Thursday, 29 November 2012

Better late than never

One of the great things about my brother was the way he'd introduce me to TV programmes or films that he thought I'd enjoy. He was invariably correct (up until the second series of South park, anyway).

Through him I encountered Spaced, Black Books, The Simpsons and Family Guy. Looking back, I don't know why I never got round to watching them unaided. The one film he insisted I watch at some point was The Big Lebowski. (He was also a Steve Buscemi fan, so perhaps he was a little biased, but we'll forgive him that.)

I haven't been consciously avoiding it since he died, but somehow the chances came and went. And it's fair to say that half the pleasure would have been in discussing it with him afterwards. As I'm journeying through The Artist's Way again, it seemed like a perfect artist's date to finally give the film a go. 

So far, this post is pre-written and you'll find my review at the end of the page.

The film has assumed a hugely symbolic significance before I even see it. I can still recall talking about it with him, back in his flat in Leigh on Sea. It was maybe eight or nine years ago and it seems like a lifetime now. If you'll forgive the irony, it was. 

David was enduring Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma and the chemotherapy, radiotherapy, UV treatment and everything he had to contend with. I was a different person back then. More understated, perhaps. Still wrestling with the implications of his cancer and endlessly cycling through some of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross's stages of grief like a hamster trapped on its wheel.

"Honestly, the film is made for you," he promised. I didn't know whether he was taking the piss after my year in the US, back in my 20s, or whether he was referring to some aspect of the plot (which he refused to divulge). "Just watch it and you'll see. Trust me."

Interlude

My cousin told me a story once, about my brother. She was at his flat and looked at all the photos on display. Close friends, mum and dad I think, and maybe one of my cousin too. But not one of me. When she asked him, he told her, "No need; I already know what he looks like." And then he went quiet and added, "I keep his picture in my heart."

Brothers can be like that. A Sunday session at a snooker hall or a suggestion of a film can be heavy with subtext. Nothing needs to be said because it's all there.

I thought about that when I was putting together the acknowledgements page for Covenant, which has recently come out in paperback. I'm pretty sure I sent David one of the many versions of the manuscript over the years. He probably said, "Yeah, it was...erm...good," like the time when he still hadn't opened my Christmas present on Boxing Day morning.

In the end I decided not to include his name in the list. But only because he's not around to read it. And if he is, in some shape or form, then it's like the photos in his flat - he knows and I know, and that's good enough for me.

And The Big Lebowski? I loved it. Absolutely loved it! Just like he knew I would. Without spoiling what is a cult film, I'll just briefly mention in passing there's one scene where someone's ashes are scattered. That scene stopped me short, caught in my throat a little and made me wonder if there wasn't a hidden message. 

I remembered scattering his ashes, with his best friend beside me as we stood amid the great oaks at the City of London Cemetery. I trailed two lines to form an 'x' - the runic sign of a gift, or a final, farewell kiss.

Only it's never final. Like the man says, "The Dude abides."

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Mondays with Monika - 5

A little late this week - my fault entirely. Freelance writer, blogger and writing dynamo Monika opens her heart, lays bare the workings of her mind right now, and doesn't mince her words. Previous posts are located here: Part 1 Monday 22nd OctPart 2 Monday 29th Oct and Part 3 Monday 5th November and Part 4 Monday 19 November.

1. We've talked about some of the therapeutic benefits of writing about intensely personal experiences, such as catharsis and gaining a wider perspective. Having crossed that barrier, has it carried over into your fiction writing aspirations - wanting to write with similar intensity and honesty?
Do I write fiction? I haven't written anything, really, besides that short story I submitted to A Word with You Press about the weird fishman monster in the diner. I started writing "Fidget, the Magic Hamster" (a children's story about - guess what? - a magic hamster), "Monte Underwater" (another children's story about a boy whose house gets flooded and has adventures with a freshwater mermaid named Finn) and "Filbert the Ghost" (young adult novel about - guess what? - a ghost) a few years ago, but haven't worked up the ovaries to complete them.

To be absolutely honest, I don't think blog writing has changed or would change the way I write fiction. The way I write is the way I write. It's all the same, isn't it? Even realism is fiction, because I write about it through the filter of my perspective. I think of my blogs more as "creative nonfiction," which is a genre that seeks to find, create or compose meaning from everyday experiences. I think it's just basic storytelling, which is the same mechanism for fiction and nonfiction. Everything is story! Everything has meaning, if you choose to give it meaning. Everything is truth, everything is fiction.

2. Are you liberated or constrained by this approach?

Every time I write a sentence, I'm liberated.

