Old Pal Poetry and Capricious Prose

When I thought about the different effect that prose and poetry have on me, and how I feel about writing both, it surprised me to discover that I used the pronouns ‘she’ for prose and ‘he’ for poetry. At this moment in real life, I seek out female companionship, which I find more nurturing, but in writing I seem to find a home in poetry when I am unable to write prose.  I wonder what Jung would make of that?

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Prose taunts and haunts me – she blows hot and cold. Sometimes I love her to bits, sometimes I feel close to strangling her. I can never approach  her unprepared. She requires, nay, she demands a lot of love and attention; I often don’t have the time to give her all that she deserves. Then she neglects me, slams the door in my face, throws a tantrum. I spend weeks, even months, trying to woo her back, but there is no sign of life from her capricious majesty.

She is also the mistress of comparisons. She has no qualms about telling me that her other suitors are better, tidier, more organised, more romantic, more dashing, more, more, more…

I have tried to flirt with her younger sister, Short Story, or her niece, Flash Fiction, but it’s Prose the Novel whom I love best. She knows it, I know it. No amount of success with the others would ever make up for the loss of her.

Poetry is my refuge when Prose refuses to cooperate.

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When I cannot find the words, Poetry takes over like an old chum. Knows me best, understands the unspoken, the wildest metaphors and similes. I say a carrot is like a star and Poetry smiles in his gentle, light-filled way and only ever replies: ‘Why not?’

Poetry is the one who soothes my nightmares, unknots the wrinkles on my face and in my mind. He encourages me to discover myself, and if I don’t come back with answers… well, so what? He’ll still be there for me.

5 Days in Provence: A Working Holiday

Karen and Jack’s house in Provence may be a little corner of paradise, but I wasn’t just going to laze around in a night-gown and listen to harp music all day. I had tremendous plans going there: I was going to finish my novel and send it to my mentor for structural edits. But that was based on the flawed assumption I made back in early June that I would have spent a total of 5 weeks on the novel by now. Needless to say, that did not happen between July and October. I wrote precisely zero words since mid-June.

View from the window of my room
View from the window of my room

Having all the time in the world and inspiring landscape galore was not immediately productive, however. I wrote about 1500 words and rewrote a full outline of the novel, filling up any plot holes, but no more than that. Now, I could choose to focus on what I did not achieve, but for once I will focus on the positive.

Lulled to sleep in the evening and woken up in the morning by poetry (Karen has a whole room full of poetry books – 4 bookcases full!), it’s to be expected that I succumbed to my old passion. I read 13 books of poetry during those five days, so it was like bathing in sunlight. Of course, you know what it’s like with poetry collections,  you don’t read them cover to cover,  you find the poems that really resonate with you.

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Here are some which I would love to share with you, all by women poets (although I also read William Stafford and Peter Meinke, I spontaneously picked up women this time):

Let’s start a conversation. Ask me where I’m from.

Where is home, really home. Where my parents were born.

What to do if I sound more like you than you do.

Every word an exhalation, a driving out. (Vahni Capildeo)

I keep finding you in ways I didn’t know I noticed, or knew.
Every road, every sea,
every beach by every sea,
keeps lining up with what you loved.
Here’s a line of silent palm trees.
It’s as if you answered the phone.
(Naomi Shihab Nye)

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I caution you as I was never cautioned:

you will never let go, you will never be satiated.

You will be damaged and scarred, you will continue to hunger.

Your body will age, you will continue to need.

You will want the earth, then more of the earth –

Sublime, indifferent, it is present, it will not respond.

It is encompassing, it will not minister.

Meaning, it will feed you, it will ravish you,

it will not keep you alive. (Louise Gluck)

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I, like a river,
Have been turned aside by this harsh age.
I am a substitute. My life has flowed
Into another channel
And I do not recognise my shores.
O, how many fine sights I have missed,
How many curtains have risen without me
And fallen too…
And how many poems I have not written
Whose secret chorus swirls around my head
And possibly one day
Will stifle me… (Anna Akhmatova)

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This poem is dangerous; it should not be left

Within the reach of children, or even of adults

Who might swallow it whole, with possibly

Undesirable side-effects. If you come across

An unattended, unidentified poem

In a public place, do not attempt to tackle it

Yourself. Send it (preferably in a sealed container)

To the nearest centre of learning, where it will be rendered

Harmless by experts. Even the simplest poem

May destroy your immunity to human emotions.

All poems must carry a Government warning. Words

Can seriously affect your heart. (Elma Mitchell)

The result of this electrolyte bath of poetry? I wrote 25 new poems of my own. All requiring a lot of work still, but more than I’ve written in the 6 months January-June 2016. I will make sure I always have at least one book of poetry on the go at any moment in time.

