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.

 

 

 

Thinking about the benefits of reading groups for writers

The most confusing and repeated piece of advice that I was given during the years when I sat on the other side of the desk in Creative Writing classes, was to read, lots.  Not knowing how to fit more books into my days, I decided that my tutors must mean I should be more selective, so I cut back on the thrillers and romances, and looked out for novels that had literary reputations.

3D Artworks by Julian Beever

3D Artworks by Julian Beever

It was an interesting and eclectic period in my reading history.  I didn’t mind whether a book was a classic or modern; so long as someone had considered it worth mentioning, I’d give it a try. Once I’d entered the first page of a novel I forgot all about my writing tutors.  Well, isn’t that how it should be with a good book?

Of course it is, and that’s fine.  But as I closed the covers on one book I was already checking the shelves for my next read.  What I hadn’t understood then was that having read for pleasure, I needed to take time to think about what I’d read, and how it worked…or what didn’t work, and why.

Some writers seem to pick that up early.  I didn’t get it until I became a mature student, studying Literature and Creative Writing.  Since then, my horizons have broadened with every read, whether that’s with a fresh text or one of those that I first read when in that voracious period.

I’m often asked if that doesn’t spoil the fun of reading.

3D Artworks by Julian Beever

3D Artworks by Julian Beever

Actually, it opens up a text.  Yes, I can often see the workings, but I like that, because it offers another dimension of story to enjoy.  I like the process so much that I teach it, and the thing I’ve discovered is that this approach is as rewarding for readers as it is for writers. We get into some fascinating discussions about how writing works.

And most importantly, we share ideas on what a story was about.  Think you know something inside out?  Give it to a group of readers and then get into a discussion and see what is revealed, I’m continually finding that the exchanging of ideas opens up unexpected worlds beneath the surface of the words.

Thinking about how readers read has to be a useful thing for any writer, surely?

Making a writing space

I’m still buzzing following a new venture for me, a writing day at a local art museum.  Working with a group of writers in a museum is something special.  I did a half day last year.

Last autumn though, I began to notice how often people in my groups were saying that they found it difficult to make time to write.  The problem?  Those displacement activities that I may have mentioned once or twice before in previous blogs…Check out Writing Blocks, for some further thoughts on them.

Then, early in December, as the last of my classes closed up for Christmas, several students commented on the long gap before our re-start in January.  I decided the time was ripe for something a little different.  I would structure a day for writers who wanted space to write.

DSCF6058 Now in theory, this could have happened anywhere that had tables, chairs, heat and the basic facilities, but, I thought, wouldn’t it be perfect if there was an inspiring backdrop?  After all, that’s part of the key to how the writing residentials have worked.   So, I phoned up Nature in Art and explained my plan.   They said yes.

What could be better?  A lovely historic house, lots of artifacts, an education room we could use as a base, a coffee shop where we could buy lunches.

Some of the group came with projects in mind, others were looking for inspiration.  The group included people who come to my classes now, or had done in the past, and people I’d never met before.  No one knew everyone in the room, but we soon got chatting.

What I provided, apart from some optional writing triggers, was time management & discipline.  I interspersed set writing periods with a variety of complimentary and contrasting activities.

And it worked: we wrote, we took breaks, we wrote.  We wandered through the galleries, we wrote more.  It was more than just a space to write, it was a place to meet others sharing our journey and compare notes, listen to new ideas, refresh old connections and make new ones.

DSCF6056

At the end of the day we got together and discussed our writing: we read bits out.  Everyone had pages to show for their day, including me.

 

Choosing the scenic route.

I’d never heard of black Friday until last year.  This year, not only do I hear radio presenters talking about it as a tradition, I notice that it’s become a long black-weekend: several of the sales I’ve found popping up on my internet accounts extend until Monday.

Shopping in Cheltenham, photo from the Gloucestershire Echo

Photo from the Gloucestershire Echo

I’ve been a little busy lately, so hadn’t given much thought to what this meant, until we drove into town for a lunch date on Sunday and found ourselves in rush-hour-style traffic.  While I’d been counting down classes towards the end of the term, everyone else had already got into Christmas-mode.

‘Yep,’ said my good friend Claire, ‘I’ve got our presents all done and dusted.’ She grinned, and added, ‘We’re going fun-shopping this afternoon.’

I came home to light up the woodburner and listen to the wind blasting rain against the windows.  As I lounged on the settee, digesting, I wondered if this might be a useful moment to suggest taking some time out.

How often do you give yourself permission to sit still?  I don’t mean at home, where it’s easy to get distracted by family or responsibilities.  Take inspiration from this old favourite by W.H. Davies.

What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.
No time to stand beneath the boughs
And stare as long as sheep or cows.
No time to see, when woods we pass,
Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass.
No time to see, in broad daylight,
Streams full of stars, like skies at night.
No time to turn at Beauty’s glance,
And watch her feet, how they can dance.
No time to wait till her mouth can
Enrich that smile her eyes began.
A poor life this if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.

