Writing and the Beginner’s Mind: Taking A Zen Approach to Creativity

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“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the experts there are few”

Shunryu Suzuki

This quote is taken from Shunryu Suzuki’s book on Zen meditation and practice, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. Although Shunryu Suzuki is talking about the approach to practicing Zen Buddhism in this quote, it’s possible to apply this philosophy to the practice of creative writing.

Do you remember your first experience of creative writing? It’s likely to have been at primary school, or even before. Do you remember the joy you felt when you completed that poem about leaves or trees or dogs and cats? Do you remember the pleasure in rhyme, in the sounds of words, in the meanings tucked in behind the vowels and consonants? How does it compare to how you feel now?

What about when you came back to creative writing as an adult?

It’s so easy to get bogged down in the push to be a writer, we forget to enjoy writing.

Similarly, the more we learn and the more knowledge we process, the smaller our field of vision becomes. We begin to judge the poetry we write by a bench mark we set ourselves, or a bench mark we are set by the perceived success of other writers. We want desperately to emulate the writers we respect, to have someone say that our poem is the best, the most moving, the most perfect. We want the validation of competition wins and publications. We study and we learn what makes a good poem according to this professional writer or that professional writer and we learn we shouldn’t say shards in a poem or shouldn’t use rhymes or shouldn’t write about nature or cats. The tools available to us as writers become fewer and fewer, the rules become more confusing as we see writers being successful, even though they have used the word shards or written about cats. We look at other writers and judge their work. We look at ourselves and judge ourselves, usually harshly. We begin to feel it in our writing: the pressure to produce, the fear of not producing something good, good, that is, when held up to the bench mark that we have decided is What a Poem Should Look Like. We start to only read the books that have made massive international award lists because they must the the right sort of books. We look at competition winning poems and think that they must be the right kind of poems because they win competitions. We try to be the thing that people want.

How exhausting to live under so much pressure, to be a writer fighting for the light like a sapling in a forest. I’ve done all of this. I do all of this. It’s part of human nature to want to be in the pack, to want to not be the animal on the outside because they’re the ones that make a nice meal for a hungry lion. But I think by developing a beginner’s approach to writing, and to reading, by first asking yourself “Do I like this?” without the fear of getting it wrong and showing yourself up in front of the imagined poetry judges who know what a ‘proper poem’ is, is a good start. This isn’t to say you should approach your writing with a crayon and a slap dash approach, it’s more about approaching your writing with an open mind, open to the possibilities of different styles and different voices, and different styles even within your own work. Open to compassion too, for yourself especially. No one ever wrote the perfect poem, because the perfect poem is different for everyone.

I find it sad that so many people, especially women, in my experience, look at their own work and think ‘this is wrong.’ or ‘My work doesn’t fit in’. How different would they feel about themselves and their work if they thought ‘my work is different’ or ‘there’s room for everyone here’ or ‘My work is different, I add something to the writing world that wasn’t there before’.

How do you approach your work with a beginner’s mind? You come to the blank page without preconceptions, ready to enjoy the experience. You allow the negative thoughts to arrive, but allow them to leave too. You remember the first poem you wrote, and aim for that sense of happiness and joy. You remember the feeling of possibilities before you hedged yourself in.

How do you approach reading other’s work with a beginner’s mind? You arrive at it without preconceptions of good or bad, only difference. You allow yourself to read the poem openly, allowing yourself to enjoy it or not enjoy it.  You are conscious that not liking something doesn’t mean you are less educated, less talented, less a part of the writing world. You remember that there is an entertainment factor involved in all creative practices, and it’s OK to be entertained without needing to be artistically or intellectually challenged.

Of course, it’s easier said than done. I compare myself constantly to others and it makes me miserable. I’m working on it. I’m working on being kind to myself. I think  the most important thing is to be kind to yourself, allow yourself to just write without the pressure to fit in or make a ‘proper’ poem. Be a friend to yourself, be a friend to your writing. And don’t confuse excitement with happiness. They’re not the same thing. I aim for contentment. Contentment is massively underrated in all areas, and I think in the writing world, contentment – enjoying what you do and enjoying what others do is important.

