People who want to write sometimes ask me how they should begin. And I say get a writing journal and write in it everyday for at least ten minutes. This isn't a diary for recording events, it is a place for jotting down, stream-of-consciousness-like, words, ideas, images, feelings, descriptions, quotes...
I was interested to see that Bruce Springsteen has such a journal (Imagine, BBC1, 7th December, 10.35pm). His scribblings become songs. He also described keeping the bits and pieces which didn't at first work in a kind of lyrics junkyard, from which he would salvage them, sometimes a long time after, and explore putting them together in a different way until they do run. A bit like a writer's Scrapheap Challenge.
As with many creative endeavours, often it's knowing when - and being brave enough - to cut. Lenny Henry mentioned this as a crucial skill on Front Row (Radio 4, 8th December, 7.20pm). It's hardest when it's our favoured lines we have to cull. Though it's useful to think of them as not being lost for ever, only rather kept safe for another outing.
With a designer colleague, I once cooked up the idea of adorning the doors to our town's loos with poetry - thinking we'd have a captive audience. We have not put any plans into action, but when I was down in Bristol, I got to read poetry about the sea as I used the toilets in the SS Great Britain's visitor centre.
And yet, as I look at the trees stark against the winter sky, I think, nature has got there before us, if we just open our eyes, art is all around.
I am working on an article which I hope is destined for the European Journal for Qualitative Research. It is a literature review on Writer's Block.
And, as I start to write it, I find myself stymied. I know what stops me, mainly; two thoughts: What have I got to say which anyone wants to read? Will it (I) be good enough? And generally I can work round it.
I have read about Writer's Block from the writer's perspective before, now I am also getting the academic's angle. They appear to put the causes under three headings: cognitive (the rule-laden part of the brain fighting with the imaginative); emotional (the feeling of not being up to the task in some way); and environmental (including the physical, social and political).
Using a completely 'unscientific' method (and having just discovered I have three instead of two followers to my blog), I wondered if any reader out there might be prepared to email me about their experience of Writer's Block (knowing that it might be published, though anonymity could be maintained)? Email: email@example.com
I have been a little slow in getting into the on-line social (and professional) networking and I have certainly never quite understood the attraction of 'tweeting'. However, I do seem to have ended up on Twitter by default:
I wonder if this will open up a whole new phase for me?
I'm so excited. This morning we recorded my poems for the Edith Sitwell installation, Words in My Head (www.coastival.com) in a real studio. My collaborator, composer Matt Barnard, was sound engineer and was very calming and competent. I had two friends from the Scarborough Poetry Workshop, Felix Hodcroft and Rosie Larner, reading the poems and they did an excellent job. Even when Matt wanted to record them breathing in different ways!
It felt like I was in one of those docu-films of all night-ers putting down an album with the ba-i-and. Every now and again I would go over and press the intercom with the studio and "direct" with a little suggestion on a word being emphasised or not.
I also get a huge buzz from hearing my poetry performed well. I quite enjoy doing it myself, but when I do that I can't hear them properly as the nerves appear to make me slightly deaf. So it's an enormous treat to have them gifted to me as Felix and Rosie did this morning.
I'm still more than a little carried away by the moment.
I went to see the film Made in Dagenham last night. A surprisingly upbeat tale about strikes! Namely, the industrial action taken by women machinists at Fords in the late 1960s which eventually led to (along with other pressures) the Equal Pay Act of 1970.
It made me think that we can engage with any story as long as it is well told and there is the human interest; in this case, in particular, the relationship between Eddie and Rita and the shell shocked (a reference to unrecognised dementia?) veteran and his wife.
For a relatively feel-good movie, it did try to present some of the complexities in the situation and in people's motivations. I did enjoy the the 'old style' union leader characters, I remember them from the university Labour club. Quote Marx but still expect the "girls" to make the tea.
Some free writing I did in the therapeutic creative writing workshop I facilitate:
Write a poem, she says, like it's a stroll in the park.
Write a poem, she says, yet the way is undefined, weedy, clogged with soggy leaves.
Write a poem, she says, put a powerful image about the way you feel on paper and don't blow yourself away.
Write a poem, she says, as if breathing were that easy.
Unfortunately, I believe we have ended up with the wrong first woman Poet Laureate. Much as I admire some of Carol Ann Duffy's poetry, though listing geographical regions now seems to have become her trade mark, her erstwhile partner, Jackie Kay, would have been a much better choice. Her writing is superb, and, in addition, she brings her audience along with her.
I saw Jackie Kay at the Beverley Literature Festival last week. This is the third time I have seen her in the flesh (I have also heard her on the radio) and on each occasion she engages; entertains; makes me think and question; and drags her listeners through all manner of emotions. Have you heard CAD recite her poetry? It always sounds like a funeral dirge.
Jackie Kay, mixed race, adopted into a white family from Glasgow, speaks from not only being a lesbian woman, but also from a sense of being between cultures. Now she would have made an inspiring, powerful and exciting Laureate for our modern Britain.
Words in My Head, the poetry-soundscape installation in celebration of Edith Sitwell's poetry which I am creating for Coastival next year (www.coastival.com), is really beginning to take shape, at least in my own head! I am moving from poet to project management mode and feeling the excitement of seeing something which was a spark of an idea come to fruition.
Here is a sneak preview of the poetry:
Sipping Tea with Ms E. Tall as a post, gaunt as a ghost, be-ringed fingers drumming, drumming, waiting for me to say something, anything, worthy of a poet.
