Thursday, 30 April 2009

Creativity & Marginality, exploiting your family and being a pretend writer. Wednesday 29 April 2009.

First session of Creativity and Marginality in Contemporary British and Irish Writing with the Agreeable Doctor. We’ll 'look at key trends and tropes in diverse generic forms; and consider different ways of reading contemporary literature.'

If it wasn’t for heft which is at present featuring in everything I write, trope would be my favourite word. Trope is like paradigm and meme; I want to use them but I’m not exactly sure what they denote and I don’t want anyone to laugh. For a long time I thought scatological meant messy; which I suppose it does - but not in the way I was using it. My friend struggles to remember what phlegmatic means; I don’t use phlegmatic, it sound green-spitty.

Each week of the new module one of us will deliver a presentation looking at different genre: life writing; poetry; short story; novel; creative nonfiction of place. My friend and I are presenting on contemporary place writing on 8 July; a date so reassuringly distant that’ll it’ll probably never happen; what with the credit crunch and other badstuff.

This week we looked at Julie Myerson’s Lost Child. Because of the press furore I would neither have bought nor read Lost Child if it hadn't been required reading (and it’s still in hardback and it's only on order at the library!). I didn’t find much to detain me in the book; it felt rushed and sloppily edited and I was only really interested in sections about Myerson’s son, Jake, and his drug use. I was scarcely caught up in her research into the life of a young woman who died in 1838 at all (and I like old things). I did feel infinite pity for Jake’s cat though; left imprisoned without food and water in his flat after one of Jake's unsuccessful attempts at independence. Myerson’s son accuses her of writing ‘short snappy sentences,’ and the book feels journalistic and self obsessed. I’m preoccupied by trying to be truthful (as apposed to accurate) when I write. The Lost Child feels explicit but disingenuous.

In contrast the other life writing title we looked at is John Burnside’s A Lie About My Father which is so fine I’ll feel denuded when it’s finished. I'm rationing myself so I don’t get to the end too quickly. Burnside examines an uneasy parent-child relationship without sensation or self-pitying censure. To be fair Myerson is still living in her bad time and Burnside’s father is dead; I could see that detachment would make it easier to be reflective.

I tend towards Myerson-type short sentences and fact marshalling but I aspire to write thoughtfully like John Burnside.

One unsettling aspect of the new module is that the Agreeable Doctor defers to us saying he’s ‘not a writer’ which causes a sort of almost audible cog-shifting inside my head; like the realigning staircases in the Harry Potter films. The inference of ‘I’m not a writer’ is that we are writers. Whoa AD! I’ll need to see the certificate before I'm able to presume like that

Had a very poignant mention in Preston's Poppies on Every Day I Lie a Little this week. Thanks Jenn.

Wednesday, 22 April 2009

Left hand down a bit, First Creative Writing workshop, Naming Names and the Competition... Wednesday 22 April 2009.

I do get out of sorts when I’m trying to reverse into a parking space and a dapper bystander wearing a shorty-mac taps eagerly on my car window with his knuckles and proceeds to give me instructions.

‘Left hand down a bit.’
‘Left hand down a bit, and you’ll be sorted’
The thing is, I have absolutely no idea what ‘left hand down a bit’ means. Now and then I’d quite like to punch that dapper man in his shorty-mac when he taps eagerly on my car window with his knuckles and says that thing. I’m not a bad person but sometimes I might come across as a being a bit insolent.

