Tools of my trade – techniques and technology for non-fiction writing

What image pops into your head when you think of a writer?  For many people, I gather it’s an image of a solitary figure, toiling for long hours in a shed or an attic, maybe even still writing in longhand or using a typewriter, surrounded by books and dust, and forgetting to eat.

Well, in my case, the image would be almost totally wrong.  Only almost, because I do actually work in the attic, or more accurately the top floor of an Edwardian town house (it’s not as grand as it sounds – the first occupants were glove makers, working from home, but more about that another time).  In my previous post, I write about the view from the windows.  But I am not solitary – my partner, who is a postgraduate researcher, and I share a study, with our desks facing each other across the floor of the room.  I do have quite a few books, but very little dust.  And I am keen on cooking and even more keen on eating.

Longstanding readers of this blog will know about my notebook habit, and I do write in longhand in my notebooks.  Often this is where initial ideas – or notes jotted down from reading or visits which may morph into a piece of writing later on – are recorded.  I have a general notebook, one for business-related notes, one each for the writing projects I am currently working on or planning, and one for courses I participate in.  Since I discovered the Pentel 1.3mm propelling pencil, most of my notes are written with that as I find it gentler on the hands than a pen.

If I am making notes from books – generally when I am researching historical topics, and referencing academic books – or from online sources, I use a narrow-ruled A4 student pad.  This makes it easier for me to file my notes in a ring binder if I need them for future reference.

For the actual writing, I use my ancient laptop (I really must upgrade it sometime, as it’s getting slower and slower) which I back up regularly.  Mindful of the importance of an ergonomic workstation, I use a separate keyboard and mouse, and my chair and desk are at the right height for me.   I loathe conventional office chairs, so my chair is an early 20th-century ‘smoker’s bow’ which originated in Pembroke College, Oxford, until it was sold off when one of their buildings was re-built.  It has a pleasing patina of age and use, and is built for comfort.  And to celebrate my move to Somerset, I recently treated myself to a new desk, made from reclaimed timber by Pegasus Furniture.

Picture of a desk with laptop, keyboard, diary, pens and books.

Planning a new piece of work – and the steps involved in making it happen – is done in two stages.  The first involves a large sheet of paper, a lot of lovely coloured pens, and often my partner to act as scribe and to challenge my thinking and provide research tips.  The ensuing mind map is then transferred to Trello (my planning tool of choice) as a series of colour-coded lists.  The book I am currently writing has an introduction and 12 chapters.  Each has a Trello list, with the structure, visits, research, reading, interviews, photography etc required for each chapter listed, with notes to myself where appropriate.  I find that working with Trello helps me to keep on top of the various strands of research, and allows me to have an easy overview of what needs to be done – geographically, for example, while I am visiting Hadrian’s Wall to do research for one chapter, it makes sense on the same trip to schedule a visit to Lindisfarne for another chapter; and I see that three chapters will require expertise from the British Museum – maybe I can cover all three on one visit to London?

For each chapter, I first sketch out where I see the chapter going – what I want to include, what angle I am taking, why this chapter is in the book, who are the key people to interview and why, and insights from previous visits where relevant.  Then I do the research, do the site visits and interviews, take photographs were possible, and take lots of notes and voice recordings of my impressions.  Later, these are all collated and, once I have created a detailed structural plan of the chapter, written up into the first draft.  It’s a slow process but it allows for rigorous background research and fact checking, as well as giving me time for ideas to develop as I reflect on, and respond to, what I have experienced.

It may come as a surprise to some people that the actual writing is a relatively small part of the process.  Bear in mind that I write non-fiction, so although what I write is filtered through the lens of my own personal perspective, experience and personality, it is based on something external.  Most of what I write about involves history or place, or both, and therefore writing about it requires close reference to the place, object, event or person that is my subject, and to what is known about it.  For example, my personal reflections on the music of Benjamin Britten in a recent piece for Issue 5 of The Pilgrim are informed and enriched by studying his life and work, as well as by experiencing for myself the sights and sounds of the beach at Aldeburgh which is the setting for his opera Peter Grimes.

No two writers – not even two non-fiction writers – will approach their work in the same way, or use the same tools and technology in their writing, but this is how I work.  The process evolves, too – prior to my discovery of Trello, I used whiteboards and a lot of coloured maker pens and sticky notes.  Trello is essentially a digital version of this, which has the advantage of leaving my walls free for inspiring art!

I am committed to making this blog freely available, and not putting material behind a paywall. As a writer, I am doing what I love – but I still have to make a living. If you have enjoyed this post, and if you are able to do so, perhaps you would consider supporting my work by making a small contribution via the Buy Me A Coffee button. Thank you!

Buy Me a Coffee at ko-fi.com

The view from here – first impressions after relocation

Readers of my last post will be aware that I have just moved house, and will hopefully forgive the lack of posts over the last couple of weeks.  To begin with, of course, we weren’t able to engage with the town and surrounding area as much as we would have liked because of the tedious but necessary business of unpacking, spring cleaning the house for a nice fresh start, and generally getting very tired and achy!  However, the particular bonus of this house is the view from the study, which is on the top floor.  It has windows front and back, giving panoramic views of the town of Glastonbury and the surrounding countryside.

