Hello and Welcome to Write to Done Readers!

I’m excited to say that my post

How to Use Freewriting to Supercharge Your Work

is up at WRITE TO DONE, a great website that really does have  “unmissable articles about writing”!

I’d like to thank Laura, the editor, for having me as a guest blogger, and to welcome Write to Done readers to my website.

While you’re here do have a look at my mission statement, and a couple of my best posts such as Publish or Perish and Six Uses for Freewriting.

And don’t forget to sign up to receive a free prompt every Friday to begin your freewriting journey.  The box is on every page, at the top right hand side.  I’ll send you a short prompt direct to your inbox every week to kick-start a ten-minute freewriting session.

Enjoy!

 

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Freewriting: Back to Basics

Every Saturday morning, in a side-room of the wonderful Kyffin Café Deli in Bangor, North Wales, I now have the pleasure of introducing people to the practice of freewriting.

This is because I am running a course there, based on freewriting, called Spontaneous Creative Writing and eighteen people have signed up for it.

Going back to basics (as long as they are not Victorian values!) is very good for me and, I hope, for my keen students, so I am going to share some of those basic principles here as well.

 What is Freewriting?

  • Freewriting is continuous writing usually done by hand. (“Continuous” means not stopping, even for a moment, so if you have to resort to “I don’t know what to write” then that’s fine: just don’t stop writing!)
  • Freewriting is exempt from value judgements and grammatical rules and does not even need to make perfect sense.
  • Freewriting is timed. Ten minutes is a typical time period.

Why Do It?

Freewriting is a pre-writing technique, i.e. it is designed to generate material that can later be edited to create finished writing such as fiction, poetry, memoir or travelogue.

Alternatively it can simply be used as a practice to enhance creativity.

It works for beginners who can use it to dive into creative writing for the first time, and it also suits more experienced writers who want to revivify their practice or refresh themselves creatively after a long project.

You Don’t Share Freewriting

Importantly, freewriting is usually private writing.  This is because we are inclined to be inhibited by the fear of criticism or the need to conform if we write with the expectation of sharing it.  The fact that freewriting is not normally shown to others and does not need to be “good” is crucial.

It’s About “Voice”

Good style in writing comes from (at least) two things: first it comes from harnessing an individual ‘voice’ and secondly from doing hard work on rewriting, editing and polishing.

Harnessing that individual voice is one of the things freewriting can be used for, because the temporary suspension of every requirement of quality, logic, neatness and coherence means that freewriting is an opportunity to speak to yourself on paper.

If in freewriting you can replicate the personality, accent, vocabulary, tone, level of informality, sentence structure, force and intonation that characterise your speaking voice, it’s then possible to “carry that verbal energy over into a carefully structured and revised piece” (as Peter Elbow says in Writing with Power).

Why write continuously? 

Trying to edit and improve writing at the same time as doing it is very difficult.  As Peter Elbow explains in Writing with Power:

Writing calls on two skills that are so different that they usually conflict with each other: creating and criticizing…Most of the time it helps to separate the creating and criticizing processes so that they don’t interfere with each other: first write freely and uncritically so that you can generate as many words and ideas as possible without worrying whether they are good: and then turn around and adopt a critical frame of mind and thoroughly revise what you have written — taking what’s good and discarding what isn’t and shaping what’s left to make it strong.

In other words the best method is to first access the material, and then to work on the material.

Pen or Keyboard?

Writing continuously, even for a few minutes, is a skill that takes practice to acquire and, by and large, my students are doing well with it.

The debate about whether to write by hand or use a computer keyboard was definitively settled in favour of handwriting in both of my groups.  We also talked about handwriting as a visual art-form, and how the personality of the writer comes through in a way that’s impossible with typewritten words.

Natalie Goldberg is very much in agreement with handwriting as the ideal method for freewriting (which she calls “writing practice”).  She argues that, since handwriting is the way we all first learn to write, it has a deeper connection with the emotions:  “hand connected to arm, to shoulder, to heart” she writes, in The True Secret of Writing.

Don’t Judge!

But perhaps even more challenging than writing continuously is the aim of letting go of value judgements on what you are writing.  To help with this, it’s best not to read back even the last sentence or line that you have written while you are doing freewriting.

Then, after finishing the freewrite, leave it for a few days or even weeks before reading it back; that way you will have more detachment.

If you read it back immediately it’s hard to get a clear view because sometimes a freewrite will please you (it will be exciting and full of proof, it seems, of your excellence and genius) and sometimes it will be truly awful.

In fact the brilliance often turns out to have been a mirage if you read it back some days or weeks afterwards.  Conversely, freewriting that you were disgusted by when you had just finished it can turn out, after some time later, to have had some real jewels in it.

No Such Thing As Bad Freewriting (unless you stop)

As I’m always telling my students, there is no such thing as good or bad freewriting: if you wrote continuously for the time set without stopping to think, edit or judge, then you freewrote correctly.

It is good training in humility and in ‘getting out of the way’ of your own writing.

It also means you need never again suffer from writer’s block.

Freewriting for Pleasure

Over the coming weeks my students will be playing writing games, doing timed freewrites from different prompts, and experimenting with using parts of their freewriting to construct pieces of work that can then be edited, polished and, finally, performed.

My hope is that they will find pleasure and reward in the writing process itself.  And so far, it seems to be working.  When I taught at Bangor University’s School of Lifelong Learning another lecturer once said that she could tell which class was mine by the gales of laughter coming from the classroom and Jo Pott, owner of Kyffin Café, recently remarked on the same thing happening during the writing sessions in the café.

In the current climate of anxiety and constraint in universities and, to be honest, in the country as a whole, I am enormously proud to have created a space where enjoyment and creativity can flourish.

And I predict that there’ll be some great new writing coming out of it too.

I’d like to thank Jo and the staff at Kyffin Cafe for making us feel so welcome.

And don’t forget that, even if you can’t make it to one of my courses in Bangor, you can still write along with us by subscribing to the weekly freewriting prompts (see the box at the top of the page, on the right).

To learn more about how to do freewriting have a look at “How to Freewrite” here.

