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

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Glasgow Not Quite Fighting Fit

Posted by Cila Warncke

Two Scottish food groups


Experts say “The Scottish population seems to be living dangerously”. Unfortunately, not in a Aston-driving, sky-diving, lady-killing kinda way, a la favourite son Sean Connery. Instead, risk-taking Scottish style involves scoffing burgers, downing “the equivalent of 46 bottles of vodka each in a year”, smoking furiously and not taking any exercise (apart from walking to the offie).

Glasgow seems a poor place for a vegetarian long-distance runner to set up house, but this isn’t the first time I’ve spent in a city awash in cheap booze, bad food and hard drugs. I lived in Philadelphia for three years. If anything, West Philly is far less salubrious than the west end of Glasgow. If you wanted fresh veg there you had to go to the over-priced salad joint on campus. The only local supermarket was a hot, crowded, piss-scented emporium surrounded by iron bars. Grocery shopping usually meant going to the 7-11 on the corner and buying bagels, Kraft Singles, and breakfast cereal. The native delicacy is the Philly cheesesteak: fried steak, smothered in cheese, served up on foot-long baguettes drenched in mayonnaise. Makes Irn Bru ice cream floats look like health food. Glasgow, in fact, has health food stores. Within metres of my flat is an array of shops including Roots & Fruits and Waitrose where I can merrily fill my basket with fresh veg, oat milk (really), quinoa bars, posh olive oil, dense rye bread and all the things dear to my health-geek foodie heart. And you can go for a run here without worrying about crossfire, which is something of a luxury.

The difference: the west end of Glasgow is relatively upper-crust, West Philadelphia isn’t. The Glasgow University study reporting 97.5% of the Scottish population has at least one of five “major risk factors to health” – cigarette smoking, heavy alcohol consumption, poor diet, physical inactivity, and overweight – tersely notes “The most important determinants for multiple risk factors were low educational attainment and residence in our most deprived communities”.

Education is even more important than economics. Eating nutritiously is cheaper than eating processed food. I’ve fed five a homemade feast of sweet potato & cashew curry with rice, salad and chapatti for less than the price of a Supersize Big Mac meal. Yet people persist in thinking that eating well means spending big. A basic problem is that deprived areas lack access to fresh fruit and veg, or reasonably priced basics like rice, flour and pulses. Why? Because retailers don’t see a market there.

This is where education comes in: shop owners need to be educated that being poor doesn’t automatically mean wanting to live on crisps and cola. They need encouraged to open shops in poor neighbourhoods, otherwise people have no choice but to eat badly. Consumers need education too. Part of the problem is the machismo in British food culture. Men eat meat, salad is for girls, etc. Perhaps there is an argument for letting troglodytes who buy into that crap eat themselves into an early grave. But it wouldn’t hurt to get into schools and persuade the younger generation there is no glory in being a fat, wheezing, heart-attack-waiting-to-happen. If we (the government, parents, the medical community, volunteers, whoever has the opportunity to pitch in) could make that happen perhaps future health statistics won’t be quite so dire.

Swine Flu – Notes on a ‘Pandemic’

Posted by Cila Warncke

I find it very difficult to take seriously an alleged nationwide emergency that I find out about by reading the Guardian website. Surely if swine flu or influenza porcina as the locals call it, were a hovering shadow of death across the fair land of Mexico someone would have thought to mention it? It was Saturday I happened across the UK headlines. The first local clue anything was up was the bored-looking attendents wearing surgical masks (tapa bocas) while handing out leaflets at the coach station when I returned to Merida on Monday.

Awful, isn't it?

Awful, isn't it?

Yucatan is for all intents and purposes a separate country, and the only reaction here seems to be mild boredom. The schools are shut, a fair few of the businesses (presumably because someone has to be at home to mind the kids) and the morning tae-bo class at the local stadium has been called off. This means us runners can hang out at the edge of the track and talk without being blasted by pumped up mariachi music, which is kind of nice. Jaime, my 10K buddy, put things in perspective: “They’ve shut the restaurants in Mexico City, but not the Metro.”

