Writing with a sense of place

There are various facets to this. In the real and potentially messy world of actual writing, these are likely to interact with each other. For clarity, here, I will try to keep them separate.

An earlier post has briefly covered the idea of a place for writing: the particular location that works for the person trying to get down to a solid day’s work of producing new text or editing previous writing, or simply mulling ideas over and over before writing anything. This post looks at the interplays between content and place, mostly within fictional writing.

Most writing courses and ‘how-to’ books talk about the importance of creating a strong sense of place for the reader. Writers are also encouraged to jump straight in to some key bit of the action as soon as possible. So how much scene-setting is preferred? If go for a long introduction, the reader may turn off before the plot can grip them. If start with the action, is it feasible to backfill the setting at some later time without losing momentum? Or is it possible to embed sufficient detail into the ongoing action so that a sense of place is built up as one goes along?

Certainly it needs a bit more than some basic ‘It was a dark and stormy night …’ opening to a dreary melancholic tale. And probably less than the multiple pages of long detailed descriptions of landscape, weather, foliage, wildlife etc. that are common to the long, slow build-up beginnings to some novels from years ago.

There is a view that readers today are a bit impatient and want the interest to get going as soon as possible. This may be true of some readers, of a certain type of book. There may, equally, be readers who want to take time, to go slowly, to soak themselves into the characters in their setting. – and this remains a feature of certain types of book. Maybe therefore there is not one approach but a number of choices depending on the tone of book, the target audience, the view of commerciability and the inclinations of the writer.

Letting the momentum flow at an appropriate pace whilst embedding things that create a sense of place is a feasible option. It is possible to weave in emblems, symbols, local foods, language, birds unique to the area etc., so long as these are easily absorbed and accepted by the reader rather than feeling like stuffed-in blockages to the flow of the reading experience – and so long as it doesn’t reach the stage where an appendix has to be provided to translate each item.

There are particular difficulties with trying to create a sense of place through the use of local accents and dialects. In a national or international world of literature there are few strong forms of language that travel easily. It is the balance between creating the imagery of a specific location and having a worldwide readership. As a child I borrowed local dialect books from the local library and enjoyed reading them because people in my close community spoke with a legacy of that same dialect. This would not be true in the same way today. There are some dialect publications but these are seen more as low-readership and heritage-related, rather than as books for a wide readership.

The main aim for many publishers is for a relatively universal reader to be able to stay with the story and to have that experience enhanced by an appropriately-developed sense of the place where any action is taking place: enough for the reader to create images in their mind as they read; and done in a way that lets the reader become aware of the setting without realising it.

This involves more than simply stating the name of the place (‘It was a dark and stormy night in Vancouver …’), or blandly opting for urban or rural (‘It was a dark and stormy night somewhere in the endless plains of Alberta…’). It involves more than simply dropping the text into some place and leaving it there to fend for itself.

A sense of place comes from those things that turn a physical space into a social place: the numbers of people (crowded urban, sparsely rural); the physical nature (high-rises, suburban sprawl, barns and dust-tracks); the transits (train junction, traffic snarl-ups; fast-moving highways, ambling bicycles, shuffling pedestrians, wanderers and roamers); the poverties and the wealths; the shops (malls, family stores, street-side handcarts, quirky backstreet shops). There are the monuments, the signposts, the smells and the sounds. There is the feel of the place – menacing, gloomy, looming, laid-back, frenetic … In particular, there are aspects of the local culture that go a long way to defining a place.

These details, woven in where they make sense, add to the sense of place as the action is underway.

There are other considerations. Does that location hold any particular significance for the plot or for any of the characters? Has the place shaped a character? Or a character shaped the place? It is a home, or a transit camp, or a place of freedoms, or a psychological prison?

Is it that at least one key character is moving through the place, observing it, reacting to it, being part of it, being transformed by it …? Will the place be the making of them? Or the breaking of them? Or the death of them?

The more the place and characters and plotlines interdepend, the more the tale gets honed down to a certain form: Change the place and you get different character; change the characters and they will be more likely to act in particular settings; changes in characters/places reshape the actions. Maybe this is one of the ways in which a book starts to write itself.

One other potential limitation may be deep inside the writer. To what extent are a writer’s childhood experiences of growing up in a particular location key to how they are able to write, the kinds of settings they get drawn to write about, the kinds of locations they set their characters free in? Do places visited, or lived in, become the basis for settings of writings?

Can a writer only write about a place they have strong personal experience of? Delving into one’s own memories, one’s own histories, is not necessarily autobiographical as such but can be using one’s own emotional memories as a platform on which to construct varying degrees of fact or fiction.

