Networking and Community

When I started this course, I had to admit that a huge reason was to do some great networking. I’ve been networking in the literary stratosphere since I was about 15. I started going to creative writing classes on Saturdays, then went on to volunteer my time to culture events, book festivals, writing workshops and publications. As I got older, the volunteering turned into interning and is transitioning now into bits of paid work. However, I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again: I’m the girl who is happy to be paid in literary experience. I am not at all adverse to doing more volunteering, so that is what I am doing. I am a volunteer at the Dundee Literary Festival. I haven’t exactly done much this far as the two events that I was supposed to cover the roving mic both boiled over with interesting conversation, meaning that one only had time for two questions and one had no time for questions at all. Nevertheless, yesterday, whilst doing the latter of ‘working hard or hardly working’, I got to see some events which were extremely important to me.

The first was a conversation between Kirsty Gunn, Ron Hay, Lindsay MacGregor, Eddie Small and Gail Low, discussing The Voyage Out, a publication celebrating ten years of Writing Practice and Study (WPS) at the University of Dundee. The book is an international anthology of fiction, poetry, essays, art, film and science, all about voyages. For me, having been an ungerdrad WPS student and now an MLitt WPS student, I felt proud to be in my fourth year with the department. There was a lot of talk of the lovely, sorely missed, late Jim Stewart. Kirsty answered ‘Jim is behind so much of what we do on the writing program,’ when asked how much input Jim had on the publication, and I wholeheartedly agree. There was no us and them at this event, just one group of people listening to another group of people discuss something everyone in the room was excited about. I cherish my copy of The Voyage Out, given to me so kindly by Eddie, whose name is just above Jim’s in the credits.

The second event was Livewire! If anything could assure me that I made the right decision to take the journey onto the MLitt course more than The Voyage Out event, this was it. I won’t go into too much detail because I’ll be writing an essay on the event, but I have to write a bit… On the MLitt last year, the students were thrown into the deep end of performing and were asked to perform around this time in their first semester. They performed in what used to be Shrink to Fit, an offshoot of Superstore which has now evolved into a different pub for about the 7th time since I moved to Dundee. I remember seeing a lot of nervous performances but being absolutely amazed by the talent and the utter balls they had, performing with a mic so early on in their MLitt course. (Be careful what you wish for…) But the performances I saw yesterday was not comparable. I saw six calm, confident writers take to the stage and read eloquent, considered pieces which were refined and performed so well. I was working the roving mic and the last question was near the back so whilst I waited to retrieve the mic, I allowed myself a moment to stand at the back of the room and look at the whole audience and the six accomplished writers on the stage. I don’t think there’s a better feeling than feeling like you belong somewhere, and I felt it yesterday.

My point is is that I’ve been ‘networking’ for seven years, never turning down an opportunity to meet new people in the field, to help out if I can. I don’t see myself stopping any time soon. This week has felt like a tidal wave of things to do, life and class are at a crescendo and I barely have space to breathe, but I couldn’t resist putting myself forwards to help at the Dundee Literary Festival. Peggy, who runs the festival and Literary Dundee, is incentive enough to volunteer. She is a fireball of energy, enthusiasm and friendly personality who definitely spoils her volunteers in amazing literary experience. Yesterday, although I was technically working, although I tried to introduce myself to as many people as possible, yesterday didn’t feel like networking, it felt like I was part of an amazing community.

Getting Thoughtful About Stealing Lines

I find lines that other people thought of weaving their way into my own writing. I find myself finishing a piece, reading it in class, coming home and realising that I have stollen. Like a chocolate bar falling into my pocket at the shop, I have stollen without meaning to, but I can’t bring myself to feel sorry because who doesn’t like free chocolate?

I wrote a piece yesterday in class with Eddie, who is a dear friend and source of inspiration to me always. Eddie told me I was a suffragette. I was to write about the men leaving for World War I… Then I had to write about them coming back after four long, hard years. This is a sad piece because between all the words on the page are the people who didn’t get to come back from the war, the ones who don’t get to be in stories about homecoming.

Here is my piece:

The war has changed us all. I never thought I’d work so much with my hands. I always wanted to be a reporter, but from our side there hasn’t been much to report. And there hasn’t been much time. Yes, four years have gone by, but I’ve barely had a minute. We never stopped. 

I’m a munitionette. I think we call ourselves munitionettes to make the job seem nicer than it is. I’ve been making instruments to be used to kill other women’s men and boys, but I can’t think like that. I have to keep reminding myself that what I’m making is to protect our own. 

