Now I am working on Tarot Triumphs, a book to be published by Quest, USA. Our house is a hive of Tarot activity. In my office on the first floor, I’m studying the cards, writing up notes and investigating historical info on line. Up above me, in his studio, my husband Robert is drawing images of the cards, which will be used to illustrate the book.
I have studied the Tarot since my late teens, but I’m doing a conscious re-visiting of every single card now. I take a card a day – in theory! in practice it often takes two or three days – and absorb its imagery all over again. I look up references, and compare packs. Only the trump cards of the traditional pack (commonly known as the ‘Marseilles’) will be used, but I’m fascinated by the history of the Tarot and love to look at ancient examples, especially the high art cards of Renaissance Italy.
Colour and images swim into my dreams – I am dreaming vividly, symbolically, in a way that I haven’t done for some time. And I see anew how the significance of each Tarot card weaves its way through my life. Today – ‘Strength’ – a woman opening a lion’s jaws deftly, gently. Yes, I can learn from her. How to temper energy, and wait patiently until the moment is right.
The unexpected view
Strange views from Devon – the writer is always on the look-out for surprises. Something that doesn’t quite fit the expected view of people or places. It can be a mini-moment of ecstasy when you encounter one – if it’s a nice one, that is. Perhaps even the less pleasant revelations act as a useful stimulus, shaking up fixed ideas, stirring the imagination.
I was lucky enough to have at least two (pleasant) such jolts on our recent visit to the Topsham area. It was our first encounter with the village of Lympstone, and it gave me one of the most magical of surprises. The village is on the Exe estuary but actually looks as though it’s in the sea. Water washes the base of the shoreline cottages, and it must be one of the few places in England where people dry their laundry on the beach. What the photo can’t show you is the gorgeous array of maroons and purples on the washing line, the first time I saw this startling sight. (Sometimes the best moments just don’t make it onto camera.) Then there were puzzling reflections of us in the silvery sculpture globes in the centre of Exeter. Grandma (me), granddaughter Martha, daughter Jess. Who is who, and where are we all?
Now I just need to find ways of writing about all this. A poem, a reflective memoir, a water fantasy. Water often does it for me, as a writer – sitting by a fast flowing, shallow river, or walking by winter waves on the sea shore. The chatter in my mind ebbs away, and the experience of the infinite complexity of moving water takes its place. Currents, patterns, swirls – water parting round rocks, whirling into pools, streams joining.
What will it be this time?
‘Have any of you been watching the Great British Bake-Off?’
A clutch of hands are raised tentatively. The audience is plainly wondering whether they are in the right place for a Life Writing Workshop. I hasten to explain:
‘We have only one hour to bake three memory recipes. And you’ll have to finish off the decorations at home!’
It’s the Cheltenham Festival of Literature, and I am here to encourage forty-five people to write their memories, ‘Memory’ being the theme of the festival. Your Life, Your Story is my entry into this world-famous venue, and I am all too aware of my responsibility to deliver a fully-fledged, rewarding writing experience in just one hour. The original one and a half hour time slot has now been reduced by the festival organisers, due to pressure of other events, so I have been re-timing frantically in the last few days.
To my delight and astonishment, the workshop sold out immediately when booking opened. And instead of the planned thirty participants, they’ve decided to up it to forty-five. OK, I can cope. I have to.
Everyone has memories – most people are fascinated by them – and almost everyone can write about them in a compelling way. The key, I tell my workshop participants, is simplicity. Describe your memories as if you were that child, in that moment. Strip away adult judgement, explanation. Try using the present tense. And, most importantly, re-create that moment in your mind before you write. Get back into the nitty-gritty of the action. What were you wearing? How old were you? How did you feel?
It’s working! Everyone is busy writing, then reading out what they’ve written to their neighbours. I keep an eye on my bedroom clock, which I’ve brought along. Only three minutes over schedule! It’s that tight.
