Category Archives: Writing

Mind your sexist language!

A few years ago I became involved with someone and when it became serious I decided to tell my mother about it. ‘Oh darling,’ she said. ‘Don’t be rash!’ To which I could only reply ‘I‘m in my 50s, for goodness sake. If I can’t be rash now, when can I be?’ It made me realise that in my childhood I was often accused of being headstrong. Now there’s a word. I don’t believe that in my childhood boys were called headstrong. I was also known as a tomboy. These are all things that go against what society expects of its girls: being rash, headstrong and tomboys. Oh no, I should have been patient, pensive and feminine. Quiet and unnoticed, in other words. We still use words to indicate deviation from expected norms, especially for women and girls. (And there is a whole other vocabulary for older women, but that’s for another day).

In this post I’m going to look at a few sexist words that have evaded my attention until now, and say something about how to detect them and what to do about it.

Girls reading: Photo credit: USAID Africa on VisualHunt.com

The reversibility test

In the ‘70s I belonged to a women’s group. Today I would be described as participating in the Second Wave of feminism, but at the time we mostly called it raising awareness. I recall that at one meeting we watched a film. I don’t remember a huge amount about it except that it was in B&W and made in a Scandinavian country. The language was no barrier for there was none. The film made its points through the shock of reversing the roles of men and women.

For me the most powerful scene was in the office, where women sat behind huge desks and summoned the men to take notes, or bring them cups of tea or to have their bottoms pinched. The men worked in cramped rows typing away (it was the ‘70s). For lunch the women were provided with a lavish meal in a special dining rooms while the men went off to do their shopping which they then placed in lumpy bags at their feet under their desks. At the end of the working day the women got into their huge cars and drove home. The men picked up their awkward shopping bags and went to queue for the bus. 

From this film I learned to use the reversibility test for any situation where there may be sexism in play: would it look the same if the men and women swapped places? If not then it is usually to the detriment of women. Would a particular word mean the same thing about men and women? 

Mea culpa!

Gossips: deti_leta on Visualhunt / CC BY-NC-ND

So it was with some shame that a dawning realisation came over me that I had not been applying this test in the language I used in my reviews on Bookword. I came across a long twitter thread about all the words used about women which are not commonly applied to men. Here are some examples: 

  • Gossip
  • Feisty
  • Frumpy
  • Bubbly
  • Curvy

The originator of the twitter thread had posted some that she thought were common and invited further contributions. The thread went on way beyond my patience, listing word after word. Sadly I have not been able to rediscover this thread. (Please send it to me if you noted it and can find it again.)

It was the second word on the list that drew my attention: feisty. Quite close, people noted, in meaning to spirited and I know that I have used both these words approvingly of the authors of, for example My Brilliant Career and Mary Olivier: A Life

In my own time, as well as the above, I have been called:

  • Bossy
  • Aggressive
  • Ambitious
  • A career woman

The first three words are not intended as complements. And probably behind my back I was also called

  • Bitchy
  • Hormonal
  • Emotional
  • Catty
  • A nag

And I might even have been described as a working mother.

Applying the reversibility test you can see that some of these words indicated that I was transgressing in some way. Women were not supposed to be or do these things: but whoever refers to working fathers, or a career man? Being bossy is another way of describing a leadership role (I was a headteacher); ambitious suggests that women should not seek to advance themselves in work; and aggressive (also known as abrasive) is another term for being direct. And so on …

Devant l’affiche de “j’accuse” : Jeanne Menjoulet on VisualHunt/ CC BY

So where a word suggests that the user divides the world by gender, two categories only of course, it can be identified as sexist. 

And there’s more

I have drawn attention to 20 words. Here’s a link to an article where the writer had a list of 122 words with subtle sexist overtones. It appeared in Sacraparental in May 2016: EVERYDAY MISOGYNY: 122 SUBTLY SEXIST WORDS ABOUT WOMEN (AND WHAT TO DO ABOUT THEM). Read it here.  

So what can we do?

Use the reversibility test and then if necessary …

Call out the user of such terms when you hear them, name the practice as sexist. 

Call out and name the practice when anyone does it about you.

