Archive for the ‘grumpy’ Category

To Cap it All

Sunday, July 17th, 2011

Irritated out of my blog silence by this article, in yesterday’s Guardian. I’ve heard it said that all British fiction engages with ideas and conflicts that spring from class – and that US fiction is similarly fascinated by race. Not irritated by the article, actually, but by this quotation within it. From Ian Haywood.

“…the term working-class writer has always been something of an oxymoron because at the point at which this writer gets published, they must have moved away from their original circumstances.”

Which suggests what? Class is something you can publish or buy your way out of? You get an advance, move house and you are suddenly not interested in the things you used to be interested in? They must have moved away? Really? Must have? Didn’t work that way for me, and my experience isn’t unusual at all.

Mobility is a difficult thing, isn’t it? As if it’s bad to be working class, whatever that means, and as soon as possible you must ‘move away’ from it? It’s important to progress, to be aspirational, to get a semi detached house and send your children to piano lessons (or insert other silly stereotype of your choice here).

I like to write about ordinary people. Ordinary is a relative term, based on my own experience of ordinary, with loads of imagined stuff chucked in. Perhaps some of my readers find my characters exotic.Should I write a country house novel? I could, if I wanted to. And country-house man could write a council estate novel, if he wanted to. And people will buy and read what they find interesting, and its to do with stories and characters and not how much money those characters make, or where about in the country they live. Or at least I hope it is. I think it is.

I’m actually getting a bit bored by my own interest in all things class. Seems very old fashioned of me.


Tuesday, September 21st, 2010

It has come to my attention that my house is fairly filthy. Blogging has given way to washing the sofa covers, wiping cupboards and brushing up behind and under things. I’ve been asked at festivals and events how I find the time to do everything that I do, and my answer is always something blithe and self-deprecating and to do with neglecting the housework / failing to hoover / having a very understanding and low maintenance Mr.

Domestic neglect has been the game plan for about three or four years now, and because there’s more cat-hair, biscuit crumbs and dust than carpet The Progeny have mighty immune systems. Still, the rot has got to stop somewhere.

Which is a roundabout way of saying sorry, this blog has been quiet, and trust me, there are cobwebs gathering here but my house is almost sparkling.

And isn’t washing sofa covers the most boring job in the world?

In other news, my friends Valerie, Kim and Daisy have all recently completed their MAs in Creative Writing. Hooray and Congratulations! I’m feeling a bit jealous of all this end of term gadding about while at Ashworth Towers I’ve been learning how the hoover works again (there’s a bit you can pull out and empty… who knew?)

Lest you think I’ve gone all 1950s housewife (pfft!) I’ve got a new job teaching Creative Writing at UCLAN (students, pupils, fellow writers – I promise your experience during my workshops won’t be (much) like this) and I am brewing interviews with and reviews of Nik Perring’s Not So Perfect, Sarah Hymas’ poetry collection Host and my new birthday present Amazon Kindle. (I am not going to interview my Kindle. Hoovering has not driven me over the edge just yet).

In Cold Light news, I’m nearing the end of my final round of edits and helping, in very small ways, to devise jacket-blurb. I’m kind of shy about talking about it (editing) too much here – partly because my vanity would like to maintain the illusion that there was very little editing to do and indulge myself in the polite fiction that the manuscript was sold to my publisher perfectly complete and finished.

Still, if you want to know about the Writing Life know this: even writers who pontificate in their classes and workshops about how necessary humility and flexibility and a willingness to listen to feedback, to murder darlings etc are to creating a piece of good writing, and writers who internally and secretly can’t quite believe that being a Good Writer does not always equal being a Good Person (we’ll unknot that in another blog post) can throw epic three day long strops / silences / broods /sulks over suggested cuts (one mug broken) do them anyway and realise wise editor was correct.

In order to calm my frazzled self and do something other than typing or talking about typing or looking at other people’s typing, I am going back to my pottery class. Who wants a limited edition, ugly, lopsided Thing. Is it a mug? Is it an ashtray? You Decide!

Reading + Rage

Saturday, June 26th, 2010

Something else I’ve been doing, while languishing (okay, it wasn’t that bad, but it felt like it) is catching up with my reading. After a hectic few months at the beginning of this year working on the final draft of Cold Light it was good to get a few lazy afternoons under the duvet with my books.

