Making stories

Unusually, the parcel that arrived here on November the fifth was not for Ray, and it wasn’t book-shaped.  I couldn’t remember ordering anything lately, but sometimes I set up a flurry of subscriptions, and then don’t notice what’s missing, until the laggardly ones arrive.   

This parcel was soft, and wrapped in brown paper.  I turned it over, noticed the Irish stamp and wondered.  Lynda lives in Ireland (we were at University together, and she writes novels, scripts and flash fiction, if you’d care to visit her blog, by the way).  But we exchange emails, comments on each other’s blogs and occasional letters, not usually presents.  Besides, it wasn’t my birthday.

There’s an art to getting the most from a gift that I learned, long ago, from Gran.  Wrapping paper was not for tearing, it was a source of potential drama that she could stretch out for tens of minutes, turning, shaking, squeezing and throwing out wild guesses until we, the givers were stretching out clawed fingers. ‘Go on, open it Gran, please.  Please? Shall I help you?’

We never were allowed, and we didn’t learn that asking only increased the twinkle in her eye and generated a fresh set of speculations.

I haven’t managed to achieve that level of suspense, but I like the frisson of additional excitement that delaying creates, even when the giver is not there to appreciate my performance. So I made a few wild guesses before unpicking the tape. 

None of them came close. I unfolded a patch-worked, quilted, panel.  One strip of it had Eudora Welty embroidered on it, another Cold Comfort Farm, and a third, Alice Munro. All are favourites of mine.   

Beside them was a small square panel with a shamrock appliqued to it, and a note explaining how to hang the two pieces.  It was signed, ‘Love, Lynda.’ I checked the packaging, but there was no second page.

Like Rusty, I tilted my head and wondered. Had Lynda been to a craft fair, or was this her own handiwork?  Perhaps this related to a facet of Lynda’s history I should have remembered. 

Surely she learned sewing at school… I picture Lynda at a sewing machine.  I’ve seen her typing often enough for that to work. 

Her red-polished fingernails adjust the tension settings; thread the needle.  Her glasses are perch on the end of her nose, as she feeds material through the footplate, slowly.  She’s removing pins, stabbing them into a small cushion by her right hand. I can hear her nails clicking against the chrome foot-plate, and the buzz of the electric motor.  A small cone of light illuminates the needle punching through the fabric.   

Shadowy figures are beginning to form next to, and behind her.  They’re not in focus yet, but soon someone is going to speak.

Often my stories are found, this time I’ve had one posted to me.  So, thanks again, Lynda, for a gift that brightens the wall in my office, and contains the germ of a story.

Trust me.

fairies 2You’ve got to see this.  I had such a surprise as I glanced through the blinds of my office window on Saturday evening that I grabbed my camera.  Of course, like every other photographer of fairies, I’ve not managed to capture any clear image.  Look carefully, though, and you can see three of them on the left hand side of the picture, glowing against the ivy.

What do you mean, no one believes in them any more?  These pictures are incontrovertible proof that I saw them.  Okay, so I only got three dancers in any shot, and there were about fifteen, but they moved surprisingly fast. Several of my pictures missed them entirely, and their colours have come out as closer to pink than gold…

No, I hadn’t been drinking, though I was still buzzing after a lovely day leading a memoir-writing workshop.  I wasn’t looking for fairies either.  I haven’t thought about them for years.

I was unpacking my class notes and reflecting on the activities I’d set. I scribbled a few reminders about the adaptations I’d made onto the session-plan, then slotted it back into the folder.  It was as I lifted the folder into its space on the shelf that I noticed the glimmer of movement outside the window.

Coincidentally, over the course of the day we’d had some discussions about writing truthful life experiences.  There had been questions concerning the reliability of memory, interpretation and partiality.

Perhaps all of the recent furores around ‘false news’ has made us more conscious of the difficulties in providing an account of events that is true.  Maybe you’ll need to look closely at these two pictures, but once you do, I think you’ll agree that you can trust me…

fairies 3fairies 4

 

What makes an artist?

I went out on an errand yesterday and left the radio on.  I was only supposed to be gone a minute or so, but gave in to gossiping, so by the time I returned my provincial play had been replaced by an American voice I vaguely recognised.  Time to get back to my paperwork, I thought, heading for the off-switch.

‘I had no idea what kind of composer I wanted to become,’ the man was saying. Kerry Shale, I thought, can’t mistake him.  But who is he being?  Fact or fiction?  It was a fatal hesitation.

Mahler-Symphony-9-Grant-Park-audition‘My study of the orchestra’, he continued, ‘came through a time-honoured practice of the past, copying out original scores.  In my case, I took Mahler’s ninth symphony as my subject and I literally copied it out note for note on full size orchestra paper.’

I was hooked.  One of the little cartoon characters racing round in my head gave the attention bell a resounding ping.  Musicians did that too?

Shale continued, ‘This is exactly how painters in the past studied painting.  Even today, some can be seen in the museums, making copies of traditional paintings.  This business of copying from the past is a most powerful tool for training and developing a solid tool for orchestration technique.’

