Water Ways

On Saturday a lovely group of writers came along to Water Ways, the newest of the Four Elements workshops that I’m running as a series with Kellie Jackson of Words Away.

Among the Four Elements, Water is identified with feeling, and as the workshop approached I realised the field of emotions presents a pretty HUGE and amorphous subject as a topic within writing. Given my ambition slash weakness of needing to be comprehensive, how would we cover it ALL?!

So we approached the subject of emotion through a few specific lenses. We started by discussing memory and symbolism as ways to activate, contain or convey feeling in writing. Inspired by Lynda Barry, we also gave ourselves watery names for the day – with my teacher hat on, I became Professor Newt.

We then looked at methods of crafting narrative tone, paying special attention to perspective and sentence structure and examining the emotional shifts within a particular scene in Brokeback Mountain. A good scene will contain CHANGE, especially in the feelings of characters – and readers. We also looked for Proulx’s use of water imagery.

And I forgot to ask: where in the story do Ennis and Jack say, ‘I love you’? What does that say?

Thinking about tone in relation to pitch, it also occurs to me now that we use the word pitch to describe that brief description we use to sell books. Which makes me think how a good sales pitch really goes to the heart of a book, and ideally grows out of the narrative tone and voice and style of telling the story.

We ended the day looking at the emotion created within the intimate space of a letter with reference to works by Ocean Vuong and Tove Jansson. And then we wrote thank you letters of our own.

I wish we’d discussed the idea of the unconscious a bit more. But it was certainly present; we talked plenty about Ocean Vuong, and only now do I realise: the clue is in his name! OCEAN = WATER, right?! There: the unconscious in beautiful action.

A highlight of the day was our brilliant guest tutor and resident wavemaker: author and illustrator Sally Kindberg. I am really keen in this series of workshops to experiment with practices and viewpoints from creative fields that rely less heavily on verbal forms, because words are so often the problem with writing – words can get in our way, just as writers often need to get out of their own way too, and it often makes sense to develop writing without actually doing any writing. So on Saturday we drew.

At the start of the day, instead of a meditation we did a contemplative drawing exercise using our hands and lines. And then in her drawing workshop Sally got us to make some (hilarious!) self-portraits, and, using her magic top hat, guided us through the creation of characters that we took on adventures in four-frame comic strips. Clouds became potatoes, and much mirth was had. Under my student pen name of Simon Seahorse, I was very pleased to learn how to draw wings in flight.

Comic strips also prompted a brief discussion about yonkoma manga and kishōtenketsu, and we bonded in questioning the necessity of conflict as the central drive in writing (an idea that many of us are fed up with – more on that anon).

Sally inspired me so much I spent the following afternoon watching the wild and brilliant Studio Ghibli classic Porco Rosso and then playing drawing games with a friend who’d come to visit. Thanks, Sally! I finally got to art school.

And thanks again to Sally for bringing drawing into our class so purposefully, and to everyone who came for joining in so fully.

Our next Four Elements workshop is Earth Works, where our guest earthshaker will be dancer and Physical Intelligence expert Claire Dale. It’s held on 21 March, which is the spring equinox; I promise we shall be marking the wRites of Spring in appropriate style!

 

 

Food in Writing

On Sunday I taught for the first time at the Victoria and Albert Museum: a workshop on food in writing called Food: Bigger Than The Page.

We started off talking about food as a genre or genres (plural) of writing. Some books of food writing have an investigative or campaigning approach, such as Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, and then there are works of food history such as Dorothy Hartley’s Food in England and Mark Kurlansky’s Cod.

Someone also brought up the name of one of the great food writers: MFK Fisher. And I forgot, oops, to mention Julie Powell’s Julie and Julia, which was inspired by the blog she wrote cooking her way through Julia Child’s classic cookbook – if you are interested in the publishing process, you might enjoy this piece from the publisher Knopf on The Making of … Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

Moving on to the use of food in fiction and memoir, we discussed the role of food (and hunger) as symbol and driver of plot in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, then explored the part that food plays in activating memory, using Joe Brainard’s I Remember and Nigel Slater’s Toast.