 

Thus ends the lesson for today.

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The Diary of Samuel Pepys, 1660: What I Read in 2019

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I’ve been wanting to read Samuel Pepys’s diaries for years and never got around to it. For those who don’t know Mr. Pepys, Samuel Pepys was born in London in 1633, he made a decision in 1659/1660 to start keeping a record of his day-to-day life, and made a diary entry every day for ten years. This has allowed historians to get a fantastic view into this era in history, from the view-point of a middle class London citizen, rather than from the view point of a historian or a royal record keeper. I’ve become fast friends with Mr. Pepys’s, so much so that after a few diary entries I began to think of him as someone I actually knew, I started to refer to him as simply Sam, and found myself building something of an attachment to him.

The thing about the diary is that it’s so human, so normal. Clothes and laws and monarchies and buildings have changed, but people haven’t. He’s just a bloke, going about his business and living his life. Sam was the son of a tailor. He was educated at St. Paul’s school in London and then Magdalene college. In 1655 he married his wife (more on that later) and then he landed the job that would see him rise to a very comfortable position.

Sam’s observations of human life, his sheer joy at finding he’s making a good living by working really hard, his exuberance with learning musical instruments and his happiness in decorating his home are massively endearing, but so are his faults – he gets drunk and then regrets it the next day, he feels bad when he’s upset someone, he goes to bed worried about whether he’s going to have enough money. When he does get to climb another step on the career and social ladder, he gossips about it with his wife, and shares his excitement in his diary. He’s proud of where he is, and he really loves his mum and dad.

As far as his wife, Elizabeth Pepys is concerned, she is a bit of a mystery. We only, obviously, see her through Sam’s eyes. She doesn’t get her own voice, she’s shadowy and unformed as a person, and a lot of the time you get the strong feeling that she’s more property than companion. They don’t have children, though they try to have children.  We know she’s messy and drops her clothes on the floor because Sam kicks off at her for it. And we also know that he misses her when they are apart, but we don’t know about her passions, her thoughts, her favourite things because non of her letters survive, she becomes a face in an etching and these few lines in Pepys’s diaries. I’d like to know more about her.

One of my favourite things about the diary is the little windows into the food and drink of the time. It seems so much less regimented, Sam eats when there is food on offer, rather than sticking to set meal times, sometimes he eats barely more than a bit of bread and butter all day long and this isn’t seen as odd, no one’s telling him he should eat more. Other times he has elaborate meals. He complains quite a lot about badly cooked food. Oysters seem to have not only been a fairly staple food item for the people of Pepys’s time, but an exchangeable item: a barrel of oysters is given as a gift, and at one point, whilst dining important friends in one of the many pubs he visits, he sends for a barrel of oysters to share. I’m assuming it’s a reasonably small barrel. He regularly eats udders and cow tongue and a LOT of roast meat. It is no wonder that half of London had piles, there doesn’t seem to be a single vegetable consumed in the whole of the city in 1660. And of course, they don’t drink the filthy water, they drink beer and wine and then strong wine and then sometimes stronger wine. They must have all been hammered constantly. They all seem to start their day with a ‘morning drought’ and then pop in and out of pubs and clubs throughout the day as business is conducted before going to the pub for a few beers or a PINT OF WINE. They drink wine in pints! No wonder, again, that gout is so prevalent and kidney and urethra stones are big amongst the people.

Something else that struck a chord with me are the descriptions of death and particularly child mortality rates. Child death is so prevalent. There’s a tendency, looking back, to assume that because it was so prevalent, it was expected, the norm and wasn’t as devastating for the parents. It was. It has never been any different. I found the description of people whom Sam knew who had lost several babies in a row quite moving.

Thesis such a funny, interesting, poignant diary. I would recommend it to anyone, and I do.

My favourite bits:

  • Any and all of the food and clothing descriptions
  • Sam falling in a  ditch because there’s no street lights
  • Sam stepping in a pile of human turds in his own cellar, because the people next door keep climbing through a window to shit in there. Also, Sam seems to sneak in and out of pubs without even buying anything so he can crap in their privies.
  • The descriptions of musical instruments and the entertainment scene, which seems to have been people getting together to sing.

