Kindred Spirits

One of the pleasures of dedicating myself to writing (once more) is that I am rediscovering old friends whom I haven’t seen in years, and whose creative talents have matured like good wine.  Our lives have taken such different paths, we are scattered all over the world, we may struggle with small talk and yet…

Our love of words unites us: in some ways, we are perhaps closer now, sharing the best of of our thoughts, than we were when we were living together side by side.

Let me introduce you to just three of these.  First, Paul Doru Mugur, a friend from high school, the only one who kept pushing me (sometimes ruthlessly) to write.  Here is a beautiful and rich essay of his about time, published in an online journal which he co-edits. He also translates Romanian poetry into English, has published several volumes of short stories and poetry, and is generally very active in the arts world – all while holding down a demanding job as a physician in New York.

Secondly, I have a niece who used to pull my hair as a baby, but whom I have barely seen since. She is now all grown-up, has just graduated from university, writes searing prose in Romanian and occasionally in English.  We barely speak to each other at the big family reunions, but have grown close through our online love of writing.  A facet of ourselves well-hidden from the rest of the family.  Here is a poem in English, but I think her real talent lies in flash fiction or polemical pieces.  Here is a lovely example called Tutus and Cigarettes.

Finally, a friend from university who writes like an angel.  Her blog House of Happy has made me just that: profoundly happy.  I think she has a direct window into my heart and head at times. Here is one of my favourite recent entries. I wanted to reblog it, but our different platforms means I will cut and paste instead (oddly appropriate for this poem):

The Game

Get some paper
Chop it up into small squares (a hundred freckles-wide by exactly four snails)
Retrieve bits of your life and write down trigger-words on the shell-and-freckle paper: trigger words are those words that drag behind them large, live memories, the type you can still see, feel, count, smell (but not always spell…); the kind that roll off the shelf, jump out of the bottle and burn your eyes.
Put them all in a hat, shake well.
Watch them settle inside, now still but still whispering their burnished secrets, a lake of life inside a hat.
Go fishing.
Clutch the trigger word you caught tightly inside your fist.
(eat it up if you must – chew well, swallow carefully; this may be helpful but remains entirely optional)
In any case, hold that word, smell it, consume it or, better still, let it consume you.
Then write about it. Write as if your next breath depended on it.
Prose, verse, a picture, anything that would help you understand
why your heart still roars
although your life, bruised burden
and time itself
stand still.

Oh, all right then, here is a terrible picture from those days, to counteract all these lovely words!  And no, I’m not sharing which one of the wild-haired people was me!

About Inspiration and Awards

Who or what inspires you as a writer? What fuels your passion and your life?  What makes you forget about time, eating, an aching back or even your friends and your children’s supper?  Not that I would recommend the last of these.  And I have only done it very occasionally.  Hardly worth pointing out, really.  Even if afore-mentioned children and friends do remind me of it on a regular basis.

So here are some of my favourite sources of inspiration in random order (ah, but is ‘off the top of my head’ really random?):

1) mountains and seascapes, preferably both together, as in the picture above

2) Shakespeare, especially ‘The Tempest’

3) the music of Brazil, almost any kind of jazz, plus David Bowie and a few other heroes

4) reciting or hearing poetry, the rhythm and roll of the images flooding your ears

5) when reading, finding the perfect phrase, the thought-stretching twist, the heartbreaking confession or the remarkable plot which makes me think:’yes, this is it, this is what life is all about’ and turn slightly green with envy that I could never write anything like that myself

6) the beauty of small creatures and shy buds, everyday things that are the last to be noticed and the first to be forgotten

7) the kindness of strangers, given without forethought or afterthought: things that make me believe once more in the generosity of the human spirit

All this is leading up to the Versatile Blogger Award that Polly Robinson has so kindly insisted I should have.  Thank you, Polly, you are one of the most encouraging people I have had the pleasure of meeting on the Internet.  I can always count on her to read my poems and make some comments.  I don’t know when she does it all, write her own poetry, organise events in her local area in Worcester, United Kingdom, setting up writers’ groups and open mic evenings… she is just amazing!

