Category: Inspirations

Characters Sparking Joy: Writing Experiment No. 71

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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 any 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.

Writing Experiment No. 65: An Archive Of Belonging

There are lots of theories about the number of stories there are: two, eight, twenty, sixty-four. But I have a hunch that most stories boil down to just one story, and that’s about the search for home.

I’m not sure quite when I decided on this. Maybe it was when I read Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, which at its end, after all the fuss and fatwas, is about people looking for home.

Which takes me to Rushdie’s brilliant essay, ‘Out of Kansas’, on The Wizard of Oz, which reminds us all that There’s no place like home.

Which takes me to all sorts of friends of Dorothy. The logical family that forms on Barbary Lane in Tales of the City. The home created by Sue and Maud in Fingersmith. Jeanette Winterson’s story of adoption in Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, and the even more extraordinary true story in Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal? The Moomins defending their home from comets or welcoming odd bods into the Moominhouse. When I was eight years old I was always drawing plans for my own Moominhouse. It had two verandahs.

The stranger in a strange land (the Durrells with their strawberry-pink, daffodil-yellow, and snow-white villas – which all had verandahs drawn by me too). Or: the stranger comes to town (Gatsby). A migration to a new home (My Antonia). Defending a homeland (Game of Thrones). And think of the grand narratives of the idea of home that infect public life today: ‘I want my country back,’ exclaimed the gammon-face on Question Time. Me too, love.

Even the story of someone staying in one place – say, Emma Bovary in provincial France, or Olive Kitteridge in her seaside town in Maine – can be a tale of building a home: maintaining it, facing your own reality, messing things up or holding things together. Recently, Amanda Berriman’s powerful novel Home is narrated by a homeless four-year-old who reminds us that home is not something we can take for granted.

In thinking about the idea of home, something else that comes to mind is the blog of Bhanu Kapil, where she talks about the experiences of coming from a migrant family and being a migrant herself. Please read this post, where Bhanu describes an astonishingly generous gesture made towards her family shortly after they arrived in London.

Lo: look at the light that shines out of that beautiful story. Bhanu calls this the first entry in an Archive of Belonging. In these fractious times of Brexit and Trump and school shootings, much public discourse bubbles over with rage and spite, and it’s too easy to dwell among the noises and disagreements and slurrings. So it’s lovely to read such a story of creation and celebration. It’s important, too. As Bhanu says: ‘This kindness and hospitality is somehow unimaginable in the era we have entered now, and yet, perhaps it is not.’

Home, belonging, security, the quest for wholeness, loving and being loved, acts of generosity and creation. I think of Ray Bradbury’s ‘Zen in the Art of Writing’, an inspirational essay on the work of the writer that concludes with ‘a new definition for Work‘: LOVE.

So: as a writing experiment, let yourself have a few moments of contemplation, and take yourself to a time when someone gave you something that made you feel that you BELONGED. Then write about that experience. It could be about someone else, if you prefer. It could be a true story, or it could be fictional. But fill it with people and places and telling details (such as Bhanu’s Aunty Catherine’s lily of the valley perfume). Fill it with LOVE as you CREATE something or some things that made you (or other people) feel at home.

Maybe creating entries in our own Archives of Belonging will make us kinder and more generous people too? The opposite of war isn’t peace, it’s creation, etc. (That’s from ‘La Vie Boheme’ in Rent – another story about creating home.)

Ongoing writing experiment: Continue to add to your Archive of Belonging.

Alternative exercise: Draw a plan of your own Moominhouse. (And don’t forget a library.)

And if you’d like to try some other writing: Writing Experiments.

Books of 2017

I read some good books this year. I also thought I had read a lot of books this year until I got a holiday round-robin from my auntie Ruth, who mentioned in passing the 188 books she’d read in 2017 (this was early December), including ones in the original Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, and French (she read some from German and Russian in translation, she said – though she speaks those languages, and another seven too). Not so pleased with myself now, am I?!

Some of the books I mention below as read in 2017 were published during this year, some were older ones that I finally got round to, some were rereads. Some books were overrated, overhyped, execrable. But my new year resolution is to try to be positive in the world (wishy-washy if well-meaning), so (for now at least) let’s leave it at that. There were plenty of books that lie unfinished, too – some not worth finishing, or perhaps I’m simply not ready for them yet. So many books!

Off the top of my head, two novels gave me most pleasure this year. One was The Green Road by Anne Enright. Among its many strengths, The Green Road has a structure I love – slabs of narrative that the reader is left to stitch together, and that cohere with force at the end. The characterisation is also disarming – these feel like real people, with all the points of affection or irritation you’d find in family members. You feel you are getting full lives, full stories here. I also loved the saltiness of the politics in this Anne Enright essay in the London Review of Books – potent, but not at all preachy.

The other novel I really loved was Days Without End by Sebastian Barry. I knew it was set during the American Civil War, but I didn’t know other things about it, and it surprised me to the end. Barry wears his research lightly, and his narrator’s voice is winning.

