Category Archives: Writing Exercises

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

Advertisements

The Friday Review No.2

IMG_20170302_134644_046

Well, it’s the end of another week, and I feel like it has been a positive week in terms of writing.  I got my writing practice done on the specified days, wrote two long blog posts, and tinkered with a fanfic I’ve had on my laptop for a while – an idea that has been lurking around for about two years, and I keep coming back to it and fiddling with it late at night, when my imagination is most active.  Maybe one day I’ll finish it, but if I don’t, I don’t mind,  It’s a useful way to try out ideas without making a public mug of myself!

The writing practice is starting to generate little vignettes around a particular character I’m working with, something I’ve never done before.  I’m exploring her thoughts, her feelings, her environment.  I’m taking my time to get to know her.  I don’t know if she is going to turn into something bigger, or if she is just a testing ground for what comes next.  It doesn’t really matter.  There’s no pressure in my writing practice.  The point is to just write.  For 20 minutes or three A4 pages.  Twice a week.  And that’s all.

Surprisingly, what is coming out feels like a new voice, one I tried out by reading a couple of passages to my writers group on Wednesday.  These are my writing pals who I go on retreat with every year, and they know my work from way back, as I know theirs.  The reaction was positive.  So I feel hopeful, motivated to continue with this meditative exploration.

At the same time, I’m continuing to thrash my way through Umberto Eco’s magnificent novel of semiotics, ‘The Name of the Rose.’  It’s a whopper!  I’m finding it is definitely feeding through into my writing, as I am thinking about expressing ideas through objects, through the meaning those objects communicate, a kind of oblique way of approaching plot or character, but it is intriguing to try out.  No doubt more on this in the future.

Next week I am off to Oxford to help with clearing out my late mother-in-law’s home.  It’s a slow process, and an emotionally tough one, but we are getting there, and some intensive time at the coal face will help.  I am interested to see how well my creative recovery tools translate into that environment, working with my sister-in-law in close quarters, and out of my normal routine.  I may end up not managing my writing practice, or even my journaling, or perhaps just jotting down a few ideas as lists as I go through the week.  I’m not putting too much pressure on myself about it, though.  If I get the work done, fine.  If not, its also fine.

Being away does mean, however, that I won’t be able to post next week as usual, as I won’t have access to wifi.  Never mind. I’ll be thinking of you, I promise, and I’ll post the second part of my reading reboot series before I go, so that you can get to grips with my reading habit promoters while I’m away.   I hope you find them as useful as I have.

In the meantime,

Happy Creating,

EF

The Clunky Stage

writing notebookThe clunky stage.

If you write, you’ll know what I mean.

If you write on a daily basis, its those first ten minutes during which your brain feels like no one has oiled the cogs for ten years, and your pen feels like the nib is dragging through molasses.

If you haven’t written for a while, it feels like performing an appendectomy on yourself.

Hemingway was not kidding when he said:

There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.

Yesterday I sat down to write a new story.

I haven’t written in a while.  I don’t really get on with doing writing exercises much, although I know I SHOULD.  And at the moment I am experimenting with a new journalling practice called Deep Soul Writing, (of which more later) which is proving to be an interesting, but demanding, experience.  So my creative writing has been rather rare.

Nevertheless, I still have stories rattling around in my brain.  I always do.  So last night I thought I would start writing one down.  Free up some brain space.  Like you do.

Cue: wading through concrete.

How did this get so hard?

I’ve written seven novels, and dozens of fanfics.  How did I get this rusty this quick?

Nothing brings home the importance of daily practice, whether you are a pianist doing your scales, an artist doing your warm up sketches, or a writer doing – dare I say it – writing exercises, like coming back to your artform after a break and finding:

OH MY GODS THIS IS SO HARD!!!

My husband complains of feeling stiff and awkward if he misses even one of his twice-weekly body pump gym classes.  And now I know how he feels, because man! am I stiff!

But, as the old adage says, the only way out is through.

So I will suspend judgement on what I am scrawling because I know that while it may be as fluid as a fence post, at least I am on my way.  Sooner or later, things will loosen up, get more limber.  The adjectives will start replacing the cliches.  The dialogue will start to sound like it is coming out of real people’s mouths instead of cardboard cut-outs.  The metaphors will start to gang up on me.  The language will take on the richness of one of Queen Elizabeth I’s gowns.

Then, and only then, will I really get down to business.

But I have to write my way through the shit first.

So, like every marathon runner, I will set out in hope.  I will do my stretches, and thud through the first few miles until the muscles have warmed up and the movement starts to flow again.

Because even when its like bleeding into the keyboard, my soul is dancing, and I know, really know, that this is what I was meant for.

Happy Creating,

EF

Be Open. Don’t Try So Hard.

On Ardnave Beach, Islay, which I am yearning for dreadfully at the moment.

On Ardnave Beach, Islay, which I am yearning for dreadfully at the moment.

Lately, I keep coming back to the same thought:

Be present.  Turn Up.  Be still and open.  Don’t try so hard.

I was watching Jamie Ridler’s morning vlog, in which she talked about how people strive so hard to find their Life Purpose.  We make such a BIG DEAL out of it.

What if we just let it happen?

I’m not saying you can just expect your art to pop up out of nowhere.  You have to be present, make yourself ready.

