Thursday, 27 September 2007

The novel that was a short story, part 202

The beginning that I posted here on Monday isn't as good as I thought it was when I posted it ... but that happens all the time. The trick is to write on:

and that's what I'm doing.

Cafe solo image (c) NouvellesImages S.A. et Kurt Hutton - Getty images 2005

Monday, 24 September 2007

The short story that was a novel, part 201

After what seems like years, but has really only been weeks, of editing my head off, I find myself with a jewel of a day (today) when the paid editing has gone away, at least for a day, and so, after the beginning I wrote here I wrote this:

But I know I heard someone playing the piano in the studio last night, I wasn’t drifting then. I was lying in bed and the sound woke me up. I lay there staring at the ceiling and I heard ... and I heard ... there is a great deal of sheet music in the piano stool but whoever was playing chose the one piece that I find so poignant, so ... that piece is the reason I have banned music from the house. I cannot bear to hear music that reminds me that once I danced, that once this body was that body, that once these feet – which are now hidden in ugly red orthopaedic boots – wore red pointe shoes.

I expect you’ll think me hideously self-pitying, but try putting yourself in my shoes ... in my boots. The only thing I can do for myself is wield a fork or a spoon, and I often fail even at that. Everything else has to be done for me. I can’t even read because the ocular muscles go into spasm and the words jump about. And, as if all that isn’t enough, my conversation is limited to exchanges with morons.

This morning I asked Andrea to go to the studio to see if it had been broken in to, to see if the cover had been taken off the piano. I could see from my window that the door was not properly closed but she said, ‘There there Mrs Williams. Eat your porridge.’

Where do these people come from? Who decides that they’re fit to look after people like me? I’d like to tie their limbs with rope and give them cottonwool for a brain, then they’d understand what it’s like and then they’d give me the time of day when I ask a sensible question because, for a blessed interlude, the cottonwool has receded and I am making sense.

Oh, they make me so angry. They are so patronising.

But when I shouted at Andrea over my porridge I found that my voice had lost its volume and I mumbled – another curse of this bloody disease – and she said, ‘I’m sorry, Mrs Williams,’ as she swept towards me – has she any idea how irritating that is? Can’t she just walk normally? – ‘what did you say?’

But the moment was lost, and the only satisfaction I had was determinedly refusing to look at her while she picked up that ugly beaker thing she insists on calling a cup and turned the straw towards my mouth so that I could drink. I longed to blow a stream of hot tea all over her hand, but it would only end in a hopeless dribble all over mine. I know, I’ve tried it before.

I have been staring through the window at the studio ever since then. The river glints in the pale autumn sunlight beyond the fence and the pond looks sorry for itself, full as it is of straw-coloured reeds and brown weed, but the spindle burns beside it as if it were on fire and the ash leaves make soft claret-coloured balls that shiver in the breeze, and then there is a movement by the ford.

A well-dressed man walks out from behind the alder by the river, as if it was the most natural thing to do, and takes off his fedora and bows to me. I bow back. I know who he is. He puts his hat back on his head and raises his arm and waves. I wave back and as I do I hear the music I heard last night, again. That music. And I am glad that it is Gregory who stands by the alder, I am so glad that he is here. I want him to see me, I want him to know that I have seen him, so I press the button on the electric control for the chair so that it will lift and stand me up.

And I am on stage, dancing to that music, the music that Gregory composed after the company fled the bombs at Arnhem, the music that I made the steps for when we were safely back on these shores, the music for the ballet we called See You Soon. I wore a red and blue flowered summer dress. I put elastic and extra material from the hem at the waist and in the back so that it would stretch with my movements, and I perched a little red hat of my mother’s on the side of my head. I left my hair loose and I died a pair of my precious, rationed, pointe shoes red.

It was easy to find the right steps to Gregory’s music. It was as if it had been made for me, for my body. I bourrĂ©ed along the imaginary platform twisting my upper body this way and that as I looked for my soldier and watched the imaginary train pull out. I danced little jumps in second position that got higher and higher as I mimed trying to see over the heads of the other women on the platform. I danced a joyful lyrical waltz with an imaginary partner as I spotted my soldier waving from the train window, as I caught his kiss, and then I sank into a desolate, slowly spinning series of arabesques that rose and fell and when I could no longer see my soldier I sank to my heels and leaned against the barrier (a portable barre that we took with us on that tour).

