Tuesday, 28 May 2019

The Woman Who Loved To Dance by Anne Ousby

The Woman Who Loved To Dance
Dance me to your beauty with your burning violin…’
Anne Ousby

16th C VeniceOn Amazon

As the writer of   historical novels I am no stranger to the delights and disciplines of research which leads to viscerally inhabiting another time and another place and getting into the skin of individuals who live there and then. Consider the recent work of Hilary Mantel and Pat Barker to see the great practitioners of this complex process.

This came to my mind this Bank Holiday when my personal treat was to sit in my sunny window and read Anne Ousby’s novel The Woman Who Loved to Dance.

In this novel Anne Ousby transports us to 16th century Venice which we see through the eyes of Veronica Bertame, daughter of a famous courtesan. Veronica grows up on the sometimes sordid and dilapidated fringes of Venetian society. She emerges as a great beauty and a mesmeric dancer who has a rich inner life informed by an acute observation of the world around her. She becomes the wife of a gifted chemist. The financial ruin that succeeds this sadly short lived marriage is a strong thread in the story.

She remains the loving friend of the vulnerable women in the stews of Venice she grows up. Their children are her friends and comrades. She is also is befriended by Alfonso – as   gondolier and ferryman he is a familiar part of the tapestry of we know of Venice. Alfonso – also a musician - suffers abuse in this colourful city, being called a ‘blackamoor’ among other things.

Veronica is a great survivor; through her eyes we learn not just of her own life but of injustices endured by the poor amid the self-indulgent and self-interested dominance of the ruling class of patricians and nobles.

Anne Ousby gives Veronica a wonderful voice – earnest, informed and sometimes lyrical. She is well aware of the powerful, stratified and cruel society around her.  ‘Did I not say? Mama is a famous courtesan and her lovers are among the greatest nobles and patricians of the Republic.’

In the midst of all this we know Veronica as she dances her elaborate dances and we share with her the rituals and processes of dance in that complex 16th century society. We learn how this love of music and dance is used – sometimes cruelly – to bridge the deep for fissures in   this complex society.

Anne Ousby brings this world and these various characters to life and keeps us glued to the page through a roller-coaster of poverty and affluence, music and beauty. An underlying all this - lighting up the whole novel – is the deep affection that Veronica feels for the vulnerable people around her.
This novel is a great read – highly recommended.


On a personal note I particularly love the quotation which opens this novel – an extract from my favourite Leonard Cohen’s song.
‘Dance me to your beauty with your burning violin
Dance me through the panic till I’m safely gathered in…’

Quite coincidentally I used the phrase Dancing Through the Panic as the title of my short line pamphlet, addressing the themes of my lifelong experience of anxiety and depression. Throughout all of that time I have always loved to dance.

This novel, which is on Amazon, has been privately published. I am amazed that a mainstream published has not whipped it up to add to their lists on its way to being a best-seller.

Tuesday, 7 May 2019

Memoirists: Building a Body of Work

Here I am, talking to the group of Memoirists on our fourth and final major workshop in Bishop Auckland.

‘By now you have done a fair deal of listening, thinking and writing. I hope. - I know! - that in time you will probably intend to have built a whole body of work which reflects your life and writing over time.

Writing the truth – which as I keep saying is based on our memory* of our life – is a bit like eating the elephant. Now the question - how do you eat an elephant? Of course the answer is “bit by bit”

It’s the same when you focus your creative life-writing on some aspects of your life. – each bit can be one of the pieces you have worked on during these workshops – or several of them – beginning with the freefall writing which I always, always, advocate as a starting point.

You will note that in the extract from Ted Hughes’s book quite two posts ago the he also advocates this. But then –-as you know - you follow the freefall writing with transcription, where you give it close editorial attention in terms of the words and the language as they will eventually appear in prose on the page.

I can’t repeat often enough that these two processes – the free initial writing and then the editing should be done at different times and even in different places. You can’t write creatively – as I keep saying - with an editor on one shoulder and your secondary school teacher on the other.

Freefall writing with an ink pen, gel pen or pencil up is the absolute beginning - the foundation of all this.  

And then eventually you might – you will! - wish to assemble the pieces you have written in time-order, even if they were not written in time order at the very beginning.. This can happen whether you are writing a straightforward memoir or developing a memoir into fictional prose and story.

