Monday, September 29, 2008

Everything That Happens...

I've been reading and enjoying David Byrne's journal* for some time, so it's good now to have it accessorised by the sound track to Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, his collaboration with Brian Eno. In fact, this music has been my major accessory this month. Who needs handbags when this makes me happier? On the website, they say 'PS: If you like what you hear, please share the streaming player on the left of the page with your friends, or embed it on your Web site, blog or profile' . So here you go, friends ...

This is what David Byrne says in his journal: I’m also wondering whether the web-curious will allow news of the album to spread more or less by itself. In the past, I might have undertaken all kinds of expensive marketing plans to prepare for a record release: there would be a teaser, live shows, posters, magazine ads, interviews, and advance CDs sent to writers and reviewers. We’ve done a few interviews, but that’s about it. It will be interesting to see if audiences find out about this song — and the record — without all those marketing techniques, and solely through Internet word-of-mouth.

I hope you'll pass it on too, if you like it.

*ps his radio thingy is pretty good too.

Sunday, September 28, 2008


I've just got a new shirt which needs cufflinks. I know in the whole scheme of things, this is a little trivial but I'm finding it strangely exciting. I feel powerful today. Who knew how little it took?

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Upcoming stuff...

1. I will be reading in London on Monday October 13th at the WritLOUD event for Birkbeck, 6.30-8.15 pm, RADA Foyer Bar, Malet Street, London WC1E 7JN. Tickets are free, with a suggested donation to Oxfam, but you can reserve a place in advance - Don't be put off by the picture above - I won't be reading through a loudspeaker, just normally. I wanted an image that made it clear I was saying important things, such as look at me. Maybe this picture would be better ...

Phew, yes. Much better. I'm thinking the outfit looks like a winner too. Right, let's move on...

2. Anyway, a story of mine, Dictionary of Death Dreams, is going to be in the print edition of Monkeybicycle. This will be sold from November through bookshops (including Borders etc) in the States, but I'm not sure where it'll be available here yet. You can get it from the website though, and an extract is in the excellent In the Red magazine and on the website.

3. Remember my month of giving things away? Well, I've just written it up for the UK's Psychologies magazine and it will be in the December issue. It was great doing it, not least because I got to talk to people like Stephen Post and Fiona Harrold, both of them proof that busy people can often be the most generous with their time. Thanks to them. It reminded me too what a great project, Cami Walker had set up with her 29 day Giving Challenge. She's looking for the last few people to sign up at the moment, so do give it a go. (And let me know if you do too.)

Cor, I have been busy. Do you think I just gaze at park benches and do nothing all day? No, no, no, that's just half the day...

4. An article about my ultimate writing heroine, the inspiration behind my first novel, Something Beginning With, Alice Duer Miller is going to go up on Vulpes Libris next week. I'll be back to let you know the exact day because I'd like EVERYONE to rediscover just how great Alice Duer Miller really was. In fact, writing the article made me really want to write more about her. I'm thinking a Hollywood epic at least. Can you copyright a human being?

5. I haven't written much on here about my work with textile artist, Anne Kelly because I'm saving it up for its own HUGE post because its been a HUGE project for me this year. And one that's changed some of my process. Words and pictures, pictures and words. If there's been a theme for me this year, it's that. Anyway, Anne is having an exhibition at Farnham Maltings, Bridge Square, Farnham, Surrey GU9 7QR, 31 October – 30 November 2008 and some of our collaborations, based on The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon, will have their first outing. You can visit Anne's website for more details.

6. And finally ... but by no means least, I'm absolutely delighted and proud to say that my new novel, now called GETTING THE PICTURE, will come out with Ballantines in New York in Summer 2009. Much much more on this to come ....

Friday, September 26, 2008

Blog paradise...

Last night was as if many of my favourite blog(gers) suddenly came to life in London. First up, was the party for the Mechanics Institute Review, where I finally got to speak to the lovely Tania and got her to sign my copy of her book, The White Road and Other Stories, and enjoyed meeting some of the other contributors to the MIR magazine. Sadly, I wasn't there long enough to speak to everyone, but I hope to see more at the next WritLoud event on the 13th October.

Then on to Borders, for the launch of Caroline Smailes's new book, Black Boxes, which looks really interesting. There, I met (and caught up with) amongst others, Leigh, Cathy, fellow bench fan, DJ, Sue Guiney, Kate, Cally (Cally, I can't find your blog - help!) and the best blogging reader, Pierre.

