Category Archives: Writing

In the deep midwinter

It doesn’t feel like winter really gets going until the end of January. December is too jolly, and often too warm. It’s the last week in January that I start to feel winter seeping into my soul.

By February, we’ve had three months of getting up before dawn and heading home after dark. At our rickety office, we huddle around the convector heater, drink tea and eat biscuits to keep warm. This morning, as I gazed out of the window hoping for some kind of inspiration from the same old view of a leafless tree and a street lamp, snow started its soft fall, a teasing flurry that drifted away like a dream.

20171210_093625.jpgI have three survival strategies for winter: books, food and friends. Christmas brought a windfall of the first of these, books to curl up with, food to lay down hibernation layers. I supplemented Ali Smith’s wonderfully strange novel Winter, with Nigel Slater’s The Christmas Chronicles – a beguiling melting pot of recipes for the coldest days, traditions, folklore and musings. I also devoured Edd Kimber’s Patisserie Made Simple, dreaming of a day when I could whip up the lightest of French fancies at the drop of an egg. True to form, the first thing I made from Patisserie Made Simple was a short story about lemon tart.

Life outdoors doesn’t stop, however. I took a glorious walk along the Chelsea Embankment one coldly sunny day in January, striding out to keep warm in the icy wind. There’s even work to do in the garden, keeping down the weeds, turning the compost and planning for spring planting.

We dug a few knobbly Jerusalem artichokes from the iron-hard earth in the community garden, turning pink with effort, then walked the beds, deciding – tomatoes did well here last year, runner beans didn’t get enough sun there. We made plans, imagined healthy leafy plants, ripening fruit, untouched by slugs and blight. Last year, we planted tomato seeds on windowsills, on a snowy day in February. Almost time to make that leap of faith again. I notice my autumn-planted broad beans have sprouted – and a day later, that something has started to eat them.

Late last year, I started writing what I hoped might be a novel. Prematurely, I realise – the roots were shallow, I’d spent too little time ruminating, feeding the idea, getting to know the characters. It needs composting with research, turning in my mind, to put out feelers in the dark before it emerges, blinking, in the light of the laptop.

Some of that mulling happened over tea, cake, wine and cheese, at the Battleaxe Brigade’s winter writing retreat. This year we headed for a picturesque cottage in Sussex, with white clapboarding and a log fire. We shared work in progress, enjoyed a few writing sprints, talked until we were all talked out and laughed till our bellies hurt.

Good food (and wine), a log fire, writing and reading, and friends. If anyone has a better survival plan for proper winter, I’d like to hear it.

 

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Listening to Refugee Tales

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Rave in the nave, Kingston-on-Thames

I’m in a church in Kingston-on-Thames, dancing to the joyful sound of a steel band playing Bob Marley. The group I’m with laughs and claps, snaking in a conga-line around a politely-seated audience. I met these people only two days ago. How did I get here?

My story is simple: six months ago I saw a tweet about something called Refugee Tales. It sounded interesting; I went to the website and signed up. I more or less forgot about it until it was time to head for Runnymede (site of the signing of the Magna Carta) for the start of a winding walk along the Thames to Westminster.

For many of my fellow-walkers, this walk was part of a much longer journey, which started much further away, on other continents. Many of them had been through barely-imaginable hardships and dangers, and carried with them the grief of losing country, family, friends, the future they had planned. Their treatment on arrival in the UK was in some cases soul-destroying.

Except their souls had not been destroyed. Indeed, their souls were in fine shape, as witnessed by the laughter, singing and dancing all around me in that Kingston church.

Refugee Tales is a walk in solidarity with those held in indefinite detention by UK immigration services, while seeking refuge in this country.

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Reflecting in a garden in Walton-on-Thames

It’s a profound and simple way of offering a welcome and perhaps forging a path through what has become hostile territory, creating our own welcome for those who have been denied that basic human dignity. Some of the walkers were detention visitors; some were people who had themselves been held in detention. Some were supporters of the cause, or people like me who’d simply heard about the event and liked the sound of it.

We walked together along the river Thames, getting to know each other, hearing each others’ stories, enjoying the tranquil surroundings, the freedom that comes from making our way unimpeded, on foot, to our destination. We ate together, and after the evening’s events, unrolled sleeping bags to fall asleep together in church halls offering hospitality.