Sometimes that is not enough to satisfy a writer’s feeling that all the details need to be correct. In a piece of my own writing it became important to know the route to Barcelona’s Diagonal thoroughfare from the small secluded square where the action began. Checking a city map was enough for that. It is easy to get more with internet searches for details of a place, photographs, street views, landmarks, dates and events.

Research (online, through books or in libraries) can pay off and be used to create feelings of authenticity. Successful novels have been written without the author ever having physically visited the place where the story is set.

The place doesn’t even have to be real. Writers down the ages have created very believable places purely from imagination: amalgams of idealised villages, cities, planets… easier done for closed worlds that the writer is free to design, describe, map and populate.

If the past is a different country then writers of historical drama have the much more difficult job of trying to transport the reader across time as well as place. Some use substantial research to create a sense of being there. In other cases, a set of hints are all that may be needed – leaving the reader to fill the gaps with their own imagined images. Done well, and with readers with enough imagination, this can work well in the same way that radio listeners can believe that the sense of place is better self-generated than the version fed to them by television.

At the end of the day, proportionality is the guideline. Too much or too little research can spoil any text. Research can be useful for stimulating the writer even if it doesn’t contribute to the final wording. When doing a doctorate on the sociology of a peripheral housing estate it felt vital to capture the ins and outs of the historical development of the small piece of land that eventually got developed into the housing area. In the final write-up almost all of it was jettisoned but it did form the basis of a free-standing account of the History of Castle Vale that now sits on the www.thewordsthething.org.uk website…

Throughout the above I have been writing not as any expert on creating a sense of place but as someone reflecting on my own writing around this topic. So how have content and place come together, in different ways and to varying degrees of success, in my own writing?

In one case, a piece of writing that sits on the www.thewordsthething.org.uk website arose been because of a visit to Vancouver and a personal interest in the public art there. It was based on a day’s wanderings and photography transcribed as a fictitious character’s experiences.

On the same website are two pieces of writing on New York which arose from a writing workshop exercise of walking around Birmingham. These two writings describe the routes taken by fictitious characters, the sights they see. It wasn’t until several years later that I visited New York for the first time and was able to retrace one of the walks in reality.

My ebook ‘It’s Murder on the Eleven’ is a light murder mystery set around the Number 11 bus route that runs for twenty-six miles round the Outer Circle route of Birmingham (a bus that I use often). The main part of that book is the fictional story but there is an added end section that is a nonfiction account of that bus route.

The main character in another ebook (‘Another Glorious Day’) is fixed in a box for the whole of the story – not something in my own experience. Even so, using a few recurring descriptions, there was a chance to set the feeling of what it was like for that person to be endlessly in that setting.

An ebook I am currently editing centres around four men temporarily thrown together in the ward of a 1950s Manchester hospital. The sense of place derives not from description of the physical layouts but from the daily routines that define ‘hospital’. As part of the editing I will need to ask myself if that is enough or whether there is more to put in about the crisp starchiness of sheets, the disinfected smell and so on. At the moment I don’t think so. It is, after all, a story of men and feelings not a descriptive text on hospitals.

Some of the poems in the ebook ‘Made in Birmingham: The Poems’ try to capture the sense of abandoned railway lines, a dank cave, agricultural areas as seen by a city-loving evacuee, and so on.

In the ebook ‘Made in Birmingham: The Tales’ – a collection of around seventy very short tales – the quirkinesses of the person in each tale depends to some extent on the location and setting they operate daily within.

The above four ebooks are detailed on the Amazon site at https://www.amazon.com/author/geoffbateson

 

As stated earlier, the above is not meant to be the definitive guide to writing with a sense of place. It is a reflection on my own approach to writing, but may still be of wider interest to others. I hope so.

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Writing in a Flash: Changing the ending

One of the core skills of a writer is to be able to write to length. Sometimes this involves stretching the word-count to get to something credible without losing the plot. Often it means chopping back and back to remove all superfluous text and cut a rambling piece down to size.  Sometimes it means complying with the word-maximum criteria of an editor, a writing competition or some other challenge.

Book-buyers may exercise their own, individual, rough and ready, on-the-spot judgement about value-for-money: The weighing of the number of pages of a novel against its cover-price; pound weight for pound cost.

How long is long enough? Does it really matter? It all depends.

There is no absolutely defined number of words that make up specific types of writing. At the same time, ‘How To’ books for writers have rarely shied away from giving their views on what might constitute ‘a proper length’ – always with the caveat that a good piece of writing  can break any rules.

