Breton’s Nadja and my novel-in-waiting

My novel Swimming with Tigers is based on a real historical person connected to surrealism in the 1920s known as Nadja.

In this post I want to share with you how I used a combination of research and freewriting to transform this shadowy figure from history into the character of Suzanne in my novel.

I hope that along the way you’ll become as fascinated as I am with her and also get some insight into how freewriting can be directly used as a novel-writing tool.

Breton’s Nadja

In 1926, the leader of the surrealist movement André Breton met a woman who called herself Nadja on the streets of Paris and was immediately smitten with her as a person and with her entirely original way of living and seeing things.  It formed the blueprint of the surrealist principles of chance, altered consciousness and the strangeness of ordinary things.  Breton wrote a book entitled Nadja about his encounter with this elusive and unstable, visionary woman in 1928.

Breton’s portrait gives tantalising glimpses of her originality and frailty; she is a free spirit but cripplingly shy and insecure, with terribly low self-esteem.  Nadja is a fascinating document but is, in the end, about Breton himself, and Nadja exists primarily as his creation, although some of her drawings and sayings are reproduced in the book.

By the end of his account, she is in a mental institution and Breton decides not to visit her, giving his disenchantment with psychiatry as an excuse.  Instead he abandons her to her fate.

For many years there were no photographs of her except the one in Breton’s book, where her eyes are repeated in a truly disconcerting multiple arrangement.  There was even some doubt about her ever having existed at all.  She was believed to have died in hospital, in 1941.

Could I Put Nadja in a Novel?

Looking around for an idea for a novel, I wondered if I could tell Nadja’s story, drawing on Breton’s account, but using my own imagination.  I wanted to give her centre stage this time.  What a gift to a novelist!  I spent quite some time searching and expecting that such a thing had already been done, but I seem to be the first to attempt to bring Nadja to life in a new novel.

Then, when I read in the introduction to the Penguin edition of Nadja that there were rumours that she didn’t die in 1941, but was living in France and working as a typist in the 1970s, my novel started to really come to life.  I wanted to create a new myth to rival Breton’s, in which she did not die incarcerated but lived on, free and independent.

How I Did It

Using Breton’s book as a starting point, I re-named Nadja Suzanne and allowed myself plenty of time to conjure her up as a physical presence and to bring out all of the associations her story had accumulated.  Freewriting was perfect for this and allowed me to range widely and accept unintended elements into my creation.

Here is an extract from some freewriting I did on Suzanne:-

The bird girl, the butterfly girl, the hurt girl, the disowned.  The gothic ghost, the fey child, the polluted whore, the cast-off mistress, the naive poet, the schizophrenic.

The skipping girl, the coquette, the cat-like, the acrid.  The heroine, the First Cause, the one carrying it all and yet not able to steer it, or say anything to it.  The traumatised one, the delicate-featured.

The resurrected, the alive-all-along, the re-found.  Laughing and dancing, shouting in the corridor, blazing life then grey isolation.

The thin soles, the red coat, the bare legs, the messy make-up.  The one who is starved or who starves herself. Until she is fed, and befriended.  Saved.

The one with magic eyes, with mirrors, with windows.  The one with wings in the mind.

 

Gradually, my fictional Suzanne began to feel more real to me than the historical Nadja.

Writing Scenes

Next I wrote some scenes in which Suzanne makes a friend who saves her from despair.  I named this friend Penelope and mixed in details from the lives, works and appearances of several women surrealists such as Leonora Carrington, Eileen Agar, Lee Miller and Meret Oppenheim in order to create her.

Here is part of an early scene when Penelope first meets Suzanne.  By this time I knew exactly how Suzanne would appear to a stranger:-

‘Mademoiselle.’  The waiter placed a glass of red wine in front of Penelope, giving her an ingratiating smile.  She watched him take the other glass from his tray and put it down at Suzanne’s place without a word.

‘He doesn’t seem to like you,’ Penelope murmured, once the waiter was out of earshot.

‘He thinks I don’t belong here,’ said Suzanne, getting out another cigarette.

