The Freecycling Writer

I’ve been giving away  furniture on the Bristol freecycle site. Freecycling is great in all sorts of ways.  Everyone is pleased – people get things for free which would otherwise go to the dump and they come and take away stuff almost immediately, an amazing bonus. A lovely, cheerful guy spent ages dismantling a monster Ikea bed which a tenant had left in the house. A mother and daughter patiently took a sofa apart to get it through the door, two strong women hauled out a heavy washing machine. A woman whizzed in and filetted a battered leather sofa of its cushion stuffing. She’s making her own sofa from pallets and is going to send me a picture of her creation when it’s complete.

Freecycle is brilliant for writers who are looking for stories.  If you scan the daily digests of wants and offers, you get a window into people’s lives, those telling details that bring characters alive. Yesterday I saw a post from someone wanting a futon or old sofa. He said the sofa bed needed a firm mattress, enough to support a weight of ten stone.  Not really that heavy, you’d think. But in this case it was for his ten stone Great Dane who needed a comfortable new bed!  I do have a futon to shift, so maybe I will get to meet the man and his dog.

Last week there was a brilliant post from a man wanting to freecycle a surf board. I include it here with thanks to its author.

“Offer: One old and quite mangled green foam surfboard. It is approx 8ft, old school shape, single fin and made of soft foam, which is falling to bits. It’s probably just about surfable and guess it would be ok for messing about in the waves but not going to be great except for a laugh. Could possibly be repaired, but probably not worth it, unless you are desperate, or need a challenge. Would be good for fancy dress, or a theatrical prop, or some kind of strange project like some people seem to be doing.”

I like the idea of a story about a desperate surfer wanting a challenge, or a person involved in a strange project. I should write this story perhaps – a desperate older woman surfer in need of a new challenge in life…?

 

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Listening as a writer

I worked for over twenty-five years as a Gestalt Psychotherapist and became an extremely good listener.  To listen well, you need to bring as much as yourself as possible to the encounter with another.  You shuttle between your own emotional and physical experience in response and notice how a person is speaking, as well as attending to the content.  The whole body and being are involved.

As a writer, when I create characters, they live and breathe in my imagination. I picture them moving around in their world, the sound of their voices, the expression on their faces. I ‘listen’ to them to understand their motivations, empathise with their situations and guess what they might think, feel and do. I am sure most writers do this.  Often, writers say their characters begin to have a life of their own – do surprising things.  But in order for those characters to stay convincing in their actions, it is necessary to pay them close attention.

 Gestalt therapy is primarily concerned with raising awareness, and the Gestalt therapist’s focus  is to help a person become more aware of their experience – thoughts, feelings, sensations – in the present moment. In that way, change happens. Of course, there is a lot more to Gestalt therapy theoretically, (Read more here: www.gestalt.org/yontef.htm    ) but the practice of awareness is something I always enjoyed.

Being immersed in awareness practices for years, doesn’t make it any easier to write. Sometimes I am only minimally aware of my bad writing habits. For example, I have just edited this blog and altered  clumsy sentences. I am sure there are others. If I look  carefully at my prose, read it out loud and listen, I can have moments of clarity.  One simple question I used to ask as a Gestalt therapist was: ‘What are you aware of right now?’  You could ask yourself the same question about your writing – eg. ‘What am I aware of about my writing style?’  Or ‘What am I aware of about the process of writing?’   Listen to the answer. For eg. I asked myself this question and became more  aware of constructing awkward sentences. I can’t explain the grammatical errors but if I refreshed my knowledge of grammar and understood what I was doing, it might help my writing in general – now that’s a new awareness.

When I was a psychotherapist, I sometimes used to read a poem or a short story before I started work, because it would put me in a different frame of mind and allow me to be aware of something different in myself or in the person I was working with. Reading before writing is a good practice to adopt.  Like a dream, the story or poem will feed your imagination, shift your awareness and help you listen to your characters in a different way.


 

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My 4* Review of ‘My Dear, I Wanted To Tell You’ and ‘The Heroes’ Welcome’, by Louisa Young.

‘The Heroes’ Welcome’ by Louisa Young is a sequel to ‘My Dear, I Wanted To Tell You’, the story of the lives of Peter, Riley, Nadine, Julia and Rose in the lead up to and during the Great War.  I recommended the first novel to my friend, journalist Lesley Gillilian who is writing a wonderful novel partly set during the second world war and she said it was the best book she’d read all year. I agree and think the sequel is equally as good.

Many themes are covered; Louisa Young explores the characters’ struggles with class difference both in love relationships and relationships between officers and men in the trenches. There’s a fascinating contrast between Riley’s facial reconstruction by a pioneering surgeon in a  military hospital and the devastating consequence of the botched face-job beautiful Julia undertakes to make herself look younger and more alluring to her traumatised husband, Peter.  Yes, rich women were having their faces covered in acid one hundred years ago to ‘improve their complexions’,  so it is all the more shocking to think that equally damaging ‘beauty’ procedures are promoted today. Conversely, it is all the more amazing to see the developments in plastic surgery – extraordinary events like the 3D printing of prosthetic limbs.

