Spring clean

April 29, 2013

Damn nature u so pretty

Damn nature u so pretty

Spring has finally arrived, and so it’s time to dust down the blog. It’s been a while, as a cursory scroll will reveal. To kick things off, why not a 100 word story? They are all the rage. It’s about love, and has gardening in it; just the thing.

I was the outsider. I guess that was why people kept coming to me with their confessions.

Tomàs in the car on the narrow mountain road up to the village, hurting theatrically but deeply from Isabella who would not come back; everybody else who had their own version of not being surprised.

It was no good to me. What I wanted as we sweated to save the greens in the vegetable patch was for Tomàs to repeat what he had said down in the valley after everyone had gone to bed and the last bottle of wine was empty.

Podcasts for Writers

July 19, 2012

Totally random things that happened to be lying on my desk.

I listen to a number of podcasts, some which feature writers, others readers; often, the two roles merge. It’s a different experience from, say, the exchange of reviews on Goodreads and Amazon: face to face, the debaters have to respond to each other’s views, and discussions are unfiltered by keyboard and pre-‘send’ angst. Also, podcasts are a great way to keep thinking about writing, even if the flat needs cleaning or the train is delayed.

The Guardian has a variety of podcasts relating to books and authors. In the Guardian Artangel series a writer stays in A Room for London (a boat perched atop the Southbank Centre as part of an architectural project), and pens an essay inspired by the experience. There’s also a three-parter called Landscape and Literature in which Madeleine Bunting talks to writers about the places that have inspired their writing – recorded on location, of course. The programmes are around thirty minutes long, occasionally with short (ten minutes) interviews. Admittedly, my preference is for longer pieces (good for travelling, for example), but the quality is undisputed: the programmes always bring out new aspects of writers and their work.

Over at the BBC I follow A Good Read and Open Book. In the first, host Harriett Gilbert discusses favourite reads with two guests. Each reads the others’ recommendations, and conflicting opinions are welcomed. It’s interesting to hear different readers respond to the same book, and it serves as a reminder that as a writer you can’t please everybody – the thing which will make your book a favourite with one reader is perhaps someone else’s pet peeve. Open Book is a magazine-type programme interchangeably hosted by Mariella Frostrup and James Naughtie. There are interviews with writers about new books (recently Siri Hustvedt and Michael Palin), thematic discussions, and news from the world of publishing. A good way to keep up-to-date.

My favourite is probably the New Yorker’s fiction podcast. Here, the magazine’s fiction editor, Deborah Treisman, invites a writer to read a short story from the New Yorker’s archives. On June 1, for example, Dave Eggers introduced and then read Roddy Doyle’s “Bullfighting,” followed by a discussion about the story. What makes this format stand out is that you know the text they’re talking about. As a bonus, there’s the strangely calming experience of having someone read aloud to you: an excellent way to take the edge off public transportation.

Writing is by nature a solitary pursuit. The Internet has to some extent changed that, but although interaction is often conversational in nature, it is still mediated by a keyboard. Podcasts reminds us of the real people – whether in the role of writer or reader – who talk, discuss and rashly opine, with all the half-formed ideas and retractions the written word doesn’t allow for.

One more thing: podcasts are also a handy way to learn how to pronounce a writer’s name – before the public faux pas.

A Haunting Tale

February 26, 2012

I came across a story recently that would not let go of me. It’s available to read online: “The New Mother” (1882), by Lucy Clifford (writing as Mrs. W.K. Clifford).

Two little girls meet a young woman by the roadside. She carries a music instrument, and claims that when she plays a tiny man and woman will come out to dance. Only naughty children get to see them, though. The sisters accordingly put on their worst behaviour at home but their mother warns them: if they continue a new mother will take her place, a strange being with glass eyes and a wooden tail. They persist, but the woman with the instrument is not satisfied, and they don’t get to see the dancers. Worse is to come. At home their mother is gone, and soon the new mother arrives. She crashes through the door with her wooden tail and the girls flee, doomed to live alone in forest forever.

It’s a story of vague threats and things left unsaid. The young woman’s motivation for corruption goes unexplained, and we never discover what the new mother might actually do to the girls. The story even seems to have a life of its own. The girls flee to the forest, in fear of the strange new mother:

“They are still there, my children.”

The anonymous, omnipotent third person narrator is swept to the side, and a much more intimate voice is heard. It is as though someone has sidled up next to us.

