Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Writing a Five Fingered Exercise

When I was  a small child, just starting school, my favorite moment in each day was the one, after we’d finished our tea, when my father went into the front room. He’d say to me, ‘don’t pull the curtains and don’t switch on the light.’ Then he’d sit at his piano in the last of the evening light and play; Chopin waltzes, Mendelsshon’s Songs without Words, Beethoven’s concertos and pieces from the shows. I would dance around the room for hours, my skirts twirling, my arms doing what I thought might be pointy ballerina movements. 
Then the big day came, when Daddy said he would begin to teach me the piano. I was so excited; as far as I could see it would be no time at all before I would be playing like him. Why, I did so already, racing my hands over the keys and swaying my body like a professional pianist. So it came as a bit of a blow when I realized even five-finger exercises were baffling and onerous. It took me a long time to play my first Song without Words; two decades to be exact.
Writing a novel is a bit like learning the piano; a lot harder than you might think. Bill, who’s just completed the Open College of the Arts Advanced Creative Writing Module with me, wrote to say...When I started the journey, my initial objective was to write a novel. I, like many people, didn’t understand how difficult this task was. I originally thought that having a good idea and a vivid imagination was all that a person needed. The rest was just a matter of course and would happen naturally and with the minimum of effort. I now appreciate how just what a difficult task it is to write a novel. Anyone who completes a novel, let alone has it published, has my total admiration.
Spot on, Bill. Writing a novel is like inventing an entire new life...many people’s lives, actually. If you’re into fantasy, you’ll be inventing new worlds, as well. How could that possibly be easy? Certainly, having a mentor who can support you in those first stages when it all seems a complete mess - when even the five-finger exercises of writing feel onerous - can help enormously. Bill wrote; When you are placed with a tutor there is initially, a certain amount of natural apprehension. You’re faced with another lengthy and unknown learning process. My initial feeling was that the way ahead seemed insurmountable. I’d spent a few months standing still and had reached a non-constructive plateau without any end in sight. It felt I was drowning in a sea of uncertainty. You reassured me that I was not alone with this problem and that most novice or indeed many professional writers suffered this at one time or another during their writing career. The way through this dilemma and off the plateau was to keep on writing. 
Naturally a writing student should expect a little more than simple words of encouragement; a tutor, unlike a mentor, also offers practical, technical and creative advice that will move the student’s work properly forward. They should be able to see through the confusion in a way the poor old writer can’t - they’ll be too busy looking at the wood, while the tutor will be viewing the trees and hopefully recommending a better planting and growing order for the the entire forest. 
But it’s important for the tutor to stay enthused and energetic, as it’s likely that the writer will sag and droop, especially around the middle of the novel. 
Your enthusiasm for creative writing is infectious...Bill said in his letter...and I can honestly say it rubs off and has bolstered my failing spirits. Creative writing is not the easiest thing in the world to study but having an excellent tutor has made it a bit easier. Many thanks for your time, advice and patience over the last year or so.
Aw, nice of you to say so, Bill. I’m just so proud of the way this student’s writing developed over the module, which is far more to do with the concentration and energy he gave the project; it’s the writer who needs the time and patience to be honest. Without that it’s unlikely they’ll get further than playing chopsticks. 
Bill (and I) make this process sound so arduous, so hard to achieve, that novice writers reading this may wonder if they’re not put off trying, just a little. Bill says, The journey, I feel, has been an exceptionally hard but enjoyable one. I’ve tried to put into practice everything that you have suggested and I feel that my writing has not just moved forward but taken a considerable leap. Completing this last assignment and ultimately the course has been a great achievement for me.
Bill hasn’t quite finished his book yet, but now he’s got the confidence to write by himself. My final advice to him was to stop redrafting and get on with the writing. Working through a writing course always results in a lot of redrafting. It’s the quickest way up the learning curve. But once the foundations and basic skills are laid, I suggest that people tackling a long project just get on with it...one word, then the next, then the next until the next two words you write are ‘the end’. Only then can you redraft with any clear understanding of what the book looks like and says.
Thanks, Bill, for letting me quote parts of your letter in this post, and good luck in your forward endeavours...may your words always sound like songs.