Penelope looked at Suzanne dispassionately for the first time.  Her clothes were cheap.  The felted red coat with a dropped hem had fallen open to reveal a much-washed black crepe dress and her shoes were in ruins.  Her face could do with a wash and there was a feint smell of tomcat about her, vying with a cheap, sharp perfume.  Did Suzanne look like a prostitute?  Was that what the waiter thought she was?  What would Penelope’s mother say if she knew that her precious debutante was out in public with a woman of dubious reputation?

Suzanne was shifting awkwardly in her chair.  No, she didn’t look like a prostitute, not exactly; she looked displaced.

Keeping Going

I also used freewriting to gauge and harness my personal investment in the character.  Nadja said of herself (according to Breton) “I am the soul in limbo” and in the past so many gifted, creative women have remained in limbo, unknown and unacknowledged.

Much of my work as a university lecturer in literature and women’s studies has been devoted to the feminist enterprise of rescuing women writers and artists from obscurity and reassessing their place and contributions.  It was this that originally drew me to Nadja.

I used freewriting throughout the composition of the novel to keep my motivation in focus and to power me through the inevitable difficulties and delays.  Even now, some years later, Swimming with Tigers has yet to find the right publisher (although the manuscript was long-listed for an international prize).  My commitment, however, to making the women surrealists better-known remains stronger than ever.

Who Is She?

Since I began the novel, more has emerged about Nadja including her real name which was Léona Delcourt.  There is now a photograph to look at and a biography (in French).  But no amount of hard fact will ever entirely banish the deeply mysterious aura around this strange and compelling woman.

In my own novel, a parallel story sets up the possibility that another character is about to meet the actual, historical, Nadja.  But the Nadja of my novel is already fictionalised as Suzanne and remains, like a true surrealist ghost, both real and imaginary at the same time…

If you would like to read more on Nadja, here are some articles available on the web:-

Hysteria and Surrealism

“Something Wrong” Women Who Crash

Nadja: Surrealism’s Absent Heart

[Some of this material appeared in an earlier post.]

Posted in freewriting, Surrealism | 3 Comments

Freewriting in Peformance

This month I have four short videos of writers reading their own work for you to enjoy.

All were filmed at a free poetry and music festival in Bangor, North Wales, earlier this year.  This annual festival is called “Curiad Bangor” or, in English, “Bangor Pulse” which is a great, inclusive, name covering anything with a beat, whether in words or music.

As part of this year’s festival, I organised a night of poetry and prose performances and it happened to feature some writers who subscribe to the weekly freewriting prompts I send out for free to anyone who signs up on this website.

Three of the performers read work that had been sparked originally by one of my freewriting prompts and although of course the work is theirs and theirs alone, it was such an honour to be credited with inspiring them to write it.

I hope their pieces will show how freewriting from a prompt can form the basis of finished work, after judicious editing.  Perhaps they will inspire you to sign up and have a go too.

First up is a lovely, sinuous piece of writing about jazz by Nigel Stone.

In classes on the short story or novel, an old standby of mine is to invite students to write about the strangest person they’ve ever met.  Elaine Hughes produced this absolutely hilarious and yet very affectionate piece about a real eccentric with the title “The most peculiar person I ever met”.  It brought the house down!

Last but not least, here’s Anna Powell.  She reads two poems.  I’m not sure which prompt formed the start of the first poem (“Spiders”) but the second poem, about her hearing problems, was from a prompt that she had to adapt to her own use and I like to think that it was the practice of freewriting that gave her the freedom and courage to do it.  Not only has this produced an excellent poem, it also gives us much more of Anna herself and I felt priviledged to be invited into her inner world.

To round off the show, here is myself and partner David performing a Hopewell Ink piece.  So far, all of Hopewell Ink’s words have arrived in a freewrite of mine.  It often takes a while for the finished version to emerge but I hope that the freshness of freewriting (those “first thoughts”) remains.  This is a seasonal piece that celebrates autumn but in a less-than-conventional way.

