Category: Writing

The river lies north

The past twelve months have been full of change, disruption and uncertainty. Writing has not come easily, and there have been times when words have deserted me. Writing is the one thing that keeps me sane, and deprived of that outlet, things have been hard.

What has been different from other bad spells, when I carried on writing through the worst of times, and about the worst of times, is the shifting of the very walls and ground that hold me, like a slow earthquake, with cracks developing beneath my feet, and dust from the tremors falling all around. Of late, these cracks, this dust, moved from metaphor to reality, as we moved to a new house, and channels were gouged into the walls to run wiring to replace that which had been in the house since it was first built, in the early 1960s. Phenomenal dust rose, settled, was wiped away, then more settling and wiping in a cycle that seemed to last forever. Like Sisyphus rolling his rock, so my damp cloth worked each day, only to see more thick grey deposits the next morning.

It is hard to think, to write, to give space to creative thoughts when living with dust, noise and builders; with your precious things still packed in boxes; when the walls around you and the roof above you are not those you have lived with; when the view from your window is not the one you have woken to for the previous eight years. And when the certainties of your life for the same number of years have been shaken: a dear cat companion declining and dying; a husband rushed to a cardiac unit in an ambulance, sirens blaring; financial difficulties forcing a move of house.

Writing and publishing is a long game, however, and there have been cheering moments when poems and stories have been published several months after submission, and an even longer time after they were written. Reminders that you can write words that others want to read, that the one thing that keeps you well is still below the surface.

This summer will see the publication of an illustrated pamphlet of my poems, There are Boats on the Orchard. These were some seven years in the writing, and for the past six months I have seen the orchards and poems recast in wonderful drawings by Sara Fletcher. It’s a bittersweet project, since I no longer write in a shed overlooking an orchard. In fact I had no permanent place to write for a couple of months, when one house was sold and another had not yet been secured. Then the struggle to find a space amongst dust, builders, and too-much-stuff that fitted in the old house but not in the new. But now I have a desk and a space in the house to write.

P1000072 cropped smallInstead of an orchard, I now have a view of the River Medway from my bedroom window, plus a view over the dips and rises of hilly Gillingham. There is a road, houses, and a factory that makes Jubilee clips. In the middle of the river there is a strip of land, Hoo Marshes, and on the other bank I can see the spire of the church at Hoo St Werburgh. It’s a moving landscape, as the tide comes in and goes out on the estuary, and small boats pass – sometimes larger shipping. The lights of the factory come on at 6.00, and people arrive by bicycle, in cars and vans, and on foot. The traffic climbs and descends Danes Hill all day. The landscape moves, and I remain still, as the floors and walls beneath me settle and stay.

Beneath the floorboards, raised by Dan the Sparks and John the kitchen fitter, there were packages and a yellow cash tin, hidden by the previous owner of the house, who lived here for 46 years. Amongst the documents and mementoes was a compass in a brass case. I opened the case and oriented myself in the house: the river to the north; the front of the house facing east; the back facing west.

Returning to the house after a week away, I first went to the bedroom to look at the river, my constant north. When my three-year-old granddaughter visits, it’s where she heads, too, calling to everyone, ‘Do you want to see a river?’ She dashes to the other rooms, to see if there is ‘another river’, but there is only one.

William Trevor, my father, and me

William Trevor and I have connections, via a small town in Ireland, and two men. One of them was my father, another is now a friend, and was a catalyst for uncovering my past and a wealth of material that was to feed my writing for many years.

In 2007, a William Trevor story appeared in The Guardian, and in the biog it said that he was born in Mitchelstown, Co. Cork in 1928. In the same town and the in same year of birth as my father. It was a town I had never visited, and as my father had been dead for seven years by then, I had no cause to visit. We had few connections with that side of the family: Dad rarely mentioned his childhood, and his silence spoke of sadness.

