Category Archives: Enrich your writing skills

The Friday Review No 8: Exploring the Shadows

toddler sulk

I don’t want to write today.

I feel angry, resentful, depressed, bitter.  I want to sit with my back to the world like a toddler, arms crossed, refusing to cooperate.

But I’m not a toddler, I’m an adult, and I can’t bury my head in the sand.

Neither can I stop being me.

So I sit down at the desk, because that’s where I feel safest, and I pour the toddler’s complaints onto the page.  Whining, sulking, complaining. Resentful, spiteful, selfish.  I let the toddler have her say.

And when I sit back and look at what I’ve done, I find I have page after page of scribble, malformed letters sliding together in a hurry to get away from their meaning.  Angry, it says.  Voiceless, it says.  Unheard, it says.  But today I have listened.

I’m a great believer in writing as healing. 

To me it is a refuge, even when I don’t want a refuge, even when I don’t want healing.  When I want to wallow.  It allows me to wallow, and then move on.  Sometimes we all need to hold a pity party for ourselves.

In the last month, I’ve had something of a ‘slap upside the head with the Frying Pan of Enlightenment’, as they say.  It’s been about acceptance.  Accepting my shadows.  The things I don’t like about myself.  The things I hide, even from myself.  The anger, spite, pride, pettiness.  All the things that were dirty words in the house where I grew up, the worse qualities you could display – lazy, selfish, greedy.  As a child, I would have done anything to avoid being labelled with those words.  As an adult, I’m pathologically terrified that people might think those things of me.

But honestly, we’re all lazy, selfish, greedy, sometimes.  It is part of being human.  It doesn’t stop us from being transcendently kind, loving, self-sacrificing, compassionate, gentle, patient, all of which we can also be.  Sometimes.

Accepting that human beings can all display every human characteristic, good and bad, is one thing a writer needs to be able to do in order to paint vivid characters.

Accepting that, as individuals, we can all be those things is something we all need to do.

And as a writer, I can use my experiences of feeling those things, of wanting those emotions, those behaviours, of indulging them, as insights into my characters.  I can use them as rocket fuel for my writing.

But only if I can accept that I have them.

(It’s a bloody hard job, this self-knowledge stuff, but I’m having a go.)

So here I am, sitting in the shadows, gnashing my toddler teeth, sulking fit to burst, and at the same time, observing myself, knowing that all this is going to make a great scene in my novel.

And you know what?  I feel so much better now.  I might even crawl off my naughty step and go and find myself something nice to eat as a reward for exploring my shadows.

Happy Creating,

EF

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The Things They Hoarded

$_35

One of my late mother-in-law’s favourite possessions!

Going through my late mother-in-law’s closets in recent days gave me much pause for thought about how well I knew her.  Tim O’Brien’s book, ‘The Things They Carried’ famously uses the idea that we carry with us objects that reflect our characters, our history, our hopes and dreams.  How, I wondered, could this be translated into the mountains of old clothes and shoes, the drawers full of old greetings cards and unopened, unused presents, that we were now faced with?

The hoarding behaviour caused by dementia somewhat warps this connection, although I suppose you could say that their choice of hoarded objects still shows the intrinsic nature of the person’s character, as well as the level of their decline:

I shall never forget pulling back the bedclothes one night to find that my mother-in-law had secreted no less than 17 copies of the Oxford Mail under my duvet, reflective not only of her passionate connection with her home town, but also her paranoid and fierce determination to defy her elder sister, with whom she lived, and who insisted she throw the papers away!

Three things in particular made me wonder about who this woman was, and showed me the complexity of her personality:

The Climbers

This first item stopped even her children in their tracks!  It was a shard of stone, slate perhaps, about two feet tall, and welded to an iron base.  Onto it were stuck three little figures.  They had once been those plastic WW2 toy soldiers, the kind that we played with as kids in the 70s.  These were the crawling sniper kind, posed to lie on their bellies, arms above their heads told hold their rifles, one knee crooked to steady the body.  With the gun trimmed away, and their clothing and faces painted brightly, even down to the helmets daubed with bright orange, they had been stuck to the side of the stone at different stages up the rock.  Sewing thread delicately strung between the figures stood in for climbing rope.  It was a DIY representation of men climbing a Welsh cliff face, and I know it was Welsh because the base wore a sticker from a rural art gallery in Mid Wales.

