Wednesday, 31 December 2008

Happy New Year

I like to begin each new year in the way I hope it will continue. So today has seen me mopping floors, plumping cushions, painting my nails and refusing the temptation of the remains of my Christmas stocking chocolate orange.

This year was a bit of an up and downer: five deaths of near relatives; redundancy; the comment, "this portfolio was a joy to read," for my first portfolio assessment.

I'm not a planner, but a dreamer, a hoper. I hope that next year Stevie will find his dream job and be cheery again; that Bob will continue to flourish, and that my latest portfolio isn't as bad as I think it is.

And I hope that you all continue to grow into the people that you are.

2009, I suspect, will be much like 2008 only we'll all be a little older and wiser and more able to run with it.

Chin, chin XXXXXXXXX

Monday, 29 December 2008

Where do Poems Come From?

I was given the book Stepping Stones: Interviews with Seamus Heaney by Dennis O'Driscoll for Christmas (no, Mr O'Driscoll didn't give me the book he wrote it). And last night as I was reading it I was given to remember my first school friend Maria. This gave me an idea for a series of poems.

Maria was very pretty and always enviably dressed in floral A-line frocks: crisp as country house napery. She had hair like Nigella Lawson, long limbs, and I wanted to be her. Our friendship didn't last. She soon deserted me for cooler girls. That was the first time I knew what loss was. I remember sitting in the playground and seeing her with her new friends running up to the sports field and wondering what went wrong. But I also remember a sense of inevitability. I wasn't the right sort.

Thirty or so years later I saw Maria again. She was the size of a small farm and I didn't recognise her. I only noticed her because she looked peculiarly happy to see me, then rather pained when I failed to return, with my forced smile, her sentiment. I had to ask my sister, once we were out of earshot, who she was. She didn't know either but later, over supper, we worked it out, and then I felt terrible.

Terrible in a 'serves her right' sort of way it's true.

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Shrink to Fit

I have a folio of writing to hand in on the 15th of December. It's not quite ready yet and this week I am working away at it: polishing the syntax, trying to find better words, cutting.

I have four very short stories; a longer short story; two long narrative poems and the first scene of a half hour radio drama. The very short stories are inspired by those American writers sometimes referred to as minimalists. In particular Raymond Carver, Dave Eggers and Amy Hempel. Amy Hempel is a new discovery and has been especially inspirational. Here's one of her stories:


She would always sleep with her husband and with another man in the course of the same day, and then the rest of the day, for whatever was left to her of that day, she would exploit by incanting, "French film, French, film."

This is so short it's like a snippet of conversation overheard. I desperately want more: who is this woman; where does she live; how old is she; does her husband know about this? And that’s just for starters. Though, it’s true, there is something about her that bores me, 'sad cow,' I thought at first, and dismissed her. But something got a hold of me.

I kept going back to this story, and every time I did I got more out of it. I began to fill in the gaps myself. The phrase in parenthesis: 'for whatever was left to her of that day,' along with the word 'exploit' seem to suggest that her days are not her own, she isn't in control of her own life, but she’s trying. She grabs what she can but she’s so wasted that all she can do is chant ‘French film.’ Why French, why not Italian or British? French being italicised, thus emphasised, suggests that the frenchness of the film is important. So I began to think about what makes a French film distinct, and I came up with all number of possibilities. In fact, now I’m thinking about it again, I’m still coming up with them. All Hempel's stories have a similar effect on me: they make me think. By juxtaposing a handful of features that lurk in the shadows of everyday life she invites me to reinterpret the landscape in which I live. And I find this really exciting. Hempel seems to have hit on a way to use fiction to show how precarious, not to mention multifarious, our perspectives are, and in the most egalitarian way. So with my own very short stories (not nearly as short as this) I have tried to do the something similar, and add to the debate. I have tried to provide just enough to get the reader's imagination going. I've done this by juxtaposing two (or more) small blocks of text (as Hempel does too in other stories), almost like the verses in a poem, separating them with a gap, and hoping that the gap, by providing a space for the reader to think, says even more than the prose. Here's an example:


She was oiling the wooden counter. For this she used a viscous hybrid oil that she had to order from Denmark. It was a job she had been attending to, daily at first, now weekly, for almost a year: layer over layer, each one taking twenty four hours to dry, the room rendered unusable. Ensure the area is well ventilated.
She poured it onto the soap clean surface and massaged it in with her bare hands, as if it were a Kobi beef cow. Her fingers pushed and pulled in circular motions until all was even and gleaming.