At one stage we were all even sitting together - it was like a blog's sidebar in action! Or maybe even Caroline's Black Box widget. You just didn't know who was going to come into the room next.

Caroline signed my copy of her book too, so I have two more for the shelf of fame.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Pirate competition winner!

OK, the result of this blog's National talk Like a Pirate competition can finally be announced. It's taken a bit of time because I had to get two other judges involved to avoid claims of corruption, the winner won my last competition AND I had publicly claimed I could be bribed. HOWEVER no chocolate passed hands and the winner is .....




Congratulations, and a prize on its way. Commiserations to the other entrants, but it kind of felt to me that you'd had fun doing it anyway. Hope so.

Here's the winning poem:

A Wes' Coun'ry Lass

Now, I not be the sort o' wench
Findin' themselves lyin' overflowin',
Loaded to the Gunwales,
Entertain' Corsairs at nightfall
An' greasin' me womanly form
By day,
'N' goin' pink
('cept not with shame),
Lef' with a son of a biscuit eater
Or worse, a black spot!
Wha' kin' of booty is tha'?

Aye, me ain' no landlubber for sure
Tho' I ain' goin' thar abroad
Like some squiffy,
No' because I'm lily-livered
but give me the Wes' Coun'ry
Any day an' I'll show you
How the gen'lemen of fortune
Appreciate a sweet lass like me
After the roar of their sweet trade
An' the suppin' of their grog
Wi' a well-filled pasty.

I bein' so popular wi' 'em Jacks
'At words got' 'round
An' whole squadrons
Sample my charms,
So for pieces of eight
They get me warm moist pastry,
Drippin' steak an' onion;
A taste of the' good ol' Wes' Coun'ry
Baked in my oven.
Well, whadya think I meant?
Ya scurvy dog!

Phew, well that's alright then...

I thought this was a spoof at first, particularly as it was headline news. But sadly, reading on I don't think it is at all.

Cuban cigar supply said not hurt by hurricanes
By Esteban Israel Reuters - Wednesday, September 24 09:07 pm

HAVANA (Reuters) - Hurricanes Gustav and Ike destroyed up to 2 million pounds of Cuba's best tobacco, but reserves of the leaf should cover demand for the island's premium cigars for the next year, a tobacco executive said on Wednesday.

The storms, which struck within 10 days of each other, caused major damage to the tobacco industry infrastructure, which will require a significant investment to repair, said Manuel Garcia, vice president of cigar producer Habanos S.A.

"We think that for at least the next year we should not have great difficulties with the supply of cigars because luckily for us, we have a reserve of raw material," he said at a Havana business conference.

"Undoubtedly we are going to need an important financial injection for the tobacco (industry)," he said.

Habanos, a joint venture between the Cuban government and Altadis, a unit of British-based Imperial Tobacco, produces and sells some of the world's best-known cigars, including Monte Cristo, Cohiba, Romeo y Julieta and Partagas.

It reported sales of $402 million (218 million pounds) in 2007, up from $375 million in 2006.

The Cuban government said the two storms destroyed 3,414 barns where the harvested tobacco was being cured and damaged another 1,590 when they ripped through the western province of Pinar del Rio, where Cuba's top tobacco is grown.

Between 1.6 million and 2 million pounds of tobacco were estimated to have been destroyed.

Garcia said the cost of replacing or repairing buildings was being determined and that longer-term effects on tobacco supply would depend on the speed of rebuilding.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Read this story!

There's a lovely little story, Gargoyle, by Joyce Carol Oates up at Narrative magazine. She is an expert at creating sinister voices in so little words.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Artists Statements

Writing about doing nothing in Minneapolis made me realise I didn't blog about one thing I definitely DID do, which was to visit the Open Book space, a beautiful building containing a gallery of artists books, the Loft literary centre which ran writing classes and had little writing rooms on hire for as little as six hours, a library, printing presses, an independent publishing company and one of the best and friendliest cafes I've found in my days mooching round cities.

Even the New York TImes rave about it:

If literature and book arts could revive a city neighborhood anywhere, it would be here. According to a study conducted in 2007 by Central Connecticut State University, Minneapolis is “America’s most literate city,” based on an array of measures, including the number of libraries and bookstores, newspaper readership and education levels.