One way, the view includes the iconic Glastonbury Tor, with its medieval tower of St Michael (all that remains of the church which used to crown the hill).  A site of pilgrimage since at least medieval times, the Tor continues to draw modern day pilgrims and visitors, who climb it for a variety of reasons – spiritual, sightseeing or artistic.  Since we have been here, I have never seen the Tor without people on it.  Even at night, the lights of people’s torches (and, at Lammas, a fire spinning display) are visible, and when the Sturgeon Moon rose last week there were dozens of people on the Tor to witness the moonrise.

Photograph of Glastonbury Tor, with a road in the foreground and trees framing the view.

Country road leading to Glastonbury Tor – image copyright Robert Bruce 2020

Below and to the right of the Tor, the view takes in the rooftops of the town – mostly red pantiles – and the gardens of the townhouses, built on land which, a century or two ago, used to be orchards.  The tower of St John’s church rises above the rooflines, and at the moment a pair of peregrine falcons is raising a brood of chicks on the tower – the young’s raucous cries echo across the town when the parents arrive with food.  They are so loud, even at this distance, that for a couple of days I thought one of the neighbours had a particularly noisy parrot!  It’s such a privilege to see these amazing birds soaring above the town.

Further to the right again is Wearyall Hill, where Joseph of Arimathea is reputed to have planted his staff in the ground, which grew into the Holy Thorn, a thorn tree which bloomed twice a year – at Christmas and Easter – and whose successors still grow at various locations around Glastonbury.  Sadly the successor which grew on Wearyall Hill has now been removed due to persistent vandalism.

Beyond Wearyall Hill are the Polden Hills, where the modern A39 main road follows the ancient ridgeway to Avalon.  During the catastrophic floods in the winter of 2013/14, my usual commute across the Levels was under several feet of muddy water, so I drove along the A39 instead, looking out across floodwater as far as the eye could see, with only the odd tree or rooftop sticking up above the water.  It gave an insight into how these marshy lowlands might have looked before sea levels fell, and the land was ‘improved’ for farming.

From the other window, the sweep of the Mendip Hills runs east to west in the distance.  From this window, we can see dramatic sunsets – the skies in this part of Somerset are particularly striking, which I have always attributed to the conjunction of the open flatlands of the Levels and the way the light reflects off the Bristol Channel.

Sunset over rooftops

In between the unpacking and cleaning, though, we have managed to wander into town from time to time.  Glastonbury’s High Street is not typical of a small town in a rural county – for ‘normal’ shopping, you need to go a couple of miles down the road to Street, which as well as a ‘normal’ high street has the country’s first shopping village, built on the former Clarks shoe factory site.  Glastonbury’s retail offering is something else entirely – crystals, books on esoteric subjects, tie-dyed clothing, Buddha statues, candles in all the colours of the chakra rainbow, Goddess figurines, Green Man car stickers, herbs and incense.  Buskers can include dreadlocked drummers, haunting folk singers, or jazz saxophonists.  At the Tuesday market, you’ll find the fast food outlets selling not hot dogs but vegan falafels.  It’s lively, chaotic, a bit ‘lived in’, and there’s something unexpected around every corner.  I’ve been walking – and photographing – the Glastonbury Mural Trail, which I will be writing about in a future post, and it has taken me to parts of the town centre I never knew.  And of course when the current heatwave abates a little, we will climb the Tor again (and take binoculars to try to locate our window!).

Photo of colourful mural in Glastonbury

I mentioned Joseph of Arimathea and Avalon in passing above  – Glastonbury is full of history, legend and myth, and a huge amount has been written about the various themes associated with it (Avalon, King Arthur, Joseph of Arimathea, Gwyn ap Nudd, the Holy Grail, the Glastonbury Zodiac, the Goddess, Nolava, the Chalice Well, Bridget, and Glastonbury Abbey as a site of Christian pilgrimage, to name just a few).  This isn’t the place to add to that, although I’m sure I will be touching on aspects of it in this blog from time to time – it’s impossible to live in Glastonbury and not engage with the various strands of spirituality and legend which are the town’s raison d’être and, frankly, why would you not want to?!  Glastonbury is unique, crazy, enchanting, infuriating, but never boring.  If you would like to know more about Glastonbury* and its vibe, I recommend Vicki Steward’s excellent blog, Normal for Glastonbury.  She has recently produced a book, also called Normal for Glastonbury (available as an e-book and in print), which pulls together a selection of her blog posts – her portrayal of Glastonbury life is humorous and well-observed, and makes a very good read.  Again, highly recommended.  And no, I’m not on commission!

* When I talk about Glastonbury, I mean the town in Somerset – not the world-famous festival, which in fact takes place in a field a few miles away.  If you watch footage of the festival, you can see the Tor in the distance, behind the Pyramid Stage.

A writer’s desk – my working environment, coffee shops and the view from the window

It has been a bit difficult to concentrate on writing blog posts recently, for reasons which I will tell you about very soon, but it’s given me the chance to think about how and where I work best.  For one thing, I have been choosing a new desk, which proved to be a surprisingly fraught process.

My current workstation is a little computer desk on the large and sunny landing with a view over the fields.  The landing also has my reading chair, a compact 1920s armchair which nobody but me finds comfortable.  I love working here – but the desk itself is just too small to spread out my books and papers – things keep falling off the edge!

