Saturday, 26 March 2011

Displacement activity, revolving cats... and WWWhen the internet comes good

We've all been there. Sitting in front of a blank computer screen, waiting for inspiration to strike. The wonderful Douglas Adams put it very well when he said that writing was easy, and 'all you have to do is stare at a blank piece of paper until your forehead bleeds.' My forehead is unscathed, so I'm obviously not doing it properly yet.

It is so easy to get distracted and drawn into other things when the words just won't come, especially if you work at a computer, rather than writing by hand, and have the internet on tap.

I had a day like that yesterday. It finally struck me quite how low I had allowed my afternoon to sink when I found myself yielding numbly to a 12-second YouTube clip of a tabby cat spinning wildly from the cord of a ceiling fan. And don't tell me the colour of the cat isn't important.

But I did redeem myself, I think. Minutes later, I found this item on the Guardian online: Guardian Ten Rules for Writing Fiction

It's a lively selection of advice from some of our best-known writers, including Margaret Attwood, Hilary Mantel, Roddy Doyle, Michael Morpurgo and Jeanette Winterson. I found myself really galvanised into action once I'd read it.

Here are a few miscellaneous snippets (the italics are mine):

  • Writing is work... Other people can help you a bit, but essentially you're on your own. Nobody is making you do this: you chose it, so don't whine. (Margaret Attwood)
  • Do give the work a name as quickly as possible... Dickens knew Bleak House was going to be called Bleak House before he started writing it. The rest must have been easy. (Roddy Doyle) Yes, it must have been ...
  • The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you're allowed to do whatever you like. (Neil Gaiman)
  • ... record moments, fleeting impressions, overheard dialogue, your own sadnesses and bewilderments and joys. (Michael Morpurgo)
  • Stay in your mental pyjamas all day (Colm Tóibín) I liked that one especially.
and finally:
  • Work on a computer disconnected from the internet (Zadie Smith) ... Hmm. Yes.

So then. Back to work. With a pencil and a piece of paper. And no internet. Completely free of distractions. Oh, hold on, though. What's this? Oooh, the Boat Race! I think I'll just...

    Thursday, 24 March 2011

    Family likeness

    I’ll be honest, I know very little about sheep.

    I know even less about lambs. I always assumed all lambs looked alike: disproportionately long legs and knobbly knees, and out-sized feet that resemble neat little platform shoes. Oh, and pretty faces, obviously.

    But I was stunned yesterday when walking in Weardale to come across a Blue Faced Leicester ewe and her two new lambs. Now, I may know very little about sheep, but I can recognise a Blue Faced Leicester when I see one – its distinctive Roman nose, bluish face and elegant, upright ears make it unmistakeable.

    The noble profile of a Blue Faced Leicester!

    What struck me was how well-developed the character of the lambs, which can only have been a few days old, already was. They had the distinctive face shape of their mother, although soft and sweet in a baby animal way, and the ears already had their attractive curve.*

    I eventually had to be physically removed from this scene by my long-suffering husband. This was, after all, a work day for him – he needed to do some photography – and I suspect he was worried he might lose the light altogether if we didn’t get a move on.

    Never mind. That image will stay with me and remind me that, after a long and difficult winter, spring must finally be here.

    * In a moment of mental abberation while I was watching the lambs, I temporarily forgot my husband was a photographer. If I'd asked him politely, I might now have been able to post a nice photograph of the lambs themselves. Ahem.

    Tuesday, 22 March 2011

    Seeing the smaller picture

    I had a lovely visit to the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery recently. I always enjoy it there. For a start, the setting is wonderful: Grade II* listed splendour, all airy spaciousness, a beautiful collection of William de Morgan tiles, and an elegant tea room (where, I freely admit, my visits invariably begin - the coffee is good and the Danish pastries are the biggest I have ever seen).

    The Museum is hosting a major Pre-Raphaelite exhibition - 'The Poetry of Drawing' - featuring drawings, watercolours and designs from the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and their associates. This is a true feast for the soul, and I'd love to go again but it's a four hundred mile round trip.

    I’m always contented if I come away from an exhibition captivated by a single work, something which has caught my imagination enough to stay with me, and which would have been worth the entrance fee in itself. It doesn't have to be the biggest or grandest or most impressive of the exhibits, and very often it isn't: what usually attracts me is the more intimate, human moment, captured simply and eloquently.

