“Stay Up With Me” Tom Barbash (Simon and Schuster) – short stories

Stay Up with Me Tom Barbash book coverTwelve individual stories, each featuring different characters and a loose theme of the difficulty of letting go and moving on. In the title story, Henry and Alice have an on-off relationship. Henry knows he is stagnating but can’t bring himself to leave Alice until he realises that he is using his father as an excuse to stay in New York and he is free to make the decision to either move on or stay. In another a husband throws a traditional party, pretending to both himself and his guests that his wife is merely on a business trip, not about to file for divorce. A mother struggles with her now adult son’s choice of girlfriend. A widower throws himself with gusto into the dating scene watched by his son who doesn’t want to emerge from his grief, yet. A journalist writes up a story that reinforces the image of a townsfolk as backwoods dimwits. He’s proud of the story because he finally feels he’s written something worthwhile but goes back to be confronted by the townsfolk who blame him until a passionate speech suggesting this should galvanise them into action, not leave them inertial and accepting of the status quo. In another a teacher writes letters to a pupil’s father showing a complete lack of self-awareness and inability to realise that what he thinks is for the best may not be what the father or pupil think is for the best.

Tom Barbash’s style is spare and lyrical. His choice of words are incisive and designed to keep the story moving and the reader hooked. The situations are recognisable but relayed from a character’s viewpoint which makes them unpredictable. Each character is faced with a dilemma caused by a lapse of judgement, facing a loss, a change of fortune or discovering love. The characters are engaging and stay in the reader’s memory after the story has been read. “Stay Up With Me” is both bittersweet and engaging.

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NaPoWriMo

Whilst this year’s NaPoWriMo is underway and I’m keeping up with the draft poem a day target so far, I thought I’d look back at last year’s poems.

I did manage the 30 poems within the month target. These were 30 draft poems, some in rougher shape than others. I took the more polished drafts and worked on these first, reading them aloud, editing them and rewriting until they were publishable. Then I looked at the remainder.

There are five that I have no intention whatsoever of publishing. These are simply too personal and I don’t think I want to put them in the public domain. I don’t see this as a problem because I don’t intend to publish every single poem I write.

Of the remaining 25 drafts, there are 4 that will probably not go any further than being drafts. These is either because the subject is too similar to poems I’ve already written or that I don’t feel the poems are strong enough to be stand alone poems. In effect, these were practice poems I wrote to try out an idea or to see if an idea would become a poem. This doesn’t make these poems failures. A failed poem is one I never tried to write. Even published poets need to rehearse poetic ideas and give a new idea a try out. Experience tells you whether a practice poem could become good enough to become a published poem or whether it’s better to keep it in a notebook. It still may be the case that I’ll come back to the idea at a later date with a fresh pair of eyes and see a different approach or with a second theme that can be weaved into the original draft to create a stronger poem.

April 2013 left me with 21 draft poems that are capable of being published poems. These are the ones I have been spending more time on, editing and rewriting. This is not a bad return. Of these 3 have been accepted and published, “Flooded by Communication” (The Interpreter’s House), “The small hours have become my friends”, “Creating a Scene” (Message in a Bottle) and a further 2 accepted for future publication, “Hotel Life”, “Letting Us In” (Aquarium by the Ocean). These are not the only poems I’ve had accepted for publication in the last 12 months.

That leaves 16 poems which are of a publishable standard and are some of these are currently with editors. Given the slow process of publishing, I’m not surprised that there have been only 5 acceptances so far. However, by April 2015, I’m confident I’ll be reporting more acceptances from poems written during NaPoWriMo 2013. It’s too early to tell yet whether 2014’s drafts will be going anywhere.

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“Imagined Sons” Carrie Etter (Seren) – poetry review

Carrie Etter Imagined Sons book cover

This is a sequence of prose poems interspersed with a series of catechisms that makes a coherent response to handing over a baby for adoption after becoming pregnant when still a teenager. This is set out in the first “A Birthmother’s Catechism”:

How did you let him go?

With black ink and legalese

How did you let him go?

It’d be another year before I could vote

How did you let him go?

With altruism, tears and self-loathing

How did you let him go?

A nurse brought pills for drying up breast milk

How did you let him go?

Who hangs a birdhouse from a sapling?”

