copy of a novel, or traipse around town scouring second-hand stores for course texts. Anything assigned, or even recommended, by a tutor should be freely available to all the students. If that means handing out pre-loaded Kindles on the first day of term, so be it. Once they are armed with books, it is up to students to be disciplined, take risks, ignore advice and nurture their own creativity. A degree is no substitute for keen self-perception and the ability to work through difficulties.

‘When you hit a wall,’ Patti Smith advised, ‘just kick it down.’
Writing courses can offer encouragement, succour and space to think, but figuring out how to kick down walls is up to the individual. Hunter S Thompson tried to improve his prose style by typing The Great Gatsby; Ernest Hemingway said: ‘My working habits are simple: long periods of thinking, short periods of writing.’ As with grammar, there is no right way to teach problem solving skills, but they must be learned.

Individual challenges Perhaps the best thing universities can do is create challenges and leave students alone to work them out – an approach employed at Central Saint Martins, where fashion designer Ben Kirchhoff studied. ‘We didn’t have tutorials or anything like that,’ he says. ‘They just set us tasks and we had to figure things out our own way. People moaned but you ended up with very creative work.’

Time and patience are the crucial elements in transforming creative impulses into finished product. This means that writing courses need to shed the academic straitjacket and take a more relaxed approach. Creativity is not a horse that runs faster under the whip. Fitzgerald wrote to a friend that James Joyce was working twelve hours a day on Finnegan’s Wake and hoped to be finished in four years; it took Jonathan Franzen nine years to write Freedom. There is no need to cram a Master’s into a year. It is simply a matter of convention. Students should be allowed to use or misuse time at their discretion. No book or poem is better for being written in a rush.

In order to be truly useful, creative writing courses should be more flexible in terms of content and teaching, as well as time. Rather than offering one or two rigidly formatted programmes universities could act as facilitators for a kind of modern literary salon. Grades, which are pointless anyway, should be banned. Tutors should offer as many literary survey and composition courses as they care to lead, which would encourage students to read widely and allow them to spend more time with instructors they admire. For example, I would have happily taken half-a-dozen seminars with my course convenor, instead of the paltry one permitted by the schedule.

Courses for horses
There should also be ‘how-to’ courses for students who want to write commercial, genre, or children’s fiction, taught by writers in those fields. Finally, there need to be seminars on publishing, marketing, contracts and negotiation skills. But each part of the course should be self-contained, and students should be able to pick and choose freely, and proceed in their own time.

This would mean that students who want to earn an MA in order to teach could move quickly through the required elements, while would-be commercial fiction writers could learn the conventions of genre and how to tailor their writing to a particular market. Literature buffs, library geeks and indiscriminate lovers of words would be free to immerse themselves in books and literary culture, taking classes that satisfy their curiosity and feed their creative impulses. This pay-as-you-go approach would, if nothing else, force students to take responsibility for their own learning and find their own sense of direction – two skills no would-be writer can survive without. It would also liberate tutors from the pressure to teach and allow them to take the role of guide or mentor. This would make writing courses looser, even a little chaotic. They would be more reflective of writing than of academia. They might be less productive but ultimately they would be more creative. ■


HOW OTHER ARTS DO IT

Thinking about the teaching and learning of creative writing led me to wonder what the relationship is between education and inspiration in other arts. So I interviewed artists from two very different disciplines. Their conclusions were strikingly similar…
■ FASHION DESIGNER ’You can teach techniques but you can’t necessarily teach talent. You study to develop your taste, to learn how to become more yourself professionally. It took me 10 years to get to where I am, but I would have been a designer no matter what. Choosing your own path is hard, but it’s formative. The shit is horrible when you’re in it, but it makes you the person you are. When I was teaching I saw far too many kids who should never have enrolled in a fashion course. It might be brutal to reject students who don’t have talent, but it’s not something you can learn. People need to think about what they want to do, instead of being pressured to just do a degree. The whole point of doing a creative course is to encourage someone to be creative, not to give them a booklet that says: ‘this is how to be a designer.’ BENJAMIN KIRCHHOFF, from the award-winning design duo Meadham Kirchhoff

