Put some ‘Spring Fling’ in your Step!

IMG_7755Spring Fling, in May of each year, is Scotland’s leading visual art and craft open studio event. It spans the whole of Dumfries and Galloway, our region here in south west Scotland. It’s getting close to the end of June now, some weeks since I made the tour of my chosen studios over the Spring Fling weekend but I like to think about it for a while afterwards, letting what I have seen percolate and work its magic. Every year the event fills me with joy and prompts me to share a little of it with others. 

I expect you are wondering what an art event like this has got to do with a blog about writing fiction? Well, it’s partly because tapping into the incredible creativity in the environment where I live  inspires me to create too. It’s because artists, like writers, use their skills to draw someone to their work and their techniques and experience to make their work the best it can be. They strive to create new worlds, new perspectives, to enthrall anyone who stops by to sample their work and hopes they will leave satisfied and wanting more. But mainly it’s because art teaches me to pay attention which is also at the root of all good writing. 

On the sunny morning of May 30th 2016, I sat in the park at Castle Douglas waiting for the mini bus to arrive and take our small group east, along the Pink Route IMG_7932that traverses the Glenkens area. While I waited I was entertained by a feisty gull IMG_7752_2marching up and down on the grass near my seat and squawking at me. I noticed that the inside of his mouth and throat was scarlet. That certainly got my attention.

Our first stop was Threave Garden and Estate on the outskirts of Castle Douglas where Lucy Hadley’s work caught my eye in the large open space by the visitor centre and cafe. It would liked to talk to her in addition to seeing her work and the video she had made, but she wasn’t well that day. However, her friend Helen was there and told me a little about her and gave me permission to photograph some of her work. Lucy has recently graduated and, perhaps because of this, there is a fresh, playful quality to her work,  a blend of traditional techniques and modern digital practice.  All her work starts out with with inked lines before moving on to rollers and brushes loaded with ink or paint to build uptexture. Here are two of her pieces (it was hard to escape the reflections from all the lights above). IMG_7703 IMG_7704 I love houses and boats so I was smitten straight away and her sketchbooks,IMG_7705 laid out for us to see, were a joy to leaf through. In them you could clearly see how she started out as a graphic artist and evolved into the illustrator she is now. I hope we will get to see more of her work next year.

Lucy’s work shared this studio space with another artist, Catriona Taylor. What is really interesting and innovative about her work is that she uses google earth imagery, maps and shipping forecasts to create Scottish landscape and seascape collages. No-one seemed to be around so it didn’t feel right to take photos. Here is an example of her work  from the Spring Fling catalogue, as she will have given permission for that to appear in print.

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We had fabulous warm and sunny weather to enjoy the long winding country lanes that led to fine art photographer Phil McMenemy’s studio in Laurieston. I have been itching to go there for a long while and it doesn’t disappoint, so  light and airy and hung with a surprising variety of work, some of it quiet, spare and still, 

IMG_7710 others exploding with colour and movement:

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What they all have in common is his signature skill, the play of light on his subject.

This bench outside his studio is an example of Phil’s humour. He will always give you a warm welcome but you may get your leg pulled, too.

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Next up was the lovely light-filled studio of the very personable Jo Gallant in Mossdale, and her lovely, black, sun-basking cat.

IMG_7721Jo works with fine fabrics, translucent silks, and cotton velvets that are hand dyed and embroidered and made into cushions, scarves and wall hangings featuring aspects of the surrounding landscape like this little row of houses. The fabrics seem to draw you in, just asking to be touched.

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Here is a page from Jo’s sketchbook showing swallows that have recently come to visit our region.

Then it was on to Amy Winstanley’s studio in Crossmichael. Hers may not be work that is to everyone’s taste as it is not representational in the way so many people expect art to be (why?) but I loved it. Look at this: IMG_7728 I could stare at this one for hours and keep seeing something different (apologies for the very odd angle; I was trying to avoid reflections). I loved the wonderful oil-painty smell of her studio space and got excited by the mass of tubes and brushes on her table.

IMG_7726She enjoys exploring abstract themes like emotion or memory, primarily in paint, but often brings photography and sound to her practice. She is also interested in man’s relationship with nature. I spotted this gorgeous example of what I see as a flower in bright dappled light (but you may see something else). Just gorgeous.IMG_7729I wish I had asked questions but there was a small sofa in her studio and on it was a whippet that she was looking after for the day and, as this is my favourite breed of dog, it stole much of my attention.

