Friday, 28 November 2014

Rural grit: the power of writing in nature

This morning I read Grace Nichols' poem, 'Wings'. I don't think I've ever heard her called a nature poet - I'm guessing people most often define her as a Caribbean poet - but in so many of her poems the natural world is powerful force, driving her imagery. Here's the opening stanza of 'Wings':

Consigned to earth
we thought it fitting
to worship only
the sustenance of our roots,
so that when uprootment came
in its many guises
we moved around like
bereaving trees, constantly touching
our sawn-off places.
It's so tender, so painful, it stopped me in my tracks.

The natural world is often god-like in Nichols' poems, but though there's plenty of myth, and there are gods, it's too big, too complex to be merely a god. And it's also too small - a single red hibiscus flower, a clod of Sussex earth stuck to a shoe. We're irretrievably connected to the natural world, we're part of it.

When I was young I loved stories like Wuthering Heights where the vast empty moors, the wild storms, the sheer indifference of the land were just as much a part of the story as Catherine and Heathcliff. The landscape, the snow, the driving rain, were alive, were powerful players.

But though I loved these stories, I thought it wasn't cool to write like that any more. I thought that now we were modern, nature wasn't just wasn't gritty enough, real enough.

It silenced me as a writer for a long time, though I should have known better. I read JG Ballard after all - how didn't I notice that his triangle of land between the motorways in Concrete Island was fast reverting to the wild? Graham Greene, with his whiskey priest sweating through the banana plantations? Margaret Atwood? Cormac McCarthy? Robin Roberston? Seamus Heaney?

Nature writers? Maybe not. But writers who understand the power of nature, yes. And writers of power, most definitely. You really don't have to be urban to be cool.

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

A crash course in writing dialogue

I don't write dialogue in my stories. Or at least sometimes I do, and then almost always I cut it out again. 

I know it's a handicap. I even went on a one-day dialogue writing course with the lovely Vicky Grut, and afterwards I did think I could write dialogue - a major step forward - but somehow I rarely get the urge, mid-story.

So I've really no idea why I said yes when a friend said, you write stories, don't you? How about writing our village play about the home front in the Great War?

I procrastinated, of course. I wrote an outline, and we workshopped it. The workshop was great - some new ideas, some offers to research particular areas - but I was left with my outline and a lot of stage time to fill, a lot of dialogue to be written.

So I read Paxman's Great Britain's Great War, I ambled about the internet, I listened to archive recordings ...

Till I had one week in which to write sixteen three-minute scenes. 

So I sat down and I wrote. And I discovered that writing nothing but dialogue is liberating. All you have is people's voices - their words alone must tell us everything about who they are, their motivation, what they're hiding, what they fear, and what they all think about each other. So all you can do as their writer is put them in a space and hear what they say to each other. What a joy!

Of course, you also have to find ways of transmitting information, without it being in the least bit obvious. And you have to create a bit of tension in each scene so your audience doesn't fall asleep or start talking or texting. And you have to have some idea of the overall story, and keep it on track - it was terribly tempting to go off down some of those small side lanes, pursuing an individual character's particular passion ... but I dragged them back and I think we got there.

I finished the first draft yesterday and sent it off to a trusted friend and to the director. It's rough around the edges, but I think it's all right. And I really enjoyed writing it.

Tomorrow, I'm returning to a story I started ages ago. It has one character and no dialogue, but I've a feeling that may be about to change ...

Monday, 15 September 2014

Cycling round Sweden without a plan

Photo (c) Ian Butler
Well, I've stopped dripping now, and my legs are beginning to feel normal again - we've been back two weeks from our holiday in Sweden, where we cycled north from Gothenburg to the very southernmost tip of Norway, then south again.

It was beautiful.

It was also quite stunningly wet. On re-reading my diary, I see that day 10 was the first on which we had no rain at all. And on many days before that we cycled through storms that put parts of the region under deep floodwater, and my lycra shorts in a similar state.

Oh, and my bike broke - a spoke snapped so the rear wheel buckled and the brake stopped working. And my gears did too, so the hills were really quite tough. My pannier came off too, but it's amazing what you can do with old guy ropes and duct tape.

Still, it was wonderful. Each morning all we had to do was eat, pack our tent up, pile everything onto the panniers, and set off to see what the day would bring.

We knew almost nothing about Sweden, and hadn't planned our route. We found a campsite on the map and cycled off to find it, and if we didn't like it, we carried on to find another.

We had our phones, but rarely found wifi, and sometimes had no signal. So we disconnected from home.


Photo (c) Ian ButlerIt was, of course, really hard work. We rode about 45 miles a day, sometimes much more, and our bikes were heavy. And what this meant, for me at least, was that I was exhausted - and this was the best thing of all.

I didn't think about anything. And I certainly didn't think about writing. I let my brain empty out at last, and it felt really, really good.

I've written a separate blog about the trip, with lots more pictures and details of the route and other stuff. It's called Hey hey! A cycling tour of Sweden, because my Swedish never got much beyond 'hey hey!' - as soon as I'd said hello, any Swedish person would break into English.

