One thing that really struck us when we first read Accidental Flowers, Lily Peter’s novel-in-short-stories, was the descriptions of the numerous canine characters.
As this week is #LondonDogWeek AND #NationalDogWeek over in the U.S, we asked Lily to rank her favourite dogs from classic and contemporary literature. Disagree? Tweet us @ArachnePress with your favourite fictional hounds.
An Author’s Best Friend – Lily’s Greyhounds
I wrote, illustrated and bound my first book when I was eight years old. Its main character was not a plucky young girl who dreamt of becoming a bestselling author, but rather a very lazy and quite fat Dalmation named Slobdog. Although for an eight-year-old, my spelling and grammar were excellent, there are, perhaps, superior literary dogs that should be celebrated:
To begin, let us put our paws together for Toto from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum. A wise terrier, with a sensible aversion to tornadoes. He is the best friend a lost girl could have and has excellent people instincts (which I find to be true of most dogs), revealing the Wizard for the sham that he is.
Next, we have the entire cast of dogs present in Dog Boy, by Eva Hornung. The novel tells the story of abandoned, four-year-old Ramochka and his hero dog, Mamochka, who adopts him as one of her own. He grows and learns with a pack of feral hounds – becoming one himself. It is a beautiful story that celebrates the canine moral code and it has a growl of an ending that will not disappoint.
Then, of course, there is the heart-wrenching folk tale (folk-tail?) of Hound Gelert. In Welsh folklore, the story goes that Llewelyn the Great wrongly accuses his own faithful pooch of killing his infant son. As he administers a fatal blow to Gelert, he hears his son crying and discovers him safely hidden, beside the corpse of a wolf – whom Gelert had obviously slain. Realising his mistake, Llewelyn is doomed to forever hear Gelert’s indignant, dying yelp.
Serves Llewelyn right.
It is my firm belief that we humans don’t always deserve our dogs. And yet, they keep finding us and loving us with huge generosity. Many of my favourite characters share their fictional spaces with beloved creatures and nowhere is this more true than in Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. Pullman depicts a world in which every human shares their living days with an animal extension of themselves, their Daemon. When we adopted our greyhounds, Jasper and Joni, I knew I had found my very own pair: long-legged busy-bodies, with a ridiculous love of salty snacks and an inability to cope with change.
In my novel-in-short-stories, Accidental Flowers, dogs abound. Abandoned, beloved or left behind, they pad their way through the stories, sniffing out adventure and love. I can’t pick a favourite. Perhaps Juliet, a ghost of a Jack Russell who haunts the pages of her story with her vital loyalty and companionship? Or maybe Boatswain, a greying lurcher and huge fan of the beach, so long as the sea stays where it should? Can either of them compare to Argos, whose friendship and quiet, fuzzy-eyebrowed understanding helps one protagonist discover their true self as the world lurches to a stop?
How can I choose?
Best to let someone else decide for me, while I take the dogs for a walk.
The title poem from my Arachne Press collection, The Significance of a Dress, is set in a wedding hire shop in a refugee camp in Iraq. People can be left in limbo, unable to return to the country they’ve left, and not yet able to integrate into the country they’ve applied for asylum in. Processing applications is rarely a priority and people can find themselves in camps for years, decades even. The camps’ residents are mostly young men. One reason is that they don’t have caring responsibilities so it’s easier for them to travel alone and they’re often sent on ahead, with other relatives planning to join them once they’ve settled. Another reason is that they are at risk of being conscripted either into the armed forces or into rebel militia. While girls don’t generally have that concern, girls do have to find ways of coping with sexual harassment and finding protection. In the camps, refugees are still expected to pay for food and utilities. Women can find themselves thrust into finding ways of becoming a family’s main breadwinner. No doubt some marriages are love matches, but others are about buying protection or settling dowries. Whatever the motivation behind the marriage, “a bride still wants to feel special, at least for one day.” When “The future is tomorrow. Next year is a question./ A wedding is a party, a sign of hope.”
