The time of our lives

“Come gather ’round people / Wherever you roam / And admit that the waters / Around you have grown…”

As the theme of this year’s So: To Speak Festival, ‘Changing Times’ was bound to be ripe for inspiration – as, it turned out, were the events of our own lifetimes. We met at the Art House on Thursday 19th and at the Central Library on Saturday 21st (when we were thrilled to welcome several new women to the fold) and began work on the Changing Times theme by first mining our own histories.

Stealing ever-so-slightly from Billy Joel, who used the milestone of his fortieth birthday to write a song chronicling major world events from the previous four decades (Remember? “Harry Truman, Doris Day, Red China, Johnny Ray”…fairly rudimentary poetry as it goes, but you have to admire the rhyming of ‘H-bomb’ with ‘Panmunjom’), I asked the groups to write a timeline of all the world events we could remember in each year of our lives. Inevitably we had some gaps that had us scratching our heads (did anything happen in the mid-00s? Was I really that drunk for the whole of the early 90s?) so we helped each other out until we had a decent list. We then overlaid these with our own, more private, meaningful milestones – births, marriages, deaths, broken bones, broken hearts and momentous journeys.

What we’d created was a whole list of evocative opening lines, from ‘I was born the year Yuri Gagarin first went into space’ to ‘I started sixth form college the same year the Berlin Wall came down’, and we used these as a jumping-off point for some autobiographical prose.

What we got were some fantastic stories. Anchoring our experiences in real events gave colour and context; we found stunning parallels in freedoms found, and power broken down.

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How many of us have wished for an extra hour in the day? We wrote stories with the opening line ‘That particular October, it was decided that an extra hour would be added to each day.’ Almost without fail they turned into dystopian visions…a lesson there for us perhaps. Maybe it’s not more time we need, but to use the time we already have with more focus and vigour? (I was delighted to note though that at least one person said if they had an extra hour they would spend it writing).

In the Saturday group, our second exercise was to write either a letter to your future self, or a monologue from the point of view of a visitor from the future. Once again, we were treated to insightful, poignant and funny words created in only ten minutes – amazing! – and one new member even gave us a song.

The So Write Women always surprise and inspire; that’s something that never changes, and I for one am having the time of my life.

To see / hear more about the So Write Women, see this report and video from Larisa de Vries:

http://www.solentjournalism.co.uk/enjoy-southamptons-art-talent-during-the-so-to-speak-festival/

You can also see and hear some of the So Write Women at the Words on Wheels event this Saturday (28th) as part of the So To Speak festival:

http://www.sotospeakfestival.org/event/words-on-wheels/

 

 

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These are a few of my favourite things

Since we started the women’s writing workshops back in January, we’ve looked at plot, character, setting, and covered themes including ‘finding your voice’ and ‘secrets and lies’.

But the one thing we haven’t written about is…well, things. William Carlos Williams famously wrote ‘No ideas but in things’*, and when I rediscovered this deceptively simple quote recently it got me thinking.

So for the first Thursday of the month workshop, I asked everyone to bring in an object from home (or from the bottom of their bag!) – it could be anything at all, and we would put them out on the table and write about them.

The objects ranged from the mundane – a whisk – to the faintly macabre – a sheep’s skull. The first task was simple: to choose an object, and write about it. We weren’t going to attach a story to it at this point, merely describe. I asked the women to engage all their senses – sight, hearing, touch, taste, smell – since when we write description we often focus mainly on what we can see. This resulted in some funny faces around the table once we got going (I can honestly say I’d never sniffed a seashell before), and some beautiful writing; engaging all the senses necessarily leads us to look at things in a different way. What does metal taste like? How does a business card sound?

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Next we were into more familiar territory as we attached a character to our object. I asked: Who does the object belong to? Why is it important to them? When and where did they get it? Do they carry it around with them or leave it at home? What if they lost it?

Suddenly our objects were giving us people and their stories. Rhiannon’s Rose with her grubby nets and well-meaning friends; Clare’s Betty with her whisk, her wit, and her whipping; and Damnhait’s thwarted lover keeping the business card in her bra.

Finally, using either the same prompt as before or switching to a new one, we gave the object its own voice. We discovered how the sheep’s head had become separated from its body. Though, now dead and looking at its human owner with empty, impassive eyes, he seemed pretty stoic about it. And who knew a whisk could be so…judgy?

Writing about ‘things’ is a bit of a back to basics exercise. But it’s surprising where the simple things can take us.

 

PS we also welcome a new member – Lisa – this month, and are delighted to be holding a second Thursday group on the 19th October at the Art House as part of So:to Speak. The theme will be Changing Times. Hope to see you there!

 

 

* “Say it, no ideas but in things – nothing but the blank faces of the houses and cylindrical trees bent, forked by preconception and accident – split, furrowed, creased, mottled, stained – secret – into the body of the light!”

 

Secrets and Lies

 

Last Thursday there was a ‘back to school’ feel as the So:write women reconvened in the Art House after what was really only a few weeks’ break, but somehow felt much longer. It was a pleasure to welcome back both newer and more longstanding members, and we had a great catch up along the lines of ‘What I did during the summer holidays’. Everyone had been busy; some had motored on with their writing, while others had been distracted by kids, travel, and well, life; all of us were keen to get back into the groove we’d missed from being with the group.

 

So without too much ado we launched into our first workshop of the new ‘season’. It’s said that at the heart of every good story there is a secret. Try to think of a story without one. It might be a secret one of the characters is carrying, or a secret the author withholds from the reader – perhaps until the final page. Secrets add intrigue, drama, jeopardy; they’re what keep us on the edge of our seat watching a TV drama, or turning the pages of a gripping novel.

Of course, the close ally of the secret is the lie. What’s the difference between the two? Is keeping something hidden the same as outright fibbing? These were the questions we pondered as we launched into our two writing exercises.

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In the first, we wrote from real life. I asked everyone to write about a time they uncovered a secret – without naming it. They were just to write about what happened, and how they felt.

Perhaps the most unsettling aspect of this exercise was that for a good portion of it, at least two people in the group were convinced this had never happened to them…which led of course to the worrying thought: ‘Does that mean someone’s lying to me now?’!

With a little more digging, everyone came up with a true story, and some shared them with the group. As usual with this theme, families and (thankfully ex) partners made for rich pickings, from the inventiveness of the exhausted parent (“the beach is locked at night”, thanks for this one Aji!) to the sad predictability of the cheat, exposed by a receipt or a beeping phone.

Duly warmed up by this little burst of writing / therapy, we moved on to an exercise using the classic (cheesy) icebreaker: write down three things about yourself that no one here knows. Two should be true and one a lie. We then popped them in the middle and everyone chose one of the others’ statements to use as an opening line for a piece of short fiction, or a poem (or, as it turned out, a song!).

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Our opening lines ranged from ‘I used to live in Finland’ to ‘I can juggle firesticks’ to ‘I was told I’d be a great prison guard’. It was fascinating to see where the women writers took these lines, and some fantastic pieces of writing came out of it (including one or two potential novel openings!). And of course, we all got to guess which was whose ‘secret’…

They say life is a series of hellos and goodbyes and sadly we say a fond farewell to Aji as she finishes her MA and starts a new life in Coventry. Good luck in Shakespeare’s county Aji!!, and thanks for your passion and enthusiasm for the project – we’ll miss you – make sure you keep in touch.

Before we ‘broke up’ for the summer, I asked the members of the group(s) to tell me what being part of So:write women has meant for them so far. Here are just a few of the things they said:

“My determination and commitment to writing are much stronger. As a result of the workshops I have found the confidence and inspiration to formulate and engage much bigger writing goals.”

“As a direct result of taking part in So Write Women I have performed my poems at West Quay shopping centre, Nuffield Southampton Theatre’s experiment night, and Riverfest. The experience from these events helped give me the confidence to take part in a Touch Network event as an inspirational speaker.”

“It has been great to see the women aim so highly – I honestly do not think that they would have allowed themselves to set – or share – such ambitious goals at the start of the programme.”

“The last six months of So Write meetings have been an incredible experience for me. Joanna has made a supportive atmosphere that feels safe to be creative. I look forward to every meeting and it has given me the courage to admit that I am (whispers) *a writer*. I even feel brave enough to submit some of my work to a proper magazine for proper writers!”

 

This group is transformative. It’s a joy to witness. And that’s the truth.

 

The role of a goal

Summer is here, and so let’s begin this blog with all the positivity of warmth and sunshine, although this feels like a ceremonial ‘last blog for now’ kind of a thing. We’re here to assure you that it’s not. Having gathered at the Central Library on a lovely sunny morning, us six ladies decided to make the best of the final two hours of the SO: Write Women Workshop, as we draw to a close this summer. Wait, we do reopen in September, so worry not!

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As we began with writing goals, and chatted up on what we needed to do to accomplish them, we learnt so much about the others in the room, and somehow felt so bonded to each other, almost like carbon atoms. Claire said it was important to intuitively set goals and that she was going to help writers set goals for themselves, which would inspire her own writing. Liz has wonderful plans to publish powerful pieces of writing that must never stay in the dark (and boy, do we agree!). Karen and Millie have grand plans of getting their first novels published as well, and we hope we can all sail through our goals happily, while overcoming our limiting factors. Yes, TIME, we’re talking about you.

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To this effect, we did a small goal setting exercise by writing our goals and the steps needed to achieve them on lovely postcards that Joanna had brought for us. As we got that done, we discussed them, and handed them over. Maybe someday, when we’ve accomplished our goals, we can find a postcard in our box to show us the roadmap to where we’re now.

Goal setting is hard work, but working towards the said goal is even harder. We knew we needed to write, and a perfectly fun writing exercise awaited us. As we took out blank sheets of paper, and each wrote an object, drink, place and name, we folded the paper, and passed it over to the person sitting to our left. And we wrote a story with whichever four we had. Sounds easy? Do give it a shot, and let us know!

We’ll be back with more updates, and a lot more writing snippets. Until then, have a great summer and a lovely year ahead. Cheers!

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Tea, tears, and synchronicity

It’s taken me a while to write this blog, about last Thursday’s So Write Women workshop at the Art House. I keep starting with the practicalities, who was there and who read what, members leaving and members joining, which exercises we did and what we produced.

But sometimes the whats and the hows and all the other journalistic mechanics don’t really cut it.

Thursday was special.

 

One of my biggest hopes for these workshops would be that they would be a place where women writers felt safe. Safe to express themselves, and safe to share.

 

I’d asked the women to bring along writing they’d worked on in the month since we last met. It was interesting how common themes presented themselves: we had two pieces about tea, although they were really about more than that, of course – tea as a salve for difficult conversations, tea as a source of sanity in the maelstrom of new motherhood; mothers and children loomed large too, in fractured relationships and sorrow for what has been missed and lost.

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If you look closely at this photograph you can see my eyes are leaking.

 

We closed with a free write exercise that gave us an angry bottle, glistening granite, a petrified tree, smiling geese, and sisters in an orchard.

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To return briefly to our river metaphor of a few weeks ago, there’s a natural ebb and flow to these kinds of groups, but while we say goodbye to Emma (stay in touch!) and welcome Damhnait (please come back!), there is also something constant. I’m not sure I can name it. Voice, maybe. Spirit, definitely.

 

Thank you, So Write Women; Thursday was special.

 

 

Words of Language

Hello!

It has been a fantastic month, and all’s well that ends well. Shakespeare wasn’t on our list on Saturday, but paraphrasing, and employing poetic language definitely was. Starting off the drizzly rainy Saturday by sharing what we’ve all been doing over the last month, we welcomed Fiona into the group. All settled, we all listened to the wonderful pieces of flash fiction and poetry from across the table.

Based on the ‘river’ prompt that Joanna had emailed (in accordance with Riverfest this weekend), all of them had such beautiful pieces to share about rivers and the water. Liz read out her gorgeous poem about leaving the past behind (she even brought props!) and Millie’s poem ‘Catch’ on oysters and the seaside transported us into a whole other world. Katie, inspired by Bruce Springsteen’s ‘The River’ song, wrote a piece of flash fiction that was so powerful and precise. Fiona, who works for music services, brought a new colour into the group as she discussed how she is working on a musical piece on menopause. As she sang a beautiful gospel-inspired song about how everything is changing, she voiced the collective screams of women going through menopause, and there was a poignancy in her dry humour, which was amazing, and usually quite hard to achieve! Clare had a short but delicate poem on rivers and incarnations, which got us thinking about how Clare and Katie used the rivers as a lyrical device to talk about the passage of time. Angela gave us the final touch of humour, poignantly balancing the undertone of sadness and a certain wistfulness, as she read out an excerpt from her diary.

We then got down to the exercises, where Joanna asked the ladies to go through their work, and remove all the adjectives and adverbs (they’re pure evil, yes!) and rewrite them with just the other parts of speech. This was a beautiful and simplistic ritual in paring down one’s work, and although the poets found it harder than the prose writers, it did turn out to be a very interesting challenge to all. It proved to be even more challenging as the next part of the exercise was to choose just one of those redacted adjectives/ adverbs, and put them back in a place that seemed best. The words that went back include audacious, chirpy, unbearably, and strange.

With the final exercise, where we gathered at the large table, to pick up lots that were categorised into verbs, adverbs, places and periods. Each of us had to pick one from each category, and indulge in some free writing exercise, ending up with fascinating pieces like the Glassy Classy Granite, the ‘starry eyed’ cliches, and a lost soul in the middle of the ocean. Although, free writing is essentially ‘freeing’ one from restrictions, the group agreed that having these constraints was liberating and helpful.

All told, what a fantastic workshop it was, and we hope to see you all again soon!

 

Stepping out of one’s comfort zone… in the company of fellow writers and great coffee.

We had the wonderful novelist Susmita Bhattacharya over at our seminar on the as our guest of honour! 🙂 This following (fabulous!) guest post by her is a testament to the wonderful time that we all spent together as writers, amidst piping cups of coffee.

