Monday, 15 April 2019

Perspective on Romance

I have recently been discussing the issue of  so called 'Romance' in relation to writing fiction, so I thought I'd show you again a post from 2013. Six yeas ago! Blimey!

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

A Writer's View of Youthful Romance

A little bit stir crazy and crazy to write, I  found myself in a local hotel with its own ancient history but  with modern spa facilities that mean as well as  the usual through-put  of ladies lunching and businessmen meeting and lovers assignating, you are sometimes treated to the sight of women with their hair up in toweling robes resting, after having a flash of fitness. 

Writing in such neutral places - escaping, relaxing entirely separate - can be a flash of fitness for a writer too. I've posted here on the blog before about the joys of  Cafe Writing. This evolves in a changing world.
I can be invisible in such places - useful for a writer who needs to think and imagine. Here I draft an introduction to the new book. I  think of where it goes from here. I estimate its direction and audit its possible impact. I write some notes on aggression that might end up as a poem in a year or two. Probably never. But at least that aggression is expressed, which could be therapeutic. Unexplored emotion can be ugly on the page.

While I've been busy in my other writing world a young couple enter the deserted lounge. They buy a beer and a latté and play musical chairs until they find just the right place to sit before a window on a deep couch.
She has her natural hair swept up and not a speck of make-up on her face.  With his stylish specs he is handsome in that geeky way that is so fashionable these days.
At each station they flip open a miniature laptop and peer at the little screen, saying nothing - squandering,  in my view,  a clear  opportunity for intimacy.
But who am I to judge the reality of this situation? This is surely only the modern version of the back row of the cinema where you listened to the dulcet Americanised tones of stars and looked at  the iconic images of great films, This was always so useful to cover up the tongue-tied awkwardness of that first or second - or tenth - date.  I remember you would both  look hard at the screen in silence while his hand crept along the back of the seat.
But then - if I remember rightly - that screen was very big: much larger than life. This screen in the silence of the hotel lounge is very small - no larger than the palms of two hands. And this girl and boy could very well be  guests at this rather sweet hotel where there are other spaces to get closer, and to say more.
Nothing like that in the 1960s. More's the pity.WX

Monday, 25 March 2019

Reflections on Memoir Workshop Three


Last Saturday was dominated for me by the third of four memoir workshops at Bishop Auckland Town Hall¶.


All kinds of writers. 
The twenty writers are all very keen and bring with them a range of experiences and writing from family history, lifestyle, memories of specific incidents and writing projects ranging from life-cycle, specific memories, science fiction, dystopian worlds, filmic perceptions and -  of course the experience of growing up in a family.

The forms these writers favour include the long and short story, film type treatments, ghost stories and family anecdote. All these writers are aiming to develop their writing and produce good work. My aim is to support and encourage these writers introduce and develop principles of writing and creativity to all their forms and projects. 
Very focused.
Occasionally this feels to me like juggling with butterflies. But still I feel that this diverse group of writers embrace the new dimensions of the writing process and pluck from the ideas inspiration which applies to their own writing projects.
In each of these workshops my strategy is to communicate the principles that have emerged for me during thirty years of writing with an open mind and an engaged imagination. This has produced 20 odd published novels and short stories as well as newspaper articles and the more ephemeral and possibly newly engaging writing of posts such as this here on Lifetwicetasted.
I think  in my case all this has kind of worked. My hope with these workshops that such openness, imagination and inspiration Will lead these writers into new fields, develop their already existing writing skills, and help them find a form of memoir, or fiction based on memoir, which is true to their own experience.
The attention and feedback from this great range of writers continues to be rewarding. One writer came into this third workshop saying ‘I’ve been writing every day since last time. I’m inspired.’ And since the workshop I have an email from another writer saying, … after the session I floated down you gate Street buoyed up by the creativity I had absorbed.’

Super.