Over the years, in various work contexts, I have occupied a large open-plan office (my idea of hell), my own room (nice, but a bit isolating – I tend to get engrossed and forget about meal times), shared offices (the success of this depends on whom you are sharing the office with!), and dual-purpose space (desk in guestroom or dining room).  The common factor is having my own desk.  Having recently read about various free-ranging creatives who work anywhere, as long as they have their laptop with them, I toyed with the idea of giving up on a desk altogether and being a roaming writer.  I can see a few issues with this.  Firstly, the cost.  Most of these free-ranging creatives seem to work in coffee shops.  As it’s not reasonable to expect a retailer to provide a table for hours at a time without income from the sale of coffee, this would seem to be expensive compared to using one’s own home which one is paying for already.  Secondly, the effect on my waistline – the purchase of coffee is inevitably accompanied, at least some of the time, by the purchase of cake.  Thirdly, the effect on productivity – with the best will in the world, if I have editing to do, or a complex piece to research which involves not only internet searches but reading books, this requires a level of uninterrupted concentration which is not really possible when out and about.  (Fourthly, we have the current restrictions on visiting coffee shops etc because of the pandemic, but hopefully this is a time-limited problem).

Last but not least, I like my favourite resources within easy reach of my workstation. A diary (page to a day, so that I can write my to-do lists alongside appointments and deadlines), notebooks (one for each current project – see my recent blog post about my notebook obsession), pens and pencils, a mousepad and mouse (I have never been able to get on with the integrated ones on laptops), a coaster for drinks.  I also have at least one ‘to read’ stack, of books and papers relating to whatever I am currently working on.  It could be argued that I should tidy these away on a bookshelf and bring them out when required – except I know from experience that this would ensure I never get round to reading them!  Sometimes there’s a vase of flowers, or crystals (currently a big piece of fluorite), or an interesting pebble I’ve found on the beach.

In short, my working environment isn’t particularly portable.  I’m happy to spend the occasional few hours elsewhere with my laptop, but I am most settled, and concentrate best, at my desk.  As I’m now writing full-time, therefore, it seems not unreasonable to treat myself to a good desk that does what I need it to do and is aesthetically pleasing – I have to look at it all day, after all.  Simple, you might say, just go and buy one.  Yes – but which one?

I’ve had to work out how big I need a desk to be, in order to accommodate my laptop, all the stuff mentioned above, and have space to spread out books and papers when I’m researching.  I have learned the hard way that I need to get the height right, too, in order not to damage myself in the long term.  Also, what kind of desk do I want to look at every day?  I browsed a lot of office furniture catalogues and felt uninspired – I really don’t like the corporate, nine-to-five look of most of them.  My desk may be my work space, but it’s still in my home, and it would be nice if it was pleasant to look at.  What kind of ‘look’ does the rest of my furniture have?  A lot of it is quite industrial (for example, the coffee table is made out of reclaimed timbers from Indonesian fishing boats).  Something artisan-made from reclaimed wood, then?  Eventually, I found just the thing on Etsy – made to order, to my size specifications, using scaffolding planks and industrial steel.  It is being made as I write this.

I mentioned earlier that the landing where my computer desk is situated has a view over the fields.  I have discovered that having a workplace with a view is something of a mixed blessing.  Some years ago I moved into a house and chose the larger bedroom as my office because it had stunning views across the rooftops to the hills beyond, complete with sheep (whose bleating was just audible with the window open).  It seemed a waste of the view to use that room as a bedroom.  I positioned my desk in front of the window, to get the full benefit of the view.

View from window, showing rooftops and distant grassy hills.

Reader, a week later I moved the desk.  I was getting precisely no work done.  I spent hours gazing out of the window, watching the sheep move around their fields, watching the birds in the gardens, watching the light and colours change on the hillside as the sun moved around during the day and the shifting clouds cast their shadows, watching the rain sweep through the valley, watching the flock of racing pigeons which went for a fly about at 3 o’clock every afternoon, watching the bats at dusk.  In order to get anything done at all, I had to move the desk to the side, and only allow myself gazing time when on a coffee break or having an eye rest.

Here, instead of sheep, there are a pair of muntjac deer, who graze the field and occasionally venture into the neighbour’s garden to drink from the pond; a barn owl who quarters the field on silent wings, hunting, at dusk and dawn; a kestrel who hovers, defying gravity, high above the field, occasionally dropping like a stone into the grass and emerging with whatever hapless rodent is his dinner for today; tinkling flocks of goldfinches; a pheasant, whose call reminds me of vintage car claxon, and his girlfriends; a pair of red-legged partridges, with their Egyptian eyeliner, who also visit next door’s garden; and an enormous hen buzzard who circles on thermals over the field before sliding off downwind beyond the oak trees.  It’s very distracting – but it’s a nice problem to have.

A very British memorial – public art in a nation of animal-lovers

I have recently written an article about Aldeburgh, in Suffolk, which will be published in the next issue of The Pilgrim.  In it, I write about The Scallop, the controversial but, in my opinion, wonderful sculpture by Maggi Hambling on Aldeburgh beach which is a memorial to the composer Benjamin Britten.

