This was one of the first in-person creative writing seminars in the Faculty after the pandemic. When the announcement was circulated, all spots were taken within five minutes – I know that because I replied after five minutes and received a kind, ‘waitlisted’ email. On the morning of the workshop though, I was notified that a spot had become available last minute, so I took the opportunity to attend without having to think twice.
The seminar room was packed when Alan Hollinghurst arrived. At first, we just stared at him in awe, no one knowing what to expect from him and the workshop. Alan started by reminiscing about his own time at Oxford and his experience as a student in the Faculty. His narration – in a calm and gentle tone – visibly helped ease our initial agitation; yet, the very idea of interacting and even having common reference points with a Booker-prize winner gave an oddly surreal note to the experience.
During the first hour of the seminar, we focused on two literary texts that Alan had circulated in advance. Funnily enough, he seemed rather pleased that no one was able to recognise the literary works from which the excerpts had been taken. Then, in a close-reading fashion, we engaged in a collective analysis of the texts – in a less teacher/student way, however – by paying attention to techniques, narrative voice, and focalization; what is earned and lost in each case. For a change though, Alan encouraged us to think from the perspective of the novelist; what we would choose or avoid if we were to write this passage. The second hour of the seminar involved a creative writing exercise in which we were asked to write a paragraph describing a scene from the perspective of a child. The freedom to select everything in the story, from the voice(s) and the narrative perspective(s) to the setting and time, felt overwhelming and even daunting at first, but also weirdly liberatory, freeing us from the constraints of our trained analytical minds.
I was pleasantly surprised to see genuine enthusiasm and support from a novelist of such high calibre, patiently and unselfishly guiding a team of graduate and undergraduate students. When we started sharing our short pieces one by one, the ambience in the room changed: it became more intimate and collective at the same time, as the kaleidoscope of our stories merged us all into one. There was also a feeling that every contribution mattered, given that everyone brought something different to the table – experiences, cultures, and perspectives overall. Even languages, too; I felt very encouraged by Alan and everyone in the room when I translated my short text from Greek to English. For those of us who had a first encounter with a creative writing ‘class’, we could not have chosen a more amicable and supportive environment.
A paradigmatic creative writing seminar and one of the most student-centred initiatives that the Faculty has offered this year, I hope it will be the first out of many post-pandemic creative workshops. Already aiming to respond in less than five minutes to the next email announcing a similar initiative in the future.
Isavella Vouza is a DPhil Candidate at the Faculty of English.