Thinking about the future, the past, and some of the bits in between.

So this week I have been focusing on my dissertation piece for the summer. Only instead of writing for the story that I’ll be handing in, I’m instead planning out the intricate steps of twenty years before. The main character hasn’t even been born yet, she is currently part of the future of what I am writing, hidden in the mists of what is to come.

And I’m finding out a lot about the characters and setting. I thought I would, but not to the extent that I am. Both of the characters that are in the short story appear in my longer piece. They are, to greater and lesser extents, important to the plot, and yet I’m starting to understand how little I know about them. I have expectations of them, that as I am writing, I change or even go against. So yes, here’s my advice, if you really want to know the motivations of a character that is not your protagonist, then I recommend writing them. I was going to write something sarcastic here about you only need to go back twenty years to understand what’s going on now, but I think I accidentally made a lot of sense. Oops.

I’ve also FINALLY got kindle unlimited, at least the first free month version, and I’ve been running through books by the dozen. I’ve read a lot of poetry, a lot of first books in a series, a lot of obscure new genres that I didn’t know were a thing. It’s been illuminating. And, though this is possibly a mean thing to say, it has made me feel like a much better writer and poet. Especially poet. I’ll probably end up regretting this, especially as, like I said, it seems people are very keen to put the first book up in a series but very reluctant to put the rest of them up where they’re free to read. But I understand that. And I’ll probably fall into their trap, going on to buy plenty of books just because I read the first one for free.

This is especially true as there is a brand new genre for me to explore, I came across it while scrolling through the fantasy section and it fits there as well as anything else. This new genre is RPGLit which is, as far as I can understand it when you have an extra fourth wall between you and your story, a story which is modelled on Role Playing Games. It’s odd, decidedly so, but there are some really well-written stories out there about characters finding out that those adventurers who are running around the countryside are being controlled by creatures from another dimension. It’s a delicious expose on the ways some players like to run around causing havoc, while using expressions like “awesome” and “pawned” to the confusion of the ordinary people surrounding them.

But I’m off now to do some more writing, until next time!

Kirsty

Happy New Year!

So this is my first post in a while, but it’s great to be back!

I’ve been reading Stephen King’s “On Writing” on and off the last few weeks. It is a fantastic book but it can be quite heavy so I’ve been reading little bits at a time to avoid getting tired of it. It’s made me think a lot about the process of writing, about how this is a thing that unites so many people, and yet how differently we all see it.

I’ve also been diving through plenty of comics since Christmas, I got a huge pile and so I have been enjoying myself immensely. One of the best things about reading comics is that it helps you to see where you can tighten up your writing, especially dialogue. The comic with too much text is a rare beast and so you can start to pick up that sparely written style. That’s definitely something that I can learn from, I need to get a bit more comfortable writing what happens with less about what might have happened if the character had done things differently.

Personal projects have hit a bit of a bump lately, the January blues no doubt! But with the University schedule starting up again it’ll be fun to start carving out time for that work and defending it. Of course, I can’t promise that I will always be as productive as I would like, but having a plan, or at least a to-do list of bullet points, seems to settle my mind somewhat.

Anyway, Happy New Year to everyone, I hope you all have a wonderful year and that you get from it everything that you want and need!

Read, read, read your books…

This week has mostly been about reading.  Some writing has occurred, but lately, I have just been stumbling from deadline to deadline scribbling away furiously in notebooks and typing like a demon possessed.

All these assessments left scant reading time.  Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh was the first book I finished, from my ever-burgeoning pile.  I was duty bound, after a suggestion that I not bother and just ‘wing’ my review piece.  The ‘honest injun’ in me could not live with that.  I often struggle with a book, film or music album, but I rarely give up entirely.  I like to give other’s creations some grace and try to find a positive.  You never know when you might need it yourself.

Eileen Ottessa Moshfegh

Eileen made me want to give up half way through, so I shelved her for a bit.  I found it repetitive, and the novel was becoming monotonous.  You know you are nearing the end of your tether when you have to restrain yourself from shouting ‘OH JUST GET ON WITH IT’ at the pages –  on a packed train, no less.

I am glad that I persevered.  My cockiness of ‘I know what is going to happen anyway’ wasn’t entirely justified,  my ego was delivered a little surprise twist.  Eileen isn’t the kind of novel I’m used to reading, so I am giving myself a wee pat on the back.  If I want to push boundaries with my writing, then I have to be willing to do the same with my reading. It is all yin and yang, innit?