And another thing …

And in case you think that writers of books use gender-free terms, here is the link to an article that revealed in August last year that a robot read 3.5 million books to find women were overwhelmingly described by appearance, and men by virtue. Read it here

Ursula K. LeGuin by Gorthian reading from Lavinia at Rakestraw Books, Danville, California June 2008. Via WikiMedia

And while we are about it, I would love you to read Ursula Le Guin’s debunking of the use of he to include to all humankind, I am a man, which you can find on this link. As you might expect she is funny and to the point. 

3 Comments

Filed under Feminism, Reading, words, Writing

Five Things on my Writing Desk

Recently I read 5 Things on My Writing Desk on Shelley Wilson’s blog. Like a magpie I pick up good ideas. It’s all been a bit heavy on this blog recently as I grappled with technical issues. They are all resolved now, I hope, and so a little light blogging is in order. Here are five of my things on my writing desk.

Laptop

Not much comment needed on this. I love my laptop, so long as it keeps working. It’s my typewriter, word processor, research tool, photo hoard, access to other people … My everything.

SAD light

This year I decided to try a daylight lamp to counter SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder). It shines brightly in my face when I am on the computer. I’ve no idea whether it is working or not. Just in case, I keep going with it.

Pinboards

I have two pinboards: on the left a photo board, mostly pictures of women. On the right are some reminders, useful codes and numbers, lists and my blog schedule. The bearded gentleman, still visible, is a self-portrait of my great-great grandfather. The young boy is my grandson sitting in my former office at the Institute of Education in London. I don’t go much on quotable quotes, but occasionally I pin one up, and this is an example of something I like to be reminded of:

Tell me, what do you plan to do with your one wild and precious life? [Mary Oliver]

Cards and photos

I always have a few more cards and pictures around, sometimes birthday cards waiting to be sent. At the moment I am looking at a photograph of my grandmother on her wedding day. I recently acquired her wedding dress from c1923: it’s fuchsia. She died soon after, giving birth to my mother. When I first saw this photo I thought it was me. I have aged, while she has not.

Piles of Stuff

And piles and piles of stuff, all work in progress. Not necessarily creative writing, some of it is to do with other projects (school history project, volunteering, blog stuff, forms to fill in for blood donation) old notebooks and just stuff.

I’m not sure what you would make of any of this. Perhaps not much.

Your Five things?

Care to tell us about your 5 things on your writing desk?

8 Comments

Filed under Writing

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)

2 Comments

Filed under Podcast, Reading, short stories, words, Writing

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)

6 Comments

Filed under Books, Learning, poetry, words, Writing

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 

8 Comments

Filed under Freedom from Torture Challenge, Writing

Selfies by Sylvie Weil

When I noticed that Selfies by Sylvie Weil was getting good responses on Twitter I ordered it to read for Women in Translation Month (August): #WITMonth. Selfies by Sylvie Weil was published in English in June 2019, having first appeared in French in 2015. It is translated by Ros Schwartz.

Selfies

I am not clear about the genre of Selfies. It would probably be classed as a memoir, but it is creative and imaginative, so it might be a novel. This confusion results partly from its presentation. This is part of its charm.

Each of the 13 sections contained within Selfies begins with a brief description of a self-portrait by a female artist. The original painting is then is reinterpreted in words as a scenario with the author as the subject. Then follows a narrative, short or long, related to the scene. It seems a little clunky at first, but soon the creative and imaginative format appeals, and it becomes hard to stop reading.

Another way to envisage this book is to anticipate 13 episodes, significant in the author’s life, and to see them refracted through a painted self-portrait. 

Sylvie Weil introduces us to her first self-portrait. In about 1200 Claricia, a German illuminator, portrayed herself swinging by the arms from the tail of a large capital ‘Q’. 

I will paint my self-portrait as a letter ‘I’ against a background the warm hue of ancient parchment. A perfect upright, slender, graceful adolescent girl, wound like a vine around a rope dangling from a ceiling that is either invisible or covered in verdant foliage, since this is an illumination. … (10)

 Her narrative is an account of a gym lesson in her convent. She is climbing ropes and experiencing the sensuous pleasure of her own body. 

Gwen John’s Self Portrait with Letter is reimagined as the author painting her own portrait holding a postcard. The pc has a message from an American lover, who after a few days in Paris decides that they will marry and he invites her to New York. The visit does not go well and the reader is relieved when … 

We see her as an older woman taking many photographs of everyone at a social event and deleting all except the ones of her son; we read about the best friend relationship that turns out to be not so close; we recognise her reaction to friends who had their dog put down for their convenience and so on. She reflects on herself and how the people around her have influenced her. As one reads the vignettes her development and character become a clearer.

