This fiction writer’s path: five things learned along the way

 

 

068

1) Swimming not drowning: there will be (many) false starts

I associate intending to be a writer with learning to swim. I was ten, in my last year of primary school, when I told Mr. Williams, my very Welsh head teacher, that I meant to be a writer. I said it with great certainty, and he listened in all seriousness. He was someone I trusted implicitly. He was also the person who taught me to swim, and to me, decades later, the way he did it still seems a little miracle.

There were several non-swimmers in the senior class and one day Mr. Williams decided to remedy this life-threatening deficiency. Once a week for several weeks he drove us to the swimming pool in the school minibus. He made no concession to the occasion and still wore his smart grey headmasterly suit. Looking back, he probably did this on purpose. It showed he meant business and we were not there to play. The suit’s material had a soft metallic sheen and probably went by the name of Tricel. It somehow had a part to play.

After a couple of trips to the pool I had fully grasped the mechanics of swimming, but was unwilling to give up my rubber ring. Mr. Williams, however, was determined. He told me to walk twenty paces into the pool’s shallow end. He told me to take off the rubber ring. Then standing at the pool’s edge, he squatted down so low that his trousers strained across his knees and shone like silver. His eyes levelled with mine as I stood there – in the water – shivering – without my protecting ring. He told me to swim but I kept standing and staring at his knees, feeling silly and helpless. Then suddenly out flew his arms in a welcoming embrace. ‘Come on,’ he cried. ‘Swim to me. YOU.CAN.DO.IT.’ And such was his look of unconditional expectation that I took to the water and swam.

And the point of this story? Becoming a writer/maker/artist means learning to  grow and nurture your inner Mr. Williams. Along the creative path there may be few external expressions of encouragement. But without the deep-down core of self-belief you will not have the resilience to stay the course, bear the disappointments, handle the rejection slips, or to toil and toil alone for the days, months and years it will take to learn your craft. All of which is not to discourage, but to say that you really have to want to do this.

2) Having formed your intention, do NOT wait for inspiration to strike: you can wait till the crack of doom

Of course learning to swim is not the same as being a good swimmer who can swim fifty lengths with ease and feel quite at home in the water. To become a skilled artisan of any kind, there is the long haul of apprenticeship, probably one that will never end. I, though, and like many would-be writers, went for years, carrying in my head the apparently foregone conclusion that one day inspiration would strike and I would begin to write my own stories instead of reading other people’s.

It rarely, if ever happens this way. Besides which, inspiration is only the starting point, the ‘ah-ha’ moment when your attention fixes on an overheard conversation, or collides with a character on a bus, or gets hooked on some bizarre news event that starts you asking the kind of questions that kick off the story-making process. Mostly, though, you need to seek it out. Because the fact is, even if you are not actually writing, you must be doing the internal work, mentally exploring the stories that you might one day tell, gathering material, keeping watch, feeding that tiny flame of an inkling that says ‘I do have a story to tell’. ‘I do have something important to say.’

Inspiration, then, does not arrive ‘out of blue’ or occur in a vacuum; it needs one, two or several things to rub together. You could say it’s a bit like the slow-going process of rubbing dry sticks together, and trialling likely bits of kindling to get a fire started. In that initial whoosh of a blaze taking hold all is very exciting, but it is only the start. Now the hard work really begins – keeping the fire going, finding suitable material that will burn well – fast or slowly or long enough to cook your dinner. In other words, flash-in-the-pan, quick-fire notions (inspiration) are the easy part. Thereafter comes the sourcing of materials, planning, construction and general project management. You can only truly learn how to do this by doing it. So how to begin?

3) Do not fall into the trap of thinking that reading other writers will drown out your own small voice before you even start: read, read, read…

As an adult, my writing work was largely academic: dissertations, reports, preparing educational materials in various museums. Somewhere along the line I stopped reading fiction; I feared that to do so would distract me from finding my own inspiration, my own voice, my own stories. I have met other beginner writers who said they did the same thing, and especially when it came to books that they thought might ‘compete’ with their own ideas. Yet not to read widely is another form of writer’s self-sabotage. Writers need to read anything and everything they can, and across all genres, and they need to read with attention and discernment. For instance, you can learn a huge amount about story construction by studying an infant’s picture book that contains only around 30 words (Pat Hutchins Rosie’s Walk).