I have a little sonnet, I offer up tentatively. A little nothing I dashed off. I sip my tea. It has turned cold.
Sonnets, her eyes glare, are all the same size. And a poet never dashes anywhere. She brushes crumbs from the table.
The word, the word. She softens, Trust the word, the beat, the waves pound, the sun creaks, the lion roars, the poet lays herself open, she listens and then she spins.
We appear to have jumped straight from an Indian Summer into Winter. Where did Autumn go? The colouring of the leaves and the crunch of them underfoot. The mellow mists, the fruitfulness, the hint of woodsmoke. OK, maybe I am turning into a lolling romantic with the last.
One of my favourite Autumn poems is 'Late October' by Maya Angelou, which finishes:
Only lovers see the fall a signal end to endings a gruffish gesture alerting those who will not be alarmed that we begin to stop in order simply to begin again.
I love the idea that I may not be alarmed when we have a stop and that, in any case, we will "simply" "begin again". It feels so easy, so comforting. And, of course, I am a great believer in making up words, "gruffish", how wonderful.
I have to admit to not feeling much like writing this evening. Things have suddenly got very busy in all departments of my life and I feel tired. Yesterday the bright spot was the first session in the Creative Writing for Good Mental Health course (funded by the WEA). Ten of us gathered and began to get to know each other and plunge into the enthralling (to me, at least) technique of free writing. It is interesting that some people take to this throwing off of "shoulds" and rules with enthusiasm and some are more guarded. It is difficult to know, sometimes, how to give people the permission to "just let it flow" when they are used to so many "rights" and "wrongs".
Today the bright spot was an email from my collaborator, Matt Barnard, on my Edith Sitwell installation, 'Words in My Head'. I do find it exciting to be working with someone else, whose skills and talent (in this case in terms of composing and music tech) can take my words and poetry into a place and direction that I am not even able to conceive of.
Apart from that, the volume of work and number of things to be taken into account at this present time, make the days challenging and the nights restless. I went swimming at lunchtime and found myself in the fast lane being splashed and edged out by big muscular men intent on front crawling as fast as they could from one end to the other with little regard of who might be in the way. Felt a bit like a metaphor.
War, what is it good for? Absolutely nothing! Say it again. So sang 'Frankie Goes to Hollywood' in the 1980s and I danced around to it as a student, believing every word. Believing if I shouted it loud enough, there would be no more war.
And yet it seems to be everywhere at the moment. The present wars and the agonisingly poignant stories of soldiers coming back as multiple amputees and/or deeply emotionally and psychologically traumatised. The past wars in the many anniversaries to do with WWII, and interviews or images of those involved still grieving after over 60 years.
A statistic stood out for me this week, I can't remember it exactly, it was something like 100 years ago 95% of the casualties of war were combatants, now 95% of casualties are civilians.
War is good for nothing. We sing it, we know it and yet we don't seem to be able to live it.
My friend and colleague, Hazel, and I facilitated our first Writers' Way residential at Cober Hill this weekend.
We aimed to offer an exploration of creativity through guided writing exercises, meditation and visualisations. We began on Friday afternoon, and the first session, as so often is the case, was a little shaky with everyone nervous and some people very tired from stressful working weeks or long journeys. However, as we went along, everyone grew in confidence and the group gelled to be supportive and inspirational. I was buoyed up by the positive creative energy which was swirling around.
Cober Hill (http://www.coberhill.co.uk/) is also such a gorgeous setting to hold a residential, with its gardens and walks all the way down to the sea. A perfect place to awaken all our physical senses and feel grounded in our bodies whilst allowing our imaginations to take flight.
The finest feedback to receive from the participants on the Sunday as we parted was a call for a five day course. A sign that what we'd succeeded in bringing about had indeed been useful and nourishing to people.
Earlier in the Summer I heard that I had the "commission", along with a small budget, to do an art installation for Coastival next February (www.coastival.com). Words in My Head (which was meant to be a working title but appears to be sticking) will be a celebration of the poetry of Edith Sitwell, it will be housed at Wood End, Scarborough, where she was born in 1887.
My interest in Edith Sitwell has been growing ever since she was nominated in a Local Heroes project I co-ordinated for the museums' services in 2003-2004. Up until that point, hers was a name which I vaguely connected with arrogance, aristocracy and eccentricity. Of course, she was much, much more complex than that and, at times, an innovative, a surprising, a fine writer.
I have become fascinated by her life story, her unhappy childhood, her move to London where she was forced to financially support herself despite her family's wealth, her relationships with various characters, including other writers and artists. And I am struck by her poetry, which she continued to write and develop throughout her days.
As part of the research for Words in My Head, I went to Renishaw, the Sitwell seat near Sheffield. I was excited, especially on seeing a pub called the Sitwell Arms, and I enjoyed my time ambling through the gardens, being given a tour of the house. However, I didn't feel particularly connected to Edith, nor do I think that I learned anything new about her. I feel more in step with her here in Scarborough, despite her dislike of the place and the fact that she rarely returned once she had the choice.
Perhaps it is my own attachment to the town that I am engaging with, rather than Edith's, yet I cannot help sensing the beat of the sea, the roar of the lion as she called it, coming through those starkly moving poems she wrote in the 1940s and 1950s.
I was listening to Open Book on Radio 4 on Sunday and a trio of authors talking about the nom de plumes they choose. There was a man who wrote under a female name and a woman who androgynised hers with initials (as JK Rowling did, claiming she was taken more seriously because her gender was not immediately identifiable).
