Sunday, 13 October 2013

Morning Pages - The Bootcamp

Dawn on the River Thames, A Week In
 A week into Morning Pages and I find I rise earlier and see the dawn more often. My Morning Pages are already less bitter and less whiney. Of course, part of the point of writing Morning Pages is to free the creative channels of bitterness and whining. It's like a morning shower for the creative consciousness. It doesn't  matter one jot whether the mess on the page turns out to be vaguely readable or thoroughly vile. The point is to apply backside to seat and do them each day. Three pages is the recommended stretch, but I wonder whether each writer finds their own best length. The point is, it should be slightly more than you want to do. Keep going, no punctuation, no editing, be specific, allow the monsters to surface, then drive right on.

The Monsters Drive Right On
Having managed, some days with difficulty, to keep Morning Pages going, I admit that that a strange, tentative freedom creeps into my creative work. I've had some odd moments of synchronicity this week - yes, you dismiss them as coincidence if you will, but then, if I were going to deride the results of the Creativity Course there wouldn't be much point in doing it, would there? Sometimes the Morning Pages divert themselves into scenes from my novel, as though the subconscious, like Kevin when at Perry's house, (for Harry Enfield fans) has finally given in. 'Might as well do this writing thing then, and are there any Ginger Nuts please Missus?'

Dawn at Kings Cross Station
 I've begun to notice odd, whimsical things that only the child-like free spirit of oneself would find titter-worthy - for example, the hordes of adults who queue at Kings Cross station all summer,  paying out a fortune to have their photo taken by Platform Nine and Three Quarters, suddenly disappear - presumably to pack their own kids off to school. Which leads me to wonder whether, if I sneak up there one misty morning this week, will I hear the faint sound of that special chuffa train...

My dear friend Carmen, surely the most potent of creative enablers, bought me a great new notebook and three pens that positively snarl off the page. Carmen doesn't know I've started Morning Pages.  Or even that I'm a writer. Weird.

Pens that Positively Snarl
Finally, I received a birthday present, a much-longed for addition to the Pittam Towers arsenal which bowled me over, as I hadn't expected anything nearly so generous. It was a Kindle Fire which came with, amongst other things, a free download of 'Music for the Mozart Effect' - 'Unlock the Creative Spirit'.

So with synchronicity increasing and creative impulses beginning to stir again I feel ready for this week's challenge which is, I believe, the 'Artist's Date.'

But something rustled on the floor,
And someone called me by my name:
It had become a glimmering girl
With apple blossom in her hair
Who called me by my name and ran
And faded through the brightening air
W. B. Yeats 1895-1939


Sunday, 1 September 2013

Monsters From the Deep

So my Creativity Course got off to a roaring start and the first thing we have to do is learn to write 'Morning Pages'.  Writing Morning Pages is a technique in which you empty the subconscious, sort of vomit it onto the page, at least once a day. Preferably you do it first thing in the morning, without thinking, judging or editing your work.  It's not a new idea - one wonders whether artists and writers have been at something similar since the first troubador hiked his wares at the castle gate.

Since the first troubadour...

There are various famous works one could learn from - the journals of Virginia Woolf, to name but one, and Dorothea Brande's brilliant classic 'Becoming A Writer'. Out of print now and hellishly expensive, it's still worth looking out for. DB gives those wonderful pep talks so redolent of old black and white movies. "If you fail repeatedly at this exercise, give up writing. Your resistance is actually greater than your desire to write." Superb, no doubt spoken with a cut-glass accent, it almost makes one feel like a grown up.

Dear, Dear Dorothea...

 Natalie Goldberg also gives some great advice about writing practice, very Zen, and I refer to 'Wild Mind' constantly, a decade after buying it. However, in the year 2013, when artists talk of 'doing their pages', they usually mean, doing their pages a la Julia Cameron.

For the next 16 weeks it's Julia's way of doing pages that I shall be sticking with, day in, day out, or stand up and explain at the weekly 'Check In.'

After working my way slowly through the larder and chomping everything that's not nailed down, I finally get to it, scribbling all the dismal, unfulfilled truths about my writing and my writing past, all the unfinished works, the plummeting self confidence, the 'Monsters from the Deep' who said, or thought foul things. The ones that looked at me in some awful way, or so I believed at the time. It doesn't feel good to get it out there. I was raised in the 'Keep Calm and Don't Mention a Thing' school of optimism. It's hard to believe, right now that in 112 days my creativity will be as high as one of those old Barage Balloons you see in Foyle's War. But, as the man himself would say, with that wry and rather sexy smile, 'We'll see.'