That final image perfectly catches how young and unprepared the teenaged mother was. How can someone who is still not yet recognised as an adult in society (“It’d be another year before I could vote”) competently take on the responsibility for a child. It’s a non-judgemental, mature response. The prose poems see the narrator imagining her son reaching maturity and their paths perhaps crossing. In “Imagined Sons 4: Black and Velvet” the narrator sees a group of teenaged goths, one reminding the poet of her previous self, and then she sees the boyfriend,

“But as I turn, our eyes meet, and his flashing glare says he saw an unintended look of revulsion. And it occurs to me, as I head into the shop, that he is about my height, that he has my large, dark eyes, and that to glance back would evoke a sneer.

I remember The Sisters of Mercy, a band I listened to in those black and velvet days, and start browsing my way towards them from the beginning of the alphabet, thinking to avoid him, thinking to meet.”

It captures the dilemma: how would she recognise the maturing man she last saw as a newborn and would meeting be a positive or negative experience? Wisely, the narrator doesn’t initiate contact. But thoughts of her son intrude on everyday situations. In “Imagined Sons 25: The Train Home”, a fellow passenger wakes her from a doze on a train.

“I rub my eyes and slowly gather my bags. The train pulls into the station, and I rise, wondering how the man knew my stop, knew me. I glance about and see he’s just a few steps away. He’s not much taller than I am, and his eyes are as large and dark as my own.

He smiles, coming closer. ‘This is my stop too.’”

Each imagined meeting contains a note of hope and a sign of mutual recognition: that the maternal bond can survive separation. Her son is imagined in a variety of occupations and situations. He is not loaded with expectation. In a later, “A Birthmother’s Catechism” (the author was born in Normal, Illinois):

Where have you been?

Pressed against the nursery glass

Where have you been?

I slept the sleep of the dead.

Where have you been?

Normal’s midway between St Louis and Chicago

Where have you been?

My four sisters have twelve children among them

Where have you been?

Right here, at the hospital entrance, as though waiting for a swallow”

Using the form of a catechism allows the poet to explore different answers to the same question, which might be relevant at different times. The poet was also adopted and although she avoids putting words into her imagined son’s mouth (other than polite conversational openings), she does acknowledge adoption from the viewpoint of the adopted son as well as the birthmother.

“Imagined Sons” successfully reflects on the experience of the separation of adoption, offering insight and hope despite the very pertinent questions asked. The poems open up interior experiences and hopes.

Imagined Sons available at Inpress Books http://www.inpressbooks.co.uk/imagined-sons/

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Do Clap and Please Buy Books (if you want to)

Recently Anthony Wilson blogged about a poetry reading where the poet told the audience to hold their applause until the end of the reading rather than applauding after a poem and a comment by another poet to the effect that he preferred silence after a poem. The blog happened to coincide with a note in a poetry collection I received for review, “Immediate responses to the text should take precedence and over-analysis set aside.” The note was published inside the collection and wasn’t intended for reviewers but for readers.

Any performer, whether that performance is a reading on stage or sealed in a book and sent out to readers and reviewers, thrives on response. Silence is a response. It can vary from the stunned silence of “that was awesome” to a fidgeted silence of “that was embarrassing to listen to.” Silence has as many shades of interpretation as applause – is that the rapid, enthusiastic applause of an appreciative audience or the slow hand clap of disapproval?

But is it right for a performer to tell an audience how to respond?

There is an etiquette at poetry readings that applause is reserved for the end of a reading. A half-hour reading might include 20 poems and, if the audience applaud after every poem, it creates a dilemma for the poet: do they continue reading all the poems they planned to read and over-run, or should they cut poems and end on time? If a poet allows for applause and there is none, do they wrap the set up early or start reading poems they hadn’t rehearsed? A story or a song is designed to create an immediate response. A poem, however, takes time to absorb so an audience’s reaction isn’t always immediate.

However, poetry does have small audiences and discouraging audiences by giving them the message that there’s an appropriate way to respond, I think is counter-productive. It could deter people from returning to poetry readings.

It also suggests arrogance on the part of the poet, an “I am going to read my poem and I want you to respond in a certain way, even if you don’t want to respond in a certain way.” A poet who is annoyed by applause is a perhaps a poet who does not want an audience. Would these poets say, “don’t bother buying my books?”

The desire to dictate response, suggests a lack of confidence, a hint that the poet isn’t yet ready to let the poem move from a private to a public sphere. That written note suggested the poet didn’t think the poems would stand up to analysis and wanted readers to stick with their immediate reactions, even if the readers wanted to return to the text and explore the reasons for their immediate reaction.

