The things we save.

This week we discovered squatters in the roof.  By the mess, they’ve been there some time, but the night before last they decided to party, and they seemed to be wearing heavy boots.  Actually, I think I’ve been aware of their slippered-presence most of the winter, but inertia was easier than sorting out the loft ladder and torch, and I couldn’t imagine that there was much up there to interest them.

How wrong I was.  Mice, it turns out, will chew anything.  They’ve stripped the insulation off the water pipes, and shredded holes out of some spare carpet-underlay I had stashed away.

Amongst the debris though, I salvaged some oddments, one of which was the project-book we infants made, after a trip to the zoo.  It’s a tattered remnant, but I’m glad our guests hadn’t got round to feasting on it.

Our village school was small: so small that it was closed-down around the time I left senior school.  Because there were only half-a-dozen or so children in each year, I had no trouble putting faces to the names on the brief reports and drawings of our day out.  Besides, I have a photo of our class with our teacher, Miss Johnson… somewhere.

The project also reminds me of my last few days in the Junior school, when the flimsy collection resurfaced from the back of the school stock-cupboard. ‘Who would like this?’ Mrs Gwatkins asked, after we’d flicked through it, laughing at the artwork.  A few of us put our hands up, so she put names in a box, and mine was drawn out.

It couldn’t be said that I’ve treasured these pages, tucked away amongst my old diaries in the roof.  As you’ve seen, it came perilously close to being a mouse-nursery.  It’s possible I wouldn’t have missed it greatly, like those other fragments of school-life I thought I’d kept, but haven’t seen since I can’t remember when.

pelicanOn the one hand, the project is just a collection of shaky calligraphy examples and scrappy drawings. On Monday we went to Birdland and we saw some Pelicans, I wrote, capitals and long letters touching the line above as well as the line they were resting on.  And, We saw some pennies in a glass tank and there was some penguins swimming in a glass tank.

On the other hand, that repetition, and that,‘was’, was my six-year old voice, and, this project is able to link me back to the rain outside the mina bird house; the feel of my school uniform, and the way I felt as we crowded in to the small room where the Myna bird whistled, and recited, Sing-a-song-of-sixpence.

So for now, I’ll tuck the old folder into the bottom of a drawer, out of sight and mind.  It’s resurfaced so many times, that I can’t help feeling it’s not finished with yet.

A collaborative writing task.

So, the traditional image of the writer hunched over a solitary desk, or keyboard, is what most of us believe in, isn’t it?

For the most part, it’s a fair description.  The words…no the idea, is in my head, and I need to translate it into a readable form.  It will be a good story, maybe even great, one day.  It’s mine.  I’ll sweat every word out onto the page, the right ones and the wrongs, dragging them from the nearest and farthest corners of my brain.

If you’ve read some of my other blog posts, you might have begun to recognise my ‘written-voice’.  The way we record our ideas is idiosyncratic.  The vocabulary we use is filtered through the mesh of experiences that are our past, as well as our imaginations.

So sometimes it’s interesting to see how collaboration affects our thinking.  Sharing ideas has been happening in screen and script-writing for a long time.  Check out soap-operas, sit-coms and films to see the benefits of working with a script team.  Even if they’re not your usual choice of entertainment, it’s worth tuning in occasionally and thinking about how the plot developments, characterisation, and dialogue work.

krimmel_villagetavernThe principle is similar to the old parlour game, Fortunately/Unfortunately.  You know how it works, a first line is set, for instance: ‘It was a dark and stormy night…‘  Someone finishes the sentence, then the next person adds a sentence to continue the story that begins, ‘Fortunately…‘  The person after that adds another sentence beginning with ‘Unfortunately…‘ and so it goes on.

The results can be bizarre.  That depends on the participants and their intentions.

Set this up with an agreed cast list, setting and situation, and there is the potential for the working out of a challenging storyline.  Fortunately/Unfortunately is a simplistic model for a story, but this exercise is not about the writing, it is a limbering up of the imagination and an opportunity to practice some lateral thinking.  Now that’s something you don’t find easily.

 

 

*Painting, A Tavern, by John Lewis Krimmel (1787-1821)

Domestic details in fiction.

Oh the subtle wickedness of Elizabeth Taylor.  Could anyone who classifies her as cosily domestic have really read her, I wonder?  Nothing much happens, some say.

This week, I began to feel that I’d been written by her.