Here they are. You’d think I’d chosen them to co-ordinate with my bedroom – all those moody blues and greys and blacks, but it just worked out that way, honest.

I’ve noticed what I like about books right now. The strange colliding with the domestic. The creepy and the unusual right up alongside cups of tea and cheese-graters, ashtrays and doormats and bottles of domestos. Until we’re not sure what we’re supposed to be scared of – the body hanging in the hallway or the half-chopped carrot on the chopping board. Odes to ordinary that are anything but.

I’m not going to get into this ‘domestic writing’ = ‘small, insignificant, female writing’ argument that crops up with dull regularity. I like novels about kitchens and marriages and houses just as much as I like novels about the end of the world, monsters, murderers and psychopaths. I like writing about people’s secrets, and to me, most of the secrets – the keeping and the telling – happen behind drawn curtains, closed doors and while we’re waiting for the kettle to boil. There’s nothing small or feminine about ordinary.

But that wasn’t what I wanted to get into, anyway.

So, I’ve read Lesley Glaister’s Chosen (in the interests of fairness, Tindal Street sent me this for free but didn’t say I had to blog about it, or anything like that…) and Tom Fletcher’s The Leaping – just out with Quercus (which I bought with my own money) and they’re such different books – worlds apart, really. Glaister’s is a kind of psychological thriller about a religious cult – a parallel narrative (they’re so easy to mis-step with, but she doesn’t) set in New York state and the UK. Fletcher’s book is a literary meditation on modern urban anxieties, the dead years after graduation, work, cancer and outside. And a were-wolf horror novel set in my favourite bit of Cumbria – Wasdale and Wast Water.

Actually, it’s not really Cumbria, it’s a kind of alternative West Cumbria. Like the Lancashire in my writing isn’t really Lancashire, but just the way I imagine it to be, or the way my characters think it is. I like writing where setting becomes character and theme, where it’s more than where it happens.

I think the thing these two books have in common and the thing I liked very much about them both was their attention to domestic detail – the dignity these narratives give to the ordinary, just by noticing it. In The Leaping we don’t just get a bloodbath, we get to see the characters cleaning it up. There are red skies and creepy snowmen and animals whose legs bend backwards and there are bits of bread going mouldy in the packet, dismal nights out at dismal nightclubs, horrible carpets, film posters, xboxes and arguments over who makes the tea.

Glaister’s book does this too. The hanging body and half-chopped carrot belong to her, as do the ‘spindly ends’ of meagre tab-ends crushed in an ashtray and smoked in a dreary house, on a dreary night. The Soul Life Centre – the house of the cult described in the book – isn’t mysterious so much as it is mundane, with piles of shared black socks and lilac pyjamas; constant tea that smells and tastes a bit funny and yet, without wanting to spoil the ending, there’s a lot here that is also too-strange-to-be-believed, unexpected and impossible-feeling.

Right now I’m reading P.D James, A Taste of Death. I really want to write a detective novel. I thought number three might be it, but I don’t think it will be. It will have elements of the form, but why always interests me more than how. The thing I notice about P.D James’ writing is how much information, how much detail we get – not all of it relevant or significant. I like James Wood on significant and insignificant detail, about using facts and information and noticings to build up ‘realism’. There’s a profusion of it in A Taste of Death – so much that it makes me forget the plot sometimes.  It works though – mainly, I think, because the narration is focalised through a series of detectives and police officers who of course would notice and give domestic detail significance it wouldn’t have had otherwise. Or the fact of the murder intensifies the noticing – casts a bright light onto things, makes the brand-name of the mushroom flan important.

…people’s living space, and the personal possessions with which they surrounded themselves, were inevitably fascinating to a detective, an affirmation of identity, intriguing both in themselves and as a betrayal of character, interests, obsessions.

I think you could replace detective with ‘writer’ here and you’d sum up a lot of writers that I know and admire. The stuff people carry around with them, forget they own, choose to hide or display or forget in their houses. When I’m trying to picture a character I often start with the objects they own – the things he’d hide away if his mother were staying over, the objects he’d put out on display if a new friend came for tea. Writers are like detectives. I will think more about this.

