Inspiration Is a Capricious Guest

The poet of this afternoon died suddenly at end of night,

jostling to pen a word, yawning bile in the long

run-up to the creep of dawn pebble-dashing the curtains.

Knuckled under weight of forms, proof of income, applications

flung in free tote bags he cannot begin to classify,

he’d like to burn but who has fireplaces nowadays, so instead

he snatches at garbled predictive jottings made in ghostly glow,

leave no strand untwisted, no word untravelled,

no innocence.

Divine dictations long since ceased, words do not meet the ear

ready-formed like birdsong. It’s digging in the garden,

toiling in manure for a speck of solid rock.

 

Linking this up to my favourite poetic forum on the internet the dVerse Poets Pub, with their fortnightly Open Link Night.

A Book About Writers’ Retreats: Real People

Alison Lurie: Real People (1970)

Borrowed from the library following a recommendation by Smithereens, it was in the reserve stock section in the basement and had last been taken out in 1988. Clearly, it has fallen somewhat out of favour, but it is a fun book and a quick read, while also posing some interesting questions about artistic ambition.

‘Are those artists, Mom, or are they real people?’ 

That is what a child visiting the luxurious artists’ colony Illyria asks, and with good reason, as hyper-sensitive mid-career mid-successful lady writer Janet Smith finds out. At first, it seems like Eden, with perfect weather, wonderful quiet, friendly and gentle artistic people. Although she seems to lead quite a privileged existence, it is such a relief to be away from the humdrum everyday worries of family life, and focus only on the writing. A sentiment all writers who dream about peaceful retreats will echo no doubt:

At home there’s always the telephone and the doorbell – Bessie will answer, but of course I hear the ring and wonder who it is. And whenever I raise my eyes, I notice something I ought to do something about: smudges on the wallpaper, that peculiar bill from the cleaners… If I look out the window, I don’t see a view; instead I’m reminded that the garage will need repainting soon, I must call White’s Nursery about spraying the fruit trees, and we’ve simply got to have the Hodgdens over to dinner. And when I look back at my story, it’s fallen apart again. I suppose the wonder really is not that I’ve had so much trouble working in Westford, but that I’ve been able to work there at all.

Yaddo, said to be the inspiration for this book.

But all is not well in paradise, of course. The Garden of Eden is beset by worms, serpents, temptation, envy and monstrous egos, especially when a pretty young girl turns up in their midst. Artists prove obtuse or vulgar, pretentious, self-absorbed, while Janet muddles through, feeling guilty about not working, feeling she has nothing new left to say, desperate to prove herself in this milieu yet blind to her own failings. It is beautifully precise social comedy about the scandals and squabbles of the artistic and literary community, but also has something to say about dreams and ambitions and selling one’s self short. Finally, Janet admits to herself that she has in fact a patron, her husband, who is supporting her lifestyle and writing ambitions, although he doesn’t see her literary merit. She considers herself lucky that she doesn’t have to apply for grants or work three jobs to support herself, but in a moment of complete honesty she realises she has given up writing to a certain degree:

… when I decided not to write stories that would embarrass Clark and the children, I gave up writing seriously… Not that it happened all at once. I censored myself gradually over the years, as the children learned to read, as Clark became more prominent locally, as my stories began to be published in magazines more people read… But what I see now is something else even more disquieting. It’s that over the years I’ve begun to avoid doing – and sometimes even seeing – any thing I couldn’t write about.

Fiction is condensed reality; and that’s why its flavor is more intense, like bouillon or frozen orange juice. I know all this; I’ve known it for years. But all the same I’ve begun adding water, more and more lukewarm water, to every batch I made. Because I was afraid the that undiluted stuff would freeze and burn me, and everyone around me.

Alison Lurie, from her website.

This kind of over-specialised musing and satire may appeal only to other writers, but it’s a shame that there aren’t more books set in artists’ colonies, as there is a rich seam of humour to be mined. Sadly, perhaps all writers are aware that if they let rip, they will alienate their writer friends and publishers, and risk never being granted permission to attend such retreats (above all, to teach at such retreats, a valuable source of income).

