Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Have you read? ... Oh yes!

Apparently,according to the Museums, Libraries and Archive Council, 40% of Brits lie about what they've read. I can buy that. After all, I've learnt the hard way not to do it myself, and I've had painful conversations with people who have pretended to read my book, but some of the names on the list of the top ten books we apparently pretend to have read really surprise me. Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus..? The cynic in me says that must be men pretending to have read it to seem more caring and open, and if that gambit works, then women really must be from Venus. Just wait until his elastic band starts to beckon, girls...

Top ten books we lie about reading

1. The Lord of the Rings – J.R.R Tolkien
2. War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy
3. Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte
4. Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus – John Gray
5. 1984 – George Orwell
6. Harry Potter and the Philosophers Stone – J.K Rowling
7. Great Expectations – Charles Dickens
8. Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte
9. The Da Vinci Code – Dan Brown
10. Diary of Anne Frank – Anne Frank

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Hope you don't mind me saying this, but....

I'm not the only one, I know, who tenses up when they hear those words above because you just know you will mind, but now can't, because you're going to be told something that's in your 'best interest' to know. But actually I was more interested than hurt to hear from an anonymous emailer that my blog would, apparently, be must better if I was more personal, and told you a little more about me. Heavens, and there I was thinking I was revealing more than enough by putting up all the strange things that obsess me, but in the true spirit of not-minding and because Karen challenged me at the very end of last year to reveal six strange things about myself, here goes...

1. I nearly killed Alan Titchmarsh. Yes, really. My mother used to write for a gardening magazine he edited long, long before he became famous and he came to lunch with her on the day I passed my driving test. So my first real drive was to take him to the station. Big mistake. And nearly a big tragedy for housewives everywhere who would have lost their heart-throb as I took a panicky right hand turn into the path of on-coming traffic. Luckily we survived, although when I met him again at Chelsea Flower Show about two years later, it was clear from his white face and shaking hands that he remembered. Hopefully, he's forgotten now though, because I don't like it when nice men blanch when they look at me!

2. I have five pairs of slippers - all of different colours, textures and styles, and I spend some time each morning wondering which to wear to write in. Actually my slippers are such a big part of my life I think they deserve their own later post.

3. The house I live in was supposed to have been the illegal gaming rooms of Beau Nash in the 17th century. Before we moved in, I had great hopes of being haunted with sure-thing racing tips but it just feels like a happy house - one of the happiest I've ever lived in so I don't think too many people lost more than their shirts here. When we had recent building works, though, the builders developed a real phobia about ghosts, and refused to ever be on their own in the house. How we laughed, particularly when this meant the works were delayed...

4. When I was seven, I was so sure I was going to be a writer I started a novel-writing club with my friend Heidi. We were going to write a whole library between the two of us, but somehow we got distracted by life and I don't think we managed to even complete one short story and then she moved away. I still look for her on writing websites though. Heidi, are you out there?

5. I cry at nearly everything - even advertisements, and even to the annoyance of my kids, things they are watching on TV and that I just catch a glimpse of in passing. I regularly have to stop the car on the side of the road because I'm crying at something I've heard on the radio. It's a family thing. Once in a restaurant in Edinburgh, I made my brother cry so much from telling him the plot of the saddest film I've ever seen that my daughter moved to another table and the waiters left us alone for hours. I blame my father. When we were kids, we would regularly make him cry by singing the lyrics of Honey by Bobby Goldsborough everytime we could do with a giggle. We were sadistic little kids, that's for sure.

6. Karen started this, so here's one for her. She and I are born on the same day, the 11th September. Obviously, it's a bad day to have been born on now, but I'm rather proud of how many writers I've met who share the same birthday, and those I've not met for obvious reasons - D H Lawrence and O Henry, for example. I keep talking about organising a shared writerly birthday - any other 11th September's out there who want to help blow out the candles!