Paying attention to the ways in which all five senses create images that bring writing to life, we listened to some poems by William Carlos WilliamsPablo Neruda, Seamus Heaney, Galway Kinnell and Meryl Pugh. (Meryl teaches popular courses at Morley College and the Poetry School, should you be interested.) Some of these poems celebrate food or everyday life in very straightforward ways, while others have more layered meanings.

And then, after a brief palate-cleansing meditation, we became hunter-gatherers: we created Word Hoards of our sense perceptions by getting intimate with mint and star anise and kiwi fruits, and carrots and lime-blossom tea, and a fancy tiny pear called Piqa Reo (Waitrose, we salute you – and you’ve even given us a further way to use the Q tile without a U in Scrabble) (though the lime-blossom came from Gaia in St Margarets – support your local indie!).

We then paid a visit to supermarkets in California with Allen Ginsberg and Armistead Maupin, and created some characters of our own by thinking about the ways in which food acts as a social marker.

We fitted in a snack-sized look at recipes in food with Heartburn by Nora Ephron (and Like Water For Chocolate by Laura Esquivel also got a mention here). And then we finished off by discussing recipes as a form for poems with ecopoet Jack Collom – something to try at home?

I had a lot of fun putting this workshop together – see the links and titles above and also below in the list of resources. Thanks to the V&A and everyone who came along – and especially to Stacy for thinking a writing workshop would be a good idea (I first met her when I attended a V&A book club for The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver – I’m going to tell myself that Frida Kahlo led me here). Thanks also to Michelle for the photos (and the kind words) below.

 

Further resources

Sandra M. Gilbert and Roger J. Porter, eds., Eating Words: A Norton Anthology of Food Writing

Mark Kurlansky, ed., Choice Cuts: A Savory Selection of Food Writing

Jill Foulston, ed., The Joy of Eating: The Virago Book of Food

Dianne Jacob, Will Write For Food (practical advice on writing about food)

Diana Henry, What Goes On Behind The Scenes Of A Cookbook (for more about the creative and production processes, and Diana Henry is an inspired writer and cook too: I have enjoyed many of her recipes)

Lynda Barry, Syllabus and Making Comics (great on creativity – you might also enjoy this interview with the genius herself: at the least, watch the first five or ten minutes)

Plus, just because, a gorgeous piece of food/cookery writing on candied oranges I read earlier today.  (Will edit for candied oranges: a trade, anyone?!)

 

And before I go: as I type, I believe there might be one space left on the day-long Four Elements workshop Water Ways on 8 February, which explores how we evoke feeling in writing, and I’ll also be looking at food among other experiences of the earthly realm in Earth Works on 21 March. More info via the links at the Words Away website.

 

One of our frondy inspirations.

 

Such a grand setting!

Characters Sparking Joy: Writing Experiment No. 71

items.[0].image.alt

Following on from the Character Questionnaire exercise that came out of last week’s masterclass, here is another writing experiment to help think about characterisation.

Your character is decluttering with Marie Kondo. Which of their possessions still spark joy, and are kept? Which do they thank for their service and donate to Oxfam? What do they junk with glee, or without a second thought? Consider how your character’s relationships with their possessions reflect their inner lives and outer worlds, and their conflicts or affinities with other people and places. Write a scene that grows out of this.

PS I’ve finally watched one of Marie Kondo’s Netflix shows. I liked it. I like her a LOT. I love her philosophy, even though I know I can’t fully practise it; I’m not very good at dealing with attachment (would never make a great Buddhist). But I’d read (listened to) her book a few years ago, and decluttered my wardrobe by half or even two-thirds – and felt GREAT about it!

Except for one lovely, lovely coat I made a mistake in ditching, mostly because I felt it made me look like Truman Capote in Paddington Bear drag. But then I changed my mind, and realised I should accept reality: aspire to be Truman (dream on), accept my bearish nature. And my lovely, lovely husband bought back from the charity shop the next day, phew. So: I am a convert. I see the value and clarity that comes from a good clearout.