I’m looking forward to doing more reading over the next couple of weeks. I’ve decided to stay in from now on. From now until I’m thin again, which won’t be very long at all. Partly because I get tired and it hurts me to walk about, and partly because if I’m on the receiving end of one more piece of unsolicited parenting advice, if one more person says, ‘ooh, you not had that baby yet’ (yes, I did, but I didn’t like the look of it so decided to stuff it back in there…) or asks me how long there is to go (one day less than the last time you asked me) or quizzes me about things that I blush talking to my doctor about (you wouldn’t believe the sort of things people think it’s okay to ask you) I swear down on both my red bookcases I will not be responsible for my actions. Best for everyone I keep inside the house, I think. That’s probably the reason they call it your ‘confinement’.

On Compromise and Stilton Jars

Tuesday, March 30th, 2010

This is a kind of follow-on to my last post, which was about working within boundaries – both as a creative writer, and as someone who works on creative writing projects and teaches creative writing to others.

It was about the way I feel that boundaries can either shape or stifle the work, and me feeling a bit uncomfortable about setting other people boundaries – even though I know I can be very creative inside some rules myself and I know that sometimes writers appreciate a brief, a nudge in the right direction, a set of guidelines to bump up against.

I still haven’t found an answer to that one – still haven’t decided how I feel, other than ‘it depends’.

This post is about compromise, which is related, I think. Doing creative work might seem to be full of kicks and freedom and a world away from the 9-5 drudge you do for a boss, but in actual fact it is often a series of compromises between what I would like to do, and what the funders require – what I think is best or most effective, and what ticks the right boxes. Sometimes this means working really creatively on developing and delivering a project that ticks everyone’s boxes (that idea of boundaries being inspiring again) and sometimes, it doesn’t. Sometimes is means he who pays the piper calls the tune.

I’ve not been doing freelance work (writer-for-hire) long enough to be able to tell how these compromises are going to feel to me before I start, although I’m learning that the amount of compromise involved is important to me. Because when the compromise is too much, I start to feel bad. I feel dishonest, or like I don’t want to be associated with the product because it’s too far away from the way I think it should have been done. I’ve been mainly lucky so far with this.

And what about my own writing? I can write what I like, and most of the time I do. When I was writing A Kind of Intimacy I hoped but did not expect to get it published, and that gave me a lot of freedom to write about things I didn’t think anyone else but me would be interested in. It just turned out that they were. It was lucky. I liked it. I hope it will happen again like that.

I can write what I want, please no-one but myself, and refuse to compromise. I can be playful, and I am allowed to write badly or oddly and I am allowed to write things that won’t ever be significant to anyone other than me. I’ve noticed the more I need to budge in my professional life, the more independent and wilful I need to be in my own writing.

But. But. But.

But if I want other people to read my writing, or I want it to be published, or I want to make a living doing it, or I want to win something, or if I want it reviewed, or if I want to go to festivals, or I want to get more work teaching (or any combination of these, some of which I do and don’t want in varying degrees of importance that change from day to day) there are also compromises to be made.

So far, these compromises have been small and have been the creative kind of boundaries that have felt inspiring. So I might write a story to a theme I hadn’t thought about before, or stick to a word count when if left to my own devices I’d give the story a bit longer, or take into account the submission deadlines of a competition when planning my work for the week… these things are basic. They are things that influence my creative decisions and I am fine with that.

But what about bigger compromises? How do I balance that? How do I balance being able to earn enough to pay the rent against being able to write something that feels okay to me, and feels like what I wanted to say? I could always get a real job, and write what I like without compromise. That is always open to me.

This is connected, again, to my half-hearted planning for novel number three. Annie says she’s a minority interest, like ‘folding paper birds or collecting stilton jars’.

I think my writing is a bit like that.

How On Earth…

Monday, March 22nd, 2010

I have two or three things to say. First, the person who is finding this blog by typing ‘Jenn Ashworth names of children’ into google – stop it. It is odd, and I can guarantee I know more scary people than you do.

