Category Archives: words

Let’s have more older women writers

In 2016 I had been looking at discrimination against female writers for three years on this blog and trying to make older women in particular more visible in fiction. At the time it also made sense to look at the barriers, if there were any, to older women authors. And anyway, Martin Amis, in his provocative way, made the following comment about older female writers: 

You can see them disintegrate before your eyes as they move past 70.

So back then I enlisted the support of another female writer, Anne Goodwin, and asked her to think about possible discrimination against older women writers. Her answers provided the material for a post which on my blog. The comments that followed it are also interesting. You can see all that here: Is there Discrimination against Older Women Writers?

Older woman writing: Literacy in Oaxaca by Pilarportela in 2005 via WikiCommons

Since then …

Some evidence would suggest that some older women are being supported more to get their writing published. Here is some of the evidence together with some questions and answers that I put to Anne:

Anne Goodwin herself has published and self-published more books. She now has four to her name.

  • Sugar and Snails
  • Underneath
  • Becoming Someone
  • Somebody’s Daughter 

Do you think the major publishing groups are still looking mostly for youth in the writers they support? What about the independents?

They’re looking for what will sell, which might be about the book or it might be about the person who wrote it. Naïvely, until I was published I didn’t appreciate just how commercial the whole enterprise is! Independent publishers, more motivated by the love of books than the money, are able to be more flexible, but they still need to put food on the table.

I think if the publisher can build an interesting story about the author it doesn’t matter how old she is: extreme age can be as fascinating as youth, especially if there’s a rags to riches element.

Another factor is that, if they’re thinking long term and investing in the author’s entire career, a younger author might have more years – and perhaps more books – ahead of her. On the other hand, since very few can earn their living through writing, an older author, especially if she has a pension, might be able to commit more time to publicity – and writing the next book.

2019 saw the inauguration of the Paul Torday Prize for writers of fiction who publish their first novel over the age of 60. It was won by Anne Youngson for Meet Me at the Museum. All the semi-finalists in the first year were women. I wrote about the prize and the winner here. Do you have any reactions to this prize? 

I think it’s great, although 60 is starting to feel rather youthful!

Gransnet commissioned some research into older women readers and their preferences in reading. You can find a summary here. https://www.gransnet.com/online-surveys-product-tests/ageism-in-fiction The readers wanted to see characters of all ages and less stereotyping of older women. They were furious that so many older women were portrayed as fumbling with new technology and digital devices. Any thoughts about the evidence that readers want to see characters of all ages? And less stereotyping. 

I had seen this and wondered what to make of a survey that lumps together all women over 40! And Gransnet as an umbrella term feeds into another stereotype. Otherwise, all I can say is “of course”.

The so-called grey pound might be a factor here too. More women have reached 60+, many of them have income to spend on their leisure, including on their reading. They expect to see more older women characters and writers. Do you think this will have an impact on publishing older women writers?

I hope so, although I meet a lot of older women in bookshops who don’t like the sound of my fiction. They either want something cosier or much darker – I can never get my head around the popularity of violent crime. On the other hand, U3A groups have been very supportive.

Here’s what Joanne Harris said recently (reported in Bookseller) about publishers promoting debuts:

Regardless of what it is that they write, as men get older they become veteran writers. As women get older, they get invisible and I think part of this is to do with the fact that women’s writing has always been seen as lesser in one way or another. If a man writes about relationships, he is writing about the universal condition and needs to be praised. If women write about relationships they are writing chick lit and everything they do is slightly diminished because of that. The idea is that women are there to please women, whereas men are there to enlighten posterity.

1 Sadly, because it’s ubiquitous in our culture, women can be as dismissive of other women’s contributions as men

2. I was shocked to learn last year that publishers push debuts because an author without a track record can be more attractive – at whatever age – to the book world because they haven’t yet failed to produce a bestseller. It means new authors have to hit the ground running and there’s little interest in learning on the job. Mid-list writers – who might also be older women – get pushed out.

3. Rubbish books do get published; some by men, some by women.

Bluemoose publishers are dedicating their efforts in 2020 to publishing women authors over 45. Is this kind of action useful?

I think so. Publishers can get so swamped with submissions it’s helpful to have some way of narrowing down their options, especially if that means supporting marginalised groups. Others are trying to prioritise submissions from people of colour.

Vanessa Gebbie ran a retreat to encourage writers, Never too late to do it, in February 2019. Are these kinds of courses likely to help? 

Anything that challenges the notion that we stop growing, learning and developing as we get older seems good to me.

So the answer is …

Any thoughts about any of this? 

Overall, I think how the individual writer feels about this is a function of internal and external factors. Since we exist in a patriarchal culture, where women’s power is feared and denigrated, there’s bound to be some prejudice in some quarters against female writers. And, as we don’t like reminders that we’ll all die eventually, youth is going to be celebrated and age ignored as much as possible. So, although I don’t think I’ve experienced age and gender discrimination, if an older woman writer tells me she has, I’m likely to believe her.

