Friday, 20 December 2013

Remembering Barreiro...

I can't account for a fortnight passing since airport chaos gave me a bonus night in Barreiro. I'd promised Will Amado a short story about my experience there. But I haven't written, at all, since getting back to London.

It was a re-entry of shocks coming back to housemates and windy nights and silence in the dark street. I live in a loft and have always loved my windows to the sky, but they seemed weak after my sun-fixed windows tracking sunrise to sunset in Portugal.

There I'd stand on my balcony and watch as children walked home from school with grandparents, men stopped for coffee, or cerveja, women left my blue-fronted bakery with bags of pastries and fresh loaves. From my London back porch I see into the backs of other houses, and in summer I'm woken very early on Sunday mornings by little children screaming and parents laughing, letting them. Since coming back from Barreiro I've stood and looked and it's vacant. Even the foxes seem to have moved on.

Other things have interfered with writing as well - washing and "administration", stocking up on food and cooking it and serving portions to freeze. Donna Tartt commandeered a fair chunk, (and dare I say a wedge more than she needed?) and now here I am, Thursday 11pm, only just getting a writing itch back.

I blame Annie Dillard. Since starting 'The Maytrees' I've had word thoughts again. Phrase ideas. I thank Annie Dillard.

Tonight a friend who recently returned to Melbourne after 13 years in London sent me this photo and said she thought of me: a 50m outdoor pool with lap signs that have approx. lap times so everyone can go at their own pace. "You don't get that kind of pool etiquette in England!"

Yesterday I found out I've won a Mslexia Diary for my submission to the Spread The Word competition - "Tell us your favourite time of year to write, and why." My response (to be posted on their website soon) starts, "Is underwater a season? For me, that's where writing strikes."

I've got my swimming bag packed for the first time in weeks. Friday lunchtime I'll be in a 25m indoor pool where people swim in any lane they like. There's the occasional fit swimmer powering down lap after lap, overtaking when it's clear, but mostly it's a mix of cruisers, bursters who stop to rest a lot, kickers, headabovewaters, even walkers. A bit like us writers really. I'll be doing bits of all of those, and lines may come and go, an idea might strike. Or not. But I'll be back.

Sunday, 8 December 2013

Barreiro - BONUS DAY!

Thanks to the problems with the flight control system in UK airports and the kindness of Will Amado, I have another day in Barreiro. There was nothing in my diary until Tuesday, so I'm more than happy to "have" to stay for one more day of sunshine, and a home that has become very special.

I've been so lucky to have two fun and interesting writers staying here this week, and farewelling Pete over coffee and custard tart yesterday, well it was sad. Susanna and I went back to our apartments to work, which for me included researching. That said, I'm not sure how David Vann's "Legend Of A Suicide" relates directly to what I'm working on, but I'm sure I could find a link.

After hitting the new shopping centre and buying some random stocking-fillers and souvenirs - I now have a lovely tray (made in China) that doesn't actually fit in my suitcase that came off the plane last Saturday minus a handle - we rested up at the local tapas bar for a couple of Super Bocks, more good food, and rounded things out with a hearty glass of port.

I hadn't expected another day here so I spent a lot of time out in the sunshine today. But now I've unpacked my slippers, replenished supplies, and am so grateful for more time to take advantage of this space to think and write.

Friday, 6 December 2013

Day Five - Barreiro: Symbiosis

Today was never going to help the word tally. For me, working on new story ideas means research, wordlists, pages and pages of unrelated phrases looking for patterns, walking from the desk to the kitchen to the desk to the bathroom to the desk.

Thankfully, here I can stand on the balcony and watch a world so different to what I'm used to, and try to draw on it.

This morning I was working on the story I mentioned on Tuesday, the one that was lacking story, action, and enough to warrant being 3,000 words long. I've been thinking of the thread to bring it to life, so went to my Scrivener cork board for words, character descriptions etc, and came across Symbiotic.

If you believe Wikipedia, the definition of symbiosis is controversial amongst scientists, but essentially it's about different species living together over a long period of time. The various types of this include parasitism and mutualism. It was once used to describe people living together in a community, so I've been reading these controversial definitions looking for ways to apply concepts to my story, which is fundamentally a series of observations on a commuter train.

Still a ways to go, but I always enjoy these tangents. And by natural extension am handy at the corner of a dining table.

To counter the creativity challenge of that and another early idea for a story, I've been writing synopses of my short stories to use in a submission letter. How strange, trying to write about what I've written, seeing how many narrators I am, and recurring themes. I'm definitely lost and like exploring guilt in relationships, particularly families.

Just to be clear, I only write fiction.

Tunes of the day have been inspired by a tweet this morning from radicaledward

The video helped with my story concept, and I'd forgotten how much I love Rhye. Enjoy.

And if you make it this far, the weather today was sunny and warm. Thanks Barreiro

Thursday, 5 December 2013

Day Four - Lisbon

Today I was a tourist. I enjoyed a couple of copas of local wine last night, and woke up aware of that.

Writing achievement was to record-edit a 5k word story. Yup, that's it.

Great day (sorry to rub it in but blue sky, all day, again) of wandering the cobbled hills at an easy speed. Stopped for a noon cerveja near the castle and walked across to Bairro Alto for lunch.
Not much to report as we just ambled the day away through different parts of the city and returned to Barriero to be welcomed by the barman downstairs for a cold one before retiring to rest and rendezvous for dinner later.

It was a day off, which I enjoyed, but I'm looking forward to getting back to the desk tomorrow.

Shame it wasn't open...