Other women’s issues are covered: Rose works as a nurse, and post-war is offered a scholarship to train as a doctor – almost unheard of then. She is torn. Surely her role is to look after others, rather than remain unmarried and follow her own career path?  All Julia can do is be beautiful – she didn’t get an education.  With little support, it’s hard for her to be a mother and a wife. Nadine struggles hard against her mother’s disapproval  to marry ‘beneath her’ and become an artist.

The most striking element of both novels is the way the impact of war is shown on all the characters in different ways – psychological scarring, physical disability, ruined marriages and their affect on the next generation, alcoholism as well as the strong determination to survive and flourish against the odds.  The first book shows the damage as it occurs, the second shows continuing trauma and steps to recovery. I found both books an emotional read and became very involved with the characters, so wanting ‘everything to be all right.’ Of course, as a reader, I would have been disappointed if recovery had progressed easily in a linear way.  A hanky is definitely required – a retro cotton one,  Dad or Grandpa sized.  About two thirds of the way through ‘The Heroes’ Welcome, there’s an event that gave me such a shock, I felt almost I was witnessing it, as part of the fictional family. ‘Oh no,’ I thought. ‘That can’t be happening…things were just getting on an even keel.’ It’s a masterly stroke on the part of the author, brilliantly written.

The book does end on a hopeful note although things are not neatly tied up. Maybe Louisa Young will write a third novel charting the story of the same characters and their children up until World War Two. I can’t wait.

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Borrowing from George Borrow

One hundred and sixty years ago today, 27th July, the Victorian gentleman writer, George Borrow, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George Borrow set off with his wife and daughter to travel around Wales. ‘Wild Wales’ the travelogue he wrote about his journey, has a wonderfully intimate and chatty style which starts at chapter one.  It’s a classic and I found a copy in its great 1950’s paper cover, in Wells market.

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There is much to learn about voice in George Borrow’s writing.  His strong preferences come across from the beginning and  he is charmingly manipulative with his wife and daughter. (Yes somewhat sexist, but you have to forgive him because he is a man of his times).

Here’s the first paragraph from Chapter One.

In the summer of the year 1854 myself, wife, and daughter determined upon going into Wales, to pass a few months there. We are country people of a corner of East Anglia, and, at the time of which I am speaking, had been residing so long on our own little estate, that we had become tired of the objects around us, and conceived that we should be all the better for changing the scene for a short period. We were undetermined for some time with respect to where we should go. I proposed Wales from the first, but my wife and daughter, who have always had rather a hankering after what is fashionable, said they thought it would be more advisable to go to Harrowgate, or Leamington. On my observing that those were terrible places for expense, they replied that, though the price of corn had of late been shamefully low, we had a spare hundred pounds or two in our pockets, and could afford to pay for a little insight into fashionable life. I told them that there was nothing I so much hated as fashionable life, but that, as I was anything but a selfish person, I would endeavour to stifle my abhorrence of it for a time, and attend them either to Leamington or Harrowgate. By this speech I obtained my wish, even as I knew I should, for my wife and daughter instantly observed, that, after all, they thought we had better go into Wales, which, though not so fashionable as either Leamington or Harrowgate, was a very nice picturesque country, where, they had no doubt, they should get on very well, more especially as I was acquainted with the Welsh language.”

It’s a good opening.  I think it’s always worth trying out a modern day version of a classic/ You might include details or sentence structures you don’t normally use.

e.g.  In the summer of 2014, my husband and I  decided to go to Wales  for a long weekend. We are city people, living in the country not too far from Bristol and at the time of which I am speaking, were tired of all the familiar distractions of our house, with its shelves of unread books, the washing up that always needed doing, the garden thick with weeds. We didn’t know where we would go to start with. I proposed Wales from the first, but my husband wanted to stay in Herefordshire and go to Hay on Wye. I said he’d spend too much money on books and he should be cutting down, it was like an addiction, but he said because we’d been eating vegetarian for the last month, we had money to spare. I  then said I was being selfish – of course he should go to Hay. He might pick up something he really wanted with the spare cash. Of course, he backed down then and said he had too much to read already. Why didn’t we go to Aberystwyth and visit Nanteos Mansion where I used to live as a student…

Oh that was fun. I should carry on with that if only for the energy, copying an opening creates.  And I might go to Wales, inspired by George Borrow.

