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If a historical novel is defined as one in which events from history are presented as they actually happened, then my unpublished novel Swimming with Tigers doesn’t qualify as one.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:

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

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, to 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.

#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!

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!!


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.

Wolves, dreams and memories

I’m guessing it’s happened to you: you are re-reading a book and a crucial scene, the one you remembered most clearly of all, doesn’t actually occur in the story at all.

For me, this happened with Angela Carter’s short story “The Company of Wolves” (in her collection The Bloody Chamber), and it set off a chain of connections and mysterious, fragmentary memories.  For quite a while now, I’ve been struggling to make a poem out of it all, and failing!  So I’m going to hand it over to you, my talented readers, to see if you can figure it out.  This puts you in the position of my psychoanalyst, which is not at all comfortable from where I’m sitting (or lying, on the couch!) but it should make for an interesting read.

“The Company of Wolves” by Angela Carter is a re-telling of the fairy tale Little Red Riding Hood in which Red Riding Hood ends up in bed having sex with the wolf, at her own instigation.  The scene I remembered was one in which Red Riding Hood sees a pack of wolves sitting in a tree outside the window.  But the scene wasn’t there.  In the story, the wolves sit on the ground, in a cabbage patch.

After some thinking and searching, I eventually realised that the scenario of the wolves sitting in a tree is actually from a famous case study by Sigmund Freud instead.  Its title is “From a History of Infantile Neurosis” but it’s generally known by the name Freud gave to the patient in question: the Wolfman.  Published just before World War One, it was an important milestone in the development of Freudian psychoanalysis.  The Wolfman was an aristocratic Russian called Sergei Pankejeff, and during the analysis he drew a picture of a dream he had had at age four of white wolves sitting in a walnut tree outside the window where he slept.

I had somehow grafted the Wolfman’s picture (which Freud included when he published the case study) onto Carter’s story!  In fact it is entirely possible that Carter had the Wolfman in mind as she wrote the story.  She was alive to all sorts of myths and traditions when constructing her tales and she almost certainly invokes (and challenges) Freud in her creation of the desirable, dangerous wolf-man of “The Company of Wolves”.  Equally, the way that the wolves on the ground in the story echo the wolves in a tree in Freud’s case study might have been pointed out to me by a literary critic when I was researching her work to teach at my classes at university.

“From a History of Infantile Neurosis” is a tough read at 113 pages in the Penguin Freud Reader, but Freud argues in essence that Panejeff’s dream of the wolves is a symbolically reversed, retrospective memory-with-new-understanding.  He theorises, drawing on other remembered stories and events related during the analysis, that Panejeff observed his parents’ lovemaking when he was 18 months old and that the dream of the wolves resurrected this memory in a coded form (the picture of a wolf in a book Panejeff read as a child provides the link).  There’s a summary of the case here (it would take a lot more time and space than I have here to outline the fascinating, and contentious, connections that take Freud to his conclusion).

The significance for me, however, in tracking down the image of wolves in a tree that I had substituted for Carter’s wolves in the cabbage patch, was the comparable resurrection of a very old, lost memory of my own.  The wolves in the Wolfman’s dream brought back a long-repressed memory of a poem I read as a young girl.  I remember it as my first deep understanding of a poetic image but I can only recall a fragment of the poem itself.  It was a translation from the French, but I can’t remember the poet’s name, or the book it was in.  All I have are these two lines:

In the evening my thoughts settle like birds in a tree
By morning they have all flown away

One part of me would love to find the poem again but on the other hand it might break the spell.  The two lines are perfect: a distilled narrative in two moments (the birds settle, then fly away) and to me it contains the very essence of poetic symbolism, with a visual, sensory impact as well as poignant sense of melancholy mixed with hope.  If you know the poem, which I suspect is by Mallarme, or Verlaine, or even Baudelaire, you had better not tell me in case it betrays some Freudian secret like the primal scene hidden in the Wolfman’s dream!  After all, for these two lines to have persisted in my memory for so many years indicates that there must be some greater significance hidden in the complete poem.