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Blue-shirted Refugee Walkers on the move

Patron of the charity, writer Ali Smith (one of my favourite authors) puts it beautifully, when she says: “The telling of stories is an act of profound hospitality.” She describes storytelling as an “ancient form of generosity” – and to emphasise the point, when she met us en-route, she read from the Odyssey, one of the oldest of old tales, describing how the lost and weary traveller was met with hospitality when shipwrecked on an island. There are many people shipwrecked on islands these days, including our own. The welcome is not always so generous.

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Ali Smith reads from The Odyssey

One of the many things I learned on the walk was that the UK is the only country in Europe to hold those seeking refuge in indefinite, arbitrary detention. It’s a flagrant denial of their humanity, and one that directly contravenes the rights set out in the 13th century Magna Carta, let alone the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The Refugee Tales project is an offshoot of the Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group, a tireless and dogged charity that visits, supports and campaigns on behalf of people being held at in detention at Gatwick by the immigration service.

As well as organising the walk, Refugee Tales engages writers including Ali Smith, Jackie Kay, Helen Macdonald and Neel Mukherjee to work with detainees to write stories based on their experiences. The stories are collected in two volumes and are wonderful. They are even more electrifying when read aloud, by the writers or by actors, as they were during the evening events.

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Dinner over, time to chat

In Kingston, I had a chat over dinner with a gentle and courteous young man whose story was being told that evening. Later I tried to imagine how he had survived the shocking experiences relayed in his tale, and remained so gentle. The previous night, an amazing young man told us his harrowing life story directly.

Both of these men wanted, above all, to finish their studies and be able to work – one as a social worker, the other as a doctor. The UK is lucky to have people of this calibre in our country. It’s about time we stopped treating them like criminals.

The first step in recognising someone as a human being is to listen to their story. The second, perhaps, is to share your own. Stories break down the barriers between ‘them’ and ‘us’. Before you know it, you’re all part of the same gang, on the same journey.

If anything can save the human world, I think it will be stories.

To find out more about how you can help, see the website http://refugeetales.org/getinvolved/

 

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Is everything copy? Women in Journalism discuss.

photo-1455904254851-58c6069237f7.jpegThere’s one comfort that keeps writers going when everything is going to hell and there’s no handcart in sight. ‘I’ll write about this one day,’ we mutter, surveying the wreckage of our lives.

But should we? Is everything really copy, or are there limits that we can and should set to protect ourselves or other people? Women In Journalism staged a debate on Tuesday in the St Bride’s Institute off Fleet Street, featuring four doyennes of personal journalism: Louise Chunn, Bryony Gordon, Kathryn Flett and Rebecca Armstrong. These women have regaled the world with tales of infidelity, marriage breakdown, mental health problems, serious illness and funny things kids say – whether from their own experience or as editors, encouraging others to ‘spill their guts’.

Louise Chunn, who as Guardian women’s page editor published the story of Jilly Cooper’s husband’s lover’s account of their affair (as well as an article I wrote on smear tests that I still get emails about), says that she’s changed her views over the years, not least because ‘everything lives forever online’. ‘I have had times when it’s really blown up in my face,’ she says. ‘Telling stories really does help other people, but sometimes people doing the writing are not as careful with themselves as they might be,’ she said.

Kathryn Flett talked of how a travel piece, to Bruges on Valentine’s Day, became her first ‘confessional’ piece when her husband announced he was leaving her, the day before they went. The resulting piece, which she wrote in one  draft and entitled “By Waterloo Station I sat down and wept,” made her name. She went on to write a blow-by-blow account of the end of the marriage, and says she felt no need to protect her husband: ‘You married a writer: deal with it’. Spouses of writers, beware.

Bryony Gordon, the daughter of a journalist who wrote about her kids, now ‘gets her own back’ on her mum Jayne in a two-part column they write for the Telegraph. She shared memories of posing for a photoshoot at her mother’s request as a teenager, only for it to appear under the strapline: “Is this the worst teenager in Britain?” Now a mother herself, she says she’s conscious that ‘I don’t want it to hurt anyone else.’ She defends personal journalism (she hates the ‘confessional’ tag), saying it takes bravery and strength to share your life honestly. ‘Men do it, and it’s art.’

The last panellist, Rebecca Armstrong, began writing about her life with her husband Nick after a terrible accident left him in a coma. She said she talked to his parents and his ex-wife before deciding to start writing about him, as she couldn’t ask Nick himself – although she spoke to him all the time. He’s now out of the coma and, she says, is thrilled that she writes a column, and sometimes contributes a few words to it. However, she said, she does hold back on some details, to protect his dignity.

