Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Storytelling in Sverdlovsk

A Urals story teller, citing Bazhov tale 'The Sun-stone' in Sverdlovsk pioneers club in Sverdlovsk, Russia. (Photo by Pictorial Parade/Archive Photos/Getty Images).

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Writer in residence: the North

September was the month I started my residency in the North.  I have followed the path of needles and the path of pins and it has led me to a place far from home.

I arrived by train at Manchester Piccadilly and took a taxi from the station to leafy suburbia, and a street of almost-identical 1930s semi-detached houses. For the first few weeks the letting agent's sign was how I recognised my own home. Now I see the tat in the front window (my worthless ephemera and tragically scrawny pelargonium and pots of pens and paint brushes) and know I have found my way back to a house that finally smells like we belong together. Out back is a field of allotments and then the River Mersey, which I enjoy visiting. Though I hope sincerely that it will never return my calls. We have a garden robin, and a conventicle of magpies, and the gentle susurration of traffic from the M60.

The North is where people go when they seek adventure or to create a little mayhem in their lives. The mayhem I hope to create is with words and pictures. I'm in Manchester to do a PhD in creative writing: to make things on paper and with my voice and my imagination. The path of needles and the path of pins have led me to poetry and Russian fairy tales and landscape and memory. My adventures will mostly be urban and literary ones, although I've also replaced my Weald-worn walking boots in anticipation of some moorland rambling.

So far, we've made two literary pilgrimages: Haworth and Alderly Edge. It feels like I've left Bloomsbury-in-Sussex far behind.

Sunday, 1 June 2014

Entitled to have a voice

Fear of ambition, she believes, is something that creates personal glass ceilings for women. “We are taught that good girls are pious and tidy and fit in” — when actually to be an artist you need to be noisy and driven, to have an ego — “at a certain level, though, people who directly make work have to find at the very core of themselves what it is they wish to speak about. That means you have to feel entitled to have a voice.”
~ Jude Kelly interviewed by Liz Hoggard in the London Evening Standard, 5 March 2014.

Saturday, 31 May 2014

Writer in residence: in the spotlight

In May I undertook writerly deeds that enticed me away from my desk and out into the spotlight. The world of paper and ink and pencil marks and pen strokes has always consumed me; the barbed Cyrillic alphabet; words, images and ideas. I enjoy watching others perform but never thought I would seek out the spotlight myself.

However, last year the Four Quarters (a collaborative art project I have been involved with since 2009) took off in a new direction. The master storyteller Pat Robson joined us as a fourth member and became our mentor and guide in the art of composing and telling stories. Over the past 12 months we have performed versions of the Hansel and Gretel and Baba Yaga fairy tales, and stories from the Decameron. Our audiences have been tiny -- around thirty people -- but they have graced us with their attention, laughter, and applause.

More recently, on 15 May, I read my poetry at an evening in Hove, hosted by Cameron Contemporary Art. I shared the stage with Sian Thomas and Stephen Plaice, and our readings were generously reviewed by the poet Robin Houghton. After a year working as a story-teller-in-training I relished the experience of reading my own work; of lifting the images and characters off the page and feeling them ride into being upon my breath as I spoke the words out loud.

My second excursion into the spotlight this month came a week earlier and took place in a shabby but well-loved studio space over the bus station in Lewes. Organised by Mark Hewitt, the artistic director of Lewes Live Literature, The Itch is a programme of scratch evenings supporting the development of new writing, and on 7 May provided an outing for two brand new works-in-progress. Gus Watcham boldly performed her piece, the witty and discomforting Crush. My own Speaking in Code, was performed by three swell friends: Alison, Mireille and Mia. They did an extraordinary job of lifting my words off the page, and the process of working through the piece with them, hearing my words in three very different voices, was revelatory and exciting. The experience of actually watching the performance was a nervy one. I was so alert and attuned to how each and every person might be receiving my words, it felt like walking through a field of thistles. I wished I had put my boots on, but instead I was wearing sandals.

Monday, 31 March 2014

Writer in residence: Sicily

March is the right month to escape England’s chilly and rainswept shores. And Sicily is an alluring place for someone who loves food, wine and sunshine almost as much as she loves words AND who happens to be researching the myth of Persephone and Demeter. So this month (or at least part of it) the writer was in residence in Noto, Sicily doing what she has rarely done before: having a holiday.

By way of food and wine I ate mightily well and returned home composed largely of the following ingredients: ricotta cheese, wine pressed from the Nero d’Avola grape, gelato, almonds, wild fennel, quail, swordfish, pasta, anchovies, olives, aubergine, blood oranges and campari and soda.

To work up an appetite between meals, and as a backdrop for our daily strolls-while-eating-gelato, there was a sun washed town: Baroque architecture, honey-coloured limestone, people worth watching, a few choice terriers, dramatic cloudscapes, distant glimpses of the turquoise sea. Swifts, house martins and swallows squealed overhead, busily going about their nest building. They arrived the same week we did, on the heels of a thunderstorm rushing in from North Africa, and I squealed with joy to see them.

Not much writing got done, but I read a lot and sketched a bit and thought sun-drenched thoughts about mothers and daughters and goddesses. My Muse enjoyed being left in peace for a few days. Above are some of the fruits of my not labouring...

Friday, 28 February 2014

Writer in residence: the office

Tycho Dreaming

As an artist I am omnivorous, trawling constantly and hungrily for ideas and images. My creative engine is not sticky or churlish. It doesn’t take much to ignite my writing -- any bright, bold spark will do -- but it does take something, and that something cannot be taken for granted.

When I was a teenager I used to hitchhike in and out of the small village where my family lived. Hitchhiking felt risky and sometimes desperate, but I was tired of waiting for buses that might or might not show up. Standing at the bus stop in the rain and fading light, began to seem more desperate than the act of holding out my thumb, stopping a car, and asking for a lift of a complete stranger. In comparison waiting for the bus was passive, maybe pointless, ultimately debilitating.

And so is waiting around for ideas, hoping one may turn up, and that it might be original, and that it might be good or juicy. When buses were in short supply I found people willing to give me a ride. Sometimes they were people who interested and amused me, and quite often they tested and challenged and scared me. Hitchhiking is a nervy and unsettling business -- and so is the creation of art.

For this artist the scarcity of my adult life has been not buses but money. Waiting for my creative work to pay the way has mostly felt as futile a pursuit as waiting for the elusive 252 from Tunbridge Wells to Eastbourne. One day that long dreamt of windfall might sweep through my life: I imagine it appearing unlooked for, like the night bus I once saw as I was walking home on dark country lanes long after midnight. The night was frosty, my head was down, and suddenly I heard a great roar and turned to see the bus sway past, a double-decker all lit up like a galleon on the high seas, and entirely empty except for the driver.

While waiting for the appearance of the unlooked for nightbus, however, I have earned my bread and butter living over the years working in restaurants and offices and teaching. Right now, I am an office person. I have a desk by a window, and a photocopier, and friends I greet each day, and a workaday routine that involves toast and tea at half past ten and a lunchtime walk. And while I am old enough to recognise the joy of routine, I am also young enough to love the fact that my office is tucked away inside a theatre and that for much of the year I am surrounded by the intensely creative and sparky world of opera. The best of many worlds then, when my work day takes me from the office to the rehearsal space and I sit eavesdropping on a new work being hashed out, filling my sketchbook with ideas hoovered up from the ether: mine and not mine; mine and someone else’s but then made mine by the power of my transmogrifying pencil and my trawling, transforming mind.

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Creative Writing Workshop, Spring 2014

Blue hyacinths in a winter landscape, Winifred Nicholson
Join a supportive group of fellow writers for a month-long workshop designed to spark creativity, fuel the imagination and inspire original pieces of prose and poetry. This workshop is designed for both beginners and more experienced writers, and the emphasis will be on the development of new work and on stimulating the creative process.
Workshop dates and time
Thursday from 7.30pm to 9.30pm on:
27 February 2014

6 March 2014

13 March 2014
20 March 2014

£45.00 - reserve your place in the workshop by contacting Rebecca via email or by calling 07729 628427.

Platform 6, Lewes, East Sussex
(a 2 minute walk from the Lewes Railway Station)

About me
A writer of fiction and poetry, and a graduate of the MA programme in Creative Writing for Personal Development at the University of Sussex, I have developed and led creative workshops since 2002. Please feel free to get in touch if you have any questions.

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Writer in residence: the dance studio (tango)

This year I have decided to appointment myself as the (un)official writer in residence of a number of places I habitually visit. One residency a month, as a way of taking my writer-self out of her room for some fresh air and a change of scenery.

For my first residency: the January dance studio.

