The stars are in our belly; the Milky Way our umbilicus.
Is it a consolation that the stuff of which we’re made
is star-stuff too?
– That wherever you go you can never fully disappear –
dispersal only: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen.
Tree, rain, coal, glow-worm, horse, gnat, rock.
Monday, 31 July 2017
One of the lovely things about my work as a course facilitator is the variety. My 'default' writing focus and also that of my courses has been largely, the last few years, the connections between wild and the soul, through place and story, myth and poetry; the foundation of my writing and life, as well.
From time to time, though, for various reasons things conspire for me to focus on a specific aspect of writing, and lately it's been fiction and its requirements.
I mentor a few people who are progressing their novels; it's always a joy to see the way these books grow and develop almost into living beings in their creation. It's an honour to be part of the midwifing process.
I've written for quite a long time for the excellent MsLexia women's writing magazine; initially as a regular columnist but continuingly as an occasional contributor. One of their new initiatives is online groups under the guidance of an established writer. I've been mentoring two groups of women short story writers and novelists, and have been excited to be part of this: the writing is good, and the peer feedback on the other participants' work has been generous, incisive and helpful.
Another new initiative is to offer to writing groups a workshop led by a tutor chosen by MsLexia.
I was delighted to present such a workshop as an intensive morning on aspects of the novel and the general requirements of fiction last Friday, in the lovely market town of Bridport in Dorset. The drive was pretty – I used to do it a lot, especially in the days when I was poet-in-residence at Sherborne Boys' School (an illuminating and very positive experience, somewhat to my surprise). This time, though, it was rather marred by the fact that my car, only back last week from the repairing of a broken rear axle (no, I don't know how I did it!), developed a serious engine problem which meant that instead of having a quiet walk on the coast I waited in a car park for four hours to be towed back to South Devon.
No matter. I loved working with 23 other women wrestling plot ideas into a good narrative trajectory, as they say, and I remembered how much I like working with very specific structuring given that much of my work is a lot more fluid and 'right brain'.
I dug out notes from my very first 'Write a Novel in Nine Months' course, offered in Plymouth in 1998 (and featured in The Guardian on World Book Day of that year). The course became a book, Creative Novel Writing, and morphed into 6-month and weekend courses. (Currently, it exists as an online course, Storymaking.)
We looked at the core theme of each person's story, and how this translates into the central 'problem' of the book. It's useful to ask 'What is the key question of my story?'
We looked at the difference between story and plot: E M Forster says that story is simply the chronological unfolding of events: this happened, then that happened, and then that. 'The king died; then the queen died.' Plot, he says, is the consequences of the events; the psychological impact of cause and effect. 'The king died, then the queen died of grief.' Plot is the humanness of the story; the portrayal of our interrelationships, our hopes and losses, tragedies and joys.
I find this a helpful definition: if theme is the why, story is the what, and plot is the how.
We also managed to fit in some writing of an action scene, to compare the dynamics of, firstly, the straight narration of the unfolding of events; then the same scene conveyed entirely in dialogue; the final stage is of course to interweave the best of both.
It was good for me to think so concentratedly about the requirements and demands of fiction and its structures and dynamics, and it's been good also to work in the online forums (fora) with younger novelists and to see the trends in current fiction (rather a lot more darkness, gore and horrors, I notice, in some novels than I'd choose to read, but I guess indicative of the insecurities, terrors and troubles of our times. Some of the work coming through is also very thought-provoking, in the best ways.)
After a very intensive month it was also good, last night, to start to read through the pile of papers on my desk. A few metres down (I exaggerate, but not by much) I came across the Saturday Review from the Guardian of 8 April this year, unread.
I was interested to find Justine Jordan's interview with Jon McGregor, whose first novel (at age 26, and Booker longlisted) If Nobody Speak of Remarkable Things was a remarkable book, and one that I found moving.
If you're a novelist, you might be reassured, as I was in relation to my own back-and-forth and in-and-out process of writing a book, by what he said of the apparent chaos and unstructured first-draft writing of his latest book, Reservoir 13: 'He wrote the book out of sequence, getting down all the scenes about individual families, and then all the lines about blackbirds, foxes, reservoirs and so on, storing the sections in a ring binder. "Then I went back and cut it all up and rearranged it. There was a point when it was purely collage."'
This is what I've been doing with my own book written in and about a Brittany forest; and I really have got to the point where – sorry – I can't see the wood for the trees. Or do I mean the trees for the wood?
McGregor's new novel has been given in its final shape a very tight structure: written in sections of a month at a time, each consisting only of two or three pages. This has meant that 'the "very rhythmical, fixed structure" he'd imposed on himself meant he "couldn't do what your instinct as a writer would normally be to do, to dwell on the dramatic focus and skip over the less dramatic times".'
Setting oneself a structure, or tight framework, in a novel can of course be restrictive; but as in writing poetry in form rather than free verse, such a constraint can force you to think and write in new ways. I find myself as inspired by the many different ways to structure a novel (one of my students is writing a book that consists of just letters, and only from one person) as I am by the variety of my tutoring work.
Speaking of which, I'm finally allowed to announce that I've been awarded one of two National Trust/Literature Works writing residencies this autumn: one is Hardy's Cottage, in Dorset; the other, mine, is the former home of Agatha Christie on the banks of the Dart. Bliss – to work with visitors in such an inspiring place; and to be able to concentrate on my own new writing for three months.
Am I likely to start writing crime fiction? Seems unlikely. But who knows; watch this space.