The Loft Literary Center, the largest of the three nonprofit groups that formed Open Book, offers writing classes, provides work space and grants for writers and is host of book events in a performance space designed for readings.

The Minnesota Center for Book Arts provides equipment and space for professional artists and novices alike to work in letterpress printing, hand bookbinding and papermaking. Some of the resulting creations are unique and functional books, but others are more like art and sculpture.

And finally Milkweed Editions is, by some measures, the largest independent nonprofit literary publisher in the country.

Annoyingly my camera was broken, so I couldn't take pictures but the whole gallery was really a book. An open book. The bannisters of the stairway had text on them so you read a story going up and down; the engraved tabletops were books, and I sat for ages just watching a neon sign split into three columns, each of which was timed to switch at different times to keep reading new messages, some of which made me laugh out loud. This sort of thing:




You get the idea.

I was particularly struck by the dictionary left open on a pulpit in library, rather like those books of the dead they have in chapels.

I'm not sure if I was meant to, but I went round the printing rooms too. Lovely old fashioned printing presses, and book presses, and that smell of ink and paint that makes me want to move in. And everywhere people in a state of flow.

Lucky old Minneapolis.

And just a couple of doors away, a really really good graphic book shop, Big Brain Comics.

Lucky lucky old Minneapolis.

Mind, the Open Book centre had a good shop too, full of all the tools for making books. Things you didn't know you wanted, and sharp enough never to be able to take through customs. I think when I get stranded on my desert island, I might take the biggest tool box in the world. Not necessarily to use but just to admire and try to work out what everything is for. It would be full of things like this:

and this:

But bigger. Those really are dinky little pics.

Anyway, a nice bit of synchronicity. For my birthday, the lovely Alex sent me the url of Beatrice Coron's wonderful papercuts site, and looking through the very eclectic bag of things I bought from the Open Book shop - an eraser, a postcard of a duck, a book of origami with papers - I found I had a little book by Beatrice Coron, together with Mick Stern. It's called Artist's Statements, and I got it partly because of the artist's statements at the back from both Beatrice Coron and Mick Stern. This is what BC says: 'As a visual artist, I am always asked to explain my art in words. My life is a constant interview, but my goal is to make art, not talk about it.' And MS: 'If I could explain my work, I would write the explanation instead of the work. That would make it easier for everybody.'

Both rang so many bells with me. I had the idea when I first saw this booklet of trying to draw the explanation of what I was writing about. No one would expect me to do that. When did words take over from pictures as the sole way of expression, and, even as a writer, I wonder if they really are always the best primary form. It was something that I was thinking about at the Tiny Circus too, probably because I've spent a large part of this summer working with visual artists.

Anyway, I'm going to try to contact Beatrice Coron and ask if I can put some of these 'artist's statements' up here because they are funny. They include those of Raiput Singh, taxi artist and Gary Burf, traffic direction performance artist. I'm sure you can imagine!

And so, as I head off to a course on how to use Powerpoint in the lecture theatre, may the rest of you all have this sort of day ...

But bigger ...

Monday, September 22, 2008

On Doing Nothing

There's a piece I wrote about just this up at The Short Review now. I'd love to know if anyone else feels the same!


For Polly:

Piglet sidled up to Pooh from behind. "Pooh!" he whispered. "Yes, Piglet?" "Nothing," said Piglet, taking Pooh's paw. "I just wanted to be sure of you." - A.A.

(taken today from, a site I'm really keen on and will be posting on shortly)

Back to school...

Well, I know it's really September now because I'm starting teaching again this morning. I've had all sorts of emails from students warning me that they've got rusty over the summer, so we're going to start with a blast of music. Not literally but using song lyrics as prompts. I had a lovely w/e picking out some good ones. Just look at these ...

"I guess I shoulda known
by the way you parked your car sideways
that it wouldn't last"
--Prince's 'Little Red Corvette'

"Sittin' in the morning sun, I'll be sittin' when the evening comes"
--Otis Redding's '(Sittin' on) The Dock of the Bay'

"Well, I woke up Sunday morning with no way to hold my head that didn't hurt"
--Johnny Cash's 'Sunday Morning Coming Down'

"Wake up Maggie, I think I got something to say to you"
--Rod Stewart's 'Maggie May'

"I like big butts and I cannot lie"
--Sir Mix-A-Lot's 'Baby Got Back'

"Please allow me to introduce myself, I'm a man of wealth and taste"
--The Rolling Stones' 'Sympathy for the Devil'

"She was more like a beauty queen from a
movie scene"
--Michael Jackson's 'Billie Jean'

"Well, she was just seventeen -- you know what I mean"
--The Beatles' 'I Saw Her Standing There'

Saturday, September 20, 2008

A survival test ...