Colour photograph of The Scallop sculpture by Maggi Hambling on Aldeburgh beach

There is, however, another memorial on the seafront at Aldeburgh, much loved by the town.  Between the Tudor Moot Hall and the shacks selling fresh seafood, overlooking the boating lake, stands the statue of Snooks.  Measuring approximately two feet tall, the bronze figure sits on a stone plinth, head on one side, as if watching the model yachts on the boating lake.

‘Mrs Snooks Chip Winkler,’ as the inscription on her collar says, was the canine companion of two local doctors and used to accompany them on their rounds.  She got her name from the tinned fish, ‘snook’, which was imported from African waters during the Second World War.  Although her statue is popular with the people of Aldeburgh, its seems that in her lifetime they were perhaps not always so animal-loving – there is a story that, when wandering the seafront, she would have a notice on her collar which read “Please do not throw stones at this dog.”

Dr Robin Acheson and Dr Nora Acheson were doctors in the town from 1931.  Following Dr Robin’s death in 1959, a memorial was commissioned and the original Snooks statue was created by sculptor Gwynneth Holt.  It was unveiled in 1961 by the couple’s grandchildren.   Dr Nora continued to practice medicine, including teaching first aid to the crew of the Aldeburgh Lifeboat, until her death in 1981, when her name was added to the inscription.

Snooks

This memorial
was erected
by the people
of this borough
to Dr ‘Robin’
P.M. Acheson
who cared for
them from
1931 to 1959
and to Dr Nora
his wife
who died 1981
whilst still caring.

Snooks oversaw the fun at the boating lake until February 2003, when the statue was stolen.  The consternation in Aldeburgh was such that fundraising was started and a replica was cast, which was installed later that year.  However, that was not the end of the story, because in 2012 the original Snooks was discovered at an antiques fair by dealer John O’Connor, and was returned to the town.  This original Snooks now overlooks the pond in the garden of Aldeburgh Community Hospital, which the Achesons helped found, and ‘Snooks 2’ remains on her plinth.

At Christmas 2017 an anonymous well-wisher ‘yarnbombed’ the statue – apparently fearing that Snooks might be feeling the cold, exposed to the winter gales on the seafront, the knitter kitted her out with a jacket, a scarf, and a Tam o’ Shanter  hat.

Variety is the spice of life, or why I can’t read one book at a time

 

For years, I thought it was just me.  Everyone else I knew seemed to read a book from start to finish, and then move on to the next one.  If asked them ‘what are you reading?’ the answer would be quite simple – one title.  Students, of course, would be reading a lot of books for essays, but their leisure reading seemed always to be done one book at a time.

I have never managed this!  I have always read a lot, although the nature of what I read depends on how I am feeling and what I am doing by way of work.  The more tired and stressed I am, the less likely I am to read anything very demanding, and you know things are bad when I can only manage magazines.  Usually, though, I read books.  Plural.  It’s not that I have a grasshopper brain – I can become engrossed in things for hours, missing meals, completely losing track of time.  But when it comes to reading, I find it very hard to have only one book on the go.

‘But don’t you lose track?’ I have been asked.  I can honestly say I don’t.  Within a paragraph I’m right back in the heart of whatever I was reading.  It’s only a problem if for some reason it’s weeks or months before I return to a book, but that rarely happens.  I usually have at least two, sometimes as many as four or five ‘leisure’ books on the go at once – plus ones that I am reading for research purposes in ‘work time’.  I like to have a range of different genres, or subject matter, so that when I sit down to read I can match the book to my mood or how much concentration I can muster.   It’s such a treat to be able to make a cuppa and retreat to my reading chair on the sunny landing, or curl up on the sofa, or settle into bed, ask myself ‘which book shall I read now?’ and know I have an inviting selection to choose from.

Recently, I have found I don’t want to read fiction at all.  Even my beloved whodunits are failing to entice me – I now have three new ones by favourite authors waiting to be read, and I can’t quite bring myself to open them.  I don’t know why – I can only suppose that our current circumstances are so surreal that my brain recoils from engaging with further imaginary universes just now.

At the moment, I am reading the following books for ‘leisure’:

On the Red Hill, by Mike Parker.  An intriguing blend of place writing, memoir and queer history, this is set in the hills of mid Wales, in a landscape that’s very familiar to me.  Lyrical nonfiction with a large element of social history, I’m finding it totally beguiling (and Mike Parker has written a history of the Ordnance Survey, which I must read next – regular readers may remember my map obsession!).

Walled Gardens, by Jules Hudson.  I have coveted this beautifully illustrated and pleasingly square book for ages, and when I was having a melancholy phase recently my partner thought she would cheer me up by contacting the author and requesting a signed copy.  I was very moved – both by her loving gesture, and also by Jules Hudson taking the time and trouble to pen such thoughtful words from one writer to another.  The book is not only a guide to walled gardens in the care of the National Trust, but also an overview of garden history and a considered exploration of the social history which provides a wider context.

Ghostland: in Search of a Haunted Country, by Edward Parnell.  Nonfiction again, this is a quirky but effective weaving together of ghost story, place writing, gothic and memoir which defies categorisation.  I met Edward last year at an event at the National Centre for Writing, and on the strength of that and Ghostland I am about to start a 12-week creative nonfiction course for which he is the tutor.