And then I let my feet dance on their own as I made myself put on a brave face, the face that so many women wore then, and then I danced a series of clipped, steely steps as I went to work, sat on a chair behind the barre and mimed typing. In that section of the ballet, even though I was sitting down, I let my feet keep dancing. I took them through all the barre positions but I made them staccato, for the danger of those times. But I let my head and my upper body show how my heart felt as I swayed away from my imagined typewriter, to show how I dreamed of my beloved returning safe from the front.

The side of my face burns; it seems to be pushed down into something harsh. And then I realise that I am on the floor. I cannot think how I got here but I know that it will be some time before Andrea deigns to interrupt her morning’s reading to come up and check on me. I can see one of my red boots with its steel support. I wonder what angle it is at, and then I hear the stairs creaking under the weight of feet and I prepare myself for the onslaught.

‘When will you learn, Mrs Williams?’ says Andrea. ‘You cannot walk. Why do you do this?’

There are many reasons, but all would be lost on her.

‘I’ll get the hoist,’ she says and I watch her feet walk away in their silly white shoes. Then they obviously remember something and stop and turn. When they are a few inches from my face they stop and then they raise themselves up on their balls as their owner checks my body all over for breaks. Finding none, the feet resume their hurried pursuit of the hoist and when I am back in my chair, with a reluctant dab of arnica on my forehead and too many pillows behind me, Andrea straightens my right leg along the leg rest.

To frighten her I let out a groan. And then again, when she does the same to my left leg.

‘Oh my goodness, does that hurt?’ she says, worried. ‘I’ll ring the doctor, straight away.’ And then, surprisingly, she says, ‘I’m so sorry I didn’t come up sooner. I was dealing with the tramp.’

‘The tramp?’

‘Yes. I think he must have slept in the barn, I mean the studio, again last night. He came to the kitchen window and said he wanted to see you. I told him to go away and I made a song and dance about ringing the council. People like him spread disease.’

And then, after a pause, ‘You don’t know him, do you Mrs Williams?’

‘No, Andrea,’ I say, ‘I don’t know any tramps,’ but she is already ringing the doctor from the telephone beside my bed and I don’t suppose she heard me.

Dr Fishwick is a remarkable doctor. In all the time I have known him, in all the years I have had this blasted disease, he has been patient and kind and, above all, he has been honest.

He is holding my head at the moment and it is the greatest comfort. He has told me that nothing is broken – as I knew it wasn’t – but that I have sprained my ankle. He says it is nothing to worry about, it will mend soon, and I wish that the rest of me would mend soon. My limbs shake in varying degrees almost all the time, but when my head behaves like a balloon caught in unpredictable gusts of wind my neck aches and feels, sometimes, as if it will break. But with Doctor Fishwick standing behind my chair and holding my head firmly between his hands I feel ... well I feel safe. Often he smells of something citrussy, one of those modern eau de colognes no doubt, but today the smell that he brings with him is of apples and I realise that I am looking at him in an apple store.

I watch him pick the apples up from their slatted wooden shelves. I watch him put them to his nose, one by one, and then he turns and smiles at me. He says, turning an apple in his hand, ‘I wish there was something else that we could do for you, Mrs Williams, but the combination of drugs you are on is the best there is. Although I know the side effects can be troubling.’

I smile at him in his apple store and I say, ‘I have always had hallucinations, Dr Fishwick. I’ve had them since I was a child and they don’t trouble me at all. It’s the symptoms that get me down. The immobility. The memory sliding. And this interminable shaking. I don’t know how much more I can take.’

As I say this his apple store darkens and his voice comes from behind me once more. ‘I know,’ he says. ‘I know.’ And his voice comforts me because I believe he really does know. He wouldn’t hold my head like that if he didn’t really know, and it comforts me more than I can say. I wish, selfishly, that he lived here, that I was his only patient, and as I think that I feel a lump in my throat and tears on my cheeks and when he walks round the chair and sits opposite me and looks at me, I cannot hide them from him. And his face wears a look of such kindness that I cry all the more.