Books can be Volumes, and length has been put forward as an important quality of a novel – long enough for characters to develop fully, for plots to unfold, for the narrative to arc to a natural conclusion. It is variously put as somewhere between 40,000 and 175,000 words. There are no firm rules and there is an arbitrary division, at the lower end of the word count, between a novel (more than 40,000-60,000 words?)  and a novella (maybe 15,000 to 50,000 words) and a novelette (maybe 6,000 to 17,000 words). Bringing up the rear is the short story (up to around 7,000 words?).

Non-fiction has its own ideas of length. When doing a doctorate I was given a word guideline of 80,000-100,000 words. Editors of factual magazines, manuals, guidebooks etc can each have their own very tight expectations and requirements.

One view regularly put forward is that readers these days have an increased need for text that can be more easily read in bite-sized chunks, in shorter times, to compete with others things seeking to grab the notice of people with ever-shorter attention spans. This may or may not be true, but is a reason put forward why shorter (and less demanding?) forms of fiction are gaining in popularity.

Within traditional printing and publishing only certain lengths were seen as commercially viable. New technologies alter the business models of writing, and publishing ebooks has enabled shorter and shorter works to be offered at commercial pricings. This gets round having to bundle a good story up with others to get a collection of the right length; or the stretching of an excellent 100 page novel into a weakened 300 page version. One version of the newer model is Amazon’s Kindle Singles: Typically pitched somewhere between 5,000 and 30,000 words.

Where books have been specially written for e-readers there has been a tendency to increase the range of shorter reads: 30,000-50,000 words; and to offer these on a lower price-range. Published books have seen a similar trend, but in ways that extend the range of lengths and complexity available.

For some time, writers of short stories saw a steady reduction in outlets for publication.  There has been a recent resurgence, however. More short stories have been offered as anthologies; more offered as quick-reads. It is not just that there is more appetite for short pieces of fiction; their rich uniqueness as a written form is back on the agenda as collections of short stories have begun to win prestigious awards. The 2009 Booker Prize was awarded to a collection of short stories and the same prize was won in 2013 by a work made up of writings that extend to just a few pages, or just a few sentences. They have still been seen as stories but also described as Miniatures, or Parables, or simply Texts.

Similarly there is a growing market for shorter versions of non-fiction: articles – especially the ‘Lists of …’, ‘How to …’ and ‘Top Tips …’ variety. The growth of these shorter forms, alongside full-length novels, has parallels with the massive growth of YouTube video clips alongside TV series and full-length films.

Where things were once judged on their length (Quality being in comparison to ‘War and Peace’?) there is now a fascination with brevity.

Very short fiction has a long history but ‘flash fiction’, as a form of writing of extreme brevity, is a fairly recent term (stemming from the 1992 collection ‘Flash Fiction: 72 Very Short stories’?). Again, there are no absolute upper or lower limits but flash fiction initially referred to anything as low as 200 words or as high as 1000 words. Micro-fiction has been used for pieces shorter than this, although many of the terms are used interchangeably.

Certainly the internet has opened up opportunities for putting this form of writing before a wide public, and has seen a popularity of the genre of telling a story in as few words as possible. Not that this is a new phenomenon. There is a (somewhat disputed) account that, for a bet, Hemingway wrote the shortest story he could that would make people cry – coming up with the six-word ‘For sale: Baby shoes, never worn.’ What is new is the widespread publication of these very short fictions.

The internet is full of challenges to write Six Word Memoirs (Your life encapsulated in just 6 words); or jokes such as ‘Six words that will kill any date’ or ‘Six words to scare…’ or ‘Four words to end any marriage…’). There are Twitter challenges to tell a full story in 140 characters. Maybe this is fiction’s equivalent to poetry’s Haiku.

I was recently part of a flash fiction challenge with a particular angle. Under the title ‘Change the Ending – Stories that matter’ it was flash fiction about the future of public service life, grappling with the complex choices facing local government staff today. The challenge was to come up with a credible tale, offering those involved in the public sector a new perspective:   one that describes a reimagined future, avoiding the doom and gloom realism that fills much current local authority outlook – and to do all this in exactly 350 words.

The outputs from forty-two contributors, writing in an eclectic range of styles and topics, were published in Oct 2014 by www.sharedpress.co.uk.  ‘Change The Ending’ is available via Amazon.

My contribution, based on my own observations over forty years of City Council employment, centred around the idea of the personality of an organisation – and how there can be multiple views and overlapping expectations. The organisation can be regarded as having multiple personalities.