3. How do you modify your writing when you're writing about someone else's experience, such as their grief?
I suppose I'd do what an actor would do - draw on my own experiences to describe theirs.

4. Have you ever considered getting involved with support groups and using your approach to writing (and the writing itself) in a specifically therapeutic context?

I haven't. But I've been encouraged to join a grief therapy group, to help me cope with the loss of my mom, and journaling is part of that process. Blogging is the same as journaling, except you press "publish" when you're done writing.

But I suppose I have to say that while journaling is considered a universal way for people to process grief, publishing isn't. Maybe that's because not everyone would find it therapeutic to have their innermost thoughts made public or shared. But for me, that's the whole POINT of writing - making the private public. The publication part is almost more therapeutic than the writing part. Almost. It's just - as I touched on before - the idea that if other people could see what I'm thinking and feeling, they would understand me and sympathize with me, even though I'm a selfish git sometimes. Like, you know - "Curb Your Enthusiasm." The protagonist is an ass, but he's a loveable ass. That's me.

5. Having been through this enormous life change, where do you go next as a writer?
Hold on a minute - I haven't "been though" it yet! I'm still going through it. Do I ever get all the way through it? Or will I process it for the rest of my life? 

But my husband has already suggested that maybe my mother's death is an event that will "unblock" me (to use a cliché) and allow me to finally finish some fiction. And when I say I started writing the aforementioned fiction works "a few years ago," I mean, like, 12 years. That's normal, right?

Or maybe I'll start something entirely new. Leaving something unfinished isn't failure, it's just exploration. It's taking a different path than the one you intended. And I think most people take these sorts of roundabout journeys: you start out doing something, 20 years pass, and then you come back to where you started. Maybe you see that where you started is where you wanted to be all along, or maybe you see it's become a crossroads and you can choose a different path. Or you can make yourself a martini and take a nap.

And if you've developed a taste for bullshit-free, in-your-face blogging about family life, grief, creativity and the perils of parenthood, now is a very good time to visit Monika's own blog - Motheroad

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

A creative approach to the business of writing


Everything's set for an appointment with the muse.

A good writer, it is said, is one who has turned art and business into dancing partners. Experience will teach you much, but experience can be as fickle as the muse herself. Whereas, if you have the right foundations and the right approach, the sky's the limit! 



The best university courses to help you become a writer

Choosing the right university course can be difficult. For those with a passion for writing, here are some of the best courses designed with you in mind. They will challenge and develop your writing skills and could help you to follow in some famous footsteps to a successful career in writing.


English as a language

English language courses look at the linguistics behind our written and spoken words. Students study the origins of language and language patterns in order to learn about their current use and then apply this knowledge to contemporary language skills. English language courses are a popular choice to study in combination with another course, such as creative writing and media-related modules. Having a solid working knowledge of linguistics and communication can really benefit those students looking to become writers, as they will learn how to shape language to their own creative ends and also how to best make use of words and phrases in a range of genres.


Writing Courses

A course in creative writing is a practical course, which specifically aims to develop a student's writing skills. Individuals are encouraged throughout to become writers with a unique style and purpose. Students are provided with expert tuition, both in group settings and on a one-to-one basis, and receive professional guidance and assistance throughout the course. The objective of the course is to encourage the creation of individual writing styles derived from an appreciation of the wide scope of current literature and cultural reflections.

The course takes students on a journey where they practise writing through a series of specially constructed assignments designed to test creative ability across all genres. Students are encouraged to discuss and critically examine their own work and that of others at every opportunity.

Students can expect to learn about techniques used when writing for children, explore a journalistic approach to writing and also look at the writing style used in the realms of TV, film and theatre. In the final year, students also learn about publishing and producing to gain a broad understanding of the whole writing process from first draft to completed work.


Journalism

Journalism is a very popular university course, which many past and present journalists will have studied at university. The journalistic style of writing is highly specialised and differs greatly to other styles, so anyone looking for a writing career in the media is encouraged to study journalism. The course teaches students about the role of the media in society, along with how to develop the practical writing skills necessary for this profession. The scope of media has developed greatly over recent years and now incorporates a multi-disciplinary approach to reporting. Students are encouraged to embrace today's multimedia age and a course in journalism will provide the skills necessary for writing across a broad range of formats, including online platforms.

The all-important beginning.


Thursday, 15 November 2012

Wow! Really‽ Thanks!

That ought to cover it.
Next week is Thanksgiving in the US and also, coincidentally, the launch day for Covenant in paperback form. As it happens, I used to commemorate Thanksgiving even after coming back to Blighty (I'm not sure how much you can celebrate an overseas festival on your own), although my form was probably a little different. No, I didn't dwell on the plight of the First Nations over on US soil; and no, I haven't forgotten it either. 