There is a long tradition of woman writers having to take on male pseudonyms - the Brontes, George Elliot are the most frequently cited examples. However, surely we are in a different world now? Publishers claim men are less likely to read books authored by a woman, apparently the bias does not go the other way for female readers, except in the romance genre. I think I would feel manipulated if I found I had been reading something I discovered was by a clandestine man.
Both interviewees on the radio claimed the decisions about their name had been made to suit the "brand" they were wanting to publish in. Further evidence the literary world is not all about the writing, but rather about a complete product.
I had one of those sparky-sparkling moments when I discovered that I had written something startling even to me the supposed author. For some time now, I've been playing about with ideas around the connections between poetry-making and research. And last week I was trying to bring my thoughts together onto one page through a messy and disorganised - always the best kind - mind map.
I looked back at what I had put down and there it was:
Poetry in research as
-Presentation of findings.
A slotting in place of what I'd read, experienced and practised over the last several months. And at each stage, I feel I can connect my therapeutic-researcher to my poet through being able to explore both content and form. What I have found so far in my reading is that poetry is seen as important at one point or another of the research, but not as a thread running through it, and that little is made of the form and how it connects to the layers of meaning.
I am excited to think that what I have come up with may indeed be innovative. I feel like patenting it!
A Haiku for August
Still my fevered mind, the waves swell enough for two, the sky is yet vast.
Writing is a dangerous profession for some. A writer is being threatened with prison because of what he wrote about the Singapore death penalty. The author of The Bookseller of Kabul has been ordered to pay damages for her fictionalised depiction of a woman in her story. Both are standing by what they consider to be the truth in their writing and are defending their right to express what they feel they have to say.
The second case gave me particular pause for thought, as it is about a character in fiction. True, the writer herself claims her story is based on fact, and there seems to be the Bookseller's own literary ambitions which might be muddying the water, even so, to have to pay damages on a work of fiction? All writers draw on the people around us, should we, perhaps, be more circumspect about how we do this after this ruling?
Words have a power which terrifies authoritarian regimes and people who cannot bear, will not survive, criticism or contrary views. There are many writers we hear little of who have been detained, tortured, even killed or disappeared, because they have dared to make public their words (see Amnesty International's website: http://www.amnesty.org.uk).
It is a sobering thought for one as safely cossetted as me.
Our borough council had £69k to spend on community projects. It decided to allow the "voters to voice their choice" through a participatory budgeting exercise. Over thirty groups were asked to put in bids for up to £5000 each, and one very hot Saturday, they were to present their ideas to an audience of bona fide residents who would decide on who would get the dosh.
I went along because I am involved in a number of the organisations hoping for some of the funding. I expected to be bored out of my mind. I was not.
Yes, it was hot and stuffy, yes it was a very long day. However, besides the passion, energy, commitment and sheer ingenuity of those vying for the cash to do something positive in their communities, any irritation or discomfort evaporated like sweat off a donkey's bum. I was impressed and inspired.
I am willing to take bets that the number of people in the audience who were not already keenly interested in people action and/or involved with one of the groups, was negligible. The voting, done after each presentation, was very tight, and, in the end, most agreed it was often the quality of the presentation which won. If presenters mumbled or didn't engage with the voters, then they lost points. Near the end, when my spirits were beginning to flag, a cheer-leading group hoisted a young slip of a thing up on a human pyramid nearly to the library's roof, and, against my logical judgement, that gave them an extra point on my paper. And I swear the man from the yachting club got his support because he was good looking and tanned (not from me, I hasten to add).
I was interested in my own process in making decisions. It is easy to criticise funders for not "getting it right", yet I will admit to being swayed by the ephemeral and to voting tactically, to ensure the projects I really wanted to see succeed got most of my votes. I also voted down projects which were perfectly good because I had already supported another for the same cause, such as youth or sport.
I was aware of being part of Cameron's "Big Society" (although this participatory budgeting exercise was made possible by the former government). And I wondered how we would cope with decisions more complex than allocating £2000 here and £3000 there? I'm quite happy telling the government how not to run the country, but am I capable of coming up with a workable alternative?
It's been fifty years since Harper Lee published her seminal novel, To Kill a Mockingbird and I watched an excellent documentary about the author, the book and its influence on BBC4 the other week.
Do I admit to knowing the book only through the film with that powerful performance by Gregory Peck? (Interesting - or maybe thank goodness - there hasn't been a re-make). I used to see a lot of films - I am more selective and less tolerant these days - yet it is scenes from certain ones, such as To Kill a Mockingbird - which still have the force to flicker into my brain as if I had viewed them only yesterday.
Though, according to the documentary, Harper Lee had set out to be a writer and was, by all accounts, a good and a focused one, To Kill a Mockingbird was the only book she ever wrote. After its publication and the storm that produced, she stopped writing (at least for a public audience). "I've said all I have to say, why say more?" was apparently her explanation.
This is not a sentiment I can quite get my head round. Not only do I feel I need to keep repeating myself - is anybody listening anyway? - but I also feel I have more and more to say the more I write. And what about the process of writing? The pure joy and satisfaction of taking and distilling an experience, a feeling, an idea, into words and sharing that? I can't imagine that ever becoming stale for me.
Still, I have never, up to now, experienced the sudden and phenomenal - perhaps over-whelming - critical success Harper Lee did. Perhaps, in some ways, I've been lucky as, at least, I've been left with my writing.
