Wednesday, 27 January 2010

A Walk Around the Block

Margaret Atwood’s blog has ten tips for writer’s block. Number 1 is to go for a walk. Others include “Write in some other form - even a letter or a journal entry. Or a grocery list. Keep those words flowing through your fingers.” (No 3) and “Eat chocolate, not too much, must be dark, shade-grown, organic.” (No 6)

Whether I am struggling with my current manuscript or not, I walk on Hampstead Heath. Where I turn back to go home, there is a bench with this verse in place of the usual dedication to a deceased loved one: 

I was born tomorrow Today I live Yesterday killed me 

Perhaps I should use these words by the Iranian writer, Parviz Owzia, in an exercise and ask my students what Parviz meant. Each time I look at them, I come up with a new meaning.

This being Hampstead, there is quirky poetry too (Leslie Noaks 1914 - 2000): 

“Seagull, seagull, how do you float?
Upon the water without a boat?”

He thought to himself and then he frowned

Turned on his side and slowly drowned

There is one near the ponds on the Parliament Hill side of the Heath which was meant to be funny, but has undergone a change since its original inscription: "Now in years bestride my eighties, this Elysian seat I have vacated, but gentle neighbour sigh not yet, I’ve only moved to Somerset." It has an addendum: “Died 1999” 

These benches are wooden memorials, as well as places of rest and refuge. Those marking a life are poignant reminders of how precious, and short, life is. One of my students, Pat Conway, came to a workshop last year and sent me the following: "Write Now! in New Mexico” was the best writing workshop I've ever been to. Every aspect was helpful: the exercises, the feedback, the sharing. It made me realize that WRITING is the point, not writing a book or even getting published. Those can all come or not; writing is the goal. Your teaching helped me remember that I don't want to die with my song unsung." So go for that walk, look at the sky, the kites, the grass. Then come home and write. 

Stay tuned . . .

Wednesday, 20 January 2010


I was walking in a small park near my home when I saw a woman with binoculars, intently staring at a tree. For a long time she stood in the middle of the path. Intrigued, I asked her what she was looking at. She pointed at hundreds of small birds perched on several tall trees which I’d not noticed. She said they were redwings, a type of thrush who spends the winter months in England. In cities, she said, they gather in parks and small woods. ‘You’ll never find them in gardens. They like to stick together.’ She said they come from Scandinavia and Russia, arriving in November and returning north in March.

After being alerted, I could hear their excited chirping. The writer Maya Angelou said, "A bird doesn't sing because it has an answer; it sings because it has a song." That’s true, but I think there is more to it when it comes to the redwing. Surely it sings to keep in touch with the flock when in flight over great distances, hence its scorn for small gardens where there isn’t enough room for them to roost together. To hear redwings, click here.

One of the exercises I set is to write about birds because we need to protect them, as well as watch them. Join the RSPB, leave food out in your gardens. Look out for the birds. 

Stay tuned . . .  

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll

This week I went to see Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll, the biopic about the rocker, Ian Dury. It's not a movie I would have chosen to see but, because of the snow, I couldn't be bothered to travel into town in the ice and cold for Jane Campion's Bright Dreams or Yasujiro Ozu's Tokyo Story. I was pleasantly surprised.

Dury is brilliantly played by Andy Serkis who spent three years getting into character. Ian Dury suffered from polio which caused his lameness. To capture his ungainly walk, Serkis injured himself while wearing a leg brace to prepare himself physically, and psychologically, for the part. Directed by Mat Whitecross, the film is a fantastical take on standard biopic film-making. In an act of alchemy, Serkis literally becomes Dury. Today, the actor now sings with Ian’s band, The Blockheads, the result of his commitment to the part.

Those three years of Stanislavskian preparation is the filmic equivalent of a writer truly getting under the skin of a character. Annie Proulx spends years researching her next project, even going so far as to draw most of the plants in the landscape where her books are set.

This kind of thoroughness has lessons for us all, whether we’re actors or writers. Go see this movie and check out Dury's songs for yourself. 

Stay tuned . . .

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

Pitmen Painters

Over the Christmas holidays I went to see Lee Hall's Pitmen Painters at the National Theatre. It is the extraordinary story of a group of Ashington miners in Northumberland who, in 1934, hired an artist to teach them art appreciation. Bored with lectures on the intricacies of Rembrandt's use of shadows and Modigliani's lines, they rapidly abandoned theory in favour of practice.

In their evening classes the pitmen began to paint . . . and to paint well. Within a few years, avant-garde artists became their friends and their work was acquired by prestigious collecters, but every day they continued to work as miners.

Pitmen Painters is a humorous, yet serious look at art, class and politics. As a creative writing teacher, I know that the world is full of “pitmen painters”. Many who enrol on my courses are initially worried whether they will be competent enough to write. I never hesitate when I answer: “Yes, you are good enough.” And then I quote Henry Van Dyke: "Use what talents you possess; the woods would be very silent if no birds sang there except those that sang best." Stay tuned . . .