Sunday, 2 July 2017

Holiday Reading: Well! Is it a race?

 I returned much refreshed from my recent very welcome holiday with two favourite people with whom I share a good deal, including a joy in reading.


We all have busy working lives, so time spent in easy sunshine beside a Mediterranean lagoon is to be  relished. Truly the thought of a week reading at leisure in the clear southern light becomes a distinct and positive pleasure, even for Mme Lickedspoon and me   who read and write for a living. For us, reading of all kinds – even fiction - is also work or some kind of research
.
But it doesn’t feel like work here in the bright French sunshine, overlooking the silvery lagoon. No hurry. No politics. No commitments. Just the pleasures of the place and the language in the air and on the page.  Then there is the communication with each other: the deep breathing, the smiling, and the relaxing. And the food

As the weeks went on I became interested in the fact that the three of us read with equal enjoyment but at very different speeds.


M. Lickedspoon  is not a writer and doesn’t read fiction as part of his busy day job. On holiday he made his way through the most books in the three weeks. He does read for leisure though, in his normal life. Among other books he likes thrillers and detective stories and easily moves between Kindle and paper forms. I thought you might be interested in his impressive list of books read over three weeks.

1. Blackwater Lake - Maggie James (Kindle)
2. All Kinds of Dead - (Inspector Carlyle Book 11) - James Craig (Kindle)
3. Hunted - (Detective Mark Heckenburg, Book 5) - Paul Finch (Actual Book)
4. Strangers - (Detectiv Lucy ClayburnBook 1) - Paul Finch (Actual Book)
5. Stalkers (Detective Mark Heckenburg, Book 1) - Paul Finch (Kindle)
6. Sacrifice (Detective Mark Heckenburg, Book 2) - Paul Finch (Kindle)
7. Stop for Breakfast (Augill Castle Book 2) - Simon Temple-Bennett (Actual Book)
8. The Killing Club (Detective Mark Heckenburg, Book 3) - Paul Finch (Kindle)
9. Guapa - Saleem Haddad (Kindle)
10. Dead Man Walking (Detective Mark Heckenburg, Book 4) - Paul Finch (Kindle)

This total is an improvement on that of Mme Lickedspoon and myself  - the two of us who write for a living. Between us in those weeks we read – and very much enjoyed - a total of four books and one Kindle:


1.   Commonwealth: Ann Patchett 
2.   Hot Milk: Debora Levey
3.   The Vanishing Futurist: Charlotte Hobson
4.   The Burgess Boys: Elizabeth Strout (See my comment on this novel in my last post on Lifetwicetasted>
5.   New edition of Jilly Cooper’s whimsical; Class – read on Kindle by both of us. But this doesn’t count as it is better labelled work/research.

I’ve been wondering if I could come up with an explanation for this gap - this difference.


Some Possible Reasons?

·        We all agreed it wasn’t a competition.*
·        Madame L and I cannot resist enthusiastic discussions - on the balcony or in the café on the quayside - about what we’re reading. Time consuming of course. But then, for once, we did have the time.
·        Madame L had a commissioned article to write. So she did have some work to do.
·         As for me I spent a good time listening to Hilary Mantel’s clever, insightful Rieth Lectures – even making notes. This was surely research but it was the same time totally enjoyable – the line between work and leisure entirely blanked out.  Then because we were there we had to make time on the balcony to discuss the importance of Mantel’s ideas to any writer.

Anyway when I got home - fully rested and inspired by France as well as Madame Lickedspoon and Hilary Mantel - I rushed to order Jean Rhys’s luminous Dark Sargasso sea, (which had come up in a discussion). I also ordered Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety, set in the French Revolution. 

The books came yesterday and I spent the day curled up reading the whole of The Wide Sargasso Sea – a brilliant slender volume of a hundred and twenty pages. Mantel’s novel is a heavier tome at eight hundred and twenty pages and could, I suspect,  take much longer than a day to read.

Portrait of the charismatic Camille Demoulins.



Perhaps another holiday? Another balcony?



OK! Monsieur Lickedspoon definitely won!







Sunday, 18 June 2017

A Writer's Commentary on The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Sprout

  

Holiday Reading 


Reading at leisure is a great treat isn’t it?  So, reading on holiday in the sunshine in good company is the greatest of treats. And here I am, doing just that. And there are another two holiday readers here.










The Burgess Boys
by Elizabeth Strout came highly recommended - not least by a profile of this writer sent to me by a friend, Fascinating! Here was a writer – a mature woman, a member of the American liberal elite – who only really started to write novels in her early sixties and went on to win the Pulitzer Prize: very encouraging for those of us over forty who are still making our way.