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

How to Improve your Handwriting...


Nina, said my English teacher. Your handwriting is abysmal – no one can read it, even you. Your spellings seem to have arrived from the planet Urgh. And your presentation is dreadful – ink blots, scratchings out and no hint of a margin on either side your page. So I’m setting you some homework this summer holiday, and I want to see it on the first day of the new term.
First year of senior school. I was far too busy with other things to worry about the presentation of my work. Friendships, for instance, took up all my waking moments. Girls were starting and dropping friendships like they were fashion accessory items and I wasn’t getting the hang of this at all. 
Even my oldest pal from primary school had already ‘gone off’ with someone else, and I was left to choose from Denise Winters, who had goofy teeth and a strange scent emanating from her clothes, and Shirley Court, who was scarily lesbian at a time when I didn’t even know what the word lesbian meant. Then there was the gang of girls who hung about in the lane that led from School Road to Cow Horn Hill. They all snogged boys and were into tattooing themselves with needles and ink. If you cut off the corner by going down the lane, they’d stand across it, their needles at the ready.
And when I wasn’t working out how to keep friends and keep away from foes, I was dreaming, building worlds of fiction and wonder, in which the relationships that were so disastrous in reality worked out fine.
My handwriting has honestly not improved a jot
Taking home an empty exercise book for the summer holidays was hardly a punishment; it seemed a wonderful thing to do. I wanted it to be far more than a handwriting project. It would be an illustrated anthology, I decided, of all my favourite authors. 
Things quickly deteriorated on the presentation front. I’d forgotten my artistic skills were not up to illustrating anything more complex than an Easter Friday boiled egg. And I quickly forgot that the point of this exercise was to improve failing handwriting, rather than seek out excerpts from all the wonderful literature of the world. But I did have fun, that summer holiday. I started with my own bookshelves. They were rather overfull with Enid Blyton, so I chose a single story – The Island of Adventure – and wrote a ripping summary. Then I picked the bit from Anne of Green Gables where she tells her new guardians about her belief in God. Next came Alice in Wonderland and Little Women (the bit where Meg dies, of course!), followed by the lovely moment in Secret Garden, where Mary gets into the walled garden for the first time, and the bit about Mr Tumnus in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. 
Then I started rummaging through my parent’s books. Mum’s favourite was Lorna Doone; Dad’s was The Seven Pillars of Wisdom. I found that hard-going, but loved falling into Lawrence’s hot, dry world. At the library, I pulled out books on astronomy, photography, history. I also took out Lady Chatterley’s Lover on my father’s ticket; not fully understanding what the word ‘abridged’ meant. Finally, as I neared the end of the exercise book, I fell upon a book no one had ever told me about, but that I have loved ever since those early days...
She stood there staring, poised like a disturbed marsh bird for instant flight. But his voice was deep and kind when he spoke to her, ‘What is it, child?
She stood her ground, and then edged timidly forward. The thing she carried in her arms was a large white bird, and it was quite still. There were stains of blood on its whiteness and on her kirtle where she had held it to her.
The girl placed it in his arms. ‘I found it, sir. It’s hurted. Is it still alive?’
‘Yes. Yes, I think so. Come in, child, come in.’
Rhayader went inside, bearing the bird, which he placed upon a table, where it moved feebly. Curiosity overcame fear. The girl followed and found herself in a room warmed by a coal fire, shining with many coloured pictures that covered the walls, and full of a strange but pleasant smell.
The bird fluttered. With his good hand Rhayader spread one of its immense white pinions. The end was beautifully tipped with black.
The Snow Goose by Paul Gallico
This book is still on my shelves, it's dust cover slightly ripped, but the lovely line drawings still takes back to those days.

I was so proud of my book full of the golden nuggets of  literature, but I bet you won’t be surprised to hear my English teacher was not so impressed! My handwriting had deteriorated even further over the summer, as I’d discovered more and more wonderful writing and scribbled extracts into my exercise book.  In fact, my handwriting is still as bad as ever...but I’m still dipping into books and love to share my finds with other readers. Go tohttp://kitchentablewriters.blogspot.co.uk/p/the-kitchen-table-reading-club.html to see what I’ve been reading more recently...