creative writing

What is lost, and what comes of it

For reasons of trying to focus a (tentatively planned) short story collection I wondered recently what it is that drives my writing these days. What theme binds it all together? I mused over the possibilities: anger, frustration, class, the north. And realised with a shock that it seems to be loss.

Given what kind of a year 2018 was it shouldn’t have been so surprising, and maybe it’s the 2018 hangover that’s making me view some of this with a loss-filter, but if I want to make that the theme of a collection it’s there.

Loss of family members and pets, naturally. Loss of youth. Loss of opportunity. Loss of friends and social networks. Loss of memory, vocabulary, personality, identity. Loss of dialect. Loss of places, buildings, green spaces. Loss of the past, of a different way of life.

I am without a doubt inclined to melancholy, and there are deaths that remain raw no matter the passage of years and will crop up in my writing forever, I’m sure. However, there are new kinds of losses that come with age or injury, or with a failed attempt to reconnect with friends or relatives whose paths diverged from yours along the way somewhere. Things you don’t realise the importance of until they’re gone.

Take the village of my early childhood, which my mum’s family had already called home for a hundred and fifty years before my birth (and even then, they’d only moved a mile up the road). It seemed perfectly natural (not to mention eternal) when I was young that scattered across the place were relatives’ current and former workplaces, and the houses of cousins, uncles, multi-generational family friends, and my paternal grandparents. Four generations of my family lived in their end-terrace for seventy years and more, and now there’s a stranger’s tarmac drive where once my grandparents’ rose garden was admired and tended and enjoyed. The older generations have died, and for the most part the younger have moved away (I for one live nearly twenty miles away). New houses (and blocks of flats, unthinkable in my childhood) stand where horses grazed and on mill and factory sites that closed down as I grew older. I wrote a story called Worth a Mint? about returning to old haunts, memories, identity (and death) which is partly set there, but as it’s well over 8,000 words it’s been hard to find magazines to submit it to. That story is a major reason why I want to put a (non-genre) collection together in the first place.

It’s not rose-tinted nostalgia, I appreciate having a phone and central heating (and broadband, and the ability to listen later to a BBC radio programme I missed) and I’d hate to go back in a time machine to the mid-eighties. For one thing I’d have to play the dried-pea game at New Year, in which younger members of the family were given a saucer and a drinking straw and told to transfer (with hands behind their back) as many dried peas from a tray to the saucer in a fixed time (“This was entertainment?” my cousin’s daughter asked at the start of 2019 as she played on her smartphone, to which we had to explain that yes, it seemed like it at the time). However, I do seem to set a fair few stories in the eighties and nineties, if only because I have more of a grasp on what life was like then. Ditching the TV at the start of 2002 I lost my grasp on popular culture (some might say I never had much of one anyway) and certainly now with no smartphone and not being on Whatsapp or Facebook I feel disconnected from the majority experience. I’m even starting to be baffled by some of the allusions on Radio 4’s News Quiz. Oh dear.

Which, I guess brings me back to the loss of youth and all that goes with it. The midlife crises in my stories, the attempts at reinvention, and regrets over the path not taken. As well as many a death of a parent or beloved aunt, or the disorientation of their dementia. All of these, and the loss of dialect, accent, roots, chip away at identity until eventually that can be lost too. There’s plenty of scope for writing about all these facets and I keep revisiting different angles.

Loss is universal, even if we lose different people and places and abilities we are all still experiencing similar aches and regrets. I’ll leave you with a link to Word Factory apprentice Sharon Telfer’s gorgeous flash fiction My Father Comforts Me in the Form of Birds which has stayed with me since I first read it last year. (Though in case anyone is concerned, I’ll reassure you that both mine and OneMonkey’s dads are fine).

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Writing another gender

Recently, I overheard a woman express surprise that a male writer had written a novel from the point of view of a female character. She wasn’t disapproving, merely commenting on what she saw as an interesting choice. There is often an assumption that men can’t write convincing female characters (there may also be assertions I haven’t read, about women not writing convincing men) but it made me think about the assumptions that underpin that.

