Monthly Archives: October 2017

A Writer trains her Imagination

There are many reasons to admire Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, not least her novels, such as Americanah, but also her stance on feminism, We Should All Be Feminists. Recently I read this from her:

Imagination doesn’t fall from the sky. You have to work with something.

[quoted in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie On How to Read and How to Write, in Lit Hub 15th Sept 2017, from interview with Salon]

And as I have been thinking about imagination and writing since I wrote about it earlier this year I began to think about the ways in which I find those ‘somethings’. These might be ideas for this blog, or for my creative writing activities, or for non-fiction work.

And I love the idea that the word inspiration is linked to breathe, we should breath as naturally as we take in air to our lungs. And that the word imagination links with the visual stimuli, having the same root as images.

The central question is What if …?

Imagine memorial to John Lennon. Designed by Bruce Kelly.

Writers need to ask ‘what if …?’ again and again. Most frequently it is what if I lived in a world that was different from mine in some significant way?

  • What if dragons were real and living close by?
  • What if Mr Rochester already had a wife?
  • What if Mr Darcy had no money and a modest nature?
  • What if the ugly duckling were just an ugly duckling?
  • What if women had all the power?
  • What if I wrote the story backwards?
  • What if I made the characters into animals?
  • Imagine …

There are so many ways of asking this question. Pantsers are especially good at creating wild and elaborate plots. I have just read Swing Time by Zadie Smith, and the world she conjures seems to want to escape the 450 pages of the novel.

Ursula le Guin is justly renown for creating worlds that contrast with ours but also reflect aspects of our own. In The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin, she asks what if gender difference was periodic and inconstant? Writers can suspend normal rules and see what happens, as in Orlando by Virginia Woolf, in which the protagonist lives for centuries and changes gender. Or writers can create a book to be read in one order or another depending on which copy is bought, as in Ali Smith’s How to be Both.

That’s the beauty of writing and reading fiction. It takes you to places you might not have yet imagined. And so it can be very subversive.

Finding sources for imagination

Murmuration

It is apparently one of the most common questions that published writers get asked – where do you get your ideas? Some writing groups I have tried focused exclusively on prompts. But having had an active imagination since I could speak, I am practised in using my imgaination. Here’s what I do:

  • read
  • notice
  • listen
  • respond
  • use prompts
  • walk
  • travel
  • write

In each of these ways there are a myriad of sources in which imagination can be piqued. Writing in the style of, or paraphrasing a noted writer’s text are ways in which imagination can become unblocked. Noticing, noting the world around us: on the bus, in the news. I wrote a story called The Welcoming Committee after a prompt from a writers’ groups and found I was asking what would have happen if a group of English people had met American soldiers in the Second World War. The prompt was too many cooks.

Writer’s Treats are a great way to help see the world anew or even differently. I favour art galleries and opera. It helps me think about how other people see the world. Some time ago I described how I Write One Picture – a strategy to practise writing. The source of this idea was a project for primary schools. I wrote a short story, called Paintpot, about a war artist who witnessed the liberation of Bergen-Belsen, inspired by a drawing I saw in an exhibition. What if I had been present at that dreadful scene?

I have been lucky to travel for professional as well as personal reasons, and in 2009 I wrote a story about Roaring Billy Falls in New Zealand. It was about the restorative power of landscape, but I think the title was its best feature.

Recently I have been working on a short story about a Conscientious Objector in the first world war. Here are the gates to his work camp.

Dartmoor Prison Gates

Training the Imagination

Ursula Le Guin’s suggestion in The Operating Instructions that we need to help people learn to use imagination bears repeating.

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)

To learn to use imagination well there are many things I do:

  • Practice using it – all the above activities
  • Review the effects of these activities and their outcomes
  • Learn from the exercises
  • Consider how to put the learning into effect in my own writing, or not.
  • Collaborate with others in imaginative activities.

And in writing as in other art forms there is no limit. No limit. We can use our imaginations to take us anywhere, everywhere.