From there we drove to Kirkpatrick Durham, a lovely village with a number of studios to visit along the high street. IMG_7732Among these was the working forge of artist and Eminent Master Blacksmith Adam Boothwhere he creates contemporary sculptural metal works IMG_7736using traditional techniques but modern equipment. He gave us a (mildly) noisy and sparky demonstration and it was amazing to see a dull rod of metal heat up and morph into an elegant leaf and stem within minutes. It was passed around our group and the last person to hold it got to keep it.

In the centre of Kirkpatrick Durham a pop-up tea room had been organsied in the village hall for the duration of Spring Fling. It was a welcome pit-stop for us, by now, hungry and thirsty travellers. Apart from food being served here, there were also more artists displaying work on stalls around the edge of the hall.

I was completely blown away by the work of Karen Menarry on one stall in particular which turned out to be the highlight of my Spring Fling journey this year: 

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Karen  is primarily a print maker and the inspiration for her projects springs from her love of coastal towns and how they are affected by time. I found her series of Kirkpatrick Durham houses bright, innovative, skilfully and precisely made and utterly charming. I would have a whole street of these houses on my wall if I could. What is so amazing about these houses is that they are exact replicas of real houses in Kirkpatrick Durham, and Karen has researched the history of each of these houses so meticulously that the people and objects that appear behind the recessed windows are representations of the people that have lived in them, with some of their belongings. 

Better still she has created a series of beautiful hand-made, small and larger, concertina style books that feature these houses. Well I don’t know about you but I’m saving up for one.

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After lunch we visited a studio in Corsock which was being shared by a pair of artists Natalie Vardey and Amanda Simmons because, in addition to their own striking and individual work, they have collaborated on a sculptural jewellery project.  They were also serving strawberry tarts in the studio that looked so delicate I wasn’t sure if they were edible (real) at first or another of their projects.    

The first thing you notice about Amanda is her smile and it seems to have been distilled somehow into her joyful work. She creates kiln formed glass, in a way that she has honed to perfection over the last ten years, while still finding time to experiment with new ideas such as a large vessel collection. I’m so disappointed that none of my photos of her work came out successfully, so I have included a photo from a the Spring Fling catalogue, because you really have to see it. IMG_7931It’s a bit grainy but aren’t those elegant shapes and blends of vibrant colour astonishing? And here is one of series of prototypes for a barn she is working on, which I adore.

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Natalie creates jewellery of fabulous quality in silver and gold and with the most gorgeous fat, lustrous pearls, IMG_7745 IMG_7746producing necklaces, earrings and brooches (not good photos, sorry, due to the lower light conditions towards late afternoon) that take your breath away   Truly. Look at these earrings; so fine, they could be lace.   

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She had a replica of her workspace in the studio to showcase her tools and working materials, and it came with a replica of the view outside her window, too, which made me smile. A lovely idea.

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We had to leave out one studio due to an accident blocking the only direct road to it and returned to Castle Douglas where I just had time to visit my last studio, that of Michal Sur, in the gallery next to the central library. Michal specialises in fine art black-and-white infrared photography inspired by the Scottish landscape and with a special interest in trees and ruined buildings. He told me he walks for miles looking for the right tree. I asked him if he gets excited when he finally comes across one and he nodded as if he would prefer not to admit to that.

He is finding inspiration on our Scottish islands at the moment. 

IMG_7753Though I don’t feel this is his finest tree photo, I loved the unusual perspective. And it reminded me of my childhood in India where you would often see trees growing through buildings. He also had cards for sale, so you could go home with miniature versions of some his work.

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It was a packed day and lasted from 10 am to around 4.30 pm, though the day is flexible and it’s length depends on how long you want to spend in any studio. And the the cost? £10 for my minibus ticket and free entry to all the studios. At no time do you feel you are obliged to buy anything, though I’m sure the artists would love it if you did. There is always a range of smaller pieces or cards for anyone whose budget doesn’t stretch very far, and business cards to take away so you can get in touch later if you want to.

Doesn’t all that sound wonderful? Doesn’t it make you want to go? Maybe see you here next year, then?

My grateful thanks to all the artists who allowed me to photograph their work and trusted me to write about it in a way they would be happy with. I’ve loved meeting you all and being able to share a little of what you do.

