Archive for the ‘in two minds’ Category

Enough Is As Good As A Feast

Saturday, August 20th, 2011

I’ve decided to pack it in.

I’ve been blogging for four years (ish) now. I started because I wanted to have a place to link to the short stories I was beginning to publish in various web magazines and never expected that I would find such a welcoming community. Through this special kind of writing I’ve made friends, found work, been able to talk to my readers, hear what you think about my writing (Cheesy Peeps!) and I’ve been able, I hope, to let lots of people know about my writing who might not have heard about it otherwise.

While I’m NOT FROM MANCHESTER, the Manchester blogging and literary community in particular welcomed me with open arms, and long before A Kind of Intimacy was published I was attending reading nights, vomiting with fear, and testing out some of my earliest attempts at flash fiction and unreliable memoir. That wouldn’t have happened without blogging friends – there’s not a chance in cheese I would have plucked up the courage otherwise. There are too many of you to name, and this isn’t an Oscars speech – but you know who you are. Ta. (Not you.)

Despite my incurably sloppy spelling, tendency to post when tipsy even when I promised myself I wouldn’t, my ignorance of arcane blog etiquette and the occasional (pfft!) indiscretion, I have enjoyed blogging, and enjoyed reading other people’s blogs. A friend, Max, argued that blogging is an exhausted form and has been replaced by newer, briefer, more immediate forms of on-line communication. That newspapers have gobbled us all up. Maybe that’s not true for all of us bloggers, but I think it is for me and for Every Day I Lie A Little. The blog form might not be exhausted, but I am.

It’s always been a struggle for me, like all bloggers, to draw a line around my private and family life. I know you know my children aren’t really called Small Fry and McTiny, and my house isn’t really called Ashworth Towers. For those of you who are close to me in my real life as well as my online life, thank you, thank you so much, for indulging me and collaborating with me on keeping them apart from this world for all this time. For the persistent (two years, you weirdo) person who has been reaching this blog by trying to find out the real names of my children: I am not packing this in because of you.

I want to be more private, and the more private I am, the more insipid my blog posts become. I toyed with the idea of starting again  – anonymously, and saying what I really wanted to say. To write like I used to – without worrying about making a Career Limiting Move. But then I realised, I am saying what I really want to say. In the novel I am writing now, and in the writing projects I’m planning for the future, I am still communicating. My best writing is elsewhere. My blog writing was becoming something much less than second best. So in novels and stories and whatever else I get up to – that’s where you’ll find me from now on. Lying my head off, and letting more of the truth slip through than I’d probably like.

I’m also tired of the energy it can take to be a part of this community. To join in with the exuberant pissing contest that Manufacturing An Online Buzz about your work can be. No-one asked me to do it, and I’m sure many of you would rather that I didn’t. But I did, and now I’m finding that the energy needed to turn myself outwards, to sell and advertise and display, isn’t working well when I need to be quiet, and think, and type and delete and type some more.

And lets be honest, I can’t be the only one to notice that I’m fast running out of ways to make the writing life sound interesting. I get up, do a school run, type, do another school run, cook, eat, drink, type, read, sleep. Every Day. Sometimes it’s really hard, but you’re not allowed to say that because it’s not a proper job, and there’s lots of other people who could do it better than you, or would give their arms and legs to be in your shoes. And sometimes it’s brilliant. And you can’t say that either, because it sounds like bragging. So what is left? I type a lot. There it is.

Let’s not be melodramatic about this though.

I’m converting this part of my website to ‘News’ and will be updating, now and again, with details about events, readings, and gigs. If you want to carry on getting that sort of information, you can subscribe here. I’m hoping to move into book reviewing, and other kinds of online and print journalism. I’ll be reading and commenting on blogs, and writing posts for the Writing Smithy. If you’re wondering how you’ll get by without my ill-punctuated domestic ranting, refusal to be drawn on matters of national import, and puns about sandwiches, I’ll be on twitter and would love to carry on the conversation there.

But for Every Day I Lie A Little, it’s curtains.

Bye!

Zoos. Reviews.

Saturday, August 13th, 2011

I came home from a lovely (very damp) week away to find that Cold Light has been nominated for this year’s Guardian’s Not the Booker.

Two years ago A Kind of Intimacy made the short-list, which was just splendid. So if you read Cold Light and you liked it you send me to the short-list again by clicking this link here and following the instructions. You need to write a short review to make your vote count.

If you didn’t like Cold Light, don’t let that stop you from voting. It almost always turns into a nice on-line scrap and there’s nothing like it, is there? There are some brilliant books on the long-list. Perhaps I’m supposed to vote under a series of aliases for myself, but my vote went to the book I nominated: Russ Litten’s Scream if you Want to Go Faster – and you can read my mini review of it here. I would have voted for Michael Stewart’s King Crow, also long-listed – a beautiful, startling, odd book set in Salford and Cumbria – a sort of Fight Club meets Kes – but Russ’ book just pipped it to the post by being so well constructed and unpredicatable. I wish I’d been allowed to vote twice.

I wrote on the ‘about’ pages of this blog that I don’t do book reviews. As ever, please refer to the title of this blog as an explanation for my recent review of David Whitehouse’s Bed which appeared in the Guardian Review last month.

I don’t know if reviewing is going to be a bigger part of the work I do in the future or not, yet. It is still something I have very mixed feelings about. I would, wouldn’t I? It’s strange and a bit not-on being the animal in the zoo as well as the person selling tickets at the gate, isn’t it? But reading is such a huge part of my working and thinking and writing life that it seems peculiar I rarely mention my opinions about the books I read in public. I will think on this more.

The next nice thing was hearing that Cold Light has been chosen by the Birmingham Books Festival to be their official Book of the Festival. I’ve appeared at various Writing West Midlands gigs over the years both as a writer and a reader and I have always been impressed by their events. I’ll be doing various things with the festival this Autumn, including an event on the 16th October. If you’re a bit skinty, the festival bods have just opened a competition where you can win two tickets for the event. All you need to do is write a short review of the book, and the best reviewer will be awarded the tickets.

Back

Monday, July 18th, 2011

I spent this morning visiting the high school that I ‘attended’ as a teenager. It’s not far away from when I live and I drive past it often but I have always looked the other way. When writing Cold Light I wondered about contacting my old teachers and asking for a tour, just to get my imagination kick-started, and then decided, probably through a mixture of shyness and cowardice, not to bother. Today was the first time I passed through those doors in (gets out fingers and toes) thirteen years.

It has been repainted, rebuilt, gentrified. There is more glass, less grass, more computers, better equipped art and technology spaces. It smells the same, though. And the chairs in the dining room have been replaced, and somehow the room which used to feel like a football stadium has shrunk a little, and there isn’t a library any more (!) but the sound of classroom doors being kicked open and crowds spilling out into corridors hasn’t changed either. The door handles were lower than I remembered them to be, the stools in the science labs nearer to the floor.

I spent the morning in a tucked away, slightly more bedraggled bit of the school meeting the students and teachers who work together on an ‘Extended Curriculum’ – which is school for those who, for whatever reason, can’t, don’t or won’t manage the standard syllabus and structure of secondary education. If such a thing had existed back in the day, I’d have been there. A can’t, don’t and a won’t. It was written on my records that I was a school refuser. I prefer to think of myself as a school decliner. No, but thank you.

It might be that I go back in a little while and do some creative writing with these students. I think something that can help make most people feel happy and more settled in the world, more at ease with their own existence, and more comfy about the existence of other people, is doing something that only they can do. I’ve never taught young people before, and it might be that the thing they discover about themselves is that they are not writers, but artists, or musicians, or listeners, or cooks, or teachers, or cyclists, or something else. Or that they need to hang on a bit longer because what it is that they do hasn’t become apparent yet. If I can get writing to help with that, that will be a good thing, I think.

Cloud in Trousers

Friday, February 4th, 2011

A novelist (or at least the kind I aspire to be) is a cloud in trousers; ie, someone with no very fixed sense of identity, or with multiple personalities and views all shifting in or out of focus.

Amanda Craig.

When I was saying this, that is what I meant. Picture nabbed from the exellently named Cloud Appreciation Society.

Writers and their methods will be as various as the clouds themselves, but I read what Amanda said and nodded. How can I put myself in the shoes of all the people I want to write about (especially as it seems I can’t stop writing in first person) if I’ve solidified what I think about everything?

Does this make me an unfit member of society? Very possibly.

Nothing

Sunday, January 30th, 2011

I think the fetishisation of process is both an exercise in procrastination (for the maker) and a refusal to engage with the finished work (for the audience).  But what do I know?

From the Q and A section of Jon McGregor’s website – in answer to a question about the pens and paper he uses to write with.

As always, I’m in two minds. I’m  not sure if I should have this quotation printed out on the back of my business cards, tattooed on the inside of my eyelids and scrawled in black marker on the wall in front of my desk  – or if I should write a long ranty blog post about how much I disagree with the sentiment.

I admire Jon McGregor’s work hugely and as a writer I can hear his frustration with interview questions about typewriters and at times I have shared it. But then discussions about ‘process’ more generally are a huge part of what I do as a teacher – helping students to learn technique, or to isolate and improve the technique they are already using instinctively. I think having students reflect on how they write and to examine how other writers read and write is integral to their improvement.And it is what I try to do to improve my own writing.

But then again, what do I know? I am always in two minds about everything.

I’ve noticed several spats going on in facebookland recently about various political events – topics I never talk about in public at all. This silence of mine is because I believe the days when novelists had status as public intellectuals and rent-a-gobs, trotted out for an opinion on every major event in public life are gone, and properly so. We make things up, more or less well. We use stories to comment on the real world. Or we don’t. We use fiction to tell the truth. Or we don’t. Why would any of that make our opinions especially valuable?

And my silence also exists because I am so utterly of my generation it is unreal. I find it more or less impossible to come down on any particular side in very many subjects. Everything I write examines the idea of truthfulness, of reliable arguments, of words meaning what they are supposed to mean. Point of view. It isn’t that I don’t care – it’s just that by virtue of being a writer I think I’ve made it impossible for myself to engage with these debates in any meaningful way.

Perhaps it’s because I grew up in a household where there was certainly a right and a wrong way to see the world, and my opinions about things were consistently wrong. Growing up under the weight of that kind of intellectual violence makes me uninterested in dishing it out to others. So if you disagree with me, I’m not interested in proving you wrong or convincing you to think what I think. If I even think it.

It feels very important to me to practice informed disinterest. I know it is an impossible stance to truly have. But I am interested in getting there.

Which brings me back to Jon McGregor. Maybe he’s right and I’m wrong after all.

Maybe all this blogging about writing, teaching writing, reading writing and talking about reading is just getting in the way of the reading and writing. Maybe the reflection is the final step of the process, maybe it’s just all hot air.

I think it probably depends.

And if this all sounds like cowardly navel gazing and a waste of words to you, well, I can see the value in that argument too.

Writing Tips #8

Monday, April 19th, 2010

This isn’t mine, but one stolen from Nik Perring’s blog interview with Andy Devine.

The rest of the tips are worth reading too (although I take issue with #2 – which isn’t, can’t be and shouldn’t be true for every single writer in the world) but the one I quote from below is my favourite, has made me feel better today and made me wonder about ways I can find to ‘manage my incompetence’*

Every work of fiction can be improved. The fiction writer must find a way to manage their incompetence if they are to continue writing fiction. The conception of the fiction is always greater than the execution of the fiction.

 *not now though. I’m still resting.

Home Sweet Home

Friday, March 26th, 2010

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.

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)

Teachy McTeach

Thursday, January 21st, 2010

This has been a week for going out into the world and talking about writing. I’ve been preparing all week for the second instalment of my fortnightly intermediate creative writing class which happens on Saturday morning, out on Monday night to give a workshop on blogging to a creative writing group in Ormskirk, giving a workshop in the prison on Wednesday morning and tomorrow I’ll be teaching a workshop in Burnley as part of the Inspire Burnley project. Phew.

My favourite workshop so far has been at the prison. I know the men, they know me and they’re used to working with each other, writing together and giving each other feedback. It’s exhausting but I like it so much it doesn’t feel like work. My aim this time was to have them work on editing the autobiographical flash pieces we’d been working on before Christmas. I noticed a memey thing going around on a couple of my favourite blogs last week – a creative writing prompt that I decided to try with the men.

Writing lists of the things you like, and don’t like to write felt like a good way to warm up after a too-long gap between workshops (damn snow, again) and sharing the pieces opened up into a discussion between the men and me about voice, and style, and priorities. I know editing is about making a piece of writing better, but it’s really hard to explain what better means – especially to group of writers diverse in their tastes and experience. I think we decided ‘better’ meant closer to your own ambition for the piece, and Sarah Salway’s writing prompt helped us all to get a bit closer to what our ambitions for our writing were – what we liked to write, and how we’d like to be helped to do it better. That’s something handy to keep at the front of your mind when editing, and seeing as I’m doing a lot of my own editing now – it helped me too.

I don’t talk very much about my teaching on here, even though sometimes I spend half of my week doing it, and even though I like it very much. I’ve no qualifications to be a teacher, which makes me nervous, and my spelling is pretty atrocious, and although it’s never my intention to talk about myself or my own work, so much of my teaching method is to say something like this:

Look, here’s how I’d do it. Here are some other ways to do it. I’ve noticed this… and when I’ve done this, that sort of thing has happened. Now here’s a pen, you try, and I’ll sit here and cheer you on until you’re finished then we can have a look at it and a chat afterwards. Don’t worry.

Someone told me that wasn’t teaching, that was facilitating. I don’t know what that means. I’ve felt a bit nervous about what I do ever since. Some of my ‘students’ know a lot more than I do, and many of them are certainly better read. But I like it a lot, and seeing as the last great idea I had for a workshop was stolen from Sarah’s blog, I thought I’d throw-open the blog door and invite you all to tell me about your experiences with teaching.

Have you any tips for me?

So, Teachy McTeach with the teach-hat on this week. And in-between, there’s been interviews with old and new friends for Preston FM, busying myself with preparations for the launch of the very new Lancashire Writing Hub website, preparing posters, publicity and arranging tour dates for the show
and editing Cold Light. I’m looking forward to a quiet week. It seems like months and months and months ago since Christmas.

Post-Novel

Tuesday, November 10th, 2009

I’m home again, with a bit of the anti-climatic feeling you always get after a very nice holiday which included kippers, Dracula, the Vampire Prawns, scrambling up a rock face in wellies and a wedding dress, and lots of lazing about reading.

I was so busy before the holiday: scrambling to finish the last chapter of Cold Light and rewrite the final scenes in the light of some last minute research I did about water cooled power stations and their effect on sea-temperature, that coming back from Whitby to my bomb-site desk with its row of mouldy mugs and keyboard decorated with orange peel feels a bit like waking up from a dream.

Here are some of the things I was too busy to tell you about before I went away.

An article in the Swedish Daily News about Annie and me.

Writing an introduction for the anthology ‘Mostly Truthful’ published by Flax, available to read on-line and featuring the work of North-West writers Katherine Woodfine, Jane Routh, Adrian Slatcher and Kate Feld.

Getting a sneak preview of the U.S book cover for A Kind of Intimacy – appearing on this blog very soon.

Being an on-line writer in residence and teaching creative writing workshops in libraries across Lancashire for the Learning Festival Revolution – including one workshop in Lancashire Record Office where we used old Wanted Posters as prompts and inspirations for writing. if you’re from Lancashire, you can join in. Click on the link and tell me a story.

Here are some of the things I’ll be doing during November:

Planning a creative writing project working with prisoners starting very soon. Can’t say more about this yet, but it is one of the most exciting things I’m doing with my time right now and I can’t wait to get going with it.

Planning, with my mentor, how I’m going to spend my time next year. Am I going to be a full-time writer forever? What kinds of things do I need to do to earn money? What sort of projects do I like doing best? How do I go about getting the kind of work that I want, and still being able to write and have time with the SmallFry? How much time do I want to spend writing novels and stories, and how much time do I want to spend working outside my house?

Since I left the prison in August, I’ve been saying yes to almost everything because I want the experience and I want to find out what sort of work I enjoy doing, and what I’m good at (and no good at). I’ve been very, very lucky in that I’ve had more work than I know what to do with and have still had to turn down a few things. Now I want to start choosing what I do more carefully.

And of course, I’ll be writing down all those post-sending-the-novel-to-be-looked-at niggles and too-late ideas for the next edit I’ll no doubt be doing very late this year or early next.

I’m kicking myself that I forgot to put the knitted dog into the last chapter.


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Preston Train Station
by Tony Worrall