Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Agh! Poetry drafts.

I know there are people who just seem to think in poetry, who pin beautiful words and phrases onto a page and then move them about into a harmonious and beautiful form. I'm not one of the those. However, one useful tip I can pass on to those of you who share my struggles: Translate roughly 150 words at a time through babelfish, into French (for lyricism) or Italian (for wit) or even Russian if you just want to go earthy and sexual. Then cut and paste the result and translate back into English - you find some lovely ideas and words. 'The Gathering Tree' becomes (somehow) 'l' sourcilleux tree', which somehow found my intention, to try and describe the magical congregation of rooks and jackdaws in a tree on the ridge opposite our house. (It actually means 'beetle-browed' but for me will be the sorcerer's tree). The innocent sounding 'And clouds of inky rags approach from the east / Spiralling to the valley floor, brushing the brook / With feathery fingers, then riding the wind up, / Up to the ridge, to land in the Gathering tree.' became 'and the clouds of inky of rags moor from the east Of [zakruchivayushch] into the spiral to the sex of valley, cleaning [ruek] by brush [pri] feathery of finger, after this wind upward, to the ridge, to the earth in gathering the shaft.' Via a bit of Russian. This is why I like writing poetry, I've remembered.

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Theories again

I find Monday nights' theory sessions fascinating but the reading is hard. Maybe it's because I don't have any education in literature... I knew this bit would be hard, but it has produced the odd bit of amusing fiction. I wrestled with Walter Benjamin's ideas about Kafka - only ten years after Kafka's early death and I think, a product oif their own time. It was way easier to look at Kafka in terms of Freud. I thought I would get them sitting together chatting and that turned into a row across a lake (major metaphor for the whole conscious boat of a bottomless lake of unconscious crap, which came up quite 'by accident'. There are no accidents in Freud. Which is why I'm a humanist...) They got chatting about something I am aware of - how much we are revealed by our writing. Looking back over writing that I thought was quite transparent, I see so much more now. Doubts, angers, fears, sadness, hope, love...even in old blog posts and letters. Anyway, I knocked up a first draft :

