Love and death

I am the servant of a 20-year-old cat. Each day, I live with the knowledge that she won’t be around forever. A recent dream found me carrying her in a cardboard box, across a field, on her last journey to the vet. My daughters fell in at my side (Biscuit is the last pet we all owned/served before they left home). The sun was shining, and I said to Biscuit, ‘What a beautiful day for your last day in this world.’ I woke sobbing, and went to check on the old girl, who was sleeping peacefully, but not finally, on the sofa.

Biscuit enjoys her new blanket

Biscuit enjoys her new blanket

It was a comforting dream, knowing that I will do my best for Biscuit, as I have for two other cats – not letting her go on any longer than is right for her; being with her when the needle goes in.

With the first cat I took on the final journey, I let her go on for far too long: injections every three weeks to relieve her arthritic back legs, which she struggled to lift over the litter tray. I kept her going for me, and I vowed never to do this for another cat. My struggle was with the acceptance of death, with letting go.

As the child of migrants, death was something experienced via visits from uncles or aunts who, somehow, had heard the news from Ireland in the days when few of us had telephones in the house. My maternal grandmother’s death was something I barely understood. I had only met her two or three times, and I knew that there was ‘no love lost’ between my mother and her mother. Mum was kind of upset, but in a closed-down, angry way. She said there was no way she could go to the funeral in Ireland, with the five of us children to look after; I think she didn’t want to go, and we were the excuse. There was a tradition of closing the curtains when someone died, out of respect, and there was no telly allowed either. I found the loss of children’s TV that day greater than that of my nan. I also didn’t know how to feel about the death of someone who should have been close, but whom I barely knew.

My first experience of a death that truly affected me was of a pet. Prince, our little cross-breed dog with a bit of Jack Russell and a lot of ‘the devil’ in him, took it into his head to keep running beyond the house of the neighbour who gave him a biscuit every day, and ran and ran with me in pursuit. The more I chased, the faster he ran, eventually into the path of a car. He was still, but his eyes were open and he was breathing when the car driver stopped, picked him up and took the two of us home. Prince disappeared to the vet’s in a neighbour’s car, and I never saw him again. I thought it was my fault, and my mum did not comfort me, so lost in her own grief for an animal she seemed to love more than her own mother.

I didn’t go to funerals as a child, except for one where the father of school friend had died, and the children’s choir, of which I was a member, sang at his service. Even then, I just felt sorry for the girl, not sadness about her father’s passing.

My first funeral of someone I knew well was for a girl I worked with in Woolworth’s, who was just 15 when she died of leukaemia. Even then, a mix-up over the church meant that my friends and I arrived just as everyone was coming out of the service. We then went on the crematorium, where I watched this box disappear through a set of curtains, unable to connect it with my friend.

In my mid-twenties I experienced the devastating death of a friend, Julie, who took her own life, just days after the birth of my second child. The people around me thought it best that I didn’t go to the funeral. My sister arranged for a beautiful flower arrangement to be sent on my behalf. My mum came to stay for a few days, seeing my grief. But no one said, ‘I’ll look after the baby; you go and say your goodbyes.’ For a long time, I didn’t believe she was dead.

It took me 15 years to come to believe that Julie wasn’t coming back. I was seeing a psychotherapist at the time, and I said that this girl’s death was something I needed to deal with. I said nothing during the 50 minute session; I just cried and cried, let out all the tears that I should have shed when she died. I finally believed that she had gone.

I didn’t go to my father’s funeral, partly because I was very ill at the time, but mostly because I was angry with him, and had been for years and years. I don’t regret missing this. It was the right thing to do for me, and I believe that funerals are for those that are left behind, not to mark respect for the dead. I heard there were disagreements about the service: Mum wanted them to play ‘Walk Tall’, made famous by Val Doonican. It was a song that Dad sung when he was drunk, swaying in the doorway of the living room after a good session in the White Horse. My siblings didn’t want to be reminded of those times, nor were the lyrics appropriate: “That’s what my mother told me when I was about knee high…” My dad wasn’t brought up by his mother. He didn’t get to know her at all before he was 16.

It was my father’s death that led me to have my own will drawn up. I was a single parent at the time, and with no partner to assure my wishes were met, I didn’t want my mum saying I should have a Catholic funeral, or that I should buried when I wanted to be cremated, or that said burial should take place in the town in which I was raised. I was 40, and it was the first time I had squared up to the possibility of death.

I have few problems with death these days. My favourite TV programme is Six Feet Under; I am now watching it for the third time. I find it strangely comforting, especially at times of great sorrow. I watched it at the rate of two episodes a day when my friend Karen was dying of cancer. It helped me to cry in the way I should have done when Julie took her life all those years ago. And here’s the biggest thing – I offered to deliver the eulogy at Karen’s funeral. I knew that I was the best-placed person to do this. It was the hardest thing, but when I heard the non-religious celebrant talking about my friend, clearly knowing nothing about her, it stirred me on to give my account of the real Karen.