I also have a LOT of books. Many spark joy: they are beloved, and I often refer to them. Many have sentimental attachments. Many are practical requirements, doing the job that I do. But too many will never, ever be read. Many haunt me, plague me, pull faces from a dusty corner of my office. Many are consuming real estate. Many are crumbling apart, and many are nasty, pulpy paperbacks that feel like housebricks with spines that crack when I finally get to open them. Corporate British publishers and printers don’t always have the production standards of, e.g., publishers in the US or mainland Europe. I also find that digital books are in many instances not only more attractive but very practical, e.g., for reading at night.

So: when twysteria arose from certain canyons of social media because Marie Kondo had apparently told people to give away books, it really was out of proportion to the reality, and a reminder of why Twitter can be so shit and reductive. And not a little racist and ethnocentric, either: What White, Western Audiences Don’t Understand About Marie Kondo’s ‘Tidying Up’.

It’s good to give away things you no longer use – things that no longer spark joy for us can bring pleasure to other people, and also earn a few pounds for charity shops, or dollars. And if you DO give away something you really do realise you need back – you can always buy it back from a charity shop, or find a used copy online.

Spark Joy! And maybe also make room for some books you write yourself.

Spark Joy!

 

Character Questionnaire: Writing Experiment No. 70

On Saturday I led a masterclass on Character and Setting in conjunction with Kellie Jackson of Words Away. It’s the latest in our series of classes intended as a practical, DIY alternative to the craft seminars of an MA/MFA in creative writing. Here is Kellie’s account of the day.

We discussed Olive Kitteridge and Tom Ripley and Ennis Del Mar, and Bridget Jones and that other Singleton, Mary Ann from Tales of the City. We talked about types (heroes, mentors, shapeshifters), and primary identities, and desires and inner conflicts.

We drew cartoon sketches of characters, and maps for them to be placed in. I think there is a great value in bringing nonverbal forms of expression into our writing practice, not least in keeping a check on overthinking. I’m always looking for ways in which writers can develop their writerly intuition, sparking surprises and digging deeper with their characters – their yearnings, their contradictions, their secrets. Which might include some of our own, and some of those of people we know, and some we made up entirely.

As usual: a lot to fit in! And we had a good laugh or two, which is perhaps the most important thing of all. A further bonus came from listening to Christina Macphail of Agatha Christie Limited talking about her career in rights, export sales, and licensing. There were a lot of Agatha Christie fans in the room, and I have already been prompted to return to The Mysterious Mr Quin, which I suspect I might get more from as an adult. An excellent and engaging talk, shedding light on important parts of the publishing business – thanks, Christina! And thanks also to Kellie Jackson for helping organise the day. Some snaps from the day are below.

One fun exercise was creating a collaborative character questionnaire.

Answering questions about a character’s outer identity and inner world is a common exercise in creative writing. There is, of course, a risk that assembling a character out of such details can lead to cookie-cutter writing that gets caught up in representing the facts assembled on a checklist at the expense of telling a story. The result, if we are not careful, is writing cluttered with detail but lacking in heart and momentum. We considered, for example, that cliché of someone looking in the mirror in the first pages of a book as a way of establishing a character, focusing on obvious traits that pin that character down but somehow seem a bit flat or predictable as a depiction.

A conversation about a white lab coat concluded that we in fact need very little description to bring a character to life: the Principle of Sufficiency. We also discussed the importance of defining characters through their speech (dialogue, subtext) and their actions (their plottings) and their perceptions (point of view).

All the same, creating Character Files (and Setting Files) can be productive work in assembling our stories: building a mood board or a scrapbook, saving pics on Pinterest, taking walks in the personality of your character and seeing the world as they do, thinking about who and why and what and how and where and when they are. See, for example, the Character Questionnaire as well as a version of the popular Proust Questionnaire shared by Gotham Writers.

Below is a version of the questionnaire I created, along with other questions generously shared by Saturday’s class; I tasked them particularly on asking questions that probed characters’ miscellaneous particularities and oddities. Such prompts are intended as exercises for exploring your character’s depths and potential, but some of the writing that’s spurred may in fact lead its way into your book.