I had not seen or spoken to my father for several years before his death, for reasons that I won’t go into here; stories that are not mine to tell. The truth is, you can never cut off entirely from your past, and my curiosity about my father’s past grew. I held on to The Guardian short story supplement for some months, spoke to a friend about writing to William Trevor, and the impossibility of doing so. I’m not sure what was holding me back from sending a letter, from writing the letter, but my friend said, ‘What do you have to lose?’

I found out that there was a short story competition to be judged by William Trevor, part of the William Trevor Literary Festival to be held in Mitchelstown. So I wrote a letter to William Trevor, care of the administrator of the competition, Liam Cusack. I left the letter to Trevor unsealed, placed it in another envelope, and enclosed a note to the administrator, asking him to forward it, and saying that he was welcome to read the letter before sending it on. I didn’t keep a copy, but from what I remember I asked if he might have known my father. Perhaps they had gone to school together. My dad knew William Wordsworth’s ‘Daffodils’ by heart, and perhaps they had learned the poem together. I expected no reply.

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Liam Cusack, Jim Parker and Maria in O’Callaghan’s, Mitchelstown

A few days later, I had a telephone call from Ireland. Liam Cusack had read my letter. He said that Trevor had previously received ‘crank letters’, so he had opened mine. There was no point forwarding it, though, as Trevor had left Mitchelstown when he was five years old, and would not have gone to school with my dad. He would, however, do a bit of research for me, about my dad, as he thought there was a man who would have known my dad.

This led to a visit to Mitchelstown in 2007, and twice more, the last being in 2014 when I read a story from my collection As Long as it Takes at a Culture Night event, in the company of both Liam Cusack and Jim Parker, the man who knew my father, and with whom I exchange long, handwritten letters once or twice a year.

In 2008, I spent two days at the Small Wonder Short Story Festival in the beautiful setting of Charleston. William Trevor was making a rare appearance, a reading and a book signing. It was sold out, but I hung around the desk in the hope of ticket returns. Five minutes before the event, a few tickets were released, which had been reserved by people in the USA, and had not been collected. I took my place, and listened to a story set in a small town in Ireland, not unlike Mitchelstown, read in the same accent that I had heard throughout my childhood.

I queued to have my book signed, and had a few moments with the man. He looked frail, and the organisers were protective of him becoming too tired, and aware of the long queue of people waiting. I told him that my father was born in Mitchelstown, too, and in the same year, and that Trevor and I had a mutual friend, Liam Cusack, in Mitchelstown. ‘Oh, how is he? I’ve heard he’s not been well,’ he said, but I was moved along before I could say more.

William Trevor only lived in Mitchelstown for five years. His father was a bank manager in the town, and bank managers were moved from town to town. Then Trevor left Ireland, as my father did, as a young man, to go to England to find work, and never returned to live there. He was an outsider, a Protestant in a Catholic country, an Irishman in Devon, and this gave him a different perspective on the world he lived in. Liam Cusack told me that Trevor came back to Mitchelstown often, and was to be found sitting on a bench in the square, looking towards the Knockmealdown mountains, or watching people, making up stories in his head about small town people.

I would not dare to put my own writing in the same class as William Trevor, but we do have a connection. We cannot quite escape our past, even a past that is ours only tentatively, or is it in the blood, in the psyche? What do I know, really, of Ireland, having grown up in England, having visited, for only weeks at a time, the Ireland my parents were born in? Yet Richard Skinner wrote this of my stories, when he reviewed As Long as it Takes on Writers’ Hub:

McCarthy shares with William Trevor a profound melancholy and her tales, like the Irish landscape eternally showered with soft yet invasive rain, are similarly saturated in shame, sacrifice, and secret sorrow.

