The ideal writing space

Faced with a cramped work space, and wondering how to organise clutter, or is that just me?  This week I’ve been trying to work out how I’ve accumulated so many oddments, or more specifically, if there are any I could ditch.  It’s not just the books, you see.

I don’t like to think of myself as a hoarder, but I’ll admit to a magpie instinct.  A lot of my early collections were gathered on walks…horseshoes, ancient bottles, pottery shards, attractive pebbles…things that don’t belong in the house, and so have found spaces in the shed that now doubles as my writing space.

Shelves have been added, and added, and over-filled…you get the story, don’t you? This week, I began to consider whether I needed an annex for my shed.

It was when I found myself measuring up a corner next to the greenhouse that I woke up to where I was heading.  If I continued to think like that, I would have a one woman business park instead of a garden.  So, jumping in the opposite direction, I tried to imagine myself a minimalist.

Where to start?  Well throw away something easy, like the heap of writing magazines. I could rip out any interesting and/or useful articles, and keep them in a folder.   George-Bernard-Sha_2071154iLike this picture of George Bernard Shaw’s writing shed.

Aha, I thought, tearing the page out, serendipity, I’ll pin this on my door, and it’ll help keep me focused.  After all, what more should one need than a chair, a level surface and writing materials?

GBS, as he was known, named his shed London, so that unwanted visitors could be simply misled into believing he was away from home, leaving GBS in peace to scribble.  His simple and austere box looks about the same size as my office, it’s just barer.  What was good enough for him…

I dropped the rest of the magazine into the waste paper bin, took up the next one, and found Roald Dahl’s writing hut.  My heart didn’t flip, but I had a moment of honest recognition.  roald Dahl's writing hut

It would take an awful lot of effort for me to achieve and maintain the kind of simplicity that suited GBS: energy and time that I would prefer to use for writing.  Dahl’s hut has been preserved for visitors to look at, I wonder if it was usually as tidy as this?

It’s a crammed space, with just room to get from the door to that chair with its lap-tray for writing on.  I could get lost in the details here, I could lead you on to look at the sheds, huts and summerhouses other writers have created or commandeered to work in.  They’re lovely to look at, to set us dreaming a little, but actually, they’re a luxury and a danger.

If we concentrate too much on what a writing space should look like, we might forget to settle down and write.  Famously, Hemmingway would plonk his typewriter on any available surface and type.

The reality for most of us is that we make do with a corner of the kitchen, spare bedroom, sitting-room, at quite times, or relocate to cafés or libraries.  Anywhere that allows us to close off the door to domestic chores, such as tidying, is a good space to concentrate on writing.

 

 

 

Advertisements

Steinbeck and ‘the craft of writing’.

Lately I keep stumbling over a John Steinbeck quote.  The first time I saw it, I liked it.  He said:

Ideas are like rabbits.  You get a couple and learn how to handle them and pretty soon you have a dozen.

It’s taken from the opening of an interview he did with Robert van Gelder for Cosmopolitan in 1947, which was reproduced along with some other conversations about his publication history, in a book: Conversations with John Steinbeck in 1988.

I see the attraction of posting this metaphor on visual mediums, and marrying it to cosy and comic rabbit images.  And, that key word, ‘ideas’ is applicable to so much more than writing.  I’m not surprised it’s become popular.

john-steinbeck-alisal-street

Detail of the Blagojce Stojanovki mural in Salinas, California, photograph by David A. Laws

Yet, the more I thought about how the rest of those words fit together, the less useful it seemed.

What Steinbeck threw at us so casually, ‘and learn how to handle them‘, takes me back to my earliest thoughts about writing, the belief that there was a closely, maybe jealously, guarded secret to creating fiction, known only to a privileged few.  I used to envision it as a formula, perhaps a recipe, that once learned would produce instant success.

That second sentence seems to speak to those who already know the secret, or the beginning of it.  It describes something already understood, rather than explains to the novice.  It made me wonder what the context for the quote was.