Certainly the city I know best has a strong sense of nostalgia for those late Nineteenth Century civic founding-fathers who established many of the things we now take for granted – better housing, sewerage systems, cleaner air, street lighting, free education…. These were visionaries with power. Mixed in with their legacy is a respect for those later civic leaders who built on their nonconformist religious beliefs to improve the lives of the poor through planning, regulation and welfare. Into the same mix gets layered the managerialism of leaders concerned with efficiencies, performance, design and delivery… up to the latest need for local authorities to act as advocates for citizens and commissioners of change, rather than providers of services. All of this has to be resolved if cities are to move on into the future and not get pinned by past attitudes. This is my contribution:

 

Change the ending: Subject K finds a new role in life

K is a complex case. We have had several sessions and it became clear, early on, that the subject combines four different personalities. These don’t take over. You wouldn’t know they were there, shaping and reshaping, silently constructing from within.

I take K’s words and deeds; forensically peeling thought processes; dissecting different influences; seeing what comes from these distinct beings.

The oldest one – Joe – is staid, strict; with immense reserves of energy, ambition and pride. He points to dynasties from which he inherited obligations and moral standards that no-one can ever live up to. Joe sits in stern judgement.

The youngest – Sue- feels at risk, to the point of paranoia; worried and uncertain, with occasional acts of self-harm. She deals with uncertainties through endless checklists and post-it plans. She spent in the past but now faces an empty purse.

The other two are male (making Sue feel even more vulnerable). Stanley, the older one, is Welsh, non-conformist: ‘rough-handed but smooth-talking’. He claims to be ex-army and onetime civil servant in India. He reflects a need for structures, commands, controls: the very stuff of empire.

Alan is an engineer: full of visions, missions and management-speak. Where Joe and Stanley are dedicated to creating, Alan is intent on running things: Extending the reach; Pushing the  boundaries; Making the difference.

Every day K wrestles with these varying demands, without even recognising that they are there.

Today’s breakthrough for K was the realisation of a way forward. If there were a role that picked out the best of everyone then that would free up the spirit, refreshing a sense of purpose. The right role would give Joe no grounds for moral objection, would satisfy Stanley’s need for duty, would still allow Alan to make the difference, and would free Sue from worry.

 

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Time for writing: Space for writing

Some writers get up very early and do a few thousand words in that quiet time before the world presses in on them. I am not one of these.

The nearest I got was a regular 6.45 wake up each morning; a hurried breakfast and out for the 7.15 bus. The ride into the city centre gave me thirty minutes thinking time, jotting time, plotting time, followed by a similar block of time in a coffee shop before starting work. Lunchtime was a quick sandwich whilst scanning work papers. The bus-ride home was usually rush-hour, crowded, noisy, tiring: not conducive to writing – so the next bit of time able to be squeezed out for being creative was mid-evening or odd hours at the weekend.

It wasn’t ideal. Despite that, a number of things were written that way: Made in Birmingham, the Tales; Made in Birmingham, the Poems; It’s Murder on the Eleven; Another Glorious Day. This was because I was able to see at least one fragment of me as being a writer, and was determined in creating spaces and times in which to write.

Once retired, things were different – but retirement didn’t bring endless free time for writing. My normal getting up time became more like 8.00am. Breakfast was less hurried. There was then a walk across the nearby park to buy a newspaper. A couple of coffees, and a gentle read of the paper, and it was mid-morning: Time to check emails, Twitter, Facebook and line the writing tasks up for the day. There were usually a couple of domestic tasks to do: bits of shopping to get in, or things to move around, or other odd jobs to do. Writing might start then, or after an early sandwich lunch.

That has become a new pattern for me. Writing at home or in a High Street coffee shop. Late morning into early afternoon. Space for writing and time for writing.

It isn’t always direct writing of new stuff. Often it is editing, or redrafting articles from the website. Sometimes it is simply puzzling about ways forward, reading stored up background information, cross-referencing things. The writing may be on a work of fiction, or a poem, or may be on the next post for a blog, or the next article for the www.thewordsthething.org.uk website.

Retirement has brought more time for writing – but it has also brought new pressures that eat into that time. Not having to squeeze the writing into that short pre-work slot means that it can be done at leisure – or can be distracted from by Twitter, cups of tea, answering cold-call nuisances on the telephone, the neighbour calling round … and that is before the family things. Relationships need time spent on them; children need supporting or listening to; grandchildren expect to be played with. Then there are holidays, birthdays, visits, days out –the writing time can drain away. Time is there but with no simple guarantee that it will be maintained for writing.

It is the same with maintaining space for writing. The largest table in the house is ideal for spreading stuff out, resting the laptop on, writing at. Unfortunately it is also the place for meals or for others to leave things on.

Ideally a writer has a space of their own – a place where things can be left undisturbed – a study, a shed, an office, a desk in the corner.  Ideally there are times that are recognised as working-times, undisturbable, privileged.