 

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Rock Stars of Freewriting

As I wander around in cyberspace, dropping in on websites and blogs about creative writing, I often see freewriting recommended as a sort of emergency treatment for writers who are stuck, stale or blocked.  I absolutely agree that freewriting is very effective for blasting through apathy, doubt and pedestrian thinking, but my approach, like the two superstars I want to talk about here, puts freewriting at the very centre of the writing life.  For Peter Elbow and Natalie Goldberg, freewriting is not a sticking plaster or a last-resort stiff whisky, it’s the place where creativity lives or the food and drink that keeps it alive.

Peter Elbow and Natalie Goldberg, however, have very different personalities.

Peter Elbow is the David Bowie of freewriting: always ploughing his own furrow, and continually willing to embark on a new path to achieve a creative breakthrough.  He is erudite and likeably modest in character.  Being an academic more than a creative writer, he has a cerebral, carefully constructed style that is all his own.  His long and contradictory, self-authored, route to being one of the best-known teachers of writing is like the series of invented personas that Bowie has inhabited from Ziggy Stardust to the Thin White Duke.

Natalie Goldberg, on the other hand, is the Jimi Hendrix of creative writing.  She bases her teaching on hours of practice but her style is bold and free, and she encourages her students to travel with her on psychedelic journeys to the eye of the storm.  Her roots are similar to Hendrix’s alternative 1960s scene, but her drugs are meditation and the teachings of Zen Buddhism.  Both Goldberg and Hendrix are rule-breakers, and Goldberg’s book about inappropriate sexual relationships within certain Zen communities resembles Hendrix’s transgressive and unforgettable gesture of setting fire to his guitar at the Monterey festival in 1967.

Along with these different personalities come different philosophies and uses for freewriting.

Peter Elbow advises regular freewriting as a way to get fluency, unselfconsciousness and, most importantly, to get words on paper, which is the first job of the writer but sometimes the hardest one of all.  In Writing Without Teachers he says that “freewriting makes writing easier by helping you with the root psychological or existential difficulty in writing: finding words in your head and putting them down on a blank piece of paper”.  He also calls it “push-ups in withholding judgement” meaning that by freewriting we can learn to suspend the critical, revising, faculty while giving free rein to creativity.

But in the end, and despite his extensive studying and thinking about the subject, Elbow has to admit that the process by which freewriting leads to powerful writing is mysterious.  Freewriting exercises don’t produce powerful writing every time, he explains, but doing freewriting regularly awakens the ability to write powerfully.  In other words, “freewriting gradually puts a deeper resonance or voice into your writing”.

For Natalie Goldberg, writing is a spiritual practice and publishable novels, poetry or memoir are not as important as the core message of waking up to your life and as she puts it “writing down the bones” meaning (I think) to witness and record the specific, transient details of your individual experiences but in such as way that you put the ego aside and contact higher energy or truth.  Nabokov’s command to writers to “caress the divine details” fits perfectly with Goldberg’s philosophy.  She also brings the disciplined approach of meditation to writing and to write with no self-criticism and with complete focus on the moment is for her a spiritual practice.  Hence she calls freewriting “writing practice” (versus the sitting practice of Zen).

Unlike Elbow, who is chiefly concerned with using freewriting to produce good, publishable writing, Goldberg sees the bigger picture and her aim is nothing less than enlightenment.  At the same time, however, she values literature very highly, recommends learning from the best writers and is keen to see her students succeed as authors.  Writing practice, which is done by keeping the hand moving, not worrying about spelling, punctuation or grammar, losing control and avoiding getting logical is, she says, a way to “burn through to first thoughts, to the place where energy is unobstructed by social politeness or the internal censor, to the place where you are writing what your mind actually sees and feels, not what it thinks it should see and feel” (Writing Down the Bones).  And these “first thoughts” are the source for strong, original writing.

There are more similarities than differences between these two rock stars of freewriting.  Both emphasise the need to keep reducing expectation until the writer finds a level where it is possible to proceed with unselfconsciousness and freedom from negative thoughts.  Both recommend discipline and structured practice which is timed and often themed.  And neither can entirely explain why the simple, apparently pointless activity of writing down a stream of nonsense on a page for ten minutes every day or so can help all kinds of people improve the quality of their writing and lives.

If you are a fan of consummate professionalism and a highly visible persona, then Peter Elbow (and maybe David Bowie) is the one for you.  If you are on a spiritual quest and you are willing to risk a complete personal transformation, then head towards Natalie Goldberg, and maybe give Voodoo Child a try too!

I’m not any kind of rock star (although someone was kind enough to say I had ‘presence’ when Hopewell Ink performed at the launch of our new CD last week), but I have a firm belief in the benefits of freewriting and several reasons to commit to carrying on with it.  As I’ve mentioned, freewriting is my laboratory and has produced the experimental compounds that have formed the basis of novels, poems and essays, as well as everything from life-changing decisions to choosing which outfits to wear in the evening.  Freewriting gives me writing topics, characters for fiction, images and metaphors, as well as confidence and stability as a person.

In preparation for writing this post, I looked through one of my freewriting notebooks and tried to find examples of how freewriting had been directly useful to me.  Instead of something that could form the basis of a philosophy like that of Elbow’s or Goldberg’s, I found some details that I had recorded about my mother, who died thirty years ago.  These memories, which I might well have lost had I not scrawled them down a few years ago in the middle of a piece about something else, found their way onto the page because I was freewriting.  To my joy, my mother came alive again for a moment, in my mind’s eye.  And I can’t imagine any better reason to practice freewriting than that.

 

Picture credits (creative commons via Wikipedia, with no alterations made): Bowie as Ziggy = Rik Walton; Bowie as the Thin White Duke = AVRO; Hendrix on Dutch TV = A. Vente; Hendrix in 1968 = Steve Banks.

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Happy Endings and the other kind

This post is about stories in films and books, and in life.

The stories we consume are very often structured in an artificial way, but we’ve become so used to the shape of stories in Hollywood films such as rom-coms and the superhero franchises that sometimes it’s possible to forget that life just isn’t like that at all.  And then, if we are writers, we run the risk of creating stories that lazily and slavishly follow the conventions rather than attempting to describe life as we experience it.