Rip it up and start again

When I was seventeen, my German penfriend, Elke, sent me a page a day diary. It had a green leatherette cover, and she later sent me a pretty notebook, with a Chinese design on the cover, And so began the habit of keeping a journal. My recollection is of not writing in it for several days, then filling pages when I felt a bit down. I remembering recording watching the Fonz on Happy Days (appointment television in the days of three channels), or that I had seen the boy I fancied looking out of the window of his office, several floors up, as I walked to college. He had blonde, short hair, and I only ever saw him from a distance as I passed the telephone exchange opposite his building. Yet I built up a private fantasy about him, shared only with my journal. Now I think of it, he was always standing at that window when I passed. Perhaps he wrote about me in his journal.

Research or a notebook obsession?

Research or a notebook obsession?

My mother was not one for respecting privacy, so I kept my diary with me at all times, and slept with it under my pillow. No one read it but me.

My diary habit stopped when I left home, a week after my 19th birthday. I can’t remember why. Perhaps there was too much going on, little time outside of studying and socialising in my first year at Thames Poly. I didn’t start again until I was 40, a gap of over 20 years. Illness had forced me stop work, and I was adrift; I felt like I had lost my identity.

I was out with a friend when I saw a notebook I liked. It was A5 spiral bound with a picture of a parrot on the cover. ‘Let me get that for you,’ she said, and out of nowhere, I started writing poetry in that book, and keeping a diary.

It became a thing that I only wrote in notebooks  that other people had given me. As I took on a new love, a new identity as a writer, the notebooks filled and accumulated. By this summer, with only one notebook cull since I began writing (again) in 2000, I had two large boxes full of notebooks, plus a pile on my desk awaiting a second read.

Faced with moving house, and the prospect of someone having to deal with my journals when I die (yes, I do think about such things), I decided to destroy them. I don’t think anyone else has read them. When my daughters were living with me, they didn’t seem interested. Current journals were left on coffee tables and never picked up by them. When I met the man who is now my husband, I said that he was not to read them, and he has respected that.

Over the years, I have read each one again, a while after completing them, to see if there was any material to develop into poems, stories or blog pieces. They have then been stored away. I saw no reason to read them again before destroying them, and I drew in the support of a friend to help me. ‘Are you sure; are you really sure?’ she said before and during the ripping, cutting and shredding. Writer friends on Facebook asked the same question. It seemed drastic, they said. But I was and am sure, and the hours we spent in my writing shed, going through the repetitive actions of notebook destruction, left me lighter. It also made me realise what a huge task this would have been for someone after my death. I have it written into my will that I want my notebooks destroyed without being read.

The paper filled a builder’s bucket and two black sacks, which have gone to be recycled. I picked out some shreds, read some words and phrases from the remains of the journals. My eyes fell on sentences as I tore pages out, which threw me back to certain people, certain times. But I was not drawn into reading further.

I don’t know where I shall write or where we shall be when we move. I’ve had the good fortune to have my own room, in a converted shed, for the past six years, and it’s doubtful that I’ll have that luxury again. I may have space for a desk, or it may be that the kitchen table becomes my space. I may become a cafe writer, as I used to be, or someone who writes on trains and buses.

There will be new journals, new gifts of notebooks at birthdays and Christmas. These will fill and be kept again, until the next cull. All that shredded paper, that’s the past. The future is ahead of me, with new notebooks to fill.

Walking, walking; writing, writing

On a cold Valentine’s evening, in a room above a pub where the old sash windows didn’t quite close, I heard Katherine Pierpoint and John Gallas read poetry. The week before, I went to the University of Kent to hear Katharine Norbury read from The Fish Ladder, her superb memoir, which was one of my favourite reads of 2015. What links all three, and got me thinking, is that travelling inspires their writing.

Katherine Pierpoint talked about winning a Somerset Maugham Award, which had to be spent on travelling, then read some poems, and recounted some tales, from her trips to India and Egypt. John Gallas – well, he just keeps moving, and the poems he read ranged from New Zealand to The Alphabet of Ugly Animals, which he wrote after seeing an exhibition at the Turner Contemporary, Margate. He has also worked on a book of translated poems from around the world, The Song Atlas, and read one from Tanzania.

