Friday 30 November 2012

NaNoWriMo Winners 2012

So words are all written, the cake is made (but not iced yet), the t-shirts are on, and set to become my new favourite (they were pre-ordered and hidden in the drawer, just a touch of motivation, though I did not doubt we could do it again.). As you can see I struggled through the month rarely keeping up with the daily target, spending days at a time dithering around and then doing three or four thousand words in one go. Last year I had finished my 50,000 by the 19th, this year I dragged on to the bitter end. As much as anything I think of it as brain exercise, I do plenty of handicrafts but not so much braini-crafting. I will be going back to Dunk's cable jumper and the hexipuffs for the next few weeks (and of course coping with the Christmas pressure at work) and then I am thinking about applying my brain to another project in the new year. There also hovers in my mind the idea of doing a MA in creative writing, Julie picked up the information for me when she went to the MMU post-grad fair last week.
(Edited 9.08pm) We cobbled together some rather wonkily cut letters and Cake was duly eaten:

Thursday 29 November 2012

Words from a Glass Bubble

I bought this book on the spur of the moment from Salt after reading a review, then, as is frequently the case, it sat in the pile for the next year. This is not the book to read as you wander through the creative maze that is NaNoWriMo, since it is writing that I long to be capable of and fall so far short of. Sometimes I find this encouraging and at others disheartening. 

It is a story collection that spans such a range of ideas and characters. Although they are all so different I did sense a bit of a theme, mainly sadness, and a need to hide it or compensate for it in some way. It is not just good writing that makes a good story, it is good observation and understanding, the feeling that it says a little something about the human condition. In other reading I came across this idea, from Schopenhauer, and it seems most apposite: "Artists and philosophers not only show us what we have felt, they present our experience more poignantly and intelligently than we have been able; they give shape to aspects of our lives that we clearly recognise as our own, yet could never have understood so clearly on our own. They explain our condition to us, and thereby help us to be less lonely with, and confused by it." (From The Consolations of Philosophy by Alain de Botton). Dunk disagreed; he has been reading 'Where the Heart Beats', about John Cage and Zen, and he had apparently been trying to move away from the notion that art should reflect the human experience but should somehow be a thing in itself. I'm not sure I'll get to the bottom of this as Zen, by it's very nature, seems to require answering all questions with another question (or maybe that's just Dunk in avoidance mode). 

I however like stories to give a little insight. What might you chat about while having colonic irrigation, for example? I liked Tom, a small boy who makes up a story about going to the circus, to avoid having to tell his teacher that his nan died at the weekend:

"When Tom got home from school, there was Mrs Pym Next Door in his house. She smelled of Vim. Dad was busy but he'd be back later.
Then he went to go upstairs, and got halfway up, trailing his hand on the wallpaper, when he remembered. The room seemed echoey without his small Nan in it, like the fireplace when the fire's gone out. There was no point in looking anywhere." (There Were Tigers. P.111)

and the girl, who's sister has a magical form of synaesthesia, that leaves her feeling as if she is not special enough:

"Water, she said, was dark blue knives, sharp as flint, the sound; the feel of it slippery elongated esses. The scrape of knife on toast was green gloss of holly leaves, avalanches on distant mountains, and the taste of butter round and grey like polished pebbles.
On the beach I stared at pebbles. Held them in my hands, brought them to my lips. Ran my tongue over them quietly. To me, they were just pebbles, and I would be told to put them down." (Tasting Pebbles. p.135)

Some have a surreal quality, like 'Simon's Skin', about trying on another person's body; others have a more gothic feel, like 'The Lynch-Warmer', a tale of a tiny church and a family of women who care for the dead. Strangely I quite liked 'Dodie's Gift' about a lonely middle aged woman getting to know a strange holiday maker and then being raped:

"She tries to make something out of yesterday's incident that isn't hopeless. She won't allow herself to name the act that happened here, and will wonder, if someone takes something you were going to give them anyway, is that stealing? She will think. In time her thoughts will become memories, and she will recall a little kindness where in fact there was little, and some meaning where there was none at all." (p.69)