These Memoir Workshops have been hard work - complex both to prepare and present. But so much worth it – it has restored my faith in determined and talented writers.
A Palimpsest of Continuing Inspiration,
This one referring to wild swimming for
my novel The Bad Child.
Postscript 1: You might be interested to know that one part of our discussion on Week Three was about keeping relevant images before you as you write. This involves the creation of a palimpsest*of writing inspiration, pinned and pasted up on white boards, black boards, kitchen walls, or toilet walls to act as subliminal inspiration for the writing project, feeding the conscious and subconscious mind between writing sessions and keeping the ideas buzzing ready for the next writing session.
Postscript 2: We also discussed the use of the short story form to develop a longer series of linked stories to create a memoir. An interesting construct.
Postscript 3: We also discussed how to use concentric circles to develop more lateral thinking in terms of creating memoir and fiction related memoir. I will describe this in detail on my next post here on Lifetwiceasted.

In Workshop Four – the last in the series we will be thinking about –

Ø Creating links between elements of the longer story/memoir.
Ø Exploring the protocols for syntax and layout of your work for strange-readers.This will include agents and editors, your best friends and neighbours. It’s like sending your children out for an examination in their best clothes with their shoes polished.

* PALIMPSEST: something reused or altered but still bearing visible traces of its earlier form.

Thursday, 14 March 2019

Radical New Ways of Reading?




I grew up with my mother and two brothers and sister in a tiny two bed-roomed house with none of the modern facilities or the smart furniture associated with book-people. Despite this there was one long home-made shelf beside the fireplace filled with books which were somewhat battered and scruffy. Since then I seem to have lived all my life around books.

In those early days I changed my mother’s library books (novels) twice a week. I changed my own library books (novels and history books) five times a week. New books flew in and out of the house like so many bright plumed birds.

My recent uncharacteristic nostalgia has been induced by the fact that in the last fortnight I have been thinking hard about the changing ways of reading in the modern world. These days there is a new term floating around - digital reading.  In my childhood and youth, reading meant books with bright covers either in my home or more commonly in the libraries or in school; or sometimes on the laden shelves in the houses of more affluent friends. 

But these days the younger generations  read in many ways - in paper books, on their laptops, on their tablet, on their Kindle, on their phones and sometimes in the longer stretches of time, now using the mechanism of Audible.

I myself have discovered the advantages of Audible in the last year or so and have spent spending hours listening - to novels in particular- far into the night.  Sometimes I even have a notebook to hand,  my ears wide open to capture some gems in the night.  I have also accessed through Audible reference works in the fields of psychology philosophy, history and creativity,

Recently I was in conversation with a dear friend – a fellow book obsessive – when we turned to a discussion comparing books we have read. Then with regard to one particular novel we radically differed. This is relatively unusual. I wondered if this was to do with the radically different ways in which we read books these days.

In my longish adult life - like my friend - I have probably read thousands of books – fact and fiction, poetry and prose, history and psychology, politics and creativity.

To people of my generation reading is as natural as breathing – you don’t think about it you just do it! In the last few years I’ve acquired the habit of marking the books I read - underlining and annotating in the margins. I have found this useful in making me focus on the important elements of the prose and - in the case of fiction – the arc of the narrative.I know that in some people’s eyes this amounts to destroying the said  book.

But there is another way of seeing this. Oddly enough, this hand -writing on books habit is coming to be seen as quite a phenomenon. They even have a name for it:  marginalia. In 50 years if were very famous my ‘destroyed’ books would have become become quite collectable. 

I think my journey into marginalia began in my instinct to sidestep my habit of reading fast, even skimming, to get down to the essence of a book in terms of terms of substantive content, style, literary significance and  - in the case of fiction - the essential narrative arc. I had begun to feel that my inner sense of the books I was reading was becoming shallower and shallower. I began to feel I was missing a good deal.

Now in recent days by slowing down - allowing the pages and the books to sink into my subconscious - my intention has been to nip in the bud the habit of skimming, of seeing it all as some kind of race, of adding books I had read to some long list of achievement. Girl Guide badges come to mind.