A quick search brought up the original interview, and I soon found another segment to add to the metaphor:

Each of his books has represented to him a stage in his own growth and when the book is completed he feels that he is through with that stage. ‘A good thing too.  I don’t want to write the same book over and over.’

Steinbeck went on to talk of ‘the craft of writing’ as something that had to be practised.  He said that it needed commitment.  Then he referred to the difficulties he’d had.  They’re not the same as mine, nor was his approach to writing.

Steinbeck writes his books in his head.  He remarked that if he made notes he’d probably lose them anyway.  He plans his stories even to the dialogue  and when he starts writing he makes very fast progress, keeping up a pace of twenty-five hundred words a day.

Insights like this helped me to overcome that idea that there is a simple set of rules to good writing.  I like ‘the craft of writing’ better than the rabbits.  In my experience, rabbits frequently multiply because their keepers have not learned how to identify and separate does from bucks.

Sometimes a quote needs to be seen in context.

 

 

 

 

Finding the end of the story.

Kitty, arrives at the class with three pages of writing.  She’s created a feisty main character with an interesting dilemma.  ‘I know exactly how it will end,’ says Kitty.  ‘I’ve just got to work out the bit in the middle.’

‘So,’ I say, ‘you’ll finish it for next session.’

Kitty fiddles with the pages of her notebook and looks away.  ‘Maybe not,’ she says.

street artBeneath her fingers are three other projects that she has started with great energy and abandoned at the half-way point.

‘Could it be,’ I suggest, ‘that you’re thinking too far ahead each time?’

I have two problems in pre-plotting endings.  The first is that my character might not decide to go in the direction I need them to, and so I am continually placing them in situations that haven’t evolved naturally.  The second is that because I’ve already worked the ending out there’s no sense of excitement about my writing.

This does not mean that planning is wrong.  It works for a lot of writers.  There are plenty of planning styles for big projects, ranging from the paper-based versions, such as postcards pinned to a wall or shuffled into order, to sophisticated computer programmes that can either lead you with prompts, or be used to store your ideas.

‘What if,’ I suggested to Kitty, ‘you write up that ending you’ve anticipated, and put it aside.  It can be your back-up, but also, because you’ve written it, you can let go of that idea.

Then you can pick up the story from the point it is at now and let your main character work out what happens next.  Don’t think about an ending.  Let it happen.’

‘I could try that,’ said Kitty.

I said, ‘What have you got to lose?’

 

 

*Photo by Leon Keer.

What do you do with your writing?

After all the work you’ve put into creating your poetry or prose, composing, redrafting it into the shape that says exactly what you intended, and then those hours of careful editing that you’ve done, the question of what happens next is tricky.  Lots of us take the traditional gamble of competitions or submissions.

That means joining the other heap of writers hoping to catch the eye of the reading team or judge.  If we’re going to do that properly, we should research for markets to suit our style of writing, which potentially consumes a lot of writing time.

The writing myth is that there’s an easy way round this, that some generous patron will discover us, and we’ll be whisked away on a publishing roller-coaster where we are cushioned from all the detail involved in becoming a ‘known’ writer.  Then our work will not just have a market, it will be commissioned in advance, and our lives will become suddenly organised into sensible, un-challenged writing periods that are generously interspersed with relaxation activities and occasionally involve some promotional work.  Sounds like a Utopia, doesn’t it?

I don’t know about you, but I’m too well read to trust in those.  So what are the other options?

Well, one is to self-publish.  Which is, of course, its own minefield.  Who do you trust? Where do you start? How much should it cost? What can you expect for your money?  The questions are endless, and if you’re interested in that road, you need to do some rigorous research. More time.

katey's poem on you tubeSo I was interested when Katey told me the other day that she’s now posting some of her poetry on You Tube.