In fact some of the best-crafted storytelling on the planet is for young people – and here I’m thinking of writers such as Richard Peck, Sharon Creech, Robert Cormier, Kate di Camillo, Geraldine McCaughrean, Philip Pullman, Jennifer Donnelly, David Almond. Reading good books with all senses attuned is akin to having mental conversations with other writers; far from swamping your own style/voice/subject matter, listening carefully to what they say and how they say it can help release your very own form of creative expression. This is not about copying ; it is about finding your own truthful response to other writers’ work. Writing a book or a story or a poem is not a contest with anyone else. It is your book, story, poem. Only you can write it. And if in doubt, think ‘Mr. Williams’. At some point you have to get in there and swim.

But of course, having joined the fray, then comes the endurance testing and training, the honing of skills, and goal setting.

4) Being a good writer is not the same as being a good storyteller

Some people are natural storytellers, and especially so when they come from families or cultures where oral storytelling is still practised. Even so, and no matter how you treat them later, it helps to learn the storytelling basics: the beginnings, middles and ends of a story, their possibilities, the ways to build tension and interest, how to manage revelation, crisis and resolution, what it takes to create believable worlds (real-life or science fiction), to breathe life into characters who will then ‘speak’ to readers, to make effective and affective use of language.

All these skills can be learned to some extent by much well-directed reading, including studying a few how-to-write books on the way. But taking out a subscription to a good creative writing magazine or attending a class are the more interactive and less lonely options. The disciplines of entering magazine contests or doing class exercises – reading others’ work with interest rather than envy, writing to deadlines, word counts and prescribed themes are all worth cultivating. They all build the kind of writing muscles you need to best deliver ‘the what’ of the creative process – the  story.

5) Writing fiction does not mean ‘making things up’; it is all about building convincing worlds.

This is something that is easily misunderstood, and it took me some time to grasp explicitly. Fiction reveals imagined worlds and their inhabitants in ways that are truthful in. Integrity and authenticity are key objectives. The setting may be a medieval Russian monastery, a London secondary school, or a planet with two suns, but it must ring true for the reader. Its special characteristics will add depth and texture to the narrative, but above all, they will be dynamic – informing, shaping, adding drama to the characters’ behaviour/situation/dilemmas. This requires considerable research and construction work by the writer, but with the caveat that, at the end of the process, only the writer ever needs to know all this stuff. The reader wants only the most telling details, the ones that, like literary hyperlinks, will take them straight into that special place and engage them wholeheartedly with the characters’ lives. (A fine example of this is Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall where she uses historical, social and political contexts to reveal the life and times of Thomas Cromwell.)

To achieve this level of ‘reality’ requires the writer to have strong reasons for telling a particular story. As I’ve said, creating a story from start to finish requires drive and stamina. Passion, pain, compassion and anger are great spurs, but their energy needs to be channelled judiciously. (No ranting or heavy-handed moralizing required and the writer’s self should keep well out of the way). The research part of the project may also demand a whole new reading schedule (encyclopaedias, atlases, internet content, telephone directories, newspapers etc) and, where possible, physically immersing yourself in the places where the story is set.

This is all about knowing your territory as an expert guide would know it. Only then can the alchemy begin. Or perhaps shape-shifting is a better analogy. Because this is one of the most important of all the things I have come to learn from the practise of being a writer: the writing must come from the inside out; writers must inhabit their character’s minds, shoes and underpants; whatever it takes to get inside their skin. For me, this usually means starting with the feet rather than the knickers department. When I wrote about a street girl called Jessicah, she was conjured by a ‘feeling’ in the balls of my feet as she tramped in thin-soled shoes through the African highlands. Years later I can still summon that particular sensation and know it is Jessicah, and start seeing the world again through her eyes. All of which is very strange when you think about it, and probably the reasons why most writers keep writing. For the final truth is that even well-published writers struggle to make a living from book sales alone. Writing then, first and foremost and anyway, has to be done for the love of the thing.