Katharine Norbury walked and walked from the sea to the source of water. Will Self, he’s another one: walking, walking; writing, writing. And I wondered if there was something missing from my experiences, from my writing, because I haven’t been very far at all.

My writing came from enforced inactivity. It started a year into my illness, at a time where I hardly left the house. Journeys were short, and the I was only able to be away from the house for an hour or two. This is still the case, sixteen years on. I haven’t spent a night away from home in a year. I nearly did – to go away to a wedding – but I crashed the day before, and knew I couldn’t make the journey.

Yesterday, I went on a short trip alone. A ten minute walk to the station, a train ride of less than half an hour, and a wander round Rochester, where I used to live. It’s familiar, yet changing. The shops change ownership, a cafe where I used to write every Sunday morning has changed names twice since I moved away, and has knocked through to the next shop. Even the railway station has moved a few hundred yards from the old one, which stands strangely empty as we roll towards the new one, the waiting rooms and shelters levelled, just a sign saying ‘Do Not Alight Here’.

The wild orchards near Newington

I am not alone often when I go out, but felt the need to undertake this bold expedition by myself. I notice things more when I am not in company. The wild orchards that border the track between Newington and Rainham; the passenger waiting on the platform in a thick puffa jacket, glasses tinted black on a bitterly cold day; a little girl in the next toilet stall with her mum, telling on Leah, who had ‘pulled all the tissue out and just thrown it on the floor, and that was a waste of tissue, wasn’t in Nanna?’ Nanna was in the next stall along from her. The small child in the Oxfam shop, who declared she was going to ‘inspect stuff’: ‘Hmm, this a very comfy chair’. How different the Cathedral looks from the platform of the new station, the perspex and metal shelters on the opposite platform obscuring the view. How cold the fingers of my right hand, texting my husband to ask him to pick me up at the station on the way home.

At the weekend, I’d heard Guy Garvey on the radio, at the BBC 6 Music festival, talking about living in New York for a year, and how being away had fed his songwriting. Again, the importance of travel to an artist. I listened to Guy Garvey’s solo album on my iPod on the way back from Rochester. I’d heard it a few times at home, whilst on my computer, my phone, reading, talking to my husband. I hadn’t really heard it at all. On the train, it was just me and Guy and the music, and staring out of the train window.

Perhaps it’s being alone that creates the experience, and travelling doesn’t need to be that far. My orchard poems, on Wandering Words, and new ones being written, started when I felt bereft after finishing my story collection. I wrote about what I could see from the window of my writing shed, as a filler-in thing, till the next writing project found me. They became that project. Like the shops and cafes of Rochester, the orchards are changing, disappearing. Here is a new poem – or perhaps two, about the boats that are docked on the orchard that backs on to our garden.

Dry Dock

A catamaran

upturned on trestles

a milk jug draining

ii

And now there are three

hour     minute     second     hands

stilled round the dead tree

 

Photo by Stephen Palmer

On a car ride from Faversham to home, I was shocked to see that most of an old cherry orchard had been chopped down; the second such orchard that has disappeared in the last two years. Last summer, we bought cherries from a stall in that orchard. A young woman was selling them, her toddler in a playpen under a tree, and a babe in arms, just ten days old. We asked what kind of cherries we bought each time – Napoleon Biggereau, Sunburst, Merton Glory. We bought some on the very last day the stall was open, on my way to an event where I read my poem ‘Know your cherries’. I used them as a prop, then shared them with my granddaughter. She accepted them silently, seriously, while the other poets read. The juice dripped down her chin.

Bring your own tent? Why I’m taking a break from the literary world

Three months ago, overwhelmed by many things, I resolved to take a break from public readings. I had got into a habit of saying yes to every invitation to read, perform and organise literary events, and felt obliged to go along and support others in their artistic endeavours. I had become jaded with it all, and while some invitations to read were beautifully hosted, the last straw was when I was invited to read at an outdoor event. I had kept the date free, which was on a bank holiday weekend. Given my health problems, a ten to twenty minute spot in the afternoon meant that I had to keep the whole day free, resting before and afterwards.

