Lisbon Workshop (by Carolyn O’Connell) April 2019

Have you ever considered a workshop in an unknown venue with people you have never met?  I know it can be intimidating to lay bare your writing before strangers – readings and open mic is a part of that – but to travel to somewhere you have never visited before and share accommodation with writers who are unknown to you is an adventure both in travel and writing.

Earlier this year I embarked on such an adventure, a week in Lisbon.  I’d never visited Portugal before and knew nothing about Lisbon except from what a friend who had lived there told me.  I travelled alone as my fellow participants departed from Gatwick as they and the group leader lived in the south. The only person I knew was Ruth the course leader with whom I’d done a day workshop with before.

Arriving I took a taxi to the city passing villas, villages and into the heart of Lisbon. Deep in my case my presentation that was my first assignment for the week “The Presentation”. Ruth had informed me the first workshop would be to choose a Portuguese poet I was familiar with and give a fifteen minute presentation on their history and work –“help!” I knew nothing about the language let alone its poets or poetry. Scouring the net I looked for someone who was new and living for I felt I could relate to someone like this. The poet I’d chosen was Ana Lusia Amaral and the only translation of her work is “The Art of the Tiger”. It is a lifetime collection of this living poet’s work encompassing poems from her the start of her career to the present, covering the years of repression to the freedom of today. In addition to her fantastic poetry 16 books, translations she’s written plays, meta fiction, children’s stories. I found her work fascinating and would recommend this book to anyone.  The following is a taster of her work and my presentation.
I discovered that being born in 1956 in Lisbon; she grew up Leiça da Palmira and is just a bit younger than me which is another reason that she might be accessible. I discovered she is one of the country’s leading poets, a feminist who addresses, subverts and continues the traditions of her country’s poetry.

Four poems from “Escuro” 2014 are pertinent to the political landscape both of that regime and of today. All begin gently, almost like a tiger waking with no hint of what will happen. It opens to recall memories from her village childhood when sunlight, hope and death was absent and only the joy of light, hope runs through “The Purest Memories” but the second half opens

“Today, the newspapers on this sunless morning
speak of things so brutal
and so flagrant, like people without names, without light
of dead people who did not pass through life
but had their lives cut short the violence of standing
on this earth on others who have died
not remembered at all
. The quartet of “Europe” poems concludes with these bleak lines that hold the chalice of history
Europe sees nothing. She does not even have elbows
to hold up justice or goodness.
And even here, where she to look over here, she would see nothing,
only more screams, No voice. No south
No dazzling sphinx

.
The first book From Minha Senhora De Quȇ 1990 “Intertextualities” weaves a poem from the simplest occurrence and is one of the first examples that I bring to you.

Almost microscopic
a crumb left between the pages of a book
I happen to be reading.

Someone lent me the book
but not the crumb.
Shrouded in deepest mystery,
it made its first shy appearance
between two solemn paragraphs,
it tangled my thoughts,
broke the (already tenuous) thread of my reading.
Seductive, intriguing.

It made me consider the different levels to be read:
the subject of the book
and the crumb-subject of the reader.

(someone had consumed a sandwich in between consuming
those two paragraphs with their eyes:
turn the page, read two lines
the plot thickens, just when did he or she
get up to make a sandwich
before returning to the next few lines)

I was left with the crumb,
an unexpected gift from the reader,
but as a joke or a possible snack,
I left a crumb of my own,
not a water mark but a bread mark:
an alternative theme to be deciphered later
at a later reading
by someone else.

It is also a book where she talks to her daughter and paints the position of women in simple skilled words that show, yet hide the heartbreak of living up to and through the expectation of men and her country.

The Tiger appears in the third book A arte de ser tigre 2003

I feel that these poems are a metaphor for the unsaid, they hold a sense of pain being felt, endured, overcome throughout a lifetime of writing Fourteen poems take the tiger on a voyage of change where colour, light, stars, and the hint of the sphinx combined to draw me into a place where I felt that the tiger was “the cosmic being carrying loves that go beyond time”. (Aldo Mathais 1939) Are these short poems the core of her writing, her ability to disguise in simplicity the art

SECOND ART

Changing things back:
dreaming those stars
a pleiad
of winds
– and remembering

There are wound so cruel
so like low clouds
in a storm,
that the solution:
all devouring

Afterwards, what is left;
a little heap of sand
or a sliver of stone

(pretending to be light)

“E Todavia” the last book in this anthology gathers as the tiger’s kill: the beauty of light, greeting her days, reflecting on weaving poems with the gentle confidence of a master?

