Under the spell of imaginative people

Sometimes, words just get under my skin.  It may be an early sign of Alzheimer’s, but IClywd theatre put it down to the power of poetry, and the sign of a good production, that even though it is some years since I read, saw or heard Under Milk Wood, while watching a matinee performance by the Clwyd Theatre Cymru on Thursday, I found myself not just anticipating most of the lines, but holding my breath for them.

Left to my own inclinations, I might have passed up on going to see the play again.  It’s been a busy month and I have a copy of the Richard Burton audio production that makes me weak-kneed.  Luckily, though, I have a friend who invited me to go with her.

Anyone who’s interested in imaginative writing should go along to see how a show that was written for the radio, that world-within-the-mind medium, can take place upon a stage.  It was a good reminder that nothing, or to put it in the colloquial, bugger-all, is impossible with fiction.

set photo by Catherine Ashmore

set photo by Catherine Ashmore

The whole geography and community of Llareggub was played out on the small stage of our theatre.  Within a curve of  space were included all of the long sloping streets, the huddles of houses, the hills, the sea, and its shore, and all the busy, lazy, cheating, peeping people who inhabit them.

Theatre, I believe, is magic.  Able to transport me not just into the world of other people, but into my past.  Holding my breath for the slow black, crow black, fishing boat bobbing sea, I not only followed the firm hold of the cast on their roles, but recalled different versions.  Does theatre happen only on the stage? No, it’s in my minds eye too.

I remembered again that school trip, was it in the third or fourth year?  Winter though, because it was dark as we gathered after tea-time to wait for the coach.  I must have been studying the text for literature, but seeing the play was what made me fall in love with it.  That was my first experience of minimal theatre.  Acting can work without scenery and props?  Wow.

The actors were in contemporary dress.  We were out of uniform.  Remember how that felt, to be of school, and yet at odds with it at the same time, and the teachers: in not quite front-of-class mode.  It was a moment of flux, when I experienced something that was outside of the ordinary and was aware of myself growing.  Late nights on a coach, those were the days.  Dusty seats, steamy windows and hushed voices before we stumbled down the steps and made our ways home.

We may have gone to somewhere quite close by, but it seemed to me like another world, and that was just how I felt on Thursday afternoon, walking out into the sunshine.  It took a moment to get into step with the outside, to master paying for parking tickets and head home.



Taking a field trip

On Friday morning we went to Dursley, to hear a new author, Steve Weddle, talk aboutDursley writing group how he published his novel, It Starts with a Kiss. He’d been invited to talk by a local writing group who meet once-a-week to set themselves writing tasks and read-out homework.

What a nice idea, for the author and the group.  For the group, to have the chance to discuss the nuts and bolts of writing and getting published with someone who has only just achieved that has got to be encouraging and enlightening.

How many literary festivals dare to include first time novelists?  I know, they have to use the big names to attract most of us in, but sometimes, when I read through the lists of speakers, it seems like it’s all about celebrity now.  Interesting as those usually are, there’s a marked difference in the experience of being in a cosy gathering like the one at Dursley, and sitting in the Gods at the local theatre looking down at a stage.

The content too was much more writing specific than some of the festival talks I’ve been to.  Of course, ‘gossip’ content is often a result of audience participation.  If a writer is known to mix amongst the rich and famous there will always be an element of the audience who want to know, ‘but what was it really like to work with them?’

So much for the audience, how about the author?  While I do see that we’re all scribbling away with dreams of selling our work, I’m not so sure that means we’d all be comfortable participating in celebrity interviews.

Everything I read tells me that the price of success for authors these days is a willingness to promote your writing.  So whether you’re a spotlight person or not, if you’re looking to be published you might think about getting started with an audience you can make eye-contact with.  I’m not sure where you’d find a group better able to appreciate and applaud your success than one made up of writers-looking-to-get-published.

So, if you’re reading this, Sue, thanks again for inviting us along.



Building a metaphor out of a crisis

Cheltenham derelictionI’ve had a challenging week, technologically speaking, which I trace back to a moment of over-confidence.  It seemed such a simple task, to update my computer’s protection programme.  All I had to do was follow the instructions.

I opened the website and hit the big download button.  Boxes opened, more buttons appeared: agree this, click next, choose that, add the other.  This is a bit much, I thought, but I felt a little smug about doing what I view as a tedious, time-consuming chore.  A finish button came up, and I didn’t even pause when another dialogue box started a new set of instructions.

I was on a roll.  It felt good to be in control of my computer.

That happens with my writing sometimes.  I have characters racing around my story doing all sorts of fascinating things, and the word count is rising so steadily that I can hardly type fast enough to keep on top of it all.

That’s great, that’s my ideal.  Story building from instinct, most of us aspire to that.  The theory is that if you can surprise and entertain yourself, then it’s likely that your reader will have a similar experience.

Except, sometimes, we run out of steam that way.  How many of you have also set off at a cracking pace only to find, two pages in, that you’ve hit a wall.  You have no idea where your character is going to go next.  The story has become either too mundane, or too ridiculous and you can’t think how to rescue it..

Those who’ve already foreseen the outcome of my computer upgrade will probably have guessed that my careless box ticking corrupted my poor little laptop.  It won’t surprise you to hear that I spent the next three days chasing error messages around my screen as I fed it passwords and new logins, to no avail.  It was the weekend, so I resisted the urge to phone our friendly expert, until today.

