findingtimetowrite

Thinking, writing, thinking about writing…

Archive for the month “April, 2012”

Who Needs Writers’ Groups?

Like Murakami, I tend to draw parallels between running and writing.  I did quite a bit of running when I was in school, but then forgot about it for years and returned to it fairly recently.  I am a long distance runner, not a sprinter (and I see myself as a novelist rather than a short story writer or a poet).  I am an avid consumer of magazines and books about improving your running and writing skills.

But, despite all advice to the contrary from these magazines, I do not have a running partner.  I prefer to run on my own.  Maybe it’s because I use running as a way to clear my head, maybe it’s because I am too embarassed that I may not be able to keep up with other runners, but I have steadfastly avoided running clubs. And the few wild stabs at running with a partner have ended in miserable defeat: one got pregnant, one fell and dislocated her hip, one ran off in the woods without me… and I have sprained my ankle three times on such occasions. Must be the multitasking (running and talking at the same time)!

Same with my writing.  I was doing fine on my own, thank you very much! No need to share.  However, in running, I did notice after a while that, if I did not have a race deadline or an accountability partner (a coach or a knowledgeable running partner), I began to slacken.  I began to find excuses for not running. I suffered from injuries. I stopped entering races.  You can see how this analogy is going.  I began to fear that my ‘ivory tower writing’ was making me self-complacent, self-absorbed and completely cut off from the realities of writing life.  A crippled, lazy, eternally unpublished, armchair runner/author.

I had been too afraid, too ashamed, hyper-sensitive and nervous to join a writing group.  Until I started this blog, I had hardly ever shown my work to anyone (and I made sure that I told no one how to find this blog at first).  Then the readers, the likes and the comments started coming in.  I began to think: ‘There, sharing your work with others is not that bad after all!’  Now, I know you are all nice folk out there, who bother to comment if you have something nice to say.  Otherwise you just move on to the next webpage or website. So it’s not representative of the ‘real’ world.

But I had made a start.  I was no longer quite so private, quite so timid.  I thought it was time to face my demons (and no, I am not referring to the other writing group members here). There is a rather well-established writers’ group in my area, one that organises conferences and invites well-known writers to run workshops, but I’m still working my way up to that level of public scrutiny.  Instead, I found a very local sub-set of this group.  We meet at someone’s house in idyllic conditions: a converted blacksmith’s cottage with a sunny terrace overlooking a stream. It’s a small group and each of us has about 20 minutes for reading and debating. It was my first proper meeting this weekend just passed, and perhaps they were all being especially nice and friendly, so as not to scare off the newcomer.

What I had feared most (other than being ripped to shreds upon reading the first paragraph or stanza), was that the experience would be useless.  In other words, that the other participants would be too polite, making all the right noises, nodding and agreeing, but giving me nothing to work with, no constructive feedback.  Or else that they would just like or dislike something at a visceral level, offering no reasons, no suggestions for improvement.

So, in other words, I feared blandness and rejection.

Instead, I discovered some interesting people, fascinating stories and poems, beautiful images and language…  and really helpful remarks.  Such as: ‘I’m stumbling a little when reading this line, is it the punctuation mark that makes all the difference?’  ‘How about breaking the lines down this way, would that open it up?’  ‘If you cut the first sentence out,  or even the first paragraph, would this story lose anything?’

Yes, that’s the kind of nitty-gritty advice that makes one leave with a (good) furrow in your brow and a sizzle in your belly.  Especially when it’s followed by a ‘I love the joy, the sound, the colour of this piece.  I want to read more!’  I look forward to reading and listening more.  Here’s to conquering your fears and to continuous improvement!

 

And another poem…

I know, I know, I just can’t help myself…  That’s because the poems are bubbling along anyway, while a review or ordinary blog post takes up more thought and time.  Later on today, I plan to share my thoughts on writers’ groups (having just been to my first couple of meetings).

Warning: strong political content.

bouquet

It’s not about the flowers I’ve come to talk today,

nor about equality, sharing of the tasks.

I don’t want your Pity. Approval. Admiration.

Nor need stale drinks distilled in new(ish) flasks.

 

Don’t grant me special favours, don’t pat me on the head.

I seek not the pedestal, nor the public eye.