SMALL DOCUMENT

A living document
the table

Pulsating
inextricably
through the knots in the wood

Once
a living tree

Now just a frontier
between bread
and word:

It was fun to discover a new poet and introduce her to the group. The five of us were very different. Francesca had Italian background that reflected in her writing while Angela drew on her mother and home. Gillian came with her husband who was a great help both to her and us in negotiating the city.  Settled in flats in the old town it was a perfect space to discover and be inspired by Saramago whose house and heart are a mesmerizing experience.  This is one of the poems inspired by the workshops, this poet and my tribute to the city.

Below Your Home

In the afternoon heat a breeze
cooling body and soul we are
drinking coffee, orange
I am sitting writing,
above me the walls of your house rise
covered by studded breasts of the fertility goddess;
she looks down on us and the river,
below her the olive tree
whose roots encase your heart.

Carolyn O’Connell©

 

Pen Friends (by Shauna Leishman) March 2019

Last night, my newly six-year-old friend, who is fast becoming the most profound person I know, said to me “you want to know how it feels to write a book?  I can tell you what it feels like, writing a book“.   “Sure“, I said, having always skirted around the subject, writing here and there but never a book.  She had just exhibited her growing adeptness with words on a magic scribble pad, letters disappearing almost as fast as they were written in a careful, even script – “I am God” (meaning to say ‘good’), “I lik soop“, “I luv yoo“.   She says “Writing a book feels… Hot … sweaty … and annoying, yes, it’s annoying.”  My jaw dropped in wonder as I sense that she has nailed it once again.

I had just taken her to her weekly swim lesson where I’ve sat alone for over a year now, never chatting with other mothers or scrolling on my phone. Watching her frolic in the waves each week, watching her learning to navigate her beginning journey through life with a purity which takes my breath away.  She deals with loss, betrayal, mommy being mean, friendship ups and downs, sibling wars, love of her dolls and cat, and enjoyment of parks and beauty and music, just like anyone else.

Last week, sitting at poolside, my eyes fell on a beautiful skirt, unlike the usual gear of swim moms and dads, and with interesting boots underneath, on a new woman who I’d not seen before.  She was reading an orange – no, Tangerine – book. This being something I’ve been known to do (be seen in public reading a book), I asked her about the book and she eagerly started chatting with me and within maybe five sentences in, I mentioned being in a writing group and she told me she had written a book.  Impressed, I asked her about it and she showed me pictures of a children’s book with beautifully executed illustrations.  She said she was making more on her book, percentage wise, with self-publishing, than a well-known author she knows, who has a publisher and only makes 6% per book.   We had great fun chatting away, the children were completely ignored and the 30 minutes flew past in a flash.  This week, she brought me a copy of said book. Hardback, impressive, lots of writing, aimed at ages 4-8, and gave it to me inscribed.   Being a collector of beautiful, illustrated children’s books, I was delighted.   I invited her to go with me to my writer’s group that evening but she said she needed more warning, due to childcare issues and promised to try the following month.  And off I went, to finish my evening with that meeting which for me, has become a beacon of light in an increasingly mad world.

I read a newspaper daily, I Facebook, I encounter stories of travails on every side – health, financial, relationship breakdowns, untimely deaths – my 25-year-old daughter’s best friend is dying even at this moment and she is flying around the world to hopefully reach her before it’s too late for a goodbye.  I am jolted each week by some trauma in the news or in an encounter in my life.  Chaos rules, misunderstandings obfuscate, leadership is missing, technology runs everything, disintegrates or is hacked, constantly.  I dive into novels which takes me away – often into times and places that also seem to be a very difficult time to live in, where a murder or loss changes a life, even without technological complications (I love historical novels).  I make things with my hands, embroidery, knitting, cross stitching, sewing, while musing about life, meditating through the busy-ness of the hands while the mind is free and sometimes, listening to a podcast or the radio.  I watch TV and marvel at the stories and times shown there – the perfection of some series, turning away in revulsion from many, many more.   I’ve been going to a weekly writing group for some years – which has been running for at least 25 years – and have greatly enjoyed my time there but lately, since last summer, it seems to lurch from one distressing complication to another.  No longer is it a simple joy and every week, I wonder how much longer these lovely elderly ladies and one gentleman are going to be there.

