I can resist everything except…

My mother has been tidying this week.  So by Saturday she had a few books for the charity shop.  Tewkesbury was busy, parking was going to be tricky.  It seemed simplest for Ray to pause at the curb round the corner while we jumped out with the bags.

As he drove off to find a parking space, one of the three bags split.  Luckily, it was not the one with the hardbacks, not even the heavy paperbacks, instead a handful of old cookery cookery leaflet 3booklets slithered out.  Even more luckily, the pavement was dry, because these were vulnerable.

The pages were soft, finely textured paper that felt silky, and the covers were slightly thicker, printed in colour, with no fancy plastic film or varnish welded to their surface.  In fact, they should probably be properly called ‘vintage’.  There were no dates, but the illustrations suggested maybe the late twenties or early nineteen thirties.

As I crouched on the pavement making spaces to slip them in with the other bags, one caught my eye. ‘Keep it,’ said the woman who’s spent the week clearing small clutter from her house.  ‘It won’t take up much space.’

cookery leaflet 5‘Well,’ I said, flicking through the pages of Do come to my party! says Miss Regulo by Radiation, ‘I was wondering if I might be able to use them in a class…’

‘Have you seen this one?’ said my mother, handing me A Practical Guide to the Use of Canned Goods.  I didn’t notice horns sprouting from her forehead, or her feet become cloven: but, could this be the same mother who used to complain about the amount of clutter in my bedroom?

Given time, maybe I would have thought about that heap of ancient newspapers on the old chair in my office, or the boxes of postcards and pictures stacked against the side of my desk, all waiting to be utilised.  Instead, I became aware that I was an irritating cookery leaflet 4obstacle on the busy pavement, and in my hurry to move on, somehow a handful of those tempting pamphlets slipped into my bag, rather than one of the charity shop ones.

A remnant of resistance was still in evidence as we reached the shop door. ‘Of course, I could still bring them here after I’ve looked through them,’ I said.

We stepped into the warm, book-lined haven. ‘Think of them as an advent present,’ mum said.

‘That’s a nice idea,’ I said.  I zipped up my bag. ‘I like that. Thank you.’

Aren’t mums the best? I spent a lovely evening browsing through recipes for Messina Pudding, cheese saucer savouries, Parisian cake, West Riding pudding, a chocolate castle and a sandwich house, and am already getting glimmers of thoughts about using them.



Who does own the words?

A commonly repeated quote, or misquote, for writers is either: ‘Good writers borrow, great writer’s steal’ or ‘Mediocre writer’s borrow, great writer’s steal’.  I like both, because they remind me that writers have been continually and consistently ‘borrowing’ for centuries.

If Chaucer and Shakespeare didn’t quibble to re-use plots and ideas, why should we?  I know, you’re about to scream out, ‘plagiarism,’ and that word steal does seem to imply a danger.

For the aware writer though, this is a variation on theft: a kind of homage to literary predecessors or contemporaries.  Fielding, Thackeray, the Brontes, Eliot, Tolstoy, Sayers, Woolf, Joyce, Lawrence plus lots of others in-between, before and after, loved to drop literary hints on sources into their novels – and the writing they did about their novels.

Over time, some of those allusions have lost vigour – when the original has fallen out of fashion, for instance.  Often we read past references without recognising the relevance.  Or when the story is so entertaining we don’t stop for something that seems a little familiar…  Other connections might be so subtle that we absorb them without consciously understanding the colour they’ve added to our enjoyment.

Getting back to my quotes, though, you can find either of them ascribed, variously, to T.S. Eliot, Oscar Wilde, Mark Twain and more recently the screen-writer, Aaron Sorkin.  My immediate response to this has always been a pedantic one.  I wanted the origin pinned down definitely, none of this ‘reputed’ business, who said it?

Call me slow, but I had no idea I’d missed a joke.

Then yesterday, I metaphorically tripped over this piece of artistry:


It took a second look, and a moment, but having finally got there, I just had to share this with you.

I wonder, is this visual flash-fiction?