Am I letting time slip by? Should I be pushing myself to do more? Or does creativity need dips - pauses? Sometimes if I do force myself to write, I will enjoy it and produce something satisfying. At other times I can nail myself down (as one of my friends puts it) and nothing comes and I feel a failure. Yet I won't know until I try. And my process seems to require a lot of musing, along with many breaks. I wonder if this is laziness, procrastination or necessary? It's a funny, slippery quirk, this thing I call creativity.
Titles have been exercising me this week. It came up at a get together I had with a couple of writer companions. How to choose a title for a poem, to say just enough but not too much. And then Daniel Stern dedicates a whole section to how he came up with the title for his book The Present Moment in Psychotherapy and Everyday Life (WW Norton & Co, New York, London, 2004). Personally I think he made a mistake in not sticking with his first thought, "A World in a Grain of Sand". This would also have gone perfectly with the cover illustration, sand sifting through an hour glass (though, presumably, the cover was the last thing to be decided on).
I wanted to give a title to the small research project I have embarked on, but found myself stumped. It is looking at the writing journey - an over-used phrase and title if ever there was one - and is bringing out themes around potential swamped and then re-discovered. Re-surfacing has come to mind, but could indicate a treatise on tarmac, whereas Surfacing, I'm fairly sure, has been used for a novel, perhaps by Margaret Atwood.
I have had better luck finding a title for the series of novels which I'm pretending I am not writing: The Art of... The Art of Surviving I have already, and I am starting on The Art of Leaving. The possibilities are endless, which I guess is what Sue Grafton thought when she started on her A is for... crime series.
Two stories in June's Therapy Today caught my eye. One was a news item which quoted the World Health Organisation as saying that neurological and mental disorders are the leading cause of ill health and disability globally. Voluntary organisations apparently find it hard to raise money for mental health projects because pictures of people suffering from mental distress don't tug at our heart strings enough.
At the end of the piece there was the statistic that half of all countries in the world have one psychiatrist per 100,000 people. And I wondered if this was really a worrying figure. Many societies outside of the West have very different attitudes to mental well-being to ours, and I have read the suggestion that some are more enlightened, more tolerant, more empowering. Perhaps, just possibly, psychiatrists and Western style mental health "solutions" are not the answer everywhere.
The second article was right the other end of the journal giving the results of a BACP professional conduct hearing. A complaint about a practitioner had been made because he had commented on a social networking site about a client in such a way that the young person could be identified. There seemed no doubt that in this case the therapist had been foolish and broken his duty for confidentiality. It did make me sharply draw in my breath, however. I am exceptionally careful about, and sensitive to, confidentiality, even so, would one day a client's identity seep into something I was writing and leave me quite rightly vulnerable to a complaint?
Life After Life After Death, a collection of poetry by Felix Hodcroft
It's impossible to remain unmoved by this new collection of poems. Jagged, thought-provoking, raw, they demand attention and deserve to get it.
The sharp, sometimes to cutting point, observation brings to mind Philip Larkin. He also brought foibles, discomforts, hurts into a tight focus. He also crafted with a considered choice of word sounds and rhythm.
There are deliciously lyrical images here. "...those lush afternoons when the world seemed to poise in our grasp like a peach" from Inasmuch."There'll be stillness, something/waiting, there'll be sunbeams melting mist./There will be buds that gently ripple into/scarlet, snow and gold." from Bequest. And you can almost taste the words off the page in Jackets 'n' Skins.
Side by side with the appetising comes the tough, unrelenting and tortured. We Fought, in particular, has this balance teetering on an edge but always satisfyingly maintained.
No subject - love, death, murder, cancer, relationships (familial and otherwise) - is too difficult to be tackled - and brought down in the box (since we're all in World Cup mode). Each is explored unflinchingly, all its dark corners poked at.
And the form follows content, being unsettling too. We're not quite sure who or what or when, we have to grasp at meanings that are relevant to us. Making these poems not an easy read, but a fulfilling one.
If I wanted to be nit-picking, I might suggest some of the endings lose this trust in the reader and become a little too explanatory. A few more commas would not have gone amiss either.
That aside, this collection is worthy of much re-reading and contemplation. I went through it almost in one go and I can see there will be poems that I will return to again and re-discover in a different way.
Narratively strong, Hodcroft's poetry holds that fine balance between ugly realism and lyricism; bleakness and hope; death and life, and even life after life after death.
Back from a two week holiday and wondering what I should put in this post. Our trip away was indeed a fine one, with a fair mix of walking, sightseeing and relaxing. I always have a writing journal with me, but this year, for the first time, as well as the reflections on each day and the snatches of prose or poetry to be crafted later, I was sketching and painting.
Some time ago I moved away from lined paper in my writing journals - too restrictive - and recently I've been buying what are essentially sketch books to write in, so that when I do paint, the paper is absorbent enough. Writing on the thick pages is delicious, but occasionally I get knocked by the thought, are my words worth this weight of paper? Much of what goes down is scrawled, imperfect, not thought through, will remain as notes. But these are the seeds from which more crafted, more communicative work, which can touch others, will grow. And you wouldn't sow your prize marrows on scanty earth.
As a young secondary school pupil I was told by my art teacher that I was not good at his subject. That comment has stuck all these years. It is a joy now, therefore, to find out that I can work visually and am captured by form and colour. And I am discovering how what I draw complements and nourishes what I write in a satisfying symbiosis.
