Archive | August, 2013

A rather unusual writer’s retreat

27 Aug


I’m writing this on my last night at a ‘study centre’, a sort of place for quiet reflection and that type of thing.  The reason I’ve ended up in a little place in the Midlands (Selly Oak, to be precise) is because I’ve been shocked at how easily I can come up with excuses to do anything but write.  I figured if I could send myself away with nothing but my laptop then I’d have to write.  So I started searching for writers retreats but most of the ones I found were far too expensive for my budget.  Also, I figured, I didn’t want to spend time around other writers, I just wanted to be quiet and get on with my own things. To be honest, I would have been happy with an all-inclusive in a shed but unfortunately those don’t exist. Really it didn’t matter where I was or with whom I was around as long as the atmosphere was conducive to creativity. 

Now here comes the weird bit.  The place I’m staying at is a Quaker study centre which is a very strange concept considering I’m an Atheist.  Firstly, I didn’t even know Quakers still existed; the only thing I knew about them was from brief mentions in old History lessons.  Apparently the Quakers aren’t so great at self promotion…But when I was able to research the place further, I realised it was perfect for my requirements. There’s a library, a desk in my room (there, I’ve taken a little photo of it, just because), ten acres of beautiful woodland and breakfast, lunch and dinner so I don’t have to worry about what to eat etc.  And that usually is a big worry for me, sadly… 


But I have definitely managed to write a lot more although today (my last day here), I did suffer from some kind of writing burnout as my brain is not used to writing non-stop all day long.  It got to the point today where I would literally read over what I had written and genuinely not be able to tell whether it was OK or utter drivel.  I think three days away is a good time if you’re writing – any longer and I think my mind would have spontaneously combusted but perhaps it would be different if you just came out looking to meditate and gain a different perspective on things. 

I had concerns beforehand that I might slowly start scratching the walls but there are always people around so you never really feel like you’re completely alone.  In the canteen, I’ve met people I would never normally meet and had some really meaningful conversations.  Although it’s a ‘Quaker study centre’, the actual building is used to hold various conferences and it prides itself on being a good place for people to stay whether you are religious or not.  

The test will be when I go home and read over what I have written with a fresh mind… but I’ve definitely done something I wouldn’t normally do so I can tick ‘stay in a Quaker centre’ off my bucket list…


My brain has decided to slowly melt into a pile of mush

23 Aug

…so I’ve been looking at pictures of pseudo-intellectual animals instead.



pseudo-intellectual cat

All I can say is that I am mighty glad it’s approaching the weekend, and a lovely long one at that.  I have been conscious of the fact that my writing has been appalling of late – either non-existent or just complete and utter tripe – but I’m going on a retreat thingymajig from Sunday until Wednesday where there is nothing to do but write.

Or stare at the walls and sink further into insanity.

Just finished reading…

21 Aug

Swimming Home by Deborah Levy


I’d never heard of Deborah Levy until I read an interview with her in the brilliant magazine, Mslexia.  Apparently, despite her writing in the 1990’s being highly acclaimed, she found it incredibly difficult to publish her most recent novel, ‘Swimming Home’ and ended up publishing it with And Other Stories, a small publishers that relies on subscribers to support their literary publications.  I was really intrigued by her story, how even someone who has received glowing reviews for her previous work should be rejected.  It serves to emphasise the sometimes cut-throat nature of publishing: it can be very hard to sell a standalone literary book to an industry that makes its big bucks from writers like JK Rowling, EL James etc.  This isn’t me being snobby by the way (perhaps a little with EL James) but I am a huge fan of JK Rowling but it is a lot harder for less commercial novelists to get their work out there.

Anyway, after reading about Levy, I really wanted to get my hands on a copy of ‘Swimming Home’ which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.  I don’t know if it’s a good thing to always read reviews of a book beforehand as the majority of reviews for this on Amazon and Goodreads were rather average, with some saying it was too slow moving and about nothing really in particular.  Despite my desire to stay unbiased, I was inevitably influenced by these reviews but I’m glad I persevered and bought myself a copy.

The story is about two couples that are holidaying with each other, staying in a villa in Nice.  There, they meet a quirky girl with a penchant of walking around naked and the course of the weekend takes a rather morbid turn.  The main couple consists of a husband and wife: Joe Jacobs (a famous poet) and Isabel (a war correspondent) with their fourteen year old daughter, Nina. The other couple, Laura and Mitchell, own a shop back in London which they have decided to close and the discrepancy between the couples is interesting; sometimes knowing someone for a long time is the only thing that holds a friendship together.

Kitty is rather enamoured with the former who is used to his literary groupies and often strays in his marriage (the local cafe owner calls him ‘arsehole poet’.)  Kitty has written a poem called ‘Swimming Home’ and wants Joe to read it which he does but at first denies because it leads to feelings that he has repressed for so long resurfacing with fatal consequences.

I loved Levy’s subtle characterisation and the way in which the characters developed throughout the course of the novel.  Her use of third-person and her sharp prose, ripe with symbolism and imagery while maintaining its minimalistic essence, hooked me from the start.