The complex nature of contemporary American society - with its fluidity, its urban/rural dichotomy, its sophisticated myth of equality, its multi-faceted racism, its strange innocence – is the background for this complex, well-worked novel. As with all good novels the importance of this only really becomes evident to the reader on reflection and with further thought after enjoying the writing, the characterisation and the prose of this insightful   writer.

Luckily, reading on holiday provides the very time and place for just this. This is the season for reading and reflection. And this novel has been worth it.

There is something very American about the size and texture of this novel. It is long, as heavily worked as a carefully crafted tapestry. The action is rigorously observed with a carefully woven mixture of empathy and sympathy. The human truth is very much in the detail – in the mannerisms and preoccupations of the individual; in the passage of time marked by the changing colours and weather and in both town and country; in the meticulous fashion that the writer details even secondary characters and makes them alive in that world.  

Born in the small rural town Shirley Falls in Maine, the Burgess Boys are really the Burgess Siblings – two brothers, the aptly named Jim and Bob, and their bitterly unhappy sister, Susan. On the periphery is Jim’s wife Helen who willingly spent teenage years in the bosom of this diverse family. Bound together as adults these four weld together  a notion of a  common childhood  constructed from very different memories.

Susan stays with her son Zach in Shirley Falls while  Jim and Bob grow up and move  on to professional life in in hectic bustling, neutral New York. Jim is the successful one, the Golden boy, admired and loved by his sister and brother as well as his fellow lawyers. Bob has some moderate success in law in the city but is the vulnerable one; he drinks too much and living on the edge of despair at his wasted life. He is the character most well realised here
.
One shock in the early narrative is the way both Jim and Susan continually berate Bob, even as adults. The terms jerkoid, retard, bozo, cretin and slob-dog flow from Jim’s mouth like black rain. Susan adores Jim but looks down on Bob, perceives and treats him as a failure even though he persists in coming to her aid in what seems like her doomed life.

As the narrative unfolds it becomes clear that the siblings’ late mother who set this poison of casual verbal abuse to drip down the generations.
It slips down to Susan’s son the numb, unhappy Zach, alienated and confused, who commits what is seen as a hate crime in their small town,
In the background are the moving tectonic plates of American society – the breakdown of industry, the changing significance of religion, the migration of the young, the disturbing influx of a community of Somali immigrants, seeking refuge from violence and destruction in their African homeland.

At the centre of this the novel is the impact of these changes in the closed rural town and the bustling city; and how the Burgess Family deals, or doesn’t deal with it. This then is the engine of this elaborately constructed novel. Strought’s prose takes the narrative forward smoothly from place to place, from voice to voice in a deceptively easy fashion.

This is very well researched novel. One running theme is the existence and impact of racist perceptions and the difference in these attitudes between city and rural communities. Occasionally, though, one is struck by the fact that instead of inhabiting the hearts and minds of many of her characters, Strout has dutifully read their histories, profiles, letters and psychological files.

 This is never more so than with the Somalian character Abdikarim Ahmed, who is accorded a direct point of view in this narrative. Somehow I couldn’t believe this writer was inside the heart and mind of Abdikarim Ahmed,  

For a time I thought the novel was going on too long. But then, as the novel upped its pace it became well worth persisting with, to become acquainted in this fashion with a slice of the American if not the Somalian state of mind.


Wednesday, 14 June 2017

Blogging on the balcony


Apologies to the sweet and kind readers who took their regular look at Life Twice Tasted in the last couple of months only to find unchanged copy. I hope you are there now and are enjoying the change as much as I am.

An easy place to write, overlooking the Etang at Marseillan

The story is that after a month or so of feeling 'low'  I was overtaken by a serious physical illness, in hospital for a week and convalescing in the super wonderful care of @lickedspoon for several weeks. Now I am topping that off with two weeks in my favourite sunny Marseillan with Monsieur et Madame @lickedspoon in the lovely Languedoc to complete the cure.

I must be feeling totally better because here I am blogging again and talking to you - friends, readers and writers all.
The fact that I am writing this for you on a balcony overlooking the sea in the port of Marseillan might complete the picture of my cure.

What have I been doing? I had just finished and published my latest novel THE BAD CHILD when all this began. I suppose you might say I collapsed due to an overactive imagination - a lifetime affliction you might say.

