You know what I mean.

I must begin with an apology: sorry for titling this post with what has possibly become the most repeated phrase in the English language, but lately I’ve been thinking about how far we own the words we put on a page, whether poetry or prose.

classical_literature_Wallpaper_mtm4yI’ve been researching for the close-reading groups I’ll be running this Autumn, which means I’m gathering ideas and theories that might interest, intrigue, or just straight-forwardly challenge us.

As I type, I’m listening to Mariella Frostrup discussing Why We Read, on radio 4, which is well worth a listen again*.  She’s interviewing all sorts of people who are saying interesting things about the benefits of reading fiction – what an excellent set of justifications for settling down with a book.  Not that I am ever short of excuses.

The radio discussion has raised all sorts of angles to investigate, but what I’ve been particularly conscious of lately, is ownership.  In part this is because I’m working on George Elliot’s, Middlemarch, and I’m trying to think about the differences between my style of reading and all the decades of interpretations that have gone before me.

But lately, I’ve been thinking, and talking to the writing group, about what happens once we hand our words out for reading.  Let me pass you over to Margaret Atwood:

A book may outlive its author, and it moves too, and it too can be said to change – but not in the manner of the telling.  It changes in the manner of the reading.  As many commentators have remarked, works of literature are recreated by each generation of readers, who make them new by finding fresh meanings in them.  The printed text of a book is thus like a musical score, which is not itself music, but becomes music when played by musicians, or ‘interpreted’ by them, as we say.  The act of reading a text is like playing music and listening to it at the same time, and the reader becomes his own interpreter.

from, Negotiating with the Dead: a writer on writing.


I’ve taken this out of context, and I’m deliberately missing part of the point, because Atwood is looking at this in a more complex way than I aim to do.  I just need to remind myself to be prepared for readers to not always get my point.

The real purpose, surely, is to entertain.  Beyond that, does it matter if my audience, no matter how great or small, draws a reading from it that I hadn’t intended?

One response to thinking about this must, surely, be to take care about the way I use words.  The less sloppy I am, the greater chance you’ll see what I am trying to say.

thinking it out

* No, I don’t count this as multi-tasking.  Sometimes I need backgrounds to tune in and out of – particularly if it tones-in with the wavelength I’m working on.

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 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.




Why Gove Shouldn’t Kill the Mockingbird

Seems to me this is something we should all think about, and this blog says what I feel so succinctly that it seems the best thing for me to do is re-blog it on my pages. Hope you find it as worthy a cause to shout about as I do.

Regular readers of this blog may know that we at Interesting Literature are rather fond of the following story about the genesis of To Kill a Mockingbird. The story goes that Harper Lee’s friends gave her a year’s wages for Christmas, on condition that she give up work and write. By any standard of measurement, she used the time off work wisely: she wrote To Kill a Mockingbird. It was published in 1960 and remains her only novel. Harper Lee – or Nelle Harper Lee, to give her her full name – is now 88 years old, but her one novel has done enough by itself to secure her reputation. It has sold over 30 million copies.

This morning, it was reported that Michael Gove, the UK Education Secretary, has removed To Kill a Mockingbird and John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men from the school GCSE syllabus. Gove…

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The guided-reading-group.

‘How does it work then?’ I was asked the other day.  ‘Do you all read at the same time, aloud?’

It was a timely question.  I’m hoping to start a guided-reading-group in a new area in September, and I’ve been wondering not just where to advertise, but how to do it.  Publicity not being my strong-suit, my usual system has been to describe the book that the course is based on, and hope to tempt or intrigue people who either already love the book, or have thought they might like to read it one day.  That blurb goes out in the WEA brochures, on it’s web-site, and here on my blog.  More locally, WEA branch volunteers and I put up posters.

I’m blushing here.  This demonstrates an abysmal failing in creativity and imagination.  I’ve been drifting along, putting in minimal time and thought to what is one of the keys to a successful course, recruitment.

In the past I concentrated on where to place publicity.  That’s been useful.  I’ve learned the value of visibility, and these days I’ve usually got cards, posters, fliers and brochures in pockets and bags, ready to hand around.  But let’s be brutally truthful, I had become complacent, even thinking of myself as efficient.

