Forty-one and fighting.

I wrote this exercise for my Write Club group a couple of weeks ago. I call it I am born and it’s simpler than a two times table or the sky in a child’s painting or… other random things that are also quite simple. (My brain doesn’t seem to be working today: I blame the election.)

It has to be written in present tense (or else I’ll come round personally and tell you off) and each ‘chunk’ of your life is addressed in a single sentence: you’re aiming to capture a snapshot from that part of your life.

Lickle me and my nanny Gladys.

Lickle me and my nanny Gladys.

I am born and my hair is black. 

I am four and I look fat in photographs.

I am twelve and I still believe in God. 

I am fourteen and nothing has really gone wrong yet.

I am sixteen and miserable now, heaven knows.

I am eighteen and aching to leave.

I am twenty four and I don’t know yet that I’m pregnant.

I am twenty five and feeding fifteen times a night.

I am twenty nine and serious about writing.

I am thirty-one and sad about my skin.

I am thirty-five and can see the hill in the distance.

When I read this to the group in class I opted to maintain an air of mystery, amidst the crows’ feet, by stopping at thirty-five. But life didn’t stop at thirty-five, I’m glad to say (although, back then, I did feel it might be winding down, like that hideous bit when the lights come on at the end of a party and everyone blinks).

In another life I’m fairly sure I was a tortoise (slow and thoughtful; fond of lettuce), and hence, you see, I’ve decided I was just in hibernation. Under the straw in somebody’s shed. Tucked away in my shell.

But it’s Spring now. On my street, as I write this, lawns are being mowed. There are wildflowers in the grass strip between lanes on the way to the Sweet Briar Roundabout and, in between watching idiot drivers weave from one lane to another, without so much of a blink of their lights, I can turn my face a fraction of an inch and see those flowers. They make me smile. Am I silly for smiling at flowers? You might think so. I don’t.

There is always more life to be led. Well, not always, of course. I haven’t yet become immortal. We lost both our tortoises one awful Spring when my mum left them too long in the shed and if sheds are a metaphor for death (which, apparently, they now are) there’s a shed waiting for all of us, eventually. Which is why it’s important to do things now while you’re alive. Not tortoise-y things, bless them, because four hours with your face in a water trough isn’t something I’d particularly sanction (and neither is humping your good lady companion whilst she’s chomping lettuce; there’s a time and place for these things, as I used to think, in my childhood years, glancing out of the bedroom window to see poor Flash in the process of being molested by Speedy) but you can certainly come out of your shell (see what I did there) and get involved with your community, your country, your world a wee bit more.

And so I’m campaigning. Not like a tortoise; more like a yappy dog (that a fair few people would probably kick in the face, if they could). I’m campaigning because it’s wrong not to, if things are happening that you’re not very happy about, and you have a voice (I think I do).

Since I started campaigning I’ve been lucky enough to sit on a panel for the People’s Question Time with Natalie Bennett and Rufus Hound, where I shared my experience of depression (among other things) and finally got to say a public thank you to the nurses who played such a big part in keeping me alive last year.

Photos courtesy of John Ranson and Ann Nicholls.

But the fight continues. We have a Tory government, and our Tory government is hell bent on privatising every last inch of our country. They’re hell bent on privatising my daughter’s school, and if that’s something you, too, feel strongly against, then join our campaign here on Facebook.

And so, as this post ends, we come to the end of my timeline (so far):

I am forty-one and fighting.

Long may it continue.

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Other people’s work.

One of the hardest things about being a writer (unless you happen to be Stephen King, Jackie Collins, John Grisham etc) is having to spend the lion’s share of your time reading other people’s work.

You have to do this because it’s notoriously difficult to make a living from actually writing. Unlike bank managers, say, who are able to pretty much exclusively manage banks for a living, writers are expected to also have ‘day jobs’. A novel that takes upwards of two years to write (and some take much, much longer) could earn you far less than the minimum wage. A sobering thought, she writes (reaching for the wine glass beside her).

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An ‘umble writer begging for a crust of bread.

Some of you who read this blog will already know that my ‘day job’ (and, often, my night job too) is Creative Writing Teacher. if you’re interested in seeing the sort of things I teach, I direct you to the Exercises menu up above (i.e. at the top of this screen; it isn’t floating in the sky, I’m afraid. Although I sincerely wish it was). The actual teaching is fine, and often fun, and even though the cows have come home hours ago I’m still talking about writing… which is my silly way of saying I rarely run out of things to say about fiction. I love it. I love helping people get better at writing, and (most of) my students are extraordinarily nice human beings. They send me hampers of Cornish goodies to enjoy whilst watching the tennis and buy me notebooks at art exhibitions and give me ruddy lovely books for Christmas. (Students, you know who you are.) Many of my students have become friends, and that’s A Good Thing.

