What do I know?

I’m back to thinking about weather again.  You might remember that’s how I started out last week, but I quickly moved on to other things.

So let’s try again.  Remember September?  I notice in the diary I’m about to put away that for the first five days of that month I wrote, ‘hot’.  This week I am, as I type, toasting next to a well-stoked woodburner, and my old Fahrenheit thermometer in the corner reads seventy.  So this room also, you might say, is hot and perhaps that covers the subject adequately.  After all, we’ve all experienced all kinds of temperatures and the writing rule these days is less is more, especially with descriptions.

We could be satisfied with memory and perhaps some photographs or pictures to trigger them.  That’s good, it’s what imaginations are for.  We take what we know and embellish it, recreate our own versions of events, scenarios, situations according to our own designs.  But, and there is a but, beware the chances of falling into cliché.  I’m not talking of language now, rather I’m thinking about how far the things that remain with us are universal.  Take summer time as a topic, for instance.

summer holidaysLet’s think about writing a description of a British family beach holiday.  You might include the sensations of being dried with a sandy towel, or the texture of gritty ice-cream, the call of seagulls, the sounds of fairground rides and the smell of fish and chips.  They’re all good, valid approaches, but what makes them specific, applicable to one particular place in time and space?  More importantly, how do you make the description your own?

Okay, you could just tell us, this is Bournemouth, Barmouth, Tenby, Yarmouth, Brighton or Blackpool.  Then again, perhaps the geography doesn’t matter.  If you’re writing a nostalgic piece, perhaps you are looking for common experiences. Fine, but surely you still want lively writing.  You want to intrigue your reader, to engage their attention.

Small children know the trick of that.  It’s the unusual, perhaps even the outrageous behaviour, that causes adults to turn from their conversations to what the child is up to.  That’s a good principle to remember when writing, because unless they’re related to us, most readers do have to be won over, by the power of our words to transport them from the present into another world.

I am on a beach.  I don’t know where – Southwold perhaps.  I am very small and wearing a blue ruched swimming costume, which scratches the tops of my legs and fills with bubbles of water when I go in the sea.  But I’m not in the sea.  I’m sitting on a big striped towel, shivering.  My dad is sitting beside me and I’m thinking how hairy his legs are, like gorilla’s legs.

So writes Leslie Glaister, from memory, in an essay for The Creative Writing Coursebook.  I don’t know about you, I’m hooked.  I both identify with this image, this moment, and am intrigued by the way she gathers together these so specific images to make them clearly only hers.

Sometimes, our recall can be precise enough for us to create something as specific as this.  Or as lyrical as Katherine Mansfield’s, At The Bay.

Very early morning.  The sun was not yet risen, and the whole of Crescent Bay was hidden under a white sea-mist.  The big bush-covered hills at the back were smothered.  You could not see where they ended and the paddocks began.  The sandy road was gone and the paddocks and bungalows the other side of it; there were no white dunes covered with reddish grass beyond them; there was nothing to mark which was beach and where was the sea.  A heavy dew had fallen.  The grass was blue.

I’ve never been to New Zealand, and yet the precision of these details makes me feel that I might have.  It also reminds me of other early morning views.

In both of these pieces specific, telling, details create convincing prose worlds.  It may be that you also are able to evoke a sense of specific place in your writing without too much effort.  How does it happen?  I think it’s through having an eye for detail, and here’s the bit where I link my train of thought back to the start.

I think I could write about a hot week in September, not because my memory is special, or my creative ability any better than the next person’s.  The notes made as I waited in a car outside a Portsmouth house on a Sunday afternoon are enough for me to recall the affects of that unexpected heatwave.  For a moment I forget the woodburner, and that it is evening.

It’s not important that I’ve identified a specific date, what worked was the process of keeping a writers diary.  It focuses my attention.  I observe my surroundings more closely, and instead of passing on, I’ve learned to record it.

My notes are rarely lifted word for word from the diary into a text, they’re a draft to be worked on.  What they give me are ideas and inspiration to translate into stories, or blog entries.

And that’s it.  Here endeth the lesson on Writers Diary keeping.  If you’ve not started one yet, I hope this might have helped convince you to sit down now and start by writing about the weather, whatever manifestation it appears in.

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2 thoughts on “What do I know?

  1. Cath, your gift for demonstrating writing techniques is enviable; and I do envy it. This is an inspiring piece. I have in fact returned to my Writer’s Diary, albeit with my usual intermittency (fairly sure that’s not a word). You make me think hard about what I write. It’s tough to be original but as you point out, including personal details is a pretty good start. Many of us experienced the heat in September but we probably all had at least one specific memory of it that was particular to ourselves. Brilliant and coherent way of illustrating your point. I enjoyed the quotes. You’re a natural teacher.

    Of course, I write this with a wry smile. Our own shared history reminds me of a time when you were adamant that teaching was not for you. I hate to say ‘I told you so’ but… 😉

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  2. Thanks for the compliment, and I do remember that you told me so. I start every class with that same wry smile, and wonder how I managed to get here. Lots of good friends and support, so thanks for that.

    But at heart I am still the gardener too.

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