When they left, many of us stopped shouting to be heard, there was so much to do, so many new worries. Being heard was slumped to the bottom of many to-do lists. I kept going to meetings, the odd march, signed my name on whichever sheet needed women’s signatures. But I also learnt how to fix an engine. I learnt how to tend a farm. I learnt how to make weapons to kill people. Knowledge is power, I kept telling myself and now I’ve got the type of knowledge a man would be proud to possess. How can I go unheard with all this knowledge?

The crowd is smaller than it was those years ago. So many meaningful members of our community aren’t here today, either because they don’t have anyone to welcome home, or because they couldn’t come back alive. Even those who are here are smaller. The weight of the world has been hard to shoulder during the war. 

As well as a suffragette, a typist, a handy woman and a munitionette, I’m also a daughter waiting for my dad to return. I had these visions of seeing him again, saying ‘Look Dad! Look at the grease under my nails, the callouses on my palms, aren’t I like you now? Look Dad, look how much I know.’ But again, just like before, now isn’t a time for me to be heard. 

I have something to admit. One of these lines does not belong to me. The line ‘look how much I know’ has been borrowed from a heart-warming poem by Sarah Kay called ‘Mrs. Ribeiro’. Here is the link, please take a few minutes to listen. I’m not sorry that I stole this line. It is such a simple line but I feel it holds so much. ‘Look how much I know.’ It is full of pride and excitement. In Kay’s poem it is a proud child, excited to learn, but for my suffragette, it is pride and excitement that maybe she is worthy of being listened to. It is a hopeful line, but my suffragette had to keep it inside, to put it on hold with the rest of her hopes of being heard.

Today I Read: Deborah Levy

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Deborah Levy’s Things I Don’t Want to Know. What a delicious read. I am grateful for Kirsty for including this gem in my bespoke reading list. I have not read George Orwell’s 1946 essay ‘Why I Write’, but I am confident that Levy’s response does it justice.

In class today with Beth McDonough, we discussed imagery and senses. Levy’s use of the senses makes the reader forget the piece* is autobiographical. Levy can describe an entire scene, whilst focusing on such delicate senses; a feeling of needing to cry on an escalator, the smell of 99 per cent cocao, the texture of undercooked bacon. This mixed with extreme emotions of loss, more loss, confusion, anger and the feeling of not wanting to know things.

I feel very inadequate writing about such a gorgeous text with my clunky words and inability to choose beautiful phrases. I just know that I feel touched by Things I Don’t Want to Know, even if I am struggling to explain how. There are descriptions of Levy as a child experiencing racial discrimination in South Africa and the inner monologue of the autobiographical narrator looking through the eyes of herself as a child is incredible. I believe Levy when she describes herself as a child, not understanding but clearly seeing injustice. I believe that Levy’s sense of loss for her father, Sister Joan, Melissa, her parents marriage and her personal identity were probably heightened with the hindsight of writing in the past tense, but I do believe that the feelings are accurately represented of how she felt as a child. So often, childhood is presented through rose-tinted glasses, but instead, Levy used a magnifying glass to zoom in on vignettes of her past, exposing the tender moments and the crushing ones side by side.

I feel like I have read a book of short stories, rather than one cohesive piece. This is not because the sections do not flow, but because the vignettes are sometimes so complete and harrowing in themselves that part of me doesn’t want to believe that all of these life events are inside of one person. The text is short, only 100 pages or so. Every page is packed with intricately defined details and yet I found myself reading the whole thing in two short sittings; drinking up the life of a woman I regretfully hadn’t heard of a few weeks ago.

The reason it took me two short sittings to read the book, rather than a singular longer one, is that my muse was delivered to me around 35 pages in and I felt like I had better not ignore her. The first section of Things I Don’t Want to Know describes a lost and emotional Levy who cries on escalators. A woman who finds sanctuary in booking a flight and revisiting a remote hotel up a Majorcan mountain in a particularly wintery springtime. When I started reading, I felt like I was pretty close to crying on escalators myself and the notion of having the option of running away to a place where nobody asked any questions, where it was accepted that I would be left alone to write, this seemed like something I could dream about. Most of my aspirations wriggle their way into my writing some way or another, so I ended up writing about a woman winning a holiday from a crap advert in a magazine… A lesser version of Levy’s experience, I must admit.

In terms of inspiring literature, it is normally when I am listening/watching spoken word poetry that my muse decides to pay a visit, rather than when I am reading, but lately my muse has enjoyed good literature. Levy helped me find my muse this time, and as an aspiring writer, that is the best compliment I am able to give.

*I shy away from saying essay or defining the text in any way, as the reviews and forward have been very careful not to use any defining titles, so far be it for me to go right ahead and presume an art form.

