Saturday, January 31, 2009


Tired of hearing complaints that he never surprised her, Colin organised a picnic for Miranda on the rooftop. Vertigo, she’d moaned, but he carried on pointing out the big wheel, the spires. He liked how she lay prostrate in front of him, clinging to his ankles, refusing to let go.

Friday, January 30, 2009


All the observations they have to make are outlined in the official laminated booklet. ‘Look how this tree is growing towards the sun,’ he chants, nodding as she replies, ‘Nature is a wonderful thing.’ Then as instructed, they walk on, keeping their gazes fixed ahead, wondering who is watching them.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Not just blues

Don’t you ever get the urge to throw yourself into buckets of paint colours? To stand in the middle of a gallery and just let yourself get taken over? Or better still, to lie in a meadow of spring flowers and just let the yellows, reds, oranges wash over you?

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

John Updike

Martin Amis has written an interesting piece on John Updike in the Guardian today. I love this first paragraph particularly because it gets across the energy of the man, but also how he must have been impossible ever to really pin down:

He said he had four studies in his house so we can imagine him writing a poem in one of his studies before breakfast, then in the next study writing a hundred pages of a novel, then in the afternoon he writes a long and brilliant essay for the New Yorker, and then in the fourth study he blurts out a couple of poems. John Updike must have been possessed of a purer energy than any writer since DH Lawrence.

I often talk about the conversations we can have with other writers - friends or strangers, dead or alive. Amis does it too later in his article:

With great stylists an innovators, you learn after a while not to be influenced - what such a writer is is an inspiration. Several times a day you turn to him, as you will now to his ghost, and say to yourself, 'How would Updike have done it?'.

And Larry Dark of the Story Prize has a great piece too. He quotes another dialogue, but this time in an extract by John Updike he published which was a conversation between Updike's Oppositional Other (O.O.) and Self. As Dark says, 'The gist of it was that O.O. felt Self was being, well, self-indulgent.'

I am weary of Self-Consciousness. What I have written here discomfits me; it is indiscreet and yet inaccurate, a greedy squandering of life's minute-by-minute savings, a careless provisional raid upon the abyss of being. Fiction, which does not pretend to be true, is much truer. This stuff is embarrassing. The reviewers will jump all over it. I think I'll save myself a peck of trouble and not publish.
Self: Oh, go ahead. It was written, after all, only by Updike; it has nothing to do with me.

And, in my opinion, one of the best meetings with Updike is that written by Nicholson Baker in his book, U & I. Except it's not really Baker talking to Updike, it's more one side of Baker getting out of the way so U and I can have the conversation, and I'm not sure they ever met. Hmmm.... read it and see.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

In praise of the pencil....

Yesterday over a coffee with the always inspirational Nicholas Bate we got to talking somehow of pencils. I had always thought that there was some magical process by which the lead was inserted through the wooden tunnel, but apparently this isn't so. Pah. What else did my siblings tell me that I still believe? The joys of being the youngest child. We always used to drive past a wood of what I thought were pencil trees too - I can remember imagining each trunk as a giant pencil but I guess that wasn't the case either.

Anyway, Nicholas told me there was a book just about the pencil (there is too, I've found it here), but last night reading Wildwood, Roger Deakin's journey through trees, I came across these passages:

Now and again you discover the perfect pen and carry it everywhere until one day you lose it. But nothing is so universally dependable, or comes so naturally to hand as a pencil. What could be simpler? For much of my life, I have lived with one behind my ear, either to mark out saw cuts or mortices for carpentry or to scribble marginalia or underlines when reading. I often write with a pencil. It suits my tentative nature. It allows me literally to sketch out ideas before proceeding to the greater definition of ink. It was the first tool I used to write or to draw, and still suggests the close relationship between the two activities. I know I shall never outgrow pencils. it is comforting and liberating to know that you can always rub out what is pencilled. it is the other end of the spectrum from carving in stone. The pencil whispers across the page and is never dogmatic.

For all the same reason, I like a soft pencil better than a hard one. It is gentler on the paper, as a soft voice is easier on the ear. Its low definition draws in the reader's eye, which must sometimes peer through the graphite mist of a smudge where the page of an old notebook has been thumbed. Rub your finger long enough on a soft-pencilled phrase and it will evaporate into a pale-grey cloud. In this way a pencil is close to watercolour painting.