In most cultures, a bride-to-be is made to feel that a wedding dress is the most significant choice she has. It may be an heirloom dress, worn by a mother or grandmother. It may be a dress of her choosing that incorporates memories of family members who can no longer attend the wedding, whether a sash in a late relative’s favourite colour, a borrowed pair of shoes, or a favourite flower in the bride’s bouquet. Some women have been planning their dress long before there was a groom. Whether the bride is looking for an extravagant ballgown or a slinky sheath for a beach wedding, or a trouser suit, it’s also likely to be the most expensive dress she’ll buy. Most brides will plan to shop with close friends or relatives, with the expectation of being put centre stage with a wide choice to try on. Where do you find a wedding dress if you’re stuck in a camp, possibly with restrictions on where you can travel and shop, and still under cultural pressure to make your day significant?
In one camp a woman, who’d worked in the fashion industry, set up a wedding hire shop to earn for her family. The title poem is based on an interview with her. The dresses were original brought in via her former fashion industry contacts, but she also uses seamstresses based in the camp to repair and alter gowns. A team of beauticians offer hair and make-up styling that won’t melt in the desert heat and will stay in place in the humid evenings so that the bride can have her big day. There is a risk some of the brides are underage, and the staff in the shop never ask the bride-to-be how old she is. A small group of women can’t police a camp, and they understand the desperation of a family.
The Significance of a Dress
Time and Tide
My poem Casting a Daughter Adrift (from Time and Tide), looks at a wedding from a mother’s viewpoint. This mother has turned to needlework to earn money to feed the family, but it aware she can’t offer much protection against the harassment in the camps, “This man I have agreed to/ in her father’s absence/ I hope will protect her.” The journey from what was hope to the camp has aged her, “The shop’s cracked, foxed mirror/ tells me I’m decades older than my bones.” Neither of them can go back, “The house she was born in is rubble”. Yet she still wants this day to be special for her daughter, “The final payment is the last of my savings/ but I have one less mouth to feed.” Despite her desperation, she is proud of her daughter, “I’m going to let her go,/ my desert flower will bloom.”
Whatever your feelings on marriage, whether you want to get married or not, it’s hard to resist the idea of a wedding as a celebration and a note of hope amongst people whose lives have been devastated by war.
Emma Lee is a regular contributor to our anthologies, and her collection The Significance of a Dress, really fell foul of the Corona virus, with multiple events cancelled, and one of the launches delayed and venue moved. Instead of moping (which must have been tempting) Emma has been very generous with her time, writing this blog and contributing interviews to the website.
You can buy all the books mentioned from our webshop, we will post them out to you.
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.
Earlier in the lockdown,Arachne author David Mathews told us about his friend Jorge, and his dislike of spiders, and how he, David, was apologising for bringing the matter up by writing a story about the creature of Jorge’s choice. Here it is!
Black Duck and her Eggs
Easter is a dodgy time for fowl. Let me show you.
Come to a country garden, scruffy and large, full of hidden corners, on the bright, spring evening of an Easter Saturday. A family, three generations, has arrived at their customary gîte, an old farmhouse, and unpacked. Adults and children are making themselves at home in their various ways. Bottles are opened, and children are told to play nicely.
In her nest, well back from footpaths and the rowdy children, in a hollow in the roots of a willow, Duck sits on her eggs, fourteen of them. She laid the last ones four days ago. Next month, she will take her ducklings to swim on the millpond, calm these days, and a short waddle away. For the time being Duck simply needs to guard her eggs and keep them warm, easy enough when she is not disturbed. Duck’s eggs are white. Duck is black, mostly. Her drake is black all over. He comes and goes, but it was he who saw off a weasel at dawn two days ago, having got lucky with a beak in weasel’s eye.
The children, seven of them, in and around the house, not counting the baby, are used to feeding ducks and counting how many ducklings have been born each time, knowing that mother ducks can count them too, and never lose any, not through their own fault.
The older children, like the grown-ups, enjoy a duck egg for breakfast, on special occasions.