Hey, that was fun. I could get hooked on this personal lark.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Image Making

Giorgio de Chirico
The Uncertainty of the Poet 1913

How I'd love to do this poetry course at the Tate from February. I heard Pascale read last year, and left with my mind full of images and an urge to get back to the page. Anyway, hopefully someone will go and tell us all about it. Here are the details:
New Poetry from Great Art
Led by award-winning poet Pascale Petit
Mondays 5 February 2007 – 26 March 2007, 18.30–20.00

In this eight-week course participants have the opportunity to write new poetry provoked by the art on view at Tate Modern. Creative writing exercises are offered to encourage magical engagement with art. Sessions will include time spent in the Poetry and Dream and Material Gestures wings – wherever poems can be surprised into being. Contemporary world poetry is also discussed to further fire the imagination. Expect to be inspired and become an image-maker with words.

This course is open to both beginners and experienced writers.

Pascale Petit has published four prize-winning poetry collections and was twice short-listed for the TS Eliot Prize. A Next Generation Poet, she has been Poetry Editor of Poetry London, a founding tutor of The Poetry School and Poet in Residence for the Guardian.

Tate Modern Throughout the gallery
£120 (£95 concessions), booking required
Price includes drinks afterwards

And writing prompt 19-2007: The Poetry and Dream Wing

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Wrapping up warm...

Baby, it's cold outside... but using this photo of the window of a glove shop from my recent trip to Venice as my screensaver is keeping me warm...

As well as the gloves one of my companions, and quite possible the best shopper ever, encouraged me to buy. He was right. I did need them and they are proving ENTIRELY useful, as well as very very beautiful...

And writing prompt 18-2007: No, no, not a luxury at all.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Virtual yoga

I'm missing my yoga lesson today because of the snow, so I've been doing virtual yoga - not least imaginging myself in this pose above. Once I untie the knots, I will read again the myths behind the poses, which I'm hoping will inspire me to spend my lesson time writing a yoga story. And that's my writing prompt for today.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Clothes as architecture

Fantastic photographs of Dominique Sirop's Paris collection here. These aren't just clothes surely - they're works of art.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Champagne communist...

Voting details are up for the best champagne cork chair for 2007. Anyone fancy a sweepstake? I like the champagne communist one because it makes me laugh, but you have to admire Brandy Shih's dedication to detail in the Copenhagen Rockegg as pictured here!

Writing prompt 16-2007: Fiddling at the table

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Meditation and Writing Weird

I have been meditating for nearly six years now. I try to do it daily, and always notice when I don't manage for a bit. The wobbles take over. All the ideas I want to have, don't want to have, would never dreamt of having crowd in and I can't get any peace to even begin to understand what I do think. It's like a filter that gets jammed with too much trying to get in. Meditating makes me realise that as a writer, I need space. Not around me - I've spent too long working in busy open-plan offices for that, I can write and think anywhere - but from inside. There's a beautiful three-line poem by one of my favourite poets, Kenneth White which sums it up for me.

My Properties
salutations to Michaux

I'm a landowner myself after all -
I've got twelve acres of white silence
up at the back of my mind

So it was interesting to read this article by David Lynch on what meditation means to him, and how he originally fought against it, thinking it would be harmful to his creative process. He writes about his first thoughts:
“Meditation would be a sickening thing to consider, because you want that edge to create,” he said, wearing worn khaki trousers and a tattered black sports jacket with a hole in the right elbow the size of a saucer. “I don’t want to be a namby-pamby.”

But in fact, meditation allows him to be 'weirder':
As an artist, Mr. Lynch said, it has allowed him to unleash his imagination and be, in a word, weirder. He said that many of his ideas — the “big fish” of his book’s title — come to him during meditation. Among these big fish are the sitcom-starring rabbits and the Greek chorus of prostitutes in his fantastical three-hour new film, “Inland Empire,” now showing in limited release.

David Lynch has written a book about his experiences of meditation, Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness, and Creativity, which I've just ordered, but one of the joys of meditating is that, to begin with, you don't need anything but persistence. Try sitting still for one minute, gently pushing aside all thoughts that come in, and you'll see how hard it is, but if I just concentrate on my breathing, not trying to change it, but working out exactly how I'm breathing, well, that's often all I need to prepare for a writing stint. Particularly when I want to write 'weird'!!

And writing prompt 15-2007: My own definition of being a 'landowner'.

Friday, January 19, 2007

A use for your rejection letters ...

