The great blog tour

In two weeks time I shall be co-hosting the annual NAWE and Lapidus retreat at Ty Newydd with Anne Caldwell, so I’m really pleased that Anne has asked me to come on this blog tour. It’s perfect timing.

At the moment I’m dividing my time in roughly three ways. I’m working on my first novel, running training workshops for counselling teams based on my book Writing in Bereavement, A Creative Handbook, and running creative writing workshops in south Cornwall, where I live. The novel is my first and it feels like an act of faith. I had the kernel of an idea for it nearly ten years ago. Now that I am finally writing it, the story is unfolding before me in ways that I could not have predicted. I’m pleased (and relieved) to find that I am still excited by the characters and their situation; they seem to be telling me the story as they live it on the page, not the other way round.

How does my work differ from others of its genre? My book was a bit of a one off. When I first became interested in the therapeutic value of writing I decided to specialize in bereavement because it seemed to be falling between the lines of other therapeutic writing handbooks. I’m trained to provide bereavement support as a volunteer with Cruse Bereavement Care, so I bring an understanding of the theory behind the way we grieve, as well as a writer’s grasp of creative techniques. It sounds a tough area to work in, but it isn’t, at least not the way I choose to do it. Participants in my workshops often comment that they are pleasantly surprised to have written about positive memories and experiences, and that they have had fun in the process.

I write what I do because of experience and curiosity. As an only child whose parents were also onlies, I am fascinated by families in the way someone looking into an aquarium is fascinated by fish. I can only imagine a world of siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles, and the difference they might make to my life and personality. As the last tree in the forest (apart from second and third cousins, of which I have many), I am the inheritor of a wealth of family stories and memorabilia. I feel responsible for the telling and retelling of histories that were passed down to me as a child; stories about coal miners, steelworkers, school dinner ladies, typists, rugby players, tennis coaches, actors, soldiers, butchers, teachers and – somewhere along the way – a travelling sewing machine salesman (there’s a lost trade if ever there was one). When I join in with other people’s family gatherings I love to hear their anecdotes. I feel a similar need to share mine, but in my case the audience is the wider world.

As for my writing process, it depends what I’m writing. When I wrote my book I approached it as a project from research through drafting and structuring to editing. I had a plan with every week of the year mapped out ahead of me so I met my deadlines. It might sound constricting, but it worked and I enjoyed the process. There were lots of lists and the satisfaction of ticking things off when I’d achieved them. If I’m in a poetry writing phase it’ll be jottings in a notebook, lots of reading, watching and listening, then a draft around an idea, then transferring it onto the laptop, where the craft and the look and shape of it takes over. If it’s an article or a piece of prose, I think about the reader. How can I entertain and inform them? A novel, as I’m finding now, is like wrestling an idea to the ground and finding it has shape-shifted in the process, then trusting it to lead me in the right direction.

Next week Nichola Charalambou will be in the blogging seat. Nichola is the founder of Creative Writes, which runs supportive Creative Writing Workshops across London. Based in North London. Nichola believes that free flow writing is the way in to every kind of writing. She is currently seeking out interesting and inspiring venues around London. Her blog is Diary of A Workshop Leader and can be found on the Creative Writes website: http://www.creativewrites.co.uk/

 

Dear Hanif Kureishi

I’ve read your comments in The Guardian in which you question whether creative writing can be taught. http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/mar/04/creative-writing-courses-waste-of-time-hanif-kureishi Perhaps you were having a bad day in the creative writing tutor’s office. It sounds as if you do not enjoy that aspect of your job.

Others quoted in the article, and in subsequent responses to the piece, have answered your question in ways with which I agree. These other writer-tutors are, like you, published authors of renown. It is refreshing to hear that they put such energy and passion into guiding the next generation of commercially successful writers. They see the worth in encouraging would be writers to find out what sort of writer they might be and, in some cases, whether they are writers at all.

To be a writer is one thing; to be a teacher of creative writing and one who enables others to write is another. Hanif, you’re clear that you would never do a creative writing course yourself. Fair enough;  you’re one of the lucky ones who doesn’t need to. Talent and early commercial success have bypassed that stage of your career for you. For others, it is different.

Take me. I embarked on a creative writing MA after a long career in marketing. I had always wanted to be a writer but, when I did an English degree in the 1980s, creative writing was not on the academic agenda. We studied literature as critics, not as potential writers. The craft of writing was barely considered. We learned how to analyse and deconstruct, but not how to create. My writing habit was driven underground. For many years I simply did not know how to coax it into the light.

