Feedback sessions in a writing group.

Can enough ever be said about the value of thoughtful feedback?

The feedback that generally happens in my writing classes is based on the heard story.  The author reads their work and the group respond.  That’s pretty standard, and it’s a lovely, if initially scary, experience.

dog-paintingI hope I will always remember my own early experiences, when I rushed through the words that I had sweated over – usually the night before it was due to be read.  Terrified and exhilarated at the same time, I set off reading at such a pace that my tutor needed to pause me at the end of the first page, and remind me to breathe.

I credit my good friends Ruth and Lynda, who between them coached me through the ‘Story-telling’ module at University, with the fact that I can now read at a more measured pace (thanks pals).  But that’s another story altogether.

Crimson and gasping as I invariably was at the end of those early reading slots, I went back for more, week after week.  What drew me?  Well, aside from the joy of finding other people creating stories and poems in their spare time, and the stretching of my creative horizons that happened during writing exercises, I had an audience for writing that until then, I had mostly been doing in secret.

This was not family or best-friend feedback.  My fellow scribblers responded with constructive, impartial support.  I began to see where my writing worked, and how it could be improved, which both encouraged and challenged me to work harder.  I became more confident about my ability to put words together, and critical of what I was doing.

The next level of feedback is to look at the story, rather than listen.  That way, what happens on the page is the story.

Sounds obvious?  Well think about how much the ‘telling’ style directs us.  Delivery (the pauses, accents and intonations), plays a part in how we respond to the events being described.  It is one speaker’s interpretation of what those marks on the page mean.

So this week the aim is for no reading out-loud in my class.  Each writer will have a papertwo-diaries copy of the homework-writings to study and respond to.

This is a big step to take, but an interesting one.  To sit quietly and hear what someone else understands you to have said can be challenging, particularly if they’ve seen something you didn’t intend.  Does that mean they’ve missed the point, or, have you?

Perhaps you’ve not written that scene clearly enough: or is it that depths have made their way instinctively into the construction of your writing?  Sometimes, it takes a reader to see the writing road that you’ve side-stepped, and what better reader than another writer?

 

Photo from, 1952 film, The Importance of Being Earnest.  Dorothy Tutin and Joan Greenwood.

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Beauty is in the eye of the beholder – research sources for writers.

I have a 1907 copy of the Harmsworth Self-Educator, volume 6.  It’s a battered old thing, that seems to have spent some time in places other than dry, safe, bookshelves. The cover is not so bad as the interior, which is not just stained, it has several damaged pages.

For non-fiction, I do appreciate a straight-forward title.  The Self-Educator is a collection of harmsworth-self-educatoressays exploring ‘life’ in Britain.  I don’t think it should be called an encyclopedia, because apart from not being in alphabetical order, these read like academic papers.  There are 29 groups of topics, dealing with the sciences; commercial activities; arts, crafts, languages and academic ideas and theories.

Who was it for?  I’m not sure.  It doesn’t seem child-friendly to me, but am I a good judge of what Edwardian children did, and liked?  I think of it as a paper forerunner to internet search engines, except that this one is all edited by one man…Arthur Mee (1875 – 1943).

It’s not a book I turn to regularly, but when I do, invariably I find something intriguing.  Do you know, for instance, how an Edwardian child should be dressed?  Dr A. T. Schofield can tell you:

There can be no doubt that a combination flannel undergarment is the most comfortable and healthy arrangement. The legs especially should be protected in this way, and not left bare, or with a single covering of cotton.  Over this, with girls, there should be a stout quilted bodice on which the lower garments can be buttoned, and then a plain dress over all.  The stockings, of course, are suspended.  A sailor costume is a capital one for girls, and very healthy.

unidentified-poss-claptonImagine getting strapped into that lot every morning.  No doubt such padding would have been useful in the winter, but Dr Schofield doesn’t offer a lighter selection for the summer.  Perhaps that’s why there are no smiles in this picture.

Children’s dress…should not leave any vital parts exposed.  Unfortunately, this is too often forgotten, and children are dressed in a fashion that their parents would not endure for a moment if applied to themselves.

photo-from-daily-mail-article-about-slum-childrenI wonder if he’s referring to the families struggling to survive?

It’s worth stating the obvious here, and remembering that in research, we should always find more than one source.  The clue to the Self Educator is in the title and sub-title.  It is an aspirational book, ‘A Golden Key to Success in Life’.  The only reference I’ve been able to track down about the original cost of the volume, was that one bookseller had marked it up for ten shillings and six pennies.

Given that in 1910 the Army and Navy Stores were selling a ‘maids’ dress for four shillings and one penny, and that an average income for a working class family would have been around twenty two shillings per week, it seems likely that only well-to-do households would have owned any of these volumes, let alone all eight.

However, Mr Mee does provide the kind of detail that makes me think that in a post-apocalyptic, google-less situation, these volumes might be useful.  In this copy alone are instructions on how to farm, build houses, make cheese, manufacture hats, weave cloth, lay out a sewerage system, run a bank, speak Esperanto, play a flute, sell postcards…  Is there anything else necessary to keep us safe, dry and entertained?

Actually, looking again at some of those stained pages, I wonder if this copy was kept in a workshop.  The worst damage does seem to be in some of the applied chemistry sections.