I thought the handling of relationships was exquisitely done and found the details of Isabel and Joe’s broken marriage incredibly moving.  Right at the beginning of the novel, you know something is going to happen, something awful and Levy plays on this suspense with descriptions of seemingly meaningless activities or objects.  The end was sad, sadder than I had anticipated because details of Joe’s past are revealed that seem to explain how he has come to be the person he was before he died.  Isabel’s reaction to finding Joe is moving – the initial cold image we have of her begins to melt.

Nina, their daughter, is essentially the person that has to cope with this tragedy and having coped with her mother’s detachment, she already has plenty of issues she is wrestling with.  She is distanced from her mother and to a lesser extent, her father.   I found her fascination with Kitty believable – Nina is fourteen, an adolescent with the long-legged body of a woman, and sees this girl coming into her life as free, beautiful and sad (she cries in front of Nina), unlike her mother and father who are just as sad but refuse to acknowledge it openly.  During the weekend, it is telling that when she starts her period for the first time, the first person she runs to is Kitty.  She also ends up kissing Claude so this weekend seems to be a real coming-of-age period for her.

I’ll be honest – at times, I found Kitty annoying and a little frustrating (just put some clothes on, girl!) but these were minor gripes as it must be incredibly challenging to accurately portray someone with mental health issues.  And regardless, the character of Kitty works incredibly well as the enigmatic catalyst for the final disintegration of the Jacobs family although the foundations were crumbling long before.

West Side Story at Sadler’s Wells

12 Aug

I’d heard great things about this particular production which is why I went to see it on Saturday, having never seen the musical before.  All I knew was that it was based on Romeo and Juliet which, I thought, couldn’t be a bad thing.  I guess I was wrong.


The choreography was great, stylistic with an urban feel.  The setting also added to the atmosphere and the dancing was professional and adept.  However, I don’t know if it’s just me and I’m cynicism personified but I really really REALLY disliked the main characters.  That was weird to me as I’d never actively disliked Romeo and Juliet and Tony and Maria in the play are pretty much the same characters but I honestly found myself wishing they’d just hurry up and meet their end.

The reasons being that their characters seemed utterly lifeless and bland.  Limp, insipid one-dimensional characters whose sentimental gushings made me cringe rather than contemplate the beauty of love.  When Maria finds out that Tony has shot her brother, she doesn’t honestly seem to give a crap.  I don’t know if this was because of the acting in the production or the actual script but she just goes along with things – a passive, reactive puppet.  Also, at one point her friend, Anita -the one female character that was near to being fully developed -(and brother’s girlfriend) is gangraped (a move into VERY dark territory) by the Jets and this seems to be completely passed by.  All Tony and Maria can give a crap about is themselves.  They don’t seem interested in anything else or at least even aware or panicked about the chaos that surrounds them.  Maria’s half-hearted pleas to Tony to prevent the rumble from taking place were about as believable as the plotline of 50 Shades of Grey; she had absolutely no conviction in anything.

On a purely technical level, Maria’s voice was garbled and very difficult to understand, especially when she sang.  Most of the time it was just lots of warbling and vibrato but I couldn’t actually distinguish the lyrics.  Tony was better, clearer in his singing style.  Although his character had slightly more pizazz than Maria’s, I still didn’t particularly take to him and found his romantic sensibilities irritating.

I have concluded then that a significant reason why I enjoyed Romeo and Juliet was the language that Shakespeare used.  To illustrate my point…:

Juliet says:

“When he shall die,
Take him and cut him out in little stars,
And he will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night
And pay no worship to the garish sun.”

whereas in West Side Story, Maria says:

‘I feel pretty, oh so pretty! I feel pretty, and witty, and gay!’

I mean, I get it.  It’s dialogue that’s right for the setting, the scene etc. but it’s not convincing, evocative or moving which it could have been, especially compared with Shakespeare’s language.

That and in the adaptations I have seen (Franco Zeffirelli’s and my favourite, Baz Luhrman’s), Juliet at least had a bit more attitude and charisma which made me empathise with her and Romeo (who admittedly, is a bit of a non-character but at least his declarations of love are lyrically beautiful).

General update on the adventures of an aspiring novelist

6 Aug

Again, I’m pretty sure these sorts of posts are more of a way to reassure myself than entertaining for others.

Recently, I hit a severe writer’s block.  I had got roughly halfway and I found myself at a complete standstill.  I would sit at my desk (or more likely, in my bed), willing myself to write anything but it was hopeless.  The few disjointed sentences I was able to produce were so appalling, they disheartened me more and frustrated, I pushed my laptop aside and stewed in my own melancholia.

I started doubting the storyline – was it actually convincing? interesting? worth reading? – and then I noticed all sorts of plotholes/ inconsistencies and felt unable to move on any further.  I started this draft back in January without a proper plan, just a rough idea of the protagonist, her dilemma and a general timeline of events.  And while I do think this organic approach has major benefits, mainly its spontaneity and the room it allows for characters to become fully alive, there is something to be said for a good plan.

