All posts by Tracy Gow

Essays & The Reading Life with Chris Arthur

At the beginning of Chris Arthur’s session today, there was some time devoted to the tricky business of defining the essay as a literary form.  It’s worth discussing because the  association of essays with tedious school assignments appears to be impacting the marketability of the modern, creative essay, which remains a ‘minority interest.’ Publishers are largely reluctant to embrace the essay, in spite of the success of recent collections like ‘Nasty Women.’

So, what is an essay? Chris Arthur is reluctant to fully endorse the ‘Creative Non-Fiction’ label although he concedes that for the moment, it might well be the best compromise. His essay collection, The Reading Life, is a collection of fifteen essays based, not surprisingly, around reading – reading books, reading objects and responding to books as objects.

He says that he begins an essay with a symbol or object because objects are weighted ‘with astonishing cargo.’ It’s the unpacking of this cargo, the peeling back of the layers which drives the prose, taking the reader on a voyage of discovery. The essay is both expansive and introspective and to be effective, it must have an element of accident; it should surprise the writer as well as the reader.

He reads a section from his essay, Scrimshaw (reading a whale’s tooth).

‘One of the most treasured remnants from my childhood is a whale’s tooth. It was given to me in exchange for – and as a distraction for losing – a tooth of my own.’

The whale’s tooth, a gift from Mr Wilson the dentist, becomes the literary springboard for an examination of the art of scrimshaw, that is, drawings engraved  onto the teeth and bones of whales. From there we journey to the ocean and imagine the life of the whale whose tooth was gifted to the young Chris Arthur.

‘Astonishing cargo’ indeed. Objects have provenance and can open up a world of wonder if we only stop to look and allow our thoughts to unravel.

Over the summer I dipped into and very much enjoyed reading Lia Purpura’s lyrical essay collection, On Looking which is on the M.Litt reading list. Purpura says, ‘I called to things, and in turn, things called to me, applied me to their sight and we became each as treasure, startling to one another, and rare.’ Purpura beckons you close, whispers into your ear. Her work feels intimate, as if you have been chosen to go with her and look at the world through her eyes, for a little while at least.

I’m looking forward to reading Chris Arthur’s essays. He has signed my copy of The Reading Life with ‘Life is full of wonders’ and it strikes me that this is an echo of Purpura’s comment about treasure.

However you wish to define the non-academic essay, there seems to be agreement: what awaits the reader is wonder and treasure, wrapped up in beautiful, highly polished prose.




Vanishing Moments of Brilliance

This morning I wrote in my Writing Journal. Kirsty has recommended we keep one of these and I’m rather fond of mine. Narrower than A5, it’s a lovely ‘poster paint’ blue with wrap-around elastic. I chose it from a million others on account of the quality of the paper, which is reassuringly thick and allows me to fill both sides without yesterday’s words leaking though the fresh page. I say ‘yesterday’s words’. In truth, it’s a daily routine which is prone to slipping as other priorities elbow their way to the front, so there’s usually a two- or three-day gap between entries. Plenty of time for the ink to dry, in fact.

Little Blue book

So what I wrote in my writing journal this morning was a lament; a lament concerning the HUGE gap between ‘mental’ writing and ‘real’ writing. I’m sure it’s a familiar scenario to many of you. It goes something like this. You wake up, usually in the dark, and you start thinking about your work in progress. In this case, I was ‘unpacking’ and ‘expanding’ a creative piece we submitted last week (the A9 Incident). What waltzed through my synapses was such a dazzling parade of sharply observed, finely nuanced and exquisite phraseology that I held my breath, not daring to even move. I have a notebook and pen on the bedside table for moments exactly like this, but in the middle of the night, with a partner sleeping peacefully at your side, who dares to break the spell with the harsh snap of a light. Instead, I convince myself that brilliance like this will still be glittering in the morning and I will remember… Yeah right!

