Monday, 2 November 2015

A silver carrot for a writer

This is a motivational talk to myself.

I saw a beautiful piece of silver jewellery yesterday. It's made by Charlotte Tabor of Kara Jewellery, and it's just what I've been hankering after, though I didn't know until I saw it. I don't have a lot of jewellery, glitz not really being my thing, but occasionally I see something that feels right and usually I walk away.

Even the thought of buying it felt frivolous and extravagant. Oughtn't I to be spending my hard-earned cash on serious things?

But I bought it. That's it, in the box.

And here's the thing. I've justified it to myself as a silver carrot. When things get tough in the novel I'm writing - which they will, and I'll want to throw it in the bin at some point, I know that - I'll look at the box and I'll keep going, because I'm only allowed to open the box when I've finished the first draft.

That's pathetic, isn't it? I should be totally driven at all times by a pure desire to write this novel. I bet Ali Smith and Kate Atkinson and all those writers I admire don't need to bribe themselves. The thing is, there are many moments when I find it hard to believe I can write this novel. I could churn out a huge heap of words and be finished by Christmas, but I don't want a huge heap of words. I want to write a novel I'll be proud of, and that means overcoming my fear of it not being good enough, every single day.

I spent a lot of my adult life learning not to make rules for myself - random ones that just make life harder. But sometimes, they work. Just making the rule can be enough. And of course, rules are there to be broken.

Thursday, 29 October 2015

The ghost of a writer faces her fear

Photo by @robselfpierson 

That's me, reading my poem, 'Unknown Matron's Mallet' in the Foundling Museum last Sunday as part of a special torchlit evening with the writers' group 26.

Poets were dotted all through the museum, each of us reading a work inspired by an object there. I was almost last on the tour so I spent a while waiting in the semi-dark, surrounded by the names of long-dead foundling children and the tiny tokens their mothers left with them.

It wasn't spooky, though if there are ghosts in this world there must surely be many in Joseph Coram's hospital. I used to be terrified of ghosts - I wouldn't go into churchyards, lay awake dreading the arrival of the owner of the hand I could clearly see creeping over my windowsill, and knew, absolutely that the gatehouse of the house where I lodged in my early 20s was haunted by someone or something deeply unfriendly.

But my fear of ghosts seems to have faded. Have I become more rational? I'm not sure I have. Perhaps I'm naming my fears these days, facing them in my writing? I know that writing without fear doesn't work for me. If I'm comfortable with the people or themes I'm writing about, I'm bored and the story dies on its feet. I need not to understand, to want to know more, and to be just a bit afraid.

Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Writing a novel: I need new shoes

I'm about to write my first novel. And my shoes are in a sad state.

These two things are connected.

My shoes are wrecked after two years of walking in them almost every day. I walk because it keeps me sane, and because it's often the only way I can think of the next line I'm going to write. Most of the time the next line is copy for a client. Sometimes, though, I'm trying out a storyline, or some dialogue.

On the day I took this photo - just last week - we'd just scrambled down Pillar, an especially steep mountain in the Lake District. We'd reached the top in a 40 mile-an-hour wind and hail and ate our lunch huddled behind a stone wall. Then we scraped our way down to the valley, a rock fell on me, and we squelched through miles of bog when the path vanished. We carried on, because what else can you do? You have to get to the end of the path somehow.

This week I've begun to write a novel, and I suspect it's going to feel like that walk on Pillar - exhilarating when the clouds lift for a moment, revealing the glorious views and the rush of being up so high, but for the most part simply gruelling.

This novel has been waiting in my mind for years. It's time to quit fussing, admit I don't need new shoes, just a whole load of determination, and get writing.

(I've signed up for the Unthank School online novel writing course - if I ever come up for air, I'll let you know how it's going, but don't hold your breath. Or is it me who's holding her breath? I'm dazed and confused already.)

Monday, 7 September 2015

I should cut back the marigolds and write my blog

The marigolds along the edge of my veg patch have gone to seed. I've been meaning to cut them back for a couple of weeks, but something else always comes along.

My blog's been sitting here untended too, for much the same reason.

I've been busy, is what I say to myself. And it's true: I've been seeing plays, reading books, at festivals, singing in choirs, thinking about new stories, making notes.

But is that excuse enough? Writing my blog forces me to reflect on what I've been doing, to consider it and find words to describe how it's affected me. That's why I like writing it.

This time, though, I'm going to leave it all to go to seed, like my marigolds. Next year I'll have a whole new crop of marigolds, self-seeded in surprising places. I'm hoping my unreflected summer will set seed in unexpected places too.