The evening was thought-provoking, raising questions of where to draw the line to protect oneself, while sharing experiences that might just help someone else. It’s tempting to put it all out there – but do you want any future children or employers to read all about it?

Image: Tran Mau Tri Tam, via Unsplash.

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Stories-On-Sea: our writing retreat

What’s better than two days of writing by the seaside, with glorious views, good food, drinking gin, plenty of chances to swim, walk or run? Nothing much – except perhaps doing all of the above with friends.

This was the third year that my writing group convened by the sea for our annual writing retreat. We’re seasoned retreaters now, and the programme’s been honed to a fine edge. We arrive, have lunch, then get down to a quick warm-up exercise. This year we used photos and postcards as prompts for a 20-minute writing sprint. The vignettes produced were by turn funny, angry and poignant.

The second exercise is always the long one. We’d each brought along a ‘mystery object’ to pick out of a bag, with the instruction to tell the story of the object. You’re not allowed to pick your own, and ideally you shouldn’t know who donated the object, either. We spent longer on this one, sharing work in progress after an hour then returning to work on it in our own time, before and after our traditional fish-and-chip dinner.

I was pleased with my lucky dip; an old-fashioned black leather purse with clasp that closed with a satisfying click. Purses and the secrets they contain are massively evocative. I smelled the leather, explored the pockets and felt the weight of it in my hand. ‘The purse snapped shut,’ I wrote, imagining the woman who might have held it. I was away.

For me, the absolute joy of a writing retreat is the magic of conjuring stories out of (almost) nothing. No matter how blank your mind is at the start of the session, at the end there’s always something; maybe just the nub of an idea of a story, or an amusing sketch, but something. Sharing these raw beginnings can be daunting, but among this familiar group of friends I always feel supported. Comments are always thoughtful, praise generous and criticism well-founded. My purse story has joined my ‘work in progress’ stories file, and I’m considering working it up for a submission.

On Sunday morning we shared work in progress from our ongoing projects. This session showed the variety of our work, with a tear-jerking short story, a fascinating memoir and a comic novella all up for discussion. Our final exercise of the weekend was to pick a short news item from the local and riff on it. I found us a story about the success of a Deal curry house, and was amazed how differently our resulting fictional stories turned out.

It wasn’t all hard work. We talked hard too, laughed even harder. The joy of sharing stories isn’t confined to the written word. The weekend left me brimful of confidence, excited about the possibilities of my writing, and grateful for my witty, wise and wonderful writing friends. Thank you Julie Bull, Angie Macdonald and Yang May Ooi.

 

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That difficult second novel

Ernest Hemingway

Hemingway: don’t read the first draft.

Halfway through writing my first novel, I wondered why I was doing this. I wondered why anyone did this, and I vowed I wouldn’t do it again. In fact, I couldn’t imagine ever being able to write another novel, even if I managed to finish this one. I’d be like Harper Lee (only not as good, obviously). People would say: ‘Whatever happened to Anna Sayburn Lane? Did she never write another book?’ And I’d say: ‘Why on earth would I do that?’

I’m within a gnat’s crotchet of finishing the first draft of my second novel. I’m pleased about this for two reasons:

1: It gives me something to focus on while waiting (again) to hear from publishers/agents about novel one.

2: I actually can write another novel.

I also know, however, that a first draft is not a novel. In Hemingway’s words, all first drafts are shit. I prefer to think of it as a preparatory sketch. It’s how I work out what I want to write, who the characters (probably) are, roughly what happens, the general story arc, the tone. What happens next is like translating a sketch into an oil painting. Some details will be added, some deleted, some changed completely now that I can see the overall effect.

So it’s not even close to finished. But a story exists, and didn’t exist back in November. It’s nothing like novel one, which will annoy publishers/agents no end if I tell them. It’s much shorter, and (I hope) funny. It was inspired by my favourite comic novels, Cold Comfort Farm and the Jeeves and Wooster series, which may be setting the bar a touch high. It needs at least one complete re-write, more jokes, and a title. I don’t know if it’ll ever get published, or if it’ll amuse anyone other than myself. It will be finished, though, one day, and knowing that gives me a quiet satisfaction that nothing else can match.

 

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