For me it is a set of shelves, a table, a laptop, a set of storage files. It is evening times when others are enthralled by TV programmes. It is several afternoons. It is train rides to nearby towns – near enough to be a quick day out but far enough to for the journey to offer an hour’s writing time. It is half-day workshops.

Sometimes it feels like time snatched here and there, but there is always the determination that writing is what I do and that this occupation needs its own time and its own space.

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Me and my blogs: My blogs and I

This is about blogs – but it is also about transition, and writing for different purposes, and about a changing sense of self.

People often ask, politely in passing, ‘… and what do you do?’  Since leaving full-time paid employment I had always answered this question by referring back, describing what I used to be: ‘I used to work for the City Council’  or ‘I used to be in education and skills ….’  or ‘I used to manage a multi-partner, multi-million development project.’  I remember the day when someone asked me and I said, ‘I am a writer.’ It rather shocked me. That was the turning point after which I ceased to define myself solely as ‘ … used to be …’ and started to describe what I felt I had become.

When I started to really think of myself as a writer, what kind of writing did I think this entailed?

I saw myself writing ebooks: mostly fiction, with a small attempt at poetry. The aim was to get a sufficient number of ebooks up on my bookshelf in the Amazon store that when anyone went to look they would come away having bought more than one. This was contrary to the usual approach of writing a first novel, getting it published and selling well, before heading off to write a follow-up, and so on. To me, at that time, writing was more important than selling. If I was opening up a shop window on my writing then I at least wanted there to be a reasonable display of goods in that shop.

My website (www.thewordsthething.org.uk) was seen as a route to that window display. It was carefully designed around me being a writer. The various pages and categories related to writing about places, writing about art interests, writing about employment and so on. The aim was that I would write stuff for fun, put it on the website and whenever the site was visited that person would linger there for a while before being funnelled off through a link to my page of ebooks. Similarly Twitter, blogs and any other social-media activity would be there to interest and amuse – and direct readers to the ebook page directly (or, shunt them sideward onto the website – which would inexorably direct them on to the ebooks once more).

Soon, however, the content of the website took on a more and more significant part of what I regarded as my writing. I was a writer of ebooks, with four available (even if selling very spasmodically). Increasingly my interest included being a writer of (hopefully) informative and interesting articles that were lodged on the website.

As I used the website more and more for broader purposes its original structure started to creak a bit. The clue was when the ‘Miscellany’ section started to contain much more material than all the other sections. This has led to a recent substantial restructuring of the website to make it work for the writing rather than trying to squeeze the writing into an outmoded structure. It was a bit nerve-shredding (A bit of me still believes that if I click on the wrong thing I might just break the internet or something …) but has freed me up to think about the writing not the mechanics that support the writing.

I have written before about my views on social media, especially Twitter. During the developments of various writing-approaches I tested out different uses of Twitter. I used it as a research tool (to look at contemporary issues in thinking about cities). I also used it as a way of gently getting my website address noticed – by picking my top 25 website articles and tweeting one per day, from #25 to my top #1, using the hashtag #GeoffsTop25.  It was a bit of fun and brought several new contacts. Through reflection on my own use of Twitter I began to view tweets as another form of writing, with the need to take care with style and to edit well.

Twitter then had three purposes: To put out well-written, witty or helpful tweets in their own right; to make occasional reference to the http://www.thewordsthething.org.uk website; and to make rare reference to the availability of my ebooks.

So I can honestly describe myself as a writer of a number of varied (and hopefully increasing) ebooks; and a writer of rich and varied content on a website; and a writer of carefully-worded bits of Twitter content. So where do blogs fit into my writing?

My main website is built around a blog structure, so one of the first things I had to do was to get familiar with the basics of WordPress as a way of putting written stuff up there for others to read. This was nowhere near as difficult as I imagined. In the same way that the best advice I had when fretting about how one gets an ebook published for Kindle was “Geoff, just do it.”, so the best way to get to grips with WordPress was to get on with doing it (with a helpful ‘WordPress in 10 Minutes’ booklet as my constant guide). This has all added to the learning that I have had to do, and enjoyed doing. I write to learn as I learn to write.

Once familiar with the basics of WordPress it was easy to set up a blog (The one you are reading at the moment) that would be a place for me to jot my own ideas about writing. It started simply as a way of getting my own thoughts down, reflecting on them, and thinking about how I may want things to develop. It has become of interest to others. In a tiny way I can start to think of myself as a Blogger. So my sense of myself as ‘being a writer’ has expanded to cover books, poems, web articles, tweets and – now – blog posts.