You do your core practises.  Your morning pages.  Your writing exercises. Your artist dates.  Your scales or your practise sketches.  Your barre exercises.  You make sure that you are ready when the inspiration comes.

When I used to read about writers who sat down at their desks in the morning and stayed there for an alotted number of hours, regardless of whether the work came or not, I used to think they were mad.  It seems like working too hard. It seems like self-punishment.

Maybe you don’t just have to sit at your desk.

Maybe you can cultivate a mindset of being open.  Where ever you are, and whatever you are doing.

Maybe we are all trying too hard.

Forcing it just doesn’t work.  Every writer who has ever been blocked knows that.  But if you keep up the practises, the ideas come.  They come because your mind is constantly in a place where it is curious and open, and like a lamp in the darkness, it attracts the fluttering moths of inspiration.

So keep her steady as she goes.  Turn up for your daily creative habits.  Relax into them, and don’t panic.

The work will come.

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

Books about Writing

 

Bookshelf

My shelves of books about writing.

I’ve made a big decision.

No, not that one.

I’ve decided not to buy any more books about how to write for two months.

Now you may not think that’s such a hard task, but I am the sort of person who likes to buy a book about a subject in lieu of actually doing it. I’m a big one for research. If I’m going to take up some activity, say, crochet for instance, then I am the one who will chug down to the library and take out all known books on crochet, in order to find out everything I need to know about the subject. For two days I read avidly and become an armchair expert, without even touching a ball of wool. And then I lose interest and the books gather dust on the coffee table until they have to be taken back to the library before I get fined, no crochet having ever been done.

I’m the same with books about writing.

Once every three or four months, or so, I resolve ‘to take my work more seriously’. This usually involves going in to work with my husband, who is a University lecturer, and settling down in the campus library to tap away on laptop undisturbed. (Never mind the fact that I really struggle to visualise and write in that library, but there you are!)

To get to the library, I have to walk past a bookshop.

(If you love books, you just know where this is going to end, don’t you?)

Add to this the fact that this University runs one of the first, and still best, courses in Creative Writing in the world, whose alumni include the likes of Dame Hilary Mantel, Kazuo Ishiguro and Ian McEwan. You can imagine how good the bookshop’s section of writing is.

Let me tell you, it is hell to walk past.

This is the reason why the bookshelf beside my desk is so crammed with ‘How to Write’ books. I buy a book every time I decide to ‘get serious’, because of course, buying a book is a prerequisite of ‘getting serious’. I’ll read a few chapters. And then I get bored/move on/get ill/realise its shortcomings/decide I want to take up crochet instead etc. So now I have a bookshelf full of books about writing and how to write, many of which are very, very good, dozens of which come highly recommended by friends and in other books about writing, and almost none of which I have ever read cover to cover.

Just call me a butterfly.

Today is another of those ‘I’m going to get serious’ days. Today I am not going to buy a book.

This is partly because I am completely broke, and saving up for a new pair of spectacles because the ones I have got are close to useless and I’m fed up of having to take my glasses off in order to read.

But mostly because its because I need not to read about writing and how to write, but to actually DO it.

You can’t be a writer unless you actually write. And when you write, you learn far more about writing than you ever could from a book.

Books about writing are great. Don’t get me wrong. I’ve got a lot out of them. But there comes a time when you have to leave them alone and learn by doing.

I’ll let you know whether I stick to my guns or not, though I have to say I don’t think my groaning bookcase can survive even one more purchase!

Happy Creating,

EF

Inspiration Monday: Mad Thoughts!

Do you ever have one of those moments when you wonder WTF is going on inside your head?

I try to keep mindful of the thoughts that go through my head, partly as a defense mechanism against depression and overdoing things, but also to a degree out of sheer amusement because some of the stuff I think can be deeply bizarre.  For instance, here is yesterday’s offering:

“I don’t want her to think we’re the kind of people who don’t clean our bathroom mirrors.”

?????????????????

This raises so many questions about my sanity that I daren’t even go there.

BUT

What about using this as a creative writing prompt?

Who is the ‘her’ the speaker is so paranoid about?  A demanding mother-in-law, for example, the boss who might have a promotion available, or a rich friend, perhaps.  What sort of people don’t clean their bathroom mirrors anyway?  What kind of people are the ‘we’ mentioned?  Detach this sentence from me and my interiors paranoia for a minute, and think of all the possible short stories you could write using this moment of madness as a starting point.

There are so many little moments in life that could be writing prompts.  That is why you keep your writing notebook with you, so that you can write down the moment your mother-in-law steps over your threshold and into your new home for the first time, and the first thing she does is look at the floor and say ‘I see you haven’t hoovered today’ (you moved in two days ago.)  Just imagine all the thoughts that would come into your head then!  Or when the hostess of a dinner party you attend dispells a painfully embarassing moment by announcing, without any preamble:  ‘I like cheese.’  (What was going in inside her head?)  Or when you catch yourself wondering what it would be like to eat daffodils (answer: don’t – they are poisonous.  I looked it up.)  Or even wondering what alpacas think about.  What do alpacas think about anyway?

Your mind is a garden of unbridled surreality and whimsy.  Don’t ever think you are short of prompts.  Its all inside your head.  All you have to do is watch what is going on.

Happy Creating,

EF