But the most poignant is 'I Can Squash The King Tommo', about a man who takes care of 'Batty Annie', a crazy old woman who is the mother of his childhood friend. He has spent his life trying to console her for the death of her son, feeling responsible in the way children do, trying to make amends:

"By the time Tommo gets to the tunnel, Annie will be inside, her slippers soft on the moss and stones. He'll breathe shallow at the stink of piss. He will see nothing at all as the light is gone, taken by the wind. He will feel it, cold on his face, as he hunches his shoulders, coughs.
Annie? come away now...
Tommo will hear her breathing, sharp, each intake like a sob. He'll hear the scritching of her net against the bricks, a scuttle of tiny claws, the damp velvet dark pressing on his ears. And the sound. The hooooing of the wind, magnified now. And if Tommo puts his hand on the wall, presses his fingers into the grease and soot, he can feel the wall trembling, still. As if the coal train is coming. " (p15)

Just one a night, to give time to think about each, it has lasted me through much of November. Wonderful stuff.

Saturday 24 November 2012

Poetry groupies

A wonderful afternoon was had by all, and it was quite a crowd that ventured out to the Whitworth. The event was put on by Poets and Players and included some very mellow jazz from Matthew Halsall,  Taz Modi, Gavin Barras and Chris Davies, followed by readings from Suzanne Batty and Simon Armitage. I have written about his collection 'Seeing Stars' and his most recent book 'Walking Home' so I consider myself quite a devotee, so while the audience loitered I took the opportunity to get him to sign my copy of Seeing Stars. I was a little awestruck and just thanked him for the reading and told him I had written about him on my blog. 

Buy Nothing Day

(Photo Upcycling)
Today is Buy Nothing Day
Now I frequently buy nothing, whole days can be spent when I hardly leave the house, but it is always good to remind yourself that it is part of an attitude to life, that things you buy should serve a purpose in your life rather than just filling the cupboards. 
So today I will (again) be mostly writing, with a bit of cooking and a bit of going with Jules to hear Simon Armitage (he's at an event at The Whitworth Art Gallery this afternoon in case you're free and in the vicinity.)

Wednesday 21 November 2012

The Scroll

Greetings from cloudy Sussex. After our intensive night of writing I have popped down to spend a few days with my sister Claire. We had made plans to go up to London for the day for a bit of culture and I was browsing 'things to do' sites ... and what should pop up but the information that the original scroll on which Jack Kerouac wrote 'On The Road' back in those hectic three weeks in 1951 was in London for the first time and on display at the British Library (it's there until 27th December).
We really, genuinely didn't notice the 'no photographs' signs. I stepped back to see if we could get a better view of the whole thing when I realised. Fortunately no one came and told us off, and it turned out that the one shot Claire took of me shows off the scroll really well as it stretches away into the distance. 

It is an object lesson in silencing your 'inner editor', one of the bits of advice that are doled out to help NaNo participants to reach that coveted 50,000 words. For Keruoac it was all about avoiding interruptions to the creative process of what he called 'spontaneous prose'. Although written in one go the details in the story had been meticulously recorded in a series of notebooks made during the long road trip that he took with Neal Cassady. There are some minor XXXX type corrections but otherwise the text flows down the paper in a continuous stream of words. I discovered in searching that you can buy a book copy of his original first draft, which I can see would have some curiosity value for writers, to be able to literally see the editing process in action. You can see on the scroll itself, for example, that when he wrote it he used 'Neal' throughout; his name in the final version is replaced with Dean Moriarty. There are sections on the scroll that have been crossed out in pencil and regular little notes in the margins. It was fascinating to see and I was glad I had the opportunity, such a significant piece of literary history. 