In the last weeks at home I have gradually got back to work by completing a small collection of writing called Dancing Through the Panic,  about my lifetime up-and-down journey through what we used to call depression but the medics call 'Low Mood'. I rather like that label, common among writers. That's now on Amazon if you want to follow me on that journey.

I have also been working for Damselfly Books alongside the clever Sharon Griffiths on her super future fiction novel Amity and The Angel. We had a bit of a dispute as to whether we should put it in the Young Adult category. I thought that, as well as its rites of passage theme it carried generic themes of survival, identity, gender therefore it would be enjoyed by people of all ages. Sharon won - a writer's prerogative. It's a great read and it too is now on Amazon.

I  have also been on the Damselfly website bringing it up to date and featuring Sharon's novel Amity and the Angel. Looking forward to working with further writers this year.

In this much more relaxed mood I am hoping to post daily from here on the balcony my Postcards from Marseillan, which you seemed to enjoy in recent years.

Thank you for your patience. I appreciate it.

Saturday, 1 April 2017

Mindometry: Family Origins - A Child Makes Meaning

Writing for the States of Mind Collection, Mindometry)


Siblingometry


-Making Prisms of Meaning.
 


This family is a square:
at each corner is a child;
the hexagon at its centre
surrounds the lynchpin -
the charismatic mother.
The sides of the hexagon
consist of the beloved dead.
and the generations to come,
who send their own stories
swinging onwards and backwards 
in time..

  

              Child One:  Boy One


She wanted to make you brave like her
but she should have loved you more.
You are the tender one, your bruised personality
springing out of injury and unintended hurt -
loving music, following fashion
playing out the role of victim
with justified conviction
your hesitancy hiding
a romantic heart
that crashed and broke too early.

Child Two: Girl One

You were the feisty one -
the most like her, with your hot temper
and your challenging demeanour.
She was bound to steal your cigarettes
and smoke them to teach you a lesson
You were bound to be the one to test her to the limits,
to call her grown-up bluff. In the end,
you built  your wall of worldly success and family life.
So, defeated, she was driven to surrender
her power and ultimately keep her distance.

Child Three : Girl Two

You idolised and feared your mother
and tried to please her with cups of tea.
And – your stories between hard covers.
Needy and watchful, with your eagle eyes,
your bat-like ears, you tried to make sense of the language
and action around you - at first without understanding.
But you forgot nothing. Your primal perceptions became
Memories which you wove into stories  that both hid
and revealed a difficult  truth. To know you
the world  would need to decode your stories
and fact or fiction - fabricate its own prisms of meaning

Child Four: Boy Two

You were the last, the final product
of a soul-mating-bond cut off  too early.
You were her baby, her ewe lamb:
clever and self-determined.
Normally frugal, she’d make any sacrifice for you –
sweets and bikes galore, demonstrating  pride
and admiration. I remember the day when,
bold as ever, after diving with too much ardour
into a stony shallow river, you came home
with a bloody chest.
I watched her pick out the small stones
and bandage you gently,
with a nurse’s care.


(C) Wendy Robertson 2017

Monday, 20 March 2017

Several Pieces for My Mindometry Collection

Work in Progress. 

I am writing and collecting pieces that mirror my reflections on my time over the last three months on experiencing what the medics call  'low mood.'

 It's not all bad.

I hope eventually these pieces will build into a collection called:


Mindometry

States of mind

La Même

Thinking he was someone else
you leaned down and kissed him
But he wasn’t someone else,
he was the same -
the same slow delight,
the same pale, bright eyes,
the same puckish smile.
But you must admit
he was not the same.
Not the same.


Descartes

You sheltered under a dry stone wall
on the windy side of the moor
sharing the contents of his leather bag:
red wine and round biscuits.
You spoke of thinking and being,
your laughter echoing his,
across drying heathers.
When the storm blew up
you scampered down,
his leather bag over your shoulder,
leaving behind an empty bottle
and the last round biscuit,.
Je pense donc  je suis. 
OR 
Cogito ergo sum
OR
I think therefore I am 

Promise

It was a new car.
You did like your cars
You drove me two hundred miles
to the place where you were born -
the street where you played as a child
and the beach where you fished with a long line
and then to the road
across from the grammar school
where you walked with your father.
He said to you,  'The red brick building 
over there will be  your gateway to power.
Be sure of that.' 



Still a Problem 

Turmoil in your mind
stops you sitting down
to do what you want to do
These are not hard tasks –
simple transcriptions or
straightforward amends. Easy.
But it’s like I’m stone or steel
Lacking the power to move from
sofa to  desk.
  
