Nature Writing: Initial thoughts

 

West coast of scotland

Walking the West Coast of Scotland. Research is Experiencing.

Whether it is canoeing single-handedly down the Niger to Timbuktu, or walking the Pennine Way in the ‘wrong’ direction, or exploring loss on the Camino de Santiago, or following in the footsteps of dead poets, or training a goshawk, nature writing appears to be in its prime.

 

In an article in The Guardian published in March 2015, Jamie Doward, argued that nature writing is the vogue, the ‘new’ literary phenomenon. He suggested that the recent trend is for nature writing to move away from descriptions and facts about the environment towards meditations on consumption, on finding more meaningful ways of living and on the values of our current society. He questioned whether the genre has moved too far away from being about the natural world.

The definition of the genre of nature writing includes anything from field guides to human attempts to engage with wildlife to voyages of discovery such as those mentioned above. However, it seems, we humans inevitably end up writing about ourselves; the natural world becoming a reflection of our own preoccupations or emotional state. As ever, humans find the most intriguing story to be about themselves.

We don’t all have the capacity or the time to set off on grand adventures. But we can become inspired by roaming through our own patch of nature. It doesn’t have to be expansive, or particularly wild, to fire the imagination.woodslakesJune16

Five tips for nature writing:

  •       Engage with nature, open our senses and our observational capacities to what is around us. Walk mindfully.
  •       Be curious about everything.
  •       Research – good researching is experiencing not just reading about a subject.
  •       Read examples of the genre. Good writers are good readers.
  •       Move from the specific of our own experience to a general mediation or reflection. In general, the idea is that nature has something to teach us.
  •       Have a sufficient grasp of the facts in order to be able to be relatively knowledgeable about plant life, animals, social and geological history.
  •       There’s no need to romanticise, it is the grit which creates the pearl.

 

Reading & Writing Poetry: Sarah Askew

I am delighted to welcome Sarah Askew to my blog, with her poem, ‘Not A Minute’s Silence’.

Not A Minute’s Silence
A muted explosion
of stamping feet
on sticky floors.
Mouths shriek

against my ear plugs.
Ten seconds of madness
to honour the silence
of Monday’s voiceless concert-goers.

The walls shake around me,
inside me. I felt
the reverberations, the impact,
three days late.

 

Sarah explains the naissance of her poem:

I wrote this poem in response to the Manchester Arena attack in May 2017. Just a few days after the attack, my partner and I had tickets to another concert at the O2 Academy Bristol, which still went ahead despite the increased terror alerts, but with extra tight security.

So there was a highly loaded atmosphere, not to mention the incredible heat wave that had descended that Spring, and the place was packed. The walls were sweating, shoulders and elbows jabbed, and leather clad behinds refused to budge. At one point I attempted to find the bar for a drink but was soon forced to retrace my steps as I could wade no further through the immovable wall of bodies, faces invisible to me in the dark.

And then the singer, outspoken as she is, invited the crowd to take part in, not a minute’s silence, but ten seconds of madness, in memory of the victims from Manchester’s concert. They had gone out that night, she said, to have fun. We were asked to honour them, not with silence and sadness, but with noise and madness; to make up for the fun they never got to have. The band counted us down, and the foot-stomping, hand clapping, cymbal-crashing, vocal-wailing began.

I hadn’t realised quite how anxious I had been about attending the concert until I was stuck in the middle of such chaos. And then it occurred to me: what must it have been like for those people in Manchester – in Paris, in London, in the middle of any terror attack – to be in the eye of such a storm of noise and panic and confusion. The chaos surrounding me was safe, controlled, expected. Theirs had been dangerous, sudden; fatal.

And, despite the fact that I was very much in my own bubble- ear-plugs in, eyes closed, feelings (up until this point) about terrorism in general, pretty much on mute – I found that I was crying. Relief, sadness, fear, shame, all washed over and through me and I remembered why I myself had given up singing with a band just a few months before: I hate chaos.