I’ve written from both male and female perspectives depending on what the story demanded at the time, and where I’ve written a short piece where the first-person narrator’s gender isn’t specified, I’ve had some people read it as male and some female, and both sets of readers seemed satisfied. If I stuck to writing my own gender, there’d be a whole host of common female experiences I might want to give my main characters that I have never had, affecting everything from everyday detail to major plot points and motivation:

  • I don’t wear a bra, underskirt, pop socks, tummy-control pants, and no doubt a whole list of things I don’t even know exist. I do feel like I’m in that episode of Father Ted whenever I venture into a lingerie department
  • I don’t wear high heels; the odd pair of cuban-heeled boots in the past but mainly it’s Doc Martens, Converse, and imitations thereof.
  • I’ve never worn, nor had any desire for, an engagement ring or a wedding dress
  • I’ve never planned a wedding, gone gooey over someone else’s wedding photos or engagement ring, or been on a hen night
  • I haven’t been a bridesmaid since I was seven
  • I’ve never found out I was pregnant, had a miscarriage or abortion, or used the morning-after pill
  • I’ve never been on maternity leave, or felt like I was being torn in two by the conflicting demands of children and career
  • I’ve never changed a nappy
  • I’ve never run for a bus and felt like my chest had a life of its own
  • I don’t wear make-up, and beyond lipstick and mascara (which I did wear at my gothiest) it’s all a bit of a mystery
  • Since I only have one ear pierced, I’ve never worn a discreet pair of matching earrings
  • I’ve never been to Weightwatchers, memorised the calorie content of common foods, or jumped on a new diet bandwagon
  • I’ve never worn false nails or false eyelashes, had highlights or a fancy hairdo
  • I’ve never thought about breast enhancements or agonised over cellulite
  • I’ve never been to be waxed, plucked, massaged or caked in mud in the name of beauty
  • I’ve never had a girls’ night in
  • I don’t see a baby and make strange noises and ask to hold it
  • I’ve never declared myself a feminist or had any interest in how many women are in senior positions at work
  • I don’t read women’s lifestyle magazines, keep up with fashion or enjoy clothes shopping
  • Despite having two sisters and a couple of close female friends I’ve never had the kind of conversations about sex and shopping that feature so heavily in the flicks

For any of these I (like the men who were being derided on social media for even attempting the exercise) would have to observe other people’s behaviour, ask a friend, or read up on it. People have such individual experiences of life that surely we all of us (writers, I mean) have to use empathy and imagination all the time in order to offer a range of believable characters. Gender is probably the broadest category out there, so to expect women to automatically have a better handle on female characters than men seems ludicrous. I suspect the men who fail to write female characters are also not much good at male characters unless they’re heavily based on themselves, and that’s got nothing to do with gender, it’s just a gap in their writing ability.

Life’s spanners and NaNoWriMo: getting back on the writing horse

It’s fair to say I haven’t been keeping up with this blog lately, missing weeks, publishing posts I wrote ages ago for fallow times, or republishing old posts. You may recall about six months ago I began a new day job (completely unrelated to writing) after eighteen months of trying to write full-time, and I acknowledged that I’d have less time to write, and it would take time to form new habits and routines. However, I hadn’t taken on board that shorter lunchbreaks than in my last job meant I could no longer get to the library at lunchtime to write (I’m working about 100 yards away from my old office), and I hadn’t realised how reluctant I’d be to sit at a computer on an evening when I was spending seven hours in front of a screen during the day, rather than the old blend of screen, paper, and time away from a desk. I certainly hadn’t anticipated the succession of spanners life was about to chuck in the works.

In the last six months OneMonkey and I have encountered bereavement, health problems in the family involving long periods of waiting, disruption and upset and general stress which looks set to continue for the foreseeable future. Plus we both turned forty and celebrated (dancing alone to our playlist) our twentieth anniversary. There has been much reflection on life and direction, priorities and what’s truly important.

