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Month: July 2011

Pith helmets of their own

Pith helmets “There is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall.” Cyril Connolly
I don’t have a pram in the hall, but I do have a dozen pith helmets. These are my enemy. Or so I tell myself. I don’t write, I say, because, as Virginia Woolf complains in A Room of One’s Own, we women never have half an hour that we can call our own. There’s the school run (twice a day), meal times (three times a day, if you count packed lunches), washing (four times a week), home work (once a week), fighting about time spent playing computer games (seven times plus a week), cleaning (depends if I’m wearing my glasses or not). That’s the bare minimum of the Mummying. Then there’s being a wife/partner/home maker/lover (hah). And then the professional working woman, which goes alongside being a functional member of society with clean hair on your head and no hair any where else. And friends, everyone likes to have friends. And friendships for your child – these need to be enabled and cultivated through play dates and the PTA and joint trips to amusements.
However, its not all this that is the problem. It’s not the physical time that’s the problem. Anyone can find half and hour, even an hour, to put pen to paper. It’s the absence of space in my head that’s the problem. In just the few moments after I woke up this morning, I covered: how do you make an explorer themed cake, green like a jungle or yellow like a sandy island, or is that too piratey? What does it mean if the school don’t realise that my son is better at ICT than art? Will he be ok in a class without his best friend next year? Can I get that tea cosy finished before we go on holiday? When should I start packing? How much can I advance plan the school winter fair to avoid organisation clashing with course assignments in November? Should I wait for feedback from my client on case studies on the Mental Capacity Act or have a go at making them up? Is there any milk left for breakfast? Is there enough in the bank account to pay for the shopping? And do I have enough pith helmets?
This stream of thoughts and worries carries on all day. Where is the room in my brain for creative writing, creative thinking, for my story? It’s in there, but crammed at the back under all this other stuff (a bit like the hoover in the cupboard under our stairs). Perhaps therein lies the answer: worry less and get on with it. Whenever I need to hoover (note need not want), I have to dig the thing out of the cupboard. Every time I do it, I think about how much the cupboard needs tidying. And then I shove the hoover back in. I need to stop thinking about some things in order to make some space for my writing. (Is there a mixed metaphor in there? I don’t know. I don’t care! Hah!)
So, as of Sunday I am going to practise ignoring the debris in my head in order to find some space to write. Why Sunday? Because on Saturday I will be running my child’s birthday party and it will be a birthday party to go down in the annals of birthday parties (the annals that exclude entry to any parent who can afford to pay for a circus or Justin Fletcher). There will be home sewn party bags containing educational toys and a book on explorers created by me, jungle food, handmade bunting, inflatable jungle animals, codes to break, games to develop explorer skills and, oh yes, little explorers in pith helmets. Is it maybe possible that I’m directing my creative energies in the wrong direction?

Too much bling?

Bling Can you have too much bling in creative writing? By bling I mean the twinkling words, the sparkling similes and the glittering metaphors that adorn many simple stories. Recently, I’ve been to a couple of readings of work in progress, short stories, novels and monologues. There was lots of bling on show and it was usually commented upon positively by the audience (admittedly an audience biased towards other writerly types). Initially, I was intimidated (the natural response of the irritatingly insecure). Then I began to wonder. Is more really more? Individual phrases sounded gorgeous, but where they weren’t a natural part of the whole, or there were just too many of them, the effect was to render the piece …what? Ephemeral? Meaningless? All pudding and no main course, leaving you a little bit sicky and unsatisfied (and sometimes plain confused).
My literary heroine, Angela Carter, could conjure magic with words, but without using words for words’ sake. Take those wonderful introductions to the short stories. The curlicue descriptions create atmosphere, feeling that breathes life into the story. They are not optional decoration. Every word is just the right word. Every image just the right one. Just as a great cook can add a pinch of spice that adds depth. However, another heroine, Maggie Gee, writes clean, simple prose that sings with meaning.
The words and the images need to be part of the story. Lovely metaphors might be lovely, but they have no place in a monologue from a character who would not use such language. Should I get so tangled up in a description of something that I lose sight of what is happening, what the meaning is, what the story is? Our words need to communicate something, in a compelling and precise way. They are tools not decoration.
Of course, the reason this struck me in other people’s writing is that I am conscious that I can have a tendency to over-egg my own prose. Sometimes phrases are just so gorgeous that you can’t bear to let them go. Sometimes you have an urge to ‘go literary’ and (mistakenly I think) turn up the poetic to achieve this. I love words but I need to remember to maintain mastery over them and not let them run rampant and get all show-offy. When contemplating that box of bling, I need to ask: ‘Would Coco Chanel do it?’