The Blog: a guided tour

It was January 2015 when, inspired by a weekend of baking bread with Mick Hartley The Partisan Baker, I composed my first post for The Freewriter’s Companion.

I had two aims.

One was to popularize freewriting, a liberating and fertile method of smashing writing blocks and of generating material that can form the basis of stories, poems or novels.

The second aim was to promote Surrealist women artists and writers from the past such as Dorothea Tanning, Meret Oppenheim and Leonora Carrington who have been overshadowed by their male counterparts (Salvador Dali, Rene Magritte, Andre Breton, and so on).

The combination of freewriting and Surrealism was important to me for other reasons too. I had been researching a novel about Surrealism and at the same time experimenting with Natalie Goldberg’s methods of writing practice. It occurred to me that this approach to creative writing was really a Surrealist one and resembled the automatic writing that all the Surrealists practised in the 20s and 30s. I wondered why no one (apart from literary critics such as Kevin Brophy and a few others) had brought these two things together.

So I did.

I taught freewriting courses at Bangor University’s Lifelong Learning department until its tragic closure in 2017 and then launched some very successful independent courses of my own in a local cafe. Students found freewriting hugely useful, easy and rewarding and produced excellent, original work from it, often accessing their own “voice” for the first time.

Freewriting Back to Basics

I started sending out free weekly prompts via email in January 2019 and at the time of writing I have well over 300 subscribers.  Along the way, some of my blog posts were particularly successful such as the directly useful Become a Writer in 10 Minutes and Six Uses for Freewriting.

People were kind enough to respond to my posts and to share in my admiration and love for a family member we lost in 2017 who turned out to have been a writer of no mean achievement.

In other posts I was able to acknowledge my gratitude to wonderful writing “gurus” such as Natalie Goldberg and Anne Lamott. In a slightly more playful mood I characterised Goldberg and other advocates of freewriting as great performers such as Bowie and Jimi Hendix.

I enjoyed the chance to explore the feminist aspects of the critical neglect of women Surrealists in a post about the Surrealist muse and was gratified that people were keen to read about the way I fictionalised the 1938 International Exhibition of Surrealism in Paris in my own novel.

Also, people across the world seemed to enjoy the Surrealist Christmas games I described and my post even got a mention in The Guardian.

My blog has also been the go-to place for news and backstory on the spoken word band that my partner David and I formed in 2011 called Hopewell Ink. You can read an interview with David here, conducted by me, in which I try to persuade him to describe what Hopewell Ink is all about.

2021 sees a new departure for The Freewriter’s Companion as I launch two online courses in freewriting and I hope that my five-year blog archive will serve as a resource for people curious about freewriting, surrealism and everything inbetween.

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.

Happy Endings and the other kind

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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:

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.

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.


Un-free writing, and possession

Right now, like my own students, I’m revising my work.

On April 8th, a year after starting, I completed the first draft of my new novel The Dead Have Time to Listen.  It was an intense last few weeks in which the writing took over my waking and sleeping life and I wrote more and more words every day.  The feeling at the end of writing a novel is like nothing else: a state of possession in which the people and events of the story seem as real, if not more so, than the events of real life.  Now I am the Red-peneditor of my own work: niggling away at every clunky word, misplaced comma and dodgy reference, and trying to root out every glitch and continuity error.  As a teacher I am used to marking (I like it!) but you can probably tell which part of the writing process I prefer!

Revision is a particularly extreme example of un-free writing and it’s led me to reflect by contrast on the qualities of that total immersion in character at the conclusion of writing a novel.  This spontaneous outpouring (sometimes I couldn’t even stop when I tried!) is surely an example of very free writing and I would also liken it to a sort of trance, or possession by spirits, in which the writer is taken over by another identity.  (This is why I can’t answer the phone when I’m working: I’m really not at home!)

Not co-incidentally, my novel is narrated by a dead spirit and also contains scenes of possession in which the narrator provides the highly unusual perspective of being the spirit doing the possessing.

Crevel and TzaraThis also reminds me that the Surrealists were really spiritualists at the very beginning (they called it “the period of sleeping fits”).  In the early 1920s, when Breton was formulating the tenets of the movement, it was the fashion for members of the group to fall into trances and speak or write messages from occult sources. Breton never believed these were communications from the dead but he did accept that they were from the unconscious. Unfortunately, the rivalry that Breton inspired in his followers led to more and more extreme performances of trance and hypnotism.  Robert Desnos and René Crevel competed to fall into ever-deeper states of alienation until Crevel (on the right in the picture) led a mass suicide attempt and Breton called a halt to the whole thing.

Keith Johnstone’s book Impro (on techniques of improvisation for drama students) has been a really important source for my novel and in it he describes the trances of voodoo ceremonies and the equivalent effects of actors being possessed by masks.  He talks about the masks as being inhabited by actual beings who take over their wearer and how the actors have no recollection of the things they have done or the time they have spent under the influence of the mask.

Spanish masksSpooky stuff, but actually sort of familiar to me from that last push on the novel when I would emerge, thousands of words and hours later, with the sensation of not having lived as myself at all.  If I can create the same suspension of self in my readers, then the novel will really have succeeded!