Do go to Sweden. Eat herring. Swim in a salty lake with crabs and jelly fish. Find amazing bronze age carvings. And let that pale blue air empty your mind.

All photos (c) Ian Butler

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Looking for clues: five days in London, July 2014

I've just spent five glorious days in London seeing friends, visiting galleries and museums, watching plays and films, and walking and cycling all over the city.

I didn't especially plan what I saw, but here are some highlights - and an emerging theme.

At the Serpentine, Marina Abramovic's 152 Hours uses only her body and the bodies of the visitors to create a work of art.

She asks us to explore the work in silence, often eyes shut. We become highly aware of the people with whom we share the space, and of our own bodies. We have left everything else outside. We have only our bodies and our senses here.

We modify our behaviour - one man jigs and bows to the people around him when he arrives, but no one responds, and gradually he too becomes still.

I am strangely comforted to be tucked into a bed alongside maybe twenty others on identical beds - no one has tucked me in since I was a young child. But tucking in brings not only safety but an agreement to lie still. The bed isn't important, but the stranger's hand is.

At Dennis Severs' House in Spitalfields, there are no bodies except our own.

All we have are the objects left behind by a family of 18th century silk merchants and their descendants. They have, it seems, only just left - we see half drunk cups of tea, an overturned chair, hear a ticking clock.

How much of these people is held in the physical space they once inhabited?

Jennifer Haley's play, The Nether has just opened at the Royal Court (this is their image) and it's uncomfortable to watch. The scenes alternate between two locations. The first is an interrogation room - bleak, featureless and grey - where a young officer questions two men about their involvement in an online world. In this world visitors can have virtual experiences that are as rich and real feeling as reality.

The other location is that virtual world, beautiful and carefully detailed, where visitors may indulge their paedophilia without fear of exposure. As watchers, we feel we are taking part in this world too - and feel compromised because we have chosen to visit a place where terrible things happen.

But we also know that this is a created world, a world that only exists in the mind. And for me as a writer, created worlds are what I make. I defend my right to create worlds as strange and uncomfortable as I want. Is there a boundary over which we should not step? What happens when the virtual experiences we create, and live, become as important to our identity as our experiences in the physical world?

I'm sure there are intellectual giants who can immerse themselves in such wonderful stuff from dawn to dusk, day after day. Lest anyone thinks this is the kind of person I am, here are some other highlights:

lashings of cake (thank you Zoe for introducing me to Princi and their magnificent and enormous slices after a splendid visit to the National Portrait Gallery)

the joy and freedom of a bike (still a pleasure when it's 29 degrees in the shade because it's way better than a bus or tube)

regular views of beautiful buildings (my very lovely friends lent me their flat and this is what I saw each day as I left and came home - thank you, it was wonderful)

and deep breaths of fresh air and the scent of hot plants in the Chelsea Physic Garden. aaaaaaaahhhhh!

Thursday, 12 June 2014

Words come when you're not looking

As some of you will know, I've just started spending every Wednesday writing.

It's remarkably productive, because in the six days between Writing Wednesdays (they're so important that they absolutely deserve capitals), I think about the story I'll be writing the following week. Wednesday morning, I'm ready to get going as soon as I've drunk some coffee.

The kitchen is really clean on Thursdays because wiping down drawer fronts, washing up all the cutlery or scrubbing the fridge helps me to think about the knotty problem I've just come up against in the story I'm writing.

I'm getting fitter too. Yesterday I had a revelation about the end of a story while cycling up a particularly vicious hill. I put it down to lack of oxygen in my brain making it see strange connections.

Doing something that's not writing, but while you're writing, is the best way to see a new angle, hear a resonance, or smell a character who's been hiding in the undergrowth.

And here's another thing I've found out.

Last week I finished a story I've been writing since January. Then I looked at another story that I completed a while ago and realised that I needed to cut the first half of the first sentence. I went back to the first story and found that it needed a few teaks that I hadn't been able to see while embedded in it. I made the changes and sent both stories out - the first in ages. Reading another story helped me to step back from the one I was writing. By coincidence, Adam Marek, whose stories I admire hugely, blogged this week about working on two stories at once and how it helps him to see each more clearly - take a look at how it was for him.

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Writing without guilt

This is a happy woman.

I've struggled for years to find time to write my own work. When I've crammed stories and poems into days when other people expected me to be writing copy for them, I felt guilty that I wasn't earning money (or at least probably wasn't - we have to have hope when we write stories that someone might pay to read them). When I wrote in the evenings and weekends I felt guilty that I was ignoring my family.

So I"ve instituted a new thing. On Wednesdays I will write for myself. I'm keeping my diary clear, and I'm being firm with myself and with the people I love. Wednesdays are for me, and I won't spend them cleaning out cupboards or doing the accounts, or soothing anxious brows, or anything except writing or thinking about writing.

Up there, behind the mug, is a woman who's just spent a day thinking and writing, and she feels much better for it.

Sunday, 13 April 2014

Reading cure

It's a myth that when you're ill, you catch up on all that reading that's been piling up behind the armchair.