To sign up for a free weekly writing prompt, please put your e-mail address in the box at the top left of the page.  More details here.  Thanks!

Posted in freewriting, original writing, writing inspiration | Leave a comment

Where Does Freewriting Come From?

I began this website because, as a lecturer on Surrealism and a private addict of freewriting, I was amazed that no one seemed to connect the two.

Surrealism comes from Freud, via Breton

The Surrealist movement was kicked off by the practice of automatic writing (art came later).

Surrealist automatic writing uses essentially the same method as modern-day freewriting in which you write continuously, allowing random processes to take over and suspending all critical judgment until the end of the exercise.  [If you’d like more detailed instructions, please go to How to Freewrite].

André Breton, the leader of the Surrealist movement, used automatic writing as the basis to develop a whole philosophy of creativity which led to an entirely new approach to the practice of poetry, art and sculpture.

Breton himself had not come up with the idea of recording an unedited stream of consciousness.  This, of course, was Sigmund Freud.  Breton had used Freud’s method of free association when he was a medical orderly during the First World War and began to wonder if the unconscious could be harnessed in a similar was for the making of art.

Breton was enchanted with Freud’s ideas during the war when all things German were anathema.  America, however, had adopted Freud early.

 

The Clark Lectures by Freud

In 1909, Freud gave a series of public lectures at Clark University in Massachusetts which were designed to reach a wide audience beyond professional, specialised psychiatric practitioners.

The Clark lectures are a good, basic introduction to Freud’s ideas about the unconscious, repression and the therapeutic work of psychoanalysis.

In the second of the lectures at Clark University, Freud likens a troubled patient to a lecture hall in which there is an audience member who is making a noise and interrupting the lecture.  To regain calm and order, the troublemaker would have to be thrown out and guards would have to be placed on the doors to make sure he didn’t get back in.

In Freud’s analogy, the inside of the lecture hall is the conscious mind while outside the hall is the unconscious.  And the man in the audience that is interrupting the lecture stands for an unacceptable thought that has to be ejected.

This is an illustration of repression: the trouble-maker who is ejected and prevented from getting back in represents an unacceptable thought repressed from the conscious mind.  These unacceptable thoughts are, like the troublemaker in the lecture hall, disrupting civilised, social life, and must be thrust violently away, out of sight.

But Freud’s most important point was that the repression will continue to cause disruption.

In Freud’s illustration, the ejected man bangs on the door and generally continues to make his presence felt.  In the same way, repressed thoughts, desires and emotions, continue to make the civilised, orderly lecture hall of the conscious mind a place of strife and discomfort.  The problem of repression has not been solved.

The solution is to find someone who, like the psychoanalyst, can calm the trouble-maker enough so that he can be readmitted without causing any more disruption to the lecture.  Hence the therapeutic work, involving dreams, free association and so forth will identify, and readmit the repression so that it can be put under the control of the conscious mind and tranquil, normal, life can resume.

Once the trouble-maker agrees to behave properly he can be re-admitted to the lecture hall.  Civilised life goes on.

Surrealism is not therapeutic

You might assume that the Surrealists adopted automatic writing as an equivalent, therapeutic activity to Freud’s free association method, but you would be wrong!

The Surrealists wanted to unleash the revolutionary power of the unconscious and change society.

Breton and his group wanted to dismantle the institutions of public life such as the church and the government in order to claim the freedom of the individual.

You couldn’t get further away from Freud’s aims of re-integrating troubled individuals into civilised society!

Freud wants order; the surrealists want mayhem!

Freud’s example of the trouble-maker made ‘safe’ for the civilised lecture theatre has an equal and opposite counterpart in one of the most extreme statements Breton ever made.  In the Second Surrealist Manifesto of 1929 Breton wrote:

The simplest Surrealist act consists of dashing down the street, pistol in hand, and firing blindly, as fast as you can pull the trigger, into the crowd.

Now, neither Breton nor any members of the Surrealist group in Paris or elsewhere were terrorists or mass murderers in real life, but this quote shows how far Surrealism is from the normalising aims of Freudian psychoanalysis.