Give yourself an hour (a good chunk of time), and devote yourself to working through your answers to these questions for your character. Then come back and fill in the gaps you might not have answered immediately. And then do the questionnaire again for other characters. And so on … And do feel free to update at a later date, as your story shifts in its drafting.

Also: please feel free to add questions of your own in the Comments below. Thanks in advance!

Also thanks to everyone who came on Saturday, and made it such an enjoyable day. Our next workshop, Crafting Your Prose, is on Saturday 30 March at London Bridge Hive. There are just a couple of spaces left.

 

Character Questionnaire

Consider the following questions for your characters, not only in the context of their background and history, but also within the timeframe of your story – and beyond.

Outer world

  • What is your character’s name?
  • Does your character have other names, pseudonyms, or nicknames?
  • Describe their appearance: hair, eyes, height, weight, distinguishing features.
  • What is their state of health?
  • What is their family background? And current family?
  • What is their marital/romantic status?
  • What was their social class growing up? And during the course of the book?
  • What is their primary identity/category/type: occupation, gender, sexuality, class, age, religion, race, ethnicity, nationality, region, language, other? (Primary = defining the storyline.)
  • What are any secondary identities/categories that important in defining them?
  • How might your character contradict any types they belong to?
  • What is your character’s dramatic role or function in the story?
  • What problem does your character face within the story?
  • And what question does your character pose to the reader?

 

Inner world

  • What is your character’s personality type? (Outgoing, introvert, obsessive, laid back, etc.)
  • What does your character yearn for?
  • What secrets does your character keep, and from whom?
  • What are your characters’ flaws?
  • What mistakes or poor choices has your character made?
  • What risks has your character taken?
  • What wounds does your character carry?
  • What does your character fear?
  • What are your character’s phobias?
  • What are your character’s prejudices?
  • What are your character’s pathologies? Consider: OCD, anxiety, neurosis, narcissistic, sociopathic, mental health, gossipy, inability to take criticism, etc.
  • What are your character’s politics?
  • What makes your character angry?
  • What brings your character greatest happiness? And how easy is this?
  • What are your character’s passions?
  • What memories continue to shape your character? (Personal as well as cultural/collective.)

 

Misc. behaviours, habits, tastes, oddities (which often reflect both inner and outer worlds)

  • What are your character’s repeated actions? Routines? Tics? Mannerisms? Catchphrases?
  • Does your character have a pet?
  • What is the best gift your character ever received? Ever gave?
  • What direction is your character moving in?
  • What is your character’s favourite … food? … book? … hobbies? … sports? Etc.
  • What is your character’s spirit animal? Their nemesis animal (an animal that represents a character flaw or weakness, e.g., squirrel = scattered and a hoarder)?
  • How does your character sleep?
  • What does your character keep or dispose of when decluttering?

 

Additional questions from Words Away masterclass, 26 January 2019

  • In a stressful situation, would your character be most likely to (a) pray, (b) swear, (c) cry, (d) other?
  • What is their favourite holiday destination?
  • What smell takes your character back to being a child?
  • What is your character’s preferred mode of transport and why?
  • Any tattoos or piercings? What? Where? When? Why? Do they smoke/did they? What? Where? When? Why?
  • How does your character feel about kissing?
  • What is the biggest source of shame for your character and have they ever told anyone about it?
  • Is your character subconsciously trying to impress/gain respect/[insert motivation] their father or their mother? How does this cause/drive conflict in your story?
  • How does your character respond to an unexpected extravagant gift?
  • What action that your character has taken would they change, and what would they do instead?
  • Who was your character in his/her most recent former lifetime?
  • What does your character need/desire and what’s stopping her from getting it?
  • What is your character’s secret fantasy?
  • If your character was a song, which song would it be and why?
  • How does your character act when getting changed at a public swimming pool?
  • How does he/she relax? (I.e., what do they like to do for downtime?)
  • If your character had only two hours to live, who would they spend it with, where, and why?
  • [Insert your own questions below, and invite your friends for their questions too.]