Personally, I could not tell an audience how to respond. I like responses and I don’t care whether they are expressed through applause or silence. I do not think it’s right for the performer to tell the audience how to react.

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Creative Writing and Teaching

Any mixed-ability class of creative writing students can be split into four groups. Group one are those who have writing talent and have confidence in their talent. Group two have talent but lack confidence. Group three have no talent and feel insecure. Group four believe with the right tuition their talent will be uncovered even though they have no aptitude for writing.

Each student in a class will have different aspirations. Regardless of talent, some will just want to write better, some will want to be stretched to reach brilliance and some are attending for social reasons. In a non elective class, some will be there because they don’t have a choice.

Mixed ability, non elective classes are the hardest to teach: there will always be a group of students who don’t want to be there who can disrupt the class for students who do want to be there. At least in mixed ability, elective classes, all the students want to be there, but not all of them will want to learn. As well as those who want to study will be some there because they wanted to do something (it just happened to be creative writing because the art classes were fully subscribed) or wanted to meet people interested in writing; learning anything is a bonus rather than a primary aim.

Measuring achievement isn’t straightforward. Writing and publishing are different disciplines and students who learn to write to a publishable standard, won’t necessarily get published. It’s unhelpful for a creative writing tutor to use publication as a yardstick: they have no control over whether a piece of writing gets published or not, that’s in the hands of publishers.

One student may be happy to write better without getting published. Another might assume that lack of publication means they’ve failed. Both students will have new skills in being able to express ideas, better communication and the ability to understand the technical side of writing even if those skills are only used to write business reports or giving after dinner speeches rather than creating brilliant literary novels or writing award-winning poems.

There is a school of thought that if you tell students they will fail or they can’t write, the stronger students will redouble their efforts and the weaker ones will drop out. It does not work and is the sign of a bad teacher. The aim should be to keep students in groups one and two on the course and let students from groups three and four drop out.

However, telling students they can’t write will see group one, those confident in their ability, redouble their efforts and stick with it. Those in group two who have talent but lack confident will drop out, which is not the intention. Losing students in group three will free up teaching time to stretch those in group one. Students in group four who are delusional about their writing ability and see it as the teacher’s responsibility to nurture and develop the talent they don’t have, will continue anyway.

The teacher will be left with a class of very confident students with some or no talent and will have lost some talented students. A real teacher will work out which students belong to which group and focus their efforts on groups one and two.

There is, and always will be, a debate about whether creative writing can be taught. A student who has writing talent will develop their craft through courses (or reading avidly). A student with no writing talent will learn to construct a story or poem but their writing, whilst technically correct, will lack flair and creativity. A student who has the ability to write, but no desire to understand or learn the craft, will see their writing stagnate and never develop.

Taking a course won’t suit those who don’t respond well in an academic environment. But they are worthwhile if you do respond to learning in an academic environment and are seeking to learn more about the craft of writing. Creative writing courses are not a shortcut to publication. Instead they are the ability to learn more and develop your writing. They are also a starting point. If you do your creative writing degree and then stop learning, your writing will stagnate.

If you don’t think academia is for you, keep reading. There are plenty of ‘how to write’ books out there, but also read work by writers you like and work out how it works. If you come across something you don’t think works, take the time to figure out why it doesn’t work. Use what you learn to inform your own writing and editing. Consider joining a writers’ group too. Whether you turn up in person or post pieces online, getting your work peer-reviewed and receiving and giving constructive feedback will develop your writing skills. It’s not the case that someone who has done a course is a better writing that one who has not done a course. It’s about how you learn best.

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My Writing Process Blog Tour

Thanks to Abegail Morley for tagging me. Abegail has written about her writing process here.

What am I working on?

There’s usually a combination of new work and editing in progress and there are always reviews. At the moment new work is a poetry sequence. I’m also editing poems written last year for ‘Poem a Day’ in September where the idea was to write a draft poem or notes towards a draft poem every day for September. Some of those poems will shaped, edited and eventually published. Some will fall by the wayside. I’m also reviewing four books for The Journal and have one from London Grip.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

It’s difficult to talk about writing without coming across as precious or pretentious. It’s also pointless trying to pretend to be unique in that literature already has an impressive canon so any subject I write about will have been tackled by someone else before. All I can do I try and bring a new perspective or encourage readers to see something from a new angle.

Why do I write what I do?