A few days before, I checked with the person who had invited me to read – the organising committee had changed the time of the reading to much later in the afternoon, without telling me, and two reading spots had become one. He then said I could bring my tent along in the morning, set it up, and sit there all afternoon alongside my books. I made it clear that I had been invited to do this reading and expected tent, table, chair and PA system to be made available to me, and that I would only be there for the reading. I was grumpy throughout the afternoon, and though I did deliver a reading (alongside another grumpy poet who had been similarly treated), I didn’t enjoy it and wondered why I had turned up at all.

Filling up journals is the way to go

Filling up journals is the way to go

So I stopped readings altogether, and also held back on submitting my writing to magazines and e-zines. After winning the Tom-Gallon Trust Award in the summer, I hadn’t been able to place a thing. Rejection after humbling rejection arrived. The high of publication and awards is short-lived, and only leaves me craving more, so I reminded myself of why I began writing. As a way of dealing with a life-changing and devastating illness. So I have gone back to writing as nurturing, sharing my words mostly with my journal, only attending writing events that add to my own wellbeing.

I am learning to not feel guilty about declining or ignoring invitations to others’ literary events. Facebook is a demon for this – I find it easier to ignore a notification telling me I have 15 event invitations rather than to pick through them, responding with apologies and explanations.

After a while comes the temptation to start it all again – in fact, I have had new ideas for adding more into my literary and organising life. This is old stuff for me: over-commitment, getting excited by new projects without regard to the consequences to my health. I have to remind myself that the break from it all is doing me good, whilst not being an absolutist. I am the child of an alcoholic – we tend to have an all or nothing approach. I have made a small submission for publication this month, and shall wait to see if it is accepted. I have also agreed to review a new poetry book, which is something I do rarely, and I am looking forward to doing that.

Although I have enough material now for a second collection of poetry, I am holding back on planning publication, and working instead on a collaboration with an artist. We have no funding for this, nor any goals or end in mind; we are just exchanging work-in-progress by snail mail and seeing what happens.

If you are interested in writing and wellbeing and live in the Canterbury area, there are poetry workshops with Vicky Field and journalling sessions with Canterbury laureate John Siddique starting in January with Wise Words. Read their latest newsletter here. Many events are free.

Read my article: Low energy high creativity – discovering writing through chronic illness, originally published in Writing in Education, 62, Spring 2014.

Chin up – counting on things getting better

The school hall was wood-panelled, with one wall adorned with the names of past head girls, a list of gold-leafed lettering. There were high windows along one side, and a stage with a table and a high-backed chair where Miss Collins, the headmistress, sat during morning assembly. At one time, I knew how many wood panels lined each wall, how many windows and windowpanes there were in the hall. I knew because I counted them every day.

Counting was a way to keep me safe. There was a lot to be anxious about back then – not only homework, exams and the ups and downs of friendships, but also that I did not always feel safe at home. Counting was, and is, a bit like stepping on the cracks in the pavement. Terrible things might happen if I didn’t count or if I failed to step over the cracks.

Today is the first day of October. My first words were to the cat, who has developed a habit of pulling her water bowl into the middle of the kitchen floor, for me to kick or trip over as I walk through to the bathroom without turning the light on, so I don’t wake up too much, giving me a chance of getting back to sleep after the 5 o’clock wake up. I may have sworn. I neglected to leap out of bed saying, ‘White rabbits, white rabbits, white rabbits’, which would have protected me from anything bad happening this month. There is, however, still time for ‘Pinch, punch, first of the month,’ which might just cancel out the bad luck.

We all have rules, routines to keep us safe. Some of us take this to greater lengths than others. I’m not claiming to have OCD. I would not belittle those that are slaves to their compulsions. But sometimes my obsessions become too much to handle. At times of distress, the counting takes over. I add up the numbers on car registration plates, the digits in dates. If they add up to multiples of 5 they are good. 21 and 22 are also safe numbers. Today, 01/10/2015, is a safe day, a good day. I count the number of letters in newspaper headlines. I can calculate quite fast. During very bad times, I add up the number of letters in sentences I hear spoken, seeing the words in my head. My head can be a very busy place. It’s no wonder I have trouble sleeping, relaxing, with so much counting to do.

