Don’t go there – imagination, the weird, and why I haven’t written fiction

Recently, I have tentatively started writing short fiction again.  Apart from occasional poetry, most of what I write is nonfiction, often around history and place.  This is partly because nonfiction is my preferred genre (both as a reader and as a writer) but also because of something that happened when I was seventeen.

I have written before on this blog about the creative writing A level I did in the 1980s, which included both poetry and short fiction.  The poetry element was fine – I enjoyed it, was good at it (so much so that my work was published in a volume of examples by the examinations board) and I got a lot out of workshops with poets including Gillian Clarke.  Fiction, however, was another matter altogether.

Like most children, I had always written stories.  I was also an avid reader, often of books well beyond my age group.  The town where I was at school at the time also housed the county library, and I spent a lot of time browsing the shelves, often discovering books which had not seen the light of day for many years.  One particular find was a volume of ghost stories by M.R. James, which according to the date stamp had last been issued in the 1950s.  James was a revelation – obviously, I’d come across ghost stories before, but what I particularly liked about his work was the ambiguity.  His stories did not have tidy endings, they did not provide explanations for what the characters had experienced, they left possibilities open for the mind of the reader to pursue.

Fresh from reading M.R. James, then, I took on the challenge to write a short story for my portfolio.  My English class had recently gone on a field trip to the graveyard of a local chapel, which had resulted in my writing a poem (‘Churchyard on the Hill at Salem’).  It also gave me an idea for the end of my story.

I no longer have the manuscript, but the story went something like this.  Told in the first person, it concerns a teenage girl who is gradually losing her ability to judge what is reality and what is her imagination.  Strange things appear to happen to her in her ordinary life of home and school.  She thinks that a procession of men visit her mother when her father is away on business, but as she becomes increasingly detached from her own life, she wonders how much she can trust her own judgment.  She plays truant, and find herself wandering through the churchyard.  Finding herself drawn to one particular headstone, she brushes away the ivy with her hand to reveal the inscription.  It is her own name, and the date of death is the following day.

Black and white photograph of an old headstone, carved with a winged skull at Felbrigg Hall (National Trust) Norfolk. Copyright Lisa Tulfer 2020
Headstone at Felbrigg Hall (National Trust), Norfolk. Copyright Lisa Tulfer 2020

I was rather pleased with this story.  I felt I had managed to evoke a mood of dreamy unreality, create an unreliable narrator, and write an ending with supernatural overtones but with, to me, pleasing ambiguity.  I submitted it to my English teacher for comment.

Two days later, my teacher kept me behind after the lesson.  She had ‘concerns’, she said.  She had spoken to the deputy head with responsibility for student welfare, and they had decided to speak to me before referring the matter to the Social Services department of the County Council.   Was the story, she wanted to know, in any way autobiographical?  Was I having suicidal thoughts?  Was I living in a household that was, effectively, a brothel?

After a few seconds of stunned silence, my first reaction was to laugh – the idea was hilarious.  My mother had always made it quite clear that she didn’t like sex, that it was a necessary evil which had to be endured to have children, and that once the menopause precluded me having any siblings, sex was something she was relieved no longer to have to do.  The idea that she would have more sex than was essential for procreation was, frankly, hysterically funny.  I tried to explain this to my teacher, as delicately as possible.  She looked doubtful, but accepted my response.  My second reaction, though, was bewilderment.  The assignment was to write a short work of fiction.  I was using my imagination – both in terms of the home scenario, so different from my own, and also the supernatural element.  I was juxtaposing the mundane contexts of home and school, and weaving a story from the results of letting my brain freewheel.  Surely that was the nature of fiction – that it wasn’t a true story?  So why were they – the teachers – assuming that it was autobiographical?  Why did they think that my brain wouldn’t be capable of making that jump from what is to what might be?  Why was I getting into trouble for doing what I had been asked to do – using my imagination to create a fictional world with fictional characters and events?

Evidently what I said reassured the teachers, because Social Services were not brought in.  But the remaining short fiction I wrote for my portfolio was anodyne, tame, safe.  I made sure I didn’t give any cause for concern about my safety or my mental health.  A family goes on a daytrip to the beach, eats sandwiches, plays ball, swims, comes home.  Someone goes for a walk in the woods, sees some animal tracks and wonders what has made them.  The stories I wanted to write were very different – a family goes on a daytrip to the beach, and play with a lone child in an old-fashioned style swimming costume.  When the family swim, the child disappears.  They summon the lifeguard, there is a search.  The child isn’t found.  Cut to an Edwardian newspaper report of a drowned child on that very beach.  Or, someone goes for a walk in the woods.  They see animal tracks, and follow them.  Gradually the tracks morph into human footprints.  In a clearing, they come face to face with the creature they have been following.  But I didn’t write those stories – I played it safe.  Got a good grade.  The teachers stopped watching me.  I had learned that to write fiction that explored the possible, the unexplained, the dark places where the mundane meets the unthinkable, was a Bad Idea and would Get Me Into Trouble.  I never wrote fiction again.

Until this year.  Perhaps because I have felt unable to read fiction in the dystopian reality of Covid 19, I have started to think about writing it again.  I am dipping my toe into the dark pool of my imagination and am writing short stories set in the everyday, about the past, death, the unexplained, with supernatural elements and enigmatic endings.  What I didn’t know, aged seventeen in my provincial small-town school, was that an entire genre of weird writing has been around since the Victorian era – there is even a ‘thing’ called women’s weird – which nowadays is celebrated.  Three decades and more later, I know that having an imagination that enables me to dream up weird writing doesn’t make me weird, and this time round I hope that exploring my imagination will not Get Me Into Trouble.

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

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