Like everyone else I am up to my armpits in assessments so this entry is a cheat, a borrow from the ‘Guardian ‘and from the poet who began the Creative writing programme in the University of Glamorgan. Tony Curtis offers an instruction manual for a specific type of poem. The structure of the vilanelle was used by Dylan Thomas for one of my favourite poems, a poem which is generally perceived as one of the greatest viilanelles ever, ‘Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night.’

By placing this article here it can also act as a reminder for me to return to the vilanelle once this two weeks of mayhem and stress are over. Then I might be able to try and write my own.

I hope the link works and you enjoy both Tony Curtis and Dylan Thomas.

My First Publication

This very short story won third prize in the ‘Room to Write’ inaugural short story competition in 2014.  If you want to read the whole thing it’s on

It’s free to download.

It’s an extract from something much longer I’ve yet to finish. I can see flaws  and am itching to edit but won’t. This is what was published.Girls learning laundry work at Saltaire School in the early 20th Century

I’ve edited, couldn’t help myself.


‘I want to keep a photographic record,’ Mrs Stephens says to the visitor, her hand with its soft fingers that have never done a day’s work tight on his arm, digging into the fine wool of his coat. It would be soft to the touch that coat, soft against my skin. Her lips, wet and red, are reaching up to his ear.

‘I want to show how my girls progress.’

She breathes the words. Her eyelashes flutter. Charlotte, her daughter, does it too. It pleases only them and makes them look as if they are about to take a fit.

I am not ‘her’ girl.

Mrs Stephens waves her free arm, the sleeve too tight around her flesh. She tells him what we do, how we work. She doesn’t talk about how the boiling water and the lye that scalds our skin, how our fingers crack and weep, how our backs ache. Her knuckles brush my shoulder as she walks past.

She steers Walter Proctor past the coppers and the pails of water and the mangles. ‘Mrs Conti is an excellent photographer, and, being a woman, she doesn’t engender … excitement,’ she says, looking under her eyelashes, a bead of spittle on her lip. The first time Mrs Conti came she was with her husband, Jack. He has soft brown eyes, a rosebud mouth and a prick big enough to satisfy the oldest whore in Totterdown. We wore ourselves out talking and thinking about him.

Mrs Conti’s come on her own since, pushing that barrow of hers across the city, too tight to pay a boy a penny, stronger than you’d think she’d be. Walter Proctor nods at Mrs Stephens. He must know the patterns on every flagstone for he’s not once looked away from the floor, not once looked at us.

The smell in the room, our sweat, the sour milk smell of the soap, still allows me a whiff of him, coffee, a wood fire doused by water and something sharp, lemons. There’s a heat to him, underneath that buttoned vest and coat. His hands are restless. His neckerchief is so tight against his neck it must hurt. His fingers, long and pale have blunt edges that would press in were he to touch me.

We’ve been sorting the laundry, hiding away the worst of it. It wouldn’t do for Mr Proctor to see the way we stain our petticoats and our bed sheets, to smell the coppery scent of old blood. Mrs Stephens has filled the place with oil lamps. She’s only just had the fires lit under the coppers. The steam from the tubs would make it impossible for Mrs Conti to take a photograph. It wouldn’t do for Mr Proctor to sweat.

I could make him sweat.

‘Dividing the Spoils’

This is the sonnet I wrote for homework on the theme of Divorce. It was really challenging and I could redraft it forever. There are rhymes to be had that I haven’t found. In the process of getting from draft twenty to here I’ve rewritten it another six times. I think I might call a halt here.

‘Dividing the Spoils’

You can have the ponderous furniture,
The weight of that old, brown, inheritance,
And that absurd painting she gave to you,
That you hung above our marital bed
The oven is yours, the freezer my cold self.

I’ll cleft the kettle and halt that last brew.
We can chop the toaster and cleave the fridge.
Let us take a child apiece, the boy mine.
The girl yours to remind you of your wife.
Or will I  use your father’s fine toothed saw
To cut through hair, to rive from brain to groin?
My share will be where the mole marks her cheek,
And his grazed left knee with its star shaped scar

|I’ll tend to the beating of their bruised hearts.

Blaschka’s Sea Creatures

blaschka_nr213-2blaschka_nr45-2 blaschka_nr250-2

Our conversation in class this week about the D’Arcy Thompson Museum reminded me of this piece from last year, inspired by Blaschka’s glass sea creatures and an old photograph. After the section below it spirals out of control and is, frankly,  an over complicated mess so any suggestions as to what could  happen next would be welcome.

“The young man is wearing his best suit. Only it’s not his. The jacket is too big, the trousers too short. It’s his father’s perhaps, an indication of what he will be in thirty years’ time, broader, shorter, still poor.