This morning, I decide that meditation will help. I close my eyes and invite blank space into my head. What actually happens is that my brain is immediately flooded with every stupid, random or ingenious thought I’ve ever had alongside a jumble of niggling domestic preoccupations like remembering to fit a new light bulb into the dead socket in the hall, or remembering to buy milk. I have to sort through these rails of junk – a bit like shopping in T K Maxx – to finally extract a few hopeful ideas. Dowdy kernels which, with a bit more thinking and probably several cups of strong coffee, I might be able to polish up to a lacklustre version of their nocturnal selves. Mental note: keep a torch on the bedside table!

Hooked on Books… and Poetry

In any given week, I’ll buy more books than I read. I pounce on daily deal e-books because 99p is cheaper than a cup of coffee and a good book is every bit as stimulating as a shot of caffeine. I can’t walk past certain charity shops either. Some of them are a goldmine for pristine classics, poetry and modern literary fiction. This week’s lucky charity shop finds include In Cold Blood by Truman Capote and Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh. If those titles sound rather sombre, then I could add that e-book bargains have included The Hitchhikers Guide by Douglas Adams which, unbelievably, I’ve never read, and Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, which I am ashamed to say has also passed me by.

Book covers
In Cold Blood, Capote
Vile Bodies, Waugh

So what have I actually been reading?

My bedtime book is The Names by Don DeLillo which is on our reading list. Its lean and – apologies to the tutors – accessible style belies the sheer beauty and power of the writing, the poetic rhythms which arrest and seduce you without you fully realising that you’ve been seduced. I will certainly be hunting out more titles by DeLillo in those charity shops.

I’ve also been dipping into short stories this week – I do this randomly when I’m waiting for the kettle to boil or waiting for the washing machine spin cycle to end. I have enjoyed Tell Tale Heart by Marie’s favourite, Edgar Allan Poe, an equally eerie story by Henry James called, The Real Right Thing and the brilliant short, The Caterpillar by Lydia Davis.

In a strange twist of fate, Davis’s name cropped up again in an interview in the Paris Review,  so obviously I had to read that as well (Paris Review, Art of Fiction No.227).

I was particularly drawn to a section at the end of the interview, where Davis talks about a poem she wrote many years ago on the subject of grief. On this course, we’ve spent quite a lot of time looking at poetry. For many of us, it’s unchartered territory, so it was fascinating to read the process surrounding the creation of this poem, particularly since Davis admits that she does not consider herself a poet.

I’m slowly waking up to the power and versatility of poetry, but Davis puts her finger on it beautifully. I’ll leave you with what she says about her poem Head, Heart and I urge you to seek it out and have a read.

‘It’s a story about grief. When I came to try to express this particular grief, a poem was what I wanted. No “story”, no talk, but that distillation. That difficulty speaking, almost.’

New Beginnings

Tracy Gow portrait
Tracy Gow M.Litt Writing Practice & Study 2017/18

Coming back to university after, ermm… a very long time, has been quite a ride. A roller coaster ride to be exact. The sensation of hurtling through space with whitened knuckles and a smile stretched like an Aardman character will give you an approximate idea of how it feels right now. Even this blog post has been thrust upon us at a moment’s notice. “You’re writers… go write!” is the recurring theme of these first few weeks. Whatever we’re doing, we’re slowly getting used to hearing, “You’ve got five minutes to write….” What about polishing the craft, choosing careful words? Well, I suppose writing at speed is good practice for writing professionally, which is, after all, why we’re all here.

I’m an aspiring fiction writer, but have been challenged with canonical reading, poetry analysis, literary review and now, an impromptu blog post. It’s demanding, challenging and incredibly frightening, but we’re at the cliff face, doing what we love, so it should be fun. “Fun” is a word we hear regularly. It’s more than an adjective – it’s a clarion call. A challenge. We should be having fun. As the roller coaster hurls us through another 360 degrees and keeps looping, we’re repeating that mantra, even as we’re trying not to reach for the paper bag.