Rowing on the Lake

Freud pulled back, feeling the slight spring in the oars against the green water of the lake. ‘Spruce oars,’ he said. ‘I grew up with ash, a beautiful wood, but heavy.’ As they passed under the beech branches clutching the sky, Kafka was cut into strips of yellow and grey. Freud smiled, sighed into his beard, the warm air reflecting back onto his lower lip.
Kafka turned his head to watch as Freud dipped the blade of the oars into the water, creating vortices, spinning in different directions and flashing with light.
‘I never learned to row.’ His voice was soft, very precise.
Freud took another stroke of the oars, then another, the boat beginning to pick up a pleasing momentum, surging ahead with each stroke, coasting in between, in open water. The lake seemed darker green, as if it was bottomless. ‘I don’t analyse any more, you know. I have many students who do. I can recommend one.’
The younger man put one hand onto the water bubbling beside him, his fingers barely skipping on the surface, trailing lines and bubbles of their own. ‘I know.’ Kafka was neatly dressed, thick socks travelling between the turned up hem of his trousers and small black shoes, which were in need of a polish. He had the hungry look of many consumptives. His voice was hesitant, nothing like his writing. ‘I simply find myself…haunted, I suppose. Haunted by dreams and images.’
Freud stretched back and shipped the oars. Drops of water streamed down them onto the bench beside him, and he pulled out a handkerchief to mop up the two pools.
‘Cigar, Mr Kafka?’
Kafka leaned forward to take one.
Freud took one himself. The match flared into life in an acrid cloud of phosphorus, blown across the boat. He offered the matches to Kafka, who shook his head, preferring to hold the cigar for a moment before tucking it into his jacket pocket.
‘I shall smoke it later.’ He smiled, and Freud immediately warmed to the man. His smile enlivened his solemn, child-like face and brightened his dark eyes. He immediately seemed younger.
‘How old are you, Mr. Kafka?’
‘Franz. Please, call me Franz. I am thirty seven years old.’
Freud studied the younger man. ‘I have read your novella. “The Metamorphosis”.’
Kafka, inclined his head. This was one area on which he appeared more confident.
Freud watched smoke drifting starboard, dropping onto the surface of the lake, cut into ever-changing trapeziums and triangles by the wind over the water.
‘Of course, it is possible to interpret the beast, the verminous monster Gregor is transformed into, as the pre-eminence of the id.’ As the younger man did not speak, Freud continued to address the water. ‘His transformation is the beginning of the transformation of the family, the mother and father, the sister Grete.’
‘Indeed.’ When Freud looked at Kafka, he caught him chewing on his lower lip.
‘Was that your intention?’
Kafka looked away, thoughts chasing across his face in fleeting expressions, one hand clasped tightly in the other.
‘Perhaps. Not consciously. I suppose my thoughts were that Gregor was not the benefactor for his family that he thought he was.’
‘So, in some sense his return to support for the family was a castration of his father?’
Kafka rolled his head on his shoulder, as if the muscles there were tight. ‘I suppose so. But that was not in my thoughts when I wrote the story.’
Freud opened the wicker picnic basket between the men’s feet. ‘Do you care for a blanket? There is a cold breeze.’
‘Thank you, no.’ The man leaned forward, his clasped hands resting on his knees as Freud dropped a blanket over his own legs and reached for the flask of coffee.
‘So, tell me, what were your thoughts when you started to write?’
He poured Kafka some coffee and this time, the younger man accepted it, cupping reddened fingers around the china mug. He seemed to think, lifting his head as he looked around the lake, the distant shores barely visible in a haze to the east. ‘I suppose I was thinking of…how mundane life is.’
‘Mmm.’ Freud sipped his coffee, grimaced at the strength of it. Josefina, the maid, always stewed it.
‘I just wondered, what it would be like for something so extraordinary…so different, to happen to someone so ordinary. I had no ending planned, nor any beginning, really. I was as surprised as any reader to find Gregor had become a—monster. ’
Freud let his gaze wander over Kafka, who was staring into his coffee, frowning, as if to find answers there. Kafka looked up suddenly with his deep, dark eyes. His face was drawn from wide Slavic cheekbones to a pointed chin, his cheeks hollow.
Kafka spoke quietly, as if they could be overheard, even hundreds of metres onto the lake. ‘These words, these ideas…they intoxicate me. I write and even I cannot believe that these thoughts have come from me.’
Freud nodded, allowing a smile, that he hoped would be reassuring, to curve his beard. ‘All thoughts, all ideas and fantasies are possible, and permissible.’ He touched the fingers of one hand to the corresponding fingers of the other. ‘These forms rise from the unconscious, as symbols of deeply buried desires and needs.’
‘But what desire could be represented by becoming a creature so repulsive?’ The writer’s thin, brown fingers trembled on the cup.
Freud shrugged. ‘How repulsive? You did not describe the creature, other than to suggest it was vermin, unclean, insect-like.’
‘I hardly know myself.’ He drained the cup, handed it back to Freud. ‘I am drawn to these images that haunt my sleep.’
‘Mmm.’ Freud looked at the wrinkles on the man’s forehead, the paleness of his skin beneath the dark hair.
Kafka looked up at him, reached out a hand to grasp Freud’s jacket sleeve. ‘If I publish these stories, people speculate…people see what is in…my depths.’ He swept the other hand across the surface of the water. ‘Like this lake. If it were transformed to perfect transparency, what wrecks, what monsters would we see? Drowned sailors, smothered babies, the detritus of all the towns along the river, discharging into the lake.’
Freud patted his hand for a moment then gently detached it.
Kafka continued. ‘If these monsters live inside my soul…and I reveal them in my stories…’
Freud shook his head. ‘Inside the mind of every man and woman, my dear Kafka. Your soul I cannot comment on.’
Kafka blinked as if there were tears there. Freud looked away to allow him to compose himself.
‘Perhaps, my dear Kafka, you should consider analysis after all. I could refer you to a colleague of mine.’
‘I shall stop writing.’
Freud picked up the oars, dipping them into the water, left hand ahead of the right so they did not clash. Pulled more on the right side, to turn the boat back towards the jetty. They had drifted maybe half a mile down the lake.
‘Would you care to take an oar? A brisk row shall soon warm you up.’
He made room for the slim writer, who stooped and shuffled crabwise onto the seat. ‘That’s it, dip—pull, swing back.’ As they pulled, Freud kept an eye on the shore. ‘There ideas are not harmful. They simply represent experiences and emotions from your past.’
‘I understand…that.’ Kafka was pulling hard, out of breath after a dozen strokes. ‘I prefer to…keep them private, however.’
‘Indeed.’ Ten, fifteen more strokes and the boat was moving strongly against the slight current. ‘You could consider not publishing them all.’
Kafka lost the rhythm for a moment, and Freud allowed him to catch up. Pull, lean, pull, lean. The leather soles of the younger man’s shoes slipped a little on the boards. ‘Spruce, you say?’

