Four memorable days: Sense & Place

Last week we were on the Lleyn Peninsula, in North Wales, running a writing residential.


It’s no coincidence that the cottage we hired is just a mile along the coast from the cottages where we stayed when I was a University student taking part in writing residentials, all those years ago.   I’ve fond memories of those twice yearly trips out of Liverpool and was lucky enough to be invited along to help-out on several more after I graduated, so got to see how they worked from both sides of the desk, and to visit a good range of interesting local sites.

I’ve also been back since then teaching a variety of subjects for various organizations.  This, though was my residential: Sense & Place.

I took inspiration from the bits I liked best of those other times, mixed them with some ideas I had, and away we went.  The great thing was, it worked.  We absorbed atmospheres, wrote, cooked and ate, chatted, discussed and wrote again

There were moments when I imagined Edmund, my much-missed Imaginative Writing tutor wandering in, stooping as he entered, offering a lop-sided smile and taking a seat somewhere unobtrusive, to the left of center-stage.  I found myself pausing to imagine what he might say or do.  A smile, surely.  A nod of approval, I hoped.  The ‘residential’ format was his thing, his dream.  How I would have loved to have been able to invite him along to give us a reading from some of his poems.

Edmund Cusick, poet and Head of Imaginative Writing at John Moore’s University, had pioneered the introduction of writing residentials as a part of the HE learning programme.  During one of the last conversations I had with him, he told me that he was proud to think that he had been the first to see the value of taking writers out of their home (and home-from-home) environment.

His residentials expanded out to include visits to other inspirational areas of the country.  We’re already planning a return trip to the Lleyn.  I feel the same sort of pull that I guess Edmund must have, the longing to share with like-minded people my enthusiasms.  Even during the long drive home, I was running through a list of venues, rating their suitability, adapting my approach in light of this first experience as organizer.

Now clearly I’m working on a much smaller scale than a university.  But the principles remain the same: take a bunch of people who share an interest, and a willingness to get along.  Put them in suitable, comfortable surroundings and provide direction and space in measured proportions.  You should at least lose sight of the wider world for a few days.  Hopefully, they’ll get inspired, and who knows, me too. It worked.

DSCF5520So, in case any of the group are reading this, thanks, folks.  We did this.  I had a wonderful time.

A couple of useful Short Story Quotes

Book coverFor those of us trying to understand how short stories work, Barbara Korte’s introduction to The Penguin Book of First World War Stories, seems pretty useful to me.

She theorizes that it was through the writers who were experimenting with short stories during this period, and Katherine Mansfield in particular, that…

…the short story acquired the reputation of a form congenial to the modern condition.  Its emphasis on isolated moments and mere fragments of experience, its art of condensation and ambiguous expression seemed ideal for capturing modern life with its hastiness, inconclusiveness, uncertainties and distrust of traditional beliefs.  For the same reasons, the short story was deemed to have an affinity to the first fully technological and industrialized war, which exploded extant norms of perception, interpretation and representation.  Its aesthetic seemed highly suitable for articulating the experiences of the front with its moments of violence, shock, disorientation and strangeness.

She quotes Edmund Blunden, who wrote in 1930:

The mind of the soldier on active service was continually beginning a new short story, which had almost always to be broken off without conclusion.

It’s an anthology well worth a look through, if you’re looking for a reading recommendation.

A lesson from my nephew

Sam, who’s six, is an expert on Ninja turtles.  He’s seen all the animations, loves the comics, can name each character, give you their histories and play the stories out in Lego.

‘The sword of Tengu,’ he says, watching his father and I load the trailer with chainsaw, ropes, ladders and safety gear, ‘can cut through trees.’

I suggest that this must need good muscles.  Sam climbs off the gate, does an impressive spinning jump and as he lands has reached behind his shoulders with both hands and grabbed the two plastic swords that he has tucked down the back of his tee-shirt.  ‘Only Shredder can use the sword of Tengu,’ he says, ‘and he’s evil.’  He strikes a new pose with his twin swords and makes a series of lunges at the fence.

The other day, as I took a short cut, I glanced over the hedge, and there was Sam on his trampoline.  He bounced, did a forward roll, and as he recovered, reached back and pulled the twin swords out of his tee-shirt.  By the time he was upright, he was poised for action.

It was only then that I was struck by how dedicated a student Sam is.  Everything he sees and has to do is filtered by its reference to Ninja lore, and that’s been the way of things for at least a year now.

There was a time when I never left the house without putting a notebook and pen in my pocket, and since I often forgot to take them out again, this meant I generally carried several.  I made notes in queues, shops, fields and carparks, during intervals at the theatre and cinema or breathers on long walks.  But at some point, in an attempt to be more organised, my handy pocket-sized notepads got tidied away.  My Mslexia diary was designed to double as a notebook and I kept it in my bag, so it seemed efficient concentrate on that.

DSCF5518The thing is, I don’t take my diary everywhere in the same way.  Notebooks can be folded and crammed into pockets.  The best of mine are only one step on from being the back of an envelope, ideal for long walks, or tree-felling expeditions.

Inspiration belongs in a different sphere to the public spaces where I might need to check a date or jot down a reference or idea.  My notebooks are a licence to dream.  The efficiency they reflect is my commitment to writing.

‘Sam,’ I say, ‘Tell your Dad I’ll be back in a minute.  I’ve just remembered something else I need to bring.’