It started after I’d been discussing one of her short stories, The Blush, with my current reading group.  We up-turned a few ideas, and by reading between the lines, set some subversive ripples into play.  I confess she’s near the top of my crowded list of favourite writers, so I like to feel I’ve made fresh readers go back to her for another look.

Returning home, I shifted some of the books smothering the kitchen table to my office.  The tidying impulse infected me, and I put some effort into the heaps that had formed around my desk.  That was when I finally found At Mrs Lippincote’s, the Christmas present I’ve been searching for since the beginning of January.  It was in the useful, large, lidded box that I’d temporarily stashed under my desk.

It is now the first week of February, and that box has been blocking access to my workspace since around boxing day…have I an excuse for this implied absence from my writing place?  Well, it was warmer in the kitchen, and seemed more economical to heat a shared space.  So can I mitigate with some green credentials?  I probably shouldn’t.

Along with the novel were several other oddments I’d half-forgotten, but would have been looking for shortly.  Beneath them was the detritus that seems always to manifest in corners, those inexplicable drifts of dirt and fluff.  Where does it come from?

spring-cleaningMore to the point, is it only me who doesn’t manage to control it?  I’ve always marvelled at those fictional characters who inhabit huge immaculate houses.  In classical fiction, of course, the space is maintained by servants.  But in modern fiction, all to often the houses seem to maintain themselves.

My office is minute, yet I don’t seem to have the skills or interests to keep on top of the debris.  As I read of Julia’s struggles to manage the house she and her family are renting from Mrs Lippencote, I caught mirrored glimpses of myself.

The disintegration of the house resulted from neglect, from the accumulation of jobs to be done to-morrow.  Cupboards and dark corners there were which Julia avoided, which she felt she never could clear out.

How can a reader not recognise the importance of describing someone who is forced into the woman’s traditional role when they are so clearly not a natural domestic?

Written in 1945, at a point when women were about to be directed back to their homes, after many had tasted the freedoms of the workplace, At Mrs Lippincote’s is beautifully, subtly, subversive.

Discussing the schooling of his daughter with Julia, the Wing Commander says, ‘They will try to stuff her head with Virgil and Pliny and Greek Irregular Verbs.’

‘All Greek verbs are irregular,’ Julia murmured.

‘I think it nonsense.  What use will it be to her when she leaves school?  Will it cook her husband’s dinner?’

‘No, it won’t do that, but it will help her to endure doing it, perhaps.  If she is to cook while she is at school, then there will be that thing less for her to learn when she’s grown-up: but if she isn’t to learn Greek at school, then she will never learn it afterwards.  And learning Greek at school is like storing honey against the winter.’

‘But what use is it?’ he persisted.

‘Men can be educated; women must be trained,’ she said sorrowfully.

How can anyone not feel the tiny crack that Taylor creates here?  I wish I’d learned Greek.

Valerie Martin, describes Taylor as ‘the thinking person’s dangerous housewife,‘ and I can’t think of a better way to think about her writing.

 

A narrative tree

I recently got introduced to the narrative tree, and I’ve discovered what a useful tool it is for developing back-story.  This is not story planning, which I’ve never managed, my characters stray from their route as soon as I start writing.

The narrative tree, in my version, is a kind of mind-map for developing an idea.  The trunk is formed of basic story information: character, setting, situation etc.  After that, every action has to be mirrored by an alternative action.  So from the top of the trunk there are two main limbs that will split, to form another two, each of which will split to form yet another two.  Each new branch creates an alternative line of narrative.

I don’t use this technique all the time, or even most of it: I see it as an occasional inspiration booster.  For instance, here’s a very simple narrative tree for updating the story of Cinderella.

narrative-tree-demoThe original line of narrative still makes up one branch of the tree, but now I’ve also got a selection of alternative scenarios that I could develop. It might be that this is still part of the incubation process, and I’ll wake up in the morning with an even fresher idea.  The unanswerable question is, whether I would have reached that without going through this process first…

In fact, now I think about it, you could say that the information on the trunk is the end of another story, so with a sheet of paper taped onto the bottom of this, you could create a set of narrative roots, too.

The logical conclusion of this process is that it has parallels for gardeners.  You could sever a segment of story from root or branch of a narrative tree, set it on a fresh page, and let it grow into a new set of stories.

c2009-nancy-lovering-rosemary-cutting-in-water

C2009 Nancy Lovering: rosemary cutting in water.

 

 

 

 

Watching Marlon Brando: thoughts about story.