Sunday, 24 October 2010

Reading and writing

I've been concentrating on books since the boys left. I took up the recommended book The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks and read it in one go. It is a story of a rather revolting character who graphically tortures and kills animals, and describes his three murders, committed while he was a child. Yet somehow Banks manages to write the character so well, that although you are repelled by what he does, you start to concern yourself with his welfare. Somehow you start to see Frank as a real, damaged and deluded individual. The final twist came as a huge surprise to me, though cleverly signposted. It's a kind of Gothic novel for the modern world. Fantastic writing. Truly, a book I would not recommend as light entertainment or bedtime reading, but amazing.

On to poetry, from the snippets I sketched out in Devon and on the train. I have a vague outline, based (at the moment) on James Joyce's interpretation of St. Thomas Aquinas' views on beauty: wholeness, harmony and radiance. For me, one of the wonders of the natural world is the way huge flocks of corvids, mostly jackdaws and rooks but sometimes crows too, come together into huge flocks, gathering, lifting into the air then settling like washing in the trees until they set of to make an even bigger group somewhere else. the birds travel miles to do this, and they do it regularly.

Mark Cocker in Crow Country described 40,000 or so in the most gorgeous prose. Meanwhile, I struggle to describe the sight and sound of hundreds of jackdaws assembling last year over the Cairn and the beginnings of a gathering when I was in Devon last week. I was literally breathless, wordless, by the sheer beauty of nature and all the sensory experiences of it. I love it when that happens, but it makes it difficult to put into words. I think it's like sketching, you see a lovely view but the lines on the page, or the watercolors for that matter, don't capture the original. Even photography, by emphasising the visual, kills the rest. Difficult. I have come up with 18 lines, so far, a miracle for me, as I end up with really small poems. My tutor suggested 4000 words of fiction or 150 lines of poetry. I'll never be able to come up with that much poetry, it's like making magical potions ('first find an unopened pine cone that has been nibbled by a squirrel, soak for three days in melted hail...' OK, made up, but you get my drift?).

Friday, 22 October 2010

Yay! Writing fiction again!

There's no rhyme or reason (sorry, cliche) to my writing at the moment, but I'm finding the module 'The Writer's Toolkit', which is all about research, incredibly helpful. This week, illuminated manuscripts sparked a story. It's hugely overblown, the way I write, with my critic in the back seat quite possibly gagged and bound, and my creative self blazing down the motorway with the top down, fists full of smarties and Meatloaf at full volume. I may be singing along. Anyway, the result is a big linear story and it does make for some good characters, quite vivid and interesting. They have taken over.
I think I have been able to write because I'm not hypothermic. I have found that by blocking up all the gaps in the stupid louvre window with carrier bags and taping them in; then putting the electric heater eighteen inches from my chair; I don't have to wear gloves to type. Hooray!
So, the story. I've always been interested in those mummified cats, old shoes and good luck charms people left in old buildings for various reasons. The Museum of Witchcraft has loads of them. They also have an archive of vellum spells and talismans from hundreds of years ago. I thought (having diligently researched them, and conservation techniques) what would it be like to discover one from scratch? From a scientist's point of view, of course...and what would be the consequences? A nice one for Halloween, I thought.
To make matters worse, the short story I had planned to do for A363 now looks old (although it was shortlisted for October'sWriting Magazine's competition, page 25.) Maybe I'll do something with the new one, but I don't want to overlap with the MA. I might be able to write two different stories from the first draft though, it does sort of  have two plots. The best thing is, I think it would make a good radio play.
I'm also playing with poetry, which is still terrifying. I write intensely, for about twenty minutes, just free writes and ideas and phrases, then spend ages (maybe the rest of my life) trying to turn it into a poem. The poem I'm wrestling with is about the beauty of nature (fortunately, no-one;'s ever written any of those - hah!) and is a bit of a struggle. I'm keeping it concrete, I do look out over a fabulous view. But it's a challenge because it all sounds so 'where have I heard that before?'  

