Taking The Writing Cure

If writing is a pond, mine is stagnant. So, how to get an oxygenating stream of words? The answer of course is to write – the only cure. Fortunately, writing isn’t like downing a glass of medicinal minerals, like those foul tasting spa waters that claim to revitalise the system. Once you begin, it’s pleasurable – even after a single sentence.

In the last weeks, I’ve persuaded myself that all sorts of activities support my writing when I’m not putting words on the page:

Sitting in cafés – no, it’s not about eating lovely Sicilian pastries and drinking Italian coffee with cream – the purpose of frequenting cafés is for people-watching to find characters and situations. Of course it is.

Reading – I’ve the Fish anthology to finish and the rest of Stinging Fly and it is good to learn from others, isn’t it?

Tweeting – There are great competition and submission opportunities out there and I like to read and retweet those links. But summer competition deadlines have passed me by and the autumn ones are fast approaching…

Talking about not-writing to writer friends. Stirs the pond and can bring activity but also more sludge. Especially if I compare myself adversely to them.

Organising writing events for one of my writing businesses. I run Writing Events Bath with my friend, Alex Wilson. I love this activity.  I get to attend all these events and learn from them. We’ve a great workshop coming up on October 6th at Mr B’s bookshop Bath, with author and writing tutor, Trish Nicholson on writing a non-fiction book and one on October 19th at The New Oriel Hall, Bath with marvellous novelist Lucy Christopher on writing young adult fiction. On November 29th, literary agent, Lucy Luck who represents writers Kevin Barry, Colin Barrett and  rising star, Danielle McGouglin amongst many others is coming to give feedback to writers pitching their story collections or novels. But I don’t need to wait for these inspirational occasions to write

Giving feedback on writing. My husband writes poetry and listens to my suggestions (sometimes!) I should write something and show him. He gives great feedback.

Organising The Bath Short Story Award with friends and writing companions, Jane and Anna. This year’ s anthology of selected stories is at the printers and we have a wonderful new judge for next year’s competition which is launched on 1st November. We set up the Award to encourage writers, but it should encourage us too!

But hey – it’s a good writing day so far. Only 7.00 am and I’ve already taken the blog-writing part of The Cure. I’ve a writing prompt book next to me and opening at a random page, I found the following: Write a fragment of a story about a character in a desperate situation…They have to talk themselves out of the situation like Scherheraszade  – 600 words. Begin now …

p.s. 11.35 am. I did it. I’ve written more than 600 words of this fragment and it does have the makings of quite a good story. And I’ve done ironing, responded to several emails, eaten breakfast, had an argument, pulled up some weeds and now it’s sunny out there…

The Freecycling Writer

I’ve been giving away  furniture on the Bristol freecycle site. Freecycling is great in all sorts of ways.  Everyone is pleased – people get things for free which would otherwise go to the dump and they come and take away stuff almost immediately, an amazing bonus. A lovely, cheerful guy spent ages dismantling a monster Ikea bed which a tenant had left in the house. A mother and daughter patiently took a sofa apart to get it through the door, two strong women hauled out a heavy washing machine. A woman whizzed in and filetted a battered leather sofa of its cushion stuffing. She’s making her own sofa from pallets and is going to send me a picture of her creation when it’s complete.

Freecycle is brilliant for writers who are looking for stories.  If you scan the daily digests of wants and offers, you get a window into people’s lives, those telling details that bring characters alive. Yesterday I saw a post from someone wanting a futon or old sofa. He said the sofa bed needed a firm mattress, enough to support a weight of ten stone.  Not really that heavy, you’d think. But in this case it was for his ten stone Great Dane who needed a comfortable new bed!  I do have a futon to shift, so maybe I will get to meet the man and his dog.

Last week there was a brilliant post from a man wanting to freecycle a surf board. I include it here with thanks to its author.

“Offer: One old and quite mangled green foam surfboard. It is approx 8ft, old school shape, single fin and made of soft foam, which is falling to bits. It’s probably just about surfable and guess it would be ok for messing about in the waves but not going to be great except for a laugh. Could possibly be repaired, but probably not worth it, unless you are desperate, or need a challenge. Would be good for fancy dress, or a theatrical prop, or some kind of strange project like some people seem to be doing.”