This Wednesday was the first week of the Writer with the Writerly Name’s Creative Writing Workshop module. We’re going to be doing a lot of peer appraisal in this unit. Peer appraisal is what happens when we take in turns to offer feedback and suggestions on each other’s work. The convention is that each group member says what they consider to be admirable about the piece. Then they each comment on what doesn’t work so well and, if they can, offer advice suggesting what might make the piece more effective.
My daughter is using a similar approach with her primary pupils and terms it ‘three stars and a wish’. My writer friend uses what she calls a sandwich – commendation-suggestion-commendation. What’s important is not to descend to platitudes, just saying ‘I like it’ or ‘it’s good’ with being specific about what exactly does work and why it works.
When my children were little I tried to say at least three positive things for every negative pronouncement. Similarly I tried not to resort to inanity such as ‘you’ve tied your shoe laces very nicely’. Being a mother who is forever blurring the boundaries between roles the children were soon party to my approach. It has become a family joke that if one of us does something regrettable, say comes downstairs in an irredeemably grim outfit, we say: ‘Well, your shoes are tied very nicely’.
The MA group have critiqued each other work since the start of the course but now the process is to be more rigorous and we’ll each have the opportunity to chair a discussion.
In The Poet’s module I received very poor feedback for a poem. Well deserved on reflection, but I thought I’d die of grief at the time. The experience triggered another poem; Dead on the Table.

They comedian and singer, Isy Suttie was asked to make a face out of edible stuff for a weekend magazine and found some bits quite tricky. Peer appraisal, like making ears out of ham, is harder than people make out. Last term I think someone sug
gested that half an hour was enough time to spend on preparing feedback on a colleague’s work. Well. Like Suttie’s ham-ears it takes me a lot longer that that, about a day a person I reckon.

I’ve been thinking about naming names. During the Life Writing module I was writing about characters from my childhood. I discovered I couldn’t give my people fictional names (to protect the not-so innocent) until the very end of the process because individuals with a pseudonym name immediately stopped being who they were and started to behave inappropriately.

During the Fiction module I found the apportioning original names to characters thorny. I've called someone Bette Benn and it sounds contrived. All my made-up names sound risible; improbable.
In the book That Old Ace in the Hole each character Annie Proulx introduces has a more ingenious name: Bob Dollar has an uncle called Tamb
ourine Bapp (Uncle Tam) who has a boyfriend named Bromo Redpoll. Bob visits a town called Woolybucket where he meets Sheriff Hugh Dough; Ponola Dough; LaVon Fronk; Orlando Bunnel; Ribeye Cluke; Ruhama Bustard; Parmenia Boyce; Ruby Loving (an ancient haggard Country Singer); Ace and Tater Crouch. He also spends some time helping out at Cy Frease's Old Dog Café. I like the names in That Old Ace in the Hole very well. But then I think, people in America do have interesting names anyway.

There’s a vast disused county lunatic asylum at Lancaster; you can see the vernacular quadripartite tower looming above the trees from the M6 on your drive up to the Lake District.

As an aside, the world record for enduring ‘total’ sense deprivation – staying alive, conscious and sane without appreciably seeing, hearing or feeling anything - is three days and twenty hours, recorded in 1962 at Lancaster Moor Hospital. The percep
tual isolation research was conducted on volunteer nurses and patients and was an attempt to see if schizophrenics and ‘normals’ differed in their tolerance levels. I first read about the feat in the Guinness Book of Records forty years ago and understood at the time that the subjects were submerged in sound proofed tanks of body temperature liquid. Reading about the experiments now it seems that there weren’t the resources for such sophisticated techniques, so the subjects were wrapped in cladding and placed in sound proofed rooms. The deprivation wasn’t total because they still had to eat and go to the loo. I think I imagined that they’d be tube-fed and have astronaut-type toilet arrangements. Common sense dictates that the Lancaster Moor Hospital wouldn’t have had the benefit of Nasa technology. I find myself bizarrely disappointed by the researchers’ lack of rigour. Disappointed and bemused and then saddened. I feel saddened by the poignant image of a sightless schizophrenic volunteer being bundled along hospital-green tiled corridors to the lavatory in the name of scientific research.

On the city-side of the asylum is a cemetery. The Lancaster liberal peer and linoleum giant, James Williamson, and three of his wives (and others) are buried under a modest monument in this enormous graveyard.

Little Jimmy, as he was nicknamed, commissioned the Ashton Memorial in Williamson Park in remembrance of his second wife, Jessy. Jes
sy’s monument is also visible from the M6.

The colossal dome of the Ashton Memorial is copper and in the 1960s it was cleaned and burnished. The monument looked very strange for a while but soon reverted back to the more recognisable verdigre-ed state. When Jimmy, Lord Ashton, died in 1930 he was worth ten million pounds; which would have been be worth an almost unimaginable sum at today’s standards.

