Wednesday, 16 April 2014

What is #WoMentoring and why am I doing it?

On April 15th the WoMentoringProject was launched "to offer free mentoring by professional literary women to talented up and coming female writers who would otherwise find it difficult to access similar opportunities." 

I'm glad to be part of it.

Why? About ten weeks ago, I saw a tweet by writer Kerry Hudson, (whose idea this is) asking for volunteers, and instinct led me to say yes immediately. Instinct is a powerful thing - I didn't really need to think about it. The concept - women helping other women - is something I've believed in quite strongly since I can remember.

Why do I use the phrase 'believed in'? I'm not sure I 'believe' in anything strongly... not in religious doctrines, or even absolute moralities (with some vital exceptions). Writing fiction for many years has taught me something about certainties; the more I write, the fewer I have.

But I digress.

Perhaps it's possible to believe in an ideal, when you've had sufficient proof that others share it. (See projects like EverdaySexism and VIDA if you need further proof of why this sorority is needed.)

So - I will offer some time and experience to other women who write (probably one at a time!) for a while, because it feels right to me. It's a thing I've already been doing, stealthily, here and there, and a gift I've received from some brilliant and generous women writers I've been lucky enough to encounter; women not always older than me, but further along their paths, and able to point out a few puddles and potholes and tripwires, and hold out a hand when I've got lost (I've got lost a lot), and brush dried twigs and mud off my face, and set me going again.

(There are male writers who've been handy with j-cloths and getting grit out of your shoe, too, and I gladly acknowledge their help.)

I have no idea who, if anyone, will ask for my help. If they do, I hope it will be because they have read some stuff I've written, and liked what I write about, or how I wrote it; but also from a sense of how I view the important things about human relationships and individual choices and how to fall down and get up - because that's what's I know, a little, and that's what's being offered. 

Here's the FAQ about WoMentoring - read carefully before applying - and good luck to all involved.

More writers, more stories...? 
Yes. Let all the flowers bloom.

Monday, 6 January 2014

in stitches

sewing susan & her sinister sisters
It's been a while since I sewed with any regularity (or any great flexibility of the fingers) but I used to do so a lot. 

A friend recently reminded me of the skirt she'd asked me to make her, twenty years ago, from an old pattern. She came round to try it on, admired herself in it, in a variety of poses, then asked for it to be tightened and narrowed to a truly pencil-slim shape, insistent that was the look she I did as requested until it was a tube of light grey flannel so hobbling she couldn't sit down in it or walk to the bus.

She maintains to this day that it was a fine piece of work.

With more success, I used to make myself capri pants out of 1950s jumble-sale fabrics, mainly bathroom curtains covered in blue-green-grey-black designs of fish and seaweed and sea-urchins, based on a very simple 'slacks' pattern I'd found in some charity shop. It was the dressing-up era, and I had time on my hands, and Edinburgh's older generation were tossing out so many wonderful clothes and objects I spent each weekday trawling through the rails of charity shops, finding new things to wear, or sell, or give to friends. Steptoe rather than Stepford, moi.

Before she had children - and then again, much later, when we were out of her environment - my mother used to make her own clothes. When she was a Wren in Gibraltar, she was able to buy silk in Spain (where they were allowed to go on day trips, with no more than £2, I think, as spending allowance) and in her free time (i.e. time not employed in drinking tea or gin with handsome naval officers) made some really pretty dresses, most of which she omitted to save (still annoyed about that) for her daughters (in fairness, she didn't know yet she'd have us). Later, when she was in her late 60s, she picked up the habit again, taking apart shapeless tent-like skirts and fitting them onto old lace collars and yokes to make nightdresses. I loved the optimism of that continued attempt to make things that were useful and beautiful.

I don't know how I learned to sew, but it was probably via my mother - and she would have learned from hers. There was an obligatory element in secondary school, where I remember being under instruction to make an apron (standard girly stuff), and later, aged about thirteen, I constructed a ghastly a-line dress out of purple corduroy (and was so proud of myself, but wonder now if I didn't look like a Jackie magazine disaster).  At fifteen or so, I began to play with appliqué and embroidery, probably as a kind of fantastical escape from unappealing reality. Clothes and escape, discuss. There are still skeins of coloured silk thread bundled into boxes, and buttons and fabrics collected for clothes I'll probably never make, unless I head more determinedly towards the eccentric style-choices of Edith Sitwell.

Perhaps in recent years words have become the embroidery, or words are the clothing itself, a textual way to deal with reality.

Between now and May, I'll be thinking in terms of needlework - and the adornment, flattery or disguise of the body - quite a lot, because I'm participating in a group writing project called Bespoke(n) - initiated and curated by Newcastle-based word-tailor Helen Limon

"Bespoke(n) is a (partly) Arts Council-funded group writing project that includes nine writers from all over the UK, an east-end tailor, film maker and a visual artist. Almost half those involved in the project are young creatives under twenty five." 

For a modest 'pledge' - see the Bespoken Crowd-Funding page for all the details - you can peer over the project's shoulders, hang on its coat tails, tug on its sleeve, sneak your hand into its pockets, seize it by the lapels, pick fluff off its cuffs... (I'm sure you can think of other metaphors to add to that lot). For a less modest pledge, you could receive a limited edition artists' book, or - you lucky person - have a coat made for you, yes, made for YOU. A bespoke coat!