Now we can try ‘bubble writing’ – I need to show them a good way to map stories and gather together recollections. My example is about my childhood rabbit, and how she came to a sad end amongst the frosty cabbages. You’ll have to come to one of my workshops to hear about Krinsetta.
But the techniques of bubble writing and writing up earliest memories are in my book, Your Life, Your Story, along with much more – how to construct a chronology, how to shape a life story and ways to give it texture and colour.
Three o’clock, and the workshop’s over. The intense atmosphere melts away, people leave – smiling, I am happy to see – and disperse to their next events. We made it, together. And they have recipes, snippets of written work, ideas to take away with them. And, I hope, inspiration to write up their life stories.
Find me also on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/pages/Cherry-Gilchrist/464553846976599
Butterfly, Dragonfly: Life writing in France
A late summer morning in the Limousin. At Chateau La Creuzette, shafts of sharp sunlight pierce the tree canopies – the grand old cedar, oaks and chestnuts – and set the dewdrops on the lawn sparkling. Fire and water meet, an ancient symbol of alchemy. Will our class achieve this same kind of fusion, turning life experience into gleaming, golden words?
Over the reedy pond, an enormous dragonfly hovers, bulbous, an iridescent deep blue. This too is an old emblem of transformation, and there will be many more dragonflies coming and going during the week, bringing their own particular touch of magic in the garden. And as the day warms and the sun strokes the petals of the flowers, butterflies appear in the gardens to bask there: lemon, gold, cream and rust, mottled and marbled in colour. They alight, pause, and flutter on. Symbols of the soul. Libelulle and papillon, alchemy and the soul, dragonfly and butterfly.
At ten o’clock, our writing group gathers in the ‘cave’ – that means cellar in French , (it’s subterranean) but it might as well be an alchemist’s cave, a place where we prepare, brew and distill our word potions during the week. (take a look at the photo gallery at the end!) We’re here on a kind of quest, a journey of life writing. Some of the eight members have flown half way round the world to be here to take this course. It’s a big responsibility. so I’d better be alert – watchful like the dragonfly, sensitive like the butterfly. Will I be able to offer them what they need? Alchemy says: ‘Start with what you have, with what is often overlooked and thrown away.’ This is the way real transformation begins: making gold from what might be seen as dust. So we start with childhood memories; everyone has them, but they have a potency like nothing else. Find them in depths, fish them up and write them. Simplicity is best. Don’t elaborate, just let them be revealed in the light. Then they’ll sparkle like those dewdrops in the sun. We work thus at the dawn of the world, our personal world, where the seeds of creation are stored.
Later, we trek through the terrain of adult years, charting chronology, recording its peaks, its troughs, its moments of joy and terror. As a British tutor working with eight South Africans, I am in shock when some of them write about being hijacked, robbed, or having a gun put to their heads. But the dragonfly has to keep on hovering, not dip in the pool and drown. I too am learning from this. And so do they. The implicit question as people continue to write down their experiences, is, ‘Where am I in all this?’ Life writing is nothing without a degree of personal reflection. But, I teach them, a little goes a long way, like a powerful spice. Let the main ingredients – events, encounters, experiences – do the work of the telling, but add your own touches of philosophical reflection to give it that special flavour.
Life writing isn’t just about recording events, but is also a process of seeking knowledge. It can change the way we view our lives.
Our lives intermesh with others, and these too come into the scope of life writing, sometimes with intense significance. One of our number, Annette, is on a quest to understand the short life of her daughter, an accomplished, beautiful woman who died in her prime:
"Like a butterfly, freeing itself from its cocoon, she came into this world, gasping for air and struggling to free herself from the birth canal.......With the same effort to be born, it took three days for her to leave this world, slowly spinning herself away. On her birthday, 42 years later, almost to the hour, we lay her body in the ground. Her life as short as that of butterflies. My butterfly was flying freely."