Monday, 8 June 2015

A foundling: pulling a poem from almost nothing

I've been quiet here on the blog for a while, not because I've had nothing to say but because I've been saying it in different places.

And one such place is the Foundling Museum in London, where I have a poem.

Yes, a poem! I don't write poems, or at least I do but I've no confidence in them so they stay hidden in my notebook.

This time, though, I gave myself no choice. I joined a project called 26 Pairs of Eyes (I'm a member of the 26, an organisation for professional writers of all types), and committed to writing 62 words about an object I'd be allocated from the collection at the Founding Museum.

My poem, 'Unknown Matron's Mallet' went on display at the museum last week at a splendid VIP launch where the most splendid thing by far was Jacob Sam-La Rose and Toni Stuart's utterly beautiful and moving live performance of their own long poem about the museum.

And today my poem went live online and you can read it and the blog post I wrote for the 26 Pairs of Eyes site here.

Ahem. It has been drawn to my attention that some people can't see the green embedded links above. For you, here is the link:


Sunday, 26 April 2015

Parson Woodforde's diary

I love reading diaries and travel books in bed. I'm tucked up warm and safe while the writer describes winters so bitter the milk freezes indoors right up till April. Or - in the case of Mary Kingsley, whom I read a few moths ago - waking in the night in a house in west Africa to realise that the shape hanging on the wall is a man's head in a bag, so perhaps she won't go for a walk after all.

I've just finished reading a book that's been on my shelves for years - a battered second-hand copy of The Diary of a Country Parson, 1758-1802 by James Woodforde. It's a perfect bedtime read - nothing much happens but the small details are a joy.

Parson Woodforde never left England. He starts the diary as a young man in Somerset, spends some time in Oxford, then lives the rest of his life in rural Norfolk. He doesn't marry - the woman he shows an interest in chooses someone else - but lives with his niece and a household of servants, among a community of farmers and gentlemen who spend a prodigious amount of time visiting each other and eating mountains of food. Here's one meal for seven people in April 1796, eaten at his neighbour Mr Custance's:

"We had for dinner, a fine Cod's Head and Shoulders, boiled, and Oyster Sauce, Peas-Soup, Ham and 2 boiled Chicken, and a fine Saddle of Mutton rosted, Potatoes, Colli-Flower-Brocoli, and Cucumber. 2nd Course, a rost Duck, Maccaroni, a sweet batter Pudding & Currant Jelly, Blamange, and Rasberry Puffs. Desert, Oranges, Almonds & Raisins, Nutts, & dried Apples, Beefans. Port & Sherry Wines, Porter, strong Beer & small. After Coffee & Tea, we got to cards ..."

Food and drink seem to be the answer to many ailments. I never did work out what was wrong with Woodforde's niece Nancy, but was glad to read on 22 March 1797 that she "continues still to get better by drinking plentifully of port Wine, at least 1 Pint in a day..."

The cow was less lucky, "she having a Disorder which I never heard of before or any of our Somersett Friends. It is called Tail-shot, that is, a separation of some of the Joints of the Tail about a foot from the tip of the Tail, or rather a slipping of one Joint from another. It also makes all her teeth quite loose in her head. The Cure, is to open that part of the Tail so slipt lengthways and put in an Onion boiled and some Salt, and bind it up with some coarse Tape."

Though most of the diary describes day-to-day rural life, this is a time of wars and revolutions and everywhere people are afraid of Napoleon invading. Wars are expensive too, so they find their taxes and food prices rocketing, and at times their local bank notes are refused as currency.

I always thought the welfare state only began in the 20th century, but already here the wealthier people, including the Parson on his £400 a year, pay into a poor relief fund, and he regularly gives money and food to people who've fallen on hard times - though only if he feels they deserve it. And mind you, I wouldn't want to be owed money by the Parson. Here he is, in December 1794:

"Mr Symonds of Reepham, cleaned both my eight day clocks to day, almost the whole day after them, he breakfasted & dined with our folks. When he went away, which was in the Evening I paid him a Bill for cleaning Clocks & Watch from October 1789 to Dec. 1794 1.0.6 cleaning my Clocks today included in it. I did not take any change of him out of a Guinea."

The diary ends a few months before Parson Woodforde dies, aged 63. He has been ill for quite a while and I was almost glad he didn't have to cope with another bitter winter in his frailty. I've loved reading his diary - his care in setting down the mundane details of his life and his pleasure in them gave me great pleasure too, as well as reminding me that unless I write something just as wonderful, nothing will remain of me in a couple of hundred years.