Writing this post has made me think that it might perhaps be worth, every couple of months, writing about what I am currently reading, with a short review of each book.  Occasionally the books I read are a chance discovery, but the majority have been recommended by someone else, and it’s good to be able to pass it on!

 

I am committed to making this blog freely available, and not putting material behind a paywall.  As a writer, I am doing what I love – but I still have to make a living.  If you have enjoyed this post, and if you are able to do so, perhaps you would consider supporting my work by making a small contribution via the Buy Me A Coffee button.  Thank you!

Buy Me a Coffee at ko-fi.com

Noticing things differently – why creative nonfiction is like poetry

Apart from the occasional poem, most of what I write is nonfiction.  Creative nonfiction is a genre which is increasingly discussed – hard to define, but including narrative accounts, personal responses, place writing, reflection and imaginative explorations.  This is what I have written since long before I knew it had a name!

I have long thought that the two forms of writing I engage in – creative nonfiction and poetry – are two sides of the same coin.  That statement may make a bit more sense if I take you back to Wales in 1986, when I first started writing in an intentional way.

In a recent blog post I wrote about being fortunate to be part of a pilot for an A level creative writing course.  The exam board commissioned leading Welsh writers to run creative writing residentials for the students in the pilot because, as most teachers were used to delivering a traditional, Shakespeare-and-the-classics English Literature syllabus, teaching creative writing was something quite new to them.  Six of us from my school travelled with the Head of English, Liz Pugh, to Plas Tan y Bwlch (now the Snowdonia National Park Study Centre) for two days with, amongst others, Gillian Clarke.

A word here about Gillian Clarke.  Now aged 82 and something of a ‘national treasure’ in Welsh cultural life, she had at that point recently published her fourth collection, Selected Poems (although I didn’t read her work until later).  With decades of experience of teaching English and creative writing in schools and colleges, she was the perfect choice to encourage young people to explore the process of writing poetry.  From 2008-2016 she was the National Poet of Wales (the Welsh version of a Poet Laureate), and as well as her award-winning poetry she has created a fine legacy in the form of Ty Newydd, the national writing centre for Wales, which she co-founded in 1990.

Back in 1986, it’s a glorious spring day, with sunshine flooding into the big lecture room at Plas Tan y Bwlch. Huge windows offer panoramic views of the valley and the wooded hills beyond, but we aren’t paying much attention, because Gillian Clarke is speaking.  She has seated us – some 30-odd students aged 16-18 – in a large circle.  She has a basket beside her, and from this she takes a small object, about the size of an egg.  I’m going to pass this round the circle, she says.  Take as long as you like when it comes to you.  What I want you to do is notice.  What do you notice about this object?

The object passes slowly from hand to hand, as each student holds it, turns it over, gazes at it, frowns or nods in recognition, maybe runs a finger over a detail, passes it to their neighbour.  I watch them as the object makes its way to me, about two thirds of the way round the circle.  Then, it is in my hands – feather light, delicate yet curiously strong, like an eggshell.  The size of a small egg, and almost the same shape, with a hooked point at one end.  Smooth, with hollows divided by sharp, paper-thin membranes.  Notice, Gillian had said.  How should I notice?  I have looked at it.  I have turned it over and over and looked at it from all sides.  I have used touch to explore its textures and weight.  I’m not going to taste it!  But there are other senses I could use – maybe, if I hold it to my ear it will sing of the sea, like a shell?  No.  But how about smell?  Tentatively, I lift it to my nose – earthy, organic, and yet almost like stone.  I hear a soft hiss from Gillian – yesss.  I look at it one last time, and pass it to my neighbour.

Afterwards, Gillian tells us about the object – it’s a buzzard’s skull that she found on a walk, and she has written a poem about it.  But, she says, that’s not why she brought it today.  It’s just a way, she says, of getting us to notice things differently.  She mentions that one person went beyond looking and touching by listening and smelling (I squirm with embarrassment at this).  She’s delighted – this is what she was hoping we would do.  Now, she says, go away and write a poem.

As we move away, she calls me back, and we talk about the senses, and how important she thinks it is that a writer should notice differently – from a different angle, using different senses, and without what we think we know about the object getting in the way of our noticing.  She is enthusiastic, encouraging.  I take my notebook to a corner of the terrace and start to write – this is the poem.

The Buzzard’s Skull

This ritual is new, and yet
along the distance of my mind
I know that I remember.
The circle is held, spellbound;
the sacrament is passed from hand to hand:
a ceremony of initiation?

Blindfold and afraid, I hear
the holy word approach,
rhythmic, sinister,
along the chain.
The object is in my hands,
stirring a memory that
my fingers cannot grasp –
a forest or a beach?
My life,
or life that lingers in my mind,
beyond (my) memory?
My fingers’ eyes have been in the dark
so long,
they are blinded by this light,
and cannot see.

Although I never saw Gillian again after that residential, I followed her career and occasionally heard her on the radio.  I know that many writers were encouraged into writing by her, and I am always grateful to her for that hissed yesss that made me realise that I was on the right lines in how I observed the world around me, rather than just being weird.  She made me realise that I was starting to think like a writer.

And like a writer, rather than solely a poet – because the nonfiction I write is also about noticing things differently.   Poetry is about precisely that – a good poem leaves the reader thinking “wow, I never looked at it like that before” and can weave magic around the most familiar and mundane subject.  Creative nonfiction, I would suggest, has a similar role – to explore the homely as well as the exotic, looking with fresh eyes and an unexpected perspective, touching and listening and smelling and tasting, and telling the stories of people, places and objects with new voices.

