I belong to a poetry group

Does that sound like a confession?  Maybe it is.

If I don’t make every meeting it’s because sometimes I’ve not caught up with myself.  Otherwise, one evening per month should be achievable, and it’s etched not only in my diary, but into my memory.

miki-byrneI look forward to my two hours with Miki Byrne, and the gathering of local poets she hosts.  Some are published, some are not.  It doesn’t matter which any of us are.  One of the best things about the various writing groups I’ve been to is that our interest in writing creates a common ground, and a safe space to experiment in.

I think of myself as a prose-writer, but I do love poetry.  There are poems that I go back to over and over, at critical moments, or for reflection, mood, and inspiration.  Want to write with economy, depth and precision?  Here’s a  form of literature that demonstrates some of the most intriguing and exciting ways it can be done.

In the poetry group we share the risk of words.

And I do mean risk.  My adrenalin flows.

I go to be challenged.  A topic is introduced.  I start with nothing, but a warm-up writing exercise soon provides ideas.  As the exercise progresses, I untangle the threads of my thoughts, take up one of them and follow it.  I don’t know where it’s going, or what I’m going to say, but along with everyone else, I’m writing myself into a scenario.  Images are forming, building, becoming something I’m intrigued by, linking into ideas that matter to me.

We’re all in the same boat, with the same supplies, yet we each produce something individual.  Yes, these pieces are rough, but they’re first, or at most, second drafts.

We read them out, half-made as they are.  That’s not about bravery, it’s a chance to get some instant feedback.  This is not the time for in-depth critiques (that happens at a later stage), the audience and I are hearing my words, as I will hear theirs, for the first time.

Sharing gives us some ideas about important questions, such as:

  • Does it flow?
  • Does it say something?
  • What did I like about it?
  • Which part caught their attention?
  • Where might I expand it?

Everyone reads, maybe initially that’s because everyone else reads.  But ultimately, in my observation, they read because not to read is to miss-out on a vital part of the process.

The poetry group is giving me a portfolio of ideas to work on, ideas that I might not have stumbled on, drifting along on my own. Some may not go anywhere: but I go back to most of them, sooner of later.

The joys of a Treasure Hunt

Once, these were the staple event of children’s birthday-party games.  Remember?  The simplest, youngest, versions took place in a sitting room, with an adult directing us:  ‘Hotter, hotter, no colder, freezing-colder … that’s better, warming up…’  I know it wasn’t just me who got excited, because that game was always followed by: ‘I think we need to calm down now.  Let’s play statues.’

It disappeared from the party menu long before pass-the-parcel or charades.  I suspect it was too stressful, both to organise and, to watch as the carefully tidied party-house was usually dismantled in the process.  Hide-and-seek was an easier replacement.  It was fun, but lacked the sense of story that a true treasure hunt has.

enid-blyton-illustration-famous-fiveI think the hours I spent with Julian, George, Dick, Anne and Timmy gave me high expectations, because although I’ve never told anyone before, I’m ready to share my certainty that one day a treasure clue would come my way.  I wasn’t sure I’d be as clever and brave as the Famous Five, but I lived in expectation of adventure.

Long John Silver had shown me what a real treasure map looked like.  There was no sign of one in any of our books or boxes, and believe me, I looked.  So one summer afternoon my friend Jane and I created our own treasure map.

It took hours.  This was no casual project.  It was paced out, checked with a compass and taken through several drafts before we made our best copy.  There were landmarks, written clues, and a large scarlet X to mark the spot where we had buried a carefully wrapped ladybird book for our brothers to find.

The final document was drawn on a heavy fly-leaf that I ripped from an old book.  I hope it wasn’t anything precious, even then I don’t think I would have damaged a book unless it was already in a bad way.  But if I did, it was worth it.  I can still remember how impressive the finished article was.  We artistically ripped the edges, then aged it with cold coffee before rolling it up, tying it with a red ribbon, and hiding it in a jar.  Then we handed out the first clue.