The reader inevitably wonders what self-portraits would s/he draw on, and what that would reveal. I love this French experimentation with form, which makes it an intriguing and compelling read.

Selfies by Sylvie Weil published in English in 2019 by Les Fugatives. Originally published in Paris in 2015. 152 pp

Translated from the French by Ros Schwartz.

2 Comments

Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews, Women in Translation, Writing

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!

3 Comments

Filed under Books, Learning, Libraries, Older women in fiction, Publishing our book, Reading, Reviews, The Craft of Blogging, Women in Translation, words, Writing

Paul Torday Prize and Meet Me at the Museum by Anne Youngson

Dear @gransnet, I tweeted, you want more fiction about older women? Well look on this page and you will find links to 39 reviews and more than 40 other titles, all about older women. 

Gransnet have also noted that older women writers are not widely known. They are not alone. There is now a prize for people over 60, publishing their first novel.

So in this post I am going to bring you the 40threview of an older woman in fiction and a little something about older writers.

The Paul Torday Memorial Prize

Paul Torday (1946 – 2013) published his first novel, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, aged 60. The family decided to set up the Torday Prize in his memory, celebrating first novels by authors aged 60 and over. The prize is £1000. It is one of the Society of Authors awards.

Judged in 2019 by Anita Sethi, Mark Lawson and Kate Mosse, here is the short list:

Sealskin  by Su Bristow (Orenda Books). You can find my review here.

Walking Wounded  by Sheila Llewellyn (Sceptre)

Silence Under a Stone  by Norma MacMaster (Doubleday Ireland)

The Sealwoman’s Gift  by Sally Magnusson (Two Roads)

The Tattooist of Auschwitz  by Heather Morris (Zaffre)

Meet Me at the Museum  by Anne Youngson (Doubleday)

So, dear @gransnet, not only writers over 40, but first novels over 60! What a generous and encouraging gesture it is by Paul Torday’s family to create this prize. 

You can find out more about the Paul Torday Memorial Prize here.

Meet Me at the Museum  by Anne Youngson

And the winner was Anne Youngson for her novel Meet me at the Museum. It turns out to be about an older woman as well as by an older woman. It was recommended to me by one of my sisters, and I was as charmed by it as she told me she had been.

Tina Hopgood is a farmer’s wife in the East of England whose life is circumscribed by the farm and she cannot even remember why she got married. She develops a correspondence with the curator of the Tollund Man museum in Denmark. It comes about because she originally writes to the archaeologist who found Tollund Man. The reply comes from Anders Larsen, a lonely widower. Tina is in distress, it transpires, over the death of her best friend, and the Tollund Man represented unfinished matters between them. 

So this gentle epistolary novel develops to explore their relationship, first by traditional mail and then by email. Each shares their troubles and concerns, and provides support to the other. Writing letters makes it possible for them to talk about the disappointments of their lives, their marriages, their children, the everyday and the events that transpire during the timeframe of the novel.

The story ends before they meet, after the predictable crisis in Tina’s marriage. There is a fair bit of philosophising, as these two are both around their 60s. They learn to evaluate their lives and identify what they have missed out on and what they want from now.

Anne Youngson published the novel when she was 70. She had had a distinguished career in engineering, but the press liked the idea that she is a grandmother. 

Meet me at the Museum  by Anne Youngson, published in 2018 by Doubleday (Penguin). 207pp

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

Should You Ask Me  by Marianne Kavanagh

The Woman from Tantoura  by Radwa Ashour

Etta and Otto and Russell and James  by Emma Hooper

3 Comments

Filed under Books, Older women in fiction, Reading, Reviews, Writing

Writers and Soundart

I love being a member of the Totnes Library Writing Group because it is full of people who are creative, imaginative and playful. Carole Ellis and Wendy Watkins are both stunning writers, and for some time they have also been creating programmes for Soundart the local community radio, as a kind of local podcast. I enjoy listening to their programmes, and so can you.

I asked them to write about their activities for Bookword, and here is their conversation.

Some practical details

Carole and Wendy: We have a monthly programme on Soundart Community Radio – 102.5 FM within a 7 mile radius of Dartington in South Devon, or online: http://www.soundartradio.org.uk. We’ve uploaded our 15 programmes to https://www.mixcloud.com where you can search for “Life with a Literary Slant”. 