Cover of Selected Poems Gillian Clarke

 

Books – why I love them, why I buy them, why e-readers are OK, and why libraries are amazing

I’m sure it won’t come as a surprise to readers of this blog to find that I love books.  I’m a writer, after all, and I’ve never yet met a writer, in any genre, who didn’t love books.  Not only that, but I spent quite a few years working in academic and public libraries, which was rather like working in a sweetie shop (but less fattening).  I’ve got it bad.

As a child, I didn’t have many books.  We lived in various parts of Europe, and in those pre-internet days (1970s and early 1980s) getting English- or Dutch-language books abroad was pretty much impossible (see my post about being brought up bilingual).  My father would make an annual trip to London to shop at Foyles bookshop, and bring back as many books as he could carry (which wasn’t a lot to last a voracious young reader a whole year).  When we stayed with my Dutch grandparents, I would read their extensive collection of English-language whodunits (my grandmother was severely addicted – her favourites were Dorothy L Sayers, Erle Stanley Gardner and Agatha Christie, in that order) which sowed the seed of a life-long love of classic crime fiction.  I read Lewis Carrol’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass a dozen times.  When all else failed, I read the Pocket Oxford Dictionary like a novel – there are worse ways to train as a writer.

I may not have had many books, but I knew what I did and didn’t like.  I liked Enid Blyton’s mysteries and adventure stories, but not her more surreal, fantasy output.  I adored Cicely M Barker’s Flower Fairies books, not least because of what they taught me about plants – I can still recall snatches of them when I see wildflowers growing in the hedgerows.  I didn’t care for classic children’s stories like Mary Poppins or Peter Pan, but then, given that I was by that stage already a fan of Lord Peter Wimsey, that’s perhaps not surprising.  I was at best ambivalent about classic novels – to be truthful I still am.  Apart from Persuasion, I am unmoved by Jane Austen.  I appreciate her talent, I just don’t much care for the books.  I found Dickens interesting, but heavy going.  Amongst the Brontë sisters’ output, I liked Wuthering Heights, and once I’d discovered Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea I could see the point of Jane Eyre.  Sherlock Holmes came into my life at the age of 16, and I still re-read those stories when I need something comforting.

In fact, I discovered lots of books at the age of 16, because that’s when we settled in the UK and I started to use libraries.  My school library had virtually no fiction on its shelves, but the local public library was huge, and I systematically stripped the shelves.  I was doing A level English too, so there was Chaucer (yay!), Shakespeare (OK, especially Hamlet and Twelfth Night), D H Lawrence (hmmm), Austen (see above), R S Thomas (dark and melancholy but wonderful), and my beloved Dylan Thomas (with whose work I had fallen in love when I first heard Richard Burton intone the opening lines of Under Milk Wood).  John Donne (sorry, I’m sure it’s great writing but I haven’t got time for this), Wordsworth (lovely but a tad self-indulgent), Tennyson (the less said about that the better), and Keats (lyrical but lengthy), also figured in the syllabus.  I did three A levels, but the only one I can remember in detail is English – I can still quote the odd line here and there.  For light relief I read James Herriot, Gerald Durrell and Robert Louis Stevenson (Kidnapped was possibly my favourite book through my teenage years), and every Agatha Christie and Dorothy L Sayers I could find.

It’s probably no coincidence that I went on to spend many years working in libraries (university and public).  The windows on the world offered to a teenager in a remote Snowdonian town by the presence of a good library were a gift, and I am passionate about the continued provision of public libraries.  Yes, the internet is an amazing repository of knowledge (and misinformation!) but it cannot replace the serendipity of going to the shelf for a book and becoming entranced by its neighbour, which you didn’t know existed and would consequently never have searched for.  As a student, some of my best essays were written using books which weren’t on the reading list (because those had all been borrowed by other students writing the same essay), which meant I had a slightly different slant on the topic.  Being able to access, for free, a huge range of fiction, poetry and non-fiction, is a precious thing and can be truly life-changing for a child whose home is not filled with books or whose family cannot afford to buy them.  Libraries set people free to out-grow their circumstances – just look at Jeannette Winterson.

As soon as I could afford it, I bought books.  I love being surrounded by books in my home, books I can savour at my leisure and don’t have to give back.  I have mixed feelings about bookshops – on the one hand, there is the rush of excitement at being surrounded by so many books, doorways into parallel universes, questioning minds, and illuminating knowledge.  On the other hand, there are so many books that it can feel hard to make a decision about what to buy.  Is it OK to treat myself to this book that I really fancy, even though I don’t actually need it for a course, or for research?  How can I hush the voice in my head that says “Not MORE books!?  You haven’t read the ones you bought last month!”

I have quite a lot of books.  A couple of years ago we downsized massively, and sold hundreds (literally) of books.  For a while, we had just two small bookcases full.  But inevitably, stealthily, the books are taking over again.  “Of course you need that book for your research…Have you read the review for this?  It looks so interesting…Oh look, she’s got a new book coming out next month, shall we pre-order it?…If we buy the paperback it’s easier to share it between us than if we get it on Kindle.”  You get the picture.  Because of where we live, most book purchases are online (using Hive or independent bookshops where possible) and the thump of a book landing on the doormat is so exciting.  All those new words, new ideas, new pictures in my head.  I love having a whole shelf of books I haven’t read yet – so much to look forward to.