However, the point is I went to the cemetery to look at names. Here’s a small selection: John Shadrach Slinger; Alice Maude Wolfall; Charles Purdon Silly; Rimmon Clayton; Dolly Salliss; Oliver Speddy; Harold Muckalt; Bindloss Smith; Nellie Bell; Peregrine John Smart; Ninian Smart; Isabella Row; Jane Bailie. And some nice alliteration: Alice Arkle; Ernest Ellershaw; Clara Ann Airey; Henry Homer; Herbert and Harriet Hall and Maria Marriott.

So you see; people do have diverting na
mes in Britain too - Shadrach Slinger and Ninian Smart; half of my characters will be named Shadrach or Ninian from this time on. What strikes me is that, although those names are uncommon they don’t sound contrived like my Bette Benn does. Maybe a name has to be lived in to sound authentic.

All students in our group have been urged to enter the writing competition (entries to be submitted by 1 May). I assumed that the fact that I’m busy on the presentation night would exclude me. Apparently no
t; the Author who is Writing about Neanderthals (my favourite hominin) said I could still submit a piece. Sadly my first thought on learning this was:
'What if I don't win?'
There I've said it. Now if I do enter and I do tell people I've entered and I don't win everyone'll kno
w why I'm doing deluxe sulking.

I'm including the photograph of Mary Jane Minnie Davis because her name is fine and because her headstone is made from Shap Granite which is
currently my second favourite rock.

Shap Granite forms in batholiths when magma is contained underground rather than escaping through volcanic vents. Batholiths can be miles in circumference so the magma cools very slowly allowing large mineral crystals to form (in contrast volcanic rock like basalt cools very quickly as it leaves the earth so there is no time for large mineral crystals to form and the rock has a fine texture). Shap Granite probably formed when the tectonic plates carrying Scotland and England collided about four hundred million years ago. It contains high levels of orthoclase feldspar which gives it its glorious distinctive pink colour, prized by monumental masons. I like the idea that the granite owes its existence to the colliding of two continents; I like the idea of something crystallising under the ground for millions of years and the earth being eroded down to expose it; and I’m enchanted by the notion it is located just up the road; it’s our Shap Granite.

What have I learned this week? Well, just look at those last two images; John Shadrack Slinger and Mary Jane Minnie Davis. I’ve l learned that I need to do right-hand down a bit when I'm taking photographs. This is a doubly significant realisation in light of my opening remarks. I’ve also learned from Eric Partridges Dictionary of Catch Phrases that the expression ‘left hand down a bit’ is a standard piece of Navalese. It caught on when the dapper actor Leslie Phillips used it regularly in a 1950s radio programme called The Navy Lark. So, to all you spruce and eager bystanders with shorty-macs and tappy knuckles; now, at last, I can see where you were coming from. So thanks, and I’m really sorry if I came across as a being a bit insolent, as I say I’m not a bad person.

Wednesday, 8 April 2009

Unexciting email; Final Fiction session with the Writer with the Writerly Name. Wednesday 1 April 2009.

I’m obscenely happy that I (kind-of) own a posh phone but these are a few of emithers I didn't particularly want to be alerted had arrived:

  • Asos style update.
  • Bounty Produce: We supply fresh vegetables /seafood in and around Metro Manila.
  • Facebook Shelley Buske Partridge sent you a message on Facebook...
    Subject: Queenswood Heights?
    "I am looking for Kim McGowan who lived in Queenswood Heights, Orleans back in the 70's" (no - but that just makes me feel dull and provincial because living in Queenswood Heights, Orleans sounds way more interesting than Glasson Dock - which is where I was).
  • John Lewis Hottest News (somehow I doubt it).
  • ബൌന്ടി പ്രോടുസ്: വെ സപ്ലൈ ഫ്രെഷ് വെങേടബ്ലെസ് /സീഫൂദ് ഇന്‍ ആന്‍ഡ് അരൌന്ദ് മെട്രോ മനില.
  • Johnnie Boden: a great offer! (see JL above).
  • Ticketline Ticket Talk Camp Bestival 2009.
  • Waterstone’s Team Stop press! New J K Rowling available to pre-order.
  • Marks & Spencer Summer favourites (unlikely).
I just want to hear from real people.

