Monday, October 20, 2008

On cutting

'Cut,' I tell students. 'It's one of the finest ways of editing. Challenge everything. Take out words, phrases, sentences, paragraphs and see if the writing is improved by the absence.'
Teaching writing to others does help your own. Preparing Edna O'Brien's short story 'Paradise' for a seminar, a story of my own was triggered. It follows four men on a boat journey out from Sutton Harbour here in Plymouth (pictured above). I've just spent a merry couple of hours chopping away at it, moving sections around, slicing off pieces here and there. It will be cleaner and better for the process, with much more to follow.
I was cheered at the weekend by news from Brian McCabe, editor of The Edinburgh Review, that they had accepted my story 'Letters to the Parishioners' for their next issue. It's a long story, following a priest as he heads off in the footsteps of St Paul. The original consisted of four letters. An editorial to and fro saw it trimmed back to three. I prefer the sleeker version. Cut, cut, cut ... it's not a bad mantra, if you produce something long to work at in the first place.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Bookbrunch ... and books

UK publishing journalists are putting out a new trade journal BookBrunch. Cheerily it's free, at least for now. And the rights page gives news of my pal Sara Maitland, who's just sold world rights to Granta for her new book proposal Enchanted Forests, twelve retellings of fairy stories forming a third of the book, the rest an examination of the genre.
I chatted with Sara the other day, as rain continued to sweep over her cottage on the Scottish moors. Her new book A Book of Silence, out next month, is buzzing nicely ... big splashes planned in the Daily Mail and The Guardian and a spot on the national radio show Start the Week. I feel fondly proprietorial of the book, since its proposal was forged during a few days we spent together. I'm expecting it to be beautiful and hit the Christmas bestseller tables.
Another book arrived in the post today, an early proof of Jill Dawson's The Great Lover. The book, a tale spun around the life of Rupert Brooke, sprang to life in Jill's mind while we were having tea on the lawn at the Orchard Tea Rooms in Grantchester, an old Rupert Brooke haunt. I expect to delight in it, and will let you know.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Creative writing in an hour

How do you encompass creative writing in a one hour lecture? I posed myself that task this week, deciding this was the missing element in an undergraduate module I'm teaching.
First stop was to major on point of view. As soon as writers start entering a scene through the perspective of others, their imagination is engaged. I burrowed through my bookshelves (getting harder since my books that haven't passed on to other lives through charity stores are now housed on shelves in five separate locations) and West Hampstead Library's collection for first and third person examples.
On then to choice of tense. Most amusing was to take a passage from Jeannette Winterson's Oranges are Not the Only Fruit and switch it from past to present. I've played similar games with whole novels of my own - and must say Winterson was improved by the process. The passage gained immediacy.
From tense a shift into one of my own warhorses, advising people to avoid using the past perfect tense where they can, to beware that use of 'had'. Often writers report stories in this way rather than entering them, dramatizing them as they reveal themselves to the character.
We looked at 'voice', a character's, a story's, a writer's. Finally I reckoned it was worth pointing out the importance of utilizing the five senses ... touching, tasting, smelling, heading, seeing. Just as important as these for me is the quality of movement, the breeze that stirs a stalk of grass even in a still landscape, the play of light as sun moves behind cloud, movement and the senses showing that something is actually alive.
Who best to show off this use of senses? I picked book after book off the shelves, expecting to find some show of mastery on every page. Salman Rushdie? I'm afraid not. Late Winterson? No way.
Then I picked up V.S.Naipaul's A House for Mr Biswas, read a passage, and would have been content to abort the whole lecture writing exercise and simply curl up with a great book. Finding my examples was easy. Each page was alive with them.
Aaaah for great writing. So much of what we laud is no such thing.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

A note from St Anthony

I've just woken from a dream, Gordon Brown walking the walls of the London palace which was his home, where I found a note from St Anthony advising that a spiritual life consists of service to others.
It's telling advice. Years ago, when I was locked into a teaching job and yearning to write, I took my concerns to Mother Meera while staying at her home. She sent back a note with the advice, 'Teaching is primary, writing is secondary'.
Of course, it's possible to twist such statements to suit oneself. You can say, 'Then I will teach through my writing.'
Saint Anthony, the father of monasticism who gave up his inheritance and took to the deserts of Egypt, never learned to read or write. He realized he needed to balance his life of prayer with manual work in order to stay sane, and headed to the city to care for others in times of upheaval. I've always enjoyed teaching, and have found that my life has gained from the routine of a teaching worklife just as it requires me to write to keep myself whole.
I'm into a heavy teaching stint ... one that sees me rising at 4.30 like today to grab a little writing and personal time. It's an interesting question to pose to yourself, 'How does my writing help others?' While for now, I guess, the writing is secondary and the teaching primary, the fact that I teach writing clearly binds the two.
And what was Gordon Brown doing in the dream? I had dinner with his current biographer the other day, who would otherwise have been with Brown at Chequers but for his sudden urgency of preparing a compelling conference speech. I was happy to encourage her in what must sometimes seem an ordeal - for writing biographies of the living can be very bruising, especially when they are in their own times of crisis. The dream strengthens my sense of Brown, who of course has to wield his dark side to maintain hold of power, as someone who ultimately views his life as one of service. His is a complex story, but ultimately I suspect there's enough goodness there to make the biographer's efforts worthwhile.