You can also contact us by email: lifewithaliteraryslant@gmail.com

Our two sound artists

Wendy: We’re both volunteers. Amateurs. Which means we love what we do.

Carole: Yes. Payment-free and we do it…  Why do we do it? 

Wendy: (Laughing) Let’s go back to the beginning. What do you remember about how this started?

Carole:  I remember a meeting at the Totnes Library Writing Space. Fiona Green, a group member, organised a guest speaker, Chris Mockridge. He talked to us about the use of radio in writing. We had great fun sitting outside in the sunshine and came away thinking ‘we could do that’. 

Wendy:  Chris showed us all how to use a handheld recorder and recorded one of our writers – Mavis Riddel – reading her own short work, “A Highland Story”.

It’s included in our “Winter Stories” episode.  I think you can hear seagulls in the background. 

Carole: We’re based in Totnes – a small market town in the South Hams area of South Devon, unofficially twinned with Narnia – which gives an impression which isn’t strictly true. But it’s a wonderful centre for art, music, writing and some amazing people are based here.

Wendy:  There’s also the legacy of the Elmhirsts who re-built Dartington Hall in the 1930s.They’re long gone and much of their ethos has been submerged, but something of that adventurous spirit lives on. “Soundart” is also a reference to the fact that we’re on the River Dart. 

Carole: Hence the seagulls.

Wendy: The studio itself is based in one of the buildings on that estate. Some do their programmes live, but we chose to pre-record ours.

Starting out with Audacity

Carole:  Lucinda, one of the founding members of Soundart showed us some very basic skills in the use of Audacity, the free software available for sound editing…

Wendy:  …and that led onto a quite amusing period in our explorations trying to do things. But what do you remember about why we started?  

Carole: (laughing) I don’t know why we wanted to do this. I think it was partly to broaden the number of people who hear our group’s writing. And a love of language and communicating and storytelling… We can cover whatever we want so we just tap into whatever interests us at the time. 

Wendy: That’s what a community radio like Soundart gives  – freedom to create and explore. There’s an engaged listening that happens in a writing group…

Carole: …and by replicating it on the radio we’re able to share that experience with a wider audience. 

Wendy: You’ve been writing for some time. I know you were making a killing at one stage, sending letters to newspapers and also writing short stories. So there’s that dimension – and other things about you, like your identity as a teacher. How does that connect with what we’re doing now with Soundart? 

Carole: Yes, I taught adults to read and write for many years. And this programme enables me to continue sharing a love of reading and enabling other people to express themselves. 

Wendy: You often do background research on subjects you enjoy. I’m thinking of the programme on dialect, or the one about the history of coffee shops and writing. 

Carole: You also have a background which gives you an interest in another field 

Wendy: I taught for a couple of years in my early twenties, but I become a clinical psychologist. That involves listening very closely and deeply to other people’s experience. I have an interest in hypnotherapy where you use language, symbols and metaphor in creative ways. A light trance is a natural state so I suppose you could say we’re all in a light trance while listening to a story. 

Although we may choose a serious topic there’s also an element of play in creating a programme. Spoken language has its own musicality and the fact that we can incorporate music is something I find very special.

Carole:  It’s one element that I enjoy a lot… And finding something that we both like, instantly sometimes, we just know that that’s going to be the bit… that it’ll fit. Also the interviewing and bringing in other people. Some are people we know from the writing group but we do find others, don’t we, from out and about? 

Wendy: I really appreciate the generosity with which people do this. Sometimes there’s a particular person I have in mind, like Dr Stephan Harding the ecologist at Schumacher College, who agreed to talk about imagination. Totnes café owners were happy to be included, bookshop owners, and because of the nature of the community it’s easy to find people. 

Carole: Yes and the Totnes librarians and others have been enormously generous with their time and with their ideas and thoughts. We’re really lucky.

Learning to avoid the orphans

Wendy: What do you remember about the first experiences of putting a programme together? 