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Day Three - Barreiro = Breakthrough

Yesterday I woke with an idea to change a POV in a story I've been working on for years. I finished that re-write today and have sent the updated version to my workshop partners for review. We'll see what they think but I'm sure it's come a long way.

This morning there was another breakthrough. On the weekend I had feedback from one of my workshoppers that went something like this:

"I don't think it would be helpful at this point to give too specific feedback... I feel that for the length of the piece there is not enough 'story' here... if I am reading a 3k story I want more action, more development of a story…"

That's a small extract, but you get the gist. 
I replied 'ouch.' 
Of course I knew it was true, just thought I'd managed to drop a series of scenes together with just enough stitching. The term friends and I have used for a famous Melbourne course steward, Des Gleeson, seemed apt: Harsh But Fair

And the magic of Barreiro struck again. 

In the shower (where most writing solutions happen for me), I came up with the thread. 

So watch out you-know-who, that piece will be coming your way again soon.

Here's how the tally looks today:
FINISHED = 13,500
FOR RE-DRAFT = 5,400
TOTAL = 18,900

TARGET = 25,000 words

If you've ever used directions on google maps you'll understand when I say, I'm on purple.

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Day Two - Barreiro

Though I might already be used to waking up in sunshine here, I'll keep celebrating it.

This morning as I lay in bed reading with a coffee and the sounds from the cafes downstairs of unstacking chairs and arranging them squarely around tables, I realised that one of the stories I'm trying to finish needs to change POV. For years I've drafted it in third person, and as soon as I started the switch to first I was typing the reader in. And it felt wonderful.

At lunchtime I read 'Forests of Antarctica' by Courtney Watson, the December story in Long Story, Short. I stood on my balcony listening to an opera playing somewhere beyond the square. I watched people walking, talking, and thought I really must get out to explore this place. But I came here for my words and they too are busy, and they feel right, so the streets around me will have to wait. Perhaps later in the day. The body time will tell me when.
And it did.
After a glass of local wine I went for a walk. I kept wanting to get back to my desk.

I haven't quite finished the two pieces I'd hoped to "finish" by the end of the day. But I have explored, written other exercises that have surprised me, read stories in magazines online, watched, photographed, eaten, and in an hour I'm meeting the other writers in residence here for a drink on our square.

I'm still aiming for 25k (almost said km but that was a couple of years ago now), and thought this man in the square represented that well.

As Shaun Levin said to me last night, "Failure is not an option."

Monday, 2 December 2013

Day One - Barreiro

A few weeks ago I wrote about a fabulous week that fired me up to prepare a To Do list for the next week.

To be fair a lot of that was achieved, but some items have carried over for my stay in one of the First Impression apartments in Barreiro, Lisbon to focus on writing for a week.

Here I've set myself a fairly aggressive target. Oh hell, let's get it out there:
I want to get to 25k of short stories finished by Friday night. 
I haven't checked my spreadsheet to know how far away from that I am, but given that many of my pieces are 1k - 2.5k, and there's not that many of them I consider finished, it's safe to say that's a pretty challenging goal.

One of my daily breaks will be to post an update on here, writing, reading, random thoughts, the fabulous local wine. Who knows.

I didn't start yesterday but to catch you up the content would have included: travel day, 4.20am start, little brain space for anything other than wow, weather. wow, apartment. wow, a whole week here. wow, I'm very tired.

So here's how today went.
I woke up thinking I was on a beach. The sun through the glass had strength and I read in bed listening to the square below waking up. The sounds of unstacking chairs around tables, welcoming locals for coffee, families with grandchildren meeting up.

For my next Reading To Write class I need to write a scene where one of my characters wants something from another one. I'm surprised at what I wrote for that this morning. Perhaps I was influenced by 'In The Cut' by Susanna Moore that I started reading this morning.
Maybe it was the Sarah Selecky daily exercise I did early: Write five sentences by an author you admire over and over for at least 10 minutes. Mine, from 'In a Strange room' by Damon Galgut, were:

"Why is violence always so easy to imagine but tenderness stays locked in words for me…Maybe horror is felt more easily from home…If your own pain is interesting to you, how much more detached will you be from someone else's pain…He has the air of someone holding his breath…Committed to a situation of which the outcome is unknown, travel and love have this much in common."

After writing them twice I knew them word for word and felt a strange power as I repeated them without thinking of the words but of all the paths these ideas could take in their own story.

At 13:09 I took off my watch. Everything here will happen on body time.

And now, almost time to turn on lights, I can reflect: I've done my "homework", a couple of writing prompt exercises, another draft of a story I've been working on for years, and wrote up my notes about a new one.

Soon I'm meeting the other two guests at the restaurant downstairs, and tomorrow I get to do it all over again.

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Who's telling this story?

I often write in third person, and have really been helped by workshop friends to identify whose story it is. Starting as an omniscient narrator I get to be the profound author with an agenda. And then it has to be pared back, generally to be one person's view of the story, and of course removing my telling telling telling.

Listening to 'Queen of Denmark' really highlighted the POV issue and how different the same story, in this case the combination of voice, words and melody, can speak to the audience.

Whilst I do have an opinion on which one works (for me), I think it's more useful as an illustration.

And while I'm talking about John Grant's work, I'm working to his new album 'Pale Green Ghosts' today. I haven't posted a Time Out Track for a while, and this video is hard to beat. You could be laughing 65% more of the time. No wait 63%,  25%…you work it out, but watch out for  rabbits, birds in cages, basketballs in greenhouses, and taking a flame to your skin during a facial. And women who eat pickled peppers out of a jar outside a kebab shop.