She wants to write a tribute to her, and this butterfly symbol begins to take on its own life in the course. As the week flows on, we see butterflies everywhere –not only in the garden but at dinner, a (paper) butterfly clipped onto every napkin, in one of the astonishing table settings created nightly at La Creuzette dinners, and flying colourfully on scarves and jewellery and designs around us. There is no escaping the butterfly, and its implication of soul. The group becomes closely bonded, unafraid to share personal revelations, but always putting the writing and the journey first.
By the end of the week, I know for sure that life writing can be work for the soul. I have taught many classes of life writing, but the chance to bring a small group of committed people together, in these glorious surroundings (not essential, but it helps!) to connect and work together recording some of the most intense experiences of their lives, shows me that the process can be truly transformative. And the participants do this work for themselves. I am only the guide, frowning over my route maps, steering them along the way. I help them to keep walking on, but each person takes those steps independently.
Yes, there is a touch of magic to it, symbolised by the sorcerer dragonfly with his uncanny presence, and the delicacy of the butterfly with her elusive beauty of the soul.
At the end of the course, Annette buys herself a butterfly necklace. She knows her direction now, and is ready to travel further – quite literally, in one sense, on a Silk Road trip, which her daughter always wanted to do. And the class gives me a gift – a dragonfly pendant. I am wearing it now, as I write this.
Next year at La Creuzette, it will be a different journey, with different travellers. I will be unrolling my maps, but aware that even with the terrain marked out ahead of us, it will always be a venture into the unknown. And my job will be to help the group take this trip, moving forward as one. We will work together, as this year, dividing our time between the soothing dim light of our ‘cave’ at La Creuzette, and the brilliance of nature and sunlight around us, butterflies and dragonflies gracing the garden, when we step out to take the air.
Vintage verse - the shame and the pride
I feel a little sick as I open the old notebook with its hard marbled covers. Lined paper, page after page of writing. Some carefully inscribed, some scrawled with crossings out, while others are plainly ‘best efforts’ to write the words neatly. Yes, my old poetry book, compiled in my teens.Poem written under my then name of Cherry Phillips
There’s something disturbing about plunging back into that maelstrom of youthful emotionsthat makes me want to run for shelter. Oh, the melodrama of thwarted desires, the fears of incipient madness, the elegies to nature and the river of life! (I’m quite getting into the mood for metaphor now.)
But, actually, there is good stuff here too. And some poems that are nearly good. My message to fellow writers is, therefore: don’t throw out your poetic babies with the bathwater. Even if some of the phrases make you groan, don’t give up on the whole lot. For every cringe-making expression of love, loss or despair, there is probably quite a good line embedded in your verse. The youthful poet seems to swing between the extremes of cliché and originality, so you’ll probably find both when you go back to the roots of your writing. And, after all, who wasn’t a poet at the age of eighteen?
I boost my flagging confidence by reminding myself that I have proof that I could write well, now and again. One of those poems was accepted by the prestigious Poetry Review and published in the autumn of 1967. The editor, Derek Parker (who later became a good friend, but that’s another story) wrote me an encouraging letter and sent me money. Real money. For writing. Wow! He also suggested I should send him more poems. Did I? No, I was too caught up in the excitement of growing up, and didn’t bother. Been there, done that.
Doing the folk thing at school - I'm the guitar on the right
And I wrote a kind of 60’s beat poem about a folk club, my favourite haunt of the era. (Think Birmingham, Irish Folk Clubs of the late 1960s. Anyone else out there remember them?) I sent it off to ‘Sing’, an America folk magazine which was, I think, just beginning to be published in the UK. It was 1966. A few days later, the phone rang. Now, a phone call in those days was an event; the black Bakelite phone stood in the chilly hall and access to it was restricted to wartime standards of brevity and necessity.
‘It’s the editor from America on the phone for you!’ they said in tones of wonder.
Eric Winter wasn’t actually calling from America (that would have been equivalent to signalling earth from a space satellite) but from London.
‘Loved your poem!’ he said. ‘I just read it out at the Albert Hall. We’ve been doing a big concert there.’