I’ve already bought the next one. I can’t wait.

 

April Write-a-thon

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New workshop!

April Write-a-thon is not just for poets, it’s for fiction writers, poets and creative non fiction writers. You’ll receive a prompt a day delivered directly to your in-box, plus once a week throughout April you’ll receive a list of sources for great creative writing blogs, articles, online magazines and even videos, everything you need for a month of creative motivation.

Interested? It’s just ten pounds for the entire month and that also gives you access to the closed facebook group where you’ll be able to share your work, comment on other people’s work, chat and generally enjoy the buzz. I’ll be about every day to motivate, encourage and moderate. It’s going to be good fun.

Suitable for all levels, joining instructions HERE

 

On Being a Rural Working Class Writer

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I recently applied for a very big thing, and didn’t get it. I knew I was punching way above my poet weight with it and not getting an interview shouldn’t really have bothered me, but it did. One of the things that bothered me about it is that I felt like I was too working class to apply. I applied anyway, and actually, in the application I attempted to make my working class background a positive, an asset, something that they would benefit from. I pointed out that, whilst I didn’t have a first class oxbridge degree or an Eric Gregory to my name (when I was still young enough to be eligible for an Eric Gregory Award I was working in a cake factory in Bridlington and hadn’t started my writing career. I didn’t start my writing career until I was in my thirties) and, in fact, didn’t have a PhD either because I couldn’t afford to pay my tuition fees, I had something else. I had a great deal of life experience, had worked in shops, cafes, factories, had been a scientist, worked in the NHS and put myself through university two and a half times (not including my NHS funded science BSc), whilst working full time, each time. I also pointed out that for the most part I worked with adults who were sometimes shyly trying poetry for the first time. I laid out what I would like to do in the position being offered, which would have been to look at what was important to the working class people living in the city at which the position was being offered.

Anyway, I did not get the position, along with many, many, others. But that working class chip is still there. Every time I find myself pushing out of my working class boundaries I think of this Sean O’ Brian poem: Cousin Coat .  I’ve probably shared it before. I know I’ve talked about being working class before. I don’t think it would matter how well educated I was, how successful I was, how much progress I’d made towards my goals, I don’t think I’ll ever shake the feeling off that I’m too working class for certain situations and positions. I also feel a sense of guilt that I’m trying to escape that working class background.

And I’m the wrong type of working class at that. When you say ‘working class’ to people, they envisage inner city schools, industrialised city scapes with smoking chimneys and a hundred kids living in one room of a falling down tenement. It is all those things, but that’s not me. I come from one of the most beautiful places in Britain, nay, the world. I’m from rural North Yorkshire. I grew up in the countryside and on the beach. How idyllic! And it was, is, but my home town also has one of the lowest average incomes of the country, extremely high unemployment levels and one of the highest drug and alcohol related mortality rates in the country. Yet we also have one of the highest council taxes in the country. Scarborough is a mix of grandeur, kiss me quick hats and extreme poverty, it’s a weird place to live because everything is so geared to scraping money in from tourism, it’s not generally spent on residents. Added to that we have a lot of elderly people here (retirees to the seaside) and a stretched and underfunded local hospital. There’s a lack of identity for people living here. There’s a lack of confidence, it’s like the whole town suffers from low self esteem. People move here for a better life, poor people on the whole, because who wouldn’t rather be poor in this beautiful, beautiful countryside if you can choose?