Any other blogs? I had a character in one of my ebooks that I didn’t want to let free. I didn’t want to write a sequel to the book but the character wouldn’t get out of my head. A solution was to give that character a continued existence separate from the book. The character would write a blog! This allowed me to give that character several more experiences and to write them up as his accounts of things, until I felt that I had exhausted the character (and my interest in him) and the blog could end and just sit there until I decided what to do with it. Ultimately it was cut and pasted from blog-format into diary format and appears on the main website as a separate piece of writing under the heading ‘Thinking outside the box: Just another glorious day’.

So this brings me to now. I am far more definite in saying ‘I am a writer’; and that I write in different formats for different purposes. Blogging is one strand of that writing – as text in its own right not as some marketing tool sitting behind my ‘real’ writing. My intention is soon to have three or four different blogs on the go, each serving a different purpose and each being an outlet for a different style of writing.

Blogs are written by many people and take a range of forms. There are personal diary blogs, money-making blogs, political opinion blogs, shared interest blogs, academic blogs and many others. Some approach their blogs as journalism and thus focus on crispness, brevity and storyline. Others write blogs that are closer to fiction with a need to consider characterisation and drama. An analysis by a blog search engine indicated that the majority of bloggers (60%) did it to personally share their views, 18% blogged professionally, 13% blog as entrepreneurs, and 8% blog for their employers.

There is plenty of advice from successful bloggers keen to share their checklists of what makes a good blog;

  • Catchy headline
  • Well-structured to tell an engaging story
  • Written with a particular audience in mind
  • Edited and spellchecked as thoroughly as any other credible form of writing
  • Graphics and sidebars – but only where these enhance the text
  • All the advice you might expect about any writing.

There is contradictory advice about how frequently to post blog content, the appropriate length of posts, and so on.

Treating any such advice as a formula to write against will always bring some difficulties, and I think of the advice as a framework for thinking about my own preferred style. Certainly, it would be silly to ignore the advice of those who have been blogging successfully. At the same time I write for my own purposes, on my own topics, in my own styles. I feel comfortably trying to find a particular approach and voice that works for me.

 

 

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Writing and Art: Art and Writing

When drafting out the possible future directions of my own writings, there was an early link between my interest in writing and my interest in art. I wasn’t sure where this might lead me but it was a well-signposted opportunity – an interesting enough looking path to make me want to wander down it for a while. When I was setting up the structure of the website to carry most of my writings  (www.thewordsthething.org.uk)  I created a separate section titled ‘Art-based Writings’.

I had already used pictures and postcards as triggers to get writing. Some of the pictures were tear-outs from magazines but some were printed reproductions of paintings. Some of the postcards were cityscape views from places I had visited, but more were postcards gathered in gallery shops as I went to a variety of exhibitions. These triggered some of my short fiction pieces ‘Made in Birmingham: The Tales’. Some triggered poems later gathered into the collection ‘Made in Birmingham: The Poems’.

Birmingham has a range of art galleries. One of these, the Barber Art Gallery, forms part of the University of Birmingham. It has its own collection but also hosts visiting works of art and gives space to part of an annual West Midlands showcase of new art from graduates of local art courses. Alongside these the gallery runs an education programme that, with the appointment a Writer in Residence at the gallery, included a series of writing workshops using the gallery contents as stimuli. The culmination of several workshops was a performance evening where some workshop participants were invited to read selected pieces of their writings. Three of my writings were selected for inclusion. These can be read here: Barber Institute Writings

Even a cursory glance at my main website (the www.thewordsthething.org.uk one mentioned earlier) will show that one of my main interests is Cities. Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery was awarded a fund to bring seventy pieces of contemporary art from around the world, all based on the theme of cities, to form the 2013 exhibition ‘Metropolis: reflections on the modern city’. This brought together my interest in contemporary art with my interest in cities – and opened up the potential for me to visit the exhibition several times (as some kind of ‘Writer in relation to…’) and produce a wide range of writings. Each piece of writing lists the works of art, from the Metropolis exhibition, that gave rise to it. In addition to several varied fictional writings there are some non-fiction articles on topics such as the Language of Metropolis, The Modern City and a speculation on the role of ‘being a writer in relation to’. The total output from writing in relation to the Metropolis exhibition amounts to more than 30,000 words: Enough for an ebook? These collected writings are on the main website at http://thewordsthething.org.uk/?p=244

Also in the spring of 2013 The Royal Academy, in London, had its galleries transformed by seven contemporary international architectural practices to create unique spaces. This formed the exhibition ‘Sensing Spaces: Architecture Reimagined’. This was a fascinating exhibition to visit in its own right and I had already primed myself to do some writing in relation to it. The organisation Ekphrasis (www.ekphrasis.org.uk) arranged for a number of established poets to produce work stimulated by the experience of the exhibition and to print these in a booklet. In addition others were invited to submit their own poems written in response to experiencing the ‘Sensing Spaces’ exhibition. One of mine (‘In Hidden Spaces’) was selected. This is on the Ekhrasis website as featured Poet: Geoff Bateson. http://www.ekphrasis.org.uk/#!featured-poets-1/c6x8

Since then I have visited a number of exhibitions – One on Photorealism at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery; one at the city’s IKON Gallery called ‘Pieces of Evidence’; and several others. These have stimulated writings of different kinds which are at various stages of editing, and may or may not see the light of day.

