It’s been a while since I posted (I had to pause to remember my login). I have been busy with other things. I did make time for a couple of fantastic outings this last week.

Last night I saw Edna O’Brien in conversation. She was warm, funny, and erudite, and without a shred of pretentiousness or preciousness. It was a profound evening, and despite a large audience intimate; it was well hosted by Alex Clark, too, who simply let her subject do the talking with a few choice prompts. Part of me wished I’d taken notes about the many things Edna touched upon, but maybe I just needed to be present, listening and soaking up the magic: attentive to those moments. But I do remember her talking about love, and the need for feeling in writing. And I also remember her describing writing – and reading – as enchantment. The spell of language.

I’m ashamed to say that I have never read a book by Edna O’Brien before, but on the other hand I now have many treats in store: more magic to come. Here’s a profile from the Guardian and here’s an interview from the Paris Review. And the new book sounds great. Much to look forward to. Thanks to Alice for bringing me along.

And then on Friday I went to the British Museum to see the exhibition Celts: Art and Identity. Thanks to Jenny for bringing me along. I can’t remember when I saw an exhibition so gorgeous, so respectfully provocative, and so intelligently assembled. It cuts through many of the clichés to present a more diverse and pluralistic view. Celtic art has long been a matter of give and take, of cultural exchange and fusion. I did not realise that the fine interlacing common to much Celtic art shows influence from both Germanic and Mediterranean traditions, for example. Several of the most striking finds on show came from the Thames – I shall no longer be able to cross the river from Waterloo without thinking of the Celts who went before.

And such treasures! They took me back to a time when I thought seriously about reading archaeology at university. We got to handle the goodies in the photo above (bronze is so dense!), and there were coins and flagons and bucket handles and hefty arm-rings and chariot linch-pins: the material objects that bear witness. We ogled torc after torc in gold and silver and bronze, spoilt for choice in picking our favourites. And maybe the highlight of many highlights was stepping up for a closer look at the strange beasts lining the remarkable Gundestrup cauldron from Denmark: were those creatures elephants and unicorns?

Celts also has an excellent catalogue that I’m already reading; this one won’t be left gathering dust on the coffee table. I’m particularly intrigued by the idea of Celtic art as a ‘technology of enchantment’ – ‘able to beguile and dazzle the uninitiated viewer through its highly skilled manufacture and complexity’.

Here we are again: learning the craft, making things, weaving spells.



Friday Writing Experiment No. 32: This Ordinary Magic


Yay! Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize for Literature!

This is good for lots of reasons. A much-loved winner of much-loved writing. A writer who brings out the stories in the everyday. In Dear Life, a memoir piece about her childhood, Munro describes going to play at a friend’s house after school. The friend she calls Diane dances a Highland fling with Alice, and:

Eventually, we got thirsty and her grandmother gave us a drink of water, but it was horrid water from a dug well, just like at school. I explained about the superior water we got from a drilled well at home, and the grandmother said, without taking any sort of offense, that she wished they had that, too.

And there’s more in the next few paragraphs – a prohibition that reveals something that feels petty and turns out to be very spiteful and probably very defining – but you’ll have to read the piece to find that.

Throughout her writing we find the little surprises of ordinary life, those turns into unexpected joy, or moments laced with violence or revelation or connection. Lots of questions are asked, no easy answers are given, and something lingers.

Something key is a quality of perception: of looking, and seeing, and listening. The young (or older?) Alice in the selection above registers that the grandmother took no offence, and realises that she might have been offensive. A harmless interaction, perhaps, but one filled with harm – and lessons in compassion. And an understanding of what happened in this scene maybe only comes years later, in the moment of writing. Something is conjured up here.

Much of Munro’s art lies in the symmetry and energy of her sentences; note how the clause ‘without taking any sort of offense’ is slid between commas in the middle of a sentence in that extract above. And her sentences often rely on simple but strong word choices. Even neglected parts of speech such as prepositions have their own special powers. At the start of her story ‘Walker Brothers Cowboy’: ‘We leave my mother sewing under the dining-room light, making clothes for me against the opening of school’ – maybe it’s a Canadianism I’m unaware of, but the use of that preposition ‘against’ opens up all manner of associations in my mind, and among other things makes me most alert to her language.

This prize is also a victory that reminds us of the wonders of the short story, the literary form of most of Munro’s published writing. ‘For years and years I thought that stories were just practice, till I got time to write a novel’, she says. Well, the short story is not second best, and let’s praise the Nobel judges for reminding us of that. But even if you are stuck on other forms, I do think many people writing, e.g., novels could gain important practice in the writing of fiction if they tackled some short stories along the way. And I also think that some short stories – by other people – do feel like practice too. So maybe we should also remember to write short stories for all the reasons they are so special. I repeat: the short story is not second best. (Here is one of my Friday Writing Experiments that grows out of some opining on that matter.)

If you’d like to enjoy some more of her stories, the New Yorker shares some here (but maybe skip the summaries, which can reveal too much). The New Yorker also shares some of the enthusiasm of other writers, as well as a nifty piece by one of her editors (though maybe skip the two longer extracts and the sentences just before them – those literary types and their fondness for spoilers). And (update on 13 October) the Paris Review also has a super interview in its ‘Art of …’ series. Paul McVeigh has gathered together many things Munro on his terrifically useful blog too, including audio clips, interviews, and stories.

‘Books seem to me to be magic, and I wanted to be part of the magic,’ Munro has said. For today’s writing experiment: write a piece in which you suffuse something very ordinary with something very magical. Not fantastical, not supernatural, but the magic of the ordinary. This ordinary magic could be observed in a place, a person, an object, or the view out of your window. Your form could be a story, or a poem, or memoir, or a paragraph of description or exchange of dialogue in a novel. And you probably want to be concrete and specific in what you behold.

I’m not sure how you’ll locate that magic, but let’s hope that the process of looking will help you find it.