Thursday, 21 October 2010

Cyberpunk and all that

Well, the Writer's Toolkit brief this week is to look at technology, and its effect on creativity, literature and a sense of self. So I had the choice of looking at illuminated manuscripts (about which I do know quite a lot), the history of the printing press(ditto), the Futurist movement or cyberpunk. Well, cyberpunk was the most interesting to me, so I had a look into it. The term was cobbled together by Bruce Bethke and the first real cyberpunk novel with Neuromancer by William Gibson in 1984. As Bruce writes, he has to share the early glory with others:
Then again, Gibson shouldn't get sole credit either. Pat Cadigan ("Pretty Boy Crossover"), Rudy Rucker (Software), W.T. Quick (Dreams of Flesh and Sand), Greg Bear (Blood Music), Walter Jon Williams (Hardwired), Michael Swanwick (Vacuum Flowers)...the list of early '80s writers who made important contributions towards defining the trope defies my ability to remember their names. Nor was it an immaculate conception: John Brunner (Shockwave Rider), Anthony Burgess (A Clockwork Orange), and perhaps even Alfred Bester (The Stars My Destination) all were important antecedents of the thing that became known as cyberpunk fiction.
Then I thought back to one of my absolute favourite books as a teenager, The Stainless Steel Rat (1961) by Harry Harrison. There is the overly technologised world, the menial position of most humans in their world of big corporations and the 'rat', cheating the system and surfing over the technology with his cyber savvy. You can coin a new word if you like, but the precedent was set long ago.

I'm now seeing if a creative piece floats up, but I may have to go back and read the 'Rat' series again...

Meanwhile, for theories, we're reading Walter Benjamin. Now I have read bits before, and didn't mind last weeks chapters (though Theses on the Philosophy of History' left me cold - and confused. The tutor makes it all seem interesting even while I try and work out where it's all going (and how it relates to my writing). The toolkit so far has inspired me more.

Fiction has made me very insecure about the 4000 work piece I put in - and it suddenly seems childish and badly conceived. To be honest, it's not the sort of thing I would normally write, but I am struggling to get off the ground with the other novel, it's so intense, so painful. I think it's going to be a tricky novel to read, really. I'm a straight down the centre, realistic writer normally, but this book won't write itself like that. I shall console myself with polishing the short I wrote the other day (well, flash really, six hundred words but lots of leads). And working on that poetry (so much work!). Reading White is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi and for lighter reading, Kelly Armstrong's Walking the Witch. It must be Hallowe'en coming up...   

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Wow, what a ride!

Having been away from Devon for six weeks, I went back on the train to see my family and go to an A363 tutorial on the Saturday. The intense tutorial was held in a room with barely enough room for all the students from two groups. The tutor was full of energy and enthusiasm, if lots of sweeping judgements about the books we enjoyed. She has been very generous with ideas about how she intends to mark the assignments and what she is looking for. She was rather scathing about some of the mistakes people can (and do) make, especially those students in the less able/experienced half of the group. All of whom are improving and learning, just the same, and she was open about the point of the course being for academic excellence rather than creativity. She also thought writing exercises had no real value but I thought my previous tutor's exercises were amazingly helpful. I've got a 'writing marathon' coming up - six hours of writing exercises. Excellent - we should have a lot of good ideas and starting points out of all that. I'm just about ready to do a final check on TMA01.