Tomorrow, on Easter Sunday, will come the Easter egg hunt. Where will Grandpa hide the chocolate eggs this year, on his own, without Granny for the first time? Where will the children search; how daring will they be? The children huddle to rehearse their plans in whispers, and trade chocolate futures.
‘If I find three, you can have one.’
Odd one out in a generation of daughters, the boy plots alone, almost.
‘I know how the game is played,’ the boy says. ‘They hide the eggs in the night, and then we look for them in the morning. And you keep the ones you find. And you eat them.’ The baby girl, to whom this intelligence is addressed, gurgles.
‘But if you go out in the dark, you get first dibs. And I’ve got a torch.’ Baby hiccups in response to his whisper, then burps.
The boy has brought his catapult, though he was told not to, not after last year and the squirrel and the woodpecker.
The sun drops behind the low distant hill. Long shadows vanish, and Duck stirs herself, needing to drink, eat and poo before dark. She arranges grass and down over her eggs; instinct tells her that will keep them warm enough for a while. Duck heads for the water, pecking at beetles and grass as she goes.
She drinks, steps into the water and bathes in her element, ducking and tumbling to wash dust from her feathers. On land she stretches her wings, and water droplets fall. Now she feeds in earnest, fast and catholic, among grass and weeds, but never out of sight of the tree beneath which her clutch lies warm. When she returns to the nest, she has been away 30 minutes, not that she knows this. She simply knows to settle over her eggs once more, her need to do so greater than her taste for more insects and seeds.
As the light fades, the children are called in for supper. The garden quietens to the evening song of birds’ nesting and asserting their territory. Near Duck, mice and voles rustle, but nothing larger, except for the drake who comes by. He quacks at Duck, feeds, swims, then flies beyond the millpond – to another duck.
Under a crescent moon, and among the willow’s roots, Duck and her eggs vanish into the dark. With her head tucked in, Duck’s few white feathers are hidden, and her eggs completely enveloped.
From the house comes a tall figure, bearing a basket.
‘No, I’ll be fine. I won’t be long,’ he says to someone indoors.
He moves around the garden, pausing, bending, reaching; he makes more noise than all the night creatures combined. As he comes closer, Duck draws her head in tighter. Her defences are stillness and her black plumage. At the base of the tree the man stops and tucks a silver egg into the tree roots, inches from invisible Duck, and another into a low fork in the branches.
He bends to float a toy boat on the millpond, attaches a mooring string to a reed, and sends a cargo of three eggs shining across the twinkling, moonlit water to the shadow of low bushes. When he stands, he clutches his back, and winces. For long minutes he gazes across the pond. He lets out a deep, deep sigh, wipes his eyes, and returns to the house.
The windows go dark, downstairs first, then upstairs.
A distant bell chimes twelve.
A beam of light sweeps back and forth at the side of the house, and advances towards dense shrubs. When a torch is placed on the ground, the searcher is revealed as a boy, the only boy. He tuts, having found nothing, picks up the torch, and sweeps the beam again, now higher in the air. The light reaches the willow tree.
‘Yes,’ says the boy, and he swishes through long grass towards where he has seen the glint of silver among the fresh green leaves.
Duck wakes, alert to coming danger, but she does not move.
The boy stands on tiptoe to reach the wedged egg in its silver foil, which he does, just, with his fingertips. The egg slips. He grabs at it a second time, but drops the torch, which lights the egg that Grandpa placed among the roots. Eager, he reaches for the second egg, and Duck, mistaking his quick movement for attack, pecks his reaching hand.
‘Ow,’ says the boy, and sucks the back of his hand.
He sees Duck’s eggs, remembers a breakfast last year, kicks out at Duck and stretches towards the nest.
Duck has no notion of escalation, not in the way of a military commander, but nevertheless attacks the boy’s hand and bare legs as if her previous peck were a mere warning, and this now is all-out war. She lets loose quacks of panic and rage that bring her drake flying across the millpond, equally vocal. Between the two, they raise the household, and, black fiends in a dark night, chase the boy into the arms of his mother.
Surely his fright will elicit sympathy?