When I chose my creative writing MA, that changed. I steered away from the ‘write your novel or poetry collection in a year’ type course, of which there are many. I chose one that offered a module in how to be a writer in the community; in other words, how to be a writer in residence with a host organization and how to facilitate writing by others. Other elements of the course offered plenty of opportunity for me to explore form and genre and to work out what sort of writer I might be, but the ‘writing in the community’ module equipped me to go out into the wide world with skills to teach and support others attempting to write. Quite simply, whether I was published or not (although I soon was), it made me employable.

It probably helped that I loved this part of the course. I found the practical assessment, in which we had to carry out a structured writing workshop with the examiners in the room, scarier than my driving test, but I realized that there was real joy to be had in enabling others to write. Hanif, I wonder if that’s your problem. I imagine you love the writing part of your job, but do you truly love the teaching part? Many successful writers who become tutors have never received training in how to do it. No wonder they struggle.

Not everyone who embarks on a creative writing course does it to win fame and fortune. People are more realistic than that. From evening classes to one-day workshops and full MAs, you will find diverse intentions among the participants. I always ask people what they hope to gain from the experience, because it helps me shape the course content. Over the years I have heard statements such as ‘to write better dialogue’, ‘to give myself time to write’, ‘to learn about structure’, and ‘to do something creative because my day job is eating my soul’. These are all valid reasons.

For some, doing a course means they feel able to call themselves ‘writer’. It gives them confidence and validity. For others a course enables them to feel the way a musician, artist or athlete feels when they do the thing they love and are good – or good enough – at it. It is not about finding a fast route to being published, or making a living from writing. If those things follow on from learning about the craft and technique of writing, that is the icing on the cake.

So, Hanif, relax. Enjoy your teaching and do not worry if only a few of your students achieve literary success. If they do not, that is no failure; not theirs and not yours. I am glad to read, at the end of The Guardian piece, that your students value your tutoring. You are clearly doing it well. It is an inexact science and we can only offer students the tools with which to improve their writing craft. How they choose to use them, and what sort of writing life they make for themselves afterwards, whatever their degree of talent, is up to them.

Adventures in time and space

On 14 February I drove through two feet of angry looking tidal water to attend a workshop hosted by Victoria Field, entitled ‘Experience Poetry Therapy’. If it hadn’t been run by Vicky – one of the UK’s leading poetry therapists – I might not have risked the journey. In this winter of tempests, this must have been the fiercest so far in my far western corner of the country. I arrived late and dishevelled, my head full of fallen trees and tidal surges over A roads. I am a confident and intrepid driver, but the conditions had scared me.

Ten minutes later I felt calm and comforted. I was damp, but my thoughts were focused and my feelings were grounded. I felt present. How did it happen? A simple prompt offered by Vicky – ‘Why am I here?’ – and the gentle offer of a short period of time in which to write – six minutes – provided the containment I needed to bring me out of the storm and into the peaceful room.

Vicky’s prompt led me to write a list; disorganised at first, a jumble of protests (‘I am here because I dragged myself out of bed on a vile dark morning…’), that gradually gave way to positive statements (‘I am here because I want to be… because it’s important… because of courage… because my brave little car carried me here…[I’ll admit that last one’s a bit anthropomorphic, but the sentiment was strong]). When Vicky reminded us we had another minute in which to finish our writing, a couple of further statements of intent emerged, about wanting to learn and share with others, before allowing me to stop.

The next stage, a further six minutes in which we wrote in more depth about something that had come from the first part of the exercise, provided just enough space in which to explore something important.  

When Vicky called the final minute, it felt good and right to put the pen down. Straight away I was calmer, as if something had been expelled. The weather and angst that accompanied me into the room had blown away.

The containment of time is a technique I often use with new writers and with those I meet in a therapeutic setting. I think it works for two reasons: firstly, because it provides a deadline and deadlines mean focus. If the clock is ticking we are less likely to stare into space, more likely to get down to work. Second, the limits of time provide a sense of safety. We know we can stop after 5, 6, 10 or 15 minutes, whatever boundary has been set. The limitation of time provides a force field in which we write with a freedom that can surprise us. I know I was surprised by at least three of the statements I came up with in Vicky’s exercise.

Form can provide another kind of containment, by which I mean setting limits in terms of words and the shape of a piece of writing. If you have ever tried an acrostic or – better still – a timed acrostic, you’ll know what I mean. Try it now. Choose a word such as a name (your own or someone else’s) or a word to describe something about yourself – your mood today perhaps, or something about your personality – and make an acrostic poem from it. Simply write the letters of your word down the left hand margin of the page and use them as the beginning of each line. Give yourself five minutes. The awkwardness of ‘how do I start?’ is removed and you can lose yourself in the craft of it, finding words to fit the pattern created by the letters, like solving a puzzle.