After having flung Eileen to the side with a sigh of relief, I could hardly wait to get my teeth into ‘Scar Culture‘ by Toni Davidson.  Kirsty recommended this to me during one of my tutorials.  I just started it and am halfway through already.  I can hardly put it down.  It is a horrifying, yet fascinating novel and I love the way it is written, all fucked-up and jarring in snapshots and using grim, real subject matter.  I can see why it was recommended to me, it is right up my dark, weird and twisted street.  I won’t bang on about it too much, because I’m not finished yet and I’m not fond of forming half baked opinions.  I like to make informed and considered judgements on these matters, who knows, I may hate it by the end, although that seems unlikely after the electrifying kick start.

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I’ve also been reading other classmates work and sharing mine.  I was a little nervous, as my work reaches into dark places that most people don’t want to see.  These things are demanding to be written, and I must obey.  As an earlier blog title proclaims, I have no control over what comes out, my writing is as random as the nonsense that goes on inside my head.  I fell asleep early the other night, forgetting to take my make up off and woke up at mental o’ clock with a poem about potatoes going round and round in my head.  It was particularly insistent that I write it all down.  So I did, and went back to bed two hours later with black eyes and fingers covered in blue ink.  This is not the ‘wood cabin, maroon cardigan, candles, log fire and old typewriter’ glamour of the writer’s life I had envisaged for myself.

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I digress.  The point that I wanted to make about sharing work is how valuable the process is.  Fear accompanies everything I do, so trusting someone with my writing is a HUGE deal for me, but the rewards are worth it.  And nobody has run screaming from me…yet.  In all seriousness, I’m learning that writing and refining that writing are two separate things.  A fresh perspective enhances your original piece, and even the most self sufficient of us need a little help, to become what we are truly meant to be.

 

 

History and Wisdom

Hi everyone,

I had a really great chat with Kirsty Gunn last week, we went over my plans for the end of module portfolio and she really got me thinking about my writing. One of the things she pointed out, that I really needed to hear, was that my chosen genre of fantasy is definitely one written at a marathon pace rather than a sprint. Hopefully, that will be enough to stop that little voice in my head shouting, “you should have gotten nine million words done by now, write, write, write!” And she also gave me a great idea for some technically-not-procrastinating work, which admittedly I very rarely need help to find, the idea is to write a faux history book for my fantasy setting. Write from the point of view of a historian many years later and really explore what parts of it all would be remembered and what would be lost. I really love that, and it would be especially helpful as I am writing numerous epigraphs for chapter starts and scene changes. Plus it would probably be a good way to finally settle on what I want to happen. I have tried to outline it before, I swear, it’s just everytime I do I come up with something new to add in.

I’m getting my way through Helen Scales’ “Spirals in Time” at the moment. It’s a really interesting and well-written look at shellfish and their evolution. And yes, I realise that this does not seem like something interesting, but I’m enjoying it and learning a lot. I also have  to admit something rather bad – I totally picked the book up because of its beautiful cover. Which is of course the exact opposite of what we are told to do, but it seems to have worked out this time. Sometimes good books have good covers too!

Anyway I think that will be all this week, my wisdom teeth have made an unwelcome resurgance and I would really love to know why we have them at all. Is it too much to ask that they could just spontaneously disappear?

See you next time,

Kirsty

Travelling Has Become A Theme

Well, my weekend was certainly busy, I managed to get home and celebrated my dad’s birthday and managed to get some much-needed reading done on the train. I finished Constellations and got started on the next book on my list, I’ll be writing a review for Constellations so I won’t say much more about it. Just watch this space!

Speaking of space, my attention has been grabbed lately by the idea of multigenerational spaceships. The distances in space are so huge that attempting to cross them in the lifetime of one person is not likely to happen until we can figure out a way of reliably making wormholes. So making ships that are communities with the idea of generations coming and going on the ship, all knowing that the journey is truly for the benefit of their great, great, great (etc., etc.) grandchildren. I just can’t help but feel that such a setting would make for great inter-personal drama. Children feeling as if their choices were taken from them, parents sacrificing their futures for their children (and children’s children), and all taking place in what must be one of the most claustrophobic communities possible. Do they have the chance to communicate with other ships? Or are they limited to the people all crammed into the same tin can flying through the vacuum of space at almost light speed? I just think it’s a setting rife with possibilities. I have not gotten around to writing anything for it yet, I am a bit too busy with other work, but it’s definitely something I’m looking forward to getting my hands on when I can.