    This time, amongst the fine watercolours, intricate textile designs and bright schemes for stained glass, what really caught my eye was Millais' small pen drawing, 'Lovers by a Rosebush', which depicts a pair of lovers and their dog in a luxuriant garden.

    The couple are adorned in mediaeval dress, she with a fine veil covering her head, rendered with a single line. Hand-in-hand, they both look towards the ground: the woman's skirt has caught on a rosebush. The picture captures the moment where the man delicately frees the skirt from the thorn on which it is hooked.

     'Lovers by a Rosebush' John Everett Millais
    © Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery

    This image would have been exquisite if it had simply shown the lovers in the garden with their dog. But with this small, everyday detail, Millais has added extra humanity to his picture. Almost like a photographer, he has captured the ‘decisive moment' which brings meaning to the scene; and like a good script-writer, he has enhanced his vignette of two people in a garden with interest and incident. 

    'The Poetry of Drawing' is a true delight, and I really would recommend a visit. The exhibition continues until 15th May 2011.

    Tuesday, 15 March 2011

    Living history

    I was at Roman Vindolanda in Northumberland yesterday. The museum, along with its cousin, the Roman Army Museum a few miles west, has just re-opened after a multi-million pound redevelopment, and the whole thing is looking superb.

    Amongst the wealth of treasures on display, one little piece of information caught my eye: a caption for a case full of glossy red Samian pottery. The caption said that the maker's mark on some of the pieces of pottery was identical to that on pieces found in an unopened crate unearthed at Pompeii.

    Here was a craftsman, doing his job, who is now immortilised, not just in one country, but in two, hundreds of miles apart, almost two thousand years after he was producing his work.

    One human being, one magical little piece of history.

    Saturday, 12 March 2011

    The sand-box approach

    My husband informed me over lunch today that what I'm engaged in with my blog at present - it is only two days old - is known as the 'sand-box approach'. I had never heard of this concept, but immediately I said, 'So I just play around with it and see what happens?' And apparently that's exactly what that means.

    The words 'sand-box' immediately brought to mind an old photograph my parents have. It shows a toddler in a pair of pink dungarees, playing earnestly in a cardboard sand-box (we really knew how to have fun in the 70's), on the rather barren patio of a brand new Wimpey bungalow.

    The garden and patio are a beautiful, lush little haven now, without a whisper of the childhood or the sand-box (though I can still recall the pleasant mustiness of the box and the grittiness of the sand between my fingers). Perhaps the blog is my replacement sand-box, a safe new place to play and experiment, but with words this time, instead of a spade and a blue plastic saucepan.

    I'm having fun behind the scenes, adding and adjusting elements, asking myself 'What happens if I click on this...?' and trying out things generally, so I can make this work just as I'd like it to. I hope I'll get into my stride pretty quickly.



    Hello, and a warm welcome to my blog.

    At the beginning of this year, I determined to set out in earnest on a new career path as a writer. I've dabbled in writing before, but always met with self-made obstacles - chiefly a crippling lack of confidence - at which I invariably fell at the first attempt!

    Well, panic has set in now. I've realised that I'm genuinely not getting any younger and if I leave this very much longer, I could end up old, unfulfilled and disappointed, and that thought really does horrify me. It's amazing quite how motivating a factor fear can actually be...

    So, here I am, at the start of what I know will be a long, hard journey, but hopefully a happy, interesting one full of adventure too.

    I hope that my blog will serve a number of purposes. I would like to use it as a platform for my writing, both fiction and non-fiction, as well as to share my experiences as a new writer, and my own hints and tips. I will also use it as a means to muse on the questions which occur to me from day to day, questions about the nature of life, being human, friendship, and anything else which happens to be exercising my imagination or passions.

    On a much more (even more?) prosaic level, I'll be using the blog as a way of disciplining myself to write regularly. I've been reading extensively around the subject of writing, and the one message that comes back time and again is quite how important it is to make writing a habit.

    I do hope that you will enjoy what you read. Please leave a comment if you'd like to. I suppose it goes without saying that warm words of reassurance and encouragement will always be welcome! But so, too, will debate and constructive criticism.

    Thank you for visiting.