Free-writing part 3

With a stunning lack of foresight, last spring, when I was arranging my autumn term, I set myself up with four classes that would each be discussing different novels in the same weeks.  Consequently, I’ve recently been on a readathon, and my writing time has been squashed into snatched fragments.

book pileAt least most of my brain space has been taken up with some excellent literature.  How could I have forgotten how brilliant Tolstoy was?  Meanwhile, I’ve been discovering new joys – particularly Dorothy L. Sayers.  Re-reading her carefully, as I prepare class notes, opens up all sorts of literary trails.  I shall definitely be looking at some of her other novels again.

I’m about half-way through Arnold Bennett’s Old Wives Tales with one group, and reminding myself that he is not so dusty as he’s sometimes painted; while nearing the end of Kate Atkinson’s Behind the Scenes at The Museum with another.  It’s been a fascinating autumn, but hectic.

So given only an occasional five minutes writing time, I decided the best use I could make of that space was to take my own often offered advice, and free-write.  The result is a satisfyingly expanding notebook.

These jottings are intended as rough drafts: a collection of words I might ‘mine’ for ideastimer at a later date.  No sense intended, only a fancy to free myself from the restrictions of preparing reading groups.    I set the clock for five minutes then let my pen lead the way.

Describing the process is always challenging, so I’ve decided this week to share one of my quicker fragments.

She would always want the things that he told her were unobtainable belonging to worlds that had not yet visited the western leaning curves and when the dog left home without her nothing would stay where it was but electricity sang when the moon rose and bloomed in delightful sequences of song that lifted lifetimes from their shoulders the past disappeared and gravity took years from their faces because the long winded clock gave up they were free, see the sea, shallowing and delightful, played with her ankles drawing her deeper towards a world she had never imagined.

If you’re wondering what I might do with this, I’m not sure yet.

On a previous post, Random ramblings that work I’ve gathered some thoughts on the benefits of using time in this way.

If you’ve never tried free-writing, and would like to have a go, I’ve put a recipe on Writing Blocks – strategy 2.

Finding the right story-strand.

Sometimes we need to be reminded of the obvious.  As one of those tutors who likes to stress the importance of re-drafting, this week I was forced to think about what I do when I came across this Phillip Pulman quote:

I don’t agree with the emphasis that teachers lay on drafting.  I never write drafts – I write final versions.  I might write a dozen final versions of the same story, but with each one I set out to write it as a final version.

Is this a good point?

I agree that we should aim for excellence in all our drafts, and intend them to be flawless.  But, I’m not sure that this approach is encouraging to the less experienced writer.

In my own case, one of the most liberating discoveries I made was that great writing is usually achieved through a process of re-draftings.  George Eliot’s notebooks of Middlemarch, scribbled over with extra ideas and corrections, were reassuring. I can’t say whether she thought of them as drafts or final versions, what I needed to understand, was that she re-worked her writing.

Most good writers do the same.  We just don’t always have evidence of that available.

I share this revelation with my writing groups, because too many people doubt their abilities if they don’t create a flawless and beautiful piece of writing at the first try.

On the other hand, when drafting there are times when it feels as if I’m wandering in theSpiderinwebL_tcm4-571483 midst of a labyrinth, and Ariadne hasn’t just supplied me with a single story thread, I’ve got a fist full of possible routes.  Pulman’s suggestion offers a sensible solution: stop dithering, go back to the beginning and start again.

Sounds like a reworking of the solution another spider offered to Robert the Bruce.  There’s never just the one rule in writing, it seems…

*Photo: http://www.stephen-coley.com/blog/spiders/

Thoughts on Blade Runner 2049

Blade runner 2049‘Anyway, I’m glad I saw it on the big screen, rather than the tv,’ Ray said.

‘Me too,’ I said.  ‘The special effects were spectacular.  But I don’t think I’d want to see it again.’

There was a pause, then Ray said, ‘The acting was good.’

‘Oh yes.  Very good.’

‘So what was wrong with it?’

‘Too similar to the original?’ I said. ‘I suppose it had to be, if it was going to pick up those threads of ending and take them further.’

‘Is that what you think it did, then?’ said Ray. ‘Take them further?’

‘I liked the game of spotting references to the original.’

‘But what about the story?  Was it too contrived?’

‘Maybe we’re so loyal to that original that nothing could possibly follow it.’

