Making forays into fiction

I try to write every day. And while I gladly sit down most days to fill journal pages, dreaming up plans or composing love letters to landscapes I have known, fiction has been a genre that stumps me. Make it up as I go along? That’s where my writer’s block becomes a wall that becomes a barricade. I can’t make this stuff up.

So, I’ve been looking for ways into fiction. I’ve been playing around with short descriptions of scenes and I drafted a story earlier this spring. I had 5 requirements for myself:

  1. It had to be fiction.
  2. It had to be in third person.
  3. It had to have a plot.
  4. There couldn’t be mountains.
  5. There had to be some bad behaviour.

It was a good challenge. Once I got started – prodded into action by noticing a cat walking across frost on our garage roof – the writing became incredibly freeing. These people weren’t real, so they couldn’t come and tell me that I remembered it wrong, or missed the most important part, or didn’t portray them fairly. Or when they did, it was all in the relative privacy of my own head.  I felt a huge lift of responsibility in the creation of the story.  I could change details to become telling details instead of accurate ones. It’s a work in progress, but I’m glad to say it remains a fiction.

Pulling characters, emotions, and critical moments out of thin air is a mystery to me. How do we call characters into being and breathe life into them? How do we not only describe their outer appearances so our readers might recognize them, but also populate their inner worlds to give them the weight of existence? How do we convey that they want different things from the same encounter? How do we say just enough to provide the outlines of what we want to draw, leaving the rest to our readers’ imaginations? In an attempt to answer these questions, I came up with another avenue into fiction. I tried it out today on a willing group of guinea pigs, aka the Angles writing workshop.

I won’t go into too much detail of what we did, but here’s a peek at some of the materials we used.

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I played along with my own activity, I always try to. It was a good way to force me to draft something that met those 5 requirements I mentioned above. Not quite sure I managed a plot, but the seeds are there. The best part, though, was hearing the other participants’ pieces. This group is primarily fiction writers, so they were on familiar ground. It was exciting to see stories rising from the bones of the activity. I’m hoping I’ll get to find out what happens next, or what happened first, and where these starts will finish and how they will get there.

As for my own scribbles from today, I managed to break all the rules that I set, fall into all the traps I was hoping to get the writers to avoid. But at least I think I know what tripped me up on my way down! Awareness is, if not everything, a great place to start. I’ll refine and focus the activity for an upcoming Writing Circle. Maybe you’ll join me?

 

 

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Radio waves.

Friday afternoon, one week into May, a soft rain outside.   I can now see the blossoms on the pear tree that had been blocked from my view over the past few years by a sneaky tree that popped up and changed the landscape while I wasn’t looking. Does that ever happen to you? You look away for a moment, or a decade, and the landscape has changed without your awareness or consent.

I Feel Pretty from West Side Story is on the radio. I love the unpredictable stream of this radio station . In a world where we have days, even weeks, worth of songs on playlists, when we can filter the views we have of the world by our choice of social media, websites and newspapers, I choose serendipity.  Now I am listening to Al Martino sing I Have But One Heart. I have never heard of him or this song, but he is a crooner like Bing or Sinatra. Lovely to hear on a Friday afternoon.  He starts singing in Italian. My daughter comes in to show me an advert she has written for our cats, Pandora and Zelda.  We aren’t trying to sell them, she’s just gotten interested in writing adverts. The radio changes to an acoustic guitar and trumpet duo, AIRELLE BESSON ET NELSON VERAS. Wow. They might be my discovery of the week.

The news update is in French. Aside from studying the language in school many years ago, I don’t really speak French. But I like trying to figure out the odd news item from the bits and pieces I can remember. Maybe this is how I tend to view the world anyway – La vie en rose.

All this randomness is a way of opening doors to the unexpected. Of reminding me that there are always other songs, other languages, other everchanging landscapes to embrace, if not completely understand.

20150508_175103 (768x1024)Update, 9.00 pm – The Radio Gods must have been listening (or reading my blog).  Here’s what happened tonight: Sibelius Symphony no. 2 is a symphony that I love love love. It was one of the first symphonies I ever played in a full orchestra as a student and that experience is one of the reasons I love playing in orchestras. One of my friends arranged the last movement for a small ensemble of musician friends to play as the processional at our wedding.  Later, it was the first symphony I played when returning to orchestra after my first baby was born.