When I reflected upon this (uncharacteristic) flood of emotions at my poetry group the following Monday, this poem arrived…

Sarah (aka The Pocket Poet) is an award-winning poet and writing for wellbeing enthusiast based in Wiltshire. She has lived with various mental health issues, such as depression, anxiety, eating disorders and OCD for as long as she can remember and has always used writing as a therapeutic tool to promote self-awareness and self-expression. She runs writing for wellbeing workshops for groups and individuals and also offers a bespoke poetry writing service for those looking to give a personalised poem as a gift.

You can find Sarah at:
http://thepocketpoet.weebly.com/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/ThePocketPoet

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/sarahthepocketpoet/#

Exploring Creative Non-fiction

For various reasons, these several weeks I am not focusing on my novels. So I have been playing around with ideas which lie more in the ‘creative non-fiction’ category. I’ve always written (and had published) non-fiction pieces and have even strayed into academic non-fiction with various research articles and my book Pathways through writing blocks in the academic environment (https://bit.ly/2HC5xvd).

This time I’ve been doing a lot of meandering around topics such as: walking, nature and writing; the body and writing; and women’s biography. The result is many notes, but nothing entirely nailed down.

‘Walking is not the action by which one arrives at knowledge, it is itself the means of knowing.’ Thus wrote Robert MacFarlane in his book The Old Ways (Penguin Books, 2012, p.27). I feel the same about writing. If I write freely enough, allowing the pen to scrawl (and usually I do need to handwrite for this type of writing) I will discover what I did not know I knew. But sometimes in the writing I become stuck and then I will walk. Walking attentively, walking mindfully (open to myself, the nature around me, and myself in the world) will shake free the words and notions which have become snared.

This was written during one of my explorations:

Biography, body, map, walking, writing

My biography is written into my body, a map of past delights, of past misdemeanours, of past wrongs, of forgotten memories. I forgive my body for its inconveniences. I am journeying each day along my life’s path – partly unmapped, the end uncertain. Walking is putting one foot in front of another. Writing is putting one word in front of another. Neither can be done in theory. Both bring understanding in the doing.

Are you interested in creative non-fiction? What would be your writing tips?

 

Reading & Writing Poetry: Nick Makoha

I heard Nick Makoha read some of his work at last year’s poetry festival in Bridlington and I was blown away by his words. I am, therefore, grateful and honoured to welcome him to my blog and my occasional series where I ask poets to explain themselves – or at least explain the inspiration behind one of their poems. Find out more about Nick Makoha’s work here: https://nickmakoha.com/

 

Resurrection Man by Nick Makoha
Somewhere west of our sacred sites, the ghost
of your former self is rising from captivity.
Your student friend, the one who saw you last,
swears she left you alive in the taxi. Even after my
two-fisted punches. She denies being the one who
gave the signal for dark men to change their shapes
in the night, as you knelt, blindfolded. I want to believe
she had no part in the shaving of your hair and pubic mound
in front of onlookers. Rebels kneading your breast
like posho in their palms, begging in turn for your body,
bleached by their jeeps’ headlights. Once broken,
you were dragged by the arms across the grass
onto the unpaved taxiway of Arua airport. Then
one yelled, “Burn her! The witch.” Their echoes agreed.

One lit the match, another peeled the blindfold,
the rest poured gin on your face. I know you saw me
in the hollow of a tree. I wanted to run to you
but their bullets would have easily caught up with me.
I stood firm, learning to hide myself in the dark.
A man must have two faces; one he can live with
and one he will die with. The second face is mine.

Nick explains:
I thought that I was midway through writing the book that would eventually be Kingdom of Gravity. I did not know this at the time but it was actually the beginning. The original working title was The Second Republic. This is what Uganda was referred to in its second constitution. But after writing this poem and placing it into the draft, it seemed to shuffle the deck. It raised the bar for what the collection could be. Good poems hum in their conception, in their reading and re-reading. They exist at their own frequency like Derek Walcott’s The Schooner Flight or Tracy. K. Smith’s My God, It’s Full of Stars. When I write a poem like this it feels like a fluke or like when a  DJ finds a rare record. The lines are akin to musical notes.

