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.