  
  
   

The Door


The desk in the window is making a difference.
She see the light streaming into the room
and onto the grass and the tall trees. Easy to sit here
for three hours and concentrate on a book or a blank,
naked page. Sweeter than the other place
.
The other place is a back room with a big door. Once,
she chose this as the perfect workroom with a living fire,
space for shelves and tables for papers.
And a big technology corner. Sun only after noon.
But that room became a forbidden place
Darker than this room with its sunny window.

She thinks the back room must contain some essence.
Already in her life she’s glimpsed and heard things
That she knew weren't there.
She’s no longer reacts to this, remembering
the half-smiles shot in her direction.
As a child she’d been accused more than once
of being away with the gypsies.

But what about this essence? Is it the dread-feeling 
of  some eighteenth century maid who feared the place?
More likely it’s the world flooding in 
through the firecracker-gateway of the computer: 
a world too vast, too packed with too many people,
 too many things, too much pain.

But perhaps this crisis of the door, the room,
represented her own guilt about work undone:
tasks untackled, obligations unmet
Or perhaps it's the timid soul
which sits there at her core
not daring to try to breach that door.

So now, in the window the sunny room,
she decides to pull herself together,
get out of the house, away from the door
and away from that essence, that dread-feeling.
Wouldn’t it be too easy, to stay locked in
and fall asleep yet again?

So she flees the house, drives out through trees
and finds a cool space where she can focus –
manufacture order out of chaos, move on forward.
New feelings surge through her, freeing her
from the visceral strings that tie her down, that
make her dumb and stop her thinking straight,

Now, away from the dull routine and the person 
she’s become. She knows she’s not that person -
the person she’d invented to meet the low expectations
in the house with the room with the big door
and its threatening interior spirit,
its emanation of pain. She thinks now that

she loves the house, even the room  with the door.
Surely after so many years they’re woven into each other
like a precious carpet. She begins to see that
caring for the house is no different to caring for herself.
Sensing that spirit in the room where she works is sensing
herself in turmoil. Something to deal with, not to flee.



Yes, it's complicated. Be sure of thatsk in 

Sunday, 5 March 2017

Using Great Writers in your Writing Process


I am occasionally dismayed by the weight of instructional material to teach new writers around these days. There seems a plethora out there particularly now on the internet, on blogs and even on Twitter.


It’s as though for writers to ‘succeed’ (however you define that…] the new writer just need to apply – for example -  ‘five things’ to their short story, or their paragraph, or the beginning of their novel, or  the ending their novel, or publishing their book, or designing their  cover, or marketing their book or building their brand and hey presto! They have a book that thousands of people that people will put on their reading pile. Or not.

This all begs the question that true writers those creative, instinctive, loose-cannon type individuals can be ‘instructed’ and led to success by obeying instructions.

It also begs the question about the expertise of some instructors.  Does their expertise lie in Lit Crit credentials acquired in places where their own instructors have endorsed arcane bullet-point lists simplified and extracted from the work of great writers in the chimera that is writing of distinction?

Or does it come from the journalistic facility emerging from reviewing books in the national or local press? Or to a lesser degree, even from reviewing books on the internet through their blogs or Twitter? Or does it come from owning a PhD in Creative Writing. acquired through literary study, sanctioned peer bullying, and imitative practice pieces  rather than a body of work, showing that they really are experts in this esoteric process of writing, which remains harder than gossamer to pin down?

For myself I look to great and successful writers who have earned their credentials by writing long and short  fiction themselves which opens doors in the minds of readers, making them think, hate, love,  laugh, cry, identify, salivate, relish and learn, without even noticing the time passing by.
Walter Mosely


Of course, with the exception of generous individuals like Walter Mosely*, most committed writers are too involved cooking up, concocting, dreaming, empathising, scribbling, pounding the keyboard and channelling all the realms of their experience into their stories, to give new writers  the comfort of instructive lists about the path to success.
That’s not to say we cannot learn from them.  But the method is much more challenging than making lists. To learn how to write a short story I would advise a new writer to read six stories by substantial and accomplished writers such as William Trevor or Guy de Maupassant, or Katherine Mansfield, Virginia Woolf or by Raymond Carver. (Or choose five successful writers in your chosen field or genre.)

It’s important to read 5 or 6 stories by any single 
writer. Each writer is different. I
Virginia Woolf 
would advise a new writer to read them and raise him or herself out of the passive role of reader into the attentive role   writer and note -  either on the book itself, or in a dedicated notebook – just what these acknowledged masters are doing – each in his or her own unique way.  