The rules for this award are typical of many others: share 7 things about yourself (my sources of inspiration, above), thank the person who nominated you and nominate 15 bloggers whom you recommend unreservedly.  I know that to some of them these awards (because they receive so many of them) can be a pain, so there is no obligation.  Unless they wish to leave a small comment below sharing perhaps not seven, but at least one thing that inspires them.  That would be wonderful!

I would so love to hear that from you all, and not just the people I am nominating below.  I am trying to nominate some that I haven’t mentioned before, so they are all fairly recent discoveries to me, although some of them are very well known.

Poetic magic

The Thread Is Red

Marousia

The Wheel and the Star

KD DeFehr

Jeannie Leflar

Stars Rain Sun Moon

Anything but prosaic

Andy’s Words and Pictures

Eric Alagan

Lisa Ahn

Write What You Know

Thought-provoking skullduggery

Crime Fiction Lover – and I loved them even before I started reviewing books for them!

It’s a Crime

Nicci French

Jeff Goins

A picture says more than a thousand words

From the Right Bank

An Afternoon With…

Shedworking

This is the end, my only friend…

12 years in gestation, 2 years in the writing, 98,000 words in the making… and yesterday, finally, finished.  I never had as much satisfaction writing ‘The End’ as I did on the first draft of my novel.

So why does it not feel like more of an achievement? Why is the relentless thrumming and mournful wail (perhaps even the shouty anger) of the song ‘The End’ by The Doors a more accurate reflection of my feelings?

Perhaps because I have had this novel hanging over me like a bad conscience for so long that I have fallen out of love with it.  Or because I already know that the first draft is inconsistent, the voice and tone shifting as I have grown more confident with practice (or with age). I already know there are gaping holes and inaccuracies, wonky timelines, characters that need some space to grow beyond the stereotype.  But the plan is to let this badly written (but written, yes, nevertheless written) first draft lie in its marinade for the rest of the month and then do a rapid rewrite during July.  This rewrite will give it a unified voice (hopefully), plug the gaps, be a rapid brushwork like in a fresco once the damp plaster has been put in place.

Just to give you a sense of  how much I’ve been procrastinating: the germ of the idea for the story came to me in about 1997/98.  I let it stew in my head for about 10 years, then plotted out the storyline and added some characters in 2008.  But its existence was still limited to the confines of my head and nowhere else.  At that point I was focusing on writing and submitting short stories (for which I have no talent) on all sorts of topics (most of which completely unappealing ) for competitions that terrified me, simply because I was convinced that only by winning a competition would I find a publisher for my (as yet unwritten) novel.

Enough with the parentheses!

Then in May 2010 I attended the Faber Academy course on getting published. I was a bit cheeky attending it really, since I had not written a single word of my novel yet. One of the requirements for attending was that we bring along the opening chapter or the first three pages of the novel.  So, the night before the workshop, I hammered out 3-4 pages and read them out.  The noises were encouraging.  Much better than I deserved. The editor who ran the course, the cooly realistic yet very inspiring Hannah Griffiths, gave me the best advice I’d ever had up to that point: ‘If you want to write a novel, why are you writing short stories?  Write the novel! Don’t waste your time on competitions if you don’t want to be doing that: in the end, none of these awards count as much as the quality of the work you are submitting to an agent or a publisher.’

It sounds obvious, but it took a while for the penny to drop.  I still dithered, I still hid behind my a million other professional and family obligations.  But I did unofficially join NaNoWriMo in November 2010. Unofficially, because, well, I did tell you I don’t like publicly committing to challenges, didn’t I?  Somehow, don’t ask me how, I successfully wrote 50,000 words of my novel that month.  I continued some sporadic writing over the next couple of months, but then in February 2011 or so it ground to a halt again.  Another Faber Academy course in May 2011 reignited my fire, despite the huge personal changes I was going through at the time.  And no, honestly, I am not paid to advertise for Faber, but I can wholeheartedly recommend the fantastic Gillian Slovo and Sarah Dunant as tutors: they really make a good team, with their contrasting styles but equal passion for words and stories.  However, NaNoWriMo in 2011 was a bit of a failure, with me only managing to churn out about 20,000 words and the novel still nowhere near completion.