In another room we browsed the first draft of 'Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis' by Wendy Cope (utterly illegible), some Angela Carter, saw Jane Austen's writing desk and the original hand written words to a couple of The Beatles songs. The Magna Carta was being 'rested' so we missed that, but all in all a very worthwhile spur of the moment visit. I was just sorry I hadn't bought my laptop as it would have been fun to be able to say I had written a few hundred words sitting in the British Library.
My original review of On The Road can be visited here.

Monday 19 November 2012

The Night of Writing Dangerously

In NaNo-land, in sunny California, they have a fundraising event during the month of NaNoWriMo called "The Night of Writing Dangerously'. Now whilst our version of the event was not quite so luxurious, stylish or sparkly, we had fun nevertheless (isn't that a good word).
Creature likes to update her word count regularly, so to record our night's achievement we made a permanent record of our starting numbers at sundown:
I looked up sunrise, found to be 7.43am, and set an alarm that was to be our stopping point.
We decided on the 1000 word mark to be our first halt (she had to wait for me and was getting twitchy.) Tish came home from dancing class and pulled a face at the thought we had eaten all the sushi ... but we saved her some:
 Writing continued apace throughout:
Midnight marked cake time. I had made us a rice krispie cake to celebrate the half way point (though had well surpassed that by now). It was rather too sticky so much finger licking ensued:
We broke up the intensity of the night with some randomly selected episodes of Gilmore Girls, the 'basket buying' episode and the 'egging Jess' car' episode. Creature tried to insist we could write and watch, but laptops lay abandoned for a brief while (I worked out how to use the self timer on the camera too):
 During the early hours it began to get a little chilly so we snuggled up under the blanket. The slight blur here caused by the speed of our fingers vibrating the very foundations of the house:
We soldiered on, I was determined I was going to reach the 30,000 point before succumbing to sleep (Creature had been sure I would barely make it past 2am). The hours seemed to slip by once we got past 1am and we hardly noticed the tiredness. Tish popped back in around five and popped some more sushi as a early snack but left us to it. I finally began to flag and admitted defeat at around 6am and we decided to call it a night. Final totals were recorded:
Giving us a nightly word count of 5456 and 6275 respectively.
We retired to bed well pleased with ourselves.

The doorbell rang just after nine ... the men arrived to do the cavity wall insulation!

Saturday 17 November 2012

Happy Dungarees Day

We are real multi-taskers in our house.
Here are Creature and I participating in both NaNoWriMo

Thursday 15 November 2012

Extreme writing avoidance tactics

Here is our lovely new bedroom curtain rail.
Here is Creature's lovely new bedroom curtain rail.
Here is Tish's (also known as the spare room) lovely new bedroom curtain rail. (excuse the crumpled state of the curtains, she refused to let me iron them)

I bought these curtain rails nearly two years ago, just after we moved into this house. They have sat in the box they arrived in, hidden behind a bookcase in the corner of the living room this entire time. Every holiday I have vowed I will get the curtain rails put up. Every time the one in our room fell down I vowed I would get the new one put up (it was propped in place with an IKEA pencil jammed in the screw hole). NaNoWriMo seems the perfect time to finally get around to it. I am not all that far behind. I just need some more encouragement chocolates. Definitely going to make it to the write-in tomorrow evening at Madlab.