One of my favourite songs is Human Nature by Michael Jackson, it transforms you whether you are in a car, sitting at your desk or at nightclub ordering drinks at the bar. The poem Resurrection Man has that quality. I first noticed this when it got commended for the Flamingofeather poetry competition. I have a lot of thanks for this poem. It opens up the Uganda of the 1970’s to the reader. It’s for that reason I named my second pamphlet after the poem and in many ways I think its resonance has something to do with why the pamphlet Resurrection Man (Jai Alai Books) won the Toi Derricotte + Cornelius Eady Chapbook Prize. In many ways this poem gave me the confidence to be bold with my writing. It is the window through which I climbed to finish Kingdom of Gravity.

Nick Makoha’s debut collection Kingdom of Gravity is shortlisted for the 2017 Felix Dennis Prize for Best First Collection and nominated by The Guardian as one of the best books of 2017. He won the 2015 Brunel International Poetry prize and the 2016 Toi Derricotte & Cornelius Eady Chapbook Prize for his pamphlet Resurrection Man. He is a Goldsmiths, Cave Canem & Complete Works Alumni. His poems have appeared in The New York Times, Poetry Review, Rialto, Triquarterly Review, Boston Review, Callaloo, and Wasafiri.

‘Nick Makoha’s first full-length collection, Kingdom of Gravity (Peepal Tree £8.99), was the 2017 debut which most excited me. Focused on Uganda during the Idi Amin dictatorship, his poetry is charged with ethical sensibility. The lines protest as they sing “the song disturbed by helicopter blades…” but they don’t simplify things: they explore, and complicate. Personal witness and artistry are one.’ – Carol Rumens – The Guardian

Find him at www.nickmakoha.com Or on Twitter: @NickMakoha

Buy Resurrection Man & Kingdom of Gravity: https://nickmakoha.com/books/

Author Interview: Christopher Lloyd King

Good morning this rainy Easter Monday. Around this time last year, I completed the Curtis Brown Creative novel writing course. One of my colleagues on that course was Christopher Lloyd King. He has just published his first novel, Black Sun (available from Amazon: goo.gl/ApwVn9). I am delighted to have an interview with him on my blog.

Christopher Lloyd King came to writing fiction after a career in television. He directed single plays and series over a thirty-five period. Credits include BBC’s ‘Forgive our Foolish Ways’ for which Kate Nelligan received a BAFTA nomination as best actress, ITV’s ‘The Thing About Vince’ starring Timothy Spall, which won a Silver Rose at the Montreux TV festival. He directed two series of Channel 4’s ‘The Manageress’, starring Cherie Lunghi, and many popular series, including ‘The Professionals’, ‘Minder’, ‘Soldier, Soldier’, ‘The Bill’, ‘Casualty’, ‘Holby City’.

He was educated at St. Peter’s College Oxford and L’Université d’Aix/Marseille, with an M.A. in film directing at The National Film and Television School.

Please say something about your writing journey to the present day.
During my directing career, I wrote screenplays (with a view to directing them myself), so have always been interested in telling stories, placing characters in a landscape. My scripts have tended towards historical settings, ranging from post-World War 1 rural Ireland to the Welsh mountains of the interwar years. Subjects have included sexual intrigue within a ménage à trois, the social ostracism faced by a gay pacifist during the build-up to war. A common thread in these scripts is an interest in the ways political events on the global scale affect the everyday life of ordinary people.

It was this preoccupation that led me to the story of Black Sun. I read Ian Knight’s Zulu Rising, an account of the Anglo-Zulu war of 1879-83, and was struck by the similarities between those events and the Blair/Bush invasion of Iraq in 2003. There was the same slender pretext for declaring war, the same impulse from British politicians to control the natural resources of a ‘third world’ country, the same demonisation of a tyrant. and the same outcome: huge loss of life and the creation of a power vacuum leading to devastating civil war.