I’ve curated my email inbox so that I rarely get spam or junk and mostly appreciate everything that comes through or quickly unsubscribe if I don’t.  I am sometimes distracted and don’t read the messages that come through from VRWG.  Recently had a laugh when, after neglecting to read the minutes of a meeting I’d missed, I discovered by chance, the dates of the regular First Monday of the Month meetings were being changed for a few months.  Upon inquiring of Marian, if what I was seeing was correct, she told me what the reason was and I thought about how all those who don’t read the messages, who missed that crucial informational meeting – were going to be caught out for a time. Last week, I read the minutes of a management meeting which was held the week before the regular meeting.  And was suddenly struck by a joyous revelation.  Which was further followed up in the March meeting, which was the annual AGM, which yes, admit it, can be tedious to get through at the best of times.  But everything in life, I’ve found, that is worth something, has those detail duties that must be done and so it is, so it is done.

In these times of darkness and confusions and sheer stupidities almost constantly demonstrated by those in charge – VRWG is anything but.  It is done right.  It is administered with wisdom and sensitivity and conscientiousness.  It is growing ever larger because it offers a moment of connection, a sanity, a community of like-minded people who have one thing in common; they like to write.  We all tap keyboards or scribble.  We all know that pleasure that comes of bringing images, thoughts, stories, plucked out of nowhere and somewhere and being made manifest into something to share, to enjoy. Some of us even know the hot, sweatiness of writing a book. I know I will find mental stimulation, humour, kindness, thoughtfulness, friendly greetings, connecting chats, and even when leaders are missing, it comes together, it is run and done right. People say my name. It is organized and works right. It is a joy. And I’ll be forever grateful for having it in my life.

Shauna Leishman, 12th March 2019

Write Your Own Book (by Les Green) February 2019 (Monkey Writing)

I haven’t written anything for ages. I haven’t felt inspired to write though. No new ideas, and no guilt about not doing it. I no longer feel like a phony because I know I’m not a writer, just somebody that writes. Until today at least, because I just decided that perhaps today should be the day when I write something.

So, blank piece of paper, here we are again, but this time it feels like you have the upper hand. Usually we get together and I dictate the conversation, and you never get a word in edgeways. This time though? Well, it seems like you have more to say than I do. In fact, I know that if I wasn’t typing a commentary the page would still be blank.

And now I ran out of steam. Bruce Springstein was on the radio and I finished this much writing before the end of the record. Usually Springstein goes on so much that the average writer (I don’t meet that standard yet) could write half a novel. If I wrote half a novel I’d work it out technically – how many full stops, commas, exclamations, question marks and etcetera’s, … etc.

And I’d do all those first so it felt like I was achieving something. A whole paragraph of commas followed by a paragraph of full stops, followed by a couple of lines of various other punctuation.

Oh, hang on a minute. I could write a book and call it a “Write Your Own Novel Kit”. I’ll provide all the things you need – the pages, a sufficient amount of punctuation, ample amounts of well presented, alphabetically stored letters of the … erm … alphabet – in both upper and lower cases. Some useful words or trigger phrases, based on the type of book you’re interested in writing (For example; if it’s a romantic novel I would provide phrases like “Put down your pipe and ravish me Clive” or “Alice rested her trembling hand on the leg of Pierre’s corduroy trousers”, you get the gist.)

I suppose I could just analyse a book and see how many times each letter of the alphabet is used, and group them all together in their own chapters. That means there would obviously be a minimum of 26 chapters – A to Z – and maybe a section that contains all the numbers (excluding page numbers, but these will also be provided and assigned in ascending numeric value, with a number per page. Probably at the bottom). And I could even provide half a dozen additional blank pages to put at the front and back like publishers do for reasons unbeknown to me – although it seems like a good method to pad out the book a bit if you normally struggle to get the pages into double figures like I do – you may be surprised to learn that my record output is a pitiful 16 pages (not 16 pages as in: most done in a single sitting, BUT the longest thing I ever wrote was 16 pages long). As you can tell, I usually run out of discipline before I run out of anything else. I write like a butterfly inspects the garden – flower by flower, and only when the weather’s right.