But how we feel about this personally must also depend on our own psychology and circumstances. When ageing is accompanied by multiple losses – bereavement, poverty, physical health – as it often is for women, discrimination is going to be harder to fight and/or to bear. I’m lucky that isn’t my situation – yet – and, although I have my share of grumbles like anyone else, I’m loving this stage of my life.

A final point: my writing depends on voice recognition software, which continually thwarts me with multiple errors. But I know it’s on my side as it persists in writing the word women as winning!

I must thank Anne Goodwin, the winning woman writer, for taking the time to think about my questions. You can find more about her books at her website Annethology: here

Silly old Martin Amis.

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A writer’s anthology of words and other writerly things

Collecting words

Some time ago I wrote a post about collecting words, creating word hoards, and what a good activity it is for writers. Recently I haven’t been very disciplined about recording them, but here are a few from my collection:

  • Tincture
  • Manciple
  • A murder of rooks
  • Smoocher
  • Swingle 
  • Sontagsleere  (from the German, Sunday emptiness or melancholy)

I like the sound or the feel in the mouth of these words, or in the case of the German word, how it captures a particular feeling.

I love being introduced to derivations and connections of words and that’s why  on train journeys I often listen to  the podcast Something Rhymes with Purple in which Susie Dent and Gyles Brandreth talk about words and language.

And here is a book in which the stories demonstrate over and over again the power of the word, the author’s inventiveness, her creativity with individual words. 

Public Library and other stories by Ali Smith (2015) published by Hamish Hamilton

Here is another book which will delight lovers of words. Robert Macfarlane has burrowed into the languages of the natural world to give us eleven glossaries of landscape. Many of these words of are in danger of being lost. The final list is a ‘gift glossary’ of words sent to him since the publication of the first edition in 2015.

Landmarks by Robert Macfarlane, published by Penguin. The 2016 edition has the additional glossary.

And I hope you have not missed the wonder that is The Lost Words. This collection aims to reinstate words that are being lost from children’s lives and dictionaries. And the illustrations make real the preciousness of the things and their words.

The Lost Words by Jackie Morris and Robert Macfarlane. Hamish Hamilton (2017).

Collecting titles

Here are titles of five unwritten short stories I have collected. 

  • Singing without knowing the words
  • Hunted by Cows
  • Don’t Poke the Bear
  • Stumbling
  • A Plain, Motherly kind of Woman

I have no story in mind for any of these titles, I just like the possibilities created by them.

Collecting phrases

And from rock music I note these:

‘I gave up my life of crime. 

I gave it to a friend of mine.’

Two lines from a song by Josh Ritter I think.

My current favourite is from Terry Allen, from a song called I Left Myself Today

There is a wonderful rhyme: smear/mirror. And a great list of things he didn’t do (float, fly, transcend). And then comes the punchline: ‘I just walked out on me, again’.

Sentiment resonates and word play delights. Great combination.

Related post

In praise of … word hoards (December 2016)

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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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My Bookish August

This has been a rather mad month in terms of bookish and writing activities. I know we are barely half way though August but it has been non-stop in the Bookword world. 

Woman’s Hour

For readers outside the UK who may not know it, Woman’s Hour is a long-running magazine programme on BBC Radio 4. As the title suggests, it focuses on issues from the female perspective, and covers a very wide range of topics. It has a large audience.

Early in August I was asked to join a discussion on older women and fiction, to be broadcast live. The prompt for this discussion was some recent research into the tastes and disappointments of women readers over 40, commissioned by the website Gransnet.

Our topic took as its starting point that women over 40 are the biggest buyers of fiction, but the survey revealed that readers were dissatisfied with how older women are depicted. They often appear in novels as stereotypes, for example unable to operate a smart phone. I made my points about how everyone needs to read good examples of older women, not just readers over 40. And I recommended three good titles, having plugged my blog. I have been asked to repeat my recommendations – so here they are, with links to the reviews on Bookword.

I was asked to arrive by 9.30am, but was unable to find the studio. Fortunately I have done this kind of thing before, or I would have been completely fazed by arriving late, having followed internet directions to the studios in Exeter that they left four years ago. My smart phone was no help; no one answered my increasingly desperate calls and no one could tell me where I was supposed to be. It took a gasman, a community centre receptionist and a taxi driver to deliver me to the studio. The programme order was rearranged to accommodate my tardiness.

This time I met no chickens as I waited to go on air. For an account of a previous experience in September 2014 in a BBC radio studio to promote a book see the link here: Retiring with Attitude at the BBC.