A pencil is an intimate, elemental conjunction of graphite and wood, like a grey-marrowed bone. The graphite is mined from deep inside a Cumbrian hillside in Borrowdale, eight miles south of Keswick. Fired in a kiln to 1000C to make the slender pencil cores, ranging in hardness from H to 9H and in softness from B to 9B, it is laid in a groove in one of the split halves of the wooden casing which are then glued together invisibly, clasping the lead tightly. But examine the cross-section of grain at one end, and you will notice it runs two different ways. In Tasmania there are trees they call pencil pines, but only because of the way they look. The fine grained, slow-grown mother of all pencils is incense cedar fromthe forests of Oregon, where a single tree may grown 140 feet high, with a trunk five feet across, enough cedar wood to make 150,000 pencils. it is the incense cedar that infuses pencils with the nutty aroma I remember as I opened my pencil-box. In a scooped-out hollow in my Oregon pine work table in front of me lies a smooth round pebble from the Hebrides. It sits snugly in the wood, like the pencil between finger and thumb, and like the hidden vein of graphite, poised inside the cedar to spin itself into words like gossamer from the spider.

Is it just me, or do you have the intense urge to visit that Borrowdale mine too now? Or at least to go and sniff a pencil?

I get asked a lot about how much work this blog is to maintain, but the truth is that I do it mainly for me. And this extract above illustrates that nicely - in the future I'll know exactly where I put that bit about pencils, unlike my actual pencils. Somehow I can never find one when I want to jot something down - and this is despite having THREE pencil cases (including a snazzy Moomin one Santa got me).

Monday, January 26, 2009


They blamed staring at computer screens for how our eyes got locked. The first transplants were difficult and expensive, but it wasn’t long before they were commonplace. After that, false eyes were sold to express different emotional moments. Crying eyes sold best, but ‘I love you’ pupils weren’t far behind.

Stuck in the swamp...

From Peter Elbow's Writing with Power:

Revising is when it may hit you. Revulsion. The feeling that all this stuff you have written is stupid, ugly, worthless - and cannot be fixed. Disgust.

Nausea hits some people at the beginning of the revising process. They have successfully produced pages and pages of words, fast and furiously, or perhaps (unaffected by my preaching) they pondered every word and continually corrected as they went along. But either way, when they turn back to revise, they find nothing of value in all they have written.

Sound familiar? Seems to me that it's something all writers have to go through during at least one stage of the writing and editing process, and much better to be prepared. Here's what Elbow recommends rather than throwing the whole thing away (which can often seem like the ONLY option!):

Once you come to understand the pattern of this recurring nausea, you can deal with the feelings: do a freewriting in which you let go and tell how disgusted you are by everything you've written and how worthless it all is. When you give the feelings full rein, it's easier to see them for what they are. Or you can scream or cry the feelings out to a friend or a mirror or a closet. And it may help to turn back to some already completed writing of yours that you know is good - to reassure yourself of your powers.

Finally, learn to be prudent about what you do to your writing during these attacks. Acknowledge that when these feelings are upon you, you are in an intellectually and emotionally weakened condition. Don't let yourself engage in taking the whole thing apart fro major revising even though your feelings say, 'This thing must be completely done over, it's worthless."

And finally ...

... never do major revising when nauseated by your writing.

Yep, go and wrestle that crocodile instead. It will probably be friendlier!

Saturday, January 24, 2009


He’s been leaving messages again. I’m busy, but I make my way to Downing Street. I don’t try to get through. Don’t want to make trouble for him. Instead I wait. His passion for me is revealed as he is driven by. It’s all in his averted eyes, sulky mouth.

Friday, January 23, 2009

The magic of vcca...

I'm not sure whether it was waking up to sunsets like these ...

or being able to work outside (albeit warmly wrapped) with this view ...

or going for long walks talkingtalkingtalking in these surroundings ...

but my recent stay at vcca was, despite silly bouts of acute homesickness, almost entirely magical.

Best of all, I get to take back some new passions (thanks Joanne):

and feel confident that good friends made there will continue to inspire me.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

The right direction

You live in the unreal world so long, you forget what it’s like not to have lines to follow. To begin with, your feet don’t know where to go. You start walking sideways, then backwards. You wobble so hard you nearly fall. Breathing helps. That, and the dog chasing you.

ps I am loving all your responses so much. THANK YOU. It's been like getting presents in the comments box - some of the lines are just beautiful, and worth taking as prompts in themselves. I hope you're enjoying each others as well.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009


Everybody noticed the flowers had stopped growing but no one mentioned it. Instead, they talked about the way the leaves moved, how beautiful the bark was, the perfect colour of the grass. They started to dress in greens and browns. Subtlety became all, but still no one mentioned the flowers.