That’s something many of us could manage.  Most phones can record sound or video files.  Then all we have to do is upload them to our computers and get creative on aps or programmes, and decide where we want to appear.  Once you ask a search engine about video or visual poems all sorts of advice is revealed.

And if you’re a confident reader, why not give it a try? The web is our oyster, isn’t it?

For many of us, the off-putting part is being filmed.  There are ways around that:

  • Use a static illustration.
  • Have the text of the poem appear as you deliver it.
  • Use a video of an appropriate scene.
  • Sign up for one of the companies that specialise in animating your content.

That last option is what Katey has done for one of her poems, Watching The Kite.  It still costs money, and requires time, but proportionately to the other self-publishing options, it involves less of both.  It also ensures that your finished article has a professional gloss without the need for too much extra sweat and tears from you.

Of course, if you want your work to be ‘shared’, you need to put time into promoting.  But I never promised at the outset that I was going to give you a cost-less option, did I?

 

 

 

Got a Writing Block?

writing book for childrenLook what I found amongst the books at the local fete.  Okay, it’s published as a children’s book, but we don’t have to notice that.  Look at the first paragraph:

Have you ever wondered how to start a story or what to write next?  This book will help you.

See that ‘you’ ?  It could include adults too.

‘That’s all very well,’ I hear you say, ‘if we’re writing for children.  I’m aiming for an adult audience.’

Don’t fool yourselves folks, if we’re all reading the same seven stories, (hello, is that another echo of Aristotle?) we’re all writing them too.

This book provides a series of busy people-pictures plus guided questions.  And yes, they are child-like illustrations, but what happens if you describe the events from an adult pov*?  The language you use, your understanding of events, and your responses, all affect the kind of story you will write.

On the other hand, if you’re feeling inhibited about making imaginative leaps, writing for children could provide you with a challenging stretch.  Think adventure, and the language of ‘let’s pretend’, then look at each picture as a frozen moment, and imagine what will happen next…

The golden rule is, no cutting corners, create your logic and follow it through to a feasible conclusion that doesn’t explain everything by saying, ‘and then he woke up’.

*Point-of-view.

The Milliner’s Tale

The last few weeks I’ve been alternating between two hats.  For my reading group, I’m wearing a morphing, anarchic design, that has me flying through The Once and Future King.

Steampunk_Hat_PNG_Clipart_PictureI’ve been enjoying the way White plays with history, rippling time so that events shift in and out of period, and juggles with our ideas about the characters who make up the Arthurian Legends.  I’m so comfortable with my head-gear that once donned, I forget I’m wearing it.

Like any extreme fashionista, I am a devoted follower of my latest mode.  So for a moment I’m taken aback when some of the group say that they find TH Ladies-Steampunk-Hats by tag hatsWhite’s use of anachronism distracting.

This gives us some interesting discussion on techniques for reading texts that challenge us, and sets me thinking about writing intentions.  The explanation White gave to his friend was:

I am trying to write of an imaginary world which was imagined in the 15th century. .. I state quite explicitly that we all know that Arthur, and not Edward, was on the throne in the latter half of the 15th century, at the beginning of my second vol. .. By that deliberate statement of an untruth I make it clear to any scholar who may read the book that I am writing, as I said before, of an imaginary world imagined in the 15th cent. .. I am taking 15th cent. as a provisional forward limit (except where magic or serious humour is concerned…

Malory and I are both dreaming. We care very little for exact dates, and he says I am to tell you I am after the spirit of Morte d’Arthur (just as he was after the spirit of those sources collected) seen through the eyes of 1939. He looked through 1489 .. and got a lot of 1489 muddled up with the sources. I am looking through 1939 at 1489 itself looking backwards.

Got that?

The idea that the past informs about the present can take a little getting used to, especially if you are someone who cares for exact dates.  When I put my Life-Writing-Hat on, I have to care, and yet, looking around, it seems to me that few of us live exactly within our time.  The things we use, wear, own and live with belong in variations to past days, weeks, months and years, even if we don’t live in historic houses.