Guest Blogging on Global Literature in Libraries Initiative website

Karen Van Drie invited me to blog in August about older women in fiction around the world. I hope you have or will take a look. By the end the month there will have been about 25 posts. Sadly only six are translations. This is disappointing because August is Women in Translation Month: #WITMonth.  

You can find the blog here: Global Literature in Libraries Initiative, and for more information about the guestathon see my post on Bookword for 3rdAugust.

Planning for the Writing Festival

But most of my energies in August have gone on my contribution to planning a writing festival. WRITE NOW TOTNES will be held on Saturday 21stSeptember, organised by the Totnes Library Writing Group. We have pulled together an exciting range of workshops and other events designed to appeal to participants with a range of experience and of confidence. 

We are proud that it is a local event, ie all workshop leaders and performers are from the area around Totnes, and it is held in the centre of Totnes in the community buildings known as the Mansion. We are thrilled to have attracted funding, including from the Arts Council Lottery Fund. 

There is so much to organise and get right. I have volunteered to do a workshop on blogging of course.

For more details see our Facebook page.

And …

Just three things to keep me busy? Did I mention the dog, or writing or  …? Enough!

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Harriet Hume by Rebecca West

This novel, Harriet Hume, has a subtitle, and the reader should note it: a London fantasy. Both the elements of fantasy and the passages relating to London are significant in this novel. In addition Rebecca West added a quotation from John Dryden to the title page:

… And like white witches, mischievously good …

This mischievous novel contrasts two attitudes to life and relates how they play out over five meetings across two decades or more between two lovers.

Harriet Hume

Harriet Hume is beautiful, rather strange and unorthodox, a concert pianist with strong ideas about beauty. We first meet her with Arnold Condorex, her lover, as they emerge from an afternoon of lovemaking in her Kensington home. They are deliciously happy together, but Harriet perceives that he intends to get on in the world. She has the ability to read his thoughts. Arnold Condorex is ambitious. While happy to love Harriet, he does not wish to sacrifice his ambitions for her, and she discovers that he will cast her aside for a more advantageous connection. They quarrel and separate.

They meet four more times, always in a part of London, Hyde Park and Portland Place where he has bought a magnificent house, and after an interval of some years. Each time Condorex has achieved more of his ambition to become someone important in politics. Harriet perceives he has achieved this through chicanery, a loveless marriage and conspiracy. He calls this last negotiation. He is in politics to win, not to ameliorate the lot of the people. Each time they meet they are drawn to each other, but also find it impossible to be together.

There are some moments of humour, such as the confusion between Pondh and Mondh. They might as well be the same place as far as Condorex is concerned, and he does indeed achieve a peerage as Lord Mondh.

And there is some engaging whimsy, such as the story Harriet tells her lover about the trees in her garden, who were once three society young ladies. And then there are two very sympathetic and tactful policemen who appear in the final scene, who are from a different era.

The couple are doomed to oppose each other, indeed they agree that they are opposites, and although he hates her for knowing the truth about him and blames her for his downfall when it comes, there is a sense in which they are better when they balance each other.

Yet they could not have been together. For one thing there is his sexism. He thinks of his wife Lady Ginevra in this way:

There was no occasion in life when she was not limp; no, not one. (158)

And a few pages later

… he saw the Lady Ginevra as she would be at this hour, dancing at the Embassy, limp in the limp arms of one of her own kind, like two anchovies side by side in a bottle. (177)

The terms he uses when he thinks of Harriet reveal his patriarchal attitude: slut, witch, poor lass, little wench, girl and so on. And when he thinks she has been having an affair with a man called Karinthy he is disapproving and xenophobic.

… it would be against nature if such loveliness were not enjoyed. Still, I could have wished it had not been a foreigner. (140) 

Karinthy is in fact a notable violinist of great age, and this reaction reveals much about Condorex.

The content of the novel is clearly not meant to be seen as realism. Harriet’s ability to read Condorex’s thoughts, her conjuring of fantastic stories, and above all the fanciful language used by Rebecca West remind the reader that this is a fantasy, a fable. I collected some examples of the vocabulary: infrangible, multitudinous, avow, perturbation, obdurate, orgulous (which means haughty or proud my dictionary tells me), languishment, complaisance … These are not words in everyday use and are a little affected even.

But the intent of the author is to set the values of the two characters against each other, and to reveal something of post war life in London. I don’t think that people write in this way or on these kinds of topics these days.

All of which makes it an interesting read, but does not hold the reader in the way, for example, her first novel The Return of the Soldier  does. 

Rebecca West 

Rebecca West lived a long and productive life. She was born in 1892 and Harriet Hume  was her third novel. She did not live as a young woman of her class was expected to. She had been a suffragette before the war and was a feminist and journalist. A provocative article calling HG Wells an ‘Old Maid among novelists’ led to their meeting, a long affair and a son born in 1914. She supported herself through her writing. She wrote and published a great deal of fiction, non-fiction and journalism and died in 1983 aged 90.