“… my children.” This fragment is perhaps a hint that the story is for reading out loud: it addresses listeners. But what if it means ‘my children are still there’? Then it is the mother – the true mother – who narrates the story, a disconcerting idea as there seems to be no will or desire to save the children.

Either way the sentence marks a pause, a moment to take in the fact that the story is not over, indeed never will be: “they are still there.”

The new mother may have glass eyes and a wooden tail but she is not the story’s real monster. The reader plays that role: every time we read that strange sentence we call forth the girls at their most hopeless moment, and hold them there, as if caught in a spell. We are given powers we can’t refuse before it’s too late.

A good story leaves space for our imagination: it invites us to bring it to life. “The New Mother” does that with almost brutal force. It takes the tone of a folk tale, and so we believe it belongs to the realm of the long, long ago. That one sentence eliminates the safety distance, though. The girls are in the forest now and forever, thanks to us readers, and there’s nothing we can do about it.

That eerie powerlessness is what makes the story stick to me like a burr.

Resolution in reverse

January 4, 2012

Tradition will have it that we are to face a New Year with grand schemes to uncover New Me. One that, say, doesn’t smoke, runs marathons, and lives in a home as organised as an Excel sheet. In other words, a Me that, in the style of modern fairytale, acquires super-human willpower as the clock strikes midnight.

Our imagination is, as usual, far ahead of reality. Even if we do fulfil the terms of the self-imposed contract, it never has that clean, upward-trajectory feel of our champagne-induced dreams. Progress is made, only to be undermined the next day, and goals change to suit more realistic expectations. When the end of the year draws near, we often struggle to match what we actually achieved with the resolutions made. Not because we are inherently lazy or are born to fail, but because our imagination leaves us with too high expectations.

Instead I propose to look back on the old year, and appreciate what was achieved whether or not it followed some expected or desired course. In this household we have undertaken two rather strenuous house-moves, one major, one minor, which we at the beginning of the year could not have foreseen. In the beginning of July all was chaos. Plans changed from one moment to the next, old contracts were cancelled and new signed, inventory packed and taken away, causing a strange sense of dislocation as if gravity were momentarily down; and yet at the end of the month we were in a new flat, lamps were hung and boxes had been unpacked. No grand plan had been adhered to: we just got on with the tasks, great and small, and the new flat slowly and imperceptibly became our home.

Last year’s joint New Year’s resolution of finally sorting out the photo albums did not come true, not because we couldn’t be bothered, but because other and more important things got in the way. We have reminded ourselves of what we did achieve, though, and have resolved to remember the myriad accomplishments the coming year is sure to be full of. That, and sorting out the photo albums, of course.

Did it!

December 2, 2011

NaNoWriMo web badge

The stamp of approval

As some of you may remember, I have for the last month been participating in  the National Novel Writing Month challenge, a fiction-writing marathon of 30 days and 50,000 words.

Consequently, November seemed much shorter this year. Towards the end of it, I began to think it was too short. Thirty days? Really? Seemed a bit stingy to me, what with more than 14,000 words still to write, and two days left to do it in. Somehow, though, those words really did get written, and not simply by copying large sections of the dictionary. The words were relevant to the story (the vast majority of them, at least), they formed meaningful sentences (for those with a generous imagination), and toward the end, they managed to pick up the various threads of the story, wind it down, and help it reach a satisfying conclusion (the conclusion being that I had passed the 50,000 words-mark). The Beast of Ravensburg was a novel, a medieval tale of bloody deeds and dark secrets.

I’m a little bit proud of myself, but with great pride comes great responsibility, to paraphrase Spiderman’s uncle. I now know that I can write 7,000 words in a day, and have a draft of a novel ready in a month. Conclusions may be drawn from this.

But, for the next few days, at least, I’m going to relax, and tell myself, Well done!

A dead pig

November 21, 2011

Burg Ehrenburg

Burg Ehrenburg, ca. 1830

For those of you wondering how my November novel project is going, I can report that I have written some 26,000, give or take, which means that although I’m not exactly on target, the goal is not unattainable, either. Not yet.

My tale of the down-and-out knight, Sir Gerulf, has taken a cross-genre turn, in that he is now not just a character in a historical novel, he is also solving crime. As you do. At this moment in time (or, to be precise, autumn of 1124), he has just come across the cadaver of a pig. Thrilling as that may be, the scene causes the writer as many problems as it does poor, old Gerulf. I know who put it there (at least I’m one step ahead of him there), but how the hell did the evil-doer manage that, what with a pig not being the lightest of animals, and it having been done in middle of the night?