 

 

 

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How To Write Your Nonfiction Book

My neighbour is a fantastic story teller, his timing and pacing is good, he adds vivid detail and builds suspense. Everything you need to write a great short story. For his work, he’s travelled to many different countries – Uganda, Malawi, Rwanda, China, Mongolia, Bulgaria, Finland to name a few – to undertake geological mapping. I think he should write down the stories, he tells so well; the characters, the places, the scary and exciting situations. They form a fascinating insight into the politics and day to day life in  these countries  over a period of thirty years.  I’m encouraging him to come to the workshop I’m organising with Alex for Writing Events Bath on writing creative non-fiction and start on a travel memoir. Read more about the workshop on  www.writingeventsbath.co.uk .It’s at the wonderful Mr B’s Emporium of Books in Bath, our favourite bookshop, on Monday evening, 6th October led by author Trish Nicholson trishnicholsonswordsinthetreehouse.com/. 

Trish’s book on ‘Writing Your Nonfiction Book: the complete guide to becoming an author”,  is a comprehensive account of how to plan, research, publish and market your non-fiction work – anything from “brewing parsnip wine to particle physics”. Two hours with her at Mr B’s will get you going and give you a road map.  It doesn’t matter if you haven’t written anything before. Everyone is welcome.  Booking open on the writing events website.

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Learning from prize anthologies and magazines

Today, the postie delivered not only the latest issue of The Stinging Fly www.stingingfly.org/– I’ve just subscribed–but also five copies of Fish Anthology 2014. .www.fishpublishing.com  I was so excited to see my runner-up flash fiction, ‘The Lottery’, in print that I ate six apricots one after the other.  Both books have absorbed me most of the day and it’s been fascinating reading such a variety of sparkling prose and poetry.

I began writing Flash Fiction after the short story writer and Arvon Tutor, Tania Hershman www.taniahershman.com/ led a session on Flash at Mr B’s Emporium, www.mrbsemporium.com/ Bath a couple of years ago which we organised at Writing Events Bath. I learned that Flash stories are one thousand words maximum and fifty words, or sometimes less, minimum. There are many different names for the form –smoke fiction, short shorts, drabbles, prose poetry, to name a few. Carrie Etter,carrieetter.blogspot.com/ a poet and senior lecturer at Bath Spa University, writes prose poetry and teaches the form. Her new collection,’Imagined Sons’ is written as a sequence of prose poems. In  a short conversation I had with her, she suggested that flash fiction works well if you write a scene with one or two characters with the action taking place over about ten minutes.

My story ‘The Lottery’, follows that structure, but it’s interesting to see that the winning fictions in the Fish anthology sometimes use  longer time frames, and a variety of structures. Robert Grossmith in his story ‘First’  achieves this by the use of  headings followed by short descriptions of events from a whole life. Roisin O’Donnell’s  powerful story about a man who blew himself up, is in three numbered sections, each one from a different perspective – the mother, wife and child. The time frame ranges from immediate to an unspecified time in the future.

In The Stinging Fly magazine, the flash fictions are longer and more expansive as a consequence.  Alison Fisher writes an historical tale  set over several years and develops a strong lead character in under one thousand words. Danielle McLaughlin, in a similar number of words,  writes a  strongly evocative piece which encompasses a short time span, but successfully includes a flash- back sequence.

It’s been a great reading and learning day. I recommend buying both books.

 

 

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Emerging Characters

I sometimes co-run ‘pop-up’ writing events in Hall and Woodhouse Cafe, Bath www.hall-woodhousebath.co.uk with my writing friend and co-founder of Writing Events Bath, Alex Wilson www.writingeventsbath.co.uk. We run similar sessions in four week blocks at Bath Central Library. Last week we ran a pop-up session, focussed on developing characters. These sessions are designed to get participants writing. We devise exercises and people write for five or ten minutes then share in pairs and often read out their pieces to the whole group. It’s always amazing to see what can be produced in such a short time.

During the session, we were considering how characters change and develop as you write and how it is necessary to show several aspects of a character in order for them to be interesting. Obvious stuff, but staying with the obvious is always important. Who likes a nicey-nicey character anyway?

I used to be a Gestalt Psychotherapist and one of the theoretical concepts from Gestalt Therapy suggests that we do not have a fixed ‘self’. The self is fluid and changes according to the environment or situation. For example, if you are talking to your MP at a local surgery, you will be different from when you are talking to your best friend in the Boston Tea Party.  A different aspect of your self is called for. With the MP situation, you might surprise yourself if you have never been to a surgery before. If your MP is Jacob Rees-Mogg, like mine, you could  suddenly discover a barely contained rageful self (or character). We won’t go into the finer distinctions between definitions of  self and character here but I think the Gestalt Psychotherapist, Irving Polster, did say that the character is ‘the one who wears the boots.’

So as a writer, if you are not sure how to deepen your character, put them in a different situation and a different part of them will emerge. (Or a different aspect of you, the writer, will emerge?).  The different situation can involve another, or it can be a different environment.

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