Perhaps we touch, my muse and I

My first sexual fantasies, age thirteen, were set in a boys’ school. I was the housemaster’s daughter, visiting on a stormy weekend, where an overnight dump of snow had left us without telephone or roads. I had started a fever. One of the boys was sent to attend to me – chosen for this role because of his aptitude in Biology.

In a feverish reverie, I was able to behave without embarrassment. He put his hand on my brow, my cheeks, my neck. I felt the stethoscope, pressing down on my chest, its cold foreignness. The fingertips around the edge would linger, which was the moment the fantasy became undoubtable. Up until then, I could have innocently denied it to myself as just playing out a soap opera, but as I felt the rough of his fingerprint on my skin, I knew that this contact of flesh, this as yet unknowable, was what I desired.

I turn and the hands move down my back – my hands, of course, but also those of the boy whose looks I never imagined, only that they were perfect, which to me was a sense of his strong decorum, and yearning.

There always came the point where the hands had no further to go.

The pleasure had lain beyond us: the point of subtlety where the dance was one of uncertainty – was I really feverish; did he mean to touch me like that?

As the touching continued, doubt was obliterated. It became something more reciprocal. This was a part I didn’t know – I had followed my instincts thus far, but now it became about mechanics: what the hands did, where they ended up.

This was where films and books I knew always stopped, so the only thing to do was go back and start over.

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There’s something in this search, the subsequent milking for pleasure, that has me in mind of the act of creativity. First, it comes to your bedside as you lie there beside yourself – such is the fever of being without creativity and wanting to write, draw, live. We toss and turn, until it appears to save us.

Though, actually, the fever is part of the imagination – induced. It is the lure for the muse.

The fever was important because I had to be beyond sense: freed from constraint. My desires to be sexual with a boy would have shocked my parents. The fever was my get out clause in case guilt wanted to grab me. I guess that’s why drugs are such an alluring option at times. I’ve certainly done things high or drunk that I wouldn’t have done sober – but I’ve also done enough wild things sober, like pulling down my trousers and pants in front of a live studio audience, to know that freedom is really a state of mind. We choose the muse – it doesn’t only come as a gift though a pill, a drink or pure random luck, bestowed inexplicably.

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I wonder if that is why real life muses are so desirable, giving us a way into creativity, because inspiration has a mystery about it – only the worthy can find it.

But what defines the worthy? What if it was as simple as those who know how to seek satisfaction? Freud said that we can only laugh when a joke has come to our help. This leaves us a little powerless. Can’t we go in search of laughter; passion? The trouble is, some of us have a passion for obstacles. Satisfaction for Rousseau was the death of possibility – therefore he needed not to master his impediments, but nurture them: the forbidding stare of the next door neighbour as he gazes at the sweets on offer in the market, disabling him so that he cannot buy any; though he has the money and goes home quite fretful.

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It’s easy to mistake pain for love – to spend hours in the dance of withdrawal, constantly denied, thinking this is our lot. Not an easy thing to decide to actively summon pleasure; choose happiness.

Deciding to be creative, to sit and write, is a little like my schoolgirl fantasy. I knew it worked: the storm, the isolation – I knew how to pace myself. Some imaginings went better than others, but they always gave a few moments distraction.

Joyce Carol Oates says the perfect state of mind for writing arrives when one starts to write – although what we often want is for it to arrive sooner, to enable us to get arse on chair and begin. I want to write, but I’m not in the mood. So, we mope around, make a strong cup of coffee, a phonecall, a sandwich – none of which will work, because none are actual writing.

I try, at least once a week, to sit down for half an hour and write: three words, ten minutes on each word. Then I’m done. The rest follows, blogging, working on my novella, but I don’t force that part. I don’t need to – three words, half an hour and the rest follows. If your response is to think – easy for you! I have to say that I’ve also thought that, and other ‘excuses’: exercises are not for me, I don’t like them, they don’t work for me, it won’t be interesting…

Excuses, excuses, excuses.

By sitting down for half an hour and writing, you show yourself, regularly, that what the mind decides is ultimately what it does. If you don’t sit, then ‘no point’, ‘can’t be bothered’, ‘don’t have time’, are thoughts that have power over your actions. What if you were to think: wow – look at all these excuses I am trying to come up with!

Being honest like that enables you to take another step of bravery and say: I’m going to do it – eleven o’clock, half an hour, three words, I’m going to do it.

This is the point you prove to yourself that your mind is the true muse – not dependent on anything other than knowing your desires.

What then?

Three words, half an hour – where do I begin?

Panic!

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Well, here goes – first ten minutes, one word: MUSE

Go!

What is a muse? Often a person. A woman for a man. Sexual perhaps? But there is also something about beauty, a connection for the mind. Do we need a muse? Do we need to need? Is need constructive or destructive?

Need can be painful. Lead to anxiety. In wanting the pain to end you are desperate for the thing you desire – you need it to end the pain. Your focus is the thing, rather than how to get it. Your focus is the pain. In pain how can you feel capable of achieving anything? Nasty vicious circle.

What if need were not a starvation, but the anticipation.

Should creativity have to be an accurate line, drawn between specific points, otherwise the outcome is agony? Sometimes it feels like that! But surely to try to navigate a path, elude pain, collision, is only going to mean you are living with your focus on avoiding potential disaster, rather than following the breath of your heart in the moment?

That’s the muse. That inner endlessness, which admittedly I’ve only ever felt for a millisecond. But I suppose when you travel into space, at speed, in the tenth of a second you experience eternity. There’s no judgement, no fear, no: I can’t get my head around this, what does this mean; no god, no science. There isn’t a single word. It’s a pump, a heartbeat, or the moment in between. A push, a release. It’s all physical, the tiniest moment in a ripple, yet in that moment you come to understand the motion that precedes and proceeds.

When my muse arrives, I imagine a great love of my life – how they may, one day, turn up at my house for a visit. I don’t know them that well; am beginning to know them.