But what I liked to do was have a day where I switch off the inner critic, take stock and reflect upon what I ought to be grateful for. Like the scene in Scars and Stripes where protagonist Alex is living in an 8 x 8 room in Stapleton, walled behind his own resistance to life. And even though he feels he has nothing, life begs to differ when Thanksgiving comes around.

As a writer, how you feel can often depend upon where you put your focus.

Recently, I had a couple of agent rejections. It would be easy to take a one-way bus ride to mopeville, but for the following Thanksgivings:
1. I'd only found out about the open door a few days before, so it wasn't as if I had to wait long for a decision.
2. A writer friend of mine - you know who you are! - has been offered representation by an agent, so I know it is still possible! (And, if all goes to plan, expect an interview about it here before Christmas.)
3. It's been a great few months:
a) My short story Perfect Circle became a prizewinner.
b) Superhero Club was published by Musa.
c) Covenant came out as an ebook in the UK and beyond.
d) Covenant has now been created as a paperback and will be available shortly.
e) I learned about the interrobang - see blog post title above.
f) Interviews aplenty - here, here, here and here.

Now, I know what you're thinking. "Hey, that was all a cunning ruse to remind us of what he's had published." Yep, and they're just a few of the things that I'm thankful for.

I'm not quite done with that theme yet. Nothing happens in isolation. (Okay, parthenogenesis in lizards, or some sharks in captivity - I'll give you that.) So my thanks go to everyone who contributes to my writing, in ways seen and unseen, writers and readers, particularly Villayat and Rebsie of late.

Thank ye kindly.

Monday, 12 November 2012

Mondays with Monika - 4


It's that time of the week again, as freelance writer and committed blogger Monika spills the beans. Previous posts are located herePart 1 Monday 22nd OctPart 2 Monday 29th Oct and Part 3 Monday 5th November.

1. Does writing about topics that are so personal change the way you feel about them? Not necessarily making you feel better, but distancing you from it a little once it's on the page.

Yes, that thing you said - it puts distance between me and the thing. I feel relieved of a burden. It's like Dumbledore's pensieve - the page is a silver holder for my memories, so that I don't have to carry them around with me. If I want, I can go back and read or re-live that memory - or if I want I never have to feel it or think about it again. And if I do think about it, I can do so with more clarity for having written about it.

2. Do you look upon the finished, posted work as a piece of work in the same category as your other writing? And would you ever consider using it commercially (whether paid or unpaid)?
What other writing? Let's see: random texts, e-mails, edited blurbs for the Daily Insider, and the very very very very occasional magazine article. Is it different? I suppose. It's more "me." It's probably more likely to entertain, amuse, intrigu,e or offend the reader than other stuff I write. It's certainly more honest. Whereas I'd never reveal my true thoughts in a magazine article, I tell it like it is in a blog post, because the blog posts are written for me and an invisible audience. The Daily Insider blurbs are written for business owners, directors of nonprofit organizations, educators, philanthropists, and concerned citizens. They are a visible audience, because I see them around town and talk to them, and my job is to relay the news and not tell them about motherhood and grief and marriage and my garden and what I cooked for dinner and how come I don't like to fold sheets (because I'm short and the sheets are bigger than me and I just can't get them to fold neatly).

Of course I'd consider it using commercially. And of course I'd rather get paid. But I think I'd be just as excited, paid or unpaid. OK, maybe more excited with the paid option.

3. What's the best - or worst - feedback you've ever received about a piece of intensely personal writing? (I still have the letter written to me after my piece about my brother was printed in a national newspaper.)

Well, jeez, that's kind of tough question. I have some RF (Regular Feedbackers), but I have lately been getting a lot of random comments from readers who've stumbled onto the blog and are identifying with the grieving thing. I got a wonderful comment from a reader who basically said, "Yeah, grief sucks. I just lost my mom and my dad and every time I think I'm getting myself together I'm hit by a 'sneaker wave' of grief that knocks me sideways again." And I thought, "Wow, she read the whole post and it affected her enough to LEAVE A COMMENT." Even though I know people read the blog, it's always surprising when I get actual evidence of that fact.

The worst comment I got was when I was writing about my weight and I got some snarky comment from a person I imagine as sort of a self-righteous personal trainer type (or replace "self-righteous" with "asshole," if you prefer) who said that maybe I should go easy on the ice cream or something like that. I mean, well, DUH. I wasn't writing the post to get ADVICE. I already know what to do. I was writing the post because I was trying to work out why something that seems so simple (eat less, exercise more) is, in practice, one of the most difficult things to do, EVER, for 8 million quirky reasons that have nothing to do with logic or common sense. Which is why human being are interesting, no? We do SO MANY things that don't make sense, and don't benefit ourselves in any conceivable way. So shut the hell up, Asshole Personal Trainer Dude. 