All I want is my voice to stand out and be counted,

the freedom of creation, invention of the ‘I’.

 

I need the air to breathe, I need the space to roam,

instead of guilt and failure, sequestered in my room,

self-absorption be an art form, a sign of ample brains,

mistakes not count against me, nor children spell my doom.

 

It’s not about the medals I’ve come to talk today,

nor about equality, sharing of the spoils.

I don’t seek your Pity. Cheering. Admiration.

Nor need applauses for each of my toils.

 

Don’t grant me special favours, don’t pat me on the head.

I need not the pedestal, nor the public roar.

All I want is for my achievement to be record,

A chance to show dignity, even out the score.

 

I need the air to breathe, I need the space to roam,

Not jammed in guilty closet, not made to feel diseased.

I want to love a human, regardless of the gender,

And leave behind a planet much gentler then we leased.

gay flag colours

 

 

 

Mal-Entendu

OK, last poem for a while, I promise.  I will be back with some prose and some reviews or discussions of writerly influences next week. 

Almost immediately after I write that, I ask myself: why do I feel apologetic about writing ‘only’ poems?  I am not implying that writing poems is the easy or lesser option.  Just that, in my case, it is very often compensation activity for not finishing that b***** novel.  Come on, lass, only 2 chapters to go (or so I believe). 

Anyway, this poem is about the challenges of a normally chatty, even glib person becoming tongue-tied in a new country with a language she only half-speaks.  Yep, this time it is personal!

BreadOne might say the magic faraway tree

is walking away and not toward me,

Always almost, but never quite there.

Haunted by failure, aware of the dangers,

I navigate, anxious, between the extremes.

All blandness in word choice,

accents raining in all directions,

avoiding the telephone for fear of rapid riposte.

My jokes are more plodding,

some meaning eludes me.

I snigger along even when I am lost.

Distracted by how I pronounce the word ‘pain’,

the baker hands me the wrong kind of bread.

I think I’ll stick to baguette in future.



Abundance

The more you give,

the more we want from you.

The less we get,

the less we need.

The greater the belief,

the faster the drop.

We gurgle content when you are out of sight

we clamour with impatience when you hover by

We ask and ask, for ears that hear us,

and hearts that answer with memories of guilt.

Relieved of care, we waste not, want not.

Away from pity, we do not fear.

We live, survive, grow and wonder

at your anger, confusion and delusions of grandeur.

 

You ask and ask

in bawling bands clinging too tightly,

You want and want, unruly imp,

so winsome, so toothsome.

You glance, we melt

lest we forget

what got us here in the first place.

Teletubbies

We only really come aliveOld-fashioned TV

in front of deadened roar of others,

canned laughs still rouse us to sardonic smiles,

while tortuous plots free up our sneers.

Looking carefully ahead, not at each other,

each lost in our singular, unshareable thoughts.

We gossip about them in a semblance of emotion

so trite we stop caring long before the sentence ends.

As unadventurous as last night’s dinner

no miracle can reheat.

 

Not facing or squaring the truth and the gape,

ever silent we cling to our sofa

and the myth of our togetherness.

Dandelions & Bad Hair Days – how mental health & motherhood woke up the writer in me

Dandelions & Bad Hair Days – how mental health & motherhood woke up the writer in me.

Looking forward to reading this book – the anxiety that dare not speak its name in the competition of upbeat self-deprecation of the school run!

Confession

I admire the crystal clear.

 

But opaque, pretentious Bitter takes me aside and whispers promises so sweet in the misguided blindness of my mind.

 

So then I whine.

Reichstag Berlin

Rereading ‘The Women’s Room’ by Marilyn French

I was a feminist without a cause when I read ‘The Women’s Room’, that classic angry novel by Marilyn French, published in 1977, at the tail end of the feminist movement.  I was about 18-19, had been brought up to believe that I could achieve anything regardless of my gender, and had not really encountered any prejudice or sexism to change my sunny view of life. Some wolf whistles here and there on the street, some anxiety about letting me make my own way home at night, but the world was still one of limitless possibilities.  Of course I believed women were as good as men, and that they should have equal chances in life, but this was an attitude born of rational thought rather than any personal pain.