So, as I was explaining the format to my questioner, ‘The reading all happens at home, between classes,’ I was also thinking about how effective my publicity really was.

‘So then what do you do?’ he said, hitting the vital nail on the head.

Bee swarm

Bee swarm

‘Well,’ I said, ‘we discuss what we’ve read, and I bring along some questions that I think might add to the discussion, and some extra information that might affect the way we think about the writing, usually as a short presentation.  Then we compare our ideas about that.  I might give some background about the author, or consider how the book was written, or what was happening at the time, and how we think the book fits in with modern ideas and other stories.’  I paused.

How do you describe something that is meant to flex around the divergent interests of each group?

I’ve been guiding reading-groups for ten years now.  The class I started with was based on an anthology of short stories. I’ve delivered it to several groups since then.  It provides a lovely cross-section of writers and styles, and of story-writing principles and practices.

I can’t predict what will delight, interest, entertain, confuse, shock or repel a reader.  Each group takes each discussion in a new direction.  Some of the stories are difficult reads that raise questions about the functions of writing and reading.

Each reader brings a new slant to my understanding of what a story is saying and how it works.  Did they like it?  Why?  If not, why not?  Can I persuade them to read it differently, show them something intriguing about it?

Together we explore the how and why of each text.  For readers, it adds a new dimension to the way they think about books and writers.  For writers, it provides a better understanding of the endless flexibility of fiction.

Do we risk losing sight of the story when we start investigating it?  Shouldn’t reading be about losing yourself?  Shouldn’t it be just about the words on the page?

I would answer yes, in varying degrees, to all three questions.  Because, can’t reading sometimes also be about the spaces between the words, too?  And if they’re there, isn’t it good to be able to explore their possibilities in company of some other interested and curious readers?













Taking the plunge

january lightsWell, here we are thirteen days into January.  The festivities are all packed away again and although it seems almost too late to be wishing you all ‘Happy New Year’, as I’ve not managed to do so before, I do now.  I hope this turns out to be a great twelve months for you all.

The days are getting longer.  Yes, really.  Maybe it’s only by a minute or two, but that’s enough to make a difference.  The birds have started courting songs and displays here, and this morning the sun is even shining.  You can tell from this that I’m definitely in  ‘glass half full’ phase, can’t you?

Teaching has started.  I feel as if I’m just coming out of hibernation, after my lazy Christmas.  Funny, I looked forward to the break, and all the writing time it implied, but when I weigh it up honestly, I have to admit that I achieve more during teaching periods than in the spaces between them.

Alone, I’m prone to drifting from one project to another.  The trouble with that is that instead of concentrating on finishing something, I add to the heap of ideas I’ve got ‘in progress’.  And that’s already a precariously high pile of paper.

Or worse, because I put aside writing time for one chore, I find it easy to justify adding on another. ‘While I’m out of my office I’ll just…’ is how it starts.  The next thing I know a week, or worse, a month has gone past.

It’s not just that when I’m contracted to work spare time is precious, and so I seem to spend it wisely, it’s that the process of interacting with other folks on the subject of creativity seems to get my synapses firing at full speed.  When I take an idea to someone else they provide an alternative perspective. In a group, obviously, that’s multiplied.  The discussion picks up other aspects of life, view or approach that help me to see things a-fresh.

Writing, we tend to assume is a solitary activity.  Until the advent of reading groups, fiction too, was seen as a largely an act of isolation.  Both of these statements can be true.  They don’t have to be though.

Think TV, and the way a lot of the comedy and drama shows are created and what you often find, even when only one writer is credited, is an artistic collaboration. ‘From an idea by…’ the titles might say.  More often, a group of writers are gathered together to workshop scenes, to push the possibilities of action and reaction.  Ideas adapt, and develop.

Individually the writers might have interesting suggestions, and many of us prefer to work that way.  But what if, at the inspiration stage, we could get together with some like-minded people and share our thoughts?  Our imaginations may be potentially limitless, but sometimes another point of view can provide even more possible scenarios for what we are reading or writing.

