‘The Words That Work’: An Interview with Dr Alison Habens, Head of Creative Writing at the University of Portsmouth

Elizabeth Palmer has been interviewing various teachers of creative writing to gain insights into their motives, methods and approaches. Lately she spoke to Dr Alison Habens, novelist, poet and Head of Creative Writing at the University of Portsmouth.

Elizabeth Palmer: Why did you decide to lecture in creative writing?

Alison Habens: Well I didn’t decide to lecture as much as I was allowed to! When I began teaching, I was only a lecturer for two hours a week, and I spent the rest of the week preparing for those two hours. This was several decades ago. A lot of the preparation I did back then still comes in handy now that I am a full-time lecturer. It is a very competitive profession and there are a lot of people out there that who could be or should be doing it, but there are simply not enough spaces. Most people can experience aspects of it by joining creative writing groups and working informally with friends or fellow writers. They can look at others’ work and comment on it.

An important part of the role of a teacher, I used to think, was simply calling out registers. Funnily enough, I do remember that one of my favourite games as a small child was making up registers and calling them out. My parents were both schoolteachers and would often bring back unfinished register books so that I could make up classes of my own from characters or my own toy collection. I would come up with gorgeous names and just be on my own in the lounge, reading these names out with a booming voice.

Only recently did I think about this as I was reading out names at a graduation. This is a really important moment for students. It is a beautiful scene when parents, who have dreamed of this moment, hear their child’s name called and watch them get up and walk across the front to collect their degree scroll. It is vital to pronounce people’s names right, especially given that they are authors of the future!

EP: Why creative writing in particular? Did you think about teaching any other subjects?

AH: Well when I was your age, there weren’t creative writing degrees. That was fine because I didn’t want to be a writer then. But from a young age I was always told that I should be a writer. In fact, one of my earliest memories was someone telling me that I had an excellent way with words and that I should write more. To me, that sounded quite lonely, sitting by yourself in a room just working. It didn’t seem like fun to me, but now that is my idea of fun.

There was no training in creative writing but I was very good at English. Although, when it came to my degree I chose drama and dance, as I was very attracted to the physical aspects of creativity. Lots of my friends whom I did drama with also did English literature, so I got to experience half of an Eng lit course. This was very useful, and I wished after that that I had done such a degree myself.

When I was employed here at Portsmouth, quite a long time ago, creative writing was just an option as part of English literature and cultural studies degrees. So, units that are now available on our creative writing degrees, such as True Stories or Telling Tales, were originally part of these courses. I was then able to – and along with the team – develop the creative writing department as it now is from several whole and half degrees. That was something that seemed to grow with me, rather than something that had already started and I had to jump in and get into.

I had my first novel published when I was accepted to teach at the University of Portsmouth. That was the time that Portsmouth had become a university. The novel is about 23 years old now. Really I was a writer doing some lecturing, and one thing that has happened over the last few years is that I have become a lecturer doing some writing. But I know that what I write now is much better than the first or second novel that I wrote.

Nobody really taught me, so I can appreciate the theory that there are some things that you can’t teach. You can’t teach someone to be imaginative or ambitious particularly, but then a lot of the other aspects you can teach. It’s the case of, this is what happened when I tried it, and a lot of the activities are based on experiences I had whilst writing a novel, script or poetry. For example, problems that I teach about in these forms resemble problems that I myself have faced in the past. It’s good to see different classes of students through the years responding to them differently.

EP: Is there anyone that has asked you exactly what creative writing is due to the fact that it has not been around as long as certain other university subjects?

AH: Not really. Generally, I can explain all that I do in one sentence: I’m a novelist and I write plays, poetry and essays; and I teach all of those things to undergraduate students. There is certainly, though, a question some might have, which is ‘What’s academic about that?’ In a way, creative writing is traditional because it contains elements of the oldest university disciplines: literature, philosophy, critical thinking and mythology.

EP: What are you writing now?

AH: I’m always writing things. I’m probably trying to write too many things. I’m very interested in, and enjoying at the moment, poetry for performance. I’m also getting into a more social aspect of performance poetry by involving myself with a group called T’Articulation. Also, with a novel you aren’t there when someone is reading it, so you don’t know their reaction. When you are alone in a room, delivering the lines, it is interesting to see the words that work and the words that do not. Hopefully, that at least once in every class, or every performance, there is a moment when you can tell that everyone is enjoying it.

Attend Alison’s Life Writing Weekend workshop with Skyros Holidays on the Isle of Wight on 15th-17th March.

Photo courtesy of Skyros.