But I have a funny rule about that symphony – I cannot own a recording of it.  It has to find my ears by serendipity, by radio waves.  I never know when it’s going to be broadcast, but whenever I do happen to hear it on the radio it’s a good omen and I remember it.  I remember hearing it being broadcast through the sound system of a museum where I was looking at an Ansel Adams exhibition in Houston when I was at university.  It came across the radio waves the first weekend I was in Scotland when I lived in Edinburgh for a year.  After a really good catch-up with teaching friends about a year ago, I was heading home to pick up my kids and there it was, on the radio, accompanying me. 

I’ve long wanted to write about Sibelius Symphony no. 2.  And earlier today when I wrote about radio waves, it must have let the Radio Gods know it was time to send this glorious music my way once more.  Tonight, after picking up my son and his friends from Scouts, most unmistakably, coming through the radio speaker, my old friend: Sibelius Symphony no. 2.

The finale is playing as I type. It is a finale of triumph and sunshine.  I’ll stop typing now and listen. And I shall enjoy every gorgeous note until our next auspicious meeting.

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New landscapes, fresh eyes

20150307_140458

Duck pond at Emmanuel College, Cambridge

Beginning of the Easter holidays. In just under a week, family will be arriving to visit: my in-laws, both my brothers, nieces and nephew. We will be a group of eleven. My brothers and nieces and nephew have not visited us here in the UK. I wonder what Cambridge will look like through their eyes. We’ve been here long enough that I’m no longer sure what it is that I don’t notice anymore.

End of the Winter term. I’ve led three rounds of Writing Circles since starting them last September. I’m learning more each time. The view of how to shape this programme and spend my energies is becoming more clear. People have come to the circles from many walks of life: art, journalism, finance, healthcare, bodywork, social work, sciences. Perhaps what everyone shares is a desire to be heard and a willingness to listen. They bring perspectives that come from a richness of experience. In one sense, they are finding their voices as writers, yes, but in another, they have already found their voices as people. I think this is what I love most about the writing groups: I don’t know what each participant will bring to the table, but I do know that each will offer something unique. To me, the most exciting moments in teaching lie in the intersection of careful planning and openness for the unexpected.

What happens next? For April and May, I’m going to take a step back and get a different view on my Writing Circles. I’m starting to see how I might create circles for people at various points in their writing. A circle for those who are looking for places to start differs from one that supports writers on continuing projects. Once again, I’m happy to inhabit the realm of possibility. Ready to dream for a bit and see where it takes me. The next circles may be in June or September.

What else happens next? For April and May, I’m also going to take a step forward, and get a different view on my own writing. I’m wanting to try out more fiction, change my narrative stance (i.e. stop the first person), experiment and find more edges. I’m wanting to get a bit closer to the page and further from the product. Whilst planning and leading Writing Circles, my writing focuses on the content of the programme. My writing has a constant awareness of its purpose and audience. I think I want a bit of distance from that end of the process.  I’m wondering if stepping back from facilitating and stepping forward towards the empty page will offer new landscapes, new vistas.

Perhaps those fresh perspectives will be as eye-opening to me as this ancient city will seem to our visitors next week. I’ll let you know.

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Under the sleeping grass

under the sleeping grassIt’s been quiet in the forest this month.  For me, February is the stillest of months.  More than the winter solstice, February feels like the turning point of winter towards spring.  This transition is largely hidden, occuring below the surface of the cold earth.  Snowdrops and early bulbs indicate that the stasis is only apparent.  Underneath the layers of muck and decay, there is a bursting, an impatience for new growth.

I feel like that.  I have many plots to tend this spring.

My work with HeyMath! has restarted.  There was a period of about 9-months during which the project was at a lull and I focused more on my own writing and creating writing groups.  But now the project is entering a new phase and my trip to Chennai in January was to meet with the team to shape the next year’s work.  We planted so many seeds during my time in India, now we are nurturing them.  It is wonderfully rewarding to see something that we put so much heart and thought into over many years gaining momentum.  We expect our materials to be in classrooms very soon!

The Writing Circles have entered a third round, with faces both familiar and fresh. We are in a different location and the group has a different tone. I believe that the people who show up each round are the exact people who hold the next puzzle pieces in how this vision of mine will all fit together.   Right now, I’m immersed in the challenge of finding ways to use what I learned in the autumn Writing Circles to help develop and define the current experience.  I’m after some kind of mysterious, shifting middle ground between reinventing the wheel and sounding like a broken record. Instead of the heady, breathless excitement of just starting out, it feels more like the crafting and drafting of revision.  The writing process, the creative process, they are all iterative.