I missed her terribly, but I did believe she was dead. Much of this was through seeing her in the last few weeks of her life. On one visit, I took her for what turned out to be the last visit to our favourite cafe. She could barely walk, but somehow we got there. Here is an extract from ‘Where the High Street meets Star Hill’, the prose piece that ends strange fruits, the poetry collection I published in her memory, to raise funds for Macmillan Cancer Support:

November, two weeks on from diagnosis, she is home, and my husband Bob and I arrive to take her out to Norma’s cafe. She is skeletal, yellow-tinged, wonders whether she’ll be able to make it to the car, to the cafe, but somehow we get there. Two cappucinos, mine a decaff, and she fancies a packet of Quavers, so that’s what I get her. She is exhausted after twenty minutes, so Bob goes to get the car, to bring it as close as possible. She asks to sit outside in the cold air. She has spent weeks indoors, staring out the window, too tired for TV, bored of the radio. ‘I do love you, Karen,’ I say. She giggles. She and I don’t say things like that to each other. ‘I love you too,’ she says, and gives me a peck on the cheek.

strange fruits is available from www.culturedllama.co.uk All profits from its sale go to Macmillan Cancer Support.

On showing not telling and subtext in writing and relationships

I am reading a bestseller, and it’s annoying the hell out of me by showing and telling. It’s a memoir, and the story is good, but I am mentally editing as I read: the writers’ and editors’ affliction. So let’s talk about showing not telling.

I can’t explain this any better than Julia Bell. Here is a quote from her blog. You can read the full post at Show Not Tell.

Good writers always try to show in this way – illustrating their characters through their actions and details. If you find yourself writing reams of back-story and notes and profiles, then, good, you’re discovering your character. But how much of this do you need to share with your reader? If you find that you’re writing no dialogue or action for your characters you might find it’s because you’re telling too much of your story, and not letting the characters be dramatic on the page. You’re describing them in action, not showing them in action.

There is a passage in the book I am reading that shows that a cat is a stray – he is described as scraggy, thin, has no collar and has an abscess on his back. He is hanging about in the lobby of a block of flats day after day. The narrator tells us that he thinks it’s a stray; he then says to his friend, ‘I think it’s a stray’. We’ve already got this by the description; we could do without the narrator telling the reader and then telling again in the dialogue. But I’m telling you this when you’ve already got the point. Which is the point.

I suppose what’s irking me is the absence of subtlety, of allowing the reader to work things out, make their own interpretation of the words.

Coincidentally, I was reminded of the importance of subtext in an article by Tim Lott in The Guardian, which is mainly about the use of subtext in relationships, but talks about writing too..

One of the lessons that I teach my creative writing students is the importance of subtext – what is really being said, as opposed to what is apparently being said. One can learn about this by, for instance, reading great movie scripts – in Casablanca, nearly everything is implied rather than stated directly.Or you can simply look at your own relationship with your partner.

No dialogue is so couched in subtext as that of people in long-term relationships. This is inevitable because one learns to be careful since, over time, certain “hot buttons” are established, which, if pressed, are liable to set off fireworks. So one tiptoes around certain subjects and yet can’t quite leave them alone.

I can think of several examples in my own life. When I phoned home to say I had got a 2:2 in my first degree, my mother said, ‘Is that good?’ Partly that she didn’t understand the university marking system, but also a couched response to the words ‘Lower Second Class’, which were clearly not the words she was hoping for. When I asked a partner ‘What’s your signature dish?’, he took this as a criticism of the fact that he had not taken a share in the cooking. He was right – it was a difficult subject to broach with someone who didn’t take criticism well. My assertiveness skills had temporarily deserted me. I also lived with someone who would make himself a sandwich and a cup of tea, and bring it into the living room where I was sitting, without asking me if I would like one. What better way of showing not telling the state of our relationship.

So I guess that subtext is good in writing but not so good in relationships – direct communication is better. Or maybe not. When my mother said ‘Is that good?’ she was really saying, ‘I’m disappointed in you’. I wouldn’t have wanted to hear that;  a simple (even if not heartfelt) ‘Well done’ was all I wanted.

Famous first words

“You got a lotta nerve/ To say you are my friend” – doesn’t this set the scene for what is to come in the acid lyrics of Bob Dylan’s ‘Positively 4th Street’?  Forget famous last words, what about famous first words: “Let us be lovers we’ll marry our fortunes together” (Paul Simon); “I was happy in the haze of a drunken hour/ but heaven knows I’m miserable now” (Morrissey/ The Smiths), “You walked into the party like you were walking onto a yacht” (Carly Simon); even the Spice Girls gave us the unforgettable:

Yo, I’ll tell you what I want, what I really, really want

“The Owl and the Pussycat went to sea in a beautiful pea green boat”; “I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky”; “Matilda told such Dreadful Lies/ it made one Gasp and Stretch ones Eyes” – the first lines of poems I learned by heart as a child (by Edward Lear, John Masefield and Hilaire Belloc). “Call me Ishmael”, the unforgettable opening line of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick; “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife” opens Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice: both sentences have become as famous as the books themselves. In fact many people who have not read the novels will know these first sentences.