Where does your inspiration come from? How many times does a writer at a literary festival or book signing get asked this question? What surprises me is when I learn that everyone else doesn't have 101 ideas floating around to make into a story or a poem. I think it was author Mark Haddon who said that, as he got more experienced, he didn't have less ideas, he just got better at netting those that would lead somewhere.
I was sitting on the beach one warm Friday evening, there were groups of students playing football or quaffing from cans of lager (which they went on to leave littering the sand!) presumably post-exams. Then there was this trio which caught my eye. An older man with two teenage girls, both pasty, one waif-like, the other slightly more buxom, they both wore shorts and bikini tops, though this was the North Sea coast not the Med, neither were smart or seemed terribly confident. What was their relationship with each other? With the man who bought them a football so they could emulate the students in a rather ungainly way? These questions led me to a story which is unsavoury to say the least. It has the provisional title of What Makes Girl Killers or Crushed Buttercups (I found out later, rather pleasingly, that buttercups symbolise immaturity and betrayal).
Two of my favourites among the fictional pieces which I have written also started with observing people interacting and wondering, who? What? Why? What if? My novel Breathing Cell, came out of seeing an older woman with a man and two teenagers on holiday in the South of France. I wrote a whole tale about what happened on that holiday, which never made it into the novel but formed the backdrop to it. My short story, Adrift, came from spying an older woman with a boy of maybe 8 or 9 years old (obviously English tourists) on a vaporetto in Venice. At once she became the youngster's grandmother bracingly dragging him round Venice to "help him adjust" to his parents' divorce. And this led onto other characters who found themselves adrift in this beautiful and sinking city whose paths keep crossing, like the labyrinth of tiny streets which befuddle all but the natives.
When I told my husband the outline of the story I had made up about the three on the beach, he just raised his gaze to the sky and said, indulgently, I was letting my imagination run away with me as I always did. So is that what makes a writer? We don't know when to put the brakes on?
Is it me or are contemporary dance performances getting more obscure and shorter? I still remember sitting in a theatre as a youngster, maybe 11 or 12 years old, and being completely mesmerised by the Ballet Rambert's Ghosts. The music was Central/South American pan pipes (this was before we heard these on every street corner) and the narrative was very definitely about oppression, revolution and loss.
Last night's Love and War by the Mark Bruce Company was far more open to interpretation (it was also only an hour long, whereas we had two hours with an interval back in the 1970s). Was this a circus of life with each of us doing our own tricks for the ring master? Was this the eternal struggle with death (or depression) the hint being in the title? Was it merely vignettes with no over-all organising theme? Whatever it was, it was fab; absorbing, emotional, thought-provoking, scary and expertly danced.
It came to me that contemporary dance is becoming more and more like abstract art. The question is not what does it mean, but what does it mean to me? And, last night, having identified two of the dancers with people in my personal life, I happily riffed to my own tune, made up my own tale.
The only negative for me was that the music was turned up too loud! Now I am sounding middle aged.
Sometimes it's good to be proved wrong. No sooner do I write my last post for this blog than writers who have written political fiction start popping up all over the place. On Radio Four's 'Saturday Live' there was Prue Leith with her A Serving of Scandal. Then on Sunday's 'Broadcasting House' ('BH') there was Blake Morrison, whose South of the River takes the Labour Government of the '90s as a backdrop, and Michael Dobbs who has written numerous political novels including House of Cards.
I still think there's much fictional mileage in the present situation. We shall see what I, or another writer, can make of it.
Also on 'BH' was the author Sadie Smith who said something I have often challenged students with: fiction is about truth, lies are for reality.
Finally, I loved this little snippet, also from 'BH', about the bird song to be heard accompanying the first joint press conference by Cameron and Clegg. Apparently there was a robin singing from one side and from the other a blue tit tweeting as it was nesting. How apt.
Well this has to be a fiction writer's dream, because you couldn't really make it up could you?
First the live debates, then the election results, the parties' machinations, the unlikely Lib-Conservative pact (who says it doesn't make a difference that they're both public school boys and that the smell of power isn't more over-whelming than principle?) And now Brown's resignation. I still think he was the wrong man for the wrong job at the wrong time, but still there's a poignancy in his limping away, finally beaten, like an injured bison.
It already has the feel of a novel. And yet we don't see our political world mirrored that often in our story-telling. Wilson, Heath, Thorpe, Scargill, the Gang of Four, Thatcher, Blair, here are "off-the-peg" characters and plots which enthral, infuriate, anger and sometimes even move us to tears. Interesting that most writers appear to shy away from them.
I'm still playing with an idea for another novel and how to interweave the Thatcher years into the personal story of a deluded would-be Kate Adie trapped in a going-nowhere job at the BBC of the 1980s. But all of a sudden I'm off on a story about two young teenage boys who meet at a chess match between their respective schools - Eton and Westminster - and sneak out for an illicit smoke and make a pact....
Mary's Mother She was brought up to know better. It's the son of god, she tells me. A poor excuse for not waiting, for opening her legs before she ought. She'll never know how I meekly hid my face in shame when she was expected before her time.
A proud one, our Mary, my husband's doing. If she was to be the only one, then he would lavish all on her, not me, for he could see as well as I could, the slope of her nose, the tint of her hair, the curve of her stubborn chin, not his, but my brother-in-laws.
Betraying twice over, my sister and my husband, I could not find forgiveness for those blue eyes which should have been brown. My sin, my twice-fold sin, how could I feel other than punished and punishing?