Fortnightly Round-Up – 10th June 2017

Well, it’s been a very quiet and uneventful fortnight… just kidding, of course! I probably got too loud and obnoxious for those who are not politically inclined, including on Twitter, but I am over it now.

General Update

What fun we had with the General Election here in the UK on the 8th of June! Faced with such a bad campaign from my own MP (known as Prime Minister Theresa May to others), I was tempted to think she didn’t want the job. Except she obviously does, because she is clinging to it by the skin of her teeth, with an alarming alliance which could start up all sorts of nasty processes again in Northern Ireland. A new election before the end of this year seems likely – hugely fatiguing for everybody, especially the voters. You begin to see the attraction of military coups, don’t you, as people start muttering about how much they crave stability…

But this is not a political blog, and on a personal level it has been a fairly quiet and contented time: half-term holidays, a birthday party for my youngest, meeting up with old friends, impromptu flower arrangements. I managed to rescue a few peonies before the storm flattened them and blew away most of their petals. I am becoming most definitely middle-aged…

Book Haul and Writing Update

Aside from the small pile of books I managed to accumulate during my trip to London, I also ordered a few second-hand books from various sources, based upon the recommendations of my fellow bloggers and Tweeters. This is where I get all of my book-buying impulses nowadays!

Roberto Bolano’s quasi-crime novel was praised by one of my fellow Crime Fiction Lover reviewers Phil Rafferty as being one of the books which got him hooked on crime. Yuri Herrera has been reviewed by Tony Malone and Stu Jallen; also, it’s about migration, so that’s three favourites right there… The British Library Crime Classics often throws up interesting little gems and this particular title Family Matters was recently reviewed by Guy Savage. Finally, I succumbed to Miles Franklin’s books following Kim Forrester‘s spirited recommendations of books on Twitter, with a particular emphasis on Australian fiction, which I have read all too little.

I can now tell you about my writing prize for poetry, although I am none the wiser if it was 2nd or 3rd (I do know it wasn’t 1st). It was the Geneva Writers Group Literary Prize, now in its fifth year. This year the judges were Karen Sullivan of Orenda Books for Fiction, Nick Barlay for Non-Fiction and Naomi Shihab Nye for Poetry. And that is the reason I am so super-excited to have won anything at all, since Naomi Shihab Nye is one of my favourite contemporary poets and also the person who single-handedly inspired me to go back to writing poetry in 2012, after a couple of decades of neglect.

Blogging Round-Up

I’m having great fun digging up some of the more obscure times from my bookshelves – it amuses my geekish nature and brings back fond memories. Over the past fortnight, I’ve looked at my Japanese collection and my small collection of hardcover books.

Two blog posts which I try to include on a monthly basis are my May Reading Summary and Six Degrees of Separation meme. This time the latter started with a book I hadn’t read, Steve Martin’s Shopgirl, so it required some acrobatics to find suitable links.

The blog post that got the most attention this past fortnight was my personal reflection on The Handmaid’s Tale and its recent TV adaptation. I was amazed, flattered and humbled by just how many people read it, talked about it, tweeted about it, including many people who had never visited my site before.  Thank you all! It completely smashed my previously modest blogging stats. I seldom get more than just over 100 visits per day (on a good day), but the day I posted that I got 776 and the blog post was viewed nearly 1000 times.

My favourite blog post to write, however, was the simple description of my very enjoyable day out in London.

For those who prefer me when I am less loquacious, however, I also posted two poems: an autumnal one and a military-inspired caper about depression. And of course I continued with my eye candy Fridays of tiny homes and sheds.

Tomorrow and Ever After

Tomorrow I will sit demurely
just wrestle words to the ground
with a flicker of my lashes
flash of sopweed from the Bard.

Tomorrow my characters will come alive,
fight each other, bicker, woo.
Plotholes will hang their grimey faces,
poems stop barking at the moon.

