Guest Blog: Stories about stories by Margaret Crompton

Margaret Crompton (No Spider Harmed in the Making of This Book) responds to a comment in Sarah Lawson‘s Lockdown Interview.

Sarah Lawson’s reflection that ‘Somehow poems don’t seem to be coming,’ (Lockdown Interview: No 3, 8th April 2020) has given me much to think about. Like her, I ‘d imagined this time-out-of-time would provide opportunity for writing.  As Script in Hand rehearsals and performance had been cancelled, I would seek consolation in writing a new play (Guest Blog, 15th April 2020).  First, however, I would tidy my study. I attacked a desk drawer and evicted my collection of dried-out felt tips. Since then, the study has become even untidier.

Like Sarah, we already spent most of our time at home, each in her/his own study, with a pattern which we intended to maintain. But time and energy were immediately directed to setting up new systems, daily emails with family and friends, and (reluctantly) registering for our estate Community Group Facebook. I identified preparation, transition and settling, (I’d been a social worker), and entered ‘Fortress Crompton’ – which was, I quickly understood, exactly wrong: we should become open, available – not enclosed.

As members of the ‘high risk’ cohort, I sought ways to be contributors as well as receivers, thinking sadly, ‘We have only words.’ Only words? A few years ago, we’d turned from ‘professional’ writing (Communicating with children; English literature) to exploring short stories, poetry. We had accumulated an archive which, we realised, we could freely share with family, friends, and neighbours. We compiled a catalogue from which pieces can be chosen for me to email. This provides stimulus for conversations which don’t focus on C-19, and one piece often leads to others in intriguing sequences.

With a Polish friend/neighbour, I’m translating a folk story to make a book for his daughter.  And a young friend is writing an email serial story with me; she responded to my opening ‘Once upon a time…’ with a challenge which took me days to follow.

I’d been attempting my first novella. I’m most comfortable with short form, and have recently been revelling in flash fiction compression. The novella minimum 25,000 words was daunting, (although my ‘professional’ texts had achieved double and treble that count). Moving from transition to settling, I became obsessed with completing the novella, then realised that I needed only 10,000 words plus synopsis. I pushed myself half-way through the final chapter, then one evening worked too late completing the submission, pressed SEND, felt relieved. Expected to proceed to some fresh challenge. And became ill for over a week with a sub-migraine. I’d been trying too hard, compelled by some self-induced pressure, to complete a task, to be tidy. Another common symptom, I think.

A week later, I responded to Cherry’s call for guest blog writers. ‘I can do that,’ I thought, wanting, as ever, to be helpful. But as a novice blogger, I abandoned Draft 1 (burgeoning three volume novel) and 2 (laconic summary) for Draft 3. I struggled to complete what I hoped would be ‘just right,’ which I blush to admit, cost two minor revisions and much of Cherry’s kind patience.

So back to Sarah’s interview. I learn from friends and others that many creative impulses are being stifled by lethargy, exhaustion, even paralysis. Is it partly that we’re living so intensely in the present, or the sometimes painfully vivid past, that it’s difficult to enter the worlds of imagination? Is it hard to plan for a universally uncertain future? I feel safe and happy, except for some moments on waking, and others when laying down Priestley or Pym before lying down myself. My anxiety is about having to go out again into that dangerous world. After two heart attacks over twenty years ago, I know about a future abruptly revealed as always uncertain, and am familiar with the inevitability of my own death. This is different. As pollution recedes, emotional miasma pervades the environment. Creative energy is invisibly concentrated on fuelling being fully alive, in this present which is all we ever have.

……………

         I began writing this a few weeks ago. Then came VE Day. We weren’t interested in celebrating here, now. We had, after all, been there, then. But John wrote a poem about his memory of winning third prize in a fancy dress competition in 1945. I remember being taken to the bonfire near my home. I posted John’s poem on the Community Group Facebook, where it attracted numerous Likes and several Loves.  Later, we were unexpectedly serenaded by a mouth organ played enthusiastically by the young son of a neighbour singing ‘Happy VE Day to you…’ and presenting us with A4 posters and flags made by school children, and neat paper-and-string parcels containing scones, cream and jam. (We’ve saved the string). Obediently, at 4 pm we set up a table in our front garden, with embroidered cloth and pretty plates, for afternoon tea.

But this is a story about stories. For by now I was so involved that, not only had I tied my hair up in a 1940s ‘turban’ (red, complementing white and blue skirt and shirt), but obsessively rooted-out old photograph albums from the most daunting corner of my study. There I found pictures of my father – not in India, as I’d so confidently informed the estate, but at home with my mother and me. How could I ever face the neighbours? Shame forced me to open a box of papers I’ve kept since my mother’s death nearly 20 years ago. And there was my father’s 1945 diary. To my relief, he had been in India on VE Day – he noted the gin party – and the photographs were from home leave later. I took diary and pictures across the road to neighbours and (appropriately distanced) told my story. Soon John joined us and shared his own story. Now we know a great deal more of our own and our parents’ stories. And at last I feel free to read the contents of that box.

But, more, through these old stories, we’ve met our neighbours in a new way – and shared not only our stories, but also theirs. This is a new estate, and the first social ‘event’ of the Community. I’ve heard from friends experiencing similar unexpected opportunities for neighbourly story sharing. Not written. Spontaneously narrated and received with interest and respect.

For the first time, on Friday afternoon I looked forward to ‘the future,’ To new stories.

……………….

This morning it’s raining. The estate children won’t be following a ‘creature trail’ or playing on the field. I posted a poem (Alexander Astronaut) with ideas for drawing, writing poems/stories.  Although I’ve earned only four Likes, a neighbour I haven’t yet met would like to share this story outside the Group.

Those poems and stories which ‘Somehow don’t seem to be coming’ will come, when they, and we, are ready. Bringing our words out of the Fortress. Although, I’d be grateful if my idea for Tymes Goe by Turnes would stop flitting around and settle into a coherent form. Meanwhile, I should tidy my study.

With thanks to Arachne.

Margaret Crompton

Preorder No Spider Harmed… – out 8th August for our eighth anniversary!

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