A formulaic, predictable story might be fine, of course, if that’s what we want to enjoy or create.  Recently, being laid up in bed with a leg injury followed by flu (it wasn’t the best Christmas break I can remember), I craved narratives that were simple, familiar and most importantly had happy endings.  As someone with a doctorate in literature, I am not ashamed to confess that I reached for some comfort reading in the form of Katie Fforde’s romantic novels which are light as air (but very well-written).  The predictability of the stories was precisely why I chose them.

There are countless textbooks and articles about the classic plot, whether as three- or five-act, or as Freytag’s pyramid.  Mainstream Hollywood has adopted Joseph Campbell’s work on mythological structure in stories (“The Hero with a Thousand Faces”) via Christopher Vogler’s screenwriting guide “The Writer’s Journey”.  Here you can find a blueprint for a story from “the call to adventure” right through to “return with the elixir”.  Along the way is the meeting with a mentor, the gaining of allies and enemies, and the ordeal.  If you watch an action movie with Vogler’s list to hand, you can virtually tick off the twelve stages of the hero’s journey one by one.

I am by no means belittling this approach to storytelling.  The shape is deeply engrained from childhood fairy tales onwards and we are conditioned to enjoy it.  I used it to help structure my first novel and there are plenty of times (without the excuse of being ill) when I crave that safe, familiar narrative with its upbeat, emphatic ending.

I recently saw the 80s film “Working Girl” again in which Melanie Griffiths as Tess McGill gets, not just Harrison Ford, but also the job of her dreams (and I tried not to be distracted by the way in which this “feminist” film appears to blame the character played by Sigourney Weaver for most of Tess’s problems in the workplace).  “Working Girl”, like another guilty pleasure of mine, “While You Were Sleeping” with Sandra Bullock, is pure narrative reward from start to finish and I would not be without either of them.  It made me feel a little better when I heard that Mark Kermode, the respected movie critic, confess to having seen “Splash” more than 100 times, for pleasure!

These popular films (and books) are sugary treats and harmless in moderation, they have value as entertainment and can occasionally make a good point or even bring about progressive social change.  But Virginia Woolf’s question hovers in the air: “is life like this?”  Most days and lifetimes are ordinary and shapeless.  And when dramatic events do occur we rarely experience them as in the action movies with their defined beginning, middle, and end (otherwise known as the “linear” plot).  Woolf made her name by searching for a more realistic style of writing than the “realism” of her day and in re-inventing fiction, gave us insights into human thought, perception and feeling that were not possible before.  I would not necessarily read Woolf when in bed with the flu (although she wrote a wonderful essay about being ill) but I do read her for pleasure: the pleasure of a different kind of narrative reward.

By pure chance, I recently encountered a film which, like Woolf’s stories and novels, throws away the hero’s journey and the linear plot.  And I enjoyed it!  It’s a French film called (in English) “Céline and Julie Go Boating”, from 1974.  Unlike the Hollywood formula, this film has no familiar structure but works on repetition and improvisation, and it feels like a dream with surrealistic doubles and unclear chronology.  But it’s funny, and enjoyable, and it really did draw me in so that I wanted to know what would happen in the end while accepting that I might not be given a resolution or a happy ending (in fact there IS a happy ending: a little girl is saved from being murdered, albeit in a parallel reality).

I am no fan of avant-garde, pretentious films which deliberately frustrate the viewer and if a filmmaker forces me to stare at one shot for too long, repeatedly, I get uncomfortable and itchy (or I fall asleep, which is why I’ve never seen all of “2001 A Space Odyssey”).  “Céline and Julie Go Boating” is not like this at all.  In common with the best surrealist art and writing, there is an irrepressible liveliness to it and an engagement with the absurdities of life, plus a readiness to embrace emotion or even sentimentality.  Events in the film were placed side by side in dream logic and without full explanation but watching it was absolutely gripping.  One long sequence, set in a sort of magical other place, was replayed piece by piece in different ways.  The repetition was far from boring, however, and became as addictive as the magic sweets that the characters themselves had to eat to get to this other reality!

When surrealist techniques of illogical juxtaposition, humour and affectionate nonsense all come together, the rewards of the conventional plot are mostly lost but something more rare and profound takes their place.  A new way of seeing life is created that can expand our understanding and awareness of our own lives.

This is why I favour the unplanned, associative method of beginning a writing project with freewriting rather than using a planned, pre-defined structure.  The mind understands the structure of a beginning, middle and end, but it doesn’t work like that on its own as you’ll have discovered if you’ve ever tried to meditate.  Instead, thoughts and ideas come cascading haphazardly with no obvious connections.  In the same way, our lives are not stories with heroic or happy endings, following quests with defined stages.  Instead we live a series of repetitions (sleep, wake, dress, eat…).

Nothing in life is as predictable as a Hollywood movie and, while they can entertain and console, I think it is better to welcome in the chaos of reality, at least to some extent, as we sit down to watch, read or write the stories of our lives.

 

Don’t forget to check out my free weekly e-mails in which I send a ten-minute freewriting exercise direct to your inbox every Friday.  The first few are gathered here (under “Weekly Freewriting Exercises”) so have a look if you would like to see some examples.  You can sign up by putting your e-mail address in the box at the top of the page.

Posted in Surrealism, writing inspiration | Leave a comment

Writers! Resolve to be BAD in 2019!

This New Year, instead of making all the usual resolutions to eat less and exercise more, why not resolve to be bad and have fun writing instead?  Writing need not be serious, and the things we do for pleasure are ones we do the most (box sets, anyone?)

There’s no need to treat writing as work or as something you have to give up fun things in order to do.  Writing can be playful, easy, colourful, absorbing and amusing if you set up a space for freewriting.

Here is mine: a battered desk at home with all my freewriting prompts and tools laid out for you to see.

In my very first post I talked about how I love the actual materials of writing and I hope by sharing my own freewriting equipment that you too will fall in love with this most enchanting and rewarding game.  (I’m also hoping that, like me, you love snooping into writer’s homes, desks and notebooks.)