You couldn’t get further away from Freud’s aims of re-integrating troubled individuals into civilised society.

Where Freud wanted to bring calm and individual peace of mind, the Surrealists were interested in finding extremes, nightmare and provocation.

Freewriting now

 I find it fascinating that there is such a rich, hidden history to this common writing exercise which you can find recommended in almost any guide to creative writing.

Freewriting is also often recommended as a way to work on personal issues and problems and as a way to process difficult experiences.  In this way, freewriting is being used as an equivalent to Freud’s free association method for therapeutic purposes and, like the treatment of Freud’s trouble-maker in the Clark lecture, the writer’s unconscious is safely corralled on the page and inner conflict defused.

But this is to completely erase the revolutionary aims of Surrealism, which is the ‘source’ of freewriting as an artistic technique.

For Breton and others of the group, the unconscious is a dark place, and artists and writers go there at their peril, even if sometimes what emerges is humour and irony.  To take Surrealism to its extreme is to be profoundly at odds with every aspect of social life and inhabit a maladjusted state.

Why I Use Freewriting

My experience is that freewriting can produce work that is much stronger, stranger and more adventurous than anything I could create by slow, deliberate, rational and planned methods of writing.  On a smaller scale to the Surrealism’s ambitions, freewriting has caused a revolution in my own life, causing me to literally leave the lecture halls of academia.

But at the same time, like Freud’s treatment of the noisy audience member, I find that releasing inhibitions in freewriting and then considering the results in a calm, constructive, way does seem to keep me on an even keel.

Freewriting has magical properties!

In being aware of the source of freewriting in Freud’s extraordinarily suggestive ideas or in the outrageous, liberating attitudes of the Surrealists, I believe we can find power and agency in our writing and lives through freewriting.

 

If you use freewriting, I’d love to know if you find that it promotes psychological well-being (a bit like DIY Freudian psychoanalysis).

I’d also love to know if you, like the Surrealists, have experienced it as a powerful and potent source of rebellion and creativity.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Does Freewriting Work?

My students say yes, it certainly does!

Most creative writing courses will have an element of rough, initial drafts done either in the classroom or as part of the process of producing work for assessment.  The course I have just finished teaching, however, put the practice of doing intense, short bursts of unplanned writing (a technique known as freewriting) at its very core.

In every class I included at least two freewriting sessions and advised my students to do a ten-minute freewrite every day if at all possible.

The students did not share these freewritten pieces of writing with each other but used them as the raw material for on-the-spot short passages to share, or as the starting point for the completed pieces of work that they read out in the final session.

Sometimes I would give prompts, and sometimes we would generate prompts by creating, and then picking out at random, folded-over slips with short phrases on them.

There was a lot of laughter and the work that resulted was fresh, original and surprising.  In fact, when I asked the participants to reflect on the experience at the end, the commonest reaction was their surprise at what they had produced.

 

Here are some of the written comments that the students made at the end of the course, quoted with their permission, on how freewriting worked for them.

The Element of Surprise

The first three students quoted all talk about the pleasure of surprising themselves:

“It’s a way to give yourself permission to write with almost no expectation of any particular result, so that there is surprising joy to be found in what results.  It’s like opening a door to a creative area of the mind and just letting words flood out.  I have surprised myself at what has come out both in terms of subject and content.  I have discovered a narrative voice and am excited to allow it future ‘ramblings’ as I find I am pleased in a writerly way with what comes out.  Who knew?”

“Freewriting has got me writing, and with regular freewriting I am developing my ‘writing muscle’.  The no-stopping rule does seem to improve my thinking and I’ve been surprised at some of the ideas that have emerged from the process.  Using freewritten pieces to work up into finished pieces was much more enjoyable and effective, I felt, than working in any other way.”

“The freewriting exercises have allowed me this freedom to just write — computers so get in the way of the process.  Freewriting really surprised me: I am a writer!  OK, so never a professional but someone who enjoys words, just as I did as a child.  I can see that there is still so much that I want to tap into and to use my unconscious and dreams to inform further art work.”

