I Write To …

After an extremely busy  – and very stressful – few weeks, I sat down yesterday to pick up my pen, and reconnect with my characters. It felt like coming home. Almost instantly, I was able to let go of everything that had been causing me ‘grief’ and to be in a different world. Bliss!

Rosie and I walked up through the allotments this morning, on our way to the park, watching the grey mist swirling off the sea and encroaching the top of the hill, before it gently – oh, so gently – turned itself into a cascade of drizzle-cum-shower-cum-deluge.As we walked and listened to the drips and plops around us, I spent a little time, as I do most weeks, dipping into the ideas that were waiting in my head about what I might use as a jumping-off point for this week’s blog.

For some reason, Buffy came to mind – Buffy as in Vampire Slayer. I haven’t thought about that show in years, but it was always one of my favourites. Coming at a time when I was struggling with the world I seemed to have created around me, it constantly gave me hope and inspiration, and quickly became one of my weekly highlights.

This morning, I found I was sad that nothing of quite that calibre seems to be around any more, and I wondered what Joss Whedon was up to these days. Bless Google! I discovered a whole world of brilliant quotes from the series, as well as from the creator. One in particular struck me, or more accurately, several of them did, but I’ve chosen one for this blog reflection.

This is Joss talking about why he writes:

I write to give myself strength. I write to be the characters I am not. I write to explore all the things I am afraid of.

These are powerful and moving reasons to write. I can certainly identify with at least two of them. I decided to try a list of my own. This is what I came up with.

I write to feel well. I have become increasingly conscious that on the days when I don’t write – and there are a few, usually due to other commitments – I rarely feel as well as I do when I start the day by writing. It’s almost as though it allows me to clear out everything that’s got clogged up inside, desperate to be expressed and ‘get out there’. I’m invariably better for that release.

I write to reflect the things that are beautiful about this world. I hear too many people complaining about life, being miserable about what they don’t have or critical of what they do, missing out on opportunities because they cannot see past the rain or the fog or the cold, regretting things that happened so long ago they can barely remember them, wishing that life was different yet remaining reluctant to change anything. So I like to write about the love, the joy and the grace that permeates the world, and is simply there for the taking.

I write to inspire. I really enjoy reflecting on the ‘big’ ideas – about ‘life, the universe and everything’ – because that reflection always takes me to positive and unexpected places where I discover things I didn’t know before, or maybe things I didn’t know I knew before. And writing my way into these ponderings invariably inspires me, and maybe, I hope, inspires others in its wake.

I write to have fun. I’ve spent too much of my life not having fun – for all sorts of reasons, some legitimate, some not. So now it’s time to find out how to live well and enjoy myself. Writing does that. I love constructing sentences, finding new or alternate words, discovering unusual ways to say things, creating new scenarios, meeting unexpected challenges.

But mostly, I write to tell stories. Stories that do all of the above. And all at once, if that’s possible. I am nothing if not a story-teller. Ask anyone who’s ever tried to ring me for a brief conversation. I can take the smallest, most insignificant event, and turn it into a full-blown story, worthy of anyone’s attention, with special effects and excessive exclamation marks – and I take the greatest delight in doing so.

Stories are the backbone of a cohesive culture. They shape our thoughts, express our feelings. They teach us truths and reveal falsehoods. They show us what’s possible and challenge us with what’s not – until we go there. It is stories that tell us about s/heros and inspire us to become one ourselves. It is stories that help us to recognise who we are and who we want to be. It is stories that remind us where we’ve been.

What a privilege to be part of that heritage.

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Genre-ally Speaking

The topic of genre is one which interests me greatly. Its automatic assumption that a piece of writing (I’m only considering genre in the context of writing here – and I understand that this in itself invites contemplation) can be contained in a way which predetermines its audience – and presumably, therefore, its sales potential – is such a crass distinction to be paired with creativity.

Okay, now I’ve nailed my nailed my colours to the mast, I’ll share with you, as promised, the thoughts I took to my writing group regarding the story I posted last week. They are slightly edited so as to make sense in this new context but are essentially the same as when I wrote them, a little while back.