Other areas are looking more promising. The irrepressible Scrap (think Huckleberry Finn meets Pippi Longstocking) is one moment full of spunk, the next brooding over her dead sister (and maybe revenge?), Wulf the Huntsman hides a broken heart, and Otho, master of Ravensburg, hides something altogether more sinister. Lady Ursula is clever and apparently well-meaning, having once looked after Scrap’s sister (see what I did there? “apparently”…), and Horst is faithful in his stewardship of Ravensburg, though his opinion of those living there are less than charitable. But then, considering what he knows, who can blame him.

Gerulf, meanwhile, is stuck on a field in the driving rain, trying to work out who killed piggy. I’ll see what I can do for him.

November plans

October 28, 2011

November is a dull sort of month. The autumnal glory of October is over, but the lights of December have yet to be switched on. The countryside is a soggy mess, the streets slippery with rotting leaves. What to do with November?

I, for one, will spend it writing a novel.

The idea came courtesy of National Novel Writing Month. This yearly event first took place in 1999, when a group of friends in San Francisco (where else?) decided they wanted to write a novel. But why, they thought, should that be a solitary, years-on-end project? Instead, they sat down together, and gave themselves one month to write 50,000 words. The resulting efforts were not exactly ready for publication, but each of them had managed to put together a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end. In other words, a novel.

Since then the project has somewhat grown. This year it is predicted that the web-based event will attract some 200,000 participants from around the world, all of whom will type away throughout November, and use their profile with NaNoWriMo to log their output. Everyone who reaches 50,000 words is a winner. The prize is the written novel, and although donations are greatly appreciated, there’s no joining fee. What money streams in from donors and sponsors pay for staff (websites with that sort of traffic don’t run themselves), and charities in the third world concerned with literacy.

When I first came across the website I was both excited, and a little confused. Excited, because it seemed to come my way at just the right moment: I needed a break from revising my novel. Confused, because surely cheating was easy? And if I wanted to write a novel in a month, what did I need a website for? As I explored the site things began to add up, though. Yes, cheating is possible, but since there’s no prize except one’s own effort, what’s the point? And committing publicly to a deadline is a great help for a not-so-steely determination. In addition, the website offers a plethora of forums and notice boards for staying in contact with other November writers, and email pep talks to boost morale: a friendly place to keep you keen.

So, next week by this time I’ll probably be fretting in front of the computer, regretting ever having signed up for something as silly as trying to write a novel in a month.

Wilhelm Sasnal

October 20, 2011

Wilhelm Sasnal: Clothes, 2009

Wilhelm Sasnal: Clothes, 2009

I follow London from afar these days, and sometimes read reviews of art exhibitions or plays even if there’s little chance of actually going. Yesterday in the Guardian I thus came across a review of an exhibition at Whitechapel Gallery, featuring the Polish painter Wilhelm Sasnal (b. 1972).

I’m a bit of a tourist when it comes to art, and can name only a few contemporary artists: like many people, I tend to focus on the big blockbuster shows, featuring long-dead painters. It’s not that I think there’s nothing good to see of more recent date, it’s just that I don’t know where to start.

This seemed like a good place, though: the article made me curious. He (the journalist) talked of Sasnal’s deceptively inexpressive figures and planes, and seemingly vacant spaces that invited the viewer to consider what might be missing; often, the suggested absences had the touch of something sinister. The lack of sentiment had a quality that, at least for the journalist, made the motif a starting point, rather than a full stop.

Having now browsed Sasnal’s work, online, for the moment, I get a sense of what the journalist was talking about. In ‘Clothes’, there’s not only the question of the abandoned clothes (by whom, and why?), but also what might be underneath that dark, wind-blown hill. A large chunk of it has been dug away, and a curtain of black paint makes it look as if the soil is bleeding. Shadows and shapes are glimpsed through the liquid, but what they might be we don’t know.

Sasnal’s paintings seem to do something crucial to art: they demand a viewer for their full effect, and in turn the viewer comes away with an experience not only of the paintings, but of having taken part in a creative process.

Although I doubt there will be a chance to catch the exhibition at Whitechapel, I now have the name ‘Sasnal’ lodged somewhere in my mind (and, of course, here on the blog), hoping that it might light up should I come across it again. And now I can name at least one painter still alive and well.

So…

September 28, 2011

I’ll have to give this some thought, I think.

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