Category Archives: Writing

Rebecca Solnit and How to be a Writer

Rebecca Solnit is a writer I admire very much. She writes beautifully and she writes about important things: walking, hope, distortions in public life, feminism, and above all about the importance of having a voice. This theme runs through all her writing. You will find links to several posts that refer to her work at the end of this one.

About a year ago Lithub.com published How to Be Writer: 10 Tips from Rebecca Solnit. In every one of her 10 tips there was some wisdom and wit. If you are a writer you might do no better than read the original: here.

How to be a writer

I like to read books about writing, and books for writers. I like to read the advice of writers I admire, including Rebecca Solnit even if they say the things I have heard before, seen everywhere. Here are my responses to her tips:

Write and read

To be a writer you must write and you must read. Thanks also to Stephen King (1999) On Writing, Anne Lamott (1994) Bird by Bird, Francine Prose (2006) Reading Like a Writer and to many other writers. To write well you must write, write lots, write frequently, write more. And you must read, read recently published books and read from the past, read in your field and outside it, read for pleasure and to critique. Read.

Writing is more than typing

I love Rebecca Solnit’s claim that writing is more than typing because it gives me a reason to walk on Dartmoor or by the sea, to visit places, to talk to people about my writing and to practice my developing skills as a writer.

Remember that writing is not typing. Thinking, researching, contemplating, outlining, composing in your head and in sketches, maybe some typing with revisions as you go and then more revisions, emendations, additions, reflections, setting aside and returning afresh, because a good writer is always a good editor of his or her own work.

All those actions – 12 of them listed above – are necessary. I was involved in all of these this morning as I grappled with redrafting the opening scene of a short story. I related particularly to emendations, additions, reflections, and now the draft sits waiting for the next time I work on it, set aside.

Pay attention to your own feedback

Listen to your own feedback and remember that you move forward through mistakes and stumbles and flawed but aspiring work, not perfect pirouettes performed in the small space in which you originally stood.

Pirouettes indeed! But yes, and this is difficult, learning to listen to your own responses to you writing.

I read the sentence again and note the perfect rhythm of the sentence. And also that it perfectly captures the difference between learning to develop capacity and skill and learning to perform for a test or for popularity.

You need some time, some passion and a little joy

All writers know this, but it’s good to say it out loud, or to write it down:

It [writing] takes time. This means you have to find the time.

And you need to believe in what you are writing, so this requires passion and joy:

If you’re not passionate about writing and about the world and the things in it you’re writing about, then why are you writing?

Good question. And you need to bring the joy to bear when you might not feel up to the writing, when inspiration is lacking, and around you everything is depressing.

And finally, and perhaps most importantly, and referring back to the importance of voice she says:

The process of making art is the process of becoming a person with agency.

The artist produces meaning rather than consuming it.

Thank you Rebecca Solnit.

And I shall be I the audience when you visit Bristol on 1st November 2017. Rebecca Solnit will be in more places in the UK around that time.

Some links

How to Be Writer: 10 Tips from Rebecca Solnit on Lithub.com

Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities by Rebecca Solnit in January 2017

The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit

Men Explain Things to Me and other essays by Rebecca Solnit (2014) Granta. I posted on Bookword about this book and mansplaining in May 2015

The Mother of All Questions by Rebecca Solnit, published by Granta, September 2017.

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Must Writers live in Beautiful Places?

The association of writers and beautiful places seem boundless: Jane Austen in Bath, the Brontes in Howarth in Yorkshire, Wordsworth in the Lake District, Elizabeth Bowen in Bowen’s Court in Ireland and Elizabeth Taylor lived beside the Thames near Reading. One of the pleasures of moving to Devon is the wealth of lovely places to visit. On a recent trip to Greenway in South Devon I mused on the connection between writers and their homes.

Greenway

Greenway May 2017

On the heights near the mouth of the River Dart is the house that Agatha Christie built for her summer holidays, referring it to the most beautiful place in the world. Now a National Trust property, Greenway is an impressive place to visit. And the house is more or less as it was in the 1950s.

Hall in Greenway, May 2017

What this offers the writer

For the writer’s leisure the following delights are on offer

  • Tennis counts
  • Croquet lawn
  • Boating on the river
  • Garden walks
  • Local archaeology
  • Piano playing
  • Board games

The Greenway house is full of boxes, collections of decorative boxes of all sizes from snuff boxes in display cases to other boxes in all styles. This seems fitting for a writer of mysteries. Without the boxes Greenway would seem quite empty.

And for inspiration?

The house itself would have been a pleasure to write in; the library, the sitting rooms, the tables and chairs set up around the house, the gardens in fine weather, all these would be a delight.

Then there’s the view, the gardens and the sea less than 2 miles away.

Agatha Christie used the house in 1956 as the setting for one of her Poirot mysteries: Dead Man’s Folly, in which a local girl is found murdered in the boat house on the eve of the village fete.

Being a best-selling writer Agatha Christie enjoyed considerable wealth, which meant she could afford this level of luxury.

