Creative writing at uni: why bother?

Creative writing at uni: why bother?

Marianne Tatepo discusses the UCL Publishers’ Prize

Creative writing is something you’ll find at most universities – if not as a course, at least as an activity. That’s the norm. However, the UCL Publishers’ Prize for Student Writing 2015 isn’t.

This is less in connection with the magical or fantastical proportions some of last year’s stories took on than the fact that not many 20-somethings get to run literary prizes. Very few get Waterstones to display and sell the resultant anthology, as well as be judged by some of publishing and literature’s major players, or receive support from one of the largest literary prizes for debut authors out there (The Desmond Elliott Prize).

Even fewer secure winner packages which include a professional development course through Faber & Faber’s Faber Academy and cash prizes worth £750 – enough to buy the whole of Student Central’s bar (at least, on Two’sday night). Are you sold yet? Because if you are one of the 20-odd names to make it onto the Prize’s list, you’ll be part of this unusual offering, and even have your work shared with well-established literary agents.

As the organisers of the prize, we were brought together by probability, arithmetic, and sheer serendipity. Not to forget our pronounced and dreaded love for all-nighters and incurable love for books. We’re Alice Hughes, Ed Coates, Eleonore Skaali, Marianne Tatepo, Nina Harrison and Sam Bradbury. We love Austen, Borges, Catton, Heraclitus, Joyce, Kafka, Orwell, Rothfuss and Tartt. We’re Australian, Belgian, English, Norwegian, Polish and Swiss. We studied American Literature, Computer Science, Comparative Literature, Classics, Creative Writing, English Literature, Film Studies and Psychology. In other words: we’re a melting pot, and hope that this will be mirrored in the fiction that UCL’s writers throw at us this year.

Launched last year, UCL’s first student-led writing prize had a daunting legacy to build upon, including events such as One Day in the City. With the luxury of hindsight, we were able to develop some of the brilliant ideas the 2013-14 cohort came up with by adding a twist – not least, flash fiction as a self-standing discipline. But the message remains: we will find, nurture and promote UCL’s best writers. And while we’ve stuck to fiction, there is no doubt that with guidance from the UCL Centre for Publishing’s fantastic tutors, the scope could further expand with future MA Publishing cohorts and attract even wider talent.

There is sometimes a strong assumption that creative writing is exclusive to English literature students. And as you’d rightly expect, last year featured UCL English Department students. The department remain keen supporters and coincidentally, two of last year’s judges are UCL English alumni and Head of Department John Mullan himself is a former Man Booker judge – but this isn’t it. Case in point: the anthology also featured Kristen Perrin, a PhD student at the UCL School of Slavonic and East European studies; Jonathan Tsang, who studied Law; Jeremy Yang, who read Psychology; Philosophy student Nicholas Baines; Alice Dunn from International Planning; Luzia Troebinger, PhD in Neuroscience… the list goes on.

And this is the value of creative writing at universities (or at least here at UCL): universality. The prize is truly interdisciplinary. Writing is one of the few ways in which a campus organisation can reach out to a broad mix of students without asking for rituals, initiation, or constant attention. We decided to pair up universality with brevity, hence short stories (4000 words max) and flash fiction (300 words max). Anyone with a spare afternoon can meet up with their friends, set a theme and write a paragraph – the key is a good punchline. Think of those words by Ernest Hemingway, “For sale: Baby shoes. Never worn.” Less is more – but we promise to offer plenty.

Submissions for the UCL Publishers’ Prize close on Friday 16 January 2015 – Read FAQs and submit here

Image credit: Antonio Litterio/ Wikipedia 

Marianne Tatepo