Five Days in Provence: How It All Began…

Of course we all dream of relaxing and creative holidays in beautiful landscapes, so it won’t come as a surprise to hear that the 5 1/2 days I spent in Provence were simply fabulous! The weather was mostly cloudy, there was even some rain, so I only had 1.5 days of sunshine, but I didn’t care. This was paradise.

The Hameau Les Reys, near Roussillon, in Luberon.
The Hameau Les Reys, near Roussillon, in Luberon.

You won’t fully appreciate just how much those days away from family and work meant to me, until you hear of the weeks preceding it. Of course, the usual insomnia, anxieties great and small, travelling for work with tiring, woefully unprepared workshops (not only on my part), tense moments with my parents who had come to look after the children while I was away, meticulous forward planning but still not enough time to do all the laundry. It all culminated on 21/22, when I had the following timetable:

  • 06:00 CET: get up extra early to get to the training venue to change some slides and check in online (as the friend I was staying with was having some internet issues)
  • 09:00 – 16:30 CET – ‘stand and deliver’ all day
  • 16:30 – 17:00 CET – polite small talk and feedback with client
  • 17:00-17:30 CET- rush to the airport
  • 17:30 – 20:30 CET – discover the flight is delayed and there are additional security checks in force for UK destinations, while the 90 minutes free Wifi at Geneva airport expires and doesn’t allow me to access my mobile boarding pass at the gate
  • 23:00-01:30 GMT – unpack one suitcase and pack two (for myself and the children), leave the house reasonably tidy for some friends who would be staying there over the holiday week, print out boarding passes for everybody, make sure my parents have packed everything, driving instructions to the Provence, telephone numbers for all of my children’s friends, confirmation for rental car, save chapters of my novel on a USB stick etc. etc. etc.
  • 01:30-05:15 GMT – disturbed sleep on armchair-bed in study, with a restless cat trying to rest on my legs and waking up with a wonky shoulder
  • 5:15-7:15 GMT – make sure everyone eats, gets dressed, leaves behind keys they don’t need, takes with them medicines and keys they do need, don’t forget their mobiles or cuddly toys, take everybody to the airport, leave car at long-term car park, make sure my parents find the way to Terminal 4 while we get through security in time at our terminal
  • 7:15 GMT – 12:00 CET – another flight, another delay, but arrived safely in Geneva, where I hand the boys over to their Dad, and get my rental vehicle
  • 13:30 – 19:30 CET – drive down to Provence, but have to avoid the Swiss motorway (no vignette, you see), then take a wrong turn and end up going the long way round, adding at least an hour to my journey
  • 19:30 – 20:30 CET – the final portion of the journey was in complete darkness, along narrow country lanes with ditches on either side, trying to find a tiny ‘hameau’ while avoiding the beguiling road signs for Roussillon
  • FINALLY make it to my friends’ house and have a glass of wine to celebrate before collapsing in bed and sleeping for 12 hours straight

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My friends, Jack and Karen McDermott, are American, but used to live in Geneva. They retired to the south of France four years ago and bought an amazing farmhouse in the Luberon, which they have lovingly renovated.Karen is an artist (painter, ceramicist, photographer), as well as a poet, so you can imagine all the lovely little touches that have gone into both interior and exterior decoration.

The kitchen, where Karen prepares breakfast for her guests.
The kitchen, where Karen prepares the most delicious meals for her guests.

Three years ago, Karen and Jack opened up their wonderfully cosy, welcoming house to writers and artists who need some quiet time to rest, refocus and create. So far, all their guests have come through personal recommendations, so you can be sure that you will feel very much at home. Prices vary according to room size and season, but each room has its own quirky décor and, more importantly, all contain a desk for writing and good reading lights. A family after my own heart, who knows just what a bookworm needs. Oh, and did I mention that the house is full of books?

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Outdoors is just as enticing, pure balm to the wounded or exhausted spirit.

The swimming pool was just being prepared for its winter cover.
The swimming pool was just being prepared for its winter cover.
Plenty of inviting spots to read and write.
Plenty of inviting spots to read and write.

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Of course, the vineyards of Provence are all around (and Karen and Jack have the perfect wine cellar for it), as are lavender fields and olive trees. The delightful ochre cliffs of Roussillon, the picture-perfect hilltop village of Gordes and Menerbes of Peter Mayle fame are a short drive away, while Avignon, Aix-en-Provence, Chateauneuf du Pape and Manosque (home of Occitane en Provence cosmetics) all make for perfect day-trips.

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But I was there to work, not gallivant about. There was a small amount of gallivanting involved though, as you shall discover in another post. But, for now…

My little corner of paradise, a studio with a separate entrance.
My little corner of paradise, a room of one’s own, with a separate entrance.