I’m Too Shy to Call Myself a Writer

Why am I doing this course? Simple. The late, great and lovely Jim Stewart told me to. I was sitting in his office, eating tangerines, asking for advice on some work. We got talking about my plans for after uni and Jim told me to go for the MLitt. Another year spent working with the uniquely amazing creative writing department? Go on then. I’m extremely sorry and endlessly sad that Jim isn’t here to guide me this year, but I feel his influence on the course in every session. I’m extremely honoured to have been his student for three years and that he pointed me in this direction.

I think that what I want to get out of the course is maybe a little different to what other students want. I’ve been talking to my fellow classmates and they all have these amazing dreams and goals, many of them have completed novels and other pieces of writing to be proud of. Sitting amongst them, I feel wholly inadequate as any finished short story I have ever written has been the product of my undergrad creative writing modules and I have used them for my portfolios. I’m too shy to call myself a writer, especially around people who are proper writers.

I don’t spend much of my spare time writing because I don’t have much spare time. In the past few years I have spent my summers interning at New Writing North, editing their online magazine for young writers, Cuckoo Review, and mentoring at writing summer schools. I spent my summer this year travelling Hadrian’s wall working on Mansio (a travelling writing project inspired by the wall). I have volunteered at Hexham Book Festival twice and next weekend I am heading to the Durham Book Festival to help out. Whilst I have been lucky enough to be paid for some of these experiences, I’m the girl who will happily work for free if I get paid in literary experience. One of my favourite things ever is that moment that you see someone has been touched by literature; eyes wide, chest full and mouth about to spill out passion. I love seeing people use writing as therapy, I love watching minds change and open, I love when someone gets it. I want to live a life where I get to witness that every day. I’d love to be a writer myself, I think someone getting it and ‘it’ being something I had written must be extraordinary. Already on this course I have been able to witness people being inspired by the reading list and I’m really enjoying being surrounded by such passion.

I’m too shy to call myself a writer yet, but maybe by the end of the year, I’ll be creating work I am proud of, even finishing some of it, and hopefully I’ll be able to call myself a writer.

An Introduction to Poppy: ‘…my literary heart lies with women.’

Hello everyone, I’m Poppy. I’m the one in class with the long blonde hair who is always clutching my purple diary to keep up with my schedule. I never wanted to become predictable with my reading but looking back at the books I am most interested in, there is a strong running theme. Women. I’m a complete sucker for a novel with a strong female lead or a mousy lady who is downtrodden by a patriarchal society who rises above it to empowerment or even a woman going about her daily business. This is not to say that I do not also enjoy reading about men, some of my favourite work is by men, with male leads. It’s just that my literary heart lies with women.

I’m currently doing something I hate which is reading books simultaneously. I’m reading last year’s Man Booker International Prize winner, The Vegetarian: A Novel by Han Kang. This is the hilarious story of a man from South Korea whose usually boring wife decides to become a vegetarian (She’s actually vegan but I won’t be pedantic). I’m also reading Kate Tempest’s debut novel, The Bricks that Built the Houses, though I’m reading it painfully slowly, trying to adapt to the slower pace in contrast to her poetry. Alongside these novels, I have just started Angela Readman’s book of short stories, Don’t Try This at Home. Published by & Other Stories, the lovely mustard, jackalope* printed cover is what drew me in and the first line of the blurb was irresistible: ‘A girl repeatedly chops her boyfriend in half but, while her ‘other half’ multiplies, she is still not satisfied.’

My literary influences, to those who know me, may be slightly boring as I rarely shut up about them. Firstly we have the fraud** that is James Frey, I don’t care if his work is fictional or not, his writing style is right up my alley. Secondly we have Steig Larsson, a true feminist ally. I can’t have anything but admiration for a man who wrote a trilogy (intending to write ten whole novels), exposing disgusting misogynists, portraying off-kilter sexual and romantic relationships completely without judgment and celebrating the weird and wondrous creation which is Lisbeth Salander. Next there is Miranda July whose short stories and novel left me feeling completely inadequate as a writer; if I could create a character with half of the intrigue of one of July’s, I would be a happy little writer. Marilyn French is the next on my list, The Women’s Room cemented my views and made me eternally grateful for the women who have fought, even if quietly, for women to be where we are today, even if we have further to go. Finally there is Sylvia Plath because, of course.

I’m running closer to the word count so I’ll leave this here. I hope you’ll get to know me over the year as more than the blonde haired lass with the purple diary who keeps banging on about women.

*I later read that these are a creation by one of the characters where he puts antlers onto stuffed rabbits.

** Frey claimed that A Million Little Pieces was autobiographical but it was found that a lot, if not all of it was fiction. (Click here for more info)