And on a personal level, I’m aware of  big events in the lives of my friends and family.  Some joyful, some difficult, some whose boons are unknown.  These stories may be mine to hold, but not to tell.  They are others’ stories, yet they fill my mind and heart and bring me to stillness, trying to make a space for understanding.

It all adds up to a lot of activity under the sleeping grass in one tree bohemia.

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A Chennai Photo Essay

I have been in Chennai for one week.  This is my second visit to India.  I came to Chennai in 2012 when I started working on a science education project with HeyMath! I wrote about working with HeyMath! here.  Happily, the project continues and  I’m back again for another two-week working trip as we begin the next phase.

Chennai is a city of contrasts.  Perhaps this is true of all cities.  Perhaps this is true of life; we live surrounded by contrasts.  Yet when a landscape becomes part of the everyday, its disparities can blur into the background.  By visiting somewhere new, the differences jump back into relief.  We look for ways to establish context, this and not that, here and not there, and in so doing, the differentiation defines our place in unfamiliar terrain.

I find myself not only noting polarities in Chennai itself, but also pondering the changes between this visit and my last one: who I was then and who I am now, how we approached the project then and what we understand now.  For all that I am taking in and all that is new, I don’t know what to tell you about my trip. There is so much to consider. I have so little to say.  It is too early for words.  Oddly, when I look back at my blog entries from my last visit, I find I was similarly tongue-tied at this half-way point.

So, in lieu of any more sentences, I offer you images of my week in Chennai.  I hope you enjoy discovering some of the contrasts yourself.

View from my window 1

View from my window 1

View from my window  - 2

View from my window – 2

Autorickshaw outside guest house

Autorickshaw outside guest house

Autorikshaw ride through Chennai

Autorikshaw ride through Chennai

Mylapore Market

Mylapore Market

Mylapore market

Mylapore market

Sea urchin at Marina Beach

Sea urchin at Marina Beach

Trees to think under

A good thinking tree

Nightlife - Tea Shop

Nightlife – Tea Shop

Marina Beach

Marina Beach

Textiles

Textiles

Street life

Street life

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Investments from rejections

More than a year ago, I wrote a post detailing how I paid myself £5 for every rejection I received. The thought was that I would eventually earn enough money to go on an Arvon writing week.   The spirit of the gesture was to recognise and reward the risk-taking that comes from offering something to the world, knowing that there is a good chance the world will say ‘no thank you.’ It was a way to celebrate the evolution from fluttery idea to written prose. This was my self-designed, self-improvement scheme.

How much did I earn? Well, every piece I sent out earned me £5. I had a nice little honey pot stashed away.

Was it enough to go to a writing retreat? I’ve never been all that good at saving things, and although my pieces were doing their best to add to the total, I became impatient. I wanted to find a writing community sooner. Wise Old Google led to a writing group in Cambridge called Angles writing group. I went to their website and scoured the pages, nodding approvingly at their rules for workshopping, nosing through the writers’ bios and sample works. Oh! I wanted to be a part of this! I sent the organiser an email and asked about joining.

‘Do you write? Do you lead a writing group or are you thinking of starting a writing group?’ She asked in her response where she graciously invited me to sit in at one meeting.

Starting a writing group. Sounded like a good idea. I had taught secondary English including some creative writing over a decade ago. I did have a very tentative plan in the works to lead a writing workshop one evening with a group of undergraduates.  ‘Yes, I am thinking of starting a writing group,’ I wrote back. Then I began to wonder, How am I going to do that?

The more I thought about it, the more I wanted to try creating a writing group. And during one of the daydreams, it occurred to me: Why not use my rejection money to make this a reality? I ended up pouring the money into creating my business, Writing Circles, offering 6-8 week programmes for small groups of writers to meet, write, revise, and grow.

This autumn we had the first few rounds of Writing Circles. I’ve written a little bit about our experiences here. As these programmes grow, I’m learning how to listen, how to respond, and how to provide structure and scaffolding that support a piece of writing until it is ready to stand on its own. I’m finding it absolutely fascinating.   I’m really glad I had those rejection-generated-start-up funds!

It turned out that Angles also had space for new members and I happily joined. Participating in a rigorous workshop with high standards has been invaluable. Given the range of experience and expertise among the members, I learn something new or appreciate something more deeply every meeting. When I told them about my £5 per rejection money-making scheme, they asked, ‘What will you do when you get something accepted? Will you pay yourself double? Or will you have to do penance? ’

‘I haven’t had that particular problem, yet,’ I replied.