Tango is the right music for midwinter melancholy. Here I am in the season of ice and darkness and wintery rainfall, parking my car in a suburban town on the south coast of England. Walking along a shadowy side street strewn with broken glass and dog shit, my silver dance shoes in a bag, dressed for another season (it is always summer in the world of dance) beneath my big, warm embrace of a winter coat.

I visit dance clubs and classes at least once a week, often more. I am a dance-addict; a bit evangelical; probably too subjective to be a good writer in residence on this project. But here I am anyway -- in a Jewish community centre, or former Methodist chapel, or a scruffy wine bar -- sitting on a folding chair and changing my shoes.

There is not much glamour in the world of social dancing, but a great deal of dedication. People stand awkwardly around the edge of the room, waiting for the class to begin. Finally, one couple braves the empty, brightly lit dance space. Rocking in each others arms for a moment, picking up the rhythm of the music before cracking open the warped wooden floor with their feet. We watch as they carve out the steps of a vals. Then our instructor Sofia,
a former ballerina turned tanguera, claps her hands and calls us all to order. We stand huddled behind her while she snaps out orders and corrections, putting us through our paces. We walk (as though George Clooney were watching, please, Sofia shouts, not as though you are on your way to the supermarket!). We do exercises to improve our balance and posture. At last we are allowed to find a partner; we embrace; we step into the dance.

It is late January, and I have had a skinful of tango the past year. I am still a beginner, still barely able to master the walk of tango, let alone the graceful ochos and giros, the sweeping volcadas, and the whiplike embellishments or boleos. But somehow, on the dance floor, once the lesson is over and we move on to pratica, my feet find the way. Argentine tango is led by the chest. Heart follows heart and the feet move trustingly after, picking their way along the path of the dance. At its most simple and most honest, tango is just walking, walking, walking; the leader moves the couple forward; the follower submits to or conspires with the lead. The rawness is in the music, not in the dance. The dance is poised, inward looking, nostalgic; sparkling and robust during the milonga tracks, but in balance coming down on the side of anguish, heartbreak and loneliness. A loneliness that is felt more acutely with another person’s arms around you; felt exquisitely when at the end of the dance you step out of their embrace, say thank you, and walk away.

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

The year of the Hare

The Year of the Hare

In 2011 I vowed to embrace my inner Tortoise. "Never hurry, never rest" was my motto for the next two years.

And then 2013 happened: the year I emerged into a sudden flood of sunlight and found myself to be more akin to the reckless Hare, racing with wild enthusiasm from one thing to another.

It is now mid-November and I am already reviewing the past year, looking back in order to look forward. If there have been moments when I've behaved like a child chasing fire flies, I know now that playfullness is part of my process. Ideas are one thing I'm good at; I toss them in the air by the excited handful, like confetti, then wait to see what flutters down, what sticks.

Throughout this year of the rush-along Hare I have not forgotten that the Tortoise wins the race in the end. But it is the Hare's energy that keeps this plodding Tortoise in the race, even at moments where she has felt discouraged and lost. I've accepted that I must work my way towards getting what I want by the slowest, most circuitous path. For me there are no shortcuts. I travel each inch of every mile, sometimes on dancing feet and wearing silver slippers, sometimes crawling on my knees through dog shit and broken glass. However I go, I must feel each and every step.

From the story of the Hare and the Tortoise I know that what is essential is not to become disheartened, not to be diverted from my task. This means maintaining concentration, keeping a joyful hold of my dreams and sense of purpose. It is like travelling a very great distance carrying an egg or a balloon. Don't grip what you carry too tightly, or you will destroy it. Your touch must be light but unwavering.

There are times when I question if this is possible? The Hare and the Tortoise reassure me that it is. When travelling slowly over a great distance it is easy to feel lost. Even easier, inevitable perhaps, to lose sight of the path; winter comes and the snow falls, covering your tracks.

Feeling lost is not a good feeling (for me, anyway). Feeling lost and without purpose is even worse. So whatever happens I tell myself: hold onto your purpose. Don’t put it down out of weariness, or throw it away in despair. Keep your sense of purpose pressed against you; hold it lightly but untiringly. Imagine it is a tea-light, guttering, delicate, but lighting your way forward. Protect that little flame. Shield it with your hand and do not flag; do not despair. Remember the Tortoise and her steadfastness, and the Hare and his great zeal, and even if the way forward is no longer clear or apparent, keep pressing on and on. Really, there is nothing else to do except lie down in the ditch and die – and that would be no pleasure at all.