At this time of year, in Britain, it’s rarely warm enough to sit outside for long, so why not visit an art gallery?  After all, they tend to be comfortably warm, dry and peaceful places.

Whether you consider yourself a writer or not, before you set out, put a notebook and pen in your pocket or bag.  Just because you’re carrying them, doesn’t mean you’ve committed yourself to anything.

Once in the gallery, don’t wander for long.  Find a comfortable seat and study a painting.  Any landscape will do.  It doesn’t have to be one that you like at first sight.  In fact, it might be better that you don’t have strong feelings about it either way.

What I’m suggesting, is that you sit and stare at it for a minimum of five minutes.  Let your eyes roam over every segment of the picture.  Absorb the details, but let your mind drift: allow the gallery surroundings to recede, and let the painting take over your mind.

Pearblossom-Highway-David-Hockney-1986

Pearlblossom Highway, David Hockney 1986

Later, as you return to the gallery, take your notebook out and write a word about the painting.  Start off with the one, that might be enough…

 

 

 

Whimsical Scratchings.

‘Writan, an Old German verb meaning to scratch, is the origin of our English word, writing,’ I tell Rusty, as he makes a vigorous attack on an itch behind his ear with his back foot.  ‘It says so in chapter one of this writing book.’

rusty scratching0001Rusty pauses, considers what I’m saying, then goes back to scratching his ear, with a blissful expression.

Meanwhile, I’ve drifted onto another line of thought. ‘It doesn’t make so much sense since we’ve got tied to keyboards,’ I say, ‘because now we tap.  But in those days, it was not just that the marks probably looked like scratches: if the author was using some kind of pen and ink, then it would have sounded like scratching, too.’

I can say this with certainty because I once made a quill pen, from a goose feather, and used it until it was too bedraggled to function.  This was despite the fact that on certain weights of paper the nib squeaked on the same tortuous level as dry chalk on a board.  I cringe, just remembering the sound, let alone the ridiculous romanticism of my adolescence.

‘All the same,’ I say, ‘I’m glad Writan became writing.’

Rusty sighs, he’s done with his itch, and I know he’s waiting for me to mention biscuits or walks.  It’s tough for canines in a bookish household. Instead of discreetly keeping my work out of sight, I can frequently be seen squandering valuable play-time, and who’s to know whether I’m really working?

Here’s me pondering how ‘scraping with a fingernail or claw…to relieve itching’ came to be so satisfyingly onomatopoeically renamed scratch while the afternoon is darkening into evening.  Am I incubating the germ of inspiration?  Only time will tell.

 

 

 

Reading for writers

This week I’ll be starting the first of my Autumn reading groups.  Lined up are two seven week courses and a day school, that means I’ll be discussing one novel and two short story collections.  So alongside the writing groups that are already up and running, I shall be kept on my toes until Christmas.

I’m not complaining.  What I’ve found is that these two strands compliment each other. At the first pass, I read purely as a reader, sometimes racing, at others, taking my time, getting involved with the characters: enjoying the story.  It’s only after that my work starts.

I see my role as being to help a group get the most from what we’ve read.  Book coverSo I re-read the set piece again, and again.  I delve into the writing, asking myself questions about what the author was doing.  I construct a series of feasible theories, suggestions, questions and ideas that I can take in to intrigue and challenge my class with.

The interesting and intriguing thing about this process is that no matter how thoroughly I think I’ve investigated a story, when we get into a group discussion, we always find at least one more way to read it.  Everyone brings their own understanding of the world to a story, and sharing our ideas opens up our perspectives.  I learn loads.  

book coverReading groups seem to me a perfect place to investigate how skillful writing can be. I take my discoveries not only into my own writing, but also to my writing classes.

Getting to know a character.

The other day I woke up with a plot idea.  I jotted down the gist and then took the dogs for a walk.  Sometimes when I come back to such notes, I find they’ve lost their shine.  This time they hadn’t.  All they needed was the right character and something was sure to evolve.  It would be a woman, I knew that much, but who was she?

I could almost see her, just beyond my page, as a shadowy presence.  I had an idea about her size and colouring, but that’s not enough to shape a story.  I needed to know what she was really like.

photo(10)But where to start?  One way is to follow a questionnaire.   There are hundreds of variations to chose from, and they’re easy to get hold of – you can find one of mine here, or check out a search engine.  There are all sorts of formats: all kinds of lengths.

But, how do you know which one is best for you?

Well, I’d say that depends on how you use them.  Generally the format will be a numbered list of questions.  The tone often gets deeper as you move down the page.

I suppose the most important thing to remind you is that these are triggers, and while it’s a good idea to go with your first answer, you should also be prepared to revise details as you develop the profile.

So answering number 1, I gave her a name…Pippa.  But apart from a few celebrities, who goes through life with only one name?  We usually need at least a surname to balance that, so hello Pippa Phillips.

But then, instead of moving on to consider her age, I found myself wondering,  Pippa Phillips, Pippa Phillips…who gets a name like that?  How do they get a name like that?