To stick with the gardening analogy; I’ll provide the landscaping and you provide the planting. In computer terms, I provide the hardware, and you provide the programming. Or in everyday writing terms; I provide the tools and you provide the talent and discipline. Which is more-or-less where I am when it comes to writing anyway these days. All the gear and no idea. I do have a rather splendid collection of empty moleskine notebooks though, so that’s nice.

So, if next Christmas somebody presents you with a nicely wrapped gift that looks like it might be a book, it might not be a book yet. But all it takes is a good idea, and 3 months of your life. But then again, who’s got time for that? Ooh, look, another flower …

 

Thoughts on Poetry by Carolyn O’Connell

Poetry was a feature in the November meeting as Ruth and I will both be reading in the Elevenses slot in the Cheshire Literature Festival and that, together with Liz and other poets reading in the meeting, led to a discussion of the type of poetry written and accepted today.

I am only a new member of the group having lived in Cheshire for just a year and therefore I hope you forgive anything that might be unhelpful or known to other members.  Let me introduce myself, I am a poet, writing in this form rather than any other. Why?  Well I’ve always been interested in writing but it was only when disability due to a back injury reared its head that I was able to find the opportunity to write. I don’t have the back for novels – the hours needed at a desk are too much.  In 1996 when I first got a poem published, poetry became my way of fulfilling my dream which was finally realized by a pamphlet published in 2002 and a collection in 2014.

I’ve worked with many groups from those in Disability Arts, Survivors Poetry, Solo Survivors, Lapidus, Camden & Lumen to Poetry Unplugged; Meetup Groups of local poets they are prevalent in London but could they migrate here? Rhythm & Muse, Poetry at 3, and Platform 1 at the Poetry Café, home of Poetry Society and together with the Poetry Library, Facebook, and The Poetry Kit reliable sources of information as to what’s happening, where  to submit  etc. Keep up with the magazines and find the ones that publish poetry you feel comfortable with but don’t be worried about trying a new one for they are always changing, some like Amaryllis, I am not a Silent Poet, The BeZine are only online as the cost of printed magazines rises Reach is one I submit to that is still printed.

Talking about online have a look at poetrypf.com it’s a showcase for you and your poetry. I’m a member and if you do, or more important don’t have a website it’s a window to an online presence and a way to promote you and your work. If you think it’s for you come and have a chat.

However life brought me to Cheshire and I’m finding new friends with you and in this “New Landscape” would welcome any company or help to access such opportunities here.  I am working with the Sandiway Library running a drop-in group on the 3rd Thursday of the month 11-12.30 – if you’re free please come.

When I started writing poetry I took a course at the Poetry School to discover what I needed to learn about how to write it!  Yes I knew the classics – the ones Mr. Gove knows- but I knew that I’d never be able to write like Shelly, Hopkins Elliot et.al and I wanted to know how to write as ME!  It was a 10 week 1 day one to one with Mimi Khalvati.  From her I re-learned the “rules” of the classic forms Ballads, Sonnets, Haiku, Villanelle, and Tertza Rima; I know it sounds hard but it was fun and might be available at the Poetry School on the online Campus where you can post poems or take a course from home if you’re tempted. ”!    Here I found a way to write where the words would come and when I wrote them I could see where the rhyme and rhythm fell – I was singing!  I also found it was OK to go to an open mic, get up and read, send poems out –not be afraid of rejection, being able to paper the walls with rejections was a mantra that’s helpful, and joined a poetry group.

Having learned the rules, I learned how to break them and here are a few notes from that course which I’m passing on:
The Caesura is the friend of the modern poet, together with internal and cross rhyme. They form a sort of grid where the rhythm comes almost unconsciously and then can be harnessed into form, whether traditional or free verse, to craft the finished poem; sometimes it forms of itself in that secret odd part of the brain it’s “inspiration” or “the found poem” that comes fully formed.