Harriet Hume: a London Fantasy by Rebecca West first published in 1929. I used the edition from Virago Modern Classics, published in 1980 with an introduction by Victoria Glendinning. 288pp I found it at Second Shelf in Soho.

Some relevant links

The Return of the Soldier  by Rebecca West in December 2018

Thoughts from Simon Lavery on Rebecca West, Harriet Humeon his blog Tredynas Days. 

The cover of the Virago edition shows a detail from ‘The Studio Door, Charleston’ by Vanessa Bell.

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The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster

I did not read The Phantom Tollbooth  as a child for the simple reasons that I missed its publication and was soon too old. So when I read Lucy Mangan’s enthusiastic comments in Bookworm I decided to see what I had missed. She described her delight when it was read to the class by her primary teacher and how she longed for the daily readings. From this experience she found that …

… words weren’t just markings on a page to be passively absorbed and enjoyed but could be tools, treasures and toys all in one. (219 in Bookworm by Lucy Mangan)

What a gift from Norton Juster! She recalled Milo ‘the first unlikeable central character’ she had ever come across. But recalled also the pace, wit, invention, action and wordplay which fell from the pages ‘like sweets tumbling from a bag.’ This, I thought, I should read.

The Phantom Tollbooth

Milo is introduced as follows.

There was once a boy named Milo who didn’t know what to do with himself – not just sometimes, but always. (13)

Milo is clever and has lots of books and toys but he has no friends and does not settle to anything, is not interested in what he learns at school and sees ‘the process of seeking knowledge as the greatest waste of time at all’. Until one day he finds a package containing a tollbooth in his room and in his toy car he pays his toll and sets out on a journey to Dictionopolis, which is marked on the map that was supplied with the booth.

He arrives in Expectations where he meets the Whether Man and soon finds himself in the Doldrums. He is rescued by the Watchdog called Tock, who will not let him kill or waste time and joins him on his adventures. Later they meet Humbug. They find problems in the land that arise from the banishment of the princesses Rhyme and Reason by two warring brothers. The princesses were banished for refusing to adjudicate between the relative importance of numbers and words.

Our three heroes set off to rescue the princesses, [it is the early ‘60s and the second wave of feminism had not yet broken] meeting on the way such characters as the Spelling Bee, Officer (Short) Shrift, Faintly Macabre the Official Which, Dischord and Dynne and musicians who play colours, the .58 of a child from the average family which had 2.58 children, the Senses Taker and so on. They visited both Dictionopolis and Digitopolis, and when they return with the princesses harmony is restored, although squabbling breaks out as soon as Milo makes his farewells.

When the three friends meet the princesses Reason explains the importance of learning, from experience, from mistakes, and for its own sake. When Milo complains about what he has to learn in school having so little significance now she explains,

‘…for whatever you learn today, for no reason at all, will help you discover all the wonderful secrets of tomorrow.’ (234)

And when he returns home and finds that the tollbooth has disappeared, he realises that his books will open doors to other worlds, and there is so much to do.

Here’s Lucy Mangan’s assessment:

It remains a masterfully wrought, glorious, hilarious, life affirming read – a celebration of words, ideas, sense, nonsense, cleverness and silliness but also a love of learning for its own sake. I suspect, in a world in which education is increasingly being reduced to futile box-ticking and forcible rendering into measurable quantities that which can never be made tangible, this is a message that will only become more revelatory and valuable to those lucky enough to hear it. (221 in Bookworm by Lucy Mangan)

Norton Juster

Norton Juster was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1929. When he wrote this book he was trying to write one for children about cities, having trained as an architect. Apparently he had not, at that point, read Lewis Carroll, which is surprising because Alice in Wonderland is precisely what came to mind when I read it.

Famously he also shared an apartment building with Jules Feiffer, who was just making his name as a draughtsman. Jules Feiffer’s illustrations are an integral part of The Phantom Tollbooth.He captures Milo’s innocence and pre-adolescent energy perfectly.

Norton Juster went on to make a career as an architect and an academic, and he also published more books, some of them for children. None seem to have met with the acclaim of this one. It is, with justification, known as a classic. It is also great fun.

Bookwormby Lucy Mangan reviewed on Bookword in July 2018.

The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton JusterFirst published in the US in 1961. I used the Harper Collins 50thAnniversary Edition (Essential Modern Classics). 256pp. Illustrations by Jules Feiffer.

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Imagination and the writer: Ursula K. Le Guin

Ursula K. Le Guin died in January this year. She was a writer that I admired greatly. I came to her in my 20s through the children’s book A Wizard of Earthsea, and moved on to her adult novels, mostly sci-fi set on planets with a resemblance to Earth or with characters that shared traits with humans.

