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


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