Marilyn French coverSo my first reading of ‘The Women’s Room’ was one of bemused detachment.  How much anger and frustration these women had!  How awful it must have been for women of my mother’s generation!  Thank goodness things had moved on since the publication of the book and this was all a description of quaint historical practices! My life, of course, would never be like that: not only had the world moved on, but I had all the information, warning signs and negative role models featured in this book (and Germaine Greer, Betty Friedan, Simone de Beauvoir – oh, yes, I read the entire feminist canon and absorbed it all with my brain). I would not claim that my heart was unaffected, but what I felt for these women was pity.  Such a patronising attitude, but typical of my 18 year old self, who thought she knew so much about everything.

Last week, while on holiday, I found myself at a bit of a loose end regarding reading matter, so I picked up this book off someone else’s bookshelf and reread it. And this time I read it with my heart.  And what surprised me most of all is how accurate the portrayal of marriage, motherhood, the thin line between self-sacrifice and martyrdom still is. This is not an outdated description of the half-imagined, half-real plight of bored white suburban housewives (although it can be argued that French does not look beyond this race and class for her stories).  Many of the stories will strike a chord with women of my age today: the women of the post-feminist generation, who thought they could have it all, but have now realised that family and motherhood have enslaved them in ways they would not have thought possible in their youth. Nowadays, the luxury of daytime boredom and party planning is not even available, as most women are working outside the home.  But are they working at jobs (to make ends meet), or do they still have careers? And if they have careers, at what cost to their families, health and sanity?  I conducted an informal poll among the women I know: the only ones who do not feel pulled in all directions are the ones who are unmarried and childless.  And even they manage to find plenty of things to feel guilty or anxious about!

So that was my first surprised observation, that it feels less outdated now than it did twenty years ago. Yes, marginalisation of women is now less overt, men pay more lip service to the notion of equality, advances have been made in certain areas.  We are all far more aware of our options now,  but awareness does not blunt the ruthless blade of reality.  The schizophrenia of impossible choices is still largely left to women to handle. French seems unsure whether to blame  the patriarchal society or men directly for this, although to me it seems clear that she also partially blames women themselves for it.

The second observation is that many of the quotes attributed to the author, which have sparked angry reactions and criticisms, are in fact uttered by one or the other of the many female characters appearing in this book.  For instance, that incendiary opinion that ‘All men are rapists and that’s all they are’ is actually a statement made by aggressive, uncompromising Val just after her daughter has been raped and her case is dismissed by the police and the judiciary system.  It is a statement that the central character, Mira, actually finds uncomfortable, and it is certainly not Marilyn French’s opinion.

What I liked about this book (and had forgotten until I reread it) is the plurality of stories and views on offer.  Other reviewers have pointed out how relentlessly grim the stories are: rape, death, illness, insanity, divorce, breakdown – true, the author is trying to cram it all in. What is more concerning and striking is the lack of male voices – the men are shadowy figures, almost caricatures.  I am almost sure this was deliberate, partly because French is giving voice to those who were habitually voiceless, but also because she felt that men were choosing not to engage in the debate.  There is a poignant scene in which Mira’s husband comes home and tells her they need to talk. Looking at his wistful gaze, his deep sigh, she dares to hope that they will have a meaningful conversation about their thoughts, their values, their feelings.  She hopes that they will finally connect, be true and equal partners. She leans yearningly towards him, ready to forgive, to restart, to believe … and he tells her that he wants a divorce.

So what did I feel this time, upon rereading ‘The Women’s Room’?  No longer anger and pity.  No easy target to blame.  Instead, sadness and recognition that we have not quite come such a long way, baby!

Feed Me

What I want and what I need

what I want to want

and what I think I want

are different

and changed again.

 

Praise sandwiched in snide greens  I can deal with.

But praise unbound leaps and gags the wary mind.

 

So feed me:

News in small digested parcels.

Awe in sane confects I can see and understand.

Joy in self-contained units, allotments of peace.

Lust in sanitised tray with neat compartments.

Change in easy gulps, fear in whispered inklings.

 

Feed me when the world turns colder.

Don’t open what I cannot bear.

Close the door, the draughts, the weather…

I fear ‘too much’, I crave no more.