On Thursday, I attended the SO:Write Women’s Writing group led by novelist, Joanna Barnard. It was a very warm and welcoming atmosphere, and the group started off by sharing their writing news. Each member had something to celebrate, whether it was completing 30 K words of their manuscript, or being long listed in a competition, or participating in a poetry slam. What was commended most was that each of the writers had put words to paper, and had enjoyed the process of writing. The group welcomed two new writers, bringing the total for the Thursday group to nine members.

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Joanna introduced the theme for the workshop – setting. The group discussed and shared ideas defining ‘setting’, how setting could be expanded to create mood, atmosphere, time, era. Then we had to do writing exercise where we were given two small chits of paper. We had to write the name of a place in one, and a time period on the other. These then went into two jars and everyone had to choose one prompt from each jar. This was a great exercise to get out of one’s comfort zone, and try and write about something different. Or do research about a place or an era one isn’t familiar with. I picked Paris and the Elizabethan era, which was a challenge! There were some very interesting outcomes, with Rhiannon writing about 1976 Florida, and Clare experimenting with sci-fi in 3017, set in Italy. Cate wrote about her grandmother’s Victorian house while Liz went underwater to explore sea life.

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The second exercise was working with visual prompts. Joanna has asked the group to bring along photos, postcards or anything else that may inspire them to write about the setting. There was a varied range of visuals, from abandoned building to fog cloaked landscapes to a family holiday on a beach in Venice. The group could use their own picture or any other they wished to write about, and had about half an hour to write a piece. This is to be polished off at home, and brought back to the next session.

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On the whole, it was a fun session, full of positive energy and camaraderie. I look forward to another session, as I would love to participate as a member of this very creative writing group. If I may, please, Joanna, and round off the total to ten?!

What would they do?

You know, when Suits was at its best and raging up TRP storms, it was trending on twitter with the Hashtag #WhatWouldHarveyDo. If by a sheer unfortunate set of events, you haven’t watched Suits, Harvey Specter is its fantastic protagonist, playing the shrewd and loveable high profile lawyer. Why this hashtag stuck with me the most was because it amply emphasised his character. He was a go-getter, and could solve any situation, salvage anyone’s life. And, it just seemed so fitting to have remembered this when we discussed character yesterday.

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We all have our favourites, and we got to hear some of them yesterday. Right from Austen’s masterpiece Elizabeth Bennett to the Orange is the new Black series, we all ripped apart our bookshelves and Netflix watch-lists to find out why we adored these characters, and what significance they had to our own writing. Occasionally, we allowed ourselves the leeway because choosing a favourite character was like choosing a favourite child- you just don’t do it! 🙂

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So, we got started with understanding characterisation. The best themes and poetic devices in the world won’t help if we can’t get our readers to empathise with or despise our characters. And often, more than what your character says, it’s in the subtext, or what’s left unsaid that brings out that unique quality or persona that we relate to.

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Our creative juices were flowing, and we needed to channelise them towards the notebook. Our first exercise was to think about five unique characteristics about a character that’s been playing on our mind. It could be a figment of our imagination, or based on real people we have encountered. Based on this list of five, we chose one and wrote a short paragraph (or a bio) and got guessing as to what characteristic the writer chose. It was deliriously fun, using words as clues and pauses as cues to find the characteristic that best defined the character in question. There were so many different forms and styles, and sometimes the characters surprised us so much, that we guessed the polar opposite of what they defined.

Hmm.. This got us thinking. Kurt Vonnegut said, “Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.” So, what was it that our characters wanted? We decided to test it out with another exercise by writing a dialogue-only exposition of what our characters wanted. We decided to up the ante by posing some restrictions- there were to be only two characters, where one of them was busy doing something, and the other was trying to tell the former something important. After about ten minutes, when we heard each other’s work, we knew what we’d done- created beautiful little bubbles of speech and narrative arcs, from just one little characteristic. From emotional and hilarious domestic conversations to a dialogue about cakes and ovens (oooh cakes!), we thought we  had seen them all.

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This was of course, until we discussed non-human characters. What could they possibly want? Did these inanimate objects have feelings? Did the dog long for the leash sitting on the dining table so that the owner could take it for a walk? Did the lightbulb know it needed to glow, because it was trying to be emphatic when people said, “Let there be light!” We had answers soon enough. Liz’s amazingly envisioned story of a plug, Becky’s moving story of a mountain, Katie’s quite believable narrative of a seagull, Reem’s fascinating story of the rain’s interview, Karen’s story of a bird of prey were all testimonies of character hiding in every little dust speck and crack in the table to pillars and cathedrals. By then, we were all washed over by  an evocative writer’s high. As we called it a day, and exited the lovely Central Library, even the dustbins seemed to have a story to tell!