The Ground Rules
Both you and the raptor are tethered to the bunk bed with 7 foot chains
The chains are unbreakable and cannot be removed from the bunk bed
The bunk bed is light enough that you can drag it a little
You are free to run around the bed or get on the top bunk

Now try your luck ....

I could survive for 51 seconds chained to a bunk bed with a velociraptor

(from BB, the home of all good things even if, annoyingly, she could survive three seconds longer than me.)

Friday, September 19, 2008

Yo ho ho and Wi' a wannion!

Talking of general silliness and shivering me timbers, today is National Talk Like a Pirate Day, so to celebrate I am having a competition, me hearties. Treasure will be won for the best poem, paragraph, short short story in pirate-speak! No land-lubbers welcome...

And to start you off to get your pieces o' eight, here are some S's...

Scurvy dog!: a fine insult!
Shiver me timbers!: an exclamation of surprise, to be shouted most loud.
Son of a Biscuit Eater: a derogatory term indicating a bastard son of a sailor
Sprogs: raw, untrained recruits
Squadron: a group of ten or less warships
Squiffy: a buffoon
Swaggy: a scurvy cur's ship what ye be intendin' to loot!
Swashbucklin': fightin' and carousin' on the high seas!
Sweet trade: the career of piracy

You can find more here.

Entries should not be posted here, but sent to me by email - you can find my email on my profile bit - by Sunday night. I will be the judge and can be easily corrupted with chocolate coins.

Disgusted from Tunbridge Wells gets her comeuppance

I like to giggle. Actually, I like to giggle a lot. It's been one of my favourite hobbies since I was about four, perhaps even more than spotting shopping trolleys. What I don't like however is when I roar with laughter madly on my own in public, which seems to be happening more and more. I'm walking round the supermarket, or like the other day surrounded by teenagers in Body Shop, and I'll remember something that just makes the laughter well up.

Has anyone else noticed how quickly people back away if you laugh in public?

Anyway, an email I received this week is still giving me many such embarrasing moments, so I asked my friend if I could put it up here. She said yes, so long as I didn't use her real name so let's call her Polly Fewmay. Here it is:

Just must tell you - I haven't been working enough lately so am, frankly, more than a little bored. Consequently, I have been doing things like emailing Royal Doulton (I know this is REALLY sad and I do not come out of it well - in fact I sound like an green-ink-wielding looney, which at times is pretty close to the truth...) to complain about a Christening set of china bowl, cup and plate given to my daughter four years ago (not that I told them that) - it's a Winnie the Pooh job featuring both pics of characters and their names and 'Piglet' is spelled on both the bowl and the cup as 'Piglit'. My email, as I say, really was pretty tragic (I could imagine the person reading it thinking, 'Don't some people have anything better to do?' - in my case, no): - a short, sharp job pointing out the meshtake and saying that i'd have thought a co. that prided itself on attention to detail wouldn't have let this sort of typo go to production stage and then charge customers 40 quid for the end result, and did they have any comment to make? Here is the email I got in response -

Thank you for your enquiry regarding a recent gift. We hope that the following explains the reason for the spelling of Piglet
Piglet is a baby and cannot yet spell his name correctly. When he writes his own name ( and his name appears in handwritten font) he spells it Piglit. However, when his name is written as part of text from the book (in typed font) then it is spelt correctly as Piglet because an adult wrote the book.
We hope that this is of assistance.
Consumer Enquiries

Oh, I love this so much - both Polly's account of what happened and the completely genius reply. Not least of course because An...Polly is from Tunbridge Wells like me. Do you think there are special 'let's humour the Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells' email writers in every company? It makes me think there would be a wonderful book in all the strange replies people get from companies... but surely that would have been written already? I would ask An...Polly to do it with me, but I have plans for her already. She needs to set up a van like the chocolate van but full of cakes, and park it outside my house (it can visit Pierre sometime too, but not Kathryn. She hasn't sent back the chocolate van yet.)

