Tag Archives: Creative nonfiction

The Changing Seasons

Autumn has well and truly landed in my part of the country, with cold winds and rain. The Rowan is turning a beautiful ruby colour. The sea is roaring as it pounds in on a high tide smelling of ice. The sanderlings have returned, running in and out of the waves as if they are playing a game of tag.

I enjoy the change in seasons. After a summer mostly recovering from a major operation, I am feeling my energy and creative spirit returning. This morning I spent re-working one of my short stories and, for now, I am pleased with the results. I have decided to represent parts of it as if they were exhibits in a museum (thank you to Susannah Walker’s The Life of Stuff for the idea):

Fragment, diary of Jane Anne Hughes (née Moulsdale)
10th December 1859
Ink on paper
Donated, Helena Moulsdale, 1st July, 2019, 2009.

The first of the exhumations and re-burials. I thought I could hardly bear it, but I must for Stephen’s sake. He torments himself so. Should he have buried the unidentified four to a grave, only to have to bring them up again when one is claimed by a relative? I can merely say, it was the only course to take, we did not have the strength to do it any other way. I hope His God is telling him the same when he prays. Stephen holds his belief in His God like a cherished glass globe. Mine has become like a wrung out dishcloth to me. Yet, I will stay by Stephen’s side, even as the words of the Bible, His Words, taste like ash gone cold in the hearth.

When I look beyond my patch, I find it harder to be so sanguine. The UK political situation, the environmental crisis, the endless wars, so many of examples of crass, ignorant or cruel actions one human on another. The seasons change, it seems we humans are incapable of it. It all leaves me feeling stunned and helpless.

Recently I went to the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Art near Norwich, a wonderful place to lose oneself in. Currently they have an exhibition about Doris Lessing. I have to admit, Lessing is one of those writers I have held in esteem without really knowing why and who I have not read enough of. The exhibition took me through her life: her political activism; the development of her writing; her personal relationships. She had donated all her papers to the University of East Anglia, even so I felt a little uncomfortable reading some of her love letters. Had she really wanted that?

Lessing never stopped working or supporting the causes she believed in. She had a vibrancy which shone into old age. I was inspired by a part of her acceptance speech when she was given the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2007 at the age of 88 and six years before her death:

The storyteller is deep inside every one of us … Let us suppose our world is ravaged by war, by the horrors that we all of us easily imagine. Let us suppose floods wash through our cities, the seas rise…. It is our stories that will recreate us, when we are torn, hurt, even destroyed. It is the storyteller, the dream-maker, the myth-maker, that is our phoenix, that represents us at our best, and at our most creative.

As a writer, I have never believed my work is all about publication (and a good thing too, given my record!) My work has, first and foremost been about saving me, about my own healing. But I hope maybe in that process I may offer some healing, some hand held out, to others. And yes, perhaps even, a modicum of healing to a wounded world.

Cautious Creativity

A continuing discussion between writers, would-be writers and non-writers is whether you wait for inspiration to strike before picking up a pen or sitting down at a keyboard.

My approach has always been to think of creativity as a muscle and that it grows stronger with use. Just as preparing for a marathon starts with walking for five minutes on a treadmill, writing a novel, a story, a poem, starts with putting a word on a page and then several more and so on. I develop my creativity by ‘flexing’ it again and again. I mainly do this through various means:

I was, therefore, chuffed to hear the poet, the late Mary Oliver, say much the same but in a very different way. I was directed by a friend to the podcast On Being with Krista Tippett when she interviews Mary Oliver (https://onbeing.org/series/podcast/). In it Oliver talks about creativity being cautious and that a writer has to regularly turn up to meet their own until they gain creativity’s trust. It is only then that our creativity will blossom.

I have often written about giving permission, giving time, for creativity.

Even if you have no desire to write for an audience, there is a myriad of evidence which suggests creativity is good for us, for our well being (Lapidus). So there are many reasons for turning up regularly and gaining the trust of our creativity. Why not start with pledging an hour a week? Take a 20 minute walk, preferably somewhere in nature. On returning sit down with a large piece of plain paper and play with words, colours and putting marks on the paper for 30 minutes.

See where it takes you!