I’ve been trying to weave these loaded symbols of wolves, birds and trees into a poem of my own for many months and even tried, at one point, to cast it as a story.  As I was struggling to shape these unruly elements into some form, I saw a programme on TV about neuroscience.  Apparently the brain itself, in computer-generated imaging, looks something like a tree and I couldn’t help thinking about the thoughts in my lost poem landing like birds and then leaving the branches, unseen.  To interpret the tree of the poem-fragment as the brain gives a much darker reading because when all thoughts are gone, life and consciousness is at an end.  Did I retain this image so sharply and for so long because it was an early intimation of mortality?  Freud might have had other ideas!

The poem isn’t finished and I have a feeling the content will recur in another guise, possibly more than once, in future writing by me.  Sometimes it’s better to leave mysteries intact or only partially explained so that they have the force of ambiguity preserved within them.  Perhaps, like me, the writer of my lost bird poem was trying to recreate something he only partially remembered but felt the power of, nonetheless.




The image of the brain is from this website

The Wolfman’s painting is reproduced all over the internet, so if you own the  copyright, please contact me and I will remove.  I never knowingly reproduce copyrighted material on my blog.


The Great Spring

Natalie Goldberg, one of the greatest writers on freewriting, began as a student of Zen Buddhism.  It involved long hours of sitting meditation, disciplined timekeeping and mundane tasks, all in the spartan environment of the zendo (meditation centre). At the same time, she was beginning to write poetry, inspired by the idea that her own life in all its particularity and ordinariness could be material for poems.

In collaboration with her Zen master, Katagiri Roshi, she developed a way of using writing as her Zen practice.  As with meditation it was timed, she did it in a disciplined way and it honoured her actual life.  Her “writing practice” involved the attempt to capture thought as it occurred in the mind by writing it down for a set period of time without stopping or censoring and then repeating this activity daily.  The practice could have been anything, but because Natalie was a writer this is what she chose.  It was a way of observing the mind with detachment, and it also helped her develop as a writer.

The result of her practice was Writing Down the Bones (1986) a writing guide that has influenced thousands, maybe millions of people in America and across the world to take up writing practice and work with a form of freewriting as a spiritual activity and/or as a way to train as a writer.  Natalie Goldberg’s latest book is a wonderful collection of essays about her writing life and continued practice of Zen called The Great Spring: writing, Zen and this zigzag life.

No matter what you think of Zen, or indeed freewriting, Natalie is a compelling essayist.  Far more concerned with the truth than with selling her ideas, she talks more about failure than success.  The discipline of her practice and the humility and openness fostered by meditation has produced an inimitable style of precision and honesty.

She begins The Great Spring with a succinct expression of her core beliefs and her intentions for the current book: “I have searched through these stories,” she says, “to find answers — if answers are ever possible — about who I am and who I have become […] driven by the practice of Zen and writing”.  This attempt at total clarity was provoked, it seems, from being diagnosed with breast cancer (happily, I believe she is out of danger now) and in true Zen style, the book is made sharper and rawer by an awareness of mortality: “we are here,” she writes, “but not forever”.

From the Zen monastic tradition, Natalie has derived three important principles that have kept her going through a “long writing life”:

  1. Continue under all circumstances.  No excuses.
  2. Don’t be tossed away. If your kid falls and needs stitches, write in the waiting room. […]
  3. Make positive effort for the good. […] Positive effort doesn’t mean hauling a mountain to Iowa. Sometimes it just means getting out of bed and brushing your teeth.

The last of these principles was enormously helpful to me when we were going through a recent family illness and death.  In fact it seems to help in any situation.

And from Jack Kerouac she cites four principles for writers:

  • Accept loss forever
  • Be submissive to everything, open, listening.
  • No fear or shame in the dignity of your experience, language or knowledge.
  • Be in love with your life.