I like the idea of a story about a desperate surfer wanting a challenge, or a person involved in a strange project. I should write this story perhaps – a desperate older woman surfer in need of a new challenge in life…?

 

Listening as a writer

I worked for over twenty-five years as a Gestalt Psychotherapist and became an extremely good listener.  To listen well, you need to bring as much as yourself as possible to the encounter with another.  You shuttle between your own emotional and physical experience in response and notice how a person is speaking, as well as attending to the content.  The whole body and being are involved.

As a writer, when I create characters, they live and breathe in my imagination. I picture them moving around in their world, the sound of their voices, the expression on their faces. I ‘listen’ to them to understand their motivations, empathise with their situations and guess what they might think, feel and do. I am sure most writers do this.  Often, writers say their characters begin to have a life of their own – do surprising things.  But in order for those characters to stay convincing in their actions, it is necessary to pay them close attention.

Gestalt therapy is primarily concerned with raising awareness, and the Gestalt therapist’s focus  is to help a person become more aware of their experience – thoughts, feelings, sensations – in the present moment. In that way, change happens. Of course, there is a lot more to Gestalt therapy theoretically, (read more here) but the practice of awareness is something I always enjoyed.

Being immersed in awareness practices for years, doesn’t make it any easier to write. Sometimes I am only minimally aware of my bad writing habits. For example, I have just edited this blog and altered  clumsy sentences. I am sure there are others. If I look  carefully at my prose, read it out loud and listen, I can have moments of clarity.  One simple question I used to ask as a Gestalt therapist was: ‘What are you aware of right now?’  You could ask yourself the same question about your writing – eg. ‘What am I aware of about my writing style?’  Or ‘What am I aware of about the process of writing?’   Listen to the answer. For eg. I asked myself this question and became more  aware of constructing awkward sentences. I can’t explain the grammatical errors but if I refreshed my knowledge of grammar and understood what I was doing, it might help my writing in general – now that’s a new awareness.

When I was a psychotherapist, I sometimes used to read a poem or a short story before I started work, because it would put me in a different frame of mind and allow me to be aware of something different in myself or in the person I was working with. Reading before writing is a good practice to adopt.  Like a dream, the story or poem will feed your imagination, shift your awareness and help you listen to your characters in a different way.


 

My 4* Review of ‘My Dear, I Wanted To Tell You’ and ‘The Heroes’ Welcome’, by Louisa Young.

‘The Heroes’ Welcome’ by Louisa Young is a sequel to ‘My Dear, I Wanted To Tell You’, the story of the lives of Peter, Riley, Nadine, Julia and Rose in the lead up to and during the Great War.  I recommended the first novel to my friend, journalist Lesley Gillilian who is writing a wonderful novel partly set during the second world war and she said it was the best book she’d read all year. I agree and think the sequel is equally as good.

Many themes are covered; Louisa Young explores the characters’ struggles with class difference both in love relationships and relationships between officers and men in the trenches. There’s a fascinating contrast between Riley’s facial reconstruction by a pioneering surgeon in a  military hospital and the devastating consequence of the botched face-job beautiful Julia undertakes to make herself look younger and more alluring to her traumatised husband, Peter.  Yes, rich women were having their faces covered in acid one hundred years ago to ‘improve their complexions’,  so it is all the more shocking to think that equally damaging ‘beauty’ procedures are promoted today. Conversely, it is all the more amazing to see the developments in plastic surgery – extraordinary events like the 3D printing of prosthetic limbs.

Other women’s issues are covered: Rose works as a nurse, and post-war is offered a scholarship to train as a doctor – almost unheard of then. She is torn. Surely her role is to look after others, rather than remain unmarried and follow her own career path?  All Julia can do is be beautiful – she didn’t get an education.  With little support, it’s hard for her to be a mother and a wife. Nadine struggles hard against her mother’s disapproval  to marry ‘beneath her’ and become an artist.