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Long poems and church art

Two nice things to get you in the winter mood...

Firstly, a new magazine, Long Poem Magazine devoted to ... um ... long poems (hurrah!) and currently looking for submissions, deadline 15th October.

From the webpage: Mimi Khalvati writes: The long poem is as much a space in which to flex one's muscles, grapple with problems, identify weaknesses, as it is to mine rich seams, give sway to obsessions and vent to narrative. Paradoxically, many writers more at home in the short lyric or fragment turn to the sequence, where small components can be strung like pearls on a string.

And secondly, an art exhibition in the crypt at St Pancras Church that looks interesting. One of the exhibitors, Zoe Crosse, had a really good piece in the Your Messages book last year. This is the information:
11 – 19 October 2008



Private view – Friday 10 October, 6-9pm
Opening Times - daily 11am-6pm

‘All This Time’ is The Vanity Group's second show at The Crypt - St Pancras Church. In 2007 The Vanity Group used this space as a stall to set out their wares, observing the time honored traditions of gallery and art.

This time however the exhibition will be site specific, interweaving the personal archaeologies of the artists with the archaeology of contemporary society and the physical archaeology of the space.

The Crypt as it now stands is used as an artists’ space - we now approach with the idea of the space and interior architecture of the building.

Site-specific art, an intervention in a specific locale, creating a work that is integrated with its surroundings and that explores its relationship to the topography of its locale, but more specifically, in this case, its relationship with its architecture and psychosocial history.

Troubadour Poetry

I'm sure I've written about the Troubadour before but I can't find the details. Anyway, for those of you that don't know it, go. It describes itself (or the brochure does, I don't actually think the cafe can speak) as "the last 50s coffee house in Earls Court with a proud history as a low temperature centre of courtesy, peace and artistic energy."

I'm not altogether sure about that low temperature bit because it always makes me feel as I'm in hot hot hot New York and I'd love to know if other people feel the same. Mind, that's maybe not surprising given that the Club downstairs is where Jimi Hendrix, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan and Paul Simon all played in the 60's.

The upcoming poetry programme has just come out and I want to go to them all. In fact, I'd like to live there and yippee, look, I can. All I need now is to will that chocolate van below away from Kathryn's house and to Earls Court, presuming of course that she's left something for me to enjoy.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Wandering chocolate van ....

I want this van to stop outside my house. And I want it now. Right now.

The Mechanics' Institute Review

I'm really proud to have one of my short stories in the upcoming issue of The Mechanics Institute Review. It's the publication from the students on the MA in Creative Writing at Birkbeck, University of London, and it's a privilege to be included amongst them because I've really been enjoying reading the different voices. Cynthia Medford Langley, Thea Bennett and Gul Y Davis have stood out so far, but every time I dip in, I find someone else new to admire. Congratulations to the book's editors: Pippa Griffin, Keith Jarrett, Cynthia Langley, Philip Makatrewicz, Josh Raymond.

As the blurb on the back says,the stories include: 'a dog with an identity crisis, an accidental kidnapping, justice by encyclopaedia and an unexpected clash between academic and pirate.'

My story, Potassium Man, was one started when I was a fellow at vcca this year. I suppose its gestation was a clear example of scratching.

I was looking out of the window of my cabin in the woods and saw this:

Now I'd never seen a cardinal before and it felt to me - in my slightly jet-lagged state - as if I was in a bowl watching goldfish swim by. Then I started to think about swimming - which I was missing because I try to swim at least three times a week - and then water, and I did lots and lots of freewriting.

It still wasn't enough though. I feel strongly that most stories need two things to lean together, not least to stop them becoming just an anecdote, and luckily I remembered a chemistry teacher at school who had tried to make friends with us pupils by doing dangerous experiments. I've been wanting to write about him for ever, because I felt so sorry of him. Of course, we didn't become friends with him. In fact, the very opposite. Kids can smell when someone is trying too hard, but we didn't like how cruel he made us feel either. Maybe it is guilt that made me remember him so clearly? Unlike the character in my story, I didn't try to help him. In fact, I was one of the kids in the front row egging him on.

And then when I found my two strands, I edited, and edited, and edited... I've never forgotten hearing Ali Smith (who also has a story in The MIR) talking about short stories and saying it could feel like 'wrestling a lion down to the ground' which feels just right.