It might seem from this these lists that Natalie is in the business of neat self-help advice based on her own triumphs over adversity but The Great Spring is quite the opposite.  Each chapter wrestles with questions thrown up by broken friendship, the awareness of mortality, conflicts with family, or the problems of being well- (or not so well-) known.  A stand-out essay for me was “On the Shores of Lake Biwa,” which describes a trip to Japan in which all of Natalie’s illusions about the Zen tradition are shattered: no one “likes” Zen or has much time for it and the monasteries are mostly known for harbouring homosexuality.

Some of the best moments in the book are when Natalie struggles without success to solve the Zen riddles called “koans” that are designed to explode the rational mind (the most famous being ‘what is the sound of one hand clapping?’).  In “Blossom” she is at a Zen retreat and can’t even grasp what koan is being asked.  In the traditional one-to-one with the Zen master, when the student is supposed to try to answer the koan, her master (also a friend) assaults her in a possibly sexual manner.  On the way home when her car breaks down she is recognised by the car mechanics and actually asks them “who am I?”.

The experiences don’t add up but are placed in relation, and tension, with the story of Joseph (a Zen student in the 1970s) who realised that the answer to the supposedly easy koan “How do you manifest your true nature when chanting?” was to simply chant.  But when it came to it, Joseph was overcome by the memory of a teacher from schooldays telling him he was tone deaf and he could only manage to croak a few lines.  His teacher says “pretty good,” because, after all, the aim of the koan is to dismantle the individual’s habitual reliance on the illusion of certainty.  Natalie presents these scenes (her own and the story of Joseph) with brightly-lit pitch-perfect description and searing honesty and offers them to the reader without a resolution.

Instead of an exalted, mountain-top wisdom, the study of Zen and writing practice leads Natalie to experience and re-access in arresting detail her moments of complete disintegration as a person, such as the time when, going through her divorce, she has no option but to allow her parents to see the extent of her despair.  She describes the huarache sandals she wore on a visit to see them and the way her father’s put-down (“what are those, horse hooves?”) was the final straw.  She has a tantrum and leaves immediately.  But when her parents catch up with her on the road, she writes: “I uttered three words: ‘I am lost.’  I had no energy for a cover-up.  Those words came from my core”.  And despite the fact that this was clearly a significant moment for her, there’s no Hollywood ending: her parents are embarrassed and the whole incident ends with banality (“Now can we go eat?” says her father, “I’m starving”).

Natalie explains that, in Zen, “the great spring” is a way of describing enlightenment and that this is a shattering thing involving the hard and painful “acceptance of transiency”.  Paradoxically, writing practice, which is all about observing and recording experience, is her route to letting go and breaking through.  She says that her book is an “invitation to notice […] moments that move us forwards”.

I recommend reading this and all of Natalie’s books; she will inspire and provoke new approaches to both writing and life.  Here are some questions that I believe are thrown up by The Great Spring.  You might try to answer them using writing practice (set a timer, write continuously without reading back, go for the jugular, and be specific).  This is not a woolly, mystical quest.  It’s urgent and stark, because: “we are here, but not forever”.


  1. Who am I?
  2. Who have I become through writing/gardening/skiing (fill in whatever you do to seek something beyond yourself).
  3. Is my writing/gardening/skiing a spiritual practice and if not, could it be?
  4. From whom or what have I derived the most important principles for writing and/or life?
  5. What have been the most important turning points in my life and how, precisely, did they feel? What was I wearing/eating/thinking at those moments?


Picture credits, public domain:

Kodo Sawaki sitting in zazen meditation



Surrealist novels?

Can you name any Surrealist novels?  I don’t mean books with surreal elements such as magical, illogical or dream-like ideas or events, I mean novels about Surrealism as a movement or depicting Surrealist artists.  No?  That’s because there are very few.

When I conceived the idea of a novel about the mysterious woman at the centre of Breton’s 1929 book Nadja I was quite prepared to find it had already been done, but my research turned up nothing at all.  Great, I thought, I’ll write a Surrealist novel about Nadja.  But is a Surrealist novel simply one in which Surrealists appear or must it be Surrealist in a deeper sense?