‘You need to do a system restore,’ he said, and clicking through the control panel, he showed me how to return the computer to the settings it had been at before I began downloading.  Just like a story, I thought, read back to find the point where you began to drift, then start writing again.

At this point, I would like to drift a little from my metaphor title, and suggest that it’s best not to be be quite so drastic as a system restore, which wipes out everything that happened after the date you chose.  I advocate keeping a copy of all your story changes, just so that you can go back and reassure yourself that you were right to cut it.  Otherwise, those permanently deleted moments of flying inspiration will always haunt you.


A lateral approach to creativity.

I’m ambitious. I want someone to get caught up in reading my words, if only for a moment.  Remember the best piece of writing you ever read, the piece from years back that excited you in such a powerful way that you’ve been seeking to replicate those feelings, that moment, ever since?  That’s what I aspire to create.

I used to have specific ideas about what made a writer.  These of course, were largely wishful thinking.  What they amounted to was an excuse for avoiding the need to learn or apply the elements of crafting, editing and research.  Writing, I felt should roll off the pen perfectly formed.

The Distressed Poet, By William Hogarth, 1736

The Distressed Poet,
By William Hogarth, 1736

As I understood it then, storytelling was an instinctive skill.  So all I required was an attic, an ability to cope with being cold (until I’d been discovered) and to not mind missing a few meals.  On particularly fatalistic days,I will even admit, I anticipated a romantic early death – see Mansfield, Keats and the Brontes.  What else would you expect from someone who’d spent so many of their childhood Saturdays reading Gothic novels or watching re-runs of black and white films?

Well, let’s not knock my models.  It was not their fault I’d mistaken entertainment for education.  If I’d bothered to look a little deeper I could have discovered then that each of these writers were careful readers.  They too had literary heroes, and they studied their craft beyond the confines of schooling.  Most important of all, they wrote and rewrote to make their writing work.

Some of my heroes went to university, others had mentors, or friends and siblings to share their creative ideas with.  What was important was that all of them could, and did, discuss their ideas about writing with other writers. Because above all, what they had was commitment.  It was not their tubercular-consumption that was important, it was their consumption of other literature.  They read, widely.

Check out a writer’s reading lists and you’re likely to find a voracious appetite for all levels of literature, even if funds are tight.  Sometimes you can find the references in their work – Henry Fielding discusses his ideas about fiction and drama at the beginnings of several sections of his wonderfully rollicking novel, Tom Jones.  Hilary Mantel’s memoir, Giving up the Ghost, includes thoughts on how writing works, and which writings inspired her.

A lot of experienced writers write about their reading.  Some are lucky enough to get paid for it.  Everyone though, has to start somewhere, and these days, we’ve all sorts of wonderful sites on the ‘net’ where we can engage in writing communities.  But here’s another option, for those of us still working lower down the literary ladder: why not take some time out from your creative writing to reflect on something you’ve read?

Do it just for yourself, or share it.  There are plenty of places looking for someone to post a review online, and wouldn’t you feel chuffed to have a thoughtful response to your writing?  All I would suggest is that you opt for the form you work in – novelists review a novel; flash fictionists look at the shortest forms…you get the idea.




‘Worzela’ Gummage changes heads – again.

Does anyone else remember  the Worzel Gummage books?  It’s years since I’d given him a thought.  Then this week, I swopped back to reading short stories, and that was such a shift in perspectives that I was reminded of Barbara Euphan Todd’s scarecrow, Worzel Gummage, and the various heads that he would chose between when faced with a change in situation.

A long, long time ago, oh dearly beloved, (to mix an author tribute) I owned one of the Gummage books.  It may, even now be resting up in the eaves of the house, waiting to have the cobwebs dusted from it.  Although that adventure belongs to a different day.

What I remember, distinctly, is that it was one of those read, then read again and again and again books.  Which now I come to think of it, makes it an apt parallel for the short story.  Because it’s not enough to read them once either.  The best ones, I hope you agree, need a second, more thoughtful return, after a break.  Perhaps, even a third or fourth after that.

Why?  Well, some, like Wurzel’s stories, because they’re just fun, and make me laugh out loud in crowded places, and I know I’ll feel good when I read them again.  Others though, it’s because they haunt me.  They give me a glimpse of a life or situation, no more, just enough to intrigue, and then they stop.  What did I see?  Why did it touch me? The story doesn’t end, it stays with me for hours, even days.

When I’m trying to write short, I need to think short.  The best way I’ve found to do that is to read short.

worzela 001To keep in mode with my scarecrow theme, I’ve lately to be found pottering in the garden, getting grubby enough to satisfy even Wurzel.  I wear my tattiest clothes and can usually be found crawling backwards out from under a shrub, grasping handfuls of pesky nettles, and cogitating on things literarily short.

It’s something that has to be done, if I’m not to be over-whelmed.  The joy of weeding is that it demands only physical exertion, and so I’m free, perchance, to dream.

I mull over stories.  And the wonderful thing is, the more I read, the more ideas I have of my own.  Did she really say that? Why? What might have happened if…and, that reminds me…

So, you’ll maybe have gathered that this little essay is by way of a justification, should anyone spot me, with sticks in my hair, and wearing the strangest of ancient and baggy ensembles.  I’m not heading for a fancy dress, I’m not even using the garden as a displacement activity, I am, in fact, creating.

Honestly.  If there are corners of the garden beginning to look a little tidy, that’s only a welcome bonus.