Came out of the Writer with the Writerly Name's final fiction session a different person. Now, not only do I know that the way you unmake a shitty first draft is to redraft it until it sounds agreeable, I also know how to start the process. Credit goes to Kaplan’s Laundry List of Stylistic Glitches, I think from chapter 9 in a book called Rewriting: A Creative Approach to Writing Fiction by DM Kaplan.

I’ve got to ditch a lot of stuff but mostly I have to rid myself of unnecessary adjectives, adverbs and stop overusing the conditional or past perfect tense. That is would and had as in ‘he would make himself a novelty Easter hat and he would leave glue and feathers all over the kitchen’, or ‘he had made himself a novelty Easter hat and he had left the glue and feathers everywhere’. Better to write he made an Easter hat and left glue and feathers everywhere. Betterer still, I suppose, hide the glue and feathers and Bob’s your uncle.

And I’ve got to watch how I use a big list of Weasel words, for example - about, actually, eventually, really, somehow, truly – and a lot more. I use them all excessively with the praiseworthy exception of ‘basically’ which I've avoided for a long time because it grates.

A person from work emailed to say she enjoyed a review I'd had published (should that be I published? Nah! sounds far too pompous and as if I did it myself). A review I wrote that was used in a library periodical. She described my writing style as lively. I know it was meant kindly but that jaunty lively disturbs me. Is it euphemistic? Like ‘salt of the earth’ (common) and ‘friendly and outgoing’ (fast). Doesn’t lively imply shitty self conscious verbose first draft-type writing?

My blog got a nice heads-up at Preston Writing Network . Thank you PWN!

The sculpture is part of a war memorial in a St Annes park. It makes me infinitely sad because the big lady is too bereft to cuddle her baby.

Tuesday, 7 April 2009

In between testimony to Jim

Jim's hip replacement has dislocated again. It keeps happening and I'm sure it's every bit as agonising as it sounds (he can see the ball of the femur up by his waist when it displaces). I took dominoes to play during a hospital visit. It's best to keep him occupied with a crossword or a game otherwise he has a tendency to keep a loud running commentary going on the relative ailments of the other patients and the ethnicity of the staff and visitors. I announced the fixture on Facebook and Frankie asked me if I won. Well I did, twice. But to be fair he is 85 and he was still coming around from the relocating anaesthetic. She commented that even under those circumstances she'd lose to him in at dominoes and she'd probably choose to challenge him to a running race; she’s a speedy sprinter and still a tad keen on winning. I suggested she might want to reconsider given that in the war in the olden days he was a Royal Marine and, for the moment, his hip joint is back in situ. She concurred but suggested that surely dragging along one of those liquid canister thingies was going to impede him a bit. This is indeed true, on reflection the intravenous tube did also keep knocking his dominoes over. That toppling, added to the effect of the drugs, was probably what gave me the competitive edge, for once. Back to a level playing field tomorrow I suppose.

Sunday, 5 April 2009

Good mark, book launch, shame and 'Tis. Wednesday 25 March 2009.

I am pitifully driven by marks and this week I clawed up to my first proper result for a pre-portfolio (non-assessed piece). Yay! As I’ve learnt to say. The module is stylistics so it’s a commentary rather than the story that’s being measured – I’m far too shallow to mind what I got a good mark for.

In the commentary I’d fretted over structure at the level of whether to use ‘an’ or ‘his’ in the text - and then finished off by saying that, despite several iterations, the story still felt like a shitty first draft to me. One friend said he’d felt a bit mad with me when he read the commentary; wondered if I pretended to be tough on myself. I know just what he means and I do agonise over whether I’m being disingenuous in what I say or write, as in: “oh this is so awful”, so everyone will assure me: “no it’s not – you’re great you”. And of course there’s a big-bit of that because doing an MA in creative writing and giving people your stuff to read is hubris. I told one of my daughters how he’d felt and she said she thought that about me too; so that’s three of us. I'm really glad he dared to suggest it because it feels less like a shifty secret now.

