Home Sweet Home

Seems my work has taken on a bit of a theme in the past few weeks – not something I’ve planned, but something that’s happened on its own and now that I am noticing it, I quite like it.

First, there’s the storytelling / blogging project I’m doing in The Wirral – funded by Liverpool Biennial and project-managed by Elaine Speight, the brains behind the Preston art project Tunnel Visions, among other things. Yesterday was spent in Rock Ferry Library (I chickened out and went on the train, so no terrifying drive through The Tunnel) meeting prospective participants and firming up our ideas about the shape the project will take. More on this in the weeks to come.

Second, I’ve just been booked to deliver a few workshops in various Greater Manchester locations on the theme of writing about place for Rainy City Stories, Kate Feld’s story-telling project and have been preparing / procrastinating by delving through the archives. You can read my own Manchester story here and my thoughts about being a Lancastrian writer here.

Place, and a sense of it, is more than just where to set the fiction I was going to write anyway. It is more than picking a few street-names and landmarks to use for stage dressing and backdrop.

Here’s what I mean: A Kind of Intimacy couldn’t happen anywhere other than Fleetwood: the ‘I thought this was going to be like Blackpool’ sense of disappointment pervades the book and, I’ve noticed, means more to audiences I’ve read to and spoken with in the North West than elsewhere.  

Cold Light takes place in an odd, fictionalised version of Preston. It’s set in 1998, but not a 1998 that I ever experienced. The shops are open twenty-four hours a day, there are television screens everywhere, the outside world is a rumour and again, this sense of disappointment pervades – even though the school teachers get to wear their red socks on the morning after the 1997 election. I’m resigned to the fact that the topography of the novel will mean more to me and the ten or so Preston residents who read my work than anyone else. We’re not like Manchester, Edinburgh or Sheffield – the street names and landmarks don’t speak to anyone except for us. And I’ve used these landmarks in the book – not as stage-dressing, but to make this place familiar as well as strange. Cold Light‘s Preston  is the Preston it might have been, if what happens in the story really did happen – events so important they bend The City out of shape and make it into something foreign and familiar, uncanny and homely.

So I have discovered that for me, writing about a place is one of the ways I can interact with it – it’s more engaged and intimate than just taking a walk or taking a few pictures (although wouldn’t be, I expect, for a real photographer). And writing about a very familiar place makes it into something new and strange – just as whenever I try and write autobiographical pieces, factions, personal essays, whatever, they come out story-shaped and frilled with lies.

That’s the experience I’m hoping to give my Wirral workshop group – lending them my eyes – unfamiliar with their territory, and helping them to shape their thoughts and experiences into a set of linked, blogged fictions about Wirral and not-Wirral. They’re a group with vastly differing experiences of writing, blogging, working collaboratively and using the internet as well as the real world to make fiction. I’m not sure yet how it’s going to work out but I’m looking forward to finding out.

All this got me thinking about briefs, requirements, creative boundaries because for this project to work and for me to be able to tie up the stories into something linked and web-like, I’m going to have to be a little bit directive. And as a creative writing tutor and a human being, I try to avoid doing that too much. Deadlines and instructions and imposed forms are okay if you set them for yourself, but there’s a voice in my head, as I plan the story-brief for the Wirral writers, that is saying, ‘and who are you to tell them how they are allowed to write about their town?’

This made me remember the discussion I had with Sophie Hannah at Ormskirk Library a couple of months ago – she said she set herself the challenge of resolving the plot-conundrum that kicks off the action of the book (women claims the baby in her house is not hers, for example) and doesn’t allow herself to get out of it  – to fail. That for her, creativity means solving the problem and balancing the equation (I am paraphrasing). Then and now this and made me think about my own process as a writer and as a teacher.

I’ve been evaluating the project that I did at the prison – examining the feedback that I got from the men in the creative writng group as well as my own jotted-down throughts on the workshop as they happened.  There were two deadlines for this writing project, which involved flash fiction, memoir and lots of ‘what if’ thinking. I was fairly prescriptive about what ‘Flash Fiction’ meant, and what themes I wanted the men to address in their writing, and how I wanted them to interact with me and each other during the six workshop sessions I held in the prison.