*** Those of a sensitive disposition may want to stop reading here ***

On a personal note, I have recently had a long awaited hysterectomy, necessary because of years of heavy bleeding, fibroids and anaemia in the run up to my menopause. My husband, who loves a fact, told me over 56,000 hysterectomies are carried out in the UK every year. I was wondering aloud to a friend, Ruth (ceramicist and artist: http://ruthcollett.co.uk/), what happens to all these wombs and (in my case) ovaries? She suggested they ended up in catawombs. Which got us laughing and me thinking. Below is the resultant collage of my very own catawomb. The stapling is significant. Farewell my womb.

One small step….

What with the anniversary of the first moon landing, we have all been reminded of the oft-quoted ‘One small step… one giant leap…’ It fits with the idea of the slightly cliched: every journey starts with the first step.

And every piece of writing starts with writing the first word (even if later that first word will be discarded or become the 10th or the 100th or the last). In recent weeks I have been in conversation with several people who are struggling with the next steps in their writing. When drilling into what is going on for them, it appears to boil down to two issues:

  • What will people think?
  • Being too fixated on the product and not enjoying the process.

These may be dressed up in any numbers of ways including thoughts such as: I’m not good enough; what’s the point of this; I haven’t enough time; I’m not a writer; I should be doing the cleaning (or any other soul-destroying job you can think of). Or perhaps actions which means that any writing/thinking time gets squeezed out by trying to meet the (supposed?) needs of others.

Once some literacy skills have been gained, writing isn’t hard. I mean it’s not hard in the way going down a mine is hard or trying to eek food from an unforgiving soil or climate. What more often than not gets in the way of our writing hand is our heads. I am not immune. I can get mired in fears of being found wanting or in trying to find a point to spending time writing (beyond the simple fact that I enjoy it).

And there are parts to writing which I enjoy less. Such as currently I am re-reading Drowning Not Waving, in preparation for getting ready for (self) publishing. This novel, the fourth in my Scarborough Mysteries series, has not had an easy gestation. Picked up and then unceremoniously dropped by an agent, there are parts of it which I feel I wrote to please her and do not entirely please me. However, I have a strong urge to get it finished and out there, so I can move on. Plus, I am very aware that I see every sinew in magnified detail while the majority of readers will barely skim the skin.

So my challenge is not to take the first step, but to keep going though the terrain may be getting uncomfortable. My method (should you choose to adopt it) is to break things down into palatable chunks, write them on a list and tick them off as I do them. I am half way through my ‘re-read and take notes on Drowning Not Waving.’ I am doing it an hour at a time with breaks in between for walking, swimming, eating, reading, seeing friends, yoga, playing tennis….

It is perhaps a harsh reality that most of what most of us write – most of what we tear from the cavities of our hearts and commit to paper – will not be read in any great detail (if at all) nor appreciated much. Shed a tear for this and then think, wow what freedom this gives me. I can write to please myself! How joyous is that?

I have just spent a week in Swanage. One of the things I most enjoyed was swimming in the bay, especially in the morning in the flat sun-rimed water, in sight of the Isle of Wight and Old Harry’s Rocks. It wasn’t easy to get in. The sea was chilly, there were sharp pebbles to be negotiated, but once I stopped hyperventilating and just let myself go, relaxing into the waves, it was glorious. Another metaphor, if you want one, for my writing method.

 

 

Midsummer Magic

It is the Summer Solstice. Yes it is! I always feel midsummer comes too early at these latitudes. I have barely got my shorts on. However, midsummer it is.

Why not give yourself permission to give your creative spirit some time to play and let the midsummer magic sink in.

Scarborough lighthouse at dawn. Mark Vesey 2019

If you haven’t read it already, take a moment to jump back to a previous post: https://bit.ly/2RqqBKn

Now look at these amazing photos – or maybe you have one of your own – and do some free writing.

Scarborough beach huts at dawn. Mark Vesey 2019

Write freely for about ten minutes. Perhaps leave it for a while (take a walk or do some breathing/stretching) then scan through and pick out five or six words, sentences or phrases which seem interesting. Spend 30 minutes playing around with these. Perhaps you will put them down the page like a poem, adding in other words/phrases as necessary. Perhaps you will see if they will lead you into a 100 word narrative which goes across the page.

It doesn’t matter what you end up with. The main thing is to play and enjoy.

If anyone does this and feels like doing so, feel free to put what you’ve done in a comment so it can appear below this post.

Thank you!