I feel a story forming.

 

Random ramblings that work – free-writing part 2

One of my all-time favourite songs probably says an awful lot about my approach to writing.  I can’t find any information about the way Guy Marks wrote this, but Loving You Has Made Me Bananas feels like it might have started out as a piece of free-writing.

 

 

Yes, it is a parody, but the absurd combination of images and malapropisms are what can happen when writing against the clock to a given trigger word or image.  The opening lines feel crafted,

From the Hotel Sheets in Downtown Plunketville
The Publican Broadcasting Company presents:
The Music of Pete DeAngelis and his Loyal Plunketvillevanians!
Here in the beautiful gold, yella, copper, steel, iron ballroom
of the Hotel Sheets in Downtown Plunketville,
Overlooking the uptown section of Downtown Pottstown!
Stay with us, won’t you, and enjoy the sweetest music
This side of the Monongahela River!

but, such combinations can emerge while practicing what some people call automatic-writing. In the rush to get my words on the page I could easily mis-write Hotel Streets as sheets.  And, when following the free-writing rules rigorously, even if I noticed, I would not be allowed to stop and correct it.

Learning to value this kind of experiment helps to ‘free’ us from the restriction of writing-rules.  Rules are good, rules are important.  Grammar, punctuation, all the theories about how writing and plot work, we need to know about, because then, when we break them, we can add dimension to our writing.

I don’t think the great experimental writers were accidentally creating marvellous writing.  When we read their essays or interviews, they usually talk about literary influences.  They knew/know the rules.

I’m not claiming all great writers practice free-writing.  But some did, and do.

Here’s me, rambling along as if you all know what I mean by free or automatic-writing.  For goodness sake, don’t google the second term, click on this free-writing-link, which will take you back to one of my earlier posts.  I just checked on-line descriptions for automatic writing which, according to them, is a psychic phenomena.

I’ll stick with free-writing.  In my version, this is an exercise in freeing us from self-critical thought.

It’s also prone to throw up all sorts of intriguing word and idea combinations.  With practice, it can allow us to write from that area of consciousness that I think of as the area between waking and sleeping: the realm of drifting into or out of dream*.  There, stories happen.  They may be muddled and confusing, but free-writing sets them on the page.  Then you can pick out words, phrases or ideas, and set yourself on a fresh route to creating stories.

The great thing about this exercise is that so long as you write without stopping to think, correct or workout what you want to say, you can’t go wrong.  Whatever you write is right.  Sometimes it will make sense, often it will not, unless you step sideways and take a slant view of it.

After that the choice is yours, whether to lift out fragments and work it into something rational and logical, or enjoy the bizarre aspects of it.  Who knows what you might come up with, a walrus and a carpenter, walking by the sea… or the chorus from Guy Marks’ medly:

Oh, your red scarf matches your eyes
You closed your cover before striking
Father had the shipfitter blues
Loving you has made me bananas.
Oh, you burned your fingers that evening
While my back was turned.
I asked the waiter for iodine
But I dined all alone

Sometimes, sense comes from non-sense.  Maybe loving this has made me bananas, because somehow, when combined with the music, these lyrics do seem to transport me back to wet Saturday afternoons spent watching re-runs of the Bob Hope and Bing Crosbie road movies.  Happy days….

bob-hope-and-bing-crosby

Here’s a Tip:

If you want to push yourself with this writing exercise, aim to get as many words down in the given time as is physically possible.  The faster you write, the less time there will be to form sentences.  This, after-all, is stream-of-consciousness writing.

 

* I know a few people who claim never to dream.  Scientists say that we all do, some of us just can’t remember them.

 

More thoughts on saving drafts

I write, I write, I write…what a buzz when the words flow.  The story unrolls under its own momentum.

Okay, in the cold light of the next day there may be changes to be made, that’s fine: that’s good.  It’s part of the process.  Do you know what?  I love that too.  It’s a different way of working, a honing of story and meaning.

scissorsHowever, let me put in a warning, a statement of the obvious, if you like…it’s fine to take those virtual scissors to your electronic document and snip your words into shape, but don’t – please DON’T – throw them away.   Okay, it seems like you’ve finished with them.  Despite the fact that some of them were beautiful sentences, you’ve concluded that they don’t fit.

Resist your minimalist instinct to be tidy: practice hoarding.  Make a copy of your draft, whether you’re working on paper or on a word-processor.  Make copies of each of your drafts – yes, I do think there will probably be more than one.  Because, if you see your words differently after a twenty-four hour break, imagine how it will read if you leave it for another week or three.

henri-matisse-travaillant-a-des-decoupages-geants-nice-1952-photo-helene-adant-1The thing is, in two or four weeks, when you look at your work again, what if you decide you shouldn’t have cut those lovely words from your first draft?  In my experience, if they’ve been destroyed, they’ll haunt you.  You’ll never quite feel that you’ve managed to recreate them, no matter how many hours you struggle to.

Time will pass, and your temper may fray.  This scenario can cause a writers-block.

Think what happens if, on the other hand, you can go back to that first draft.  There is your deathless prose, ready to be reassessed.

I learned the hard way, but it is now second nature for me to save my drafts. In case you don’t, I’m recommending it.

matisse-cutting-paper

*Photographs, Henri Matisse making paper-cut-outs.