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Wigtown’s Pop-Up Story & A Wee Taster

Hello Everybody,

Spring Fling, in May of  each year, is regarded as one of the UK’s most successful contemporary visual art and craft events, spanning the whole of Dumfries and Galloway here in South West Scotland. Close to a hundred artists and makers across our region open their studios to the public while a variety of art projects take place in various venues outside these as well. One of the art projects this year is the ‘Pop- up Story’ in Wigtown and I’d like to tell you about this one in particular because it looks as if it’s going to be a lot of fun.

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Pop Up Story is led by Gill White as Spring Fling & Wigtown Book Festival artist-in-residence. I met her at the Wigtown Book Festival last September and caught up with her again a few days ago to ask her a few quick questions. I wanted to let you know a  little bit about her as an artist and to tell you what she was doing back in Wigtown over the Spring Fling period. This is how it went:

Q. Hi Gill, It’s great to have you back in Wigtown. I wonder if you could tell us what sort of artist you are.

I am a Digital Creative, Writer, Director and Producer of design and film led interactive experiences. My artistic practice blends visual art,film, animation, creative writing and storytelling. Each project features site-specific interactive, films and participatory artworks designed for audiences to interact and have fun through collective play and storytelling.

I am part of Columbia University Digital Lab – Learn Do Share (LDS) network. This is a grassroots innovation engine; a combination of events, labs and peer production. We are a community for open collaboration, design fiction and social innovation. The three words LEARN, DO and SHARE embody our philosophy: we learn from everyone. We do by prototyping. We share what we learn.

I am a mentor and collaborator on Sherlock Holmes & the Internet of Things, http://sherlockholmes.io a live prototype developed and run by the Columbia University Digital Storytelling Lab and Learn Do Share, www.learndoshare.net. The project explores new forms and functions of story. Designed to be an open R&D space that experiments with shifts in authorship and ownership of stories, the massive collaboration also uses a detective narrative to examine the policy and ethical issues surrounding the Internet of Things.

I am also visiting lecturer for MA Screenwriting students at Napier Universities Screen Academy Scotland. Featuring the Sherlock Holmes and the Internet of things I taught design workshops to introduce the students to ways to tackle creative challenges by harnessing storytelling, interactive play, designing thinking to spark a collective imagination.

You can visit my website to see my portfolio at www.gillwhite.com

Q That’s interesting, thanks. We saw you in Wigtown during the Book Festival last year and you are here again for Spring Fling, but where are you usually based? And what are you up to the remainder of the year?

I am based in Edinburgh but I have projects all over the UK.

Recent film commissions include for Creative Stirling, with Stirling Development Agency and Stirling Council is part of co-created Augmented Reality public artwork for the new Seaforth Place building which will be launched in September. The new artwork will use integrated augmented reality (AR) technology and in featuring content made by artists working with the local community. As part of a public engagement strategy to celebrate local heroes. I am currently filming a series of short documentaries about the schools pioneering Daily Mile scheme which aims to ensure all of its pupils walk or run a mile every day. It has been a joy to film the pupils and teachers they are so happy and energetic!

I am an Engagement Artist for Edinburgh Festival and Kings Theatre Edinburgh.  I deliver workshops in multiple settings, supporting the participation work at both the Kings and Festival Theatres and outreach in schools and communities, in and around Edinburgh. After Spring Fling I will be back working with a wonderful group of pupils at Braidburn School to create a fun comedy stop frame animation for the Awfey Huge Variety Show at the Festival Theatre on the 22nd June.

Q. You are back in Wigtown to run the ‘Pop up Story’. Can you tell us a bit more about what that’s about? 

Pop-Up Story is for people to write, draw, make and have fun through collective storytelling. IMG_5836

The focus of the first part of my residency at Wigtown Book Festival was celebrating a love of words, visitors and locals were my inspiration and I collated a lovely imaginative collection of stories that everyone can enjoy at Spring Fling.

For this years Spring Fling I am celebrating craft work by blending interactive design principles and storytelling. My ‘studio’ in the Supper Room (in the County Buildings in Wigtown) will feature new interactive, craft, books and print work.

I ‘m really looking forward to being back in wonderful Wigtown for Spring Fling as I had lots of fun meeting everyone at Wigtown Book Festival.