And now - especially in the case of the novel and all fiction - the arrival of the Audible experience in my life has made a creative change in my reading. It is impossible to skip or skim your way through an eight-hour Audible tape.  I have to listen, to hear every word and add each word, each phrase, to the well of language and meaning that has been building up in my mind since those years in the little two bed-roomed house reading books like Little Women, and Treasure Island. 

I have now discovered  that this well of meaning comes not just through the words but also through the tone and timbre of the narrator’s voice, and her or his command of located accents as well as implying a subtly layered grasp of character and place. Along with this I now recognise the fundamental significance of the reader or narrator.  It seems to me that the quality of the reading or narration combines with the creativity of the writer to make a story whole. The quality of the reading becomes part of the creativity of the writer in making their fictional world live.

And I now realise the degree to which a good novel of any kind can be marred by a poor or even a neutral reading. Occasionally the narrator  may also be the writer. This can be very positive in the case of certain writers. But some writers – unlike John le Carre, Neil Gaiman, Khaled Hosseini, and Frank McCourt and Philip Pullman - do not turn out to be the best readers of their own prose.

Writing creatively and narrating authentically are not necessarily in the same skill set. Performing from text is more central to the skill-set of actors.The actress Anne Dover – who has read some of my own novels on Audio – is a wonderful example of the art. Although I may read extracts from my novels  to a variety of audiences there is no way I could narrate the whole novel so that it could be properly sensed and appreciated.

In an online interview, bestselling writer Peter May has put down the widespread popularity of his novels in Audio down to the brilliant reading of Peter Forbes. This actor copes brilliantly with the daunting range of Scottish mainland and island accents alongside Scottish-accented French and the range of French language usage. As well as this, Forbes’ measured delivery of the spooky sense of place and the cycle of  seasons  (intrinsic to Peter May’s writing) brings the novels to life. Peter Forbes certainly contributes to the layers of cultural meaning in May’s writing.

One might certainly argue that these depths are equally accessible through the use of one’s own imagination when one reads the paper book at a proper reading pace. (I would be adding my own marginalia of course…)  But even my imagination cannot conjure up the lilt of a Scottish French-Canadian accent or the Gaelic infused Scottish-English accent.

This works for me on Audible but  am at something of a loss to know how the depth of this culturaL absorption process is possible when one is reading on a fugitive screen on one’s phone, tablet or laptop: this is the new digital reading.

Of course it is very useful these days. Like many of us  I read useful books on Kindle and book sources on the Internet, and my phone and tablet are massively functional in tracking information, hunting out references and obscure allusions. Great tools.

However I don’t think the multi-layered cultural absorption I have described above can happen when one is skimming through these fictions - either on paper, screen or Kindle - to get through to the ‘whodunit’ point and take that book off on one’s TBR list.

Still my highly literate younger friends have asserted to me that I am very much mistaken in this theory. The lovely D. in particular tells me that the following generations have grown up with these varied ways of reading and are perfectly capable of adapting adapt them to reach a full appreciation of any piece of fiction.’

Of course my views could all be age-defined prejudice. I don’t think so. But I would say that wouldn’t I?  

In the meantime, come bedtime I’ll be listening to John Le Carre reading his spy novel. And on the table beside me will be the big fat book by Charlotte Gordon telling the lives of Mary Shelley and her mother Mary Wollstonecraft. 

Beside the big fat book will be my well-sharpened pencil which will enable me to insert myself with marginalia on the pristine page.  

Saturday, 9 February 2019

Remembering and Writing.


      
Recently I had the pleasure of delivering the first of four workshops on the relationship between writing, the nature of memoir, and the role that memories play in the creation of fictional work.

Memories bedded down deep in our subconscious are the raw material we draw on in creating characters, locations and the imperatives of narrative when we write fiction. Therein lies the essential truth of fiction – the element which allows a wide range of readers to identify with what might at first sight seem to be outside their personal experience.