Imagine a room full of excited writers working together to create a narrative, throwing suggestions into a pool, twisting and refining, polishing, to mix a metaphor or two.  The events, the interactions, the sparky exchanges of dialogue, are talked through and work-shopped so that each incident is pushed and stretched and edited into its most advantageous shape.

I could be describing a team creating a script for a sit-com, a drama or your favourite soap.  On the other hand, this might also be a writing or reading group in a room near you, tonight.

Happy New Creative Year.

Writing what we know

I’ve been looking for Arthur this week. King Arthur, that is.  At the moment, there are five books about him on my desk, and another four about Celtic myths.  I’ve also got some web-pages bookmarked and a lot of notes – paper and electronic, to work from, that I’ve been putting together over the summer.

I like research.  I’m not sure what that says about my personality, and if you know, please don’t tell me.  I’d rather not have my suspicions confirmed.  Besides, if you’re reading this, chances are you’re suffering from the same condition anyway.

The trNellieick with gathering background information is discipline.  The Arthur stuff is easy, because I’ve a course starting in November, so I’ve a deadline.  Take away the deadline and it’s a different story.

Two years ago I offered to put together a family history for my father.  Two of my uncles had already traced the family tree as far back as was feasible, but I was interested in combining that with a family photo album that dated from the 1870s onwards.  I gathered up materials, interviewed aunts, uncles and second cousins, then settled down to sort it out.

Six months later I had become a regular visitor to the local archives.  I learned how to use the micro-fiche, computer records and filing systems.

I added branches to the family tree.  I visited places where our ancestors lived and read between the lines of the records of their births, deaths, marriages and census forms.  Some of their lives became more than just patterns on paper, I got a feel for who they were and began to imagine what their lives were like.

But out of the alphabet of files and folders on my hard-drive I needed to create the book I had promised.  It was to be a small, family thing: a factual book of pictures with words rather that vice versa.  One day, I thought, I might write this saga.  Meanwhile, I visited a printer who set me my deadline.Frederick

It was hard cutting my trips to the archive, letting go of the stories I had glimpsed in the parish registers and workhouse records.  I knew that left to my own inclinations, I could have lost myself there, chasing names and following links.  The labyrinth of facts would have drawn me on to ever more obscure connections until I had forgotten where I started.

Often, when I’m starting to write fiction, I find myself needing to look things up, to check details.   There is a saying that we should write what we know, and I suppose in that case, the issue of research might not arise.  Except that somehow, even when I start out from a place I do know, I all too often find myself writing about places and things I don’t know, but can imagine, so for me, at any rate, research will always be an issue.

The Ice Breaker

Picture this: day-one at the Imaginative Writing BA.  It’s a mid-September morning, there’s a slight mist, but it’s warm.  I follow my A-Z to a quiet street of big old terraced houses three turnings behind the Cultural Studies school.  Up five stone steps and through a narrow pair of doors are glass fire-doors.  Ahead of me are two narrow staircases.  The left set goes up, the right down.  Because they are fitted into a tight corner of the hall they turn shortly, both seem dark.

I hesitate, reading the numbers on the two ground floor doors and am crowded.  People appear from every direction, greeting each other extravagantly, laughing, chatting or looking confused.  I’m fairly sure they’re all students, some because they are so young, others because of their clothes or their confusion as they check their handbooks and look on the building plan for room numbers.

The noise levels increase, a piano starts up somewhere below us, playing a bright, nippy run of scales and a nice baritone follows the lead.  I hear a round of applause, and laughter.  This is the drama school, then.  Seems more like a TV show.  Can this really be where I’m meant to be?

I’m not sure, but it’s too late to change my mind.  I’ve rented a room, given up my job, signed the enrollment forms and have just heard a woman ask for directions to the same class as me.  I follow her past the stairs and along a narrow blue corridor.

We gather, sixteen of us, in a room with no windows, dim lighting and a sloping wooden floor, that was not a result of subsidence, it was designed that way, and yes, there was a reason, but I’ve forgotten it now.  The centre of the room is empty.  There are no tables, only stacks of metal framed chairs around the painted-brick walls.

