Sunday 25 March 2012

Finding a voice and falling in love.

I read with interest a blog post by Philippa Francis where she makes some very interesting points on how useful 'copying' can be. As I said in a comment I left there at the University of Winchester we have a module entitled Textual Intervention, where we get our students to take existing stories (Gothic and fairy tales) and make them their own. A wonderful array of stories and poems often appear at assessment time. I think this is another process involved in 'finding your voice' as a writer. I have been reading Al Alvarez's little book entitled The Writer's Voice and he says ' [writers] do what all young people do: you try on other people's personalities for size and fall in love.' My understanding is that as an early writer you try on the voices of writers you fall in love with to see if they fit. They inevitably won't but they will help you further form your own voice. They help you find out who you are and, just as importantly, who you are not as a writer.

I also love this idea that as writers we fall in love. I think this is very true. I would suggest that we not only fall in love with other writers but with people. We collect people and add them to our extended families as they also inform our writing. They are inevitably people who have something to say. On this basis, I must be a writer because I fall in love with people so easily and they very soon become part of my extended family. All have a story to tell as to how they are now 'family'. And when I fall in love I give them the whole of my heart. I was lucky last weekend to celebrate my grandson's naming ceremony and it was full of 'fake' family that I had fallen in love with as well as 'normal' family. I should probably point out that the idea of fake is obviously not a slur it is just as way of highlighting the lack of blood relation.

In these days of instant access some of these friendships are technologically based. Some people I know scorn this and suggest that these cannot be real. I disagree. We may not have met face to face (or only on rare occasions) but our long conversations (via Skype or Google+ or Facebook or email) mean, to me, that our friendship is just as valid. We are writers and we support each other. It doesn't matter where you are in the world often the problems you face are the same.

Yesterday, for example, I spent a glorious afternoon with a member of my 'fake' family. We both fell in love with the artist above, Carol Sproston, whose work is currently available at The Wykeham Gallery. We talked a lot and laughed even more, but that is what being part of a 'fake' family is all about.

Treasure your 'fake' family and remember that falling in love is all about being a writer. Therefore something suitably corny to finish with and also something, for me, that brings back many happy memories connected with my children.

PS I promised I would let you know when my article on creative judgement and writing young adult fiction was available, well here it is:

Saturday 17 March 2012


A Diana Walles picture
Many people around me, and including me, are stressed and exhausted. We seem to be constantly running in order to stand still. It is not that anyone is shirking their job, there are just not enough hours in the day to do everything. For those of us who are creative practitioners this is a problem. In order to be creative we need a moment to stand still and breathe. In this beautiful picture by Diana Walles, she quotes Rumi: 'Let the water settle; you will see the moon and stars mirrored in your being.' This couldn't be more applicable.

I am a writer and I require balance. I need to find time to write otherwise I feel totally discombobulated. Disconnected from the person I really am. I am sure I am not the only one. Whether you work in academia or the NHS, or many of the other organisations being throttled by the current government, you are constantly fire-fighting leaving little time to stand still let alone notice the world around you.

I am sure this cannot be healthy for anyone, particularly those of us who, as previously mentioned, are creative practitioners. This is because there is the added pressure that as such we need to produce 'outputs' that justify our existence within academia. Where are these ivory towers where it is assumed we will go and be prolific?

I was sent this poem recently with the idea that perhaps it makes a gesture towards some answers as to why we are all so tired and over-wrought:

My life is not this steeply sloping hour (Rainer Maria Rilke)

My life is not this steeply sloping hour,
in which you see me hurrying.
Much stands behind me; I stand before it like a tree;
I am only one of my many mouths,
and at that, the one that will be still the soonest.

I am the rest between two notes,
which are somehow always in discord
because Death’s note wants to climb over—
but in the dark interval, reconciled,
they stay there trembling.
                    And the song goes on, beautiful.

I think maybe it does. I need to find this life that is not this steeply sloping hour so I can allow the song to go on and be beautiful. So to all my stressed friends, I hope you find that moment to standstill, breathe and remember why you love doing what you do.