 

 

Writing Experiment No. 66: Copyist

On Saturday I again taught my workshop Everyday Magic: The Four Elements of Writing. We started the day by introducing ourselves with a favourite book, telling the group how and why it’s left an impression on us. Much-loved books came up: The Underground Railroad, Cloudstreet, Ladder of Years, Station Eleven, My Name Is Lucy Barton, Home (twice!), Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, Palace Walk, Pride and Prejudice, A Song For Issy Bradley, This Is How You Lose Her, East of Eden, Tirra Lirra by the River, Finn Family Moomintroll.

What was evident was that all of these books had in some way evoked feeling for their readers: these books are loved. One writer talked about the book she chose simply leaving her in awe, and it’s often hard to sum up how and why the simple fact of words on a page have spun their magic.

As writers we have to read books critically as well as for pleasure, unpicking the workings of craft and identifying techniques that have, however invisibly, had an impact on the reader.

Such analysis usually requires the sort of critical thinking we might have done in a literature class, e.g., looking at the effects of word choice and sentence length on tone, or identifying actions that define a character, or finding symbols layered within the work. Francine Prose’s book Reading Like A Writer is a super guide in exactly that.

Much of my Everyday Magic workshops is, however, about not thinking about writing, i.e., not so much engaging our thinking gear (Air in the four elements), but also working with the energy (Fire), emotions (Water), or physicality (Earth) of writing in order to develop and expand our instincts and experiences as writers.

There are many ways to do this. A couple of methods that I often recommend (and that we did on Saturday) are reading a text aloud, and listening to it, e.g., listening to an audiobook, or to a writing partner reading some of your own work back to you. I’m also thinking of friends in Boulder who have a reading group where, rather than reading a book for discussion, the members gather simply to read books aloud in a group, taking it in turns to read sections or chapters. They’ve read large amounts of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf that way – and in both instances I can’t help but feel that reading aloud or listening are perhaps the ideal ways to experience certain writers.

In both instances, my old teacher Bobbie Louise Hawkins would say that the sheer acts of utterance and listening have a chemical effect on the body, and that affects how you write. The physical act of listening can slow us down and make us more thoughtful, more attentive. I certainly feel that being immersed in a good audiobook can shift my mood for the better. Reading and writing are, after all, physical acts too, so it’s worth paying attention to their somatic qualities.

This sets me thinking to another somatic exercise that I sometimes suggest: copying out text.

For this writing experiment:

* Find a memorable passage in a favourite book, and copy it out by hand on to the left hand page of a notebook – see my example of copying out ‘The Werewolf’ by Angela Carter above. When you reach the bottom of the page, continue it on the next left-hand page, until the scene is done. (Two or three pages should be fine.) As you are writing, pay attention: to word choices, to sentence length, to verbs, to punctuation, to the introduction of content, to beats within the action – but perhaps try not to think about this as you’re doing it. Just: pay attention through the physical act of copying.

* Then perhaps take things further by using the writing you’ve just copied out as a model for some writing of your own: on the right-hand pages of your notebook, write a passage that physically emulates the writing you have just copied out, roughly line by line. Write paragraphs and sentences of a similar length, e.g., using verbs in the same places as the original, adding description or dialogue where the original had description or dialogue, introducing new characters or aspects of content at similar points.

* You could also try copying this out using keyboard and screen – a different physical experience.

This is, of course, just an experiment, and I don’t necessary recommend writing a whole book this way … Not least, there might be the matter of plagiarism, though probably not if the content is different – there are ethics in acknowledging influences and models, but there are many shades of grey here too; lots of poetry uses found materials from other writing, after all.

Copying out writing is a known practice. Hunter S. Thompson apparently used to copy out The Great Gatsby and A Farewell to Arms so that he could understand what it felt like to write a masterpiece; his biographer describes it as an ‘unusual method for learning prose rhythm’. This exercise in the somatics of writing might be a good way of shifting gear in your writing process, letting you experience in a fresh way a book that has inspired you. Think of it as echoing as a writing practice, and an exercise in listening to your body.