The cartoon character in my head stopped ringing her bell and turned to cartoon character two. ‘You see?’ she said triumphantly. ‘You see?  Isn’t this what I’ve been telling you all along? It’s not just painters who need to keep a sketch-book: all artists learn by studying the work of previous generations.’

‘He didn’t say study,’ objected character two.

‘But you must see that’s what he was doing,’ said character one.  ‘How could an artist copy out a work of art and not learn something about the means of its construction?’

‘Sounds like plagiarism to me.  And what about innovation?’

‘Surely that comes from an understanding of the past.’

‘Well,’ said character two, ‘I don’t want to have my writing infected by someone else’s style and ideas.’

‘Mmm,’ said character one.  ‘It’s not an exercise that suits everyone.’

Meanwhile Kerry Shale read on, and I looked up the schedule to see if I’d correctly guessed the author.  I don’t know much about music, apart from whether or not I like the sound of it.  But I do know a well shaped story when I hear one.  It was the memoirs of Phillip Glass, Words Without Music.

Time I widened my musical horizons, I think.

 

 

The things we save.

This week we discovered squatters in the roof.  By the mess, they’ve been there some time, but the night before last they decided to party, and they seemed to be wearing heavy boots.  Actually, I think I’ve been aware of their slippered-presence most of the winter, but inertia was easier than sorting out the loft ladder and torch, and I couldn’t imagine that there was much up there to interest them.

How wrong I was.  Mice, it turns out, will chew anything.  They’ve stripped the insulation off the water pipes, and shredded holes out of some spare carpet-underlay I had stashed away.

Amongst the debris though, I salvaged some oddments, one of which was the project-book we infants made, after a trip to the zoo.  It’s a tattered remnant, but I’m glad our guests hadn’t got round to feasting on it.

Our village school was small: so small that it was closed-down around the time I left senior school.  Because there were only half-a-dozen or so children in each year, I had no trouble putting faces to the names on the brief reports and drawings of our day out.  Besides, I have a photo of our class with our teacher, Miss Johnson… somewhere.

The project also reminds me of my last few days in the Junior school, when the flimsy collection resurfaced from the back of the school stock-cupboard. ‘Who would like this?’ Mrs Gwatkins asked, after we’d flicked through it, laughing at the artwork.  A few of us put our hands up, so she put names in a box, and mine was drawn out.

It couldn’t be said that I’ve treasured these pages, tucked away amongst my old diaries in the roof.  As you’ve seen, it came perilously close to being a mouse-nursery.  It’s possible I wouldn’t have missed it greatly, like those other fragments of school-life I thought I’d kept, but haven’t seen since I can’t remember when.

pelicanOn the one hand, the project is just a collection of shaky calligraphy examples and scrappy drawings. On Monday we went to Birdland and we saw some Pelicans, I wrote, capitals and long letters touching the line above as well as the line they were resting on.  And, We saw some pennies in a glass tank and there was some penguins swimming in a glass tank.

On the other hand, that repetition, and that,‘was’, was my six-year old voice, and, this project is able to link me back to the rain outside the mina bird house; the feel of my school uniform, and the way I felt as we crowded in to the small room where the Myna bird whistled, and recited, Sing-a-song-of-sixpence.

So for now, I’ll tuck the old folder into the bottom of a drawer, out of sight and mind.  It’s resurfaced so many times, that I can’t help feeling it’s not finished with yet.

The value of the diarist-travel-writer.

ruth-annies-safari-2My friends Ruth and Annie went on a trip-of-a-lifetime this summer, an African safari.  Lucky them.  Now though, lucky me too, because for the past month, I’ve been vicariously sharing their experiences via Ruth’s blog, silver anniversary safari.

This is definitely my preferred way to travel: no injections, waiting around in airport lounges or hours of sitting in a metal box being hurtled across the sky.   I jump straight into the heart of another culture when I open the latest instalment.

I’ll make a sweeping assertion that conveying the excitement and wonder of a place is the general aim for any travel-writer.  The key to this particular travel-log is the narrative voice: the choice of language, and stand-point.

Now let’s just take the last thing first, and clarify what I mean by ‘stand-point’.  I’m not talking about Ruth’s proximity to the animals, although at times, that was breathtakingly close. What I mean, and I’m sure you understood this, but I’d like to be precise, is how her thinking led her to interpret what she experienced.

What comes through strongly in these pieces is personality: there is humour, as well as wonder and fascination.  The way Ruth describes the people she meets, the incidental events she chooses and the things she sees, show us our narrator as well as providing a brief insight into the culture she is experiencing.

Perhaps it’s because I’m mid-way through tutoring my Writing Family History course, that I’m also thinking about the value of Ruth’s piece of writing for the future.  It is not just entertaining, it is a record of interactions with specific environments at this point in time.  Imagine, in the future, someone tracing their family tree and discovering not just the photographs of this trip, but alongside them, the story that sets them in context.

ruth-annies-safari

*Photos taken from Ruth Boardman Anniversary Safari.

 

Wise words from Eudora Welty

eudora-welty-intro-bedroom

Here’s a thought from a prolific writer, about one of the things that we might not have expected, but can get from life-writing.