Assembling – solid work - a whole sequence like this they will bring with it a new creative energy. You will make new connections and generate further ideas both in terms of content and form. You will be amazed at what you have achieved and you will begin to comprehend the truth that the core of it.
As you will have noticed in The Romancer collection and my other autobiographical writings that the pieces involved   have been assembled into some kind of logical order which eventually took on book form. You will have read a short example - a prose poem called Siblingometry – which was published here two posts ago

Now then! If you continue to work like this for a year or two or ten you will have achieved your memoir or your short story collection – whether they emerge as fact or fiction*,  they will appeal to the readers because they have truth at their heart.

In these months and ars you will have expanded and deepened your life with your observations and writing. You will have earned the right to  are a writer.

Endnote *If you are working towards prose fiction always keep in mind the advice of the magisterial Diana Athill, referring to the high skills of novelist Jean Rhys.
“In a novel the smallest touch of autobiographical special pleading, whether it takes the form of self-pity or exhibitionism will destroy the reader’s confidence. To avoid such touches the writer must be able to stand back from the experience far enough to see the whole of it and must concentrate with self-purging intensity on the process of reproducing it in words. Jean Rhys’s ability to stand back, and   concentrate on the process was intense as that of a tightrope walker. As a result novels do not say ‘this is what happened to me’ but ‘this is how things happen.”.

Diand Athill 

©Wendy Robertson 2019

Friday, 3 May 2019

Memoirists: Finding a Writing Partner

In our last Memoir Workshop the writers brought pages written in these last months to share with others in this last session. Before we set out to share our work – each with one other writer I made clear some crucial principles for creative sharing between writers, using examples from of my own experience.

Here is me holding forth about sharing one's work with another writer:

‘Sharing your work as you continue to write is an important part 
of developing your sense of audience.

'There are a plethora of online forums which suggest they will allow you to share your work with like minds. And of course there are writing groups in every community. In my view there is perhaps a danger here, in that such approaches can become some kind of hobby or process of enhancing self-esteem through a kind of performance. Enjoyable no doubt but can it develop your writing?.

'Paradoxically I have come to feel that such gatherings -whether online or in the flesh - can be dysfunctional for the truly developing writer. The creative process can merely become a regular social pastime or a busy hobby:   an entertaining social outlet for an individual.  In doing so individual writers may swerve away from improving and developing their unique writing is terms of style and form. At their worst this so called peer-review approach can become inappropriately cruel and destructive.

'For me the best way to develop a sense of audience is a paired writing partnership sometimes called having a writing buddy. A writing partner is an individual on their own writing journey who will read and listen to your writing and join you on your writing journey as you join them on theirs.

'A personal example – in these workshops you will have heard me mention the poet and novelist Avril Joy. Most of you will have read the insightful papers which she offered into this workshop on The Short Story and Writing Competitions. And now some of you may have read her books – Millie and Bird, Once More A River Song, and The Sweet Track - all of which are available on Amazon.

'Our own writing partnership started in a prison, where Avril was a manager in the field of education and I was for several years a Writer in Residence. At that point we were total strangers. Avril was already something of an artist and poet but from then on she started to write and to become a writer. At that point I was quite a seasoned writer with a fair number of novels under my belt. 

'Since then, through the years we have met regularly and had many conversations  focusing on  our current work in progress and our writing aspirations. In this writing partnership the positive influence has been very mutual. And now although we are very different writers we continue to be each other’s informed audience as our writing has continued to develop and evolve.

'Of course we came to know each other quite well. But mostly our talk has been about what are we doing now in terms writing. In that time Avril has won prizes for her prose fiction and poetry and I have written several new novels.

It goes on. Just last Thursday we talked with some intensity about Avril’s and my (very different) new projects. It goes on. Just last Thursday we talked with some intensity about Avril’s new project – a book of lyrical, insightful poetry and prose reflecting on her 20 years’ experience in prison. This will be published in the autumn  by Linen Press

 And as well as this on Thursdsay we discussed my own tentative new project with the working title The Determined Butterfly. This  which will be a collation my philosophy, ideas and methodology emerging from both writing novels and running courses and presenting workshops on the process of writing 

We both came away with new insights into our own work.