Tuesday 13 November 2012

Quiet and Indolence

 Life had been very busy recently and reading has been in distinct contrast. This first book, 'Quiet: the power of introverts in a world that can't stop talking' by Susan Cain was discovered on Brain Pickings (a most wonderful spot for interesting ideas about all sorts of things). So anyway, you know how the world is divided into two kind of people (depending on who you talk to the categories are different of course); those who divide the world into two kinds of people ... and those who don't. One of the most significant divides in terms of personality however is the extrovert/introvert divide. The world is set up for, and places a high value on, the traits of the extrovert. Modern society, with it's cult of personality has exacerbated this to quite an extraordinary degree; we give most attention to the people who make the most noise. Bits of the book concentrated too much for my interest on the impact of this preference for extroverts in the workplace, describing how research has shown that in fact the whole 'open-plan office' and 'team brainstorming sessions' are not necessarily the most effective way to get people to work well. For every Richard Branson there is a Steve Wozniac  who has had an even bigger impact on the progress of modern life. People forced to work in groups spend too much energy either trying to impress others or afraid of not impressing them that could be better spent on actual working. I liked the idea of 'No Talk Thursdays', giving people a space when they weren't obliged to focus on communicating with others. And then there was the idea of 'Rubber Band Therapy'; "We are like rubber bands at rest. We are elastic and can be stretched, but only so far." People can adapt their natural selves to fit in with the expectations of an extrovert world but taken too far they will just snap. I remember overhearing a colleague at work commenting that he 'didn't trust' someone who didn't go to the pub. The assumption being that if you don't like sitting with a gang of people in a noisy atmosphere, getting drunk and talking about football there must be something wrong with you. I came to the conclusion after reading the book that I am not really an introvert. I guess most people are somewhere in the middle; I can enjoy my own company perfectly well without feeling lonely but sometimes I like to be around others, in the midst of warm friendly conversation. An interesting read for anyone seeking to understand their partner's reluctance to leave the house.

I followed this up with 'On Trying to Keep Still' by Jenny Diski, an unashamed introvert, a travel writer who much prefers to stay at home. 
I am not sure whether she intends her account of her trials and tribulations to be amusing but I found myself laughing out loud on several occasions. She goes to an isolated farm house to write, trying to make herself as unobtrusive as possible, only to discover that the farmer had been concerned by her lack of 'going out for a walk' and had been on the verge of knocking on the cottage door to check she was ok. She continually finds herself compromising her own introvert preferences in order to fit in with the behaviour that is expected of her by the people around her. I loved all her slightly wry observations and her unselfconscious assessments of what she encounters on her travels. Although she goes to all sorts of strange places the things she observes somehow have a universal truth about them.

On seeing a bungee jumper in New Zealand:
"Vertigo comes at you, like short-sightedness, with middle age. I think it must be to remind you that there are certain things that older people don't have to do any more, like experience all the fun of the fair. At any rate, I have to send someone to get books from the stacks of the London Library because I can't stand on the metal grating with plunging views which they call floors." (p.32)

Sorry, this is a long one, it was irresistible, again from the chapter in New Zealand, the book was worth reading just for this encounter with religious craziness in the middle of nowhere:
"Just inside the café doorway I stopped in my tracks. The interior was as bleak as any bus station café is supposed to be, no surprise there - but the far wall, opposite where I stood, was a bit special. it was covered from floor to ceiling in a huge hand-painted mural so naive in execution that it made Grandma Moses look like Durer. It depicted the Four (considerably-larger-than-life) Horsemen of the Apocalypse, head on, galloping out of the wall (if only the painter had been able to master perspective) towards the tables of travel-weary customers sipping their English Breakfast tea and chewing on dismal blueberry muffins, waiting for their connections. The horsemen wore their credentials in bold black capital letters on white headbands, making them look rather like hippies (not I think, the painter's intention): CONQUEST, WAR, FAMINE and DEATH. They wore, at any rate their bodies consisted of, white robes, and they bared their uncannily white teeth to prove they were up to no good. The horsemen were, of course, seated on horses, though you could only be sure they were equine if you knew who they were. Without their labels round their foreheads they might have been four people in nightwear sitting on large dogs, or deer, or any biggish and brownish animal with ears and four legs by no means in the right place." (p.37-8)
She approaches the woman as she leaves and asks about the mural and it's accompanying leaflets, I liked her final reflection here:
"She shook her head. 'It's nothing to do with me. It's the boss. He's eighty-five years old. Says he's passing on what he's learned about life.' Her tone is neutral. She didn't care one way or the other. Maybe when I'm eighty-five, I'll buy a bus station and know by then what it is I want to pass on." (p.41)