Julian Cope from The Guardian 10/1/15

What started this train of thought was a quote by the musician Julian Cope in The Guardian (10/1/2015):

I grew up mostly with poetry books and my mother’s fascination for an index of first lines. She thought every great poem must reveal itself in the first line and I’ve written every rock’n’roll song with that in mind. When my first hit came out [with The Teardrop Explodes], the first line was “Bless my cotton socks I’m in the news” – it was written with my mother in mind. I want to go to my grave with a colossal index of first lines.

For writers, the first line of a poem, song, story, novel or article may be the last thing they decide upon. It often is for me; I can think of only one poem where the first line of the first draft remained the same: “A drought is declared and it rains for a week”. Usually I draft and redraft and look at the strength of the first and last lines much later on. The last line is the strongest statement; the first line the second strongest. If you don’t engage the reader/listener from the start, you’ve lost them.

Some years ago, I sent a piece to BBC Radio 4’s Home Truths, and for a short time I became a columnist for the programme. This was my first experience of being professionally edited, and it came as a shock. The producer told me that the first page and half of what I had sent needed to be cut; that she had found the first line of what was to be broadcast on the second page. With a few editing suggestions, this line became: “I had him plastered on my teenage bedroom wall; hair flying and shirt ripped open.”  It was a good lesson for editing my own work; the first things that you write are often just warming up before getting to the good stuff. They might be good words in their own right, but belong elsewhere in the piece. The line you are looking for may not be in the first draft at all, but it may well be halfway down the second page or even at the end.

The same caveats apply for first line suggestions from other people as for any editing suggestions: is it what you want or what the editor or workshop member would have written if it were their work? I am not part of a workshopping group for writers at present, and have had mixed experiences in former groups. Some negative suggestions absolutely floored me, almost made me give up on poems and stories I was working on. You need to have a strong belief in your work, be open to suggestions and also be prepared to reject those suggestions. But that’s a whole other blog post.

Opening lines are important for public readings and talks. All too often, I have heard a poet or singer at an open mic apologise for how rubbish their poem or song is, or over-explain the roots of it or what it means. If you’re too shy to do anything but read your own poem, then just do that – introduce it by its title, then hit the audience with the first line.

Not just for January: creative resolutions, commitments, manifestos and planning tools

New year’s resolutions: unrealistic promises to yourself made to be broken, or a way to kickstart your plans for the year? I gave up on them a few years ago. The dark days of January are no time for donning the hair shirt of deprivation. But I do use planning tools, and make commitments to my creative life throughout the year.

A list of writing commitments is pinned to the noticeboard next to my desk. I don’t update these very often, but they do serve as a reminder of such things as:

I shall not share my writing too soon

I shall write what I want to, not what others ask of me

I shall help others with their writing, but not so I don’t have the energy for my own work

I shall write every day

The last of these is no longer relevant for me, as it was tied to Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way telling me to do this, and I no longer follow her advice. See my previous post on this. I have encouraged others to write commitments to their creative life, and have often adopted others’ commitments when they have been shared in group exercises. One person’s, to read one book at a time, helped me to get through the growing pile of books started and abandoned in favour of another book. I just did this for a summer, but seem to have slipped back into my old ways. But that’s OK: it’s a commitment I can pick up at another time if the book pile begins to feel more like homework than pleasure.

Some people use manifestos for their work. A definition, taken from the website SoulPancake:

Manifesto: a public declaration of intentions, opinions, objectives, or motives.

Go to the link to read others’ writing manifestos, and add your own: SoulPancake

In addition to my commitments, I mind map writing plans and pin them to my noticeboard. I have old ones going back several years pinned behind the current one, and it’s good to sometimes look back and see what I have achieved. I refer to the current one if I feel stuck for what to work on, and it might remind me, for instance, that I have tagged draft poems in old notebooks that need to go on to the computer (I always draft by hand). The seemingly dull act of typing out the poems gets the creative juices flowing and working on screen allows me to cut and paste, change line breaks and fiddle around to my heart’s content.

DIY Pathway to PubI also use mind maps for working with others, for instance in planning towards publication of the latest Cultured Llama book, Do It Yourself: a History of Music in Medway by Stephen H Morris. Mind maps are a great way to take notes and then share them with others (some say that mind maps are personal and can’t be understood by others). Here’s one that I prepared earlier.

For those that prefer a ready-made planner, there is a great one on the Urban Writers blog. They will also send you prompts and challenges, as well as details of their urban and rural writing retreats,  if you sign up to their mailing list.

As someone with limited energy, I subscribe to Sustainably Creative. Michael Nobbs, an artist, blogger and tea drinker, also has a chronic illness, and offers a daily podcast, ‘One Thing a Day’, on how to move your creative life forward using small steps. He often invites members to join in online sessions, and offers tools to work without becoming exhausted. One tip I have picked up from Michael is working with a timer (mine is a mechanical one, topped by a gingerbread man). Though, I do tend to ignore the timer when it rings, it does remind me that I may be pushing myself too far. I have reset the timer twice in order to continue writing this post! So I shall bring it to a close before I get exhausted.

I am adding to my writing commitments this January: I shall spend more time on my own writing than editing others’ writing. Let’s see how that goes.

 

When is it right to write? When is it right to share?