The most striking element of both novels is the way the impact of war is shown on all the characters in different ways – psychological scarring, physical disability, ruined marriages and their affect on the next generation, alcoholism as well as the strong determination to survive and flourish against the odds.  The first book shows the damage as it occurs, the second shows continuing trauma and steps to recovery. I found both books an emotional read and became very involved with the characters, so wanting ‘everything to be all right.’ Of course, as a reader, I would have been disappointed if recovery had progressed easily in a linear way.  A hanky is definitely required – a retro cotton one,  Dad or Grandpa sized.  About two thirds of the way through ‘The Heroes’ Welcome, there’s an event that gave me such a shock, I felt almost I was witnessing it, as part of the fictional family. ‘Oh no,’ I thought. ‘That can’t be happening…things were just getting on an even keel.’ It’s a masterly stroke on the part of the author, brilliantly written.

The book does end on a hopeful note although things are not neatly tied up. Maybe Louisa Young will write a third novel charting the story of the same characters and their children up until World War Two. I can’t wait.

Borrowing from George Borrow

One hundred and sixty years ago today, 27th July, the Victorian gentleman writer, George Borrow, set off with his wife and daughter to travel around Wales. ‘Wild Wales’ the travelogue he wrote about his journey, has a wonderfully intimate and chatty style which starts at chapter one.  It’s a classic and I found a copy in its great 1950’s paper cover, in Wells market.

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There is much to learn about voice in George Borrow’s writing.  His strong preferences come across from the beginning and  he is charmingly manipulative with his wife and daughter. (Yes somewhat sexist, but you have to forgive him because he is a man of his times).

Here’s the first paragraph from Chapter One.

In the summer of the year 1854 myself, wife, and daughter determined upon going into Wales, to pass a few months there. We are country people of a corner of East Anglia, and, at the time of which I am speaking, had been residing so long on our own little estate, that we had become tired of the objects around us, and conceived that we should be all the better for changing the scene for a short period. We were undetermined for some time with respect to where we should go. I proposed Wales from the first, but my wife and daughter, who have always had rather a hankering after what is fashionable, said they thought it would be more advisable to go to Harrowgate, or Leamington. On my observing that those were terrible places for expense, they replied that, though the price of corn had of late been shamefully low, we had a spare hundred pounds or two in our pockets, and could afford to pay for a little insight into fashionable life. I told them that there was nothing I so much hated as fashionable life, but that, as I was anything but a selfish person, I would endeavour to stifle my abhorrence of it for a time, and attend them either to Leamington or Harrowgate. By this speech I obtained my wish, even as I knew I should, for my wife and daughter instantly observed, that, after all, they thought we had better go into Wales, which, though not so fashionable as either Leamington or Harrowgate, was a very nice picturesque country, where, they had no doubt, they should get on very well, more especially as I was acquainted with the Welsh language.”

It’s a good opening.  I think it’s always worth trying out a modern day version of a classic/ You might include details or sentence structures you don’t normally use.

e.g.  In the summer of 2014, my husband and I  decided to go to Wales  for a long weekend. We are city people, living in the country not too far from Bristol and at the time of which I am speaking, were tired of all the familiar distractions of our house, with its shelves of unread books, the washing up that always needed doing, the garden thick with weeds. We didn’t know where we would go to start with. I proposed Wales from the first, but my husband wanted to stay in Herefordshire and go to Hay on Wye. I said he’d spend too much money on books and he should be cutting down, it was like an addiction, but he said because we’d been eating vegetarian for the last month, we had money to spare. I  then said I was being selfish – of course he should go to Hay. He might pick up something he really wanted with the spare cash. Of course, he backed down then and said he had too much to read already. Why didn’t we go to Aberystwyth and visit Nanteos Mansion where I used to live as a student…

Oh that was fun. I should carry on with that if only for the energy, copying an opening creates.  And I might go to Wales, inspired by George Borrow.

