Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Tell me everything...

Writing study guides is a strange thing. When I teach essay writing skills to students we make the point of telling them to answer the question only. I make the point of telling them that it is not an exercise in 'telling everything you know'. However, when it comes to writing study guides, that's exactly what you have to do.

At the beginning of last year I wrote the York Notes Advanced guide on Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner. There had been almost no critical writing on the book, and there was very little material to go. The result was that I did something that one very rarely gets to do in academia. I just wrote what I thought. I didn't rely on secondary sources. I didn't quote from what people had previously said. I had no giants on whose shoulders I could stand, I just looked at the book, decided on an interpretation, and went for it. It was remarkably liberating. Of course, I had all the close reading skills I had ever learned, all the theoretical standpoints I had brushed up against, and a whole body of comparative literary studies to work from, but you know what I mean. And in that case, it really was about 'telling everything I knew'.

Recently I have been finishing off two smaller guides. One on Stephen King's The Stand, and one on Shakespeare's Twelfth Night. The first has been a little like my work on the The Kite Runner. There isn't a lot out there, so I've been able to provide my own interpretations. Of course, with Shakespeare, pretty much everything has been said, so it's more a job of collation than of creation. But still, in both cases, as with The Kite Runner, compiling a study guide, a written account to try and help a student to a rounded understanding, is a really interesting thing to do.

Okay, so, anyone who knows me will know I complain about writing them. They are, after all, work, and who enjoys that? But to immerse yourself in a text to that extent, to try and explain all the aspects of a book or play, to try and find the 'everything' so you can tell it, is a chance that you don't often get. Even when you teach a text, you don't often have the chance - or the time - to explore all the various facets of a text. So, for all that I complain, I do enjoy doing them. I wouldn't keep coming back if I didn't.

Anyway, enough of all this. After I finish off these guides and submit them, I'm going to work on my own novel. A very different proposition, much more creative, but another chance to tell everything I know. Wish me luck.

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Hear, there and everywhere

"No, Will, that's naughty!"
"Oh, dear..."
"No! it's naughty!"
"Oh, dear..."
"William, that's naughty!"
"Oh, dear..."
"Come away from that, William!"
"Eat your doughnut, Willie..."

What was going on? What had William done that was so bad? How had he managed whatever it was when he should have been eating his doughnut?

I have no idea the answers to these questions, the fence was too high to see what was happening, and standing on something to peer over would probably have been at best nosey, at worst ridiculous and intrusive. But it was all good practise for next week. On Thursday next week I have already booked a pub-lunch with a friend, and I plan to head into other public spaces with my ears open and my notebook in my hand. Why? Am I some kind of Peeping Tom? One with a timetable and a work ethic?

Well, in a way, yes. But I have an excuse. Next Thursday, the first of July, an event has been created for writers to work together on a mass project. Jo Bell (poet) and David Calcutt (playwright and novelist) have asked for writers to go out, eavesdrop on the world, and then write a creative response - poem, story, script or flash fiction - to be submitted for an anthology of work. The whole thing comes under the title of 'Bugged' and many, many writers have already signed up for it.

Personally, I always enjoy working to a brief. I like being asked for a piece of work, given a deadline, and aiming to do the best I can to satisfy. So this is perfect for me. I have been writing a lot of Flash this year, so that might be my route, but I won't know until I get home from my day of officially-sanctioned voyeurism. I'll keep you posted.

Why not go to www.bugged.org.uk or visit 'Bugged' on Facebook and join the project?

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

And the story rolls on...

After I finished my PhD in 2005 I didn't write any new stories for nearly a year. At that point it had been over six months since I had finished the creative part of the thesis, so it added up to a break of over eighteen months. When I came back to writing fiction it was with a new voice, a new approach and new stories, many of which surprised me.

The thing which surprised me most was how much of myself I was now putting into my stories. Whole chunks of my autobiography would find their way in, often without me noticing. It was at times, disturbing to discover how much of myself I had inadvertently used, but over time I got used to it and learned to control it.

For different reasons it has once again been about eighteen months since I have written a full story. In that time I have finished a novel and written a number of flash fictions, but these are different beasts from a full short story. They're more like keeping an engine ticking over than opening it up full-throttle and taking it for a burn.

And then, over the weekend at a conference, a discussion provoked an idea for a story and I found myself taking notes during sessions, waking up with my mind already word-processing, and even took a time-out to start writing it. This morning I finished writing it and now I'm stepping back to look at what I've done.