© 2014 Tish Farrell

 

Tish Farrell writes short fiction to entice unkeen teen readers to read in the Shades series at Ransom Publishing. She also writes for Heinemann Junior African Writers, Zimbabwe Publishing House and Phoenix Publishers East Africa. Her short story Flight came third in last year’s International Bath Short Story Award.

 

Writerly Reflections

Street-wise on Mombasa Beach

Mombasa Beach is as busy as any street, and like any downtown district anything can be traded there. In the margin between ocean and hinterland, people feel they can live outside accepted moral and  cultural bounds. Kikuyu boys may dress up as Maasai to cash in the ‘warrior’ cachet that is so attractive to European women; white women of a certain age think it OK to flaunt themselves on the sands with lovely young Kenyan boys whose real hope is to be adopted or sponsored through school; dope can be bought along with the kanga wraps and hand-carved giraffes. All, then, may not be quite what it seems in this Indian Ocean ‘paradise’.

003

002

005

006

004

012

013

010

 

Weekly Photo Challenge: Street Life

Looking inside ‘The House of Belonging’ with artist Sheilagh Jevons

House of Belonging detail i

I thought it was time I welcomed good friend and artist, Sheilagh Jevons, to this blog. She lives a few miles from me along Wenlock Edge, in the little village of Easthope. There, and in her studio not far away, she creates arresting work that explores the sense of belonging that people have with landscape.

From time to time she and I have involving conversations about the creative process – the stumbling blocks, the sources of inspiration, the way we work (or in my case, don’t work). A few weeks ago she came round for coffee. I wanted to ask her about a painting I had seen in her studio. I had thought it striking and mysterious, and wanted to know what she meant by it. Besides which, it is hard to resist the opportunity to grill an artist when you have one captured inside your house.

The image above is a small detail from a work called The House of Belonging. This figure has appeared in Sheilagh’s other works and represents women artists. Some of their names are written on the smock, artists perhaps not well known to the general public. Here she pays homage to their work, but also alludes to the fact that, overall, very little work by women artists is to be found in museums.

The writing of names and of repeated key-words and equations is characteristic of many of Sheilagh’s pieces. It was one of the things I was going to ask her about. But first, the painting.

 

 

House of Belonging ii

It is a large canvas, some 4 feet (120cm) square. The next photo gives a better sense of scale. Here it is hanging in Sheilagh’s studio:

Shelagh 003

I asked Sheilagh how the work began.

She told me that some years ago the idea of belonging had become very important to her. As she says on her website “Our ‘sense of belonging’ ripples out from our homes to our village, street, town, county, region and country and help to shape our identity…”

Key, then, to her work is a sense of connection to land and how that relationship defines us. This in turn has physical expression in community repositories, the places where we keep artefacts, our history, the knowledge of ancestors – all the familiar things we recognise and which tell us something of who we are. In other words, the museum, or as Sheilagh describes it: the house of belonging.

The script running down the left-hand margin of the painting in fact repeats over and over the words ‘the museum’, the house of belonging’. The repetition reflects the strong political stance of Sheilagh’s work. To me this is ‘the writing on the wall’, a statement of collective ownership; The House of Belonging staking a claim. Its contents are manifestations of how humans have interacted with their landscape and the place they call home. Sheilagh also says that adding text creates a certain texture; that the sense of a hand moving across the work creates a connection with her, its maker.

The wheeled blue structure, then, is the House of Belonging. The words written inside say ‘everybody’s knowledge’. This is written twice so there can be no mistake. It feels like something to stand up for, a rallying call. It is also important, Sheilagh says, that the House can move across the landscape to where the people are, rather than the other way round; this makes it more egalitarian. Inside the House are images and artefacts, symbols of creativity. Some of them are stereotypical of ‘heritage’ and therefore instantly recognisable. For instance, the chess pieces (centre left in the painting) are derived from the Scottish Isle of Lewis Chess Set in the British Museum. The set dates from AD 1150-1200 and suggests Norse influence or origins.

 

House of Belonging Detail ii

Sheilagh copied and simplified the images from a sales catalogue that specialises in heritage reproductions. The placing of the queen in the central position is also significant. She says she feels bound to redress an imbalance: the fact that in most of our media women only occupy centre stage when they are being commodified in some way.