In the early years of my writing life, which began in 2000, a year into major life changes due to illness, a friend suggested that I should write about the experience. Maybe a magazine article; people might be interested. At the time I was writing poems full of self-pity and anguish. I couldn’t physically write for long, and the thought of a long article mining my pain and difficulties was beyond me. More than that, I wasn’t ready to write it. When you’re in the maelstrom it’s enough to cling on to the wreckage, to survive, without processing what’s going on and turning it into art.

Some eight years into the illness, my then partner, now husband, set up a website for me, an earlier version of this one, and I started blogging about living with chronic fatigue syndrome. There was a lot reaction to the posts, not all of them welcome. Let’s just say that I am allergic to offers of miracle cures, and if one more person suggests a drop of lavender on my pillow as a cure to the sleep problems I have endured for 14 years… There were also snide comments on how I seemed to be doing a lot for someone who is supposedly ill, as if I were making it up. I don’t need to justify or explain, but whilst it may appear that I am doing a lot, I work in small chunks of time, often only 20 minutes a day, and take rest in between.

When my site was updated about a year ago I decided to ditch the chronic fatigue page, to make the site more about my poetry and stories, and blogging on whatever took my fancy. Living with chronic fatigue syndrome has only come up once, when I wrote a post on living through the harder days.

14 years after my friend’s suggestion to write an article, I wrote the script for a talk I gave to Kent Writing and Wellbeing Network. A member of the group looked it over, and thought it was publishable, so I pitched it to a couple of magazines. It was taken up by Writing in Education, the journal of the National Association of Writing in Education, and published in Spring 2014.

Here is an extract:

It was a time of great loss – of work, health, relationships, financially and most of all a loss of place in the world. I had defined myself by my work, particularly during the years that my marriage was not fulfilling me, and that was gone.

There was a paring down of friendships. Some had liked the Maria who danced at the front when we went to gigs; they could not cope with who I had become, and neither could I cope with having lively, chatty people around me. Visits and phone calls exhausted me. My voice was weak, and even holding a phone was too tiring.

One of the greatest losses was that of words. I couldn’t read for long, or watch a film without losing concentration or falling asleep. I struggled for the right words to describe things I saw – everyday words.

It felt risky, particularly exposing the rifts between me, members of my family and close friends from whom I decided to separate during my illness. I took shelter in the fact that none of them were likely to read the article or hear me speak on the subject.

Maria prepares for her talk: ‘Low Energy High Creativity: Discovering Writing through Illness’ in the yurt at A Few Wise Words

In April 2014, I gave a talk at the Few Wise Words festival in Canterbury. The angle was how discovering writing has helped me to survive the enormous changes in my life as a result of my illness, and how, without exaggerating, writing saved my life. The audience was invited to ask questions, to share their own experiences and to engage in writing exercises. By revealing ourselves we make ourselves vulnerable, and my story liberated others to share theirs.

As the talk ended, a queue formed in front of the small dais where I sat. I felt like some kind of guru as people revealed their own experiences of illness and family difficulties. The most poignant was a woman who asked if writing would help her terminally ill daughter-in-law. She had so much anger, I was told, and was struggling to express it.

Sharing this kind of thing comes with responsibilities, to the people around me affected by my illness, by my decisions to separate from family and friends. If I had written too soon, I would have been full of blame, and I am not blameless. I wrote letters, told people just what I thought of them and why I didn’t want to see them. I was not tactful. I discovered that most people would prefer not to be told ‘the truth’ as I saw it. There was a time when I felt ashamed of those letters. In my defence, I was chronically sleep-deprived: 18 months of sleeping no more than 3 or 4 hours a day – it sends you crazy; you can’t tell the difference between waking and dreams; I was verging on mania. Someone who had been through mental health difficulties said to me, ‘Those letters saved your life.’ That’s probably true. I do, however, accept responsibility for the hurt they caused. Apologies were sometimes as unwelcome as the letters. For many, things are better left unsaid. I can understand that, but for me leaving things unsaid, unwritten, means illness and living an inauthentic life. But what I have learned is: you don’t have to share what you write; the act of writing is enough in itself.

Back to the queue of people waiting to talk to me after the Few Wise Words event, there was a responsibility for me to listen, to empathise, but not offer advice. My way through was messy, unplanned. My way may not be another person’s way. Who knows if the terminally ill daughter-in-law would find writing helped her deal with her anger? All I could say was that writing is not for everyone, but if she did write, she might want to decide what would happen to her journal after she died. The mother-in-law could offer to do as the woman wished with it, to destroy it, if that’s what she wanted. The writer must be free to write without awareness of a reader.

There is also a responsibility to myself, to be authentic in my writing, whether I share it or not, and to protect myself from others’ reactions to my story. To be empathetic, but not to listen too long and take on the emotional baggage of other people’s stories. To recognise that I need to protect my health, my limited energy, to repel those that offer miracle cures. To remember those things that help me and those things that don’t. And to keep writing.