So I’m not carping. But I spend hours, and hours, and hours reading other people’s work. I spend hours, and hours, and hours writing comments about other people’s work, and then suddenly I turn around and… shit! I was meant to be writing a novel.

Today is one of those days. I literally (I really do mean literally) cannot remember what I’m writing about. Which scene was I on? What’s my novel called? How does one write a sentence that isn’t a response to a sentence already written by a creative writing student? Why does an ice wind blow when I open the Scrivener file with my novel on it? (And while we’re asking questions: is it positive or negative that my dishwasher’s broken? Washing dishes by hand is labour intensive, yes, but Agatha Christie got her best ideas while washing up…)

The weird thing is, I think teaching has made me a better writer. I’m much faster, now, at deciding what I think about a sentence, and landing – with the accuracy of my cats in the vicinity of a spider – on the precise problem that’s causing an ending to fall flat, or the reason a piece feels empty, or the single thing (sometimes the single word) that needs adding to make a thing make sense. I’ve got better and better at structural editing. Words and sentences have always felt either ’round’ or ‘non-round’ to me (round being good…), but now I can feel the roundness or non-roundness of an entire story, or scene, with fairly impressive speed. (Other people’s, I hasten to add. I’m still more tortoise than hare when it comes to my own work.) I’m good at striking out sentences that are nothing but echoes of what’s gone before. If a sentence says nothing new, then you ought to remove it. I’m good on the difference between story and plot, and I ought to have some kind of cape and a tight lycra costume for my superhuman efforts to eliminate the twin beasts of the Info Dump and the Unnecessarily Fancy Speech Tag.

All this makes me better, faster, simpler, more honest. Reading is reading (whether published or not), and writers ought to read. Must read. (I doff my cap here to Andrew Miller who writes, in the Guardian’s masterclass on fiction – ebook available here – that a painter who wishes to paint a tree must do two things: look at trees, and look at pictures of trees. Well said, Sir.) It isn’t the reading, per se, that’s the problem: it’s the mulling, and pondering, and probing, and mulling, and pondering, and commenting, and wondering, and mulling, and pondering, etc that a conscientious teacher does, and does at great length, quite often, while the clock ticks, and the day darkens, and the memory of her own novel creeps quietly into a corner and lightly festoons itself with cobwebs.

I'm not remotely religious... this was the best image I could find of a dusty book.

I’m not remotely religious… this was the best image I could find of a dusty book.

Anyway. That said, I must go. I have marking to do. And dishes to wash. And a novel to write. But that’s another story…

Hot meat and the skateboarding George Orwell: a thing about voice.

‘It’s one of those places that are supposed to be very sophisticated and all, and the phonies are coming in the window.’

So says Holden Caulfield of good ole’ Pencey Prep (still my favourite ever school name; Malory Towers a close second) in The Catcher in the Rye.

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Image source

I’m a writing teacher. Most of the people I teach are beginners. A few have raw talent that just needs the edges hemmed, and a few have a talent that’s medium-rare to well-done (though they still mightn’t have the discipline for the long slog of drafting again and again) and a few are so good I do wonder if they should be teaching the class instead.

But the things I see oftenest, as a teacher of novices (briefly visualised myself as a nun there, just for a second) is writing that’s meant to be very sophisticated and all but ends up being merely phony.

If I was a different sort of teacher (i.e. a bitch) I might award badges.

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But I’m not. So I don’t.

Not least because I’ve been guilty of phoniness myself on more than one occasion and, anyway, these are beginners. You don’t sit down for your first piano lesson and come out with this:

 

But neither can you ‘allow’ people to carry on writing like phonies without at least pointing out that, hey, there’s another way. And that way is actually lots more fun. It allows you to write with your Own Goddamn Voice, as Holden might put it.

‘Never use a long word where a short one will do, said George Orwell very sensibly (and English-ly) in his essay Politics and the English Language (1946). He also said:

  • Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  • If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  • Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  • Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  • Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
... and he's cross that you wrote cerulean when you just meant blue.

… and he’s cross that you wrote ‘cerulean’ as a fancy way of saying ‘blue’. You dick.

I part company with Orwell somewhat on the word ‘barbarous’, which no doubt was less of a sore-thumb sixty-something years ago when the essay was written. But otherwise:

  • The fewer blankets of snow, and skies of gun-metal grey, and light flooding through windows, the better.
  • If it is possible to cut a word out without spoiling the sentence’s cadence, cut it out.
  •  Use a passive occasionally for particular effect. (Penelope Lively’s Next Term We’ll Mash You has a perfect example: a schoolboy being borne away by a headmistress)
  • Anglo-Saxon all the way.
  • To paraphrase Flannery O’Connor, you are free to do whatever you can get away with. But no one in fiction has ever gotten away with much…

Curiously, since these six rules seem ruddy good to me, and fairly inoffensive, Will Self got his knickers in a twist in The Grauniad a couple of months ago, with an article declaring Orwell ‘the supreme mediocrity’.