I long to hear a knock at the door, and experience the rush of feeling that will come – like any moment that I’ve prepared for: when my name is called and I have to take the stage, enter the doctor’s office, walk to into an interview. There is a rush of sensations, which I may want to be rid of, so I speed up to get it over and done with. But what if I stay with these feelings; don’t rush? What if I sit and take a few breaths?

What if I trust the person on the other side of the door?

They are in no rush, and will leave it a while before they knock again.

I come to the door and open it. I am able to look at them, and not worry how I appear, or how they appear, knowing they’re not worrying either, but standing, observing, like I am observing them.

I leave the door open and make room for them to come into the house; if that is what they wish to do.

Perhaps they don’t, just yet. Perhaps they wish to stand in the street for a while.

I leave them, not questioning – because to want to know why is more about my need than their behaviour. Oh, I ache for them, I feel like wrapping my arms around them. But I back off – the moment of satisfaction is better prolonged. I explore my appetite. Sated too soon, it will disappear before I’ve learnt from it. Savour it for its endlessness, I tell myself.

The muse, my new love, comes into the house with an overnight bag. They wander through the rooms, upstairs, outside. Like this, the two of us move, in space, knowing the other is there, excited for the rest of the day ahead, but taking as much time in each moment as possible. Time is rich when expanded like this.

Every second becomes infinite and there is that chance that in one of those infinitesimal moments you get to experience that feeling of space, eternity.

Although I’m interacting with someone, there is no sucking to receive, or smothering, or asking, or gripping or grappling – just moving, orbiting, gauging, observing. All the thoughts that come through my head are mine. Not put there. The desire to talk, to laugh, to end it, to giggle, to say: oh, this is weird, let’s stop! Those are all mine and can be passed through, by not acting them out.

Though the moment will come, when I have to act upon something, when it becomes unbearable.

Perhaps we touch, my muse and I.

The moment will come.

But, for now, I let off it, explore it: for it will always be there.

When you walk towards your muse, it doesn’t move, it doesn’t shape-shift and hide, if you are following the feeling in your heart. If you chase the pain in your past, or the desire of your future – false muses – they disappear, leave you in black, sightless, ashamed. But if you follow the feeling in your heart, the love for the moment, for what is around you – a love of how it feels to feel – then your muse will be there; you need never grab hold of it, because you’ve already got it. You are living, breathing and enjoying it already.

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The delicious, talented Jeremy Page – author of ‘The Collector of Lost Things’, ‘The Wake’ and ‘Salt’ – is going to be joining me for my next writing practice: three words, half an hour. The results will be going on the blog, and I can honestly say – I’m nervous!

 

 

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The Dance of Avoidance

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Go outside, find something – bring it back indoors, put it on your desk, write about it. I’ve done writing classes like this. Responses to this task rupture out of each other – each one, bringing two more, which in turn set off their own excruciating reactions. Worse, is the fact that piled on top is the feeling I’m terribly boring. Or, a nervousness breaks out, convincing me I’m not going to find anything to write about, and in my delusion I’ve no chance of even remembering how to go about the simple act of looking. Besides, what am I supposed to find?

I’m not much of a question asker in these situations, which tends to make me notice people that are.

How long have we got?

How much do you want us to write?

Can it be made up?

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I was recently talking to George Saunders about the creative process and as he spoke I realised that whatever our reaction to writing, and more specifically to the beginning of an idea, the best way to continue is on the page.

I’ve just been given this completely dumb writing exercise that I don’t feel like doing because frankly I don’t know how long we are supposed to write, and whether we’re supposed to use our imagination or record accurately from life…

Often there is a final response of: just write! by the tutor when the questions refuse to abate. Hands thrown in the air: just write, it doesn’t matter.

And really, aren’t these questions – or endless internal thoughts that I’m not going to find something, and even if I do I won’t be able to write about it – just our dance of avoidance?

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‘What kind of obstacles does one find oneself making, what is one’s vocabulary of impediments?’ Adam Phillips asks in ‘Worrying and its Discontents’.

According to Phillips, the obstacle is used to conceal unconscious desire.

If I say: no one’s going to be interested in what I have to say, aren’t I desiring – more than anything – for someone to be? And isn’t the pain of that desire – or that desire unmet – then transferred to the belief that it might be true, so that it does become true because of the supposed authenticity of my feelings? But what if this was the ache of not writing, rather than the ache of not being good enough to write?

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What would you write if you could?

How easy do you to find it to answer that question? Do you have a very articulated answer – like a groove well worn – as to why just at this moment you can’t say.

Ah, well, it’s not that simple…

But it is simple if you allow yourself to write – and allowing it doesn’t mean having an articulated response, it’s beginning with: one thing I can’t quite get my head around is that I have this excruciating desire to write and yet no idea what to write about.

Surely, in writing this one line, you have at least begun?

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I’m always better when I’ve got something on the page. A lot of the time I use a dictaphone – that way I don’t even have to look at what I’m thinking. Seeing sentences can often begin a whole new stage of self-criticism: once I get past the barrier in my mind, and allow the words out, there is the barrier of the page – the almost instantaneous ‘this is crap’ – at which point I get up and go and do something else, like dance, read a short story, or find someone to whinge to: choosing a topic that has absolutely nothing to do with writing, and everything to do with everyone but myself.

On the page, there is also the discomfort of facing my idea, and the possible subsequent feeling that I haven’t quite ‘got it’. So I spend ages on that first line, thinking if I can just get this right, everything else will flow. But how can you get it right, if you don’t allow yourself to explore it?

Of course there is a place for editing and George Saunders explained his system in that he starts with: Bob was sitting down on the blue couch. He might look at it with the sense that something isn’t right. This is the crucial moment for any writer. Rather than start up Phillip’s ‘vocabulary of impediments’ – this is such boring writing! – you could employ Saunders’ Buddhist art of observation without judgement. For example – do you need sitting and down? In fact, do you need either because was on the blue couch says enough. And while we’re at it – does the couch need to be blue? And really, is there even a couch?