I learned these Tools:
* Enjambment or end stop gives significance or balance.
* Caesura has the effect of cutting a poem in half. It’s now used as a break in the flow of the sound within the line caused by a break within the meaning.
* End Stress and Front Stress – The rising and falling line.
* Using The Rhythms of Speech where accent and stress can lead to varied line lengths.
*These can be used within the traditional forms by the use of near-rhyme and stress group rhythm
and they can be used when writing and/or editing a first draft.
* Remember that you will always write your own poem but criticism, especially from someone you respect is helpful but remember it’s as valuable as saffron.
* Read and buy books by poets you know, admire and find.  You might find a new friend or inspiration.

This information together with the support of other writers and poets has been vital. I keep in touch with a lot of friends via Facebook, email (I am still a member of my London Group via this) and meet when I can.

I hope that these notes from my journey to becoming a member of the group gives you an insight to my writing and might be of some use to other members.

Carolyn O’Connell, November 2018

Pulp Friction (by Les Green) October 2018

During my last holiday (‘holiday’ as in a week off work, rather than a planned excursion to another place, often involving sunburn and sand in your underwear), I found that I had time to read again. It’s true that I have also recently cancelled my Sky subscription, and I’m sure this could also be a contributory factor, but rather than doing something else I chose to read.

The trouble with my reading material of choice is that it’s usually very eclectic, covering both fiction and non-fiction, and including all kinds of genres and styles. I say ‘choice’ in the sense that I select the book from the library shelf personally, but it’ll be based on a fine mathematical calculation that moves between points, from ‘yes I’ve heard of this one’ at one end, and ‘ooh, what a nice cover’ at the other. I don’t tend to settle on a single author, or stick resolutely to a series of books that should be read in a particular sequence, so I feel no pressing urgency to get my hands on the latest in the series of children’s wizard books (Harry or Gandalf), dilapidated detectives, Scandinavian noir or the masters of the macabre.

Quite often I find myself biting off much more than I can chew (cosmology, nanotechnology and operatic libretto for example) but I often take a second bite to make sure I was really biting as hard as I could last time. Then I go off and console myself with some comforting pulp fiction. Usually it’ll be absolute classics like Elmore Leonard (outstanding dialogue) or George Pelecanos (gritty, realistic 70s crime, cross-referenced with music from the period) but I don’t shy away from the authors people frown upon. Like Dan Brown for example.

I know he isn’t popular among some writers – especially those I actually know – but I think that comes down to whether you want to write popular books or “literature” (the Da Vinci Code sold 81 million copies by the way). During my holiday I read his latest (Origins), and even though it was a bit laughable in places, with a ramshackle plot, and it relied on the reader suspending disbelief a little too often, I kept turning the pages (over 500 of them, which is more than I did for some of the “classics”).

Given my previously illustrated opinions of Shakespeare, there will be those reading this that will assume that I’m wallowing in a form of inverted snobbery, but that wouldn’t be true. I’m just recognising that we don’t need to look down our snooty noses at people that write this kind of page turner. You can read it and decide you don’t like it – or even give up on it part way through if it isn’t gripping you, like I’ve done many, many times with many, many books – but to absolutely dismiss a writer that sold 81 million copies of a single book is a bit disrespectful. As much as I dislike the works of Shakespeare, I do acknowledge how important his work has been. I tried it but I don’t have to like it!

Another mega-popular writer with more than 100 million copies sold is James Patterson, but I was surprised to learn that he has “a stable of writers working for him” according to the Independent (December 2016), so if you buy a Patterson book, then you’re only really buying his name on a book not written by him (as with Robert Ludlum, who still producing Bourne books in his own name, many years after his death, written by a stable of writers), in much the same way the classic artists like Da Vinci did with their schools – which is a nice way of circling back to Dan Brown.

I can’t make you read it and I can’t make you like it, but I think you should at least respect it

David Varley, On Reflection (September 2018)

Driven by long-burning feelings of guilt, I finally surrendered to the inevitable and volunteered to do the blog. But what to do? What could I possibly put here?