 

A Writer’s Toolkit: Reading


We read to escape, for pleasure, to learn something, to divert, but sometimes we read to meet ourselves. We read to have something in ourselves, in our experience, confirmed as acceptable. Or, at least, not so far beyond the possible as to be beyond the pale.

Many of us take up a writing journey to resolve things that, in the end, are un-resolvable. Possibly once we have realised they are un-resolvable, we will find acceptance. Reading another’s perspective or story can also bring us to view what is going with us in a different, perhaps more compassionate, way. Reading can be all encompassing.

Patricia Leavy, author of Handbook of Arts-Based Research (Guildford Press, 2019) suggests:
‘Research shows that reading fiction engages our entire brain, including some unexpected areas, such as those involved with movement and touch. We literally place ourselves in the stories we read, becoming immersed. There are activations in our brains for days after reading a novel, which is not the case with nonfiction prose.’

However, as writers we also read to develop ourselves and our craft. Read widely. Read actively. Don’t just think I enjoyed that (or not), ask what makes it appealing (or not) to me. Look for techniques which we may want to bring into our own writing. I’m not advocating plagiarism here. As with walking, we may all take the same path, but we will all experience it and talk about it in different ways. With writing, if we allow the means and the subject matter to be mediated through our self, then using similar methods to other writers will still result in a unique piece.

So essential items in a writer’s toolbox are: a library card, a shelf full of books and a community within which books can be leant and borrowed.

 

Update


My own writing projects continue to progress. I have pulled together my thoughts on writing, walking and memoir into a non-fiction piece and am waiting to see how I might develop that into something I could share with an audience. The short stories I discovered in embryonic state in my writing journals are drafted and are out with readers for comments.

 

 

 

 

I have completed Drowning Not Waving, the fourth in my Scarborough Mysteries series. It has been with a literary agent since the beginning of 2018. Initially she said she loved it and she enthusiastically talked to me over the phone, asking me to do some re-writes which I did before re-submitting it to her. On October 31st 2018 she said she would definitely get back to me with a definitive answer within the week. That is the last I have heard from her.

While all this has been going on, I have completed the fifth in the series, No Justice. I am currently at the re-writing/editing stage and hope to be able to indie publish both as one volume by the end of this year.


 

The Writer’s Toolbox (3)

I’m not a cat person, but these ladies look pretty curious.

Curiosity may be fatal for felines but it is essential for writers.

If you’ve been following this series of blog posts up to now, you are hopefully writing regularly in a writing journal. At this stage, be curious not critical about what your work. Instead of judging your writing – this is good/bad – wonder what brought me to write this? If you choose to bring your writing to an audience at some point, there will be plenty of time to garner critiques, for now let curiosity and compassion for your words be your guide.

Writers also need a voracious curiosity about the world around them. What you see, hear, taste, smell, feel, experience, are all essential inspiration for a writer. In her seminal book The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron talks about taking artist’s dates. These are trips taken by creatives to feed the imagination. It could be as simple as going to a local museum or visiting a part of town you’ve never been to, perhaps a park, a graveyard, a church (or another place of worship). It could be going further afield. Everywhere is redolent with stories.

Go on these trips of discovery as a writer. Possibly alone or with another creative person, certainly not with others who will constantly need your attention. Then notice, notice, notice. Notice the external, but notice also what is going on for you, how the external is impacting on the internal. Stop frequently to write in your journal. Personally, I find stopping frequently for tea and cake also aids the creative process!

It may be that you have already decided on something you wish to pursue in your writing. Of course, these days, it is easy to sit at our desks and research with Mr Google etc. However, there is nothing like experience as research.

Go to places you want to write about. Find the little niche museum which covers the subject you are interested in, speak to the volunteers/staff about their passions. Visit the historical sites which are connected to what you are interested in. Put yourself in the environments which are inspiring you. It may not always be possible to do this in actuality, so see if there is a way of replicating it. Perhaps it is the rainforest which is stimulating your words and a ticket to Peru is beyond you, then a visit to Kew Gardens may not be.

I was listening to crime writer Ann Cleeves on the radio yesterday, she said, ‘People make a mistake when they separate setting from plot and character. People grow out of where they are born and live.’ (Desert Island Discs, Radio 4, 17th February 2019, Presenter: Lauren Laverne. Producer: Cathy Drysdale.)