What? I was both thrilled and embarrassed. The event was so out of keeping with my everyday world that I almost ignored it. And I don’t still have a copy of the magazine where it was subsequently published.
A terrible mix of teenage casualness and lack of confidence is mainly responsible both for losing my copy and abandoning writing poetry, at least as a regular activity. I’ve written poems over the years, sometimes quite frequently, but never with such endeavour or so often.
Perhaps it’s not too late to try again?
And while I’m rooting through the past, I find references to my glorious rise and disgraceful fall as a contributor to Jackie magazine, also in my teenage years. But that story can wait until my next blog post. Till then, here's one of the better poems from my teenage collection, written in 1967.
On Swifts Hill, opposite Slad (more photos below)
Everyone round here has a Laurie Lee story...do you have one to add?
I first fell in love with Laurie Lee’s poetry when I was still at school. It carried the sensuous qualities of nature along with a strong dash of romance, the two elements which were closest to my heart at the time. I still have the edition of ‘Pocket Poets’, marked to indicate my favourite verses, for instance:
When red-haired girls scamper like roses over the rain-green grass,
and the sun drips honey.
('Day of these Days')
It seemed to me that he understood the magnetic pull of the English landscape, something I felt intensely from early years, and which perhaps has kept me here ever since. Even though I have had the travel bug, England is home, and I’ve always felt that I can’t give up the bluebells and the dew on the grass and the village fetes on a hot summer’s afternoon. In those days, I hadn’t travelled much, mostly by boat and train which was the norm then, but when Laurie Lee wrote about coming home across the Channel, I recognised what he was talking about. In the poem 'Home from Abroad', he says that Kent is merely a ‘gawky girl’, a pale shadow of the sultry wonders he has discovered abroad. But within a short time, her presence is transformed into ‘the green-haired queen of love’ whose ‘rolling tidal landscape’ drowns foreign memories in ‘a dusky stream’. The subtler charms of England have lured him back again.
Now we live near Laurie’s old stomping ground, the Slad Valley in Gloucestershire, barely fifteen minutes’ drive from the place he wrote about in such a compelling way in Cider with Rosie and in his poetry. And it often seems that he’s not quite gone from there. We are relative newcomers to the area, but practically everyone who’s been around Stroud for longer has a tale to tell about him. Just recently we watched the play of Cider with Rosie at the Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham. Two well-dressed middle-aged ladies in the row behind us were discussing him:
‘So did you see Laurie Lee often, then?’
‘Oh yes! I used to meet him about twice a week, at the Imperial.’
My acupuncturist mentioned casually that he was once her landlord, a musician friend related how he used to perform with him, and a local, now well-established writer, revealed that she’d marched up to his front door when she was still a teenager, asking if she needed to go to university in order to become a writer. ‘You don’t need all that,’ he told her, and it seems he was right.
So, as one who is always late to the party (metaphorically speaking), I never met Laurie Lee, but I can still revel in the legacy he left and the landscape he inhabited. Yesterday, in brilliant sunshine, we walked up Swift’s Hill which lies on the other side of the steep Slad Valley. Ponies were basking in the sun, a buzzard or two soared overhead, and the primroses were out in the hedgerows. We looked across to Slad, picking out the phone box, the pub, and the cottage we thought Laurie had lived in. (Rose Cottage, at the end of his life; the cottage from 'Cider with Rosie' is still there too.) There was curling woodsmoke in the air – ‘having a bonnie’ as the garden owner told us later - which added a touch of the old-world to the panorama. As we continued our walk, tracing the contours of the valley, we admired the charming, steep-gabled grey stone houses that were sprinkled across the hillside, ranging from tiny cottages like something out of a nursery rhyme to grander dwellings with many eaves. This local Gloucestershire architecture is my favourite of allEnglish styles; no two houses seem alike, and their quirky individuality seems to be a feature of people who live in the area, too.