February 2012, however, was a turning point.  Yes, I know I keep saying that, and I know that I shouldn’t depend on external events so much to motivate myself.  A true writer always finds the courage and inspiration within his or her own self to keep going.  But at the time I needed a push, a small dose of encouragement liberally sprinkled with reality.  And I found that at the Geneva Writers’ Group conference, particularly in the words of Bret Lott, Naomi Shihab Nye, Susan Tiberghien and Dinah Lee Küng.  Since then I have left fear and procrastination, busy-ness and conflicting priorities behind.  I have written every day, set up this blog, started sharing my work with others, learnt to accept critique.  But still, still, still, no progress with my novel, even though I was so close to the finishing line.

End sign

And now, in a slow, steady trickle over days and weeks, this past weekend my world (of anxiety, procrastination and invention) and my novel ended.  Not with bang, but a whimper.  Or a long-drawn out breathy wail from Jim Morrison.

Take your pick!

 

Learning From the Younger Generation

I used to think that reading the classics or the best of contemporary fiction kept me humble.  Then I had to acknowledge that so many bloggers, whom I now follow with awe and joy, write with such zest and originality, and are so generous in sharing their poems, short stories and even chapters, that I felt a little lacklustre in comparison.  But now I have found a whole new source of modesty-inducing inspiration: the younger generation.  And I mean the much younger generation, like my 9 year old son.

First of the Series

He is a voracious reader.  His huge regret is that he will soon finish his last Harry Potter book, but his consolation is that he still has five Alex Rider books to go.  He used to be less than eager to do his English homework (he always preferred Maths and science, and he complained that writing with his pen gave him blisters). However, over the past few weeks, he has starting writing stories and even books of his own.  For the time being, he is reluctant to share his masterpiece with us, although he will happily tell us the overarching themes and storyline.    His writing style and choice of subjects may be completely alien to me, but I do wish I could emulate some of his energy and drive.

So here are the lessons I am learning from him:

1) Boundless ambition:  There are no self-imposed limits here; he truly believes he can achieve anything.  He already plans to write 4 books in his Insect Wars series, but he also wants to write and illustrate his own comic book series (BD are big business and extremely popular here in France). A factual book or two may also be on the cards, as are shorter stories appearing as separate books for those just learning to read.

2) Versatility: He is not allowing himself to be bogged down by genres.  He writes what he pleases and what he himself likes to read.   There are adventure stories about animals, but also some science fiction, humorous stories, and comic books about anthropomorphic root vegetables and many different countries.  There is no limit to his imagination and he does not try to second-guess his audience’s preferences too much.

3) Discipline: He worries about whether he will have the time to accomplish all of this over the summer holidays (and these final weeks of school), so he uses every spare minute to disappear upstairs and start scribbling away. First thing in the morning, or after brushing his teeth, or last thing at night before bedtime.  He writes every day – and no, he does not complain it’s a chore!  Although his younger brother sometimes complains that they no longer get to play together…

4) Reading but no other distractions: He continues reading books in all genres, more or less appropriate to his age, but he does not copy them slavishly.  Needless to say, he does not waste time online checking emails, Tweeting or Facebooking.  He probably would play the occasional computer game, but fortunately he forgets, having too many other interesting things going on in his life.

5) Marketing strategy: He already knows what is going to happen once he finishes all these books.  He has a target audience (his family and his English-speaking friends), a distribution channel (photocopies and a lending library scheme too), a price point (5o centimes each, if the Euro survives the summer).

What is most interesting, however, is that he has no ambitions to become a full-time writer when he grows up.  Oh, no!  Becoming a zoologist and wildlife documentary maker is much more exciting!  But he does want to keep on writing books as a hobby, because he enjoys telling stories.

What did I tell you – truly humbling!

So, in an effort to catch up with the younger generation, I have joined this two-week writing challenge with Jeff Goins (see below).