When you’ve tried that, how about a ten word autobiography, or a six word story? Hemingway’s example is often cited:  ‘For sale, baby shoes, never worn’. The story of him winning a bet with Eugene O’Neill, that he could not write an entire novel in six words, may or may not be true, but it shows us how much can be said within the smallest of spaces on the page.

 

On the road

When you publish a book, the first months are full of activity to send it out into the world and get it reviewed in useful places. My publisher, Jessica Kingsley Publishers, was no exception when it came to launching my book, Writing in Bereavement, A Creative Handbook. A flyer was produced, review copies sent out, and a guest blog spot was made available to me. The results included some gratifyingly positive reviews by significant names in my niche field. I shall place a bag over my head to hide my blushes while you read extracts from a few of them:

‘Grief is…about discovering a new narrative, a new source of meaning to our lives. Jane Moss here shows us a way of helping bereaved people to do just that. It gives us a choice of techniques and suggestions, exercises and insights, that are well supported by research and which we can adapt to the particular needs of individuals at this turning point in their lives.’ – Colin Murray Parkes, OBE, MD, FRCPsych, psychiatrist, author and Life President of Cruse Bereavement Care, U

‘Here is a wealth of ideas and inspiration for those of us aspiring to work creatively with bereaved people using the written word…a truly useful volume to have for reference and advice for those of us working in the field of bereavement support and counselling.’ – Dodie Graves, counsellor, bereavement service co-ordinator and author of Talking with Bereaved People and Setting Up and Facilitating Bereavement Support Groups

‘…she scaffolds a structure for Writing in Bereavement that fosters continuity and connection in life narratives rewritten by the experience of loss. Whether you work with bereavement support groups or in the intimate crucible of grief therapy, you will find in this book an indispensable muse to your clinical creativity.’ – Robert A. Neimeyer, PhD, editor of Techniques of Grief Therapy: Creative Practices for Counseling the Bereaved

After the initial trumpeting, the business of promotion continues with mentions of the book in seasonal lists, quarterly mailings and my own efforts via social networking and personal appearances. This is where it becomes interesting, a year and a bit on. A book like mine is never going to dent the best seller lists; it has a strictly niche appeal so it’s in my own interests to woo that niche and get out and about to promote the book and the techniques it puts forward, as much as I can.

I love this part of the job. My readership is very specific, so it’s easy for me to go after them. I seek them out by visiting counselling teams, charities, volunteers and others who are providing support to bereaved people. I offer them a training session as part of their development programme. I can only reach so many people on my own, so training others is the best way to spread the word.

My training sessions run for anything from a couple of hours to a full day. I provide a live experience of the techniques in the book, inviting everyone to bring their own pen and paper and try out a range of writing exercises for themselves. In the process we consider ground rules and ethics, self care and how, whether and when to suggest this sort of thing to clients, with the caveat that it’s not for everyone. People share what they have written and reflect on the experience of expressing thoughts and feelings through their writing. We have fun, too, which is an important element. I am often facilitating the expression of sad and difficult thoughts and feelings, but the ability to also laugh and enjoy happier memories as we write about loss, is part of the therapeutic value.

Next week I shall be on the road, visiting three hospice counselling teams in four days. I shall reach over a hundred interested people and I will be paid for my time. I shall sell some books and, in the process, convert some of my audience to something about which I feel as passionate now as when I first pitched the book to the publisher.

Writing the book was just the first step. Marketing it never stops.

It was a dark and stormy night…

In a recent interview with BBC Radio Four’s Book Club, the American novelist Donna Tartt mused on the role that extremes of weather can play in fiction. Her own ‘The Secret History’ was cited as an example and she commented on the use of rain in ‘The Great Gatsby’. One of my own favourite moments from that novel comes when Daisy Buchanan suggests calling for an axe to let more air into the stifling hotel suite where the denouement is about to be triggered, like an electric storm.

The weather, like landscape, can function almost as an extra character, and yet another American, Elmore Leonard, has instructed us never – and he means never – to begin a story with weather.  Presumably he intends us to avoid cliché, but weather has many uses. It can bring atmosphere, create drama, and help to explain the actions of the people who live in it. Someone who is hot will move and behave in a certain way; someone who is cold, wet, windswept, or terrified or energised by thunder will be different.

