writing

Writing with an outward gaze

There’s an image of writers as self-absorbed navel-gazers. Alone in the attic with a typewriter, capturing important words that the cruel and/or philistine public doesn’t want to read or hear. These days, of course, it’s been taken to a whole new level by bloggers and self-publishers (yes, like me). It’s so easy to sit here and tell as much of the world as cares to take notice how your novel’s doing; how many submissions, rejections, invitations and events are filling your world; how many books you’ve read; how many words you’ve written…

Sometimes I’m reminded that it doesn’t have to be like that, or not all of it at any rate (I kind of like reading the personal side from other writers so I hope some of you enjoy similar from me). Applying to be a writer in residence focusing on climate change last month made me properly consider the possibilities for writing as a force for good (or for change, anyway – ‘good’ is often a judgement made in hindsight).

Anyone who’s ever written sci-fi has probably consciously chosen to use fiction to highlight the bad things about the present or to show the better things that could be, whether it’s to do with discrimination, the state of politics, or the environment. Personally, I think it’s harder to do outside of genre fiction (you can do it in crime or historical fiction to a certain extent as well as in SF) but not impossible. As readers, you know how a powerful story can stay with you and maybe change your views or attitudes, it can certainly make you have a long, hard think about the views you already hold. So, remember you can use your fiction to make people think.

Non-fiction is more obvious but is further from my comfort zone and if you’re predominantly a writer of fiction that probably goes for you, too. Creative non-fiction (real events relayed in a style more usual in fiction) or a personal essay can be more effective for persuasion than haranguing the reader in an article, but a concise, factual article can raise awareness of a situation or issue that’s not widely known.

Plays, films and podcasts can be anywhere on the spectrum between the two: from documentary via dramatisation of real events to full-on fiction. Events featuring readings (which again can be a blend of fact and fiction such as Alice Courvoisier and I have done in the past) can also be used. Even the (ahem) self-absorbed blog can be used in this way.

If this is getting your writing gears turning, the Royal Society of Literature have the Literature Matters awards (this year’s deadline is December 5th) to fund work which:

(a) will help connect with audiences or topics outside the usual reach of literature, and/or (b) will help generate public discussion about why literature matters.

Of course, writing an original work isn’t the only thing a writer can do to create change. You can help other people’s voices be heard, and depending on the type of change you’re after, just giving those workshops or providing that platform can be a change in itself.  You might be able to join (or create) a local group, festival, initiative, or community arts project. I say this knowing full well that it’s not always that easy (you may remember the cancellation of our Bradford libraries writing festival project a couple of years ago).

I’ll end with a mention for Chapel FM in Seacroft. I’ve loved being involved with Chapel FM, I’m continually amazed at the breadth of their output and the work they do as a community arts project. For the first time in a few years it looks like I won’t be taking part in their Writing on Air festival in March 2020 (I don’t drive, it’s a pain to get to by public transport from where I live, and previously I’ve been lucky enough to be collaborating with kind friends who gave me a lift) but I thought I’d give a small signal boost to their call for board members, and a couple of new staff members – they’re expanding again and I wish them the best of luck.

 

A literature festival, a twinned town, and a workhouse

Autumn is always busy, it wouldn’t feel right if it wasn’t. As is often the case, I’ll be taking part in the Ilkley Literature Festival Fringe and I’m part of a festival on Chapel FM (have we stopped calling it East Leeds FM again?) though not the usual Writing on Air. I’ve also been busy behind the scenes doing historical research.

This year instead of showing off what we can do, Ilkley Writers are giving four bite-sized workshops called Invite To Write at the Fringe, two on Saturday 5th October and two on Sunday 6th. Each one will feature one writing exercise that’s intended to be fun, not at all intimidating, and suitable for those wanting to dip a toe in the creative waters as well as experienced writers in a rut. We like a challenge…

The night before the first workshop I’ll be on Chapel FM at 8.30pm (though as usual you’ll be able to listen again via the website) reading flash fiction that I wrote for the 50th anniversary of the twinning of Leeds and Dortmund. It has nothing to do with either Leeds or Dortmund, or anything high-minded like bridging the continental divide. The theme was neighbours, so mine is wry humour about living in a flat. Other people involved in the festival have been more serious about it (though not all of them, naturally). You can read all the pieces on the Leeds Dortmund website.