Sunday, 22 February 2015

In it together: our community play about World War One in rural England

Henry (Nick Wray) and George (Charles Johnson)

It's Sunday afternoon, it's pouring, and I'm exhausted. But I'm elated too, because we've just put on three shows of our community play. We created a story about a village like ours during the First World War, and it's been a truly amazing experience.

Amazing because:

we pulled it off - we told a familiar story that held our audiences' attention from the first chords to the last song

we made our audiences laugh and weep

and then they rushed to tell us what a pleasure it had been

it was a truly collective endeavour - almost sixty of us came together to create our play

The Morris dancers (Colleen Thirkell, Molly Byford, Jan Batchelor and Sue Harrison)
and people gave up their winter evenings and weekends to learn lines, rehearse, make music, source fresh pheasants, rig up lights, bake cakes, find a hundred year old wheelchair ...

and we sold out three shows

and, and, and ...

I'm a bit overwhelmed by what we achieved, but fundamentally, what I'm going to remember for a long time is that this may have been just a play, but it was a play about something really serious, and everyone in the room - audience and players - knew it.

Len (Oliver Hulme), Lily (Melanie Byford), Isabella (Sarah Saxty), Frank (Steven James),  Henry, Rose (Annabel Hunt), Robert (Eric Parker), John (Charlie Crisp) and Hester (Ana Garcia)
A hundred years ago, people just like us were flung into four years of horror and fear that none were prepared for. When I started to write the script what interested me most was what happened between people. We all know the facts of the war, but what did it feel like to a young woman whose fiancé comes home on leave unable to speak about anything he's been through since they parted? How did a bereaved father deal with his son's friend who's refused to fight? What did a young man who has seen his mates killed one after the other have in his head when the old men in the pub clapped him on the shoulder for doing his duty?

What caught me unawares were the people who came up to me, separately, after the shows. One was a mother of soldiers who has set up a support group for veterans. Another was a retired Navy officer. The third, a serving Major in the Army. They each thanked us for showing what it's like to fight, and to return home with that experience inside you.

And then there were the villagers who felt that this story was part of them too, because the people in it were people just like us. I'm so glad we got it right.

(All photos are by Rowan Purkis.)

Friday, 20 February 2015

Reading Edward Thomas aloud to an unsuspecting audience

I have a terrible memory, and it's this more than anything else that means I'll never be an actor. How on earth do they learn all those lines?

It's not for lack of trying that I can't remember lines - tonight I'm reading Edward Thomas's poem, 'As the team's head-brass', between a couple of scenes in our community play, and I've really made a go of learning it by heart.

I read it aloud in bed. I marched across the fields reciting it. I pinned it up in the kitchen so I could keep checking it.

No good. I learned the first stanza, but moving onto the second, I could feel those first hard-won lines falling out of my head again. So I'll be reading from the page.

But my attempts at learning the poem by heart have paid off. I'm a lot more confident about reading it, of course, but I've also seen so much more in the poem that I just slid over when reading it to myself.

Reading aloud to an audience, especially an audience that most likely don't read poetry from choice, really makes you think hard about what every line means. I want everyone in the room to feel the beauty of the poem, to see Thomas's images, to hear his sadness at leaving England for the front, and his knowledge that this is a place he loves so much it's worth defending.

Reading it as I first heard it in my head, the audience would hear little of this - I'm a lazy reader, I've found, reading too fast. Even if I read a poem aloud to myself, I don't go over and over a line that puzzles me, I say it just well enough to move on, and then move on. You can't do this when you're reading to other people - you have to work it all out, word by word, line break by line break.

In one of my attempts to tell the poem aloud from memory, I completely missed out the second line, 'The lovers disappeared into the wood.' It's easy to miss: the poem still makes perfect sense without it. But by leaving it out, you lose a rare smile in Thomas's poetry - he's glad they're off to make love and that their urge for life is so strong and unaffected by the death around them. At the end of the poem, the lovers reappear in a matching single line, just as Thomas is saying farewell to the scene before him and perhaps to his own life, and this acknowledgement that life will carry on, whatever happens, both softens the sadness and makes it more poignant.

After the lovers return - and this is easy to miss too - Thomas says 'The horses started and for the last time/ I watched the clods crumble and topple over/After the ploughshare and the stumbling team.' Because Thomas's style appears so conversational, the words 'for the last time' don't jump out at you - but here they are, at the end of a line, three lines from the end of the poem, leading us into a description of the breaking of earth with metal. Thomas is a subtle poet. He doesn't need to tell us what he sees ahead - he prepares the land and sows the seed, and leaves it to us to understand in the silence that follows.