By managing to hang on to this idea for all this time you suddenly find that it’s just you and Bob – no unnecessary language or objects. All you see is Bob. You realise the language and the couch were obstacles – to cover up the fact you were scared Bob would have nothing to say for himself: he needed to be sitting in an overly complex way in order to be interesting. Now the room is empty, Bob begins to open out, becoming appealing in his multitudinous options. With nothing to impede him, Bob is infinite.

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I was out in the forest, scrambling across the scrub, jumping up on fallen trunks to photo a passage between the trees, waiting for clouds to shift to try and catch a paw print of light that had caught my attention. I noticed wooden bird houses with painted numbers, a red bug on a tree stump. The air carried warmed pine and the buttery pollen of rape. It had a thick quality to it so that I felt it catch on the hairs in my nose.

Alone like this, I expand. The world becomes mine. I am buttressed by my senses – safe. Thoughts come from a central place – not looking down, judging. Ideas radiate outwards, and I follow – like I might watch a bee, until the backdrop of burning yellow fields down the valley takes my fancy, until…

I become aware of a man ahead of me on the path. He has on hiking boots, a backpack. He is using those poles, taking great strides. I can hear the swish of his waterproof trousers – its efficient, purposeful rhythm. I feel a bit of an amateur – hopping about in corduroys with an Ipad. I want to hide it – imagining his disapproval of such business in the vast outdoors. And then I realise I’m drifting through the endlessness of someone else’s mind. I throw out an anchor, reminding myself of the impossibility of ever knowing a complete stranger’s opinion.

I feel jittery as I walk past him, but keep steadying myself, consoling myself with the peace that no matter what I’m feeling right now, at least I know what that is, which is the best starting point for anything, surely?

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It struck me that this experience was a little like the process of ideas and obstacles: the mind’s course from unselfconscious roaming through to the moment that it doubles back on itself, stops looking at the world around, and focuses on every fleck within, which under such scrutiny is of course going to feel uncomfortable. Ah ha! I feel uncomfortable – there must be something wrong with this idea.

The discomfort becomes not only the obstacle, but also the justification: if I was interesting I wouldn’t be nervous about writing.

Perhaps I set off outside to find my object and tell myself – whatever I am feeling, thank god I am having a response: I am alive, my brain is working.

I am with myself – no need to compare – to worry about other people who might do this exercise a lot better. I am buttressed by my mind – by the fact that it is private until the moment I decide to make it otherwise.

Any doubt I may feel as I search for my object, is like the sudden appearance of the experienced hiker to my haphazard stroll. In wanting to write, I am suddenly aware of all that is written – all the prose that had seduced me. My ideas seem ill-equipped, soppy.

But where am I now? I am not alongside my thoughts, my observation a kindly chaperone. I have sprung up to some far hillside, from which I look at myself, disappointed to be so far down below. Embarrassed by an inexplicable urge to pick up a stick and write about it, I abandon myself.

If I could just moor alongside my idea, explore it, then it might stand a chance. Inside our heads, our thoughts are vulnerable to our frame of mind, to our becoming someone else’s frame of mind, but on the page they can gain an independence of sorts. They can be free of delusion.

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The stick comes back with me. On my desk it becomes a branch, broken from above.

I see the storm the night before. First the leaves taken by the wind, shaking, until the rhythm builds and the whole bough is going. The tree holds, but the storm thuds, pounding, pounding until a branch gives and falls, snapping on the ground. A raw underarm of wood is left, vulnerable – so that a reluctant relinquishing becomes my words, which if kept within a closed mind would simply have composted down like that stick, to be dug up centuries later, no longer recognisable as wood.

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Worthwhile Reads

A huge thank you to Karen for nominating me for the Inner Peace Award. You can reach Karen here and find out exciting things like the fact that she once lusted after a career in embalming.

This week I have been reading the gorgeous Miranda FranceDon Quixote’s Delusions is a stunning piece of non-fiction. Miranda has a knack of tracing a point from here to there, packing it full of detail, keeping the whole thing effortless and then shrugging it all off when you ask her how she does it.

Equally breathless is the madcap Horatio Clare whose memoir Truant is a perfect example of his gift for observation. A storyteller in the flesh as well as on the page – the perfect antidote to a listless afternoon.

 

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That tightrope moment in writing when stories either plummet or remain

Any story that’s going to be any good is usually going to change.

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I’ve been reading Alice Munro again. There was a point when I suddenly became afraid of the day I’d read all her stories and no more were going to come, so I stopped buying her collections and tried to leave it. But you can’t leave Alice Munro, which is odd because at the beginning I couldn’t get on with her writing at all. This was when I was starting out myself, submitting stories to competitions – reading as much advice as I could about how to create a winning entry: opening with a bang, giving your characters conflict. But that’s not how to write a real short story, something that drifts through your brain so that the sense of reading it is more like an experience than any actual awareness of words being involved, which is why I realise Alice Munro has such a gift.

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Comma Press have some guidelines on their website: ‘short stories are all about their endings. A short story IS an ending. If that’s not in place, there’s nothing there.’

Their advice about the stories they don’t want manages to give a healthy, necessary education as well as suggesting the way a writer might find a way through rules to their own voice.

This is what Alice Munro did for me. It was ‘Walker Brothers Cowboy’ and I remember a blood transfusion of relief, replacing the hemmed-in sensation that the formulaic ways to write a short story had left me with. The grey of denial has been lifted. I could now love Alice Munro’s work and at the same time admit my own limitations – allowing myself a possible chance to finally write the kind of stories I’d always wanted.

I have a feeling of how I want these pieces to be – though I still spend a great deal of time, waiting for the words to come. It feels like skimming off that frothy junk when boiling jam, knowing there is no shortcut or fast forward – you simply have to wait by the pan, watching what comes to the surface, discarding, watching, discarding, watching until finally you can put it in a jar. But, even then, you may have to wait a few months to give the jam its first tasting, and you may discover there’s too much lemon rind, but at least the next time you know to be a little lighter when adding zest.