At least, I think it was her, or maybe I'm just wanting to namedrop so I can draw my attention to the fact I have my name on the front cover along with Ali Smith and Toby Litt. Oh my.

Sunday, September 14, 2008


My little dog died yesterday. She was brave, I wasn't. She's been part of this blog since it started which made me want to record her end here, but I don't really want to say any more just now.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Flying companions

I have a friend who, if she's flying alone, clutches at the hand of whoever is sitting next to her on take off and landing but refuses to say a word to them at all in between. Luckily, I've never had to sit next to her, but it's always interesting to see who you'll be spending a couple of hours with when you travel on your own. A bit like one of those random prompt generators - OK, haha, so try and make some kind of narrative with this person.

On my recent outbound flight to Minneapolis, I had a guy who had been visiting family in Tripoli and who - literally - took cover when the air steward opened a bottle of wine with a pop because he thought he was being shot at. He gave me his pudding and watched 'Shallow Hal' at least twice as far as I could see, laughing so hard each time that his shoulders shook. When I told him I was going to Iowa, he shook his head - 'you mustn't,' he kept saying. 'A woman like you, no no no, you mustn't,' which was all a bit worrying, and indeed a mystery when I got to Iowa and couldn't see what all the fuss was about.

Coming back, my companion held on to his pudding fast which was disappointing. However, he was one of those born teacher-types and I finished the flight with lists of books I should read, places I should visit and films I should see. To be honest, it was all rather exhausting.

Anyway, I found those lists again last week, and started with the most unpromising recommendation. A film in which an introverted guy falls in love with a plastic sex doll. Hmmm... give me Shallow Hal any day, I thought. Oh, but wrong, wrong, wrong.

We watched Lars and the Real Girl last night, and it was just perfect. Sweet, and life affirming, and funny. Ok, our shoulders didn't shake but I'm still smiling this morning. And now I've got Dan's whole list of films I wouldn't otherwise have caught to work through.

Who needs a second pudding?

Friday, September 12, 2008

Did you forget your party bag?

Because I was so spoilt yesterday, here's a little party bag for you in the form of one of my my most favourite internet finds of the year, the New Yorker podcast - a series of wonderful short stories and interviews I can listen to on my ipod.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Happy Birthday!!!

To my twin, Karen; my circus friend, Jess; Hilary, who knows her alphabet, and PHILIP (in caps so he won't accuse me of forgetting his birthday this year).

And me.... yeehaw! I've been spoilt already, but like a good girl, didn't open it until today.

I'm sorry the cake above is so small, but we are all virgos so we can cut our slice exactly and fairly. Plus we have tremendous self-discipline and are practically perfect in every other way. Anyone else with an 11th September birthday want to claim their pink icing? I'm sure I've forgotten someone.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008


Anyone knows what that (wayzgoose) means?

It's a medieval tradition commemorating the end of summer, and marks the point of the year at which printers had to begin working by candlelight.

Seems appropriate today somehow.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

On Scratching...

I'm going to spend some of today scratching. Nope, Miss Tallulah hasn't got fleas (the thought of it!) but it's a concept in Twyla Tharp's The Creative Habit, that I have done instinctively before but I like it so much better now I have a name for it.

This is how Twyla Tharp describes it: 'clawing at the side of a mountain to get a toehold, a grip, some kind of traction to keep moving onward and upward ...'

And if that doesn't tell you all you need to know, she goes on: 'A fashion designer is scratching when he visits vintage clothing stores, studies music videos, and parks himself at a sidewalk cafe to see what the pedestrians are wearing ...'

In fact I think it's exactly what Julia Cameron means when she talks about the artist date. I've always been a bit worried about these - what will I do for my artists date - and now I wonder if it's because they seemed too big. I never was very good at dating - far too neurotic even for myself.

But scratching. Yep, I can do that. In fact, I saw a perfect example of scratching yesterday. My dad and sister came to take me out for lunch and we were browsing round the tourist information office in the Pantiles. Now, my father has written books on subjects from pot pourri to starting your own business, but his current project is a cookbook for 'old farts' - his words, not mine! He's experienced himself that when you're a widower over seventy and starting cooking for yourself for the first time, then recipes saying 'whisk twenty egg whites until stiff' aren't necessarily all that helpful. While Mary and I looked at walking maps, we could see dad suddenly get that sense of purpose you can feel yourself sometimes when you get a scent of an idea. We didn't see what he had purchased until we got out of the shop, but it turned out he had been looking at those regional recipe leaflets they always have in any tourist office - home cooking from Dorset etc - and was struck by the idea that he could include recipes from different areas that the 'old farts' might remember from their childhoods.

