A couple of weeks ago I was one of twelve Essex writers chosen to spend a week at Metal Southend Culture LAB.
Metal Southend had turned their residence, Chalkwell Hall, into a pop-up writers' house for the month of March in partnership with Essex Book Festival (which runs for the whole of March).
The lovely Syd Moore was the Writer in Residence and she was on hand to give advice, chivvy us along or just have a chat/giggle over a cuppa. I've read The Drowning Pool which I really enjoyed and I'm looking forward to reading Syd's latest book Witch Hunt. I had a 1:1 session with Syd and she asked questions about my wip that really made me stop and think. Consequently, I'm working on a major overhaul but I think it will be much stronger once finished.
Two Tree Island
Our week was very intense: each day started at 10am and finished at varying times. We visited Two Tree Island on a bitterly cold afternoon with author Rachel Lichenstein. Rachel is a master at writing about place and it was great to spend time with her and to look closely at the estuary environment. I am currently reading Estuary which is beautifully written and informative.
We also spent time with Agnieszka Studzinska whose poetry transports you to the emotions attached to places and events. What Things Are is truly moving and several of her poems particularly resonated with me.
And we listened to Paavo Matsin talk about his life in Estonia and his book Gogoli Disko which is not yet published in English - although you can read a translated excerpt here.
Added to this we had creative time, a dinner, a performance evening......and the Writers' House had a café with an open mic each lunchtime throughout the whole of March.
Chalkwell Hall is a beautiful old building, and a superb addition for the month was the use of a desk in the attic which has been beautifully designed as a creative work space. Two desks were available each day and each writer could book two places throughout the month. I took advantage and booked my two days which were both completely different. The view across the estuary is amazing and quite inspirational. I pretended just for a little while that I had a room of one's own.
The pop-up Writers' House has been so successful that plans are in place to create a dedicated Essex Writers' House. From what I understand, the plans are at the ideas stage at the moment, and it may take some time, but I am sure there will be one. We have proven that there is not only a desire, but a need for one. It's so inspirational to meet with other writers and to feel that you belong, that you have a sense of place. I met some wonderful people during the month of March - and the week I spent with my eleven peers was fabulous.
Often I hear people say that you don't need to visit a place to write about it. Technology can take us where we want to be. In one sense, that is true. It works if you are writing about something on a surface level. But if you really want to get inside the bones of a place, understand what makes it special, then you have to spend real time there. I have written pages of notes about how the wind felt, the chill on my cheeks; about the changing cloud formations - low and claustrophobic or as big and wide as a prairie; the ebb and flow of the tide, how the water makes rivulets through the mud. No amount of Googling could give me the essence of this part of the Thames estuary and there are more places I'd like to explore so I can inject a complete sense of place into my writing; make it come alive.
And now, the twelve writers chosen for this very special week have formed a bond and have vowed to keep in touch and meet up. We don't have a dedicated house (yet!) but for now, technology will facilitate our meeting space.
Watch this space.........
Witch Hunt by Syd Moore is published by Avon (ISBN: 978-1-84756-269-2)
Estuary by Rachel Lichtenstein is published by Penguin (ISBN: 978-0-141-01853-9)
What Things Are by Agnieszka Studzinska is published by Eyewear Publishing (ISBN: 978-1-908998-38-5)
For the last few months I've been exploring a sense of place in my writing. I've been wondering why we are drawn to particular things: woods, hills, museums..... And how these places affect our emotions and wellbeing.
As many people are, I'm particularly drawn to water: both the sea and rivers (not lakes, so much but I'll take one if that's all there is!).
I'm currently working on (what I hope will be) a novel which is set in a quiet estuary town and I'm exploring how the river sustains life yet it also has the power to take it away. My characters are all drawn to the river, they couldn't live in a land-locked place and while I'm exploring relationships between people, I also want to look at their relationship with the water and how it defines them.
Naturally I'm carrying out lots of research which I'm thoroughly enjoying. Who wouldn't like to take a stroll along the riverbank under the guise of 'research'!
In April last year, I was on a family holiday in Devon: a cottage on the River Yealm - yes, all my family are drawn to water. And Lovely Hubby, Lovely Mum and I took a day trip to Greenway, Agatha Christie's holiday home. I was entranced. So much so that I tweeted about it and Lovely Rosie Longstocking tweeted back that Greenacre Writers were holding a retreat there in March 2018. Sadly they were all booked up, but luckily for me, one of them dropped out and so I quickly snatched a place.
And so the year wore on. It turned out to be quite a horrific year for news and family illness. Little did we know that the holiday in Devon was the calm before the storm and I'm so glad we were oblivious because I'll treasure those memories for a very long time.
I didn't give the writing retreat much thought until it was almost upon me. With a month to go, excitement set in. I was a little apprehensive as I'd never met Rosie (@Rosie_Canning), Nicole Fitton (@MisoMiss) and Ingrid Jendrzejewski (@LunchonTuesday) but I reasoned 'how bad can it be? - they're writers!' I'd asked my friend, Michelle Cunnah to come along, too and before very long (I think it was over tea and scones when we first arrived) that our friendship took root. Needless to say, we had a fantastic weekend with lots of laughter and fun - as well as writing.