Q. It’s a workshop experience?

It is like a 3 day art event that you can dip in and out of, take part in or just come and relax and enjoy seeing what folk have made.IMG_5833

I’m inviting everyone to come and experience a spring smorgasbord of fun interactive experiences designed for all ages. With lots to see, make and do from playing and designing with new tech to writing, drawing and reading Wigtown crafted stories, each different element is designed for everyone to have fun with creating interactive things and to come together to celebrate collective storytelling at Wigtown.

That’s great Gill, thank you. And thanks for sending me the the video at the bottom of this page, showing us what’s in store for Pop-Up Story.

Pop-Up Story is at the Supper Room, County Buildings, Wigtown, 28th-30th May

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The County Buildings, Wigtown

www.pop-up–story.com

 

Here is a wee taster for you……

 

We hope to see you there…..

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Ian McEwan: What The Character ‘Saw’.

I used to read all of Ian McEwan’s books and then stopped, somewhere between ‘Saturday’ and ‘Sweet Tooth’. I find his writing precise, cerebral, often cold.  Some of the dialogue seems implausible, while some of his turns of phrase take my breath away. I admire his range. He covers a wide variety of subjects and is not afraid to tackle the female point of view which I think he does pretty successfully.  IMG_6966Lately I borrowed ‘The Children Act’ (published in 2014)  and noticed something that, if you enjoy writing fiction, might be worth a mention. 

It is a common thing for an author to invent characters who examine their feelings, or to present a situation that suggests how characters are feeling. Characters may confide in others in dialogue or overtly interpret the actions, words or body language of others. Rarely in contemporary fiction have I noticed a character SENSE the needs or desires of another character. And yet, in real life, we do this all the time, usually when we know someone very well but also when we are trying to ‘read’ someone we don’t know well.

I am aware of the technique of using a character’s gut response to interpret and convey the feelings of another and yet, because these are everyday responses we all make and are so easily taken for granted, I am not sure I have used them to my advantage in my writing and I’m sure I have overlooked many more instances of them in my, rather rapid, reading.

Here are some examples from ‘The Children Act’:

In this one, a man senses a change in his wife’s mood.

“He caught the flatness of her tone and looked at her differently.”   (page207)

And here he becomes aware of something beyond the surface pleasure he has taken in the sound of a piece of music.

“The Mahler he would need to hear again because he sensed an enormous reservoir of feeling in it but he couldn’t quite connect first time around.”  (page 206)

In the next two examples McEwan uses the word “saw” but this character is ‘seeing’ not so much in the sense of perceiving her husband’s response, as much as connecting with this man she knows intimately, from somewhere inside herself. Her sense of his need is an awareness of him at a much deeper level.

“She saw that his wish was to get back quickly to where they were before the concert, and she felt sorry for him. He was doing his best. Soon he would want to kiss her.” (page 205)

and

“He was wanting to fulfil the promise of a wonderful evening, to put their marriage back together, kiss her, open the bottle, take her to bed, make everything easy between them once more. She knew him well, she saw all this…”  (p207)

For all the distance between them at this moment they are deeply connected. Notice the words “was wanting”; it’s ongoing. She is sensing this as he stands in front of her.

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A young Ian McEwan  from the back cover of his first short story collection: ‘First Love, Last Rites. Photo by Robin Cracknell.

 Human bodies and brains constantly create and respond to signals that allow us to intuit information (that may or may not be accurate). There is something  useful to be learned here; something that offers a writer the potential to create greater depth in, and resonance between, characters. Or, alternatively, to generate a schism between them.

Beginner writers are told that it is important to be aware of their five senses (touch, taste, smell and so on), when they write. But what of this sixth sense? It seems to me this one is especially important because it is so subtle and yet so powerful.

Have you tried this and found it a useful technique? If not, why not give it some thought the next time you are creating new characters.

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Plot Potential?

It’s getting wintery up here in Western Scotland. So far our little corner has escaped both floods and snow but not the chill. I  haven’t posted for a while, mainly because I am reading and writing mostly poetry now and  sadly haven’t really created a  place for that here – and also because I am sewing a lot.

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A wee Scottish house

During a few difficult years between 2013 and 2015 I began sewing by hand as a sort of therapy and enjoyed it so much I haven’t been able to stop. It is enormously time consuming and keeps me away from so many other things I could or should be doing.