While preparations for all this have been going on, I signed up as a volunteer researcher on a project called More Than Oliver Twist, which aims to individualise and humanise the nineteenth century workhouse. The idea is to research inmates who were in particular workhouses on the 1881 census, and tell their life stories in an exhibition next year. For me this is a natural follow-on from writing about the Bradford Female Educational Institute a couple of years ago for the Dangerous Women Project, highlighting a forgotten, overlooked bit of working class history and trying to make people (including me, perhaps – it’s easy to think in broad terms when you’re reading about the past) think about classes and categories of historical figures as individuals. I’ve researched a few workhouse inmates before while looking into mine and OneMonkey’s families, but not in Leeds so I’m straying into new territory here.

Incidentally, the Dangerous Women Project is crowd-funding a book. I’m not entirely sure why they’re doing a book when they’ve already got a website (and my piece is not going to be in the book) but if you’re interested, head on over there and support them.

Also, as an aside, some or all of this arose from me working through The Writer’s Plan that Carmen Marcus kindly shared. I wanted to give more back, with teaching or mentoring. I wanted to dare to try (like, getting involved in a Chapel FM festival by myself. Though it turns out Roz is on earlier in the evening so we’re going there together, which is a nice coincidental compromise). And I wanted to write about more forgotten history. Thanks Carmen, for giving me a shove.

Cryptic notes of a time-strapped writer

In amongst the day job and household life I get brainwaves, flashes of inspiration and insight that I can’t let go but don’t have time to act on. So I write myself a note, on a corner of scrap paper or in a draft email, and later on when I’ve got more time I read the note. And wonder what the blazes it means.

Northern King. Hefting. Rebanks.

Individually I know what all the components of that note mean. The Northern King is my semi-rural fantasy novel. James Rebanks is a shepherd who wrote a great book about Cumbrian hill-farming, which I don’t have a copy of and therefore can’t look anything up in. If I recall correctly, hefted is how you describe sheep who are so used to a particular fell that they won’t stray. Can I tell you what was in my mind when I wrote these crucial words down? No, I can’t. I could guess at an analogy between my main character John (a former shepherd) and the hefted sheep, but exactly what I was driving at I couldn’t say. The significance of this moment of clarity is lost.

All Points North, Ch1. Rules.

A few weeks after I’ve scribbled this in the margin of a notebook I can clearly recall reading the first section of All Points North by Simon Armitage and being hit by something I needed to say, related to a line he’d written that was about rules. This note has done its job. I pull the paperback from the shelf and flick through the first few pages. The only instance of the word ‘rules’ that jumps out at me is connected to train fares: “There are also rules against travelling on Fridays and travelling north at teatime,” it begins. I read it a few times, wondering what was so important about it. A political point to make? A story set in a world where you’re not allowed to travel north at teatime? Had it jogged a memory of some other tangentially related passage, perhaps in a travel-related piece by Stuart Maconie or JB Priestley? I can’t remember and doubt I ever will, though I’m sure it will periodically resurface to taunt me.

I could, I suppose, learn to let go. If an idea arises while I’m wrestling with a database at the office I get paid to turn up at, let it float on by. Give a mental shrug, get back to the SQL and trust that if it was important it will come back around later. Like the word ‘Walt’ and a flash of a memory related to Walt Whitman, that resurfaced as I was typing this. It’s crucial, I know it is, and the story it relates to is almost graspable at the back of my mind.

I remember walking from the station to the office one morning last week and the next part of that story writing itself as I walked along. I remember being frustrated that I didn’t have the time (or paper) to write it down before I arrived, and making a conscious effort to hang the whole thing on a key word. Walt, I thought, if I keep saying Walt to myself it’ll cement the thought and I can retrieve it later. Indeed, that afternoon in a meeting at which a colleague named Walter sent his apologies the whole idea flashed into my mind again. Fantastic, I thought, this is really working. Since then, it’s gone. It’ll come to me. It’s something really crucial to the next part of a half-written story, and it vaguely relates to Walt Whitman.

Not as fluent in English as I thought

Ask me where I’m from and I’ll say Yorkshire. I use a smattering of dialect, but not nearly as much as I used to, and unless you know me well you’re unlikely to hear the strongest version of my accent. I write in English, as you can see, and being a native speaker I thought I was pretty fluent. Until I started doing a deep edit of a couple of short stories during an online course.

The exercise was about getting specific. Cut the adverbs and use the most fitting verb. Ditch the abstract notions and make them concrete. Here’s what I wrote as my experience of working through the story I’m focusing on the most, which is set in the 1980s on a farm in the Yorkshire Dales:

I had (I think) almost nothing properly abstract and only one adverb (breathing heavily). I wondered how much is to do with this story being in a working class Yorkshire setting so I feel free to use more evocative and precise phrases like he clattered down the stairs, he brayed on the wall, the radio wittered. I’m going to investigate another story where I’ve used a more middle-class voice and see if I’ve used ‘standard English’ i.e. a smaller vocabulary and hence relied on adverbs more.