Rereading ‘The Great Gatsby’

I blithely said at some point that I would write regularly about the writers who have most inspired me.  Well, not only have I not been ‘regular’ about it, but – with some ‘dare you to’ from Marilyn McCottrell over at the very funny and wry Memos from the Middle blog – I will also now break my promise about sticking to the less obvious suspects.  Yes, I will brazenly talk about that much-praised, over-analysed book called ‘The Great Gatsby’, a.k.a. ‘The Great American Novel’ by some.

I don’t know how many times I’ve read this and it does seem to get better and better with age.  I suspect that my infatuation with it in my youth probably had something to do with the image of Robert Redford at the swimming pool, waiting for Daisy’s phone call, pouting beautifully and moodily in the mid-distance.  This was the movie adaptation of it, of course, sumptuously clothed and filmed (quite a bit of it in England, incidentally), but ultimately not considered a triumph by the critics.  The upcoming adaptation of it, with Leonardo Di Caprio in the title role… well, I beg to reserve judgement, but suspect he cannot quite replace Redford in my mind.

Yet, no matter how much I love it, I’ve been surprised that it’s considered the ‘Great American novel’, because it seems so far removed from the confidence, language and bluster that much of the American literature has. Moby Dick, Huckleberry Finn, Hemingway – there are so many contenders for the title of the Great American Novel, but this one seems atypical.   It certainly talks about the dangers and the failure of the American dream, which is perhaps why it has grasped the public’s imagination for so long (and why it is being remade as a film and also currently onstage as a musical these days). The long sentences, the tentative statements, the moral ambiguity make the novel feel European in many ways.

There are some things that struck me instantly when first reading the novel and that have stayed with me since: the description of Daisy’s thrilling ‘money’ voice, the green light at the end of the pier, Dr. T.J. Eckleburg’s eyes towering on a billboard above the grey badlands.  Oh, yes, F. Scott Fitzgerald is clever with his symbolism, foreshadowing of tragedy, the recurrence of the eye image, all of that.  I remembered that clearly from my previous readings.

But here are some things that I did not quite remember, or maybe only just now noticed:

1) Although it’s such a short novel, it does not feel rushed.  The pace is leisurely, gentlemanly.  For heaven’s sake, it does not even plunge straight into the story, but opens instead with a statement by the narrator, Nick Carraway, of just how uncritical and non-judgemental he has taught himself to be (thus breaking all the rules given to fledgling writers).  And the novel does not end with Gatsby’s death or pathetic funeral, but with the author painstakingly tying up all the loose ends, while the narrator muses cynically and at length about all of the characters in the drama.

Book cover for the Great Gatsby2)I had forgotten just how long and complicated his sentences are, abounding with semi-colons, commas,  adjectives, piling of details – accumulation which works wonderfully in the chapter describing Gatsby’s extravagant parties.

‘By seven o’clock the orchestra has arrived, no thin five-piece affair, but a whole pitful of oboes and trombones and saxophones and viols and cornets and piccolos, and low and high drums…. The groups change more swiftly, swell with new arrivals, dissolve and form in the same breath; already there are wanderers, confident girls who weave here and there, among the stouter and more stable, become for a sharp, joyous moment the centre of a group, and then, excited with triumph, glide on through the sea-change of faces and voices and colour under the constantly changing light.’

Occasionally, this can lead to some meandering but intriguing side alleys, which just adds to the unhurried pace of the narration.  And yet each details feels perfectly placed and not all superfluous.

3) I had also forgotten that Nick Carraway is such an unreliable narrator, despite his initial exhortation that ‘I’m inclined to reserve all judgements’.  I had initially taken his character assessments at face value: ridiculed silly Myrtle, condemned brutish Tom Buchanan, despised shady Wolfsheim, was wary of the golfing Jordan Baker.  My perception was coloured first by Gatsby’s naive dream, then by Nick’s cynicism.  Now I have begun to distrust Nick’s version of events, his critical and often far too self-righteous tone, his tone of omniscient interpreter of events.  I feel more pity and empathy for all of the characters, even Daisy, who ultimately fails not because she is a horrible, weak, selfish and self-centred person (although she is all of that too), but because she is human, not the goddess that Gatsby had built her up to be in his memory.