My original idea was heavily autobiographical, calling on a range of things that have happened to me in the last year or so. But, having written it, I am slightly surprised to see how much fiction is in there. Yes, there are elements of myself, as their must be in any work of fiction, I feel. But the reality of situations has been twisted further than has happened in a while, all to fit the themes of the story.

I guess any extended break is going to change you as a writer, but it's always interesting, and, to be honest, slightly discomfiting, when it happens. All of this is part of my progression as I writer, I feel. I started with fiction as pure as I could make it, but little emotional engagement. I then engaged with emotion, through autobiography, but perhaps at the expense of story. Maybe I have now found the balance between the two, serving the story but also the reality of emotion too. I can only hope that's the case.

Ahead of me lies the rewriting and editing before submission. And then we'll see if it's good enough by other standards than my own. For myself, I'm pleased with it, not least because it felt so good to be writing again that I know I can use it to motivate my writing over the oncoming summer.

Monday, 21 June 2010

The Call of the Conference

I spent last weekend in Bangor at this year's Great Writing Conference. It is the 6th year I have attended and it keeps calling me back. For an associate lecturer in particular there is something wonderful about spending such a block of time with Creative Writing colleagues, discussing all the things that interest you.

There was a great variety at this year's conference, from creative work by poets such as J. Matthew Boyleston and story-writers Sam Francis and Philippa Holloway; pedagogical work by Kate North and, well, me; discussions of work in progress from the likes of Andy Thatcher, Brooke Davis and Heather Richardson; and theoretical explanations from Nigel McLoughlin, Simon Holloway and Anthony Caleshu. Everything I saw was interesting and stimulating and has sent me back to my desk with my mind whirling with ideas and plans.

It's a tiring weekend, partly because of the many papers which you cram into your head, swelling your cortex with new information, but also because of late nights and beer-soaked conversations. But it is a wonderful experience that feeds me as a writer, a teacher, a thinker and, at quite a basic level, as a person.

And this year I have come away with two projects which wouldn't have happened without the conference. The first is a short story which has been requested for a journal - about which I shall blog more at a later date - and the second is an idea for an article which was inspired by the conference as a whole. There was a feeling to the conference that the tribe of Creative Writing academics have started to grow tired of forelock-tugging with regard to the English Dept.s that spawned them, and are finally standing up straight and proud. There is something there worthy of investigation, I just need to work out what it is. More on that when I've worked out what it all means. But in the meantime, Say it Loud: I'm a Creative Writer and I'm proud!

Thursday, 17 June 2010

The journey changes the destination

Having blogged last week about starting to write my conference paper, now that I've completed it I thought I would write about the process and the finished thing.

Something I forget until I go through the process, is how an idea can shift and morph under your hands as you bring it into being. Writing for me is always a journey, and I never end up quite where I thought I would be as I set out. It doesn't matter if it is a story, a paper or even a novel, the sheer act of writing changes the content and I discover new aspects and concepts as I travel.

The analogy of a journey is a useful one. When I set out I can see the first few steps of the path in front of me. I can see landmarks on the horizon, and I have a basic map in my hands. As I walk along the trail, the landmarks come closer and appear clearer in my vision. But somehow, up close, they never look quite like they did from a distance. They have more facets, more detailed crenellations and carving on the gargoyles. Eventually I find myself standing alongside them on the ridge, looking onward to the next section of the path, and a new set of landmarks in the distance. The path has taken a subtle turn and the sun is now off to the other side. Looking back, I can see the twists and turns which have pointed me in this new direction but which were hidden when I set off.

As I continue my journey I realise that I am going to end up somewhere different from where I intended; not where I thought I would be, but definitely where I want to be.

This has been the case with this paper. It still explores the things I intended to explore, but the journey has been richer and had more interesting cairns littering the side of the path than I realised it would. The result is something which I am pleased with and which has done a good job of telling me what I think about the subject.

Like many others, I write because I want to know what I think, but don't really know it until I put it down in words. However, in line with Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, in the act of examining what I think, I change it, so the destination I set out for is never the one I reach, not because it's really changed, but because the journey itself has changed me. And that, I guess, is really why I write, because travel broadens the mind.

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

Art meet life. Life, this is art.

Today I have started work on my conference paper for this year's Great Writing conference at Bangor. I plan to look at the way in which fiction writing and life-writing cross over and interact.