Stories also grow out of place, out of environment, out of setting. Open your curiosity to the world around you and your internal landscapes and allow the words to tumble onto the page.

A Writer’s Toolbox: the self

If you’ve read the first post in this series, https://bit.ly/2RqqBKn, then hopefully that has encouraged you to write regularly. You may have adapted the sprints to suit yourself, all well and good. The point is to be writing regularly without critiquing and without too much concern over what is the point, apart from enjoying yourself.

Now we come to the most important implement in the Writer’s Toolbox: the writer themselves. Everything that comes from the writer is mediated through the self. So let’s consider how the self might work for the writer.

We have five physical senses: touch, smell, taste, sight and hearing. We may favour one of these senses. If I say the word ‘tractor’, do you see it, hear it, smell it, taste it, feel the texture of it? This little exercise gives an idea of which sense you may lean towards. A writer encourages the development of all the senses. Try these explorations:

  •      walk (preferably through a bit of nature) with all your senses opened. Write for ten minutes, uncritically, letting the words drop onto the paper.
  •       Once you have worked out which sense you least favour, go for a walk and focus on that sense. Write for ten minutes, uncritically, letting the words drop onto the paper.
  •       Take an image (a photo or a postcard or a picture or a painting), imagine yourself within the picture, what would you be seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling? What textures could you touch? Write for ten minutes, uncritically, letting the words drop onto the paper.
  •       Imagine that one of your senses has gone. Take a short walk without that sense working. Write for ten minutes, uncritically, letting the words drop onto the paper.

You may discover your own ways of opening up your senses. Keep exploring what your five physical senses can tell you.

Writing is about imagination, inspiration, that’s what people commonly say, which all sounds very head-based. Poet William Blake likened the imagination and inspiration to a grinding millstone and a blacksmith’s forge. If we continue with his analogy, then we need the grain, we need the base metal, for the millstones or the fire in the forge to produce anything. We need the raw materials for the imagination and inspiration to feed on. These raw materials come through the senses, but also through the body as a whole. The body is the receptor by which we experience the world as we pass through it, then the mind puts language and interpretations to this experience. Working in concert, the two enrich our writing.

The self can be a tuning fork, resonating with the environment and finding the individual note for the individual writer. One of the things I have found which encourages the mining of the resources of the body is mindful walking. Mindfulness is a word which is used in many different contexts with a myriad of meanings. I like this definition from psychologytoday.com (accessed 5th October 2015): Mindfulness is a state of active, open attention on the present. When you’re mindful, you observe your thoughts and feelings from a distance, without judging them good or bad. Instead of letting your life pass you by, mindfulness means living in the moment and awakening to experience. Try walking mindfully and then writing for ten minutes, uncritically, letting the words drop onto the paper.

Writing creatively means engaging emotion, both for the writer and for the reader. We don’t think emotions, we feel them. Philippot et al. (2004) suggest that emotions are primarily experienced though bodily sensation and then translated into feelings and brought into consciousness. Writers connecting with their bodies are more aware of emotion, more able to capture them and find ways of communicating them which will touch a reader. However, writers are in the business of engaging with a plethora of emotions, not just the ones which we might think are nice or respectable or allowed. This can be hard, can be painful, can be distressing. Be sure you have supports in place to help you through.

The self may also be the spanner in the works, which jams the creative wheels. Another part of a writer’s toolkit is a small but resilient core of self-belief. This is usually difficult to hone and maintain. Writers need to experience a full range of emotions to put them into their writing, some, such as shame and anger, are not conducive to self-belief. Writers might lay themselves open to criticism and rejection – generated by themselves or by others, or (even harder) imagined others.

It is worth remembering that both the creative practice and the construction of self-belief are iterative. There is a back-and-forth to the process. ‘Onwards and upwards’ is an oft repeated phrase, as if going forwards is always what’s best. Writers can feel they are going backwards or round in circles. Remembering that this is an important part of being creative may help this become less frustrating.

Take your time exploring your senses and mindful walking and see where it takes you. I’ll be exploring further tools in the writer’s toolbox in the next post in the series in the coming weeks.

 

Philippot P, Baeyens C, Douilliez C, & Francart B. (2004). Cognitive regulation of emotion: application to clinical disorders. In: Philippot P, Feldman RS (eds.). (2004) The regulation of emotion. New York: Laurence Erlbaum Associates.