Sunday, 30 August 2009

'The Ode Less Travelled'

This book by Stephen Fry was recommended to me by a student of the Open University course A215. I think it's brilliant! There's something so elitist about the way some people are taught poetry, as if, like Latin, it belongs in private schools and to the 'well read'. I'm loving the book, which takes you through the structure of poetry very quickly - and makes you write from the first few pages. I couldn't see the point of writing iambic pentameter (the only form I knew at all - and that only because it's Shakespearish) but now it rings in my head when I'm writing - as do other rhythms. I'm amazed at how, once you get the metre right, you can play around with trochees and weak endings and all sorts of substitutions. I've been reading poetry out loud, and beginning to hear the rhythm of modern poetry as well - even if it's more subtle. And re-reading favourite poetry has enthused me again. Suddenly I'm very critical of all the poems I have ever written because they don't sound right. A few years ago I played around with Sibelius and found I could just compose by ear - not necessarily very well - because I had listened to so much music over the years. It just had to sound right. I have read many books of poetry but not aloud, not experimenting with the sound. It's starting to ring in my head when I read now, even if I can't read out loud because I'm in company. I recommend it enthusiastically!

Sunday, 23 August 2009

Assignment 2

Well, that was hard! I've always known that I don't put much (enough) description in my fiction. It sounds a bit poetical to me, a bit poncy, but I leave too much out and my readers look puzzled after a few pages. "Where exactly is this?" is a common complaint. So I wrestled with the four exercises, how hard could describing a household object, a short journey, preparing a meal and being outside be?

Well, let me tell you, this did not come easily at all. My first notes for a short journey were from quick tour of the garden one evening. Immediately after we had moved house and nearly had an accident and my husband had nearly been killed... All of it kind of ran through the description. So, in the interests of quelling any emotional input, I turned it into a botanical description of the garden, killing any feelings. Two years on, having to redraft it, I cautiously put a bit of me back in it. Not the accident, but the sense of being in an alien landscape. Then I had to take out most of the abstract words and all of the unnecessary words. I'm quite pleased, not with the piece itself but with the improvement to it. So, here it is.

Unknown Garden

This is the evening walk I had fantasised for months, throughout the stressful months of packing and moving. I have never lived amongst hills and rocks before, being brought up on soft chalk and thick clays, red bricks and big skies. Here the landscape is hard, sharp against the sky. The valley rises on each side; long shadows fall on the dense scrub and trees that cling to bare, sheer slate. This is a place of sudden contours, cliffs falling like old walls into the fields below. The evening sun catches some planes and floods them with pinks and peaches.
The new place has its own sounds, alien, like an unexpected noise in a car’s engine. Over the constant shushing of the wind on the trees opposite the house, I can hear hundreds of birds on the threadbare oaks. They call, their replies echoing, sharp musical jackdaws against hoarse shouts of the rooks. Their combined cries rise to a roar when they throw themselves into the sky and curve around the valley. They quieten to a squabble for the best roost, black rags on a washing line. A cricket calls persistently from the ragged shrubs. A distant dog is magnified by the narrow valley, barks ringing and echoing. Seagulls shriek overhead, from a height where they must be able to see right over the town to the sea. Distant buzzards call more plaintively to each other, as they circle high in the pink and purple tinged sky. Pigeons soothe from the trees. Beneath it all, the steady hum and bubble of the brook that runs alongside the road, at the bottom of the drive.
The heat from the day’s sun still radiates from the stone wall of the house, the warm dusty smell novel after cool, shaded bricks of the last house. The path changes under thin soles, soft with thick grass in places, hard sculpted stone in others. When I reach the drive, my feet crunch into the slate gravel. Grass grows amongst the stones, dotted with tall weeds, untouched since the move. Flowers have tipped over into autumn and smell sour, slightly earthy, slightly bitter.
I walk slowly along the path, taking in tall shrubs falling under their own weight into the nettles and docks. Ragged seedlings of hawthorn and ash fight their way out of clinging bindweed. Old bramble leaves glow scarlet, a few purple berries remaining for the birds. At the end of the path, the sun becomes briefly visible from behind the two ancient pine trees that give the house its name. The yellow glow is balanced on the edge of the ridge at the end of the valley, on a line of young trees, its blaze obliterating a few of them as I shade my eyes. The gravel drive is covered with grey slate, as if flaked off the hillside. Looking back at the house, the windows are crimson with reflections of the sky; blind, impersonal eyes on the tiny troubles of its owners.
Between the sharp edge vertical stones of the retaining wall are sprigs of dry plants, withered but alive. The stone is cold and damp, but the soil is powder, the slightest touch sends puffs of dust into the air. Between the shrubs are rough hewn steps that lead to the herb garden. Fuchsia flowers bleed onto the first two steps, scarlet and purple, venous and arterial, glowing even in the fading light. Brambles arch across my cautious steps, thorns reaching from the planted borders. At the top, midges crowd in a rising, buzzing smoke, between the shrubs and the trees. The scents of oregano, thyme and chamomile are released as fallen branches are crushed underfoot. A bat flies overhead, as I turn and lean against a wall to look at the hillside opposite. Massed trees darken; the slow movements of a deer are silhouetted by the last of the light.