Silencing the Inner Critic

As you see from that last quote, some of my students were practicing visual artists and they noticed that freewriting was having good effects on this area of their creativity too.

One of the benefits of freewriting is to silence or circumvent the negativity that so often bedevils the inexperienced (and, indeed, experienced) writer, and several students reported that this was indeed a genuine and valuable result of freewriting:

“I found the process of freewriting a great opportunity to just let go.  It allows the mind the opportunity to gush out thoughts and importantly to ignore the ‘critical mind’ which can interfere with both writing and art work.”

“Freewriting does indeed get you going!  As someone who used to be paralysed by the blank page I could not now do without it.  Freewriting has put ‘life’ in my writing, particularly in character description.  I seriously doubt that I could have accessed this with my conscious thinking mind.”

“Freewriting has definitely been great for getting me writing.  I’ve often been crippled by not knowing where to start, or what to write about. But with freewriting there’s no choice or decision.  You just write.  And yes, it turns out that you do feel more like a writer when you’re actually writing rather than just thinking about writing.  I found that the interaction, or balance, between giving the mind freedom to roam while actually having to get those thoughts down on paper was a really useful exercise in being open to new ideas.”

“Freewriting has loosened up my mind.  I’ve gained a lot of pleasure and fulfilment from realising I could produce creative words and express a whole range of feelings and thought without the need to keep ‘stepping back’ in critical reflection, indeed self censorship, during the actual first draft.  Although I can draw on crafting after the first go, I’m now able to ‘let rip’ without the need for over-thinking which had been blocking my expression.”

Finding Your Voice

One of the key, mysterious, qualities of good writing is “voice”, and freewriting seems to be a good way to ‘find your voice’, as this student discovered:

Freewriting lets you ‘speak on paper’.  I mostly hate my carefully-constructed writing: it ends up not sounding like me, which is often disappointing because in my head I am clever and hilarious.  Freewriting is, I think, helping me sound more like the me I know I am.”

Joy

In short, enjoyment and confidence were the overall results of the course and I couldn’t have been more pleased to read these comments:

“Freewriting has been helpful in kick-starting imaginative writing.  I have enjoyed finding out where my weird imagination might take me.”

“I’ve found freewriting frees the mind and makes me feel like a writer.  It takes away the fear of the blank page, and procrastination.  It gives me confidence.”

 

Try It Yourself!

If you’d like to try freewriting with me, The Freewriter’s Companion, there are two options:

  • Sign up for my free, weekly, freewriting prompts which arrive by e-mail at 9 a.m. every Friday morning. Each one is designed to spark a ten-minute freewriting session which you can do at your leisure during the week.
  • If you live in North Wales, you might like to come along to my next course: Spontaneous Short Fiction, in which we’ll be using freewriting as the basis of generating a short story over three months. There are lots more details here.
Posted in freewriting, original writing, writing inspiration | Leave a comment

Hello and Welcome to Bane of Your Resistance Readers!

This month I am delighted to be the guest of the wonderful Rosanne Bane on her website Bane of Your Resistance.

Rosanne’s approach is very similar to my own in the importance she ascribes to the hidden processes of creativity.   She has been a joy to work with and I want to thank her for being so generous with her time.

I’m also excited to welcome readers of Bane of Your Resistance to my blog.  Why not have a look at How to Freewrite and my Mission Statement.  If you’d like to receive my ten-minute freewriting prompts (which are free of charge and come directly to your inbox) please add your e-mail in the box that you can see at the top right of the page and click “sign up”.

Here is the link to my guest post at Bane of Your Resistance:

Writing is not your servant by Kathy Hopewell

Posted in freewriting, writing inspiration | Leave a comment

Become a Writer in Ten Minutes a Week

Every Friday morning since the beginning of January I have been sending ten-minute freewriting exercises to my subscribers completely free of charge.

Each one contains a new freewriting prompt plus some advice about how to go about using it (see some examples here).