‘You little sod,’ his mother says. ‘That’s why you went to bed with no fuss. Give me that egg. And frightening that poor duck. You should be ashamed of yourself. What will Grandpa say?’
The lad’s booty is confiscated, and the family members retreat into the house.
Duck and her drake still quack, though more grumbling than urgent now, and find their way back to the nest and the fourteen eggs, still safely warm. Duck settles. Drake flies back to his other duck, whose fresh-laid eggs will, late on Sunday, be plundered by Grandpa for his traditional Easter Monday scrambled duck eggs and smoked trout with fresh squeezed orange juice and Blanquette de Limoux, Brut.
Margaret Crompton is one of the authors featured in our forthcoming Eighth Anniversary anthology, No Spider Harmed in the Making of this Book. Finding herself, like us, bereft of an event she was expecting to take part in, she relates how her theatre group, Script in Hand got started, and the stories they have told so far.
There are tentative plans for Script in Hand to do readings from No Spider Harmed in the Late Summer/Autumn
April 2020: Katherine Swynford and the Countess Joan
Katherine Swynford and her (uppity) daughter, the Countess Joan, are no longer treading the carpet in the County Assembly Rooms this spring. Brought back to vigorous life by Script in Hand, Katherine and Joan had been enjoying a tomb-break with friends and relations, until interrupted by the invisible intruder, unknown among the plagues of their own day.
Script in Hand is both title and description of a group of actors who perform plays with, yes, script in hand. I’ve written and directed all our productions, so far. We have no auditions, membership, finance, booking, or scenery. We give one another energy, adventure and delight.
2018: The Sellwood Girls
Our first play was The Sellwood Girls, about three Lincolnshire sisters. Emily married Alfred Tennyson, and Louisa married his brother Charles Turner. The play grew from my sequence of poems Lost Lady Found, written to give Louisa a voice. Our performance, in the Church of St Mary Magdalen, Lincoln, raised funds for annual British Federation of Women Graduates grants to female students in our two local universities. Actors were drawn from church members, family and friends. Some were experienced actors, others had never acted before.
This was my first experience of both playwriting (other than Usurper Usurped for my school Junior Dramatic Society – a lively plot but, then as now, I had no idea how to develop action) – and directing. Now 77, I was directing my husband and friends in my own play. The Sellwood Girls established what would become our pattern. The ‘stage’ was the paved area between chancel steps and congregation. To be heard and seen, actors stood opposite the central aisle. The cast was seated on-stage throughout the performance, moving to and from that position when speaking. I learned that such constraints are a director’s blessing.
Actors developed their own parts, each portraying a whole, convincing individual. In an early scene, the three sisters are schoolgirls. The actors needed no ‘special’ voices to represent the children. Costume was full length black, with coloured shawls for the women, although ‘Alfred’ supplied a top hat, ‘Charles’ his own dog collar, and ‘Hallam’s’ sleeveless pullover and tie channelled Alan Bennett. Experiments with head coverings demonstrated that 21st century hairstyles did not accommodate 19th century lace or caps. We needed neither scenery nor props.
2019: Anne Askew
Although we had only contracted for this one performance, we’d formed such close bonds that in 2019 we performed Anne Askew: a woman of courage in Tudor Lincolnshire, which I’d written some time before, and adapted for the group. Now we needed a name: Script in Hand exactly describes our style. An actor invited us to the County Assembly Rooms, where we trod not paving but carpet. Experience from The Sellwood Girls transferred easily, so that actors sat on stage throughout and spoke from the space opposite the central aisle. Costume was black skirt or trousers with a differently coloured top for every actor, providing both uniformity and variety.
There were innovations and challenges. Cast processed along the aisle, to be greeted and introduced by an actor in role. Period-appropriate music was played by a flautist accompanied by my debut on tabor. An optional episode of mime, with the flute, was developed by the cast. Anne Askew was played by two actors. Feisty Anne (2019), conversed with Eve, a woman of our own time. Anne (1546) read from her own writing*.