Lately I have come to enjoy her essays. Here is an example from Introducing Myself in The Wave in the Mind:

I am a man. Now you may think I’ve made some kind of silly mistake about gender, or maybe that I’m trying to fool you, because my first name ends in a, and I own three bras, and I’ve been pregnant five times, and other things like that that you might have noticed, little details. But details don’t matter…

That’s who I am. I am the generic he, as in, “If anybody needs an abortion he will have to go to another state,” or “A writer knows which side his bread is buttered on.” That’s me, the writer, him. I am a man. Not maybe a first-rate man. (3)

You can hear her reading this on BBC Radio 4 here.

Recently I have been using Steering the Craft, Exercises and discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew.

You can describe her as a writer (or a man) but she was also an anthropologist, a thinker, a feminist and an encourager of others and many other things.

I enjoy reading about writing and her thoughts on imagination filled me with positivity. What follows is a revised version of a post from July last year. There are more posts about Ursula K. Le Guin on Bookword blog.

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. The key word is imagination. What is it? Why is it so important?

Imagination is not the same as Creativity

Ursula K. Le Guin’s imagination did not leave us on earth. She took us to other planets, other times, other cultures and showed 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, reprinted in Words are my Matter. 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 K. 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.

The connection to literacy

Ursula K. Le Guin made the strong connection between imagination, literacy, words, cultural stories and hope for the world in her speech. I find this 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 learning 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 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 said 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.

Housemaid by William McGregor Paxton (1910)

At the opening of her talk, Ursula K. Le Guin 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 proposed revision.

The reason literacy is important is that literature isthe 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 K. Le Guin.

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

See also:

The Wave in the Mind: talks and essays on the writer, the reader and the imagination by Ursula K. Le Guin, published in 20014 by Shambhala Publications

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

Steering the Craft, Exercises and discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew by Ursula K. Le Guin, published by The Eight Mountain Press in 1998.

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin first published in 1969. I have an edition published by Orbit in 1992. Winner of both the Hugo and the Nebula Awards in 1970.

My review of The Left Hand of Darknessby Ursula Le Guin, for the Decades Project in 2017 can be found at this link.

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Claxton by Mark Cocker

Claxton was a great Christmas present, given to me by my daughter last year and finished 12 months later. It’s lasted all year and indeed I can foresee dipping into it time and time again, savouring the detail of the observations, and the language of the short descriptions. The book’s apt subtitle is Field Notes from a Small Planet.

Summary of Claxton

Claxton is a village east of Norwich in Norfolk. Mark Cocker has lived there since 2001, and he makes minute and detailed observations of wild life and landscapes for his columns in the Guardian and the Guardian Weekly. 140 of these are collected here, arranged by the months of a year. I read each month’s collection of about 10 short pieces in the corresponding month of 2016.

There is so much to relish here. Most of the pieces relate to the immediate surroundings of Claxton, but some are from travels further afield in the UK and even in Greece. He has a particular eye for bird life, but other fauna and flora, especially trees, are also lovingly observed.

The significance of place is emphasised in his Introduction.

Claxton is above everything a book about place, but it is also a celebration of the way in which a particular location can give shape and meaning to one’s whole outlook. (1)

Some examples

Orange banded Bumblebee (1894) Popular Science Monthly vol 45 via WikiCommons

Orange banded Bumblebee (1894) Popular Science Monthly vol 45 via WikiCommons

 

11th June 2012 on bumblebees:

Wait by the flowers and watch them traffic back and forth. Follow one for a few seconds and you’ll quickly appreciate the insatiable busyness of these wonderful creatures. We often think of them as amiably slow but the sheer speed with which they assess each flower, take nectar, or truffle through the pollen and move on to the next bloom is astonishing. In a minute they can cover hundreds of flowerheads. … Within a short while the foraging ceases and the bee will swing windward and rise high above the garden, vanishing into the horizon sometimes at canopy level. So much of bumblebees lives is spent in perpetual transit and even when you find a nest its happening as subterranean and largely hidden. (91)

16th August 2005 on meadow brown butterflies:

Meadow Brown Butterfly, by Ian Kirk, Dorset (August 2013) via WikiCommons

Meadow Brown Butterfly, by Ian Kirk, Dorset (August 2013) via WikiCommons

Some meadow browns seem almost an exact analogue for the spent condition of the season. During the course of their two-week adult life the wings become bleached to a dull sepia and the edges clipped almost as if a child had patterned them with a butterfly-sized pair of scissors. Occasionally they are so tattered it is a wonder that they can fly at all. The ‘bites’ out of the wing edge can be the work of birds and are evidence – believe it or not – of a canny defence mechanism. At the moment the bird attacks, it is drawn by a sequence of dark spots on the meadow brown’s underside and is tricked into pecking at these rather than some vital organ on the abdomen. Thus the butterfly escapes with no greater loss than a little wing power. (117)