And then there is the mathematical equation painted in red beneath the red tree, centre right of the painting.

100_5291

The presence of equations in Sheilagh’s works adds a further layer meaning for her, and although she doesn’t think it necessary to explain them, she is always very pleased when people recognise them.

This particular one refers to mathematical research by American academics in the 1920s called The Geometry of Paths. The appearance of equations in Sheilagh’s paintings also has more personal origins. She tells me she started to include them some years ago – after she had been helping her daughter revise for her Maths and Physics A’ level exams. It is another connection.

There are many more signifiers in the work: motifs that have links and resonance with Sheilagh’s other works. The red tree above the equation is a symbol of timelessness, indicating ‘forever’ in human terms. 

House of Belonging ii - Copy

The red arrow in the top right creates a sense of energy and direction; a ‘look what’s here’ sign. There is the sense of a force field, drawing people to the House of Belonging.

100_5294

Finally, we talked about the overall composition. Sheilagh says that she began the work some years ago after she noticed that a small building denoting ‘museum’ often appeared in her landscapes. This time she wanted it to have it as the main subject, and to make it both an enticing and a mysterious place. At this point she also created the friezes at the top and bottom of the picture, these in order to suggest other layers of reality behind the surface painting. The top frieze is the wider, timeless landscape of which the museum is also symbol. The bottom frieze is deliberately ambiguous and suggestive; it invites the viewer to consider what might lie behind.

House of Belonging ii

And having created the work’s essential structure, the painting was then abandoned. It was only some fifteen months later, when Sheilagh, looking for a large canvas to start another work, returned to it. She was fully intending to paint over it, but when she looked at it again she suddenly knew how to proceed and completed the work very swiftly. She says it probably is not quite finished, and suspects that something may still need to be added.

In the meantime she has been occupied with a large body of work relating to Scotland. Having strong Scottish roots herself she has been moved to explore that nation’s landscape against the backdrop of the upcoming referendum on Scottish independence. In the next photo, taken in her studio, Sheilagh explains the preparatory work she has done for a project inspired by a recent trip to St.Kilda in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides.

100_5094

 

For more about Sheilagh’s work and exhibitions please visit her website and blog:

Sheilagh Jevons Contemporary Artist website

Artist at the Mogg blog

 

100_5111

100_5110

Artist’s makings in Sheilagh Jevon’s studio

*

Frizz’s ‘L’ Challenge for more stories

© 2014 Tish Farrell

Reflections on Wolverhampton

IMG_0916 - Copy

Sometimes we rural Much Wenlock souls get to visit the city, our nearest one being Wolverhampton. A couple of Sundays ago we were lucky enough to have tickets to see the Tord Gustavsen Quartet at Wolverhampton University’s Arena Theatre (Jazz at the Arena). It was the final night of their British tour, and what a night it was – utterly captivating musicianship. You can see Peter Bacon’s review at The Jazz Breakfast.

En route to the concert, and to prepare  myself for some Nordic introspection and reflection, I thought I’d dabble in a little West Midlands Noir. I used my Canon Powershot A430, bought on Ebay for twenty quid, and then fiddled about on Windows Live  Photo Gallery. The shots were taken near the theatre and include St Peter’s Church and  other University of Wolverhampton buildings. While I was in the Arena bar I also happened to notice that it had a reflective ceiling.

IMG_0901

IMG_0912

IMG_0911

IMG_0907

IMG_0905

IMG_0914

IMG_0904

Weekly Photo Challenge: reflections

TORD GUSTAVSEN QUARTET: THE WELL

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_3A6ziUPbdk

Kudos to North Cambridge Family Opera and their upcoming show Rain Dance

 

 

image

Art by Brian Lies  (Copyright Brian Lies)

*

The North Cambridge Family Opera Company based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, has been working long and hard for their upcoming production of Rain Dance. This will be the US premier of the young people’s opera created by librettist, Donald Sturrock (official Roald Dahl biographer) and award-winning composer, Stuart Hancock. I am honoured to say that this wonderfully witty creation was inspired by one of my short stories, The Hare Who Would Not Be King, originally published in Spider, part of the Cricket Magazine Group in the US. Above is some of the artwork by children’s writer and illustrator, Brian Lies. I especially love Brian’s hats.