The new writer will notice then that these writers don’t dissolve into a common list of qualities or methods. What is shared between these works is the way the stories illuminate some particular qualities of mind, motivations and events that rings true to the reader, like a perfect bell, even if all these aspects are world away from this new writer’s own experience.

The same approach is entirely appropriate if the novel is the writer’s desired form. I would say read intensely the work of several great novelists - read as a writer, note what you recognise -  about the way each writer gets to his own truth, using language as a tool – sometimes fine, sometimes blunt - and developing a particular form and structure as the best vehicle for this truth.

I say to new writers, ‘If you do this you will notice and internalise many significant things.  And when you sit down buzzing with original ideas for your own story you will have furnished your subconscious with insights and instincts that will guide you through your own unique process without addressing your task  in any imitative way.’

This might look  like a long  process  but if the new writer is seriously keen on being a good writer as well as a successful writer, this intense study phase is very enjoyable and life enhancing. It takes years to become a potter, a cabinet maker or a doctor – all equally significant professions alongside that of a writer.

Becoming a writer through this process means that every day you add to your insights into the writing process. In the end you will be a better person and a better writer than you could ever have dreamed. And you will have produced a good story, or a great novel.

And not a list in sight,


This is a good article about quality in short stories :https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2014/oct/17/the-10-best-short-story-collections 




Tuesday, 28 February 2017

A writer defining Dips – the Ups and Downs of Low Mood.




So, you’re sailing along, feeling great.
Even greater.
Then you take a dip, a curtsey, a nod to fate,
a dark dip into the black, a mind filled with
storming thoughts: Rachmaninov’s brain fever -
a creeping paranoia that makes the world your enemy
crowded with open mouths, crying and wailing,
demanding attention, Attention.
Achtung! Achtung!

Now for the first time flirting with death.
No. Flirting with the idea of that unspeakable state
brought into being by the recent death of a friend -
other deaths punctuating my long life,
going back to the deepest loss.

There you have it: a great big dip. Proving that this
is not just  a chapter setting the future theme
but a timely reversal,  a dip to keep you grounded
on the way back to normality.


Sunday, 19 February 2017

Free Lines inspired by Len Cohen’s phrase, 'Dance me through the panic ...'




Dancing
Strings vibrate your soul
Embracing the unreal
Drums thump against  your heart
You breathe, your distinctive sweat
threaded through with Elan by Coty.
Your feet itch to stomp, to jump and sway,  
Your body invades your brain  
Your voice sings  along, anticipating
the new world drenched with promise




Panic                                                      
Crowded places, detailed lists,                    
a thousand colours in your eye
sidelong looks, curling lips
leaden heart, boiling brain
shaking hands, frozen self
trapped tightly in one place
recalling futile actions 
and aborted promises
copping out, settling for less, 
embracing compromise.
haunted by unborn children,
breathing behind a wall of glass

Here comes  the panic and now there is no dance





Sunday, 12 February 2017

Love Song for France

(Inspired by Leonard’s Cohen’s eponymous prose piece)



Why I Love France

The heat in the morning, the click of rigging and the rustle of  
of sailing boats setting out for Africa: a long old journey
The wash of the tide against the staithes
Spreading out the seaweed yet again. And again

Francine and Joe waiting in the shadows to walk into my story
Pere Goriot walking arm in arm with Jean Valjean
Alongside Jean Sablon and Simone de Beauvoir.
The padding of my sandalled feet matched by the click of jackboots
And the hollow calls of Jean Moulin

Church celebrating the sea breathes smoke and scent
Seagulls, cormorants; a man counting untypical ducks,
their ducklings ticking along behind.
Boys - a whole day to play with -  swoop into the sea on a tripwire.
Pink sunset catching the tall buildings in relief
Rose red moon rises yet again over…
Moliere, Robespierre, Desmoulins, Beaudelaire, Maupassant
Inspiring revolutionaries and English poets.













Then there is Paris, dusty elegance in straight lines
Bateaux mouches cruise the slumberous Seine  
Markets like still-lives illustrating a world of plenty
Men in overalls drink cognac with their morning coffee,
Music and chatter leak out of riverside cafes and
songs gargled with laughter spill across the cobbles
towards paintings lined up against the stone walls of a church
A woman in a black dress pocked with fragrant lavender seeds
tips her ear to the voices of Americans who
have danced in this favoured city.

France is world of veils and shadows, pregnant with story.







Afternote: Francine and Joe walked into my novel Writing at the Maison Bleue. W
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