I have also taken the time to get stuck into my portfolio project. I’ve managed to overcomplicate it for myself by not just making it an extract of a longer piece as I had planned, but I am also intending on having epigraphs at the start of every chapter – and for the portfolio at least – every time I change the scene. Like I said it means I have to do a lot more work, so far I’ve written a sonnet and a short skipping rhyme that will be put in at the beginning of the piece and at the star of the second scene. I’ve been trying really hard to make them work in the world I’ve built, they’re meant to be from that world, you see. So the sonnet is a piece of work by a poet during the timeframe of the story and the skipping rhyme is briefly mentioned in the work. The idea is that the epigraphs will add to the feeling of a deep and intricate world building, especially the later ones which will include extracts of letters describing scenes in the story from another’s point of view and even, if I can figure out how to write it, a piece written in the style of an academic essay. I quite like the idea of suggesting that a lot of the people in the story will one day be interesting to historians, as, after all, I deal with a lot of royals in it and at the very least they would be remembered. I think this has influenced my reading of Constellations, the book shows how the loss of so many people changes the lives of those who are left behind so perfectly, that I can’t help but be inspired by it.

The World Seems To Be Recommending Dystopian Reading

Hello all,

This week the news would inspire anyone into writing a dystopian novel and I’m afraid what I’ve been reading isn’t doing much to counter it.

An article that recently caught my attention was on a paper about ants that have created a colony in a disused nuclear weapons bunker in Poland. It turns out that they fall down a ventilation pipe from a more standard colony on the surface and once down there they cannot escape. They then make do the best they can in an entirely dark environment with minimal food and a temperature that doesn’t make it very far up the thermometer. The description is fantastic in both the article and the paper itself, it talks about the inches thick ant cemetery that borders the colony and the mystery of what exactly they manage to survive on. I’m sure this could be used as a metaphor in any number of novels and stories, in fact even the article acknowledges that the paper “reads like a dystopian novel from the 1970s”. You can read the article and get links to the paper itself at  http://arstechnica.com/science/2016/09/bizarre-ant-colony-discovered-in-an-abandoned-polish-nuclear-weapons-bunker/

 

One of the reasons it seemed to grab me was because I recently started reading “Constellation” by Adrien Bosc, winner of The Académie Française Prize. It is a biography of the forty eight people who died in a plane crash in 1949. So the idea of falling from one existence to another has been on my mind a bit this week. But then it’s a story seed that I imagine has grown into many trees over the years and I can’t imagine that it comes from a source that will have a famine any time soon.

 

I’ve also decided to have a bit of a reread of some Shakespeare plays, starting this week with “The Tempest”. Not the whole thing unfortunately, not yet anyway, but enough to remember how much I wanted to set Ariel free on my first reading of it. Next up should be a certain Scottish Play, but I’m tempted to save that for Halloween and instead skip to “Midsummer Night’s Dream”. At the moment the idea of mischievous faeries causing trouble seems a lot better than the idea that everything that’s happening right now is a purely human happenstance.

 

I told everyone last week about how I do a little “Dungeons and Dragons” and that seems to have caught people’s attention! Well believe me I am very happy to talk about it. D&D has pulled me in at the moment as it gives me the chance to build a world, populate it with characters and then dump my friends and family in it. It’s very performative, not only do I have to show my friends what’s been occupying my time, but I also have to describe the characters and settings, speak for the characters and sometimes use silly voices for those characters. You lose any preciousness fast, it’s very easy to see a beautifully planned piece of work go completely off the rails because someone decides to ignore the cross roads entirely and go hiking instead. Also, as I don’t want to kill off my characters too quickly I have to keep the foes to within allowed parameters. Much less hand waving of the Deus Ex Machina style is allowed when there are other people who can see the rules. I’m still learning to navigate those rules, but I think I’m getting better. Obviously I would recommend D&D to anyone that has the time and the chance to play it, but another narrative rich game I would point out to any readers looking for something to play is “Fallen London” which you can play online for free. The writing is great and the setting is wonderfully deep and rich.

