TURNING TIMES a guest blog from Margaret Crompton

Margaret wrote this for us during the second lockdown. My fault that it hasn’t seen the light until now, but as Margaret cant join us for the Q&A part of hte festival, here are her thoughts on writing for the Solstice.

A young girl is standing on tiptoe, gazing into the little mirror on the wall-mounted bathroom-cabinet. She is glaring, frowning, pushing her chin down into her neck, clenching her lips, flaring her nostrils. Is this how she will look when – if – she is 60?

When she is 20, she is contemplating the pattern of her future life, rather than her face. She expects to complete her degree and post-graduate courses, then to work in her chosen profession. To conform with her peers, she must get engaged, then married, and have her first child by the time she is 25. All these are essential to her status as a woman. She should work for at least two years, then stay at home to care for the children. In due course, she should seek re-employment in her profession, accepting that she has missed the chance of promotion.  By the time she is 60, her main use will be as a grandmother (when, by some miracle, she should have learnt to knit).

Her five years at University will have been financed by grants, which she will not have to repay. Gratitude for her superb education will be expressed through work, as it has been throughout her life. For of course, I’m writing about myself.

My life – and face – have not followed the expected pattern, and I’ve had many challenges and opportunities which I could never have anticipated. Achievements and disappointments, losses and gains. Times have gone by turns, and continue so to do. I am not who I thought I would be, and I’m still learning, changing, exploring. (But I have still not learnt to knit).

The Solstice Shorts poem [Tymes goe by Turnes by Robert Southwell] spoke to my condition. My recent writing has focused on ideas about identity and change. Spidergirl [Published in Arachne eighth anniversary anthology, No Spider Harmed in the Making of this Book] avoids identifying time, place and skin colour. The challenge was to evoke two physical bodies through one first-person narrative voice.

Turner’s World of Twirls [published in Tymes goe by Turnes, the Solstice Shorts 2020 anthology, and read on 21st December at the online festival] was spun out of my self-challenge to explore more aspects of identity-fluidity, including attribution of gender. Playing with the word ‘turner,’ I enjoyed finding a range of possible lives for the narrator who must, at the end of each decade, change both occupation and gender-identity.

Although I have never been anything but solidly heterosexual female, I have ‘failed’ in the role which, when I was young, was identified as essentially ‘female,’ and a necessary attribute of successful womanhood. I have, in other words, not borne children. But I have been employed in situations of equality with men.  Most of the changes in my own life have been from choice, for my qualifications and profession provided a variety of opportunities for rewarding employment. (Social worker, lecturer, playwright, cook…) I’m proud of what I regard as my ‘ramshackle’ career.

When I wrote Turner’s World of Twirls, first lockdown was in full force. It was difficult to find energy to fuel imagination, but imagination created its own energy and I loved twirling in Turner’s world. Writing this now, in the middle of second lockdown, I discern a darker shadow in the story. Daily, I hear of people who have lost their employment and, with that, not only their living but also their sense of identity. For example, a young actress who had just been cast in the part of her dreams, and a retired teacher who had run out of conversation with her husband. After many rejected job applications, the actress is happily working as a classroom assistant, while maintaining her hope that she will, before long, return to the stage. The retired teacher leaves the house for a few hours a day to work, (I think) as a cleaner, which gives her something new to talk about, instead of bickering with her husband. But there are many stories of anxiety, and privation.

Turner’s transformations result from the desire for change. Mine derived from response to necessity and ability to take advantage of opportunity. Even when the change was necessary rather than voluntary, like Turner, I’ve always been fortunate in turning the new situation to good effect. Although Turner makes a demonic deal, there is hope. When I wrote the story, I had no idea how much hope would be needed by this year’s Solstice.

Nothing I write could be straightforward. After many polishing and tweakings, I submitted the story. Cherry, meticulous as ever, queried one of my core statements, which depended on Medieval table legs being turned. Until then, I had assumed that turners, carpenters and joiners were all the same. I plunged into the enthralling world of woodworkers and learnt not only the error of my ignorance, but the pleasure of new knowledge. Although there were Medieval turners, they were unlikely to have been turning table legs. To discover how I pirouetted out of trouble, please read the story.

