There has been something special about nearly every writing group I’ve been part of, or indeed led. Often I won’t even know the ‘normal’ facts about the other writers – whether they are married, what job they do, how many children, if any, they have – BUT by the end of the session I may probably know something about them – and they will know something about me – that very few people do. This isn’t to say that writing groups are therapy groups, or confessionals, but the very act of writing together can feel special. In fact, the best writing groups generate their own energy so you end up writing something that surprises even you.
So I have counted myself very lucky this year to meet some extraordinary writers in the groups I have run – whether it be for the University of Kent at Tonbridge, in my own house, and even outside as much as I can (luckily mostly in the sunshine)!
We have written haikus, sonnets, novels (or parts of). We’ve shared knowledge about volcanoes, silences, photo-journalism, architecture, continuity, bees. We’ve written letters we’ll never send and letters to people we admire that we do send (and get replies from). We’ve written about food, places we’ve never been to, adventures, wishes, regrets. We’ve pretended to do things we’d never want to do and happily told lies about ourselves, some of us have committed murder (on paper) and others have turned innocent bystanders into people you would never ever want to meet in real life. It’s exhausting, fun and surprisingly brave to get words down on paper. Sometimes we’ve even told them out loud.
I’ve been teaching writing for some years now but I still can’t tell you how much it means to get comments like this one (as I did this morning): “This year, therefore, I shall cherish forever.” Or to be told that the writing group has changed someone’s life.
Sometimes I think it’s easy as writing tutors to take what happens in a group for granted BUT that’s because we all know is that it isn’t really us, standing or sitting at the front talking about poems or setting topics for writing (really it’s a hard life) but the group that takes off and makes magic happen. All we need to do is let it go and marvel at what happens.
I’ve been thinking about this because of this wonderful post from a writer I very much admire, Anthony Wilson, and also because I’m still crumbling a little inside at having to send an email about my writing classes next year FOUR TIMES because I kept getting it wrong. I almost gave up third time thinking that no one would ever trust me to lead any group ever again, but then I got this kind reply straight away from one of the writers: “Please do not cry, it’s only numbers. You are awesome at words!!!!!!”
It’s only numbers. Yes! And this is exactly the kind of support I value from other writers – knowing just what to say and when to say it. Because it’s the words that matter. So here’s a poem from one of the writers I’ve written alongside this year, always admiring her grace and determination to really get across what she wants to say. It sums up writing groups – not just mine but many – much better than I can, not just the phrase, ‘we will not be judging you’, but also the fun, skill and comradeship of all those involved.
Here’s Yasmin Khan Murgai’s poem. Enjoy!
We are ladies and one man who meet before lunch
If you arrive on a Tuesday with your cashmere slightly askew
or your hair escaping unbrushed, we will not be judging you.
Between ten and twelve we search for words
to take us from heart to page and brain,
words which will then take the journey back again.
we say to readings from a book
or new writing from the group
“I’ve had something published,” says one.
“But it isn’t any good.”
Elegant women will write how this Christmas
they wish to find a white horse
tethered to a tree,
and with the next moment smile and ask
“Would you like coffee?”
We struggle to see the meaning of what it is to write.
Our teacher suggests “You could try this …”
and even more gently “You might …”
We work like spies on a mission
sharing confidences like this is our last night alive,
and yet, like bounty hunters, we keep a cold eye on the prize.
“My novel is a movie playing
in an abandoned cinema
in a forgotten town.”
I announce when suddenly I see.
my smiling group agrees.
We are ladies and one man who meet before lunch.
“I am an expert orienteer”, our factual expert offers,
“in case you lose your way”.
“And I have a specialism in volcanoes”, the clever lady says,
“they’re very important day to day.”
“And I am a scarf!” says the writer opposite. We smile because
All so difficult I suggest, with work and family.
Someone gives me a sideways look
and I sigh.
And that evening work on a writing plan
so I can finish my book.
Note: The writing classes I run from my home on in Tunbridge Wells on a Tuesday morning and Tuesday evening are – despite my lack of admin skills – full, but I do keep a waiting list so let me know if you would like to be on it. Realistically, there probably won’t be a place until summer though so I’d be happy to suggest other local options for you. I’d really advise anyone wanting to write to join a group, and let the magic happen!
