Tag Archives: Creative nonfiction

The Writing Journal

Writing in my journal by a Norwegian lake

I have been keeping writing journals for over ten years now and recently I spent many happy hours reviewing them. The result is a list of ideas and kernels of pieces of writing which should keep me going for the next ten years!

I’ve been writing since I was 19, so I’ve had the habit of writing regularly for over thirty years. oftentimes in notebooks and/or in diaries. I didn’t commit to the idea of a writing journal until I returned to the UK after a spell working abroad for an anti-poverty non-profit. In many ways, I can see the commitment to my writing journal as also a commitment to accepting myself as a writer – rather than waiting for some kind of external ratification of me as a writer. I began to say (when asked) ‘I am a writer’. I dedicated time and space to writing and further developing my craft, even though there was little endorsement from the publishing industry.

During the last ten years I have taught creative writing (for the University of Hull) and run numerous workshops. The first thing I always encourage people to do is to start keeping a writing journal. For me, this is a special notebook. It is 15 by 21 cms, so relatively portable. It has no lines to cramp my writing into going in a particular direction or being of a particular size. The paper is relatively thick (the notebooks I use are sold as sketch books) which means I can sketch if I like, use watercolour pencils and oil pastels and stick things in without spoiling the page surfaces for writing. I date every entry. Entries might include: very personal reflections on how I am feeling or what I’ve been doing; musings on being a writer; scrappy thoughts on writing pieces to be developed; beginnings, middles, ends (in no particular order); observations on the world around me; quotes; poetry (written by others and me); images such as postcards; cuttings from newspapers and magazines; bits of information gleaned from the TV, the internet, radio, other people….

I am wedded to a writing journal and hand-writing. It works for me. I do believe there is something exceptional about ‘free writing’ – which I have written about elsewhere eg writing the therapeutic journey – done with a pen. I think it is a way of unearthing what is below the surface of conscious thought and of circumventing the many ‘shoulds’ and ‘oughts’ which a lot of us carry around.

However, I could see for other people a writing journal might be, for example, a folder on the computer; a box file; or a filing cabinet drawer. The main thing is that it should only be used for gathering inspirations for writing, it should be added to regularly and that it should be away from prying/judging eyes.

Over time the writing journal will become a treasure trove to be mined, especially, but not only, when a writer is feeling depleted and de-motivated.

I am currently reading Deborah Levy’s essay Things I don’t Want to Know. I was charmed to find her mentioning her writing journal. She notes how descriptions she had written of the cabin crew on a LOT fight to Poland in the late 1980s ‘morphed into nurses from Odessa’ in a novel she was to write a decade later.

Nothing written in a writing journal is ever lost, it will always pop up somewhere or become a scaffold for some piece of creative work.

Which is why, whenever I am asked by someone about where to start with writing I suggest a journal. If a person can commit to writing in one of those habitually, then there is a chance they will realise their ambition of writing stories or poetry or a novel or a non-fiction book or even a series of blog posts.

What is your experiences of keeping a writing journal?

Memoir

This is not where it starts….
I have always enjoyed reading biographies and allowing life to inspire my fiction writing, but recently I have begun to explore more deeply what might loosely be termed life-writing.

Biography, autobiography and memoir are all developing forms which intersect and interweave. Here are some of the aspects I’ve noticed in my recent reading. Firstly, the biographer coming more prominently into the biography. There is often an explanation about why the subject of the biography was chosen and about the connections between the lives of biographer and subject. It is probable, in my opinion, that knowingly or unknowingly a biographer chooses a subject which holds up some kind of mirror to the biographer’s own experiences.

Technically a memoir focuses onto a contained aspect/theme within (rather than the whole of) a life, and the autobiography does the opposite. It’s occurred to me at this moment that I don’t actually read a lot of autobiographies. This genre appears cluttered by those from celebrities which can err on the sycophantic and name-dropping. Memoir on the other hand seems to be more open to the quirky and the off-beat. It also strides hand in hand with nature writing, travelogues and books about walks and journeys, which feeds into other interests of mine (see posts: https://bit.ly/2sEHamp & https://bit.ly/2JGfZyD).

A recent article in The Guardian by Alex Clark (23rd June 2018) suggests there is a new genre of autofiction. This purports to do two things:

  • bring the writer’s life into a novel.
  • Disrupt the idea of narrative and realism in the novel form. For example, by playing around with the narrative voice and the timeline and by speaking directly to the reader (thus making obvious the artifice of the novel).

I’m not convinced either of these are new, but perhaps putting them together is. Clark mentions in particular Crudo by Olivia Laing and Rachel Cusk’s Kudos. Clark suggests this ‘new’ approach to novel writing is trying to ‘find a new way to describe reality at a time when, as Kathy says in Crudo, it is “hard to talk about truth” and perhaps even harder to write it.’ As well as attempting to echo the ‘now’ of social media and also its propensity to encourage its users to ‘present’ an image of themselves.

Clark also suggests autofiction ‘speaks to the idea that to capture 21st-century experience writers must breach borders – blend fiction, memoir, history, poetry, the visual and performing arts.’