And you know what? I had.

As I suspected, the middle-class voice story I was thinking of has: talking quietly and earnestly, walked more slowly, ran quickly away, held tightly [several times!], coughed loudly. Not to mention a couple of ‘very’ and some abstract notions like feeling better, being kind or afraid. Wow.

Now, either I was having a bad day when I wrote the ‘middle-class’ story (and every subsequent time I’ve gone through it) or I have some kind of block when I’m writing in a posh voice.

I’ve talked about code-switching before (not least when I wrote about accent at No Writer Left Behind) but I always thought I was pretty good at it. My vowels sound northern (u and a are dead giveaways) but I didn’t think translating the odd word (something/anything/nothing instead of summat/owt/nowt, for instance) was seriously stifling my creativity. But all that is in spoken English, and thankfully I don’t get to go back through conversations at work to see how large a vocabulary I’ve used.

Written down, it’s there to go over later. Written down, it also has to follow rules about what gets written in books, ‘proper English’. Do I self-censor because I think words like clattered or brayed aren’t allowed in written English (slang? impolite? common?), or because I think they’re not universally understood (dialect? old-fashioned?), or because I think they’re not used by the kind of person with the voice I’m trying to write in?

It’s an interesting situation, it’s shown up my assumed fluency in switching and made me stop and think. Maybe what it comes down to is if I’m consciously writing ‘northern-normal’ – what to me is the default – then as long as I can imagine me or my Nana saying it, it’s fine, but for the middle-class, the BBC accent, I have to be able to imagine someone reading it from a book on Radio 4, and that imposes a whole mass of constraints which I’m clearly not comfortable with navigating.

I think my conclusion is that I should take my own repeated advice and write more in shades of my own voice.

National Flash Fiction Day recommendations

It’s National Flash Fiction Day again, and there’s enough short fiction on the go today to keep you going for weeks, even though each one is bite-sized. There’s my Badge of Honour, of course, and fellow Ilkley Writer Emily Devane’s unsettling Laundry, as well as a host of others by names that will be familiar if you’re into your short short fiction (Helen Rye, Anita Goveas, Stephanie Hutton…).

There are also many stories by debut flash writers, and people who I at least haven’t come across before. In my first half-hour of reading on the day I particularly enjoyed Emulsion by Liz Wride and In the Field by Simon Lee-Price.

They’re releasing writing prompts throughout the day so you can join the fun, and you can read the whole FlashFlood at http://flashfloodjournal.blogspot.com/

Writing on Air Festival 2019

The beauty of radio in the internet age is the listen-again function, which means that when a local station’s annual celebration of writing blossoms into a four-day extravaganza featuring hosts of established and emerging, amateur and professional writers from across the region, you don’t have to try and take it all in at once.

Last month was my fourth year of being part of the Writing on Air festival from East Leeds FM (Chapel FM as it’s sometimes known, it being based in a converted chapel complete with organ and stained glass) and it continues to be a pleasure. Because it’s a community arts venue there’s some great encouragement for young writers in the area, and I particularly enjoyed Scattering Sounds, which collected some writing from the Associate Writers group. Throughout the festival there were interviews, discussions, readings; poetry, prose, drama; the topical, the evergreen; gravity and humour.

You can see some of the bustle of the festival (including Keely and Karen rehearsing) via the Chapel’s photo collection on Instagram, and all the programmes from this year’s festival are available to listen to online on the ELFM player (last year’s festival is still available too, and many of the participants appear regularly on ELFM throughout the year).

This year I featured in The Food of Love with Rosalind Fairclough and Emily Devane, where Emily and I read three of our stories each, Roz read three of her poems, and throughout it all we had marvellous, specially-arranged accompaniment on cello (Keely Hodgson) and violin (Karen Vaughan). You can listen to us, or you can even watch the video we didn’t realise was being recorded (don’t worry, you don’t need a Facebook account to access it).

(And for those few who still haven’t heard the radio drama Roz and I wrote for last year’s festival, here’s a direct link to listen to it now).

Under-represented writers finding their way

I’ve been working through the new Route-map for under-represented writers from Carmen Marcus this week (if you recall, it’s over on her blog that I wrote about embracing my accent). It’s even harder than I thought it might be, for some of the reasons she mentions in her explanations.

I want never gets. That was a common phrase in our house, too. And ‘making do’ is only to be expected when you’re being brought up by your Nana, who learnt to manage her own household in the 1940s. I’m still frequently to be heard saying There’s nowt wrong with this one, which is how come I’ve been writing at a laptop with a periodically blue-tinged screen for nearly 2 years, that often requires careful jiggling to be able to read it. This mindset, as Carmen notes, leads to wants being automatically labelled as indulgence. So imagine how hard it is to list your wants and needs as a writer (ssh, ordinary people aren’t writers…).

