Did The Earth Move For Me? Not Blooming Likely. More A Case Of DIY

All right I confess. I’m a fraud. I call myself a writer, but in reality I move soil.  Year in and year out I move soil. It has become my lot in life – not only on the home front with The Man In My House  Who Keeps Having Ground Moving Notions, but also on my own time up at the allotment. How did this happen? Was this the plan I had for myself?

This time last year we were busy shifting ten tons of gunky green Silurian clay and the junk of builders past, removing a huge and hideous waist-high flower bed outside our back door. We had lived with it for ten years, but finally it had to go. Ground Moving Man, then became Wall and Steps Building Man – using traditional mortar and the old bricks and limestone lying around to place to build a much neater, narrower raised border, and safer steps to the top of the garden. (Our cottage is built into a  bank).  The effort was as momentous, as it was cunning. The Wall and Step Builder had devised a way of dismantling the old steps in tandem with building the new ones so that we always had access to the upper quarters of our small domain, and thence my path to the allotment. Hats off to you, sir!

Here are views of the work as it proceeded.

A wintery before:

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During the synchronised step demolition and rebuilding (pretty good work for a retired plant pathologist):

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After – a bit heavy on the limestone perhaps, but we had it on site, which is always a bonus when you live on a road where deliveries can be tricky:

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Most of the clay spoil and erstwhile builders’ rubble that had been hidden behind the steps and in the bed was barrowed round the front of the house and tipped into a Hippo Bag. This natty item is sent through the post in return for some loot. You fill it with 1.5 tonnes of stuff, and then a truck comes and cranes it away. Ideal for people who live on a busy main road, and have no room for a big skip. We had several of these handy mega bags.

Meanwhile up at the allotment I was dismantling a forty-year old allotmenteers’ spoil heap the size of Everest, and using the substance, which only vaguely resembled compost, to make new raised beds and terraces on my polytunnel plot.  I shifted probably sixty barrow loads, and all with the aim of creating (ultimately) a NO DIG gardening system. I know this may sound mad.

The year before I had started clearing the plot by slicing off the neglected, weed-choked surface and piling the turves into pallet bins in the hopes that one day they would decompose into something usable. This was in no way compatible with the principles of NO DIG, but was my quick and dirty method of checking the buttercup, couch grass, and dandelion infestation. After learning the error of my ways early last spring, I gave it up for covering the remaining uncleared ground in layers of cardboard, and tipping a good six inches of spoil heap soil on the top. He Who Builds Walls and Steps then knocked up a few raised beds. (Those of you who come here often will know all this.)

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This year I find that ants have been busy in the horrid heap of weedy turves, and the ensuing soil is usable, so am now repatriating it to the areas whence I cleared it two years earlier. So good on the ants, but more earth moving required.

Meanwhile, the notions of NO DIG, also require the seasonal application of deep layers of compost to the surface of all beds. The only problem with this is making enough compost. You need tons and tons. However, last autumn I made an effort and amassed material in bins and heaps all over my two plots – wherever there was space in fact. And now these need digging out, or at least turning.

NO DIG, it seems, does not mean the end of wielding forks and spades – not by a long chalk. So there we have it – ‘my days’ career’ as a young Kenyan farm wife once described to me her life of endlessly hauling things about.

And back on the home front  this year we have already dug up the front lawn and replanted the bank beside the road. And we have dug up the back lawn and moved more soil so He Who Builds can now branch out into shed construction, though we did at least have two strong young men come and lay the paved concrete slab from which said edifice will arise. I am told it will have a curved roof.

The arrival of the shed will next dictate the remodelling of the back garden flower beds. All of which makes  me feel as if my  life is founded on shifting ground; the strata beneath my feet in perpetual motion and always needing to be somewhere else, and in some other shape. Perhaps one day all the earth in my vicinity will be in the places where we actually want it – no more moving required. Then perhaps I can give up the fraudulent writer posture and finish off a book or two; return to mental heaving and lugging, re-shaping and visualising, create the content and structure exactly as I want it – and all this without heft of spade or putting on my wellies. Perhaps…

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copyright 2017 Tish Farrell

Who Has Lost This Small Pure Heart?