He smiles then remembers and closes his lips so his broken teeth are hidden.

The ring on his fourth finger catches the light. I watch him in my viewfinder, upside down, the photographic process briefly giving him the power of a spider to scuttle across his ceiling; if I allowed him to move.

The painted backdrop is cracked and peeling, my uncle’s work. The young man doesn’t complain. The people in the waiting room, dressed in taffeta and wool, will not complain. I am what they can afford.

I would prefer to record the young man in his work clothes, a stained vest and torn trousers, the overworked muscles in his arms visible and his hair wet with sweat. I would have him smile. There would be no badly painted scenery. The rotten timbers of my attic studio and its flaking plaster would suffice.

He will return the suit to his potbellied father and, in his own clothes, smelling of sweat, he will deliver the photograph to his sweetheart who will think him handsome. There will be a flare of light on the right of the print caused by a worm hole in the plate holder because in this place every timber is eaten, some to the point of crumbling. A  fine dust settles and invades those things which should be clean for the alchemy to work.

His sweetheart will accept the inadequacies of the image, just as she accepts him.

This is how they are. This is what I show of them.

The next customer is a woman, hot and overstuffed in black bombazine. In her outdated mourning she is still, clearly, more prosperous than the shop girls, soldiers and labourers who are my usual customers. She presses herself into the wall as the young man in the borrowed suit passes. She stands between her sons and they smirk and stroke their tailored coats of fine wool. Thick necked and cow eyed, they show even teeth. I have allowed them entrance ahead of those waiting. No one complains.

The boys lean away from one another and their fists stay clenched. If they dared to open their fingers and flex their hands, if they looked at one another,  then they would surely launch themselves and all I would capture would be the widow looking solemn and a vortex of movement obscuring her skirts.

They loathe one another.

When the waiting room is empty I make the prints that have all the imperfections I expected and more. I sit and wait for the night, the threadbare nature of my accommodation obscured by lamplight and shadows.The glass sea creatures, delicate and translucent, that line the mantelpiece, that flicker in the meagre light from the fire, are the rest of my inheritance, my preferred part, a reminder that this was once a prosperous place until my uncle’s obsession shrank his premises to this dusty top floor.

John Cheever ‘The Swimmer’



I read John Cheever’s short story’ The Swimmer’ four times in quick succession. I want to read it again. It deserves that kind of attention. Published in 1964 in the ‘The New Yorker’ it’s available in a myriad of formats online.This is the world of ‘Mad Men’ and Don Draper. John Cheever lived in Ossining, the town Don Draper is said to come from. It’s not a coincidence. The ‘Mad Men’ scriptwriters are clearly Cheever readers, like him, mining dysfunction in  the affluent middles classes of Connecticut.

I feel possessive of that opening line. I want it to be mine.

‘It was one of those midsummer afternoons when everyone sat around saying ‘I drank too much last night’.

In the first paragraph, he tells us exactly where we are; and more. He shows us the prejudices and constraints of that place.

‘You might have heard it whispered by the parishioners leaving the church, heard it from the lips of the priest himself, struggling with his cassock in the vestarium, heard it from the golf links and the tennis courts, heard it from the wildlife reserve where the leader of the Audubon was struggling with a terrible hangover.’

Neddy Merrill, the central character, is handsome and athletic. Cheever says:

‘He might have been compared to a summer’s day, particularly the last hours of one.’

I love that. It’s such a clever way to tell us he’s fading, he’s not what he was but he hasn’t quite realised yet.

He will.

Neddy Merrill decides he will make the journey home, all  eight miles of it , by swimming through his neighbours swimming pools. As he does  there are brutal interruptions, the busy highway he has to cross, the public pool with its noise and its litter. There are time shifts; and he drinks.

It doesn’t end well.

There is a film version I have a vague memory of where Burt Lancaster models the hairstyle George Clooney later adopts, a twentieth century American Caesar waiting for his crown of laurel. There are trailers on Youtube. It’s  not an accurate representation fo the story. It involves young women and a horse, but it is, in parts, faithful to the elegiac mood of the piece.

John Cheever’s prosperous family lost their fortune, suddenly and dramatically. It smarted. Cheever drank, copiously. There are clear  parallels with Neddy Merrill. Cheever wanted to be  surrounded by adorable children and a Labrador, smoking a pipe in front of a  log fire in a well appointed home. He wanted what his father had lost. To some extent he managed this. His three children speak fondly of him. They are successful and settled. His wife stayed.

He lead another, parallell life, conducting multiple affairs with men and women, wresting a few sober writing hours out of each morning, retreating to the pantry for a ‘scoop of gin’ at regular intervals.

In 1975, after nearly dying from an alcohol related illness, he dried out. He didn’t drink again and lived openly as a homosexual man from then on. He died in 1982 in his Quincy home with his wife, his children and his lover present.

