Christie Watson must be very pleased. Her book, Tiny Sunbirds Far Away, about a Muslim family in Lagos, has been shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Prize.
Perhaps she has an advantage. She’s a graduate of the famous University of East Anglia Creative Writing course and she was on Radio 4 this morning alongside one of its most illustrious alumni, Ian McEwan. With John Humphrys they were discussing that old chestnut: whether creative writing can be taught.
Humphrys rounded off the conversation by asking Watson what was the most valuable thing she had learnt on the course. ‘Write a book that other people want to read,’ she replied without hesitation, adding that it was not a tutor but an RLF fellow who had given her this piece of advice.
That is interesting. The Royal Literary Fund fellows do in universities a similar job to what I and many other readers of this blog do in organisations. We help with the practicalities of communication, its effectiveness, rather than its underlying messages. Our clients have the thought (in theory), we help them express it to shareholders, customers, colleagues. Similarly, the students have the thought (in theory), the RLF fellows, all published writers, promote good writing practice, helping them with structure and language – though one would earnestly hope that the creative writing students don’t need much help in that department.
The advice may sound obvious. If you don’t write something other people are going to want to read, then no one will read it. But when you’re in the hothouse environment of a creative writing course, other imperatives may take over and writing ‘what I want to write’ may become irresistible. There’s an identical and equally irresistible corporate impulse to say to the world, in exhaustive detail, ‘what we want to say’.
The RLF fellow’s advice directly echoes what we spend our lives telling people. Write what other people want to read (sub-text: not what I or we want to say). For book just substitute report, email, website or anything else that people in business have to write. Those that get the message communicate in a way that connects. Those that don’t don’t. Sadly the latter are still in the majority.
Towards the end of the programme there was talk of another book. This, for me at any rate, had more uplifting associations. It’s by David Jones, chief executive of global advertising giant Havas, and it was called, in a parody of the SAS motto, Who Cares Wins. Its theme is that the really successful businesses of the future will be those who do more than pay lip service to corporate social responsibility; those who can demonstrate in deed that their drive for growth and gain benefits a far wider community than simply their shareholders.
If the tide really is turning this way, and David Jones certainly believes it is, then telling people what they want to hear, writing what they want to read, is going to become more important than ever. At its most basic it’s the difference between monologue and dialogue