Think of Laurie Lee’s peerless recounting in ‘Cider with Rosie’ of his earliest memory, arriving in the Gloucestershire village of Slade on a hot summer day. Think of the endless rain and sea frets in E. Annie Proulx’s ‘The Shipping News’; the Alaskan snows in Eowyn Ivey’s enchanting ‘The Snow Child’, and the way Dickens uses fog in the opening pages of Bleak House; weather as character and metaphor, creeping through the streets of London. The more I think about it almost any work of fiction I’ve enjoyed seems to have weather as an essential player.

While the storms are raging around us, in this gale and flood-ridden winter we’re having, try this: take a character you have in mind for a story. Describe them as a kind of weather, writing freely about them for five minutes. Read what this has produced and pick out any descriptions or details that work well. Cross out anything that might be a cliché or that strikes a false note (‘Her eyes looked like thunder’… Thunder is more a sound than a look). Now write a scene involving your character, in which the weather conveys something about them and their situation.

On a day like today, if you need inspiration, simply look out of the window. One thing’s for sure; the weather is always with us.     

The home librarian

I recently moved house. I moved a great distance and, while I was searching for my new home, all my worldly goods were placed in storage. When I was packing everything up, I imagined that I would miss certain items; my favourite armchair, my own bed, my kitchen pots and pans. I certainly did miss some of these things, but above all – and to a degree I had not anticipated – I missed my books. I have several thousand, many of them my own, some the ones I have inherited from a family of habitual readers and writers.  Being without them felt like losing my tools. I missed the ease of access to my box of tricks; the books that inspire me, that provide information, reference and triggers for my own writing and the work I do to encourage others to write. For several weeks I felt beret of my books.

Now I have them back, all in one place, I am taking delight in arranging them on my bookshelves. For the first time in my life I have brought them all together. Nothing is consigned to the attic or the cupboard under the stairs. Every book I own is in the house. I have given some thought to how they will be arranged. I toyed with the idea of organising them in the order in which I first read them, but quickly realised that this would be the path to madness. For one thing, not all of them are mine, not all of them have been read by me, and in some cases – I have discovered – I have more than one copy, purchased or acquired at different times. I have a couple each of Jane Eyre and The Great Gatsby, and four copies of Great Expectations. I was surprised to find that The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam features three times. One edition, bound in dark red suede, is small enough to hold in the palm of my hand. The other two are paperbacks, from the 1960s and 70s, judging from their psychedelic cover art.

The obvious system is to arrange my books alphabetically by author and, within that, by the order in which they were written. This has thrown up some enjoyable collisions. I have a whole bookcase devoted to poetry. Maya Angelou rubs up against Matthew Arnold. Seamus Heaney provides a buttress between Hardy and Homer. Wordsworth and Yeats glower towards the end of the bottom shelf. I am about half way through the fiction, with Bennetts Alan and Arnold rubbing shoulders, and Ian Fleming and Janet Frame sitting back to back. Food writing and travel will be for the dining room, life writing for the spare room, and history and documentary for the office alongside the dictionaries, creative writing handbooks and other tools of the trade.

Am I forcing my books into patterns they would rather resist? The system breaks down where a book is simply too tall to fit on its designated shelf, so I am having to allow flexibility. It may be asking too much of myself to be a librarian in my own home, but it feels satisfying to handle each book as it emerges from the big brown cardboard boxes, and to place it between its neighbours in a new home.

On the receiving end

During the past week I have been on the receiving end of a bundle of post, a bunch of emails and a load of phone calls.

These have contained, variously, some good news, some sad news, some bad news and some better news.

I have also been on the receiving end of a perfect example of how to facilitate a writing group. Usually I am in the facilitator’s chair but on this occasion I was a newcomer at the table. It felt good to be on the receiving end for a change.

It was good because the room was ideal for the activity of writing. It was a paneled room above a friendly cafe. There was strong coffee and a big table with space for everyone to spread out. The room had big windows that let in a hint of noise from the street below. I liked the reminder of real life and the dramas of traffic and everyday happenings going on outside. It didn’t disturb me, but made me focus, somehow.

It was good because the company was enjoyable; a group of relative strangers come together to share the simple act of putting words on the page. Our host was gentle, unhurried and inclusive. She offered clear simple prompts, set a time limit and let us get on with it. She invited us to share our writing without pressure. Her comments were insightful and constructive.

It was good because it was fruitful. Having had scant time for my own writing for many months, I came away with two good scenes that will stand further development. It was good because it will happen again in a fortnight. Regularity is important for my writing habit.

It made me think about what makes a good writing group. For me, it is all of the above, plus willingness as a newcomer to take a risk, plunge in and know that you have the support of the group and an able, sensitive facilitator.

What makes a good writing group for you?