When I was very ill, with severe anxiety and depression, I was advised to use scheduling. This is a method whereby you plan what you will do in a day, even as simple as ‘have breakfast, shower, get dressed, clear breakfast dishes, listen to radio, try to step outside the front door.’ The last of these was because I was terrified of everything, including leaving the house and staying in the house. Scheduling imposed structure and rules that were more helpful than my personal rule of counting everything. If I did get to step outside, I would feel like I had achieved something. I was told that if I kept doing it, taking small steps, that eventually it would not be so hard, I could get back to doing some of the things that I used to enjoy. Support was a factor in this recovery. I used to think that I had to do everything myself, a belief built on having a shaky start in life, where I wasn’t kept safe or made to feel safe. I learnt that a few good friends were pleased to take me out for very short outings, to take me home again if I started to panic.

I have another good rule, one I invented myself. I call it internet-free Sunday. I’ve been practising it for the past three years, I think. I shut down my laptop by six o’clock on a Saturday (I also have a daily curfew on internet use – none in the evenings), and don’t open it again until Monday morning. It’s a break from mental overload, from always being available, from the temptation to check if there are any more Likes on my most recent witty Facebook status. It’s how Sundays used to be, only less boring.

I guess the point of this post is that rules can be tyrants or liberators. And that even the good rules are made to be broken. I once had a text from my son-in-law, suggesting that I might want to break internet-free Sunday to see a video of my granddaughter having her first taste of solid food. That was a good enough reason to break my internet fast early.

I’ve been counting a lot in the last couple of weeks. It’s one of those times when one bad thing after another has piled on. Sometimes bad things happen in spite of counting, in spite of it being a good date, numerically. I don’t feel in control of some of the things that are going on. The counting has not helped. Writing has. Writing has saved my life many, many times. My notebook is my friend. I can tell it anything – it does not judge, it doesn’t say I’m overreacting or being silly. It doesn’t tell me to pull myself together or to look on the bright side. As I fill the pages, I feel the tension leaving my body for a while. I feel ready to face the world.

I am sure that readers of this post will have advice for me – mindfulness, walking (yes, that does work for me), keeping my chin up. The chin up thing worked for me yesterday. I had been trying to regain control. Exhausted from lack of sleep, from feeling tense all the time, from the goddamned usual symptoms of chronic illness, I stepped outside into the garden and looked up. A buzzard was hovering overhead. I see buzzards from time to time in our area. I like to think it’s the same bird I see each time. It reminded me of the last time I saw it, just a couple of weeks ago. It was a beautifully warm September day, dragonflies were flitting over the vegetable patch, three sunflowers were nodding their yellow heads at the edge of the garden. My husband Bob had lifted up our granddaughter so that she could see the sunflowers close up. She was running around on the grass, wearing Bob’s sun hat. The day was already perfect, and then I saw the buzzard flying over the orchard that backs on to our garden. It made my heart soar. Seeing the buzzard again, yesterday, brought me back to that perfect day, reminded me that happiness is not so far away, even when things seem bleak, unresolvable.

For the love (and fear) of short stories

I love short stories. I fear them, too. As a reader, a good short story can stay in the memory for a lifetime. As a writer, one short story can have several lives: a publication in a print or online magazine; placed in an anthology; part of a single-author collection; a prizewinner. My story ‘More Katharine than Audrey’ has now achieved three of these, having won the Society of Authors Tom-Gallon Trust Award 2015.