This was a story I wrote for a flash-fiction competition. To me, it is not a story that fits neatly into a specific genre, but it makes for a great piece of flash-fiction. I am tempted to argue that flash-fiction could be considered a genre in its own right – albeit with other, more specific, genres giving a distinct flavour where appropriate.

            Flash-fiction, being such a truncated form of writing, forces a writer continually to consider what they can do without – a good discipline to develop anyway. The result can end up as incomprehensible nonsense, but it stands a chance of becoming a neat piece of writing with some very delightful use of language which the author might not have explored in a longer piece.

            That’s what happened to me when I was writing this story. I had only two hundred and fifty words, which quickly got used up in my first draft, and Mary had barely left the field. By finding shorter, sharper ways to say what I wanted to say, I feel I have created a much better piece of writing than I started with.

            It is, however, very different from the same story done in – say – three thousand words. And for me, that’s what’s so fascinating about the flash genre. It’s like a tiny glimpse, an instant snapshot, of a much bigger picture, and it is what is not said that assumes the bigger importance. The characters of the people mentioned; their expectations, preferences, fears and dislikes; the circumstances that have brought them to this one place; the way their actions are shaped; all these must be inferred, leaving the reader with much to ponder over after the piece is done.

            It could be argued that this story must be a children’s story or a piece of fantasy, since the described event could not possibly happen. Even, a futuristic or sci-fi/alternate universe tale. But I got the story – in a few, brief sentences – from Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED talk on You-Tube. A talk about where inspiration comes from. She was quoting the American poet Ruth Stone, telling Elizabeth how she got poems when she was growing up.

            So this story could equally well be classified as biography, or paranormal, or – how does it go? – ‘true stories you just won’t believe!’

            From my point of view, I don’t really care. A good story is a good story is a good story. I find classification and categorising, stifling, restrictive and unhelpful. For me, it is much more important to aim for authenticity than to write in order to fit someone else’s pre-determined expectations.

            I am with Jodi Taylor on this – an author I fell over on my Kindle – who is, first and foremost, a historian but who wanted to write a book about time-travel. She ‘went ahead and slung in elements of history, adventure, comedy, romance, tragedy and anything else she could think of. Her advice to booksellers is to buy huge numbers of her books and just put one on every shelf.’

I still hold to what I wrote – probably even more so, now I’m more experienced. And maybe I’ll write some fresh thoughts on genre in coming weeks. In the meantime, you might like to consider what is in the picture placed at the top of this blog. If I tell you the genre it fits, I have a feeling it might spoil the surprise!

Back Story

I thought I would share something a bit different this week. This is a story I wrote a while ago for a flash-fiction competition. It’s in my mind because I was talking about it recently. In a conversation about experimental writing.

I took the story along to my writing group, some time after I’d written it, for an evening about writing for specific genres. We were invited to share our thoughts about how our piece fitted the genre we’d chosen.

In both cases, the word limit was extremely short. The original piece was to have a maximum of five hundred words. The thoughts to accompany it were also restricted to this length.

Since this is a blog – best served by shorter writings – I’ll share the story with you this week, and my thoughts, next time. I’m sure you’ll have come up with your own by then, anyway.

The story is in two parts..Because of its unusual nature, the first part is likely to make little sense until you have read Part 2. Be patient.

Back Story Part 1

.backwards

,came it as each writing

,word by word

,her towards back story the pulled she ,second a for go letting not .hold grasped and ,head her passed it as just ,word final the caught she

            .else place some to way its on busy ,fade to began soundtrack the as arm an up stretching ,chair and table to herself flung she

            .eaves her through gorgeousness their dripping ,overhead pass to began sentences as ,pen and notebook for searching fingers frantic her ,open jerked drawer sideboard the

            .chase giving ,field cotton the left cloud the as ,kitchen her to door inner the open banging ,way her of out frame mesh the flinging ,path the down pounded she and approached yard front own her .left-overs of alleys the cleaning dogs bright-eared ,youngsters hop-scotching ,shacks wooden between raced she

            .of hold catch to else someone for – gone be would it ,time in home get didn’t she if .words occasional ,vowels ,consonants – now strands distinct out make could she