Not only is she an introvert but she craves, as per the title, 'keeping still'. The chapter entitled 'On taking walks' begins and continues in her inimitable style:
"There are two distinct aspects of not going for walks. One, which happens when I'm alone, is the simple joy of continuing not to move, in spite of internalised voices telling me to do something. The other, which can only occur when I'm in company, is the profound pleasure of being left behind. The exhortation of others works wonders of indolence in me. Fresh air, nature in its season or the adrenaline rush of the inner city, when pressed on me, though I don't doubt their charms and excitements, make me shrink in my chair, wishing the room smaller, the windows shaded, the chair deeper, the door locked." (p.105)

Some people (when I was a child I thought like this) assume the world revolves around them, and then it just goes and proves it does. While at the farm in Somerset:
"It's the highest point on the common land. A vast spread of bracken where you can stand and look out all over Somerset, stitched together with fields and hedges. So I stood for a moment and took it in and then thought what a pity it was that there weren't benches set out around the countryside for those of us who had no wish to tramp about. I glanced behind me and to my right and there was a bench perfectly placed for looking out over the entire scene, hills, valleys, fields, and horizon. I was quite pleased with myself for summoning it up." (p.194)

Because she spend the entire book struggling for solitude and stillness there is quite a lot of reflecting on the nature of existence, meaning of life and why anything. I wrote down lots of examples but they are mostly too long and need the context of the rest of the page. What is most refreshing is her utter lack of pretentiousness and total honesty, she examines her own life and choices and finds them lacking, in anything:
"I hankered, when I was at home and subject to interruption and the (not excessively demanding) presence of others, for long periods of solitude 'in which to think', uninterrupted time when, at last reliably alone, I could 'be myself'. My agony is not what I find in the stillness of being alone, but what I do not find." (p.213)
"So my unsatisfactory thoughts about my unsatisfactory self had trickled on in the blissful Somerset silence. Time passing, the days rolling over into new days, the length of time left to me before I had to return shrinking so speedily that sometimes whole afternoons were given over to panic over the coming end of my sojourn and the nothing done. And I wondered about writing a book about what being alone is really like. About insubstantiality and emptiness. ... But doing, and the kind of doing that is writing, is an inability to come to terms with emptiness. In fact, an attempt to escape from it: to turn emptiness into substance - narrative, marks on a page. A fundamental lie. A failure at the core
So I return home and decided (again) that things and I were the way we were, and that things and I would go on being so, but I could at least stop fidgeting and keep still ... I had a shed build at the bottom of the Poet's garden ...I can fail to think here as well as anywhere far away, exotic or isolated, in the world. No need now to go any place at all." (p216-8)

Ending with the wonderful irony of being a travel writer (especially one who would rather stay home). From the Epilogue:
"Mostly what she experienced on her actual journeys, aside from dreary airports and wan hotel rooms, was her anxiety to be experiencing something. Like everyone else she took photographs and wrote diaries: snatching at the here and now of where she was and hoarding images of it up for the future when she was no longer there and was no longer then. As a result she was always focussed in advance of herself. Never quite where she was supposed to be going when she got there. A very wearying way to exist. Travel was more a fear of the future and overcoming death than a paying attention to the present." (p.298-9)
It seems in the digital age where people seem to experience life from behind their phones and their cameras she has summed up a modern malaise. For someone who claims to prefer to avoid everything and everyone she is an astute and dispassionate observer of the human condition. Thoughtful and highly recommended.

Wednesday 7 November 2012


Big sigh of relief all round this morning to find that Obama was re-elected as President of the USA yesterday. I don't watch a great deal of news but it felt like the Romney campaign was shouting so loud that they had managed to drown out any voice of reason. While in reality they are all just part of the massive corporate machine, and it is scary that so much power, particularly economic and military, rests with one person, at least I feel as if Obama has some basic humanity about him. 
Back to the novel now.