For me, writing is definitely one of the important things, but such has been the effect of the past six months I’ve barely written anything. The writing community on Twitter is another one, but I’ve largely withdrawn from that partly due to squeezed time, partly because I don’t have the energy to be social. Those of you who’ve been around here a while or know me in real life know I’ve usually got a book in my hand (or I’ve just put it down for five minutes to make a cup of tea). I’ve been reading River of Gods by Ian McDonald for so long I’ve kind of forgotten what’s going on, I’m almost reading each chapter as a stand-alone story that sets off echoes of something else I once read, a long time ago. Clearly these are unusual times.

So, in part this stands as an apology for those of you who enjoy my blog and have been left wanting lately, and those of you who feel I’m neglecting you on Twitter, whose stories I haven’t read and whose successes I haven’t celebrated. In part (upbeat ending alert…) it serves as encouragement to keep trying – I’m aiming to take part in NaNoWriMo again this year.

Some people see NaNo as a competition, a thing to win, and if you haven’t written 50,000 words by midnight on November 30th you’ve failed. I see it as a cattle prod. There’s this writing you want to do, and it’s easy to lose it among the day to day. For one month NaNo and the other writers taking part will be saying come on, keep going, just write a bit more. And for one month you can tell yourself you can postpone this other thing or not spend as much time on that, and carve yourself out a writing niche. If you write 500 words during November when you didn’t think you’d manage any, then that’s an achievement. I certainly won’t be aiming at 50,000 words of the semi-rural fantasy, for one thing I reckon I only need another 30,000 to finish the draft, but I’ll try and write some, which is more than I’ve managed in a while.

Best of luck to anyone else doing NaNoWriMo this year, and I’ll let you know how I get on. Eventually.

The Food of Love

You’ll be eager to know how the Ilkley Literature Festival Fringe event went, no doubt, if you read last week’s post about the preparations. It was every bit as wonderful as I’d dared to hope, and then some.

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OneMonkey took loads of photos of us

The sun was warm, the breeze not too strong (though we did have a moment of concern with the pages of music at one point – mostly the clothes pegs and bulldog clips did their job). Past and present members of Ilkley Writers turned up to support us, and a couple of Wharfedale Poets for good measure. Add in the various other friends and family, festival-goers and passers-by and we had an impressively large audience – I did a rough headcount at some point and got to 60, the steward thinks there were 70 (plus 4 dogs) – sitting on benches, standing on the grass and generally having a pleasant Saturday lunchtime.

For those interested in glimpses behind the scenes, here’s a photo of a couple of pages of my script (it happens to be the end of the pop song tribute, Variations on the theme of young love):

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Stage directions are hand-written so I don’t accidentally read them out, and there’s a list of the pieces that come after that and before my next one.

Everyone seemed to enjoy it, several came up afterwards to tell us so. I was still excited hours later, but that might partly be relief that it didn’t rain, nothing blew away, and the audience could hear us OK. Emily and I spent the rest of the day with tunes from each other’s pieces stuck in our heads, and I’ve inspired Keely to dig out some cassettes from her youth. If you’ve been round here a while you’ll know how much music means to me (hence, I suppose, this entire event) so I’m feeling pretty pleased with myself.

The general cry was ‘When can we do it again?’ so plans are already afoot. If any of them involve a recording I’ll point you at it, but in the meantime I’ll leave you with another picture of us and you can either remember what a lovely time we all had, or imagine what it was like to be there.

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Roz York, Emily Devane, and JY Saville in her trusty old biker jacket (Black Sabbath hoodie hidden by music stand)

Musically accompanied at the fringe

Remember that homage to the 3-minute pop song I told you I was writing, back in July? Well, that and the other pieces by me, Emily Devane and Rosalind York are all ready for our event at the Ilkley Literature Festival fringe this Saturday lunchtime, The Food of Love. Did you spot the mention of live music? That’s the ultra-exciting bit, which meant we went to a rehearsal this week at Karen the violinist’s house, and were blown away by musical interpretation.