4) There are layers beneath layers beneath layers in this rich book – which is why I never tire of it.  There is no simple answer or explanation or solution.  There have been so many interpretations of it: a condemnation of wealth and excesses, the hollowness of materialism and the American Dream built upon it, the impossibility of replicating the past… yes, it is about all of that and more.  It triggers something within the readers, puts all sorts of ideas in their heads and feelings in their hearts, which cannot be easily summarised.  There is one instance when Nick says ‘Life is much more successfully looked at from a single window, after all’.  And supposedly we are looking at this story though a single window, Nick’s window of insight.  Yet Fitzgerald has the skill to hint at multiple windows and to reveal the complexity and ambiguity of something far deeper.  There is something here we can barely explain but can only feel, like an image half-glimpsed, half-imagined in the moonlight.  There is always that hint of something ‘almost remembered’, an ‘elusive rhythm’, which we have to believe in to get through the everyday.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on ‘The Great Gatsby’: did you love it or hate it, especially if you had to read it at school? And do classics get better when you reread them?  What have you recently discovered upon rereading an old favourite?

 

Here Comes the Sun…shine Award!

Goodness knows, we could really do with some sunshine – especially as we have our very first  Sports Day at a French school this afternoon and it looks like it will be a complete washout!

Thank you to the lovely Joanne Phillips, who has nominated me for the Sunshine Award.  If you haven’t yet come across her blog A Writer’s Journey, I do recommend you read it for the down-to-earth, humorous description of writing and publishing.  She is currently profreading her first novel ‘Can’t Live Without’, yet somehow still manages to find time to read and respond to blog posts and be really encouraging to newbies.

I’ve also been trying to find out the source for this blog award, but have to admit defeat.  Apparently, it is designed to celebrate those bloggers whose positive and creative spirit inspire you.  There is also some disagreement on what exactly you need to do in order to be the proud possessor of this badge of distinction on your blogsite, but I will follow Joanne’s guidelines:

  • Write five things about yourself
  • Include the award’s logo in a post
  • Nominate 5 other bloggers
  • Link to your nominees
  • Link the person who nominated you

Now, confession time:

I hate writing things about myself.  I have created a pseudonym for myself so that I don’t have to give too much away about myself.  I believe that one’s books or poems or creations or blog posts are revealing enough of my inner life.  And the outer one doesn’t really matter that much at all.  But I get it, the curiosity to know more about a person we are interacting with, especially at a distance.  Or to find out more about what moves an artist, (not that I am putting myself into that category!), what influences they might have had – I’ve devoured even the most prurient stuff about Sylvia Plath.  Back when I was a teenager, when I fancied myself like her.  Now I just hope that I am NOT like her!

So here are five random and little known facts about me:

Favourite film: Terry Gilliam’s ‘Brazil’ (although slightly unnerving that the Far Right in the US also like this film – maybe they think it’s a documentary?)

Favourite book: ‘The Great Gatsby’ or Jane Austen’s ‘Persuasion’, can never quite limit myself to just one

Most annoying and overused expression: ‘Now that I think about it…’

What makes me angry: Rudeness, although lack of caring under a veneer of politeness is just as bad

Most embarassing childhood outfit: I used to dress up like Madonna in ‘Desperately Seeking Susan’, cutting the fingers off my gloves and the feet off my tights.

And here are my gorgeous five nominees, who brighten up my day whenever I read their blogs:

Nicky Wells – Romance that Rocks Your World – for being the humorous, energetic, romantic person that she is, which shines through in her books and blog posts

A Year of Reading the World – this is such an inspirational and mammoth project, each new post makes me discover a world of possibility

Holly Anne – HollyAnne Gets Poetic – her poems make me giggle, give me goosebumps or make me think – a winning combination!

Claire – Word by Word – how can I not be inspired by a fellow expat writer based in France? However, she lives in the sunnier south of  France, so she can bring some sunshine in my life!

Corey Booth – Clown Ponders – can he really be only 20 years old?  He works, he blogs, he writes poetry and he brings web-based poets together with his weekly poetry challenge – he’s an amazing guy – and no, I’m not flattering him because I am taking part in this week’s challenge (he does not have the casting vote anyway).