Wordsworth described poetry as ‘emotion recalled in tranquility'; the same goes for writing an article, preparing a talk, sharing experiences. Written too early, shared too early, the anger and blame of my letters and poems showed through and hurt others. 15 years on, experience is filtered through self-knowledge and seeing things from other people’s viewpoints. There are still some people I would not like to read the article I wrote; nonetheless, I had it published. Here is a writing prompt from the article:

I would like to write about…

But I am afraid to because…

Nevertheless I shall…

 

Fail better

As it’s approaching the end of the year, a time for reflection and hope for the new year (never got that last bit – how can the change of a date mean a change in the world?), I’m taking time to remember those epiphanies that came after the ‘shouldn’t have done that’ realisations. And thinking about how we can learn to ‘fail better’.

Some twenty years ago, I phoned my mother after our cat had gone missing. I was hoping for some words of comfort, but what I heard was, ‘You shouldn’t have let him out at night’. The very last time I spoke to her, after several years of estrangement, she called to tell me that I was a bad mother. My daughter had left home after a horrible row, which was mostly to do with my boyfriend, who had just moved in to our house. We were both hurting terribly, my daughter and I, and my mother chose that time to point out all the things that I had done wrong. Some of this, according to her, was letting alcoholics into my life, into my daughters’ lives.

The boyfriend was a recovering alcoholic. He had many faults, but excessive drinking was not currently one of them.

What is was about, with my mother, re the missing cat and the men in my life, was pointing out that things were all my fault, and implicit was that this is how I am, that there is no capacity to learn or to change.

There are two areas of my life that I am focusing on in this blog post on failing better – work and men.

Never be a slave to any job or any person

I have had some horrible jobs in my time. Washing up in the kitchens of the Grandstand at Epsom race course was one of them. Asked to wash shelves and shelves of plates, stacked floor to ceiling, the day before the race meeting, I lifted off the top plate of the pile to discover that all those below had been stacked dirty at the end of the last race meeting, the remains of the last meals they had held still clinging to them.

That job was only for a few days. I stayed because I had a work ethic, I’d been taught to see a job through. And I wanted the money to buy records and clothes. But there were other jobs where I stayed too long, used and abused. The last of these, my last full-time job, ruined my health. I knew it was dreadful, I knew that I wasn’t being looked after by my employers (the board of trustees of a mental health charity – many of whom had severe mental health problems themselves), but I had been trained from childhood to look after other people and forget about my own needs.  The client group had needs greater than mine – until I became one of them.

Lesson learned: never be a slave to any job or any person. If it’s not right for you, get out. Since that time, I’ve got into other abusive situations workwise, including as a volunteer, and it has taken me some time to realise it’s not right for me. Patterns can be hard to shift. But I have got out in the end. As the Beckett quote goes:

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

Moderation in everything – don’t get involved with drinking men

My mother was right. I do have an attraction towards men who drink. The men who came after my first marriage broke up all ‘liked a drink’. They could be exciting, tremendous fun. They were also a nightmare. Even the recovering alcoholic, so damaged by his past drinking, and with a need to control his environment to make him feel safe. This included controlling me – wanting me to be in touch with him all the time by text; berating me for going out with female friends; accusing me of affairs with male friends. See above re lessons learned about abusive work situations – If it’s not right for you, get out. He left, clearing my house of most of the furniture, as he’d insisted that I get rid of my stuff when he moved in. As I sat there on one of the remaining chairs, without a TV to watch, with my eldest daughter barely speaking to me, I knew that I had failed big time. That I shouldn’t have let him charm his way (bully his way) into my life. But, boy, was I glad that I’d got him to leave.

An epiphany came with sitting in the Rochester Cathedral Tearooms with two male friends. There I was with two intelligent, interesting men who had chosen a cafe over a pub for lunch. I thought, ‘what have I been doing with those drinkers?’

Lesson learned: don’t get involved with drinking men, even those who have stopped drinking. I’d failed with the recovering alcoholic, but I had the courage to try again, and found a man, now my husband, who only drinks in moderation. His idea of a binge is the three pints he had on his stag night.

Learn something from every ‘shouldn’t have done that’

I’ve learned something from even the worst situations. Every difficult work situation has given me a new skill. Working on the sweet counter in Woolworth’s in the ’70s gave me terrific mental arithmetic skills, still sharp after 40 years. I’ve picked up marketing and budgeting skills from working in charities, where you had to do a bit of everything. Even in bad relationships, I’ve had good sex. And fun, for a while, when joy had been lacking in my life for a long time. Even the recovering alcoholic got me to reassess my relationship with my late father and my brother, both drinking men. He helped me to see a disease, not a character failing or a lifestyle choice.

As for my mother, the lessons learned are it’s best for me to keep away from her, not to allow that negativity, that blame  for things I have done wrong, into my life. I take responsibility for my own shortcomings as a mother and try to offer support without criticism to my daughters. If I get this wrong sometimes, I certainly shan’t be telling myself that I ‘shouldn’t have done that’, just remember what Beckett said:

Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

Making your characters speak

It’s National Short Story Week, and my contribution is a few words about dialogue. Short fiction, by definition, works with a limited number of words, so each of them has to count. Dialogue is a great way to put every word to good use, to convey character, reveal details, even secrets, increase tension (conflict is the essence of a good story), and move the story forward.