Monsters from the Deep

The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks:
The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep
Moans round with many voices 

Ulysses, Alfred Lord Tennyson 1809-1892

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

The Totteridge & Whetstone Effect

 So it's Day 1 of 90-day Creativity Course and I'm up an hour early, terrible rush. Have to commit an hour a day to the exercises, if possible before the rest of the day starts. Feel rather scared but know I'll calm down later. Terrible crush on London underground - a great crowd of us 'held on the concourse' of the Northern Line.

A Great Crowd of Us on the Underground

The Northern Line's one of the oldest on the London underground, so old that to my Nana's generation it was a euphemism for a certain (actually rather uncertain) method of contraception.  Many a north London gal recalls the elderly auntie's warning, back in the day, 'Be sure that boy gets out at Totteridge, (the penultimate station) not High Barnet (the last one on the line).'

The Elderly Auntie's Warning
Having left an hour early, arrive 15 seconds late at court, where I have business. Deep sigh. Get down to jotting over lunch. Awkward, as the barrister I'm working with keeps looking, but all danger of the Totteridge & Whetstone effect averted. Phew. High five!

High Five!

What we play is life ~ Louis Armstrong

Sunday, 11 August 2013

The Last Resort

Today I signed a contract for what my Nana would have called 'The Last Resort'. I'm getting some creative counselling. In case you're wondering what's so strange about that, we don't do counselling much in Britain, even in the year 2013.

Admittedly, we've 'given in' to various practices that would have had my afore-mentioned Nana throwing her Advocaat snowball across the bar - for example, showing lots of soggy emotion, en masse, in public.

We definitely didn't do that, when she was a gal. There was a time it was considered fairly disgraceful to cry at the funeral of someone you knew, never mind at the death of a random but famous stranger.

Not Even at a Friend's Funeral

Nor did we walk such a delicate tightrope when it came to Health & Safety. Today in the Post Office, I was thoroughly reprimanded by a counter clerk because I'd used a staple on a jiffy bag. It could, she said, cause  serious harm and then the Post Office would send me a stern letter, possibly summons me to Court.

A Cause for Serious Alarm
'Reality check,' I replied, 'are we sure we're not exaggerating just a teensy bit?' However, by this time she was eyeing the sign which says 'WE WILL NOT TOLERATE ABUSE OF OUR STAFF UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES' so I left.

Anxious About the Weather
Don't even get me started on the weather. Ever read Charles Dickens, or George Eliot? All those sturdy little British types marching through snowstorms to reach the local hunt ball, at which point they damped their petticoats so as to show off just that bit more sturdy bosom for the likes of Lord Byron. Last Saturday, the venerable BBC contained a weather report in which a weatherman told the nation he was anxious - yes, anxious, about the coming thunderstorm.  Twitter was alive with anticipation and rightly so, because when it came it was - well, a thunderstorm.

Nana's Snowball

Anyway, I've nothing to report at present on the subjects of tear-jerker funerals, Health & Safety or weather, but I hope to be able to confess, shortly, that the Creative Counselling had me turning out fresh projects at a speed of knots. Or not. Watch this space...

You can find out about Creative Counselling here

Sunday, 21 April 2013

For Whom The Bell Tolls

So, Twitter's alive with the news of Baroness Thatcher's funeral, and the route's announced. It's  passing within five minutes' walk of our favourite writers' haunt, The Bear & Staff pub in Charing Cross Road.
Rob tweets.

The Bear & Staff

'Fancy a cheeky one, group?'

We tweet back that a 'cheeky one' ( London slang for an unplanned drink or indeed, any short burst of illicit activity) could be ideal use of this beautiful spring morning.

We don't call in at the pub - 11.00 am is a bit early even for us - but station ourselves in the coffee shop on Trafalgar Square, by St Martin's Church.

Waiting to Watch Baroness Thatcher's Funeral

We chat about the  trouble ahead - Margaret Thatcher was a Prime Minister who divided the nation, inspiring adulation from some and from others, bitter hatred. A gaggle of protesters crowds into our coffee shop. They are bullied by their  massive banner, which refuses to lean neatly against the wall, constantly falling down and apart, simultaneously. We discuss, in whispers, their extreme youth - can they remember the humiliation of the coal miners, the loss of Britain's proud manufacturing trade and the 'there is no such thing as Society' comment, we wonder.  We're super intrigued when they announce, far too loudly, an intention to turn their backs on the funeral party as it reaches Ludgate Hill.