Overall, it seems to be the week for all things dead.  My partner and I perform as Hopewell Ink (see the About page for a recording) and we have been developing a new piece called Electronic Voice Phenomenon.  If you don’t know about EVP it’s, again, linked to the spiritualist tradition and the theory is that the voices of the dead can sometimes be heard in electronic white noise.  The practice of listening for spirit voices in electronic technology goes right back to the earliest gramophone records.

Maori maskFor Hopewell Ink’s attempt to hear the dead speak, I’ve cheated a bit and written some scripts of what they might be saying if we could hear them.  If by chance you can come to our performance at 6.30 on May 22nd in the Crosville Club in Bangor (North Wales), you’ll be able to catch snatches of their reminiscences.  During the performance I’ll do my best to allow these spirits to take over so that, just like the characters in my novel, they can push aside my ordinary, “real” self for a short time at least.


Image sources:

Leonora Carrington at Liverpool Tate: hit or miss?

Major solo exhibitions of women Surrealists are extremely rare so when I first heard that Liverpool Tate were putting on an exhibition of work by the painter and writer Leonora Carrington, I was excited. The Giantess

This would be the first British exhibition for 20 years and, after her death in 2011, it felt like a summing up. Before going, I had heard that there was very little information about her in the exhibition, and no catalogue. Well, I thought, this is perhaps a good thing. Every article I have ever read about Leonora begins with a journalistic account of her extraordinary life from Lancashire debutante to muse of Max Ernst in Paris, then mental breakdown in Spain and finally dramatic escape to Mexico where she lived into old age, continuing to paint and write. The story is irresistible and I, too, am guilty of exploiting it by selecting parts to dramatise in my own novel, Swimming with Tigers. But I was hoping that for once a woman artist might be presented as an artist first, and that biography, in the form of the perennial obsession with women’s sex lives over and above their artistic practice and influences, would be of secondary or minimal importance.

So I went to Liverpool full of high hopes and there were indeed very little details. Of any kind. Worse still, apart from perhaps half a dozen paintings, it felt as though her best work was missing and instead there were many of the more pale, fanciful, schematic pictures plus a lot of juvenile work, some interesting but not particularly gripping theatre artefacts and a frankly embarrassing film that she’d designed costumes for in the early 1970s. It was wonderful to see The Giantess (1950) and have the opportunity to study the tiny figures at the base close up, to see the scale of the magnificent Temptation of St Antony (1947) and the compelling Oval Lady (1942) (well annotated, as an exception). Also there was the entrancing And Then We Saw the Daughter of the Minotaur (1953), whose dancing figure on the right is perhaps my favourite piece of Carrington iconography.

Daughter of the MinotaurBut in the three rooms of the exhibition there was none of that fizz of energy, excitement and transgression that a good Surrealist exhibition has, and that the Manchester Art Gallery’s exhibition of 2009, Angels of Anarchy, had in spades (Carrington’s The Inn of the Dawn Horse, 1937, was a highlight in Manchester and noticeably absent from Liverpool). I blamed myself. Perhaps I was not in the right mood? Then I started to blame Leonora! Could it be that her life’s work didn’t really add up to much after all?

At home I looked again at Susan Aberth’s excellent book Leonora Carrington: Surrealism, Alchemy and Art (2004) and began to suspect that it was the selection, as well as the curation, of the Liverpool exhibition that had let her down. I know next to nothing about putting together an exhibition of this kind but I did notice how the overwhelming majority of the work was described as belonging to private collections. This is not unusual for Surrealist work, I know, but was it part of the problem? The difficulty of gathering Carrington’s strongest work from individuals across the globe must be immense. But the minimal commentary was not excusable. I know from many years of working on women writers and teaching classes about them that readers have to be given the tools to understand and enter into unknown work. It was good to avoid the “superstar” or tabloid gossip approach but information about Carrington’s intellectual and artistic context was sorely needed. Surely it would have been better to fill one wall with ideas and references than with the series of paintings she did at art school, age 16!

The critics have been fairly neutral. Alice Spawls in The London Review of Books remarked on the curious lack of humour in a show about one of the wittiest of the Surrealists, (although I did revel in the delightful bronze Albino Hog (2003), which was black!). The best newspaper review is by Alastair Sooke in the Telegraph and although it is negative overall, he does try to assess Carrington on her own terms, suggesting she was less of a Surrealist than part of a British tradition of fairy painters. I hope there will be a further, better, show of her work before too long and would encourage everyone to go to Liverpool (the exhibition is on til the end of May) and decide for themselves!
I’m extremely glad that Tate Liverpool have put the spotlight on her and I hope it will send interested people (perhaps including Alastair Sooke?) to seek out Abeth’s book which demonstrates what a unique, fascinating and gifted artist she really was. Carrington’s literary work: hilarious, politically subversive and truly surreal, will be the subject of another post.

Freewriting is Surrealist!

Most creative writing guidebooks, even when they recommend freewriting (or whatever they call it) don’t mention its origin in Freud’s theories and Surrealist practice.  Knowing where it came from might enlarge the way we do it.  If freewriting is magic then going back to the origin might be where the magic is strongest.