Back in Slad later, we paid a visit to the Woolsack pub, Laurie's old watering hole, taking a look at the Laurie Lee bar, but hoping we wouldn’t get mistaken for tourists. Which in one way we were, of course – but maybe we were more pilgrims for an afternoon, on the L.L. trail. We found his tombstone in the churchyard, and later I looked up his poem ‘The Wild Trees’, which begins with the following lines:
O the wild trees of my home,
forests of blue dividing the pink moon,
the iron blue of those ancient branches
with their berries of vermilion stars
and ends: Let me return at last….
to sleep with the coiled fern leaves
in your heart’s live stone
Do you have a Laurie Lee story? Please post it as a comment here, and if we get a few, I'll create a separate blog post for them.
Interviews with Laurie Lee can be downloaded at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/gloucestershire/focus/2003/07/laurielee1.shtml
An album of Johnny Coppin with Laurie Lee, 'Edge of Day' (1989) can be purchased via http://www.johnnycoppin.co.uk
I have included these quotations in good faith that they don’t breach copyright due to their brevity, and hope that those in charge of Laurie Lee’s estate will consider this permissible use, but if not, please contact me and I will remove them.
I’ve covered another legendary local writer, W. H. Davies, in an earlier blog of July 26th 2012. Select ‘poetry’ in topics to find it.
I love to hear stories that people tell about their lives. Perhaps this is why, over the last ten years, I’ve focused much of my teaching and mentoring around life writing. This gives people the chance to write about real experience and real lives, whether it’s a complete life story, a travel memoir, an exploration of family history or just a take on the here and now. What have you seen? What did you witness? What discoveries have you made? Being a tutor on courses which tackle such themes puts me in a privileged position, to hear about other people’s lives.
The mention of ‘Life Writing’ can evoke a blank stare if you drop it into conversation. ‘What’s that? Isn’t all writing from life? Never heard of “death writing”! Ha!’ (They think they’ve got you there.) But I’m with biographer Michael Holroyd, in spirit at least, who says that we need to invent a better term than ‘non-fiction’ to describe writing about real lives: ‘non-fiction’ suggests a pile of assorted rubble, and one that doesn’t qualify as the true writer’s art, which therefore by definition has to be fiction. I sometimes describe my writing as ‘creative non-fiction’ which produces a few puzzled stares, but at least buys me time to think how I can explain the different aspects of my work.
Life writing may be a broad term, and it doesn't cover everything included within the heinous 'non-fiction' label, but it contains the treasure that is human experience. But perhaps the very fact of coining this term, and allowing it to be generously inclusive, has helped to generate fascinating new ways of writing up memoir and personal experience. Such books may be based on factual material, (the stuff of non-fiction) but which have this thread of personal experience, and stories of real people, at their core (the essence of life writing). Recent publishing successes of this kind include Robert Macfarlane’s brilliant books about the natural world, Louis de Wahl’s quest to find his ancestors in the best-selling The Hare with the Amber Eyes, and Julie Myerson’s heart-rending The Lost Child. All contain a personal journey, yet each also contains a wealth of knowledge, about nature or history or family life and psychology.
Publishing successes such as these often have their roots in the centuries-old practice of writing diaries, notebooks, letters, and memoirs. They spring from the habit of jotting down scraps of thought, wisps of ideas, shards of emotion and raindrops of memory. Trying to capture your dreams, observations, feelings, and impressions, while they are fresh in your mind, can give you the material which may one day form part of a longer life-writing project. But when you do this, you may have no such end in sight at the time. My diary of a visit to Russia in 1992 took fifteen years to evolve into a full-blown book called The Soul of Russia. Dating diaries, during my midlife single phase, transmogrified into a co-written guide called Love Begins at 40. And these kind of notes are often written from the sheer need to get it all down on paper! We can’t expect a book to come out of every scribble, but sometimes it does. It’s a mysterious, long-term process which may eventually lead to a result, in writing terms, but, more likely will leave us with a kind of life-writing scrap book. And this has its own value.