A Gaggle of Protestors
Keeping politics out of it, for we are a mixed bunch, we discuss the issue as writers - how vital  time and place become when you plan a novel. Dan's thriller would have extra fascination were his protagonist to hide in this very coffee shop. He could, perhaps, hope to be mistaken for the owner of the 'rest in shame' banner. Ruth's time-travelling witch could alight here and join the mourners in her black gown and cloak. As for Rob's hero Vordek, well, surely even he couldn't contemplate the inappropriate pursuit of yet another hapless female at a funeral. Or could he?

Jostling For A Vantage Point
Observing our own beloved city in the context of our novels is a fascinating exercise. Ruth's brought along Natalie Goldberg's great classic 'Writing Down the Bones'. We turn to page 108 and use 'A Tourist in Your Own Town' as the basis of a writing session. Natalie considers what she loves about her home town; old coffee cups, sparrows, city buses, thin ham sandwiches. We should, she says, make a list. We should fall in love with the familiar again, and make a solemn vow to use each one  in a poem, short story or article before we die.

I turn to my novel's hero Thomas Tarling, and how it would feel to be arrested when the legal system was falling apart, the Metropolitan Police not as yet in existence. I think of the dreaded Newgate gaol, not a quarter of a mile from where I'm sitting, of imprisonment without benefit of lavatory or regular food. To be  taken for a murderer, with no evidence, no possibility of a barrister, no right to be represented in court in any case; what would that have been like?

We Watch From Ludgate Hill

We down our coffee and head for the streets. They are packed with people. They aren't the rich, nor the famous; some are Thatcher's supporters, some are not. You can't tell because London's own have done what they always do - overridden the views of the media, the TV, the politicians who had the gall to make headway out of this death. 'She was an old lady, consider 'er grandchildren,' says the man beside me. 'Show some respect.' We zip along  Ludgate Hill, hoping for a view of our protesters. If they do turn their backs on the procession, I shall find a way to put it in my novel. I see the Paratroop Regiment, arranged in lines up Ludgate Hill to pay their respects. No room for any banner-holders to squeeze in there amongst the berets. I suppress a grin. That's how we do things in London.

That's How We Do Things in London

Take your life in your own hands and what happens? A terrible thing; no-one to blame
Erica Jong

Thursday, 28 March 2013

The Boat Race Cometh

Yoda, Covent Garden Market
So I'm in central London, bitterly cold weather - the worst for 50 years. Even so I can't help noticing the City's unique signs of seasonal change. Yoda floats above Covent Garden market, tourists gather in front of the Tower of London and Bikram Yoga is everywhere.

Tourists, The Tower of London

     We writers crawl out of  hibernation full of excuses about family commitments, writers' block or even, 'promoting my novel'. As a change from The Bear & Staff, our group grabs an impromptu meet-up in The Old City Arms pub, hoping its scalding scarlet paintwork can stimulate fresh energy. We like The Old City Arms - it nestles under Hammersmith's splendid bridge. On Easter Sunday it's going to be packed to the eaves for London's famous Oxford/Cambridge boat race; today it's a snug, 'beer and sausages' sort of place.

The Old City Arms

     Everyone's brought an exercise, something that's worked for them as a creativity jump. Dan's got a great one: to get one of your characters to live and breathe, you write a dialogue between the two of you. Put to them all the difficult questions about their ambitions, desires, feelings about the rest of the cast and everything that happens in the plot. Be a foul, pushy chat-show host, be a toddler, be a seductive lover. We all have a go, timing the exercise with Ruth's phone, which trumpets like an elephant every ten minutes. It's a riot; Dan's characters are psychopaths, Rob's hero has every female in the pub cringing and Ruth's time-travelling witch  plants a dose of hemlock in the real ale.

     I'm working on a short story for submission to Ether books. The hero, Alex McBride, is a veteran of WWII, and I try to taunt him into coming out with something romantic. He growls, 'What's an old codger like me got to remember? That stuff's filth, for scoundrels and moaning Minnies...' That's me told, then.

'I Remember Very Well' 

      As usual it's Ivy who produces the best creative stimulant, knocking the rest of us for six. She's made a Simnel cake. She puts it on the table, and tells us that traditionally, servant girls went 'home to mother' on the third Sunday in Lent, known of course as Mothering Sunday. They would take a Simnel cake, baked under the guidance of the cook, a sign of their growing skill in the kitchen and an early version of the Easter bonus, as it were.