The Society of Authors Awards Party was over a month ago, and it has taken me this long to process the experience. There was an email three weeks before, which swore me to secrecy until the awards evening. There was the choosing of something to wear. There was the feeling that there had been some kind of mistake, that someone else would be called up to receive the £1000 award. There was also my usual terror of big occasions. I told myself that I would escape as soon as seemed decent after the awards had all been given – £85,000 was being distributed for a variety of literary awards. There was also the fact that I had recently been at the point of giving up on writing short stories.

Blogging comes easily to me, as does other forms of non-fiction writing. Writing poetry is harder, but not as hard as the months and years it takes me to write a short story. As I write this post, I am avoiding going back to a story I have been working on since Christmas. I think I have come to the end of the first draft (I never know how a story might end when I begin it), but now comes the editing, the picking apart and discarding, rearranging the order of things, adding new sections. The truth is, I’m scared of it.

Here are a few popular misconceptions about short stories:

They are easy to knock off in an afternoon – after all, they are short.

Wrong – it takes a very long time for the writer to reduce a story to the fewest, best words. It’s like writing poetry in that respect. In fact poets write very good short stories for that reason. See poet Kate Clanchy’s excellent short story collection The Not-Dead and the Saved.

They appeal to people’s short attention spans; people can zip through a book of them in no time at all.

Wrong – stories require good attention from the reader, and they are like rich desserts: you take your time over them, and you wouldn’t want to consume several at one sitting.

Short story writers are failed novelists.

Wrong – short story writers have chosen a difficult form, perhaps one that is more difficult than novel-writing.

I could go on…

At the awards party, I spoke to several writers who have great respect for the short form. Ben MacIntyre, who was receiving the Elizabeth Longford Prize for his book about Kim Philby, A Spy Among Friends, said, ‘Ah, proper writing’ when I told him I had won a prize for a short story. In that room that evening, there were people who understood the devilish nature of the short form, who looked on me as a good writer for having mastered writing at least one good story.

Tom-Gallon Award winners - Maria with runner-up Caroline Price,

Tom-Gallon Award winners – Maria with runner-up Caroline Price,

After the awards had been handed out (remember that this was the moment I had planned to escape the scary big party), I got into conversation with Joanne Harris. We talked about the low regard for short stories among the bigger publishers, and how approaching literary agents as a short story writer means they don’t get beyond ‘short stories’ on the covering letter before reaching for the rejection slip. We talked about how a short story can stay with you for the whole of your life: we both loved reading Oscar Wilde’s fairytales as children, both sobbed at ‘The Nightingale and the Rose’. I told Joanne that I was trying to write a ghost story and I was scared to return it, that I might fail. ‘That means it’s good,’ she said.

The lights were being turned on and off in the room; it was time to leave. In fact I had stayed way beyond the official end of the party. ‘You do realise that’s THE Joanne Harris,’ Aamer Hussein, one of the judges of my prize, said to me. Yes, I’d been aware of that for the first minute or so, but then it was just two writers talking about what they do, what they love.

The Awards Party was a glittering evening, studded with big name writers, people I had been in awe of. The truth is that we all share the same thing – we have to return to sit alone in a room to put words on the page, and many of us are terrified by it. Even Philip Pullman told my friend and I that when he finishes a morning’s writing, he stops at the top of a page, so he won’t have to face a blank page the next time he comes to write.

Winning the Tom-Gallon Trust Award is a big thing. Some friends have said, ‘You’ll sell more books; maybe you’ll get an agent now.’ I am expecting neither. I’m a realist. I write short stories, for heaven’s sake, and I’m not interested in writing novels. The hard task of writing (and selling) short stories for very little return is my lot, my vocation. The £1000 prize is more than I have ever received for my writing; it’s a good thing to add to my writer’s biography. But it won’t sell more copies of As Long as it Takes and it doesn’t take away the love-hate relationship I have with writing short stories.

The winning story of the Tom-Gallon Trust Award 2015, ‘More Katharine than Audrey’, was first published on Writers’ Hub along with a blog piece on how I came to write the story: From Noreen to Norah: on writing More Katharine than Audrey. The story appears in my short story collection As Long as it Takes.