We chose The Shannon Trust, a small charity promoting literacy in prisons, as the beneficiary of ticket sales – Anne Askew had illegally read the Bible in Lincoln Cathedral, and in 1546, was burnt in London as a heretic, caught up in a conspiracy against Queen Katherine Parr. In prison, she wrote accounts of her interrogations. Contributing to literacy education seemed a fitting memorial, and we continue to support the Trust. A representative attended the performance, bringing a display of the excellent reading scheme and other materials.
There is no memorial to Anne Askew in the Cathedral, nor would I (nor Anne) want one, and few people have heard of her. But now, her story is included in the new Visitor Centre exhibition.
2019: When Queen Victoria Came to Tea
Our next appearances, both in 2019, came from my idea that SiH might be invited to offer smaller productions, between annual performances. A conversation in the OXFAM bookshop led to When Queen Victoria Came to Tea, a companion piece to The Sellwood Girls for four actors, written with my husband John. The space at the back of the shop was cleared, chairs borrowed, and re-filled with the audience who braved the rain, bought books, and donated to OXFAM funds. Later, we were invited to perform at the British Federation of Women Graduates Christmas party, and were grateful for an unexpected donation to The Shannon Trust.
2020: Katherine Swynford and the Countess Joan
I wrote Katherine Swynford and the Countess Joan for Script in Hand. We thought our audience would be attracted by further material about local people. But I was running out of ideas. Anne Askew had been set in the Cathedral. Who else was there? I reviewed my sequence of poems Women of the Cathedral, which gives voices to those silent women in stained-glass windows, carvings and statues, in ornate tombs and under heavy slabs. Katherine Swynford, whose tomb is end-on to that of her daughter, had always eluded me. Then, thinking about that mysterious arrangement, I found my play. Just as the other plays are ‘out of time and space,’ Katherine and Joan rose from their semi-detached post-mortem accommodation and were joined by friends and relations. And before too long, we all hoped, by an audience.
I thank Script in Hand. I haven’t mentioned any one by name, for everyone contributes and creates this wonderful adventure. Did I mention that most of us are over 70, and several over 80? When I asked their permission to write this, everyone responded, with warmth, encouragement, jokes. So I close this scamper through our story so far with one actor’s comment:
Script in Hand – it’s just a Web of Lives.
*Anne Askew: The Examinations of Anne Askew. Ed Elaine V Beilin, 1996, Oxford University Press (1st published 1546 & 1547. Copy in the Wren Library, Lincoln Cathedral).
I was the first in my girl-guide troupe to get ten badges. The next goal was to swim half a mile – and get a badge for my cozzy – even though I could only swim backstroke – very slowly. I think they gave me that one so we could all get in the coach and go home. So yes, I am a little addicted to certificates and awards, maybe that is one of the reasons I decided to do an M.A. in Creative Writing.
I’ve always written and have had success with short stories, and even self-published a novel but my literature qualifications end at a GCSE in English. When I moved to Hastings part-time, a few years ago, I set up an informal group teaching creative writing for beginners (that’s for another blog post), and really loved it. Perhaps, I thought, I could approach the local independent school sector and offer my services, and expand my teaching opportunities and my income? But would my publishing history of short stories impress the demanding parents of Cassandra and Bilious?
I had a couple of options: I could work with a writing mentor for a year and hope to come out at the end with a lucrative book deal (any book deal), or I could do an M.A. and brandish my certificate as confirmation of my literary abilities. In the process of doing the M.A., I might write a novel and get a lucrative book deal, but if I didn’t, I’d still have the M.A. Besides I enjoyed studying, and the possibility of discussion with other writing nerds appealed to me.
I chose Chichester, because they ran a part-time course with a good reputation, and I thought at the time it would be a manageable journey. It wasn’t. Southern trains were into social distancing long before Corona virus made it essential.
The course consists of a weekly three hour session divided into seminars and workshops. Some of the seminars were thrilling and inspirational, introducing me to writers I’d never heard of and ideas I’d never considered. I was obliged to discuss what I’d read and to write pieces inspired by themes such as art, or structure or time. I left tired and elated, full of words and sensations and empty pockets – M.A.s do not come cheap, and the five hour return trip plus three hours in seminars was fuelled by coffee and snacks.