Much later I created treasure hunts for my niece’s birthday parties.  Each one reminded me of that long summer afternoon.  I don’t know what we did with that first map.  Perhaps it’s still tucked amongst the paint pots in Dad’s shed.

pirates-of-the-caribeanThis year my grown-up nieces asked me to create another Treasure Hunt, for Boxing Day.  It was fun working it out.  This time the map was in my head: the clues were anagrams, puns, allusions and poems that I secreted along a footpath to a distant field, then back again.  While the family were out of sight, I snuck into the garden and set a final leg that led them round the house, to finish with a hoard of chocolate coins hidden near where they’d started.

And you know what?  It was a creative buzz.  In this story I had real characters to work with.  I’d set them a journey that I hoped they would be able to pull off, but I wasn’t sure.  I climbed up on the picnic table to watch for them.  Was it too easy?  Was it too hard?

Oh, the relief when they came into view.  Keeping out of sight, I watched them track the next clue, then gather to read and discuss it.  I sneaked closer, and eavesdropped. Even when I saw that it was working, I couldn’t walk away.  This was story, and I was in it too, a flawed, but omniscient narrator.

 

 

The deadline of Dead Lines is not always what it seems.

I wrote three-hundred and forty-two words on Wednesday, in a hurry to meet my self-imposed dead-line.  I know, that was one hundred and fifty-eight short of my stated target, but hey, who’s counting?  I set words on the page this week, that’s what matters.

facesThey were not good words, but they weren’t bad.  Taken individually, I used some lovely ones.  Yes, I have favourites…’seriously’, ‘draped’, ‘however’, ‘softly’, are some of my current ones.

Thursday morning, I took out all those favourites plus a few more, to see if I had the beginnings of a story.  My word count shrank to two hundred and ninety eight.

I’d love to tell you that I discovered something worthwhile, but my phrases lacked an essential for successful storytelling, plot. I had a static character drifting around a landscape.  Where was the tension?  Nowhere.  What was at stake? Nothing.

Pah, I thought, spinning the page onto my personal slush-heap, so much for deadlines.  It was time I returned to Middlemarch.  People to see, actions to judge, ideas to question: to hypothesize.  This writer sculpted layers with her words.

Time passes.  Time….passes. (Do you see that?  Do you get it?)  Words, love ’em.

Later, in the crow black, slow black night, I dreamt.  (Sorry, told you I have favourites.)

Dawn, rosy fingered warning of storms ahead (okay, a little bit of poetic exaggeration here) and inspiration, because I wake with a thought.  A fragment of story was lodged within those words from Wednesday, and now I know what is at stake.

Good old subconscious, world within worlds within us.  Keep throwing in the material, and who knows what will come out.

Leading Question: Why write a blog?

dscf5154There are, of course, any number of sociable benefits to having world-wide links.  The strands of the web have certainly re-drawn my idea of the globe.  So the quick answer to my question, ‘why do it?’, is another question: why not?

Perhaps that’s a bit glib, so here’s a more writerly reason for blogging: structure.  You don’t think I’m talking about shaping my writing…do you?  I could be.  Blogging has certainly taught me a lot about making my point, but no, it’s not top of my list of benefits.

The structuring that I’m talking about here is time-management.

Like so many other people intending to write, the main thing that hinders my creativity is settling to a writing schedule.  I have the best intentions, but there are so many calls on my time.  They belong on a sliding scale of importance, and in theory, writing is pretty close to the top.  Yet, I find that my own stories are the most flexible activity on my list – regularly getting shifted downwards.

Apart from a blip a year or two ago, when I fell by the wayside for a few months, the one piece of writing that bucks this trend, is my blog.  I’ve set myself a weekly deadline of Monday mornings, and mostly, I achieve that.

You’ll notice that I’ve been kind to myself, that there’s no precise time limit, though I aim for 09.20?  Some weeks I slip down that deadline and post late in the day, I can live with that. I can live with that?

I can learn from it, surely.  If I can put off tasks from that flexible list to make room for my blog, then it’s time I started doing the same for other writing.  So this week, as my teaching schedule eases off for Christmas, I’m looking at my diary and setting myself another deadline.  Five hundred words, rough as they come, by Wednesday teatime.

We should talk about this next week.

dscf4760

 

 

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.

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.

‘WEA? It stands for Workers Educational Association,’ I reply.

There is a moment of thought, and then Jackie says, ‘Does that mean you’re socialists?’