In half an hour she would remove the excess, as per instructions, with the old silk camisole: once the pride of her underwear drawer.

The idea is that there should be a spark between the two ‘verses,’ a relationship but not a too obvious one. I've recently changed that last sentence from 'the old silk camisole her groom once slipped from her shoulders.' I realised that that narrowed down the possible interpretations. I do have a tendency to place rather heavy sign posts in my work that say 'this is what it's about,' which is incredibly boring of me, and as Jimmy McGovern once said 'I'd rather be confused for ten minutes than bored for five seconds.' This means that the editing process is mostly about cutting stuff out. I have to read my work over and over again to try and ascertain what can, what needs to, be taken out. Though not always.

My longer story, being a different type of thing altogether, needs stuff added. Writing the very short stuff has changed the way I approach fiction writing. My actual thoughts seem to be edited down to the bone. I start off the way I always have: with an image, but now I seem unable to answer my own questions: 'why is she doing that?' 'what's driving her (or him)?' In this case I have an image of a woman out shopping who chooses clothes that she feels make her look like certain film characters. She rejects a dress that looks fabulous on her because it reminds her of her war bride grandmother. I've got myself all tangled up as to why. The back-story is the story, but I can't write it. It's driving me nuts. I either need to strip it right down and leave it up to the reader or I need to explicate. I suppose I could do both and see which works better, but I'm running out of time. Time can be such a bastard. Sometimes lack of it can spur you on, but at other times it can paralyse and that is what it's doing to me at the moment.

The other pieces fit more with the very short stories, are much more about cutting out superfluous material. The two narrative poems both started out as prose pieces. One a story of my own that my tutor suggested turning into a poem and the other an Inuit tales, also at his suggestion. It’s bad enough cutting out my own words, like cutting up favourite dresses that no longer suit the times, but doing it to someone else’s feels truly presumptuous. There’s no way I’d have tried if Tom hadn’t made an explicit request. And if I hadn’t read Christopher Logue’s War Music in which he reworks Homer’s Iliad I don’t think I’d have been able to continue. Logue gave me the added permission that I needed. If someone can mess with Homer, I thought, then perhaps it is OK for me to mess with this. And I’m so glad of this because it was such fun seeing the poem come alive, feeling that I could do it, and although I don’t think it’s perfect yet I am quite pleased with the result. It is now a completely different thing to the original story, in the same way that a film of a novel and the novel itself are quite distinct, the translation – for that is what it is – requires new words and a new approach. Hopefully this brings something to, if not the original itself, the conversation it is part of.

The final piece is the radio drama. This came about because we were asked to write the blurbs for three possible novels and when my tutor read one of mine he said, ‘this is a ten minute radio play!’ So off I went and had a look at the BBC website on how to write a radio play and had a go. I was rather bamboozled by all the stuff on radio drama, for example: ‘Radio is not about sound, it is about significant sound.’ I had no idea what that meant, but gradually by listening to plays on the radio and to what radio dramatists have said, I got into it. Dialogue is that last thing you must think about. First you must imagine the scene and translate it into sound. My scene is the household of a woman, suddenly single with two young children, whose brother, a born again philosophy student, keeps phoning her and quoting odd existentialist phrases. She is confused and has lost control of her life. So the sounds are of pots and pans clanking and boiling over, oven timers going off, the phone ringing, the brother’s voice, and children trying to get her attention. This has been enormous fun to do. I did, of course, begin with the dialogue but the more I thought about the other sounds the more I was able to cut from the chat. It’s now about fifty-fifty stage directions and dialogue. I’ve still only written the first scene but I have bits of the next one on index cards and hope to get time to do more over Christmas.