My love of short stories, and an awareness of the few opportunities that exist to publish them, led to the establishment of Cultured Llama Publishing, which publishes poetry, short stories and Curious Things (cultural non-fiction). Cultured Llama now boasts two winners of the Tom-Gallon Trust Award among its authors. Emma Timpany won the award in 2011 . Her debut short story collection The Lost of Syros has just been published by Cultured Llama.

I am judging the Save As Writers’ ‘Writing the City’ short story award this year. The closing date is 31 August 2015. More details here.

Here are a few champions of the short story: Short Stops; Thresholds; The Reading Life.

Orchards and the A2 – writing for Wandering Words

No entry - orchard in Teynham, by S Palmer

No entry – orchard in Teynham, by S Palmer

A couple of months ago, an email arrived in my inbox, asking if I would like to write something for a new website called Wandering Words. Wandering Words is an Ideas Test project, working in partnership with Rochester Literature Festival, to put the written word on the map in Swale & Medway.

One of twelve writers tasked with ‘site-specific writing’, my given subject was the A2, which I could respond to in any way I liked. The only provisos were that I should spend at least three days ‘on site’, should encourage the participation of the people of Medway and Swale, and I had about six weeks to complete the writing.

I live on the A2, on London Road, Teynham, and I had already been working on some poems about the orchards that surround us. I am fascinated that Richard Harrys, fruiterer to King Henry VIII, lived in Teynham, and established the ‘chief mother of all orchards in England’, in and around the village. Initial research revealed that the Faversham Fruit Belt, which Richard Harrys began, stretched from Rochester to Canterbury, following the route of the old Roman road. In fact the first cherry trees in England grew as the result of Roman legions spitting out cherry stones as they marched.

For several weeks in March and April I could be seen hanging around in orchards (wandering lonely as a cloud?) gathering material for writing, taking photos, waiting for the blessed blossom to come out (two and a half weeks late this year, I was told), and talking into a borrowed iPhone to make audio recordings.

I made a couple of trips up and down the A2 with a photographer friend, Stephen Palmer, looking for orchards – both commercial and old, abandoned ones. It was the latter that interested me most, our best find being a disused orchard near Newington, which people pass by every day without even seeing. I documented a favourite walk, starting and ending on the A2, going up Cellar Hill, taking public footpaths along by orchards and down Nouds Lane. It’s amazing what new things you can notice, even on familiar walks.

I interviewed several people – a cherry farmer who I met at a farmer’s market; Pam Talbot, who used to pick cherries with her family in the 1960s and ’70s; an older neighbour, about his life travelling up and down the A2 for work, his memories of the road, the countryside and his working life.

The result is a sequence of poems, some nature and journalistic writing, photos and audio interviews, which appear on the website www.wanderingwords.org.uk

Teynham to Sheppey as the crow flies, from the author's attic, by S Palmer

Teynham to Sheppey as the crow flies, from the author’s attic, by S Palmer

I wondered at the end of it all, whether I had written an elegy for a disappearing world. The old orchards are going, replaced with short rootstock. New cherry trees are even grown under polytunnels with irrigation systems at their roots. More efficient, less back-breaking to pick from, but what have we lost? To quote from my final piece, ‘Walking anti-clockwise’: “The sight of orchard ladders in tall trees dripping with fruit will disappear from the Kent countryside. The orchards that Pam Talbot picked from in the 1960s have already gone. ‘I remember,’ she told me, ‘right at the top, you could see the cathedral.’ A clear view from Faversham to Canterbury, seen from the top of a cherry tree.”

 

Here are a few words from the funders: ‘Wandering Words is developed, managed and funded by Ideas Test, working in partnership with Rochester Literature Festival. We hope to inspire others to put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard and share their work too. Blogs, poetry, journalism, graphic novels – all are welcome – we want to create a digital library of written reflections on the area.’ Contribute your own Wandering Words at www.wanderingwords.org.uk

 

 

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.

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