Now, I should point out that neither my mother-in-law, nor her sister, nor anyone else in the family that I know of, ever went on a climbing expedition, nor had any interest in doing so.  I’m not even sure that my mother-in-law ever visited Wales.  I cannot for the life of me work out why she would have owned such a thing, or how she could have acquired it.  Or what she planned to do with it, having done so.  It is clearly old, probably some thirty years or so, so significantly predates the Alzheimers.  Quite apart from the fact that it is truly hideous, despite the ingenuity of its maker, why would you want such a thing?  And what would you do with it?

Billy Bass

If you lived in the UK in the mid 1990s, you will remember Billy Bass because every gift shop sold them.  He consists of a ‘wooden’ plaque, on which is mounted a plastic fish.  When you press the button on the bottom, and if you’ve put the batteries in the right way around, the fish will flap its head and tail, open its mouth, and sing a crackly tune.  Don’t ask me what the song is, I can’t remember – clearly, my mind has blocked it out!  But my mother-in-law loved it.  She would carry it around the house with her, playing it, coming up behind your back and setting it off suddenly to make you jump, bringing it out at every social occasion.  It was the epitome of her completely silly sense of humour, an object that perfectly described her character, and finding it brought back so many memories of happier times.

The Christening Gowns

Buried deep amongst worn out sweaters and cardigans at the bottom of a drawer, my sister-in-law and I came across something deeply poignant, something we never thought we’d find.  A handmade Edwardian christening gown, beautifully decorated with drawn-threadwork and bobbin lace.  With it was a matching undergarment, sleeveless, with the same long, lace-edged skirts.  The gown itself had long bell sleeves edged with the most delicate lace.  Both were made in the finest cotton lawn, carefully washed and pressed.  And with them, a cream silk christening coat (for want of a better word – I have to confess I’ve never seen a garment like it), with a ruffled collar and yoke, frills on the little cuffs, and a deep frill around the bottom hem.  The silk is so soft, and of such a high quality, that it slithers through your fingers like water.

We can only assume that the cotton garments were the ones in which my husband and his brother were christened.  Family heirlooms no doubt.  They certainly look very similar to the one christening photo we’ve managed to find.  But not the silk one.  We don’t know where that comes from.

My mother-in-law never had grandchildren.  I was too ill, and my sister-in-law was the successful headteacher of a string of large secondary schools in London, and had enough kids at work to satisfy any mothering instinct she might have harboured.

Which begs the question…

Were these items bought or kept from the long held and never fulfilled desire for grandchildren?  If she harboured such feelings, my mother-in-law never spoke of them.  She never pressured us.  But I found it deeply sad to find these little whispers of ‘what might have been’ treasured amongst her belongings.

Character

These three items – the one that described her perfectly, the one that showed a deeply buried longing, and the one that seems so disconnected from who she was – say something significant about who my mother-in-law was.  Something the mound of nearly 400 garments we went through could not.  Each demonstrates an aspect of the life she lived and loved, where she lived that life, and the family and friends amongst whom she dwelt.

This seems a significant lesson for a writer, especially for me, as a writer working at the moment on improving depth in my characters. So here is a little exercise for you to have fun with, inspired by my dear mother-in-law:

Writing Exercise:

Choose a character.

Then choose three items they own.

One should be something that perfectly describes an aspect of their personality, an object that perfectly expresses who they are. (Billy Bass)

One should be something which they might hide away, which represents for them a secretly cherished longing. (The christening gowns.)  What is their dream?  Why must they hide it?

And one should be the complete antithesis of everything you know about them.  (The Climbers.)  Why do they own it?  How did it come into their possession?  What did they do with it?

Write about your character through each of these three objects.

Happy Creating,

EF

Digging Up Jewels

diamondIts all a bit pre-Christmas mental here, and its possible you are feeling the same way, so lets share a little time avoiding writing those cards, shall we?