Why I Am Such a Sloth…

It’s not the move (or, to use corporate terminology, the international relocation). It’s not the scrabbling around trying to find the financial paperwork for discussion at mediation services (and realising you are about 4 years out of date with everything and your pension is worth nothing). It’s not even the lack of internet or frenetic preparation for school, while trying not to show your older son that you are anxious about his lack of confirmed school place.

It’s not even when all of your devices conspire to let you down all at once. Unrepairable. Making you buy new ones or inherit other people’s used ones and resetting everything all at once, on a new system, on a new service provider, in a new language and keyboard. Verification after verification. Forgotten passwords. I could have handled a single phone or a laptop or a tablet, but all three at once! Then discovering you have invested in the wrong new tablet, which does not support Netgalley documents, so more than half of all your ebooks have disappeared.

From Colonels Retreat website.
From Colonels Retreat website.

Let’s add a little bit of extra seasoning to that, shall we?

It’s discovering that your younger son has been a little too eager to construct his Ikea furniture and has done it the wrong way (and now those screws can’t be taken out without causing damage). It’s finding that your walls are not receptive to ordinary nails, but require power tools so you can’t hang anything up. It’s having your parents (mercifully at a distance) blaming you for other people’s unhappiness (past, present and future) but pshawing and downplaying your own. It’s waking up every morning with backache and worrying if you will be strong enough to guide the children through the heart-breaking months to follow. It’s searching for jobs online and realising that the ones you like don’t pay enough for you to live on, while the ones you don’t like require you to travel excessively and/or make people redundant. (Think George Clooney in ‘Up in the Air’) It’s having your soon-to-be ex-husband coming to visit for a long weekend and being laid up in bed with a bad back for the entire time (when I was hoping he could help me bring some things down from the loft).

In short, it’s waking up to cumulative and repetitive reality.

From Huffington Post.
From Huffington Post.

Luckily, I’ve now found another old tablet (long may it last!) and have solved my Netgalley problem, so at least I can have my daily dose of reading escapism.

On Monday, school starts. And hopefully, so will my writing. Now we’re cooking!

In Case of Emergency…

I doubt anyone will even notice I am gone during the next few weeks, but just in case you are not away on holiday or if you have a bit of time on your hands, break the safety glass and get your hands on some of my favourite older posts.

Hanging my (writing) clogs up for a few weeks... Wish me luck!
Hanging my (writing) clogs up for a few weeks… Wish me luck!

My first book review: The Expats by Chris Pavone

My first Japanese poetic love: Tawara Machi

Rereading one of my favourite books: The Great Gatsby 

The first time I finished writing (instead of reading) a novel: This Is the End

One of my snarkiest posts, about Overrated Books

Finally, an unforgettable walk on the Franco-Swiss border

Tomorrow’s post Friday Fun will be scheduled, as I’ll be busy wrangling with boxes, burly removal men and irate neighbours unable to get out of their driveway because of giant lorries.

So next time I post live, it will be from England.

 

Professional Blogging vs. Personal Connections

Two recent blog posts which talked very candidly about blogging got me thinking about the ‘cookie-cutter’ blogging advice out there. These posts are by people who put their writing first, above ‘content creation’. Most of the blogging advice seems to come from social media gurus who want to make money out of their blogs: attract millions of subscribers and therefore feature big advertisers on their sites.

AnneRAllenThe first post is by Anne R. Allen: she openly acknowledges how following advice very nearly destroyed her blog, her credibility as an author (and her health).

People will subscribe and come back if you are engaging and fun. It’s much more important to be friendly and have something interesting to offer than it is to have the right keywords, post frequency, or wordcount.

Networking with other bloggers will probably be your number one source of traffic when you’re starting out. That means making friends, not tricking people.

  • A blog shouldn’t become more important than your WIP
  • Blog to make friends, not sales.
  • For a writer, good writing is more important than SEO.
  • Manipulating people may get short-term results, but it’s a bad idea in the long run.

lucyAs for those who are confused by the contradictory blogging advice which they hear: ‘blog as frequently as possible’ vs. ‘don’t blog everyday, you will only overwhelm people’, here are some lessons learnt by Lucy (aka Blonde Write More), who challenged herself to blog every single day for a year on her blog . Lucy was successful with this strategy and won ‘Funniest Blog Award’ for two consecutive years, but she embarked upon this challenge predominantly for herself. To find her own writing mojo, as it were. Aside from the focus and discipline that the daily blogging required, it also helped her find her creative direction – the kind of writing she most enjoyed doing, find out what she was best at and what she was happiest sharing with others.

Oh, and she doesn’t intend to keep up the daily habit… She will now cut it down to 4 days a week (which still feels like a LOT), in order to spend more time on her creative writing. Daily blogging is not sustainable in the long run.