He's not intending to steal the recipes, mind - but to adapt them so they work easily and are actually understandable to his audience. Some he might even change altogether so they will be nothing like mother made. But the idea is there. Something completely different might come out over the next few days - in fact, I bet it will - but at least he has something to start with.

As Twlya Tharp says: 'Scratching can look like borrowing or appropriating, but it's an essential part of creativity. It's primal, and very private. It's a way of saying to the gods, 'oh, don't mind me, I'll just wander around in these back hallways...' and then grabbing that piece of fire and running like hell.'

And she gives as some of her ways to scratch:

a. Reading
b. Everyday conversations
c. People's handiwork
d. Following the footsteps of mentors and heroes
e. Nature

Monday, September 08, 2008

Growing up fast

Remember this little thing ...

Well, here she is now with her brother ...

Thanks to Carlos for the update.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Great Dixter - September

It is a very good job indeed that I've no intention of going in for any kind of computer dating or indeed a job interview because I can't imagine how my interests would look to strangers - benches, gravestones, shopping trolleys, handmade paper, Gary Lightbody, new notebooks, crazy golf, typefaces .... I could go on and on but I think I'd better stop there because I'm sure you're all thinking already, 'hey, Sarah looks like a fun person. I wonder if she has a collection of anoraks too?'

And now there's something else to add to the list. Because September is just the right time to start a new project, I want to put into practice what I've been planning for a long time, which is a record of monthly visits to the beautiful Great Dixter gardens which are - luckily - just up the road from us. Of course, the late Christopher Lloyd has done it already with his book, Christopher Lloyd's Gardening Year which will be my bible for this new excitement.

This is what he says about September: "To an extent, we can cruise along in September. The number of visitors drops suddenly by nearly half. This is a pity in a way. The early autumn garden, here, is full of energy and ideas, reflecting our love of the season. The light is no longer so hard in the middle of the day, so the plants look happier. Again, because there are so many fewer visitors, the garden can be enjoyed all the more by those who do come. I, too, can enjoy it more, for the same reasons. There is a general feeling of detente."

I love that line, 'the plants look happier', especially as, do you know what, I'm sure he's right!

Saturday, September 06, 2008


Thanks to Bob for this email which made me laugh:

"I'm all for self-esteem, but I kinda think you didn't mean to link to yourself when you wrote "oh how I love this woman" on your blog post this afternoon."

Quite right. I didn't, although it has to be said I AM pretty fabulous... Anyway, link adjusted now.

Isabel Allende's Tales of Passion

Oh, how I love this woman...

I ran a course last year based around her book on food and love, Aphrodite. It was fantastic to plan the exercises and I think we all enjoyed it. I will remember forever one student's brilliantly funny description of a 'First Orgasm Party' as a highlight of my teaching career. Mind you, Divorce Soup was also memorable, if more bitter a taste!

I like this particular answer she gives to a question too:

Q. Could you elaborate on the idea of writing fiction, of telling a truth, of telling lies, of uncovering some kind of reality, and of how these ideas might work together or against each other?

A. The first lie of fiction is that the author gives some order to the chaos of life: chronological order, or whatever order the author chooses. As a writer, you select some part of a whole; you decide that those things are important and the rest is not. And you will write about those things from your perspective. Life is not that way. Everything happens simultaneously, in a chaotic way, and you don't make choices. You are not the boss; life is the boss. So when you accept as a writer that fiction is lying, then you become free; you can do anything. Then you start walking in circles. The larger the circle, the more truth you can get. The wider the horizon, the more you walk, the more you linger in everything, the better chance you have of finding particles of truth.

I wonder if the question of truth and fiction ever stops bothering a writer? And if there is a writer around who wasn't told to 'stop that storytelling' at least once when they were a kid?

Friday, September 05, 2008

20 Things Writing Exercise

Twyla Tharp's The Creative Habit is one of my books of the year already, but I've been re-reading it this week for a course I'm facilitating in October. It's even better than I remembered. Underscored already on nearly every page, with stars at the top of pages I think are particularly exciting. If this goes on, I'm going to have to invest in another copy. Today, I took myself off to one of my favourite coffee shops to do this exercise from the book:

Pick a couple and write down everything they do until you get to twenty things. Then study the list and come up with a story about the couple.