I find I come across something, it might be a memory, an image, a fragment of a song lyric or a news story, and it won’t let me go. It will haunt me until I write it down. Once it’s written down I want to shape it into the poem it deserves. This merges with the desire to communicate and share the poems I’ve written. I’m not a great talker (this is an understatement) so writing is my natural form of communication.

How does your writing process work?

I do a lot of thinking or reading around an idea before I commit any words to paper. I find this way, when I do start to write, the idea is closer to its final format because I’ve been effectively doing several rough drafts in my mind. I prefer to let a poem find its own form – even free verse has a form whether that’s three line stanzas or syllabics – and then work to that, weeding out the weaker phrases and editing those and then editing the bits I thought were OK. I always read my drafts aloud, whether it’s a poem, short story or chapter, as that’s the only way of getting a feel for rhythm and reading aloud can pick up overly complicated syntax and grammar issues. When I get to the stage when I think I can’t do anymore with a draft, I’ll put it aside. After a gap, where I’ve been working on something else or reviewing, I’ll come back to it and decide whether it’s as finished as it can be for now or whether it wants more work. If I decide the poem’s as finished as it can be, I’ll consider whether it’s worth seeking to get it published.

I don’t have any writing rituals. It makes no difference to me whether I handwrite or type first for early drafts or whether I read from a piece of paper or screen. What does matter is the quality of what I’m reading.

Look out for My Writing Process Blogs from

Sue Guiney, an American writer based in London. Her publications include 2 poetry collections and 3 novels. She is now writing a series of novels set in present day Cambodia where she founded and teaches each year a writing workshop for street children.

Pat Jourdan  After Liverpool College of Art, Pat Jourdan went off to London with a five pound note and continued to paint, write poetry and longer pieces, while working in many pointless jobs to pay the rent and otherwise live. Over the years she has produced several exhibitions, six collections of poetry, two collections of short stories and two novels. A new collection of short stories, The Fog Index is due out this year.

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Get in the Habit of Writing

“Write every day” is one of the worst pieces of advice to give someone who wants to be a writer. It turns writing into a chore and, if a writer finds writing something a chore, readers will find it a chore to read. Writers need time off too. But writers write and if you’re busy talking about writing, taking yet another creative writing course, buying yet another ‘how to write book’ and not actually writing, you’re not a writer. So how can you get into the habit of writing?

Find the best time to write

Do you write best early in the morning or late at night? Find out and organise your days so that you can write at the best time for you to write as far as you can. If you’re a morning writer, do your chores the night before and grab and early night so you can get up in the morning.

Respect your writing time

If you live on your own, this is easy. If you live with others, you will have to train them to respect your writing time and make it clear that you’re not available. It’s easier if you can retreat into a study and close the door, but still possible if you write at the kitchen table. If you allow others to interrupt, you’re effectively giving them permission to treat your writing as an unimportant hobby. If writing is important to you, make it important to your partner and children too.

Even if you’re not writing something new, use the time to prepare submissions to editors or do research or write reviews.

Give yourself time to be alone and daydream

It’s impossible to be creative if you’re surrounded by the bustle and noise of others so make sure you get some time alone. If there isn’t space at home, get in the habit of taking a walk, going for a run or cycle ride. This is neither selfish or a waste of time. Writing isn’t just the process of getting words on paper, it’s also the process of assembling those words, making connections and reaching new insights. You can’t do that if you don’t have space to think.

Develop your powers of observation and curiosity

Watch others, open yourself to new experiences and explore. If your daily routine is getting up, taking the same route to work, meeting the same colleagues, cooking dinner from a limited choice of recipes you’re over-familiar with and then settling down and trying to write, chances are your writing will be just as routine.

Don’t fear Failure

Give that wacky new idea a chance. If it doesn’t work, keep it in your notebook. You don’t have to fail in public, but you need to try new ideas to develop your writing. Not everything you write should be a publishable piece but all those non publishable pieces represent practice and experience. It’s unusual for a poem to be accepted by the first editor it’s sent to, so don’t hold back from submitting work. An idea not working out or a poem being rejected, does not mean you have failed as a writer. It simply means the idea needs more incubation time or a different approach or that your poem didn’t find the right editor so find a magazine that might be a better fit.

Read

Doing creative writing courses or joining a writers’ group may offer the opportunity to learn and develop your writing, but the best way of learning and developing your skills as a writer is to read and read widely. Reading offers a way of finding out what works, figuring out what doesn’t work and keeping up with trends in publishing. It’s also a great source for new ideas for your own writing.

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