I decided it was time to lay out some reflections from a not-terribly-new-anymore member of VRWG, and consider what the group means to me and how it’s affected my approach to writing. I’m not sure how long I’ve been a member, but I dimly recall two summer parties and (through the alcohol fog) two Christmas binges. Long enough, then, to be trusted with the sacred duties attendant on being the Hot Drinks Monitor™, but not long enough to have penetrated all the group’s mysteries (such as how Bob remembers everybody’s name, or how Bill never gets a round in despite having access to the VRWG riches).

I have always been a writer for as long as I can remember, but before joining VWRG it was a strictly solo endeavour. Fiction was like philately or masturbation: a shameful, secretive hobby to be practiced in the dark isolation of your mother’s basement. I cast around for a group while I lived up North, but despite rumours of such a collective in the promised lands across the wastes (to wit, Sunderland), I never did find one. I would work through all my daylight hours, retreating at night to the darkness of my study like a degenerate carrion-eater, chewing on my fiction like strips of old meat.

I wrote my first novel when I was fifteen, convinced that I was writing a classic that would be studied for centuries to come (the fact that it featured a samurai sword-wielding nun should have been a clue to me that I hadn’t written our generation’s Mill on the Floss).

My second novel was quite different. This time the nun had a machinegun.

I consider these juvenilia to be my ‘Dan Brown’ period. They exist now only on a single CD, which I occasionally dig out to remind myself that no matter how dissatisfied I might be with something I’ve just written, at least I haven’t plumbed the dreaded depths of the departure-lounge-paperback.

Then there’s poetry. I’ve written poems for far longer than I’ve written stories. Scratch some of the dull tarnish off my soul, and you’ll see it’s a poet under there. I’m a poet who just so happens to write stories every now and then.

Suffice it to say, I think my journey to being a tolerable poet has been a long one. I had my Wordsworth phase. Oh god, did I have my Wordsworth phase. For a time, every bloody poem was full of sunshine and flowers, banging on about how jolly wonderful Dame Nature and Her Ways were, and how nice it would be if everyone was just happy and content in the world. Then I had my T S Eliot phase, and banged on incessantly about how wonderful death and despair were, and how everyone should be unhappy and miserable all the time.

I like to think I now strike something of a middle ground.

So what has been the effect, then, of VRWG on my wildly fluctuating and occasionally short-circuiting muse?

Well, mainly, I now give many of my stories and poems titles in foreign languages, mostly to torment Marian.

But also, my output has skyrocketed. I feel like I need to produce something each month. Somehow, it has become the thing that validates me as a writer. The warm reception, the constructive feedback, the camaraderie – they’ve served to drag my secretive habit into the light of day, and to my surprise it has grown rather than perished by the exposure.

It is thanks to the prodding and encouragement of the members of VRWG that I am now a published writer (and yes, I am going to milk that one professional publication for all it’s damn well worth). It is thanks to VRWG that the prospect of an open mic and an expectant audience don’t terrify me quite as much as they used to.

It is thanks to the wonderful community of VRWG that, for the first time, I’m comfortable in describing myself as a ‘writer’.

George Orwell once wrote that nobody writes because they want to, they write because some terrible inner demon drives them to it. This is quite true, but now at least the terrible demon that tortures me has, in VRWG, acquired some much more wholesome, friendly and supportive inquisitors.

Long may their reign of terror loom over me.

Tonia (by Carolyn O’Connell)

You came into my life with a gentle touch
extending friendship to a stranger, supporting
me in a sable winter of new exploration;
you were inspiring, kind as an open snowdrop.

We planned adventures, as we became close,
expeditions with others to discover untried places
and new people who would let our voices ring.

We could talk, understand, for we walked the same paths,
you lent me a supportive arm on this unknown track
but you were further on the route.

No one knew that you had reached the Pike,
would step over in the darkness of the night.

I’ll hear your laugh, pace and words
stirring as I follow the trail alone,
with those who cherished you until
I reach that peak, step over
and know that unknown you.

 

Carolyn O’Connell

* Note: In this poem, the use of Pike refers to the Rivington Pike, one of the summits of Winter Hill marked by an ancient tower, and I imagine her spirit waiting for us beyond the climb and summit.