So, there you have it! In my view sharing our work with fellow writers is crucially important.

Through the years I have evolved some basic rules for when one shares writing, however one chooses to share it.

Here they are:

          -Offer your observations with courtesy, empathy and tact.

-  - Develop your ability to focus on someone else’s work and appreciate and understand their work in the context of their ongoing writing process. This is so – even especially so – when their style, range and inspiration are different from yours; it is about knowing where the other writer may wish to go on their own behalf.
Importantly you need to spot and endorse the good ideas, the good language, the  originality of their vision and the deep truths underlying their writing. 

I   If your partnership works this will be a mutual process with benefits for the writing of both  partners.

Read my novel The Bad Child

-       Happy writing!


    (c) Wendy Robertson 2019

Monday, 29 April 2019

The Memoirists : Part One: Heavy Duty Approaches to Writing Memoir.


 Memoirists and heavy duty thinking,
Saturday was the last event in the present series of Masterclass Memoir Workshops where more than twenty writers have met and worked and talked together. These writers were wonderful – joining me in focusing hard on what were quite heavy- duty ideas about the process of writing.  

Part One: Poets and Free-fall Writing.
This last event began with some thoughts about how we as prose-writers can learn from great poets: 

Our discussion started with Ted Hughes’ paradoxical advice on writing:

"If you do this you do not have to bother about commas. All that sort of thing. You do not look at the words either. You keep your eyes, your ears, your nose, your taste, your touch, your whole being on the thing you are turning into words. The minute you flinch, and take your mind off this thing, and begin to look at the words and worry about them then your worry goes into them and they set about killing each other."

'Words killing each other' – an amazing thought!

Reading these words reinforced something I had been saying throughout the workshops – that a writer has to develop the ambiguous skill of free flow writing (I call it free-fall writing) as the basis for memoir, which inhabits the gap between autobiography and fiction,

We have – I  kept saying -  to trust the world, the words and the logical syntax that emerge from our long lives lived – they are bedded there in our subconscious, waiting to flow onto the page.

I shared some writing which had eventually flowed onto my page;

Making Prisms of Meaning.
 This family is a square:
at each corner is a child -
the hexagon at its centre
surrounds the lynch-pin -
the charismatic mother.
The sides of the hexagon
consist of the beloved dead.
and the generations to come,
who send their own stories
whispering onwards and
backwards in time..

Child One:  Boy One
She wanted to make you brave like her -
but she should have loved you more.
You are the tender one, your bruised personality
springing out of injury and unintended hurt -
loving music, following fashion
playing out the role of victim
with justified conviction
your hesitancy hiding
a romantic heart
that crashed and broke too early.

Child Two: Girl One
You were the feisty one -
the most like her, with your hot temper
and your challenging demeanour.
She was bound to steal your cigarettes
and smoke them to teach you a lesson
You were bound to be the one to test her to the limits,
to call her grown-up bluff. In the end
you built your wall of worldly success and family life.
So, defeated, she was driven to surrender
her power and ultimately keep her distance.

Child Three Girl Two
You idolised and feared your mother
and tried to please her with cups of tea and
finally with stories inside real books
Needy and watchful, with your eagle-eyes
and bat-like ears, you tried to make sense of the words
and gestures all around you - at first with no understanding.
Even so they stayed with you. Your child-perceptions made solid
memories which you wove into stories  that both hid
and revealed a difficult  truth. To know you 
the world  needs to decode your stories  -
fact or fiction – and fabricate its own prisms of meaning 

Child Four: Boy Two
You were the last, the final product
of the  soul-mated bond cut shattered  too early.
You were her baby, her ewe lamb -
So clever and self-determined.
Normally frugal, she’d make any sacrifice for you  -
sweets and bikes galore, showing her pride
and admiration. I remember the day when,
bold as ever, after diving with too much ardour
into the stony shallow river at the bottom of
the bank and came home with
your chest all bloody .

I watched our mother pick out the small stones
And wind the bandage gently, with a nurse’s care.

Tracking the Memoirists:

To come here on Life Twice Tasted.

Part 2: Practical principles of sharing our worth with other writers.
Part 3:  Building a body of work.

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.’


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.  


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