A Report on the First Year of the Royal Literary Fund's Fellowship Scheme
In 1999, the Royal Literary Fund launched a Fellowship scheme designed to place writers in universities and colleges all over the United Kingdom. RLF Fellows would provide expertise in Practical - as opposed to Creative - Writing, that is to say they would offer tuition in fundamental skills such as how to draw up a job application, set out a proposal or compose an essay. The Fund hoped to capitalise on a resource, possessed by all writers, that has become increasingly scarce in the rest of the community at a time when more and more students find it less and less easy to communicate clearly on paper, or for that matter by email on computer screens.
Since Practical Writing is a new concept, we decided to explore its possibilities by setting up a three-year pilot scheme. Eight Fellows were appointed for a term of one year each at different institutions, starting in autumn 1999. In order for us to make the most of their experience, with unanimous support from the institutions involved, all eight founding Fellows agreed at the end of the academic year to put in a second year. A further 19 Fellows are now half-way through year two of the pilot, and around 45 writers are expected to take part in the scheme's third year in 2001. This means that, by the end of the pilot period, the RLF will have awarded some 80 writing Fellowships at one third of all UK institutions of higher education.
The scheme generated great enthusiasm on both sides. All parties were deliberately chosen to provide the broadest possible experimental sample in terms of students' age, ability, experience and disciplines; the institutions' aims and attitudes as well as geographical location and academic range; and the specialities of the Fellows themselves, which include not only poetry, plays and novels but also science, sport and screen writing, children's books, biography and translation.
All the writers found their first year extremely fruitful. The amount of work they produced (opera librettos, novels, poems, screenplays), on top of working with students two days a week, suggests the depth of creative frustration routinely imposed by want of money, time and space. Any author will understand the pressures behind this summing-up by a young screen-writer at the start of her career: 'This is the first year in which I've been able to enjoy feeding my craft without starving myself.'
It was, of course, always easy to predict the effect on writers. But, in order to comply with the terms of the RLF's charter, the primary aim of this scheme is educational, and (although it is too soon to measure results statistically) we were left in no doubt as to its impact on individuals. Fellows were often amazed by the effect they produced. 'It was a delight to have several students come to my office to hug me for an A in their essays... when they never got an A before,' one Fellow wrote from Leeds. 'BA students were a mixed bag,' wrote another, from Bath: 'I had the delightful experience of watching them wake up to their own abilities.' The screen-writer quoted above spoke for many when she described the problems facing mature students, at a College of Further Education in a deprived inner-city area, when they tried to write out even the simplest statement: 'I saw very quickly how desperately needed the RLF contribution is. Students lacked confidence in their writing ability. Although they could often articulate their ideas quite well verbally, they seized up when required to put these same ideas down on paper. It was eye-opening for me as I've always found it easier to write my thoughts than to speak them.'
Tutors confirm that their students' improved performance often had more to do with growing confidence than with any specific technical assistance. The general pattern has been for Fellows to complement standard departmental teaching by offering students one-to-one consultations lasting from 30 minutes to an hour ('time they could not possibly have got from their academic tutors'). Fellows have also given talks and readings, taken part in supplementary programmes for specific groups, and experimented with information technology (which is where students are likely to feel most at home in future). One of our appointments was a 'virtual' Fellowship, operating largely on screen at the Open University.
Institutions, by nature reluctant to innovate, have welcomed outside expertise in an area they cannot normally reach. Several reports made it clear that the experiment has proved unexpectedly stimulating and mutually instructive for staff as well as for students. Workshops and clinics run by writers cater, according to a report by one of our academic partners, 'for a fundamental need of the modern undergraduate - the need for personal, practical help in developing [writing] skills.'
The main problem in the first year was relatively slow take-up at first by students, who were inevitably confused about the difference between 'practical' and 'creative' writing. This should sort itself out as the scheme develops and understanding grows. The keys to its smooth running so far have been flexibility, adaptability, and the sensitive matching of individual writers to their institutional partners. Both sides expended much ingenuity on making it work. One of this year's Fellows arranged with his campus Geography Department to delegate a student from each tutorial group to attend his writing sessions, and report back to the original group ('That way we reach 200 students with six hours of my time').
Fellows in turn learned much from campus politics and departmental meetings ('which provide wondrous material for short stories'). A contemporary cultural mix ranging from academic sub-dialects to media jargon and business-speak yielded rich pickings for another of this year's Fellows, who asked a manufacturing company to describe its latest product: 'Acmeclad is of a monocoque construction comprising a polymeric textile reinforcement encapsulated within a neoprene outer layer complete with integral neoprene strakes bonded to a polypropylene penetration-resistant thixotropic gel as dictated by the application for which the system will be supplied.'
People who think and write like this may well require help in the future if they are to communicate with the outside world. The business community is already starting to acknowledge deficiencies apparent for some time in the academic world. The possibilities for development and expansion of the RLF scheme - together with the consequences for writers - are only just beginning to come into view.
In the meantime the RLF will continue to monitor and modify the second half of its Fellowship pilot. I started this report by quoting a young black screen-writer whose energy and confidence made her a role model for an older generation of south-London women. I will end at the opposite extreme of the RLF's spectrum with a well-established literary biographer, working at the only blue-chip university in our initial sample, who reached similar conclusions. 'If the RLF can continue to be as generous and flexible to all Fellows as it has been to me, RLF Fellowships will be the greatest resource for writers since their own education...'
All the evidence, formal and informal, suggests that the RLF is the first in this field to identify and take steps to address a nationwide need that can only grow. RLF Fellows, in the words of the biographer quoted above, 'deal not only with high-flying creative writing hopefuls but with everyone at all levels of the need to communicate fact, fiction or ideas... I think that more and more institutions of higher learning will be founding [writing programmes], that the RLF has had the vision to offer experts in the very early stage of this movement, and that RLF Fellows will become its mainstays in the future.'
We could hardly have asked for a clearer or more positive response to the scheme first put forward two years ago in these pages as an attempt to break down divisions, to build up contacts, to relieve cultural poverty and linguistic distress, while simultaneously lightening the financial and material burdens weighing so heavily on all authors at present.