 

 

 

Whatever Happened to … Tawara Machi?

Once a week I will wallow a bit in nostalgia and write a post about a favourite author (past or present), someone who really influenced me as I was growing up.  However, I won’t stick with the obvious choices such as Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Sylvia Plath and all the paraphernalia of the adolescent girl.   At least not at first.  Not until I run out of lesser-known writers, who deserve much wider recognition.  I may not feel quite the same about them now as I did during my adolescence, but I cannot deny they have contributed to me as I am (and write) now.  Today’s chosen author has a double significance, as she is Japanese.  What better way to pay tribute to the courage and resilience of the Japanese people one year on from the earthquake and tsunami?

I discovered Tawara Machi while I was studying Japanese at university.  We were struggling to understand and translate the famous haiku and tanka poems written over a thousand or more years of Japanese literary history, so our teacher introduced us to the contemporary poet Tawara Machi.  A young school teacher and translator of classic Japanese waka poetry, she is credited with single-handedly reviving the tanka form, which had fallen out of fashion compared to its shorter, flashier cousin, the haiku.  In less than six months, her 1987 debut volume of poetry entitled ‘Sarada no kinenbi’ (Salad Anniversary) sold nearly 3 million copies in Japan and gave birth to the so-called ‘salad phenomenon’ of a young writer being crowned as rock star, TV celebrity and serious intellectual all at the same time.

A few nights ago I was searching for a book of poetry to read before bedtime and I cam across an English translation of ‘Salad Anniversary’ by Juliet Winters Carpenter, published by Kodansha International in 1989.   I probably hadn’t opened it in 10-15 years, and perhaps you need to read it as a young person to fully savour the somewhat whimsical and very personal ruminations of a young woman in love.  Yet, once again, these short poems captivated me with their freshness, intimacy, flashes of inspiration. Some have objected that Juliet Carpenter’s translations are a bit too sparse and dry (you can find an exploration of alternative translations here), but I find they capture the succinct charm of the original, and the spirit of that everyday observation that suddenly reminds us of the universal.

I became curious: what had happened to Tawara Machi?  Was she ever able to live up to her early reputation? Well, after quite a bit of digging around on websites of the world, I have discovered the following:

She sold more than 7 million copies of her first poetry book worldwide – almost unheard of for a volume of poetry, let alone a debut volume by a poet writing in a language not widely spoken all around the world.  Somehow, she survived the furore and stayed remarkably sane.  She stopped teaching two years or so after her fabulous success and became a full-time writer, while also hosting her own TV and radio shows, translating from the Japanese classics, being a judge on tanka poetry competitions and so on.  She has published several other volumes of poetry, including one entitled ‘Pooh’s Nose’ (after the birth of her child) and ‘Street Corner of Capitalism’ (about economic stagnation and urban alienation).  You can see and hear her reading some of her recent poems on YouTube. (translations are below in the comments section), or access Quentin S Crisp’s lovely readings of his translations of her poetry as part of a Soutbank Centre project back in 2007.

I am relieved that the story has a happy ending, that her early success (and incredible pressure on her to top that) has not killed off her creativity.  She may never again achieve that cult status, but the quality of her poetry, most critics agree, remains high.  I just think it’s a pity that she is not more widely known outside Japan, although I have to admit so much of Japanese poetry (both classic and contemporary) is extremely difficult to translate, because of its allusive, elliptical nature and constant self-references.

Here are some of my favourite poems by her:

‘Call again,’ you say and hang up/ I want to call again right now.

Late afternoon/ you and I gaze at the same thing /as between us something ends.

Like getting up to leave a hamburger place/ that’s how I’ll leave / that man.

Now that I wait for you no more,/ sunny Saturdays and rainy Tuesdays / are all the same to me.

To live is to reach out your hand/ The baby’s hand/ grabs Pooh’s nose.

Today a voice has joined his smile/ like a black and white film/ changing to colour.

A certain street corner of capitalism/ The tissues one accepts and receives when needed.

(the last with thanks to From Tokyo to the World, spreading the word for Japanese culture)