Tomorrow I’ll use post-its in coloured gradations,
fill spreadsheets and schedules, submit with method.
Each sapling of wisdom, each stray pun I will corral
till the day after arrives with a thud.

Portrait of a Poet, by Palma Vecchio. From Google Art Project.

Friday Fun: What About Your Own Study?

It’s all fine and dandy to look at all those palaces and glorious home libraries or artists’ studios, but what does your own writing space look like? I am mildly obsessed with writer’s studies, as you might have gathered, and a couple of years back could not get enough of the Periscope #whereiwrite initiative. So, while this might not qualify as escapist, I’ll show you mine if you show me yours…

Busy? Maybe, but I like inspiration on my walls.
The bookshelves are starting to groan…
Map of Japan from 1745 (the original, not my print).
French dog and Japanese cat living in perfect harmony.
The messy side of the room and armchair filing system
Not quite outside the study window, but this camellia bush is one of the great delights of my garden.

And a special late addition for Lady Fancifull, who was disappointed at the lack of real cats… Here is Zoe in her favourite position when I am working at my desk.

#LBF17: Fortunately… Unfortunately…

I don’t often post twice in a day, but am afraid by next week all this will feel sadly out of date. Do you know the children’s storytelling game of ‘Fortunately Unfortunately’ (or at least that’s the name we used in our house)? The first person starts off with a story and after a few sentences ends on a cliffhanger ‘but unfortunately then…’. The next person picks up the baton and carries on for a few more sentences, ending with ‘but fortunately then…’. And so on. One positive for every negative development in the storyline. That’s very much how it felt to me yesterday at the London Book Fair.

Fortunately, I was wearing sensible walking shoes, so I could face the acres of books, stands, events with standing room only, frantic searches for toilets and venues. I’d been advised by the brilliantly-organised Twitter friend Estelle to bring a back-pack and a tote, as well as my own snacks and drinks, so I was able to carry the heavy burden of cultural enlightenment. Unfortunately, I kept losing my map and so missed out on dozens of publishers I was interested in meeting.

What I came away with…

Unfortunately, being a Book Fair novice, I did not make any formal appointments or arrangements beforehand to meet people, especially since I felt I did not want to waste anyone’s time. Fortunately, I got to informally see and hug people I knew from beforehand: Karen Sullivan from Orenda Books and Susan from the wonderful website and blog The Book Trail , literary agent Jo Unwin, author and translator Michelle Bailat Jones , Polish language translator Antonia Lloyd Jones.

Fortunately, as I found out at the conference on Translated Children’s Books, there are some great initiatives in place to make it easier for publishers to take the risk on translated fiction, of which Booktrust’s In Other Words, Reading the Way  and Riveting Reads recommendations for school libraries, and the Hay Festival/Aarhus joint initiative of selecting 39 best European children and YA authors under the age of 40. Unfortunately, when I briefly spoke to writer, translator and cultural agitator Daniel Hahn, who has been involved in most of these initiatives, I realised that it was too late to champion the cause for Romanian literature, as the selections have already been made. Let’s hope that this is not just a one-off project, and there will be updates and potential to develop it further in the future. Although I would agree with Hahn that it would be nice to think that such initiatives will no longer be required in the future, because translation will have become mainstream.

Translated Children’s Literature Panel (from l.): Nicky Harman from Society of Authors, Laura Davies from OutsideIn World,Emma Lidbury from Walker Books, Daniel Hahn.

Fortunately, I got a lot of information and reading suggestions for Malta, Latvia and Lithuania, which were missing on my #EU27Project list. I also found out about possible funding for translation projects from Romanian into English. Unfortunately, I managed to gather so many materials (see above), that the handle on my sturdy tote bag broke.

Unfortunately, the Careers Fair for jobs in publishing was extremely crowded and I felt like I was the donkey among sheep (good old Romanian saying, meaning I was the ‘biggest’, i.e. oldest, one there). Fortunately, the recruitment agencies did not seem to think I was a complete waste of space if I fancied a career change (possibly in academic publishing rather than mainstream fiction).