The subject line of this post is a quote from the application of Francesca Stocker, the new Poet Laureate of Bendenden School. Here she is with Abegail Morley.
I was lucky enough to judge the competition this year, and announce Francesca’s appointment at morning prayers. It was a little daunting to be honest – imagine this hall filled with people!
But better than that… imagine a school filled with poets! Here are some of my favourite lines from the students who applied for the post.
The capturing of a moment here:
My heart beats like the subway,
blood pulsing with pedestrians…
And another… “a lullaby to the/hum of the streetlights..’ ah…
We swung slowly on the swings, your feet just touching
the ground; the creak of the chains a lullaby to the
hum of the streetlights…
And then this sharp observation. I loved this!
You scale that social ladder like
there’s an unattainable you at the other side.
And this one, heartbreaking but so beautiful I hope the poet won’t mind me sharing it – it’s a real reminder that poetry can help us when we can’t find comfort anywhere else…
The seasons fade and merge into one but the pain in my soul is a constant anchor into despair that neither the spring of tomorrow nor the snow of today can reach.
Of course, the school is lucky in their librarian, the wonderful poet, Abegail Morley, who runs a regular poetry workshop. I had a little smile too when I saw the poetry aisles in the library….
It was probably hard to avoid the launch of William Gibson’s book, The Peripheral in London this week even if you wanted to. From Start the Week to the 30th anniversary of Neuromancer, a book, he said, he had little hopes for:
My fantasy of success, then, was that my book, once it had been met with the hostile or indifferent stares I expected, would go out of print. Then, yellowing fragrantly on the SF shelves of secondhand book shops, it might voyage forward, up the time-stream, into some vaguely distant era in which a tiny coterie of esoterics, in London perhaps, or Paris, would seize upon it, however languidly, as perhaps a somewhat good late echo of Bester, Delany or another of the writers I’d pasted, as it were, on the inside of my authorial windshield.
Amazingly enough, my books somehow emerged, hopefully not yellowing too fragrantly, for him, and we met in Vancouver a couple of years ago when he invited me to join him for a CBC broadcast (podcast here).
And so I was lucky enough to go to several of his events this time round and also meet him over a full English breakfast. As you do. Well, he had the full English, the lovely Mrs G and I had pea fritters. Much more delicious than they sound, and I imagine far far nicer than this…
Anyway enough about food. Here are just some of the many writing-ly thoughts I’ve come away with. I was too busy listening to make full notes so this is my interpretation, hopefully accurate…
1. I was struck by the idea of writing in the hope that some people will recognise some of the references (from W H Auden to clothing fabrics) and be rewarded by that moment of connection between author and reader. I love how this can mean we don’t have to explain everything, but hope that we will be lucky enough to make at least one of those connections (as both writer and reader). But also that not everyone will get every reference, and different readers will get different references. It makes me want to sprinkle my manuscript with hidden messages to YOU, yes you, my beloved reader in the future.
2. He talked about the advantages of studying anthropology and economics. One economics module about multi-national corporations apparently had a big effect (which you can see in the books). I’ve been thinking about what he said about multi-national corporations quite a lot – as one example he talked about a war situation, the corporation might divide to service both sides of the war, and then come together afterwards. Stronger, and probably much stronger than the countries at war. Now I’m wondering why we’re not all writing about this.
3. What’s the cross-over between science fiction and classical Westerns? This was one of the questions at the BFI, and I keep thinking about it. It’s not just about new worlds and crossing boundaries, but perhaps more about the search for a distinction between good and bad. Do we need this at certain moments in history more than others? I’m still brewing on this one, particularly as my dad, one of the most complicated men I’ve known, was always hungry for Westerns and even as a child, I could see he was remarkably relaxed afterwards. (To be fair, the last meanderings are mine, not WG’s!)
4. “It’s harder to imagine the past that went away than it is to imagine the future.” This is a quote from William Gibson in his Paris Review interview, and which he touched on several times in his talks. There’s much in here, not least how impossible it is NOT to keep rewriting history, especially with different angles.