Everyone has a story because everyone has a life – however dramatic, romantic, banal or exciting it might have seemed at the time. Or may seem so, even now.
As I asserted earlier – whether they are conscious of it are not – all writers interrogate their own lives to feed their fiction. In the first novels I think I did this intuitively. But now having been writing novels for more than 20 years but now in retrospect I am beginning to realise the degree to which I have done this. I can see that elements of my own life have found their place in the novels in terms of place, event, story, unique causes and unique consequences.

I was thinking that in some ways it’s as though experiences in my own life and quite complex experience   in terms of breadth and depth have been thrown up into the air and arrive back on the page in a unique shape which is original, sometimes unlooked for and offers even me fresh insight into those lived experiences.

In preparing for these workshop it has dawned on me that these reflections express the very relevant to the connection between memoir and the writing of fiction: within our own lives we have the sturdy clues to universal experiences which will strike a chord in readers across cultural boundaries and - These sturdy clues are the foundation of the universality of great fiction. Examples of this emerge throughout fiction. I was thinking of the work, for instance of Virginia Woolf, John le Carre, Catherine Cookson et al.

Reflections on the Sturdy CluesTo be human and to live in what might approximate to a family even under adverse conditions or within different cultures generates certain common experiences and emotions. Fiction and fictionalised memoirs can allow us to explore positives and negatives of personality which encapsulate an identity. (You find this in all kinds of fiction including thrillers, detective stories, mysteries, fantasy.)

We might refer to these as Rites Of Passage or Cycles of Life
 –for example
Birth. (As one of four children including two girls I only learned about the nature of childbirth when I was 14 years old and read Emile Zola’s Germinal in French,)
Childhood. (e.g Winnie the Pooh. Swallows and Amazons, James and The Giant Peach and many, fictions.)
Parenting. (All kinds of fiction) – especially now, with the rising popularity of so-called misery-memoirs. I also started to think about John Mortimer’s Clinging to the Wreckage – a very touching memoir of his father.
Friendship, Bonding , School, Life In Care, Life In Prison, Life In The Army  (Brideshead Revisited, Tom Brown’s Schooldays, Catch 22. Etc, etc.
Sexuality: - the inner experience of this universal drive can range from Romance to Pornography in fiction. See Diana Athill’s exquisite volumes of memoir for an honest and beautifully stated expression of this. ¶
Marriage, Close Partnerships across genders:  odysseys of success and failure. See Nora Ephron’s Heartburn
Death. The ritual significance of death and the funeral in all cultures. It is interesting how many short stories or novels begin with a funeral.

It is worth noting that we add such fictions – whether presented to us and experienced in story, lyric, or on screen – to our own emotional insight. They contribute to our sense of self in our daily life; they contribute to the way we learn who we are. In in this way we develop our own unique way of understanding what it is to be human as expressed in our community and incorporate this into our unique self. Such fictions help us filter our own lived experience and recognise the universal emotions which help us to process them: experiences such as love, fear, belonging, desire, loss, envy, hope, hate and revenge - the silver cord that runs through all good fiction and all good memoir.

All this is at the very forefront of my mind at the moment – not just because of the workshops although they are proving to be very exciting.  The fact is that I am working on the second novel in my Lifespan Trilogy  which began with my novel Becoming Alice.(Now On Amazon Kindle and in Paperback)

The Lifespan referred to is my own lifespan from 1941  and rounding up to the millennium. The second novel  in Lifespan begins in 1963 – not coincidentally a very important phase in my own life. However. Alice and her family are not me and my family, although the truths buried in these three novels are keyed into my own multilayered experiences  in those years. Alice and Ruth  are quite separate from me and are  distinct and whole. They are themselves.  

As a writer my task is to walk the line between truth and fiction. It's a bit like knitting  cobwebs - to create a  very beautiful thing with truth at its heart .

#fiction #memoir.