‘No,’ Ray said,  ‘there was a problem somewhere.  They missed the mark. I think it was the time-frame.  We’ve got colonies on other worlds in thirty-two years time?  That just doesn’t work.’

‘Well that’s not their fault, though.  They had to stick with the dates, or the story wouldn’t work.  The problem was that the first film set the date as 2019, and we’re trying to impose fact onto something that is meant to be a warning.  It’s an alternative reality.’

blade runner 2049 3Three days later, and I’m still getting flashbacks from those film visuals.  That landscape in shades of grey; the dark city extending into an even darker infinity, and the swirling, dust laden acres of waste-dumps feel close as I take Rusty for his morning walk across the fields.

These mornings the birds are too busy gathering autumn breakfasts to sing.  Is that why I think I hear that haunting, and rather beautiful, Blade Runner theme tune?

It seems, after all, that I may need to watch this film again.

Are you a writer?

Now there’s a leading question.

Many of us are shy about claiming that title.  Well, read on for a thought-provoking quote from Raymond Soltysek, writer, and tutor.

 There are many people who keep their writing in a desk drawer, determined that no one will see their work.  This should not be trivialized, but celebrated, since what they do fulfils some intellectual, personal or psychological need; the writing makes the person who writes feel more self aware, or at peace, or just better.  However, becoming a writer means publishing.  Of course, I do not mean in the narrow sense of having work printed in a magazine or a volume, but in the much wider sense of sharing the work with an audience, and, even more so, being prepared to take into account the reaction of that audience.  The person who writes and who then gives his or her work to a friend and says “what do you think?”, and who is prepared to listen and to defend or revise as appropriate, is a writer.

(From, Wind them up, let them go: The primacy of stimulus in the classroom.  Writing in Education, autumn 2009.)

Now I do see that if, so far, you’ve only shown your writing to family and friends you may feel unsure about launching yourself in the wider world as a writer.  It’s one of the things I remember discussing in my first year as an Imaginative Writing student, with our course leader, Edmund Cusick.

‘If you mean it, claim it,’ he said.  He believed that to think of ourselves as writers was to commit to the necessary processes for achieving that status.

typwriter advertI started out in a modest way, whispering it to myself.  I took it out into the world with me after university, and discovered he was right.  Owning the title ‘writer’ did help me to feel justified in putting aside time and space for writing and reading.

Sometimes I have only a few minutes of my day, on a corner of the kitchen table, to build stories.  But, these are the moments when I am a writer.  I know this because I’m concentrating on ordering the words in such a way that they create the meaning I want to share.

Just as importantly, my family know I’m a writer because they can see that it is what I’m doing, and I share the finished results with them.

If asked what I do for a living, I say, ‘I’m a tutor,’ because that’s what pays my bills.  It’s not the whole story though.  At various times I also garden, cook, read, dream, and clean the house. These are not paid roles, though most of them could be.  At the moments when I’m doing them, I do think of myself as a gardener, cook, dreamer and housekeeper.

There is no reason why, being able to assume all those and other different roles, I should hesitate to describe myself as a writer.  I mean it, and I claim it.


Reading winners

Mad Hatter Tea Party Paper Cutting от CutsByDeborah на EtsyEntering writing competitions is always going to have an element of lottery about it.  You may have submitted a perfectly edited and finely balanced piece of writing, and still not get placed.  Of course, if you’ve done all that polishing you stand a better chance of making it to the long or even short list, and that’s nice.

The thing to remember is, taste.  You like coffee, they prefer tea, and I don’t care for either, and we can all be right.  You’re thinking, can she take this metaphor further, aren’t you?

I could digress, and tell you about my journey to becoming an up-front and proud-of-it social drinker of tap-water.  It’s had it’s moments, believe me. On a small scale, I’ve had battles.  But what’s that to do with competitions?

Once-upon-a-time people travelled miles to drink various spa waters.  Claims were made for the properties of each site, and those afflicted chose their destination accordingly.  The hot springs at Bath cured leprosy; the waters at Harrogate were good for gout and rheumatism; those at Tunbridge Wells cured infertility… and the list goes on. You downed your glass, took the treatments then hoped for the best.