And now, bold as you like, she holds her rounded belly. The women gather and toss broken coins, spin needles, touch her with a gentleness I have never managed. She's carrying high, it's a boy, they say.
The son of god, Mary replies, with a certainty and a delight that cracks my chest again.
If only I'd thought of that one, all those years ago. She's clever, my cuckoo daughter, and she doesn't get that from me.
The Minotaur's Mother piece I was working on has evolved.
I now have what I hope will be a performance piece for many voices.
It's called, for now, Into the Labyrinth, and this is an extract.
My second non-fiction article for an academic journal has been peer reviewed - a new experience for me - and accepted. I am pleased, of course. I am also astounded by the terms under which it appears all such publications operate.
Not only do academic journals not pay their authors, but they also insist on obtaining all rights in anything they publish. What? Are they really thinking of making a film out of my piece, or perhaps a cartoon? Will they honestly seek to have it translated into Russian or Korean? It seems extraordinary that they should want to attain all these rights (for the full length of copyright, ie for 70 years after my death) and do nothing with them. Surely all they really need is world English language serial, quotation/anthology and digital rights.
When I raised my misgivings, I was told that they would permit reproduction in author's other work (ie I would be allowed to quote myself in my own writing) and that in years gone by I would have been expected to pay to see my words in print.
I think it was being suggested that I should learn to be more grateful!
I've been poorly this week and suddenly I've become very aware of my body, each twinge, each growl, each grumble. For someone who lives so much in her head, this is an odd sensation. Normally my body just gets on with its job of carrying my mind around. This week, it decided not to, and I was non-plussed.
Scarborough has just hosted its annual literature festival (www.scarboroughliteraturefestival.co.uk). I went to an event hosted by Amnesty International to hear Rouhi Shafi, an Iranian writer, speak. It was sobering to be reminded that I may feel sharply stabbed when people unfairly criticise or - more often - ignore my writing, but, in reality, my life is not in danger. Unlike writers from countries across the world who risk harassment, imprisonment, torture and death by expressing themselves. The pen is indeed mighty and feared by governments of many persuasions.
I have finally moved into my Spring/Summer schedule, promising myself at least ten hours of creative time a week. But what is creative time? Is it only sitting at a table with pens and paper or typing at a keyboard? Or can it include walking to the sea and eating an ice cream? Or going to the theatre and listening to poetry? What, in fact, is not a creative activity, except perhaps doing the washing up? And even then, that can be a moment for fermenting or composting what has gone before. Ten hours appears an achievable goal after all.
I have also bought Poetry as Method, reporting research through verse (Sandra Faulkner, Left Coast Press, Walnut Creek, CA). (I've just noticed, what an evocative place to locate a publisher!) I've only started to read the first chapter, but the book (as its blurb says) 'takes an interdisciplinary approach to using and creating poetry for conducting and reporting social research'.
Sacrilege surely, even the mere thought of using poetry. Are we not the instrument of such a divine art rather than the other way round? And to connect it to something as calculated as research, doesn't seem right.
Yet, as poets, we seek to delve into our own and others' humanity to root out some universal truths and communicate them on. With our words we attempt to create sense and meaning of our experiences, in order that others might do the same. Are these not good definitions of the work of a researcher?
I've been away for a long weekend and took with me a Ruth Rendell and a Sara Paretsky. Crime, about the only fiction I read these days. I used to devour a novel a fortnight, but poetry and non-fiction have been my diet these past few years. Though the distinction between the three forms - fiction, non-fiction and poetry - appear to me less and less defined. There's been a trend for fiction to become built around fact and to use poetic techniques such as alliteration, metaphor, assonance, rhythm. Non-fiction has married into supposition and "it might have happened like this..." And perhaps poetry has become more narrative? Certainly it is less defined by rhyme and meter, two things which set it apart from prose.
Perhaps literary form is once again mirroring society, where demarcations and boundaries have over-all become fuzzier and greyer.
So back to the crime. I think Rendell and Paretsky are genius at the genre, their structuring holding the tension and pace right through to the last page. I'd borrowed both from the library, so both were quite old. The Rendell in particular showed its age. Written in the '70s there were no computers or mobile phones and characters were still calling the operator to be connected. It felt rather quaint, though it was only forty years ago.
To write a Haiku: pick the gem out of the dust, polish with vigour.
Well it's up until May. It was pretty nerve wracking, going in and making all the decisions about what should go where. Not to mention trying to make sure everything is secure so nothing will fall on anyone's head! Feeling proud of what we have achieved together.
Today, unlooked for I was handed a gift. Sometimes, it happens.
It was an extra-ordinary experience, sitting there with seven others who were responding to my poem, finding in it what they needed at that moment. I didn't want to admit to myself that this was what had happened. Why? It would sound too arrogant, too egotistical? And yet it was my words, the ones I had chosen to put in that particular order, which had reached them in such a powerful way.
Their willingness to share this, was a gift to me.
And yet, and yet, I crave publication, which would only distance me from this raw, visceral, resonance of a person's emotions with the words I have written. Why? Because publication means validation, recognition, an attainment of some abstract measure of what's good.
"What have you published?" Is the question which often greets me. Nothing. But my words have met another's heart and soul and made it sing. Is that not enough?
Trust the moment shared
as, touched by another's pain,
we feel what's tender.
CREATIVE WRITING: THE WRITER’S WAY
Friday 3 to Sunday 5 September 2010 Tutors: Hazel Ettridge and Kate Evans
This two day residential workshop will invite you to explore your creativity using various techniques including guided writing exercises, relaxation, visualisation and meditation.