Monday, January 19, 2009

In the woods

The priest opened the church when the ball appeared, but some outsiders trekked to the woods to watch as the ball started breathing in time to the prayers. It grew larger with every Amen, sucking up twigs and leaves and flowers. Its goodness was terrifying. It had to be stopped.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

night confessional

She talks to the man in the moon for hours. She tells him everything, how she hates the sun, the stars get on her nerves, and the clouds, well, you can imagine. He knows how to listen. Only sometimes will he draw the branches across. He needs his sleep too.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

writing about objects

Here's a good one...


My father takes us out into the woods to show us the tree. Five trunks springing from the same root. He says it’s us. We might try to reach the light, but we’ll all keep fixed to him. To the family. That night, I sharpen my axe again. Nearly ready.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009


Red sky at night, shepherds delight. Lottie never knew why the goodness was just for shepherds, not accountants like her mum. Her mum loved sunsets. Would stand still, her face reflecting something secret that would make Lottie shake her to bring her back, to stop her falling off Lottie’s world.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009


She records all the places they don’t go to on the car. The weekend he got food-poisoning she painted a beach scene on the roof. A garden appeared on the passenger door after his foreign conference. He says he doesn’t feel guilty, but he doesn’t drive so much these days.

Fifty word photo-story - 7

Lucy keeps a china pony by her bed. She whispers how she knows it enjoys galloping when she’s asleep and every morning she sighs, washing it carefully to get rid of any trace of mud. Eventually, she drops it. Opens her hands to watch how fast it can really go.

Monday, January 12, 2009

The importance of idle time...

I'm enjoying reading Creativity, Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention by Mihaly Csikszentmihailyi while I'm here. It's a book I've had for some time but haven't got round to reading properly before, partly because I didn't want to cram it in. I have been cramming too many things in recently. One of the things I'll take back from here though is the importance of doing nothing. Here's what Mihaly says about idle time (I'll be informal because, boy, what a surname...)

Something similar to parallel processing may be taking place when the elements of a problem are said to be incubating. When we think consciously about an issue, our previous training and the effort to arrive at a solution push our ideas in a linear direction, usually along predictable or familiar lines. But intentionality does not work in the subconscious. Free from rational direction, ideas can combine and pursue each other every which way. Because of this freedom, original connections that would be at first rejected by the rational mind have a chance to become established.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Watch out!

There are spies everywhere here in Virginia....

fifty word photo-story - 6

He’s taken to sleeping at odd times. Once he was in the supermarket queue so when he woke up, startled, he knocked over the bananas. His wife says he’s passive-agressive, just giving in to the universe. Maybe. Meanwhile, he lies on his front porch, waits to see what will happen.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Fifty word photo-story - 5

Her sister has told her that a baby boy is buried inside the statue. Half alive apparently. Jess will have to break the stone to rescue him. But Jess doesn’t want to. She listens to him breathing. Sometimes she’ll put a hand out, searching for warmth. Wipes stone tears away.

ps don't have much internet access here so apologies if my posting is sporadic!

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Fifty word photo-story - 4

That summer they spent a lot of their time at the lake. Even Bobby Smith went. He’d take his book and sit reading, just slightly away from the rest of them. She’d look at the other boys jumping in, but it would be Bobby she watched. How deep he went.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Fifty word photo-story - 3

There was a nature table at school, just in front of the naughty chair. The two are still entwined for her. She’ll try to appreciate the mossy bark her daughter collects for her but instead she’ll get a picture of the teacher’s angry face. The hopeless loneliness of it all.

Friday, January 02, 2009

If keeping your resolutions is already too hard....

You can watch this!

ps I can't seem to connect direct to the one I want which is 40 inspirational scenes in 2 minutes, but you get to watch the whole year go by in 20 seconds if you want as well this way.

pps Can you tell from the above one of my resolutions is to always keep positive? However, I'm English and not very comfortable with it yet - I keep waiting for someone to punch me in the face to shut me up!