Margaret Crompton

25th November 2020

If you order a copy of the book BEFORE publication date (this thursday 17th December, you get a free ticket ot the festival.)

Guest Blog: Margaret Crompton – Borning Spidergirl

Today is international Jumping Spider Day! What better way to celebrate than with Margaret Crompton‘s blog about her story for No Spider Harmed in the Making of This Book, Spidergirl.

Sometime in January, Spidergirl was born, after what was, for me, an unusually brief gestation. Arachne’s call for submissions about spiders was a challenge I couldn’t decline. What did I know about arachnids? silk, strength, multiple births, delicate webs, agility. I ignored the fragments of fly-corpses on the laundry windowsill, & the cobweb tangle above. With only a few days before the deadline, and minimal arachnoid background, I avoided natural history, and I had no ideas for a straightforward human narrative. How could I interweave spideriness with humanity?

As I considered the purpose of the anthology, I saw that celebrating Arachne implied facing the horror at the core of the foundation myth: jealousy, rivalry, punishment, death. I challenged myself to explore the Arachne myth in the light of cooperation rather than conflict. Myths are about both everyday experience and mystery.

Mysteriously, I found Spidergirl attending my own school. The gym, in which Spidergirl performs feats of grace and power, was for me a torture chamber. My gymnastic efforts were devoted to avoiding the humiliation of failing to vault over box or horse, climb wall bars or swing on rope; I would generously remain at the back of the queue. My only achievement was walking along the narrow strut of an upturned form, using the balancing exercise to practise what would become essential for a writer – imagination: the floor, ten inches below my hesitating feet, became a fiery pit or turbulent torrent into which I must not fall.

The craft room caused equal anxiety. Most of my relations were – or are – highly talented in many arts and crafts. My own hands missed all those genes. But music has come to me through my father and paternal grandfather.

Love of literature and interest in myth was nourished by the tall glass-fronted bookcase in the dark corridor where from early childhood I was free to sit on prickly coconut matting and read whatever I chose. No surprise that my degree is in English Literature. No surprise either that, after forty years writing ‘professional’ texts about communicating with children in the context of social work, health care, and education, I began to explore other forms. In my 60s, with my husband, I’d also taught (adult education), and researched and written about English Literature. Since I became 70, my publications include short stories, poems, flash fiction and plays; Script in Hand has performed three plays (the fourth prevented, for now, by C-19).

Spidergirl, in a few hundred words, encapsulates the nearly 80 years of reading and writing between that girl with matting-prickled thighs and this woman whose legs are vein-webbed.

This year, Arachne has brought me more than publication in an anthology whose quality delights me. In the spring, I offered a guest blog – not a form which comes easily to me, so another challenge. But being stimulated to write anything at all helped to counteract that extraordinary lethargy which has beset so many people. I spent hours writing as well as I could, following that first blog with another, which Cherry posted, and a third which she didn’t.  Although I was disappointed, good outcomes included the stimulus of thinking about and writing the piece, which led to further reading. And I’ve been enjoying the blogs & interviews, meeting and learning about and from other writers.

Then came the call for Tymes goe by Turnes, another challenge I couldn’t refuse.  I followed leads which led, not to a story, but into fascinating areas of thought, narrative and discussion on our walks around the nearby field. Once again, Arachne called me out of lethargy, and Turner’s World of Twirls whirled me into the world of word play. Once again, I’ve enjoyed the excitement of acceptance, of posting the signed contract, of looking forward to the next publication.

Throughout these months, I’ve come to respect Cherry. I’m grateful for meticulous, patient, and honest editing which assures me that my work has really been read and, in turn, respected. I admire clear editorial principles and quality. I enjoy being a small thread in Arachne’s web.

We are crowdfunding for our next book, and Solstice Shorts Festival. The crowdfund ends on 15th October, head on over and see what we have on offer.

 

 

 

 

 

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!