All of the above has allowed me to think through the interconnections between my interests in art and my interests in writing – circling around between writing about art, writing based on art, and writing as art.

Writing based on art has been described above. Writing about art is, for me – up to now, not high-level academic writing. An example is the main character from my ebook ‘Another Glorious Day’ having a blog of his own and describing his attempts to study and produce art. Another example is the beginner’s piece wondering about the idea of progress in contemporary art.

No doubt these interconnecting strands of writing and art will continue to feed each other.

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Pulling in the learning

One interest of mine is the distinction between what might be called ‘pushed-in learning’ and ‘pulled-in learning’. The first of these is the usual one of learning by going to a set place, at a set time, and having the content-of-the-day pushed towards you. A lot of formal education/schooling follows this pattern as does much of traditional in-service training. The alternative is getting involved with some activity then realising that there are things you need to learn as you go along – and pulling this learning, as needed, from whatever sources seem most appropriate.

Like many aspiring writers, I have been on short courses or attended one-off workshops. These have been of variable usefulness. None were a waste of time but none gave me what I was looking for, when I was looking for it (or if it did, I had to sit through quite a bit of other stuff in order to get to where I wanted to be). ‘How-to’ books on writing have similarly been of some use in giving technical advice but no one book has been ‘The One’.  None changed my approach to writing to any great degree.

There have been debates about the value of longer, more intensive Creative Writing courses. On one hand there are those who argue that creativity cannot be taught (but maybe can be encouraged and developed). Others suggest that such courses, with set expectations about what counts as ‘good’ writing, tend to turn out writers in the same style. At the same time, a sustained exposure to ideas about writing, the opportunity (and expectation) to really get down to some disciplined writing, exposure to the views of others, and the time to study the mechanics of the industry etc – all can be useful in forming a writer’s style and future.

The majority of really-useful learning, for me, has been pulled in. When I got to the stage of having some texts that could form ebooks, I started to look for the person who could teach me how to get them up onto Amazon’s Kindle site. I had imagined sitting next to some expert who would take me through each intricacy, step by step. As it turned out, the best advice I got was ‘For goodness sake, Geoff, just have a go. Here is the website you need. Work it out from there’. The Kindle Direct Publishing site set out the process. If I got stuck, I went back over the process. Within a short time I had some ebooks up there and was confident enough in the process to be able to describe it to others.

It has been the same with most other technical things:

  • setting up and using WordPress blogs
  • using keywords, tags, and categories to set things out in a sensible way on my website
  • how Twitter works (and the things that it is less useful for)
  • different approaches to marketing or promotion (in ways that fit with my style)

I am no industry expert on any of these but I have pulled-in enough understanding to be able to do the things I want to do, in the ways I want to do them. On the way I have also learnt a great deal about things that turned out not to have immediate application but which sparked of tangential ideas.  I am used to having several puzzles in mind at the same time and it is surprising how often a search for solutions on one puzzle threw up things that were valuable in relation to some other one.

I will still go to the occasional seminar or conference. I will still read around a topic. I will still ask others for their views, I will still Google away around a theme. I will, however, tend to pull all this potential for learning together just when I most need it.

 

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Doing Poetry: No Sweat

My ebook  ‘Made in Birmingham: The Poems’ is a collection of approximately seventy poems. One was called ‘Doing Poetry: No Sweat’

I’m going to be a poet.

It’s an odd thing at my time of life

but a choice that is becoming

more popular, I’ve noticed.

I’ve bought my first garret

and cut down on food.

I now only need access

to a pub full of artists

and a distant woman

to impossibly love

and I’ll be off

doing poetry.

No sweat.

It isn’t autobiographical, just a poem. There is no garret; I don’t eat to excess but that is a health thing not a starving poet thing; and a distant woman to impossibly love is definitely off the agenda (unless you count Agent Lisbon from ‘The Mentalist’, or the very nice female detective from ‘Law and Order Special Victims Unit, or the woman detective from ‘Castle’, or Ziva from ‘NCIS’  …. Do I detect a trend here..??).