 

I’m afraid I must leave you now, so good bye and I’ll see you next week,

Kirsty Mackay

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.

Today, I finished…

We read an extract from Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter in class.  The words leapt from the page and slapped my face.  ‘Read me, read me! You know this!’ they cried.

I bought the book.

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I started reading.

I cried, several times.  I laughed, so loud on the train that people were staring at me.  I did their thinking for them.  ‘Look at that sick weirdo, reading a book about grief and laughing. Tut, tut, tsk tsk.’  I smiled and kept on reading, lost in the words and the feelings once more.

I finished the book today.

I am afraid to write about it.  I am not ready.  I look at Facebook.  I make a cup of hot, sweet tea – writer’s fuel, that is.  I look at Facebook again, mindlessly scrolling up and down, minutes dissolving into the ether of useless information.

I finished the book today.  My blog post is due tomorrow.   I must begin writing.  Just write.

Music will help.  I make a playlist.  I take a photograph of the book for the blog.  Break up the text with pictures.  I capture another image, of the book I have finished on top of the other books I have yet to finish, but would find easier to write about.

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It is 10.47 am and I haven’t eaten a thing.  I grudgingly make brunch, accompanied by yet another cup of tea. I look at the writing table I have set up.  Maybe I should hand write it first I muse, and rummage around for my notebook and pen.  Is everyone’s writing process like this?  Maybe there’s an image for that?  I google ‘the writing process’.

Writers pie chart

Twitter distracts me further.  I throw my phone down on the table in frustration and consider taking a hammer to it.  Instead, I pick up my pen and finally begin to write.

So, here we are.  I finished the book today.

Max Porter artfully uses dark humour in his description of looking out from a maelstrom of grief, setting the scene with a series of detached observations.  I have been a central character in that parade, surrounded by family, close friends, part-time friends, strangers, wannabe friends, and drama-by-proxy addicts, tripping over themselves to dole out advice or share personal experiences that have, frankly, fuck-all to do with anything you are feeling.

Porter shares the circus of it all with stark honesty, harnessing the spaced out feelings of the first few days perfectly. Grieving feels like being ripped out of your own life and plonked on an empty stage in an empty theatre, to star in an absurd play.  The audience float around outside the theatre, whilst the you that everyone sees smiles weakly, nods, croaks thanks.  The unseen, simultaneous roles of you respond quite differently, often with a great deal of swearing and, an occasional punch in the face.

Grief is the Thing with Feathers is a fractured account of shared experiences written from multiple perspectives in a myriad of ways.  The writing style achieves the feeling of making complete sense, whilst making no sense at all.   Crow, our antagonist and hero rolled into one is invited in, yet invades the remains of this family.  Throughout the narrative, Crow hops and darts around the boys and the father, tormenting and saving, hurting and healing.  He pecks at the darkest parts of humanity and is the father, the boys, grief, anger, hope, the past, the future  – a black mirror in which to view ourselves as we truly are.  I found this book easy to read, drinking in all its darkness and light.  Heartfelt honesty and clever imagery paints an emotive masterpiece that is accessible to all, whether you have been cast in the death show or not.  You may finish this book, but it will not be finished with you.

Books end.  Grief does not.  I finished my blog post.

ENDS

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Today I read: Sonnets

Read sonnets? Not a phrase I have used very often in my life, to my slight shame as an English teacher.

 

From ‘The Eye’ by Don Paterson

 

The empty mind you finally display

ten weeks into the yogic agony

of your silent retreat, you will discover

in the latter stages of a gin hangover.

 

To be found in 40 Sonnets by Don Paterson.

The words rang true. The sense of that moment in a long hangover, whereby you have finally transcended pain, and suffering, and self-loathing, and vowing never again, in order to arrive, sometimes only briefly, at a point whereby you know that you are actually going to get better. And so, you can just –exist. And everything is okay. And because it wasn’t before you feel amazing. And you’re not a bad person.

Except of course, Don Paterson puts it a lot more elegantly, which of course, is the point.

The poem goes on to consider those other, elusive, moments of transcendence, when you can just be. Its conclusion hints, I think, at something darker in the desire for that emptiness.

What I like about Don Paterson (so far) is that he clearly doesn’t take himself too seriously. Unlike, it seems upon reading it back to myself, this post.