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It is tear-stained too. Fallen on the field path among the pignut flowers, a plant also known as Earth Chestnut, because its tubers were once grubbed up and relished by country children.  And as for the heart? Eglantine. Sweet Briar. Dog Rose. Rosa canina.

If this image inspires anyone to a bit of storytelling in whatever form, and short as you like; then leave a link here so I can read it. I won’t be back in blog world until Saturday, so no rush.

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It’s in the stones: messages from alien ancestors?

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I discovered these rocks on Seaton Beach when were down in Cornwall at Christmas. My attempts to find some sensible information about the geology have so far proved fruitless. So I’m just going with my initial interpretation – that here we have a mythic precursor to runic script left by some race of Northern Giants.

But what are they telling us? Have they left us instructions on how to find a parallel universe? Or could these be warnings to mankind to take better care of the earth? Or maybe they are the crossings-out of an infant Northern Giant learning to write. Can anyone out there crack the code before the rising sea levels claim them?

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This my response to Meg’s ‘calligraphy’ challenge. She is Paula’s guest at this week’s Thursday’s Special.

The Writer’s Season: A Pursuit Of Active Dormancy

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NOTE TO SELF:

There is a time when it is all right for writers not to write. I’ll say this again so I’ll remember. There is a time when it is all right for writers not to write. It is time of preparation, and very much like putting over-cropped ground down to grass so the soil can regenerate. A time of fallowness then, but not of time wasting.

Before the real work can begin, there must be input, a drawing down of resources (like a tree in winter) – reading, researching and general planning.  And when I say ‘not writing’ I don’t mean give up on the writing practice – the brainstorming-stream-of-consciousness splurge, the morning pages, verbal doodling, keeping diaries. In fact do more. These are the equivalent of a musician practicing scales, or a dancer taking the exercise classes before working on a performance. This kind of practice strengthens fluency and, if you’re lucky, opens pathways to your subconscious thinking. It is all part of making ready for creating new work. None of this is for public consumption.

Yet doing sufficient groundwork is probably what most of us balk at. We have been fed with the notion that the best creation only comes in a white-hot blast of inspirational outpouring. We wait for it to happen. And it may never happen. More likely as not, such an approach will become a self-fulfilling blockage prophecy.

Then we may we tell ourselves the lie that if we are not busy producing words for the work in progress, then we cannot call ourselves writers. This may prompt us to start a work too soon simply to convince ourselves that we are being productive. Too often this will also end in confusion, blockage and despondency.

Only when we know our subject in our hidden depths, down in our roots and under the bark, can we best deploy our conveyances (our words) to bring it to the outer world. And I don’t mean ‘know’ in every last detail. Or not exactly. I have in mind Michael Morpurgo’s way. This well known English children’s writer is also a farmer. When he is thinking about a new book, he tells himself the story over and over until he dreams about it. Then he goes out in the early morning among his sheep and tells them the story. Only when he feels it is going down well with the ovine audience does he begin the act of serious writing. In this way he has proposed, explored, processed and internalized a narrative before he has written a word.

What emerges is more likely to be a  work that has intrinsic authenticity and consistency, as opposed to a narrative that has been imposed by the writer from outside, and often feels weak and poorly rooted.

So what do we need? Preparation, preparation, preparation.

But not too much either. I’m suddenly thinking of Edward Casaubon in George Eliot’s Middlemarch, he who ended up so obsessed with his researches that he left no time to write the book.  So a balance in all things. The knack, of course, is to recognize tipping point.

copyright 2016 Tish Farrell

Seasons

 

On reflection: can there be too much of it?

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Writers are past masters of diversionary tactics. This particular writer spends a considerable amount of avoiding the work in progress. She is not sure why. But staring out of the window is definitely a popular pastime. On the other hand, who wouldn’t want to stare at a sky like this, the sun going down behind Wenlock Edge.

Then I discovered something really neat as I was trying to snap it. My office has a cabin bed in the corner under the roof light. So I clambered on the bed, and opened the window to the horizontal to give myself a makeshift ‘tripod’. I then set the Lumix to sunset mode and rested it on the back of the window. And this is what happened.