It seems to me that reading history always requires some imaginative leaps.  Usually we do that from a present-day perspective.  What White does is to reverse this process, to comic effect, but also as an attempt at helping us understand something of what that past culture was like.  How do you set a story in medieval England without long explanations?  You translate every experience into a language children can recognise.

So I’m thinking of ways to translate dates and names into shareable texts, and what I see is that sometimes it takes an imaginative approach to explore truths.  After all, wouldn’t we all rather have a designer hat, that’s maybe a little shocking, than something mass-produced?hats

 

*Steam-punk hat photos from pin interest & Tag Hats.

 

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.

 

 

 

Appreciating Elizabeth Taylor’s short stories.

I heard Phil Jupitus talking about paintings to Susan Calman on Radio 4 this week.  Amongst other sensible and intriguing things, he said that there are some paintings he just has to stand and study, because the details ‘have made me laugh out loud with how brilliant they are.’

Cat & Lobster, by Picasso

Cat & Lobster, by Picasso

It struck a chord with me, because I’ve been having a similar experience reading Elizabeth Taylor’s short stories.  Have I just been lucky in picking out the best of her writing from amongst the Complete Short Stories volume that we’re using for the reading group class?  Because so far, they’re providing masses of material for discussion.

Take The Letter-writers, which we discussed this week.  It’s about two people who, after ten years of exchanging letters, are meeting for the first time. Most assessments of the story will include the fact of Taylor’s letters to Robert Liddell, another novelist.

‘The correspondence between Elizabeth and me, begun in the autumn of 1948, was to become increasingly frequent and intimate, and it lasted to within a month of Elizabeth’s death, when she was no longer able to hold a pen.’

He lived in Cairo, Alexandria and then Athens, and it has been suggested that this story is a fictionalized account of their first meeting.

The Letter-writers was first published in 1958, and portrays a rural spinster living a quiet, contained life.  You could read it as that and enjoy the details of characterisation:

For years, Emily had looked into mirrors only to see if her hair were tidy or her petticoat showing below her dress.  This morning, she tried to take herself by surprise, to see herself as a stranger might, but failed.

and the descriptions,

The heat unsteadied the air, light shimmered and glanced off leaves and telegraph wires and the flag on the church tower spreading out in a small breeze, then dropping, wavered against the sky, as if it were flapping under water.

However, if you work on the assumption that this is a carefully constructed story, and therefore every word has been deliberately chosen, then you have to look again at how the narration is operating.

Is it just the air that is unsteadied?  Why does the light ‘glance’ off the leaves and telegraph wires?  When I attack the text with my highlighter, tracing patterns, clues within the text, I begin to see an alternative, contrary reading.  I’m reading now from a new perspective, asking myself, why would it be a crisis for Emily to meet, ‘the person she knew best in all the world’?

The theory I’m shaping suggests something beautifully, elegantly, clever.  Can a writer really create something so subtle that it can have multiple, even contradictory meanings?

Consider how Taylor describes Emily’s approach to writing.

Emily, smiling to herself as she passed by, had thoughts so delightful that she began to tidy them into sentences to put in a letter to Edmund.

If you carry the idea of this apparently simple description on into the story, Edmund will tell us how carefully Emily ‘tidies’ her words:

In Emily’s letters, Mrs Waterlow had been funny; but she was not in real life and he wondered how Emily could suffer so much, before transforming it.

Words then are not simple tools.  Writers, like painters, arrange the details of the world they are portraying.  They decide which perspective to show us, arrange the light and shade, and order the components to create a specific effect.  Nothing in a good painting is chance, it is designed.  So I ask myself, was Taylor also transforming some thing, with her story about writing?

At first he thought her a novelist manqué, then he realized that letter-writing is an art by itself, a different kind of skill, though with perhaps a similar motive – and one at which Englishwomen have excelled.

 

 

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.

 

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