Small groups form around the edges of the room.  Most of the class are in the same halls and have spent freshers week together.  They chatter about parties and shops and wonder if they’ve come to the right place.  Good, I think, it’s not just me.DSCF5124

It’s not.  In a moment the door opens again, and Edmund comes in.  ‘Welcome to Imaginative Writing,’ he says.  ‘Sorry about the accommodation.  We’ll be moving in a week or so.’  He takes an orange out of his bag. ‘Meanwhile, I think we’ll start by getting to know each other.  Catch the orange, say your name and throw it to someone else.’

The orange did the rounds, two or three times, then we unstacked chairs and did a class.

You’re thinking that as ice-breakers go, this doesn’t sound so bad, aren’t you?  In fact, as tasks go, this one probably seems quite fun.

Lesson two.

Round one:    ‘Catch the orange and say the name of the person who has just thrown it.’

Round two:     ‘Call out a name and throw the orange to that person.’

I loathed that game.  It seemed designed to prove to me and my classmates how bad I was at remembering names.

‘As soon as we have a hundred percent success, we’ll stop playing,’ Edmund said.

We never were sure if it was the same orange that came back for that second lesson.  Perhaps we would have been able to work it out if we’d needed it for the third.  It certainly looked like it had been around for a while.  When we asked Edmund about it later, he said that he’d got the idea from a book about business management.  They specified a tennis ball.  Edmund hadn’t got a tennis ball.

Over the next few weeks he set us more bizarre tasks.  Edmund had innovative ideas about what Imaginative Writing meant.  The title of the course was not accidental, he assured us, he meant us to use our imaginations in order to discover creativity for ourselves.

More than a decade later, I look back to that orange with affection.   It did force us to learn each other’s names in a short space of time.  It also got us talking, outside of the group, and became part of the story of our three years together.  I bet, if you were to mention oranges to any one from that group, and probably every other group that came after, they would soon be reminiscing about their time as IW students with Edmund Cusick.

And no, I never repeat the orange in my teaching.  It was an Edmund thing.   But having experienced it made me appreciate how useful a tool the icebreaker task can be.  I’ve invented my own sets of devious and twisted exercises for getting to know classes.

Writing Strategies – Displacing Procrastination

I’ve had my other hat on recently, not the writing, but the reading one.  Over the Christmas break I read a lot of novels, for pleasure.  I have a significant backlog of books on my ‘to-read’ shelf, which always seems to load up faster than I can keep up with.

Another HatThat’s an excuse, of course, because I’d really intended to use the time for writing.  I have several short stories that need more work to finish them, and lots of notes on new ideas to follow up.  I’d been looking forward to this desk-time for weeks.

So what went wrong?  I could give you a list… it would begin with Christmas, because I always forget how much time is involved with preparing, celebrating and clearing up.  It might move on to that spell of icy weather we had, and the temptations of an armchair by the fire.  It would certainly include Anna Karenina, because studying it closely with my reading group last autumn re-awoke my old love of novels, and set me thinking about whether that short story that I’ve got lost with is really part of something less compact.

Perhaps, I thought, this time I’ll ‘knock off’ a novel.  I have a lot of ideas about this character.  It seems a shame not to use them.  Then I could use several of the story strands I’ve developed, and build-up the other characters.  Yes, there’s plenty to be said for extending this piece of writing.

So I gathered together all the notes and fragments of story I’ve played about with over the last six months – yes, it has been on the boil that long, and no, I don’t see that as a problem.  Sometimes a story evolves in a rush, others it takes time to see the ‘true’ line to take.

Re-reading it all, I surprised myself.  I’d forgotten several of those early ideas, and I was glad to find that although they were fragments, the writing was pretty good.  Of course, there was room for editing.  Isn’t there always? However, the overall picture was of a consistent ‘story world’.  Great, I thought.  I shan’t need to waste anything.  I’ll just figure out how to put it together.