The prompts are specifically designed to work with the basic unit of freewriting: an unplanned, spontaneous burst of continuous writing that lasts no longer than ten minutes.  (If you have never come across the technique of freewriting, have a look at my guide How to Freewrite.)

Some exercises flex important writing muscles by asking you to look, listen or remember, and describe fully.  Some give the imagination a workout: in one prompt I asked my subscribers to choose a fictitious character or an author and to meet them for a drink.

Other exercises throw a curve ball.  For instance, the prompt “What is my pen doing?” was designed to make the actual act of writing strange and, in the dissociation between writer and what is written I hoped that a creative space would be opened up.  One of my subscriber’s pens did some very strange things and here is what came out:

Only one prompt so far has been at all solemn, namely the one in which I asked people to describe a loved one.  It was tinged with sadness because I suggested they would be glad to have these recollections in the future if the loved one was no longer around.  (This was my experience and you can read about it here.)

I do think there is benefit to be gained from going psychologically deep in a freewrite.  For me, the prompt “What do you want?” provided strength and clarification recently, as I am preparing to leave an employer after 30 years.  But overall, these prompts are designed to be playful, liberating and fun.

It’s my experience that going straight after good writing or writing ideas with a serious attitude and the heavy weaponry of plans and outlines, or techniques and rules, is pretty much bound to result in dead writing (the weaponry kills it!).  These exercises are more like jolly excursions with no particular destination.  But, as you trundle along enjoying the trip, there will be bright butterflies of inspiration to be caught from out of the corner of the eye.  Then, afterwards, when you read back your freewriting you can see if any of those butterflies were rare and potentially worth further study.

The pressure is off!  You are writing for yourself and no one needs to read what you’ve written, or certainly not until it has been edited (sharing your raw freewriting is not usually a good idea, unless it’s as seredipitous as the example above).  Freewriting’s standards are by definition low, and I supply the instructions so you don’t have to think up something to write about (obedience is very relaxing sometimes!).  Also, it’s just ten minutes out of your week.

Thinking about how best to use the time we have can be such a heavy prospect: what if we make the wrong choice and end up wasting all those hours on a project that will fail?  But with freewriting the investment is so low that it’s a risk that’s easy to live with.

We have (according to my calculations) 6,720 waking minutes in a week (if we sleep for 8 hours a night).  Just 10 of these minutes out of every 6,720 could give you the skills, habit and material to start writing.  In fact, if you write for just ten minutes regularly, you ARE a writer (because , as Peter Elbow says in Everyone Can Write, a writer is a person who writes).

Even if you can’t immediately see the benefit of freewriting, I think it helps to learn to waste time, and I don’t mean the sort of time-wasting that involves TV and junk food!  The creative process is all about not knowing what, if anything, you will end up with.  In this profit-obsessed and product-driven world, creative time-wasting is a radical act (and surprisingly hard to justify).  All writers, including professionals, would be well-advised to revert sometimes to the child-like activity of making things up just to see what happens.

Learning to let go of things you have written is another benefit of the ten-minute freewriting sessions.  The instruction to keep writing no matter what, teaches your hand and heart to write fearlessly, and it is only by actually writing that writing gets done.  Unfortunately, many people freeze up when they try to write.  But if you are used to writing for a short length of time and, more often than not, throwing the whole lot away afterwards, then you won’t scare yourself into stopping.  Instead you can keep going, knowing that it’s OK to produce rubbish.  Getting though that barrier of having to be “good” frequently means you can find the inspiration on the other side of fear.

My Friday freewriting exercises are not just for writers, although I occasionally note how writers could take them forward in a specific way.  Freewriting is a powerful tool for self-development too, and I believe that the actual act of writing is, in itself, self-creating and self-medicating.  It will tell you who you are and what really matters to you.  Equally, for society as a whole, creative writing is a way to increase human dignity and to assert the worth of the individual.  And it’s fun!

Please sign up (by putting your e-mail address in the box at the top, on the right) and give it a go.  The freewriting prompts will arrive at 9 a.m. every Friday morning.