For some fun listen to Moxy Fruvous singing My Baby Loves a Bunch of Authors. Thank you Judith Ridge, who works for the Western Sydney Young People's Literature Project, for posting this on Facebook.


Wednesday 14 March 2012

The importance of settings

This week I have been talking to my students about the importance of settings when writing and the role they can take. I often find myself writing on assignments that there is 'no sense of place', that I have no idea where this particular story is happening. I am in no doubt that the writer of the piece knows exactly what the place looks like but has just failed to get it down on the page or even forgotten as the story is so real in their heads. They forget the reader is not privy to the inner workings of their brain.

I have been guilty of it too. I know I have previously told you that I write cold and edit/rewrite hot, where I go back and paint the picture, fill in the details or add the embroidery, however you want to describe it. I also know I am a very visual writer. The story plays out like a film in my head and this is the challenge to get that film down on the page so that the reader can see it to.

Setting can be vital. It can support or impinge on your character. It can help to manipulate the mood, reveal a character or move the action along. It can even set the period that your story is set in. Setting can include not just place, but architecture, artefacts, technology, books, food, clothes etc, etc, the list is endless. When writing it is always a good idea to be specific. If you are talking about seeing flowers, say which flowers. If you are talking about clothes, be detailed. All of these add a further dimension to your work, they can bring it life and lift it off the page. And this is not just applicable to the realist novel, even in your fantasy worlds there has to be a setting, a sense of place.

The picture above is of a square in Caen. I went to Caen the year before last as that is where my novel, Ham & Jam, is set. I needed to experience it in order to be able to bring some verisimilitude to my writing. I wanted to be able to see it, smell it, touch it, taste it and hear it. I write for young adults and they may not notice that I have got minor details right about Caen, but I will know. Researching your setting is as important as researching your characters I believe. I love doing both.

We are always told that as writers we should carry notebooks round to record snippets of conversations we hear, ideas that come to mind or characters we see. In mine I also draw things I see, by the way I can't draw to safe my life, but I can create enough of a picture to remind me what I was looking at. For example, there is a very bad drawing of a tree in my current book. It was a tree I saw on a train journey. I was travelling from Edinburgh to Inverness to go on an Arvon course. A spectacular journey which I highly recommend. On the way amidst a mass of pine trees was a clearing and in the centre, totally on its own, was a twisted and gnarled dead tree. How did it get there? How did it die? One day it will appear in one of my stories because that is what I like to do, make collections of characters and settings that I know eventually will appear in my work.

How do you research your settings? Does your story play like a film in your head as you write? Enjoy creating your sense of place in the meantime.

Here is Van Morrison singing 'Keep It Simple' because that is what we all need to do.

Saturday 3 March 2012

Ethical writing and that splinter of ice in your heart

This week I was sent a link by my good friend, Jen Webb, to an article/conference paper that she had done last year at the AAWP conference. It is entitled 'Ethics, writing, and splinters in the heart' and is one of the most powerful and poignant articles I have read for a long time. Her thoughts just resonated through parts of my life. Click on here and scroll down to Jen's name. I can assure you it is well worth the effort.

In a way it is a very personal paper as she talks about how she dealt with her son being in a coma following an unprovoked attack. She talks candidly about how one of her coping mechanisms was for part of her brain, which she calls the 'recording device', to start taking notes of what was going on around her, '...observing the particular sounds and smells and colour...' And this was the part that resonated with me. I have had these moments where my 'recording device' has started, moments of desperation, grief, pain, fear, anger. It can be in the midst of fights, watching death visit, or watching those you love in so much pain (physical and mental) and you can't save them from it. You notice the small, seemingly insignificant details: a white feather, a globule of spittle, the fear in someone's eyes. All of which at a later date can bring to life a piece of writing. Because that's what we do when we are writers.