The weekly workshopping of each other’s writing took some time to get used to. Feedback groups are only as good as the effort that is put into them; lazy students or careless ones do not necessarily give good feedback, but in my experience, most students were diligent and hard-working – juggling jobs, families and travelling. Sometimes students with the least impressive writing were fantastic at dissecting the work of others. They were also the bravest, giving in raw work and using the feedback to really develop. Getting and giving feedback is an art in itself: too harsh and you break someone’s spirit, too soft and you might as well be someone’s nan telling them, it’s lovely dear. No-one pays £6000 for that. It’s hard to hear it too: you’ve got to chop one of those adjectives. I can’t, you weep, like Sophie choosing between her children. The work will be all the better for it, but that’s hard to believe as you press delete.
Tutor input is craved and inevitably treasured. Their thoughts are the pearls and rubies. And of course you never get enough. I found it to be valuable not only for what it taught me about my own work, but for what it taught me about reading the work of others – to go deeper, to be thorough. Give to them what you would want them to give to you.
I didn’t realise how much I’d come to depend on this workshopping system until forced into The Great Isolation. I’m nearly at the end of my course and suddenly I am adrift, no face to study, no tone of voice to inspect. Is that really a compliment, or is their body language saying something else? Where is the shit in this delicious-sounding sandwich? Also I’m not able to see someone’s spirits lift if I give them a heartfelt compliment, or get a supportive hug in the artistic struggle. An emoji just doesn’t cut it.
Listening to someone explain their character’s motivation can be nearly as boring as listening to someone’s dreams (so my partner tells me). Even though we all know this, we still think that our ideas are thrilling. The great thing about a group of people in the same situation is that you can reciprocate – I’ll nod and look interested if you’ll do the same. It works and we’re both happy. Online and text, it just isn’t the same, even with the Dr Who weirdness that is the webcam. Listening to a floating head with a patchy convex face discussing the finer points of your character’s mental and spiritual breakdown, while a naked toddler scampers past chasing a dog, leaves the muse weeping in the corner, wailing I could have been a contender.
So I cannot wait for the sunshine or a vaccine to send Covid 19 packing, so that I can get back with my writer pals in person. And I promise, I will not moan, or complain, or bitch or be judgmental ever again… Ok, so I had my fingers crossed there.
Beyond spiders: how stories start
On the 24th, I went to post a letter, and was a child again. ‘Going to the post’ was one of my earliest errands, and I loved it. Into the tall, glowing pillar box went letters, postcards, small packages. I knew that in next to no time – for local letters, later the same day in a wondrous second post – they would drop on the doormat of Auntie Vi or Mr Jones the grocer.
So as I trotted down a street as empty as those of my childhood to send a friend a birthday card, I looked for Bingo, a dog who furiously chased cars, but who would run happily alongside a pedestrian for no greater reward than kind words.
Before my brief outing I had sent out to friends and others a rousing email invitation to order No Spiders Harmed. ‘It’s nothing too dystopic,’ I had written, ‘perfect reading for the times.’ At lunchtime I found a couple of quick positive responses and a reply from my chum Jorge.
My epistle, which had asked people to go easy on the spring-cleaning, had ended with, ‘Spiders. Forever in your debt.’ I had pushed my luck.
‘Can’t, brother,’ Jorge had written, ‘I was in hospital four days with a red leg due to a bite from one of the precious ones … hate them with force … sorry, not this time. Keep writing.’
Jorge, an artist who works in leather – no, don’t be silly, you know what I mean – is regularly encouraging of my scribbles. But this time, clearly, I had gone too far. Howard Jacobson says that writers should always go too far, but I don’t think he meant to aggravate people’s well-founded phobias.
(Jorge owes me 1.40€, by the way. A bet, from several years ago, about whether Brexit would happen. In the café by the market, after buying a coffee, 1.40€ was all Jorge had left to lay on the chance that we might not leave. Not a bet I wanted to win.)