I now have that problem. Today, I had my first piece accepted for publication in the Words and Women prose competition. The anthology, Words and Women: Two, will be published in March by Unthank Books.

There were 176 entries, 21 finalists, and an overall winner. That means there were 154 pieces of writing that didn’t get chosen this time. I’m used to being one of the 154. I’m sure I will be many times again. I’d guess that many of the finalists have had their fair share of rejections slips, too. It is a game of numbers and persistence.

Among the finalists were two others from my writing group. More than anything, I think this is a testament to the potential for growth when working in a good group. I know that my writing has benefitted enormously from having high quality feedback. It’s not always easy to take, but it is worth considering carefully. I’ve had to learn how to use feedback well. Other writers can see and hear things in your work that you can’t always perceive. I think we all suffer from creator’s myopia sometimes. Being in a group helps us to understand our words and meaning more clearly.

So, what will I do now that I have had a story accepted? I think I’ll add £10 to my stash and carry on writing, submitting work, and turning rejections (and maybe the occasional acceptance) into investments.

It helps to get different perspectives.

 I like to get different perspectives on my writing.

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What are you waiting for?

For the past few days I’ve been thinking about how to mark the transition from 2014 to 2015.  What do I see when I hold up 2014 for moment of reflection?  What do I imagine when I look at an empty calendar for 2015?  Why mark these thresholds? Isn’t New Year’s Eve just a day?  And isn’t New Year’s Day just the next day, in a series of days we put together into weeks, months, years, lives?  Why stop to ring in the changes?

Stopping.  Pausing.  Looking forward and back.  You can’t know where you are if you don’t stop moving.  So, I slow down to see where I am.  Maybe this explains the urge to mark the end of one year and the opening the next.

2014 was such a full year.  I spent some time on 31 December writing a few sentences about each month, tracing highlights and turning points. It was a year that included trips to Paris and Portugal with my family, seeing one of my dearest friends in Amsterdam, playing music by composers whose mere names used to scare me into claiming complete ignorance of any musical ability, playing my cello by the river, and writing.  A lot of writing: joining an established writing group, leading writing workshops with undergraduates, conducting a writing workshop exploring empathy and creativity in London, and starting my Writing Circles business where I worked with small groups of writers over several weeks exploring ideas, process and craft.

So much happened.  So much was begun, not only in me, but also in my friends.  I witnessed friends ending and starting careers, welcoming new additions to their families, saying goodbye to loved ones, moving back home after being away for many years, moving away from the familiar in search of new homes.  Everywhere around me this year, I seemed to be surrounded by people daring to become themselves.  Shaking off skins that no longer fit, closing books whose stories had ended, leaving behind snail shells grown too small.

What was it that made 2014 so special?  What was the catalyst to so much movement, so much growth?  After musing on this for some time, I came to the idea that 2014 was the year I stopped waiting.  I stopped waiting for permission, waiting to be asked, waiting for the right moment, waiting until I knew enough facts or had enough experience.  I stopped stalling, stopped thinking that ‘if I just do X and Y first, then I’ll be ready for Z.’ Instead, I jumped straight to Z and beyond.

And you know what I found?  I didn’t need permission or invitations to try out a new idea.  There is never a perfect time to launch a program or submit a story or start a difficult conversation, so there’s no point in waiting for it to arrive.  And you can’t get experience by studying really hard behind closed doors or hanging around on the edges but never venturing centre stage.    There’s just jumping, leaping, eyes open or closed, and seeing what happens.

What happens when we take off? Maybe nets appear below, maybe we grow wings, maybe we fall and break.  Maybe what happens is a mixture; some parts of us learn to fly and others sink.  Whatever happens, we don’t remain whole, but we might become more complete.

So at the end of the year we pause,yes, and look at all that has passed. As I look over my shoulder at 2014, I want to reach back and take one thing forward into 2015: a spirit of jumping, of daring. But I choose not to linger for too long and wait for any guarantees.  If you know exactly where you are, then you probably aren’t going anywhere at all.

What are you taking forward? What are you waiting for?

After all my thinking and scribbling about the new year, what finally spurred me on to actually writing this post was this article by Peggy Doyle, over at What Now, What Next?  If you read it, you might find yourself writing, too!

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