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!

Books I Enjoyed Most In 2019

I read a lot of good books in 2019. I am never sure about the idea of Best Books, or giving them scores out of 5. I mean, who are we to judge, and sometimes good books are simply no fun. So I like to think in terms of the books I enjoyed most, and for whatever reason: the ones that got under my skin or touched my heart or tickled my fancy or lifted my spirits in some special way. In 2019, these were:

Ocean Vuong, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous 
Edward Carey, Little
Olga Tokarczuk, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones
Mathias Enard, Tell Them of Battles, Kings and Elephants, translated by Charlotte Mandel
Tatyana Tolstaya, Aetherial Worlds, translated by Anya Migdal
Sigrid Nunez, The Friend
Andrea Lawlor, Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl
Larry Mitchell, The Faggots and Their Friends Between Revolutions
Nora Ephron, Heartburn
Steve Brusatte, The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs, audio narration by Patrick Lawlor
Charles Dickens, David Copperfield, audio narration by Richard Armitage
Henry James, Portrait of a Lady, audio narration by Michael Page
Ursula Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness, audio narration by George Guidall
Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace, translated by Anthony Briggs

The stand-out has to be Ocean Vuong. Consider the sheer scale of the stories in On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous: stories of migration, stories of families, stories of trauma. A love story. A working-class story. The great Vietnam War novel we hadn’t read yet. And then there is his gorgeous and often mysterious prose! And he only learned how to read at age eleven! And he’s only thirty-one now! It was also a real treat to see him talk about his book at the Southbank in July too; he sang a hymn to us as well.

Olga Tokarczuk was another notable discovery, and I’m looking forward to exploring more of her work. Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead is quite something, gnarly and magical and surprising, if you’ve yet to have the pleasure.

I was reading Edward Carey’s Little this time last year, and I finished it early in 2019, and I knew I’d be writing about it today as one of my faves. This fictional life of Madame Tussaud is rich and immersive storytelling at its best.

Tell Them of Battles, Kings and Elephants is a gem of historical fiction that transported me to Constantinople in the sixteenth century. And it nearly beat Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead to best title of the year.

The Friend moved me immensely, and not just because of the dog; it just gets the tone right, and goes to show that obvious plotting isn’t everything (even for a reader who loves a juicy plot).

I vowed to read more sf and fantasy in 2019, but I didn’t. However, in a smug and thoroughly unexpected breakthrough I did read three and a half (and counting) monster works by dead white males that have been taunting me from my bookshelves for decades. For various reasons – mostly: too many books, and not doing English A level – I’ve been a latecomer to various classic authors. And I’m enjoying catching up. (Just remembered: I used the hashtag #deadwhitemales on Instagram, and it seemed to lead to me being unfollowed! Be gone, unimaginative followers, and while you’re there get some schooling in irony.)

Reading Tatyana Tolstaya’s salty stories set me towards finally embarking on War and Peace. Philip Hensher is right: it can be read in ten days! If you are on holiday, and not doing much else. And it really is a great novel, the great novel. Other than the epilogues (one dull, one disappointingly reactionary), I loved it. The Briggs translation was the one I read, but I did also dip into three others, as I love comparing different renditions into English. I guess I could learn Russian, but.

This was, in addition to the year of Ocean, the year of the audiobook. Not least, this was the way I finally cracked some of those omissions on my TBR shelves. I finally read (and loved) Portrait of a Lady (on the fifth or sixth try), and I finally understood the big-hearted and nutty brilliance of Charlies Dickens, in no small part because of the fantastic narration by Richard Armitage of David Copperfield, which bowled me over. Armitage gives the characters regional accents – the Micawbers are Brummies! And of course Dickens works so well when you’re listening to a talented performer. I feel set up for watching the forthcoming movie – and also excited for the colourblind casting that will for sure confound the unimaginative. (‘Racism is fundamentally a failure of the imagination’ – discuss. I hate binaries.)