Second, if you meet me at a reading, don’t ask me this: ‘how on earth do you plan to write with two children?’* or some version of it. Not unless you’d also ask a man that question. Not unless you’d also ask a doctor, an accountant, a shop assistant, a farmer, a driving instructor etc. It’s rude (my reproductive choices and family set-up are NONE of your business) and it is silly. I do exactly the same as the billions of other parents who work-for-money as well as working-for-love do – I choose a job that has flexible hours (you can’t seriously be telling me writing is more demanding than being a surgeon or a cleaner or a bus-driver or a barrister? Really?) refuse to breed with anyone who doesn’t see parenting as a labour to be shared, and prioritise work and family above other, boring things like television, housework, social outings, spare money and early nights / lies in. 

*P.S Yes, this is an announcement. Mr, me and Small Fry will soon be joined by a Little Stranger. As you were.

Dippy Egg + Blog Crisis

Saturday, March 13th, 2010

I met Kate Feld in Manchester for tea and dippy eggs yesterday. Kate is the brain behind the Manchester Blog Awards, among many other things. We chatted, as you’d expect, about blogs and blogging. I’ve been working with beginner bloggers a lot more than I used to and recently taught a workshop on Blogging for Beginners to a creative writing group in Ormskirk, West Lancashire.

I said, both during this workshop and later on to Kate, that I thought the best blogs had a focus and were specialised – and that when I write my blog I try to remember that most of the people reading it are writers, or bookworms, or people who want to be writers. They don’t really care about the other stuff I get up to. So I try to stick to posts about writing and research and editing and The Writing Life (such as it is) even though there are lots of other things that I do and think about.

It’s also important to me that most of my private life is private – so I don’t blog too much about my family or the conversations I have with other people – and when I do (like now) I stick to what I say and leave out what they say. I don’t put pictures of Small Fry and Mr on here because they wouldn’t like it and I generally don’t blog too much or too specifically about my freelance work because that effects other people too.

And, of course, I make quite a lot of this up. I had a couple of questions from the students at Edge Hill about my blogging and there was an audible gasp when I ‘confessed’ to a lot of the fiction and artifice contained in these posts. Eeep. May I refer you back to the title of this blog? I’ve got a diary for when I want to do my confessional writing. I never forget that this is public.

All this has got me thinking, and I might almost be on the cusp of changing my mind. I used to blog a lot more about my not-writing life than I used to, and I think one of the reasons why I stopped was because I suddenly started getting lots more hits and didn’t feel that I was speaking to a group of people I knew anymore. Readers became audience, and this became more performed than I intended it to be. Maybe.

What do you think? Is there an ideal balance between specialism and individuality on a blog? What’s your experience about the line you draw between your public written life and your private one? I am curious if the people reading my blog have extra things they would like to find out about me and my not-writing-life (such as it is)

Writing Tips #6

Friday, March 12th, 2010

Here’s an interesting post from Charlotte’s Web about the Seven Stages of Receiving Criticism.

Seeking out feedback on your work is important. It’s a myth, I reckon, that most writers do successful writing on their own, in a garret. But it’s not a community effort or a writing-by-committee job either. You send your story to a few friends, or go to a creative writing group, or join a workshop-based course, and other people read it, and they say stuff.

And what do you do?

You shut up, is what you do. Zip it. Lips together. Cake-hole closed.

It’s okay to ask questions. ‘How do you think I handled setting? Is it clear that Millie didn’t mean to steal the cakes? I worry about my sentences being too long, what do you think?’ either before, or during the time when you’re getting feedback. It certainly helps me if you let me know what you want me to look out for, although I reserve the right to comment on other things too. But here’s the secret – once more for the road: once you’ve asked your questions and once you’ve handed over your writing – keep your mouth shut and listen.

Getting someone to thoughtfully read your work and then take the time to tell you what they think is a gift. It’s rare to get excellent feedback – rare to get any feedback above ‘very nice’ at all, unless you’re willing to pay for it. If someone’s good enough to take the time, listen to them. It’s for your own good, and even if it isn’t for your own good, it’s MANNERS for Pete’s sake. If you don’t want to listen, thoughtfully, then don’t ask. If you think they’re not going to understand, then don’t ask them.

It really, really really, really really really really gnarls my chizzle when writers interrupt to explain or justify what they’ve written in the face of critical feedback. (It actually does say here he’s got a peg-leg, which explains why he wasn’t able to drive the gettaway car…) You’re not going to be there to give a reader a running commentary if the book ends up in a shop, are you? If the piece doesn’t work without you orating on its behalf, (well, if you haven’t read *whatever* then you’re probably not going to understand what I’m actually doing here) then it doesn’t work and the best think you can do is listen and see if you can find out why it doesn’t work. Don’t correct the misunderstanding (actually, if you’d read the rest of the chapter you’d find out that…) find out what it is about your writing (if anything) that made the misunderstanding happen.

Shut up. Shut up shut up shut up. If it turns out you’ve not found your ideal reader, or you decide the feedback wasn’t useful to you, you say thank you nicely anyway (it’s a gift, remember, and one that you asked for) and then you button your mouth and sleep on it, or ask someone else, or decide you’re one of the garret writers. But you do that on your own time, not while someone’s trying to tell you what they thought of your writing.


Monday, March 1st, 2010

Pop is the noise of the champagne corks popping, for yes, I have finished.

For the time being. I’m sure there’ll be edits and proof-reads and the checking of galleys somewhere along the line, and like poems, novels are probably only abandoned and never really finished. But I can’t see anywhere to make Cold Light better for the time being, which means it is time for me to stop. And be finished.

It’s a peculiar, deflating feeling. A bit blue and ‘is that it?’ when life everywhere else goes on the same.

It seems novels take me about three years. A Kind of Intimacy did, and this one, very roughly, did too. Three years. I should get some sort of certificate. It’s as long as my degree or a PhD or the hard bit of bringing up the Small Fry. And second ones are supposed to be the hardest, so that’s got to be worth something – maybe the posh organic satsumas and not the suspiciously vague supermarket brand ‘citrus’.

I’m done though. Whoop!

Going to spend this afternoon drinking tea and reading the latest issue of Bewilderbliss. I’ve a soft spot for the magazine – issue one and A Kind of Intimacy shared a launch party, I invited them to come and read from issue two at one of my Word Soups (video readings for your viewing pleasure here) and now they’ve asked me to pick a theme for issue three – which I did. Untruth. Fellow Prestonian Andrew Hurley is featured, which is excellent to see.

And then planning readings and workshops for two ‘appearances’ this month. First up, I’ll be reading and speaking at Edge Hill’s Rose Theatre this week – and may give a bit of Cold Light an airing. Seeing as it’s done, and all. And then later in the month on the 22nd together with Jen Hadfield – hosted by the Manchester Centre for New Writing. I’ll be hanging about after both these events, so if you’re a blog reader, come and say hello.

Failed Novels + Tiny Stories

Tuesday, October 6th, 2009

I read this, this morning, and it got me out of a foul mood that has been simmering for about a week. I’ve also been enjoying the short short stories Emma Lannie has been writing during her September project.

I’m sick of my novel. SICK, I tell you. Oh well, back to the coal face. I don’t have a break scheduled in for another three weeks.

More Lists

Monday, April 13th, 2009

You know what gets my goat? What REALLY gnarls my chizzle?

1. Groups, clubs, scenes, schools, societies, churches.
2. Matching lipstick and nail varnish.
3. The phrase, ‘I think you’ll find,’
4. BT, the DVLA, TV Licensing people, landlords, estate-agents.
5. People who laugh while walking away, and try to hide it by ducking their head, but me being able to tell because their shoulders are shaking.
6. People being late. If you’re going to be more than five minutes late, ring me. I won’t wait otherwise.
7. Winking. After nearly two years of working in a prison, being winked at has lost its appeal.
8. The man on the beach yesterday whose dog did a poo on the sand. He put it in a plastic bag (black) tied up the top and then slung it behind a sand-dune. WHAT? I had to be forcibly restrained from giving him the poo back, and quite forcefully.
9. Ulterior motives/tact. Nine times out of ten I am just not going to understand if you say, ‘oh, do you think those orange socks work well with that suit?’. Just spit it out. Out.
10. Blogging. Ugh what a bunch of narcissists. It is sickening. I keep meaning to give it up. Really.

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