You see where I’m going with this?

There are hundreds of competitions on the internet and in writing magazines.  I have a lot less stories than that, and I’m not a fast writer.  So to give myself the best chance, I need to be picky.  It takes time to check them all out, and most of them have an entry fee, so I don’t just scan the rules and the theme, I do a little research.

Sometimes, besides listing the judges, there will be advice about what they’re looking for.  That’s useful, but the best hints come from seeing what kinds of story have been successful.

This might mean I have to buy an anthology, and you might remember that I’ve just been complaining about costs.  Well, I think of this type of spending as an investment. Primarily, it seems better to spend on reading winning short stories, than on sending stories to places that are looking for what I don’t write.

Let’s not forget the other benefits though:

  • The pleasure factor: who knows what I’m going to discover in these brand-new stories…
  • I’ll have the short-listed stories, as well as those that got the big prizes, so I get a better idea of style.
  • I widen my story horizons.  There will be authors I haven’t discovered before, and approaches to story that expand my ideas about content and form.
  • And let’s not forget that buying these anthologies plays a part in supporting those writers, and the competitions that are producing them.

Of course, you don’t have to buy an anthology yourself.  It’s coming up to that time when many of us will be sending our letters to Father Christmas.  I’ll probably be putting one of these anthologies at the top of my list.

* Image:  Mad Hatter Tea Party Paper Cutting от CutsByDeborah на Etsy

What I was taught, when I listened…

an inspector calls‘Hey, Cath, I’ve got to tell you about this,’ said Kay, as I stepped into the kitchen last night. ‘We’ve been reading An Inspector Calls, and half-way through our teacher stopped us and made us watch a video of the ending, and she completely spoiled it, because it made the ending rubbish.  I was SO disappointed: I was really looking forward to finding out what happened, and she gave us a stupid version. Can you believe it?  We actually get to read something I like, and then she has to ruin it.’

I hung my coat on the back of a chair and took my place at the table.  ‘That’s rough.’

‘I know.  But I’m still going to read it to the end, because they completely got it wrong, and I know what should have happened.  Besides, it’s a set book, so we have to.’

‘Good.  It is a great play, isn’t it?  Perhaps you should go and see a theatre version now, and get another perspective.’

‘That’s what I want to do.’

It’s lovely getting an unexpected gift.

Throughout the last three years Kay has been responding to my hopeful questions about how she’s finding her English classes with a range of negatives, dismissing some of my long-term favourites as ‘boring’ or ‘silly’. In combination with similar reports from some of my other nieces, I’d begun to wonder if my old favourites were going to become part of a specialist reading list rather than a pleasurable one.

As my gran used to say, every dog has it’s day. Maybe it is harder for children of the digital age to relate to descriptions of lives lived in the early industrial age, and classic literature will move forwards to the 1940s or later.

I’ve frequently thanked my lucky stars that I didn’t grow up with the same reading lists that earlier generations had. Authors fall out of fashion, but they rarely disappear completely.  There have been a lot of pre-Victorian novels I’ve failed to complete, and I can’t think of one that I regret, so far – I’m always prepared to be persuaded on that, of course.

In a previous post I’ve worried whether the latest methods for teaching literature in secondary schools are damaging reading patterns, but Kay’s joy in the Priestly text came from an immediate engagement with the story.  Her disappointment was because someone else had imposed their interpretation on her.  She wanted to understand the character developments and motivations on her own terms.

That’s what reading is about, isn’t it?

Stories that matter


Cheltenham Literature Festival 2017

September 2017, a phone call from Claire.

‘The ticket line opens in five days, Cath, are you up for the Cheltenham Booker this year?  It’s 1937.  I’ve got the reading list.’

‘Great, any you know?’

‘I read Mice & Men years ago, for school, and I’ve seen the film of the Hobbit – does that count?’

‘Pretty much, I think.’

‘The rest I’ve never heard of.  I’ll text you the list.’

Text from Claire:

Which 1937 title deserves to win our very own Booker? Our all-star line-up of Damian Barr, Adam Kay, Jackie Kay, Adam Thorpe and Alex Wheatle discuss A.J. Cronin’s The Citadel, Ernest Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not, Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men and J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. They fight it out to determine which would have triumphed, had The Man Booker Prize existed eighty years ago. Chaired by James Walton, with an introduction by John Coldstream.

