Friday, 25 November 2011

I'm not a poet

Yesterday I went to my writing workshop. About ten times a year a small group of us gather, brace ourselves with tea and biscuits and then dive in for three hours' writing and workshopping. I love it, and being invited to join a few years back is what finally jolted me into taking my fiction writing seriously.

We alternate between short fiction and poetry. I'm really not a poet, as you can see from my attempt yesterday afternoon at found poetry, based on the Brownie Guide promise:

the Queen and God
to do their duty
and help other people

I promise
to do my best

That was our warm up, and we did get rather more serious after that.

Some of the others are poets and some of us are more likely to write short fiction when left to our own devices, but although I've never produced a poem of any depth or flair, the attempt often sparks off trains of thought that lead a while later to a story. And even writing bad poetry is a real encouragement to be brave with language, to take risks, to not always go for the linear or the obvious metaphor.

Having said that, I do sometimes have to rein myself in. There's a fine line between poetic and purple prose, between something powerful, that makes the reader sit up and pay attention - and something that's simply self-indulgent. It can of course be a matter of taste - recently a friend and I were discussing the opening to Jon McGregor's If nobody speaks of remarkable things, which I love - it's like a panning shot, swooping across the city, and it's amazingly fluid. My friend, though, said 'God, it feels just like a creative writing exercise - I hate it!'.

And I know what she means. Perhaps it is a bit over-written. But I luxuriated in it - it's such a rare pleasure in a novel for the writer to be clearly relishing the language. Give me more, I say.

But not too much.

Sunday, 13 November 2011


I've worn glasses since I was about seven. I had no idea I was short-sighted - I assumed everyone saw the world the way I do, blurry, indistinct. In fact, before I got my glasses, so deceived was I about my vision that - in our little gang of children who played cowboys and indians out on the common - the nickname I gave myself was Hawkeye. So it was a revelation the day I got my first glasses and realised the truth.

Heroes don't wear glasses.

Glasses get wet when it rains, so you can't see. They fall off when you climb trees, and when you play hockey. They put boys off. Rock stars don't wear glasses - except Elvis Costello, whom I loved, and not just because he wore glasses.

Nor do astronauts wear glasses. (Until I realised I would never understand physics, I had a dream of being an astronaut. I used to know all the names of the planets and their moons. At thirteen I realised I'd never be an astronaut and began to dream instead of hanging out in French bars like Maigret. Simenon wore glasses, of course, but even I wasn't weird enough to want to be him.)

I can't think of any cool women who wore glasses - apart from my Mum, who got contact lenses as soon as she possibly could. My teachers and grandmothers wore glasses, but they weren't cool. Oh, and Nana Mouskouri.

When I was sixteen, I got contact lenses, which I loved. I wore them from waking till bedtime.

The day I first put my lenses in - despite the pain of shoving lumps of glass in my eyes - I felt liberated, my face joyously naked in front of the world. My glasses had been a kind of barrier and a disguise. They labelled me a swot, a reader, unglamorous, all of which were true. But without them I could choose my persona - I could be a new person, maybe.

I wasn't, of course. I still read obsessively. I worked hard, I spent a lot of time inside my head. But no one could tell unless I told them first. I could pretend.

I wore my lenses every day, all day, until 1988. My obsessive lens-wearing had cut the oxygen off from my corneas, and they'd become stippled, distorting my vision. I saw double, out of focus. So I went back to glasses for six months while my eyes recovered.

I felt ugly in my glasses, and cut off from the world. When you get glasses for the first time, you have to learn to move your head to point at whatever you want to see - you can't just swivel your eyes, or spot things flashing past. Not if you're as short-sighted as I am, anyway. The only way the world will be in focus is if you point your face squarely at it and look through the middle of the lenses in your glasses. If you turn your eyes sideways, you see the frame, and beyond the frame - who knows? Everything is blurred beyond the frame. My world was squeezed back into two small squares of vision.

I got new lenses, gas permeable, which let my eyes breathe. And I went back to wearing them every day for another ten years or so.

In my mid-thirties I got ME and whenever I had the chance I'd shut my eyes and go to sleep - I didn't want the faff of taking my lenses out. So I dug out my glasses, and discovered that I no longer cared if people could spot the swot. I loved being able to go to sleep whenever I wanted. And - a new discovery - my sight was so poor by now that glasses shrank everything. That small distance between eye and glasses was enough to turn the lenses into reverse telescopes. Not much of an asset, except that it makes me look small, and almost fine featured, when I look at myself in the mirror.

I'm easily deceived, plainly.

I find that I quite like seeing the world through a frame. And I can't imagine not being able to put the world aside at will, simply by taking my glasses off.

In fact, I like imposing frames on the world outside my head. Here's a picture from this afternoon:

And here's another - a close-up of some lichen growing on top of a fencepost. That's the upside of short sight - without our glasses we can get right up close and see stuff the rest of you have no idea is there.