When he said that my already limited interest in swine flu bottomed out. The Mexico City Metro is a cross between a batteryfarm and a sauna. It is one of the most horrible, germ-spewing environments I’ve ever had the misfortune to encounter. If they haven’t shut the damn thing down they clearly aren’t that bothered.

Mexico City is a teeming hellhole. A city of over 22M people set in a natural bowl so every particle of smog, filth and germs sinks into lungs and skin. The fact 150 people have died after having flu symptoms is nothing more than a statistical blip. If this flu were anything to worry about there would be a lot more than eight confirmed deaths. As for the people who’ve travelled in Mexico and taken the flu home? People get sick travelling. I had terrible respiratory illness within 72 hours of landing in Mexico City purely from the poison air.

The hysteria is a massive PR job on the part of the drug companies and the WHO (aka the OMS Organizicion Mundial de Salud). It’s a slow news week, someone felt the need to stir shit up and hey, bird flu was fun.

Not that this total nonsense doesn’t have its good side. My boyfriend is off work so we’ve had two days of painting his office, eating popcorn and watching DVDs (because the cinemas are all shut). Also, it prompted me to go and look up the defintion of “pandemic” — an unjustifiably abused word at the moment.

Medicine. Epidemic over a wide geographic area and affecting a large proportion of the population: pandemic influenza.

Wide geographic area? Possibly. But a large portion of the population? Hardly. According to The Economist there are 99 confirmed cases in Mexico, 91 in the US and 19 in Canada. The only other nation in double figures is Spain, with 10. I would love to hear the mathematical justification for construing those numbers as a pandemic.

Daily Pennsylvanian: Taking Aim at Gun Violence

Originally published in The Daily Pennsylvanian, Autumn 2000

Columbine. I remember the day that name became a national byword, much in the same way I remember the day Princess Diana died or the way those slightly older than I remember the Challenger disaster.

They didn’t know, at first, how many were dead; estimates ran up to three digits. There were no commercials, I recall. And the images didn’t change much, as they obviously couldn’t get cameras inside the building. As the afternoon trickled on they began interviewing survivors, weeping schoolgirls, football players still trying to be macho through their residual terror.

Fifteen dead, including the two kamikaze killers whose innocent-seeming faces would stare posthumously from the covers of every major newsmagazine in the country. Faces whose secrets the world would try, too late, to understand. Blame TV, heavy metal, black trench coats, video games, lax parenting or poor social skills. Invoke the word “evil,” so long out of fashion until now.

Whatever you do, though, don’t blame guns. Guns don’t kill people, people do. To take the guns out of peoples’ hands, to prevent mere children from purchasing weapons, that would be an unreasonable — unconstitutional — infringement of civil liberties.

Americans are not the only ones, though, who have seen hell break out in their schoolyards. Just three years before Columbine, in the little Scottish town of Dunblane, Thomas Hamilton walked into a primary school with four handguns and hundreds of rounds of ammunition. Minutes later, 16 kindergarteners and their teacher were dead. Hamilton committed suicide.

Stunned, shattered, the nation and the government were determined it would never happen again. The parents of the murdered children threw themselves into a campaign to ban handguns. “Impossible,” an American would say. “Unfair!” cried the sport-shooting lobby in Britain. Yet the government implemented a ban on high-caliber handguns, resulting in more than 100,000 weapons being surrendered to the authorities. By early 1998, the ban was extended to all .22-caliber and lower handguns as well.

This legislation was in no way universally popular. Shooting aficionados were outraged at having to give up their weapons. Gun enthusiasts rightly protested that they — the responsible sportsmen — were not the problem. But in the end, despite their feeling that injustice had been served, they handed over their guns and got on with it.

Nearly four years have passed since Dunblane and nearly two since the legislation banning handguns came into effect. The shooting fans are still grumbling, yes. There is still gun-related crime, yes. However, there has been no second Dunblane.