A bit of a push

In an earlier posting I talked about planning. Each year I have a set of loosely-sketched intentions. For the near future these include ‘Having a bit of a push on poetry’. This is a broad statement of intent, but I have several elements in mind that might add up to ‘a bit of a push’. I also have a specific image when I talk about ‘poetry’: Not poems that pour out of me, like it or not, but poetry to order, poetry on demand, poetry to a schedule.

Recent attempts at producing poetry to a theme include:

  • Poems written as part of workshops linked to art exhibitions at University of Birmingham’s Barber Institute (and the invitation to read some of the work as part of a public event)
  • Poems written in response to contemporary art works in Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery’s ‘Metropolis’ exhibition
  • Poems written in response to the Royal Academy’s ‘Sensing Spaces’ exhibition

Developing a poetic career

A few months ago I attended an excellent workshop run by the editor/director of Nine Arches Press which is a UK small press that specialises in publishing poetry. The theme of the workshop was to try to understand what might be meant by the ‘career’ of a poet. It was clear that (except for a very small number of people) this rarely meant creating a full-time high-income role from writing poetry.

The figures speak for themselves:

95% of poetry sold recently was written by dead poets. Of the small amount by living poets 90% was via one major publisher and the bulk of that was the work of a few outstanding, award-winning poets. The remainder – a very tiny proportion of the total amount of poetry published for sale – was published via a few small/medium sized publishers, each publication maybe selling only tens of copies. On that basis, if the poet earns royalties of around 10% then they need to move to a garret and cut down on food ….

To reach this point of having a collection published by a small press, selling in fairly small numbers, and bringing in very little reliable income, a poet may follow a ‘career’ – ie a ‘development trajectory’, that could include:

  • Regularly writing poems; regularly reading poems by contemporary established poets
  • Submitting to online poetry magazines (and being accepted)
  • Entering poetry competitions (and being successful)
  • Taking part in events, readings, open-mic sessions
  • Operating a poetry/writing blog of ones own
  • Having sufficient poems that have been tested by public airing, and putting these into a small pamphlet for publication

So, to have ‘A bit of a push on poetry’  means that I will have a concerted attempt at some of these steps – moving the ‘I am a poet’ part of myself across a development arc so that I might feel some sense of progress.

The aim is to find time, space, energy, motivation, inclination, stimulation etc to write 50-70 poems  and to test some of these publicly in open reading events or in online publications. With a bit of extra polishing maybe 15-20 of these might be worked up to a stage where they could be considered ‘good enough’ (by me; by others; by an editor of a small poetry press). This, at a stretch, might just lead to a pamphlet of assorted poetry. That might be as far as it gets. Beyond that we get into the realm of having sufficient ability and confidence, and a robust enough track record, to put together a small collection of poems on a theme.

Poets: Undomesticated, almost feral, things?

Many years ago a friend wrote a dissertation taking the song title ‘An engineer can never have a baby’ as its theme. The song undermined the outdated idea that women have babies, engineers are never women – so an engineer will never have a baby. Recently this retranslated in my head to ‘Can a poet have a family?’

The poet in ‘Doing Poetry: No Sweat’ was a caricature of a single person, living alone, spending nights in bars and writing poetry from within that ambience. If a poet has a home to maintain, relatives to interact with, grandchildren to play with, monthly finances to regularise – in short, if a poet is domesticated – then is there still enough time, space and ambience for poetry?

Having moved house; and then had builders knocking down walls and filling the air with dust and radio music, I looked to local coffee shops as the place to do writing. That worked if I avoided the times when the places got taken over by lunchtime schoolchildren or mid-morning mums or afternoon shoppers. Especially around the buzzing busyness of Christmas finding quiet corners in which to think and write became more and more difficult. This problem itself prompted a poem:

The table I sit at holds firm

The table I sit at holds firm

as people swirl and twirl;

twisting, turning through spaces

in which I’ve quietly settled.

My coffee cools slowly in freeze-frame hold.

Theirs get gulped, drained, in fast-forward blur;

their chitterchatter all gibblegabble.

My silence of monastic proportion

as I seek out just the right word.

Their minds whirring, churning,

as crowds carry them off:

The table I sit at holds firm.

Nevertheless, I am off to be a poet

So I am off, not to find a garret but to find a table firm enough to write at. I have scoured around for opportunities for local readings and events to go in my diary. I have booked into a couple of national things. I have regular blogs that I follow. I have put out of my mind all thoughts of female detectives with dark hair. The commitment to having a bit of a push on poetry, and the motivation to do something about it, is there – we will just have to see how it works out.

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