The Place

First of all you’ll see that my freewriting playground is full of things to awaken the senses.  I can smell the dried rose petals from the garden (far right) and the recently-drunk cup of real coffee with full-fat cream.  For those times when I need to mop up extraneous thought by having something to half-listen to, there are speakers to play Beethoven, Elbow or Belle and Sebastian according to mood.  Finally, you can’t see this but in the tin on the left, which is where I keep all the prompts currently laid out on show, there are some gritty crystals of brown sugar left over from visits to our local cafe where (confession time!) I filch extra cubes of sugar when I go there to drink coffee and write.  I’ve run out of sugar lumps at the moment, so it must be time to do a session “out” and replenish my stock (yes, I know I could buy them but that’s not the point!)

All in all, this writing station expresses the opposite of writerly privation and monastic devotion.  I love Eva Deverell’s pristine white desk and perfect stationery but it just isn’t me.  My desk has been through some tough handling in the past and the leather top is actually ripped open.  This occurred when it was moved, wrapped inadequately in a blanket and some string, from my childhood home in Surrey.  At first the damage pained me but I’ve come to love the way that this scruffy old warhorse puts me in exactly the right state of mind to make plenty of mistakes and never be precious about my writing.  The lamp is also from childhood and the way in which my younger self has coloured in the design on the base with biro is also very freeing to look at!  So there’s no need to spend a load of money on a perfect new writing station: old or “ruined” objects can be just as good if not better to induce a productive state of writerly mind!

Prompts

Let me explain the actual writing prompts now.  These are all normally stored in the tin and drawn at random.  In the centre are my yellow “Morley Strips” taken from the short story collections by Michele Roberts, Helen Simpson and Alice Munro that I’ve been reading recently (see here on how to make and use Morley Strips).  At 12 o’clock are my short story cards.  Each set is for a story that I’m working on and they are all part of a sequence based very roughly on aspects of my own life so the cards are memories I need to write about in the fullest and free-est way possible.  Next to the Reporter’s Notebook, which contains freewriting from 2005 with suggestive phrases underlined, is a set of 20 slips.  On each is a specific turning point in my life and I created them according to Julia Cameron’s instructions in The Artist’s Way where she calls them “Cups” because it’s as though you have dipped a cup into the river of your life and kept a small, important moment at intervals along the way.  I don’t often use these prompts but when I do I return to them with a different perspective (and different memories) each time.

The red envelope is for ideas for novels.  I’m between novels at the moment and occasionally I’ll see if any of the two or three idea-seeds are beginning to sprout.  I believe most of the work of creative preparation goes on below the conscious mind so I just need to do a page of freewriting now and again to make sure that the process is continuing.  When the time is right, I’ll re-read these freewrites (coded “N” for easy retrieval) and decide which one to follow up.

The index cards in different colours are “germs”: ideas at a very early stage of development for Hopewell Ink (spoken word) pieces, stories and even blog posts, and I draw these at random too, using the colour-coding as a guide.

In the tin are some quotes taken from a book on quarry blasting dating from 1961 that I found at a booksale in Powis Castle this year.  It was a great find!

The quote you can see is “Cartridges must be inserted into the holes carefully.  Gentle pressure on the rammer may be used but on no account use violence”.  Taking these quotes abstractly or tangentially I find them very suggestive emotionally and narratively and I think they might even work as sub-headings for a short story eventually.  Why not try a 10-minute freewrite on that quote and see where it takes you?  Or better still, find a practical manual of some kind (I have an excellent 1970s one on woodworking) and make some slips of your own to draw at random and freewrite from.

Lastly, the postcards are from Tate Liverpool or Manchester Art Gallery and the ones you can see are all of people (I have another collection of landscapes in a second paper bag underneath).  These are great as prompts for in class and for my own freewriting but do need changing regularly so visits to art galleries are necessary (a great excuse, if one is needed).  If you can’t get to a gallery to buy postcards, a random search on Google images might work just as well, but do beware the web: sometimes I think it’s called that because you can get caught in it and only escape hours later having done none of the things you intended.  The joy of a tin of prompts is that you can exclude the rest of the world for a time: think of it as another realm or plane that you dive into, like Mary Poppins and the chalk drawings on the pavement.

Tools

The notebook you see is a gorgeous, extra-large, soft-cover, Moleskine and lying on it is my favourite fountain pen, a Cleo Skribent (this pen never leaves my desk, it is so precious).  For freewriting, you can sometimes do well with scraps and bits of paper and a cracked old Bic but I love notebooks and ink pens and part of the pleasure of writing for me is to use the most luxurious I can get hold of.

The other vital bit of kit is a timer.  When you are doing a timed freewrite, it’s no good at all to be continually checking the time so something like this egg timer is perfect (and nice to handle).  Alternatively you could use a phone, as long as you make sure the sound and alerts are off, or an alarm clock.  The other option is to just decide on a pre-set number of pages and stop when you have filled them.

Try It!

I hope I’ve inspired you to make some writing prompts of your own and set up a genuinely comfortable writing station with tools you’ll want to use.  But all you really need, of course, is a flat surface, something to write on and write with, and a way of setting a limit on the time.  I’ve heard that it’s possible to freewrite on a computer but don’t advise it: for me, the screen is for typing up drafts and doing the editing (then doing more editing) and for the times when I am in contact with the rest of the world.

Your freewriting station with all the toys I’ve described is where you can be free of all judgement and ambition, all measurement and stress.  Just like a kid in the sandpit you can make things and knock them down again just as the fancy takes you.  And every time you make a mistake you’ll learn more.  The absorbed, relaxed, and joyful state of a child at play is what I seek and very often find here at my desk.  I really hope you will create something similar, in your own style and for your own purposes, that gives you the same happiness and opportunity to be creative in this coming year.

If you would like to explore freewriting with me, and live in the North Wales area of the UK, please see the details about my new course “Spontaneous Creative Writing” here.  I hope to develop some online courses as well later in 2019.

Posted in freewriting, writing inspiration | 2 Comments

Hopewell Ink – an exclusive preview

I am a huge fan of Austin Kleon. His advice to artists is to “show your work” or, in other words, to share the creative process in order to invite input, garner interest and de-mystify the labour involved.