Fortunately, my day did not end there. I met a friend at the Wellcome Collection and then attended a poetry reading at the Bookmarks bookshop in Bloomsbury. The poets reading from their new collections were American poet Michael Waters , Roy Marshall (whom I knew from his wonderful blog) and Mihaela Moscaliuc, whose debut collection Father Dirt I had absolutely loved. Three very different kinds of poets, with a bouquet of poems at once sad and touching, funny and wry, thoughtful and provocative. I got all three books and look forward to reading them at leisure.

Unfortunately, the poetic evening had to come to an end with a mad dash for the train, crying children all the way home and some forgotten school uniforms to sort out for my sons. Fortunately, I have the memories…

Feeling Grateful for Bookish People…

It’s events like these, Geneva Writers’ Group Meet the Agent and Publisher weekend , and people like these

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From left to right: Jo Unwin, Joelle Delbourgo, Kathy Bijleveld, Karen Sullivan, Eric Ruben, Christine Breede-Schechter and Susan Tiberghien.

who make me happy to be alive and talking about books. I have tweeted some of the pearls of wisdom these guests have shared with us under #GWGlit, but my favourite insight – manifesto, almost – comes from Joelle Delbourgo: ‘We are not just sellers of books, we are purveyors of culture.’ Thoughtful words and diversity of points of view are more important than ever nowadays, so a huge thanks to these wonderful people who keep the passion and the flame alive.

And. of course, the backdrop couldn’t have been lovelier. The place I called home for 7 of the past ten years does not disappoint.

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But there were some important lessons I learnt too as an organiser and writer:

  1. You have to be present yourself professionally as a writer, not just as a creative individual. That means respecting the publisher or agent’s time, following guidelines, meeting deadlines and keeping your appointments. It also means not changing your mind several times about what you are submitting and then expecting them to read the latest version overnight. It might mean not signing up for one-to-one feedback sessions in the first place if you think there is a chance you might not be able to attend, since there is a long waiting-list of participants who have been turned down because you took that place. I know life gets in the way at times, but would I dare to behave like that with my corporate clients? No. So why should I behave like that with literary people, just because I assume they are nicer and more forgiving on the whole?
  2. It isn’t easy to write a great first page, but it is far easier to write a great first page than to write a whole novel. And it really helps if you do have the whole novel to send to the agent when they get excited about your first page, otherwise the magic might be gone by the time you finally finish your manuscript… (this one reeks of bitter experience)
  3. We all secretly hope they will love our writing, recognise us for the geniuses which our families don’t think (or do think) we are, but in most cases there is still work to be done. Even if you get accepted by an agent or publisher, there is still work to be done. Don’t get so defensive that you refuse to listen to any advice or feedback that these busy, busy people are giving you with the best of intentions. Writing is a life-time job of learning and self-improvement. You have to be humble and willing to learn, even as we all admit that no single person has all the answers or God-given right to judge. We are unlikely to please all people all of the time, but when more than one person tells us we are over-writing or trying too hard to be literary, maybe we should listen.
  4. There is no point in complaining, sighing and fretting that it’s all about commercial interest nowadays. Of course it is, it always has been. Agents want to sell your oeuvre – otherwise they don’t make any money. The commissioning editor then needs to sell it to the marketing and finance team, the publisher then needs to sell it to the media and booksellers, the bookshops need to sell it to the readers. It is impossible to win literary prizes until you have jumped through a few of these hoops. You don’t have to write genre or sell hugely, but someone at some point in the process must have been ‘sold’ on your idea. Don’t make it too hard for them to pass on this vision – you are planting the seed of something which they and others can get excited about. We can have debates about just how diverse publishing is and how many mediocre books are getting published, while more worthy ones are sinking without a trace, but… that’s the game. Harsh but true: if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen, but don’t lament that cooking is all fast food these days. You can only change things from within.
Gratuitous shot of the Jura Mountains, just in case they were feeling neglected...
Gratuitous shot of the Jura Mountains, just in case they were feeling neglected…