26th November 2012 on the avian disturbances caused by a peregrine falcon:

Peregrine Falcon by Juan Lacruz, (August 2012) via WikiCommons

Peregrine Falcon by Juan Lacruz, (August 2012) via WikiCommons

A criss-cross pattern of several thousand pink-footed geese was spread skywards for more than a kilometre. Amid their glorious barking chorus were the more musical anxiety calls of Canada geese and the nails-on-blackboard braying of greylags. They descended then rose several times and on each occasion the waves of wildfowl refuelled a general panic. A tight thousand-strong press of golden plover roved through the others like a mobile storm, while above were thinly spread flights of lapwings, starlings, ruff and black-tailed godwits. (167)

See what I mean? These three examples demonstrate Mark Cocker’s love of language and of the common or English names of natural phenomena. To promote English terms the book includes a glossary of species with both English and Latin names. And the whole is enlivened by Jonathan Gibbs’s illustration that are placed at the start of each month’s entries.

Claxton: Field Notes from a Small Planet by Mark Cocker. Published by Penguin 2014. 238pp

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In praise of … word hoards

Words are the building blocks of speech and writing used by all people to make meaning. The words we speak and write are what writers must work with. We can play around with them, import some from other languages or invent new ones as Lewis Carroll famously did. Think of the runcible spoon.

So writers should occasionally think words, just words, to sharpen their skills. We need skill to put them together convincingly, in ways that enthral, please, make a case. One way I enjoy focussing on words is to compile a word hoard. I am inspired in this by other writers.

Landmarks by Robert Macfarlane

Robert Macfarlane, in many of his books, examines the details and grand sweep of the natural world and their meanings for humans, and he does this in prose that continually delights. At last I have got round to dipping into Landmarks. In this book Robert Macfarlane draws on writers of the natural world, such as Nan Shepherd (The Living Mountain) and Roger Deakin (Notes from Walnut Tree Farm). And he has burrowed into the languages of the natural world. He gives us eleven glossaries of landscape. Many of these words of are in danger of being lost. The final list is a ‘gift glossary’ of words sent to him since the publication of the first edition in 2015.

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He describes his collections as word hoards. Many of them are local and precise words for phenomenon found in the landscape. I picked out some from Devon, where I live. I love the word ammil, which denotes a particular kind of frost, which edges leaves (p4).

ammil

ammil

My mother brought to my vocabulary clart and clarty, describing mud, and I use it for that which sticks to my walking boots. She learned it in Cumberland, and Robert Macfarlane includes clairt, a Scots variation (p285). Exmoor folk use claggy. Another Devonian word in his hoard is dimmity, used to describe twilight (p223).

Many of the words in Robert Macfarlane’s collections are specific to location and reflect the need for precision in vocabulary in the wild environment. Others are necessary for the pursuit of a craft or skill, such as fishing, farming, woodworking. Words also reveal connections with ancient languages, Scandinavian, Gaelic, Latin or more modern scientific studies and poetic imaginations.

He quotes the writer Henry Porter who lamented the disappearance from OUP children’s dictionaries of words related to the natural world in an article in the Observer in December 2008:

euphonious vocabulary of the natural world – words which do not simply label an object or action but in some mysterious and beautiful way become part of it. (4)

euphonious is going into my word hoard.

It pays to increase your word power

While Robert Macfarlane’s book speaks to the mutability of language I think of my father. In a dispute about the meaning of a word, or on meeting an unfamiliar one, he would produce one of his two volumes of the Shorter Oxford Dictionary to settle arguments. To him, a scientist, meaning was fixed within the word. No amount of argument convinced him that words could change meanings. Even telling him that ‘presently’ in Shakespearean times meant immediately (ie in the present) while today it means the opposite, even this cut no mustard with him. And yet my father introduced me to Alice in Wonderland.

And what about those people who use frequently when they mean regularly and vice versa? Now I’m straying into pedantry. More objectively I think you can see the changing meaning of words in that exchange of terms. In 50 years regularly will always mean frequently. In principle I like the ways in which words’ meanings evolve, are connected to the lives we lead, even if the pedant in me mutters aloud.

I have been known to invent a word or two myself: a prongadang is the implement with which I operated the gas lighter on my cooker for many years. It was the handle of a wooden spoon should you ask for a description. I thought I had invented spruancy to describe a particular kind of dressing up, mixing glamour and showing off, but Google tells me that it is a Jewish word invented by British Jews. It’s a great word whatever its origins.

Collecting words

I am busy compiling my own word-hoard. It’s an idea I owe to Barbara Baig and her book Spellbinding Sentences: a writer’s guide to achieving excellence and captivating readers.

