Xan's Residency: What We Learned and Loved

Xan with the Writer in Residence workshop students.

Xan with the Writer in Residence workshop students.

Last month, we said goodbye to our hugely popular writer-in-residence, Xan Brooks. Although it felt like the end of a small era, upon reflection many of us were surprised to note that his residency had in actuality lasted just five weeks. It felt like much longer because Xan had been able to pack so much into relatively so little time. 

Xan juggled several projects during his time in Falmouth: He gave a talk on his experiences as a novelist, journalist and editor at The Lighthouse for students and staff.  Toward the end of his tenure, he delivered a public lecture on the ethics of contemporary fiction writing. He wrote a new short story – due to be released as a book this summer by National Trust Publishing, in collaboration with the School of Writing and Journalism. 

All of these projects were well-received and commensurate with the breadth of expertise and insight one would expect from an industry veteran with a foot in both the journalistic and fictive camps. The aspect of Xan’s residency which will surely have had the most lasting and tangible impact, though, was his writing workshops. 

For three hours once a week, a select dozen or so SOWJ students from various years and degree courses would converge on the sofas in The Lighthouse to discuss the art and science of fiction writing. Given the honour of studying under such a well-known talent, the mood of the workshops was more relaxed and informal than many of us might have been expecting. The vibe was usually somewhere between a literary salon, a book club, and a pub lock-in. 

Xan’s teaching style, if one could even call it that, is laid back and unpretentious. Despite his literary repute, there is no trace in him of the sniffy intellectual addressing his students de haut en bas. If anything, he treats us as peers, and the unspoken goal of his pedagogical method seems to be to convince us to think of ourselves in similarly high regard. 

With his uniform of Chuck Taylors, faded jeans and t-shirt, and his appreciation for storytelling in all its forms from King to Kurosawa, Xan clearly hasn’t let his status as an artist subsume his identity as a fan. His enthusiasm is infectious. He gushes about books he loves, urging us to read them. He listens keenly to us as we do the same. He encourages rather than leads the discussion. He poses big questions about writing that he doesn’t pretend to have all the answers to. 

After introducing the week’s theme – for which we were all tasked with bringing in a selection of another author’s work to share – Xan would turn the floor over to the group to hear our thoughts on the ideas of the day. We’d discuss – often heatedly – the role and responsibility of the author; as artist, as advocate, and as social participant. We’d do creative writing exercises and read what we’d written aloud. We’d be pushed outside of our comfort zones and forced to look at our own work with fresh, discriminating eyes. 

And, of course, we’d take a break halfway through for tea and Hobnobs – because we’re writers, not animals. 

The weekly workshops would be supplemented by one-to-one tutorials with Xan, during which he’d go through a close-read of our work and suggest edits. A fortnight later, he’d read through the newly edited piece to see how it had improved. And sure enough, every one of us saw our writing improve significantly since the workshops began. 

Below, some of Xan’s students reflect on their highlights and experiences, and share what Xan has taught us, not just about how to write better, but more importantly; why to write at all. 

Geraldine, MA Professional Writing:

One of the most crucial things I gained from working with Xan was confidence in writing off the cuff and reading out loud unpolished work. I also felt a greater sense of community with my peers in the School of Writing and Journalism. Hearing about the books that have shaped peoples lives – I now have a reading list of recommendations that will take me to the end of 2020 at least. It’s also really enriched my studies at Falmouth. There’s no way would I feel as prepared to tackle novel as I do since Xan's Wednesday afternoon sessions. 

Eileen, Creative Writing BA (hons):

Xan’s workshops gave me a deeper insight into the process and skills of writing a piece. A developed relationship to my true ‘voice’. The workshops managed to correspond with my other courses subject matter every week. This allowed me to further explore themes such as character creation, handling of time and pacing within a piece, genre, style and tone of voice. My lessons were essentially supplemented by a second instructor, which gave further depth and additional insight into what I was learning on the course. There was so much to enjoy about the sessions. Book recommendations, writing exercises, sharing work, the relaxed environment, which was very personal and intimate, long tutorials, engaged students. It’s difficult to choose just one favourite aspect. The time Xan took to read my pieces and offer feedback gave me a new momentum towards my personal writing and really helped me explore my true voice and my intentions with my writing. I showed him first and second drafts of short stories I have been working on, and his insight allowed me to revisit these works with new inspiration and confidence. I have since then written two additional short stories that breathe the voice of a capable and committed writer. I believe having someone be able to help you define your true voice is an invaluable gift. 

Nicky, MA Professional Writing:

The workshops were ideal for me, not having taken the novel option this term. It was great to have the opportunity to work up a fiction project with Xan. I enjoyed the tasks of finding examples of good intros and books we’d enjoyed and why, as it made me think more analytically about what I’ve read. It’s not something I’ve had a lot of experience of doing, and I need to do it more. I also loved having to progress a novel idea for him to critique with us. I only seem to get writing done if I have a deadline! 

Dominic, English with Creative Writing BA (hons):

For me, the most valuable thing gained from my time with Xan was Confidence with my writing and with opening my work up to feedback and close readings. Learning to be less precious. The writing exercises were fun and productive. I felt like they gave everyone a chance to share and give feedback, and brought our writing to life. I also found the one on one sessions with Xan really helpful, as he wasn’t shy about being critical. 

I’ve kept developing my pieces from the workshops and started reading my work out aloud a lot more, sharing passages with people to hear how they sound and how they can be improved. 

Nicki, MA Professional Writing:

Working with Xan helped me to view my work from a writer’s perspective rather than that of a student. The emphasis was on writing for pleasure or challenge, rather than writing for assignments. This helped to free up my writing. 

I loved discussing favourite books or passages of books, as this made me think more about which authors I like and why. Xan's focus each week really helped to widen my knowledge and perspective. The workshop on character was particularly helpful. Xan is so knowledgeable about books, he was always able to give an example or come up with a counter-argument or different perspective. The MA workload is so intensive, sometimes this has resulted in my not being able to truly enjoy the writing process. Working with Xan helped to reignite my passion for writing and has given me more confidence in my work. 

Evelyn, MA Professional Writing:

The workshops with Xan really were invaluable – talking us through his insight into the industry and the craft itself was inspiring. Over the weeks, it felt as though we had become a small community of writers under his tutelage, it was a safe place to share work and get excited about each other’s projects. 

Since the workshops have finished, I try to take away the last bit of detail or explanation that I’ve written. He told me to stop trying to explain the world, the characters, their minds to the reader because they don’t need to have it all explained to them. I always keep this in mind now when writing. 

By far, my favourite aspect of the sessions was the one to one feedback we were given. Talking about my characters and my world with Xan was a great experience. He seemed so excited about the world and characters, it was very encouraging. I wish we could have had longer with him!

by Harry Webster