5. What’s your weirdness standard? I loved how WG said he found the world was much weirder than his books. Therefore to think about the future he needed to ‘recalibrate reality.’ Writing about brands was essential, and he wasn’t worried whether these went out of date or not. His books are of their time, even when they aren’t (if you see what I mean!)
6. And I almost cheered when he admitted he never thought he was writing an original, revolutionary work with Neuromancer. Writers often seem scared to admit their influences, but he included Raymond Chandler and Dashiel Hammett amongst his which interested me, that detective element. I also liked how he credited Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska, and in another talk, he mentioned Steely Dan. Too often we forget music.
7. Another influence was E M Forster’s Aspects of the Novel which he studied at University, particularly Forster’s claim that a writer fully in control of his characters is not doing his job right. So reassuring for me at the moment as one minor character of mine will keep chatting, while the main character refuses to do anything or say anything no matter how much I try to prod her.
And if you’re wondering whether it’s worth reading the book, here’s a paragraph that should persuade you. Beautifully done. All of it.
On our most recent WW1 Writers’ Trip to the Somme, I tried to deal with the overwhelming grief of seeing gravestone after gravestone by concentrating on the individual scripts written on each headstone. It was heartbreaking how much personality can come across just from a few words, and how much thought must have gone into exactly how families wanted their loved ones to be remembered. Here are some:
Given that I’ve finally managed to immerse myself into writing my fourth novel, it could have been a strange time to experience my first ever Aldeburgh Poetry Festival. But so many people have raved about it over the years and as I value every minute I can spend with my host, Pamela Johnson and fellow guest, Mary Hamer, it seemed too good a chance to be missed.
The whole weekend went by in a blur so here are some impressions – as much for me to remember as to share with you!
* The first night’s candlelit supper held in Aldeburgh’s extraordinary arts centre right on the beach, The Lookout, with white tablecloths, soup and introductions to many of the poets who’d be reading over the festival, organised by Daphne Warburg Astor (and thanks to Caroline Wiseman.) As the wind howled around us, and you could hear the sea and birds outside, I finally got what Aldeburgh is all about, although I’m rather abashed to find I have a ‘listening to poetry’ face…
* ‘Everyone you meet is a poet at Aldeburgh’, I’d been told, and as well as the poets reading from the stage, there were extraordinary poets in the audience just there to listen and think. It seemed so generous in a way I can’t actually remember from other literary festivals where ‘stars’ are airlifted in and out just for their own performances. Interesting what a difference that made.
* Being lucky enough to find friend and Festival blogger, Anthony Wilson, standing by the bookstall one morning and following ALL his recommendations (and a few more). That joy in discovering new poets and poems I wouldn’t otherwise have found. And learning AGAIN to read everything Anthony suggests. He has excellent taste.
* Poetry crushes – of course! This time it was the South African poet and novelist, Finuala Dowling. I’d signed up to her workshop on the Friday telling myself I’d use the prompts to write prose, to uncover snippets I could add into the novel, and ended up in exactly the right place to write a poem about something that had only recently happened but which I hadn’t been able to let myself even think about before. Everywhere I went over the festival, I found people quoting things Finuala had said, so here’s a few from my own notebook – ‘Poets end their own lives, but politicians have to be shot’ (I’ve taken that out of context by the way, she wasn’t advocating that we all go out and shoot politicians!) – * on the importance of wit, ‘wit is always subversive’ – * to avoid ‘the mossy stone school of composition’ – * ‘by making yourself vulnerable, you become invulnerable’ – * ‘People judge us all the time, poetry can be a place to fight back.’ – *’self-pity can be an interesting place to go’ – and the all-important ‘What have we left unsaid?’
* Kathleen Jamie’s reading – ahhhhh, and also her comments during the Masterclass she ran. I’d never been to one of these before, it felt uncomfortably like a trial with the three poets whose work was being discussed sitting at a table facing the audience. But interesting. My scribbles include * ‘What am I being asked to see here?’ * If you get others to read your work out loud, you can’t gloss over what you don’t want to engage with. * Have you thought about the left hand margin of your poem? * Apply dowsing rods – where is the energy of the poem? * Is the poem at war with itself? *And lastly that beautiful phrase, the geography of space.