‘Not so much eight legs good, then, as nine legs bad, Jorge. Sorry. I could do you a beetle story. How are you with those little tinkers?’
‘Stories on hares, birds, squirrels, tigers, lions, or pumas please.’
Not Cyril the Squirrel again, I thought. Jorge has already seen ‘Mouse’ from Shortest Day Longest Night, and, coming from Argentina, he knows more about pumas than I could hope to glean in a short time.
My friend was, let’s say, amenable. ‘Okay, avoid squirrels. Replace them with ducks, the current nuisance at present.’
Jorge lives in the Tarn, south west France. A good few ducks are eaten there, and by and large they go to their fate philosophically – far too much so, many people think. Now it seems that Jorge’s neighbouring fowl have become noisy and forward. With human’s ‘social life’ closed down, maybe the ducks have a stay of execution, and are making merry with it.
Jorge wants a story. The ducks are getting uppity. What might that mean for a particular duck? Might she and Jorge meet? And eggs. We were due to be with Jorge and his wife for their Easter Day egg hunt, but now of course …
Black Duck and her Eggs. How does that sound?
Easter Saturday. The duck had sat on her eggs, fourteen of them, for four days now. The nest, well back from the footpath and the rowdy children, was overhung with …
‘Write every day,’ they say.
‘You’re not a writer unless you’re writing,’ they yell.
‘Write, write, write!’ goes the clamour of voices in my head.
But they’re sneaky, these voices. Duplicitous. They also say things like
‘Hey, the football’s on!’
or ‘Spend some time with your kids, you idiot!’
or ‘Your wife’s going to divorce you unless you take her out tonight.’
They remind me – constantly, irritatingly, loudly – that I have a family, a life, a job, and several million things to do which are much more important/easier/more fun than trying to write. There are a thousand things other I can do which are less likely to result in my self-esteem being kicked to black, blue and yellow bruises than writing. There are at least twenty things I have to do – today, this minute, immediately – or the consequences will be both severe and irreversible.
‘And anyway,’ says the one particular voice, the slimy, grey-sounding little whine. ‘You don’t even have anything to write about, do you?’
So, sometimes I write, and sometimes I don’t, and if I’m not feeling guilty about writing too much, I’m feeling guilty about not writing enough, and the world turns, and I turn with it, and before I know it, I’ll be dead.
And so will you.
Okay, so perhaps that’s a little pessimistic. But the problem I have with writing is exactly this: I want to write every day and I can’t.
Five years ago, I thought this had finished me as a writer. I’d been scribbling stories for about four years, and I’d had some small successes. Competition wins. Anthology publications. Stories on-line. I even made a (miniscule) bit of cash.
And then, one day, I stopped.
Looking back, it had been coming for a while. Without getting all personal about this, things had become a battle: writing versus life. And life won.
So for the next four years I wrote nothing apart from a month’s worth of short stories and flashes one January when I dipped my toe back in the water only to quickly pull it back out again, shocked at how cold and uninviting it had become in my absence.
And then I got an email. Someone wanted to publish one of my stories in an anthology, an old thing I’d forgotten about that had been featured at a literary reading four years previously. I looked back at the story, embarrassed at how dreadful it was [it isn’t! – Cherry], but I said yes anyway. And I lay awake that night, thinking, I can do so much better.
[For example, Jason’s beautiful story in Lovers’ Lies, A Time and Place Unknown – Cherry]
That was April 12th last year. Ever since that night, I’ve been writing. Four stories a month, regular as clockwork (almost). I’ve won £200 and had six stories published. That’s all. In a year. When I look at it like that, in black and white, in makes me want to give up again.
But I’m not going to.
Because here’s the thing I’ve been looking for, and the thing that I’ve suddenly realised – today, literally about an hour ago – I can get, easily, without destroying my family or losing my job in the process, the thing that is going to make me a better writer, a more widely published writer, and a richer writer (there, how’s that for confidence…?):
It’s a thing called momentum.