4. Do you think that writing about personal matters requires a certain kind of...ruthlessness? Or does that only apply if the person you're writing about is still living?
I grew up feeling that my parents were always looking over my shoulder, because they were. I will never escape that feeling. I'm still worried about what my mom thinks, dead or not. I still don't want to hurt her.  My dad - well, he could probably take it. (But it's not like I've TOLD him about my blog, is it? Wimp.)

But if I knew a friend were to read my blog and I had something bad to say about him or her, I'd be scared of losing the friendship over it. I might choose not to write about it. In fact, I think I did lose a friendship with - well, it's complicated - a sort of ex-boyfriend-but-not-really from college that I got back in touch with over Facebook and I invited him to read my blog only I forgot that I mentioned him in my blog post that day and wrote something about a college romantic interest who was a commitment-phobic, whirling vortex of neediness with a big nose and for some reason I've never heard from him again.


So I guess I was ruthless that one time, but I still feel badly about it.

But seriously, that guy's nose was REALLY BIG.

Monday, 5 November 2012

Mondays with Monika - 3


I'm talking with Monika Spykerman, about the things that matter to her as a writer, mum (or mom, if you prefer), wife and writer (yep, two writers). Here, Monika talks candidly about her own blog - Motheroad - and about the ways in which she uses her writing.

Previous posts are located here: Part 1 Monday 22nd Oct and Part 2 Monday 29th Oct.

And, to answer last week's question - a spring peeper is a type of frog.

Okay, where were we? Do people around you know that you blog so openly, and does that change how you interact with one another? I once had a friend say, "Oh, I hope you're not going to write about me." To which I replied, "Not in any way that you'll recognise - and what makes you think that I haven't already?" Yeah, that's a good way to cut down on your Christmas card list.

Well, I quit sending Christmas cards a couple years ago. Not to save trees or anything, but just because I'm lazy. So that's not a problem and when I get Christmas cards I just throw them away anyhow. Seriously. I'm trying not to end up on "Hoarders." OK. What was the question? Um, some people know, and some people don't. Most people don't. It makes me uncomfortable to be a self-promoter in that way. Some people I've told, and they've been like, "Oh, yeah? OK, well, hmm. Great. OK. Have to check that out." And they never do. Like my lifelong friend who's an actress and I would drive all the way out to wherever to see her in a play, even if it was just a small part. I told her about my blog, and then it came up again about a year later, and she was all, "Oh, ha ha, I never even looked at it." But then, she's an actress and she lives in Hollywood, so what do you expect?

Some close friends I've told. One friend in particular, my bestest besty best best friend, reads every post. A few other good friends read occasionally. And some friends I've never told and I never will because it would make them pee their pants to know that I say FUCK.

My Dad, I don't know if I'll tell him. Other mothers that I know casually through school, I don't tell, not because I'd care if they read my innermost secrets, but it just seems so cheesy and kind of clichéd to say, "Hey, I have a blog!" because, seriously, EVERYONE has a blog. Lots of people blog about their personal stuff and post recipes and clever craft ideas and pictures and have funny stories about how they couldn't get the carseat in properly or how their toddler peed on the cat. And a blog is a wonderful, creative way to communicate with far-flung friends and family and preserve the - oh, I'm just going to say it - the precious memories of motherhood. So when I say I have a blog, that's what people think: random ramblings about an ordinary life in an ordinary way.

Which is - HA! - exactly what my blog is. So why SHOULD anyone read it? Good question. I think it's because the writing is good. I'm not just communicating with friends or recording memories, I'm practicing my craft. (Oh, PUH-LEEEEEZ. That's so pretentious.) OK. I don't know. I'm just writing. And I think I can objectively say (how can I possibly be objective about myself?) that my writing is a little more interesting - OK, "better" - than most other mommy blogs. God, I sound like such a twat.

Are you conscious of the need to balance out drama with humo(u)r, or is it a case of 'you get what you're given and I'll give you what I get'?
Yes. Nobody's going to read it if it's not funny. And it turns out everything's funny.


Is it ever too painful to write about? (And I say that having written / spoken about my brother's illness and death in detail, and recently including reference to our dad's funeral in a novel.)
No. That's like asking, "Is it ever too painful to breathe about?" or "Does grief keep you from urinating?"



* If there's anything you - that's you, dear reader - would like to know about Monika's blog and her writing, drop it in a comment.