So this got me thinking about my own blogging. It’s no mystery that I started it for accounting and accountability purposes: to force myself to write something every day (not necessarily post something every day). But it achieved that goal within the first year of its existence. I have now returned to writing with a vengeance. I dream, eat, sleep, breath writing (and reading) – although, sadly, not always actual writing on my novel.

So why continue with it?

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Portrait of me drawn by a charming, kind fellow member of the Geneva Writers’ Group during one of our workshops.

My blog is quite a shambles from the POV of ‘blogging gurus’. It has no clear focus or purpose. It doesn’t bark, but nor does it meow and pur and rub against you. It is neither a pure book reviewing blog, nor an author’s blog. It sometimes gets political and at other times embarrassingly personal. I have no intention of ever monetizing my blog, or using it to obtain freebies such as clothes, make-up, concert tickets or holidays. [Although, if you know anyone who is willing to trade a writing retreat for a write-up, please pass them on to me…] I don’t really believe that it will increase the sales of my book considerably when I (finally!) publish it. I never expected to have so much content, so I should probably tidy it up a bit and make it easier to find older posts by topic. It’s incredibly bushy looking at the moment!

However, it gives me two wonderful benefits:

  • A community of articulate, book-loving people with whom I can debate the finer points of a character’s unreliability without being regarded as a freak. I was going to say ‘like-minded’ people, but we are not clones, we all think and feel differently about things (in spite of some general commonality of spirit). The main point is we can debate them in a respectful and supportive way, without name-calling, and are always open to learn from one another. This is far, far less common nowadays than one might think.
  • It gives me an outlet to practise different types of writing, experiment, get some feedback. It’s an online writing group to a certain extent – especially valuable when I am in the process of moving and not sure that I will find a writing group in the Thames Valley area which will be as active and friendly as the Geneva Writers Group.

Above all, it’s poison and antidote in one. It may occasionally stand in the way of my freshest, best writing on my WIP, but it also assuaged my guilt on those days when the words refused to make their appearance. Or appeared in disguise, the rogues! Surely any writing, even if it’s dressed up as a pirate, a one-eyed cowboy, a serpent in the grass, is better than none at all…

***

So, here are my resolutions. After a break at the end of July and perhaps most of August this year, I will return to the blog with a more manageable schedule (perhaps 3 posts a week, so I can focus on my writing). I will continue to blog about whatever takes my fancy, but will make more of an effort to group them into categories such as: original work; book reviews and bookish thoughts; random rants. Fear not, escapism will continue to feature heavily in here!

 

 

 

Remembering Villeferry

Villeferry is the name of the tiny village where we had our writing retreat last week. L’Atelier Writers is the brainchild of writers Michelle Bailat-Jones, Laura McCune-Poplin and Sara Johnson Allen, who did their MFA together in the US ten years ago. Now all of them are busy working mothers as well as writers, so they know just how difficult it is to find the right physical and mental space to dedicate yourself to writing, especially long forms of writing such as novels. They found a quiet place in the Bourgogne, a grouping of restored village houses set on a slope, and offer the perfect mix of quirkiness, tranquility, emotional support and bookish discussion.

We had mornings and afternoons dedicated to the lonely pursuit of word count and polishing of drafts, lively lunchtime discussions of craft and goal-setting, plus readings and literary parlour games in the evening. I rediscovered the joy of writing and of community. It was just what I needed at this difficult period of transition in my life and has made me more determined than ever.

I am tempted to keep it all a secret, so that it maintains its cosy, intimate feel in years to come. Here are some pictures to show you what ‘appalling’ conditions I had to work in…

Our lounge for evening readings
Our lounge for evening readings
The golden bridge to more books above the lounge
The golden bridge to more books above the lounge
Lots of space to work outside in the orchard
Lots of space to work outside in the orchard
Dining room and coffee area, more to delight booklovers...
Dining room and coffee area, more to delight booklovers…
Breakfast terrace, one of the few spots with WiFi access.
Breakfast terrace, one of the few spots with WiFi access.
Inside the breakfast room
Inside the breakfast room
Gentle landscape filled with Charolais cows
Gentle landscape filled with Charolais cows (not visible in this picture)
My magical Sleeping Beauty (Writing Average-Looker) Room.
My magical Sleeping Beauty (Writing Average-Looker) Room.
A Room of One's Own
A Room of One’s Own
View from my window
View from my window
Lots of these visitors, a falsh of white bobtail making me want to shout 'Peter Rabbit' after them
Lots of these visitors, a flash of white bobtail making me want to shout ‘Peter Rabbit’ after them
One last view of our reading and discussion room, with magnificent terrace and books to suit every taste (in all languages)
One last view of our reading and discussion room, with magnificent terrace and books to suit every taste (in all languages)
Couldn't resist the obvious metaphor: this opened doors in my mind
Couldn’t resist the obvious metaphor: this opened doors in my mind