Which is what I’ve been doing for the last two months, really.  I’ve been justifying my reading as research, and my fiddling about with those sketches and scenes as plotting, but, I’ve not added any new writing to the original story or the potential novel.  There’s nothing to show for the hours at my desk.

So I realise that what I’ve written today could be described as a confession.  I’ve been a little more subtle than washing the floor or cleaning the windows, but have I just found another variation on my old enemy, The Displacement Activity?

Well, I’m not so sure.  It seems to me that The Displacement Activity is as much about state of mind, as it is the physical action involved. Perhaps this is just me, trying to make myself feel better.  But it could be because this week I went back to reading short stories with a group again, and in the process of discussing with them the nature of short stories, I reminded myself of the Iceburg Theory.

You’ve probably come across it, but just in case, here’s the relevant quote from Hemingway’s, Death in The Afternoon.

If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.

No, I haven’t figured out how to pull my short story together, but that doesn’t matter, because I’ve remembered now how I was able to discard those old ideas, and I’m ready to move forwards with it, when the time comes.  Meanwhile, I’ve improved my understanding of how story works – both long and short and I’ve got a fresh story idea to start on today.  That’s got to be worthwhile, hasn’t it?

What Should We Read?

I’m often asked to recommend a good book, and the question came up again the other evening when I was invited to give a talk to the local Women’s Institute.  My answer usually depends on which hat I’m wearing. I have a variety of suggestions for creative reading and writing groups, but in those cases, I look for texts that work on more than one level.  They should entertain, but also have enough going on with content and or style to provide discussion material.

Since my chat with the WI I’ve been thinking about how recreational reading works. A good book-group can provide added insight into a story, long or short.  Each of us bring our unique life-experiences and history to what we read, and sharing those ideas with other people can help us to see a story in a different way, but I’m not trying to promote book-groups here, that can wait for another blog. This post is about the reading we do on our own.


I think of my reading as a pleasure, but that enjoyment extends to all words, so if, by some anomaly, I’m in a situation where I’ve not got a book close to hand, I’ll pick up the nearest text and read that.  I’ve gleaned a lot of information that way, over the years, though if I add up all the breakfasts spent reading a cereal box, I’ve probably also wasted a lot of hours.  Less said about that the better, I suppose.

The consequence is that I’m a bit of a genre-magpie, dipping into any text that comes my way.  I may not keep up to date with all the novels – is that even possible these days?  And no, I’ve not yet tried 50 Shades, or the Twilight Saga, but I’m not ruling them out.  I may need to read them for work; I might be given a copy, or hear something intriguing about the writing.  I only got round to the Millenium Trilogy last year.

What bothers me about my title question is the SHOULD.  When I was growing up (in the 60s and 70s) my brothers and I were allowed one comic each per week, partly due to costs, but also because our parents thought we should spend more time reading proper books.  Which was fine by me, but not my one brother.  Beano or Dandy were the only fiction he willingly read outside of the school syllabus.  So while I had my nose in a book, he was exploring other hobbies.  These days he does read for pleasure, though not fiction.  He prefers tales of true-life adventure, and cartoons, of course.

And thankfully, alongside the rise of Manga, and graphic novels, those old ideas about the worthiness of comics have been overturned. Anything that encourages a child to read must be good, mustn’t it?  Besides, they may have been simple, and little short on lessons in grammar, but the clue about comics is in the name, isn’t it?

Surely, the first thing any reader should expect from a text is entertainment.  It doesn’t have to be humour, though in my experience the best classics are layered with irony, but that’s a personal preference, and what might raise a smile for me could leave you cold, or even insulted.  That, I would argue is where discussion comes into its own and why I’m once again veering off towards bookgroups when I’m trying to think about the experience of reading individually.

Reading is such a personal activity, and therefore individual, that I hesitated to suggest an individual title we should read.  Instead, my answer to that question the other night was that it might be worth us all occasionally trying a type of book that we would not usually attempt.  If you read romance, try a thriller; if you read historical, try some science-fiction; or swop long fiction for short or vice-versa.

You may think that I dodged the question, but what would you have said?


*Illustration, Alberto Manrique print.