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.


Mandy said...

I do love your writing Kim, and have learned at least three new things from this one piece.

Names are funny things, when embarking upon a new project I like colleagues to introduce themselves by talking about their names for 2 or 3 minutes. The stuff that comes out of those short descriptions is usually quite deep, always interesting and makes each name more memorable.

Love the walking round the graveyard idea to get ideas, you are inspired!

kim mcgowan said...

Thanks Mandy. I'd never thought about getting people to talk about their names but I'm sure you're right and it does trigger lots of ideas; similar when people recall a childhood memory. I read about the sensory deprivation record nearly forty years ago in the Guiness book or records & I think it still stands

liz mailer said...

I read somewhere that Dickens got the name Oliver Twist from a gravestone in Maidstone or somewhere so you could be on to something. I love Dicken's names - I thought he was just very inventive but may be he was just a graverobber too. I believe some of my ancestors are bured in that graveyard (although none of the ones you mention)so you may immortalise one of them, although I don't think their names were that interesting.

kim mcgowan said...

Robbing graves? I suppose I am Liz, How thrilling!