Who better to ask than Pippa Phillips?  This is how my side of the conversation went:

Are you married?

What was your maiden name?

Ahh, so have you married a relation?  Interesting.

Have you children?

Who’s surname do they take?

How did you decide that?

You have a good relationship with your husband then? Oh, sorry, I shouldn’t make assumptions.

How did your families take that?

So, how long have you been together?

Cleary I’d moved off the questionnaire, but that shadowy presence I’d perceived was talking to me, and I like the idea that the story leads the writer. I knew that soon, Pippa would step out into the light and become a describable physical being, and not at all the person I’d first thought of.

DSCF5296Does it matter that I went off on a lateral line?  Just in case you think it does, let me ask how often you’ve been sent a survey that restricted you to an inapplicable set of assumptions?

Questionnaires are a general tool.  They make a great foundation for all sorts of exercises and stories.  But sometimes we need reminding that they’re not a formula, they’re a kick-off for creativity.

Writing what you know.

Sunday: after a session of research for some sense-of-place classes, I turned on the radio and found Poetry Please.  I’m not a regular follower of the show.  Usually at that time I’m busy working or enjoying myself.

Yesterday though, having decided that the season is shifting from salad to soup temperatures, midway through the afternoon I dragged myself back from the fifth century, and set about chopping veg.

Housework, huh? I loathe it.  Despite the end results of having a tasty dish, or even a comfortably clean house, I can’t see the processes for getting there as anything other than tedious.  Consequently, I’ve perfected a variety of self-fooling strategies to contend with my resistance, (multi-tasking for the sake of my sanity?) via BBC radio 4.

My wireless rarely lets me down, and sometimes gives me a shiver of synchronicity.

bee hive 3Yesterday’s theme was Bees, which chimed because it soon became clear that the chosen poets, and the producer of the show, had also done some detailed research.  If I’d needed reminding about why it’s important to gather background material, listening to this did the trick.

Writing is not just about the words you write, it’s about the way you’ve seen or experienced things, and the world view you provide.  Here’s one of the poems that caught my attention.

                       The Hive

                       By Jo Shapcott.

The colony grew in my body all that summer.
The gaps between my bones filled
with honeycomb and my chest
vibrated and hummed. I knew
the brood was healthy, because
the pheromones sang through the hive
and the queen laid a good
two thousand eggs a day.
I smelled of bee bread and royal jelly,
my nails shone with propolis.
I spent my days freeing bees from my hair,
and planting clover and bee sage and
woundwort and teasel and borage.
I was a queendom unto myself.

Look at the way Shapcott has used technical detail.  Here aren’t dry facts, and she doesn’t give the impression of a glancing gathering of scientific terms.  Here is an imaginative involvement between nature and self.   And what happens when I hear it?  Well one outcome is I’m intrigued.  I look it up and read it, again and again, and think about that tingle I’m getting.  Could it be that I too feel the beginnings of a colony growing inside my body?

bee 7

It’s the bank holiday…

…here, and in some other countries, so I’m offering a brief post this week: a quote from Middlemarch.

We are not afraid of telling over and over again how a man comes to fall in love with a woman and be wedded to her, or else be fatally parted from her.

…In the story of this passion…the development varies: sometimes it is the glorious marriage, sometimes frustration and final parting.

George Eliot’s novel was published in 1871.

It seems to me that her observation is still true.  So come on, you blocked writers, what are you afraid of?

Next time you have doubts about your writing, think of all the fiction that has been published since this quote: the millions of characters who have interacted with each other.  Then ask yourself why you shouldn’t tell your version of any story.

And in case that doesn’t impress you, here’s Sappho, born circa 620 BC.  The fragments of her poetry that remain are all centred on love and passion.

pompei_-_sappho_-_man

Writer’s, club together…

butterflies graffitti artThe first rule for a writing class is you do ask questions.

The second rule for a writing class is:  You do ask questions.

Third rule for a writing club: you jump every daft hurdle the tutor sets, and follow whatever convoluted directions she or he gives.

Fourth rule: you write for as long as it takes to say what you find yourself trying to say.

Fifth rule: you don’t allow yourself to hear the voice of that critic who sits behind your shoulder whispering disparaging comments about your ability to be inspired, to transcribe ideas or complete a piece of writing.

Sixth rule: there is only you and your writing implements.

Seventh rule: castles in the air are desirable residences.

And the eighth and final rule: even if this is your first time in a class, you have to write.

So now you know the rules.

What’s stopping you?

You are Writer Club people.  There is a Tyler Durden waiting to break out of your sensible or otherwise lives.  Set them free.  Those thoughts you’ve nurtured for so long about setting aside time to write, are ripe.  Don’t waste this potent moment.

There’s no way to break this news gently: it is nearly Autumn.  Now’s The Time – get on-line and sign up for a class or group near you.

fight-club_0

With apologies to Chuck Palahniuk, whose film and novel, Fight Club, have provided me with hours of entertainment.