Who’d’ve thought avoiding writing could be this much fun. But there’s a lesson here too. Sometimes we overthink the pieces we are working on. Sometimes we need to loosen up and play. And ask questions. Definitely ask questions. E.g. What would happen if I let my characters think for themselves, and stopped trying to control them? What if I let them go play? What might they not come with? Something magical, diverting, extraordinary? Do I have the nerve to let them go?

copyright 2016 Tish Farrell

Thursday’s Special: Organized Noise

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This week Paula’s guest at Lost in Translation is Tobias  M. Schiel. He has set us a challenging challenge entitled Organized Noise. I think I have the gist of it – and this is my take on what he says (so if I’ve got it all upside down and backwards, Tobias, please tell me) – that you can use the camera’s eye to frame everyday  ‘stuff’ and ‘clutter’ that of themselves do not have aesthetic appeal. In other words, the photograph itself endows the scene with creative interest and possibility through framing, focus and cropping. It thus exposes something intrinsically or extrinsically fascinating in a context that we might otherwise screen out as uninteresting or unworthy of particular notice. As Tobias says, this is more likely to work in the abstract.

So I’m  not sure that this photo of a stricken pine on Cornwall’s Seaton beach quite fits the bill. But I’m posting it because the scene as a whole caught my attention. The tree had been blown off the cliff.  The way it was lying suggested to me a crash-landed dragon, the peeled trunk in the foreground its snout and eye.  But with a more abstract eye, the main thing that struck me about this pile of beach debris was the vivid range of colours – materials natural and unnatural.

Maybe this next shot is a better example? – a close up of some of Seaton’s amazing geology:

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In his explanation, Tobias says that this approach is used in musical composition, but as a writer I can see that this photographic version is also a visual analog for what the best creative writing does: that is, it takes a scene, or a detail of it, something that others might miss altogether were it not for the affecting way in which the writer chooses to delineate it, often mixing heightened reality with metaphorical abstraction.

Thanks to Paula and Tobias for hosting this fascinating challenge.

copyright 2016 Tish Farrell

This Writer’s Path In Black & White? Or Search For The Lost Portal?

 

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This image could be symbolic. You see the real problem is my mind keeps leaping ahead. Already it knows what is waiting for it beyond that distant obelisk. There is the final scene: redemption for a lost, old soul; rain falling in a rainless land. There is even the final sentence. The last full stop. I can see them all. But then, curiously perhaps, the mind’s-eye place that I rush towards is nothing like the place in the photograph – this rain-logged Cornish avenue of cropped limes. How could it be? My body may live in England now, but my mind still wanders in Africa where it endlessly struggles to create.

The yarn (aka the novel) that’s been churning in my head for countless months (years maybe) has its source in the thorny, arid plains of East Africa. And if ever it rains there, it smells nothing like the rain in temperate lands. In Africa you know your life depends on it – the fickle falling of rain. In England you simply expect it while grumbling at forever getting wet. This is one manifestation of the great divide between the famished and the over-fed.

And yet…

And yet there is congruence here.

When I discover the avenue at Christmas I am instantly fascinated. It’s like coming upon a lost garden, or some ancient megalith. I want to know where the path leads: simply to the obelisk, or is there something more beyond? The avenue itself, with its period formality, anyway evokes expectation of some pleasing and diverting progress along it.

But it isn’t the time for promenading. The weather is so gloomy and wet the avenue is almost too dark to photograph, let alone walk along. But still I return several times more, and pick my way back and forth among the trees, noting the clumps of daffodils and crocus, sprouting densely among the roots. I even patrol the grassy bank beside it, trying to grasp the avenue’s measure and meaning. Is it simply some vanity-planting by long-ago denizens of the small manor house that is now converted into holiday flats? And even though I can see it clearly issues from the carriage circle outside the house, does it actually go anywhere at all?

I can ask similar questions of my current work. Is it a piece of vanity writing, or something of substance? A story that is going somewhere special, or not? I am becoming aware, too, that knowing the ending (being in love with it almost) could be an (overwhelming) handicap: why bother to create what comes before it? Isn’t it all too hard? But then, on its own, that final scene has no meaning, no matter how much it may excite and lure my imagination away from the job in hand; snatching concentration from the down-and-dirty toil of how to get there.