Where am I going with this…how does poetry fit into all this. Well, people think of poetry as a means of self expression. But actually, poetry is a means of communication, it’s a language, it’s an ancient form of language which directly accesses parts of the brain that are related to emotional communication. It’s why we reach for it at times of emotional crisis, why we hear poems at weddings and funerals (which reminds me, I have an article in the latest Breathe Magazine about this) and it’s really important that everyone has access to this form of communication. But unfortunately, especially in rural working class areas, and especially on this side of Yorkshire (W.Yorks seems to be well served, poetry wise) there aren’t that many places to access it, especially if you don’t know how to get into poetry. As a professional poet and freelance writer, there are not that many opportunities either, so I’ve generally made my own opportunities. The thing is, to give people access to poetry and the arts in general, it has to be more than just offering open mic nights, it has to be about offering people a way in, and that means it has to be accessible to lower incomes. Most of the people I grew up around think of poetry as difficult, complicated, distant stuff, because that’s how we were taught at a school where the main objective was fitting you out for shop or factory work. They wouldn’t go to a poetry event if there was one, but if poetry workshops were part of healthcare in the workplace, maybe they would find a way in. I don’t know. Anyway, what I’m saying is that it’s really important to me that I am able to work with people with little or no previous experience of poetry including those on low incomes, and it’s important to me to be able to offer that in a safe, encouraging environment where they don’t have to ‘be’ a poet.

This is turning into a ramble, but I wanted to express the fact that rural working class people exist and deserve access to the emotional language of poetry. Which is obvious. I’ve had a couple of people tell me I should charge more for the online courses I’m running, but that would just shut doors to people who might not be able to access guidance and help to communicate through poetry. Having said that, I still have to pay my mortgage and my bills and the way I’m working at the minute isn’t actually allowing me time to write. I’m not just a workshop facilitator, I’m a writer, and I don’t want that to slip away. I’ve started writing a novel or a novella, I don’t know which yet, and that’s a big thing, it’s six months work (I’m adapting my play to be a novel, so the structure is already there, but I need to do more research and obviously actually write the thing) so what I’ve decided to do is add a ‘tip’ button on here, and on my courses, etc so that those who feel they’d like to offer a little more, can. It’s completely optional. I feel cheeky doing it, but wanted to explain why I’d done that. It’s not about keeping me in white wine and coffee, it’s buying me writing time. People have been very generous and I am grateful.

I’m rambling a bit again, apologies, it’s been one of those weeks. But other wonderful things that are happening this week include working with a new mentee, who is enthusiastic and talented and I’m loving reading her short stories. We’ve set a target for the end of the month and I have no doubts that she’ll make it. Next week I’ll be visiting an ex mentee to look at where we might take her children’s historical fiction book, it keeps coming very very close to being picked up by a publisher, I still think it will be, but we need to put a plan together to tackle anything that might be putting publishers off. Then it’s over to York Literature festival for this brilliant Poets on a Boat event, then an open day at Ebberston Studios where I’ll be running an Introduction to Fiction course in September, I’ll be chatting to perspective clients and might try and run some mini ten minute workshops to encourage people to join in and sign up. It’s a busy old month. And I’m about to edit my own manuscript for Valley Press so that we can get moving on the new book, which is super exciting. And now…I’m writing a novel too.  Oh and I went to see this fantastic play last week, read the review here: Glory review for The Stage it’s a touring production so go and see it, it’s brilliant. Worth four stars.

Oh! and, here’s a free poetry anthology of women writers, which you can download in PDF form, it has some amazing poets in it, and I have a couple in here too: Eighteen Working Women Poets

Here endeth the ramblings of a slightly hung over rural working class writer. Thanks for hanging in there. PS if you did want to buy me an hour of writing time, the button’s to the right >>>>>>>>>>>

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The Wild Within 2019

 

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In March I’ll be re-running the very popular Wild Within month long poetry course.

This poetry course is designed to be accessible, both financially and artistically, meaning that anyone who wishes to write can get something from it; whether you are new to writing and would like some guidance, or you’re an old hand who perhaps wants a bit of affordable motivation to get the creative cogs rolling. The theme is The Wild Within and the course will look at poetry of nature, place and self, our connection to the living world and how poetry can not only be a way of noticing and describing the world we live in, but can be a way to evoke change within ourselves, and change in the outside world. You do not need to live ‘in’ nature, to be aware of it, it is there whether you notice it or not. This course is designed to help you notice and write about your own connection to nature. We all have a wildness inside us that connects us to the world.