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Thanks to Karen’s husband for this photo of Emily, Roz and I hard at work (aka drinking tea, playing with the dog, and listening to the musicians)

When I floated the idea of this event (based on a throwaway remark from Emily, months before the fringe application deadline) I had no idea what kind of musical accompaniment we’d have, but between us we knew a few people who might agree to collaborate so we sent the application in and decided to worry about detail if we got selected.

When we heard we’d been given a slot in the programme, Roz suggested asking Keely Hodgson if she and her cello would like to be involved. We all know her from her Purple Room showcase of local musicians and writers (in fact we all read there in June) and I like the sound of a cello, though I still had no idea what form the musical end would take. Keely invited her violinist friend Karen Vaughan into the mix and I had even less clue what the final performance would sound like.

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Karen and Keely genuinely hard at work (thanks again to Karen’s husband for the photo)

We sent Keely our stories and poems, shuffled into some sort of order, and left her to mull it over and discuss it with Karen. What with holidays, work and other commitments we didn’t manage to get together until ten days before the performance! I was nervous as well as excited when I entered the room but as they played the first few bars for Roz to recite her first poem over, I knew this was going to be fantastic.

Keely has chosen just the right music for each piece, and arranged it for herself and Karen so that it works brilliantly. We spent several hours drinking Karen’s tea, reading and re-reading our pieces aloud, while the two musicians experimented with cutting, repeating, playing in different styles. They now have cues written on their scores, like ‘repeat until Poland’, and of course being a writer I made a note of fabulous questions like: Is Carol waking up in a sweat before or after I come in?

I wrote about the benefits of writing with a partner when Roz and I wrote a radio script together, back in March, and I can highly recommend collaborating with musicians as well. Seeing how someone else interprets your work, and hearing it acquire an extra dimension with a punctuating score is magical. If any of you are within striking distance of Ilkley at 1pm on the 29th of September, come along and share the magic at the bandstand on The Grove. It’s free, open air (fingers crossed for a dry day) and unticketed.

 

Short piece at Visual Verse

I’ve got a story called Air of Belonging at Visual Verse in response to this month’s prompt, you can read it here. It’s less than 500 words long, perfect for a tea break. Because September’s guest editor is Carmen Marcus (I recently reviewed her novel How Saints Die) and because I’ve been banging on about class again anyway, my sci-fi story is kind of informed by the row about working class access to the arts. While still being very much related to the prompt image, which is a woman in ballgown and breathing apparatus, playing a harp. Intrigued? Read everyone else’s response to it as well, as usual it’s sent all the contributing writers off in different directions, which is pretty impressive for such specificity.

The Crows Remember, an illustrated fairytale

At the start of this year the illustrator Bonnie Helen Hawkins (accompanied by a story from novelist Joanne Harris) kicked off her 52 Crows project, in which she vowed to draw a crow every Monday all year, to illustrate a story or poem. This week I was lucky enough to have her choose my story The Crows Remember as the focus of her drawing and man is it good! She’s gone colourful for this one, picking up on the wildflowers I mention and using them to beautiful effect. You can see her gorgeous drawing (and read my story) on her blog. I urge you to go look at all the other wonderful pictures and read everyone else’s stories and poems as well.

The Crows Remember is a sad story, as pretty much everyone who’s read it so far has pointed out, but I was going for fairytale/folktale and there’s often an undercurrent of sadness or something dark at the core of those so I think I found the tone I was looking for. It’s set (though I didn’t specify in the story) in Swaledale, which to me is a mysterious place populated by the shades of my ancestors, and some sheep – all of 30 miles and a couple of dales away from where I live, but when you don’t drive it’s not an easy place to visit. Unless maybe you’re fitter than I am and own a bicycle. I digress…

I hope you enjoy the story. I don’t see how you could fail to be impressed by the drawing. And if you’re anywhere near Bath, I think there are plans for a 52 Crows exhibition next year, keep an eye on Bonnie’s Twitter for details.