So yes, yes, and yes. Of course it is the journey that counts; the grand excursion that must be planned and undertaken. Undergone. Borne. The delineation and experience of what happens on the way are key; in that yawning space between departure and arrival great transformations must take place. This, after all, is the point of fiction. Verbal alchemy.

When I finally slither and slide to the obelisk, I find the avenue strangely truncated. Behind the monument whose commemorative purpose is not obvious, I find a small wrought iron seat for two and, a step beyond and directly facing it at right-angles, a hedge. This is puzzling. How can the avenue end here? Surely it was once part of the main drive to the house. From its earliest days in 1690, and through the Victorian period, Duloe Manor was the rectory. And so, whether by carriage or cart, on horseback or on foot, parishioners must have approached its front door somehow.

A cursory scanning of the landscape suggests that any onward stretch of drive must have turned sharply at the obelisk and descended downhill to the lane. Now it is lost in an open meadow tailored for holiday guests who wish to exercise their dogs or simply amble. I also ponder why the seat looks onto a hedge. Then I see that, beneath the recent unseasonal growth spurts, the hedge had been shaped to allow a vista as if it were a balcony. As I stand beneath dripping lime trees, I conjure a clear day when rainclouds aren’t snagged on the fence tops. The panorama of Cornish countryside will be magnificent, I think; perhaps a distant glint of sea?

Looking at the photo now, I see only my task ahead – the making and moulding of the many stages through which a piece of work must pass. I have made a good start. Written many thousands of words. I know where I’m heading. Clearly then it is time to commit myself to the hardest part – the middle.

But here’s the rub – the discomforting, unnerving questions that this little excursion has sparked. Ones that must be answered before I take another step.
1: How seriously do I take my writer-self? Seriously enough to bring off this task?
2: Does the work itself have energy enough to make, or even warrant the journey?
3: Do I have energy enough?
4: And how will I feel if I never give myself the chance to write that final scene?

On reflection, an answer to this last might serve for the other three. It depends on the answer.

Later – today in fact – I discover that in times past one of the house guests at Duloe Manor was Charles Dodgson, aka Lewis Carroll. It is said he was working on Alice in Wonderland at the time. Suddenly this knowledge brings new possibility. Never mind the navel-gazing and writer-angst. Of course it is exhausting inhabiting two realities, and never being quite in either – body in one place, mind half a world away. Surely, then, what I need is Alice’s rabbit hole – to submerge, to blooming well get down there and on with it. In fact, look out there. I think I see him. Isn’t that the White Rabbit dodging through the lime trees? Quick, quick, I mustn’t lose sight of him.

Wait for me-eeeee, White Rabbit!

copyright 2016 Tish Farrell

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‘Bench’ with a mission

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We’ve time and talents, not to be buried~

Plant a tree, and you give the future a present ~

 

Over at Travel Words’ Bench Series 44 Jude is charging us to find a bench with a message or an autumnal theme. This may not  be a bench as such, but it does have a message and a seasonal acorn. Also, along with the inspirational motto, it was designed to provide a perch and meeting point for the town’s passing visitors.

There are four more of these artworks-cum-tuffets sited around the perimeter of Much Wenlock’s Linden Field, the venue for the Wenlock Olympian Games since the 1850s. The works were created in 2012, the year in which the International Olympic Movement acknowledged Much Wenlock’s historical connection to the modern games by naming one of their one-eyed, androgynous mascots ‘Wenlock’.

Anyone remember he/she/it? Perhaps better not to. The mascots were apparently conceived by a committee, and delivered into the world by a company in Telford. The intention was well-meaning: not to make reference to an identifiable ethnicity, gender, or known human disability.

Here on home ground, members of our local William Penny Brookes Foundation decided to mark the town’s Olympics connection by commissioning community sculptor, Michael Johnson, to work with local school children, and Wenlock poet, Paul Francis. Their brief was to celebrate the life and work of the Wenlock Games’  founder, Dr. W P Brookes. If you click on the Michael Johnson link you can see the other four pieces. The designs on the bronze panels were derived from work by the town’s school children.