This is where it starts….
I’ve recently read Charlotte by David Foenkinos, a novel based on the life of the artist Charlotte Salomon. It is written in narrative verse, quite terse and without the descriptive passages which punctuate most novels. It took a while to get used to, but in the end I found it very moving. Charlotte herself created her own autobiography, Life? Or Theatre?, an artwork of over seven hundred scenes mixing images and text. It finishes with the words, ‘I was all the characters in my play. I learned to walk all the paths. And in that way I became myself.’

As she knew she was about to be picked up by the Nazis, Charlotte handed over her artwork in a suitcase to a doctor who had helped her. As she did so, she said, ‘It is my whole life.’ The suitcase was not opened until after the Second World War ended. Charlotte was killed in 1943 aged twenty-six within an hour of arriving at Auschwitz.

I think maybe Salomon knew about autofiction before the rest of us.

Or maybe it starts here….
A sculpted pair of arms made of bronze in a glass case in an art gallery in a small seaside town and the accompanying explanatory label. This led me to read A Great Task of Happiness. The life of Kathleen Scott by Louisa Young. Or a painting in another provincial art gallery of a woman of Asian origin, who was both goddaughter to Queen Victoria and a suffragette. This led me to read Sophia: princess, suffragette, revolutionary by Anita Anand.

Maybe this is where all writing starts…. curiosity.

Meanwhile here is a memoir by a fifty-three year old woman:

 

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.

 

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?

 

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.

 

 

My Year in Books

I got the idea for this post from one of the books I read this year, Samantha Ellis How to be a Heroine. Or what I’ve learned from reading too much. She goes back through the books she read throughout her life, I’m merely proposing to explore the books I read in 2017, and only some of them.

I want to concentrate on the books I feel the most positive about. Last year I read fifty-four books (full list below). Two I didn’t finish. Some were indie published, some traditionally published. What I have discovered is that there is good, bad and mediocre published by both camps. What do I mean by bad writing? (1) Use of cliché. There’s lots of them out there, sometimes they are difficult to avoid, but as with (2), careful copyediting can weed them out. (2) Lazy use of vocabulary. As writers we all have words or phrases we over-use. And sometimes a word suddenly begins to appear suddenly in every sentence suddenly. By being aware of this, we can work on it when we edit. But having a good copy editor also helps a lot. (3) Plots which don’t add up. Readers are required to suspend their belief to a certain extent in order to enjoy fiction, after-all they are being asked to enter a 3-D world created by flat symbols on a page. However, I don’t want my belief to have to take a vacation. (4) One dimensional characters. Give me complex and tortured any day. (5) I know this is controversial, but over-use of direct speech doesn’t work for me. Good use of reported speech can lift a piece and be used to change pace.

I write crime so a read a lot of crime. I think it is important for a writer to read what they are writing. One thing I really appreciate in novels, including crime ones, is a good use of landscape: rich descriptions and metaphorical layers. Dobyns drew on the landscape to good effect. Two things I do not like in crime novels are when perpetrators confess what they’ve done for no reason. Nor do I want it to be the ‘crazy one what dunnit’. However, (spoiler alert) Dobyns managed to have a seriously unhinged perpetrator who I could believe in. As did Kate Ellis in High Mortality of Doves, though having a similar resolution in Plague Maiden took the shine off. In spite not strictly being a crime novel, Sheers had an excellent twist – where two characters knew something about the other stopping them from telling the truth – for a mystery narrative. In November, I went to Hull Noir, the crime festival which was part of the City of Culture programme. I had a great day and saw some very interesting panels, Rachel Rhys was on one of these and I am very glad I shelled out for her Dangerous Crossings.

I picked up Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna in a second hand bookshop. I’ve enjoyed Kingsolver since I read Pigs in Heaven and Bean Trees in the 1990s. The Lacuna was a satisfyingly wide sweeping story with true life characters and events mixed in with the made-up. Re-discovering Helen Dunmore was also a real pleasure, though A Spell of Winter was a truly twisted tale. Liane Moriarty Truly, Madly, Guilty was a surprise finding, kept me guessing with entertaining and rounded characters.

I like to be taken to other worlds in my reading, so thank you to Tan Twan Eng The Gift of Rain and Abir Mukherjee A Rising Man. One of my characters in my crime novels has Nigerian heritage and in 2016 I read Nigeria by Richard Bourne. This year I turned to fiction: Sefi Atta A Bit of Difference and Abubakar Adam Ibrahim Season of Crimson Blossoms (thanks to Anne Goodwin for alerting me to them: http://annegoodwin.weebly.com/). I was particularly taken by Crimson Blossoms, set in the Islamic region of Nigeria, the main character is a widow who starts an affair with a younger man, a leader of a gang of street criminals. The woman, Hajiya, is not desperately likeable and something of a hypocrite when it comes down to it, but boy did she come off the page and feel like a real person.

Of the fiction I’ve not already spoken about, the following should have an honourable mention for keeping me hooked with interesting characters and plot lines: Messud; Billingham; Doughty.