Zulu Rising led to my reading more widely. I became fascinated with the story of Mehlokazulu, whose impetuous action to punish his adulterous mother became the justification used by the British. I wondered how this young warrior could bring himself to garrotte his own mother. Without any ambition to start writing a book, I set out to examine his motives. It was like unravelling a mystery; one thing led to another and eventually the architecture of a novel was revealed.

How did you do the research for Black Sun, and  how you feel about writing about another country/culture?
I was, and am, sensitive about describing historical characters from another culture. In the case of Black Sun, cultural appropriation is far from my purpose. Black Sun is written objectively in third person, which I hope helps maintain a detachment and avoids any blurring between author’s attitude and the value system of the characters described.

One difficulty I had to overcome is that most histories of the period are Euro-centric, written from a European perspective by British or South African writers. Zulu history is essentially oral, word-of-mouth stories passed down from father to son, mother to daughter. Two exceptions are Bertram Milford’s Through the Zulu Country and Paulina Dlamini’s Servant of Two Kings. Milford travelled through Zululand soon after the Zulu defeat, interviewing the Zulu participants – including Mehlokazulu and his father Sihayo. He took down verbatim their testimony, thus presenting Zulu eye-witness accounts of the battles.

My most important source was Paulina Dlamini’s book. A short, eighty page, monograph, this is a direct account of the war through the eyes of a thirteen-year old Swazi princess sent to work in the Zulu King Cetshwayo’s household. Nomguqo (her pre-baptismal name) was therefore witness to conversations at the highest level in the royal court and remembered them in detail. After the fall of the kingdom and ensuing civil war, she converted to Christianity and became an evangelist. Her fellow missionary, the German Lutheran Heinrich Filter, transcribed her stories and published them in 1911 (the English edition wasn’t published until 1986). Paulina’s memories are fresh and in exquisite detail. Consequently, she became the second principal character in the book.

Available on Amazon: https://goo.gl/ApwVn9

As a boy growing up in the North-East of England, I was aware of the history of the Zulus from reading Henry Rider Haggard’s romances set in Zululand, specifically Nada the Lily. The writing was so vivid I wanted to visit Zululand and see for myself where the story was set. The opportunity came after leaving school. Before starting university, I spent nine months in newly independent Zambia, as a volunteer teacher. During the Easter break I travelled down to Durban and went inland to kwaZulu, where I spent some time in the Valley of a Thousand Hills. It was exactly as I imagined it, a vast landscape with traditional ‘kraals’ (which I know now are called iMizi in isiZulu) dotted over it.

Then in 2016, my eldest son and I made a trip to kwaZulu on a trek through the uKhahlamba mountains. We made a trip to iSandlwana and had the good fortune to meet Lindizwe Ngobese, a local historian. Lindizwe is the great great grandson of Meholokazulu, the hero of Black Sun. We have kept in touch ever since and I am waiting, with my heart in my mouth, for his reaction to my evocation of and tribute to his ancestor.

What is your ‘writing process’?
The research and writing of the book went hand in hand. I discovered the characters, and therefore the story, as I read about the history. I wrote narrative ‘sign-post’, scenes which I knew I had to describe, like the ‘battle of the first fruits’ in Book 1. These provided guides to direct the story, but at no time did I follow a prescribed plan. It’s fair to say that the novel wrote itself – serendipitously. There was a good deal of back-tracking and re-writing. In retrospect, it would have been more economical and practical to have written a story plan, but since I had no idea of what I wanted to write, I allowed myself to be guided by the characters.

Five years in the writing, the manuscript ended up at an unwieldy one hundred and fifty thousand words. I had no immediate plan to seek a publisher, content with the reaction of my wife, who cried at the ending. Job done, I thought.

However, pure chance led to the manuscript being read by Simon Clegg, MD of PiqWiq, a small independent publishing house. He showed it first to Rob Dinsdale, an agent with A.P. Watt. Rob’s notes were invaluable and produced a quantum shift in how I considered the book. He reminded me that I was writing character based fiction and not history. He made me realise that characters are not aware they’re living through ‘history’; they’re living each day as it comes. ‘History’ is how we interpret events from the perspective of time having passed, where we have the advantage of seeing patterns and knowing the ‘ending’. I wrote a whole new draft with this injunction in mind.