We're critiquing people's work - some of which is a challenge. The two 'big pieces' we've been asked to critique are of a very high quality, totally different. I'm trying not to panic because my 4000 words has already gone in (gulp). 

Going back to Devon made me realise something about how I write. At home I'm full of creative ideas, but can't edit very well. It's as if my creative side is free but my critic lives in Winchester. One thing the A363 tutor suggested was being creative and critical in different places or clothes or making some physical difference as well as time difference. I may have to work on that. On the plus side, I have written about 1000 words on the rewrite of the novel today as well as all the reading.

We've been looking at Walter Benjamin's essay in Theories. That's been interesting but I found it dense, and possibly not all relevant now. It did make me think about art though, in terms of is it reduced by reproduction? A very intense discussion that has left me even more unsure about what art is, what beauty in art or writing or music really is. It seems strange to link it to Fascism, or as a tool to protest Fascism, anyway! Something another student said - and an exercise in surrealism - sent my mind down another poetical path...

In the Writer's Toolkit we had to do some research into other theories of beauty, and I started reading St. Thomas Aquinas (and Umberto Eco's thoughts on him) which led me back to Plotinus and onwards to Immanuel Kant. But it wasn't until I got out of the car on our drive, and looked up at the house and the nature reserve opposite that I was hit by the beauty of nature. I ended up almost stifled by words and images and movement. I kept wandering around the rooms, which seem huge, the windows framing the view. I ended up sketching out poetry.

For fiction we had to read more John Gardner, chapter 5, 'Common Errors'. It as it says on the tin, all very helpful. I moved onto Chapter 6 as well (it was a very long train journey) which is all about technique. I'm looking forward to a bit of spare time to read chapter 7 and maybe summarise all the useful stuff that I highlighted. (The book is rainbow coloured now. So much useful stuff.)

Anyway, it's all very helpful and I can't believe how liberating it is to have time set aside to really think about writing.

Sunday, 10 October 2010

John Gardner's book

I'm reading The Art of Fiction by John Gardner at the moment. Chapter 1 is about aesthetics and about breaking the 'rules' of writing. there are useful techniques and ideas, but we mustn't treat them as carved in stone. It's OK not to tie up loose ends. Sometimes telling is fine. Writing what you imagine is better than just writing what you know. Invention and imagination rule. He claims we are responding to the writer's humanity when we engage with good writing. He urges writers to trust their instincts, write what seems aesthetically right to them, not outside limits.He suggests that while good storytelling is inborn rather than taught, there is value in learning about writing, doing extensive research, allowing other writers to critique your work. Ultimately, chapter one asserts, 'All great writing is in a sense imitation of good writing.' By which he means we recognise the effect good writing has on us, what we get back from a successful novel. So he strongly recommends reading the great works of fiction, as a training ground for presenting our own stories and ideas. By writing, we develop an idea of what works and what doesn't.

On to chapter two, this week's reading for fiction. The first idea is one that I'm coming to realise is a big issue in people beginning to write. Spelling, syntax, grammar and punctuation. I know I'm pretty good on these, although my two finger typing comes up with some very silly mistakes. I was surprised to see how many fellow students make simple spelling and syntax mistakes, or don't know how to punctuate speech (admittedly, a bit tricky). The next point is that 'the artist's primary unit of thought--is genre.' He urges us to write what we love. This is trickier for me, on my present course, because I don't exclusively read literary fiction, I love well-written thrillers and creepy fantasies and historical books. The important word is still well-written, I suppose. So I'm continuing to play with the YA book, partly because I like the characters and where they are going, partly because I'm scared to look at the more grown up book. It faded and died somewhere, and it's like sitting with a corpse to work on it further.

Gardner suggests that mixing up genres is how we keep things fresh and original. I adore Chaucer and he mixed it all up in Tales. I'm struggling to find time to read the Calvino I bought, but I think I must try a bit harder. Gardner speaks at length about the importance of convincing our readers. He suggests there are three types of writer and they do this in different ways.