When you are writing dialogue – and more so when you are editing dialogue – consider what each line of dialogue is doing, what is it’s function?

Here are some problems with dialogue:

Dialogue for dialogue’s sake, which doesn’t reveal, develop characters or the story or increase tension. You will recognise this when reading, or perhaps not, because it tends to be dull and unmemorable.

The characters sound too similar: the voice of the writer is more prominent than the voices of the characters. Not a short story example, but I notice Lee Mack’s (his character’s and his writer’s) voice in Lucy’s dialogue in the TV series Not Going Out.

Difficulty telling who is talking. This is easy to address when there are just two characters; if their voices are distinct enough, no attribution (he said, she said) is needed, but when there are multiple voices, simple attribution is helpful, even essential. It can be done without interrupting the flow of reading and without getting too fancy, such as using, ‘she postulated’, ‘he blustered’. Even ‘he asked’ is not needed when it’s clear that the character has asked – a question mark within the speech marks will tell the reader.

In 10 Rules of Writing (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2010), Elmore Leonard says:

Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue. The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But “said” is far less intrusive than “grumbled”, “gasped”, “cautioned”, “lied”. I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with “she asservated” and had to stop reading and go to the dictionary.

Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said” … he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange.

Too much exposition through dialogue. E.g. ‘Oh, there goes Anita. She was born in 1965 to Indian migrant parents and has married a drinker.’ A bit of an extreme example of ‘the writer sticking his nose in’, but I have seen such stuff in the few pages of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code that I read. But then Dan Brown’s a very rich and successful writer, so who am I to speak?

Another quote from Elmore Leonard

…a character in the book [John Steinbeck’s Sweet Thursday] makes the point of what my rules are all about. He says: “I like a lot of talk in a book and I don’t like to have nobody tell me what that guy that’s talking looks like. I want to figure out what he looks like from the way he talks.”

Here are some tips on writing dialogue, from a workshop that I ran for Save As Writers in 2012.

Eavesdropping

Listen to the patterns of everyday speech, write down conversations you overhear.

Rewrite these conversations taking out some of the Ums, Ahs, Wells etc. Get to the heart of what’s being said, cut what is not needed. Not everything you overheard belongs in the scene.

Intersperse with body language and action. It’s hard to listen, write and watch when you’re eavesdropping – add your own; you don’t have to be faithful to the scene you witnessed.

Play with attribution – ‘said’ usually suffices, but try writing without any attribution, making it clear who is speaking.

Read the dialogue you have written out loud – does it sound like ordinary speech?

Writing Conflict

A scene with dialogue is a great way to portray conflict and particularly crisis scenes. You can intersperse dialogue with action and summarise in indirect speech. Many of us have difficulties in writing about conflict.

Try writing these scenes using dialogue:

A mother is preparing her young daughter for school. The child wants to go on a school trip; the mother does not have the money to pay for it.

You have come to collect your car from the garage. The mechanic tells you that much more needs to be done than you think necessary.

At a family funeral, two brothers meet that have not spoken in ten years after a disagreement over a loan that remains unpaid. Their sister attempts to get them to speak again.

There are plenty of examples of good and bad dialogue on the internet; even more can be found in your own reading. You will spot it. The problem with being a writer is that you can’t read without noticing the way a book, a story, is written. It’s when you don’t notice the writing, just get lost in the story, that you know the writer has done his or her work well. They may well have put in scaffolding during the writing process, but if they have taken that scaffolding down, the reader will not know that any artifice is involved.

I may be Second Hand Rose but I’m no bag lady – from jumble sales to charity shops

I used to go to jumble sales with my mum, queuing up early for the best bargains, tussling with the expert jumblers, my trained eye honing in on colours and fabrics from the piled-high tables, pulling out, selecting and rejecting for size and repairable damage (missing buttons: OK; broken zips: no; I’d never get round to replacing them).

When I was 17, I had a thing about smock tops. I got some great ones from jumbles and charity shops. This was at the height of punk, and although the young people of Epsom weren’t all going round in bondage trousers, black sacks and safety pins, many had got rid of the tops I liked, I was able to get bagsfull of the things for pennies. My mums’ friends used to spot them for me, too, and most understood my taste in style, size and fabrics. My Nan didn’t get it, passing on a bag of secondhand clothes, mainly nylon and crimplene. I thanked her politely, then binned them.

Jumble sale treasures of mirrorcloth, embroidery, cotton, cheesecloth … I rarely bought a new top, a new jumper, and the only winter coat I bought new, for years and years, was a black duffle from Millett’s, where I also got my Levi jeans (they were relatively cheaper than they are today).

I’ve been a fan of charity shops for as long as I can remember, too. As well as clothing, I bought records and music-related stuff. A giant poster of Black Sabbath for 10p, which was blu-tacked to the ceiling above my bed until it scared the bejesus out of me by slowly unsticking and falling on my face in the middle of the night. A copy of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band by The Beatles for 40p, which I recently discovered is a rare, Mono, first-pressing.