In my book pile there's all sorts of interesting stuff and I've just had a vile cold for three weeks, but I couldn't concentrate at all, so I haven't touched the pile.

On the other hand, I did want to read and I didn't want to read rubbish. I don't lose my critical faculties when I'm ill - I just want to read stuff that's quite straightforward, or so short that I've a chance of staying awake till the end.

So here are some books I'd pick off my shelves for a good friend who's just retreated under their duvet with a nasty bug.

Any Maigret novel by Simenon. They're entirely predictable - everyone assumes the obvious culprit did the crime, but Inspector Maigret sits in bars, watches people, mulls, and then conducts an all-night interrogation in his office, smoking pipe after pipe. It's wonderfully soothing.

This is pure comfort reading - I started reading Maigret when I was at school, and I studied French at university so I could spend a year drinking in ill-lit Parisian bars like Maigret. I never made it to Paris, but I still love the novels.

My comedy comfort-reading equivalent to Simenon is a Jeeves and Wooster novel. I've read them all, and am always happy to tuck myself into one again. It's like eating a bar of milk chocolate in your pyjamas. Sheer indulgence.

Lydia Davis's short stories. 
Short stories are great when you can only stay awake for half an hour, and Lydia Davis's are brilliant - they're hugely varied, though she does have a distinctive deadpan tone, and often surprising. And they're really short, most of them, so you can read one, reread it, and fall asleep thinking about it.

I’ve just reread 'The Cottages', in which the narrator simply describes two old women she knows, and in the gaps between the two descriptions lies some kind of revelation. It's three pages long, and beautiful. Here's the opening:

'She is seventy-nine or so, and on the one hand it's hard to talk to her (she has come to dinner, it's just the two of us; she eats much more than I thought an old lady would ...'

Diaries: when I'm not up to doing anything, it's good to live vicariously and read about what other people have been up to. My ideal diary is one with a bit of self-deprecation, a dry wit, and a seam of anger. Chris Mullins is great for this, and in moments of feeling glum, I also go back to Alan Bennett:

'When I come back from filming - emerge, as Goffman would say, from an intense and prolonged period of social interaction - I feel raw, as if I have in some unspecified way made a fool of myself.' (Filming and Rehearsing, 18 March 1978)

Novels: I've just read Hannah Kent's Burial Rites. What a joy - an old-fashioned novel, with characters you care about and puzzle over, a plot with layers that you never quite know if you're going to understand, and a landscape that I feel I've lived in, so embedded was it in the story. Kent pulled me into 19th century Iceland so entirely that I emerged blinking at the end as if I too had spent a year in the darkness of a turf hut with Agnes. Awesome.

And here's the perfect novel for when you're beginning to feel better, so you can read for several hours without falling asleep. Philip Hensher's The Northern Clemency is the huge (738 pages) story of two families in Sheffield over several decades. It has rich characters, a delightful fondness for suburbia in the 70s and 80s, and a wry humour. Here's a joyful snippet from a scene in a supermarket:

'The Tannoy announced a good deal for today only in Gateway, ten pence in the pound off beef mince; a voice so weary with tragedy, it might have presided over the fall and decay of a thousand cities, each of them reducing beef mince by ten pence in the pound as its walls fell.'

Finally, I'd just like to say that Middlemarch is a rubbish book to read when you're ill. I read it recently, because I felt I should, and because I'd given up on it once before. I don't like giving up on books, so I persevered. And when I reached the end I realised that I had read it all the way through before, but had forgotten the whole thing. First time, I was ill with ME, and read it in a brain-dazed state. So now I've read it twice, and don't need to read it again. So there.

Friday, 31 January 2014

Why I keep all my theatre programmes

In my office, I have boxes of programmes - I buy one every time I go to the theatre or an event, and have never thrown any away.

In these boxes are some of the first plays and films I saw as a child 

(The same local panto has been running for at least thirty years and I've been most years. The jokes haven't changed, and it's one of the most immersive theatre experiences I've ever been part of.)

and some that still send shivers down my spine years later 

(Willard White's deep, beautiful, ravaged bass voice and the fateful lines, 'Put out the light, and then put out the light' - no one else has ever made me weep so much in this scene.)


or which I've seen many times 

(Because the play transformed my understanding of what a writer could say about the meaning of life in two short acts where nothing happens, but everything does.)

as well as some more nights that I can't believe I'll ever forget

(because they were simply breathtaking and exhilarating

or because the writer had created some something truly surprising and beautiful).

Despite my heap of programmes, I quickly forget when I saw a play or a film, and often retain only a vague impression of it, or perhaps a single scene or image.

So to jog my memory, I thought I'd list the plays and films I see on my blog, starting now. Then I thought, why stop there? There's often a strange communication between the books, films, plays and galleries I spend time in, so I'm going to keep a record of all of them.

A key to the images above
The pantomime, every year, the Royal Vic in Southborough
Othello, 1989, Young Vic
Waiting for Godot, 1997, Old Vic
Jerusalem, Royal Court, 2011 (photo, Royal Court website)
London Road, National Theatre, 2011 (photo by Mark Douet)