Cheever taught  in the Iowa workshops alongside Raymond Carver and others . He was published in the ‘New Yorker ‘a hundred and twenty times. He was award winning. His prose, which began as spare as Hemingway’s,  gradually became lusher and more surreal. His journals, published posthumously, are unflinching. They shocked his friends, writers for the most art, John Updike and Saul Bellow among them. He thought of himself as an outsider:

‘I remember the galling loneliness of my adolescence…. It is the sense of the voyeur, the lonely, lonely boy with no role in life but to peer in at the lighted windows of other people’s contentment and vitality. It seems comical—farcical—that, having been treated so generously, I should be struck with this image of a kid in the rain walking along the road shoulders of East Milton .’

In the ‘Swimmer’ Neddy Merrill begins his journey content and vital but becomes that wondering boy, using alcohol to dull questions, looking in at other’s fortune.

The story is available online in a myriad of formats. Read it. Tell me what you think.

Of course this means my book list is getting longer.


Three weeks in

elmore leonard (2)

We’ve shared our book lists, the ones we gave to Kirsty and the ones we received in return. These lists  have pointed up how much great literature there is to read. Like Jo says in her post, we have to accept that we can’t read everything. What I am now doing is selecting what I read more carefully and reading with more attention.

When  a book on someone else’s reading list appears that I know well I’ve been made nostalgic, recalling not just the book but when I read it, the world it introduced to me and the reading that followed. It’s also made me question the list I sent in. How could I have forgotten to include Elmore Leonard?

Elmore Leonard made me read every word and left me open mouthed at how much he could pack in to a paragraph,, almost as if by sleight of hand making his characters fully formed in one sentence.

These are his rules for writing.

1. Never open a book with weather.
2. Avoid prologues.
3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.
4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”…he admonished gravely.
5. Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.
6. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”
7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.
10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

My most important rule is one that sums up the 10.

If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

These are his rules, not yours, not mine but there’s much that is solid and good here; and in the end it’s that last line that really matters. However beautiful that metaphor or simile is, if it takes you away from the voice, from the point of your piece, if it breaks your reader’s attention then really should it be there?
To follow this rule I try and think of the writing I delete as not something lost but instead put in storage for future use.
With the work we are doing in class and at home, on voice, on point of view, on rhythm and place and ‘gorgeousness’ I am recognising the many failings in my work, identifying those times when I’ve allowed the affection I have for a phrase to take over, the story where the voice is wrong , my habit of keeping secrets from the reader when they are things they need to know.
I’m going to complete a five point exercise today around a scene I need to plan for my writing to see if it can reveal something that should be visible on the surface, not buried under a lot of short sentences. The dialogue will be ‘said’ , adverbs will be banned and place will be revealed by touch, by smell and by the way my characters travel through it.

So thank you very much Elmore Leonard for the rules and for the fabulous reading. You really have been an “inspiration.”

An Introduction to Sarah


I ‘m Sarah. I write short stories which are sometimes historical. Often they feature animals, a bear, black grouse, a wasp, a stag. Fatherless children, mostly girls, recur. The starting point can be a place or an image, or even a process, the growing of a pineapple in Scotland, the story of an abandoned dancing bear in 1860’s Bristol , taken to court where he lay down and broke sulphurous wind.

I want to write something longer. I’ve started. I’m struggling with structure, allowing too many tangents to develop, tending too well to the sub plots.

I’m reading Gordon MacRae Burnet’s  ‘His Bloody Project’. Reading this soon after seeing ‘The Cheviot, the’ Stag and the Black, Black Oil’ at the Rep could be seen as a nice bit of synchronicity. I live in Glenisla. There are markers of past existences everywhere, rectangles of stone, walls crumbling amongst the ranked conifers. It’s not synchronicity, it’s simply rural Scotland’s ever present past.

I’m rereading an old favourite too, V S Naipaul’s ‘House for Mr Biswas.’ I was anxious at this revisiting. After a gap of thirty or more years would I think it as good? It’s better. Blending humour with darkness it uses beautifully described place and objects to construct a world. Reversing the rules of narrative fiction and beginning with the end makes it sad but doesn’t make it disappointing.

I’m working on not reading solely for the narrative, not reading as an anaesthetic, as a greedy escape from the day to day (although some of that has remained. Habits are hard to break.)

On the M Litt course I’m sharing my work with others. I’m listening better.

I’m working on getting a structure to my day and on embracing the aspects of the course I find most challenging, poetry, the academic stuff, rhythm and gorgeousness. I’m still terrified by the notion of interviewing an author, a real life published one.

Performing … it will happen. I’ll get over it. I’ll get better at it.

It’s going to be a really good year.