In Nadja, Breton attacks the novel as a form of literature, even though the book he’s writing has many things in common with a novel and is often referred to as a novel.  His view (which held sway in the Surrealist group he led) was that the novel was a bourgeois form  of literature and in the service of oppressive conventionality.  The realist novel, which attempts to show life as it is in a faithful reflection of reality, is the absolute opposite of Surrealism’s aim to corrupt and explode normality in every way possible.  In particular, Breton writes in Nadja that he doesn’t like books with “keys”, in other words where characters are recognisably based on real people.

Of course some Surrealists of the early movement did write novels, such as Louis Aragon’s Paris Peasant (1924), and Angela Carter, for instance, wrote an incredibly interesting surrealist-influenced novel called The Infernal Desire Machines of Dr Hoffman in the early 1970s, but I want to talk about two recent Surrealist novels: one published in the 1990s and the other just a couple of years ago, as well as mentioning my own, which has yet to find the right publisher.

Robert Irwin’s The Exquisite Corpse (1995) and China Miéville’s The Last Days of New Paris (2016) take completely different approaches to the thorny problem of writing about Surrealism in the novel form.

Irwin’s book is squarely in the realist tradition (apart from the final chapter which I’ll mention again later) and gives a wry, ironic account of the British Surrealist group in the late 1930s and beyond.  The main character is Caspar who is not, I think, based on any real person although some figures connected with British Surrealism like Conroy Maddox are mentioned by name, as is the notorious occultist Aleister Crowley.  Caspar is an artist and meets Caroline, a conventional middle-class girl who works as a typist.  Her ordinariness enchants Caspar, who is entirely habituated to his life as a Surrealist (their first meeting occurs when he is conducting a Surrealist experiment by travelling around London blindfolded) and he falls in love.  Caspar’s obsession with Caroline (who finds him faintly ridiculous) structures the novel and he finally suffers a complete mental breakdown, accelerated by his experiments in mesmerism.  Caspar is in Munich as the Nazi threat is rising and some of the novels most original observations are on the way that the Nazi command actually takes Surrealism seriously.


The menace of Nazism is also the main feature of China Miéville’s book (which is billed as a novella).  The Last Days of New Paris, in total contrast to Irwin’s The Exquisite Corpse, is a Surrealist narrative in which Surrealism has infiltrated the story itself, but even the Surrealist events and altered reality of Miéville’s book are told using the usual techniques of the realist novel: a chronological tale with character, dialogue, action, back-story and so on.  (In fact it’s an open question as to whether as truly Surrealist novel could still be a novel at all: logical connections and a recognisable reality are surely vital to the novel as a form.)

In The Last Days of New Paris, a young man called Thibault is in Nazi-occupied Paris, in a parallel timeline.  In this Paris, Surrealist imagery has manifested (as “manifs”) meaning that actual incarnations of Surrealist painting, writing and games (from real historical artists and writers) are everywhere.  For instance, an exquisite corpse (a picture created from a paper-folding game like Consequences) made by Breton, Jacqueline Lamba and Yves Tanguy in 1938 has manifested as a sort of robot three metres tall and is roaming the streets.  Phenomena such as this have come about because of an accident with a machine that was powered by Surrealist energy and exploded, causing an “S-blast”.

Miéville’s novel is hugely original and exciting but it suffers from a deluge of action sequences which mean there is very little time to grow to care for the central characters (Thibault, and an American photojournalist called Sam who turns out not to be who she says she is).  The part I enjoyed most was the long set of notes at the end in which Miéville details the original Surrealist works of art and writing which, in the story, have become manifest.

In The Last Days of New Paris it turns out that the narrative has come from an eye-witness to the events and that he has told his story to the author (who then supplemented it with more research on Surrealism).  This is metafiction, where a fiction comments on itself as fictitious, and Irwin’s novel does the same: it turns out that the story Caspar writes is a book he has published so that Caroline will find him again (and it works, they are reunited many years later).