Our Friend Tonia (by Liz Leech)

I drove home from the meeting

Through a late evening sunset,

Blush pink in a sea of orange

That merged into that special

Clear blue of a hot summer nights’ sky

And thought of you,

Flitting through your garden

Touching this and that bloom

With a gentle caress of your hand.

You were not there tonight,

As we met and shared words

That tumbled and jostled

And vied for attention.

We will never hear again

That coy well enunciated brilliance

That you conjured up,

Well defined and honed

By your imagination.

You were not there, and yet

You will always be there

In step with us

Encouraging and urging us

Towards a higher level.

As you tripped through your garden,

You will tiptoe through our minds

Call us to book, and we

Will try just that little bit harder

To emulate that magic that was

Truly yours.

Kid’s Stuff (by Debbie Mitchell, June 2018)

When Wirral-based author and former teacher Jon Mayhew came to Northwich to host a Writing for Children and Young Adults workshop, he brought with him a collection of his notebooks, original manuscripts, ‘visual-maps’ of plots for stories, and a number of rejection letters from publishers. But he also brought THE letter. The golden one. It was written in 2009, from Bloomsbury publishing house, and it was a letter of acceptance for his Victorian Gothic novel, Mortlock. The letter also included a ‘let’s do lunch’ offer, to discuss matters. Ach, imagine that. A book deal. Lunch with an editor. The stuff of dreams.

Scroll on almost two decades later and Jon is an internationally acclaimed, award-winning author, with many more books under his belt. His children’s novels are still published the traditional way, by Bloomsbury, but he has also dipped his toe into the self-publishing waters with his books for adults, which he writes under a nom de plume. The best of both worlds, if you will.

I’ve attended a few workshops and talks by authors in my time, and I’m always in awe of how they actually find time to write. Jon is no exception. He regularly attends schools and libraries and such, to hold workshops. And he’s a Royal Literary Fund Writing Fellow at the University of Chester, offering his expertise to students and staff.

But on this particular afternoon in Winnington, Jon was offering his expertise to a group of 12 Northwich (and beyond) writers – all eager to learn more about the writing process, the tricks for creating a good children’s book, tips for unearthing ideas, how to read the market etc.

To get their ideas and creative juices flowing, Jon asked the participants of the workshop to remember what it was like being a child. To remember a time when they were embarrassed, left with a sense of injustice, laughed at something, or what memory evoked a strong emotional response. This helps to put the writer’s mind into the mind of their young protagonist. Jon set the group an exercise: to write a childhood memory in 200 words.

He then talked about how to create great characters, the importance of conflict, aspiration and wish-fulfilment in a story, the structure of it, and how to tap into that big well of ideas that exists out there.

Cull hidden histories, old traditions and sayings, myths, proverbs, and superstitions to use as a basis for a plot. Never be afraid to venture into the dark side, but always be mindful of the age of the readers. And don’t preach to them. If you have something to say, don’t say it, SHOW it. Allude to things, rather than explain.

In the six-hour session, Jon offered the group a wealth of information and tips and tricks of the trade (too much to mention here), all delivered in an authentic, energetic and engaging way.

It certainly gave the Northwich writers a lot of food for thought. And maybe sent them away dreaming of the day they receive their own golden letter.

 

Shakespeare and Beetroot (by Les Green)

Shakespeare was a master of the soundbite in an era where the requirement for it didn’t exist. Some of the quotes are excellent and I think they lend themselves well to inspirational posters or would look great on a tee shirt. It isn’t all witty parry and thrust though.

I never got along with Shakespeare, and I never understand other people’s enthusiasm for it either. In a way, I see it like a royal wedding because (a) there’s always room on BBC Breakfast for a feature, (b) there’s always someone trying to sell us an over-expensive decorative plate, and (c) there’s always somebody that feels they must educate me on the finer points, thinking I don’t understand the nuances of it all – implying I’m too thick or too Northern to “get” it. “You have to evaluate it in context with social opinions and politics of the time

Iambic pentameter” they say. I shrug. There’s no way I could care any less than I currently do about Iambic Pentameter. Oh, hang on, yes there is a way actually – if you decide you’re going to be the one that simply must explain it to me, that might do the trick.