The e-mails go directly from me to your inbox and I have nothing to sell, so you can rest assured that I won’t annoy you with marketing (neither will I share your e-mail with anyone else).  The Friday e-mails will continue right through this year (barring disasters) and will remain free for now.  In the future I might think about a small fee, so grab them for nothing while you can and see if you can turn yourself into a writer in just ten minutes a week.

To get you going, here is the prompt from yesterday.  Why not try it right now?

 

Freewriting Exercise # 23

Hello Subscriber

Here’s another of those prompts that you can repeat as many times as you want to during the ten minutes until you take off, rather like a horse running up to the same fence many times and then finally clearing it.

Freewrite for ten minutes on: “I want to write about…”

If you are aiming at fiction, you might hit upon a great plot or a character for a story, novel or play, or surprise yourself by discovering a theme that you didn’t realise was compelling for you.   On the other hand, if you need to digest your own experiences, keep dipping your hand into the reservoirs of memory and you will find what needs to be written about.

Always try to be specific.  If you discover that you want to write about politics, for instance, make sure you narrow it down, and if you find you want to write about your childhood then go straight into the details: clothes, houses, food, toys.

The best way to approach this prompt is with a light-hearted attitude so if you want to write about crazy stuff, just go with it.  The material that is right for you is likely to be hidden somewhere in the playful writing that freewriting allows you to do.

Enjoy!

Kathy Hopewell, The Freewriter’s Companion.

Copyright © 2019 The Freewriter’s Companion, All rights reserved.
You are receiving this email because you opted in via our website.

Posted in freewriting, writing exercises, writing inspiration | Leave a comment

Tanning at the Tate!

The artist Dorothea Tanning lived to the age of 101.  Her long career as a painter, sculptor and writer is being celebrated now at Tate Modern in London.  And what a celebration!  For as long as Dali is better known than Dora Maar and Man Ray outstrips Lee Miller in terms of fame, the mounting of retrospectives for women can look like merely political correctness: it isn’t.  There was not a hint of tokenism in this latest solo exhibition of one of the women artists associated with surrealism.

Instead the Dorothea Tanning event showed an authoritative vision, and the development of style and theme through a sustained career, with work that spanned the truly disturbing all the way to the warmly good-humoured.  I am not an art critic and I have no training in art.  What I love about the surrealist women (and I love them so much that I wrote a novel about them) is the immediate, accessible joy I find in their work.  My definition of good art is that it should be inspiring, provocative and amusing: Tanning’s work was all three, and sometimes all three at once!

Like Leonora Carrington (see my review of her Tate retrospective here) Tanning, an American born in Illinois, was enraptured by surrealism at a young age and sought out its (male) practitioners.  Unfortunately she reached Paris in 1939 when most of the surrealists had fled to America or elsewhere due to the war, so it was to be in New York that she encountered Breton and the others, most significantly Max Ernst who she married and lived with until his death in 1976.

The story goes that he selected a painting of hers for exhibition and named it Birthday to signify the day of her birth as a surrealist.  This sort of older male legitimisation of young and sexy girl wannabe is repeated again and again in the lives of the surrealist women.  Tanning might well have needed the “in” to the surrealist group but her talent was already formed as is clear from this astonishing picture.

Birthday is the one of a series of artworks featuring doors in Tanning’s work that stretch from this (in 1947) to Door 84 (1984) and doors occur in the best known of her paintings Eine Kleine Nachtmusik (1943).  The little girls in this work are caught in a tornado of adult sexuality.  These are indeed the femmes-enfant I discussed in a previous post but they are not sexualised for the pleasure of the viewer.  Similar little girls appear in Children’s Games (on a canvas much smaller than I had imagined) and they are tearing down the wallpaper but finding only the bodies of adult women behind the walls.  All these are children wrestling with the onset and demands of adult sexuality: their De Sade knee boots or heeled shoes are combined with undeveloped bodies and fear.  For what indeed is behind the doors of the plush hallway in Eine Kleine Nachtmusik and what threat is posed by the predatory sunflower snaking up the stairs?