I smile and shake my head.  ‘We’re not a political organisation.  “Workers” were who the organisation was originally set up for, in 1903, so that they could access higher levels of education, and have the chance to improve their opportunities,’ I say.  ‘The title’s historical.’

Jackie wonders how she’s never heard about WEA before, if it’s been around so long.

‘It always surprises me how many people haven’t,’ I agree.

‘So what is it about now?’ says Jackie.

‘It’s still about improving lives,’ I tell her, ‘but that doesn’t necessarily mean economically.  It’s also about health and well-being, about keeping our minds active and enquiring, and getting us involved with our communities.’

I think about all the different sorts of classes I’ve been involved with since I started tutoring for the WEA over a decade ago.  As well as the Open Access Programme anyone can sign up for, there have been community groups set up for students with chaotic lifestyles, and disadvantaged backgrounds, where creative writing activities have provided a safe outlet for self-expression, and for some, has provided a first step  into employment or back onto the education ladder.

‘People come to classes because they want to learn, not because they have to,’ I say.  ‘That creates a real buzz in the room.’

‘So your students are still workers in the sense that they’re working at their education?’

‘I like that,’ I say.  ‘I might steal it.’

‘Help yourself,’ says Jackie.  ‘Can I keep this brochure?’

workers_educational-association-wea-adult-learning-course-reuben-internet_main

 

You want to write? Dare to dream.

creating-charactersSitting on the decking at our Dartmoor holiday cottage, overlooking a verdant village, on a balmy September afternoon, I chatted across the fence with our temporary neighbour, Janet.  ‘You’ve got to enjoy your work,’ she said.  ‘I loved being a care assistant.  Going home at night knowing that you’d made at least one person smile that day.’

Janet’s a doer.  She’s just finished redecorating her hall, and is about to mow her lawn.  The garden is immaculate, and colourfully planted.  She’s always busy.  Tonight is quiz night, it’s, ‘a bit of a laugh, I go with my sister, she lives in the next village, so I pick her up.  She can’t get about much, with her hips.’

Janet’s a fiction, a character I’m putting together as I write.  She has a story I want to tell, but I don’t know it yet.  The things I do know are accumulating.  Some of them contradict what I thought I knew, and so I’m adapting my ideas.  For instance, her hair has fluffed out from short to long, from neat to artfully dyed and sculpted. Perhaps you think it doesn’t matter about something so superficial, and maybe I won’t be including that information in the final version of the story I write.  But I need to know it.

Janet is not a figment of my imagination, I’m dreaming her into existence.  I care about her, and the things that she cares about, and if I do this well, when I’m finished she may make you smile too.  This evening, when she comes out of the back door, in her black lace blouse, sharp black trousers and her neatly painted face, you will glance up from the Devon Life magazine you’ve been flicking through as you wait for your tea to barbecue, and wave.  ‘Good luck,’ you will call.

Janet will give a cheek-lifting smile, and hurry across the firm dry lawn to ask what’s cooking.  ‘Smell’s good,’ she’ll say, rising on tiptoes to look over the fence. ‘What are you planning for tomorrow?  Weather’s looking kind.’

She’s taking her granddaughter into Exeter in the morning, for a hearing test.  ‘But I expect I’ll see you in the evening.  Don’t get lost on the moor, or go shaking hands with any ghosts.’  Then she’ll adjust her hot pink pashmina around her shoulders and hurry down the garden to her honeysuckle covered car-port.  Her white blonde hair glows in the dusky shadows as she moves round to the drivers door.

From the decking we watch her drive out of the cul-de-sac and onto the narrow lane.

 

 

 

 

Flax Golden Tales

Dermot Hayes, on Postcard from a Pigeon, invited me to join a story challenge this week.  Check out his blog for the story behind his project, and to see the flash-fictions it has inspired others to write.

book cover

Below is mine:

Maxine tests for the freedom of the road.

Maxi is at the locked side-gate of Cherry Close, a private housing complex. She’s been there ten minutes in the hot sunshine, with a parcel for S Jenkins, number eight.  The gateman, seated on the other side of an open window, has checked his computer, and Jenkins is in, but he’s not answering his buzzer.