There's an interesting competition at the Rejected Quarterly. Each entry has to be accompanied by at least five rejections slips. I suppose it beats papering the walls with them!

Writing prompt 14-2007: An unusual rejection letter

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Poetry prompt...

I haven't taken part in the wonderful Poetry Thursday initiative for some time but there's a great poetry 'workshop' by Julia Copus in the Guardian here, so I'm going to have that as my writing prompt for today. There's the chance too to have your poems resulting from the exercise published in the Guardian.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

A timely kick up the...

I need to remember this:
"There is no such thing as finding time to write. This is a fallacy. If you look for time to write, you won't find it. Instead, you'll find something else to do. Forget finding time to write. What you have to do is make time to write. How and when is up to you." Brian Keene

Something to Get Hold Of

Now don't get me wrong, I'm a fan of Scarlett Johannsen, but not of this particular reporting. It makes me sick to read, under a sub-heading: 'Embracing those curves', this:
"Scarlett's one of the few stars who refuses to buy into Hollywood's obsession with the size zero: at 5'4 she weighs 8 stone 2."
By my reckoning, eight stone two at 5'4 is hardly what my granddad would say, 'something to get hold of'.

Writing prompt 13-2007: Straight lines

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Where Bad Dogs Go....

I can't believe I missed the first series of Dog Borstal, but my enthusiasm for the second series is making up for it. Last week, it was the turn of two Chihuahuas, Ruff and Tumble. Tumble was the fallguy, because Ruff was definitely in charge - taking on three rottweilers all at once, being banned from every park in walking distance and attacking every woman in a hat he could find. Part of the charm of this programme for me is seeing how incapable the owners are of controlling their dogs(my dog of course is perfectly behaved, hahahaha). Ruff's owner is Xavier, a 6ft 2in weightlifter. First instruction for him - stop picking Ruff up. Put the dog at your level and he thinks he's in charge of you. It worked a treat. All the dogs at Dog Borstal have to undergo an examination before they can go home (really, it's the owners who are being tested, but they don't seem to realise. Surely they do? But no, they really don't seem to. They congratulate their dogs at the end like mad whereas it's them who have actually changed their behaviour). Ruff's examination consisted of having women in hats walk in front of him, behind him, beside him. I laughed until I was crying, but still Ruff remained calm. When Xavier's partner (and Ruff's co-owner) came running up to congratulate the dog, Xavier barked out a sharp: 'Don't pick him up, you bend down to him instead so he's not at your level.' Ooo, Xavier's got the training habit bad, I think. As the programme publicity says: "There’ll be tears, tantrums and heartbreak on the road to reform."

A couple of years ago there was a novel I liked the look of, which consisted of a woman using a dog obedience manual to train her man. I never read the book, because somehow in the end it felt a bit demeaning, but the writer perhaps didn't take it far enough. In the New York Times, Amy Sutherland writes amusingly about training her husband with skills she's picked up from dolphin trainers. She even starts taking notes about his behaviour.
The exotic animal known as Scott is a loner, but an alpha male. So hierarchy matters, but being in a group doesn't so much. He has the balance of a gymnast, but moves slowly, especially when getting dressed. Skiing comes naturally, but being on time does not. He's an omnivore, and what a trainer would call food-driven.
The article did get even funnier though when she admitted he started using the techniques on her too....

Writing prompt 12-2007: Women in hats

Monday, January 15, 2007


"Poetry is language surprised in the act of changing into meaning." Stanley Kunitz

And writing prompt 11-2007: Surprise me....

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Find and Repla...argh!

So, work on my new novel is going well. A bit too well actually, so it must be time for my usual attempts at self-sabotage. This time it's confusion over one of my main character's names. Should it be Nell, or Jo? I pick Nell, and things are going fine until I decide it should really be Jo. I merrily click on find and replace, and carry on writing. Then I realise I was being stupid. Of course, she's a Nell. I click find and replace again, order the computer to do its best - find Jo, replace with Nell. Everything's hunkydorey, until I notice the manuscript is dotted with red. What I hadn't twigged was that EVERY jo would now be Nell, and the computer has no way of knowing whether it's a name or not. So now, I have to spend the rest of my morning of precious writing time patiently going through and changing Nellwls, Nelllt, Nellking, Nellhn, Nellin, Nellb, and even BonNellur, back to jowls, jolt, joking, John, join, job, Bonjour. I hadn't realised how many words began with, or contained, the letters jo, but I do now. Oh, how I do!

