Wise owls help roos write

September 5, 2003

Winnie-the-Pooh is supporting a project in which professional writers give students personal tuition to improve their skills. Terry Philpot reports.

The Royal Literary Fund, founded in 1799 for the relief of poor and distressed authors, has taken 204 years to fulfil its secondary charitable objective - the promotion of public education. This was not for want of desire or trying; the fund merely lacked the necessary cash. Now A.

A. Milne and Walt Disney have combined to marry the two objectives nicely by providing fellowships, worth £13,000 a year, to writers who work two days a week in institutions of higher education - mainly universities - helping students to hone their writing skills.

The quarter share of Milne's estate was always a welcome augmentation of the RLF's funds, but Winnie-the-Pooh's more recent translation to the screen by Disney, and the associated marketing, now serves to benefit both British literature and academia. More than £2 million went into the scheme's first four years. Universities, says Stephen Cook, the fund's fellowship and education officer, seemed more receptive to what the fund wanted to do with its largesse than schools or prisons and, anyway, the RLF did not want to replicate other kinds of fellowships. The scheme is unique in the UK, although a similar one exists in the US.

It came about after extensive consultations between the RLF and the then Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals. The scheme was piloted in 1999-2000 when eight writers who were well spread geographically were chosen and then matched with an institution. It continued in 2000-01 with 19 other writers. Today, writers respond to advertisements for the fellowships, and some have been appointed for a second year. A few universities have two writers.

Initially, there was some puzzlement at what non-academic staff had to offer and defensiveness on traditional campuses at such an innovation. Now universities positively welcome fellows. They acknowledge that few staff have time to offer such personal attention and that increasing numbers of students, particularly the less traditional entrants, such as mature students and those who have come to the university through other routes, are sometimes not equipped with the basic skills required by all students, whatever their discipline.

The 85 fellows so far, who have been based in 50 institutions, have included such distinguished writers as novelists Anita Mason and Lesley Grant-Adamson and biographers Carole Angier and Jan Marsh, as well as many lesser known names, including poets, playwrights, translators and a bibliographer. They have the use of office space, a computer, telephone, photocopier and access to a library and social facilities. A university staff member acts as the fund's coordinator and the fellow's contact.

The fellows are on hand to help students with individual tuition on everything from sentence structure, note-taking and drafting to presentation, organisation and structuring an argument; and from writing essays to writing job applications and even lab reports. Research has shown that there are 64 different writing tasks expected of students. The fellows have even received pleas for help from academics wanting advice about how to turn research into popularly written articles. And while these are not creative writing fellowships, it is left largely up to fellows as to whether they offer advice on the draft novel, poem or short story that may be shown to them.

Fellows are not restricted to working in the more obvious departments, such as history or English; some have been placed in architecture and engineering. The wide remit is emphasised by writers being hosted mostly by central departments such as learning development or language and learning.

Cook says: "If the student understands who the writer is, it helps to clarify their role and it also allows the writer not to be seen as an assistant to the tutor. They are definitely outsiders."

As well as observing confidentiality, fellows are asked to be sensitive to the conventions of different disciplines and the way that individual universities function. Cook admits a "potential area of friction" between the demands of good English and the tendency, in some areas, to use as much jargon as possible as a sign of having mastered the subject.

Some writers may well have teaching experience in schools or universities, but inside knowledge is not a prerequisite. Cook explains: "We think one-to-one support, which is the bedrock of our scheme, is something the writers need little training in. All they need is competent interpersonal skills and reserves of empathy, tact and patience; whereas, if we were asking fellows to teach classes or offer a programme of instruction, the scheme would have to be restricted to those with previous teaching experience in higher education. Induction is offered and new fellows meet experienced ones to acclimatise them to what to expect."

One fellow, the novelist Katherine McMahon, has written that she expected to have nothing to do and that such practical work might prove unsatisfactory. But she discovered "a deep commitment to the scheme among students and staff dedicated to improving writing skills. Their openness and receptivity is utterly engaging and has, in turn, drawn from me skills and strengths that have been latent or underused".

It's enough to make Eeyore smile.

'The good thing is you can offer one-to-one tuition'

Nicholas Murray has, he says, just buried Kafka. His biography of the Czech writer has been completed in less than three years, giving him no time for any other writing.

His second novel, Remembering Carmen, which will be published in October, was written before Kafka. His previous works include a life of Aldous Huxley, which came out last year and has been shortlisted for the Marsh Biography Award.

"I literally write for a living," Murray says. He intends to write a third novel, but this will not bring him an advance to live on. So he is taking up a fellowship from the Royal Literary Fund, which he says will give him "breathing space".

Even a writer of Murray's standing - he has published biographies of Bruce Chatwin, Matthew Arnold and Andrew Marvell - finds that the £13,000-a-year fellowship gives him a chance to work on less well-paid writing.

Murray read English at Liverpool and was a journalist until becoming a full-time writer a decade ago. This academic year, he takes up his fellowship at Queen Mary, University of London, along with Martina Evans, the novelist and poet.

Murray says: "It will be a change from being on the treadmill and having to write to survive. I am looking forward to working with other people, engaging with them. The good thing is you are able to offer one-to-one tuition, which in many universities is unheard of."

Murray stresses the importance of confidentiality - on which the RLF insists - in his relationship with students, so that they do not feel they are being judged or discussed with other tutors.

He is a little surprised that university students will need help with their writing skills.

But he adds: "In a culture that depends more and more on visual images, the spoken word, broadcast media, (a culture) in which people are reading less, traditional literacy may get neglected. Whether things have got worse is hard to say. People always go for cultural pessimism, for the rhetoric of decline, rather than bouncy optimism. It will be interesting to find out.

"I suppose I can't offer anything more than a don except that (as a writer) you are in daily battle to communicate and write for the general reader, which some academics don't have to bother about, so you possibly have a keener sense of how to make language work more effectively and clearly.

"When it comes to actually contributing something to the student's subject, if it were zoology, then I wouldn't have much to offer, but if it were English then that would be different."

Murray says he will not be looking for a new Proust, but encouraging people to write "good, clear prose".

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