The weekend will suit those who want to cultivate their creativity, or who feel blocked in their writing, or who feel the urge to write but don’t know where to start.
The Writer’s Way is an approach to creative exploration and development, healing, personal growth and spiritual fulfilment. It is a loose collective of professional creatives who share a vision – that creativity is an essential component of a life well-lived.
2 NIGHT WEEKEND BREAK ON A FULL BOARD BASIS. £137.00 PER PERSON
I went to see crime writer, Sara Paretsky, speak at the library last night. She was engaging, warm, entertaining and interesting. And her passion for mixing a sense of social responsibility with her writing was infectious.
Why write? To communicate? To communicate what? Our story which we feel compelled to tell, that's often where people start. And, then, maybe, our view of the world, our questions and, perhaps, some of our solutions too.
Why read? Certainly not to be shouted at or lectured to. To be informed, to feel a kindred spirit, to be entertained. What Sara Paretsky manages so well is to interweave the political comment into a story which carries us along and enthralls. That's where her skill lie. It's one I'd like to emulate more.
In her new novel, Hardball, her detective, VI, becomes entangled with a group of socially active nuns, based on a real collection of activist nuns from Chicago. Her description reminded me of my time volunteering in New Orleans where I met the Caritas nuns, the first time I'd spent any significant time with women from a religious community. They impressed me greatly. They had been the first racially mixed order in the deep South and still lived in one of the poorest districts of the city, cheek by jowl with families beset by drug addiction, alcoholism, pitiful housing and lack of hope for the future. The nuns' commitment to quietly working for human justice, through their way of being and actions, was humbling. They also cooked me up the most delicious corn bread I ever tasted.
I'm tethered down low, yet the trees still grow boldly, bone straight and stretching.
My lovely volunteer in my WEA funded therapeutic creative writing class hands me an article. Ex-poet Laureate, Andrew Motion, and author David Lodge arguing over whether the growing plethora of creative writing courses being run by universities have any purpose.
It's a discussion that swirls around and comes to the surface every now and again. Yet we never see art or music or drama degrees being questioned. It's as if an aptitude for writing, alone of the creative arts, has to be divinely given and then developed through a lonely apprenticeship in a garret.
Can talent be taught or is it innately present? In my experience, there are some students who appear to have a particular feel for words and are able to experiment in evocative and innovative ways. But is this because they have given themselves permission to explore, play and commit themselves to their creative process?
Even if the spark is present - whether naturally or by design - more is required. Motivation; openness to feedback from others; technique; a voracious appetite for reading; regular practise - a writer is one who writes; an awareness of, and engagement with, the literary movements of the time. All these should come from a well taught creative writing course.
Interestingly, Lodge's main gripe was that universities were churning out writers who could only produce formulaic pieces. I think he is shooting at the wrong target. Publishers and their - our? - obsession with celebrity and product are doing that quite unaided. Students may decide to write to a formula, but that's because that's what will get them published. Lodge claims that in publishing originality and good writing will out - who is he trying to kid?
The article gave the number of authors who had been on short lists for literary prizes and had also been on a university creative writing course. It was high - especially for poets, that side of our demon art which is supposed to be more god-given than any other. Now surely that must be telling us something?
The first day of the second month of the first year of the second decade of the twenty-first century and last night the lightly gilded full moon hung heavy over the fulminating waves.
I go to pick up my collages. I am led into a back room, a small square holding cell, with a large wooden scaffold of shelves along one wall. A morgue for creativity. The un-chosen are propped against each other, flat fish filleted, waiting to be smoked.
I take my precious pair back out into the lobby and begin to wrap them gently for the journey home. The woman behind the counter addresses me. I recognise her. She was one of the choosers. "Perhaps," she says brightly, "you would like to go up and see the exhibition?" Would I hell. I smile back sweetly and say I don't have the time.
Don't they teach empathy at art gallery curator's school?
"Rubbers," she says - read "erasers" for any American followers I may have. "Here, smell them," she continues, her whispering tones evoking the erotic rather than the every day. And with a slightly embarrassing delight, I admit that I know what she means.
I don't keep them wrapped up and in boxes, but I do appreciate rubbers. I have a triangular one a student gave me, I like its shape, the way it sits in my hand and that it effectively erases. I'm fond of most stationery. I get a kick out of choosing my writing journals - the quality of their paper, their size, their covers have to appeal to me - I enjoy finding the right pen. In discussion with my husband, I realised I don't get that excited by protractors or set squares or compasses. Though I remembered receiving all three in a tin case as a preliminary for starting secondary school and never, ever using them.
All this reverie was sparked by a discussion on last Friday's Radio 4's Woman's Hour between author Alison Baverstock and technology journalist Claudine Beaumont. Alison is a devotee of stationery, Claudine writes directly onto a plethora of technological gadgets and claims that anyone under 30 would be mystified by the allure of pen and paper.
I do believe that there is a difference in the creative process between writing long-hand and tapping on a machine. In my writing journal, the words change size, shape, form different patterns on the paper. There are "mis-spellings", "errors" in grammar which lead me into new unlooked for thoughts and which a computer would rudely underline in red or green. All this happens naturally, unconciously, as my imagination dictates. With any technological kit, this is pre-determined by whoever wrote the programme.
I am able to create directly on a computer - I am doing it now - but to be at my most creative, when I surprise, and enchant, myself, I need that free hand.