‘Come back in an hour,’ the gateman suggests.

‘Then I’ll be late finishing. It’s my first day, and this is the last drop. Can’t you just take the parcel?’  Maxi smiles, trying to feel friendly towards this lump in a crisp blue shirt who’s leaning back on a swivel chair, basking in the breeze of a large fan. ‘I really need this job.’

The gateman shakes his head and looks Maxi up and down. ‘Show us some ID.’

The Courier badge she hands him is plastic, and has the company logo, and her name. He glances at it and waves it away.  ‘How do I know this is you?’

It’s a fair point, she doesn’t have a high-vis jacket, or a van with a logo, just a pushbike. She’s wearing the tidiest clothes she owns, but it’s hot, even without cycling four miles in the last two hours, through heavy traffic. Her black tee-shirt is sticking to her back, and her trainers are scuffed.  Maxi pushes her fingers through her shorn scalp.  The feather-cut was supposed to look cool and efficient, but the sun is burning the back of her neck, and her reflection in the side window shows flattened helmet hair.

‘Look,’ she says to the gateman, lifting up the brown paper parcel that feels like a small book. ‘There’s his name, and that’s the address. Could you just sign and give it him later?’

The gateman shakes his head. ‘Can’t do that,’ he says.  ‘It’s not legal, accepting someone else’s post.’

Course it is. ‘What’s not legal is opening it.’

The gateman sucks in a deep breath. ‘What company is it you say you work for?’ he says.  ‘I’ll ring them and check you out.’

‘I’m supposed to be proving I can do this,’ says Maxi. ‘Give us a break, can’t you?’ She looks through the bars at the semi-circle of identical doorways across the paved courtyard. Andy had said don’t bring anything back on the first day.  Leave it with a neighbour, even if there’s no instructions.  Get it delivered.

Fine, but she can’t even get to the neighbours. What’s she supposed to do, climb over the gate?  Get in.

She points at a door. ‘Is that eight?  I can run across and ring the bell.’

He snorts. ‘More than my job’s worth.’

‘I won’t even be out of sight.’

The gateman creaks sideways on his chair, he’s reaching for the window. ‘My job is to keep people like you out,’ he says as he slides the glass window across, then he gets up and walks away, through a door into the back.

Maxi’s head is starting to throb. People like her?

She turns the parcel over. What if she just stuffed it through the gate and left, what would he do, the moronic gateman?  Surely he’d have to take it then.  But what if he returned it to the office?  He would, she could tell he was that kind of bloke.  Her hand clenches round the parcel.  She’d like to fling it right through his bloody window, except it isn’t heavy enough to hurt.  If only there were something else lying about.

She rams the parcel into her backpack, and hears paper creasing, tearing. Tough, serves the stupid git right if it’s damaged.  The houses are small, how could S Jenkins not have heard the buzzer?  He was ignoring it.  That was it, he was sitting behind those blinds, too bloody idle and selfish to think about what his indifference meant.

Because Maxi is stuffed. Whether she takes a parcel back or she’s late, she’s failed.  Andy can’t help any further than this.  He got her the trial.  ‘Don’t blow it Maxi.’  Well she hasn’t bloody Jenkins has.  A book, a soddin’ book, she’s sure that’s what it is.

She sits on the curb by her bike and tips the bag up. Shakes it.  The parcel and her receipt list board fall into the gutter.  It’s a clean gutter.  No dust, or litter.  Not even leaves from the trees on the other side of the street.

There’s a small rip along one corner of the brown parcel. It is a book.  There’s a cartoon of two kids and a dog.  She tears the paper off: poems.  It’s not even important.  Not something to lose a job over.  She’s put weeks into getting this trial, saving for the bike, fixing it up,  learning the A-Z, taking her test, talking Andy into putting her name on the list.  Everything was going right.  Everything was good.

This is not fair.  She rams the book back into her backpack, gathers up the wrapper, and her receipt board.

The list is crumpled now. All the care she’d taken to keep it neat, noting the time, writing each surname carefully.  She smooths the paper.  The signatures are just squiggles.  Not even pretending to look right.  Most didn’t even hold the pen properly.  Anyone could have written them, anyone.

It’s a position of trust, that’s what Andy said.