I picked two teenage girls who were sitting opposite me - one had kept doing these strange karate chops over her coffee cup and I decided in my storytelling that she was nervous. She knew something about the other girl's boyfriend and she wasn't sure whether to tell or not.

But then Twyla Tharp suggests doing the same exercise with another couple but this time you note only the things you find interesting, 'that please you aesthetically or emotionally'.

As she warns, this took a lot longer. The couple I chose this time looked like a married couple. I noticed he kept touching her, but she kept flicking his hands off. She stared at him though. And laughed loudly at his jokes. When he picked up a paper, she looked over his arm to see what he was reading. He made a meal of reading the paper, of turning over each page slowly and carefully, as if he knew what she was doing.

Twyla Tharp says that when you observe this way 'You might need all day. That's what happens when you apply judgment to your powers of observation. You become selective. You edit. You filter the world through your particular prism.'

What was clear was that I had already started the storytelling procedure as I watched and made notes the second time. I was looking for movements that would fit in with my view. And also that I had picked one person - the man - to tell my story. The first time round, either girl could have been the narrator. It was only when I came to look at my list of their movements, that the one gesture - the chopping hands - sparked the story.

Twyla Tharp says to study the two lists you make this way and look at what appeals to you in the second list.

It was definitely the difference in communication that I saw between the second couple that hooked me. The way they were so close and yet didn't seem to be able to get through the barriers between them. She was trying to reading him almost from inside, while he was feeling her outline. Almost patting her to check she was still there. Was he interested in her, or in what she saw of him? I wasn't sure and that sparked some interest in me.

In the first list when I just wrote down individual movements, I didn't look at how the two girls communicated at all.

TT goes on to say: 'What caught your fancy is not as important as the difference between the two lists. What you included and what you left out speaks volumes about how you see the world. If you do this exercise enough times, patterns will emerge. The world will not be revealed to you. YOU will be revealed.'

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Short stories

The blogger and short story Goddess, Tania Hershman has an interesting article on short stories on the Vulpes Libris website. In it, she discusses why we continually lump short stories and novels together, rather than let the short story be its own distinctive genre, like poetry or playwriting.

As founder of the Short Review, Tania makes a beautiful case to celebrate the short story. I liked this quote in particular: "to sum up: if you want to grasp a sparkling handrail, go on a trip which will leave you knowing more than you meant to, get to know another human being, be delighted by erotic lad lit science fiction or historical magical realism in translation, and make a short story writer lurking in your local bookshop very happy, go and buy - or borrow - a short story collection."

Tania is also interviewed over on Nik's blog. It's all part of the launch of her own short story collection, The White Road and Other Stories. I'm waiting for my copy to arrive any minute now...

On losing the internet - more...

This story about a writer holding a IT specialist hostage until he'd fitted her internet made me laugh. I could identify with her initial experiences ...

Carol Sinclair lost her connection with ISP Aliant and, by her own account, spent days trying to get the line fixed.

"I was polite the first 20 times I talked to them. But each one gave me the same routine: 'Is the modem connected? Are the lights blipping?'," she told The Globe and Mail.

"And then each one would say: 'It should be working. The problem must be with your computer.' I was a little stressed. I had six days to do a month's work."

Although this bit of the story made me wonder:

Finally Sinclair said she resorted to impersonating a man's voice and got a repairman sent out the next day, a "huge, strapping young man", 21 year-old David Scott.

Do you really have to be a man to get a repairman? Surely people don't still think women don't know how to use the internet do they?

Monday, September 01, 2008

Argh the internet...

So when my camera was broken in Minneapolis, I began to realise how reliant I had become on taking photographs as a way of recording what I was seeing. This was particularly frustrating as I walked round the Walker Gallery's fabulous artist designed mini golf course. Here's someone else's photograph instead - I can't even understand my notes - bottles, diff hites, bang shulders? (sic). Hmmm. I was trying to play AND take notes, I suppose.

Now, back at home, my internet hasn't been working properly. The strange thing is how it makes me feel the same as when I didn't have a camera. As if I'm short-sighted somehow. Or I'm missing one of my senses. Anyway, this is also an excuse as to why the prompts aren't always up on the right day. Normal service will be resumed shortly.