I used to believe my dad that you can’t be working class if you’ve been to university, which meant me and him were different from the rest of the family. In a way, we are – we’re the quiet, shy, bookish ones (though Big Brother manages that well enough without a degree) – but mostly we’re pretty much the same. It’s only by acknowledging the influence of your background that you can work to overcome it. Similarly it’s only by acknowledging the deepest needs (confidence, the need to feel like you’re not being laughed at by those in the know) that you can figure out where to head next with your writing career. It’s no good going to some swanky agent event if you spend the whole time in the toilet because you overheard someone comment on your pairing brown shoes with a dark suit and now you can’t face anyone. (Tip: never wear a suit to anywhere that matters, if you don’t normally wear suits. Dress to your own rules and no-one can judge if you’re doing it ‘right’ except you.)

So what have I been delving into and enlightening myself with, using Carmen’s breadcrumb trail? Well, starting with a list of what you’ve done so far is an excellent boost for the journey ahead. We should all do this periodically to remind ourselves, I think. Importantly this was about activity, not achievement, so while I didn’t count up yesterday how many acceptances I had in 2018, I did note with surprise that I’d made 49 submissions. In one of the worst years of my life, when it felt like I was barely functioning at times, I count that as a major success. I also noted that things that had taken me well out of my comfort zone (like writing a radio drama with a friend then performing it on live radio) were the things I was most proud of and had turned out brilliantly. Maybe if it feels like it’s going to be difficult I put more preparation in? Or maybe my strengths lie in places I don’t generally acknowledge. Mentoring would definitely take me out of my comfort zone, and every time I’ve thought about it the little voice in my head goes What have you possibly got to offer? but maybe now is the time to give it a go.

I tried not to agonise over my top 5 inspirational writers. Write down the first five that float to the top of your mind, I thought. Number one? Douglas Adams, naturally. And Stephen King, Terry Pratchett, Anthony Trollope and, interestingly, Stuart Maconie. I listed King, Pratchett and Adams as my favourite authors on my UCAS form in 1995 (I remember a bizarre conversation with – as I recall – Tom McLeish about the science of the Discworld, when I visited Leeds University), and Trollope’s been one of my favourites for at least the last 15 years. But what on earth do they have in common? I decided it was probably language that didn’t feel writerly (harder to spot with Trollope, but if you make allowances for the era he’s writing in…). They’re easy to read, chatty for the most part, implicitly or explicitly narrating a tale directly to you, the reader, with asides and interesting facts. There’s room for passion, erudition, weirdness, but all so naturally and simply laid out. Whereas I waffle, and use too many parentheses, and rarely cut to the chase. I have a feeling there is much for me to learn here.

Then there’s the list of jobs, and what skills and experiences they gave you. There’s the one I won’t specify that taught me how to have a smoothly professional relationship with a close colleague you loathe in almost every respect. There’s being a research student for 2 years, that gave me a good grounding in living with anxiety and self-doubt (definitely useful as a writer). There’s a couple of them (particularly one shop) where I learnt to let the back-biting and petty jealousies wash over me – and even though I mainly spend my social media time in a lovely supportive corner of Twitter I get glimpses of that kind of thing now and then.

All that was before I even got as far as Step 2, which I’m struggling with as it’s the wants and needs bit. I have to articulate these things, commit them to paper (and those that know me well, know how I hate to ‘waste’ paper, so writing this list in a notebook took some doing. In fact I avoided all my nice writing notebooks and went to serviceable spiral-bound A4 left over from a project) and then potentially, scarily, share them.

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My serviceable, as yet blank, hierarchy of writing needs

So, having managed to write down my top 10 writing goals as the 10 writing goals I’m frightened of, believe aren’t for me or are beyond me (did I mention needing confidence?), I think I need to take a break and get some inspiration elsewhere. I’m going to start by re-reading other people’s writing experiences at No Writer Left Behind.

If you want Step 1 of Carmen’s route-map, you can find it at The Bookseller, who also had an interesting survey of working class people in the book trade this week. Step 2 is at Carmen’s blog, where Steps 3-5 will follow, I believe. And if you’re interested in all this kind of thing, you might want to listen to Monday’s Breaking The Class Ceiling on Radio 4, which includes another vocal working class writer, Natasha Carthew. (No, I don’t think classism should be a ‘thing’, for a start it’s impossible to define, but it sounds like an interesting programme). See you next month.