I note that Alison is an author concerned with novel writing, while Claudine is a journalist. Perhaps, that also explains the difference.
I promised myself I would write this post whatever happened. Saturday saw me taking two of my precious poetry-collages through the rain to the local art gallery to enter them into the Pindar East Coast Open. The framer had said cheerfully, you never know this weather might put off a number of entrants. In other words my chances of being selected could be higher because of the snow and the rain. I skulked into the building and out again without meeting the eyes of any of the other hopefuls with hands full of oblong packages of various sizes.
Then three days passed. Excitement would come in waves, perhaps even now my creations were being reverentially placed onto the yes side of the decision room. Only to be quashed, who did I think I was pretending to be a real artist?
Finally at the end of this afternoon I rang the prescribed number. An efficient sounding young woman looked my name up. "No, I'm sorry your pieces have not been selected this time around."
"Thank you," I said. Though what I really wanted to do was wail: you've got it wrong, they're perfect, they're fragments of my soul. To scream: how can you turn them down, you're philistines, you know nothing about art, call yourself an art gallery?! There are few times when exclamation marks come into my writing, this occasion warrants it, however.
I have no way of knowing whether I nearly didn't get in or whether what I offered was thrown to one side with deriding laughter. I'd prefer to believe the former, and perhaps, if only, there'd been even more inclement weather Saturday...
It's been a busy week, with creativity having to move aside as I gear up for the new year of paid work. I'm fairly sure this is only temporary and I will get my balance back once again.
Meanwhile, BBC 4's Dear Diary has been an absorbing end-of-a-frenetic-day watch. So far its looked at the power of diary writing, how people hide or reveal themselves through writing a diary and why people do it. In the most recent programme, there was the suggestion that there has to be a certain level of self-absorption, naval gazing - narcissism even - which motivates a person to keep going with a diary.
I have heard the suggestion that all writers - and especially poets - are narcissists, never happy unless they're able to bore others rigid with their view of the world thinly disguised as a sonnet or a short story.
There's no doubt that there has to be ego in writing, and I am not immune to wanting adoration for what I produce. However, it feels too easy, too dismissive, to leave it at that. The enjoyment and well-being I gain from the act of writing, even if it is never to be shared, goes beyond stroking the self. And then, what of the reader? I have had some responses to my recent article from people who do not know me, thanking me for putting into words what they have experienced or feel compelled to explore, and for encouraging them to continue.
This is the real pleasure of writing for an audience, the connection, human to human, the shared understanding or the debate, which leads to further journeys, further discoveries. Though, of course, my burgeoning narcissist is most content to be having a little preen on reading these enthusiastic emails too.
And the wounds of my heart are red, For I have watched them die Extract 'To the Warmongers' by Siegfried Sassoon.
I am no Siegfried Sassoon, I have not watched them die, I have only watched their boxes return. I have only watched their flimsy cotton shrouds lined up in some dusty market place far away.
I have only watched on my TV screen.
Yet do I have the right to ask why? To say, to pray, for pity's sake no more?
Pathways Through Writing Blocks in the Academic Environment
A new book by Kate Evans exploring creative ways for overcoming blocks to writing especially for those working in the academic environment. Aimed at students with essays, theses and reports to write, academics with articles or books they want to get out there and supervisors supporting anyone who is having a hard time putting words on the paper. See http://www.sensepublishers.com/ & www.amazon.co.uk
Healing Words: six linked one day workshops exploring creative writing
Aimed at writers working in therapeutic environments or with vulnerable groups or health professionals who want to bring writing into their practice. Themes covered: storytelling; poetry; metaphor; embodied writing. Dates: Saturdays in 2013, 9th March, 1st June, 27th July, 21st September, 23rd November and 18th January 2014. Participants can do all six or choose to attend specific ones. Workshops will be held in Scarborough, North Yorkshire. Continuing Professional Development hours will be awarded. Tutor: Kate Evans, writer, UKCP registered counsellor and Lapidus member. For more information, please contact Kate on firstname.lastname@example.org.
All the poetry & writing in this blog, copyright Kate Evans, unless otherwise indicated. All rights reserved. For comments, questions or permissions please use email from my website: http://www.writingourselveswell.co.uk/.
Photos by Mark Vesey
Many of the names used in this blog have been changed and the dates & places of events have been disguised in order to preserve confidentiality.
I am a writer and a UKCP registered psychotherapeutic counsellor. I facilitate writing workshops. I am personally and professionally interested in the link between creativity and good mental health.
Visit my website: www.writingourselveswell.co.uk
Poetry The Peasholm Magic Lantern, Coastival 2009
Haiku & photo exhibition, Nutmeg Cafe, 2010
Words in My Head, Woodend, Coastival 2011
Books Contribution to Writing Works, a resource hadnbook for therapeutic writing workshops and activities eds Gillie Bolton, Victoria Field & Kate Thompson. Jessica Kingsley Publishers. 2006.
Articles The Poetry of Therapy, Therapy Today, December 2009 (reprinted Counselling Today NZ)
Outside Life: Edith Sitwell, Poetry News, Winter 2010
Writer's Block: a reflective literature review, The European Journal of Qualitative Research, Summer 2011
The chrysalis and the butterfly: a phenomenological study of one person's writing journey, Journal of Applied Arts & Health 2011
'Finding the unexpected': an account of a writing group for women with chronic pelvic pain (co-authored with Dr Lesley Glover), Journal of Poetry Therapy May 2012