            .progress her with air the marked which trail dust a up kicking ,speed at dirt-track the crossed she .side far the hit it as field the of edge the reached she ,rasping breaths ,pumping legs

            .sounds of whoosh oncoming an as clarifying ,momentum gathered ,closer travelling fury the

            .first house the reach must .ran and fists tight two into skirts her hoisted she ,fellow-workers and balls cotton leaving ,instantly .horizon the on rumble the heard Mary ,fingers picking ,bent head

Back Story Part 2

Head bent, picking fingers, Mary heard the rumble on the horizon. Instantly, leaving cotton balls and fellow-workers, she hoisted her skirts into two tight fists and ran. Must reach the house first.

The fury travelling closer, gathered momentum, clarifying as an oncoming whoosh of sounds.

Legs pumping, breaths rasping, she reached the edge of the field as it hit the far side. She crossed the dirt-track at speed, kicking up a dust trail which marked the air with her progress.

She could make out distinct strands now – consonants, vowels, occasional words. If she didn’t get home in time, it would be gone – for someone else to catch hold of.

She raced between wooden shacks, hop-scotching youngsters, bright-eared dogs cleaning the alleys of left-overs. Her own front yard approached and she pounded down the path, flinging the mesh frame out of her way, banging open the inner door to her kitchen, as the cloud left the cotton field, giving chase.

The sideboard drawer jerked open, her frantic fingers searching for notebook and pen, as sentences began to pass overhead, dripping their gorgeousness through her eaves.

She flung herself to table and chair, stretching up an arm as the soundtrack began to fade, busy on its way to some place else.

She caught the final word, just as it passed her head, and grasped hold. Not letting go for a second, she pulled the story back towards her, word by word, writing each as it came, backwards.

The True Alchemists

My blog arrives a day late this week; it almost didn’t arrive at all. I’ve been unusually busy. Mostly that’s unusual because I choose not to be busy these days, but also unusual because of why I have been.

This weekend, I have been asked to run a workshop in the beautiful Lake District of England. A workshop on knitting with colour. It’s called Knitting With The Colours Of The Landscape, and as it’s autumn here, those are the colours we’ll be knitting with.

I’m really excited to be doing this because there’s not much I love more than teaching people to go beyond where their comfort zone allows. Especially since, in the process, I often have to leave my own comfort zone behind. As has been the case this week.

In order to present the material that I’ll need to, I’ve not only had to revise my own colour-stranding techniques, I’ve had to learn new ones, because knitting technique is such a personal thing, and not everyone will want to do it the way I do.

I’ve also had to make samples – a task I love because finishing things is not my forte, whereas trying things out, definitely is. And that has given me the opportunity to knit with real Shetland yarn – not something I’ve ever done before. Believe me, it is a fabulous experience.

But the best thing of all about the workshop is that we will be going out into the local area to view the landscape and walk the woods, to see ‘how nature does it’ when it comes to colour, and to gain some inspiration from what we observe.

My task will be to marry the two sessions – one about technique and one about revelation – so that the workshop participants feel able to transport the beauty of the landscape into their hands and create something just as beautiful but uniquely theirs.

This is no mean feat, and will involve encouragement to venture into new territory (literally) alongside support to risk foregoing the familiar; guidance as to how best to achieve an effect visualised in the mind, accompanied with advice about how to survive the loss of an idea that didn’t work out; direction about honouring the creative process as well as instruction to develop the perseverance to move past mistakes.

I will need to engender courage, to disassemble expectations and to nurture patience. I’ll have to be ready to offer alternative routes out, as well as reassuring ways back. I’ll have to demonstrate the power to sit in a vacuum, to recognise a necessary space and to laugh at a mess. I’ll want to share the joy of being in the middle of a slowly-emerging process, without cramping its style by chasing for a result.

I shall be challenging what ‘success’ looks like, and even whether it matters. I’ll be dissing perfectionism whenever it rears its not very pretty head. I’ll be holding hands and trusting baby steps, and offering regular gold stars.