The term ‘nature poetry’ is almost a swear word in modern poetry, it tends to be seen as old fashioned and unconnected to the poetry which deals with personal issues or world problems. But we forget that we are living, breathing, biological organisms, we are automatically a part of nature, because we are animals, we are nature. Come and join me for four weeks of looking at the world in a different way. Last year the course received some wonderful feedback, which you can see here: Testimonials

This is the most popular of the online workshop/courses that I run, so worth booking in early. It will be starting on March 1st and it’s just £10 for the full four weeks during which you will receive a weekly themed lesson pan and a prompt every day, delivered to your inbox. There is also a closed facebook group for those who want to share poems, photos, ideas and chat. It’s a fun course, and perfect for springtime.

I do have some sponsored places, do get in touch if you are on a low income or facing difficult circumstances, I may be able to help you with a place.

 

Details on how to book can be found here

 

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The Power of the Word

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It’s almost the middle of February already and I feel like my feet aren’t touching the ground still. However, this week saw me get through a load of work, events and catching up that I’d been planning for and trying to get through for months. Firstly there was a warm welcome in Leeds at Wordspace , which is a Leeds Trinity university led regular open mic, compered by the incredibly talented Hannah Stone. I’d been invited to be the guest reader by Oz Hardwick who, as ever, was the epitome of kindness and dry humour. It comes at a time (ongoing) where my confidence in myself as a writer as well as in just about every single area of my life has suddenly dropped away like an ocean shelf, and whilst I know from past experiences that pushing through the inevitable anxiety that accompanies these confidence drops is worth it as it helps me see myself as others might see me, and not just how to that awful voice in my head sees me,  it was still really tough. There were several points where I didn’t think I’d be able to get up in front of an audience and read and I couldn’t for the life of me imagine how I might have done this before. My husband drove us over to the venue in Leeds which is roughly two hours going and an hour and a half back (due to less traffic) and I’m always so grateful for that little kindness that he does for me. When I’m overcome with this sort of anxiety it makes it very difficult to think and focus properly, which means it’s probably a bad idea to drive. We got there with enough time for me to get a nice hot cup of tea in and for Chris to start sampling the gorgeous craft beers available at The Hop Shack . It’s a really lovely venue, stylish and warm and with enough space for everyone to have a seat. The quality of the open mic was incredible, and the atmosphere was one of enthusiasm for poetry. There was a real mixed crowd of people: students and non students, younger and older, all there for the power of words. I’d met a few of them before at other events.

The thing that happened that made it one of my highlights as a poet was that Oz introduced my work, and not me. There was a blurb on the print out which was available to everyone, so anyone could read that I’d had this and that published, worked here and here…competitions etc, all of which look brilliant on my CV but somehow fail to satisfy this terrible thing inside me that is always telling me how shit I am. Instead, Oz described what he felt when he heard me read, what the poems felt like to him. He said I wrote poetry that you could ‘climb inside’ and that it was like an “earthed tuning fork, a concrete tuning fork, listening to the world”. It meant so much to me, at that point especially, to hear someone whose work I respect and who I respect so much as a person, to describe my work like that, and it allowed me jus enough breathing space from the shitty low self confidence to actually get up and read poems from the new collection. The new collection is brutal in its representation of my experience of death, and with how much I have hated my body and my self, and how the death of my daughter compounded that, how I live with that. It is not a barrel of laughs. Since writing it I’ve felt that I have moved through a part of grief that had me pinned down with guilt and some sort of desperate need to atone for some imagined thing that I did wrong and caused her to leave me, and with the desperation of writing to her and never getting a reply. I feel like I have moved through that now, I’m out the other side, but it is still hard to actually get those poems out and open that experience up and share it. However, it is my honest belief that poetry is an important art form and that connection between people, that mode of emotional communication that allows others, and myself, to say ‘yes, this, this is it, this is what life is’ that’s an important thing. Poetry is not just observation, you do climb inside poetry, and when you do give that cist, that you-shaped den over to someone else to climb inside, it’s terrifying. The poems went down really well. I had a half of beer afterwards and was able to enjoy the rest of the evening, but sadly had to jet off at half nine to make sure we got back to the dog before midnight. Chris and I chatted all the way back about our memories of embarrassing stuff we’ve done, and we laughed, nand we talked about our courting days and about the way our marriage is far more weighted towards the beautiful, good things that have happened, rather than the terrible things, and they really were terrible. I wish I could explain the value of poetry being out in the world. It’s not about therapy, and even when it is, it’s still important, and open mics and regular events where you get to read your work, they are important, not just for entertainment, but for communication.