Attended Jenn’s Manchester book launch; Blackwell’s were selling A Kind of Intimacy and Jenn signed copies and read an extract. I was so giddy and thrilled that I left my spectacles in the car. It seems my camera was on the take-a-baby-picture-without-startling-it setting. Consequently the photos of her reading are all enigmatic silhouettes; well, at least she wasn’t startled. Emily the good-blogger (author of My Shitty Twenties) set my camera back to Auto so I’ve got that one good photo of her left signing a book.

Also Saw Ray Robinson, author of the excellent novel Electricity, at the launch. But of course, because he didn't have his name rubber-stamped on his head I didn't know it was him until afterwards. Here's his back.

My blog was intended to track my MA progress but I feel it’s become a bit lightweight lately; partly I’m losing steam, partly because stylistics is hard. Stylistics suites me because my thinking is pretty jelloid and I appreciate being taught order; but it can be a bit dull to write about - so I’ve cravenly resorted to fancy dress outfits and Morris dancers and the like. When I first wrote about the Morris dancers I joked about fertility rituals; adding that the display was a grand example of the triumph of hope over experience. Then I took that out. For several reasons; many of the women were actually young and clearly fecund and (as I know) being over fifty isn’t something you have any choice about. It was great fun to watch the dancing and the dancers were happy and uninhibited and doing something crazyplucky and I was just cynically taking photos and writing about them so I could make a joke. And I’ve don't believe in the supernatural but I’m so quick to mock people that I’m starting to worry a bit about my karma. So, if you haven’t got anything nice to say about anybody come and sit by me – well, not any more.

Transpires we have to submit 3 genres with our stylistics commentary; fiction, poetry and a dramatic piece. Thought I’d drawn a line under poetry. I’m trying to relate everything to the short story I’m writing for fiction so my poem’s based on a studio photo of my grandma and grandad and some other relatives taken around the time of the First World War. They’re very young and not yet married, my grandma has exactly the same eyes as my daughter. Nobody in the photo is beaming; in fact all the others in the assembly look positively glum. My grandparents are on the left end of the group; she seated, him standing behind her with his hand resting on her shoulder. They both have little faint half-smiles - as if they know a secret. I’ve been asking my dad Jim about them. My grandad was a slater’s mate and hefted a handcart with iron-rimmed wheels around cobbled streets in Liverpool. My grandma soldered cans in the Fray Bentos factory; the factory girls worked with rags wrapped around their fingers because of all the cuts and burns they sustained. The couple went on to have six children; first out best dressed. Jim was their youngest son and he never remembers not feeling hungry when he was growing up. My grandma was crippled with rheumatoid arthritis when she was still young. The skinny young Jimmy had to heft his mother’s wheelchair across those same Liverpool cobbles that his dad manhandled the cart over; he still feels ashamed of how mortified he felt doing that. She was in pain a long time; I remember her sitting in a wheelchair crying with agony when I was a small child. The girl in the photograph with my daughter’s eyes has no idea of what she had coming. As my grandma was dying my dad was at one side of her bed and her neighbour, Mrs Cowan, at the other. Mrs Cowan said: “she’s gone Jimmy” and he was glad, because she’d had such a hard life. So that’s going to be my poem; sounds queasily 'Tis-ish when outlined here.

All my stories are about Jim in one way or another. I want him to tell me stories about heavy handcarts. A handcart with iron-rimmed wheels for goodness sake, not and olde worlde cart festooned with ribbons or piled with chutney, but a beast of a heavy duty handcart that weighed a ton to push up and down steep roads in the Vale. I want him to tell me about Warehouse men with pockets full of Brazil nuts from the docks and poor-sod shoeless children who were sent home from school because they weren’t allowed in school without something on their feet and about the time he was mocked because he pronounced each ‘eee atch’. But I drift off when he starts telling me that he thinks someone is siphoning off his heating oil or his take on immigration or that he doesn’t understand the letter from United Utilities. And I feel ashamed now.