However, I have recently read a book that I have to tell you about. It was published back in 2005 and might not be as easy to get hold of as a new book, but it’s well worth adding to your writer’s shelf.

It’s called ‘Short Stories and their Making’. It is an anthology but one with a difference; an anthology “with interviews”, edited by Paul Mandelbaum, an author himself, who went in search of writers of his favourite stories and asked each of them what he wanted to know about how and why they had written them.

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There are 12 stories in the book and Mandelbaum explains that they are “remarkable not just for their overall fineness and the reading pleasures they offer, but also for the exemplary use to which they put one of the following elements of fiction writing: character, plot, point of view and voice, setting, structure and theme.” Two stories appear under each of these headings and each story is followed by a discussion of several pages.

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An  idea of the contents

In this post I want to use the first story in the collection to make a few points that I thought would be particular interest. The story is called The Hoaxer and the writer is  American novelist, literary critic and essayist, Walter Kirn.

This story focuses on the father son relationship (but can also be applied to any parent/child relationship). Kirn describes this as a “mysterious relationship”, because although it is one of the most important of our lives, it is not one we choose. Many stories centre around relationships of affinity, love and friendship, but the one of parent/child is significant because it is “thrust” at us. Not only that, but one of the parties is in a position of huge power whereas the other is “extraordinarily vulnerable and impressionable”. Kirn describes the childs situation as a state of continual action (from the parent) and reaction (from the child) to someone much larger than himself/herself. Certainly a relationship with someone we haven’t chosen suggests a stack of material to be explored and dramatized.

Kirn makes some interesting observations about family: He says, “our family experiences narrow our options in life. The kinds of behavior and outlooks that we learn and have modeled for us tend to set us on a fairly narrow path…….character will be formed accordingly. Our parents dump a set of preoccupations and predicaments and aptitudes and inaptitudes on our doorsteps which are ours…. Success in dealing with them seems to be defined by how honestly or fully” you are able to achieve this.

Adolescence, he says, is “one of the most dramatic times of life because this is when we move from partial knowledge to a fuller knowledge of who we are… and then we are handed or backpack and told to march with what’s in our bag.“ Adolescents, caught between the various currents that power their lives, “journey through the forest or their parents mistakes, exaggerations and misrepresentations to find the truth.”

To me, these observations, obvious and yet profound, crackle with plot potential.

In discussing character Kirn says that a failed character often results from having simply dreamed up and idea and clothed it. Many beginner writers may be guilty of creating an imaginary person in this way. Kirn says he uses memory to bring to him the habits, dress and behaviour of people he has come across that fit the character he is looking for.  If he has a character that has a tendency to lie, he will think of people he has known who have shared this tendency.  He finds this helps when beginning to  form a character that is more real, more believable.

Again on character, Kirn says, “Every character is a problem and you have to know the problem that drives them” and ask “What is the dissatisfaction or the difficulty that keep them moving?”  Most books on writing tell us that our main character has to desire something. Faulkner famously said that character has to desire something even if its just a glass of water. I found Kirn’s way of putting this more useful, more interesting. Not a desire but an inherent difficulty. This is not quite the same starting point. A character may not at first be conscious of a motivating desire but the problem is already there.

This is a wonderful book for a writer of any skill level,

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The featured writers

an all too rare insight into the decisions made before and during the writing of a story. I have read all the stories in the anthology and I am now on my second reading of them. I feel one or two more posts coming on from what I have read here; stuff that is just too valuable not to share.

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Ah Yes, the Workshop

Way back in September I promised you a post on the workshop I attended at the Wigtown Book Festival this year. I have been putting this off, because, to be honest, I was disappointed.

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The tent where our workshop was held. The heating wasn’t doing much to warm the tent, so we were each given a hot water bottle. Lovely.

It was not because the workshop wasn’t interesting, or potentially useful, or led by someone who didn’t know what they were talking about. On the contrary, she was a young, personable and enthusiastic novelist who managed our large group of English, Scots and European men and women with confidence. So, what was the problem? I think it was me.