Kindle came into my life a decade ago, and I don’t regret it for a moment.  It’s especially good when I go away on holiday, and want to take some light reading with me without lugging heavy books around.  Because it’s hard to flick back and forth inside an e-book, I find it less good for reference books, or indeed non-fiction in general, and my elderly device doesn’t show illustrations well.  I use the app on my smartphone when I’m out and about – on the train, or dining alone.  I often buy the Kindle version of a whodunit which I know I’ll only read once, or if it’s by an author I’m not familiar with and I’m not sure I’ll like it – and I admit that’s because it’s cheaper on Kindle.  But for reading pleasure, the aesthetic experience of words on the page, an attractive cover, and the tactile heft of a book, I’ll choose a ‘real’ book over an e-book every time.  Oh, and let me be clear about this – marking pages or turning down page corners is a sin!

Colour picture of a shelf of books.

 

Working from home – welcome to my world

The recent move towards working from home as a response to the Coronavirus pandemic has flooded the internet with cries for help from people who aren’t coping with it, and advice for how to make it work for you.  The fact that it’s proving so difficult for so many people, and requires so much adaptation, has really flagged up to me how relatively unusual my preferred way of living and working actually is.

First, some disclaimers.  I don’t (any longer) work for a company, where I have to account for my working time at home, be available for virtual meetings during normal office hours, virtually ‘clock on’, and have my productivity monitored.  I appreciate that for many, that’s the kind of working from home you are doing.  Also, I don’t have children, so I’m not attempting to home educate/entertain them 24/7 while simultaneously working.  That must be the stuff of madness, and if that’s your situation, I salute you.   I have not lost my job, and I’ve not been furloughed on reduced salary.  I have the good fortune to have a home that’s large enough not to have to share my workspace with the other inmate, and some (albeit small) outside space.  And above all, we are both well, and I realise that a lot of readers of this blog will be experiencing illness or bereavement and may feel that my comments are shallow and facile.  I’m just writing about how things are for me.

We are sticking diligently to the rules: only going out (singly) once every few days for essentials such as shopping (we’ve not been able to get supermarket delivery slots) and picking up prescriptions, and going out together once a day for a walk in our local area, keeping social distancing when we encounter anyone else.  From that point of view, we’re in the same boat as everyone else in the UK.

What has struck me is how little my life has changed during lockdown.  The main components of my working day are reading, researching online, and writing, with a bit of work-related social media (mostly Twitter) and some of the boring administrative tasks associated with self-employment.  None of that has changed.  I’m still writing, I’m still planning my book and doing research for it, I’m still submitting commissioned articles, I’m still blogging.  My working life is almost totally solitary, and I need it like that to be able to think, to be creative, to make work that I’m happy with.  The only exceptions are when I interview people for a piece I’m writing, or when I do a ‘field trip’ to somewhere I’m going to be writing about, or when I occasionally go on a writing-related course.

Travel, of course, isn’t happening – and frankly that’s the main impact of lockdown on my work, as I was just at the stage when I was going to spend the late spring and summer travelling round the country doing a dozen field trips in preparation for the book.  I’m having to completely re-think how I can use this time to research effectively until such times as I can make those field trips, while hopefully not delaying the completion of the book more than I can help.

Lockdown has demonstrated that there are times when being an introvert is an advantage.  Mostly, it isn’t.  Societally, extraversion is seen as preferable, and introverts are regarded with either pity or suspicion (being perceived as a ‘loner’ isn’t good in our society – being a ‘people person’ or a ‘team player’ is).  I used to feel lesser, like however hard I tried I was never quite good enough because I found being around lots of people knackering rather than stimulating.  To be honest, I find meetings and socialising with groups of people exhausting, I prefer humans in ones and twos (any more, and I long to lie down quietly in a darkened room to recover), and I’m happiest on my own or with one or two carefully chosen people, ideally with a pile of books to lose myself in.  Susan Cain’s book Quiet: the Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking was a revelation.  It isn’t just me – it’s about one third of the human race. It’s OK to be an introvert.  We are not failed extraverts – we are successfully, happily introverts – well, we’re happy and successful if we’re allowed to live and work in ways that allow us to thrive.  Don’t put me in a noisy, busy open-plan office with a dozen other people and expect me to be productive and creative.  And certainly don’t expect me then to be sociable in the evenings or at weekends – that’s when I need peace and quiet to recover from being all peopled-out during the working day.  I know there’s a lot of concern about the impact of social media on people’s mental health, but for me it’s been a boon – I can keep in touch with people, in my own time and when I’m in a place to welcome and enjoy it, rather than getting peopled-out by socialising.  I have joined online groups of people with shared interests, and I love it – for me, it’s the best of both worlds.