As Alice Munro says in an interview with the Paris Review:

I could be writing away one day and think I’ve done very well; I’ve done more pages than I usually do. Then I get up the next morning and realize I don’t want to work on it anymore. When I have a terrible reluctance to go near it, when I would have to push myself to continue, I generally know that something is badly wrong. Often, in about three quarters of what I do, I reach a point somewhere, fairly early on, when I think I’m going to abandon this story. I get myself through a day or two of bad depression, grouching around. And I think of something else I can write. It’s sort of like a love affair: you’re getting out of all the disappointment and misery by going out with some new man you don’t really like at all, but you haven’t noticed that yet. Then, I will suddenly come up with something about the story that I abandoned; I will see how to do it. But that only seems to happen after I’ve said, No, this isn’t going to work, forget it.

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Last year, I went in search of Alice Munro. It was a pilgrimage of sorts – I hoped to connect with the spirit of her stories and thus find a way of understanding mine. Walking through Goderich, along the snowy Meneseteung trail (past the salt mines), I journeyed through the landscape, which possibly bore ‘Meneseteung’. This is a story that looks back at the life of Victorian poet Almeda Roth, but also allows Alice Munro a presence as well, giving a sense of a writer’s urge to discover, create – and even a glimpse into that tightrope moment in writing when decisions are made, and stories either plummet or remain.

All notion of form falls away when I’m reading Alice Munro. I’m not looking at a certain way of portraying life, techniques – spotting a use of suspense, or a trick to lure my heart into the story. I am simply looking, passing through. There’s nothing to snag on, no cheap tactics. ‘An editor who thought nothing happened in William Maxwell’s stories, for example, would be of no use to me,’ Alice Munro said. ‘There also has to be a very sharp eye for the ways that I could be deceiving myself.

Her stories are rather like dreams. There is often something significant about the last part because it’s the moment you most often remember – but there is also a strong sense that there is more. Even if you wake at that final second, you are unable to stop thinking about the dream, during the day, about what might have happened – what might still be happening. And just as the way dreams start, so do Alice’s stories: in the middle of an underwater breath: you are working towards surfacing, but are also aware that there was the whole, taking a breath and coming under in the first place.

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The stories mentioned in this review can all be found in ‘Selected Stories‘ – a gorgeous  collection that is published by Vintage Books.

Many thanks to Eric M. Vogt for awarding my short story ‘The Soft Haze of Mystery‘ the First Cup award. His blog is well worth a look.

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Write of things you love

Three years ago, I spent a week in Shropshire and finally began to write of things I loved. These were memories of the farm I grew up on. For years, they’d been fidgeting as I sat down to work on my fiction, so that it was hard to ignore them. But up until this point, only fragments had slipped into my stories. I wasn’t sure if it was confidence that stopped these glimpses taking centre stage – the thought that my childhood couldn’t be interesting to anyone but myself – or that I wasn’t sure how to work with autobiographical material. What was clear, however, was how happy it made me to return there once more.

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In the years after we left the farm, I dreamt about it most nights. I still do, though not as often, and the dreams have a murky air about them: gone is the childhood belief that if I wish hard enough I will live there once more; often, I find myself as an adult, standing by the house, which has been ravaged by fire, or discovering that the surrounding fields have now become a housing estate.

Writing about the farm, I’m more in control about how I want it to appear. I can walk across the bathroom’s cork tiles, calling to my older brother who can’t be more than nine or ten. The heat of the day is all around me – a layer I can’t penetrate, which has left me slow-moving.

Let’s put our swimsuits on and wobble in the bath, I say as his head appears round the door, knowing that the two of us have made a world for ourselves in this isolated place, never rejecting the other or sneering at suggestions.

The avocado-green tub was tiny, and yet on those blistering days it became all we needed. I recall the sense of swimming breaststroke for miles and miles, cool and free.

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Last year, I felt hemmed in, living in Oxford – a cramped terrace, my garden overlooked by the whole street. The farm was where I could escape, but the feeling became like viewing happiness down a telescope. I wanted to reach my fingers out and touch something, but my hand, my Self, belonged to another plane.

That week I spent in Shropshire allowed those two parallel worlds to merge. I was on an Arvon Writing retreat, learning all about how to turn life’s journey into prose. I spent an afternoon, wandering through a pine plantation. The ground was cushioned with a thick layer of needles that had dried all summer and left the air clean; not the synthetic fresh of a disinfected kitchen, but the cleansing fresh of air that’s free of man’s trace – full of the scent of the earth alone. The happiness I’d been unable to touch, which had been a too different perspective to my reality, had appeared outside my window. There was no need for the telescope.

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The name for this blog came from my writing group. We were workshopping a short story of mine. My pieces were finally becoming fully autobiographical – writing them, I had a feeling of fascination, a sense of being lucky. There was no panic as I wrote about events of my life, no boastful pride, I was simply travelling through for the pleasure.

After a few moments discussion of the parts of the story that had stayed with the group, the moments they felt were not necessary, or heavy-handed, one of the women reached out her hand. Her fingers moved like minnows in a stream.

There’s a real sense of a journey here, she said.

But it wasn’t just the journey of my eleven year old sense in the story, it was also the journey of the writer, making her way into these memories, investigating, almost testing.

I knew then that I wanted to start a blog. I felt it would be a place of no expectation – not like my short stories where a voice in the back of my mind wonders: will this one be published?

My blog would be a place to simply write about my experience of passing through life, and watching it as I go – not judging, but allowing it to be as it is.

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Now, I find myself back in Shropshire, back at that Writers’ Centre. But this is not another retreat – I am here for good, as the Assistant Centre Director.

For a long time I was angry with the child of my past – I blamed her for my grief at no longer having the bravery and lack of restraint that she’d had, running through fields all day long, wobbling in the bath. I had lost faith in her – having wished to be back at the farm for so many years without fulfilment, and even finding the gift of it in my dreams to have shifted.

But now I can smile at my child, and feel content that I am living a life I have dreamt of for a very long time. On my days off, I walk that pine plantation, which takes me up into the hills. I then descend into an enormous basin where a lake lies silver beneath the sky – a jewel amongst cushions of grass, and not a house, not a soul. In this silence my heart feels able to grow, so much space, so much stillness. Words come now, not in an attempt to recreate a life I am mourning, but as a salute to what lies around.

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For a link to The Hurst – Arvon’s wonderful writing centre in Shropshire – and details of all the courses click here

I also write for the Arvon blog…click here

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The soft haze of mystery

The summer Jake turned fourteen, he caught a sudden glimpse of his aunt undressing – a roundness of flesh in between her body and arm as she removed her bra. His head fogged up, but through his blood came a crisp pulse. He backed out of the room, unable to look away, until she turned at the sound of him; Jake turned too, hurrying back down the hall. He had no words to explain why this was wrong in his mind, just the feeling in his body, which he baulked at because of its mystery.

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That same summer he had to water the garden of a friend of his mother’s. He could feel the tide in him; a hidden, silent moon pulling. He used to set out on his bike to the Henderson’s flat near the common. It was hot enough that everyone was showing something. Skinheads with their shirts off, tattoos green against reddened skin. Girls in shorts, legs bare, tiny feet tucked into plimsolls. The scent, leaking through Jake’s skin, filled his nostrils so that breathing became much more than taking in air – there was feeling and taste there too; warmth.

The Henderson’s building was in a gated complex. Their flat was on the third floor, the block nearest the pool where there was also a pavilion for courses and events. Jake’s mum and Mrs Henderson used to do yoga there. He’d had to go to the class once because he’d finished school earlier that day. It was simpler to find his mum there, rather than sitting outside the house – besides, he was thinking: I’ll just sneak in and get the key out of her bag.

The yoga teacher was in a shiny, fuchsia leotard. She had electric turquoise leggings, put on first so that the fuchsia of the leotard came up tight between her legs. When Jake came into the pavilion, she was bent over. The top half of her body was parallel to the floor, both arms ahead of her, flying. One leg held her up like a flamingo – the other was reaching behind. He could see the pink ball of her foot. Her arse was filled with muscle: a firm, steep semi-circle.

This was another of those moments – that cloudy, luxurious mystery. But with all these other women in the room – fat women, old women, and his mum – it felt horrifying. And then Mrs Henderson called his name so that everyone looked. The teacher stopped and came over so that Jake saw her even closer up, the stretch of the edge of the fuchsia leotard running across the top of her breasts – a hot shadow of cleavage.

Flowers

Mrs Henderson’s garden consisted of a balcony filled with flowers and grasses in steel tubs. It was nothing like the sentimental pots with red and white fluffy petals that Jake’s mum had. Here was a meadow garden, but up high. There were towering, steel cylinders with tall grasses that lazed from side to side in the wind. Bushes of lavender hummed with bees. Some kind of climber had made its home around the French windows, and attached to the rails were boxes and boxes of poppies – bright and yet translucent in the sun.

Jake would go up the three flights of stairs – there wasn’t a lift – and let himself into the apartment: second on the right, at the end of the corridor. He’d heard about the neighbours – the Lehmans – but only to know they were an older couple with a niece who was staying with them while her mother was in the hospital. He knew it wasn’t the regular kind of hospital because of the way his mum talked about it.

Too scary. It could happen to anyone.

Flower

Jake came for a few days, filling up the watering can at the sink and then taking it out onto the balcony.

Mrs Henderson had specifically had him round before she went on her trip to ‘show’ him how to water her garden.

Now, I know you’ll be thinking this is dumb, she said. But you’d be surprised at how people don’t know how to water plants, unless they’ve had them. Mark’s hopeless with them, just a quick flick like this – and she demonstrated, walking with the water running out.

Jake wondered what was wrong with that: she seemed to be watering her plants.

Mrs Henderson laughed – look at you, you’ve no idea what I’m talking about! she said.

He shook his head.

Come here, she said, pulling him over.

You stand, she told him. You stand like this, over one tub, and you pour the whole damn lot. Then you go into the kitchen, fill it up and then – she took a small step to the left – you stand, again.

Jake nodded and she put her hand on his shoulder, leaning in a little closer.

Now, you might start to think, ‘this is dumb’, after going back and forth a couple of times. You might think, ‘hell, I’m going to do two tubs per can-load of water’. But then that wouldn’t be watering my garden properly, would it?

He smiled and she tugged his ear.

So, Jake, do you think you can do it?

Sure, he said.

Plus, look out for next door, Mrs Henderson told him, winking.

Flowers

Look out for next door.

What Jake thought she meant was, like: see if there are any problems. Or, maybe they were going away too, and had asked if she knew someone who could keep an eye on the place.

But why the wink?

Basically, he didn’t know what she meant. But then, when he was on his fifth load of the watering can, he found out. The French windows next door opened, and a girl’s leg stepped out. The movement was nimble and brought a neat body in a pair of shorts through after – tan-coloured hair that blew black at just the moment she went from inside to out.

Oh, the girl said, glancing at Jake. He caught that she was holding a glass, something cold as there were drips coming down on the outside.

She turned and went back inside.

So, that was the niece, with the crazy mum.

He stood there a long time, running those seconds over in his head. He thought about it as he went each time to the kitchen, filling up the can. Every time Jake came back out, he imagined her coming out too, or wondered if she’d be there on the balcony already.

Three days passed and he didn’t see her, but each tub got two full watering cans and the leaves began to turn yellow so he thought he better ease off. Then the weekend came and he wondered what she was doing.

On Monday, Jake saw her again.

She came out in much the same way – same shorts, same clean, light hair.

She looked over, and then waved what was in her hand at him – a book. Then she sat down on one of the chairs the Lehmans had out there and began turning the pages.

Jake watered the plants and watched her read. Sometimes, he imagined it was all a show, put on for him: she wasn’t really reading. But then, if it was put on for him, wouldn’t she have to look up at least once to see the effect it was having?

Flower

When Jake was in his twenties, and his first proper girlfriend broke up with him – she was moving out of the flat they’d been renting together – she told Jake he lived in a dream world.

That ole chestnut, he said.

She growled. Her name was Nina.

The thing is, Jake told her. You’re moving out – why do you still have to say that to me? Do you think I haven’t heard – all these years? Or, are you thinking: just one last time, I’ll tell him to grow up and maybe he will.

You idiot, Nina said.

If that’s what you think, he told her, shrugging.

Do you know what your problem is, Jake?

What? Tell me, what?

You’re still fixated on that girl – that niece – like I said, can’t live in the real world.
They’d fought so much, but it was always the same fight – it wasn’t going to get solved.

The weird thing was, after Nina went, there was all this space: it was just him, nobody else to blame. Jake began to think about whether he lived in the world or not. He wondered where he did live. Was it make-believe, the dream of ‘what if’ – what if he had spoken to the niece?

Bikini

He’d seen her in the pool one afternoon, floating on her back, this little white bikini. Jake imagined her watching him watching her. But he never did anything.

If that’s what he thought she was doing, why didn’t he go down there and say – how about it?

How about what?

That was the problem – having no idea what came next after the tide in your body rose up. He felt what he wanted to do, but there were no words.

The final time Jake saw her, she was out on the balcony as he approached the building. His heart went mad. She was in her bikini. Something had to happen. But when he went out there with the watering can, she didn’t look around. Through the emerald veil of Mrs Henderson’s grasses, he could see her legs stretched out on the sun lounger.

Why did she have her back to him?

He watered the garden – maybe even a few extra cans, risking the yellow leaves – until he thought: this is dumb. It was all beginning to hurt. He came indoors and paced around. He felt like an idiot. He wanted to scream, weep. Finally, Jake went right up to the French windows and stood with the grass between them, just watching.

I know you’re there, she said.

Flower

Jake’s ex-girlfriend was wrong – he wasn’t living in a fantasy world. He was fully aware he’d ducked back inside the Henderson’s flat that day, feeling too much of a fool for running away so that he couldn’t go out there again. All he could do was leave: sulking down three flights of stairs. Only then did he have the guts to turn around – it was the final realisation of what he was walking away from – but when Jake looked up at the balcony, the niece was gone.

Jake wanted to call his ex-girlfriend up and tell her that he wasn’t fantasising about spending the rest of his life with the niece. You don’t get together with your wife at fourteen!

She wasn’t some symbol of the perfect woman either – because he did used to worry about her loony mum, thinking maybe the niece had something in her genes. If Nina thought Jake couldn’t really love her because he was in love with the niece, she was wrong.

Bikini

I know you’re there.

What did Nina ever say to Jake that would ever touch him as much as those words?

The niece had seen him out of the back of her head, with all that grass in the way. You couldn’t love a woman until they were able to see you like that. How could he have cared about Nina when she never noticed his presence in that subtle way, and in that subtlety feel him, the real Jake – a boy desperate to love, but afraid?

 

This is a new short story. I am going to be posting pieces of fiction here each month, and would love your feedback!

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The art of becoming an original writer in three days!

We talk about that first ‘bite’ we get as a writer, the first punch of an idea. Something catches our eye – a painting, or a conversation between two people across the room. We watch. Suddenly we start to imagine what they are saying. We picture what one of them might do next – or what the other has previously done; perhaps something they are now withholding. A story begins to form. But then suddenly Reason asks: how do you know this is the right story?

Rose

In her book, Psychoanalysis: the impossible profession, Janet Malcolm quotes from a letter that Friedrich Schiller wrote in 1788 in reply to a friend who had complained of meagre literary production: the ground for your complaint seems to me to lie in the constraint imposed by your reason on your imagination…It seems a bad thing and detrimental to the creative work of the mind if Reason make too close an examination of the ideas as they come pouring in…

Roses

If we’re unconstrained, we might be able to sit and examine the painting, or watch these two people, chatting across the room. We remain calm. We observe, allowing ideas to take shape. We might imagine to ourselves: a funeral – two people, talking after a funeral.

Two women – sisters; no, sisters-in-law. One touches the hand of the other, so it is the younger of the two, the blond one, who is the widow. Both wear black. Both have been crying. The widow nods and gives a funeral smile before getting up and excusing herself to the kitchen where the sister-in-law follows and they continue to talk.

But now you might find yourself in the kitchen and think: how did I get here; what am I doing?

Suddenly, you’ve gone from familiar surroundings – the room where the reception was going on: the dim chatter, the smell of the food on the table in the bay window that is beginning to heat in the sun, coming through the glass; the sandwiches are forming a crust, even though the crusts have been removed.

But now in the kitchen, with these two women, you’re not sure.

Why did the widow get up? Why didn’t she simply sit there with the hand of her sister-in-law, providing comfort? The hand certainly was providing comfort. You’re certain of that.

Is it that the widow doesn’t want people to make a fuss; that it’s all too much? That she’s not yet ready to let herself go and is busying herself?

The trouble is that at the first sign of the inner judge, the imagination will become knocked about. From its initial meander, careless, aimless, aim-free – it is now aware that someone is watching. It is now aware that there are right and wrong paths to take. It doesn’t want to fail.

 Rose

How, once this inner judge has stepped in, can you carry on with the freedom of imagination? Freud was to liken his process of free association – or ‘allowing’ – to that of the poet, during the act of creation. The patient – or poet – must suspend his critical faculties and say anything that comes to mind, regardless of its irrelevance, triviality, or unpleasantness.

When Reason creeps in, inhibiting the story, firstly acknowledge that you are now no longer in the sitting room, wandering the post-funeral reception. See that you are now in your head, wandering your self – your own memories, your own failings, your own doubts, perhaps your own funeral.

In the introduction to his Collected Essays, Hanif Kureishi says: More or less the whole of my formal education was concerned with enforced inhibition and constraint. I had to unfetter my imagination myself and learn to let it run. It sounds awkward to say that you might train your imagination, but you might learn, at least, to hear what it has to say, and respond.

Hanif, since a period when he found that he couldn’t move forward in his work, has used Freud’s method of free association each morning, which he himself discovered – oddly enough – in a writing manual by Ludwig Börne called: the art of becoming an original writer in three days.

Roses

Return to the story of the funeral – allow. Put yourself in the kitchen. See what comes. A kitchen that you know? You still have something of before to start you off because you can still hear the voices of the guests. Perhaps there were two boys, playing. Listen to their game – their innocent, high notes, rising above the muffled base of mourners who are taking their job seriously.

You can still smell the buffet lunch. But perhaps there is a new smell in the kitchen so that you can transition from one to the other, using the path of your senses. There are new sounds in the kitchen, allowing you to cross the threshold into a new room. How has the light changed?

Keep exploring these impressions and, at every stage, observe to see when you inhabit the character – the widow – and when you are simply standing back as the narrator. Are you illustrating the setting from an authorial distance, or have you stepped further in to describe from within the character?

It’s best not to jump around too many characters. Don’t suddenly panic and jump into the sister-in-law’s head, thinking: I don’t know the widow anymore – I never did – perhaps I’m not her, perhaps I’m this person instead. Of course, investigate, play around – don’t become too rigid. There’s no point starting a story in one character’s head and forcing your way through – ploughing through frozen earth without allowing yourself breathing space.

Investigate, explore, and know that the inner judge will butt in – even into the more sure ideas. It’s arrival it’s not a sign of fault. The inner judge simply interferes when the other senses, the feeling senses, become faint. When the tangible connection to your imagination becomes fragile, then there is space for doubt to enter – see it as the flailing of the mind when the floor disappears.

But don’t think you have to be absolutely on top of your story, crowding it, so that there’s no room for misgiving to enter. By doing this you’ll lose your perception in another way – by writing in panic. Even whilst floating, a connection can be found. Breathe. If you cannot feel the story, you can at least feel that you, the artist, are alive. Sit with that artist – on the sofa, chair, wherever it is you’re trying to write. Sit with that artist and breathe, and rather than carry yourself away in thoughts, admonitions and doubt, notice sensations – how your chest rises, how it falls, how it clenches, how it releases, how it stutters, how is wheezes.

There are so many things to notice that one never need enter back into the line of thinking – the doubt, the ruin. But if you enter that line of thinking, you haven’t failed either, you are simply walking the artist’s path. It’s like being a pinball in a machine: darting about, setting off alarms, lights, buzzers; sometimes winning a prize, sometimes falling down a hole – nothing won at all.

Rose

I spent a very long time, exploring this funeral – and in fact it was a scene that never made it into the final draft of the story, but it was necessary for the process as a whole. The story came about because of a painting I saw in a museum. I was in Ireland for the launch of an anthology a short story of mine had been published in, and was full of inspiration to write another.

To me, this new story was Irish, the sisters were Irish. It was the husband who was dead.

‘The funeral passes beneath a silver sky, but there is enough light to create gentle shadows on the grass. She watches a cluster of men from the village lower William into the ground, and wonders what he will do in there.’

Rose

The painting I saw in Ireland shows a husband and wife, sitting at a table. They have become disconnected somehow.

The painting is called The Consultation, which already gave an idea of a lack of ease and intimacy. But the way the objects are placed suggests it isn’t simply an emotional difference these two people have. It is something greater.

A chair, in the doorway beyond, is empty – conveying absence. Looking at the woman, I felt she was in grief – frozen at breakfast, in her duties. The man is waiting for her, watching. Somehow, although they are separated – by life, by death – although their eyes are no longer level, there is something that has levelled. In this moment, they finally feel love for each other. He, at long last, sees her emotion – the tears – and his heart bursts.

Her sudden realisation is that this breakfast routine, which she’d found so formal, is impossible without him. Even though they never said much to each other, he had always been there, a quiet presence, buttering his toast. She never thought he would leave.

Rose

‘It was him. It wasn’t a memory. He was standing, waiting for her. He was smiling. He was holding out his hand. And she thinks of how she knew what to cook for him after a time, from him leaving small piles of things on the plate, which he had no taste for; never saying, I don’t care for this or that, but in those leavings she grew to know him. She hurries back home, up the path, and bangs open the kitchen door, rushing through, calling, William! William! running up the stairs…’

For those of you interested in reading the full short story – The Courting – which was published by Virago, click here for an online version. The piece is less than 4,000 words long – but I wrote many more as I searched for the thread of the tale. Seen in isolation an idea may seem trivial – but do not reject too soon because it may be made more worthy by another idea that comes after. Freud talked of free association as the ore from which the analyst extracts its content of precious metal. Where imagination has freedom, Reason relaxes its watch, allowing ideas to rush in, knowing that the time for arrangement comes later.

Rose

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Shockproof shit detector: the editor’s perspective

Bridge

The late 1970s and early 1980s saw a new kind of fiction, best exemplified by the short story collections of Raymond Carver.

In 1981 his best-loved collection was published. ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Love’ recorded the almost dreary lives of middle America, in language that was frugal and yet commanding.

The metafictions, magic realism and doorstopper Great American Novels of the 1960s and 1970s had been challenged.

Writing was now about minimalism – all show and no tell. Creative writing students on both sides of the Atlantic worshipped at the altar of Carver, pruning and condensing in their attempts to imitate his style.

And then, in 2009, Carver’s wife, Tess Gallagher, published ‘Beginners’ – the original manuscript versions of the 17 stories that make up ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Love’. The true extent of editor Gordon Lish’s cuts to Carver’s work was revealed. The bible of minimalism was apparently the work of two authors – writer and editor.

Minimalism was not a style that dripped so easily from Carver’s pen.

A minor literary tempest followed. The original of the collection’s title story was published in The New Yorker – with Lish’s edits. Creative writing classrooms around the globe quivered with excitement: perhaps the struggle for that perfect, showing sentence was not so unattainable. God had been made man; we could all relax.

Bridges

VS Kemanis’s latest collection ‘Dust of the Universe’ brings to mind many of these debates about editing, K.I.S.S. (‘keep it simple, stupid’), fashion in literature and literary territory.

Kemanis’s ‘territory’ is the American middle class; in this collection, specifically the white-collar, middle-class family (her previous collections have concentrated on ‘women’ and ‘misdemeanour’). And her style is neither minimal nor simple.

‘Dust of the Universe’ sees people on planes, in cars, at home and at work, struggling with the emotional pulls, conflicts and trials of family life. Her characters, most often women, sit at the centre of these domestic dramas, trying, with varying degrees of success, to cope with exterior events while tuning into and processing their interior reactions.

Material then for the minimal treatment. No ground-breaking incidents, magical happenings, or self-referential meta-narrative here. Quiet, limpid prose would appear to be the perfect vehicle for Kemanis’s stories.

Kemanis herself, however, professes an enjoyment of ‘the beauty and intricacy of language’. This certainly shows: she chooses an elaborate style to tell the stories of her ‘everyday people experiencing joys and sorrows’.

Is this wrong? If so, why?

Is it successful? If not, how could it be improved?

Bridges

Literary fashion since Carver remains minimal. The early twentieth-century modernists and the experimentalists of the 60s and 70s provided the raw material for the blooming fields of literary, critical and cultural studies. Literature that discussed literature – and pulled in psychology, linguistics, politics and sociology – gained a strangle-hold on academia and, crucially, alienated a reading public. No wonder that readers were attracted to Carver’s straight-forward story-telling, his focus on character, incident and dialogue, and apparent lack of pre-occupation with any kind of ephemeral ‘discourse’.

So when one reads a story such as Kemanis’s ‘Nothing Intentional’, in which a middle-aged lawyer contemplates an extra-marital knockback and his position in the world, it feels rather over-written. Is this because of fashion – is this because one expects such a story to be revealed through quiet imagery and language? Or is it because Kemanis is a self-published writer – albeit an experienced one? Does this story need a Lish-style edit, cutting it back to its bare, white bones?

Bridge

A comparison with another story in the collection provides some insight: ‘The Zephyr’ records the turmoil an eight-year old girl feels in the face of her reconfigured family situation. Staying alone with her mother in a motel named The Zephyr, and visited on weekends by family members, new and old, she develops a powerful fear of the creature she believes the zephyr is, conflating it with the prematurely developed daughter of the motel manager.

This is probably the best story in the collection. It is the most moving, thematically and symbolically the best integrated, and is executed with great success. What marks it out from Kemanis’s other emotionally astute tales is the difficult literary trick Kemanis manages to pull off: she writes an adult story using the eight-year-old Debbie’s voice.

Writing in a child’s voice does not entail writing childishly or even with Carveresque simplicity; writing from a child’s point of view can be both subtle and sophisticated. In ‘What Maisie Knew’ Henry James sees everything through Maisie’s eyes, but, choosing to write in the third person, he is able to map refined, urbane language onto undeveloped thought patterns. The title of the novel indicates both the novel’s subject matter and its status as a technical exercise; James, creative genius and master technician, combines the two in one of his best works. And anyone who has read a single James sentence knows he is perhaps the ‘anti-Carver’.

Writing from the first-person point of view of an eight-year-old girl is even more of a challenge, but in ‘The Zephyr’ Kemanis manages to avoid both any kind of jejune tone and any overly sophisticated commentary. The author is present, but the reader is only very faintly and pleasantly aware of her because of her choices of observation and image.

Kemanis has achieved this by giving her own work a strong edit. And she has done this, perhaps, without even realizing it – rather, her choice of voice has demanded such precision. In an interview with the Paris Review, Ernest Hemingway famously said ‘The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shockproof shit detector’. In ‘The Zephyr’ Kemanis’s point of view choice has turned her detector up to eleven – any sign of age-inappropriate language, analysis or view is absent. She has been her own Lish.

Bridge

Perhaps then, for the self-published writer, the absence of a sensitive agent and a hard editor means being your own Lish and turning up the volume on your shit detector are essential skills.

Kemanis manages this in a number of her stories. To make this a truly good collection, she needs to sharpen her blade and carve out from her quantities of promising material the ideal forms of the rest.

In the title story of ‘The Dust of The Universe’ – a brief, heart-wrenching piece of writing – we do not need to know that Kip is ‘still hard-muscled from workouts at the gym’, only that he is big and his is his wife’s tucked position in bed is un-natural to him. Neither does Kemanis, once she has described Kip seeing ‘thousands of white specks danc[ing] about like atoms at boiling point’ under the covers, need to mention in the next paragraph the ‘boiling atomic particles’. Taking her knife to her prose in this way would increase the power of her imagery and make it serve her subjects even more effectively.

Bridges

Not every writer can or should be Carver. Not every editor can or should be Lish. Lyrical, indulgent language is part of the pleasure of reading – and writing – but to adapt Lish himself, five lush, beautiful words can, by their clarity and precision, be better than fifteen.

Bridge

The Editor’s Perspective features once a month
For those of you keen to have your ebook given a review by West Camel, please leave a comment or pingback below and West will hunt you out!

A big congratulations to VS Kemanis: ‘Everyone But Us‘ is currently a deserved semifinalist in the short fiction category of the 2013 Kindle Book Awards!

Thanks Britt Skrabanek, Chris Barnham and Catherine McCallum, West has been enjoying your blogs and ebooks…but who will be up next?

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