The Left Hand of Darkness was a reread. I love rereading via a good audio narration. That trek across the snow! And just everything about this book, everything. Now I know again why I call it one of my favourites. And a terrible and crushing admission: this year I reread Wizard of Earthsea too, book form, and though there is much to love in the world-building I found the pacing a bit stodgy and the characterisation a bit dry. Maybe I should have tried the audio.

So: audiobooks are just wonderful. One has currently guided me 59 per cent of the way through Moby-Dick, which is about twice as much ground as I ever made on numerous attempts before. The narration, by William Hootkins, is very Ah-ha, me maties, and I feel confident I’ll finish it early next month. Shan’t I feel smug?! (Jury is still out on Melville’s masterpiece, though. I mean, on the one hand. But on the other. Check this space this time next year.)

Some lessons and virtue signalling: a good balance of men/women. A goodly number of works in translation. A number of indie presses. Could probably make a bit more effort with live hetero males as well as the dead white ones? Virago publishes good books. I like being taken elsewhere – other times, new places, fresh angles.

There are plenty of books I didn’t like or didn’t finish. Nowadays I tend to give up on books I’m not enjoying; life’s too short, etc. Others I might finish one day, if: time, mood. Hype certainly got in the way of others. A couple of sequels were disappointments. Perhaps this says something about me and sequels, or maybe it’s about publishers being publishers (that thing they have with more of the same).

Olive, Again was fine in the actual reading, but with hindsight it was pretty forgettable; I only read it last month, but I remember little other than the fact it depressed the fuck out of me. Which was also, I realised, how I had felt about Lucy Barton and its sequel (whose title I forget), which I read a couple of years ago. But how I had adored Olive Kitteridge! That book surprised me when I read it a few years ago, and it’s a book that withstands rereading. Yet despite this author’s command of craft and tone, somehow these others of her books lacked the wit of OK. They had, for me, an overriding grimness, and though I’m no pollyanna I’m getting too much of that in the news and on Twitter.

Find Me read like fan fiction written by the author. Which is fine, as why shouldn’t an author love their own work. But all those bisexual intergenerational relationships among the multilingual metropolitan culturati felt interchangeable and unbelievable and self-indulgent, and I ended up wishing I’d never read it. Find Me succeeded in the impossible by undermining the charm of Call Me By Your Name and my love for Out of Egypt. You can have too much of a good thing – I should have read another Henry James, shouldn’t I?

I decided to read The Testaments next year, after the hype has gone down and when I’m not so irked about the copout of the ‘unanimous’ (don’t believe it!) sharing out of the Booker Prize (ffs!). I’m very keen to read Bernardine Everisto’s Girl, Woman, Other and Hernan Diaz’s In the Distance, and I’m saving a few other books I had my eye on (ear out for?) in 2019 for audio reads. (Which take time! And dog walks.)

I am sure I have forgotten some other reads, including books on the craft of writing. I did find myself reading/rereading Natalie Goldberg and LOVING her more than ever. Oh, and Lynda Barry’s Making Comics! It’s missing from my photo above – but then again I have about ten pages left so perhaps I shall add to next year’s list. Everyone should read Lynda Barry, or just watch this. I also found Charlotte Wood’s Mind of One’s Own series of podcasts on writing really engaging.

On telly, I loved the second series of the adaptation of Big Little Lies until the last episode, which I really didn’t like, and then I read about the production and began to hater on it. Game of Thrones: the ending was just great by me, loved it, but I wish it had had a much better build-up, and I wish one actor had been treated like a grown-up and at least been given a glimmer of their character arc some seasons ago. And after giving up after watching the first three Witchers slack-jawed at clunky writing weighed down with info dumps, we’re now LOVING the new adaptation of Watchmen. My fave tv of the year though has to be the five series of Peaky Blinders. Dodgy Midlands accents aside (big caveat), it’s a cracking piece of drama, and it made me wonder if/who is writing big ballsy blockbuster novels in that mode nowadays.