* Walking at Snape and at Aldeburgh. The skies, the skies.
* Stuttering into some kind of meaning for myself during Hannah Silva’s talk about how if the ‘voice’ is actually all about the body then how rarely we let that out during readings, and finding Amy Wragg and John Prebble on exactly the same wavelength – and at the same time! I love these strange moments of connection.
* Listening to poetry in German, not understanding an actual word of it but understanding everything.
* And then one night, after a day crammed with readings and short takes and workshops and discussions, going back to Pam’s house and over whisky and chocolate, taking it in turns to read out poems from our newly purchased books. Reading ‘just one more’ until too late, and then going to bed with so many voices in my dreams.
* Back to Finuala – ‘Write what you yourself were not expecting.’ I wrote FOUR poems over the weekend – how? – and reading them now, I am surprised. I may do nothing with them, but that surprise is worth everything.
* Snippets of conversations, from the sublime, ‘Let me tell you what really matters to me..’ to the ridiculous, ‘You’re writing a novel? Oh well, never mind.’
* A quiet considered intelligent 15-minute talk by Togara Muzanenhamo on Poetry and Disobedience, and his year spent in a derelict house in Manchester discussing line breaks. And sitting next to exactly the right person to share the beauty in this.
* And then hovering round the bookstore at the last minute – you don’t need any MORE books, but I do, I do – buying Rosemary Tonks’s collected poems, and not being able to stop reading it since. And now thinking again of the whole weekend through the prism of her words about what real poetry is:
Dealing with the things which really move people. People are born, they procreate, they suffer, they are nasty to one another, they are greedy, they are terribly happy, they have changes in their fortune, and they meet other people who have effects on them, and then they die; and these thousands of dramatic things happen to them, and they happen to everybody. Everybody has to make terrible decisions or pass examinations, or fall in love, or else avoid falling in love. All these things happen and contemporary poets don’t write about them. Why not?
Grateful. Grateful. Grateful.
And I’m sure that my fledgeling novel will say THANK YOU too as it gets filled up with tastier verbs, dynamic nouns and all the things we’re not supposed to say.
Once I can tear myself away from reading my new books, of course.
Put seven writers together with a list of literary magazines and journals, lots of inspiration, chocolate biscuits and a delicious home-made cake, and – voila! – I’m pleased to have hosted the first Submissions Picnic yesterday as part of my writing classes…
As one of the exercises, we split into two groups for workshopping, and I suggested that each group acted as if they were literary editors. If they received this piece for submission, what would attract them? What would they want more of? It was a different way of thinking from normal writing workshops, not least because the writer of the piece wasn’t there to hear the discussion (although we shared findings afterwards). What amazed me was the common ground in the suggestions – whether it was prose, poetry or hybrid pieces! This is what came out…
* The need for a good title that isn’t there just for impact, but adds context to the story or poem.
* A better beginning, a better beginning, a better beginning – this came up time and time again. We don’t want to wait until the middle to know why and what we’re reading. Have you set the scene – not just landscape, but emotional also?
* Does the story or poem need to be more grounded? Be kind to the reader – add signposts, even if they seem clunky. Have you given the context?
* Layout and editing – even the smallest typo made a bad impression.
* Add an element of surprise – we didn’t want to think we’d read it before.
* Is there tension – why would you read on?
* A satisfying ending.
But here’s another interesting thing – even within the groups of three, there was disagreement over whether the writers could engage with the story or not. One story was loved by two writers, but it just didn’t do anything for the third who wouldn’t have published it, although she could see its literary merits.
SO… just because one magazine editor rejects our work, it doesn’t mean it can never be published again. It doesn’t mean that we are useless writers who should take up knitting instead. We just need to develop tough writing skins. NOT EVERYONE WILL ALWAYS LOVE US.
It shocks me too.
And just so we don’t always take our submissions too seriously, it’s worth reading this wonderful piece by Christopher Monks, Submission Guidelines for our Refrigerator Door.
ps the picnic was lovely too.
It’s a busy time at the moment so here are some dates of readings and workshops for you…
Tonight – 20th October – I’m at Tonbridge Writers Hub, 7.30, Tonbridge Adult Education Centre, Avebury Road, talking about ideas and writing. Tickets on the door £5.