After this is was only a two days before Chris and I were heading off to Flintshire in North Wales to Gladstone’s Library where I’d been invited to run a workshop by the Manchester Women Writer’s Group for their annual creative day. They very kindly paid my expenses, no mean feet for a small group and for me to come all the way across the country; a journey of seven hours, and obviously we had to stay over otherwise we’d never have made it. I’d been excited about this gig for ages, but the sudden slope off of my confidence made it very challenging. We were knackered when we finally arrived, but my goodness, buoyed by the beauty of the place.  What a wonderful building, so tranquil and beautiful. I sort of felt a bit too working class to be there, like I might dirty the seats or stain the books with my presence, which is just what that inner voice tells me a LOT. We went for a drink in the village and had a really lovely dinner at The Fox and Grapes accompanied by a good, sharp cat’s piss and gooseberries Sauv. blanc and then went back to the library where we read our books in the beautiful common room.

Then to bed. My favourite sound in the world is the wind through trees and there were trees right outside our window, which I found very relaxing, along with the gentle bells from the church chiming the hour. However, the anxiety made it impossible to sleep properly and in the morning I actually had to find a chemist to get something to help settle my stomach I was so nervous. I was checking and rechecking notes, checking and rechecking my appearance, over and over and was just thankful when the time came to go down and meet the group and get going. I hate how anxiety dominates my life like this, but I have to say, it’s not usually as bad as this, I don’t know what’s going on with me. Perhaps just a bit run down. Anyway, the group were absolutely lovely, a real mix of genres and experience and all incredibly enthusiastic. I pushed a lot of exercises into the session, because I wanted them to really get pen to paper and break through the invisible barrier of the FEAR. The fear inhabits a blank page or a blank computer screen and is so powerful it can stop you writing. But such is the power of the word, that one is able to defeat this foe by just writing without purpose of fear of judgement. At the start of the workshop I was falling over my own words, but once I got interacting with the group and sharing the work, it went well.

I think they enjoyed it, they seemed to. And I really enjoyed it. I forget that there is a reason that I do this for a living, that I chose to be a full time writer, mentor, workshop facilitator, and it’s not because I’m shit at everything else, it’s because I’m good at this, I’m good at what I do. I forget that bit about the journey that I’m on.

We left almost immediately after the workshop to get across the country home. There’d been a storm over night and I was quite worried about flooding round our area, which usually knocks train times out and causes delays. The last thing you want on a seven hour journey is delays. I love travelling on the train, though, and it was just wonderful to go through my favourite northern cities and to revisit the Calder valley which looks like a beautiful art animation through a train window. But I missed seeing Suzannah Evans who’s new book I was hoping to get signed. She was running a workshop in the afternoon and I think is going to be a resident at the library for a whole month too.

I’d also been thinking about the play, writing the play. It’s become somewhat obsessive. I’d decided against crowd funding to make time to write the play. I’d decided, instead, that I would push back against the lack of confidence, which I felt was being exacerbated by feeling like I couldn’t get away from ‘work’ to write, by doing the thing that I advised my mentees and course attendees to do, which is to MAKE time, and not try to ‘find’ time. It’s so much less passive. So I had been getting up early, aiming for a half four/five in the morning start in order to get chunks of play writing done. On the first day I sat down to do this I was extremely surprised when an entirely different play to the one that I had spent months planning and working out the plot for, appeared on the screen as I was writing, and into which I fell heavily, like falling into a fast flowing stream. It was wanting to be written, and I am happy to say that the first draft is now actually written. I’d worked out that it needed roughly 200 hours of work on it to get it to a place where it would be ready to submit, and I had seen an award prize that I wanted to submit it to, which closes on Sunday. This had seemed impossible, just an impossible mark to aim for so that i would come in knowing I’d achieved something, even if I didn’t make that date, but some how it is burning into being and I’ll probably put a good twenty-thirty more hours in before Sunday to get it ready. It feels like a beautifully furious type of writing, a little like it did when I poured myself over my collection when I was a bit mad last year writing it. I feel less mad, but just on the cusp of euphoria with it all. Might be a good idea to have a few days off after I finish it. The play feels like it is good writing, but of course it’s almost impossible to tell if it is or not and I don’t want to say what it’s about, only that, whilst it draws on some of my experiences in life, it is NOT ABOUT ME. Which is brilliant. I’m not in this one, it’s not my story, and that is a freeing position to be in after the pure personal quality of the last ‘project.’