I attended some good events (some certainly better than books they were promoting). I was very happy to attend Eleanor Anstruther’s launch for A Perfect Explanation. I also attended some super salons from Words Away. Another event that stood out was the series of panels organised one summer evening by Hachette Pride at a crowded Waterstones Piccadilly. Not least, they fit seventeen speakers into a couple of hours! It made me proud I used to work there in another century’s incarnation, and also pleased to see how far the world has come with LGBTQ+ rights and reading. I was particularly engaged by the panel with trans writing and writers; so much to take in. Let’s also pay heed to Patrick Gale’s warning about rights that were earned and rights can be taken away.

‘The opposite of war isn’t peace, it’s creation.’ That line, from ‘La Vie Bohème’ in the musical Rent, reminds me that in tough times we have to forge our own alternatives. One book whose playful and utopian impulse inspired me is Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl, whose author, Andrea Lawlor, teaches a class in utopian literature, which led me to the peculiar book The Faggots and Their Friends Between Revolutions, which is whimsical and hard to classify, but then the best things often are.

And I mustn’t forget Nora Ephron’s Heartburn, which was salve during tough moments when our dog was ill. Laughter is the best medicine (except for steroids, which saved his life).

So: this was Ocean’s year. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is one book I shall certainly be rereading on audio. And some more Dickens. And I can’t wait for the new novel by Garth Greenwell, or the memoir by Carmen Maria Machado, or Chuck Palahniuk’s book on writing.

Happy New Year! Off to watch more Watchmen.

Workshops for 2020: Food, Water Ways, Earth Works

In 2020 I’m continuing the ongoing series of new Four Elements workshops with Kellie Jackson of Words Away.

Four Elements workshops follow a holistic approach, using mindfulness techniques and placing a strong emphasis on play and experiment, while also addressing practical matters of craft and the business of publishing. Each day-long workshop considers the symbolic powers and perspectives of the elements: fire for the energy it creates, water for the feelings it evokes, earth for conjuring up the material world, and air for the way in which it structures the world and brings clarity to our thinking. We also discuss ways to balance all four elements in our writing, as required.

We held the first new workshop last month; in Finding Your Fire we paid particular attention to how the power of fire fuels our intention and charges up our voices, with one session devoted to crafting dialogue, which is perhaps one of the most striking ways to add a spark to our writing. We also looked at many ways in which fire appears in writing.

Writers sometimes overthink our work (too much time spent in our own company?!), and we all gain something from getting out of our own heads, and to do so it often helps to work with creative materials other than words. So we are also inviting guest gurus to lead sessions during each day – practitioners who bring in fresh (and elemental) perspectives from different fields in the arts. In the pic above, guest firestarter Kate Beales is showing us how techniques from theatre help summon up fiery energies to empower our writing. In other workshops we’ll gain insights from teachers or coaches from the worlds of illustration, dance, and poetry.

I usually circulate brief writing assignments as well as reading suggestions in advance, so that everyone comes prepared. And of course there is plenty of writing during the day, and afterwards too, as I provide writing prompts and resources, as well as follow-up notes with plenty of suggestions for further writing and reading. We also make time for brief meditations.

Our workshops are attended by published authors as well as beginning writers, and the spirit is engaged and collaborative; it’s good to observe community forming and writing partnerships developing.

If you are interested, below are the dates for the next workshops – my Forthcoming page also has more information, and you can find booking details via the links below:

* Saturday 8 February 2020, 9.45am-5pm Water Ways: A Four Elements Workshop on Feeling, Tone and Perspective – our guest wavemaker is artist and author Sally Kindberg

* Saturday 21 March 2020, 9.45am-5pm Earth Works: A Four Elements Workshop on Description and Action – our guest earthshaker is dancer and coach Claire Dale

* Saturday 16 May 2020, 9.45pm-5pm Writing On Air: A Four Elements Workshop on Structure, Form and Focus – our guest aeronaut is poet and performance artist Bhanu Kapil (more info and booking link to come)

* June 2020 (date to be confirmed), 9.45pm-5pm
The Four Elements of Editing (more info and booking link to come)

Also, on 26 January 2020, 2pm-5pm, I’m leading Writes at the Museum with Food – Bigger Than The Page, my rescheduled Sunday-afternoon workshop on food in writing at the Victoria & Albert Museum. Inspired by the V&A’s recent exhibition Food: Bigger Than The Plate, it will explore all sorts of ways in which we use food in writing. I might even wear a pinny.