Will we be able to say the same thing four years after Columbine? I doubt it.

Because it wasn’t just Columbine. It was Jonesboro, Ark.; Springfield, Ore.; West Paducah, Ky.; Pearl, Miss. A trail of blood and anguish, the children with guns in their hands and blank eyes. And every time it happened we were horrified, the images running together in a montage of huddled parents, weeping children, stone-faced politicians.

Those were just the disasters epic enough in proportion to become catch phrases. In mild-mannered Portland, Ore., a boy was stopped outside my brother’s school, the trunk of his car full of guns. In South Dakota, my friend’s sister got the day off of school because of a bomb threat. Multiply that by thousands, the number of incidents that border on the knife-edge between near miss and front-page horror show.

This is all because Americans cannot live with the idea that their precious right to bear arms might be infringed. Even if it means that the litany of names will continue into a new century — the names of the dead, the names of the guilty, the names of the communities devastated by violence.

In Britain there is one name — Dunblane — and there was one reaction: banning handguns. A knee-jerk reaction, some have said, but since then no one has turned on the BBC evening news and seen blood-soaked children fleeing out of schools — unless they were watching the Columbine coverage, of course.

Like it or not, the ban seems to have worked, and it stands as a rebuke to America’s selfish unwillingness to make radical change in the face of tragic persuasion.

New Feminist Magazine – Agendered

Agendered

Agendered

I’m very proud to be contributing to Agendered, a new online-feminist magazine aimed at the Oxford Unversity student community.

My first two articles are up, one on women writers and the other on my perpetual bugbear – the shittiness of women’s magazines. Lots of other great features too… read it!

Exclusive Sasha Interview

Originally published in OWTL issue 39. Posted by Cila Warncke

Meeting Sasha is roughly the dance music equivalent of an audience with the Pope. Even people who don’t know (or care) anything about dance music know who he is. On the other hand, rabid fans don’t seem to know much more – only that he’s a genius mixer, DJ, and producer; that his music can change your life. No one’s quite sure, though, how a shy lad from North Wales became possibly the most recognised, and revered, DJ on the planet. Least of all him. “I don’t know what I would have done if I hadn’t fallen into this, ‘cause I was a lazy twat,” Sasha says, fidgeting with a Marlboro Light.

Sasha

Sasha

Part of his mystique is down to his wariness of the media merry-go-round. Before he arrived his PR runs through a list of the don’ts: Sasha doesn’t do photo shoots; Sasha doesn’t do lists. When he arrives he’s utterly amiable though, only saying he wishes he’d “handled things differently,” in the press, when he was younger. Now, he is professionally friendly, engaging; he makes eye contact, smiles a lot, when there’s a question he doesn’t much like he leans back, chuckles, and subtly shifts the topic.

Luckily, this doesn’t happen often. When we meet, Sasha is about to play his first London gig in over a year (at The Key), and is anticipating his first large-scale set at TDK Cross Central. He seems genuinely happy to be back. “I really do miss London,” he says, settling into a corner table in the Electric, on Portabello Road. For the three-odd months a year he lives in town, he’s based in West London. A handful of his mates are scattered noisily around the next table, downing mid-afternoon beers, waiting for him to finish. His PR team hovers nearby. Clearly he’s taking no chances on anymore slip ups with the press.

Londoners could be forgiven for thinking he’s gone off-radar lately. “I’ve been in America, doing residencies like Crobar and Avalon, and doing regular shows. Recently, I’ve been in New York setting up my studio,” he explains. New York is where he spends about five months of the year (the remaining four are in “airports and hotels”). The NYC connection started back when he and John Digweed were residents at Twilo, playing regular 12 hour sets of banging, dark progressive tunes. Now resident in the trendy (but not cheap) East Village he enthuses about the café culture and the way “on any given night, anything can happen.” Including moving into Garth Brook’s old studio. “It’s a really nice sounding room,” he says, of his new space, “but the last album recorded there was Kenny G’s Christmas album. We hope he hasn’t left any weird vibes,” he says, chuckling.