Dr Fishwick puts his large gentle hand on mine and he says, ‘When I arrived a friend of yours was sitting on the wall under the eucalyptus tree. He asked me if I thought you would like to see him, and I said I would ask you. What would you like me to say to him?’

‘Is it Gregory?’ I ask.

‘He didn’t tell me his name,’ says the doctor. ‘He just said he was an old friend. I’ll go and ask, if you like.’

‘There’s no need,’ I say. ‘I think it is him.’ And then, as he gently wipes the tears from my cheeks wit a kleenex, I say, ‘Andrea thinks he’s a tramp. Don’t let her send him away.’

A flicker of surprise crosses the doctor’s face. ‘I won’t,’ he says as he stands up. I notice how strong his thighs are, how well they support him, and as I turn away my left leg begins to shake uncontrollably.

‘I will call in tomorrow,’ says the good doctor, and then I hear him walking down the stairs. I feel desolate when he goes. It always happens. But today the desolation is worse than ever.

I hear his voice and I hope that perhaps he will come back for a few more minutes. He says, ‘Her room is at the top of the stairs,’ and I realise he must be speaking to Gregory. I wish I had asked for a mirror. I must look dreadful. I’ve just been crying and my face must be bruised.

And then I forget all about what I look like as the sound of whistling surrounds me. I put my hands over my ears to block it out, but it will not be blocked out. It is inside my own head. Giselle’s love theme whistles inside my head and I find myself on a riverbank watching a young girl picking daisies. She hears what I can hear and she stops and looks up. She stares across the river, astonished, at the boy on the other side of the river who is whistling the love theme from her favourite ballet and she begins to dance. But she slips and she slides on the wet grass and she falls ... into the river.
If you have read this far, thank you. And if you felt like commenting, that would be lovely. (This is, I think, about a third of the way through the story. Maybe a quarter.)

Wednesday, 19 September 2007


A literary agent friend of mine has just told me about a new website for writers and readers called Fiction Allsorts. There aren't any links up to either readers' sites or writers' sites, nor links to books read or written yet ... the site is still under construction. But I like the name (I can taste the liquorice as I write) and I'm looking forward to seeing what happens and how the site develops.

Here's what they say on their homepage:

Like a box of Allsorts, we aim to provide something for everyone.

Whether you are a writer looking for a place to promote your work, or a reader looking for something new, we hope this site will provide what you need.

This is a new site and is still very much under development. Please bookmark us and pop back from time to time.

Saturday, 15 September 2007

Writing about writing

George Mackay Brown wrote this about writing:

Therefore he no more troubled the pool of silence
But put on mask and cloak,
Strung a guitar
And moved among the folk.
Dancing they cried,
'Ah, how our sober islands
Are gay again, since this blind lyrical tramp
Invaded the Fair!'

Under the last dead lamp
When all the dancers and masks had gone inside
His cold stare
Returned to its true task, interrogation of silence.
THE POET by George Mackay Brown
published in George Mackay Brown, POEMS, New and Selected, The Hogarth Press, 1971
(Permission to reprint this poem was applied for to John Murray, at Hodder Headline, on 13 August 2007.)
For more on this most solitary, lyrical, thoughtful and quietly passionate of poets, read Maggie Fergusson's wonderful George Mackay Brown, The Life published by John Murray, 2006. (It won the Scottish Arts Council Award for a first book in August 2007.)

Thursday, 13 September 2007

Booking Through Thursday

Here's today's:

Okay . . . picture this (really) worst-case scenario: It’s cold and raining, your boyfriend/girlfriend has just dumped you, you’ve just been fired, the pile of unpaid bills is sky-high, your beloved pet has recently died, and you think you’re coming down with a cold. All you want to do (other than hiding under the covers) is to curl up with a good book, something warm and comforting that will make you feel better.
What do you read?
(Any bets on how quickly somebody says the Bible or some other religious text? A good choice, to be sure, but to be honest, I was thinking more along the lines of fiction…. Unless I laid it on a little strong in the string of catastrophes? Maybe I should have just stuck to catching a cold on a rainy day….)
It's simple.