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Not quite Simon Hoggart's week (The Guardian)

If I run into someone today, or tomorrow, and they ask how my week's been, I'm going to have to warn them that they may not actually want me to respond. Because I won't be able to say, yeah not bad, or pretty good thanks. I won't even be able to stop at, you wouldn't believe how good my week's been. I'll have to give them this:

Booked 3 night trip to meet my 18 year old nephew (and godson) in Belgium. He's part of an organised tour of battlefields with a group of his peers from Adelaide. It's the longest consecutive time I'll have spent with him since 2009, and I will try not to hold his hand and hug him any more than I can sneak in without him or his friends noticing.

Went for a long lunchtime swim and came home to the best rejection letter I've ever had - Graham Connors (Number Eleven magazine) compared writing to a successful writer.
Watched the Swedish film, Play. It's 118 minutes of cinematography so beautiful you could cut and hang most shots as an exhibition. It's 118 minutes of creeping tension that reminded me of the 102 minutes of Martha Marcy May Marlene.

Don't remember dream details but they had an edge.

The text for this week's Reading To Write class was The Field Guide to Getting Lost, and the critique of my homework helped me to shape it into a story almost ready to submit.

Editing ideas meant I couldn't sleep properly.

Walked through Wandsworth Common to the Earlsfield Cemetery for Hauntings: Ghost Stories at The Chapel and sat on heated pews for candlelit readings by Tania Hershman, Alex Preston, Adam Marek and Stella Duffy.

Creativity, and maybe a post-event drink, meant I didn't sleep well.

Joined 24 other writers for the Start Small: Think Big masterclass - Alexa Radcliffe-Hart has posted a great write-up of the weekend here - and (not in anyway detracting from the other sessions), I was introduced to and mesmerised by David Vann. When he began I feared it was going to be far too academic for my brain to absorb, but very quickly he worked incredible intelligence, knowledge and passion into a talk I could have sat listening to for another few hours. Whoever it was that suggested he do a TED talk, here here. Came home and ordered Legend of a Suicide.

Couldn't stop thinking, wrote "important ideas" down during the night, didn't sleep much.

7am coffee in bed, 8am coffee in local cafe writing and watching Clapham wake up with blue sky. Joined the group at Birkbeck College for more incredible hours with inspiring talents, and thanks to Carrie Kania and Deborah Levy, came home in the dark with an ambitious but do-able plan for the focus of my writing to finish up 2013, the year I 'came out'.

Couldn't sleep, excited about the plan.

7am coffee with Evie Wyld. Well the last 70 pages of After The Fire, A Still Small Voice. Sat silent in my reading chair after finishing.

Wrote my list of targets for the week:
- 3 x short shorts to send to workshop partners for feedback
- 1 x short short to update following magazine editor's feedback
- 2 x longer short stories to do last couple of drafts and re-send to workshop partners for feedback
- Draft cover letter while I have the tips and notes from yesterday's session with Carrie Kania

Will I sleep? Don't really mind. Maybe I'll lie awake thinking about how lucky I am, thinking of how many people I've met and shared passion, laughs, coffee and beers with this week, and thanking the people who give their time to make all of these opportunities.

Saturday, 2 November 2013

Black Dogs

- 12 Edmondstone Street - was divided into - Three Houses, Many Lives -. It was a - House of Earth - a - House of Exile - A House of Slamming Doors -.

- One Night In Winter - The Outsider - approached, holding - The Golden Notebook-.
It was not the first time she had arrived with - The Notebook -. After - Forty One False Starts - she was - Unbored - , knowing that - This Book Will Save Your Life - . Knowing that in this house there wasn't - Too Much Happiness - and wanting to be - The Help -.

For - One Glittering Moment - Magda - heard - The Goldfinch - and the - Yellow Birds - screaming, as they did at - Inconvenient People -, and it was - Total Chaos -.

- At Last - The Door - opened.
- My Name Is Red -.
- Hello Again - . I am - The Gift Of Stories -. I have - A Tale For The Time Being -.
- Here Comes Trouble - The Son - cried out. - Enter The Evil - he yelled, the - Catastrophe -, the - Night - and - Nausea - The Storm At The Door - .
- Talk Softly - The Girl In The Photograph - whispered. - Like A House on Fire -, here, - Things Fall Apart -.
I bring - Some Hope -.
- In A Strange Room - Mud - The Pattern In The Carpet - .
-Tell Me No Lies -. - Disgrace - has been our - Harvest - of - Plenty -. We need to - Rub Out The Words -.
I bring - The Invisible Writing - Written On The Body -.
- The Book Of Cloud -?
- Tales of Protection - for - Writing Down Your Soul -...
- Inconceivable - !
No, - Stranger -, - The Information - you need is simple:  - All Dogs Are Blue -.

*   *   *   *   *

Response to Sarah Selecky's daily prompt for 1st November - Written at Woolfson & Tay watching Sarah Butler in residence for the Live Writing Series.

Sarah's piece, also using book titles - You Have Been Warned

- not just a fabulous day (as usual), also thoroughly enjoyed my spicy chicken take away for dinner. 

Friday, 1 November 2013

Time out track: Wolf's Law

This week I've caught up on a few new and not so new releases: Boy George's first album since 1995, Arcade Fire's Reflektor, the latest from Cut Copy and Mercury-award winner James Blake.

But the title track from The Joy Formidable's latest album is one I'll keep going back to.

This is one of the most dramatic and powerful alignments of image to lyric, melody and rhythm I've seen in a music video.

My walk with Autumn

Autumn and I decided to go for a walk together.

