What is a writer?

This week, for a change in tone, I’m back to reading Graham Greene’s Ways of Escape, his collection of autobiographical essays that I was given at Christmas.  It was published in 1980.

In it, Greene begins by looking back to 1926, when he started to write the first of his novels that would get published.  If you’re wondering about the relevance of such a gap to our digital age, take a look at this extract from the first chapter.

What a long road it has been.  Half a century has passed since I wrote The Man Within, my first novel to find a publisher…Why has the opening line of that story stuck in my head when I have forgotten all the others I have written since?

Perhaps the reason I remember the scene so clearly is that for me it was the last throw of the dice in a game I had practically lost.  Two novels had been refused by every publisher I tried.  If this book failed too I was determined to abandon the stupid ambition of becoming a writer.  I would settle down to the safe and regular life of a sub-editor in Room 2 of The Times…It was a career as settled as the Civil Service…in the end there would be a pension and I would receive a clock with a plaque carrying my name.

Third time lucky then, or was it?  Persistence was required. This speaks of a strong drive to create.

Greene says that the very first novel he wrote, ‘…seemed to me at the time a piece of rich evocative writing…’  the second, I called…rather drably The Episode and that was all it proved to be.

He talks of his influences, of reading the great novelists and of studying the theory.  In Greene’s early years, Percy Lubbock’s 1921 literary criticism, The Craft of Fiction provided him with guidance.  This was the period before literary criticism took much interest in novels, so Lubbock’s investigation into ‘How [novels] are made’ was a key text for understanding writing techniques.

This has chimed with what I’ve been reading in the eighteenth century classic, Tom Jones, where Fielding explores ideas about what a novel is or should be.

I wish…that Homer could have known the rule prescribed by Horace, to introduce supernatural agents as seldom as possible.

This not only tells us about Fielding’s approach to writing, it reminds us that the idea of reflecting on writing goes back to ancient Greece.   Like artists in all of the other media, writers study not only their contemporaries, but also the works and thoughts of those who came before them.

I don’t know of a novel, story, play or poem that has no ancestors.  In my experience, the best reading is a result of the writer’s previous best readings.

There haven’t been many novelists who’ve discussed this so directly with the reader as Fielding does in the course of his fiction.  Generally the approach is similar to Greene’s, a separate collection of thoughts or essays about their writing.  The beauty of that is that it allows me to dip into a few paragraphs of non-fiction at a place of my choosing.  That may be while I’m midway through a chapter of a novel, or at the end of the whole.   You might say, that it allows me to make a buffet metaphor out of them…to fill my plate with a selection of ideas and apply different combinations of approach to my reading and my writing. IMG_0180

Well you have to allow a woman to make a small poetic flourish occasionally, haven’t you?

 

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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.

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.

 

 

 

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.

 

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.

2002

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.

On writing to order…

Have you had a good week?

I only ask so that I can boast about mine.  Because I’ve been busy, not just with the usual displacement occupations around the house and garden, I’ve been writing – creatively.  Yay-hey-hey & Yippidy-yay.

Okay, so it was all a bit last minute, and it needs more work, but I’ve the bulk of a story put together.  And it works: that is to say, I think it’s working.

The reason I’m crowing?  My flurry of creative activity follows several weeks of floundering that started when I came across a short story competition, two months ago.  The brief was for stories based on a theme that I have strong feelings about.

I dithered when I first saw it, knowing that the risk, in getting onto a soapbox, is for entertainment to drift into diatribe.  Still, thought I, so long as I understand that, I can watch for it.  Because the plus side of such a situation is that I’d be writing from my heart, something I often argue for.

From the start, I was overwhelmed with ideas.  The trouble with the dozens of scenarios I came up with though, was none of them were stories.  I needed an angle, a character, a crisis to kick off from.

At that stage I was determined not to worry.  I had two whole months for the writing, which was plenty of space to try an oblique strategy.  I would take a break from my creative problem and catch up on other jobs, which would allow the theme to sink into my murky subconscious and ferment.  With luck, when I pulled it back out, it would have metamorphosed from a raw mash of ideas into something crisp, clear and refreshingly intoxicating…elderflower cordial

When it comes to writing, I’m not a patient person.  After a few days I took the lid off my ideas, made notes, then crossed them out.  I told myself I was putting the ideas away, but I didn’t.  I thought about them in spare moments.  Days drifted into weeks. I told myself not to panic – you can imagine how well that went.

Things got so bad that I failed to maintain the breathtakingly simple, Five Minutes Every Day trick.  Then, one day last week, I was putting together a handout of writing competitions, and came across a weekly flash fiction challenge that appealed.  Well, I thought, at least it will be something creative.  I’ll do that.

Funny thing was, that what I found myself writing was the germ of an idea that was just perfect for the bigger story competition, though in the end, the deadline slipped past me.  The thing is, I’m not writing it for entering anywhere, at the moment.  I’m too busy following my characters and their story to worry about that.

 

The best stories…

Imagine this:

It’s winter.

On a damp, cold, morning in January, Kelly has just arrived for work at Rustic Farm.  The breakfast sky is overcast, the hedges and trees are leafless, and underfoot there is mud.  The concrete yard is spotted with large dark puddles.  England in winter feels like a grey place.