      The Simnel cake, rich in fruit with two layers of almond paste, was topped with preserved fruit, flowers and other girly things. The word Easter does, after all, derive from Eostre, that gloriously fertile Saxon Goddess of Spring. During the Victorian era, the planetary riches were ditched for eleven marzipan balls, supposed to symbolise eleven of the apostles (Judas doesn't get one).

      'I think it's because the girls were returning to Mother Church rather than to Mum indoors,' Rob objects. 'That's what our parish priest used to say.'    

     'Well,' Ivy retorts, 'he would say that, wouldn't he?'

Ivy's Gift to Mother

Don't let them tame you!
Isadora Duncan

Thursday, 7 February 2013

Lucinda Bassett Truth Be Told Book Review


It's only three years since Lucinda Bassett's beloved husband David committed suicide. I say 'only' but of course, if you've ever known loss, then you can guess how long three years must seem.  In one of those horrendous twists of fate, shortly after Lucinda lost David, her mother and then her brother passed away too.

I was bearing this in mind as I read the prologue and introductory pages to Lucinda's memoir. In this heart-rending beginning to her soon-to-be published book, Lucinda describes the effect that David's suicide has had on the remaining members of her family.  It makes all too familiar reading for those recently bereaved - the fact that we have lost the one we love does not automatically cause us to draw closer. That's a myth. Nor does it automatically give us the gift of supporting one another through the trauma - another myth. 

Lucinda's introduction tells it 'how it is' with searing clarity, and reminds the 'fixers' amongst us that, we may well have a gift for assisting others but so often, that's as much use as a chocolate coffee-pot when it comes to our own tragedies.

I liked Lucinda's honesty and clear writing style, and her courage in describing very personal family trauma, and way that the best-laid plans for a memorial bench and tearful but comforting anniversaries actually turn out for most families. 

I had, obviously, heard of Lucinda as an acclaimed life coach - she specializes in tragedy and bereavement counseling in a particularly compassionate and hands-on way - but now I understand so much more about how she got to the space where she can offer that to others. The counseling field is regrettably populated with a certain number of people who've never been in the kind of situations their clients are facing. With Lucinda I know I'd feel safe in the knowledge that this is one lady who has 'walked the walk and talked the talk.'

I'm looking forward to reading the whole book when it is released.

You can pre-order Lucinda Bassett's book 'Truth Be Told' here:


I know God will not give me anything I can't handle 
I just wish that He didn't trust me so much ~ Mother Theresa

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

I Dare You

One thing that makes life worthwhile, so they tell us, is 'facing a challenge'.  From earliest childhood, if we are lucky, we learn from the right kind of challenge. I started early with a game of the same name, on my first day at school. My primary school, Meadow Lane, was a rough one, frankly, in which the pupils were drawn from the families of dockers or soldiers stationed at the local depot.

Meadow Lane Primary School

We were not, most emphatically not, allowed to stay inside at break no matter the weather.  The three-sided shelter in the yard was the only concession to our comfort.  The shelter had a narrow wooden bench around the inside. To play The Challenge game needed most of the school, and we sat on the bench, side-by-side, each shoving the person to the left, whilst making a sound like an air-raid siren.  Kids knew the sound of the air-raid siren when I was little because they were still tested regularly every week, some 14 years after the bombs stopped falling on London. Children of the '50s grew up in a world where all adult man and women  were locked together in the grown-up world of grief and enforced brightness, a perpetual determination to 'keep calm and carry on'.

Keep Calm & Carry On
So, the end of The Challenge came when you were ejected, straight off the seat and onto the tarmac playground. It was a painful conclusion to a child's break, not because of scraped knees and filthy gymslips, but because rarely, if ever, did anyone manage to force their way back. The object of The Challenge game was to remain safe, somewhere near the middle of the semi-circle, shouting with mouth wide open and unable to distinguish any sound individually. No doubt the counsellors could make something of it, but we didn't have any of those.

At present I'm in that middle part of my book, just over two thirds there in fact. I really need to drop my hero Thomas Tarling right in it, off the end of the bench or into the icy drink of the Thames, so to speak.

The Ice-Cold Drink of the Thames
I've got to get him to feel the lash of the whip (not literally, though it was a common enough punishment for working class men in his day, in 1820s London. Makes community service look a little tame, guys...)  I struggle through various books, and try to find something that will assist me.

The Lash of the Whip
I meet my friend Ruth for coffee. She, too, is having problems with her novel and we read bits to each other. I start with a bit of Thomas's fight on the dockside.

'There was utter silence, and he knew he had to act. With a stifled groan, he sprang forward and knocked the key from Robshaw's hand. It fell to the quay with a clatter.  