In this spirit I thought I would share some writing with you which is still in development.  It’s destined as a new piece for my spoken word band Hopewell Ink and although I’m fairly happy with the words as I’ve written them, collaboration with my musical partner could lead to changes.  For instance, it’s not unknown for me to redraft after, or even during, the sessions in which he devises the sounds or music to go with the words: it’s a two-way street where his sounds make me re-think my words at the same time as my words are suggesting sounds to him.  We rarely disagree…

The new piece is called “Gentle Men”.  Rather amazingly, it originated in an idea I had over 13 years ago and is listed in a notebook as a “genre-indeterminate idea” meaning I didn’t know if it might turn into a poem, story or even, I suppose, a novel.  Hopewell Ink was a long way in the future then.

The direct source was a song by John Martyn called “Don’t You Go”  a hauntingly beautiful lament about the perennial sacrifice of young men by warmongers, and the words are an appeal to resist the call to arms.  (You can read the lyrics here.)  Loving John Martyn’s music as I did (and do), I was moved by the song and made these (freeewritten) notes:

This languished in my notebook until 2013 when I exhorted myself to have “another go”:

In the second note, I’m focusing on the young male singers themselves, after seeing this video on Youtube of Tim Buckely singing “Song to the Siren”.  Again, however, the “germ” didn’t grow into anything.

But the last few years of the #MeToo movement have put ideas about masculinity into new contexts.

Feminists such as myself have spent years analysing and protesting against the ways that society sets out what should be rewarded in women (e.g. attractiveness, docility, selflessness).  There has never been a shortage of descriptions of the ideal woman by men (in art, advertising, or government policy, for instance), but women rarely spell out what they want men to be like.  Culturally, the image of the superhero is maybe the closest to a shared male ideal, but that isn’t much practical help to anyone.

Some men, such as Robert Webb (see a clip from an interview here), have been trying to de- and re-construct the idea of masculinity and I think women should join in the debate.   Female views should in theory be welcomed because some men nowadays seem to be genuinely confused over issues of consent, and basic good manners.

It’s all made me want to identify and explain clearly what I think is admirable in men, so I went back to my notebook entries and finally wrote something based on those old fragments.  Nervous about sharing my views on masculinity in public, I tried it out first on the men in my life…and they liked it!

Here it is, then:  “Gentle Men” which will be coming to a Hopewell Ink gig or CD soon, in some form or other!  Let me know if you like it, or have some suggestions for improvement.

I’d also be interested to hear your views on masculinity today, whatever your gender: what, for you, is a gentle man? Or do you have a different ideal of masculinity altogether?  Do you agree with Robert Webb that masculinity has no meaning or relevance in modern society?

Finally, why not make these questions the basis of a freewrite using the prompt “what is a gentle man?” or “which men have I admired and why?” Choose one and write without stopping for 10 minutes, putting down exactly what you find in your head without editing or censorship.  Alternatively you could try freewriting on the more direct question “what is a good man?” in order to blast through your defences and give you a truthful result.  Who knows, it might even lead on to a story or a poem.  Good luck!

 

 

UPDATE: we released the album LURID on January 13th 2019 and “Gentle Men” is the last track.

You can listen for free, or pay to download it, here.

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The Art of Making People: characters in historical fiction

If a historical novel is defined as one in which events from history are presented as they actually happened, then my unpublished novel Swimming with Tigers doesn’t qualify as one. The alterations I have made to the facts about the artists who took part in the Surrealist movement would make a historian weep!

Sometimes I’m afraid I’ll forget what I have invented, and what is based on fact.  For instance, I am 99% sure I invented the Surrealist object of a bathing cap covered with snail shells but I suppose it’s always possible that I read about it.  This is where research notes are crucial so that, if necessary, I can trace back the process of writing.  Luckily I am an obsessive note-taker and writer of journals.

All historical fiction is a mixture of the true and the invented.  Some novels take important or well-known historical figures and give us their imagined interior life (for example Joyce Carol Oates’ novel about Marilyn Monroe, Blonde or Michael Cunningham’s wonderful impersonation of Virginia Woolf in The Hours).  Some authors, on the other hand, opt for the creation of characters with no specific model but who could have been close enough to observe a major historical figure and they make these ‘witness’ figures the main focus of the story (as did Jeanette Winterson with Napoleon’s cook in The Passion).

In Swimming with Tigers I have used the perhaps less common method of mixing several historical people together to create a single fictional character.  My novel could also be called alternate history (such as Robert Harris’s Fatherland in which Germany won the Second World War) because one of my characters is based on a woman who died in the 1940s but I explore the possibility of her living on into the 1970s.

There are plenty of lively debates about the rights and wrongs of using ‘real’ people in works of fiction and of course there are laws against defamation.  Fortunately, it’s impossible to defame the dead, and I must confess I was secretly relieved when Leonora Carrington finally passed away at the age of 94 because I had based my main character Penelope on her and, while I hadn’t portrayed Penelope doing anything illegal or bad, I knew that Leonora Carrington was a very fierce woman!

At first I was uncomfortable, as an academic, to be playing fast and loose with the truth but I drew inspiration from one of my favourite writers: Angela Carter.  In her last novel, Wise Children, Carter brilliantly references a huge number of real people from Lewis Carroll to Harry Enfield, often without naming them.  You could (if you really wanted to) write a companion book detailing all the writers, actors, directors, TV personalities and so on that have been borrowed, combined and re-fashioned in Wise Children (as indeed you could for the artists and writers in Swimming with Tigers).

The Hollywood scenes in Wise Children are where some of the best fun is to be had.  For instance Carter combines Lana Turner and Jean Harlow in her creation of Daisy Duck, and then has her follow the same TV career as Joan Crawford.  The more you know of the originals, the better the entertainment but (and I noted this carefully) the success of Carter’s novel doesn’t depend on the reader knowing who the original models are, and the joke that Gorgeous George tells at the end of the pier is just as funny whether or not you know it’s based on Larry Grayson (along with a dash of Max Miller and Frankie Howerd, according to Kate Webb). With this in mind I made sure that my novel could be enjoyed by someone without any knowledge of the Surrealists.