Jen repeats Graham Greene's maxim: 'There is a splinter of ice in the heart of a writer' (from his autobiography A Sort of Life, 1971). He says, as writers we watch and listen even if we are in the midst of it. There will always be a part of us that has stepped aside and is watching events unfold. As Jen says of her observations in hospital, 'This was something one day which I might need.' I can honestly say that there are two incidents that come to mind immediately where I can remember actually thinking, you must remember what this feels like. A version of one incident ended up in Disjointed. The other hasn't found its place - yet. Jen, quite rightly, points out that, as writers, we do it like a reflex and that she could not have 'not-done it'. It is something writers do, we eavesdrop, we watch and we take notes. 'The world is our data source, our archive...'

Judgement will always need to be made as to whether something should or should not be included. The incident that made it into Disjointed, for example, couldn't of got there without me discussing it with the relevant person. People were unlikely to recognise it, as it was a very personal moment, but there was always the risk. I needed to know they were happy with me including it. There are, as can be seen by this and Jen's article, ethics involved. Decisions to be made. I particularly like Jen's idea, which picks up on Diamonds thoughts, when she says, 'This is the work of a writer, and a writer writing ethically: seeing nonsense; imaginatively entering into it; making it have meaning.' Because, for me, this is what I do with all these notes and small details that are written on that splinter of ice in my heart - I give them meaning and use them to make stories for others.

How about you? Have you had the 'recording device' announce itself at inopportune moments?

There are so many people I would like to say this to at the moment

Thursday 1 March 2012

Creative nonfiction and Lee Gutkind

Lee Gutkind
On Tuesdays I teach on a module entitled 'Writing and the World' which is led by Carole Burns (editor of Off the Page). It is a module I am loving teaching, it is so diverse and is actually taking me back to my roots. I used to do a lot of creative non fiction writing but these days, as you know, my focus has been on young adult fiction.

This week Carole organised for our students to have a skype session with Lee Gutkind. Some (Vanity Fair) say he is the godfather behind creative non fiction. I have to say I loved every minute of the session and would probably agree with Vanity Fair. He is also the editor of the journal Creative Nonfiction. Well worth a read if you have a moment.  It was an incredibly stimulating session with our students asking some very interesting questions, particularly the one about the festival and drunken horses. (best not to go there!!)

The session started at 11.45am our time but was some unearthly time in the morning where Lee was, poor man, but it didn't stop him being totally engaging. He spoke with enthusiasm and honesty for nearly 90 minutes. I thought his ideas of getting out there into the world and writing about it plus finding people, ideas and places that interest us were pertinent and not necessarily just for those who write creative non fiction. These are important aspects of any fiction writing based in the real world.

Creative non fiction, as he also pointed out, is about writing about the obvious in a non-obvious way. This may include looking at the bigger picture/story whilst finding something that the reader is just not going to expect. He highlighted that as writers we often write because we have something to say that will make a difference or have an impact on others. One part of the discussion that particularly fascinated me was the idea of looking at the intimate detail. Finding something small that no one will have thought about. You may remember in a previous post about the exhibition This is my home now, I spoke about a film that had been created which was just the hands of refugees holding things that reminded them of home. It was all about the small details again. We are all so often in a rush that we can miss these details if we don't take a moment to stop and look and listen and think.

Perhaps the most important thing I took away, which was a reminder more than anything else, was the fact that when writing creative non fiction you are thinking in terms of narrative. It should have a story, a beginning, a middle and an end with scenes that move it on. Sound familiar? I then could have hugged him when he started talking about the importance of rewriting - students still don't always understand this concept!

These are just a few of the gems that came out of the session that I thought I would share. And I would also like to say thank Carole for organising it and Lee for giving us his time.

On a different note I had to include this clip of music following yesterday's sad news. It was the sound track of my childhood. My older sisters loved the Monkees and I loved them when their series was repeated.I am sure you have all done the 'Monkees walk'. I know several people who knew Davy Jones and all have said the same thing: he was a truly lovely man. Plus as writers, I think we are all daydream believers aren't we?