Over to you

And what do you do to keep your imagination topped up? To find those somethings?

I wrote on the topic of imagination three months ago: inspired by Ursula Le Guin’s essay The Operating Instructions, which you can find in Words are my Matter.

Words are my Matter: writings about life and books 2000-2016 by Ursula Le Guin, published by Small Beer Press in 2016.

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Photo crredits:

Murmuration: biggles621 via Visualhunt / CC BY-NC-SA

Imagine: Chris Parker2012 via Visualhunt.com / CC BY-ND

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The Shipping News by E Annie Proulx

There have been ten novels in the Decades Project so far. We have reached the 1990s and my choice is The Shipping News by E Annie Proulx. I was so pleased to reread it. It’s an excellent novel that celebrates the power of stories to build communities.

The story

Here is an account of a few years in the life of Quoyle, born in Brooklyn and raised in a shuffle of dreary upstate towns. (1)

Quoyle is hapless. A good word that, which in its original meaning speaks of the lack of hap, ie luck. Today it also implies incompetence. This novel is about how Quoyle found his hap.

Hive-spangled, gut roaring with gas and cramp, he survived childhood; at the state university, hand clasped over his chin, he camouflaged torment with smiles and silence. Stumbled through his twenties and into his thirties learning to separate his feelings from his life, counting on nothing. He ate prodigiously, liked a ham knuckle, buttered spuds. (1)

At the start of The Shipping News Quoyle is a journalist in New York, but not competent enough to stay in employment. He is married to Petal, but she prefers to sleep with anyone else. She runs off with one of her lovers taking their two children. In one terrible week Quoyle’s parents commit suicide together, Petal is killed in a car crash having sold their children. The children are rescued and Quoyle’s aunt agrees to help him, suggesting that they move back to her childhood home in Newfoundland.

Her house there turns out to be isolated, very old, and held down by ties into the rocks. It needs a great deal of work to make it habitable. Aunt sets about getting things organised and Quoyle takes up his job with the local newspaper, the Gammy Bird. He starts out with responsibility for the shipping news, a record of which ships enter and leave the port of Killick-Claw.

He turns out to be rather good at telling stories about the boats, and just about everyone they meet has a story to tell, often connected to boats, fishing and the sea. Quoyle, Aunt and the two girls gradually connect to their new community, through work, supporting each other, making friendships and love affairs, and telling their own stories.

By the last page Quoyle has learned a good lesson.

And it may be that love sometimes occurs without pain or misery. (337)

Some reflections

The theme of knots and knitting runs through this novel. (I could have said threads). Quoyle’s name is a variant of coil. We are told that ‘it may be walked on if necessary’ (1). He needs straightening out. The woman who will do it is called Wavey. Many of the characters knit. Knots appear in the headings of the chapters, often with line drawings taken from The Ashley Book of Knots. One character uses knots to conjure magic spells. Knots, of course bind, and are essential to those who live with boats.

Another theme is of sexual abuse, especially within families. The Gammy Bird runs a column on SA stories in every edition. For one character, only when her story of abuse is revealed can she live in peace in Killick-Claw.

I love the writing of this novel. Frequently sentences appear abrupt, often because pronouns have been omitted, or phrases such as ‘there were’, or verbs. It has the effect of putting the reader alongside a character.

We have weather, the changing seas, the mysteries of the local small islands, the seafood diets, creative and handy people, and above all the stories. By the final page Quoyle has found his hap for he is now the editor of the Gammy Bird and takes part in telling the story of his community.

Annie Proulx

This year Annie Proulx won the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, noting especially her ‘deep reverence for the beauty and complexities of rural America’. Now known simply as Annie Proulx, she has written other novels, short stories and memoirs. The Shipping News won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize in 1994. Kevin Spacey and Judi Dench starred in the 2001 film adaptation of the novel. While it does not capture the full subtlety of the novel – how could it? – it was good, not least for the grainy appearance of the Newfoundland setting. Brokeback Mountain in the collection called Close Range was also made into a film. I enjoyed Postcards (1992), but have to admit that I didn’t get far with Barkskins (2016).

(Photo Annie Proulx in 2009 US Embassy in Argentina, via wikicommons)

The Shipping News by E Annie Proulx (1993) 4th Estate. 337pp

The Decades Project

For the Decades Project I have selected a book from each decade from 1900 onwards, reading one a month, and reviewing it here. The idea is from my library’s Reading Passport scheme.

Previous posts in the Project

Hotel Du Lac by Anita Brookner, from 1984

Woman at Point Zero by Nawal el Saadawi, published in 1975

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin, published in 1969

The Grass is Singing by Doris Lessing, published in 1950

They were Sisters by Dorothy Whipple, published in 1943

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, published in 1938

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie, published in 1926

O Pioneers by Willa Cather, published in 1913

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton, published in 1905

The next decade: 2000s

I have not yet decided what to read for the final two decades – 2000s and 2010s. Suggestions are always welcome.

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The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

The underground railroad was a means by which slaves from the American Southern States were helped to escape and find freedom in the North. Making the railroad a concrete thing, with stations, tracks, engines, engineers and boxcars, is a daring move by Colson Whitehead. It has the effect of emphasising the hard work of building the network, maintaining it and it also exposes the vulnerability of the routes to freedom and the many ways to disrupt it.

The story of The Underground Railroad

This novel is Cora’s story. It tells of her life on the Randall’s cotton plantation in Georgia from which she is determined to escape. The difficulties in realising an escape encountered by Cora in each state she passes through form the bulk of this novel, with occasional short sections to reveal what happened to those who played a part in her journey. Spurring her on are the experiences of her grandmother, captured in Africa and a survivor of the fearsome middle passage. Cora’s own mother achieved notoriety, or a reputation, by being the only escapee not have been returned to the Randall’s place. There are men who make a living out of catching and returning slaves to their owners. And the owners themselves are without qualms when they punish returned slaves. They aim to deter others. Cora makes her bid for freedom, partly encouraged by her mother’s example and partly because another slave, Caesar, provides the opportunity and the moment.

It is quickly established that Cora cannot do this on her own, but nearly every one who meets and helps her is killed, often brutally and others become damaged as she makes her slow journey to freedom. This is a story of violence and inhumanity.

She comes across many different ways in which black women are enslaved. It begins with the backbreaking work on the plantation, and the law that casts the slave as the property of her owner. Her owner can dispose of her as he wishes. Randall sets the slave catcher, Ridgeway on Cora’s trail. Already eluded by her mother’s escape, Ridgeway develops a terrifying obsession with tracking down Cora. Their paths cross, she escapes, and again, until …

Cora finds sanctuary with sympathisers as she eludes Ridgeway. In South Carolina they are treating the black folks well, educating them, providing employment and offering healthcare. The healthcare is compromised, however, designed to sterilise slaves, so Cora moves on.

In North Carolina they have a policy of violent eradication of all black residents. Hidden in an attic Cora witnesses brutal executions of those who harbour escapees, and of the escapees themselves. Another escape, to a farm colony in Indiana, but the local people find it too threatening and a massacre takes place. Cora escapes the massacre because Ridgeway captures her.

At each moment of escape Cora must find the railroad platform, wait for a train, and travel with it to the next unknown destination. Ultimately it is the railroad that saves her from Ridgeway’s final attempt to recapture her.

Some reflections

This is an exciting story exposing the effects of an immoral set of beliefs. The story moves along briskly, but at times I did not want to read on because of what I feared would come next.

The questions posed by The Underground Railroad are important– for example, what forms of slavery are there beyond the plantation? What do white supremacist beliefs mean today? How can the world atone for such uprooting, such brutal treatment, such unspeakable acts? How is it that we continue to value humans differently, separating out people by the accident of birth, or differentiating between economic migrants and asylum seekers? What forms of slavery exist today? Is the work of a few dedicated railroad maintenance workers enough to keep people from being subjugated by others?

This is a powerful novel, which deserves the success it has been enjoying. In itself it is a strong argument for the importance of fiction to show us other worlds and experiences. Thanks to Ed for the recommendation and for lending me his copy.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (2016). Paperback version published by Fleet. 366pp

Winner of Pulitzer Prize for fiction 2017.

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The Quest for Christa T by Christa Wolf

I failed. I got to page 93 out of 185 and I stopped reading. I have tried. For several weeks I have picked up this book and read the first chapter. Then put it down and later tried again. Now at the half-way point, ten chapters out of 20 have been read, but I can’t go on. I’ve weighed up the time it was taking to read this novel against what I felt I got out of it. I’ve decided to move on to other books.

The title of this post should really read: The Quest for Christa T by Christa Wolf

The Quest for Christa T

Christa T is not an especially remarkable woman. Like the narrator, she grew up in eastern Germany during the war, and like many in that area, fled before the advancing Red Army. Living in East Germany (the DDR), as normality is resumed, the girls meet again in university and form a loose friendship. The narrator reconstructs Christa T’s life from the documents she left when she died young of Leukaemia.

Part of the novel seems to be about the impossibility of recreating anyone’s life, fictional or real. She opens the novel with doubts about memories.

The quest for her: in the thought of her. And of the attempt to be oneself. She speaks of this in her diaries, which we have, on the loose manuscript pages that have been found, and between the lines of those letters of hers that are known to me. I must forget my memory of Christa T.- that is what these documents have taught me. Memory puts a deceptive color on things.

But must we give her up for lost? (1)

It’s this kind of elliptical yet lyrical prose that made reading it so hard. And the novel continues by exploring witness evidence, documents, and conjecturing what happened in the gaps. There is very little narrative, more a series of events alongside the narrator’s suggestions of what might have been happening in Christa T’s mind and explanations of her responses.

What are we to make of the author’s name being shared with the main character? Why has Christa Wolf embarked on this search, the quest for her namesake, at all? I guess I’ll never know because I am moving on to other reading.

Christa Wolf

Christa Wolf lived 1929 to 2011, mostly former East Germany. The area in which she was born is now in Poland, and when her family fled the advancing Red Army at the end of the war they ended up inside the Russian Zone.

She worked as a literary critic and journal editor and although critical of the DDR leadership during the Cold War period she remained a socialist. She won many awards for her writing. From reading her obituaries and about The Quest for Christa T it seems that Christa Wolf was interested in individuals who make their own way rather than following the crowd. This had obvious implications for the East German state. Her book was not banned when it appeared in 1968, but only a limited number of copies were printed.

A Novel in translation

Well, I am sorry for my failure to get beyond half way. The Quest for Christa T was my October choice for the Women in Translation project. I chose it because it appeared in several lists of recommended reads for #WIT and others had responded positively. For example, on Heavenali’s blog and Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings. I plan to read another, but more recent, text by a German writer: Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck (2017) in November.

I would like to hear from people who got further with Christa T than I did, and who got more out of it.

The Quest for Christa T by Christa Wolf, first published in English in 1970 by Hutchinson & Co. The translation from the German is by Christopher Middleton. I read a library copy from Exeter Library stacks. Virago also published a version.

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My Shitty Twenties by Emily Morris

In my case it was my shitty thirties. To be honest only certain aspects of my thirties were shitty. I became a single mother and tried to continue to make a life for myself. It was hard, very hard, and it came back to me when I read Emily Morris’s memoir about becoming a single mother in her twenties. It’s a memoir of a much more recent past than my struggles as a single mother.

The pregnant student

Emily was enjoying the life of a student in Manchester at the turn of the century. She had a job she loved, was just begun to find the focus for her studies as well as appreciating the contrast between her social life in the city and her hometown of Southport.

Then she discovered she was pregnant. And there she is: 22 years old, pregnant, studying, working, and in Manchester. She decided to keep the baby.

It has to be said that the father of her child comes out of this memoir very badly indeed. In the first place he lied to her suggesting he was not able to make her pregnant. In the second place, his response to her decision to continue the pregnancy was

Enjoy your impending shitty, snotty, vomitty twenties. Goodbye. (16)

In the third place, he offers no support and no interest once the baby was born. In the fourth place … you get the picture. I suppose he did give her a great title, and contributed a tiny something towards her son.

The heroine, not including Emily herself, is Emily’s mother who supports her as a model mother would. She backs her decision, is interested in how Emily will manage, offers her a home, provides her with a home, goes with her to hospital, including on the night Tom is born and then continues to support her for another 18 months or so. Every single mother should have a mother like her.

Emily herself shows considerable perseverance and determination. Just having a baby is physically hard work. It’s true what people say. They don’t call it labour for nothing. And then, this small dependant being takes over everything, and if you are the sole parent you have to make all the decisions, shoulder all the worry, make all the arrangements, and try to remember your own life in the midst of the focus on the shitty, snotty, vomitty baby.

A Memoir

I found My Shitty Twenties surprisingly readable. There is no self-pity, no mawkishness, no self-indulgence, no lingering over how hard it all is. And it all is. Rather, Emily’s courage and determination to bring up the child, to continue her studies and to earn her living are reported in a straightforward tone and with a combination of good humour and insight.

I was not surprised to read that this memoir began as a blog. The chapters are short, and often end with the reversal of some belief, or a person being proved wrong, or a new insight into life. She presents her struggles with breastfeeding, the mothers’ web site, the consoling parrot, and we understand them all. She writes with the immediacy of the best bloggers, and doesn’t go on too long.

This I know

It’s hard and unrelenting work being a single mother. The rewards are huge. Managing work, the expectation and assumptions of strangers and friends and family is tiring, although often amusing afterwards. There are bad days, abuse by strangers, misrepresentations. There is also unexpected kindness and luck. And in writing My Shitty Twenties she has built a history to share with her son.

I hope that we can expect more from Emily Morris now she has reached her ******y thirties.

My Shitty Twenties by Emily Morris (2017) Published by Salt. 310pp

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Picture credits:

Baby crying Photo credit: liewcf via Visual Hunt / CC BY-SA

Smiling baby Photo credit: Vato Bob via VisualHunt.com / CC BY

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Tell me a Riddle by Tillie Olsen

A woman who is old is not merely an old woman. She is all the people she has been in her life. Tillie Olsen tells us that Eva has been a revolutionary, a prisoner, an immigrant, a mother and now, at 69 she wants to live in her own way. She rejects being defined as a grandmother. This is the significance of the title. She refuses to amuse the young, she will not tell a riddle.

Tell me a Riddle is the 29th in Older Women in Fiction series on Bookword. Tillie Olsen’s short story was originally published in 1961, and has gained the status of American classic.

The Story

Here is the opening paragraph of Tell me a Riddle. Her desire to live in her own quiet and space brings Eva to a serious quarrel with her husband David.

For forty-seven years they had been married. How deep back the stubborn, gnarled roots of the quarrel reached, no one could say – but only now, when tending to the needs of others no longer shackled them together, the roots swelled up visible, split the earth between them, and the tearing shook even to the children, long since grown. (74)

They have raised seven children and never had enough money. They are Jewish immigrants from Russia to US. Eva wants to live in quiet in her own home, to decide on what she does. David wants to sell their house and live in a care home, the Haven. They sink into warfare: she is often mute, he is furious.

Then she becomes ill and it is terminal. He takes her to stay with various children and eventually to California, where they are looked after by a granddaughter, Jeannie who is a nurse. Eva dies there.

Eva and David’s relationship changes: from hostility, to distance and to fear of impending loss, with an underlying love. The love survives even if he has pushed her, as everyone has, into the role they think she should play. It’s a complex and hard story.

The older woman

Eva is a woman who at the end of her life tries to live as she wants after a lifetime of giving to others. She rejects, now, the roles people want to give her. But she must confront the wishes of her husband and is defeated by death.

The history of their marriage is sketched in through the story. It is not unusual. Eva has been defined in her marriage by the needs of her children. Eva’s closed, constrained life emerges in their quarrels. Here, for example, David tries to persuade her with arguments about the leisure that the Haven will offer.

“In the cottages they buy what you ask, and cook it how you like. You are the one who always used to say: better mankind born without mouths and stomach than always to worry for money to buy, to shop, to fix, to cook, to wash, to clean.”

“How cleverly you hid that you heard. I said it then because eighteen hours a day I ran. And you never scraped a carrot or knew a dish towel sops.” (77)

He suggests she would enjoy a book group at The Haven. She reminds him that he never once stayed at home with the children so that she could go to a book club. And that she had to ask for every penny they needed, that she was the one required to manage.

She would not exchange her solitude for anything. Never again to be forced to move to the rhythms of others. (79)

This last line is repeated in the story. What is unusual, or was in the 1960s, is the articulation of the deprivation of the years when they had children.

When the family are told that she has at best a year to live, everything changes. We learn that Eva was active in the 1905 revolution, and that David found her in prison. We learn that she still has strong beliefs about how the world should be. She loved her children but no longer frets over their lives. And indeed her children and her grandchildren have become hard to understand. Her life is so different. Here’s a scene from a visit to cousins in California.

Jokes, stories, people they had known, beginning of reminiscence, Russia fifty-six years ago. Strange words across the Duncan Phyfe table: hunger; secret meetings; human rights; spies; betrayals; prison; escape – interrupted by one of the grandchildren: “Commercial’s on; any Coke left? Gee you’re missing a real hair raiser.” (106)

Her experiences include hunger; secret meetings; human rights; spies; betrayals; prison; escape. This is not your typical American housewife. This part of Eva’s life is ignored by everyone, is even unknown to them.

As she becomes more sick, she begins to ramble, to taunt David and to sing the songs of her youth. But when she lies in her hospital bed at night and he sleeps beside her in the double bed, they hold hands. As David observes, she finds it hard work to die.

Eva wanted to reclaim the idealism of her youth, which once she shared with David. She is pained that he has lost this vision for the world and that her children never shared it. In the final scene of the short story, David understands what he has lost by abandoning the struggle of their youth.

All her names

David, Eva’s husband, has developed a habit of calling her by names laden with sarcasm. You can almost follow the story by these names:

Mrs Word Miser       Mrs Unpleasant

Mrs Live Alone And Like It

Mrs Free As A Bird  Mrs Take it Easy

Mrs Excited Over Nothing

Mrs Inahurry                        Mrs Bodybusy

Mrs Suspicious          Mrs Invalid

Mrs Orator Without Breath

Mrs Miserable           Mrs Philosopher

Mrs Babbler              Mrs Live Alone

Mrs Cadaver             Eva

Other people call her Mum or Granny as appropriate to their relationship. Her seven children and husband have defined her. Only as she dies do we find out that she is called Eva and and she can reclaim her name.

I am reminded of the doctor in Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively, who says of Claudia Hampton ‘that yes, she does seem to have been someone’.

Tillie Olsen

Tillie Olsen by Julieoe via WikiCommons. Tillie Olsen recording Tell me a Riddle and other stories at The Library Of Congress in 1996.

Tillie Olsen was an American feminist who lived 1912-2007. She was born into a family of Russian immigrants and became active in trades unions and the communist party. For much of her life she lived in California. Tell me a Riddle was her first published book, but her output remained small, largely because of her domestic and family responsibilities. She also wrote the non-fiction Silences (1978).

Tell me a Riddle by Tillie Olsen. Published in the UK by Faber & Faber in 1964 in a collection of four short stories. 53 pp

Recent posts in the older women in fiction series:

Kent Haruf Our Souls at Night

Elizabeth Von Arnim The Enchanted April

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