Rain Dance was originally commissioned for performance in 2010 by W11 Children’s Opera in London. As such, the cast comprised entirely young people from London schools. North Cambridge has a different approach, putting on shows that involve all family members – kids and adults together. And the reason I know they have all been working so very hard is because there is a PREVIEW of the performance on their website. If you click HERE you can not only download the score and read the synopsis, but hear an entire performance scene by scene. Please listen. You truly will not be disappointed. Stuart Hancock’s score is captivating, and Donald Sturrock’s libretto is very funny.  And it is all about failing rains and lion-style political corruption down at the waterhole  (based on an original Akamba traditional story). But if you live in MA and can make an actual performance, here are the details:

Home

Directed by David Bass and Kathy Lindsay
Choreography by Rachel Zimmerman

Performances:
Saturdays March 29 and April 5, at 3:00pm and 7:00pm
Sundays March 30 and April 6, at 1:00pm and 5:00pm
AT:
The Peabody School  (Directions, map, parking)
70 Rindge Avenue, Cambridge, MA 02140

 

Frizz’s challenge ‘tagged K’

Caught inside a Kikuyu garden: a memorial to Karen Blixen’s lover, Denys Finch Hatton

Denys Finch Hatton obelisk Ngong Hills

This was not supposed to happen. In fact you could say it adds insult to irony:  that a man so steadfastly dedicated to an unfettered life in the wilds should, in death, end up hemmed in, and so very domesticated within this small Kikuyu shamba. Yet here it is, the mournful stone obelisk, marking  the grave of Denys Finch Hatton,  son and heir of the 13th Earl of Winchilsea, Great White Hunter, and lover of two women far more famous than he is: writer Karen Blixen (Out of Africa) and aviator  and race horse trainer Beryl Markham (West with the Night). 

Finch Hatton's grave on the Ngong farm

Yet another woman, the one whose shamba this is, shows him a new kind of love, taking care of the garden around the obelisk.  If you want to visit the place it is not easy to find – either her little smallholding on the Ngong Hills, or the grave within. When we visited years ago we found only a hand-painted signpost nailed to a tree. We parked in a paddock outside the farmhouse door and were charged a few shillings. We could have bought a soda too, if we’d wanted. We could not see the grave though, and soon found that it was deliberately hidden from view by an enclosure of  old wooden doors. More irony here of course. More symbols of shut-in-ness. 

Denys spent most of his life in Africa avoiding any kind of confinement – out  in the Tsavo wilderness, running shooting safaris for the rich and aristocratic. His clients included the Prince of Wales (later Edward VIII) . In fact it was during the safaris for the Prince in 1928 and 1930 that Finch Hatton began to promote shooting on film rather than with a gun.

His lover, Karen (Tanne), Baroness von Finecke-Blixen lived in a small house below the Ngong Hills, some twelve miles outside Nairobi. By the time she started her affair with Denys she was divorced from her charming, but philandering husband, Bror, although they always remained friends. Her family had invested a great deal in the couple’s coffee farm, and Karen struggled to make a success of it. But the location was entirely wrong, and in the end she was forced to sell up and leave Kenya. It was during the period of selling the farm that she heard news of Denys’s death.

Scan-130429-0005

Looking towards the  Ngong Hills from inside the veranda at Karen Blixen’s house. The house now belongs to Kenya’s National Museums.

*

Scan-130429-0006

Denys Finch Hatton’s untimely end may be put down to his passion for flying. For those of you who remember Sydney Pollack’s 1985 film Out of Africa, some of the most elegiac moments of the film are when the celluloid version of Finch Hatton  (Robert Redford)  takes Karen Blixen (Meryl Streep)  into the skies above the Rift Valley.  Denys died in his Gypsy Moth in 1931, and in unexplained circumstances. He was taking off from the airstrip down in Voi in southern Kenya when his craft exploded. He and his Kikuyu co-pilot were killed. Denys was forty four.

Scan-130429-0018

View towards Nairobi from Denys Finch Hatton’s Grave, and overlooking another Kikuyu smallholding.