Good writers are people who love language; one of the reasons they write is that it gives them the opportunity to spend a lot of time with words. So they notice and collect words all the time, exercising and strengthening their word minds in the process. (28)

304-sp-sentences-cover

The writers I used to coach to improve their academic writing were always a little startled when I recommended a practice that might be called theft, except that words have no value if they are kept by just one person. Their value is in shared use. I pinched this from a professor of linguistics.

For years and years (and I still do it, you know) I used to read things not only because of the sort of stuff that was in it, so it wasn’t only reading for learning, but also for stealing stylistically. I ruthlessly exploited other people’s oeuvre as a source of inspiration for particular turns of phrase – especially in English, of course, which is my fourth language. But whenever I saw a beautifully worded argument or whenever I saw a nice turn of phrase or expression that I found appealing, I used to make a note of it. And I really collected it like a sort of butterfly collection – I still do, always with an explicit plan of, at some point, using it. I can say with confidence that I have used most of it. (89)

This is from an interview with Jan Blommaert, in Passion and Politics, academics reflect on writing for publication, (2008) edited by Eileen Carnell, Jacqui MacDonald, Bet McCallum and Mary Scott.

A writer who has consistently stretched my vocabulary is Virginia Woolf. I have enjoyed #Woolfalong in part because my contributions have required me to look closely at her use of language, her vocabulary in different books. Orlando, for example, revels in language.

My Word Hoard

I started with my hoard with:

Hoard, a noun and a verb, frequently found in relation to museum artefacts, and full of mystery. Hoarding implies secreting, storing, hiding. Why were these coins included in this hoard? Why were the items of value collected and hidden? What about the hack silver (another great word) found in a Viking hoard in Cuerdale, Lancs?

The Cuerdale Viking Hoard

The Cuerdale Viking Hoard

Runes, is another word in my hoard. It’s magical, as are all languages. Runes can conjure what is not there. It has a connection to the Vikings. The language of the runes is Old Norse, largely replaced by the Roman alphabet. Runes is a word that ripples on the page to connect with mystery, magic and olden times.

304-runes

Lapis lazuli is also in my hoard. I love its sound and I love small samples of the mineral. But it is on probation at the moment. My experience in The Hermitage in St Petersburg was of lapis lazuli used in excess. In two rooms there were gargantuan, vulgar, displays. In each room two huge tables with green or blue lapis lazuli veneers were flanked by the most enormous urns, also covered in veneer. I guess Catherine the Great was only hoarding the stuff.

DSC01773.JPG

I have recently added euphonious (see above)

Words in my hoard have associations, and they need to be connected to meanings that carry integrity, or significance associated with the struggle for human rights, or with my other enthusiasms. So some place names sit, not happily, in my hoard: Nagasaki, Abervan, Gallipoli, Sharpeville, Chernobyl.

And I can’t get the surly bonds of earth out of my head, an earwig. John Gillespie Magee began his poem High Flight with these two lines:

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth,
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;

His poem captures the exhilaration of flying, and the phrase surly bonds reminds us of our roots, grounds us you might say.

Given the nature of hoards, and specifically their association with precious metals and stones, I need a special notebook to hold my hoard. Dear Santa …

Over to you

I think that’s enough of my hoarded words. How about a few suggestions from you?

Landmarks by Robert Macfarlane, published by Penguin in 2016 with an additional glossary. 434pp

Spellbinding Sentences: a writer’s guide to achieving excellence and captivating readers by Barbara Baig. Published by Writer’s Digest Books in 2015

Related posts

Four More Good Reads August 2015

Ten Books to make me think August 2013

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Hot Milk by Deborah Levy

I love to read an intelligent novel, one that makes demands upon the reader, that isn’t all about the story. A book that looks at something in a new way, shows me something from a different angle. Such a book is Hot Milk, a tale, as the title suggests, about a mother and her daughter relationship that is not going well. This novel is readable, very moving and thought-provoking.

293-hot-milk

The Story

A young woman, Sofia, and her mother Rose (64) have come to Almeria in Southern Spain, a place where the desert meets the sea. Rose has come to the Gomez Clinic at great expense, in order to find a cure for her unnameable, undiagnosed illness that has afflicted her for so long. Sofia accompanies her as her carer. Rose cannot walk, she claims, has no feeling in her feet. While Rose consults the possibly charlatan Dr Gomez, Sofia undertakes adventures that widen her previously small life.

‘I wanted to write a story about hypochondria,’ said Deborah Levy in an article in the Guardian. One of the curious features of hypochondria is that while it is about fabricated and imagined illness, it is itself a pathology. It also ensnares others, in this case Sofia.

Sofia

Sofia tells the story. Here is how the novel opens:

Today I dropped my laptop on the concrete floor of a bar built on the beach. It was tucked under my arm and slid out of its black rubber sheath, (designed like an envelope), landing screen side down. The digital page is now shattered but at least it still works. My laptop has all my life in it and knows more about me that anyone else.