The art of transposing the glorious colours of autumn from the trees to the stitches, of reflecting the patterns of ferns and branches, of leaves and berries, of capturing the essence of the very spirit of the season itself, is, you see, nothing short of alchemy.

It’s just as well that I practise this art daily.

To quote William Gass: The true alchemists do not change lead into gold; they change the world into words.

The Trouble With Tribbles

I’ve been watching the new Star Trek. The one that CBS has commissioned: Star Trek Discovery. The first episode was excellent, I thought. Delicately treading the line between the various Star Trek ethos (suggested plural of ethos, please see: https://forum.wordreference.com/threads/what-is-the-plural-of-ethos.286920/) that have been created over decades. A cautious, but pleasing blend of Original Series style with Next Generation intrigue and DS9 variety.

The new captain was everything a Star Trek Captain should be, the inter-species camaraderie between crew-mates already apparent, the Klingons (how could it be Star Trek without Klingons?) absolutely magnificent and complete with sub-titles.

Then came Episode Two …

Summoning the audacity to tag onto the wake of previous Star Trek traditions is an exceedingly brave move, and I was pleased to see honour and authenticity maintained by the inclusion of a Roddenberry in the credits. But how does one fulfil the expectations of millions of Trekkers, Trekkies and ‘Trek-istas’ without merely regurgitating second-hand plots and characters? Surely, after all the ‘Star-ry’ avenues that have been explored, boldly going anywhere new is going to lead to trouble.

Yet, that must be precisely the point of the enterprise. Next to the Prime Directive of non-interference in an alien species’ time-line, the Secondary Directive appears always to have been: Let’s go there and see what trouble we can get into. Closely followed by a Tertiary Directive of: Now, let’s work the problem.

This, I believe is glorious advice for the creative process. I have been doing a lot of thinking recently, spurred on by conversations with a fellow dog-walker, (where better to put the world to rights?) on the whole messy business of expectations and their rather nasty habit of ruining creativity. Make no mistake, expectations are a deadly species, with many forms of attack.

First, they start out as innocuous as Tribbles (and we all know where that leads. How wonderful to see homage paid to the little darlings in the new series.)

They pose as aspirations, present themselves as goals. But it’s not long before their not-so-subtle masquerade of providing direction, begins to uncloak and reveal itself as a not-so-invisible tractor beam, dragging you where you do not want to go, and where your inner self is screaming you should not.

From here, it is a small step to feeling completely in their power, as they have the ability to drain your strength and energy, and to alter your perceptions of reality, as well as sucking dry any sense you might have of your own ability to manoeuvre safely into deep space and the unknown.

Expectations have no mercy. They are as rigid as a Klingon’s forehead, and about as open to negotiation as the Borg. Expectations are afraid of imagination, and incapable of inhabiting the present moment. Their domain is the stale alternate universe of Predictability, and they infiltrate this world like a deadly virus, infecting everyone in their path with carefully metered doses of: I must, I should, I ought …

But worst of all is that special breed which is capable of destroying one’s entire sense of self. The very deadly Self-Expectations. They appear as gently as poisoned gas, through the Jefferies Tubes and vents of your mind, quietly subduing originality, creativity, longing for adventure, until they can lock you in their deathly grip and squeeze the life out of …

There’s a reason why you never see a starship called the USS Expectation, and that’s because the notion is complete anathema to the Star Trek world. And it ought to be (whoops!) to writers, too. The privilege of being a writer – a conduit for nurturing inspiration and new ideas – is a position to be used with respect. We have a duty of care to welcome each new story that arrives in our jurisdiction and to accompany it on its journey, honouring what it chooses to reveal as it goes, observing the Prime Directive as we work.

If we allow Expectations to take over our task, they will surely determine that our beautiful Tribbles quickly become Troubles.

The Truth About Fleas

 

Just in case you are not aware – the flea is one of the most elegantly constructed creatures on our planet.

It is so brilliantly designed as ‘fit for purpose’ that I often find it sad that it has such a terrible reputation with humans, who rarely consider its finer aspects when they come across it (or more frequently ‘them’) and seem to harbour no reservations about wholesale slaughter of the little beasties.