 

 

 

How To Write Your Nonfiction Book

My neighbour is a fantastic story teller, his timing and pacing is good, he adds vivid detail and builds suspense. Everything you need to write a great short story. For his work, he’s travelled to many different countries – Uganda, Malawi, Rwanda, China, Mongolia, Bulgaria, Finland to name a few – to undertake geological mapping. I think he should write down the stories, he tells so well; the characters, the places, the scary and exciting situations. They form a fascinating insight into the politics and day to day life in  these countries  over a period of thirty years.  I’m encouraging him to come to the workshop I’m organising with Alex for Writing Events Bath on writing creative non-fiction and start on a travel memoir. Read more about the workshop at Writing Events Bath. It’s at the wonderful Mr B’s Emporium of Books in Bath, our favourite bookshop, on Monday evening, 6th October led by author Trish Nicholson.

Trish’s book on ‘Writing Your Nonfiction Book: the complete guide to becoming an author”,  is a comprehensive account of how to plan, research, publish and market your non-fiction work – anything from “brewing parsnip wine to particle physics”. Two hours with her at Mr B’s will get you going and give you a road map.  It doesn’t matter if you haven’t written anything before. Everyone is welcome.  Booking open on the writing events website.

Learning from prize anthologies and magazines

Today, the postie delivered not only the latest issue of The Stinging Fly – I’ve just subscribed–but also five copies of Fish Anthology 2014. I was so excited to see my runner-up flash fiction, ‘The Lottery’, in print that I ate six apricots one after the other.  Both books have absorbed me most of the day and it’s been fascinating reading such a variety of sparkling prose and poetry.

I began writing Flash Fiction after the short story writer and Arvon Tutor, Tania Hershman led a session on Flash at Mr B’s Emporium, Bath a couple of years ago which we organised at Writing Events Bath. I learned that Flash stories are one thousand words maximum and fifty words, or sometimes less, minimum. There are many different names for the form –smoke fiction, short shorts, drabbles, prose poetry, to name a few. Carrie Etter, a poet and senior lecturer at Bath Spa University, writes prose poetry and teaches the form. Her new collection,’Imagined Sons’ is written as a sequence of prose poems. In  a short conversation I had with her, she suggested that flash fiction works well if you write a scene with one or two characters with the action taking place over about ten minutes.

My story ‘The Lottery’, follows that structure, but it’s interesting to see that the winning fictions in the Fish anthology sometimes use  longer time frames, and a variety of structures. Robert Grossmith in his story ‘First’  achieves this by the use of  headings followed by short descriptions of events from a whole life. Roisin O’Donnell’s  powerful story about a man who blew himself up, is in three numbered sections, each one from a different perspective – the mother, wife and child. The time frame ranges from immediate to an unspecified time in the future.

In The Stinging Fly magazine, the flash fictions are longer and more expansive as a consequence.  Alison Fisher writes an historical tale  set over several years and develops a strong lead character in under one thousand words. Danielle McLaughlin, in a similar number of words,  writes a  strongly evocative piece which encompasses a short time span, but successfully includes a flash- back sequence.

It’s been a great reading and learning day. I recommend buying both books.

Emerging Characters

I sometimes co-run ‘pop-up’ writing events in Hall and Woodhouse Cafe, Bath with my writing friend and co-founder of Writing Events Bath, Alex Wilson. We run similar sessions in four week blocks at Bath Central Library. Last week we ran a pop-up session, focussed on developing characters. These sessions are designed to get participants writing. We devise exercises and people write for five or ten minutes then share in pairs and often read out their pieces to the whole group. It’s always amazing to see what can be produced in such a short time.

During the session, we were considering how characters change and develop as you write and how it is necessary to show several aspects of a character in order for them to be interesting. Obvious stuff, but staying with the obvious is always important. Who likes a nicey-nicey character anyway?

I used to be a Gestalt Psychotherapist and one of the theoretical concepts from Gestalt Therapy suggests that we do not have a fixed ‘self’. The self is fluid and changes according to the environment or situation. For example, if you are talking to your MP at a local surgery, you will be different from when you are talking to your best friend in the Boston Tea Party.  A different aspect of your self is called for. With the MP situation, you might surprise yourself if you have never been to a surgery before. If your MP is Jacob Rees-Mogg, like mine, you could  suddenly discover a barely contained rageful self (or character). We won’t go into the finer distinctions between definitions of  self and character here but I think the Gestalt Psychotherapist, Irving Polster, did say that the character is ‘the one who wears the boots.’