     Robshaw bent swiftly, retrieved it and glanced about. 

     'After him,' Thomas yelled, boiling with rage.  'After him. Robshaw, I'm gonna get that friggin key if I have to strip you for it.'

Ruth works through my manuscript, until it's awash with red ink. After that, I expect Ruth to bring out her manuscript but she doesn't. She's got something else. Ruth always burns the midnight oil and is a big fan of weird radio - she loves niche Indie shows with a hundred listeners, and she's a big fan of shortwave. 

My manuscript's awash with red

Last week I caught her tuning into Lucinda Bassett's radio show in the USA.  She was, she says, so hooked that she's brought a couple of pages of Lucinda's memoire and we read it together, our hands shaking with the cold. It's still winter here in London.

.You can buy a 'Keep Calm & Carry On' Poster here

Sunday, 20 January 2013

A Helicopter Crashed Into A Crane

So it's evening in London after a terrible, terrible day. This morning during the rush hour, a helicopter crashed into a crane, killing the crew and then falling into the street where it injured a number of pedestrians. As horrific accidents go, it wasn't the worst, except of course for the poor family of the crew. For Londoners like me, it brought back the full horror of the London bombings in 2007, although this accident was exactly that - a tragic accident.

A Terrible Day in London

In spite of the carnage, I'm in the Bear pub with a few writer pals. We'd arranged to meet and we thought, 'what will we do if we cancel - just sit at home moping'. Fear's like that - it causes you either to have ridiculous, exaggerated ideas of 'what could happen' or to freeze, and start skulking about like a hibernating bear trying for entry in the Guinness Book of Records.

Heroes & Villains, since 1714

The Bear's a great pub for writers, right on the edge of Chinatown and dating back to 1714 - before, frankly, there was a Chinatown. It's had a fair number of famous heroes and villains in its list of historical customers. We like the villains best.

We swap confessions about how little writing we did over the holiday period and scrawl our fears on a beer mat. The seven biggest writing fears, according to my latest fave rave 'Your Writing Coach' by Jurgen Wolff are: 'The fear of rejection, the fear that it won't be good enough, the fear of success, the fear of revealing too much, the fear that you have only one book in you, the fear that you are too old and finally, the fear of being overwhelmed by research.'

We scrawl our fears on a beer mat

Twitter revealed even more - 'don't know how to end my story,' replies one follower. 'You've got it lucky - don't know how to begin mine,' another grumps. Sensing that the war's about to go viral, we bring out our manuscripts, sheepishly at first. Within moments, we're hooked - desperate to hear more about the characters we've missed over the holidays. Dan's writing a dark, dark story as usual, and Rob's still on his never-ending novella about his hero Vordek's unlikely conquest of the fair sex. Ruth's story of a time-travelling witch has spanned another few centuries whilst Ivy's memoir set in the Port of London, early 20th century, thrills and horrifies us.

We're a supportive lot but very frank. 'You know he's going to be a virgin all his life,' Brad tells Rob, which makes Rob blush painfully. We've all guessed who the real Vordek is. 'Do you think they'd just carry on eating if the cross-bow had speared the servant-boy at dinner?' We wonder. Ruth sucks her pen and agrees that the scene is unrealistic. 'I'll have them take a swig of scrumpy after,' she decides. Her West Country accent is always deeper when she thinks of scrumpy jack (cider, for the uninitiated). We all howl, and so do the rest of the customers in the bar. Our writerly gatherings aren't designed to attract attention, situated as they are in a quiet snug at the back on the quietest night of the week, but invariably, they do.

Ruth's Notebook & Pen
Gradually the noise in the bar drops to a hum, and then to dead silence as Ivy begins to read. Her voice and reading style remind me of the Primary School teacher she was for four decades, and the years of 'Friday afternoon story time' reading aloud have honed her vocal chords. They've lost none of their power. Her story tells of little things - of the days when a mother could die in childbirth, as easy as anything; of the dockers and how they'd break open a crate of oranges and throw them to passing, malnourished urchins; of family pride, of two world wars - one her parents', one her own; and most of all of love. Rough, often unspoken, many times passed off with a joke, but love just the same. When she finishes, and removes her specs, the applause is spontaneous, a wall of sound.

The Old London Dock Gates

It's time to go, and we do it with hugs, and quiet gratitude for the companionship of those of kind. When you've got that, writer or not, fear seems a petty foe indeed.

Courage comes when you make demand - not sooner, not later but then
Leo ~ The Blue Book Writings 

You can find the Bear & Staff here: