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Five-minute interview: Royal Literary Fund Writing Fellow Marcy Kahan
16 January 2013
Playwright Marcy Kahan tells us about the Royal Literary Fund (RLF) Writing Fellowship scheme, which helps UCL students develop their academic writing skills.
After a lifetime of freelance playwrighting, you are now a tutor at UCL. How did this happen?
The short answer is Winnie the Pooh.
Winnie the Pooh as in the bear created by A.A. Milne?
Precisely. The Royal Literary Fund, an established charity since the 17th century, is the beneficiary of the A.A. Milne estate. When the rights to the honey-guzzling bear were sold to the Disney Corporation the RLF found itself with a windfall of millions of pounds. The biographer Hilary Spurling came up with the inspired idea of establishing a scheme of Writing Fellowships. Since 1999, the RLF has placed hundreds of authors – novelists, poets, playwrights, biographers – in colleges and universities from Aberystwyth to York. These writers-in-residence do not teach creative writing; they offer tutorials in academic writing across all disciplines. UCL has been an enthusiastic supporter of the scheme since its inception.
Are you a member of a UCL department?
The RLF Fellows are hosted by the Graduate School. They provide us with an office and advertise our services on their website, via email and on posters dotted round the College. The service is also available for undergraduates. My office days are Mondays and Thursdays. My fellow Fellow, the writer and editor Charles Boyle, is here on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.
So how does it work?
The students email us directly to book a 45-minute tutorial. The majority find us via the website and itʼs perhaps a measure of their academic anxiety that these emails tend to be composed between midnight and 3am. They are invited to send us a sample of their writing before the session. We make it clear that we are not a proof-reading or copy-editing service. We donʼt teach remedial grammar or English as a second language. We gracefully resist all invitations to opine about the marks which students have received. Nor do we advise on content.
So what do you do?
We have confidential conversations on any aspect of writing which the student wishes to improve: structuring an essay, honing a research proposal, drafting the chapter of a dissertation, crafting a paragraph. We also advise on the psychological aspects of writing: how to cope with paralysis, panic, procrastination. The confidential nature of the service encourages students to articulate an honest assessment of their current writing practice. Many welcome the opportunity to explain the essence of their work to an outsider. The students are usually impressed and bemused to meet someone who voluntarily sits in a room/cafe/library most days, in eager pursuit of the right words in the right order.
Can students book more than one tutorial?
We initially ask the students to book just one tutorial, with one Fellow. Further tutorials may be arranged by mutual agreement but we try not to function as substitute academic or personal tutors.
Does the RLF have a particular philosophy of academic writing?
The launch of the RLF Writing Fellowships was inspired by a growing dismay at the jargon-laden verbiage infecting many areas of British academic and professional society. A case in point, quoted by Hilary Spurling, was a manufacturing company who was asked 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.”
The Fellows are encouraged to bring their own insights and expertise to the tutorials but we are all proselytising for the clear, precise, elegant use of English.
Youʼve done the first term of your Fellowship. What are your impressions so far?
Itʼs a huge privilege and pleasure to be at UCL. Iʼve seen students from 25 different countries across 17 different disciplines. My plays tend to be hyperbolic comedies of ideas, so I find the wide-ranging content of the studentsʼ work (from autism to zygotes) congenial and stimulating. Itʼs also been gratifying: my inbox will deliver an impenetrable, coma-inducing thicket of paragraphs, then a day later its author, a vibrant, intelligent student, will come through the door. In most cases, these long-winded authors are relieved to hear that even though they have scaled the academic heights by winning a place at UCL, there is no need to write like an android.
Finally, have you made progress with your own writing projects while at UCL?
Definitely. Iʼve been working on two new projects for BBC Radio: a play commissioned to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Noel Cowardʼs death, Mr Bridgerʼs Orphan, scheduled for broadcast on Radio 4 on 15th March 2013, and a five-episode Platonic romantic comedy, Lunch, due for broadcast later in 2013.
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