Mist is wrapping its shawl round the Apennines while we’re busy taking stock for winter. We’re harvesting from summer, bottling produce and thinking about our return to UK.
Whilst I go about these tasks, I iron out ideas for my writing, which I squeeze in each day. My project of the moment is a story about two ladies (of a “certain age”) living by the British seaside, who fall into all kinds of adventures. But I am constantly interrupted by thoughts about a third Tuscan novel I wish to write. It’s not ideal for the flow, but I realise it’s because we’re still in Italy and the location influences me so much.
It’s been so wonderful to realise my dream of writing books. I never thought it would happen and today I’m so happy I can chat to a lady who had a lot to do with helping me start my writing adventure. This blog is a little longer than usual and will probably appeal more to writers, so I hope you’ll forgive my indulgence.
You won’t have heard of this lady, but she’s special to me. Meet Liz Minister.
Liz, I met you originally in 2,000 when I saw a notice taped to a lamp post in the Suffolk village where I then lived. My heart went a-flutter. It was an advert for a creative writing class – time and place both convenient and within walking distance. You were the leader. We started off in the Methodist Church room and then migrated to your own cottage, where a motley group sat in sagging armchairs, beneath shelves groaning with ceramic, painted potties…
Every Friday morning I was in Heaven for a couple of hours, scribbling and talking about writing. Why did you decide to start the class?
I graduated from Southampton in 1969 with a second rate degree in English – no part of which involved anything creative. We were given no guidance at school about courses and it was only later that I learned how much degrees varied from Uni to Uni. Mine was very traditional, so included Old English, Middle English and History of the Language. I wasn’t greatly enamoured at the time, but have since been grateful because there’s no other way I’d have got to read Beowulf and Chaucer in the original (fabulous) or understood, for instance, the impact of the Norman Invasion on our language. I only came to any form of creative writing very late in life.
I attended a creative writing group and must admit to feeling very critical about it. It was too large, operated on the same formula each week – people reading out work, vague come-back – (always positive), so no one learned anything, arbitrary setting of next topic… I am well aware that “facilitating” is not teaching, but I do think people can, and want to learn, both from facilitator and group. There is no place for harsh, demoralizing criticism, but comments like: I’d have liked it told in the first person, maybe? Or: I think more description would have been good e.g of the old man and the barber’s shop? How would it change if you used the present not the past tense… You don’t have to give a “theme” for writing. How about, “Go into the kitchen, pick up three things and write a story which includes them”.
Turn on Radio 4 for two minutes. Listen – write something. Open a story from the point of view of three protagonists giving each a separate paragraph. How will you take it from there? What is the boy in the picture saying to the woman? VARIETY is the name of the game. Anyway, after a term of being critical I thought, “OK, if you know it all go and run your own group”, so I went home and stuck up notices locally, one of which you saw, Angela.
I’m so glad you did. I enjoyed the way you managed to make us think ‘outside the box’. Some of your exercises we started reluctantly, with moans and groans. But the results were always surprisingly pleasing. I remember an unusual task you set us, based on a kind of Consequences, where we exchanged lists of verbs, adverbs, adjectives etc. in a random order. As a result, I wrote a poem that was runner-up in a Writing Magazine competition. The words made me think of my nineteen year-old uncle, whom I’d never met. He was shot down and killed in WW2.
Watery red ladies
I sit beneath the shelter
Where the tossing, hissing, spitting spray
Is kept at bay.
I wait with rug across my knees,
Pencil poised to tie her down with words.
Nurse wants to wheel me to the warmth,
The fuddled, stale, urine warmth.
“You’ll catch your death out here,” she says.
I smile and slowly net my memories.
I watch you unpin your hair,
Unfurling like rolls of corn-gold silk,
And peel off your scarlet chemise,
Toss it to the breeze
And step into the waves.
Words waft wistfully as you waltz in the weed
That clings to bare, salt thighs.
You perform to the sun, the crimson, orange sinking
Sun that slips between the now and then.
Tell me what you sing so sad.
Watery red lady,
You flew upon the back of your blue eagle.
He spread his wings and scooped you high
From dew-grass where Philadelphus
Sprinkled perfumed-petalled confetti promises.
He lies below a bed of barley in a Slavian valley
Beneath toad-flax and corncockle.
For his King but not for you.
How soon are the young become old
And the watery red ladies dance no more,
Save in the shadows at the sea’s edge,
Tell me what I sing so sad.My handsome Uncle Billy in RAF, WW2
How do you think up ideas for your classes? Can you recommend any text books?
Initially I relied on my own ideas, and still do, to a large extent, but over the years I’ve bought a number of books which have been great for new ideas. Some of these are: “Taking Reality by Surprise”, edited by Sondheim; “The Creative Writing Handbook”, Singleton and Luckhurst; “Write Yourself a New Life”, Wade and “Conflict Action and Suspense”, Noble. The Singleton and Luckhurst include poetry but mostly these relate to story.
I remember how you talked about the importance of beginnings in creative work. Any tips for us, Liz?
I was reading a book on writing recently that said the idea that the opener had to grab you by the throat was rubbish. Openers like, “He was lying dead on the sofa with his shoe laces tied together and a colander on his chest. There was nothing to indicate how he had died.” The article quoted a lot of very laid-back openings, some of which gave the setting of time and place. I think the key thing is to be aware that your opening is important – especially in the short story. What function do you want the opening to serve? I give a novel a few pages and am happy to have background. No rules. If I have a strength, it may be in working with art. I did a list recently of ten ways to work with a painting. Working round picture is one of my favourites.
You write beautiful poetry, Liz. How do you start? Would you share one of your poems? And what is your favourite poem?
(Here is an exercise that Liz shared for a poetry exercise:
Choose a line from a favourite poem. Eg: “Dropping from the veils of the morning…”
Write a poem using each word in the right order at the end of a line :
I saw him one night, dropping
Silver coins, which came from
The mines of the
Moon, into…….. veils
I have so many poems I love that it’s impossible to choose just one. I love “The Wasteland” and “The Four Quartets by Eliot and I have an affection for Yeats’s “Lake Isle of Innisfree”, not just because it’s a wonderful poem but because I’ve used it so often in teaching. The mastery of language is stunning. As for a book, it would have to be The Bible with its great stories, the beauty of The Psalms and that love poem to beat all others – Song of Solomon.
The poem I’ll write here I just like for the sounds and the nostalgia element – no deep truths!!
Slow fall the hours
From the hands of the clock in the square.
Siesta time lies deep and undisturbed,
The slow hour, shaded by faded blinds,
Muffled by shutters that splinter and flake.
The graveyard sundial – crumbling stone,
With leaden face and fading numerals silently
Tells the time in shadows and angles.
The arm stays fixed and firm, a motionless sail
On a little round of time – God’s time.
This hour no man puts back or forth.
Father Ignatius, dead-heading the roses
On the churchyard wall, loses himself in silent prayer,
That timeless love affair with God.
Somewhere, a long way off,
At the wrong time of day, a cockerel
Recalls another garden, where God’s hand in
Time opened a window on Eternity.
But, for the now, amongst the gravestones,
Slow fall the hours.
Thank you so much for sharing your words, Liz. I hope you’ve sparked some ideas for other writer friends in this, my first interview for my blog. I’m also curious to know who or what influenced others to start writing…