The paper was inspired by my first experience of teaching Life Writing, which was this year at Edge Hill University. I had previously taught elements of it in Adult Ed writing courses, and done some 'Reminiscence' writing with older people for Stockport Education Authority, but had never taught it at HE level before. It was a steep learning curve, but one I enjoyed immensely.

I discovered that there were a host of problems with teaching life-writing, as it is not something that students normally do once they are past the age of 11 and no longer writing 'What I did on my holidays'-style essays. One is getting them away from exactly that juvenile style of "We went here, then we did this, then we did that, etc." auto-biographic writing. Another is to get them to write about a more interesting topic than just a holiday or a party but to deal with something more emotional, more personal, and more involved. Lastly there is the whole problem of how much they are allowed to bend the truth to fit the art.

Over the course of the year I devised a range of exercises which allowed the students to stretch themselves in all these areas, and many of them rose to the challenge and will feature in my paper. Some of the exercises were invented during my drive to the University to teach the class, and then were later quoted back to me by the students as being incredibly useful.

In my other job, I was also still teaching fiction writing. However, my experience teaching life-writing made me realise that I could use the same exercises to fix a whole different range of problems in fiction writing: lack of realism, lack of emotional involvement, poor dialogue. So I did.

All of which has made for a fascinating year in my teaching career, but also a great topic for a paper. Now, all I have to do is finish writing it.

And all you have to do is decide whether any of the above tale actually happened, or did I make it all up?

Thursday, 3 June 2010

In brief.

Today's task has been to start work on my study guide essays. These are for an online database leased to schools, colleges and universities, and provide students with information about a variety of texts along with sources of further reading.

I've complete a number of these over the years - they're a reliable source of income from writing - from Fight Club to 'The Yellow Wallpaper' and from Candide to Metamorphosis to A Midsummer Night's Dream.

My current essay is The Stand by Stephen King, and my first job is to write the synopsis of the text. The text itself is over 700 pages long and my job is to summarise all its complexities in about 3500 words. No mean feat!

Writing a synopsis is not something I was ever taught to do, it's not a skill we tend to teach at universities even though we are told we will have to write one of our own book when we are looking for a publisher. It is an interesting process which involves trying to find the through-line in a text and pull out all the strands which make it work, in the smallest number of words possible. It is a really useful way to get to grips with the themes in a book, and works wonders on making your writing concise.

Along with simply regurgitating the story, I try to capture something of the tone of the text being synopsised (is that a word...). The synopsis for Fight Club had short punchy sentences. Slaughterhouse 5 was conversational and fractured. Shakespeare is always a little lyrical and I have to avoid the temptation to write in iambic pentameter.

After the synopsis comes the research, but for the moment, it's back to simplifying the post-apocalyptic world of the superflu.

The next essay is Twelfth Night. Variety is life-spicy indeed.

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

And so it begins...

With the bank holiday weekend now passed, and the last of the teaching admin sorted for the year, today has been that red-letter day, the writing of the 'To Do' list.

It's quite long and contains a lot of entries which start with the word 'write', its brother 'rewrite', and its cousin 'finish'. As I go through what I want to accomplish over the summer it seems that I have more things to finish off - either by actually writing the remainder of an abandoned work, or by redrafting a first draft - than I actually want to start from scratch. Hopefully, as I work on those older pieces and reconnect with what made me want to start them in the first place, they will inspire other new works.

Among the things to work on are the novel I finished at the beginning of last year but have been unable to work on until now for a variety of reasons. However, in the last weeks, I have found my mind returning to it and starting to work on it without me being conscious of planning to do so.

I also have two plays - one for radio, one for stage - which are only each a quarter finished, but which still run round in my mind from time to time.

Add to this the range of stories, flash fictions and poems which have been written but never sent out and I have more than enough to keep me going.

However, these are not my first priority. I shall be starting with something which is much more like 'work'. I occasionally write study-guides for the EBSCO Literary Contexts database. I have a few of these to write by the end of June, so I shall be starting with these. They will be interspersed with writing my conference paper for the Great Writing conference in Bangor later this month. I'm presenting on my experiences of teaching both life-writing and fiction writing this year and the way the two crossed over, but more on that in a later blog post, I think.

Oh, and the first entry on the 'To Do' list (after the already crossed off 'Write 'to do' list', of course) is 'Write Blog post', so I shall start with the feeling of accomplishment that comes from crossing that one off. Now to start work on all those others.