Carole: I suppose getting the hang of the Audacity software – that was quite challenging. I mean we’ve had programs where we’ve got everything exactly the way we want it and then it’s just disappeared… 

Wendy: Or it tells you that there are 3056 “orphans”…

Carole: Yes. (laughing) I love the “orphans”. I always feel sorry for them but I don’t want them…

Wendy: We’ve never quite worked out where they come from or where they are being held…

Carole: But there’s a lot of them. That’s always been a challenge – but we’re getting the hang of it and also we know how we work best, which in the early days – it was never a challenge exactly – but it was just us getting comfortable with the working arrangement…

Wendy: It’s more relaxed. I remember that in the early stages it was very clear that you were much more technologically skilled than I am. But what’s transpired over time is that you actually like doing that part. We make decisions together and we sit together selecting music, putting the programme together, but you’re faster and more technologically literate.

Carole: You make a much better interviewer than I do so I’m quite happy for you to go out with the Tascam recorder and make those connections while I can sit in my little room pushing buttons taking out the excess stuff that we don’t need… so yeah it works… 

Wendy: We have different perspectives and life experience, but if you have some shared values it makes collaboration work. It’s the same with what programme to do next. We seem to move quite easily into different ideas. 

Carole: I don’t think there’s ever one of us left thinking, ‘Oh, I wouldn’t have done that’. It’s very much a collaboration.

Wendy: Talking of this makes me think again about how much fun creating the programme can be. And the good feeling when we’re in agreement that a programme’s now the right shape, and simply let go of it. Like closing a book, pausing, and moving on to the next.

You can find the programmes in the Life with a Literary Slant series created by Carole and Wendy on Soundart: go to www.mixcloud.com where you can search for “Life with a Literary Slant”.

To subscribe and receive email notifications of future posts on Bookword please enter your email address in the box. 

Leave a Comment

Filed under Learning, Libraries, Writing

Transit by Rachel Cusk

A few months ago I reported on my reactions to the first in Rachel Cusk’s trilogy, called Outline. I found myself appreciating that the novel was daring, experimental and challenging to the reader. I noted an absence of story, at least in the usual sense of a narrative beginning, middle and end. Yet the attentive reader is rewarded with a perspective on the world that is moving and intelligent. 

Now I have read Transitwhich shares a narrator, Faye who is a fiction writer, and also reports the stories told to Faye by the people she meets.

Transit

The title suggests the passage of people from one situation to another. The narrator herself is moving from the end of her marriage to establishing a home with her sons in London. Her house is being transformed. The stories she is told provide illustration of transition, movement, passage of all kinds: stages in life, from one country to another, the process of writing, relationships between people over time, from one marriage to the next and so on.

Faye is to a great extent the passive filter of these stories. She offers them as if to challenge the reader to find the themes, the communalities, the differences, their own meanings. But although the fiction is that the original narrators of the stories are people Faye has met more or less randomly, this is a conceit. Rachel Cusk has chosen them, crafted. This is consciously and carefully wrought writing.

Questioning the assumptions of the novel

I was intrigued by the novelist’s suggestion that ‘character does not exist anymore’. This was more than intriguing, challenging even, as my major work on my own novel at the moment is in the development of the character of one of the protagonists. 

The assertion is reported in the transcript of a conversation that appears in the New Yorker: “I don’t think character exists anymore.” A Conversation with Rachel Cusk by Alexander Schwartz (18thNovember 2018). 

What I understood from her responses to the lengthy questions about all three novels in the Outline trilogy is that she is attempting to challenge or even to violate the traditional novel and those assumptions that have been handed down from our Victorian forebears. She says that this meant she had to break her own style, which she employed in her previous novels and which have been described as conventional.

By changing the style, for example at the level of the sentence, reducing the idea of the self then ‘other things change their proportions and relationships to each other and to you.’ Her purpose is to consider what remains or appears when the assumptions of the old forms of fiction are challenged and replaced.

She goes on, for example, to question our assumptions about the connections between how we live our lives and what we call character. We no longer live our lives, she suggests, through the ideas of character which we inherited and have never questioned from the Victorian ideas of writers and our ancestorss. 

So what emerges from this revised form? This is a novel for the thinking reader. Not a tightly plotted novel where the conclusion must not be revealed (‘I don’t believe in suspense.’) In Transit we are again exposed to some important themes about relationships, especially between women and men, about hate, about control and responsibility, and, of course, of the purpose of a writer and of writing fiction. 

Transit by Rachel Cusk, published by Faber & Faber in 2016258pp

See also Outline by Rachel Cusk, on this blog in October 2018.

To subscribe and receive email notifications of future posts on Bookword please enter your email address in the box. 

2 Comments

Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews, Writing