I said - Aren't we lucky, we don't have anywhere that we have to be.

Autumn was silent.

We walked for a long time and I remembered how Autumn can be a dramatic toddler sometimes. 

Autumn said - I can't stay here. With you. I'm sorry. 

Autumn left me last Thursday at 4.55pm. I felt the cold of the abandoned, but kept walking. We've been through this before but I'm not sure how many more goodbyes I have left in me. So I put my scarf on and walked underneath determined trees and kept pace with men with satchels and resolved that in fact it is for the best.

After a 5 hour walk I'd left Clapham for Arsenal. Autumn was fading. I felt that there was someone else just around the corner who may turn out to be more reliable.

Thursday, 17 October 2013

We all need a lighthouse of our own...

We already knew the setting was going to be stunning, but when you stop in a pub not more than a few miles from where you need to be to ask directions, and the barmaid and three regulars haven't heard of a lighthouse nearby, certainly not one that you can stay in, well it just becomes even more exciting.
When we found the entrance, drove around a couple of narrow hair pins and dropped down a steep steep hill, the silence in the car was utter awe.
Amanda welcomed us and showed us around the long building that has been respectfully restored to feel warm and lived in, but the bedrooms are quite stark. And why would you distract a room with too much decoration when you have an outlook across the Bristol Channel.

Many writers draw from it and have their own theories of its lure, but which ever way looking out over a body of water effects you, with moors and sheep and wild ponies on the hills behind you, well it's bound to spark something creative.
I find it unbearable to look at so much water and not slip in. Even knowing it's freezing beyond bearing, each white crest curls at me like a forefinger. I thank my childhood for making me a fish with legs, but last weekend I settled with the sunset from the rocky goat track, looking west towards Lynmouth.

Apparently I could ramble on and on about the weekend, so I'm restricting myself to two highlights:

My vegan experiment stayed in London. In fact I treated myself to a Jamie Oliver bacon and egg sarnie before I caught my train. And over the weekend I enjoyed hearty homemade meals and puddings - chilli, chicken stew, vegetarian lasagne, apple pie, chocolate mousse with raspberry coulis...ok, you get the picture. Veganism is now reinstated, with many fond food memories. And a takeaway container in my freezer (thanks Amanda).
But apart from the food itself, the dining table was where we all came together, and really talked. Our group writes poetry, quirky flash fiction, short stories, humour, dark, women's lit, the (extra) it didn't take long to get into rich conversations, and establish links that spread from Wales, to London, to Cambridgeshire to...well Amanda's on her canal boat adventure now, last heard heading north.

Alison Moore masterclass
On Saturday afternoon, Alison Moore's smiling face appeared at the bottom of the stairs and we had wind-whipped introductions. Her taxi driver had asked if she was going to a hen's party - there's got to be a 'setting' story there.
The focus for our afternoon was setting and landscape in literature, which opened with reading and discussing extracts from a selection of books that all went on my to be re-read list, including Wuthering Heights, Waterland and The Woman in Black. And now elevated to the top of my must read list, 'If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things' (Jon McGregor) for his use of urban landscape as powerfully as the others use the wildness of moors and weather.

When Alison asked if we'd like her to read one of her short stories from 'The Pre-War House and other stories,' my enthusiasm nearly deafened my neighbours. Sorry about that guys. But I do love being read to.
Somehow the afternoon just ran seamlessly from listening to writing to discussing each other's writing to listening, afternoon tea, writing, discussing, and then Alison had to return to civilisation.

It's no wonder her events schedule is so extensive - I'm looking forward to the incredible line up at the 'Start Small Think Big' weekend workshop in November.

This was the first residential retreat for Amanda's Retreat West, and I have no doubt that it's the beginning of a very successful programme. Her plans for future stays in remarkable settings, with authors lined up to hold workshops around themes, it's a recipe for rewarding experiences all round. If you can get away from families and work for a few days, you can know that you'll be well looked after and there'll be lots of time and space for writing. And, if you're lucky, you'll make some great new writing friends.

Before I went to Exmoor last week I'd been struggling with a bit of a word rut. Now I'm back, writing, editing, smiling. And vegan. And now I really must head to the gym.

Soundtrack for the weekend? Of course I'm listening to The Waifs

Thursday, 10 October 2013

Time out track - thanks to 'Freedom' by Jonathan Franzen

I'm little kid excited about going on the Retreats West Lighthouse Retreat tomorrow. What a stunning setting, surely it's going to bring out thousands of words. Earlier this week I put aside Jonathan Franzen's 'Freedom' to take as a cold night companion, but I couldn't resist starting it on Tuesday. And I'm already half way through.

One thing I rarely try to do is write a review/summary of a book, so I'm stealing the quote from the cover -  'Deeper, funnier, sadder and truer than a work of fiction has any right to be' (Independent on Sunday)

Whilst reading this exploration of love, families, wanting and abusing freedoms, I'm also trying to finalise a short story that is about the stages of a relationship. I'm at a scene where my couple go to a wedding. She looks across the room at the partner she loves but who doesn't fit in, and my aim is to describe the complication of emotions that sparks in her. As always I went searching for a song that might help, and tying it all together nicely, I came up with this fantastic clip that shows the mess a wedding party can become. It's 'Tangled Up In Love' by The Rifles. It's, well, it sure shows how a wedding can have a range of consequences! I can't say I've been to one where all of these scenarios have played out, but some of them are familiar.