Greenway was a wonderful place to be. The apartment overlooked the River Dart and I felt I really got to know the river in our short time there. I watched the tide come in and out, the ferry chugging up and down and rowers in the early morning. I walked around the grounds twice each day which was invigorating and helped me to put my thoughts in order. And I wrote loads.
Greenway closed to the public on the Saturday at noon because of the impending snow storm. We decided to stay and walking around the grounds on that afternoon felt magical. Although I'd tramped around when the gates were closed to the public and enjoyed the solitude, now it seemed as if we were cut off from the world - although we weren't at all as the snow didn't really come in until the following morning. There was something special about our final dinner, all sitting around the kitchen table, feeling as if we were isolated, marooned. Somehow it made my senses sharper, my writing deeply emotional.
It was a wrench to leave Greenway and my new friends. The journey home was tricky but exciting! The weekend has left me with another question to ponder. Why are we drawn to certain people? I don't know. But the combination of this special place and my new friends inspired me to write new things and to open all my senses to the world around me.
I read an interesting article in The Guardian on Saturday
about a subject that’s been on my mind for a while. Should an author’s dying
wishes be obeyed?
Blake Morrison explores the issue of unpublished works: does
anyone have the right to publish them after the author dies? It’s a tricky one
and I don’t think there’s a definitive answer.
Now, I’m only a scribbler, certainly not an author. But everything
I write is personal, not intended to be read by others unless I explicitly send
it out into the big, wide world. But would I feel differently if I were a
successful writer? Would I be happy for others to trawl through my writing and
decide if it is publishable?
As some of you may know, the last three years have been
difficult (although, thankfully, things seem to be on an even keel now) and I
used my journal to write my greatest fears, vent my anger and frustration and
to reflect on what my life had become. I filled journal after journal and hid
them at the back of a drawer in my bedside table. They were never meant for
anyone else’s eyes. They were never meant for publication. I tried reading some
of them a few months ago but the memories were too painful, the writing too raw
and simple. There was nothing poetic or meaningful in those journals, they were
simply a receptacle for my emotions when I had nowhere else to go. They were
deeply personal. And I say ‘were’ – I couldn’t bear anyone else to read them,
even if they weren’t looking for publishable material – so I burned them.
Burning my journals was a cathartic action, it closed the
door on the painful times and allowed me to let go, to move on. But it also
ensured that no-one would read them – I wasn’t afraid of being judged, but that
my fears and sadness may affect the people I care about in some way.
I also think about the fiction I write. Again, I wouldn’t
like family or friends to trawl through and read it – it’s not ready (if it
ever will be) for going out into the world. It’s precious to me but not for
sharing. Would I feel different if I were an accomplished writer? I don’t think
so. I would hope that the work I choose to send out is enough, that this work
is a reflection of me – not the countless drafts, ramblings and experiments.
And so I’m going to make it clear to those I love that when
I pop my clogs, I want them to have a great big bonfire for my writing. Don’t
read it, just place it on the fire and let it go. The stories that were
important to me I will have cultivated and shared. All the other words are
Just along the coast from me lies the little town of Brightlingsea. And last Sunday afternoon I attended a Spoken Work Open Mic event which is part of their WinterFest programme.
I found out about it through the power of social media and I dragged along Lovely Son and Lovely Writerly Friend. It was a freeeeezing day and the loft of the sailing club was quite chilly but we were entertained by some wonderfully talented writers and storytellers. I've never been to a spoken word event before but wow! I'm converted.
One of my favourite poets was Dorothy O'Grady whose silken words gently moved me. Lovely Writerly Friend gave a cheer at the end of her performance and afterwards, Dorothy came over to introduce herself and we had a lovely chat. It turns out she is also in a folk band called The Columbines and so I plan to try and catch them over the summer (https://www.columbinesmusic.com/).
I'd not heard of the Brightlingsea WinterFest before and so I did some Googling when I got home. And I was amazed that this little town by the water holds this cultural programme each year. This year events started on 27th January and run until 25th February and there really is something for everyone: various music events, a winter walk, comedy night, a wellbeing day....... And it's all in aid of the charity Mid & North Essex Mind.
Here's a quote from their website, explaining what it's all about:
'Since it began in 2015, WinterFest has been helping fight depression by raising spirits and developing a sense of community during the darkest time of the year. It's a serious subject, but we have a lot of fun with a host of music, arts and other events taking place throughout February.'
What a wonderful way to lighten up February. The three of us all had a lovely time, and I've tentatively agreed to take part in the Spoken Word event next year......so I'd better start working on my piece!
It's a difficult subject to talk about, death. I know that there are 'death cafes' here and there where people can talk openly about it. There is the Day of the Dead in Mexico where families celebrate their dead. But in our culture, we fear it. The inevitability of it. The end.
It's a topic I've been tussling with for a while. Last year we lost my mother-in-law who had suffered with Alzheimer's for many years, and my father who was fit and well but died shockingly in an awful accident. So we've been grieving on both sides of the family.