I am very fond of a bit of creative non-fiction & biography. Hence Samantha Ellis, Stempel, Downing, Kelly, Solnit, Kassabova and Whitaker are on the list and were captivating in their own way. But it was Horatio Clare Down to the Sea in Ships which gripped me. Clare spent time as a writer in residence on container ships and his book charts the madness of capitalism which sees cargo loads of useless items going across oceans. Plus he explores the desperate inequalities between the officers and the crew on the ships, the former being mainly European, the latter from Asian countries. I didn’t immediately take to Helen Macdonald H is for Hawk, however, I was struck by her honesty, particularly in her phrase: ‘The narcissism of the bereaved is great.’

Tara Bergin’s The Tragic Death of Eleanor Marx was the only poetry collection I read this year. On the other hand, I heard more at a regular local Open Mic and poetry salon and I had a feast of verse at the Bridlington Poetry Festival. I am beginning to wonder whether I prefer to listen to poetry than to read it, or I’d prefer to do both at the same time.

What were your favourite books in 2017? What would you say are the features of bad or good writing?

January
Arnaldur Indridason Arctic Chill
Barbara Kingsolver The Lacuna
Orhan Pamuk My Name is Red

February
Nadine Matheson The Sisters
Ann Cleeves Cold Earth
Janet Ellis The Butcher’s Hook

March
Claire Messud The Last Life
Daphne Glazer By the Tide of the Humber
Margaret Drabble The Pure Gold Baby
Samantha Ellis How to be a Heroine. Or what I’ve learned from reading too much
Arnaldur Indridason Outrage
Abir Mukherjee A Rising Man
Orhan Pamuk Snow (unfinished)

April
Peter Robinson Friend of the Devil
Owen Sheers I Saw a Man
Helen Macdonald H is for Hawk
Colm Tóbín Nora Webster
Val McDermid Out of Bounds

May
PD James Talking about Detective Fiction
Patrick Gale A Perfectly Good Man
Mark Billingham Die of Shame
Helen Dunmore A Spell of Winter
Louise Doughty Black Water

June
John Lewis Stempel The Running Hare. And Secret Life of Farmland (unfinished)
Sefi Atta A Bit of Difference
Taylor Downing Breakdown, the crisis of shell shock on the Somme 1916
Abubakar Adam Ibrahim Season of Crimson Blossoms

July
Ann Cleeves The Seagull (advance copy)
Kate Summerscale The Wicked Boy
Helena Kelly Jane Austin, the secret radical

August
Stef Penney Under a Pole Star
Helen Dunmore Exposure
Elly Griffiths The Woman in Blue
Kate Ellis A High Mortality of Doves

September
Sarah Waters The Little Stranger
Kate Ellis The Plague Maiden
Horatio Clare Down to the Sea in Ships
Leila Aboulela The Kindness of Enemies
Rebecca Solnit Wanderlust. A history of walking

October
Samantha Ellis Take Courage. Anne Bronte and the Art of Life
Tara Bergin The Tragic Death of Eleanor Marx
Sophie Hannah Did You See Melody? And A Game for All the Family
Tan Twan Eng The Gift of Rain
Liane Moriarty Truly, Madly, Guilty

November
Robert Whitaker The Mapmaker’s Wife
Donna Leon By Its Cover
David Young Stasi Child

December
Stephen Dobyns Boy in the Water
Alison Baillie Sewing the Shadows Together
Kapka Kassabova Border, a journey to the edge of Europe
Rachel Rhys Dangerous Crossings
Helen Dunmore The Lie

Nourishing the Creative Soul

As a writer I find that I must take time to nourish my creative spirit. Julia Cameron in her excellent book The Artist’s Way talks about this too. She suggests ‘artist’s dates’ which we take by ourselves to top up our creativity, visits to, for instance, art galleries, the theatre, festivals…

This weekend I went to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park (https://ysp.org.uk/) What a wonderful place this is. This was my third visit and I sometimes feel I could move in there! As I wandered around, I discussed with my companion (OK I didn’t follow Cameron’s stricture of going alone) the sculptural beauty of the nature around us as opposed to the sculpture created by humans. The trees in particular were looking especially wondrous. I often think this with my writing, why should I try to capture in my paltry words what mother earth creates with truly staggering and startling abundance? In the end, I came up with the suggestion that what we artists and writers are trying to do is add a layer of meaning or story-telling beyond the realism.

We also deliberated over why artists feel the need to share their work, especially when, frequently, the expression is so personal. I have often thought that my need to publish is narcissistic, egotistically and possibly pathological. However, on Saturday, I realised that to share is a human trait; it forms bonds, societal boundaries, empathy. Sharing is (at its best) the glue which sticks us all together. It gave me a modicum of relief from my worries over the balance of my wits.

I am very lucky because next Sunday I will also be gaining food for thought and, hopefully, soul by attending Hull Noir https://www.hullnoir.com/ I am only able to go on that one day – the festival runs over the weekend of the 18th/19th November, and there are events in the preceding week as well – but the panels look as if they will stimulating. The subjects being ranged over include: the golden age Vs digital age; freedom, oppression & control; unusual settings; and unlikeable protagonists.

Hope to see you there!

 

Photos copyright Mark Vesey 2017