Two books occured to me immediately: ALICE's ADVENTURES in WONDERLAND because not a word is wasted, you wouldn't want to stop even to look out of the window, let alone to feel sorry for yourself. It's funny, surreal, delightful, diverting, would remind me of my father reading to me and spirit me away from all my troubles.

The other book is AFTER YOU'D GONE, Maggie O'Farrell's first novel - which, in part, wouldn't cheer me up, but it is funny at times - and at times I laughed and cried at the same time. It's such an all-enveloping book that I would have to forget what was happening to me, even if it was, at least partly, because I found myself submerged in another's difficulties and sadnesses.

Although isn't that what so often helps? I'm not the only one? My troubles aren't half as bad as hers? Will she make it? (You see I've forgotten about myself already.) By the way, this edition is a bound proof ... which I absolutely can't remember how I got.

Wednesday, 12 September 2007

The short story that was a novel, part 200

Hmmm ... even though I've written that my relationship with my writing has changed, see here, I haven't actually done any writing since then to test it.

So how do I know it's changed, I hear you asking?

Because, just now, I returned from my writers' group (we meet monthly but we haven't met all summer for summer reasons) where they gave me feedback on the first third of the short story that was a novel. And, no, they didn't say it was the best first third of a short story that they'd ever read, they said things that were much more useful than that but, just now, as I was waiting for the kettle to boil, the usual feeling of dread, of
oh no, now I've got to tackle it again, I've got to begin again and I don't know if I can washed over me, but it was, instantly and amazingly, replaced by but it's a puzzle, dream on it, write down the key things and mull them over, you don't have to find instant solutions. Heavens, can attitudes really change that quickly?

Apparently, they can. (Apparently the colours of this blog text can too ... mysteriously.)

So here are the key things they suggested and we discussed:

*Begin when Sasha is old, when she has accepted that she will die soon. When she wants to die.
*Tell it from her point of view, not Gregory's. If he tells any part of the story at all, let him tell in short bursts between her narration. Let his telling be mysterious.
*Work out whether Sasha has decided that she wants to die, or whether Gregory is coming to claim her. It can only be one or the other. Not both.
*Gregory is not death, because death can be so cruel, so unexpected, so devastating, and he is none of those things. He is an angel, a messenger, of death - someone who can intercede on her behalf, someone who can ask for a reprieve for her because he loves her. Someone who has known her all her life - as I originally had it, but not as death himself - and so someone sympathetic with whom she can reminisce and prepare to die. (Sorry, if you were planning to read the story I have probably spoiled the mystery for you now. But this is my new relationship-with-my-writing blog, not my MATing-avoiding-writing-blog.)

So, some possible opening sentences occur to me:

I drift from place to place and from year to year with such ease, now. But, despite what they think, I know that I am drifting. It's just that I can't come back quickly, so when they put me on the commode or help me drink my tea, or get me ready for bed, I don't always make sense, at least not to their way of thinking.
Just now I said to the thin-lipped one, 'Isn't the cherry blossom beautiful?' Of course I meant the spindle whose leaves are heartbreakingly scarlet today, but I was still in the middle of a bright spring day; I was still sitting under my favourite cherry blossom, and so, when she asked me what I was looking at, I told her what was in my mind and not what was actually out there, what she could see, by the river.
But I know I heard someone playing the piano in the studio last night. I know that was real. But I shan't tell the thin-lipped one because she'll just say, 'Of course you did, dear.' I shall wait until Bridget gets here tonight. She listens. She understands. I think she knows what's happening to me.

So ... I shall continue tomorrow.

Sunday, 9 September 2007

The LibraryThing

I have spent most of today making a library of my books (no, I mean making a library of a small number of my books) on my library at the LibraryThing - a wonderful invention which I discovered when a member kindly wrote a review of SPEAKING of LOVE there.

And as I chose the small number of books I put into my virtual library today (I made myself exclude any that I hadn't really read. There were far too many, but there were also some that I know I'll never read because I bought them so's I'd seem fantastically intelligent - The History of Western Philosophy - or fantastically groovy - SEED - don't ask, but so groovy and weird that its publisher isn't even listed in its pages).