Sasha imparts this casually, sipping his beer, as if jet-setting between two of the world’s hippest (and most expensive) neighbourhoods were totally normal behaviour for a Bognor lad. Yet he admits when he first moved to Manchester, to try his hand at DJing he didn’t expect it to last. “A lot of my friends were DJs [too].Every winter when January came and the clubs emptied out we thought it was pretty much the end of the world. The end of the scene. All my mates thought it was a two year flash in the pan. My parents were disappointed [in me], very disappointed.”

By a stroke of good luck, as their playground, the Haçiencda (“the Haç” as he still affectionately calls it), sank into a morass of gang violence Shelly’s opened down the road in Stoke, and he landed his first residency. “People were pissed off at going to clubs and getting beaten up. There was nasty shit going on. [Shelly’s] was an hour down the road and it exploded. Even then, though, I didn’t really [think it would last].”

Sasha behind the decks

Sasha behind the decks

Sasha’s career took off and, as the international bookings started rolling in around ’93 and ’94 he thought, for the first time, maybe it would last. The next ten years are well-documented. In 1994 he and John Digweed mixed the now-legendary Renaissance compilation. It’s an album – and a friendship – that has stood the test of time. (In the course of the interview John gets 13 mentions, Sasha’s wife, two.) “John and I have a really unique relationship. It’s great working with John. He’s so professional. The exact opposite of me,” Sasha laughs. They work so closely, he says, that he can’t remember whose idea it originally was to open the Renaissance album with a daring three remixes of Leftfield’s ‘Song Of Life.’ “It worked beautifully together, but I don’t know who it was. When I work with John it’s very difficult to pinpoint after the fact. We lock ourselves in a room and listen to records for a couple of weeks, then we go and mix it down together. It’s very much a collaboration.”

And he doesn’t just mean in musical terms. Though Sasha and Digweed are only playing 10 dates together this year (“and that’s more than we’ve done in the last five years,” he says) he clearly treasures their camaraderie. “He’s a dark horse, I tell you,” he says, more than once, chuckling at some remembered mischief. His stories often loop back to reference his pal. “I’m not very good at travelling. John [Digweed] gets everything into one rucksack – CDs, change of clothes… I end up with two suitcases, two huge pieces of hand luggage. John’s always laughing at me [because] I’m always getting charged for excess baggage. If I’ve been in a hotel room ten minutes it looks like I’ve exploded… clothes everywhere! But it kind of makes me feel at home, a little bit. It helps me keep my sanity.”

The other constant in Sasha’s itinerant lifestyle is, obviously, music. It always has been, really, but technology has made it instantly accessible, all the time. “I used to check my record boxes, and – especially in the middle of the summer – they’d invariably go missing for a week at a time, somewhere,” he recalls. This sneaky respite turned into a nightmare on the eve the ‘Airdrawndagger’ launch, though. “I was flying back from Ibiza to play [the launch] at Bedrock, and my records went missing. I got back at five in the evening and basically had to go to a record shop and cobble together a DJ set from promos and stuff. It was such an important night for me, and to have that go wrong… I decided to switch to CDs, and from CDs to computer was quick.”

Armed with a Mac laptop and a London-based server Sasha will never have to do a last minute record dash again. “I update my record box every week,” he says, meaning his digital music collection. “I’m constantly downloading music, people send me stuff over Instant Messanger… Before you’d be desperately trying to get decks in your hotel room, now all my music’s on my iPod.”

The trade-off is everyone else has music at their fingertips, too. “Before, you know, I could get hold of a track and I’d have it for a year before anyone else. That just doesn’t exist anymore,” he says, a little nostalgically.