I have had enough of workshops. I don’t know why I keep going to them. They are consistently disappointing. I think I have reached the stage where they very rarely teach me anything I don’t know. Of course that doesn’t mean I practise it, nor does it mean I do any of it well. But I know this stuff. What I need now is to write and to read and to write some more and read some more.What I need is exposure to screeds of good writing and to make room for lots more writing practice. I don’t need any more workshops. I don’t need to be told what I can try.  I have built-in, well-honed, gut feelings that I can call upon to sculpt the result I am looking for from a block of words in front of me. I need to fine tune what I already know.

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A visitor at an earlier Book Festival, absorbed in a book.

I think workshops are best for aspiring writers, beginner writers, insecure writers, possibly for writers wanting to move from one genre to another and perhaps also for writers in a community who work better with the support of friends. Frequently published, experienced writers are likely to benefit from something more meaty than a regular workshop, mentoring sessions perhaps, from writers more experienced than themselves, where it’s taken for granted that all the groundwork was covered long ago.

So, back to this workshop. The remit of the workshop was “the possibilities created by breaking free from traditional, realist methods of storytelling.” We were asked what we were particularly interested in exploring:

“Non linear writing,” I said. I wanted to hear she had to say about this and what the group made of it.

“Great” she said, ” ‘cos that’s what we’ll be doing.”

Later I said to the friend sitting next to me, “what happened to the non- linear writing?”

“Well,” she said, “that wasn’t what the majority were interested in.”

I’ve done some  teaching.  I tell my students what I plan to cover at the beginning. I recap on what I’ve covered at the end. And if there is something I may not be able to cover I say so before the session gets underway, and why, and I try to refer people to places where they might find what are looking for, if I can’t help. But of course, this wasn’t ‘teaching’ in a serious series-of-sessions-over-time sense. It was a workshop at a festival. Perhaps it was intended to be a bit of fun. Perhaps, as usual, I was taking things too seriously and being too critical. But I wanted so much to learn something new or discover a different perspective.

Throughout this workshop we came up with idioms,  sayings and common turns of phrase and imagined the consequences if these were interpreted literally. An example might be ‘It gets under my skin’, or  ‘all he touches turned to gold” or ‘once in a blue moon’ or ‘be born with a silver spoon in your mouth’ and so on. We did this over and over, coming up with a range of scenarios. We did some brief plotting, writing and reading out.

I was amazed by the plots people came up with in a matter of minutes. There were some born storytellers there. And there were first-time writers there that went away stimulated and encouraged. That, you might say, is the key to a successful workshop.

Me, I had tried this idea before in my flash fiction, with some success. Certainly, given thought and a careful choice of idiom, it can offer interesting results. I can recommend it as a useful way of finding ideas for Flash Fiction which does lend itself to slightly surreal subject matter such as this.  Maybe it would be work for Sci Fi and Horror stories too. If you feel inclined, why not give it a try?

No more workshops for me, though. No more searching for lightbulb moments anywhere other than in the work front of me; in my reading or my writing.

Try this:

Find an idiom or other saying that interests you. Ask, “what if this were real? What would mean for people; for the world they live in. Put someone in this situation, this world. How would he or she deal with it? What might happen?”

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Au Revoir Wigtown, Until Next Year.

Hello Everybody,

The rolling hills of Wigtownshire, towards evening.

The rolling hills of Wigtownshire, towards evening.

Yet another Wigtown Book Festival has come and gone in lovely weather. I noticed this interesting car  (see pic below) outside one of our bookshops, IMG_5823 perfect for the sunshine we had over the whole week of our festival. Who says Scotland isn’t warm and sunny? And there wasn’t a midge to be seen.  I love the way Wigtown comes alive at this time. Suddenly it’s harder to find a convenient parking spot, the little supermarket runs out of milk (both unheard of at other times) and the streets are full of people who are clearly not local, walking purposefully in all directions.

The Book Festival gets better, larger and more interesting, with ticket sales rising, each year. There was more variety in subject matter this year I thought and a chance to enjoy a number of less well known writers (at least to me) as well being able to get excited about the big names There was more poetry this year, too, which was great to see. I hope that continues in subsequent years.  There are always a couple of workshops, and this year they were organised by staff at Moniak Mhor (www.moniakmhor.org.uk)

to give us a taste of what goes on at their Creative Writing Centre further north, near Inverness.  I went to one that was entitled ‘Challenging Reality’ (but more of that in my next post)
The tent sponsored by Scottish Power, seen through railings.

The tent sponsored by Scottish Power, seen through railings.