I never in my wildest dreams thought I would write anything autobiographical.  Of course, many things in my life were used in the stories, but they were very much transformed.  I never expected to write about my mother, or anything like that.  The unhappy fact is that usually by the time you’re ready to think about your parents they’re gone, and can’t tell you anything.  That happened with both my parents.  But I’m awfully glad I did do this book [One Writer’s Beginnings], because it made me explicitly know what I owed things to.

From an interview with Hermione Lee published in Writing Lives: Conversations between Women Writers.  Virago 1988.

I’m a big fan of making a record of our lives.  Aside from this interesting personal outcome, have you thought about what you leave for the future?

Imagine the joy of some future family researcher, stumbling across an account of what your life was like?  Perhaps they can guess things from your electronic footprint, but how will they interpret that intriguing purchase you made in July 2014?  Was it really for you?  If not, who could you have bought such an item for?

We will always be too late to find some things out, and the longer we leave it…

So, if you’re looking for a deadline to get you started, I came across this interesting competition the other day, a memories competition that will benefit Alzheimer’s sufferers:

http://nationalmemoryday.org.uk/competitions/

National Memory Day Creative Writing Competition Closing: 5pm Friday 20th January 2017

Theme: MEMORIES. You may enter as many times as you wish.

Each entry must consist of:

  • A completed Entry Form • A copy of your poem or short story on separate sheets for each entry • The entry fee.

All funds raised go towards placing Poets-in-Residence in Memory Cafes around the UK to work with people living with memory loss. This project is delivered in partnership with the Alzheimer’s Society, Plymouth University and the Poetry Archive.

Word Limit:

  • Max 100 lines for a poem • Max 1500 words for your short story

Entry Fee: £3 per first entry and £2 for all subsequent entries which are entered at the same time.

All funds raised will be invested in the Memory Café Poetry project which places Poets-in-Residence with Memory Cafes provided by the Alzheimer’s Society. Poets will work with people living with memory loss to recite poetry to stimulate and share memories.

 

Book Review.

lyndas-memoir-collectionI’ve been dipping in and out of Down Memory Lane: A Collection of Memoirs, this week.  These writings from the heart of Ireland reveal the power of writing about the self.  In the process of entertaining us, sometimes they trigger a comparison to, a taste, a smell, an activity and  I’m reminded how much has changed in the course of my life.

Or they record something fascinatingly specific about an experience. ‘I was born in Adutiskis, on the border with Belarus, where my grandparents lived,’ begins Dalia Smelstoriute, in a piece that draws together a description of an All Souls Day commemoration, a tantalisingly brief account of her grandmother’s life, and a summary of thoughts about the importance of traditions.

Other people’s families, other lives, these are often what we look for in our reading. A.L Hayes writes: ‘My Dad was a great man for mixing up left over paints to create wieird and wonderful colours.  At one stage our hall door was a strange mixture of pale pink and scuttery green.’

Here are character portraits embedded in experiences.  An incident in the playground; buying a first record; a first car; taking a holiday abroad; a journey…describing a first love. They’re fragments from a life, and yet they’re rounded moments that sit beautifully on the page.

Memoirs, it seems to me, are important.  They bring social history to life.  ‘Woolworths was at one time the biggest shop in Mullingar’ writes Caroline Connolly. ‘It had black shiny pillars outside the front door and there were square pillars inside that had long mirrors on each side.  As you passed, you could see yourself.’

This collection has come from a series of classes run in Ballinacree, Ireland, by Lynda Kirby It’s been funded by sponsors and all profits go to The Patient Comfort Fund of Oldcastle Alzheimer’s Group.  Memoirs to fund memory loss, isn’t that a nice concept?

Well done, Lynda, and good luck with the next project.

 

Readers, narrators and authors.

That I’m reading a memoir this week is either a happy accident  or serendipity, depending on how you view the world. Friday morning, as I was heading for an appointment that was guaranteed to include a waiting room, I grabbed a book off my to-be-read shelf.

After three months of focused studying, I was looking forward to some simple pleasure-reading.  My course paperwork was finished, and ready to post, the new classes would not be starting until mid-April. The long Easter weekend could be given over to indulgence.

I don’t know how I missed knowing that Fever Pitch wasn’t a novel.  If I had, it would have been shelved with the other memoirs that I’ve been gathering as background for the Writing Family Histories course that is next on my list of classes to prepare, and perhaps I’d be writing this post next week.

fever pitchInstead, I was several pages in before my suspicions were roused.  That’s the thing with first person narration of course, when it’s done well, it should convince us that the character and their world is as real as we are, even when we know it’s a fiction.  The thing that tends to give memoir away is usually shaping.  It can be tricky to translate the random, scoincidental nature of life as most of us experience it, into a convincing novelistic form.

Nick Hornby has shaped his life around an obsession with football in such an entertaining way that I’m hooked.  I still couldn’t answer a pub quiz sport question, but he has helped me understand something about the need so many people have to cheer on a bunch of players chasing a ball around a cold, muddy field.  Before this, my most entertaining connection to the game was thanks to Sarah’s Knitted Footballer blog, which demonstrates another approach to expressing passionate interest in a sport.