- 21 March 2023
- 6 minutes
“Perhaps what makes good writing – or writing good – is that it makes something, whether that is a thought, an experience, or a sense.”Head of Programme Writing
What makes good writing?
Many things, and many of them mutually contradictory. Sometimes I say to potential applicants to the programme that their writing should make me want to read more, but that doesn’t always mean right now: some writing insists upon being taken more slowly, or in smaller portions. This might have something to do with a certain density of language, or richness of form, or it might be the opposite, and one might like to put down the text in order to consider it, or allow it to consider us.
Perhaps what makes good writing – or writing good – is that it makes something, whether that is a thought, an experience, or a sense. Again, circumstance is important: whether one is introducing an artist who may be unknown to an audience, or is asking them to think differently about one with whom they think themselves familiar, requires different things. There is scarcely anything more exciting than reading about an artwork one thinks one knows well, only for the writer’s description to make it new.
What most interests you in the process of writing?
Writing is mainly not writing, and the not-writing parts can often be the more interesting – meeting people, eating food, looking upon things both beautiful and not. But writing is mainly reading anyway, not just the writing of other people, but also one’s own, reading back over what one has just written. What is most interesting here is that it can – sometimes – reveal a thought which is better, more original perhaps, than one which one had had before: the thought wasn’t written down, but the writing had the thought.
Which writers have had the biggest impact on you?
Many, and for many different reasons. An important influence long ago, when I first started to write and be published, was the American artist Robert Smithson, whose essays were also artworks and pieces of travel writing and criticism and autobiography and science fiction. As someone who also trained as a visual artist, it was interesting to come across writing which sat between or across more established practices, and was also an attempt to create a space in which such writing could exist (in this case, often in the pages of Artforum). Perhaps this is why I am still so drawn to writers whose work sits across or between (or ‘speaks nearby’ as Trinh T. Minh-Ha remarked), writers such as Anne Carson and Susan Howe, Lisa Robertson and WG Sebald. In any case, perhaps what is most important is not the biggest impact but the most sustaining uncertainty, and these and many others help me enormously with this.
“Although writing is often considered a solitary, and rather isolated, activity we consider it to be something rather more communal, and in the world rather than simply about it.”Head of Programme Writing
How do you teach writing on the Writing programme at the RCA?
One learns how to write by writing, and so that is what we do. (We do a lot of reading, also, but then as I said, writing is largely reading anyway.) Although students are asked to respond to particular briefs – to write a review essay, or to interview someone they consider important – how they do so is at their discretion; word counts and deadlines provide some structure, and a sense of how they might operate outside of the programme, too. The students then read each other’s work and we discuss them in turn. It is in these discussions that the most wonderful things can be learnt (rather than taught).
Although writing is often considered a solitary, and rather isolated, activity we consider it to be something rather more communal, and in the world rather than simply about it. Our students are asked to consider the various publics their writing might invoke, and how they might put their work into the world, whether that is through a self-produced pamphlet, or with a publisher.
They also work together with an external partner, and this year they are making a publication with and for The Foundling Museum, and have also commissioned Olivia Laing to contribute to this, too.
“Being based in London means that we have access to some extraordinary people, and places, and we try to make full use of these [...]”Head of Programme Writing
Being based in London means that we have access to some extraordinary people, and places, and we try to make full use of these, whether it being having Jacques Testard in to talk about establishing The White Review, and Fitzcarraldo Editions, or inviting Vanesse Peterson, to talk about working with Tate, and now at Frieze. We also visited the studio of writer and artist Edmund De Waal to hear more about his making process — of writing as making and of making as thinking — and the various ways in which it is made public.
But we look further afield, too, visiting Glasgow on a research trip and there meeting curators, publishers, and other young writers in order to consider how one might work with organisations, or between them, or create one’s own. And of course Zoom now allows us to host guests who can stay where they are, whether that’s Tim Young, Curator of Modern Books and Manuscripts at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale, or writers such as Lisa Robertson, Emily Ogden, or Katy Kelleher.
The student’s final major project is something which they largely conceive themselves in both form and content, and is often the point where lots of the things which they’ve learnt over the previous year come together to produce something wholly new. Many of these have become published books, or the first steps towards a PhD, and it is always fascinating to watch these emerge, often from something largely unformed and often previously unknown.
“If the range of subjects about which our students write can be overwhelming [...] then the form that they take makes this greater still.”Head of Programme Writing
What do students write about on the programme?
If the range of subjects about which our students write can be overwhelming – whether a critical bestiary of Singapore, or writing behaviours in the form of ancient architecture, or an attempt at a Trans theology, to take just three examples – then the form that they take makes this greater still. Simply to say ‘balconies’, or ‘rooms’ (another two examples), reveals nothing of the sense of the unexpected which comes from actually reading them, that sense of revelation itself. And this sense is not simply the reader’s alone, but often the student’s, too.
And what do they do next?
Many things: some continue within academia — with PhDs at Princeton and Oxford, Edinburgh and Goldsmiths, Sussex and Manchester — while others take on roles as editors, whether within universities or galleries, newspapers or magazines. Three of our graduates now edit perhaps one of the most important contemporary journals, The White Review, while others have launched their own publications, such as Dirty Furniture, or Tinted Window.
Two of our graduates — Alice Hattrick and Patrick Langley — are published by Fitzcarraldo Editions, one of the most exciting and successful publishers in the world, and in recent years five of our graduates have been shortlisted for Fitzcarraldo’s essay prize. One such writer, Jeremy Atherton Lin, had a longer version of his essay published as Gay Bar (Granta [UK] / Little, Brown [US]), a wonderful book which was awarded the prestigious National Book Critics Circle Prize for Autobiography.
But even if our graduates don’t continue to write I’d still hope that the programme has been important for them. When John Ruskin established his school for drawing in Oxford it was not simply that he considered drawing important in itself, but because it was the means by which one could give the world its due attention, whether that be an approaching storm, or the conditions of workers, and we think of writing similarly. After being on the programme our students notice more, and understand it better.