In the meantime the new course ‘Poems to Save the World’ is going very well. The course attendees are writing about Trump, Brexit and personal feelings around politics and doing an incredible, brave amount of writing. it’s a really supportive little group again and I feel like I have gotten to know a few of them quite well now, but it’s so lovely to have new people jumping in too. It’s a real pleasure to run these little workshops. I’ll be re-running The Wild Within in March, it was a very popular workshop last time, so you might need to book early if you want a place this time. Look out for details tomorrow.

Thank you for allowing me to waffle on, apologies that it was mainly about my jittery nerves.

 

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Milkman by Anna Burns- a mini review

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It’s taken me an entire month to read this book. It was worth it.

Milkman is the Booker Prize winner from author Anna Burns. It is a dense, powerful, thrilling, frightening narrative about a community living under long term pressure and violence and how normality warps under such pressure. Although the town it is set in is not named, and the time it is set in is undefined, it is clear to see that it is set in a town which mirrors Belfast in the seventies, during the troubles. There are other themes here too, sexism and misogyny, spousal abuse, romance, and self identification, self awareness all play a part n the over all structure, but all are layered up and woven in with the oppression of a whole community.

When I describe the book as ‘dense’ I am describing not only the tight, thick, break-less pages, the careful, multi layer construction of dialogue and internal thoughts, but also the density of the situation. The town depicted is relentlessly rule driven, except the rules change constantly. Nothing is as it should be, this is a society in extremes, except, of course, even in extremes people have lives, people get on with stuff and in this case the society has twisted itself into a shape in which violent murders and paramilitary activity are the norm. One of the most powerful aspects of the book is the way that things remain unnamed. People here live on the edge of loss, so seem to avoid that loss by never committing to owning anything, not streets, not towns, not husbands or wives, in fact the people in this story avoid losing the people they love by settling for the people they don’t love and resenting it their whole lives. Children are not named, they are simply denoted by their placement in the family order, as if, like a snack machine, one might be pushed out into death and replaced by the next in line. Community members are denoted by their actions, everyone has a nickname which implies their place in the herd, with the outsiders, the ‘beyond the pales’ in the dangerous predicament of being on the outside of the herd, where they could be picked off at any point. In this way it has a feel of The Handmaid’s Tale to it, it has the same level of frantic anxiety, tied down and restricted beneath the guise of a  normality put in place by an oppressive force, and this makes it intensely chilling.

The main protagonist, the eighteen year old ‘middle daughter’ avoids the political state that she lives in by keeping her head in 19th century literature, not even looking up from said books when out walking about. She runs for pleasure, but is monitored when she does; she drinks with friends, but only in approved drinking places and her friends are pre ordered into political and non political friendships. This is how it is here, there are kangaroo courts, and death on every corner. She begins to be labelled as ‘beyond the pale’ and also begins to attract a high profile paramilitary, the Milkman, but being a woman she is powerless to assert any choice in the matter.

This is a brilliant book. It isn’t a book that you can swallow whole in one sitting, but it is beautifully, intricacy, carefully, cleverly and wryly put together. The choice of language, of style, is so perfect, so ‘beyond the pale’ that it is striking, real, something about it rings utterly true in a frightening, realistic way. It is almost dystopian, like looking down the lens to the future, but it is also the past, and also the present. I look forward to reading more from Anna Burns.