Other houses

Jane Austen’s Writing Table, Chawton

Few writers receive the rewards from their writing at the level of Agatha Christie. For example, Jane Austen lived off her brother’s charity in Chawton, Hampshire. It is pleasant, but not on a grand scale.

Elizabeth Bowen held her house in such regard that she wrote a history of Bowen’s Court in 1942. It featured in her early novel The Last September, which I reviewed.

Home of Emily Dickinson, Amherst, Mass in 2007

No writer was more closely associated with her home than Emily Dickinson, largely because she rarely stepped out of it. Now a museum, I visited the house in Amherst, Mass and was charmed.

For a collection of photographs of writers’ houses see this Guardian feature: Temples of Literature by Nick Channing.

I’m a bit of a romantic and like to imagine writers in garrets and humble rooms, suffering for their creative talents, penning their works of art, making beauty in difficult circumstances. But I can see that inspiration and creativity are fed by living in beautiful places, or just from the writer’s imagination.

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Mass Observation and the writer

Mass Observation sounds like something George Orwell invented for 1984, but actually it is an invitation to pro-social writing. In the last 80 years people have been providing their observations of everyday life, what they hear, see and experience in their own worlds and writing it down it for the Mass Observation Archives. You write and give it away, yes, for free. It’s like a combination of blood donation and planting saplings. You don’t benefit, and indeed the outcomes of your donation might not be seen for years.

A Brief History

Mass Observation was set up in 1937 by Tom Harrisson (anthropologist), Charles Madge (poet and journalist) and Humphrey Jennings (film maker) to support ‘anthropology of ourselves’. They set out to collect material about the everyday life of British Islanders. The Worktown Project, for example, collected material in Bolton.

We are studying the beliefs and behaviour of the British Islanders … the function of Mass-Observation is to get written down the unwritten laws and to make the invisible forces visible … [From First Year’s Work by Mass Observation 1938]

In the Second World War civilian life was studied using surveys and observations. But after the war the organisation moved more into consumer research.

The Archives were transferred to the University of Sussex in the 1970s and Mass Observation was re-launched in 1981, continuing to add to the archives of everyday experiences and making them available for research.

A panel of volunteers have been answering specific questions every year since 1981. These have ranged from questions about Being Overweight, Using the Telephone, Body Piercing and Tattooing, responses to General Elections, and most recently to the EU Referendum one year on. Applications to become volunteers are only accepted in particular categories.

Since 2000 Mass Observation has made 12th May its special day by inviting anyone to send an account of their day.

Books and Mass Observation

Not surprisingly many academic publications are produced from this rich resource. While writing The New Age of Ageing, the authors attended research conferences, including one where a researcher drew on the archives to explore how attitudes to the old had and had not changed.

And there are also publications for a more general market. Here are two.

Nella Last’s War: the Second World War Diaries of ‘Housewife, 49’ (1981) Edited by Richard Broad and Suzie Fleming. Published by Profile Books. Living in Barrow-in-Furness in Lancashire, Nella Last documented her war-time daily life for Mass Observation. It is touching, moving and at times very funny.

Victoria Wood brought Nella Last to a wider audience in 2006 with her adaptation for tv: Housewife 49.

The second book is A Notable Woman: the romantic diaries of Jean Lucey Pratt edited by Simon Garfield and published by Canongate in 2015. I posted my review on this blog here.

There is nothing especially remarkable about Jean Pratt, except her diaries which she began when she was 15. She was born in 1910, died in 1986 (aged 76). The diaries lack hindsight. We know what happened, but those living through those times did not know how their world would change. It’s a long book, but full of wit, humour and humanity. Lovely. Just what the historian ordered.

For more on this splendid resource, making the invisible visible, writing down the unwritten laws visit their website at www.massobs.org.uk

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Imagination and The Operating Instructions

It’s always good to find someone who practises what she preaches, and even better when that someone is a writer. In this case, it’s Ursula K Le Guin, who writes about writing as well as having given readers some of the most imaginative fiction there is. She combines story and thoughtfulness in ways that enthral children as well as adults. And her key word is imagination. What is it? Why is it so important?

What on Earth is Imagination?

Of course, on earth is where Ursula Le Guin’s imagination does not leave us. She takes us to other planets, other times, other cultures and shows us that our world could be other, different, we could make it better. And this difference depends on our imaginations – her imagination as a writer, and ours as readers (and writers).

The word ‘imagination’ is often used interchangeably with ‘creativity’ she notes in The Operating Instructions, her talk in 2002 to a meeting of the Oregon Literary Arts. But it is worth considering why we have two words, and why one might serve writers better.

Businesses and many organisations like the word creativity because it sounds as if it leads to outcomes: there will be creations. As Ursula Le Guin says

In the marketplace, the word creativity has come to mean the generation of ideas applicable to practical strategies to make larger profits. (3)

But imagination is not a means of making money. Imagination is a bigger concept than creativity. In her words imagination is ‘a tool of the mind’, the most useful tool we have.

Why is imagination so important?

People we respect make a great deal of imagination.

Albert Einstein: Logic will get you from A to Z. Imagination will get you everywhere. (Twitter meme)

Ada Lovelace: Imagination is the Discovering facility, pre-eminently. It is that which penetrates into the unseen worlds around us, the worlds of Science. It is that which feels & discovers what is, the real which we see not, which exists not for our senses. Those who have learned to walk on the threshold of the unknown worlds, by means of what are commonly termed par excellence the exact sciences, may then with the fair white wings of Imagination hope to soar further into the unexplored amidst which we live. (From her letters, quoted by Maria Popova)

Ursula Le Guin: I think the imagination is the single most useful tool mankind possesses. It beats the opposable thumb. I can imagine living without my thumbs, but not without my imagination. (3)

John Lennon: Imagine.

Ada Lovelace suggested imagination was made of the ability to combine things, facts, ideas, conceptions, in new and endlessly variable combinations. And being able to conceive of things that can’t be seen, heard, touched, smelled, tasted – those things that do not ‘exist within our physical & conscious cognizance’. And for Ada Lovelace it was the mathematical sciences, the language of the unseen relations between things that required imagination. She saw imagination as essential to pushing the boundaries of mathematics, and within months she wrote the paper on computer science in 1843 that opened the way for computer programming.

The connection to literacy

Speaking to the meeting of the Oregon Literary Arts, Ursula Le Guin made the strong connection between imagination, literacy, words, cultural stories and hope for the world. I find her short piece inspiring. I immediately want to take imagination for a walk.

She suggests that we need to learn to use the ‘tool of the mind’. This is an important idea for our school curriculum, and for supporting human development.

We need to learn to use it [imagination], and how to use it, like any other tool. … Young human beings need exercises in the imagination as they need exercise in all the basic skills of life, bodily and mental: for growth, for health, for competence, for joy. This need continues as long as the mind is alive. (4)

Literacy, the capacity to use words is central to this learning about and to use imagination.

We are a wordy species … Words are the wings both intellect and imagination fly on. (4)

Stories are the ways that cultures define themselves and teach their children how to be people and members of their people. She has explored these ideas in the fantasy novels, the Earthsea Trilogy. I recommend these for an imaginative quest for the significance of words and naming by a novice wizard as he journeys towards maturity and wisdom.

The stories of our culture, she says in the talk, provide us with a home. And therein lies the importance of reading and the understanding that using imagination is a community activity:

Reading a story, you may be told something, but you’re not being sold anything. And though you’re usually alone when you read, you are in communion with another mind. (6)

My great-grandfather referred to reading as half an hour’s conversation with a writer.

At the opening of her talk, Ursula Le Guin had referred to the instrumental view of learning and literacy summed up in this way: ‘Literacy is so you can read the operating instructions’. She ends with a revision of this view.

The reason literacy is important is that literature is the operating instructions. The best manual we have. The most useful guide to the country we are visiting, life. (6)

So …?

We must never stop using our imaginations. We must never stop training ourselves and younger generations in the skills of imagination. We must feed it with words and stories, with connections beyond our ‘physical & conscious cognizance’, with joy and those of us who write must follow the example of Ursula Le Guin.

Words are my Matter: writings about life and books 2000-2016 by Ursula Le Guin, published by Small Beer Press in 2016. It includes the text of her talk The Operating Instructions.

The Earthsea Trilogy by Ursula Le Guin published together 1979. The three stories had been published separately, including by Puffin Books in 1972-1974.

See also my recent review of The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin, for the Decades Project.

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A rant about … a bad beginning

I wanted to chew my fingers in frustration, to gather up my notebook and pens and leave; or cry out, ‘can we please get on?’ But on it went despite this being the worst beginning ever. Has this happened to you?

Writing Workshop

Classroom photo via Visual Hunt

I’d been invited to attend a free writing workshop. I live in the kind of place where the local education authority offers six-week writing courses at times that suit me. But they are frequently cancelled for lack of participants. The offer of a place on a free workshop was an inducement to sign up for a course in September.

So I took my seat at 10.26 am, eager as mustard, keen as a beaver, with my note pad, a supply of pens, and a readiness to enjoy meeting fellow writers and work at our topic – the structure of novels. Six of us assembled in the classroom. It’s actually the room where we hold our writing group meetings so it has a familiar writerly feel to it. I was in the perfect zone to begin learning.

Forms

10.30 am. Our first task was to fill in the forms for the local authority. We had to check the course code, our name, address, date of birth, email, telephone number, level of formal education achieved and benefit status. If you claimed benefits the form required your NI number. You were also required to tick a box about your housing situation: living with another but main earner, living with dependent children, living with partner, none of the above.

And we were all required to produce some form of ID. People offered library cards, bankcards, a promise to bring something to the office later, a passport. Who carries the course code, their NI number and ID with them to a writing workshop?

That was page 1. It was now 10.40 am. Turn over to page 2. Now we move on to targets: targets for the course, your targets and other targets. The tutor said we should write the course target and then score our current level of proficiency on the scale 1 – 5. She had helpfully written them on the white board.

Your own target? She suggested a few, such as ‘learn terminology of novel structure’, or ‘develop a plan for my own novel’. I write ‘gain confidence’ and leave it at that. You must write something, we are told, or the form will reappear for corrections. Martin will be up in a minute to collect the forms and check them.

It is 10.50 am. One of the participants suggested there will be detention for people who don’t do their forms correctly. Someone else suggested the cupboard is full of previous course participants locked in with their incomplete or inaccurate forms. Open the cupboard door and they’ll all fall out. At this moment Martin appeared and collects our forms. We sobered up immediately.

Admin Burden by Pizarros via Wiki Commons

A round of introductions

Now, said the tutor, (it’s more or less 11.00 am) Martin will check the forms and return them at the coffee break. I’d like you all to introduce yourselves and say why you have come to the workshop today. My enthusiasm had drained away. I didn’t want to be there any more. And it wasn’t over yet.

The end

Martin duly reappeared and a few people had to correct their forms. At the end we all had to go back to our targets, and score them again from 1-5. Finally we were given cards for our anonymous learner evaluations.

Two questions leave me speechless with frustration:

Has this course helped you to feel happier or healthier? Yes No

Inner voice says: see above about happiness and frustration.

If you were unemployed when you started your course, has this helped you get a job, start volunteering or go on another course? Yes No Not applicable.

Inner voice says: in 2 hours? I was sat here for 2 and a half hours so of course I didn’t get a job. More silly forms.

What are they used for anyway?

Photo credit: manoftaste.de via VisualHunt.com / CC BY

Steam and my ears

It’s not the tutor’s fault. Funding for adult education requires us to complete these ridiculous forms. My learning requires them to stop doing it. One fifth of the designated time was taken up with the wretched things. By the time the tutor was able to engage us with the material we had come to explore I had lost my enthusiasm and gained much resentment and hostility.

And I gained another number: a learner identity number to go with my NI number, my library card number, my passport number and my level of education code. And there I was thinking I had a name.

I detect a conspiracy to create the most enormous barriers to learning and put adults off formal learning as a contribution to austerity.

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Re-Introducing My Inner Critic

It was four years ago that I exposed readers of my blog to my inner critic. The feisty critter is still doing his thing, but I have to admit that I quite enjoy the antics, and naming them. I love my inner critic more now, because I have learned to trust that judgement.

I still haven’t finished revising my novel. Perhaps very soon …? I offer this slightly revised version of a post first published on Bookword in March 2013.

My Inner Critic appears on a train

I retrieved the first draft of my novel from the drawer after two months and prepared to revise and redraft. First, I engaged in some pencil sharpening-type activities such as printing out good copies of several chapters, buying a dark green ring folder, punching holes, placing all 22 chapters in it and lining up the pages to achieve an impressive manuscript.

I had decided to read it on a train journey. I frequently read drafts of writing by my students’ and coachees’ on train journeys – three hours to Totnes and three hours back to London Paddington. (My grandson believes I live in Londonpaddington. I think I live on the train.) So, I had a three-hour journey to read the first draft of my own novel.

He’s a bit of an animal

I began, reasonably enough, with Chapter One. At this point, my Inner Critic flopped down in the adjoining seat. You’ll need me! he announced. My Inner Critic always turns up and demands attention when I am reading my own drafts. He looks a little like that spicy peperami sausage with threadlike arms and jerky legs and a sharp voice featured on adverts a few years ago. He’s a bit of an animal. And he smells! [IC: Oi!]

I read Chapter Two. I had decided to read the novel all through to get an overall sense of it, before considering the more detailed revisions and redrafting. My Inner Critic kicked his spiky legs back and forth and took in a few sharp breaths. If I had succumbed and looked at him I am sure I would have seen him wincing in a stagey look-at-me-wincing kind of way.

Chapter Three. You started your novel in the wrong place, announced IC. I tried to ignore him and made a note on the third page of the chapter (‘start here’). The barracking continued. Too much summary! Get on with it! I squiggle a line in the margin and made a note on the manuscript. (‘Replace with action?’)

By the end of Chapter Four IC was jumping up and down in the seat like an over-excited schoolboy. He managed to tip up the folder and it fell onto the floor. Some of the pages were creased and others smeared with a little mud. IC jumped to his feet and ran down the aisle whooping loudly. It was the quiet carriage and I am usually on active duty in the Quiet Coach Vigilante Squad so I was a little embarrassed. IC stood at the very end of the carriage, the place where the train manager, as she calls herself, has a little office with a PA system and quite possibly an easy chair or two. IC had his bottom on the door and was bending over with laughter. I reclaimed the folder, and tried to return to my work. But I couldn’t even start Chapter Five because my Inner Critic was stamping down the aisle and when he came to our seats he stopped and held his sides like a comedy clown, jerking with laughter.

A writer, he gasped, pointing at me. Call yourself a writer when you produce chapters like those! And off he ran again, bouncing on the empty seats and jumping up to swing on the luggage racks.

I smoothed down the pages and then stared out of the window. IC approached. Hope I haven’t offended you, he said, possibly noticing my inability to continue reading. On a post-it note I wrote ‘start chapters with dates’. He peered at what I had written. That wont fix it! he announced.

No, I say, it won’t fix it. But it’s a start. Now sit down, be quiet and behave like a grown-up Inner Critic. Huh! he snorted. But he did.

Living with your Inner Critic

Stephen King suggests that reading your draft after a break will be ‘a strange and often exhilaration experience’ (in On Writing, p253). He offers some valuable possibilities: being able to see glaring holes in plot or character development; asking questions about coherence, the work of the recurring elements; finding the resonance in the novel. While he does say ‘if you spot a few of these big holes, you are forbidden to feel depressed about them or to beat up on yourself’ he gives no advice I could apply to my Inner Critic. [IC: Stephen King doesn’t need an inner critic, whereas you …]

But in Jurgen Wolff’s Your Writing Coach I have found a chapter called Tame the Wild Inner (and Outer) Critic. And there’s a seven-step programme for dealing with this harshest of all critics. [IC: tremble, tremble, NOT!] Actually, there is no trembling required because I already know that my Inner Critic has some really useful ways of helping me. I just hate it when he goes wild.

And since then?

And since I first posted this in March 2013 I have a second grandson, but no students or coaches, I’ve moved down to the West Country and I’ve co-written and published two more books (not novels). I have also learned to quieten the worst excesses of my Inner Critic, even to put him in a drawer [IC: Oi Again!]. But I have also learned to take account of what my Inner Critic is saying, and to improve my writing through this.

Over to you

Has anyone got any more advice about calming and enjoying my inner critic? What does your inner critic do?

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Why use real people in fiction?

So why do writers use real people as characters in their novels? Doesn’t the choice of real people as characters limit the writer’s creativity? Perhaps the author wishes to correct a settled view of the character, or offer an alternative interpretation to the established version of events as in Burial Rites (see below). Perhaps the discipline of keeping to what is known about a person, limiting to some extent the creation of the character, allows freedoms elsewhere in the writing? It may be that people’s actions and motivations, being the stuff of fiction, are more vivid when they are drawn from life.

I seem to have read a number of fictions based on historical events or people recently. So here are some thoughts on factual fictions (or is it fictional facts? – no it isn’t!), some reviews and mentions of other novels.

Writing about real people

For the writer it may be that it is useful that the storyline is already established. But there are some challenges. Not least, the outcome may constitute a spoiler. Or not. I was pleased, as a reader, that I knew Agnes’s fate in Burial Rites. Knowing that she was to be executed focused my mind on the changing relationships as her fate approached, which I believe was Hannah Kent’s intention.

A danger lies in the writer’s attachment to all that research. Some writers appear to include everything. Some writers wear their research lightly. Hilary Mantel appears to be in complete command of all her material, even when her interpretation counters some established ideas. I think of the righteousness of Sir Thomas More in Wolf Hall, for example. She presents a very different view from what I learned in my A Level classes, or to Robert Bolt’s A Man For All Seasons. Research is a very seductive part of writing. Writing on the booksbywomen blog Anna Mazzola reflects on writing her novel The Unseeing and advises:

Work out what to research, and know when to stop.

She spent a year researching London and criminal justice in the 19th century and the murder at the centre of the plot.

In retrospect, I should have mapped out the plot and deduced from that which questions I needed to answer in order to write the book.

Perhaps her most useful advice comes in her recommendation

Recognise that the history is not the story.

The job of the fiction writer is not to be a historian or biographer but to provide ‘a wider sense of what people’s lives might have been like in a particular era: to fear, to love, to escape, to survive’.

So here are some recommendations.

Burial Rights by Hannah Kent

This unsettling novel is based on the true story of Agnes, executed for her part in two murders in Iceland in 1829.

The novel focuses on the period leading up to her execution when Agnes is billeted on a farm. We read about the responses of the family, neighbours and the priest she has asked to help her prepare. The everyday interaction with Agnes as well as her muted behaviour and then the retelling of her life story help gradually shift attitudes towards her.

In some ways it is a feminist novel. Hannah Kent has interpreted Agnes as a strong and independent woman who does not fit the norms of Icelandic society. In Burial Rites she stands up to male abuse to herself and a younger girl, and this eventually leads to the death of her tormentor. The younger girl is pardoned, being pretty and somewhat simple.

The details of Icelandic life fit well with what I have read, and the harsh realities of the law and the hierarchy of the island (subject to distant Danish rule) are well evoked. The writing is vivid and moving.

Recommended by Morag in a comment on the post Bookword in Iceland.

Burial Rights by Hannah Kent, published by Picador (2013) 355pp

The Great Lover by Jill Dawson

Jill Dawson has made her writing career writing about real people. The Great Lover features Rupert Brooke during his years at Cambridge and in Tahiti. Other historical figures make an appearance, including Lady Ottoline Morrell and Virginia Wolf. The girl whom Rupert thinks he loves attended Bedales School, known for naked swimming and free lessons.

It was a Richard and Judy summer read, which must have brought Jill Dawson and Rupert Brooke to the attention of many readers who had not known them before. The story zips along, through endless pre-war sunny days, endless glimpses from afar and endless self-examination by the main characters.

The Great Lover by Jill Dawson, published by Sceptre (2009)

Other fictions based on real people by Jill Dawson include Fred and Edie (2000) and The Crime Fighter (2016), which I recently reviewed, here.

Magda by Meike Ziervogel

Magda is the wife of Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels. The novella’s narrative captures different moments in her life. We meet her first as a girl, for example, in a convent, where the endemic cruelty of the sisters and the other girls is designed to promote conformity. The sections are filtered through different women: Magda herself in the convent, later it is her mother, her daughter’s diary, her own imagination of what it her life will be like after the war, and a more detached narrator.

We get a sense that abuse rattles down the generations, reinforced through institutions especially the Catholic Church and National Socialists, which is presented as a religion. It’s a vivid, and raw account of what it meant to be a child in pre-war Germany, as it was collapsing in 1945, and it meant to be one of the favoured ones in that distorted society.

Magda is an interesting mix of historical fact and imaginative exploration. I understood something more about how Bavarians and Catholics became such keen advocates of National Socialism, how women were abused by the ideas of fascism, and how women are forced to use their sexuality to make anything of themselves, especially in times of crisis and chaos.

Magda by Meike Ziervogel Salt Publishing (2013) 103pp

Recent reviews on this blog:

Ghost Light by Joseph O’Connor In this novel the main character is the actor Molly Allgood.

Little Red Chairs by Edna O’Brien A searing look at how charming and seductive evil can be, hiding in plain sight, even if he is the Beast of Bosnia.

Other fictions that I am tempted by …

The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes (Shostakovich) (2016)

Or have read in the past.

Memoirs of Hadrian by Margaret Yourcenar (1951). The Emperor writes a letter to his successor towards the end of his life.

Summer in February by Jonathan Smith (1995); a circle of painters in Cornwall, three of whom create a doomed love triangle. Laura Knight, Harold Knight, Alfred Munnings among them.

Tom and Will by Matthew Plampin (2015). A novel based on a possible episode in the lives of two young painters JMW Turner and Tom Girtin.

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What is Fiction for?

As I continue to worry about the world in which we live, I have been asking the question more and more frequently, what is fiction for? What can fiction do to enhance the chances of improving how we live? In the last couple of months I have written about the need to counter some expressions of xenophobia, narrowness, hatred and racism. Here is something to which fiction can contribute.

Lady with book by Vanessa Bell

I do not want to detract from the purpose of escapism and entertainment for which fiction is well suited and does a grand job. However, when I read fiction I usually want more than this. Escapism, entertainment and a good story are not enough in my reading. I’m with Susan Sontag who said that writers have moral purpose.

So what is fiction for beyond escapism and entertainment?

I go back to some writers to find what they think they are doing, what is their moral purpose. There seem to be at least three related functions:

  1. Experiencing new territories
  2. Building hope
  3. Building empathy

Here is Margaret Drabble in the Paris Review in 1978 in reply to the question, What would you say is the function of the novel?

I don’t think it’s to teach, but I don’t think it’s simply to entertain, either. It’s to explore new territory. To extend one’s knowledge of the world. And to illumine what one sees in it. That’s a fairly moral concept, isn’t it?

And Neil Gaiman, in a lecture for the Reading Agency called Why our Future Depends on Libraries: reading and daydreaming in 2013 also uses a spatial metaphor. Fiction’s first value is to be the gateway to reading for children, he says.

And the second thing fiction does is to build empathy. When you watch TV or see a film, you are looking at things happening to other people. … You get to feel things, visit places and worlds you would never otherwise know. You learn that everyone else out there is a me, as well. You’re being someone else, and when you return to your own world, you’re going to be slightly changed.

Empathy is a tool for building people into groups, for allowing us to function as more than self-obsessed individuals.

Like Rebecca Solnit in Hope in the Dark, Neil Gaiman believes that fiction has an important role in building hope, by showing readers that the world can be different. He goes on:

You’re also finding out something as you read vitally important for making your way in the world. And it’s this:

THE WORLD DOESN’T HAVE TO BE LIKE THIS. THINGS CAN BE DIFFERENT.

Fiction can show you a different world. It can take you somewhere you’ve never been. Once you’ve visited other worlds, like those who ate fairy fruit, you can never be entirely content with the world that you grew up in. And discontent is a good thing: people can modify and improve their worlds, leave them better, leave them different, if they’re discontented.

Salley Vickers is a novelist who has also trained as a psychoanalyst. She wrote Miss Garnett’s Angel in 2000. She enlarges on the function of fiction:

Reading is not merely a diversion or distraction from present pain; it is also an enlarging of our universe, our sympathies, wisdom and experience.

President Obama told the NY Times about his reading practices, including reading novels, in January this year.

And so I think that I found myself better able to imagine what’s going on in the lives of people throughout my presidency because of not just a specific novel but the act of reading fiction. It exercises those muscles, and I think that has been helpful.

Some fiction has political purposes. I think of three books about war that changed my perceptions: All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque, Catch-22 by Joseph Heller and Dispatches by Michael Herr. Empathy can be an important impetus to political action.

In a post about a collection called A Country of Refuge I suggested that writers should be doing the following:

  • Tell the stories
  • Tell the stories of individuals
  • Keeping imagination alive to help people understand the stories
  • Keeping imagination alive to tell stories of different futures

An in a post about How Bookish people can have Hope in Dark Days I wrote this.

In order to keep hope alive we need to tell the stories of action, alternatives, truth when it is obscured. … We also need to tell stories of how it could be. Hope opens us up to the possibilities that we can work towards. Here bookish people, as well as the press, have a very significant role to play. There are both histories and fictions. History reminds us how far we have come and how. Fiction stretches the imagination, the future possibilities for humans.

Fiction, then, is important to keep in mind the possibilities of other ways in which the world can be, to face us with some unpalatable truths and above all to develop empathy, without which we are surely doomed. But we are not doomed! We have fiction and can write more fiction. Read! Write! Eat the fairy fruit!

Any thoughts?

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Is Age a Barrier to Good Writing?

At a time dominated by the cult of youth, does the age of a writer matter? It always seems that publishers are looking for the next bright young thing. I have seen it suggested that this is to ensure that they will get a return on an author likely to write several books.

Things are changing. We live in an ageing society, in which more people are living longer. It is likely that there will be more older writers in the future. In our book, The New Age of Ageing, we considered the effects of our ageing population, not just on the individual, but also on families, our communities, policy. In this post I explore on the effects on publishing.

Ageism in society

Writing about age means identifying and confronting assumptions about age. There are plenty of discriminatory practices in our society. We can start with how older people are usually seen: conservative; physically weak and declining; not interested in sex and not sexy; defined by death (all those bucket lists).

My posts reviewing fiction about older women has revealed a more nuanced set of characters, with some feisty older women (see Moon Tiger, and The Dark Flood Rises) and some respectful views of older people with Alzheimer’s (Elizabeth is Missing) as well as caricatures of the eccentric and declining.

But what about older writers? We can count on Martin Amis to say what many people think about older writers, quoted by Michele Hanson in the Guardian,

Octogenarian novelists ‘on the whole [are] no bloody good. You can see them disintegrate before your eyes as they move past 70’.

Let’s look at late starters and writers who write into old age.

Late starters

Late, in the publishing world, means after 40. The most famous late starter was Mary Wesley, whose first book for adults Jumping the Queue was published when she was 70 years old. She went on to publish nine more novels and a memoir.

Dinah Jefferies, author of the best seller The Tea Planter’s Wife, published her first novel was when she was over 60. People had informed her that she wouldn’t find a publisher because of her age. Three of her novels have now been published. She told Saga Magazine in February 2016,

I read time and again that you have to be under 60 to be able to succeed at writing. All it made me think was, “I’ll show you. I’m not having that”. (Saga Magazine February 2016)

Keeping on

The list of writers who kept on writing, or who are still writing, is long and distinguished. Michele Hanson referred to Ursula Le Guin, Fay Weldon and Ruth Rendall. I add Diana Athill, Cynthia Ozick, Mary Weslely, and Elizabeth Jane Howard. And there are more.

I recently reviewed a novel by Edna O’Brien, The Little Red Chairs. The author was 84 when she published this her 17th novel.

Margaret Drabble published The Dark Flood Rises when she was 77. It is her 19th novel.

Penelope Lively wrote Moon Tiger when she was 54. She’s still publishing at the age of 83.

It’s not age, stoopid, it’s sex!

So it is not so much age that is a bar to getting published, especially if you have a distinguished career behind you. Gender is much more of a bar to getting books published, promoted and sold. Year on year the VIDA statistics reveal the failure of literary publications to review books by women, or to employ female reviewers. The Bailey’s Prize for Women’s Fiction was begun to help draw attention to excellent books by women.

Thank you to my co-author Eileen for suggesting the topic of this post some time ago, while we were writing The New Age of Ageing.

Related posts

Women and Fiction, for more on this theme. (September 2015)

Is there Discrimination against Older Women Writers? Interview with Anne Goodwin, author of Sugar and Snails. (December 2015)

There are reviews of 25 books in older women in fiction series on this blog.

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A Notable Woman: the romantic diaries of Jean Lucey Pratt

Jean Pratt was 15 when she began her diaries.

I have decided to write a journal. I mean to go on writing this for years and years, and it’ll be awfully amusing to read over later. (Saturday 18th April 1925)

She did write it for years and years, sixty-one years, until 1986. And it is awfully amusing to read it later. The version by Simon Garfield is necessarily edited, yet is still over 700 pages. But she lived long. She did not always prosper.

History

Most history, as we know it, was written by men, and about men. When I was at school our teachers tried to break away from the rote learning of dates, events involving famous men. Their approach, to try to understand what had happened, influenced my decision to read history at university. There I came in to contact with the great EP Thomson (Making of the English Working Class) and came to see that what interested me was the ordinary, the everyday.

We shall discover in time that history is made by people. It is not a series of reigns, battles, and party politics, but an unending story of events created by living people moved by emotions, ideals, passions …

We shall learn not that the Duke of Marlborough won the battle of Blenheim in 1704 and so saved Vienna from the Elector of Bavaria and the line of James II from being restored in England, but why this battle was fought. We shall ask questions back and back until we come to the motives that governed the actions of people. We shall find them – the people, crippled with jealousy and greed and fear; we shall ask why and go seeking further. (Monday 28th October 1940)

I am old enough that my childhood is now history, post war history. I am interested enough in history to want to read about those things that affected me, such as the post war years. Here is a great resource.

Jean Pratt

There is nothing especially remarkable about Jean Pratt, except her diaries. She was born in 1910, died in 1986 (aged 76). Her mother died just before the diaries begin, and her father just as the Second World War broke out. She grew up in Wembley, her father was an architect, and she had an older brother who soon went off to work abroad for the Cable and Wireless Company.

She was a woman of her time, ruefully reflecting, from time to time, that she was one of the 3 million ‘surplus women’ of her generation. She never married, although she dearly wished to. The phrase ‘surplus woman’ reflects the view of the time that a woman is only of value when married to a man. Jean argued against this position, but felt it emotionally. She also reflected on her requirement for a companionship in marriage, a man she could respect. She met few men like this.

The question of marriage. I cannot help now and then reflecting that there is much in what N. [a friend] preaches (and Joan, but with less virulence) – that marriage is not necessarily the only fulfilment for a woman. I have always found ordinary day-to-day living with someone else fearfully irksome. I enjoy my solitude and independence and take it now so much for granted that when I get these spams for ‘love’ and marriage I don’t take into account what it would be like to have to adjust myself to someone else day after day, however deeply in love I might be. I am a self centred selfish creature – it is so much easier, so much more comfortable and convenient to live alone.

And yet, and yet … No one has ever wanted (or said so at least) to live with me. That is what at forty makes me feel such a failure, that I have made such a poor show of my personal life. All my lovers slip away, as DB has done, without saying goodbye. Away they go, ghostly, unsatisfying, across the sea, to their death in a car, to study medicine, to Australia, to write plays, and that is the end. (Friday 21st October 1949)

As a young woman she took courses at London University to become and architect and then switched to journalism. She made many friends at this time, friends to whom she remained loyal until death. At the start of the war she had not yet made a career for herself, and rented a cottage in Burnham Beeches in Surrey, where she lived for the rest of her life.

To support herself during the war she took up work in High Duty Alloy Company, as well as volunteering with the Red Cross. After she tried to earn a living through writing, taking in paying guests in her cottage, and finally ran a small local bookshop, specialising in books about cats. Money problems dogged her throughout her life, although she was able to buy Wee Cottage eventually.

Burnham Beeches pond

The times

Jean Pratt lived through the most interesting of times. Society was changing, and she records her own beliefs, her explorations of new ideas, and reflects some of the contradictions and shifting attitudes of the time. Her attitude towards sex and marriage, for example, might have shocked her mother. She flirted with socialism and Fabianism before finding a roost in the Liberal Party. She sought psychoanalysis to help her with her dissatisfactions as early at 1939. She loved to have her fortune told, and believed in faith healing for a while.

The defining events of her lifetime were those of the Second World War. Just about to enter her 30s when it began, England had changed utterly by the time it ended. As early as 1934 she was trying to understand what it would mean. Remember she was an architectural student at the time.

War … war … the muttering goes on on all sides. War in the air. England’s lovely countryside devastated. No escape anywhere.

Yet supposing it happened. Bombs dropping, bombs bursting away the slums of London and Leeds, and the dirt and depression of all our big cities. Life will be lost of course, blood will flow in the streets, beauty will be desecrated. But afterwards – for it couldn’t last long this war in the air – if any of us have survived, if any of us can still pick up the torn threads of our lives and go on, what a magnificent chance for us to begin again. Given men of foresight and wisdom and sensitiveness, we have every opportunity of creating an age more golden than the Elizabethan. (Thursday 26th July 1934)

One of the charms of the diaries is that they lack hindsight. We know what happened, but as the war years dragged on those living through those times could not have known how long it would last, or what the effects would be on their lives.

It’s a long book, but is full of wit, humour, humanity and a questioning stance. Lovely. Just what the historian ordered.

A Notable Woman: the romantic diaries of Jean Lucey Pratt, edited by Simon Garfield and published by Canongate in 2015. 714pp

Related posts.

A Chelsea Concerto by Frances Faviell (November 2016). A Blitz memoir.

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