To sharpen your needle-like wits on the topic, here's a sample writing prompt by Viccy Adams

For more ideas, info, and links, follow @BespokenProject

Thursday, 24 October 2013

Misadventures & Echoes

In July this year, I wrote and delivered a new short story for BBC Radio 4.

It's part of a series* called EDINBURGH HAUNTS, which starts on Friday 25th October and mine - THE MISADVENTURES OF MAGNUS LOVATT - will be broadcast on Friday 1st November at 3.45pm.

It concerns an actor at the Edinburgh Fringe, doing a one man show based on little-known tale The Misadventures of John Nicholson by Robert Louis Stevenson. You can read the RLS text here

The RLS story follows the (mis)adventures of a foolish young man in Edinburgh, his disgrace, his flight, and his prodigal return to yet further difficulties, not least of which the disapproving eye of his stern banker father.

RLS himself considered it not one of his best efforts, dashed off as a Christmas story for 1894, but I heard it adapted for radio and read by John McGlynn, many years ago, and it stayed with me.

'Misadventures of Magnus' was a commission and it came about by a circuitous route, the details of which may interest other story-tellers.

In late August last year I happened to spot a tweet from the BBC Radio 4 Commissioning Editor Comedy & Fiction, saying that she'd been in Edinburgh during the Festival and had seen a ghost, in the New Town - seen it twice.

Normally I would not approach online someone I know in a professional capacity about possible work (and don't recommend anyone else try it) but we had met and emailed before and I do have a track record with Radio 4
I tweeted back, "...idea there for a series of Edinburgh ghost stories?"

...and she kindly suggested I email her with an outline.
So I did. Given the cuts to the Afternoon Reading strand, knowing it was more likely to be greenlit if not a solo project, I suggested sharing it with two other writers.

The Comm. Ed. liked the basic outline and - given the logistics of this theme, and the location of the ghosts - handed the proposal on to a drama/readings producer in Glasgow, whom I didn't know personally. (I had for some time been working with producers based in BBC Bristol, not in Scotland, but that's another story). It would, I knew, be added by BBC Radio Scotland's Drama department to their bunch of offers (er, technical term) for the next commissioning round, i.e. it would eventually head back to the fore-mentioned Commissioning Editor for a swift and executive style yea or nay.

Time passed....

In January this year I heard that the proposal had been accepted 'in a slightly altered format' - instead of Festival Ghost stories, the BBC wanted Edinburgh Haunts, broadcast not at Festival time but around Halloween. The plan was to record them in the locations featured in each story (that element was, in the end, ditched for perfectly sound reasons). At this point the project was handed to another producer.  And so on and so forth.

I'll cut to the chase a bit...

From the moment I spotted the Comm. Ed.'s tweet, I knew my narrator would be an actor of a certain age and temperament - a bit like X in terms of career path with some Y thrown in to leaven the raging egotism. (Who? Not telling.)

Then it was just a matter of how to conjure ambiguities of interpretation - by the hauntee, and by the listener - and sow them into the story at various stages. And fit everything in. (Not everything fits, ever, and that's fine, and that's why I love short stories.)

RLS looked over my shoulder from the outset; I've been aware of his stories and their supernatural elements since I was a teenager when, for a few years living abroad, my only reading material in English had been a full Household edition of Dickens and the Tusitala edition of Robert Louis Stevenson's works - i.e. about two yards of Classic Literature.
I devoured them, slowly, with some fromage frais and a nice Orangina.
About writing for radio.. even when it's a commission, essentially you're writing for yourself, writing to your own critical standards the kind of thing you want to read and/or hear. A short story is the perfect vehicle for such megalomaniacal control - I don't mean that in a negative sense at all.  But authors aren't present in the studio when short readings are recorded, they're at home biting their nails, so it's the producer and an actor who - together - lift your narrative off the page and twist it carefully so that it fits into the listener's ear and stimulates his or her own imagination.

I hope listeners to 'Misadventures of Magnus' will get the performance-within-performance aspect of this, where the actor is speaking the RLS text inside my text.

This project gave me the nudge to revisit the Scottish Storytelling Centre - the former Netherbow Theatre on the Royal Mile - where Magnus's show is staged; it's a venue I remember not only from seeing actors of repute perform literary gems there in the '70s, but where, in the '80s, I performed comedy in various personae for audiences who'd not yet heard the words 'Alternative Comedy', let alone seen any such thing on their home turf.

As it turns out, much of what I did there wasn't Alternative in the least - I didn't do jokes, as such. Didn't like hearing jokes about either Tories or Tampons and didn't make them. My kind of comedy starting with inventing a character - voice, intonation, fixation, compulsion, some or all of those emerging and developing - then following that person's thinking out loud in a kind of trance-state.

It took me approximately 10 years or so to gain the confidence to believe I could do that on the page.

When I did, BBC Radio in Queen Street in Edinburgh was where I sent my early efforts - to the three producers who guided the now defunct Storyline strand on Radio Scotland - and it was a rewarding way to get my start. I hope there will always be avenues for other writers to learn through the broadcast medium (pun intended).

If ghosts exist, I might rather like to be haunted by RLS. Then again, in a sense, living and working in Edinburgh, maybe I already am?

*The other tales in this series are by Val McDermid (25th Oct) and Louise Welsh (8th November)