Maria and sister Eileen at Maria's 18th birthday party

Maria and sister Eileen at Maria’s 18th birthday party

For my 18th birthday, the only gift I asked for was a lumberjack shirt. From Millett’s, of course. I wore it to my 18th party, and wore it to death thereafter. I probably held on to that shirt till it frayed at the collar, till the fabric went into holes. I’ve dreamt of that shirt; I’ve written about it:

I dream of a shop filled with all the clothes I’ve ever worn

The shopkeeper offers the shirt

I wore on my eighteenth birthday –

the only gift I asked for –

blue and black, like a lumberjack’s,

frayed threads, faded check,

detached collar and yoke

now healed. ‘Try it on,’ he tempts,

sleeve across breast, hand on heart.

It no more fits than the jeans

I wore with it – red-tagged,

stitched patch – the felt-penned plimsolls

lying gape-mouthed on the floor,

or the skins of outgrown friends

hung on a rack by the door.

(From strange fruits by Maria C McCarthy)

After I left home and went to Thames Poly in South East London, I searched out the jumbles of Plumstead. I even went bespoke, with  a friend asking me to find him a suit jacket.  My student grant was never overspent, not with my foraging ways.

The advent of boot fairs made jumble sale pickings less choice as people realised they could get good money for their clothes instead of giving them away. This has now extended to ebay and the like, with old clothes now rebranded as ‘vintage’.

My clothes-buying habits haven’t altered much, except that I haven’t been to a jumble sale in many years. My last jumble purchase was a cream cotton cardigan with wooden buttons. I paid 40p for it about 10 years ago, and it’s still a summer favourite. For me, a week without a foray of the charity shops is a week not lived. Last year’s winter coat was long, waterproof and hooded – perfect for the flood-ridden season. It cost me £8, and I priced it online as £120 if bought new. This year, I found a nearly new grey wool coat with a black velvet collar for £3 in my favourite thrift shop, which sadly closed last week due to the owner’s retirement.

I don’t like women’s magazines; I occasionally flick through one at the hairdresser’s and it always makes me feel inadequate, when most of the time I feel OK about myself. I look at the fashion pages of The Guardian Weekend magazine with astonishment. Miserable-looking models in clothes at ridiculous prices. One week, in their All Ages fashion feature, an older woman was pictured in an outfit that looked like she’d taken a random selection of clothing out of someone else’s wardrobe, whilst blindfolded, and put it all on at once. They had turned an elegant woman into an expensive facsimile of a bag lady.

I do buy new, though usually at the sales:

Sales

I purchase the stories concealed in dead

women’s vests, carry my own screwed

up bags in which to stow my purchases.

Yet, once in a while, a sale, the feel

of new cloth, cotton soft and brushed,

or silk tagged with 70% off, beyond

my grasp at top price, But, yes, it fits,

the price is right, and a blouse is wrapped

round a square of tissue, folded with skill,

slipped into a quality paper carrier

along with a hanger with special grooves

that stop silk falling from its grip.

I relish the sum of full price

minus discount; money saved,

not spent.

I go for quality when buying new – no Primark for me – and when buying secondhand I draw the line at shoes and underwear: no dead women’s vests for me; I won’t walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.

There isn’t a word or phrase to describe my fashion sense, unless it’s ‘anti-fashion’ or maybe I’m more like Second Hand Rose.

 

Wear it well but wear it lightly – research for writers

When I started my MA in creative writing, we had a seminar about research. What I remember most is that the tutor, Scarlett Thomas, suggested we buy a big notebook just for research. I need no encouragement to indulge in a bit of stationery buying; I also have a thing about notebooks being gifts to me, a kind of writer’s superstition, so I expect I asked someone to buy one for me. For me, the best journals for everyday writing, free-writing and drafts are A5, preferably spiral-bound. Research notebooks are A4. They need to be big enough to make plans, write mind-maps, to paste in cuttings from newspapers and so on. But I digress into stationery, when my topic is research.

Research or a notebook obsession?

Research or a notebook obsession?

I like to write a first draft, and check my research later. For my story collection As Long as it Takes, I did a lot of reading, collected all sorts of things to paste into my research book, took note of details that might or might not end up in the stories.

When writing the story ‘More Katharine than Audrey’, I saw a dress on a tailor’s dummy in an antiques market in Harrogate together with some yellow enamel jewellery. It was exactly the kind of dress that my character Noreen would wear to a dance, along with the necklace and earrings. I jotted down the details in my research notebook and had the dress in mind as I wrote. A description of it ended up in the story, but the jewellery didn’t, even though I pictured her wearing the jewellery too. I would like to think that my full imaginary outfit for Noreen comes through in the writing, brings her to life.

When I was working on that story, I showed it to a tutor on an Arvon retreat. Noreen, the protagonist, is in a long-stay hospital, and it doesn’t become clear until the end of the story why she is there. The tutor said I needed to plant some clues in the early part of the story and to research the symptoms and treatment of her illness at the time when the story was set. Fortunately for me, my husband was working as an editor of exams for the Royal College of Physicians, and he did the research for me.