For this award, I would like to thank…

Do you get annoyed when the Academy Award winners go on and on, well beyond their allotted minutes, and thank their entire family, circle of friends, business associates, fellow actors, pets and maybe even their stamp collection?  I know that like all sensible, rational people (i.e. people I call ‘friends’), I do find award ceremonies a bit of a tiresome lovefest…  Unless, of course, I happen to be the one nominated, in which case, like all creative, imaginative, brilliant people (whom I also call ‘friends’), I begin to think that awards are a wonderful, meaningful process of appreciating one’s fellow geniuses (genii?).

So, yes, you might have surmised from this that I was jumping up and down in excitement when I came back from holiday and discovered that my dear faithful (by name and by nature) friend Ami Fidèle had nominated me for the Liebster Blog award.  It’s my first award and only the second time I have been tagged for something, so bear with me while I do a little dance around my living room.

OK, back now, and ready to fulfill my obligations for the award:

1) Thank the person who nominated you and link back to them. Well, if you haven’t come across the beautifully romantic poetry of Ami Fidèle or Ami de Rêve, a Cyrano de Bergerac who has somehow wandered into the 21st century, then I strongly recommend you go to his blog and enjoy it.

2) Copy and paste the award logo – done!

3)  Nominate five other bloggers you would like to pass the award on to.

This was really hard, partly because there are so many wonderful bloggers that I have discovered recently, who have become firm favourites.  Also, because quite a few of them have awards already, or have just been nominated by someone else.  Or are way too well-known and universally appreciated to worry about this teeny-timid clap on the back from me.   Still, I have done my best, they are all blogs I can whole-heartedly recommend (and I only fear that they may be too busy to respond).

Ethan Greenwood - Letters from the Wasteland – for outstanding word-craft

Polly Robinson – for variety, versatility and encouraging activity

Layla from Be Not Afeard – for thoughtful provocation

Already Not Published - for being candid about her writing journey

Eclectic Nomad – because I would like to read more from her

4) Tell your readers ten random facts about you.  To alleviate the potential monotony of such a long list, I have tried to associate each random fact with a book title.

 

Ballet Shoes  I always dreamt of becoming a ballet dancer, but, when I was about seven, my mother happened to be in the same ward in hospital as a ballet dancer who had broken her spine after her partner dropped her (and was paralysed for life).  So I was never allowed to continue with my dancing.  I read all of Noel Streatfield and Lorna Hill instead.

Water for Elephants  My second dream job was to work as a keeper in an elephant orphanage somewhere in Africa.  I still adore elephants and have a collection of elephant figures (sadly, mostly stored in the attic with all of this moving around).  And I would never, ever buy any ivory.

The Sea, the Sea  My favourite colours are blue and turquoise. And I love anything to do with the sea.

Starman   The first single I ever bought (way before downloads) was David Bowie’s ‘Scary Monsters (Super Creeps)’ and I remain a big fan to this day (prefer the earlier work, though).

James and the Giant Peach  I like all fruit and vegetables, except for the notorious durian, which makes me gag.

Chocolat  I have a sweet tooth and used to be able to eat up to five desserts a day (instead of proper food). No longer!

Not Waving but Drowning  I never learnt to swim properly (although I can float and do breast stroke), and am terrified of drowning.

Bleak House  My guilty pleasure is reading home improvement/ interior design magazines.  I’ve been known to buy them at airports even if they are in Danish, Swedish and other languages that I do not speak.

Confessions of an (English?) Opium Eater  I’m not English.  But I write and dream in English and I speak English better than any other language.

There Is No Long Distance Now  I started this blog about two months ago as a place to ‘park’ all my work in progress, and as a way to hold myself to account and write something every day, after sooooo many years of putting my creative writing last. I was inspired by the wonderful poet Naomi Shihab Nye, who, with her wonderful eyes, deep voice and luminous presence, told me that even seven minutes a day spent working on a poem counts as writing.  Since then, I have never looked back. I never expected anybody to read the blog and was firmly convinced all my first readers were spammers.  I have been overwhelmed by the encouragement, support and new friends that I have gained from it.  And that I have not been forgotten even during the three weeks I was offline. I am very grateful indeed, thank you all!

So there you are, I still managed to thank everybody for this award. Except for my (imaginary) stamp collection.

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