So as a writer, if you are not sure how to deepen your character, put them in a different situation and a different part of them will emerge. (Or a different aspect of you, the writer, will emerge?).  The different situation can involve another, or it can be a different environment.

Colin Barrett and story beginnings

 

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Colin Barrett  recently won the 2014 Frank O’Connor prize for his collection ‘Young Skins’,  first published by Stinging Fly in Ireland 2013 and by Jonathan Cape 2014 in the UK. These memorable stories show life in small town Ireland from the perspective of young men with few prospects, who become involved with crime, drinking and disastrous relationships. The stories are funny and moving and the characters are likeable even though some of them commit acts of violence.

The longest story in the collection, ‘Calm With Horses’, tells the story of Arm, former boxer, retired in his early twenties from fighting and employed as a hard man by a drug dealing gang fronted by his friend, Dympna. Arm has a young autistic son who is soothed by therapeutic horse-riding sessions but nothing can soothe Arm or offer him hope. When he kills alleged paedophile, Fannigan, to save him from a worse death at the hands of Dympna’s vengeful uncles,  his own fate is sealed.

I interviewed Colin Barrett for the Bath Short Story website and he said this about writing a short story:

“Try to make something interesting happen as near to the opening as you can. Now this doesn’t have to be some showy eruption of plot or an aphoristic nugget of an opening line, though it may well be; it might just be the deployment of an unobvious adjective or unexpected detail seamed somewhere into your opening paragraphs. A nuanced little observation or moment, carefully placed. If you can get a small moment right near the start it sends a signal to the reader that you can trust me, you can keep reading. There’s nowhere to hide with short stories, if its five or ten pages long it’s got to start well, do well in the middle, and end well. No point saying it gets good half way through.”

Colin demonstrates this advice at the beginning of  ‘Calm With Horses’ :

“Dympna told Arm to stay in the car while Dympna gave Fannigan a chance to plead his case. This wasn’t the way it usually went but Arm nodded okay. Arm watched Dympna stalk up the lawn and politely hammer on the front door of the council house Fannigan shared with his mother. Eventually Dympna was let inside.”

So why does this beginning work so well?

  • The names immediately suggest place and character. We can guess, if we didn’t know anything about the settings in advance, that we are in Ireland. The nickname, Arm, suggests a character who is known to swing his fists. Fannigan is clearly not a friend.
  • We are thrust into the action in the first sentence. There is a situation. Something bad has happened (Fannigan must plead his case) and we guess something bad is going to happen. Dympna is in charge; he ‘told’ Arm what to do. In the second sentence, we know Arm has been used as a heavy weight before and we can surmise from the tone this does not bother him – he nods okay and watches.
  • The third sentence emphasises the type of characters by the marvellous use of ‘politely hammer’ (More on this in point 5) The fact that Fannigan lives with his mother and we don’t exactly know what is happening inside the house makes the whole opening compelling and sinister. I definitely (with trepidation) want to know what happens next.
  • There is only one adverb (politely) and one adjective (council) in this paragraph and each earns its place. As I already said, ‘politely hammer’ is an evocative combination. To me, the odd juxtaposition suggests Dympna’s thought processes e.g.’ I will at least knock (instead of perhaps smashing down the door) out of respect for the mother and thus doing, absolve myself of anything bad.’ ‘Council’ house neatly sums up Fannigan, Dympna and Arm’s world. They probably do some sort of shady business in a large council estate. The verb ‘stalk’ shows how Dympna wants to appear menacing, but also gives him an air of self importance. ‘Stalk’ also suggests a prey.
  • .The sentence length is varied for effect. Long, short, long, short. I find the last short sentence chilling.
  • The action is summarised and the sparsity of detail increases the tension. The reported dialogue increases this tension too.
  • The title is interesting, because this opening is far from calm in tone. So there’s another hook here. Who or what is calm with horses?

I recommend reading the whole collection for both enjoyment of language, and great character and plot. At the moment ‘Stinging Fly’ may still have some signed copies of the book.