Lately I’ve been collecting words.

I came across this word in a novel I was reading, and fell in love:

craquelure

Isn’t that just a marvellous way to describe an old man’s face?

Then I started noticing other words when they popped up:

nurture

topaz

Words I hadn’t really thought about in years, though I knew the meanings.

plangent

planish

Words that are nice to roll around on your tongue.  Words that pop like red roses in your paragraphs.

scrum

rhomboid

As you voyage through the festive season, why not make a list of the interesting words you come across.  Its not a hard or time-consuming thing to do – I scribble mine on the scrappy little pad of paper I keep by my bed for the purposes of writing to do lists and things I have to remember in the morning.

maroon

fecund

Then I transfer them to the back page of my writing notebook when I have a moment to spare.  Easily done.

flaunt

flaxen

I’ve got a bit of a passion for F words at the moment, as you can see!

They don’t have to be on a theme or for a reason.  I collect them only because they appeal to me.  They sing out from the page.

Now I’ve got a growing resource for making my writing interesting and alluring – I’ve written a little about this before, and I’m coming back to it.  I’m thinking about creating a kind of utilitarian type prose, a la Hemingway, but studded with jewels of unusual and seductive words.

So, why not see what little jewels you can dig up?

Happy Creating,

EF

Inspiration: Sucking up History

20140927_135032As a special treat last weekend, Husband took me to visit a local National Trust property, Oxburgh Hall.

Built about 1482, Oxburgh was the home of a well-connected family who hung onto their Catholic faith throughout a period in English history when it was dangerous to dissent from the religious line the Crown laid down.  Oxburgh’s inhabitants  suffered as a result, passed over for lucrative posts at Court, closely watched for sedition and treason, and restricted from certain occupations as well as from celebrating their religion openly.

The result of this (relative) penury is that the building escaped the zealous passion for updating property that characterised the aristocracy, and many of its original features remain intact, including the King’s Room and the Queen’s Room, authentic Tudor bedchambers in the tower house that spent many years used only as storage spaces!

Oxburgh Hall:  The Moat

Oxburgh Hall: The Moat

Oxburgh appears to float on its moat, which cannot be drained as the 500-year-old elm wood posts which support the foundations would crumble were they to dry out.  It still has the barleysugar chimneys and characteristic towered gatehouse that recalls the Wars of the Roses.  Inside the sombre portraits of nuns, the needlework sewn by Mary, Queen of Scots in her years of captivity, and the Priest Hole, where illegal Catholic priests had to hide from government troops, speak of a dark history of dissent and risk, of members of the family living in fear for their lives, simply because of their religious beliefs.  Oxburgh was a particular target during both the Reformation and the Civil War.  And yet, despite this, the little rowing boat that floats beside the steps on the moat is  named ‘Le Boat sur le Moat’, so the family still kept their sense of humour!

I started wondering what it would be like to live through that?  Never to be able to trust your neighbours, your servants, even your family?  To live constantly in the shadow of the block?  To live in fear of the next knock on the door?  To question your beliefs every day because they challenge your personal safety and that of those you love?  To always be regarded as ‘Other’?

Oxburgh Hall

Oxburgh Hall

The history around us gives us an opportunity to look at our own lives through a different lens.  What happened in England in the 15- and 1600s is not really much different to what is happening in parts of the world now.  Being inside a building where these things happened, seeing and touching the belongings of people who lives through such terrifying times, brings the realities home in a much more deeply felt way.  If we do not live under such stresses ourselves, we can never truly understand what they mean, but we can imagine.

I live in a house that was built in the 1880s.  Its just a little country cottage, the middle one of a row, the kind that are common in the UK.  It was originally built as two houses, one up-one down dwellings with an outside wash house, coal hole and privy each.  The men who lived here worked for the local Lord as farm workers or gamekeepers, and got the house as part of the deal.  Their women kept the house, cooked the meals, raised the children, and spread their washing out on the pasture behind the houses to dry on wash day every week.  The children would have walked across the fields to school each weekday, and worked alongside their parents when they got home.  They would have worshipped at the medieval parish church whose tower can be seen from our livingroom.  How different the lives of those souls would have been from mine.