If you’re thinking this is a strange way to open a blog about writing, you may be right, but some interesting correspondence this week has drawn my attention to the occurrence of ‘the flea’ in many early writings drawn from cultures that seem to have held a different view from our current one of utter abhorrence.

The flea, you see, is the perfect proponent of the creature who avoids capture, damage or annihilation.  As anyone who has shared a house with dogs or cats will know, fleas are impossible to eradicate. They are also, apparently, a wretched nuisance and an irritant to those on whom they choose to make a home. The flea is the perfect parasite.

That, of course, is the accepted view. You might guess that I come at it with a different perspective.

First, a long time ago, I studied entomology. Fleas were one of the groups of insects that we looked at in detail. They are, biologically, exquisitely-designed creatures. They are practically flat, with a hard exoskeleton, making them almost impossible to crush and extremely efficient at scooting away from danger through the hairs of their host’s body.

They are also capable of performing the most unbelievable acrobatics; despite their minuscule size – only 2 or 3 mm in length – their hind legs enable them to jump 50 times their own body length. The only other animal capable of such a feat is the froghopper, another insect, met most commonly in the form of the spittlebug. Again, this demonstrates their ability to get out of difficult  situations with ease.

Second, the flea has astoundingly powerful qualities when considered shamanically – as a power animal. Its ‘annoying’ presence tells us when we need to address something we’d rather not, when we need to clean up our act or look at something that is irritating us but which we are choosing not to see.

Symbolically, the flea teaches us how to be resistant to others’ attempts to eradicate or rubbish us, how to hide or run away when appropriate, but how to just be ourselves when that’s more appropriate. It shows us that our own exterior should be enough to repel any onslaught.

And the vampiric aspects? The flea draws our attention to the importance of our blood heritage. Our secret knowledge and personal wisdom is dependent on our connections with our ancestors, our blood history; and our resilience is a result of knowing who we are ‘in our blood’ – and not as others want to define us.

Thirdly, for me, personally, the flea represents an extraordinary accomplishment of biological engineering, and the beauty of small. That incredible ability to systematically and resolutely be oneself in the face of attack and discomfort, be that criticism, judgement or small-mindedness.

I find I am reminded by the flea of ancient and authentic power, the reality of chi and the feasibility of flying without wings. It gives me real hope because it is such an unbelievable creature yet remains successful against the ravages brought down on it. It is, ultimately, a creature that brings about harmony by pointing towards truth.

You see, we don’t have fleas in our house anymore. I worked really hard last year to learn to admire them and to build up our resistance – mine, the dogs’, the cats’. We ditched convention (there’s a surprise) and used as many alternative strategies as I could uncover, so as not to harm or kill the fleas themselves, but to enable my household not to be ‘susceptible’.

The fleas have left us now, and as long as we take care to be healthy – in every way – they will not need to return.

What has this to do with my writing? The flea has taught me how to be authentic, resilient, connected, efficient, uncrushable, self-preserving, effective, clever and, best of all, to recognise the power of the one small thing.

What We Did On Our Honeymoon

Every so often, I like to do something a little different. So this week’s offering is a short story. And in the spirit of adventure, it’s not the kind of story I’ve written before. I had a go at writing something specifically for a given brief – hence the title. I hope you enjoy.

What We Did On Our Honeymoon

As the taxi came to a halt outside the pretty, floodlit hotel, I could see the concierge waiting on the steps.

Henry reached across to kiss me, and I allowed the light to catch my new ring as I placed my hand in his.

‘Ready, darling?’ he whispered.

I nodded, and he circled round the vehicle to open the door.

‘Monsieur. Madame. What a pleasure to welcome you to our little paradise.’

The short, balding man came down the steps towards us, a silly black moustache wafting gently in the breeze, keeping time, it appeared, with his constantly flapping hands.

‘Everything is ready for you. Just as you asked. Please follow me and Auguste will bring in your bags.’

The building was as exquisite as the brochure had suggested, its beautiful landscaped gardens illuminated discreetly by hidden lamps, its ornate façade creating mysterious shadows on the walls. The entrance was bright and welcoming.