Every year huge tents spring up in the centre of Wigtown, to contain books, speakers and audiences as well as stalls selling artwork, handicrafts and local foods, but there are also quirky things that pop up in and around the tents. IMG_5803My favourite this year was ‘The Message Board’ with photographs of our visiting celebs holding chalkboards on which they had written a message. Some messages were admonitions: “Stop making excuses and just go!”, some gave food for thought: “Is a thing lost if you know where it is?” And there were also quotations like this one, a favourite of mine from Emily Dickinson:

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The Message Board: A close-up.

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Liz Lochead signing books in the festival bookshop tent.

I went to hear the poet Liz Lochead reading her poems, which was very entertaining because she has the same wonderful sense of humour when she speaks as when she writes. I managed to get a quick snap of her signing books in the Festival Bookshop after the talk.

I’m rather embarrassed to say that although I’m familiar with many of her poems, I hadn’t realised she had worked with theatrical groups for years and written a few plays. She read us an extract from the beginning of ‘Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off’ and it was funny and spooky and completely riveting. I’ll have to read more of that.

On October 1st I went to hear Thomas Pakenham reading from the latest book in his ‘tree-logy,’ ‘The Company of Trees’. This was also my son’s birthday and as he is head arborist at RHS Wisley I thought it would a great birthday present if I attended the talk, bought the book, got it signed by the great man himself and sent it off to Wisley.  (As Thomas Pakenham signed the book for me and we exchanged a few words, he told me he was going to Wisley that weekend.  I would love to have asked if he would deliver it for me by hand – but decided that would be way too cheeky)

Thomas Pakenham in the County Hall, getting ready to speak.

Thomas Pakenham in the County Hall, getting ready to speak.

Anyway, just before I left to catch the bus I checked my timetable, only to realise this bus didn’t stop at Wigtown.  I doubted if I could walk there in time, I didn’t feel I could ask a friend to take me and the next bus wasn’t until half way through the talk. So, I did something I haven’t done since I was a teenager: I stuck out my thumb! Eventually someone stopped, a couple who, coincidentally, were going to the same talk. I got to Wigtown with a little time to spare so I dropped into a cafe to recover, from what felt like a close shave, and saw this sign.

Floor sign in the Glaisnoch Cafe, Wigtown.

Floor sign in the Glaisnoch Cafe, Wigtown.

I must say the coffee worked a treat.

For me, the highlight of the festival was meeting the artist-in-residence this year, Gill White, and hearing about her art project, the  ‘Pop-Up Story’, designed for people to be able to share and swap stories both during the Book Festival and when she returns to Wigtown for next year’s Spring Fling.  Her work is designed with the intention that “people will interact, either by walking through it, adding to it, or taking parts away” Find out more on her website and blog at http://www.gillwhite.com.

A range of stories hanging up across the room; stories swapped and shared by visitors.

A range of stories hanging up across the room; stories swapped and shared by visitors.

You don’t really get an opportunity to speak to the writers, other than a brief exchange when they are signing a book for you, but you can learn so much from the artists, always enthusiastic and welcoming and happy to answer questions. I love this because it makes me feel included; really part of the festival, rather than listening to  an elevated speaker from a chair at the back of a tent. Though that can be good too.

My next post will cover the workshop  on Challenging Reality that I mentioned above and then it will be time to return to  my Writers Repair Kit posts, which, after all,  is the point of this blog. I realize it’s been quite a while since I did any and I am hoping there will be quieter periods over the winter, with fewer demands on my time, to be able to create a series of helpful posts.

Early morning in Wigtown: Market stalls during the last week of the festival.

A quiet start to the morning in Wigtown: Market stalls during the last week of the festival.

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Experimental Fiction

IMG_5558Hi Everybody,

Experimental Fiction: What is it?

The brief definition offered by a book I am about to recommend  says it is “the intention… to experiment and create fiction that sets out to break new ground and deviate from traditional realist fiction. ”

Such deviations have taken countless forms over the years which is one of the reasons why experimental fiction is often described in terms of what it is not, rather than what it is. And it is not new, in the sense that art is always innovating but in the 21st century we are now able to bring new ideas to more people, more quickly than ever before.