My novel Swimming with Tigers also works as metafiction by presenting a novel within a novel.  It’s closer to Irwin than Miéville and recreates the Surrealist group in Paris in the 1930s using composite characters made from real figures (Breton would have hated it!).  My characters see, dream, make, and sometimes even become, versions of works by Alberto Giacometti, Meret Oppenheim, Leonora Carrington, and many others, but I don’t alter reality in the way Miéville (who writes in the fantasy and sci-fi genre) does.

In the earlier stages of writing, I did experiment with allowing Surrealist elements to break through and shatter the realist style.  I experimented with passages in which works of art came to life and so forth, but these were unsuccessful and seemed mannered and artificial.  In the end I staked everything on the ghostly in-between state of the Nadja figure herself.

The novel within the novel is about a woman called Suzanne and appears to tell the true story of Breton’s Nadja by someone who knew her.  The narrator of the frame story, however, suspects that Suzanne might be merely the fictitious creation of the novel-within-a–novel’s author.  I tried very hard to hold these two possibilities in balance and produce a Surrealist double image: not one thing or another, but both.  By mixing the historical figure of Nadja (who some people regard as fictional anyway) with a fictitious history of her I hoped to create a richly ambiguous portrait worthy of this mysterious Surrealist mythic muse.

The challenge of writing a novel about Surrealism, for me, was to neither capitulate to the realist bias of the novel form, nor to end up in the territory of fantasy or science fiction.  After all, Surrealism is not the flight from reality into fantasy; it is the weird and unsettling merging of the real with the unreal.

Do tell me about any other recent novels about Surrealism that you have read: there may be many more that I have missed.  And do let me know what you thought of Irwin’s and Miéville’s stories if you’ve read these too.


Hopewell Ink on Radio 3

Instead of a post this month, here’s the link to the Radio 3 programme Exposure featuring my band Hopewell Ink at Neuadd Ogwen in Bethesda, North Wales, broadcast last Thursday.

We are on first, and there’s also a short interview in which I explain how these spoken word and music pieces started off as freewriting exercises.  Hope you enjoy it!

Exposure 29th March





If you would like to buy our CD, which is called The Cure for Silence, please go to the Hopewell Ink page here



Hopewell Ink – Exposed!

Since 2013 I’ve been part of a band called Hopewell Ink and we’ve performed in local venues around North Wales.  Hopewell Ink consists of spoken word, and various instruments including drums, harmonium, and slide guitar.  The words are written and performed by me, and the electronic or acoustic music and sounds are created and performed by my partner, David Hopewell.

On Wednesday March 14th BBC Radio 3 are hosting a gig at Neuadd Ogwen in Bethesda and Hopewell Ink will be performing at 8 p.m., followed by two other bands. Link to Neuadd Ogwen The gig will be broadcast on Radio 3 on Thursday March 29th at 11 p.m. on “Exposure” which is a monthly programme that showcases music from different parts of the country.

We perform pieces that range from descriptive landscape poems (such as “Curled Slug and Scaffolding”) to cheerful, almost danceable numbers (like “Hard Heart”).  Some tackle big topics such as what heaven might be like (if it existed), while others are less grand: one is about an annoying, unidentifiable noise.  There are soundscapes of the natural environment and word-portraits of cities, people and daydreams.  We even try to tune in to the whispered words of dead spirits.

There’s a CD in production called “The Cure for Silence” (named after the title track) and we’re hoping that copies will be available on the night, and as downloads at

I compose all the words for Hopewell Ink and every piece I’ve worked on has started out as freewriting.  It will have been a ten-minute freewrite on a random topic, perhaps, or something I’ve written when away from home in response to a new place.  I then take the kernel or even a whole passage of freewritten material and develop it, by addition or subtraction, into a finished shape.  Usually what I produce has a beginning, middle and end, but sometimes it will bear the trace of the associational nature of freewriting and work more like a series of loosely-connected images, which is how Still Life with Old Shoe ended up.  You can listen to that track here

To get another view on Hopewell Ink, I thought I’d interview my band member David, NME-style.  Below are my questions (“me”) and his responses (“him”):

It’s Sunday lunchtime and we’re sitting in the kitchen.  David’s just made some soup.  He’s wearing a Captain Beefheart T-shirt and is finishing off the dregs of a bottle of brandy.  He seems somewhat reluctant at first to answer my questions, so I start with the easy ones:

Me: How would you describe Hopewell Ink?

Him: Spoken songs?  Or maybe art music.  Sound art, perhaps.

Me: Would you say it was experimental?

Him: Not exactly experimental.  Unusual.  It’s unusual because it has spoken word with specifically composed musical backing.  Not many people do this.  The late Jayne Cortez, who performed with Ornette Coleman was one. [here’s a link to Cortez performing with her son]

Me: What would you say is the usual format, then, for spoken-word and music performance?

Him: Rap.  But rap is street music and we’re coming from a different context, which I suppose is poetry on the page.  Rap is the route most people go down, like Kate Tempest.  It’s aggressive, in-your-face, and we’re more contemplative.

Me: You come from an environmental sound recording background.  How does that connect to what you do with Hopewell Ink?

Him: Well, if you remember [I didn’t!] the first incarnation of Hopewell Ink was in one of my long pieces of environmental recordings called Surfaces [here’s the  link ]

In Surfaces I used hydrophones, contact mics on fences and Aeolian instruments [instruments played by the wind].  You added some spoken words but they were just one element and added after the other parts were put together, whereas now the words are the focus.  Back then, when I was doing the original recordings at The Spinneys [a bird reserve near Bangor] or by the river [in the Ogwen valley], you were freewriting at the same time, in the same place.

Me: How important is the environmental sound aspect in Hopewell Ink?

Him: Not very.  But we do have it on one track: Newborough.  We might use it again in the future but it would be a different balance between the spoken and field recordings because the focus is on the words now.  And we have shorter pieces.

Me: Would you say what Hopewell Ink does is “difficult” or “inaccessible”?

Him: No.  Generally people like listening to it and find it interesting, and moving.  It’s very accessible.  Some spoken word is very formulaic and stylised but I think Hopewell Ink is more accessible because there’s more going on.  The aim is to add additional elements to the spoken word format and give it more depth.

Me: Can you sing along/dance/take drugs/have sex to Hopewell Ink?

Him: Sing? No.  Dance? Occasionally.  Take drugs?  I’ve heard it’s happened.  Have sex?  Well, the one about the dead people might put you off.

Me: Is it any good to put on in the background, at a party, maybe, or while working?

Him: Terrible idea.  You wouldn’t want it on at a party, unless you want it to sound like there’s more people there.  And it’s definitely not background music.  It invites active listening.

Me: What’s that?

Him: Active, or deep listening as Pauline Oliveros calls it, is where you consciously bring attention to something rather than a more passive approach where you already know what you are going to hear (like Abba’s Greatest Hits).

Me: Improvisation is one of your other musical interests.  Do you improvise as part of the process for Hopewell Ink?

Him: All the music and sounds for Hopewell Ink are improvised at the composition stage and some elements are improvised on stage.  I have a basic structure but I never play exactly the same thing twice.  I do use some loops, though.  They are either recorded in advance or during the performance, then I set them to run as a backing.

Me: People might be interested to know if the words or the music come first.

Him: Words more often come first but not always.  I had the concept for Electronic Voice Phenomenon [a piece about the spiritualist idea of being able to hear the voices of dead people in electronic white noise] and you produced the words.  Most often I’ve had a musical idea and you’ve offered a piece of freewriting to fit it, then we’ve worked on it together.

Me: What’s the best and worst thing that’s happened during a Hopewell Ink gig?

Him: Best: when we got Electronic Voice Phenomenon to work properly and everyone was surprised, and a bit spooked, to find the room filling up with whispering voices.  Worst: major technological breakdowns almost every other time we’ve tried to perform Electronic Voice Phenomenon.

Me: Like the time the echo wouldn’t work and the loop had a recording of us arguing on it that we couldn’t switch off?

Him: Yes, that one.

Me: Where do you see Hopewell Ink going next?

Him: I’m guessing you mean artistically.  We seem to be producing simpler things.  Shorter, and snappier, like “Ticking” rather than the older stuff like “Still Life with Old Shoe” that’s longer and more complicated.  But it all depends what inspiration strikes next.  It might be a concept album!  One of my favourite pieces of music recently was “Sleep” by Max Richter and that lasts eight hours.

Me: Hmm.  We’ll see.  Finally, what’s your rider for our gig on 14th March?

Him: It’d better be another bottle of brandy,  I’ve finished this one!

Finding Your Voice

Some artists have an utterly distinctive voice.  Within a second of hearing one twisted, mournful note, I can recognise the great Johnny Marr of The Smiths.  In the same way, the weirdly uncomfortable but perfect half-beat-off of Emily Dickinson’s poetry springs out at me before I have had time to check the quotation is hers.  Like Marr’s whining, piercing sound, Dickinson’s skewed verbal rhythm is as recognisable as her photograph.

How do you “find your voice”?  It stands to reason that each one of us is a unique physical incarnation of humanity with an unrepeatable set of experiences and reactions leading to a collection of beliefs, knowledge and memories which, taken together, are unlike anyone else’s. To find an individual style (in words, music, visual art and so on) is surely a case of using that medium to externalise or embody our uniqueness.  Sounds easy?  I’d say it’s the hardest thing a creative person has to do.

My championing of freewriting is bound up with my own attempt to do this: I believe that if I think about how to be uniquely myself while writing then it’s likely to be strained, self-conscious and, paradoxically, imitative.  But if I can forget myself (and the speed of freewriting is what helps here) the “real” me can come out, a bit like when I’m with people I know and love versus in a formal, highly judgemental situation: the chances of saying something original and genuine are much greater on a walk with my son than at a job interview where I’m trying to make a good impression.

Natalie Goldberg  has a great story about voice in her book Thunder and Lightning: Cracking Open the Writer’s Craft (p.137-40).  It’s about a friend and student of hers called Barbara Schmitz who began by writing obscure, avant-garde, oblique poems which were seemingly at odds with her character and background.  Natalie was less than impressed with the work and advised her instead to “write what you know” but Barbara, to her credit, kept ploughing her own, odd, furrow.  Some years later, Natalie received a poem from her and was astounded at its brilliance.  It was off-centre, original but also unmistakably rooted in her friend’s life and personality.  “You finally matched yourself on paper,” Natalie told her friend on the phone (I love that part!).

It seems that the student had to inhabit a very alien style and register in order to finally ‘express’ herself.  But these terms I’m using are beginning to make me feel uncomfortable.  I have taught and studied in university literature departments for over thirty years now and even when I started out as a wide-eyed idealist, the tide of ‘theory’ was creeping up to drown such naive ideas as an essential self which pre-exists language and waits to be expressed in art.  Poststructuralist theories (thrillingly French, wreathed in cigarette smoke) made us question what creative writing teachers, then and now, impress on their apprentice writers: find your voice, express your authentic self.

For instance, when it was explained to me that it was impossible to write a novel or a sonnet, or anything else that counts as literature, without having first read one (not just unwise; actually impossible) I accepted that language did indeed “speak me” and not the other way around.  And yet.  And yet.  Still I yearn for it to be true that something written by me could be evidence of my complete originality; as seemingly expressive of a unique self as the nudes of Pablo Picasso or the novels of Virginia Woolf.

It might be best to concede the poststructuralists their victory and admit that what we create will be a version of what we have seen other artists produce and that in the end we all have the same palette of colours, scales and meanings.  But the combination: yes! and the skill in mixing and selecting and searching out the right fit, all of that can be done by will and determination.  In the end, maybe a unique voice can be constructed rather than found, pre-existing within, by sheer hard work.


Credits:Dickinson, and Where’s Wally? world record attempt images: Creative Commons, Thunder and Lightning cover: fair use