 

Tanning creates interiors that are really terrifying, or terrifying and funny all at once like Family Portrait (1953-4) in which the patriarchal power of the father is literally depicted as larger than the other members of the family, with the maid and the dog roughly equivalent in size and importance.  Hilarious, and deadly.

 

The Tate exhibition managed to show both the progression and the repeated themes of Tanning’s work.  Her pictures in the 1940s and early 1950s are often done in Daliesque “realism”, meaning that she depicts impossible things in a realistic way (as the true surrealist that she was).  For example The Guest Room (1950- 52) which features an adolescent girl standing awkwardly naked in a room which contains hooded figures, broken eggs and another child in bed with a life-sized doll.  The Mirror (1950) depicts a sunflower looking at itself in a mirror, with pin-sharp realism.  But then in the later 1950s she moved into a new style of abstract but recognisable “smoky” pictures in which figures and space merge into each other.  These pictures were not my favourites, but some were just as disturbing and involving as the starker and more figurative works.  For instance Insomnias from 1957 gives a nightmare version of mental unease.

As well as the doors, there were legs!  The out-flung limbs in her later “smudgier” pictures (by the way, to any experts reading: apologies for these amateurish terms!), seemed to me to be connected to her work in soft sculpture, which began in around the mid-1960s.  She uses flesh-pink cotton, carefully tailored to shape, and/or furry brown material to create soft entwined bodies that suggest sex, struggle or maybe just rolling about on the floor playing.

 

And there is Emma, too (1970).  Named after Emma Bovary in Flaubert’s novel the soft sculpture of a belly was placed next to a series of watercolours of mothers and babies from the 1960s along with the well-known picture from 1946-7 called Maternity.  In this painting are doors again, preventing or trapping women or perhaps holding out the possibility of escape.  The simultaneously scary and amusing element in this picture is the dog with a child’s face (there were Tibetan dogs all over the place in the exhibition: she owned them and included them obsessively in her work in different guises, sometimes scaled up to human size).

 

The door, the soft sculpture of entangled legs and the deadly interior all came together in the most exciting piece: an installation called Poppy Hotel, Room 202 (1970 – 73).  In this real-space room, bodies are bursting through the walls and morphing from the chairs.  Something rather unpleasantly grey and amorphous is emerging from the fireplace.  But the really menacing aspect is that the door is arranged to conceal whatever is beyond (or indeed whatever or whoever may be coming in).  Here you can see me furiously recording my impressions of this most eerie and compelling artwork.

The joy of surrealism is always in the humour.  At the Tate we were treated to Don Juan’s Breakfast: a soft sculpture of a tankard with bursting buttons and overflowing foam reminiscent of both female cleavage and male libertine plumpness.  Even in this joke, the vulnerability of women is somewhere in the background.  In Tweedy, however, we had just the joke: a fantasy tweed-covered animal with a little matching turd.

I came away buzzing with inspiration and my faithful companions were enthusiastic too.  My son Bryn said he had got part-way round the exhibition when he read Tanning’s statement that she hoped each piece would give something different on each successive viewing.  “So I went back to the start,” he told me, “and there was”.  My partner David also picked up on the bold adoption of new styles throughout a long career but echoed my impression in saying that it was “all of a piece”.

Tanning also produced written work: a novel, two memoirs and a volume of poetry.  These are all waiting for me to discover and I really hope that this exhibition (and this blog post too) will send many, many people to seek out and enjoy Tanning’s work for inspiration, provocation and amusement.

 

All the images included here are from the exhibition, where photography (without flash) was permitted.  They are reproduced for educational purposes only.

To see and search through nearly all of Tanning’s work, see photographs of the artist and read summaries of her life and work, go to the excellent Dorothea Tanning Foundation website here.

Posted in Surrealism | 2 Comments

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!

 

Posted in freewriting, original writing | Leave a comment

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.

 

Posted in freewriting, writing exercises, writing inspiration | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment