Monthly Archives: September 2019

A Writing Festival – why would you organise one?

So what is a writing festival? And why would you put one on? Who would come? And, again, why do it?

Last Saturday, after months of preparation, nearly 100 people visited the Mansion in Totnes for a writing festival. They wrote in workshops, viewed an exhibition, heard or presented their work at performances, and joined in the great poetry slam. 

So what was all that for?

My writing group, the Totnes Library Writers Group which organised the event, had three clear aims for the festival:

1. To promote participation in writing activities  by writers of any experience

2. To increase confidence  in writing by participants

3. To develop skills  of disseminating and sharing writing within the Writers Group

The group has been quite active in exploring aspects of writing, having published an anthology called Gallimaufry in 2015 (see below). In 2017 we held a performance event to celebrate our fourth birthday. We wanted to do something different after these two experiments. 

We know the excitement of writing and of sharing our work within a community of writers. A festival was an attractive and compelling project at the start. Pretty soon we will have to ask – and what will be next?

So what was there to do at the festival?

We are proud of our programme, its scope, its quality and its appeal. There was so much to do. You could choose up to four from the 12 workshops on offer:

  • Researching your local history
  • Finding your inner storyteller
  • Storytelling (a workshop for children)
  • Music and poetry
  • Journaling – Creating your Morning Pages
  • Writing for magazines
  • Podcasts – writing for radio
  • Turning your ideas into stories – writing fiction
  • Chinese takeaway – inspiration from ancient Chinese poets
  • Blogging is citizen publishing
  • Writing for children
  • Finding your voice 

All the workshops were designed to get people writing and to include people who had not written before, or who were trying a new genre. There were performance events by members of the writers group, and for any participants and by our nonagenarian writer of totally tasteless verse.

Children from the local secondary school had produced and displayed some impressive writing in the same hall as another of our poets offered to write poems in three minutes, and one of our artist-poets sold items that she had created: bookmarks, ex libris labels and greetings cards.

The climax was the poetry Slam, won by Richie Green, organised by Jackie Juno, herself a successful slam contestant at Glastonbury and a Bard of Exeter. I particularly enjoyed this event because it was full of dynamism and excitement, which I had not previously associated with poetry.

Who came and what did they say about it?

From 9.30, when we opened the doors, people arrived to join in. Our audience were aged from 4 to 95 years old. About 73% were female. The feedback indicated that we had reached many people and that our group will enjoy new active writers in the future.

We were pleased that the local MP joined us in the afternoon. She was able to hear some of the performances by members of the writers group and she commissioned a poem from our 3-minute poet. 

And here is a word cloud from the comments made by participants asked to say what was the best thing about the workshops.

Who organised it?

It was a huge amount of work and learning and the planning absorbed us from March to September – six months. I wonder whether we would have set out to organise it if we had known quite how much work it would entail. We were a group of six people from the Writers Group, with help from other members. We were determined to keep it manageable and local. 

The proof of the first intention, manageability, is found in the fact that we were all still standing on Saturday. 

And we fulfilled our intention to put on a local festival: every workshop leader came from the town or near it, and it demonstrated that there is a great deal of local talent. Most of the participants were local as well. And we were able to use a very central location, a space made available for community use by the Totnes Community Development Society: the Mansion. The building needs attention, but we prettied it up with loads of bunting made from books.

Who funded it?

From the earliest stages of the planning we agreed that we wanted to pay the workshop leaders the going rate of £150 for a 90-minute workshop. We believe that writers should be paid for their work. With 12 workshops that would mean quite a lot of money: £1800 for that aspect of the festival alone. We planned to charge no more than £5 per session to ensure the event was accessible to all, and had less than £50 in the kitty at that time, so we had to set about getting funds. I will own up to missing a deadline for a grant from one potential funder. It was a bad moment. But we did persuade enough organisations that it was worth investing in and in the end we found enough money to do what we wanted. Our funders included

Totnes Town Council

South Hams District Council

Network of Wellbeing, Totnes

Arts Council Lottery Fund

Devon County Council

And some generous donations by local people and organisations.

High spots

For me there were two very different but special moments: the slam and the day we heard we had Arts Council Lottery Funding. 

What I didn’t do

And while I was involved in all that I failed to pick any blackberries and I found no time to write. Irony, thy name is organising a writing festival.

And now … ?

Gallimaufry or why my writing group is cock-o-hoop (January 2016)

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The Boston Girl by Anita Diamant

The current trend of using ‘girl’ in titles continues to rile me. It carries more than a trace of condescension. This novel is the story by a woman in her 80s, hardly a girl. However it was recommended. It does not present as a potboiler, or who dunnit, so I gave it a go. 

The Boston Girl  is the 42ndin the series on Bookword blog about older women in fiction. This novel was recommended to me twice recently: by someone who read my blogs on Global Literature in Libraries Initiative in August, and by my sister, who kindly sent me a copy to read.

The Boston Girl

An 85-year-old woman, Addie Baum, is asked by her granddaughter to talk about how she got to be the woman she is today (in 1985). In reply she narrates the story of her life, lived mostly in Boston. Addie was born in 1900 into an immigrant Jewish family. They were poor and had already lost two children. When Addie begins her story her older sister, Betty, has not long left the family home to live on her own. A second sister, Celia, is frail and much protected by her father. Neither parent finds happiness in Boston and there is little kindness in their household. Addie is the only one born in the new country. She is determined to do well despite their tragedies and their poverty.

Addie does well at school, but the family are so poor that she has to leave after only a year at high school. Things improve slightly for the family when Celia marries a widower, Levine, inheriting his two young sons. But marriage, step-mothering and keeping a household are beyond Celia and she commits suicide.

Gradually the events of Addie’s life improve due in part to her friendships with other young women, which last a lifetime and which sustain and motivate her. There are her failed love affairs and then her meeting with her future husband, a lawyer defending children in employment. Her own employments begin with office work and moves into journalism, and finally to social work in support of children. The author refers to the significance of Abbie’s resilience on her website. But her connections and the necessity of earning a living seem to be as important in determining her decisions.

The final years are swiftly dealt with. The interest is largely in her life before her marriage.

The chief influences are of immigration, Jewishness and being female. This novel is not about an older woman so much as what happened to this older woman before she arrived at the age of 85.

Addie Baum at 85

The granddaughter’s question is not answered in any depth: how Addie got to be the woman she is today. Her Jewishness, her gender and the times she lived in which she lived are hardly credited with being part of the answer. At heart this is a feelgood novel, a young girl finds her way to eventual happiness despite early poverty and some bad experiences. The short chapters make it an easy and enjoyable read.

Reading it did provoke me to wonder how I would answer the same question. 

The Boston Girl by Anita Diamant, first published in 2014. I read the edition by  Simon & Schuster. 392pp

Here are some recent additions to the Older Women in Fiction series:

Meet Me at the Museum  by Anne Youngson

Eleanor and Abel by Annette Sanford (guest post)

Should You Ask Me  by Marianne Kavanagh

The Woman from Tantoura  by Radwa Ashour

See also a comprehensive list including many recent recommendations by readers, on the page called About the Older Women in Fiction Series.

To subscribe and receive email notifications of future posts on Bookword please email me with your email address: lodgecm@gmail.com

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Goodnight Mister Tom by Michelle Magorian

My choice for the 1980s in the Decades Project is a story of an evacuee in the Second World War. A neglected boy from Deptford in East London is sent to the country and is billeted with a lonely and reclusive older man. How did this combination work out?

We have reached the 1980s. Goodnight Mister Tom by Michelle Magorianwas published in 1981. This is the ninth post in the Bookword 2019 Decades Project focusing on children’s literature. 

Goodnight Mister Tom

William Beech (8) is an evacuee in 1939, sent from Deptford in London to a rural village, and lodged with an older man (in his 60s). This is Tom Oakley, who has been a bit of a recluse since his wife and baby son died 40 years before. Will is in a pitiful way: beaten and neglected by his mother and unable to read or write. Frightened of everything, he has been threatened with dire consequences if he strays outside his mother’s strict code. Despite it being September he has been sewn into his clothes for winter.

The old man has a loft room that he prepares for the boy. It emerges that Will has never slept in a bed. He is so anxious that at night he wets the bed. In order to care for the boy Tom has to learn discretion and gentleness. And he must work with his neighbours to clothe the boy and deal with the harm resulting from Will’s mother’s  physical abuse. And when the boy goes to school another outsider makes him his friend. This is Zach, a Jewish evacuee. The two boys form an adventurous friendship with three local children which brings Will out of himself.

Both Tom and the boy gradually become absorbed into the transformed community. Will learns to read and write and his talent at drawing is uncovered.

All goes well until Willie’s mother demands his return and in a disturbing turn of events it is discovered that she has had a baby. I was genuinely shocked by the moment when Will finds the baby with her mouth taped to keep her quiet. Will has developed more confidence in what is right and wrong which is a provocation to his mother. 

Not having heard from the boy Tom goes to London to find him and bring him home. Tom has been severely abused again and now the villagers bring him back to life.

Reading Goodnight Mister Tom

This is a great story, really well told. Some aspects of it are challenging as I have suggested: physical abuse of children, deaths and a child finding himself quite alone in an alien environment. 

On the other hand, Will is clearly assisted by adults and friends (including the dog) using common good sense and decency, sympathetic care, encouragement, acceptance into a community and the unconditional love of a dog and an adult. Despite the dark context of the story ultimately it is positive and hopeful.

Goodnight Mister Tomby Michelle Magorian was first published in 1981. I used the edition from Puffin Books (1983). 358pp

The Decade Project in 2019

In 2019, the third year of my Decades Project, I am exploring children’s fiction from the start of the 20thcentury through my monthly choices of a book from successive decades. Next month it will be a book from 1990-99. 

Here are the links to the books in this year’s Decades Project so far:

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry  by Mildred D Taylor (1976)

A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K Le Guin (1968)

The Eagle of the Ninth  by Rosemary Sutcliff (1954)

The Little White Horse  by Elizabeth Goudge (1946)

Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild (1936)

Joan’s Best Chum  by Angela Brazil (1926)

The Secret Garden  by Frances Hodgson Burnett (1911) 

Five Children and It by E Nesbit (1902)

I was pleased to find two of my choices featured in the current edition of Slightly FoxedThe Eagle of the Ninth  and Ballet Shoes.

To subscribe and receive email notifications of future posts on Bookword please email me with your email address: lodgecm@gmail.com

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Women Talking by Miriam Toews

What an amazing writer Miriam Toews is. I read A Complicated Kindness over a decade ago on the recommendation of another writer on an Arvon course, who admired the voice of the narrator. I was fascinated by the Mennonite community and the narrator’s childhood. And then there was All My Puny Sorrows. This is how I introduced that book on an earlier post.

This is a novel that holds you tight, makes sure you don’t escape. Look, it says, look! What do you do when someone you love really, really wants to end her life? Someone like your sister? Do you help her? How do you help?

I reread it earlier this year for my reading group. It had the same effect on me all over again, as if I held my breath from start to finish.

Women Talking

Women Talking takes the Mennonite community and extraordinarily difficult circumstances for its starting point. The women of the Molotshna community gather in secret to decide whether to leave or stay. Even this small act of meeting without permission is transgressive. It has not been sanctioned by the menfolk.

The events that have led to this meeting are drawn from real life and they are shocking. In 2005-9 in a Mennonite community in Bolivia it was found that many of the women and girls had been repeatedly raped at night by men within their community. The women and girls were drugged with animal anaesthetic and when they woke, sore, bloodied, bruised and confused their injuries were put down to visits from ghosts, demons, or as divine punishment for their sins. But one day a young man was caught. He confessed and implicated others. Because of the seriousness and extent of the crimes the community elders decided to hand over the matter to the police, despite usually handling matters of law and order themselves. 

Women Talking is both a reaction through fiction to these true-life events, and an act of female imagination .[From A Note on the Novel by the author]

In Women Talking the women are facing the return on bail of the men, needed for the farm work on which the community depends. All the able men of Molotshna have gone to the nearby town to provide the bail money. In their absence the women meet to discuss two options, having rejected the choice of doing nothing. They can stay or they can leave.

The novel is presented as the notes of a sympathetic man, who had been invited by the women to record what they say. The women have not been allowed to learn to read or write. August Epp is something of an outsider in the community, having lived outside it. 

Eight women meet in secret in a hayloft to arrive at their decision before the men return. They have suffered from the nighttime attacks and some of them are pregnant. Together they consider their options and the implications of anything they do. The reader has some sense of the limitations placed on the lives of the women up to this point, how the community and their men determine what they can do. Now for the first time they must make decisions.

Most of the book is Epp’s report of their conversations. Miriam Toews has said that she found it hard to write, keeping track of the women and making it digestible to the reader. The two youngest girls are teenagers, and often up to mischief together

Autje and Neitje, I notice, have removed their kerchiefs and braided their long hair together, into one braid, so they are conjoined. (59).

Ona is favoured by Epp, and is playful and determined in equal measure.

[Greta] asks: What will happen if the men refuse to meet our demands?

Ona responds: We will kill them.

Autje and Neitje gasp, then smile tentatively. (58)

As the discussion goes on, exploring every possibility, the women pose themselves a question: is leaving their husbands to save their children an act of disobedience, and if so according to what authority? They come to see that, because they cannot read, they have relied upon the men to tell them what is in the Bible. It is the central point of their discussion. They discuss disobedience.

It’s a word that the men of Molotshna would use, not God.

That’s true, says Mejal. God might define it otherwise, our leaving. […]

(I am struck by a thought: Perhaps it is the first time the women of Molotshna have interpreted the word of God for themselves.) (159)

The manner of this discussion is striking. As they explore the possibilities, they reason and support each other. They do not try to score points, nor come to the discussion with their mind made up. This is a dialogue, their attempt to arrive together at a decision they could not reach on their own through their shared explorations. This is women talking.

Another aspect of their discussion is how philosophical it is. The women are in new territory, so it is not surprising that they arrive at a point of questioning the authority of the men. 

I won’t reveal what the women decide to do. The future of all members of the community is uncertain. As it always is for everybody.

Talking about her purpose in writing this book Miriam Toews said

I know the book could be viewed as me making a political statement through a fictional narrative, which wasn’t really my intent. My goal is always to tell a story and to create characters that will move the reader. But I’m of course a feminist. I have a need to challenge that status quo that I’ve experienced. [From an interview with Katrina Onstad in the Guardian 18.8.18]

You won’t be surprised that the book is endorsed on the cover by Margaret Atwood.

Women Talking by Miriam Toews (2018) Faber and Faber216pp

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One Part Woman by Perumal Murugan

There are two stories here about public pressure leading to unhappy consequences. The first is the story of the childless couple in rural India in the 1940s. Public pressure to have children drives a wedge between them. The second story concerns the book and the author following publication. He was driven to give up writing for a while in the face of extreme pressure.

Perumal Murugan is a successful Tamil writer, with ten novels and five collections of short stories to his name. This novel was first published in 2010. In India it was very successful, selling more than 100,000 copies. The English version, translated from Tamil by Aniruddhan Vasudevan, was first published in 2013.

My copy was provided by publisher, Pushkin Press.

One Part Woman

The novel is located in south India in the 1940s, in a rural community. Kali and Ponna have been happily married and enjoy living quietly tending their farm. It becomes apparent that one of the reasons they live so quietly is they are upset by the taunts of their community because, despite twelve years of marriage, they have no children. Nevertheless, they have a good understanding of each other, and in time might have come to terms with their lack of children. But their families and the villagers will not leave them alone.

The couple try all kinds of prayers, lotions and potions. Fearing it might be the result of some ancestors’ insults that have offended the gods, they make all kinds of offerings to the deities. They allow their family and friends to recommend all kinds of remedies, often involving rituals, or diets and yet nothing works.

Their families suggest Kali takes a second wife, but he rejects this as it will not satisfy Ponna, and he is quite happy with her. One drunken night Kali is talking to a man whose wife is pregnant again and who does not know how they will manage.

‘All right, don’t worry. Just give me the child that is going to be born. I will raise it,’ Kali said to Mandayan. …

‘Samee, don’t you have a child yet?’

‘Don’t get me started on that. There is nowhere we have not prayed, no god we have not made offerings to. Nothing has happened, Mandaya. That’s why I am asking you for your child.’

‘That’s it, then. I will give you the child that is going to be born. You raise it.’ (201)

Mandaya’s wife objects. Kali in his drunken state, had been tempted, but he wondered if it would have satisfied his wife. 

The story follows the growing division between husband and wife as they try to resolve their situation. Eventually her family put pressure on Kali to allow Ponna to attend the Hindu festival in which men and women are allowed to behave without normal restraints and in which all men are considered gods. They want her to conceive and argue to each partner that the context of the festival makes this course of action moral.

Kali forbids it the first year, and Ponna has said she would only agree if he does. The next year her brother tricks her into believing Kali has agreed. He removes Kali so he does not know what has been planned for his wife. The novel finishes as Kali returns home and realises that Ponna has gone to the festival.

We see the tensions created by these strong cultural conventions about marriage and how the couple are gradually driven apart. The novel has many sensuous aspects, especially related to food and to physical relaxation and the demands of farming. The writing about the love between Ponna and Kali is especially tender.

Social convention and pressure on couples to have children, the taunts and humiliations that Kali and Ponna experience ensure that the love between the individuals will not survive.  

Perumal Murugan

Perumal Murugan lives and writes in Tamil Nadu. When the book was published the Kongu Vellala community, backed by local Hindu right-wingers, claimed the novel showed their religious practices and their women in a bad light. He was forced to apologise after the book was burned, there were public protests and a court case. The author claims he had evidence of the existence of the festival.

‘Perumal Murugan the writer is dead. Leave him alone,’ he wrote on his Facebook page after he was forced to apologise for his book.

Eventually the Madras High Court upheld his right to free expression.He has taken up writing again since.

One Part Woman by Perumal Murugan, first published in Tamil in 2010 and in English translation by Pushkin Press in 2019. 245pp

Translated from Tamil by Aniruddhan Vasudevan 

Thanks to the publisher for supplying my copy.

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Writing and wellbeing

Writing makes you feel better?

I have been thinking about writing for wellbeing recently. This is because my writers group is organising a writing festival. We have been fortunate in gaining adequate funding from various bodies, including the Arts Council Lottery Fund, some local council community funds and from the Network of Wellbeing. 

Applications to all our funders included our two aims which reflect the value we attach to writing for everyone: 

  1. promote the participation of writers of all experiences ages and diversity in a range of writing activities with other people.
  2.  provide opportunities to gain experience and confidence in writing and creativity, reinforced through interaction and celebration with professional and other writers.

WRITE NOW TOTNES! Festival

We want to attract to the festival people who don’t see themselves as writers, who are not confident as writers or who could be helped by the writing process. We are encouraging them to engage with writing, through workshops, performance events, exhibitions and the opportunity to meet with other writers. Our group offers an on-going, permanent and social connection through writing.

The restorative aspects of writing 

As writers we spend much of our time thinking about writing for publication. While it is great to write for publication writing for oneself is also a valid activity. It may not be a different activity of course. 

Writing for publication has an intention outside and beyond the process of writing. In restorative writing the process is more important than the output. There is a body of research that supports writing as good for wellbeing, among people of all ages. For example, one team found that a very small amount of writing has a swift outcome:

Writing about personal experiences in an emotional way for as little as 15 minutes over the course of three days brings about improvements in mental and physical health. [James W Pennebaker & Janel D Seagel (1999) Forming a story: the health benefits of Narrative, in Journal of Clinical Psychology, Vol 55 (10).] 

So how does writing help? What does it mean to write for wellbeing?

Journaling and Morning Pages

Many people, and they would not necessarily see themselves primarily as writers, know the value of writing frequently. Many suggest undertaking writing every day.

To unlock their creative capacities, many writers and artists follow Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, in which she describes the daily act of writing Morning Pages. 

Here’s a quick guide. Morning Pages are done first thing every day, in long hand, over 3 pages of A4. Write whatever is in your head, on your mind: worries, plans irritations, fury everything. You keep on for three pages and then stop. You don’t have to reread them. Here’s Oliver Burkeman describing the effects of writing Morning Pages after some years of resistance:

Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised at how powerful Morning Pages proved, from day one, at calming anxieties, producing insights and resolving dilemmas. After all, the psychological benefits of externalising thoughts via journaling are well-established,  … Crucially Morning Pages are private. [Oliver Burkeman does it every morning. You should, too. Guardian4.10.2014]

Form of writing

The benefits of writing about stressful events appear to come from, at the most basic level, avoiding supressing negative feelings, and relief from the stress of the events. More positively stress can be reduced by writing about experiences, such as serious illness.

By writing, you put some structure and organisation to those anxious feelings. It helps you get past them. [Pennebaker in the Journal of American Medical Association 281 (14)].

Another researcher stresses how writing about upsetting events is most beneficial when people focus on finding meaning because this allows them to develop greater awareness of positive aspects of a stressful event. 

The value of writing within a group: The Write to Life Group

I have seen how writing with the support of others can be very beneficial. The group I am thinking of often publishes and performs their work. This is theWrite to Life Group, run by Sheila Hayman for the organisation Freedom from Torture. Members of the group are survivors of torture, supported by writing mentors. 

I have attended performances of their plays, read poetry written by members of the group, and support the group financially in a small way. Recently they performed their work called Pawns, Princesses and Poets, based round objects at the V&A Museum. One member of the group is Hasani. 

A certain writer once remarked that, ‘We tell ourselves stories in order to live.’ Having gone through a terrible experience in my country of birth because of my political views, I left it for the UK. Through the ‘Write to Life’ group I have found a place that helps me to free myself from the turmoil inside.

I have written about the group, its members and successes on this blog. 

Souvenirs Writing and Home (April 2013)

Dear Jade, a letter to Jade Amoli-Jackson, author of Moving a Country (September 2013)

Souvenirs (May 2016)

Lost and Found in Exile (September 2016)

6 Things I learned from my Freedom from Torture Challenge, a project to raise awareness about refugees and literature and to raise money  (September 2017)

Wellbeing, Writing and the Writing Festival

My enthusiasm for encouraging people to better mental health and wellbeing through writing is loud and clear as I try to encourage people to join our festival WRITE NOW TOTNES! in three weeks’ time. Give it a try!

Picture Credits:

Handwriting with Pen: Visual Hunt Nfoka on Visualhunt.com / CC BY-NC-SA and Crayons and Woman with tea: Visual Hunt 

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