Increasingly I find the short story most consistently pleasurable as a literary form, and among many stories I read in 2017 two collections stick in my mind. Kanishk Tharoor’s Swimmer Among the Stars gave me elephants and emperors and explorers and spaceships – stories with real dash and imagination, unbounded by genre or categorisation. And Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Refugees gives us sharply drawn tales of migrants and families.

Arundhati Roy’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness was a big, baggy novel full of heart, and it was a pleasure to lose myself in it. And after that I read Zadie Smith’s Swing Time – another big novel with big themes that’s become my favourite among her books. A further summer read was one of Kent Haruf’s earlier novels The Ties That Bind – his stories of extraordinary ordinary lives in Colorado make him, for me, one of the great prose stylists. The North Water by Iain McGuire was a bloody tale of the whaling industry in the nineteenth century, and also an example of a novel that uses present tense most effectively (I have to collect examples of such things, given how often I tell people that using the past tense is probably easiest and most sensible in writing a novel).

A couple of books I loved for their strangeness. Set in the aftermath of the First World War, Xan Brooks’s The Clocks In The House All Tell Different Times takes something disturbing and makes something surprising out of it – an unflinching book. And Conor O’Callaghan’s Nothing On Earth has great mood and mystery.

Two works of nonfiction told powerful stories of gay history and current affairs: Cleve Jones’s When We Rise and Paul Flynn’s Good As You. I also gained much from Why Buddhism Is True by Ronald Wright and The Divided Brain and the Search for Meaning by Iain McGilchrist. The Best Minds of My Generation: A Literary History of the Beats is a collection of Allen Ginsberg’s lectures edited by Bill Morgan that took me back to Naropa, and it also made me think how much I enjoy the syllabus as a literary form (see also: Lynda Barry).

One of my most memorable book experiences of the year came from listening to the audiobook of Willa Cather’s My Antonia. I first read it over thirty years ago, and it was a real treat to have it read to me this time round, even if the playing fields of Twickenham, where I was often walking my dog at the time, lack the romance of the wide open spaces of Nebraska. What I particularly noticed is that it doesn’t really have a plot. It’s just very well observed. People are observed with heart, landscapes are observed with lyricism; everything changes, and everything stays the same – and there’s a point to that. I often recommend that writers listen to the audiobooks of favourites of their youth or childhood – I think we absorb a great deal when we soak up in this way a story that means so much to us. In the case of My Antonia, in fact, it had been so long that I had forgotten much of the story, though certain vivid images (a dead man in a freezing barn; a silhouette on the prairie) remained etched on my mind – or is it my heart? But I have always remembered the tone of the writing: warm, generous, wistful – a memorable experience of feeling in writing after most of the details were gone. The tone is perhaps even more alive in this audio version. (Much depends, of course, on the narrator chosen to read.)

Another great listening experience was the Mindful U podcast from my alma mater Naropa.

Coming in 2018 is Home by Amanda Berriman. What impresses me most of all: it uses not only the point of view but the voice of a four-year-old girl to tell the whole story. I know, I know – we don’t work with children or animals, but it’s wonderful when something so daring is so accomplished (plus: Watership Down – okay, books are not films in other ways too). What’s more, given its gritty subject matter, is that it has flashes of irony, even humour, dare I say. I know Mandy from various writing events, and know something of her application to learning the craft, so this makes this debut even more exciting – she deserves every success.

Another debut novelist I know professionally is Terri Fleming, whose Perception was published this year. It’s a sequel to Pride and Prejudice that focuses on the stories of Mary and Kitty, and it possesses real wit and economy, and some rich characterisation. I gave this as a gift to several Janeite friends during 2017, and everyone loved it. Some real raves.

I ended the year reading the diary bits of Alan Bennett’s Keeping On Keeping On and then Jeanette Winterson’s Christmas Days. Both have distinct voices, and both are uncompromising in their politics – sometimes directly, sometimes more subtly. Jeanette’s Christmas book was recommended to me after last Christmas, and I’m glad I saved it until this one. It’s charming.

I also reread Moominland Midwinter, and was very excited to see the Tove Jansson exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery.

Beyond books, the revival of Angels in America in June was magical! We saw it first time round, and we loved every bit of it this year: funny, fantastic, gutsy, fierce. The Angel in this version was not what I expected, but I very much liked.

I very much enjoyed seeing George Saunders talk about writing and read from his work (along with a troupe of performers at Goldsmith’s) this year; he is a funny and generous man. Words Away salons with Monica Ali and Tessa Hadley were other highlights among events, as was the Polari tenth-anniversary reading at the Southbank Centre.

On TV I loved Big Little Lies. Christmas was a bit thin on TV offerings, though I did love the hammy Crooked House on Channel 5, which I thought was more fun (less pretentious) than the recent BBC adaptations of Agatha Christie. No one chews scenery better than Glenn Close. And we did catch up on a lot of Larry David in December too.

So: put on the spot, I guess my books of 2017 were The Green Road, Days Without End, and My Antonia.

Happy New Year!