Inspiration:

Think about historic buildings and places near where you live.  try to visit one or two if you can.  They don’t have to be as old as Oxburgh to count.  What about a coffee shop built in the 1930s, during the Depression, or a 1950s diner?

Take some time to soak up the place.  Think about the people who have lived and worked there.  How would the community have reacted or been affected when the building was put up?  They might have had to sacrifice their own land or homes, for instance, or they might have objected on moral or economic grounds.  How would it have felt to visit this place in those days?  What kind of day to day issues would have been on the minds of those who lived here?  What stories are concealed in their lives?

Take some time to write a few pages, answering these questions.  It doesn’t have to be historically accurate, but it helps.  Use the building or place as an entrance into someone else’s life and see where it takes you.

Happy Creating,

EF

 

The Book List

Some books here are waiting to be read.

Some books here are waiting to be read.

The other day, a friend challenged me on Facebook to name the top ten books that had most influenced me in life. It was one of those things where you give your list, and then challenge your other friends.

So far so good.

But how the hell do you choose, especially as the challenge specifies you do it off the top of the head, without thinking too hard, as fast as possible. How do you choose only ten books out of all the great novels and stories you have read over a lifetime?

My list was visceral, and based largely on what I read when I was younger. I thought about the books that had made me happiest, that I have gone back to over and over again in the course of my life. And it was interesting just to reflect on my criteria for choosing, as much as anything.

So here is my list (verbatim):

“1. Finn Family Moomintroll by Tove Jansson
2. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
3. Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman
4. Lake Wobegon Days by Garrison Keillor
5. Virginia Woolf by Hermione Lee
(gosh this is hard)
5. The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas (kept me sane in the run-up to my wedding)
7. Antrobus Complete by Laurence Durrell
8. Persuasion by Jane Austen
9. Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman
10. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier (obvious)”

I ended up with about 15 that didn’t quite make the grade, and if I think too hard about it, I would definitely shift a few from one list to the other.  I mean, how do you choose which Terry Pratchett?  The above was my original choice, and I think I’ll stand by it.

And then I challenged other friends. And like Japanese knotweed, lists of novels and non-fiction books blossomed out all over. Everyone had a fascinating new combination of books they raved about. Many, like Sebastian Faulkes’ ‘Birdsong’ and Camus’s ‘The Plague’, were held in common. Lots of lists were biased towards ‘we did that one at school’ books. I marvelled at the wide range of stories that had influenced my friends.

And I felt like I had barely read anything worth reading since I left college.

I suppose this is understandable. When you see a list of books, you always look for the familiar ones. And if the ones you have read are in the minority, you feel like a fool for not having read the others. Especially the significant ones. On the other hand, who the hell has read the whole of Proust’s ‘Remembrance of Things Past’, or ‘War and Peace’? (I have to say I was impressed by the number of people who had read Dostoyevsky’s ‘Crime and Punishment’. Kudos!

There are woeful gaps in my reading, despite what friends who always see me with a book might think. This is especially true these days, when I am so addicted to the quick highs offered by every morning’s new crop of fanfics. I have not read many European novels, or the Russians. I don’t know Kazuo Ishiguro or Graham Greene, Iris Murdoch or GK Chesterton. Or Kerouac, despite having a degree in American Studies. I read one book from last year’s Man Booker shortlist (Ruth Ozeki, ‘A Tale for the Time Being’), and that was because it looked like the easiest. (It was fantastic.)

Writers must read.

It is one of the basic pillars of the Craft. And you have to read the good stuff as well as the commercial, otherwise you never improve. Making this list made me realise how little decent fiction I have read in recent months. Time to get back to it.

“I mean to read myself blue in the nose.”

Virginia Woolf.

When I began my Diploma in Creative writing, we were given a list of novels and volumes of short stories to plough through as precedents, much as art students must analyse the works of the Masters, sitting in galleries for hours on end, studying Goya or Rembrandt. I found an old bookmark from those days, a list of novels scrawled on it, each title with a line scored through it as I completed it. (A couple of loose ones at the end remained unread.)