I have wanted to learn more about experimental fiction for some time and put what I already knew about it, into context. Coming across new ways to structure stories excites me and I am always impatient to try them these out for myself. However, having recently written one short story backwards and another one in numbered sections that jump across time, I get the feeling that experimental fiction is probably a whole lot more fun to write than it is for others to read.

Despite this, I do feel that linear realist novels and traditional plots now come across as tired and a tad formulaic, and this is especially true of short fiction, so I am interested to come across growing numbers of writers (and not just the big names) deviating from old patterns to demonstrate what stories can be capable of.

At the same time I can’t help feeling feel caught between a sense that some forms are no longer the best fit for our contemporary world and that we should be open to something that may be a more appropriate fit, and finding many of my recent discoveries  difficult to appreciate, understand even, let alone enjoy, a consequence of being asked to experience something in a way that traditional readers and writers are not prepared for or equipped to do.

Here are some of the things you might expect to find in a work of experimental fiction; often the opposite of what is accepted as essential in a classic story:

  • No epiphany
  • Characters that don’t grow or change; that are replaced by what Philip Stevick calls “a perceiving mind” rather than a character.
  • ‘Plots’ that are fragmented, non linear, cyclical, mosaic, shapeless, jump around in time, are anti climactic, exploratory and/or without any single overriding idea or theme
  • Interruptions, commentaries and asides
  • Anti real or fantastical
  • A resistance to introspection, to action even.
  • Extremes of experience and behaviour.
  • A disappearance of plot altogether. This is seen as too contrived as life is not shaped in such a way.
  • Includes multiple texts such as letters, lists, emails or song lyrics 

So, why this book?   IMG_5555

Its a good starting point; a non academic book of less than two hundred pages for the reader or writer, who wants to know more about major themes in 20th century experimental fiction and where the novel might be headed in the new era, beyond postmodernism. 

The book is called Experimental Fiction by Julie Armstrong and is published by Bloomsbury. It is organised into four parts, Modernism, The Beats, Postmodernism and the New Era and these are preceded by an introduction and followed by a conclusion. Each part includes five or six chapters in which the author discusses Realism, Anti Novels built from scraps, Electronic, Hyper and Interactive Fiction, the Gender Crises and much more.

I particularly like the two columns in the introduction that clearly list what Traditional Realist Fiction attempts to do, against what Experimental Fiction attempts to do. Some of the writers referred to are Joyce, Woolf, Kafka, Proust, Ellison, Ginsberg, Kerouac, Calvino, Winterson and up to a dozen more, yet though although their work is discussed and some quotations provided, in the main it is up to the reader to find examples of their work elsewhere. At first I thought this was an oversight; I wanted to see examples to better understand the points the author was making, but each section is followed by a reading list which does allow you to follow up these points and to make further discoveries of your own. In retrospect this is probably more valuable. You may also want to check out ‘Anti Story: An Anthology of Experimental Fiction’ by Philip Stevick that gives a flavour of the work of a range of experimental writers. 

The Down Side:

Sadly there are an awful lot of typos, missing letters and other mistakes in the book, as well as short passages that are repeated at the beginning of each section, which is rather off-putting, but I urge you to try to ignore those if you can, as the content is broad ranging and engaging.

Sample pages

Sample pages

Exercises: 

When I saw there were exercises, I was delighted, especially as each exercise is designed  to elicit a particular kind of writing, but of the exercises are difficult, like this one:

“Imagine you are one of the Beats in a club listening to jazz and engaging in conversation” (p67)…..This is “learning to create writing that mirrors Jazz.”

A jazz club in America , in the 1950’s, where conversations were likely to be about music, politics and drugs? Would most people find imagining themselves into this world do-able off the cuff? It requires quite some imagination, prior knowledge or research, I think.

What about this one on Twitter Fiction? You are asked to write a complete story in up to 140 characters. Challenging maybe, but more do-able

There are around three exercises per chapter, so there is plenty to choose from.

Just before I close I want to tell you that The Wigtown Book Festival, (Scotland’s National Book Festival)

The road from my house leads to Wigtown

The road from my house leads to Wigtown

 is just around the corner, at the end of September, and I have a ticket to a work shop on Non Linear Fiction. I can’t wait to see what that is all about and I will of course let you know anything I learn that is of interest. I will also be writing posts on various  other aspects of the Festival too, which I hope you will enjoy. Perhaps  I will see some of you there? You can find the Festival Programme here in case you would like to see what’s on offer….

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