Have a good holiday break – and I hope to see some of you in the new year. Let’s see 2020 as the beginning of something good – in our writing, in the world.

Syllabus for an Indie MA in Creative Writing 2019

In an earlier post I discussed how writers can assemble their own self-directed programme of studies: a DIY MA in creative writing.

Following further posts about that on Twitter last week, and inspired by my inner teacher as well as Lynda Barry’s wonderful book Syllabus, I’ve put together a syllabus for anyone who might want more specific guidance on what a good writing programme might need to include.

Follow this link for a PDF of the DIY MA in Creative Writing for 2019-2020 (version 1.3).

(This is very much a work-in-progress. As I tweak and add updates or corrections, I’m amend the date and version on the final page, just in case you too are a little obsessive about such things.)

A brief overview: it has four modules:

  • Craft Seminar
  • Writing Workshop
  • Manuscript Project
  • Professional Development Masterclass

I’ve chosen four textbooks that are in my experience the most helpful (and affordable – at current prices their total cost is less than £50):

  • Janet Burroway, Writing Fiction (tenth edition)
  • Constance Hale, Sin and Syntax
  • Stephen King, On Writing
  • Ursula Le Guin, Steering the Craft

The content is based on my own teaching in MA and MFA programmes as well as craft masterclasses and workshops I’ve taught such as the ones that I run with Words Away; it’s also informed by my intuition and experience from over thirty years of working as an editor and mentor.

This syllabus is never going to be a substitute for a classroom, physical or online, where you can speak and listen to a teacher and interact with other writers. But it does suggest readings and activities for anyone who wants to develop knowledge and skills not only of the craft of writing but also of the business of publishing.

One unit of five classes of the Craft Seminar, Styling Your Prose, is devoted to style, syntax, and grammar, which is something that doesn’t get much focused attention in most MA programmes I’ve investigated in the UK; these are the aspects of craft that really help a writer develop a stronger voice, and for me (and many readers and publishing professionals) voice is what defines a piece of writing. This unit is where I recommend reading (and rereading) Constance Hale’s excellent Sin and Syntax.

An important part of an MA is being part of a writing community and getting and giving feedback on writing, so it will be important to seek out writers who can help with this. On another occasion, and in collaboration with others, I hope to share more tangible suggestions for how writers can, e.g., find writing partners or create a writing group, and locate more specialised resources on genre. But for now, if you have any ideas on this or anything else that would be suitable for someone embarking on studies in writing, perhaps you could post them in a comment below?


A few tips for getting started

* Practise some (or even all) of your writing away from your masterpiece-in-waiting. Sometimes we put a great deal of investment in ideas for books, and this can get in the way of the actual process of learning. There can be greater freedom in using exercises and writing flash fiction or short stories; fresh and powerful things often emerge too. Spend some time developing the craft and your intuition as a writer – then tackle your novel. Your passion for a project will still be there.

* Develop writing as a regular practice. Julia Cameron recommends morning pages: three pages of freewriting. Natalie Goldberg gives lots of prompts for you to tackle in a notebook. Robert Olen Butler insists that you write every day to maintain the creative energy in your zone or dreamspace. Explore for yourself; find what works for you, but – as with any craft – regular practice will make writing come more easily.

* Write in short spurts. Timed writings of ten minutes using prompts can generate a lot of material. You might want to edit it later, and you might not even want to use any of these words – but good stuff often surfaces in these short bursts of writing, particularly, e.g., in the last minute of a ten-minute write. And then you can take this good stuff and make even greater stuff with it later.


PS and while I’m here: if you are interested in an in-person workshop, we still have spaces in the Everyday Magic workshop I am running with Words Away on Saturday 28 September. Using the idea of the Four Elements, it looks at craft and creativity through the lens of Fire, Water, Earth, and Air. It’s a day full of reading and writing and listening and talking that, I hope, brings fresh perspectives on writing and new inspirations for writers.