I need to do the same again.

This morning I found myself in a bookshop, gazing longingly at table after table of lovely crisp new novels. (It’s the time of year that provokes me – September draws me into bookshops still, an echo of student days of joyful bookbuying with a free conscience!) But I was good. I left the books uncaressed. I have piles of unread novels at home, you see, amongst them ‘Birdsong’, along with Tim O’Brien’s ‘The Things They Carried’, Jonothan Franzen’s ‘The Corrections’, and dozens of others, all highly recommended as quality fiction for the budding writer, and all gathering dust on the shelf. No point in buying new ones until I have ploughed through the old ones.

So I will cut a strip of paper and write a list of the books in my pile on it. And then I will begin. And each time I close the back cover a book and sigh with completion, I shall draw a careful line through the title and pick up the next.

Happy Creating,

EF

 

Tales from my Weekend

Capture the moment.

Capture the moment.

Dear friends,

I’m sorry you didn’t get a post from me yesterday.   I was doing my elder-care weekend.  Once a month, or sometimes twice a month, depending on circumstances, we trek across the country to care for Husband’s mother and aunt (who live together). This time I made a few notes in my writers notebook, thinking they might be useful starters for writing exercises:

  • A weekend of fabulous sunsets and endlessly varied cloudscapes.
  • A red kite swooped down into the garden to scavenge the chicken bones left over from Sunday dinner, as I perched on the back step a few feet away, reading the newspaper.
  • Learning to manoevre a wheelchair –  its a lot more difficult than you think, especially inside supposedly  ‘disabled’ toilets.  And garden centres.  Note to self – the aisles are always narrower than you think.  Especially round the orchids.  Perhaps they just want to capture you there, so you’ll spend more money, I don’t know.
  • I lost my mother-in-law in Sainsburys.  She walked off.  She has dementia.  Now I can imagine  just how terrifying it is to lose a child in a supermarket. (We found her again in the end.)  Note to self: find a way to attach mother-in-law to aunt-in-law’s wheelchair at all times.
  • A wheelchair is a heavy thing:  discuss.
  • A kind lady came up to us and said hello.  Just because.  People can be friendly just for the sake of it.  The world is not such a scary place as we think.
  • Old ladies want to feel pretty too.  Aunt-in-law asked me to spray her with scent from an old bottle of Guy LaRoche that she had tucked away, so she would feel confident when she saw the doctor.
  • A friend’s dog escaped and she snapped her achilles tendon whilst chasing after it.  Just before her impending annual holiday and her daughter’s graduation.
  • My niece’s husband teaches Wittgenstein to his year 12 students.  I think he is brave.
  • Coming home, the sky was full of a just-past-full moon, an orange disc slashed with shards of inky night cloud.
  • Bacon.  No, you don’t need to know anymore.  Bacon is all you need to think about.
  • Hugs.  Hugs make everything better.  Even if you’ve heard the story about the man walking into the plate glass window 18 times in the last ten minutes, hugs always help.

My thanks to Phoebe and Sam Grassby, Mike and Debbie Bracken, Betsy, Maria, Dr Finnegan and the unknown lady who came up to us in Sainsburys, Kidlington, for making the world a better place.

Happy creating,

EF

Which Notebook?

My old writers notebook

My old writers notebook

I’ve been trying to find the best way to keep a writing notebook for the last year. And by ‘right’, I don’t mean correct, I mean the system that works best for me.

I always used to keep all my notes in an A4 ringbound PukkaPad notebook, the hardback kind. I loved it. There was plenty of room on the big pages, and PukkaPad’s paper is beautifully smooth and takes ink perfectly. Their products are especially good for Morning Pages, because you can write quickly and smoothly on them.

This was fine as far as it went, but the book was too big to carry around with me easily, which meant that I tended only used it at my desk. And that meant I wasn’t noting down all the ideas I had, just the few I had when I was thinking about it. Which meant I was always trying to remember what I had thought about. And that meant, of course, that 75% of the ideas I had went AWOL. What a waste.