Saturday 14th October at the Lit.Fest with Claire: 1.30pm.

‘Good seats, Claire.’

‘Thanks, have you read any of the other books?’

‘Only extracts off the internet, and plot summaries. You?’

‘No.  I’m waiting to hear the outcome, then I might buy the winner.  I love this event, it’s introduced me to so many good writers.  I bought another Elizabeth Taylor the other day.’


chelt booker 2017

2.45pm, overheard in the crush on the way out.

‘Steinbeck should have won.’

‘Don’t you think the panel caved-in quickly at the end?’

‘I’m just going to the bookshop for the Zora Neale Hurston, first. I’ll meet you at the Hive in about ten minutes.’

‘I still can’t believe they knocked out Hemmingway in the first round.’

‘Well, does it matter if the characters are all male?’

‘I agree with Adam Thorpe, I don’t like plots to be too tidy.’

‘Not too dark though, surely.’

‘…so I’m going to read it again….’

‘What if it is a children’s book?  Animal Farm nearly won last year.’

‘Are the female characters only in the film, then?’

‘Personally I won’t read fantasy. Fiction should be realistic, not about fairies and dwarves…’

‘Amazing to think it’s really about The Somme.’

‘Actually, this is my ninth Booker.’

‘…and it reminded me of Doc Martin…of course so did Doctor Finlay, now I think about it.’

‘But is it a book only of it’s time?’

‘The thing is, this is an authentic black woman’s voice at a time when there is no black voice.’

‘That first line is just beautiful.’

‘…and I’ve always liked Maya Angelou, so it’ll be interesting to see how she compares.’

‘I can’t think how I’ve never heard of her before.’

chelt lit fest

Thoughts on recycling for writers

Re-reading old diaries, fragments mostly, I cringe and promise myself that one of these days I will have a bonfire.  One of these days?  Why wait? The ground is dry and I’ve other garden rubbish that needs destroying.

Well, there are environmental considerations.  I try to be responsible about my carbon footprint, perhaps the diaries should go into the compost bin.  It’s probably not so romantic an image to think of them slowly being eaten away by the microbes, worms and slugs who process the weeds and peelings we generate, but it’s practical.

Let’s pause a moment, and imagine harvesting the carrots, cabbages and flowers that have been boosted by a creative compost.  There’s so much energy in my old diaries that they’re sure to improve the productivity of my veg plot. Hah, I’ll cry, take that you plant-whispering, foliage-fondling (yes, there is a theory that stroking leaves improves a plant’s growth), moon-phase-sowing radical gardeners, as I sweep the board at the local garden show.  Only you and I will know the secret of my success.

Stanley Spencer paintingCan I bring myself to do it though? While I don’t want anyone else to discover the mundane or angst-ridden moments of my life, let-alone discover the unedited ramblings littered with comic-book punctuation, the diaries are a writing resource.  I haven’t exactly logged weather, politics and the latest fads or fancies, yet they’re there, implied by the activities and pre-occupations I’ve written about.

Reading them time-slips me back to those moments.  There are things I’d forgotten about daily routines, visits, the dynamics of family, friends and neighbours, that when re-read evoke how I felt at that time. Add to that the advantage of distance, which allows me to recognise an alternative shape for some of the stories I’ve recorded, and I am reminded of a favourite quote by Hilary Mantel:

I have sat, at moments of purest heartbreak, in mental agony, and put my thoughts on paper, and then I have taken those thoughts and allocated them to one of my characters, largely for comic effect.

So, I’ll hold back from destruction just now, and dip into them for some inspiration.

I wonder though, should I put a clause in my will?  Perhaps I’ll revive the custom of grave-goods.  If there is an after-life I’d like to give myself a head-start in ‘the writing game’ (as Katherine Mansfield called it).

And, the gesture would be in-keeping with the tendency towards gothic-melodrama that my diaries reveal I’m prone to.


*Illustration: Sunflower and Dog Worship, 1937, by Sir Stanley Spencer.