It’s an almost throw-away comment, a statement of well-known fact. But what he’s saying, in extreme shorthand, is the whole system of privilege which helped propel him, and his contemporaries like Judge Jules, Danny Rampling, Digweed, and Pete Tong, to the peak of their fame and earning power, broke down. It can’t have been an easy adjustment for one of the original superstar DJs to suddenly find that being a superstar was no longer enough to keep him ahead of the pack. To discover exclusives he once commanded because he was Sasha, were there online for any two-bit bedroom jock to play with.

The rub being, people didn’t – and don’t – expect any less. Ask if he ever gets tired of being “on duty” all the time, of working flat out to keep up with the onslaught of new music and technology, and he smiles a little. “Yeah, I guess so. But that’s my job. I mean, people expect some kind of legendary set, every time they see me. It’s important that I’m on top of things, and that I don’t disappoint people. You know, it’s hard to please everyone.”

He leans back against the leather banquette, his bright blue eyes narrowing, as he ponders this responsibility. There are several of these little pauses in the course of the interview, moments where Sasha, the musician and music fan, seems wordlessly puzzled, or even a little frustrated, by phenomenon of Sasha the DJ. Unprompted, he says DJing “never felt like a job, it always just felt like a night out, I used to blow off gigs and not really think about it.” As if the pressure of expectations could be dispersed by simply ducking it. But he corrects himself. “Maybe [I did], a long time ago, but the last six or seven years I’ll miss maybe one weekend a year, ‘cause I’m ill or something. I play virtually every weekend of the year, and when you get ill, you get ill,” he says rather vehemently. Then he leans forward, all wide-eyed sincerity. “I mean, if you have your wisdom teeth out and your face swells up twice its size you can’t really go out and DJ, can you?” he appeals.

It’s hard to tell if he’s being disingenuous, or if he honestly feels hard-done-by in public perception. More likely, his is the reaction of a fundamentally shy bloke often caught in a pressure cooker of anticipation. For example, he finds festival sets “nerve wracking.” When pressed for an explanation he shrugs. “I don’t think I play that kind of stadium filling music. I definitely struggle with what to play at festivals. And, um, so many things can go wrong, so many cock-ups can happen.”

Sasha, off-duty

Sasha, off-duty

Thousands of fans who have lost themselves in blissful oblivion at his festival sets might beg to differ, but Sasha likes the paradoxical freedom of “dark and dirty” venues. “You have a play a certain set at a festival, the biggest sound you can muster. When you play for 500 people in an intimate space you can try things out. The crowd will follow you, they’ll go with you.”

This idea of communion is, perhaps, what went missing when MP3s took over the world. Before, people who wanted to hear a certain kind of music had to go to a club, or a festival. Now, they just have to switch on their computer. It is a sea-change, Sasha readily confesses, that left him stranded for a bit. When it comes to production and DJing he does either one or the other. “I try to do studio work on the road, but… well, you’re knackered all the time. I take my laptop and don’t use it.” So, after a self-imposed touring exile of a year, to finish ‘Airdrawndagger’ (“the record label was fine, the pressure eventually came from myself”) he felt disconnected from the DJ scene. “I was kind of lost after that. [In] 2002, 2003 I was treading water. I was a bit unsure of what I was doing and where I was going.”

But luckily technology giveth, as well as taketh away, and the advent of Ableton gave Sasha a fresh perspective. “When I grabbed hold of Ableton I was so hungry to go and DJ again, I was hungry to be out there, playing.” So he did, taking to the road in the States, all over Europe and South America (where, he says, they have the best parties in the world) and dates in the UK including his Fabric residency, which came to an abrupt end last summer. Ableton, it seems, finally allowed the crowd-pleasing DJ and the perfectionist producer to work in some kind of alliance. Instead of locking himself in the studio for months Sasha can edit on the fly, showcasing his mind boggling musicality in a more direct way, satisfying his own creative urges and the audience’s insatiable appetite at the same time. “If I do a boat party in Miami, or a festival in Budapest, or a club in London, I can deliver something special. Five or six years ago I’d have a particular set I’d play, and it would evolve and change, but it would be slow, using a computer allows me to create a unique set every time I play.”

It’s a benefit that cuts both ways, as his newfound technological freedom allowed Sasha to record and release a brand new mix album in one night – thanks to Instant Live. This pioneering setup records, masters, and mixes live shows as they happen, meaning fans can walk out of a venue with a legit, properly packaged live CD at the end of a gig. Sasha’s management company set it up, and – remarkably – pre-licensed 60-odd tracks so he could pick and choose what to play on the night. Though he enjoyed it, the recording (at his Fundacion closing party at Avalon in LA) wasn’t exactly plain sailing. “At the beginning of the second CD my computer spazzed out on me. I guess ‘cause I was under pressure I wasn’t thinking straight. Normally I’d mix in a CD and reboot my computer but I thought I could fix it by fiddling with it”, he grins, miming slapping a keyboard. Hiccoughs aside, he is happy with the finished mix, and looking forward to getting to work on a studio album, proper. “I spent six weeks moving stuff and finding my way around [my new studio]. I’ll be going back in January to work on the follow up to ‘Involver’. It’ll be half DJ mix, half remixes, with some of my own productions.”

First, though, there’s the rest of the year to get through, and a string of gigs including TDK Cross Central, and Space, Ibiza, where he’s playing for We Love… since the demise of the Viva parties he co-headlined with Steve Lawler last year. Sasha is still clearly unhappy the night failed to take off. “It was launched badly. I think [the promoters] just assumed with me and Steve it would be a hands-down success,” he says, which seems like a fair analysis. Unfortunately the Sasha and Steve magic wasn’t enough to keep the night afloat. (By the end of August the headliners, including Sasha, had stopped turning up and there were only a few hundred confused looking clubbers wandering around the cargo hold of Space.) He’s philosophical, but disappointed about it. “It was humbling. It taught everyone involved a lesson. I would have liked for it to work out ‘cause you see Erick [Morillo] and Carl [Cox], they’ve both got established nights now, they’re just brilliant. Maybe next year we’ll think about doing something,” he concludes, brightening.

For every Viva, though, there’s a Southfest. Where, last December, he and John played to a screaming horde of 23,000 clubbers in Buenos Aires. “It started raining and nobody left. It was the most amazing atmosphere.” An online video clip is more illustrative: sheets of rain pour past the camera lens, Sasha – sporting film star sized aviators and a huge grin – pogos behind the decks, caught in the flashes of a blinding light show, the crowd stretching, literally, as far as the eye can see. “I felt like a rock star that night, it would be nice to relive that a few times,” he says, laughing.

TDK Cross Central won’t deliver 23,000 delirious fans, but Sasha is back in full, optimistic flow, happy to be home, excited to play for the “educated pests” (as he calls them) of London clubland. “I like festivals where you have a lot of bands and live things, it’s a bit more eclectic. It brings a healthier mix of people together. You can’t just turn up in London and play any old set. They won’t accept that. It’s challenging. But, you know, I love a challenge.”


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Sense: How to launch a business website

Originally published in Sense magazine

1. Getting started… what do you want from your website?
Websites are essential marketing tools, whatever your business. But a poorly thought-out or inaccessible page is worse than none at all. “The most common mistake is to not have a clear idea of your needs. Take the time to work out your objectives,” says Stuart Dowling, director of The Website Store (a4internet.com).
Your site can be a showcase of your work, an informative page about a service you offer, or a full-fledged online shop, but you must always remember you’re pitching to a fast-moving customer base that is spoiled for choice. Web surfers spend a maximum of five seconds waiting for a page to load before they click away, so your mantra should be: clear, simple and accessible.
Once you have a plan for your site find and register a suitable domain name. You may need to try a few variations on your business name before you find a free domain. Go to nominet.org.uk for exhaustive information on finding and registering a domain name.

2. Check out the competition
Once you’ve decided on the main objectives of your website do your research. What are similar businesses offering? How well do your competitors’ websites work? If you find yourself clicking away, ask why. Your responses as a consumer should feed back into your own design. Equally, if you find a website you like, take inspiration from its best features.

3. Find a web developer
The simplest way to find a developer is to find a website you like and contact its designer (developers always put a link to their company on the sites they build.) You can also try sites designed to match you with a designer, such as web-development.com/UK or services like approvedwebdesigners.co.uk which lets you input basic requirements (type of site, budget, etc) and returns with quotes from developers.
There is no overall UK accreditation programme for web designers but look for qualifications such as Microsoft Certified Technology Specialist (MCTS), degrees in web design or IT, and membership in bodies like UK Web Design Association (ukwda.org). Remember, though, web design is incredibly fast moving. Academic and professional qualifications are a important but the fundamental question is: can they deliver what you want? Get as much advice and as many personal recommendations as possible. A good web designer will be happy to share their portfolio and references.

4. Finances
As with any building project, be prepared for snafus and budgetary surprises. For a timely and cost-effective build agree, in writing, on a payment structure based on delivery.
You also need to think about maintenance costs. If you have good IT skills a CMS (content management system) site will allow you to update it yourself, reducing your ongoing costs. If you don’t want to maintain the site yourself, budget for updates.
Online stores need to factor in the cost of security because you’re responsible for protecting your customers’ information. PayPal (paypal.co.uk) is a simple, inexpensive option for handling payments securely. If you want to accept credit cards in your own right first research the requirements on sites like ecommerce-digest.com, then find a firm like Netcraft (audited.netcraft.com) which can provide you with appropriate security.
Don’t forget to budget for promotion, too! (Which we’ll discuss in a moment.)

5. Developing your site
Choosing the right designer is critical, but you can’t hand over the reins entirely. Artisan Laura Long (lauralong.co.uk) creates unique handmade gifts and jewellery, and wanted a site that communicates her passions. This meant providing words and images, collaborating on page layout and making sure the designer tagged her site with the right keywords to help her customers find her on the web. “It was time consuming, but I got exactly what I wanted,” she says.
Once all the elements are in place, give the site a dry run. Read the copy carefully – spelling and grammatical mistakes don’t inspire confidence – and check to ensure buttons function, pictures display correctly and links open. Test the site using different browsers and operating systems (Internet Explorer, Firefox, Windows, Mac, Linux, etc) and on different speed modems and broadband to ensure every customer will see your site to its best advantage.

6. Promoting your webpage
Hiring a web marketing firm to promote your site will save you time and stress. There are literally hundreds out there, so apply the same principles as looking for a designer to find a reliable partner.
If you want to do it yourself, get a free online tutorial at net-commerce-solutions.co.uk, or pick up one of the dozens of books covering online marketing. Register your new site with the major search engines, familiarise yourself with search engine optimisation (there are loads of free online articles and pointers) and explore the marketing tools offered by the likes of Google (google.co.uk/services, etc).
Posting on forums related to your area of business, sending out newsletters, even putting up flyers around town, will all help drive traffic to your site.
And remember, being number one on Google isn’t for everyone. Efficient marketing means delivering customers, so target your region or interest group for maximum returns. To do this, you’ll need to analyse who’s using your site, and how. Be sure and ask your designer about data capture – your server will have software that will tell you how many unique visitors you have, where they come from, which pages they’ve looked at, etc. Or turn over the job to a marketing company like redeye.com who will analyse your site usage and report back. With this information you can focus your promotional efforts, tailor your advertising spend for maximum return, improve your customer service and make your virtual business a real-world success!

At a glance:
Expect to pay: From £200 for a basic site.
From £1500 for an e-commerce site.
Timescale: Depending on the project, between 1-10 weeks. The key is agreeing your objectives and a reasonable delivery time with your developer.
Pros: Unique to your business, adapts to your needs, is always open, is easily accessible to millions of potential customers, helps you gather information about your customers and refine your offer.
Cons: Maintenance can be time consuming/costly, technical problems beyond your control and security breaches can cost you money and credibility, may be susceptible to hackers and viruses.