Saturday evening I watched a documentary about Marlon Brando.  The program, presented by Alan Yentob, used a lot of private Brando footage as well as the usual publicity material and film excerpts.  He was a more reflective man than I’d expected.  I suppose what I remember, aside from the iconic films, are the flamboyant marlonbrandomj096ftnews-stories that surrounded him.

I’ve never really thought about the human side of his life-in-the-headlines, until I listened to what he had to say, not only about his private life, but also about his acting.  What I heard were doubts and fears I could identify with.

It wasn’t one of those destructive, feet-of-clay shows that revel in demonstrating how flawed our best-loved celebrities really are.  This felt more like the rounding out of a character that I’d never quite been able to see.  At the end I had insights into a way of life beyond my usual experiences, and sympathy for a lifestyle that I’d viewed as shallowly flamboyant.  Those ideas may or may not be accurate: what matters is that my perceptions shifted…perhaps widened?  I hope so.

I didn’t stay up to watch On The Waterfront that night, but I will go back to some of his films.  I have an idea that knowing more about him will affect the way I view them.

I’m reminded that at the heart of most good stories is character, flawed, to lesser or greater degree.  What dictates where the empathy of the reader, or viewer, will be placed is how the story is presented.  Thinking about fiction particularly, aren’t some of the most interesting, and memorable characters the ones whose behaviour we find challenging, even scary – or offensive?

One of the theories about why we read, is that we read to understand.  I like that, both from the angle of writing and reading…both work for me.

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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.

 

 

Another New Year? No more resolutions for me.

It’s just been pointed out that I’ve titled this post with a paradox.  Having started in that vein, I propose to abandon any kind of logical approach and explore the future using every means at my disposal.

eschers_reptiles‘Stop,’ says my philosopher, ‘you’ve just written another one.’

Hmm, this is going to be trickier than I expected.  Try this ink-stained entry from an old autograph book:

Your future lies before you like a carpet of snow

Be careful how you tread it, for every mark will show.

It’s a trite but true piece of advice for rash-living types that, with some adjustment, suits my purpose.  Marks being the tools of the would-be-author, I’m taking a lateral interpretation for this aphorism, and am thinking about blank pages in place of snow.

Aptly, three key events can be tracked as this protagonist arrives at her turning point.  First was the annual NaNoWriMo challenge.

For a couple of years now I’ve fancied joining in, but my Novembers are busy.  Even so, I logged in to the site on the first few days, set myself a title and ventured a few sentences. The trouble is that setting out with the idea that I wouldn’t have time to complete the task meant I lacked momentum to continue. Okay, I thought, I’ll set myself a Writing Month challenge when the work drops off.

As if to keep this to the fore of my best intentions, early in December a birthday-notebook arrived in the post, along with some inspirational pencils.  What good friends I have.

writers-notebook-001Right off I wrote a few HB lines in a blank page of my diary, but the beautiful new notebook I put aside, ready for the CaShoStoWriChall.  Yep, I gave my plan a working title.  That felt good: that felt like I’d made a commitment, even if I hadn’t set the start date.  I was dithering, would it be sensible to begin before all the upheavals of the festive season?

Then, I got into conversation with Katey.  She too was thinking about how to complete a writing project, and she was looking for an Accountability Partner. That was, she explained, a system where we would commit to our projects by agreeing work targets, then check in daily and compare word-counts.  If a target hadn’t been achieved, the partner was to ask for an explanation, and keep asking until guilt kicked in.

Guilt?  Isn’t that a thing connected to scarlet letters and forbidden fruit?  That’s not how I want to think.  Writing is fun.  It’s a leap of imagination that lifts life: it’s an exploration.  I can set out with no clear idea of where I’m heading, and find myself picking out events from the confusion of everyday activities, to map a narrative route I had not seen until the moment when the words form on the page.

Katey and I began our partnership on 23rd December, so I think we both accepted that the first week was going to be a little tricky.  However, having made the commitment I did find myself obliged to make time for writing.  There have been a couple of days where that hasn’t happened.  One was justifiable, though the other was the result of inertia.

I felt bad, but it wasn’t guilt: I missed being creative. Besides, just because I hadn’t written didn’t mean I had stopped building stories.  I’ve never been able to do that.

This partnership, you’ll understand is not a resolution.  It is a commitment to the page that has evolved naturally from character-based linear events.  Connecting actions has led, inevitably, to the creation of these six hundred and fourteen words – is that serendipity, or logic after all?

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.

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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.