Rather like Angela Carter’s Daisy Duck who is a mixture of different actresses, my main character Penelope is composed of several real women in the Surrealist group and she creates art-works by all of them.  Penelope escapes from her wealthy background and factory-owning father in England exactly as Leonora Carrington did (although I have re-located her home from Lancashire to Oxfordshire).  As did Carrington, Penelope endures the humiliation and boredom of being a debutante and runs off to Paris to join the Surrealists and has a passionate affair with one of the artists of the Surrealist group.  Max Ernst was Carrington’s lover in real life, and Penelope elopes with a character called Rolf who ‘is’ Ernst but Rolf also makes Man Ray’s photographs.  You see how complicated this is?

Penelope paints Leonora Carrington’s wonderful painting Inn of the Dawn Horse (I discuss this painting here) but she also makes Eileen Agar’s sculpture Angel of Anarchy (which was made in 1940, not 1938, as in my novel).  Best of all, she creates one of the iconic objects of Surrealism: Meret Oppenheim’s fur-lined teacup and saucer (read more here).  I actually dramatise the making of this object, down to the glue being smeared onto the gazelle fur which is then pressed onto the china cup, and I can only hope that the reader will get the same thrill from reading the scene as I did from writing it.

From Meret Oppenheim I also took Penelope’s habit of balancing on high ledges of buildings and I have a scene in which she scares the others at a Surrealist party by climbing outside onto a window ledge.  The party, by the way, is a costume party, of which the Surrealists were naturally very fond, but instead of the real dress code which was to be naked from chest to knee, I changed it to naked from the waist up.  I did this to dramatise the sexual inequality in the Surrealist group as, for obvious reasons, going topless has a different connotation for women compared to men.

As well as making art which was actually created by Leonora Carrington, Meret Oppenheim and Eileen Agar, Penelope discovers the photographic technique of solarisation in the way that Lee Miller did (by accidentally turning on the light in a dark room when negatives were developing).  It is generally Man Ray who is given credit for this innovation while Lee Miller is predominantly known (or has been, until recently) as the model in his solarised portraits. To have Penelope state that she deserves acknowledgement as the creator of the technique is my way of setting the record straight but doing it, ironically, by making things up!

To counter-balance this pick-and-mix approach to history, my presentation of place in Swimming with Tigers is absolutely accurate.  This strategy follows some advice Louise Doughty gave in A Novel in a Year to someone who was writing a novel about dragons.  Doughty suggested he should go and find an actual tree that his dragon might like to sit on: ‘even if you’re writing fantasy it still has to be real’ she says.  So while I imagined what it was like to play Surrealist games with André Breton, I made sure that Penelope went to the café where he held court along the right street in Paris, and in the right direction.

This meant that researching the novel provided the perfect excuse for several wonderful holidays to Lisbon, Amsterdam, Cadaqués, Lille and Paris, all of which are settings for the story and I also spent some time pacing out the distances in Kingston-on-Thames where the modern, parallel, narrative is set.  I felt it was important to go to every location, taking photographs and writing notes as I went.  In the novel, as it was when I visited, the floor in the Café de Flore has brown and white tiles in the shape of fans, and the upper floor is reached via a spiral staircase.  I don’t know for sure that the floor tiles or the black iron staircase were there in Café de Flore in 1938 but it’s possible that they were.  Concrete details give the story a firm foundation for building characters on, such as Penelope who embodies the many brave, creative, spirited women of Surrealism while at the same time, I hope, standing as a believable figure in her own right.

Here are some ‘real’ history books if you would like to find out more about the Surrealists:

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Inspirational Quotes about Writing

Since 2006 I have been collecting quotes about writing in a pink suede notebook.  Here are some of my favourites, in no particular order.

I hope they inspire, entertain or delight you.

 

“Description is the poet’s act of love.” W. P. Ker

“Haste is the enemy of art.  Art in its making and its enjoying demands long tracts of time.” Jeanette Winterson

“From the things that have happened and from all the things you know and those you cannot know, you make something through your invention that is not a representation but a whole new thing truer than anything true and alive, and if you make it well enough, you give it immortality.  That is why you write and for no other reason.” Ernest Hemingway (pictured)

“Writing is a form of personal freedom.  It frees us from the mass identity we see in the making all around us.” Don deLillo

“The first draft of everything is shit.” Ernest Hemingway

“The reassurance that human nature is not fundamentally evil, that love can conquer death, that women and men are not enemies, that the wicked will ultimately fail and the good triumph after adversity, is what the reader seeks in a story.”  Celia Brayfield

“One must write about simple things: how Peter Semionovich married Maria Ivanova.  That is all.”  Anton Chekov (pictured)

“The objective in writing is to reveal.  It is not to teach, not to advertise, not to see, not even to communicate […] but to reveal.” William Carlos Williams

“The argument that what the writer really needs is experience in the world, not training in literature—both reading and writing—has been so endlessly repeated that for many it has come to sound like gospel. […But] wide experience, from Zanzibar to the Yukon, is more likely to lead to cluttered texture than to deep and moving fiction, [and] the first-hand knowledge of a dozen trades is likely to be of less value to the writer than twenty good informants, the kind one gets talking to on buses, at parties, or on sagging park benches.” John Gardner

“Fundamental accuracy of statement is the one morality of writing.”  Ezra Pound

“[To writers:] Do not feel, any more, guilty about your idleness and solitude.  If your idleness is a complete slump, fretting, worry or due to over-feeding and physical mugginess, that is bad,[…] But if it is the dreamy idleness that children have, an idleness when you walk alone for a long, long time, or take a long, dreamy time at dressing, or lie in bed at night and thoughts come and go, or dig in a garden, or drive a car for many hours alone, or play the piano, or sew, or paint ALONE or an idleness where you sit […] quietly [writing] down what you happen to be thinking, that is creative idleness.  With all my heart I tell you and reassure you: at such times you are being slowly filled and re-charged with warm imagination, with wonderful, living thoughts. […] For what we write today slipped into our souls some other day when we were alone and doing nothing.” Brenda Ueland

“Prose is like hair —it shines with combing.” Gustave Flaubert

“First of all you need to be obsessed.  There’s no good reason to do it, nobody wants you to do it, or gives you the time or the space.  You have to do that yourself. […] Being a poet is like having an invisible partner.  It isn’t easy.  But you can’t live without it either.  Talent is only 10%.  The rest is obsession.” Selima Hill

“And yet the only exciting life is the imaginary one.” Virginia Woolf (pictured)

“We writers […] not only travel to other worlds but create them out of space and time.  When we write, we truly travel to these worlds in our imagination.  Anyone who has tried to write seriously knows this is why we need solitude and concentration.  We are actually travelling to another place and time.” Chris Vogler

“Write hard and clear about what hurts.” Ernest Hemingway

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Six Uses for Freewriting

It’s my belief that anyone can benefit from freewriting.

A marketing guru once told me that claiming something would work for everyone would weaken my brand and I had much better target a specific audience.  But I really do think freewriting is potentially for everybody.

Below are six uses for freewriting showing how the technique can work for anyone, from bestselling writers to people who have never thought of themselves as writers at all.

(If you need to find out, or remind yourself, of how to do freewriting, there is a guide here.)

#1: Clearing and Calming
For: anyone at all who is stressed, confused, troubled or angry

Talking can help, depending on the listener, but I’d argue that the best way to get through a problem or regain perspective, or simply to keep going through hard times, is to write it all down.  When you write with no audience and no judge, when you can state how things are for you and not anybody else, there is a lever, a foundation to stand on, a place of power that belongs to you.  If you follow the freewriting rules and, as far as possible, write without stopping or censoring what is coming out you will find honesty, wisdom and guidance.  Anyone can do this.  You don’t even need to be able to spell or use grammar correctly because no one will ever see it.  What happens, though, is that by doing it you grow in expressive ability and the more articulate you become the better you can describe your dilemmas and frame your solutions.  Think about how written language has made it possible for the human race as a whole to increase its abilities in all kinds of directions.  This resource is available to us as individuals.

#2: Self Development
For: anyone with a goal

Freewriting can reveal what’s really important and it can help you get there.  I’ve always loved Susan Jeffers analogy of an aeroplane’s journey: apparently in a long-haul flight the plane is off course for 90% of the time but by continual correction, it reaches its exact destination.  If you are sure what you want to achieve, you can reset your course as many times as it takes by writing it down and grappling with the reasons why you are not getting closer to it.  Repeatedly affirming your intentions to yourself, even if the world and everyone you know can’t yet see that this is where you are going, is a powerful way to make something happen.

#3: Recording Your Life
For: Public memoirists, and private diarists

Writers live twice, at least.  They live their experiences and then they repeat them by writing them down (later they can live them all over again by reading back what they have written).  Life is precious and so very fleeting and to capture in words the high or low points, as well as the smallest details, is a profoundly valuable act, even if it remains in a private notebook or computer file.  Memory is such a rich resource that for writers of all kinds I would liken it to gold bars in the bank: solid capital, waiting to be used.  Writing rapidly and without pre-planned limits can turn up very deeply buried memories (a caution here, put some support in place if you suspect traumatic episodes to re-surface).  One way to harness the spontaneous aspect of freewriting is to put pivotal life-events onto folded slips and draw them at random.  That way you’ll be able to pounce on memories as they arise, rather than preparing them and hence sanitising or censoring them.

#4: Finding Material for Creative Writing
For: Beginning writers

Memories might be all you need to begin fashioning poetry or narrative from the amazing things that have happened to you (after all, growing up, falling in love or earning a living are all amazing and almost all of us have done all three).  But if you are finding it hard to start out on the road to authorship, freewriting can build confidence in the face of the daunting idea of “Being a Writer” and can slay the writers’ chief enemy: the blank page.  With writing prompts or exercises to kick-start the process and the method of freewriting to make sure the writing actually happens, there should never be a time when the excuse “I don’t know what to write about” is valid.  One of the most valuable skills a writer can have is to be able to keep writing until some good stuff emerges and while you’re writing it’s almost impossible to tell which is the good stuff, so training the hand to keep going is a real asset, and a way of…

#5: Beating Writer’s Block
For: Struggling Writers

Lowering your standards can sometimes be the only way of not giving up when crippling doubt or a dry patch settles in.  You can almost physically blast away a block by attacking it with fast, rough, bad writing.  Or, indeed, with gentle, soft writing as a soothing, forgiving activity after the mental self-flagellation of all those “I am useless” “I can’t write” thoughts.  Crazy, sideways-on techniques and triggers done as freewriting such as describing your character as a vegetable or beginning every sentence with the letter “c” can open out entirely new, and rejuvenating, angles on stuck work.  Furthermore, the rules of freewriting mean you can do these crazy things before your serious, blocked, self can realise what is happening and freeze you up.

Lastly:
#6: Renewal after a long project
For: Writers of long projects (such as novels or non-fiction books)

I’m currently using freewriting for this reason.  After completing two novels I was feeling that writing was “heavy” and I had become, in a sense, over-disciplined.  I was treating writing as work when, of course, it is play.  Even if you do it for a living, unless creative work is at some level playful, it will not connect with an audience.  So I have temporarily switched from word-count targets and plot structure puzzles to the equivalent of messing about in a sandpit (I have a biscuit tin of prompts, games and exercises and can be found in cafes drinking coffee or something stronger, and freewriting like a demon).  It’s a way of reminding my muse that we are in this for fun, first and foremost, and that new ideas, styles, topics, forms and scenarios will be positively welcomed and need not fit into a specific novel at the moment.  I’m hoping that my childish playtime will take me to something exciting and unexpected for my next big project and even if it doesn’t, my relationship with writing will be healthy and happy.  All thanks to freewriting!

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Francesca Woodman

Liverpool Tate’s summer exhibition is called Life in Motion and places paintings by Egon Schiele next to photographs by Francesca Woodman.  Schiele was Austrian, working before World War One and Woodman was American, producing her photographs in the 1970s.  Arguably the only thing that links them, apart from the predominance of self-portraits in their work, is the sad fact that both died in their early twenties.  I went to the Tate solely to see the luminous, wonderful and unique work of Francesca Woodman who was influenced by Surrealism (and afterwards dutifully looked at the pitiless, misanthropic but technically brilliant work of Schiele).  No surprise then that it’s Woodman’s work I’ll be describing here.  I’ll be considering her as a woman photographer, an inheritor of Surrealism and in terms of the way she affects me as a viewer.

Woodman was working long after the “classic” period of Surrealism in the 1920 and 30s but was a devotee of Dada and Surrealism as a child, and later was particularly affected by the placement of the banal but suggestive documentary photographs included in Breton’s book Nadja.  Her most obvious debt is to the many surrealist photographic techniques of long or double exposure, manipulation of light and many other methods designed to produce the strange and unsettling effects used by Man Ray for instance.  But her strongest link with Surrealism is with a specifically female tradition of the self-portrait (often nude) which includes Frida Kahlo, Leonora Carrington and Léonor Fini among others.  The amazing work of Claude Cahun who, in photographing herself, played with every aspect of her identity (most especially her gender) is surely Woodman’s direct artistic ancestor.  These female surrealist predecessors are just as important as the 1970s context of feminist performance art by women such as Carole Schneeman which created the conditions for women to take themselves as the subject of their art.

Image result for Francesca Woodman House

Woodman was born in 1958 in Denver, Colorado to artistic parents and her ‘career’ as a photographer began at 13 years old.  After high school she took an honours degree at Rhode Island School of Design, which included a year in Rome.  She spent some time as an artist in residence in Peterborough, New Hampshire, and was living in New York at the time of her death.  She was 22.  In less than nine years, then, she achieved a body of work including between 500 to 800 pictures, of which 180 are in circulation as well as three books combining words and photographs and some video projects.  Despite the fact that much of this was created when she was barely out of her teens, she has been described by Kris Somerville as “one of the most original artists of the 1970s and among the most influential photographers of the late twentieth century”.  You might say she was a kind of Mozart of the camera.

Woodman’s first photo, taken at age 13, already has the signature style and basic ingredients of all her future work.  It’s a self-portrait as the majority of her photographs are and her face is obscured as it often is, although here the effect of the hair covering her face is comical as well as mysterious.  As Brian Dillon link says, it’s as though she’s channelling Cousin Itt from The Addams Family!  The setting is characteristic too: a domestic interior made strange by the Image result for Francesca Woodman age 13way it’s been set up and furnished, and the use of streaming natural light and blurring.

Woodman’s main project, it seems to me, is to make herself strange to herself in as many ways as possible.  She seeks to reconceive, extend, or de- or over-sexualise her body as a way of claiming it for herself.  Her longest visual conversations are with domestic spaces which threaten to swallow her whole.  She puts on old-fashioned clothes to pose questions about her role as a modern woman.  She wears little-girl shoes to ask if she can be a child or to issue a riposte to their use by Hans Bellmer in his series of fetishistic schoolgirl doll photographs.  For me, the repeated photographing of her own body gradually and thoroughly takes back the male-defined imagery of women as perverse object or anonymous muse found in Surrealist art.

Woodman’s pictures are staged and carefully composed.  She is not really in disguise, like for example Cindy Sherman, who impersonates others such as the femme fatale film star, or characters in historical paintings.  Sherman, who was born in 1954 and is still working, has spent her entire career making herself into other people.  In contrast, although there is often a moment of uncertainty when viewing a Woodman self-portrait for the first time as you try to determine if it is indeed of the photographer herself, she is always recognisably the same person.  But she repeatedly transforms herself.

Often, it’s the physical environment that is the cause of the transformation as if to say that our identity is created by the spaces we inhabit.  The third image from the series House (1976) presents a dilapidated room in a derelict house in clear focus but Woodman is, characteristically, swathed in a blur of light and wrapped in decaying matter.  As in the other image from House I’ve included above, she is covered by wallpaper that has peeled off the walls, invoking Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s story of 1892 in which a confined woman goes mad and believes herself to be a part of the wallpaper of her prison.  Woodman is arrested in motion, about to be engulfed in the long history of domestic confinement and the moment of dissolution seems to pose the question who is this?  Is this me?  It’s also strangely beautiful, a sort of dance with light and shape.

Another kind of questioning of identity is via the imitation of objects.  One particularly haunting photograph shows Woodman posed next to a bowl containing an eel.  It’s an endlessly ambiguous and fascinating image.  Is the eel representative of some phallic threat or promise next to her soft and undefended body?  When I saw the picture in the exhibition it suggested to me the prospect of pregnancy: an uncanny portrayal of something curled up outside the body that might equally be furled inside.  The beauty of the shapes and the textures, the lit edges of the uncanny fish and the homely bowl all contribute to make it a truly compelling image.

 

I realise that not all viewers at the Tate were as overwhelmed as I was, and that one reason might be the size of the photographs.  They are mostly just 8 by 10 inches or even smaller.   It means that viewing her work is a one-person activity since, as Jane Simon points out, there’s really only room for one viewer at a time.  But this only increases the intimacy of the images.  Although the photographs invite you to lean and peer closely, they are not at all voyeuristic, apart from the ones which consciously interrogate fetishism, and then the experience is intellectual rather than visceral, I found.  Also, the square format she favours seems to hark back to Renaissance painting and it repeats the frequent setting of the room with straight lines forming a sort of hard cell for her supple, soft body.

There’s no doubt that Woodman’s photographs are partly about confinement but by turning her body into so many different things she becomes a series of metaphors (I am covered in bark, I am curled like an eel, I am a wall, a fireplace, a museum exhibit, etc etc).  Woodman’s protean incarnations on celluloid proclaim are accomplished, generous, witty and feminine acts of transformation and in this way she moves towards freedom of identity and expression.  Go see them!!

 

References:
Kris Somerville “Clues to a Lost Woman: The Photography of Francesca Woodman”
The Missouri Review, Volume 33, Number 3, (2010) pp. 79-91
Jane Simon  “An intimate mode of looking: Francesca Woodman’s photographs”
Emotion, Space and Society 3 (2010) pp. 28-35
Woodman’s work remains the copyright of George and Betty Woodman and the images here are reproduced purely as educational material.  I do not receive any payment or derive any income from this blog.
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