The frame is stainless steel with  stone side panels and bronze sections on top. Every tuffet has a piece of thought-provoking text, each one relating to William Penny Brookes’ major contributions to the town’s wellbeing.

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I love the idea of them, although I’m not too sure about the weathering capacity of the stone component. I just wish they were sited in places where more locals and visitors might see and appreciate them, and indeed sit on them for a spell: perhaps on the High Street, in the Square, on the Church Green opposite the doctor’s former home.

Anyway, this particular tuffet definitely has a mission to propose. Should you choose to accept it, please note, this tuffet will not self-destruct, but the world might be happier.

I’m thus leaving you with a view down the Linden Walk that borders the field and was planted by Dr. Brookes over a century ago. It is a joy to walk here whatever the weather, and whatever the season. So yes: more trees needed.

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We’ve time and talents, not to be buried~

Plant a tree, and you give the future a present ~

 

Help, Mr. King! My polytunnel needs editing

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I have written elsewhere how gardening and writing become mixed up in my life. But just see what happens when you don’t rein in your gardening writing, when you let your setting run riot. Words, like plants, need a certain space to perform well; to be the stars of the show; to say their piece effectively.

I never intend to over-create. In fact my internal critic warns against it, whether gardening or writing. The polytunnel mayhem is of course easily explained: I simply had to  plant out every last tomato seedling. How could I not, when I had nurtured each one through the cold spring months that seemed never ending?

All I can say if you write like this, and then don’t engage in some ruthless excision tactics, you will not be able to find the tomatoes for the overgrowth.

On the fiction writing front, Stephen King (On Writing: A Memoir) would call this kind of chaos “a thicket of description”. It’s what happens when writers become too attached to the minutely researched details of their setting, and then feel they can’t sacrifice a single beloved element.

It can also happen when you start a story in the wrong place, and then flounder about trying to write yourself to the right place. It’s like planting all your tall-growing tomato plants at the front of the bed, and then wondering why you, or anyone else can’t see what’s going on behind with short varieties. This, then, is also a setting problem: you have not planned the planting scheme and stuck to it (more or less).

All of which is to say, there comes a point when you have to take out a whole batch of words and shoot them – this so the survivors have room to expand and thrive (the excess tomato plants you could of course give to someone else.)

Stephen King explains the situation further (pp 138-9). He gives an example of using a real location as his setting for a piece of narrative, in this case the Palm Too restaurant in New York. It is somewhere he knows. As he starts to visualize the place, he summons the first four things that strike him. These, he says, are likely to be ‘the truest and the best’ details. He also says he can  make up a few other things too, but there is really no need for more:

“This isn’t the Taj Mahal we’re visiting…and I don’t want to sell you the place…it’s not about setting, anyway – it’s about the story, and it’s always about the story.”

Put another way, you could say that fiction writing is never about the writer. To create, you need to GET OUT OF THE WAY. And the better you succeed in this, the better the story. This is not to say that the writer’s experiences and cast of mind do not inform/infuse the narrative, but think conduit and transit time, rather than compendium drag.

Words are fiction’s conveyance to transport readers out of themselves and into the lives of others in new/penetrating/exciting /inspiring ways. The words need lift, energy, vivacity. Anything that snags transition must be cut.

This is probably the hardest lesson for the starting-out writer to believe, let alone put into practice. But it is a truism: less is almost invariably more. Not believing this is one of the reasons we have slush-piles, and why publishers now mostly shut their doors to unsolicited submissions. It’s the reason why I have too many tomato plants in my polytunnel, when I could have made the best of, say, half a dozen of the strongest plants.

But then as Stephen King advocates, practice (lots of practice) will yield improvement. So I vow to improve in my prose and in my planting. For now I leave you with Mr. King’s brief words on the means to create viable settings:

“The key to good description begins with clear seeing and ends with clear writing, the kind of writing that employs fresh imagery and simple vocabulary.”

100_6937 N.B.: use only the brightest and the best tomatoes, and not too many.

Happy writing!

 

Related: Errant muse? But there’s still life at the allotment

copyright 2015 Tish Farrell

Secrets, conspiracies, tragedy, dark comedy

– a fast-paced novella of interwoven tales

set somewhere in East Africa