Monday, 26 November 2018

The Joy of Meeting Women of Substance


The Joy of Meeting Women of Substance


So, last Wednesday night I find myself in a crowded sitting room with twenty or so Women of Substance who are just finishing off a delicious three course buffet meal made by Kate C. who has invited me to meet this group and talk about writing in general and my novel Becoming Alice in particular.
 
These evenings are hosted by Kate as a part of her long-term project raising funds for the scanner appeal for Bishop Auckland Hospital.

The gathering here this evening tonight is impressive - smart women mostly in their 50s and 60s - experts in the domestic arts, I imagine. Many of them - like Kate - are involved in charities and projects in the town, raising money and supporting the community.

I meet a member of the WI committee which raises funds for women’s charities. Some women here volunteer for the Kynren Project which produces mind-blowing spectacular outdoor performances i the town regularly through the year. Some talk of volunteering in the unique Gallery of Mining art in the Market Place. Others volunteer in the new spectacular viewing tower in one corner of the marketplace. Some of them volunteer as guides in Auckland Castle Project, now being developed into a very significant historical location, fired by the desire to reinvigorate the town of Bishop Auckland and the wider region. I meet a retired bank manager and justice of the peace who has very interesting stories to tell. There are so many interesting stories here.

Writing from life
But I’m here tonight to tell of my own fictional stories especially the story of Becoming Alice. This is the first of three novels in a Lifespan trilogy stretching from 1941 to the year 2000. Not coincidentally the timespan of this trilogy is my own lifespan and also arguably the lifespan of many of the women here.

First Thoughts
Earlier in the week, discussing with Kate my themes for her fundraising supper, I mentioned my theory that all of my 30 or so novels are anchored to the reality of my own experience.
Kate said, ‘Oh I can see that you will have many stories to tell from your life.’ This made me put forward my theory that the novels cannot simply be a series of self-referring anecdotes. Far from it.

The Novels
Let’s look at locations. Many of my novels, including Becoming Alice, do feature aspects of my home region in terms of history and a sense of place. Some of my novels - including Becoming Alice - feature London through the decades. Then other of my novels are set in Russia, or partly in America, or in contemporary France, or in Civil War Spain or in World War 2 Singapore
In the span of the 20th century many of us have become much more fundamentally citizens of the world and our stories - published and unpublished - reflect this. 
It’s true that I have spent time in these locations and can anchor narratives in specific places and times. However while my novels spring out of experiences in my life, the complex process of creation (cooking?) means that the novels cannot be said to be autobiographical.

A Writer's Skills
In addition to her literary skills, any writer must use her skills of observation, her unique insight into her own experience, her own perceptions, her senses her own imagination – all grounded in her own intricate memory. In the case of historical novelists and science-fiction novelists underlying all these aspects has to be the ability to research, to dive into that time and that place, using as far as possible original materials - all these things are raw material for a novel.

The Process 
In this writer’s case it takes more than a year or so all these elements are transformed, complete with story inspiration and an ensemble characters who gradually move to centre stage. This is the process by which an 80,000 word novel is written. The process ensures that this novel is unique in itself and substantively different to all the other novels I have written

The Inspiration
So, talking to Kate made me think harder than usual about the difference between personal anecdote and an original creative story. That night I spun up a very usual useful analogy to share these ideas with this group of Women of Substance whose keynote is possibly domestic excellence.

The Cooking Analogy
There is a ripple of astonished laughter in the group when I explain, in an aside, that I am not domesticated and don’t cook. This, as I go on to explain, is perhaps compensated for by having a daughter who is a witty writer, gifted cook and journalist and something of a domestic goddess, although modest with it. 

Back To The Writing Of Novels.
It is worth thinking about the nature of cooking and recipes. An apple pie for instance. We start with a list  of quite separate ingredients either in our heads or in our cookbook: apples, flour, fat, eggs, salt-and-pepper and herbs. Each of these is a separate element. But fat is not an apple-pie, flour is not an apple pie et cetera et cetera. Across in fiction my  experiences, perceptions, senses et cetera are equally separate elements. They are are not stories; they are fragments of a life.