Friday, 4 October 2013

With thanks - this writer getting out of a rut

I've been in a word hole for about a week. Who knows why, but it got to the point where I couldn't even read. I started 'A Field Guide to Getting Lost' by Rebecca Solnit (irony is recognised). By the end of the introduction I was so excited by it that I ordered it for dear friend in Australia. And yet, I had to put it down, because I knew I wasn't in the mindset to appreciate it properly.

And when I had the confirmation email that the book had been dispatched, I realised that I'd ordered the wrong book. So Mel, I look forward to hearing how you enjoy 'Wanderlust: A History of Walking'. At least I got the author right.

For several days I was more likely to eat large bowls of pasta and watch poor tv than be involved with written words.

A combination of things have got me back at the desk, but most importantly I'd like to thank Matt Haig, and all of the people who have tweeted about what an inspiration THE HUMANS is.

I could easily have finished it in one sitting, but I'm not willing to let it inspire only one day.

I remember reading someone saying something like - you should leave your desk when you still want to keep writing. For me it's the same with this book.

Music, as usual, has also got me back on track, and this week it's discovering Agnes Obel's new album. 'Aventine' was released in the UK on Monday, and has been 3 years in the making. It's a struggle to pick one song to highlight. Reviews describe the 'mournful sternness' of the album. As usual I get something slightly different from it. I've felt like I've been swimming out from a bay beach on the Mornington Peninsula, swimming past children's thrill squeals, through the chimes of anchors and sails moving with the tide and the wind, and swimming on out to the deeper water with sun on my back, salt thick hair, and the tranquil space of contentment. And that's when my word brain really takes flight.

So for any one struggling for inspiration at the moment, I hope this might help. As for me, I'm off to the local pool. And then I'll be back to finish another draft of a 4,500 story called 'Shame'. And maybe tomorrow, or on the weekend, I'll be loving 'A Field Guide to Getting Lost'.

Sunday, 29 September 2013

Friday night at Foyles

The inaugural Spread the Word short story prize was celebrated with a panel, Prosecco and of course readings.

Bidisha and Tania Hershman (two of the three judges) were on the panel, chaired by Paul Sherreard, and they created a really friendly and informative space for the event.

It was interesting that one of the replies to the (impossible) question - what makes a great short story - was that the reader feels an effortlessness by the author. That the story has been told in exactly the right sequence and words - everything that's said is what needs to be said, no more no less - and there is no obvious over-working authorliness.
(That's not a direct quote of course - usually I do take some notes during these sessions, but I was so happy listening, like you are at a good dinner party, that I didn't want to disturb the vibe with my notebook).

So to me the judges' discussion was a similar success, as an honest and informal conversation between articulate champions of the short story form.

I particularly liked the Tania Hershman test of a good story: it has to have an impact; you need to feel like you've ben hit. Maybe not quite left black and blue, but you want to feel like you've gone through something and it stays with you. Again, for me the evening had the same outcome.

Bidisha read an extract of her short story, 'Dust', published in the anthology Too Asian, Not Asian Enough and Tania read 'Her Dirt' from her collection, my mother was an upright piano.

Not sure if there was a deliberate theme there ladies?  But the theme for the short story competition was 'RITUAL'.

Sue Lawther, Director of Spread the Word, arrived late to the event, with a very fine excuse. She'd been at the decision-making discussion selecting the winner of the inaugural Young Poet Laureate, to be announced by Carol Ann Duffy in the Houses of Parliament on National Poetry Day next week. And no, she didn't give anything away. But she arrived to present the winning prize to the very talented and exciting Clare Fisher.

Clare is working on a collection, 'The City in my Head' and the extract of her winning story that we heard was a powerful example of the judges' earlier comments about when it works: the voice is strong and confident from the opening word, and though we didn't get to hear all of it I'm sure that it has the Tania Hershman seal of success.


We'll all be able to buy the anthology of the shortlisted stories when Spread The Word launches their publishing venture. ON SHELVES FOR CHRISTMAS - beautiful print and online editions. (nb. I have no investment in this venture, I just feel strongly about this organisation that does so much for new and emerging writers).

So I met a poet, a playwright, a short story award winner who it turns out I'd seen at several Word Factory events, and thought the sign of a great night was having to be ushered out so that the bookshop could actually close!

Thanks Spread the Word and Foyles for a great night, and congratulations to those who entered and were shortlisted in the competition. It's one for others to look out for next year - dates and details apparently to be released soon.

Saturday, 21 September 2013

Friday afternoon - body Self Development System (SDS)

So after last weekend's manuscript development in York, today I was initiated into 'SDS'.

Rune, from Denmark, has temporarily joined my usual massage therapy team [that's Blueline massage - yep, I'll take a discount for that shameless plug] to provide this treatment that was developed in Denmark.

I read that it "combines elements of massage, osteopathy, breath therapy, relaxation techniques and trigger point therapy to provide a whole body therapy".  Cool. I've had Thai massages, acupuncture, and done African yoga, I'm up for this.

You start lying on your back, and Rune was enthusiastic as he commended me for achieving just this. Apparently most clients automatically lie face down as if waiting for their usual massage. Good start Jen. But then I had to work out how to breathe properly. Apparently I wasn't relaxed enough. I like yoga breathing, and find it stills me, but it seems that actually I like control.

So while I was trying to sigh without throwing my breath, various parts of my body were prodded and shaken. At times it felt like one side of me was in a Laos bus that was gathering speed before taking on a hill, with neighbour's hands and suitcases digging in to trigger spots, and I had to try to breathe rather than resort to valium.

But it felt good. Like I imagine an exorcism might, well sort of. Just in the sort of sense of release.

As many of others do, writers spend a lot of time sitting at their desk, and over time this "blocks" our breath from travelling as low as it should. If you're sceptical about these things, I highly recommend reading Teach Us To Sit Still by Tim Parks. So Rune was particularly focused on me opening up my breathing while he released my neck and shoulders. 

I'll never understand how the organs and points throughout our bodies are connected. And I'll probably never feel it quite so profoundly as I just did for an hour. Press a point on my foot and a spot in my abdomen and I'm seeing stars. Roll my hips around and kick my calf out and back and there's a twinge in my gut. It's weird.

And there's so much movement in the session. Not that you flip around or anything, not like the Thai ladies who crawl over you and twist your legs and slap you about - that is what happens to everyone isn't it? - this is lots of shaking, and then stilled firm pressing on points so that it feels like something just progressively penetrates into your shoulder blade or your thigh...and it's amazing.

If I'm not doing a great job at explaining, it's possibly because through most of it, and even now, I felt a little bit stoned. So, surely I was relaxed. Rune checked in regularly to see how I was feeling and apparently a lot of my tingling was my toxins coming to the fore. Now whatever could they be...

At the end I was very thirsty, trembling a little, and felt like I couldn't quite control my body. He assured me that it is a very deep therapy, and by stimulating many organs as well as pressure points, your body is, well it's busy in there. There was never quite an 'Uh Oh' moment, but I was conscious of my body reacting, and working, so in that sense it's a far more active experience than a massage. 

I couldn't quite decide how I felt about it at the time. I sat outside in the sun for a few minutes before I walked to the bus stop. I moved slowly. Wasn't worried by the peak hour pace or noise, and I realised I was in the sort of state I often find during yoga, where you're just 'being'. And that's a beautiful way to feel. 

I have just woken up from the best sleep I've had in a very long time. You may not know what to expect, or even quite what's happening during the treatment, but if you can find someone well-qualified I highly recommend giving SDS a go.

Thursday, 19 September 2013

Time Out Track - Bristol

It's a slightly tenuous connection for the clip today, but I'll try and stitch it together.

At the Writers' Workshop festival in York last weekend, the panel on Sunday morning was 'New Opportunities for Writers in the Digital Age'.

Tom Abbott described one of the most innovative and interesting 'products' I've heard of, combining different mediums to create a whole new way of storytelling.

These Pages Fall Like Ash

Two cities, each overlapping the other. 

Two people who can no longer remember each other's existence.

Two books.

Two platforms.

A singular reading experience. 

The physical component is a limited edition book with a wooden cover. Handling it I felt like I was in a rare books section of a library, and naturally nervous that my tired/hungover hands might inflict some damage. It's beautiful. It reminded me of how much I treasure 'real' books, hardbacks, second-hand books and second-hand bookshops.

But then there's the digital element. There are hard drives set around Bristol that transmit digital content, and through this the two stories come together.


Despite a career in change management I'm no early adopter, but this is a great way to get me, and other readers I'm sure, to see and feel the potential for the many many new ways writers and readers can come together.

The circumstance team have an exciting portfolio of other collaborations and ideas - hopefully the plan for 'These Pages...' to travel to other cities isn't too far away.

So I was looking for a soundtrack to this idea, trying to find something that might match mood-wise, which is a little tricky because I've only had a few seconds with the content. To keep it Bristol I was looking at local bands, but figured rock wasn't right and neither Massive Attack nor Portisehead need any more promo. So here's a clip from what I gather is a Bristol(ian?) institution...

Friday, 13 September 2013

From Iceland to Canada

Last week I was in Hannah Kent's Iceland. This week I finished the wonderful collection from D W Wilson, 'Once You Break A Knuckle.'

I started reading it a couple of months ago, and knew straight away that this was something to savour.
The line up of names praising the stories on the cover and for several pages inside is absolutely justified.
As usual I'm not going to try to review the stories, you can find plenty of those, but my experience of reading it was the powerful relationships between men, with friends and sons, and their remote Canadian setting.
His novel, Ballistics, is high on my To Read list.

So while we're in Canada, here's a track I thought matched quite nicely.

Gold & Youth are from British Columbia, and though they tend into a more electronic sound than would naturally match D W Wilson's stories, there's something about this pared back version that fits.

Thursday, 12 September 2013

What about the vegan-friendly running snack?

A few weeks ago I started an experiment in eating vegan.

I've been corrected on the terminology - the first time I caught up with a friend and said I'm having a try at being vegan, he nodded whilst clocking my leather shoes and my handbag. You're trying out "eating" vegan he said, a smug hearty carnivore himself.

So I stand corrected, and apologies to anyone with the far more admirable grounds for their lifestyle choice.

It's interesting what you want when you can't have it. Previously I would have eaten pizza maybe once a month, but now? I WANT CHEESE.

And what do you do when you have a hangover? I had a rather decent one the day after I wrote about the experiment. I took the sparkles and the wine, but didn't end up taking the cake with cashew frosting. And I did eat pulled pork, and potato salad lashed in mayonnaise, and pudding. And the next morning I needed eggs. Poached eggs on pesto bagel, my standard weekend brunch. And then I needed pizza. With bacon.

I had it, all, and didn't feel too bad about it because this an experiment. And because I was training for a 10km race, so figured I'd run it all off.

So last Saturday I did the Women's Running London 10km event. I tagged along with the Write This Run crew, who showed their experience by having Prosecco at the finish line and breaking a few PBs.

I'd started the 8 week training programme to make 50mins at week 4, so the time target was probably a little ambitious. The last time I ran a 10km event I clocked just under 60 mins, and that was quite a few years ago.

Anyway, I figured I hadn't had meat or dairy so my body wasn't lugging around all that hard to process stuff - it should all even out.

The course, described as fairly flat on the registration website, had about 200m of flat. There were seven uphills in one lap of the two lap course. I hadn't done any hill running. But I stuck with Lucy, the 50 mins pacer, and at 6km, knowing there was a long hill coming up, raided my stash: jelly babies.

I've always used jelly beans or babies as the hit you need in a run - the sugar goes straight to my legs, and a little to my head, settling the XXX rated inner monologue. But I kept thinking about the tendons, ligaments and bones that had been boiled up to give me my hit. I couldn't think of a vegan substitute, and was too shattered to worry by 7.5km.

So when I came home, and ate a large slice of lentil loaf, I looked for my vegan equivalent.

It's called agar-agar, made by boiling several types of seaweed together. I thought oh yuk, eating boiled seaweed. And then I thought of the hoofs.

I looked for some recipes using this appealing ingredient, BBC Foods came up high in the search list, and I found Ham hock with parsley jelly and pease pudding.


So the best tip I've found is to substitute gels/jelly bs with shelled sunflower seeds and raisins.

I'll be the one training with tupperware. 

At least, like the beans/babies, they'll get stuck in my teeth and give me something to focus on other than pain, fatigue, sitting in my reading chair with a book.

If you have any alternative ideas for keeping the energy levels up on a long run (not including kale chips, roasted chickpeas or Mary's Gone Crackers), I'm really keen to find something I can put in my mini-pocket in my running shorts.

Help greatly appreciated. The experiment continues...with a few minor deviations.

Oh and I made it in 50:59. Should have taken those seeds.

Sunday, 8 September 2013

Time out track - Saturday Sun

"...And Saturday's sun has turned to Sunday's rain. So Sunday sat in the Saturday sun and wept for a good day gone by." Nick Drake.

Taking the title of a Nick Drake song for a band name is ambitious, and when I saw these guys I was expecting a driving to surf pop song. Instead, a gorgeous voice, gentle guitars and drum brushing. I don't want to parallel, but they certainly sound worthy of association with the lovely Nick Drake.

EP sold out, new album coming soon. And there's also a hidden track.

Friday, 6 September 2013

Time out track: immersed in Iceland

Following last night's Icelandic evening in Chelsea, I wanted to share some more magic from that country. My music knowledge was limited to Björk, Emilíana Torrini and Sigur Rós, and though I do like all of them, and their very different sounds, I wanted to discover something new.

Last year, at the age of 20, Ásgeir Trausti set the record for the most copies sold by a domestic artist in Iceland.

So perhaps you've already heard of him? But in case you haven't, well here's a track in Icelandic, and one in English that seemed to fit the Icelandic evening.

And if you're interested in more Icelandic music discoveries, there's a fascinating range - including Icelandic reggae - here.

Thursday, 5 September 2013

An Icelandic evening. In Chelsea.

I'd forgotten how aggressive lycra cyclists can be, so it was a relief to turn onto Fulham Road behind a woman in a red dress and high wedges. At Daunt Books I pulled up behind a woman with a crisp bob sitting very upright on a basket-front bike. I wasn't alone riding in a dress, but felt conspicuous wearing a helmet.

Beside the bike stands was a group of almost thirties smoking and comparing stories of their Trans-Siberian railway adventures.


I'd spent the afternoon in my sunny courtyard (in a different seven letter suburb beginning with 'C') reading the last 100 pages of Burial Rites. Another strong contrast - last London summer heat and the last days of Agnes in northern Iceland's January dark.

The Icelandic evening was a discussion between debut author Hannah Kent and novelist, travel writer and academic, Sarah Moss. Both women went to Iceland at a young age, and it had left a powerful impression that clearly hasn't faded.

When she was 19, Sarah was awarded a scholarship to "contemplate natural beauty", and caught a ferry from Aberdeen to Iceland where she and a friend spent six weeks of summer travelling around. It was just a beginning for her, and always wanting to go back the opportunity came up for her and her family to spend 2009-10 in Reykjavik.

Hannah finished school knowing she wanted to be a writer, but unsure of what else she should pursue to supplement this tenuous career choice. She applied for a Rotary exchange, nominating Switzerland, Sweden and Iceland as her countries of choice.
At 17, she had never seen snow.

Though their Icelandic experiences were very different, there was obviously a challenging settling-in time. Sarah, with her husband and two sons, working in a city, depended on strangers to help with the simplest things, like buying a bus ticket. Hannah left Adelaide's 40 degree summer to arrive in a remote village in northern Iceland, trapped by snow and at the mercy of the weather. Where Sarah felt anonymous in a crowd, everyone knew who Hannah was, and the spectacle of being a stranger was disconcerting at first.

I haven't read Names for the Sea, but was interested that she used the form of a novel to get away from  the rigour of thorough truth to fact. She enjoyed the freedom of fiction.

Hannah's "subjective non-fiction" novel is the product of extensive research and the desire to reflect the story of the last executions in Iceland with respect for the people and place.

The synergy between these women's stories is the power of the landscape. Both take on a sort of reverence describing walks in the unending summer light, the bizarreness of volcanic gullies, the mountains, the isolation of an island where weather dictates what you can do each day.

It's as moving listening to the writers speak as it is to read the story of Agnes Magnusdottir.

The May release of Burial Rites was so highly anticipated in Melbourne when I was there in February, that I was desperate to get my hands on it when it was released in the UK. And in the spate of fabulous books I've read lately - I mean it had to follow Stoner - it easily gets 5 stars from me.

And Hannah's next book? Well I didn't get much time to talk to her about that as there was a long queue for signings, but it's set in Ireland, based on a story she's heard about superstition. I'd get ready for another evocative tale.

And if you're looking for a review of Burial Rites, rather than a response to it, Isabelle Costello has literally just posted a wonderful one here.

Saturday, 31 August 2013

Even If We Try

You know when you read a book or see a movie or a painting or or or we all have our things that just stop us. Dead halt awe.

And you read over passages or rewind or circle round again, and it stays with you, well, forever.

You never forget that feeling, how your life feels now. Now that you have this as well.

For me it's not quite "filling a void you never knew you had". It's almost enough to make me want to stop what I'm trying to create, because how can the world need my work when THIS exists. But then it starts to encourage me as well.

Anyway, I'm talking this up a bit much, but as soon as I heard the vocals on the album 'Country Sleep' by Night Beds, I had to stop.

I hope some of you might feel something like that, and come back to it when you need to feel it again.

And I'd love to know what book, song, painting, movie, sculpture, wine...does the same for you.

nb this isn't my favourite song on the album, but I couldn't find an official video for the opener, Faithful Heights.

But they are touring across Europe over the coming months. I'll be at Scala (London) on December 3rd.

Thursday, 29 August 2013

Time Out Track

Not wanting to be controversial or push any particular's a quick fast track, and if nothing else may remind you how beautiful and inspiring silence is.

Tuesday, 27 August 2013

And they're off...

‘Who was that love?’
I hit the volume one two three bars louder.
“Looked like that was a bump on the rails there,we may well have a protest later but just behind…”
‘Who was that?’
‘Get outta the way woman.’ I sweep my arm through the air. Christ, can’t a man just watch his races on a Saturday afternoon? Haven’t I earned this? ‘It was just Stan.’
‘Oh, Stan. What did he want?’
‘Look at this folks, Atomic Force is charging through the middle. He’s come from the back of the pack and had to get there the long way but I don’t think they’re gonna catch him now. That’s a magnificent ride…”
‘Frank, what did he want?’
‘You bew-ty. You little bloody ripper. Clay’s dead. Thadda boy, I knew you could get him home.’
‘What? Frank, what do you mean Clay’s dead?’
‘Jees that’s a good win.’ I flick my eyes away from the telly to look at the wife, who’s face is screwed up somewhere between disbelief and disgust in me.
‘I don’t understand,’ she says, looking every bit as daft as the grandkids can.
‘I’m not sure how to break it down for you. Clay’s dead. It’s pretty simple.’
She grabs the remote.
‘Whoa, hang on there, I just want to check the places.’ 
She shuts down the telly just as they show that Horsethief Canyon came second at 12:1 and the favourite, Golden Willow, just held on to third by a nose.
‘But, he was just here the other day. He looked alright.’
‘Yeah well we all do and then we drop. That’s how it goes.’
‘That’s awful. How did he…what happened?’
‘Heart. Packed up a few days ago but no-one knew until the Bulgarian woman dropped in with her bucket and mops this morning.’
‘She's Romanian,' the missus says, like it matter. 'That’s awful.’ She wipes her hand on that damn floral apron she’s been wiping Mr Muscle and Domestos on for so many years the purple carnations are even more disfigured than her face is right now. ‘When will the funeral be held?’
‘Don’t know don’t care.’
‘Oh Frank, you have to pay your respects this time. You can’t miss another one.’

I don’t do funerals. When I retired I knew I’d run out of material. Nothing left to talk about so I don’t do anything bigger than a six. Got a wife a daughter a son-in-law and two grandkids and they don’t need me to talk when they come round. Daughter talks to her mother, son-in-law looks at his kids, captivated, like everything they come out with is genius. Like, ‘Daddy I can get my peas on my fork,’ is some kind of miracle. And mostly the little punks don’t need me to talk, they just yell out, ‘Grandpa, look at me? Can I do this? Look at what I can do,’ so mostly I’m good for the hellos, I’m fines, goodbye see you soon with them, and that’s all they need and sure is enough for me.

‘Paid my respects every Friday night for the past twenty five years and it was a whole lot more respectful when I talked to Stan and Stan talked back.’ I flick the tv back on.

'Grandpop, what does…’
‘Not now sonny jim. They’ll be lining up for the Sandown mile in a few minutes, and I gotta see what some of these old haymunchers have got left in them.’
‘But Grandpop, for homework I have to write a sentence with the word deceit in it.’
‘C’mon Paddy James, redeem yourself son. If you reach for that whip too late again you’ll be as washed up as that old beast you’re riding.’
The whippersnapper’s still there.
‘They’re lined up in the gates now. Just waiting for Brimstone, who we think could be running for the last time here today.’
‘Decent is letting an old man watch the Saturday afternoon races in peace.’
‘Lights on. And they’re off…’
‘Not decent, Grandpop…’
‘Damn straight it’s not decent. Come on Paddy James, don’t get boxed in now.’
‘Not decent, Grandpop, deceit.’
The kid’s standing in the corner holding a multi-coloured crayon and a notebook wrapped in paper with two rainbow-striped balloons on the cover.
‘Deceit is letting an old man get comfy in his favourite chair that’s got his arse marked in it even when he’s not there, and letting him think he can kick back and watch his races in peace, and then barging in here with your homework.
‘Dear me, Paddy James is having a shocking day today…’

Chuck Wendig's Flash Fiction Challenge - see the ten words to be used in less than 1,000 words here