Feedback time came, and I asked them about this – asked if I’d been too prescriptive and directive, if they’d have liked more freedom in the form or the theme, if they felt they’d been able to make enough choices about the way their own work developed. Generally, the feeling was that the form and the structure of the project had helped, that at best they’d enjoyed finding ways to be creative inside the ‘rules’ and that at the very least, they’d learned that writing didn’t always need to be heart-felt and spontaneous in order to be ‘good’ (I think the man who said this meant, ‘I liked what I wrote and felt pleased with it’ when he said ‘good’).

So I’m trying to make this – my thinking about place, and rules around writing, form, structural decisions, the things I’m learning about myself through teaching and planning projects, my wish to help other people and myself to finding a place to be creative in – all these thoughts – into something useful for me to take into the planning phases of my next novel, which is glimmering in the corner of my eye and needs some attention.

I don’t think I am there yet. Maybe blogging about it is part of getting me to that spot. 

5 responses to “Home Sweet Home”

  1. Megan says:

    This is all so fascinating – setting is hugely important to me too and been the focus of the few workshops I've run.
    And I think people like a few rules, if sometimes only to kick against.

  2. screamish says:

    It's interesting what you say about how writing about a place helps you really engage with it. I suppose it's one way of feeling that you 'own' the place…a different way of inhabiting it, thru the characters that you create, making it your own. I'm not too knowledgable (cant even spell it!) about the theories of fiction and writing but that seems to me to be an interesting concept to explore, for someone studying say immigrant fiction, or like you, a writer, developing ideas about the place where you live…that writing about a town or a neighbourhood allows you to really appropriate it and people it with your own story, through the lives of your characters who can inhabit and exist in a number of different ways that you as a single person could never do….

  3. Dave Hartley says:

    This is a really interesting post Jenn. I too have been thinking about place and the way different people have different senses of a fixed and unchangable place, like a city.

    I'm trying to write some things set in a Manchester which is, as you say, familiar in places and uncanny in others. A Manchester that could possibly be, but only if you look at it differently, and even then it stays hidden.

    Cities are intiguing. I just read a novel by China Mieville called The City and The City which is about just this kind of thing. Two cities co-exist in the same space, but strict laws mean that the residents of one city cannot acknowledge the presence of the other. Its a compelling story, well worth picking up.

    Being a Prestonian, the description of your latest novel intigues, and I look forward to it with excitement. I also look forward to these workshops in Manchester that Kate's got you doing. when will they be? I'd love to get on board!

    Dave

  4. Kelly says:

    Some serious thoughts you have there.. I perfectly can relate with your realization of discovering the unfamiliar thru writing. Words can be so powerful that it can do bring you to see things on a different light :>

    Great post you have here.

  5. Jenn Ashworth says:

    Megan – I think you're right, and I think as a teacher I've learned to judge the ability and the experience of the class – rules are okay, but I'd hate to give the impression I wanted the point of my workshop to be inculcating a group of writers into a set of rules they must slavishly follow. I've started to talk about it in terms of 'cause and effect' – if you do this, the writing feels like this, is that what you wanted to happen?

    That helps a little bit.

    Screamish – you are bob on. I'm more interested in the way my home is unfamiliar and odd than I am in inhabiting other places with my writing, but I can see how the ideas are connected for other writing. I guess I don't feel like I 'own' anywhere – there's not a sense of belonging, but one of utter strangeness, and I like that, and I like writing about it. I wish I could be more specific. Still thinking though.

    Dave – thank you. I'm glad you liked reading it! I suppose my thinking is that Cities are like people, and not fixed and unchangeable. Or at least, I try to treat place in the same way as I treat character in my novels. Which is to say that the city is as unreliable as the narrator, maybe. Kate is the person to ask about the workshops.

    Kelly – thank you. I'm glad you liked the post. I used to think that writing about something would help me to get to know it better. Instead I am learning that writing about something makes it even more strange to me.

    Curiouser and curiouser.

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