‘Come in. Come in. Let me show you to the Bridal Suite.’

 

The evening meal was as sumptuous as the hotel rooms.

I sat back in my chair, feeling replete. Smiling at Henry over the porcelain coffee cups, I unwrapped a delicate mint-chocolate and raised it to my lips. ‘They’re over there.’

‘They’ve arrived?’

‘Yes.’

Henry had his back to the elegant couple being shown to their table, but I had a clear view of the Prince of Monaco and his glamorous wife, Princess Grace. The ring on her finger was almost as spectacular as mine.

 

We retired to bed at a respectable hour, and I lay in the darkness, reviewing the day. My ring was now securely housed in the hotel’s safe. We’d been insistent on our arrival that Monsieur La Forge show us he had adequate security, and he’d obliged by opening up his office to demonstrate a very substantial, if old-fashioned, Fichet-Bauche.

‘We have used it for decades,’ the man announced proudly. ‘And never a problem.’

When I heard the local clock-tower chiming two o’clock, I could wait no longer. I crept downstairs in slippers and silk robe, and made my way along the silent corridors to the manager’s office. Pulling two kirby grips from my overnight bun, I carefully slipped the lock open and –

An alarm went off somewhere in the distance. I burst into tears.

The concierge came flying out of a door and flapped his way towards me, his moustache looking even more ridiculous as one side had been squashed against his face while he slept.

‘Madame, Madame,’ he cried. ‘What is going on?’

‘I just needed to know my ring is safe,’ I sobbed. ‘I didn’t mean to disturb anyone. I just thought I could check …’ I trailed off.

‘How did you get in?’

‘The door was open, Monsieur.’

The man’s face went white, and he charged into the room, manoeuvring his hands all over the outside of the cabinet.

‘Please, Monsieur. Tell me it’s still locked.’

Henry’s voice reached my ears. ‘Eleanor, what’s wrong? What’s happened?’

‘There may have been a break-in.’

We held hands as Monsieur La Forge worked the tumblers. I could feel Henry’s fingers tapping against my own. The door opened, revealing my ring nestled securely in its box, alongside the Princess’s.

‘Thank you. Thank you so much,’ I effused, as I was shuffled back upstairs by my ever-attendant partner.

 

 

We spent the next day touring in a hired Mercedes. Sunshine, sparkling seas, delicious food. All was just as it should be.

We arrived back at our hotel just in time to allow Monsieur La Forge to lock away my ring for the night.

‘See, Madame. It is perfectly safe. Right next to the Princess’s own ring.’

 

This time I managed to wait until the clock struck three before I ventured out of bed.

I picked the lock on the office door, the alarm went off, I switched on my tears and the concierge appeared – a trifle less anxious than the night before.

‘Madame, Madame.’ He moved to my side. Seeing my face, he put out a hand to pat my arm. ‘It really is safe, Madame.’

‘Please,’ I begged. ‘Just let me see.’

He huffed a little sigh and bumbled across to the solid strongbox, as Henry arrived behind me.

‘Darling, you can’t keep doing this. I promise you, the concierge knows what he’s doing.’

Once more, we stood and listened carefully as the bald head in front of us quietly mouthed numbers to himself.

 

On the second day, our car was an Aston Martin. The views were as fabulous, the food even more glorious. Our arrival back at the hotel was earlier than the day before so we could eat in the dining room.

As I handed over my ring once more, the concierge smiled, a trifle impatiently.

‘Perhaps, tonight, you will sleep better, I hope?’

 

At two-thirty precisely, Henry and I padded silently down the staircase and tried the office door. It was open. No alarm went off. The concierge had learned his lesson.

I stood at the entrance to the tiny room, as Henry swiftly worked his magic. In a few minutes, the safe door swung wide, and I joined him to fill the satchel with a plethora of treasures – including the Princess’s ring.

We left through the rear entrance, sliding gracefully into the divine leather seats of the loaned Jaguar, which purred almost inaudibly down the driveway to the main road.

As we roared away from the scene of the crime, Henry turned to me and smiled.

‘Did you pick up your ring?’

‘What? That worthless piece of junk?’ I laughed.