So what I am saying is that if it is broken, so am I. (1)

Sofia is conscious that her life is very restricted. A little while later she goes swimming and meets the medusas – stinging jellyfish:

I am far away from shore but not lost enough. I must return home but I have nowhere to go that is my own, no work, no money, no lover to welcome me back. When I flipped over I saw them in the water, the medusas, slow and calm like spaceships, delicate and dangerous. I felt a lashing burning pain just under my left shoulder and started to swim back to shore. It was like being skinned alive as I was stung over and over. (71)

Poor Sofia, she doesn’t have much going for her: an abandoned PhD in anthropology, barista job, single, never lived with anyone but her mother, father abandoned them when she was 7 and returned to Greece. While Rose attends the clinic Sofia develops two love affairs, with Ingrid a German seamstress and Juan who looks after the injury tent on the beach and treats her for multiple medusa stings.

With Sofia as the narrator we should ask, are things how they look? After a few pages we are wondering about Rose’s illnesses, Gomez clinic, what Ingrid embroiders on the silk sun top, the broken laptop, the wrong sort of water, the dog that barks, her father’s newfound happiness in Athens, everything…

The author herself explains the central question raised by the novel:

Hot Milk puts the Medusa to work to ask Sofia a question: what is so monstrous about a young woman, who constantly has to endure the violence of the ways in which she is societally gazed upon, returning that gaze full-on? What would it take to insert her subjectivity into the world, instead of looking away? [in How to Write a Man Booker Novel in the Guardian, as above]

Medusa: Detail of the Fountain of Apollo in Madrid, photo by Luis Garcia August 2007 via WikiCommons

Medusa: Detail of the Fountain of Apollo in Madrid, photo by Luis Garcia August 2007 via WikiCommons

Sofia has to learn that we should not always accept the identity given to us because of our nationality, gender, ethnicity, age, occupation and so forth. We are also, she learns, constructed by the things that happen to us, that we take part in. Identity is formed in part by experiences, which she finds when she follows Dr Gomez’s suggestions, such as practicing boldness. Here the myth of Medusa’s stare is significant. You may be stung by the gaze of others, but you can choose not be turned to stone or beheaded.

Rose, the mother

Part of Sofia’s problem is her mother. Her hypochondria has locked Sofia into a mutually dependent relationship. Sofia loves her mother, but hates her at the same time. She hates her mother’s unreasonable demands, the way she flirts with Gomez, the possibility that she lies; she understands how difficult it was to raise her after Christos left, how she takes on the world and her charm. Sofia wants more for her mother as well as for herself. In the final pages of the novel she articulates this.

I had been waiting on her all my life. I was a waitress. Waiting on her and for her. What was I waiting for? Waiting for her to step into her self or step out of her invalid self. Waiting for her to take the voyage out of her gloom, to buy a ticket to a vital life. With an extra ticket for me. Yes, I had been waiting all my life for her to reserve a seat for me. (216)

I like the use of words throughout the novel, often calling up several meanings. In this passage I can pick out the following: waiting on her mother, invalid, waiting for herself.

297-alt-hot-milk-cover

The writing

Sofia is by training an anthropologist. This allows her, as narrator, to use her powers of observation as in this list of ingredients in the scene at the market.

I stood up and took my place behind the wheelchair, lifted up the brake, which was difficult because my espadrilles were flopping off my feet and began to push my mother down the dust road, dislodging the potholes and dog shit, past the handbags and purses, the sweating cheeses and gnarled salamis, the jambon iberico from Salamanca, the strings of chorizo, plastic tablecloths and mobile phone covers, the chickens turning on a stainless-steel spit, the cherries, bruised apples, oranges and peppers, the couscous and turmeric heaped in baskets, the jars of harissa and preserved lemons, the torches, spanners, hammers, while Rose swatted flies landing on her feet with a rolled-up copy of the London Review of Books. (93)

Touristy and practical, African and European, tacky and sophisticated, old and new and that final humorous image! There is lots of humour in this book, like the lunch that Sofia attends, but she is not allowed to speak.

Also delightful are Sofia’s occasional riffs on the meanings of things, such as her Greek father’s new wife, who has given up a high powered job saving the Euro for cosy domesticity in Athens where she frequently has to pretend to be asleep.

This is the first novel I have read by Deborah Levy. She has written six, and many plays. There is more about her on her website. I plan to read Things I don’t want to know (2014) next, being an answer to George Orwell’s Why I Write and Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own.

Hot Milk by Deborah Levy (2016) Hamish Hamilton. 218pp (Paperback available in May 2017)

Shortlisted for Man Booker Prize and Goldsmiths Prize 2016

 

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