First though, an anecdote. I participated in last November’s NaNoWriMo – a month-long rush to write a 50,000 word novel in exactly thirty days. And I did it. I wrote, on average, 1,700 words a day (actually, mainly at night) and came out of it with a novel.
It’s rubbish, obviously.
But it’s a novel, and it’s mine, and in my brighter moments when I think about it I realise that actually, if I could only find the time, I reckon I could pull it and prod it and push it and caress it until it becomes something just about publishable.
And the thing that made me get through that month was the thing I’ve just realised I can get without having to write nearly two thousand words a day (which translates as about two to three hours of time away from my wife and my kids and my job and my guitar and the television and my books and my life every single day for the rest of my life…)
The thing that I had in bucketfuls for that whole month was momentum.
And it’s the thing that I believe makes a writer a writer.
So, how to keep writing every day? How to convince yourself that you’re a writer by actually writing something, day after day after day, forever? How to do this thing, and not get sacked/divorced/a reputation as some kind of mad recluse?
Well, here’s how, in six easy imperative soundbites (followed by some details and stuff).
(And, yes, I know, five would probably follow the genre conventions of an article a little more closely, but number six is important).
1. Buy a notebook. Now, I know this is nothing new. I’ve bought literally hundreds of notebooks in my time, and I’ve been as full of good intentions as they’ve remained empty of writing. No, the thing isn’t just buying the notebook, it’s using it. Carrying it, every day, everywhere, and not being embarrassed by whipping it out and writing down whatever it is that’s just sparked the writer in you. If someone asks you, ‘Hey, what you doing with that notebook?’ you say, ‘I’m writing in it.’ and you just get on with it. So, if there’s a big football game on that evening, watch it. If you’ve got a sick kid to attend to, off you go. If your scowling significant other wants to eat out for a change, all well and good. Because you’ve already done your writing for the day! It’s that line you scribbled down about the man who you saw at the bus-stop with the sad eyes and halitosis.
It’s that conversation you transcribed as you listened to the two women in front of you in the queue talk about at completely cross purposes about a) Maggie’s funeral b) carrots.
It’s that four-line poem you scrawled across the page in the middle of the night when you’d just woken up from that weird dream about trying to get a girl’s phone number in a bar full of men with bare chests and horse heads. You might not have actually sat down in front of a screen and written a story yet, but you’ve been a writer, and sometime soon there you’ll be, deskbound, turning the stuff in your notebook into something a little more substantial.
2. Diversify. I write short stories. But you know what? I can write poetry, too. Or articles (maybe, you be the judge…) I used to write songs, and I’m going to start again. I’ve got a blog. There’s a novel sitting under my bed just begging to be ripped apart and put back together again. And there’s always another novel to write. No more sitting there thinking, ‘I can’t write tonight because I haven’t got an idea for a story,’ because there are so many other things to write.
3. Forget about the muse. Stephen King writes very engagingly in his perfectly-titled book ‘On Writing’ about the muse, and how you can’t wait for her to turn up (and actually, King’s muse is a he…). Just write, says King, every day, and eventually the muse will find you, because if you’re not writing, how’s the muse supposed to know you need her (or him)? So I say, sod inspiration. Perspiration first.
4 Don’t be embarrassed into submission. That poem is awful. That song sounds like the sixteen-year-old you wrote it. No one reads the articles on your blog. Your stories keep getting rejected. The novel doesn’t work, will never work, and no novel you ever write is ever going to work. Yeah, well, join the club, and make the decision: Do you want to get better, or do you want to give up?
5 Don’t forget to live. You can’t write all the time. Otherwise, all you’ve got to write about is writing, and that’s pretty dull (although £100 of the £200 I won last year came from a story about writing, or trying to write, or not writing, or something like that anyway…)
6. Don’t beat yourself up. I ride a bike to work most days, and the best advice anyone ever gave me about riding a bike to work most days (apart from ‘wear a bloody helmet, idiot!’) was to not beat myself up on the days when I simply couldn’t be bothered and jumped in the car instead. So, you know what? If you want a day off from this writing lark, take one.