Simon Clegg then showed this draft to Sadie Mayne, a freelance editor, who deemed it worthy of publication. Then came the time-consuming task of turning the clumsy manuscript into a book. Sadie was very helpful in shaping the narrative, cutting sections that were overwritten and redundant and encouraging me to expand areas that were underdeveloped. There was considerable to-ing and fro-ing.

The title Black Sun suggested itself very early on. One of the most dramatic features of the battle of iSandlwana, the first encounter between the British invasion force and the Zulu army, was the partial solar eclipse. According to contemporary Zulu accounts, the ‘sun went black’. The image provides a particularly apt metaphor for the eclipse in fortunes of the Zulu nation.

PiqWiq suggested that the novel might provide material for two books. Various dividing points were offered, and eventually it was decided that the themes of Book One, dealing with the build-up of hostilities, would be neatly rounded off with the Zulu armies marching to confront the British invaders, with Book 2 starting at the battle of iSandlwana and ending with the annihilation of the Zulus as a fighting force.

Have you any writing tips?
It would be invidious of me, as a beginner, to suggest writing tips to other novelists, but I myself have been helped by my previous experience of directing for television.

I know, for instance, that characterisation is all. Story is the consequence of the interaction of characters, what they say and do to each other. I am interested in the ambiguities in behaviour, inconsistencies which lead to misunderstanding and misinterpretation. This is the essence of conflict. So, finding those ambivalences is key to plotting, determining what the key objectives are for each character and deciding how these intersect or contradict each other.

Also from editing television programmes, I’m aware of the unwritten rule to start a scene/chapter late and leave it early. Rely on the audience/reader to fill in the missing information. As readers, we all construct in our mind’s eye the rest of the narrative as we make our way through each stage in a novel. This is the key to understanding how to maintain suspense, keep the reader’s attention.

Brevity and concision are also lessons learned from TV. This applies to description and scene setting. It’s important that the reader has a sense of where and when an action is set, but this works most effectively when it is integrated into the action. It should not appear as imposed, or arbitrary

What motivates you to write?
I write as I read, to be taken into another world, the imagination of the author. I’m always surprised by what my imagination throws up. There’s a strange alchemy that transmutes half-buried ideas and half-remembered thoughts into concrete images, and from there into a coherent narrative.

Future plans?
I have another historical novel on the stocks, set in the same period of history. The 1870s threw up conflict across the world, where indigenous people fought to protect their lands against the incursion of greedy, land grabbing settlers of European origin. For some years, I’ve been reading histories of the American Wild West (childhood fascination with ‘Cowboys and Indians’, I suppose). I chanced upon Empire of the Summer Sun by S.G. Gwynne, winner of a Pulitzer prize. This tells the story of Quanah Parker, the last of the Comanche war-chiefs. Quanah’s understanding of his people’s need to adapt to new circumstances is poignant. The friendship that developed between him, leader of a nomadic nation, fighting to preserve an unsustainable way of life and R.S.Mackenzie, colonel of the 4th Cavalry, who defeated him in battle, is the basis of the new book Blue Norther.

‘Which question did I wish you’d asked?’: which book would I like to have written? Sebastian Barry’s Days without End. The first-person narrative of the seventeen-year old Irish volunteer, in love with his brother-in-arms through the horrors of the American Civil War, is a masterpiece of characterisation.

Talks, Ideas, Inspirations

Vanessa Bell’s cover for Virginia Woolf’s novel ‘To the Lighthouse’ British Library collection.

A Book By Its Cover

Do we make judgements about what book we want to read from what’s on its cover? I love books. I love reading them. I love writing them. I love the feel of them. I love the smell of them. I love book covers. I became more interested in book covers when I volunteered in the library here in Scarborough and picked for clients of the home library. I became more aware of how the book cover influenced my decision over whether a certain book would be suitable for a certain reader. My interest was further developed when I became involved in designing covers for my own novels.

the idea of having an illustrated cover came slowly. Right through the 19th century books were sold with ‘dust jackets’ but these were merely to keep the book clean, were usually made of stiff brown paper and were thrown away once the book was taken home. It would be into the 20th century before this dust jacket would be routinely illustrated. By 1911 a writer was complaining of a new commercial turn, publishers being “convinced that a book, like a woman, is none the worse, but rather the better, for having a good dressmaker”

What to learn more? Come to my talk on Book Cover Art which I will be presenting at various venues in April:

Saturday, 7th April, Scarborough Library, Vernon Road, 1045-midday for Friends of the Library (all welcome).
Tuesday, 17th April, Woodend Creative, The Crescent, Scarborough, 1-2pm. Ticketed event. Please call: 01723 384500.
Monday, 23rd April, Filey Library, part of World Book Night. 6pm-715pm. Please call: 01609 53 6608

The Human History of Walking

Women walked in protest to get the vote.

People have walked because they had to, to get from one place to another, to explore, to go on pilgrimage. And they have walked as protest. If we look back at a revolutionary time in the UK’s history, the 17th century, when we beheaded a king and, for a brief time, had a republic, pilgrimage and protest became intertwined. 

It’s 1655, two women are walking the muddy bye-ways towards Salisbury. They are wearing plain dresses and bonnets, stout boots, a warm cloak. They are the itinerant Quaker preachers Katharine Evans (my namesake) and Sarah Chevers. They believe – as preached by George Fox – that God’s light is within them, as it is within everyone. It is a type of pilgrimage, but it is also a protest. A protest against a church where the power rested in the hands of a few rich men. A protest against a religion which said God’s words had to be mediated through a male priest. A protest against a church which gives divine authority to unjust wars and injustice in society.

….

Some 18 years ago, I was in the grip of a severe depression. I had always enjoyed walking, but during that time, it became a necessity, it became a way for me to untangle some of the mess that was in my head. Since then, I have become more interested in how walking is essential to wellbeing and to creativity – which is, in itself, nourishing of wellbeing. 

I am a writer and walking has become an intrinsic part of my writing process. In September 2015 I walked St Cuthbert’s Way with my sister, a 100km route from Melrose in the borders of Scotland, to Lindisfarne in Northumberland. This long-distance walk also gave me an opportunity to experience the intertwining of walking and writing.

Want to learn more? Come to my talk on Tuesday 24th April, Woodend Creative, The Crescent, Scarborough, 1-2pm. Ticketed event. Please call: 01723 384500.

 

 

Little Boat by James Nash

The hills and cliffs are rinsed with mist, the green
Is muted, and the brass band sun turned down,
There is a breeze more felt on skin than seen
And roofs are silver in the distant town.
Then now before me is a little boat
Floating aslant the waves and bobbing low
Beneath a sky of clouds which I take note
Whose names and types I used to know.
So little boat, will you take me away
To a far ocean where I can be free
Beyond surging waves of everyday
And I can drift and drift into that sea.
And perhaps there’ll be a lantern bright
To take me out further into the night.

© James M. Nash

James introduces his poem: As a child I loved Robert Louis Stevenson’s  ‘A Child’s Garden of Verses’.  Their beautiful simplicity soothed and enchanted me, I think some of that childhood innocence has crept into this sonnet.

 

 

James Nash is writer and a poet.  A long-term resident of Leeds, his third collection of poems, Coma Songs was published in 2003 and reprinted in 2006. He has two poems in Branch-Lines [Enitharmon Press 2007] among fifty contemporary poets, including Seamus Heaney and U. A. Fanthorpe. In 2012 his selected poems ‘A Bit of An Ice Breaker’ and a new five-star collection, ‘Some Things Matter’, were published by Valley Press. ‘Cinema Stories’ written with poet Matthew Hedley Stoppard was published in August 2015.  It celebrates the history of cinema in Leeds, in a series of poems.  

His next collection ‘A Bench for Billie Holiday’ will be published in 2018.

See The Valley Press website: https://goo.gl/aeeXvT