Certainly I do feel the need to step sideways, creatively, from my habitual modes of expression. Perhaps I'll follow the lead of B S Johnson's novel The Unfortunates, written way back in antediluvian times (1969), and present a series of vignettes in a box:
'“The Unfortunates” comes in a box of 27 unbound chapters (plus the novelist Jonathan Coe’s invaluable introduction). The “First” and “Last” chapters are designated as such. The intervening 25, ranging from 12 pages to a single paragraph, are to be read in any order we choose. Far from some modernist stunt, the form of the book dovetails beautifully with Johnson’s subject — the accidental yet persistent nature of memory.' (New York Times)
Actually, come to think of it, I might not be joking...
If you're tempted by a weekend 'Novelists' Bootcamp', I hope to be offering one again this autumn. Keep an eye on this programme page.
Monday, 24 July 2017
'The activity of writing has been a vital one for me; it helps me make sense of things and to continue. Writing, however, is an offshoot of something deeper and more general... We read and reread the words of the original text in order to penetrate through them, to reach, to touch the vision or experience which prompted them.' (John Berger, Confabulations)
'Poetry can save your life.' (Adrienne Rich)
'Although a poem arises when there's nothing else to be done , although a poem is a last attempt at order when one can't stand disorder any longer,
although poets are most needed when freedom, vitamin C, communications, laws and hypertension therapy are also most needed,
although to be an artist is to fail and art is fidelity to failure, as Samuel Beckett says,
a poem is not one of the last but one of the first things of man (sic).
... It is against emptiness. A poem is being as against emptiness.' (Miroslav Holub, Poems – Before & After)
Monday, 17 July 2017
Such a full-on time: forgotten how to do this. So little space – masses of mentoring, two books to complete (in addition to Iona collection), veg garden tending, news of writing residency. Phew, given my freelance author's income. Gave a talk and reading last week; many in my audience were also writers, so talked about realities of earning a living full-time in writing-related activities: the Society of Authors says average annual incomes for full-time writers (2015) £12,500 (UK minimum wage is supposedly £17,1000). However, the great majority earn less than £10K. Good job we love our work.
Much agonizing (again) over She Who Wears Her Grey Matter on the Outside – a merry dance through many flaming hoops. A week ago I spent Saturday night awake thinking it would be her final night; and she rallied, as she has over and over for the last few years of our (extra) time together after all her health problems. (She rallied better yet once I'd cancelled the ferry to France for TM and I.) After all, she's 13+, and their normal life expectancy is in single figures. How they break our hearts, these animals who come to share our lives.
Two robins are part of my morning-time joy, appearing as soon as I do. One of them is tame enough as to continually be underfoot – a bit too tame – and has taken food from my hand. They both follow me back into the kitchen once I've opened the door to the courtyard. Dog feeding time is of particular interest, and when she's sleeping they'll hop between her paws.
Later, summer dusk ‘dripping slow’ in the garden, the tiny LED pinprick among the hellebores: a single glow-worm adding its minute contribution to the sum of light in the world.
Evening primrose's blowsy yellow tea-dress. Rosebay willowherb. Spur valerian. Bedstraw, woodruff, meadowsweet. Such abundance. Most of these of nutritional, dyestuff or medicinal merit. Slew – kilos of barley grains across the road where the tractor must have swerved. Fat pigeons gleaning. I pull out some scattered stems of the invasive Himalayan balsam. From the high lane, I can see the twin rockpiles of Haytor on Dartmoor, the wrong side of A38 for my heart. All night, all day, cows over the hill bellowing for stolen calves: so young, so inhumane; do we need meat, need cow-juice that much?
Keats called this world ‘the vale of soul-making’. Soul and matter, the perennial dance. Interweaving with the outer physical landscape perceived by five senses is the imaginal landscape: a kind of connective tissue between the material world and what the Celts called the Otherworld. The imagery of myth, folklore, story, depth psychology, art, music and the poetic vision combined with a felt relationship with the natural world, part of it rather than apart, all help nourish this connection. ‘To a Man (sic) of Imagination, Nature is Imagination itself.’ What a privilege to live it. How easy to forget to.
In my dream a man has altered the face of my watch. I quite like it but the numbers are half-obscured. What does this mean? Later in the same dream, I notice it’s a two-tier watch: very beautiful, two different styles of watch-face keeping the same time, but cleverly each is planted with a real miniature herb-garden. I’m so pleased, but worry that I won’t be able to tend them. We’re waiting at the jetty for a steam-train-boat. In his dream, TM kicks me. He has a big kick. The dog barks, too early.
It’s that time of year: Bliss of a simple mug of tea, respite from backpacks. A robin takes crumbs from my hand. Perspex canteen window: photo of a barley crop circle, intricate and impenetrable. Is that a new one? I ask the girl. Yes, she says, I’ll show you the article. Like a proud father her bloke hands me the paper. I found it, he says. Couple weeks ago. Coming and going all night on the hill, me and the boys, and never saw a thing. Next morning there it was.
Perfect and complete pictorial representation of Pi, says astrophysicist.*
This morning on the radio he spoke of crop circles,
how easy they are to make: a particular loping stride,
a rope, a wooden mallet, stakes and weights. And how,
even so, the equilateral triangle of lights in the summer sky
just after they’d scribed the three-point core (and before
the cider) still disturbed and shocked. But yes
of course the pictograms are hoax. He’s sure the lights
are easily explained. It’s not that I need to believe;
just the scale of our objective certainty – the cost,
the way that all our knowledge still leaves us lost.**
© Roselle Angwin
* Excerpted part of long prose poem sequence on walking the Ridgeway; in Bardo (Shearsman 2011)
** In All the Missing Names of Love (and after Jem Poster) (IDP, 2012)
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