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Friday, 20 March 2015

Days Out

Days out can seem like such an indulgence. Ever since I first started writing there has been this constant conflict - when I'm writing I always think of all of the other things which need doing and when I'm not placing words on the page I feel that I should be!

BUT as writers it is so important to put down our pens or close up our keyboards and make a conscious effort to get out and do the other things we love. It can only broaden our horizons and ultimately enhance our creativity. A day out can bring you back buzzing with ideas; it can add a richness and freshness to writing which may have been becoming a bit laboured from an overdose of attention.

On Wednesday I went to London. To be honest I often find London a bit stressful, too many people, too much noise and it takes too long to get anywhere. But this day was different. My daughter and I left home under gloomy cloud heading for the John Singer Sargent exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery but by the time we emerged from the tube station at Leicester Square a lemony spring sunshine was brightening the buildings and lifting our spirits.

The exhibition focuses on Sargent's non-commissioned work so there is a freedom to his interpretation, an intimacy not bound by the constraints of fulfilling his sitters' expectations. One of the best known works in the exhibition is perhaps Carnation, Lily, Lily Rose. Words cannot describe it; the romantic fairy-tale quality, the way the light falls from the paper lanterns, the lushness of the grass around the girls' feet.

At the entry point to the exhibition there is a stunning portrait of Madame Ramon Subercaseaux, the wife of a Chilean diplomat. The lace on her dress is so exquisitely painted that you feel you could almost touch it and her hand rests lightly on a piano. Sargent was an expert at painting hands, depicting the skin tone, the light veining, the slenderness of fingers, the sheen of nails with breath-taking skill.

I have to admit that when I was much younger portraits didn't do much for me. I much preferred landscapes or paintings with something going on. But now I find the stillness of a portrait captivating. I am fascinated by the people immortalised on canvas, not just by what they want to project to the world but also by what they are keeping back. They stay with me and feed my curiosity.

Afterwards we took a stroll around the corner to the National Gallery to take a look at a few famous paintings; Titian's Bacchus and Ariadne with it's spectacular azure sky; The Arnolfini Portrait with it's fascinating detail, the luminous Bathers at Asnieres by Seurat and Sandro Botticelli's Venus and Mars. In front of Constable's Haywain a group of schoolchildren were talking about reflections and clustered around The Wilton Diptych a group of foreign teenagers were learning about Nativity Plays which they had never heard of. That National Gallery was buzzing! We are so lucky that we have all of this great art available to view for free.

So it was a great day out, not too stressful at all and we both returned home feeling that it was well worth taking the time out. If you love art and are able to get to London before 25th May do take a trip to the John Singer Sargent exhibition. It's an absolute gem.

Thanks for dropping by. If you have a favourite artist I'd love to hear from you.

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

Don't forget the Detail

"Don't forget the detail," I always say when taking a writing workshop. A tree is not just a tree. It could be an oak or a willow or a flowering cherry. All are different. All immediately conjure up a vivid picture in the mind. That is what you are doing when writing a book; painting a picture with words.

In my next door neighbour's garden stands a large beech tree. It was present as a fully grown tree on a map of the area from 1912. This tree is probably about 130 years old, maybe more. But soon it will be cut down. The tree has been unwell for a couple of years, having developed a fungus which is eating away at it from the inside. If it is not cut down soon it may fall down.

I have looked at this tree every day for twenty-five years. As I sit up in bed with my morning cup of tea I watch squirrels scampering amongst its branches, pigeons courting in the spring and, right at the top are two precarious crow's nests.

Beech trees are stately and sinuous. Their bark is silky and smooth to the touch.When the sun sets the bark takes on a golden hue. In the winter with the driving westerly rain it is grey/green. I have sat in the garden and listened to the swish of its leaves, absorbed the creak of its limbs. In springtime its sticky brown bud casings fall to the ground and stick to your shoes. They are followed by unfurling pointed oval leaves of the freshest limiest green. Not much will grow under the dense mantle of a fully clothed beech in summer time. They are the ideal trees for seeking shade on a hot day.

In autumn many of the beech's leaves float like golden brown petals on to our lawn, clutter up the pond, drift under the hedges. Over the years we have must have cleared tens of thousands of leaves belonging to this tree. Then there are the beech nuts, shiny, hard and three cornered, the pointed hairy cases splitting open to release them and being surprisingly heavy when it comes to raking up and clearing away. Beech nuts were once much used for feeding pigs. We could have done with a couple of those to help us over the years!

Maybe this beech will feature in a book in the future. Maybe it will just stay in my memory. Either way it is a reminder to me not to forget the detail. It is also a reminder not to forget the love. For I have grown to love this beech, for all its hard work and inconveniences.

Trees are symbols of physical and spiritual nourishment. When you write, nourish your readers with detail. Your work will be all the stronger for it.

These are three of my favourite writers who are masters of detail, Anne Tyler, Carol Shields and Adriana Trigiani. At the moment I am reading The Child's Elephant by Rachel Campbell-Johnston which also contains beautiful details of Africa and animals.  Of course there are many, many more examples and I'd love to hear of some of your favourites.

In the meantime thank-you for dropping by.

Monday, 2 March 2015

What Are Writers Like?

I've read three things about writers over the last couple of weeks.

1. "Writers are like fleas, they get very little nourishment from each other."
    So said John Dos Passos, the Chicago born, radical American novelist.                  
    This quote was repeated in an article by Tim Lott about the loneliness of
     being a writer and given a staunch rebuttal by children's writers Helen Grant
     and Lydia Syson.

2.  "All writers are vain, selfish and lazy..."
     This one is from George Orwell and was  also discussed in The Guardian by Julian

3.   60% of people in Britain picked author as their dream job. This was the result
      of a YouGov poll of 15,000 people.

So two negatives and one positive.

What a sad indictment of my profession the first quote is - if it is true. But in my experience it is just not the case. Up until now I have written mainly for children and the authors I have met over the years have been friendly, generous, encouraging and yes, nourishing. It is their words, their stories, their example which has kept me going when times got tough. We are not forever looking over our shoulders worrying that there is someone else ready to steal our ideas or our story. Given the same title we would all write something different. We recognise that. We recognise that there is room for all of us to succeed, maybe not at the same time or in the same way, but that is when the nourishment is needed and maybe I am luckier than most but it has been readily given.

A couple of years ago I could have thought that it was just children's writers who exist in this lucky environment. But then I started writing an adult novel and began to attend local meetings of the Romantic Novelists' Association. I was welcomed with open arms and again have found warmth and generosity.

As for vanity, that may be the case in some instances and I have met a few writers who were a bit 'up themselves'! But for most of us I suspect it is less vanity more insecurity which leads us to chase publication. We crave recognition because it justifies the time we have spent at the keyboard. Writing just for yourself sounds self-indulgent in a world where we are programmed to do rather than to be. For me as a writer there is also the hope that I will give someone pleasure, a space in their day to shut out the pressures of daily life and immerse themselves in a story. Is that vanity? Maybe it is but most writers will tell you that they are constantly on the see saw with their inner critic, trying to find that balance between being happy with what they have written and judging it to be complete rubbish, hand hovering over the delete button.

So, to the dream job. In The Guardian last year it was reported that 54% of traditionally published writers and 80% of authors going it alone earned less than £600 per year. When people state being an author as their dream job I suspect they have been swayed by newspaper reports of huge advances given to some authors. I suspect they do not include within that dream, the job insecurity and increasing difficulty of being able to earn a living. But I also suspect what appeals about the job of being an author is the freedom to choose your own working hours and the ability to work from home rather than struggling with traffic, public transport and untenable working hours. The reality is however that most authors will have other jobs or a partner who can support them financially as they chase their dream. This is not to be discouraging. I think it's fantastic that there are so many people out there who want to be writers. There is absolutely nothing else I would rather do.

To quote Colin Powell;-

"A dream doesn't become reality through magic; it takes sweat, determination and hard work."

Maybe it takes a little vanity too but whatever our dreams we need to nourish ourselves and others. That way we don't just get to celebrate when our own dreams come true but when the dreams of others do too.

Thank-you for dropping by. Have a great week.

p.s. I've had some dream news in the last few weeks. Last Chance Angel has been short-listed for the Kernow Youth Book Awards in Cornwall and No Going Back has been short-listed for the Northamptonshire Children's Choice Book Awards and The Sheffield Book Awards.