Anyway I began thinking about how much the books that I have read have meant to me, what friends they have been in dark times, how thought-provoking, how comforting, how they've given me places to escape to, how reassuring they've been, how making-me-sit-up-and-take-notice, how funny, how I-wish-I'd-written-that, how I-must-go-and-write-NOW but oddly, never how much blood sweat and tears their writers must have bled, sweated and cried to write them, even though I too now know what it's like to write a whole novel. Which proves the writing-a-novel-is-like-childbirth point ... you forget the pain, until you do it again.

One of the many wonderful things that the LibraryThing does is they make it possible to post random books from my library on my blog ... see These I Have Loved on the right ... don't the covers look inviting? If only there was time to read them all, all over again.

Friday, 7 September 2007

Dr Clarissa Pinkola Estes and synchronicity ...

I was talking to a friend tonight, and I told her that I discover myself through stories, in every way. I find out who I am by reading fiction, and I find out who I am by writing fiction.

But I didn't know I did this until I began to read Dr Clarissa Pinkola Estes's Women who Run with the Wolves. Years ago I and several others worked with a wise woman who introduced us to Women who Run with the Wolves. We read it, week by week, and we met to discuss how we related to each ancient story, and Estes's Jungian interpretation, in each chapter. And it was in this reading and discussing that I understood, deeply, the power of story in life and the power of story in my life.

And tonight, as I was thinking about all this, I wondered whether Dr Estes blogged ... and I find that she does, here. The blog is called The Moderate Voice and there are many writers on it, but Estes's most recent post is about the death of Pavarotti: she writes about the story of his life, the deep story, the archetypal story, the operatic story, the mythic story, the healing story and the story of the little boy who slept
in a tiny kitchen in a little fold-up bed made of iron
It was a piece of synchronicity that I found Estes's blog tonight, but the world needs her ability to understand how much we need stories, and to write them, all the time. Especially when times are dark.

Thursday, 6 September 2007

The Man Booker shortlist, first novels

So, none of the first novels longlisted made it to the Man Booker shortlist but perhaps, because this list has been so wonderfully readable (no I haven't read them all, hardly any in fact, yet, but I've been reading dovegreyreader's reviews and Asylum's and I'll get to them soon) maybe there'll be more next year (both readable and first).

Here's hoping ... .

Tuesday, 4 September 2007

What kind of writer am I?

Thanks to an archived blog at John Baker's blog, I discover that I am this kind of writer:

You Should Be A Poet

You craft words well, in creative and unexpected ways.
And you have a great talent for evoking beautiful imagery...
Or describing the most intense heartbreak ever.
You're already naturally a poet, even if you've never written a poem.

Well, I like that ... even if I don't really believe in the quiz's rigorousness (not a very poetic word). And, despite my apparent talent for describing 'the most intense heartbreak ever' yesterday's new relationship with my writing began in a seriously promising fashion.

Today, my writing and I have had to part (without too much heartbreak because we know we will be reunited soon) because I am editing someone else's work, but I am full of hope for the longevity of our new relationship.

The sustainability test will come later, as it does in all relationships, but I'm confident, today, that that 'intense heartbreak' will only apply to my writing subject matter, not to the object of my writing affections.

Monday, 3 September 2007

A new relationship with my writing ...

... is what I need.

I realised over the weekend, while thinking about other relationships in my life, that the relationship I have with my writing is one of dread fuelled by the certainty that it will be a struggle: that I always expect to discover that what I thought was a story isn't, that the characters I thought realistic aren't and that the situations I thought plausible are as unstable as, well, something very unstable.

My relationship with my writing is fuelled by my dread that it won't be what I thought it was, either in the imagining or in the rereading. I dread that I have, and will end up with ... nothing.

But what I realised on my way back from Salisbury yesterday was that if I change my expectations, if I welcome the lack of knowing where it's all going as a puzzle I'll probably be able to solve instead of a failure of imagination; if I delight in the exploration instead of feeling inadequate because I'm not already filled with ideas; if I have the courage to dare to see what happens next without rejecting ideas before they have the chance to flower, then that black cloud of dread could be pierced by shafts of sunlight and I'll get down to writing quicker and, who knows, this whole MAT business could become a thing of the past.

Here goes ... .