Monday, 3 August 2009


Just watching TV is inspiring at the moment. A couple of days ago I watched the Al Pacino documentary, 'Looking for Richard' and spent the next 24 hours with iambic pentameter running through my head. Now I watched the BBC series 'Messiah' and I'm drawn again to writing dialogue, telling a story literary through words rather than actions. I watched the first one (brilliant, full of surprises) but the second one got me critical of pace, the obviousness of the multiple murders and the way the police are always just a few minutes behind the villains. Suspense is powerful, but not when you know where and when to look.

It did make me think about the way I see stories; visually rather than hear them. I see in TV scenes, or film script much more than I ever thought I did, and I think the level 3 creative writing course might be a helpful progression to A215. It makes me want to rewrite 'Raging Softly', my most recent novel, and help it come alive in a more visual way. I know one of my weak point is description of place and people (well, I already know what they look like!). Perhaps translating what I 'see' more directly onto the page would be helpful.

Writing every day makes me think much more in words. It's the one thing I need to work on, because I'm very prolific when I have a writing habit. I find 1000 word minimum if I aim for 500, I'm competitive with myself. I had a pedometer at Christmas and became so committed to beating yesterday's score I ended up walking for miles - with a bad back - then doing another long walk in the evening. My back then firmly told me I couldn't do that any more and put me on the sofa for a few more uncomfortable weeks. So, a writing habit beckons. I end up doing it before bed, though, not very sociable, because it's so hard to get an hour or two without interruptions in the day. Perhaps the family need to get in the habit of my writing habit too!

Sunday, 2 August 2009

Freewriting exercise for A215

I know I ought to be working on my prose pieces for the OCA course but haven't managed it yet. The freewriting brings up so much memory! I started with 'I Need Proof'...

...of aliens, gods, ghosts, anything really. I'm prepared to accept the subjective impressions of my my own eyes but no-one else's'. I don't even trust Russell's, really, it's easier to consider him misdirected or deluded than just accept his conclusions. Show me, prove it to me. I'm probably easily fooled too, but that's my permitted blind spot.

When I was a child, I saw flying saucers, or rather, unexplained lights in the sky. I hovered on the end of my bed, peering through horrible curtains that smelled slightly damp and dusty, and watched for ages. Looking, listening, blurry eyed with concentration. Then, fast, blue-white, small group of lights would move fast across the sky. Without any idea how big they were, I could not judge distance. I shivered in terror as much as excitement, looking over the black back garden, at almost the same level as the window sill. My sister slept softly on. I watched, vigilant for steps on the stairs, parent or alien, equally daunting. Sometimes, I would be wound so tight I would sleep under the bed. I still look out for the lights. They might be real, they might just exist in memory. But whatever they are, they belong to me, not the UFO world. They may be a delusion, but they are mine.

Saturday, 1 August 2009


Page 27 of The Book (the big red book of A215 not the Other Book) suggested some ideas for clustering, so I chose an apparently innocuous one of 'photo album'. Wow! I was going to do one of the others first but this one dragged my distinctively terrible handwriting all over the page. there's something seductive about not have to stay on the lines. Images popped into my head faster than I could write them down:

Pressed memoires like butterflies or flowers
Transitions like births and weddings with apprehension and happiness in equal measure
Smiles hiding lies
People pretending they don't hate having their picture taken
People who love their picture taken
People you don't recognise in family photos, with you
People who are dead but still smiling
Moments when I was younger, thought differently about the world
Emotions so important at the time but now gone

I'm going to do a freewrite from this cluster, see where it takes me.
I remember sorting through a dead relatives belongings, seeing moments when we were apart, how we don't see the other parts of that person's life at all and yet it goes on when we take our egocentric viewpoint away. Lost loves, intense feelings gone, dusty, faded, curled at the edges. Soon everyone who knows who the people are will be gone. Cryptic messages on the back. 'DB at Bourne.' 'Dad with B 1953'. 'Polly before wedding'. Some of these people are my family, some share my DNA, have touched my history. They are fixed in time like fossils in rock, buried under more layers of time, and dust, and folded, cracked photgraphs. Maybe they will be revealed later. Phony smiles, show-off smiles, deceitful smiles. Uncle Fred at the wedding with Gladys, but we all know he was shagging one of the bridesmaids. Her smile is bigger, too. Gladys looks like she's won but history awarded the dubious prize of my great uncle's body and half his wordly goods to the second bridesmaid from the left. Children sat on Uncle Jim's knee, one after the other. Now we know why. Sly smile from Uncle Jim. Solemn frowns on the faces of the children. One scowling child is trying to get away but his hard, tobacco scented arm gripped tightly. I think that was me. I love antique fairs, the boxes of crap left at the end. They often have photos, neither beautiful enough nor identifiable so of no value, but each one holds such a sepia story. Triumphs, loves, losses, lies.

Well, the process seems to work, even if it's unsettling! I have 'The end of the affair; 'getting older'; and 'suspicious' still to do.