I know some people are rather OCD on things like this and organise the notes of their notes etc.  But what has helped me immensely is a book by author and writing coach, Harry Bingham, ‘How to Write’.  I have read so many guides purporting to help you hone your writing skills but this is by far the best.  The title’s a little misleading insofar as it doesn’t tell you how to write – Bingham explicitly states that this isn’t a ‘creative writing’ book – but it gives you practical no-nonsense advice on what a good book (fiction or non-fiction) requires.  In fact, it’s so no-nonsense and matter of fact that I initially thought it was rather cynical.  However, Bingham obviously preempted that some readers may feel this and addressed his tone appropriately.  Plus, it was genuinely refreshing to read a book on writing that didn’t have the same old pieces of advice (buy a notebook, choose whether you want to write longhand or type it on a computer).. I learnt a lot.

One of the things I did learn actually helped to push me out of my weird I-hate-writing funk.  Bingham broke down Austen’s ‘Pride and Prejudice’ into chapters and described what happened in each chapter and how this moved the story forwards.  What was emphasised was the fact that MOTION (and not necessarily conflict) is KEY to writing a good novel.  He advises writers to summarise each chapter of their novel in two or three sentences and to test its soundness, you need to question whether it alters the protagonist’s relationship with their goal in any way?  If it does, great.  Your chapter is not simply drivel.  However, if it doesn’t, get rid of it.  Or hone it so it does reflect movement and a changing relationship between the protagonist and their objective.

Using Bingham’s advice, I was able to test the soundness of the chapters I had written already and create a structure for the second half of my book which has proved invaluable in eradicating my writer’s block.

An amazing book and I would recommend this, above all others, to be read by all aspiring writers everywhere.  For now I am pushing on and cannot wait until I finish my first draft.  My fingers are already itching to make edits and rewrite as appropriate…

Originality in science and the arts, a 2010 RLS lecture

3 Aug

I’ve only recently discovered the amazing back catalogue of literary lectures on the RSL website and the first that I have listened to is a talk from 2010, in which Ian McEwan discusses the idea of originality in the sciences and the arts.

I found it hugely thought-provoking; I had never really thought about the fact that originality which we have come to view as a prerequisite or in some cases, even synonymous with quality was not always the case.  Indeed, it is a relatively recent (as in 350 years or so) phenomenon.  Today, we praise a novel that we consider ‘new’ or ‘ambitious’, in some way different and original to the those before it.  But is everything ever really ‘original’?  Or is everything simply a result of past influences and existing structures, whether one is constrained by them or actively rebelling against them?  Here it is worth remembering Newton’s quote: If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.

McEwan was well-placed to talk about originality in science as many of his novels have taken science as a subject (Enduring Love was about a science writer; Saturday was about a brain surgeon and global warming was a central theme in his novel, Solar).  He introduced the topic of originality in science by detailing the relationship between Darwin and Wallace, both founders of the theory of natural selection, however it is clear Darwin is the most famous for this.  He has become synonymous with the theory and has gone down in history as a result – but should originality matter in science?  It seems like it shouldn’t as scientific discoveries are essentially finding out truths, more about the world in which we inhabit.  Would it have mattered if someone other than Newton had discovered the laws of gravity?  Objectively, it shouldn’t but there is a need in science, as in the arts, to mark things as one’s own.  Darwin is the name that goes down in history, the first one who is viewed as the thinker of original thought, not poor overlooked Wallace.

Scientific discoveries are all about progress and some would argue that in the arts, this is not the case.  However, McEwan argues that this is the case and each piece of art needs in some way to reveal something new, introduce new standards, ways of thinking.  Just imagine if the novel, a form made popular in the early nineteenth century, was available to Shakespeare – how different would his work be then?

Originality as a concept probably became more prevalent after the Romantic period which focused on the free expression of the artist.  A symptom, therefore, was probably the novel which often documented the feelings and expressions of a protagonist and focused on the individual.  Today, a cult of personality clearly exists with artists; many are revered for their talent and sometimes this interest in the individual overtakes interest in their art.  Past examples of this include artists like Picasso and Byron, whose private lives and characters have fascinated many.

However, in the past, this was not necessarily the case.  Shakespeare, for example, was admired but was not treated any differently for his genius and therefore we actually know very little about his life because no one felt the need to document it.  Bach, the eminent composer, was also treated normally whereas Chopin was a figure of awe and reverence.

It seems then that this quest for originality was not always so, and in some cases it seems rather redundant.  Striving for something that is unique in a world where we are inherently influenced and constrained in some cases by institutional values.  It seems plausible that it could be indicative of the more egotistic society in which we live where we view ourselves as people that can make a difference, despite our relative insignificance in the world.  I found this lecture fascinating and it made me question why I want to write- is it to be able to possess a work of art?  To prove myself as unique and special when I know I’m really not?  Perhaps I’m even influenced by a narcissistic desire to be revered and adored?  Very, very interesting and insightful stuff and still available to listen to on the RSL website.