So I encourage anyone and everyone to try their hand at life-writing. You’re probably doing it already, in your own way. But coming on a course can help to structure the process, and give you new ways to approach it. Above all, it can be fun!
(Place cursor over each photo to see caption, and click to enlarge)
It’s been a curious journey, rediscovering the production of Marat Sade that we performed as students in Cambridge in 1968. Since I put up the original blog post with photos, in June, I’ve had conversations both fascinating and slightly disturbing with others who were there at the time.
Did I remember, asked Isabel, the beautiful blonde standing above the crowd of lunatics, that we were dressed in real shrouds? No, I did not.
Did I also know that it was Julian Fellowes, of Downton Abbey fame, who played the asylum’s director? Hah! I was vaguely aware that we were at Cambridge at the same time, and hadn’t been able to remember which one he was.
And ‘she died young’, I was told by Margaret, another friend, pointing at the photo of the Dutch girl who had once described me as ‘very, very untidy’. As Else was some kind of anarchist, it seemed to me ridiculous then that she should notice or care about such things. Now I feel sad that she left us a long time ago.
In another photo, that features my own non-starring role, I can also see the hand of my future husband (bottom right), placed on the shoulder of the guy next to him. Note the black marks on its knuckles. This was the result of us joining in a student protest in March 1968, against Denis Healey was visiting Cambridge, and whose foreign policy displeased us. According to reports, nearly 1000 students turned out. ‘As he attempted to leave, they surrounded his car and lay down in front of it. As students threw themselves in front of Healey’s car, the police tossed them into the gutter, injuring many.’ (British Student Activism in the Long Sixties - Caroline Hoefferle) Chris wasn’t in the car rocking posse, but was charging down Trumpington Street with the student mob when he tripped, or was knocked down, and had his hand stamped on by a policeman. The marks didn’t go for years. I came away unscathed; I was always a lukewarm protestor, and backed off when there was trouble brewing.
Acting lunatics and joining in tumultuous protests seemed entirely separate activities at the time. Now I am not so sure. Both had an element of wild release, and a bitterness towards the establishment. In Marat Sade, M. Coulmier, ‘the bourgeois director of the hospital’ as played by Julian Fellowes, supervises the performance, accompanied by his wife and daughter. ‘He believes the play he has organised to be an endorsement of his patriotic views. His patients, however, have other ideas, and they make a habit of speaking lines he had attempted to suppress...’ A far cry from Downton, Baron Fellowes, but perhaps there is some strange connecting thread, relating to the aristocracy?
To crown this rather haunting experience of revisiting the time, Isabel sent me extracts from letters she had written to her mother at the time. I’ll paste them here, with her kind permission; they speak for themselves.
On 9 February 1968, she wrote:
“Sunday morning dawned bright and clear and I ventured forth to audition for the part of a mad woman in Marat Sade. I went to a rehearsal on Wednesday and we had to do the most amazing things. Still it was huge fun and like the man said – “What’s the point of a revolution without general copulation?”
On 14 March her mood was darker, but triumphant:
“The production of the Marat Sade has been going like a bomb. However, it’s terribly scaring and I spent the whole of Tuesday night having the most vile nightmares. I’m very proud of the fact that a large blow-up of a mad-me is adorning the window of Bowes & Bowes – FAME at last.”
The reference to the bomb is eerily prophetic, since the person acting the herald, was later imprisoned for blowing up the Post Office Tower in London.
I should add that most of us have turned out to be very nice people. Thank you, Isabel, Jill, Dominique, Sue, Chris, Bruce, Jane, Margaret, Tim, Jo, Pippa and all the others whose names I can’t quite remember, but who were great companions.
If you were around at the time, would you like to comment or add your memories?
The Kaleidoscope Blogger
It’s nearly a year since I started this blog, and looking back over the range of posts covered, I’m startled by the variety of themes covered, from riding to family history, to Jubilee celebrations, to ‘going grey’.
Does this mark me out as a shallow butterfly? Or as a woman of many parts? (some of which are going grey). Well, I’ve always written on a spectrum of topics in my books, but the majority have been subjects close to my heart. They’ve been voyages of exploration that I’ve undertaken, sometimes for a particular length of time: my journeys to Russia, fifty-nine in total, took over my life for twelve years.
But there are deep threads that bind this together, and make a whole out of what might seem at first glance to be a disparate collection of subjects. Ancient traditions, and the myths of different cultures and religions have always been at the heart of my interests, along with folk lore, and personal narratives. Even as a sixteen-year-old I was plundering the Birmingham Reference Library for undiscovered folk songs in my spare time (how sad is that?), so I reckon I can claim that it’s ingrained! Methods of developing personal spirituality have been a part of my life since I was twenty: meditation, the cosmic ‘map’ of the Kabbalistic Tree of Life, and the symbolism of alchemy all arrived on the horizon at about that time. Anything learnt and distilled from these traditions does, I hope, feed into what I write and how I teach, in terms of experience and little drops of wisdom that I’ve been given over the years. If spirituality remains completely apart from everyday life and work, it’s not doing its job.
Well, this is turning out to be more serious than I intended! What about the writer who tackles Princess Diana, internet dating, and the social history of shops? One thing leads to another, is all I can really say. Each has a story, and you may find the ‘back story’ in the books. But I only ever tackled one book whose subject held no interest for me (it shall not be quoted here) and it taught me a lesson. If I can’t work up any genuine enthusiasm for a project, best leave it alone, however tempting the offer may be. Though, believe me, for writers, really tempting financial offers are rare – so there’s not usually too much of a dilemma on that score. I love what I write about. But also, the moment may pass, and other themes may start to fire up my imagination. The Russian traveller has come in from the cold.
Sometimes a writer is expected to be a fountain of knowledge on everything she has ever written. The truth is that once it’s down on the page, it may disappear from the mind. I use my own books sometimes for reference. I was heartened to hear Peter Ackroyd, the noted biographer, say that he moves on with every new book:
‘Once the book is completed I tend to lose interest in it, it’s despatched into the world…I try not to pay much attention to it after its birth in the world… It’s just a question of moving on to the next thing.’
(Interviewer) ‘And do you remember what you’ve researched…?’
’No, I can’t remember at all… It all has to be evacuated in order to make room for the next subject, otherwise my head would be a sort of bedlam of voices characters and which it would be very difficult to control or discipline.’
Peter Ackroyd talking to Kirstie Young on Desert Island Discs Fri 25th May 2012
Oh Peter, I’m with you there!
So, to return to my theme, or my multitude of themes, I’m going to term myself a Kaleidoscope Blogger. Lots of pretty pieces which are forever shifting around, but which can come together to show a pattern. A true kaleidoscope image has a centre, and a symmetry. You can combine the pieces in an almost infinite number of ways, and come up with a different image each time. Order, chaos, colour.
Stay with me! There will be more to come. I may surprise you – and myself – with my next blog.
When is a Short Story like a Russian Box?
This article was originally written for the website of the National Short Story Week. The 2012 NSSW happens between Nov 12th - 18th, and you can read details of events, competitions, media broadcasts etc at http://www.nationalshortstoryweek.org.uk/
Taking writing tips from an unusual source
For twelve years I travelled frequently to Russia, visiting artists and craftspeople there. Why would a writer take up such a way of life? Well, this writer has trading genes too, plus an enduring fascination with traditional cultures and stories, which have provided material for several of my books. I found the combination of Russian legends and vibrant folk art irresistible, and I began a business with the aim of bringing Russian traditional arts and crafts to this country. While I made these trips, from 1992-2004, I spent as much time as possible in the four villages where the famous Russian lacquer miniatures are painted. There I talked to the artists and observed how they train and work. I should mention that this also involved celebrating with them frequently - at New Year, birthdays, picnics and just about any other occasion that was good for a shot of vodka and a few toasts!
To give a little background, these miniatures are beautifully executed paintings in tempera or oils, on a papier mache base which is usually in the form of a box. They are lacquered to finish which gives a depth of colour and a luminous quality. Mostly, they portray Russian fairy tales, and they have their roots in the art of icon painting. This gives them a timeless quality. But the art form needs a strong technique. Miniature painting is exceptionally demanding, and there is no room for anything surplus or irrelevant.
I’d like to pass on to you four specific ideas that I gleaned from these artists, and to suggest how they might be applied to writing short stories.
Shape your story carefully
The Russian miniaturist prepares a new composition with great care, usually by making at least one detailed sketch. He or she must be satisfied that it will work as a whole, and ensures that all elements are integrated, so that there is overall harmony.
In terms of the short story, it’s important to get the structure sorted before beginning the actual writing. Does it hold together as something with a beginning, middle and end, which can be written in a relatively short span? Does it have a narrative arc, and does every occurrence play a role in the story? There is no spare room for asides or diversions.
I recently interviewed author Roshi Fernando, who has written Homesick, a prize-winning collection of linked short stories. She exhorts writers to: ‘Plan, plan, plan! Understand where the story’s going. Even if you don’t know all the details, or it’s still hovering in your subconscious you need to have an idea of what’s going to happen.’
Roshi herself works by mapping out the stories on a large sheet of paper, connecting up ideas in a diagrammatic way, listing points to research, key themes and symbols, and incidents to include. This is her equivalent of the artist’s detailed sketch.
‘Every face must express an idea’
Sometimes there are many figures in Russian miniatures – perhaps twenty or more in a painting that measures only around 13cms across. The very best miniaturists make sure that every single one has a place in the composition, it, and expresses individuality. ‘Every face,’ as one highly-esteemed master told me, ‘must express an idea.’
In short stories, there’s a similar need to assess how many characters to include, and make sure that there is a genuine place for them in the narrative, even if they only appear briefly. They should not be over-characterised, but there has to be ‘an idea’ for each one which serves the story.
Create a combination of poise and dynamism
Unlike short stories, lacquer miniature paintings can’t usually tell the whole story (usually a fairy tale or historical myth) within the one image, so they have to pick one episode to portray. A crisis point is often chosen, but it has to have both poise and dynamism within that depiction. It must be active, but not hectic; we must see clearly what’s going on, but also have an intimation of what has come before, and what might follow. Here, perhaps, artistic technique doesn’t translate directly into writing, but we can draw from this the idea that anticipation and excitement must be built up, but that each moment should have its sense of grace and poise, a kind of clarity that is never overwhelmed by pace or action. We can savour each scene in its own right, while still being propelled forward in the narrative.
Acknowledging and using resources
Finally – although this might come prior to any painting or writing – comes the notion of placing oneself within a noble lineage. Lacquer artists study work that has already been created, and consider it a privilege to paint as inheritors of a tradition. The tradition includes the folk heritage which artists dip into for inspiration: fairy tales have deep significance, communicating ‘the wise thoughts of poor people’, I was told.
So, as writers, we need to investigate our own heritage. In other words, as Roshi Fernando tells us: ‘The only way that you can become a writer is to read - that’s the basis. Read every type of short story, and then experiment.’ Our literary sources may come from a wider range of eras and styles, but the principle is the same. And lacquer artists do experiment; they stretch the boundaries by trying out new colour palettes, contemporary themes – even space travel, for instance – and generally exploring their individual talents and interests. It doesn’t always work, and fit the genre, but that’s part of the creative process. We can take risks too, as writers, and sometimes, something marvellous may come from that.
This article was originally written for the website of the National Short Story Week http://www.nationalshortstoryweek.org.uk/ Copyright Cherry Gilchrist 2011
Author of books on family history, relationships, alchemy, myths & legends. Life writing tutor teaching for Universities of Oxford & Exeter. Keen on quirky, ancient and mysterious things.