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NAW bring the X Factor to writing

25 May 11 words: James Walker
If you want to make it as a writer then you need to be delusional, anti-social and over-weight advises Ian Marchant.
The Marchant manifesto: 'you need to like yourself' because writing is a solitary process that leads to divorce and weight gain. (Not necessarily in that order.)  

Over the years I’ve heard a wide range of advice offered to aspiring writers on how to make it in the trade, but never that you need to be delusional, anti-social and overweight. This was the unconventional dictum of NAW patron Ian Marchant as he addressed Nicola Monaghan’s creative writing students at Nottingham University, more of which later...

If Marchant was the charismatic maverick then his side-kick, NAW director, Richard Beard, was the Simon Cowell in the good cop/bad cop routine. Using a technique adapted from the Conservatorie, he gave critical feedback to two pieces of work which was quite breathtaking in its precision and depth. In one piece he counted out a total of fifteen words that directly placed the story in some kind of physical context (‘hand’, ‘tram’) and explained why there needed to be more to enable the reader to locate the characters in the narrative, ‘In a material world we are surrounded by objects. We need this on the page.’ As he continued, he encouraged students to jot down any relevant criticisms that related to their own work, thereby enabling the personalised feedback to be applied to all.

Never have I benefitted so much from someone else’s displeasure. It was like watching a pair of Doc Martins stamp down on a kitten to put it out of its misery. Not nice to witness, but you knew it was the kindest thing to do. ‘Putting your head on the parapet’ is the only way to develop your craft, which is why the NAW ethos is simply ‘the text’. Nothing else matters.

If Beard is Simon Cowell then Marchant must be Cheryl Cole for the simple reason they both love to accessorise. For Marchant this doesn’t mean getting hitched to a footballer and doing cosmetic adverts – things that enable Cole to maintain the delusion of celebrity, it’s about surrounding yourself with writing paraphernalia to trick yourself into believing you are a writer. To do this you need ‘kit’ such as a Fisher Space Pen because ‘it folds up small, doesn’t leak and you can write with it upside down.’ Writing upside down may not be the first thing we think about when purchasing a pen, but the research required of a non-fiction writer can lead authors into all kinds of claustrophobic spaces as they chase down their subject. The pen is also a thing of beauty, something to be marvelled at, it is the fetish that now represents your life.

Next up is an expensive dictionary and thesaurus. These are prized assets within the Marchant household as his wife (possibly now ex-wife) is the British Crossword champion. They are ‘my best friends’ he explains. Although perhaps not of great concern for the internet generation, the principle is the same: immerse yourself in the necessary tools of your profession. Your seat doesn’t have to be a throne but it must encourage you to lean your hand forwards in the direction of the writing vessel. For Marchant this was a Mac Classic purchased in the mid-eighties when it would have been an expensive and luxurious commodity.

Although this could be dismissed as conspicuous consumption, Marchant’s point really echoes Beard’s sentiments that the text needs a solid concrete foundation in order for the reader to engage with the story: The writer needs similar tangible evidence to stay commited to the cause which brings us on to the second stage, relinquishing all human contact. This has cost Marchant numerous marriages but it has been a necessary sacrifice. Having no friends 'is a bonus' he explains, as is getting a third class honours because  effectively it means you are unemployable and so you can focus on writing instead. With W. H. Auden, Lewis Carroll, Christopher Hitchens and Graham Greene graduating with a ‘gentleman’s degree,’ evidence suggests he could be right.  

‘You need to like yourself’ Marchant continues, pacing up and down the room, ‘because you’re going to spend hours and hours each day staring at a screen.’ It is hard to imagine someone as charismatic as Marchant with no friends. He doesn’t strike me as the kind who would be sat on his own in the pub. I’m not sure that relinquishing all of your contacts is for the best as it’s interacting with people that triggers ideas, but he’s certainly correct about ‘liking yourself’ because writing is an isolated profession and therefore egocentric by default. And it is here that any serious contender to a life of solitude must be prepared to put on weight because sitting is an occupational hazard of the profession. Is this what Cameron meant by the Big Society?  NAW, of course not.

If you would like to know more about the National Academy of Writing, please visit the NAW website
Information on the Nottingham University Creative Writing course.
James Walker’s website
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