New library to add to my collection here. I always suspected Etro was one of the most intelligent fashion houses, and now I'm doubly sure. How I'd love to visit this one.

And writing prompt 10-2007: A paragraph containing the following words - Bonjour, John, jowls, joking, job, join, jog.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

On Writing

There's a good article by Zadie Smith on writing here. Thanks to Sally for the link.

Writing Prompt 9-2007: Fast-forward three years.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Dishing the dirt

Hah! I remember reading somewhere that if you were basing one of your characters on someone real, then a surefire way of making sure they didn't complain was to make them very very good (fictionally) in bed. In her blog, Tess Gerritsen gives an example of how this can work in the opposite direction here.


For a long time now, I've got pleasure from the number of crafty and inspirational blogs there are around. I don't know why but I always presumed the writers of these domestic gems would be the last people to embrace technology, but perhaps blogs are now the equivalent of the traditional country diary. There must be plenty of research going on about the writers of blogs, but I wonder how many there are on the readers. Are they mostly people like me, who buy intricate cookery books, knowing I might never cook any of the recipes but still enjoy reading them avidly (and hungrily)? Anyway, recently I've been noticing an interest in colour. As well as Karen's beautiful blog, two special mentions go to this Superhero guide to a colourful business but maybe my first stop should be this guide to colour basics.

Writing prompt 8-2007= Red

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Book Giveaway

Patricia Storms at Booklust has been talking about a Canadian exhibition by Robin Pacific which involves the artist giving away her entire archive of nearly 2,000 books. There are great photographs and a first-hand account here, but Toronto's just a bit far for me to go for a freebie. Robin Pacific is quoted as saying:
"My books are a portrait of an artist’s psyche. When I pick one up at random, a whole period of my life comes rushing back, people, places, what I was doing, who I was at that particular point of my past. Giving them away is a means of putting my consciousness out into the world, and isn’t that what all artists do, regardless of the medium?"
Not sure I could give away all my books, but they're staring back at me at the moment from their comfy bookcases, quivering with worry!

Scott's Last Letter

The incredibly moving last letter by Captain Scott of the Antartic is just about to go on exhibition at The Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge. I remember one enterprising English teacher once giving us an assignment of writing a 'last letter' when we were hormonal teenagers. The result was an emotional massacre, so that won't be my writing prompt for today, particularly as reading this one has made me cry already once today. It's the understated passion held in the words, rather than any unexpected gush of feeling, that got me. Iced over, in every sense of the phrase, which somehow makes it seem even more poignant. He writes:
If anything happens to me I shall like you to know how much you have meant to me and that pleasant recollections are with me as I depart."
Pleasant recollections? Ah well. I suppose, you wouldn't marry a man like Scott if you wanted poetry by the fireside.

Reading it, I kept thinking of the wonderful short story, Bullet in the Brain, by Tobias Wolff, so was pleased to find this website which has him reading it. You need to search though, and appropriately enough he's at the end of a programme featuring people's last words. Anyway, in the story, the mc, Anders, remembers not his child, his wife, but an ungrammatical sentence which nevertheless brought him pleasure.

Writing Prompt 7-2007: Ice

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Direct from the writer's mouth

Writing is the act of accepting the huge shortfall between the story in the mind and what hits the page.

That's what Richard Powers admits in his fascinating New York Times essay, and he has to be right but it's one of the hardest things to accept. There are some writers I know who will only write with a pen and paper because that way they feel the words come more directly from their body, but Powers's essay is partly about how he uses voice recognition software to dictate his novels. He claims not to have touched a keyboard for years. He's not alone either in the need to speak his words. He cites some worthy predecessors:
Dickens reportedly acted out his characters while looking in a mirror. In the final hours of his life, Proust re-dictated the death of Bergotte, supposedly claiming that he now knew what he was talking about. Once, while dictating “Finnegans Wake” to Beckett, Joyce is said to have answered a knock on the door; Beckett dutifully jotted down his “Come in.” Surprised by the transcript, a delighted Joyce let it ride.