Realist writers place their stories in the real world, using details that sound convincing. Like embellishing a lie to make it more plausible. Realist writers fill their story with the weather, the place, the time, making everything fit so that the characters actions rise out of this nest of detail. We believe them (at least temporarily) because it has verisimilitude. (I leaned how to pronounce this on the website howjsay, I do recommend it!) It's almost as if the writer is reporting a true story.

What Gardner calls 'the writer of tales' persuades the reader into suspending disbelief by charm, by invention. The narrator is so convincing and confident in their imaginary world, that the reader is drawn in as well. The writer still uses details, but they can be novel rather than familiar.

The 'yarn' writer allows a narrator or character to tell huge lies, even though they are clearly lies or mad inventions. Mark Twain's Baker's Bluejay Yarn still has a talking bird, but the setting is so real you are almost sitting on the roof with the bird, looking through the shingle knot hole with him. Vivid detail is what brings all fiction alive.

Gardner explains that 'fiction does it's work by creating a dream in the reader's mind'. He explains that the worst thing we can do is interrupt that process, burst the imaginary bubble. As I work on 'Borrowed Time' I'm aware of the importance of keeping the point-of-view flow going, keeping the characters authentic even when they do what probably appears surprising to the reader.

Apart from that, I am enjoying Rolando Villazon's Handel CD. He, along with Paul McCreesh and the Gabrieli Players, have recorded a lovely collection of arias that really suit the mad Mexican's voice. It's a lovely backdrop to my reading.

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Writing like mad

Despite all the reading (which I do with a highlighter to slow me down) I am writing and writing. I suppose this was what I moved all the way here to do, which makes tearing my family down the middle seem more bearable. But I am so homesick I'm starting to write bits that reflect that.

Yesterday we discussed three short stories by Chekhov (OK, not the bedside reading you would expect of me, I admit) and fell in love with one of the stories, The Lady With The Pet Dog. There were various debates in the room about his motives blah blah I identified with the main character, Gurov. He embarks on an affair to brighten up his holiday in Yalta, because he's bored and he's regularly unfaithful to his wife. Then, when the affair ends, he realises he is in love with her, even though she's many years younger and also married. He has to see her again and they end knowing that they have to find a way to be together, although it will be personally costly and difficult. He ends reflecting: 'And only now when his head was grey the had fallen in love, really, truly--for the first time in his life.' Then: 'And it seemed as though in a little while the solution might be found, and then a new and glorious life would begin; and it was clear to both of them that the end was still far off, and that what was to be the most complicated and difficult for them was only just beginning.'

It rang personally true for me, as I had got into my forties before I fell in love for the first time. Listening to some of the people talking, I wondered if they, like me up until I met my partner, thought they knew all about love and had yet to actually get hit by the real deal. People were debating whether they would be together, given the obstacles of two spouses, children, and the era and culture. But I 'knew' they would, because love like that, you will spend the rest of your life making it work, even if you can't live together now. Doesn't that make me sound like a know all? Worse, a mushy know all. The writing was that real, a man who died in 1904 describing how I feel, what happened to me, as if he knew me. That's got to be good writing. (At least neither of us were actually married at the time I fell in love - just about.) 

I've been inspired by Aristotle to write a short story about a man who claims he is Aristotle (reincarnated). I'm having fun with it, he's got a great sense of humour and it's nice having a character you like and see so clearly. I've also finished a short story about a child painting a shed she's been given as a Wendy house, while adult dramas rage on outside. Our eleven year old was playing with Lego while two of our sons enacted some teenage drama over a girl. She did take a bit of an interest but the Lego model she was making was so interesting it was more important. I'm taking it to fiction next week for workshopping. Having discussed character, I'm also looking back at my novel's characters, getting to know them better. One of the main character in the novel is less visible to me, I think I'm giving her a wide berth because she's 14! Having brought up five teenagers and one still to go...