Making An Apple Pie 
The cook does elaborate things in a certain order and then mixes the ingredients and puts them in the oven for a specific amount of time. In this analogy these very separate ingredients are changed by the chemical process of heat and time into something qualitatively different from the original elements. So the pie that emerges is distinctive unique and can suit a whole range of tastes. The pie is not the person who put the ingredients together and cooked it -  it is a separate thing in itself. The people who eat the pie recognise it for what it is and apply their own cultural standards to the nature of their enjoyment.

Analogy
For me this all works quite well when one applies it to the relationship between a writer and her novel. When the process works well the novel many be read and enjoyed by a whole range of readers across class, cultures and tastes.

An Ending
During the session there is quite a lot of laughter and close attention. At the end there are some very insightful questions and comments. And amazing stories. Many of these exceptional woman buy my books and incidentally contribute to Kate’s scanner fund.

Afterwards I am presented with beautiful yellow roses - not one but two bunches!
These Women of Substance do nothing by halves.



LINKS FOR YOU:
KYNREN  




A New Publication on its way.
Another pie cooking?





1.                 



Friday, 26 October 2018

Borderlines in Poetry and Prose


Words are wonderful
phrases are fabulous
 sinewy and flexible
adapting to changing times
to cultural settings –
and informing identity politics
demolishing class boundaries –
liberating perceptions
and breaking down borders
I am increasingly fascinated – even preoccupied – by the shaky borderline between prose and poetry, between memoir and fiction, between poetry written and poetry performed, between people performing poetry and stand-up comedians,

Recently in one of my regular talk among the trees @whitworthhall with Avril Joy [1] we wandered into the fuzzy area between fact and fiction, truth and invention within the prose and poetry universe which we both inhabit.
After writing three well-received novels (Including the  winner of the People’s Prize, the stunning  Sometimes a River Song) and winning national prizes  for her for subtle and surprising short stories, Avril  Joy has now returned to a first and favourite literary form: poetry.
In this Whitworth conversation Avril reminded me that years ago I quoted to her John Braine’s assertion  [2] that the task of the novelist was ‘to move people through time and space’.
She went on to discuss some  poems she had been reading where on a second and third reading she noticed that the writer subtly established movement through time. Hence the reference to John Braine.. And so I learned that this can be a mantra for poets as well as prose writers like me.
Avril is now developing a subtle and insightful collection of unique poems inspired by her many years’ uniquely perceptive experience with women in prison; the metaphor of ‘moving through time’ is exceptionally appropriate here.   I’m now looking forward to the publication of this illuminating collection.
As for myself I would always identify as a writer of long fiction with the occasional dart into the short story form.  Of course even in the short story I see narrative and character to be the most important elements.  At the same time I’m perpetually concerned that the prose style is graceful and elegant enough to carry truth in the narrative with its various layers and characters with their unique identities
But then occasionally I feel the need to write very short because that seems to me to be the only way to express the explosions, reaction emotion and feeling that that are scattered through the observed life.

I would never have the nerve to call these ‘poems’.  I label them ‘short lines’ or ‘short pieces’. As regular readers here will know I have paraded samples of these pieces here on Life Twice Tasted. I have assembled two small collections of these pieces, one of which was a result of trawling my notebooks going back many years. 
The other collection of these short pieces, published under Dancing Through the Panic grew out of a period of anxiety and depression  and proved to help in a difficult period.

 It’s hardly surprising, then, that  I am drawn to poetry which seems to have an underlying narrative   - from the Victorian narrative poets to the evocative modern poetry of the American Robert Hass[4].
Thinking it through  I suppose in my writing  I’m preoccupied with the storying of either my own life or that of the characters in places and times which spring out of my imagination. The evidence for this is in all my novels, not least my latest novel, Becoming Alice. And this in itself is the outcome of a long life closely observed and freely interpreted.




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