Even though Kelly is wearing her quilted waterproof coat, heavy jeans, a woolly hat, and black wellington boots, she has stuffed her hands in her pockets.  The wet cold is seeping through to her bones and she’s only been out of the car five minutes.

stand and stare...She hurries to the storeroom and measures out food for the calves.  As soon as they see the buckets, they rush to the feed barrier and jostle for space at the trough, churning the air with their hot snorting breath, reaching out their long, coarse pink tongues to lick at the cascading trail of feed.  The calves chew contentedly, snuffling mouthfuls before raising their heads and chewing, open-mouthed, their eyes blissfully half-closing.

Kelly goes to the barn and climbs the ladder up the haystack.  She is so close to the corrugated tin roof that she has to crouch.  The air up there is dry.  Kelly roles five bales off the edge.

Back at the manger, she hefts a bale in and cuts the strings holding it together.  The hay falls into fragrant sections.  Kelly fluffs up the stems and spreads them out.  She makes a cloud of soft greens for the calves to sort through.  The scent of sweet meadow grasses wafts up, and for an instant, evokes the memory of a hot June afternoon stacking bales.  She pauses, picks out a stem and chews it.  It is faintly, dryly sweet.

A calf coughs, vigorously.  A shower of dung sprays through the rungs of the gate by Kelly’s feet.  She laughs, throws away the soggy hay stem, gathers up the cut bale strings and goes to fetch a shovel.

Maybe this is a bit corny, but sometimes a metaphor says it best.

So this week, as I was helping with the hay making, absorbing the scents of sun drenched herbs and grasses, I was thinking about that moment when the bale gets opened.  What makes good hay is the quality of the herbage that will go into it, and the care taken to cut it at the right moment, then to dry it quickly and thoroughly before it gets baled.

It seems to me, that what I aim for in my writing is the same thing.  I too must judge the perfect moment to cut into and out of my story, and use the best words I can to evoke the essence of a time and place.  I aspire for my reader to forget, just briefly, everything except the story I am telling.  Because those were the sorts of story that set me dreaming of becoming a writer.

Print by  Alberto Manrique

Print by
Alberto Manrique

Four memorable days: Sense & Place

Last week we were on the Lleyn Peninsula, in North Wales, running a writing residential.

photo(22)

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.

What happens next?

So you’ve started a new story.  The characters are in an interesting situation and you’ve ideas about what will happen to them.  Great, stop reading this and get writing.

It’s wonderful when you’re on a role, isn’t it?  Ideas spilling out so fast you can barely get them written down in time.  Going with first instincts can feel like an adrenalin rush. Events build to a climax, and wow, you’ve got an ending.  Phew, what a feeling that is.  It all worked out.

Or did it?  When you go back to your writing after you’ve cooled off does it still please you?

The best test you can make of your writing is to attempt an impartial view of it.  Ideally, we follow the principles of the best wine makers, and once the fermentation process is complete and the words are sealed in their cask, or bottles, we put them away to mature while we start work on our next batch.  In writing terms, this means read other writers, or start on a new project.

Fragment from Hector Hanoteau, (1823 - 1890) The Wine Taster.

Fragment from Hector Hanoteau, (1823 – 1890) The Wine Taster.

Ideally it is much, much later that we go back and taste that earlier vintage.  I think we need at least a week, preferable a month (maybe several) before we get good distance.

I realize that this is far from realistic.  Mostly we’re creating pieces of writing for specific deadlines, and we can’t allow that kind of time.  If we’re lucky someone else will proof-read for obvious errors (if really lucky, they might provide some criticism, and we might have time to consider it) and then we submit it.

Considered criticism is good, you can’t have enough input from ‘ideal-readers’ (see Stephen King definition).  Okay, we don’t all have access to trustworthy readers.  Too many of us have only good-intentioned love ones who offer unconditional enthusiasm.

For the ambitious writer though, this critique period is no time for kindness.  What’s needed is the cool ruthless quest for story.  Have you pushed the characters to their limits?  Have you explored enough angles on the situation to be certain that the one you’ve chosen is fully exploited?

It can be hardest to tell this when you are still emotionally connected to the writing.  So I suggest you dig back through your files for something that is at least a year old.  Ideally, chose something you either submitted, or planned to submit: something that when you see the document title, you can barely remember what it was about.

Forget who wrote it.  Read it, objectively.  There’s no room for pride or embarrassment, you are about to critique your work.  Not sure how that works?  It’s easy, just keep asking yourself questions.  Here are a few you might start with:

  • What do you think of the first line?
    • Does it make you want to read on?
    • Are you intrigued or enticed by it?
  • Are the characters believable?
    • Do you care what they say?
    • Are you happy to be spending time with them?
    • Did you care about what happened to them?
  • Is everything that happens in the story world believable?
    • Or, are you irritated by how things happened?
  • Would you be happy to recommend the story to another reader?
  • Do you wish something more had happened in the story, even if you don’t know what it was?

Clearly this is a general rather than specific approach to story-reading.  Questions should arise from the text, rather than from a random list.

If there is one question above all others that matters, it’s the last one.  Not because I’m assuming there must be changes you should make, rather because it can help to give you confidence in your writing if you feel you’ve fully explored other possibilities.