I had to place the details lightly. Rather than have Noreen say ‘There were no antibiotics then so they couldn’t cure me when I first became ill, but there are now, but they don’t work for everyone. And this is what it was like when I first got it.’ I had her say:

And here’s me in Long Grove with Rosina Bryars and the nurses. No gold cure for me. No Peter Finch. But it won’t be long before they find the right combination of drugs for me, as they did for the others.

Pea soup it said in the books: six to eight motions a day, and it looks like pea soup. That’s just how it was when I had the fever. I can’t eat it to this day: that and rhubarb. Mammy used to boil it up to clean the pans; I worried it would strip the lining of my stomach.

You can read ‘More Katharine than Audrey’ here, and a blog piece on how I came to write the story: ‘From Norah to Noreen’. Both are on the Writers’ Hub website.

I’ve come across a couple of instances of research either being too evident or lacking. I read Human Traces by Sebastian Faulks a few years back. The novel is set in the early days of psychiatry. Boy, did Faulks know his subject, but I felt he wanted to let us know all of his research. It was a bit too detailed for my liking. In contrast, I’ve picked up anachronisms and mistakes whilst editing that could have easily been checked with a bit of research on the part of the writer. A reference to Ninja Turtles in a story set in the 1970s; describing frets on a violin’s fingerboard in a poem; characters dressing in fashions that are not correct for the time. This is why editors are important as well as research on the part of the writer. These kind of mistakes leap out of the page for those readers who spot them, and take them out of the world that the writer has created.

I’d be interested to hear others’ ideas on research. Do you research before writing or after? Do you, like me, use notebooks for research or even gather physical objects around you? Do you write character sketches, take your characters shopping to see what they might buy? Whatever you do, remember to use your research with care: wear it well but wear it lightly.

Going Home

I did not speak to my father for the last few years of his life. Some of the reasons are mine to tell; others do not belong to me, are not for sharing here, and there is that thing about family secrets – who knows, who doesn’t, it’s hard to remember.

‘He was fond of the drink,’ they would say, meaning that he was an alcoholic, not fully acknowledged by us, his family, and not at all by him. His drinking was nobody’s business but his, he said. Anyone who has lived with an alcoholic knows otherwise; their drinking is everyone’s business.

He was the father of five children; I am the middle child. He didn’t know how to relate to us. He didn’t know how to love us. I can name only a handful of good memories of being with him. One where he led me by the hand on the way to Sunday Mass, lifting me as I kicked the piles of autumn leaves in the park, so it felt like I was walking on top of them, my feet not touching the ground. Another, when he and I were alone, awaiting the wedding car after the rest of the family had left.

There were times, many of them, when I wished my mother would leave him, find someone nice. There were times when I thought of him as a monster.

When he died, I was very ill. Too ill to travel to his funeral, too ill to cope with the emotion of it all, and not prepared to hear the stories of what a lovely man he was when I knew otherwise. It wasn’t until seven years after his death that I came to know him, and that process is ongoing, another seven years on.

I wanted to know where he had come from, how he came to be the man he was. I knew little of his childhood in Ireland, only that he had been left by his parents who went to England without him, and that he was raised by his Auntie Molly, amongst her children.

Through good luck, the help of a man in Mitchelstown, Co Cork, who came to be a good friend, and meeting the cousins my dad was raised with, plus an old schoolfriend of his, I pieced together my father’s story. It has been material for poetry, stories and for crying my way through to a kind of forgiveness. There is a lot of talk about forgiveness these days – it does not mean condoning the things a person has done, but coming to terms and letting things go. Perhaps understanding how the early influences in their life, a lack of love, caused them to become the person they grew up to be.

I first visited Mitchelstown, my father’s home town, in 2007. I decided to go alone, the first time I had travelled by myself. I was 47 and it was about time. It was a deeply emotional experience, gruelling in many ways. But I met people who took me to their hearts and do so each time I return. I visited in September 2014, not only a social visit, but to read from my collection of stories As Long as it Takes at the town’s Culture Day celebrations. In an email before my visit, my friend Liam said, ‘Pleased to hear you’re coming home.’

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The photos I am adding to my Friends’ Gallery are from my visit to Mitchelstown, September 2014. Me, with my friend Liam Cusack (left) who helped me find my way to Mitchelstown, via a letter I sent to William Trevor who was born in the same year and the same town as my father. Next to Liam is Jim Parker, a schoolfriend of my dad’s and now a friend of mine. Jim ended his career as Chief of Staff of the Irish Army. A local celebrity, I was honoured when Jim travelled to Mitchelstown to hear me read from my book. We are having lunch in O’Callaghan’s, which was formerly a jeweller’s shop owned by Peter and Mary Dold. Mary is one of the cousins my father grew up with.

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The second photo is with newly found cousins – Edel, Anne (who is not fond of of having her photo taken) and Liz. They are the daughters of two of my dad’s cousins, Nelly and Mary. I think that makes us third cousins. We had a wonderful afternoon together, piecing together family connections, guessing at the secrets that the older generation reveal only unwillingly, if at all. And making me feel a part of the family.

So is Mitchelstown ‘home’, even though I have never lived there, have only spent a couple of weeks there in total? It surely felt like it that day.

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