So that’s my third folio nearly completed. Next semester will be totally different, more of which later.

Saturday, 6 December 2008

Bogged Down in the Writing Process

I've been watching Charlie Brooker's Screenwipe (series 4, episode 3) over and over again on BBC iPlayer. In this episode he interviews a number of screen writers about their art. It's a joy. I love hearing writers talk about their process, their ideas, and the obstacles they have to overcome. I love reading about it too and have several books on my shelves of writer's interviews. It's the nearest thing I get to staff room chat.

The great thing about this show was the variety of answers given to the same questions by the various interviewees, in an easily digestible chunk of time. Just like a lunch break with colleagues. I could identify with pretty much all of them at some stage. So, as they are all doing well, I felt kind of vindicated. For example Graham Linehan (who wrote the first series of Black Books, and Father Ted amongst other things) made me feel much better about my tendency to procrastinate: he procrastinates a lot he said, partly due to fear, 'but also it's partly feeding the subconscious,' and you can't write if your subconscious is empty. He likened writing to 'having a poo, you can't go if you don't want to.' You have to feed your subconscious until you just have to write. People falter because they start too soon. Thus he put into words what I have always felt but stumbled at explaining, feeling a fool and a lazy one to boot. I love that man! Even though I have read other writers who have said exactly the same thing – in non bodily function terms – it's something that I seem to need to have constantly reiterated.

This might be because some other writers say things like, 'if you want to be a writer you have to write, just write.' Which can make me anxious when I'm not actually writing. When I have a deadline, and instead of just getting on with it I find myself looking at Topshop on line and wondering if that lovely green silk dress would be over the top for Christmas lunch, or my thighs are slim enough for those skinny leather jeans, there is always a whining voice telling me just how much I am not writing. Especially as I can't even afford to buy anything, even from Topshop, so there's no reason to be looking. I know I am doing it just to avoid doing the thing I profess to want to do most of all. And this notion, that all you have to do is write to be a writer: as though it's easy, simple, as though writers are creatures who only write; that they just have things to write about, asserted as it often is by established writers can be rather debilitating. Like having tiny amounts of noxious fumes pumped into your room. And it's not just them, well meaning friends and family do it too:
'How are you getting on with your work?'
'Well how much have you still got left to do?'
'Come on Eryl, just write!'
From now on I'll answer: 'you can't force out a poo if you don't need to go.'

There were also interviews with: Russell T Davies (Dr Who), Paul Abbot (can't remember what he wrote but it was a lot, and he must be doing well because he now employs people to force him to sit down and write!), Tony Jordan (Eastenders and lots of other stuff), and Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain who work together, at what I can't remember but again it was a lot. Because I don't have a TV I don't know any of these people's work – except Black Books which I watched by other means and loved – but I didn't find that an obstacle at all, they all clearly knew what they were talking about. They all have the same love/hate relationship with writing that I have, and I feel I have learnt tonnes from hearing and seeing them. Russell T Davies and Graham Linehan glowed as they talked, you don't get that from reading books.

So if you haven't seen it, and you are interested in the writing process, grab it while you can it won't be there for much longer. I'm going to watch it again just one more time, now.

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Being Barbara

Last week Bob brought home this

(he's working at a country pursuits place)

so I had to do this

and more: I wore rubber gloves to pull its guts out; I haven't been fully assimilated into country life yet.

On Saturday I turned it into our Chinese restaurant favourite: Crispy Duck with Hoisin sauce and pancakes. The easiest recipe imaginable: put your duck into a medium-low oven for four hours, turn up the heat to high for the last half hour, take it out and eat. I meant to take a photograph of the finished dish, but it was a pile of bones before I remembered.

Does anyone know how to deflesh and brain the head without damaging it, I want to turn it into a trophy skull?

I have a portfolio to hand in on the fifteenth. After that I'm hoping to get back to normal blogging practise (Conan, have I spelt practise right here, I can't quite get my head around when it needs a 'c' and when it needs an 's', you're good at this stuff, perhaps you can explain it to me), so hopefully I'll catch up with you all soon. For now I'm stripping my poetry down to the bones and fattening up my prose.