Thursday 23rd October, I’m speaking at a Sussex Philanthropy event for the Sussex Community Foundation in Hastings – invitation only.
This Saturday, 26th October, I’m presenting at the Kent Writing and Wellbeing Network, Community Room, The Beaney in Canterbury, 10am, on running workshops, writing outside and writing for wellbeing. Contact Farah at firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like to come along.
Then on 29th October, I’ll be joining my fellow Canterbury Laureates: Patience Agbabi, Patricia Debney and Dan Simpson for an evening of spoken word and general diva-ness. More information and tickets here.
And on 22nd November, I’m teaching a workshop in memoir and autobiography at the University of Kent Tonbridge Centre. More information here.
… to space!
I run two writing groups on a Tuesday, and, like most people who do any kind of writing teaching will tell you, the particular joy of this work is that a) I get to share the work of writers I love and b) I get to write new things myself.
So yesterday, I’m still buzzing with ideas for writing lists after discussing the amazing Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon. Although it was written in the 11th century by a Japanese Imperial Court gentlewoman, many of the descriptions in it still have resonance today. The Pillow Book is a series of small extracts, lists, descriptions of day to day life, impossible to describe really apart from as a ‘crazy quilt’.
It’s a form that anyone who knows my work will realise has been a tremendous influence on me. Just look at Something Beginning With, and it was a pleasure to take it in a slightly different direction in a collaborative project with the textile artist, Anne Kelly to produce a series of postcards using Sei Shonagon’s categories but bringing them in line with contemporary life.
I’m not sure if there are many writers who have been able to resist this book – here’s a little extract to explain just why she’s still so relevant today:
Old-fashioned people put on their gathered trousers in a very time-consuming and awkward way. They pull the front panel up against their stomach and proceed first of all to tuck all the layers of robe in under it, leaving the back strings dangling till they’ve got the front completely straight and tidy, then then bend forward to reach for the back panel, groping behind them with both hands. They look like monkeys with their arms tied behind their backs, standing there fumbling about with the strings like that. You can’t imagine how they could ever get dressed and out the door in time for any urgent appointment.
or this one…
A son-in-law who’s praised by his wife’s father. Likewise, a wife who’s loved by her mother-in-law. A pair of silver tweezers that can actually pull out hairs properly. A retainer who doesn’t speak ill of his master. A person who is without a single quirk. Someone who’s superior in both appearance and character, and who has remained utterly blameless throughout his long dealings with the world. You never find an instance of two people living together who continue to be overawed by each other’s excellence and always treat each other with scrupulous care and respect, so such a relationship is obviously a great rarity. Copying out a tale or a volume of poems without smearing any ink on the book you’re copying from. If you’re copying it from some beautiful bound book, you try to take immense care, but somehow you always manage to get ink on it. Two women, let alone a man and a woman, who vow themselves to each other forever, and actually manage to remain on good terms to the end.
There were some great examples written yesterday – and everyone (me included) found it useful because it is too easy to go for the generic examples, something that everyone else would have written down. The trick is to make it personal, and it was only when the writers engaged completely and honestly on the page, that the rest of us nodded away with understanding and, sometimes even better, surprise.
The version of the Pillow Book I use most is the one translated by Meredith McKinney, and I love this quote about how she went about the translation:
“Sei Shônagon is in fact still very much alive and asserting herself, at the very centre of her work. Without the vividness of her personality, the words turn to dust. It was she herself I realized I must translate, quite as much as “the text.”
The postcards you see above are part of the collaboration between Anne Kelly and myself. I do have some copies still if you’d like to email me for a free set – I might ask something in return though, perhaps a poem of yours, or a prompt for me to write, or just something that might fit under the category: ‘Things that give you confidence’ or, go on, why not, ‘Things that are truly splendid’!!
And if you would like to have a go at following a Pillow Book category, here are the ones we used yesterday… enjoy!
• Things people desire
• I do wish men
• I do wish women
• Rare things
• Startling and disconcerting things
• Things that are hard to say
• Occasions for anxious waiting
• Things that no one notices
• Things that give you confidence
• Things that are better at night
• Can it be true