*

By the time of his death, his relationship with Karen was  well on the wane, and he had already started an affair with the younger Beryl Markham. His biographer,  Sara Wheeler says in Too Close to the Sun, that there is circumstantial evidence to suggest that Beryl was pregnant with Denys’s child, but that she then had an abortion. To have known this would have truly broken Karen Blixen’s heart: her letters show that she had longed to have a child with Denys.

With yet another twist of irony, it was with his death, that Karen somehow reclaimed him, remembering that he had told her of his wish to be buried in the Ngong Hills. The spot he had chosen was one that Karen had decided on for her own grave.

013

Denys Finch Hatton

Karen Blixen with her deerhound Dusk

012

There was a place in the hills, on the first ridge of the Game Reserve, that I…had pointed out to Denys as my future burial-place. In the evening, while we sat and looked at the hills from my house, he remarked that then he would like to be buried there himself as well. Since then, sometimes when we drove out in the hills, Denys had said: ‘Let us drive as far as our graves.’ Once when we were camped in the hills to look for buffalo, we had in the afternoon walked over to the slope to have a closer look. There was an infinitely great view from there; the light of the sunset we saw both Mount Kenya and Kilimanjaro. Denys had been eating an orange, lying in the grass, and had said that he would like to stay there.

Out of Africa

The obelisk was only put up later by Denys’s brother. During Karen’s last days in Kenya she had the site marked with white stones from her own garden, and as the grass grew up after the long rains, she and Farah, her Somali house steward, erected a pennant of white calico so she could see the spot from her house, some five miles away.

Sometime after she had returned to Denmark she received a letter with some strange news about the grave:

The Masai have reported to the District Commissioner at Ngong, that many times, at sunrise and sunset, they have seen lions on Finch Hatton’s grave in the the Hills. A lion and lioness have come there, and stood, or lain, on the grave for a long time…After you went away, the ground round the grave was levelled out, into a sort of big terrace. I suppose that the level place makes a good site for the lions, from there thy can have a view over the plain, the cattle and game on it.

Out of Africa

Scan-131109-0048 - Copy

copyright 2014 Tish Farrell

*

Tish Farrell is an award winning writer for young people. Her latest novella is on Amazon Kindle (5 star review):

Secrets, conspiracies, tragedy, dark comedy – a fast-paced novella of interwoven tales set somewhere in East Africa. For young adults and adults alike.

International Women’s Day 8 March

 

I posted a version of this last year, but here it is again…

image

Maasai women house builders. Photo: Creative Commons – Jerzy Strzelecki

 

*

I’m thinking of women whose life is immeasurably harder than mine. Could I, for instance, walk the Maasai woman’s barefoot daily trek across wild bush country, searching for firewood, fetching water, taking produce to market? Could I have reared children in the dung and wattle hut that I had built myself? Could I live obeying a husband’s commands even when I thought them wrong? What kind of bravery, tenacity and inner strength would I need to live this way, and to still live well? These days, things are slowly changing for Maasai women, not least because campaigners from their own communities are pressing for girls’ education, the end of genital mutilation and forced teen marriages. But for outsiders visiting the Mara it is all too easy to see only the grinding poverty and the reconstituted, fit-for-tourist shreds of former warrior glamour. But before jumping to too many conclusions about what is really going on, here is my version of a Maasai traditional story that sheds some light (literally) on their own views of the man-woman relationship.

 

And the moon still shines

Long ago Sun wanted a wife
so he married Moon and they made a pact,
to ply the sky in endless round,
Sun ahead, Moon behind.
And each month, tiring of the trek,
Sun carried Moon-Wife on his back.

But then one day they came to blows.
Moon crossed Sun and Sun lashed out,
beating his Moon-Wife black and blue.
Moon struck back. She slashed Sun’s brow.
He gouged her cheek, plucked out an eye.

Later Sun fumed: I’ll shine so hard
that none will ever see my scars.
While Moon tossed her head:
Why hide my wounds?
I still light up the night sky.

*  

text© 2014 Tish Farrell

*

image

Photo: Creative Commons www.flickr.com/photos/javic

 

Frizztext’s tagged ‘i’

Go here for more ‘i’ inspired stories