Dad and Me - my wedding day
Added to that, I've been researching my family's past for a story I want to write. It's an unusual story but hasn't been well documented. Through my research I met with a distant relative last week who has discovered much. It was lovely to meet him and to share our information and look at old photographs. The thing that got to me (and my relative) is that each of the people we were looking at had a life, a story. They were important to those around them, but now they have been forgotten.
My great-grandfather was one of fifteen children: eleven boys and three girls. Eight of the boys went off to fight in the Great War and three of them died in France. There are no graves, just their names are inscribed onto a memorial. We have some history of the men of the family - but nothing of the women. All we know is that the mother of this large family was illiterate. We can find no trace of the daughters.
My mum said something strange to me last night. She doesn't want my dad's name removed from any records: bills, statements, anything. She said that she doesn't want him to be forgotten. I proclaimed that he won't be forgotten: how could we forget him?
And yet, for the next generation he will be just a photograph with perhaps some marks on a family tree. A life that was so vital will be nothing more than scratchy stories passed down the line.
Helen Dunmore was awarded the Cost Awards Book of the Year for Inside the Wave, last night and the poem she wrote in her last days, 'Hold Out Your Arms' is one of the most moving pieces I have read:
'As you push back my hair
- Which could do with a comb
But never mind -
'We're nearly there.'
I've thought that I write to help me understand myself and the world around me. But I now know, that I also write to leave something behind. That perhaps next generations will have a little idea of who I was and that maybe I will help them to understand the world I live in. I'm not a great person, I'm quite unremarkable. But I live with love and hope and surely that counts for something?
I'm working on a historical piece at the moment. It's not my usual thing but an event in our family's history got me thinking and after much cogitating and rumination, the story is beginning to come together. I've never really thought much about family history although I loved to listen to the stories my nan would tell me. Some of my favourite memories are of taking her out for a drive and stopping at her favourite viewpoint to look out over the Lincolnshire Wolds. She was a wonderful storyteller and she looked back with humour and love that lit up her face. My uncle (her son) has done much piecing together of the family tree and has traced my father's line back to 1066. It's fascinating, and I love to talk to him about old relatives and imagine how their lives must have been.
But it is about an incident on my mother's side of the family that has piqued my interest. And on this side of the family, no-one seemed interested in remembering or passing on tales of long ago. Grandma talked of hardship and sorrow, her emotions still attached and raw, so asking her to remember ran the risk of upsetting her and so it was easier not to. Although no great disaster or misery befell her, her memories were usually sad.
With no-one to tell me stories, and no diaries or journals, I've been piecing together the puzzle that leads back to the time of my story: 1913-1914.
I'd always thought we were a small family but I've discovered that my grandma's father was one of fifteen children! Fifteen! Can you imagine? Through my research, I've
discovered that eight of the sons fought in the Great War, but only five returned (a grandson was also killed in action). I also discovered that there is a war memorial outside the North Lincolnshire Museum in Scunthorpe and my great-great-grandmother was invited to attend the opening ceremony.
I wonder why these little gems were never passed on. I wonder what their lives were like. I wonder why we have forgotten them. But that's the nature of life: we forget the little things that make a life. Each generation has its own path to follow. But I hope that by writing my story, I can get to know my ancestors just a little - although it will be with a huge dose of imagination!
Daniel sat down in the chair next
to her. ‘Are you ready to go?’
Dorothy was confused, still in the
land of dreams.
‘I must have dozed off. I was
thinking and remembering.’ She smiled at Daniel.
‘And then I saw a partridge and I
Daniel picked up the CD case that
was on the table in front of her: Christmas
Carols from the WI. The Twelve Days
of Christmas was her favourite and she would sing it over and over again.
It used to be Blackbird. He was glad
she didn’t hum that song anymore.
Over the last couple of years
Dorothy had become muddled. The memories were confusing and sometimes they
melded with her dreams to create a different sort of reality.
‘We’d better get going, my love,
if we’re to get to the church on time.’
‘I think I must have been dreaming,’ she said.
‘Did you ask me to marry you?’
Daniel smiled. ‘That was a long
time ago. We’re going to the carol service now. Do you remember?’
Dorothy concentrated, putting her
thoughts and memories in order.
‘Come on then. Let’s get those creaky knees
going.’ He slipped his hands over hers. ‘Anyway, what did you wish for?’
‘I wished that you would come.’
Dorothy looked at him coyly, her heart drumming so fast she thought he must be
able to hear it. ‘And I wanted to tell you yes.
If you’ll still have me?’
Daniel wrapped his arms around
her. He didn’t mind that they’d been married five years now. For Dorothy, time
sometimes shifted: the pace of her clock had changed. Daniel knew that love wasn’t
tied by clocks (after all, he’d waited a long time for Dorothy),that it could run free and race by, or slow
down with each second requiring tender nurturing.
‘Let’s walk by the river on the way
home,’ Daniel took Dorothy’s hand. ‘I have a yen to remember when we first met.’
Dorothy beamed. Her mind flooding
with happy memories.