Yes, I enjoy writing when the mood takes me, but that doesn’t mean I see Shakespeare as the patron saint of writing. It also doesn’t mean I enjoy knowing upfront that they all die in the end, because Quentin Tarantino does it with a much better soundtrack. The nearest I got to enjoying Shakespeare was the recent BBC comedy series ‘Upstart Crow’, (starring David Mitchell as Shakespeare, and well worth a look) because it cocked a snook at old Bill himself – and his output – and much funnier than any of the comedies penned by his nibs because it’s written by Ben Elton, so you won’t need a professor of English literature to point out where all the jokes are.

What I occasionally find incredibly baffling is when directors get it in their head that they need to shift the original play into a different time or setting. I can only assume that they too think old Bill got it completely wrong, but only they know how to fix it. I remember reading a few years ago about Henry V being re-set in a modern battle setting (the Gulf), and I heard recently on Radio 4 that there was a new Othello, in which the title character is played by/as a gay black woman. So what do we get next? Hamlet Meets Ghostbusters? Macbeth vs. Scooby Doo? Although in fairness the Sharks and the Jets did manage to stick a boot up the arse of Romeo and Juliet (they all die in the end). However, West Side Story had to be quite far removed from the actual Shakespearean version in order to become watchable. So much so, that I had to have it pointed out to me before I could acknowledge the relationship (only some of them die in the end in this version).

 

I remember a time when I thought it might be me, just like it was with red wine. I wanted to like red wine so I occasionally tried a glass now and then until I’d developed a taste for it. It worked so I tried it with olives, and I like them too now. Although it didn’t work with beetroot. And perhaps there’s the rub (deliberate ironic misquote). At school, I used to eat beetroot. I never liked it but I had a kind of tolerance to it so I could eat it without it being a totally hateful experience. The same could be said about my relationship with Shakespeare during the same period. Occasionally I would be presented with a bit of Bill, with not a lot of choice involved. It would be directed at me and I would accept it like I accepted most things at school – it was there to be tolerated. As an adult with free choice, I never touched beetroot after I left school. Why would I? I didn’t enjoy it, and nobody was making me eat it. Years later I thought I might like it by now so I tried it again and I still didn’t like it. Years later I tried it again but the dislike had turned to detestation. So, I asked myself the question; could I develop a taste for rambling Bill from Warwickshire, like I did for olives and red wine? Or would it end up like beetroot? I tried and tried but in the end, it was beetroot all over again so now I’ve finally given up on it. I never had to force myself to enjoy Michael Crichton or the Marx Brothers or beans on toast, so why don’t I just devote my remaining time on Earth to doing things that I like?

So that’s what I do now. The things I want to try again, I will keep having a go at until it becomes clear we have no future together (that’s right, I’m talking about you mister Gym Membership). And the things I used to try because other people think is a good idea for me, I now disregard if I don’t immediately like the idea of it, or see no emotional satisfaction in it (yep, Gym Membership falls into this category too) and I suggest you do the same.

Don’t get me wrong, if you get the opportunity, try some new foods and visit new places. Say hello to strangers and try to smile at ugly babies, but there may come a time when you find yourself noticing that everyone around you is commenting on how fine the King’s new clothes are, and you alone can see that he’s actually naked. Don’t be fooled into thinking he’s had a Gok Wan makeover though, because attending a Shakespeare play is like wearing shoes that are a size too small – they may have looked great, and it all seemed like a good idea when you were in the shop, but you get most pleasure from them when you finally take them off.

Which brings me to the reason for my rant… The forthcoming VRWG Summer cultural picnic is almost upon us, and the choices available to us fall into the obvious categories; Shakespeare or not Shakespeare? That is the question. Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of iambic pentameter? Or to take arms against a sea of troubles and opt for Oscar Wilde instead?

I can understand that you may be persuaded to try it one more time, because when it finally ends, at least you can say to people “Well I tried it, so you can stop trying to ram it down my throat now.” And if they persist, you can return the favour and invite them to something equally terrible and abhorrent “You really should come to one of my Nazi re-enactment tea and orgy afternoon soirees some time.” and when they decline the opportunity you can point out to them that they just don’t get the subtle nuances of it all, and explain that they need to understand the politics of the time and put it in context… And of course, nobody needs to die in the end. Unless that’s what you want? In that case, you need to see a Tarantino movie instead.