The all-time champion of Xtreme Dictation, though, must be Thomas Aquinas. Witnesses report how he could relay four different topics to four secretaries at once, and even (Maritain writes) “lay down to rest in the midst of the dictation to continue to dictate while sleeping.”

Two writing prompts for today, one to justify the cheesy post title:

Writing prompt 5-2007 - Write a list of cliches, and then subvert them, and
Writing prompt 6-2007 - Act out one of your characters in front of a mirror. Did it change the way 'they' spoke?

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

First impressions

A friend told me a story yesterday which has stuck in my mind as something I can use in writing. She's not religious, but for various reasons, was attending a Church tea party. She kept thinking how the people walking past would see her there, chatting to the vicar, and imagine her as someone completely different from who she really was. I'd love to capture this double - inner/outer - image in words.

And I was rather startled when looking for an image for today's writing prompt to find out how many people obviously drink their tea naked. Now this is something I have never done, so writing prompt 4-2007 is ... A nice cup of tea (dress optional)!

Resolution 3 - Work Undisturbed

"Have some sort of private place to work in. Put up a sign to keep from being interrupted. Mine says: "PLEASE, do not knock, do not say hello or goodbye, do not ask what's for dinner, do not disturb me unless the police or firemen have to be called." It works only if I take the sign seriously myself and don't encourage violation of its rules. The telephone is enemy number one. Try not to have one in your work room and train your friends not to call during work hours."
Judith Krantz

(The cartoon is great, isn't it? It's used with permission from Jerry King.)

Monday, January 08, 2007

Resolution 2 - Be less organised

So mess is good? I have to say I disagree. I love Irwin Kula's description of his daughter's bedroom in the New York Times article:
“One day I’m standing in front of the door,” he said, “and it’s out of control and my wife, Dana, is freaking out, and suddenly I see in all the piles the dress she wore to her first dance and an earring she wore to her bat mitzvah. She’s so trusting her journal is wide open on the floor, and there are photo-booth pictures of her friends strewn everywhere. I said, ‘Omigod, her cup overflows!’ And we started to laugh.”
almost as much as I love the title of his book, Yearnings: Embracing the Sacred Messiness of Life', but I keep remembering how I feel better when I'm tidy. I can at least pretend I'm in control. Mind you, having said that, I'm writing this with my empty soup bowl from lunch(Butternut squash, very nice) perched on a printer cartridge box which is perched on my Far Side desk diary. A book - Metafiction, Patricia Waugh - is face down in between my keyboard and my screen, and a lavender candle is burning a bit too close to a paper bag, containing a present of Venetian stationery. I take heart from the fact that when I do finally get around to tidying up, I might find something wonderful, much as Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin from a moldy bloom in a petri dish he had forgotten on his desk.

Writing Prompt 3-2007: Finding something unexpected under the pile of rubbish.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Resolution 1 - Be organised

To be honest, I'd probably never get round to using this shoe wheel of fortune properly, but it would make getting dressed in the morning so much more fun. And it gives me my second writing prompt of the year.

Writing Prompt 2-2007: Blisters

Monday, January 01, 2007

New Years Resolutions

I could put them up - all my wishes to be thinner, fitter, more productive, stop playing solitaire, never google myself and then get depressed - but then I'd only have to do lots of later posts explaining why I haven't managed to keep up with all those hopeful plans I'm making today. So here instead is a poem by Jane Kenyon which perfectly sums up, to me, why this one day - of all days - seems to be so important.

Afternoon in the House
Jane Kenyon

It's quiet here. The cats
sprawl, each
in a favored place.
The geranium leans this way
to see if I'm writing about her:
head all petals, brown
stalks, and those green fans.
So you see,
I am writing about you.

I turn on the radio. Wrong.
Let's not have any noise
in this room, except
the sound of a voice reading a poem.
The cat's request
The Meadow Mouse, by Theodore Roethke.

The house settles down on its haunches
for a doze.
I know you are with me, plants,
and cats - and even so, I'm frightened,
sitting in the middle of perfect

And Writing Prompt 1 for 2007 is:
Finding someone else's list of resolutions.