The comments, of course, are rife with ‘smug git’s and ‘takes one to know one’ and a reference or two to Self’s affliction with the most socially acceptable of the diarrhoea family: the verbal variety. In Self’s eyes, Orwell seems a Michael Gove-like repressor of young minds, rejecting the language’s tendency to mutate, a bit like a virus, and telling us all we’ll be shot in the face if we dare to use words of more than one syllable.

Talk about making a drama out of a crisis. Or indeed a mountain from a molehill (she says, offending against the first of Orwell’s rules). I was reading, t’other day, about something called ‘outrage porn‘: intellectuals enjoy being irritated as much as Disgruntled of Norfolk in his/her letters to the editor of the local rag about disrespectful youths on skateboards, and Will Self has whipped himself into a froth about Orwell in much the same way. What he’s basically saying is:

Oi, Orwell, your wheels are too noisy, you’re going to trip someone up in a minute, and get yourself a haircut, boy.

Oi, Orwell! You're not big and you're not clever and I'll wrap that skateboard round your fecking neck in a minute.

I’ll wrap that skateboard round your fecking neck in a minute, son.

Self can’t subscribe to the Orwellian way of writing because it isn’t his way. And that’s fine. You only need to catch a clip of Self on the telly, talking the talk, to know that Self is naturally verbose, and erudite, and borderline-pompous. That’s his voice. It works on the page, as it works in person. It isn’t quite enough to make you want to shout Park Life! at the end of each sentence

but that’s only because Self drawls and pauses and generally talks at the pace of a snail in one of those dreams where the floor’s turned to syrup and forward movement becomes an impossibility – but Self, like Brand, wears his vocab on his sleeve, and why shouldn’t he? Nothing wrong with that.

But the chances are that Orwell’s ‘rules’ were intended for novice writers. And, speaking as someone who teaches novice writers, there’s nothing wrong at all with encouraging people to write simply.

Hum Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, for instance. (Even if you don’t think you know it, you definitely do.) Watch the green notes in this piano tutorial:

and note how stunningly basic the tune is, moving in steps up and down the keyboard. And yet, how memorable. And how well it lends itself to development…

 

I love a short word, me. I’m Orwell’s bosom bud in that respect. A favourite exercise of mine is to write a scene using words of only one syllable: the result is always tight, clean prose, and it’s most of all useful for those who must first insert a poker into their derrière before commencing the transference of their thoughts from brain to paper, as if they’ve never actually heard themselves speak and have no clue at all what their own voice is like. Of course I understand that certain of your characters may care to describe the lowering of their denim-clad derriere into the ready embrace of a chintzy armchair whilst relieving a curved fruit of its indigestible yellow skin, but ‘she sat down, peeling a banana’ is a perfectly decent sentence and not to be sniffed at.

Tiny words, I salute you.

Tiny words, I salute you.

 

The ‘hot meat’ of the title has nothing to do (thank God) with the contents of Self or Orwell’s trousers. I gave my most recent class of beginners the task of writing a scene in single syllables – and, because it’s Christmas, the scene was ‘cooking Christmas dinner’. Straight off, turkey’s out the window of course. (Not literally. Although that might have been an interesting way to go…) So immediately your brain’s got to find a host of short, sharp words that it wouldn’t ordinarily have looked for. One student (lovely and smiley, and I hope she doesn’t mind me quoting her if she ever reads this) was forced to return ‘the smell of the cooking turkey’ to the Shelf of Mediocrity, and instead wrote the rather joyous sentence:

The cat smelt the hot meat.

Something, of course, that a child could write. But the same argument that applies to modern art (‘I could’ve done that myself!’ ‘Ah yes, but you didnt…’) applies in spades here: yes, a child could write that, but we, as adults, with all our fancy long-syllabled crayons on the table, so often forget that simple can be beautiful. What did the cat do? The cat smelt the hot meat. I understand all those words perfectly, immediately, and my brain doesn’t have to perform an obstacle course in order, BANG, to grasp that image straight-a-bloody-way.

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Red and yellow and pink and green… violaceous and apricot and cobalt…

 

I’m not saying you can’t play with long-syllabled crayons: of course you can. (Occasionally, sparingly, or all the fricking time if that is your natural voice – or the natural voice, of course, of your first person POV… or third person free indirect… yada yada.) But don’t neglect your hot meat either, because here’s the thing: the most beautiful, lyrical prose has to do with the way – like musical notes – those words are joined together, the music they make on the page, in the ear, for the eye. Even Will Self would agree with that. And if he doesn’t… just flip him the bird as you rumble by on your skateboard.