■ CONCERT PIANIST ’My best teachers were the ones who allowed me to find my own way of expressing things. Rather than teaching me tradition and the ‘right’ way they taught me to draw on what I already had, accept who I am, and build on that. Good teachers encourage discussion and new ideas.
Practice is essential, but you can’t play well if you don’t have the right sound image in your head. If I find myself struggling with a piece I have to step back, not play for a while, and try to understand it. Once you understand something you can figure out how to translate it. Sometimes it is more important to imagine what you want to achieve rather than playing it constantly.’
NATALIA WILLIAMS-WANDOCH, award-winning concert pianist

Editor’s Note
One of the things I’m regularly asked when I’m doing events is whether I think there’s any point in creative writing courses. My usual answer is that it depends on the institution, the tutors and the course itself. Because, as Cila Warncke says, writing can be learned but it can’t be taught. But what’s the best way to create fertile ground for learning? I wondered if it would be possible to explore that idea in this issue. And then, serendipitously we got Cila’s pitch. ‘I would like to write a feature for Mslexia on teaching and learning in creative writing, comparing it to the experiences and learning processes of artists in other disciplines such as dance, music and design,’ she wrote. ‘I am not convinced, based on my experience, that writing courses necessarily get the balance right between providing feedback and encouraging students to develop their own standards and methods. On one hand, writers are encouraged to be highly individual compared to, say, musicians who learn by repetition and immersion. Yet at the same time, students are expected to submit their writing to the examination of a random group of peers – a process which I argue is antithetical to fine art.’ Irresistible, really. And it shows how often synchronicity plays a key role in the writer’s world.
VAL MCDERMID, Best-selling author & Mslexia Guest Editor

Music Writing Clash Zero dB

Here’s a profile I wrote for Clash in 2006 about two-man band Zero dB.

Trace a line from The Police to Sun Ra via a menswear shop, Newcastle and the Big Chill and you’ll emerge through the looking glass into the bent, sun-blitzed world of Zero dB. Where, for the last six years, Neil Combstock and Chris Vogado have been conjuring up aural mischief as remixers for the likes of Peace Orchestra, Truby Trio, Hexstatic and Original Soul Boy and the legendary Sun Ra.

Now, with debut album ‘Bongos, Bleeps & Basslines’, Zero dB are stepping from the brackets of the liner notes to deliver a joyously muddled musical adventure that veers and swoops, punch drunk, from dance floor to cocktail lounge.
Relaxing at his home in the heart of Barcelona affable Chris Vogado (first record: ‘Outlandos d’Amour’) admits he never meant to end up in a band. “I always wanted to be an electrician – and I was for a bit… it didn’t take me long to realise it wasn’t a dream job.” A stint in tailoring followed. “The worst job ever. Too many inside leg measurements. Was it women’s tailoring? No. If it had been I might not be here now,” he chuckles. On a music technology course in Newcastle he met Neil Combstock, and the pair started working together after the both drifted down to London. Alongside their extensive remix work they started releasing their own tracks, beginning with ‘Come Party’ (still, Chris says, the ultimate floor filler).

“Thirty or forty” tracks later and Zero dB were ready to skim the cream to create ‘Bongos, Bleeps & Basslines’, beginning with the title track (Chris’s top pick of the album), a barefoot-electro tribal funk anthem. His second favourite, ‘Sunshine Lazy’, oozes with affection for the bossa nova music he grew up on, all loping beats and hazy heat-shimmer vocals from Nouvelle Vague collaborator Phoebe Tolmer.

Elsewhere the record skips merrily between genres, appealing, Chris says hopefully, to any audience from WOMAD to Homelands, jazz festivals or the Big Chill. “We could fit into all four – we’ve done the Big Chill before, and I’d love to go back, but all of them really.” Robust internationalism is very much part of the Zero dB experience, actually, with Chris in Spain and Neil regularly moving between Tokyo and London.

“We recorded the album in London though,” Chris reports. “We both realised that to get a really good album together you need to be face to face. Otherwise, when you start arguing about it, it’s too easy to put the phone down.”

And they’ll be reunited soon, he says, to take the album on the road. “We’re producers first, really, and DJs second, but we’re going to try something live this year. The album sounds very ‘live’ and we want to capture that atmosphere – it’s going to take a big band though.”

Meantime, Neil is back in Tokyo and Chris and his wife are looking forward to their first holiday in, well, six years. “Since this whole thing started, actually,” Chris says with a mock sigh. “We might jump on the ferry and go to Ibiza. That would be nice.”