It also means that during lockdown I’m in the fortunate position of not missing the stimulation of colleagues and friends around me.  People I’m collaborating with for work are still there, via email, phone, social media or Zoom, as are my friends.  I’m sorry that a couple of large events and conferences, which I had geared myself up for because the content was sufficiently interesting to make it worth the crowds, have been cancelled – but it’s the content, rather than the buzz, that I miss.  I’m just getting on with what I do every day: reading, researching, writing, pitching to commissioning editors, keeping up to date with the writing industry, invoicing.  When I’m not working, I’m going on my daily walk, reading, knitting, planning weaving projects, spinning, weaving, playing with my camera, baking.

Actually, that is one thing that is different because of lockdown – I am baking more than usual.  Going out for coffee and cake is one of our favourite treats, and as the cafés are closed, I’ve stepped into the breach and baked cakes and cookies, scones and parkin.  Fortunately we had just acquired a coffee machine, so at least we have decent coffee while we can’t go out!

Photograph of scones with butter and jam

My notebook habit – confessions of a stationery addict

A few days ago, my friend Cath posted a photograph of a notebook on Twitter, with this caption: ”I know I’m not alone (I’m not, am I): just re-found this, which I bought at the Design Museum in January: it’s the MOST beautiful notebook I think I’ve ever seen…and I’m so terrified of ‘spoiling’ it that I’ve kept it in the bag it came in!”

Her next post included video of her turning the pages of this really rather wonderful notebook, intriguingly entitled Grids and Guides: a notebook for visual thinkers.   It set me thinking: no, Cath, you’re not alone!  I’ve always been ridiculously excited by stationery and I’m totally susceptible to a nice new notebook.

Writers have a particular ‘thing’ about notebooks, it seems.  I often see posts on Twitter about writers and their notebooks.  I recently attended a course at the National Centre for Writing where the joining notes included instructions to ‘bring a favourite notebook’.  The writer Tom Cox’s next book is actually entitled Notebook!  He encouraged people to tweet pictures of their current notebooks, and I responded with this picture.

Picture of three notebooks.

It shows the three notebooks I am currently using.  The dark green one with the coloured tabs is the one I am using for notes for my book.  Each tab relates to a chapter, which I’m hoping will help me to keep my research notes in some kind of order!  It’s made of vegan leather, by a company called Dingbats, and has an embossed deer on the front.  The paper is lovely: thick, cream, and lined, and the endpapers have a funky print of deer hoofprints.

The brown one is by Clairefontaine, a French company which I’d not heard of before I was given this notebook.  Its pages are cream and very smooth, a real pleasure to write on.  It has numbered pages and a contents page, which is very useful as I use this to write down my ideas for various articles and projects, and it’s good to be able to see at a glance where they are, rather than spending ages flicking through the book.  I used to be a Moleskine loyalist, but having tried Clairefontaine, I think I’ll be sourcing more of these in future.

This brings me to the black notebook – an extra large Moleskine soft cover with plain cream pages and a useful pocket in the back for cards and loose papers.  This one is used for ‘professional’ notes – notes from training courses and books on professional and commercial aspects of writing for a living.  Moleskine make nice large notebooks, and these soft cover ones stay flat and open when in use, which is great for making notes in meetings.

All three have elastic bands to keep them securely closed when not in use.  The Dingbats one also has an elastic loop to hold a pen.

Ah – don’t get me started on pens.   I adore pens.  And coloured marker pens for planning and mind mapping.  And fountain pens.  And my latest passion, which is propelling pencils.  I’ve always found them a bit scratchy, but I recently discovered a Pentel which has a 1.3mm lead (my previous one was 0.5mm) which makes a lovely soft, thick, dark mark and is comfortable for taking extended notes.  I’m now using that pencil far more than pens, and am more than a little in love!

And then of course there are notepads, and sticky notes in all the colours of the rainbow and all sizes from postage stamp to A5, and staplers, and paperclips, and polypockets, and folders, and subject dividers, and ring binders, and box files (did you know they come in A5 as well as A4 sizes?!), and index cards (plain and lined, white and coloured, standard and large), and envelopes, and good old-fashioned letter paper, and laid paper and wove paper and handmade paper and mulberry paper and…

OK, OK, you get the idea.  Let me loose in any stationers, or with an office supplies catalogue, and serious expenditure will result.  My name is Lisa Tulfer and I am a stationery addict.  I’m more restrained than I used to be, and I succumb to temptation less often – except when it comes to notebooks.  Granted, they are a tool of my trade.  This is how I justify buying them when I see them – I currently have an entire storage box full of notebooks waiting to be used.  The last twice we’ve been away for a few days I have returned with a new notebook – a gloriously purple one (it’s my favourite colour – how could I resist?) from the gift shop at Tintern Abbey, and a monastic garden themed one from the English Heritage gift shop at Rievaulx Abbey.  I have lined notebooks, plain notebooks, spiral bound notebooks, fabric covered notebooks.  Every new project gets a notebook, so a good supply of attractive notebooks ensures a good supply of new projects!

So, to get back to Cath, I can assure her that she isn’t alone.  Appreciation for a good notebook (and a tendency to buy them even if you haven’t a clue what you will use them for), is a ‘thing’ which many of us share.  And in these difficult times, if we can find pleasure in a simple notebook, that seems like a good thing.

Cath runs the most wonderful gift shop and gallery called Ginger Fig.  It’s in Bath Place, Taunton, Somerset, UK.  You can contact her on Twitter @gingerfig, on Instagram @gingerfig and on her website.