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Language again

Last night we enjoyed looking at language, its origins, the way that written literature is structured by looking at the classics. We ended up on a big discussion of metaphor.

Personally I think metaphors evoke sense memories. I could describe someone in adjectives (he was unemotional, distant) or in terms of his actions (he spoke in monosyllables, sticking to the facts) but 'cold fish' (even though hackneyed) says it all. 'He was an emotional mackerel' says it too!

This class always leads me back to poetry. I fell in love with Billy Collins' Aristotle and that flavoured the whole discussion for me. I loved the poems of Sappho, the metaphors there lead to sense memories of trembling and matching it to passion, delicate fragments of very persoanl poetry. But the Iliad got me the most, Chistopher Logue's poetic arrangement is lovely, a real epic poem.

We then had to make up creation myths - this one for music. Apologies for this first draft!

At the beginning, the world was silent. Rivers flowed like glass, like ice. The wind tiptoed between the trees and the animals creeped. They saw the perfect, silent world and feared shattering it. They lived in the silence, as if it was dark, as if they were still.

Animals bred in silence with other animals. Mice mated with fish to produce toads, worms mated with lizards to produce snakes. Finally, a squirrel and a grasshopper produced a baby, all hands and feet and tail, which climbed and swung and jumped all day. It was the first monkey.
'Mother,' smiled the monkey, 'where are you?' But the mother was hiding discreetly in the canopy, and did not see her.
'Father,' waved the monkey, 'where are you?' But the father was hiding discreetly in the grass, and did not feel her.
The baby couldn't wait any longer. She opened her mouth and filled her lungs with sweet air. She screeched, a noise so loud it shattered the silence into tiny pieces, to blow away like dust.

All the other animals called back with squeaks, chirps, clicks or howls; the rivers started to tumble in their new sounds; the leaves played with the wind and the music of the world was born. The fish liked their bubbly, splashy music and made only more fish. The birds liked their singing or shrieking or hooting and made only more birds. Of all the animals, the monkeys and his children and grandchildren made the most music, and prospered in the new world.

Sunday, 3 October 2010

The language

Well, after a busy week in which I have read Aristotle's poetics, looked at Chekhov, rewritten a half finished piece, started a new one, researched a couple of writers, fallen in love (again) with a  new poet, tackled the library... I was asked to write for 10 minutes on the first memory of when I became aware of language.

Like most of us, I took speaking and walking for granted as a child, and reading came to me very young and very easily. My mother taught me to write very young, as my father worked away. So, from my early memories of feeling the power these sticks and curves on the page had, I wrote a fictionalised version of writing a letter to my dad.
Sitting on the table, hard, cold surface, printing the letters to Daddy on his ship. Words I can't spell, words I take for granted, pinned to piece of paper to go halfway around the world. However far that is. Further than my grandmother's house, or further than the Isle of Wight, perhaps. Letters are spiky, capitals, too big for the lines that cut them into bits. D for Daddy, L for Love, drawings of seagulls around the edge because I can draw them, a yellow sun. Language, reduced to the worlds I can spell, the letters I can copy. How do you spell duck, park? Big words, words lettered over my head like code, hissed, hurting words from Grandma. Words you can say and words you can't. I can't write my sister's name, the H is too hard, gets squashed. Slow pencil, smell of crayons, paint, wood, the hexagon edges cutting into my fingers. Impatient pencil slipping, crunching on the paper, tearing the soft blue. Kisses ripping the seagulls.
Then we were asked to think of a time when our ability to use language was praised or valued. I found myself exploring time when 'white lies' were valued in the family. My fiction at school grew out of the need to create new and interesting worlds. I know people all say school was boring, but I find boredom agonising, I never leave myself with nothing to do. I always have a book on hand, even when I'm watching the telly. Or a laptop...

He also asked us to think of a metaphor for my relationship with language. The first one that came to mind, strongly enough to drive any others away, was Breathing. A life without language, for me, would be like being a fish, just sensation and movement, colour. I use language to see, and to take pictures in words. Sounds fall into words, I can almost spell music. Words evoke sensation, smells, light and shade. Words are everything.