(I did have a baby moleskine at one point. It just felt like clutter in my handbag and I rarely used it.)

Last September, I decided I was going to get serious about my writing practise, and that meant reflecting on my notebooking habits. This was not a flattering experience.

I restarted with a cheap hardback A5 notebook, because it had to be sturdy to withstand being knocked about in my handbag. I just bought the cheapest I could find because I figured it was an experiment, and it didn’t have to be perfect. Plus, if it was too nice, I wouldn’t use it.

(That’s a trap I’ve fallen into before. Its easy to feel intimidated by a fancy notebook to the point where you can’t bring yourself to write in it, because you feel anything you do write has to be perfect. It’s a creative disaster.)

So decorated the cover so it looked like a more expensive one I was coveting at the time, and away I went.

It was really hard at first, making sure I scribbled down the thoughts I had when I had them, not trying to save them up. I added quotes I came across, stories I heard on the bus or on the radio, and took notes in book talks I went to. And I quickly filled up my scrappy little book.

And once it was full, I forgot about it.

So when I got the bug again, deciding to renew my commitment to my work, I made the mistake of going off to gorge myself on the goodies at Staples. Gods, I love Staples!

 

The ARC discbound notebook system from Staples.  The one on the left is a cover I made myself.

The ARC discbound notebook system from Staples. The one on the left is a cover I made myself.

And there I fell in love with the ARC discbound system. I came home with a beautiful leatherbound A5 notebook. And it is gorgeous. You have no idea. And because its discbound, I decided I would combine my notebooking with a blog planner. I printed out pages and punched then and fitted them in and moved them about. And my lovely ARC planner became so big and heavy that I couldn’t get it in my handbag. Which rather defeated the object. And the thing with the lovely leather binding is that you can’t just throw the book in the back of the drawer to await later pillaging for ideas. You feel duty-bound to keep using it. So you have to take the contents out, and then what do you do with them?

So the ARC notebook, no matter how delectable, was a notebooking disaster.

But I learnt from my failure. I now knew I needed the following:

  • An A5 notebook to fit in my handbag.
  • A pen loop would be useful.
  • Nothing too fancy, or I won’t write in it.
  • Nice paper is an incentive.
  • A sturdy binding to withstand handbag battery

So back to Staples I went.

And this time I came home with the A5 version of the Oxford notebook. It has a stiff plastic cover and is spiral bound, which means I can fold it flat over easily. Its got lovely paper. I can tuck a biro into the spiral binding and it acts as a pen loop. It is satisfyingly thick but the smallish size means I can fill it quickly, which pleases me and makes me feel like I’m making progress.

And I am using it. Every day. Filling it with thoughts and ideas and potential stories and snippets and all kinds of goodies that I know I can rummage through in future. I’m even using it to write bits of stories and dialogue for my fanfics, and bits of diary-like reflection on the writing process for my novel.

People, its working!

It goes with me everywhere, my little friend. And it is still evolving. I could probably write another post along the same lines as this one in six months’ time, and I’ll probably tell you something completely different. I think the notebooking requirements you have change with you as you go on in the craft. But for me, this is where I am now, and I think I have finally found a way to record my brain on paper in a meaningful and useful way.

I encourage you to explore using a writers notebook if you write, but to do it, too if you pursue any other kind of creative art. A sketchbook for an artist fulfils the same function. It allows you to explore your creative interior, push the boundaries of your ideas. Its useful to keep a little notebook in your pocket or bag just to scribble down random ideas and thoughts you have, regardless of what art you do.

Be gentle with yourself as you find out what works best for you. From little cardboard-bound exercise books to luxurious Paperblanks, there will be something that fits your life. Think about your lifestyle and what your requirements are. I recommend that you start cheap so you feel like you can make mistakes. There is no wrong or right. Its just what works best for you. You just have to find it.

If you want a beginners guide to keeping a writers notebook, click here.

I’ll no doubt have lots more to say on the subject in coming posts.

Happy creating, EF