Book club and me: the story so far.

Book club: a new book to read every month and free coffee. People who like books and take time out of their life to come and drink free coffee and discuss what they read.Given that two of my most favourite things in the word are reading and coffee, I don’t understand why it took me so long to join a book club.

It all started with my husband asking me what I think about him joining a sci-fi book club. I said it was a great idea… and joined it instead of him. Since childcare demands Superman/Clark Kent sort of thing, he hasn’t got a chance to attend yet.

Joining a sci-fi book club rather than a literary one gives me a bit more focus and feeds my sense of nostalgia; sci-fi is what I grew up on even though it is not something I read regularly these days.

I looked forward to diving sideways in my reading habits. My own poetry writing is in a bit of a rut, and I didn’t want to read more poetry as a reminder of what I’m not doing enough of. Sci-fi reading feels like pure pleasure 🙂

I missed the first meeting where Asimov’s Foundation was discussed, although I did overhear about a quarter of the meeting because I happened to be in the bookshop. There are moments, I’m sure, every socially awkward introvert has had when one can distinctly picture standing on the crossroads of two timelines:

Timeline 1: I come up to the group, introduce myself, and ask to join at the next meeting.

Timeline 2: I give in to the strong instinct to avoid all human contact, see them all leave, never come to a meeting, and regret it for the rest of my life.
(Yes, I am also prone to drama.)

I have forced myself into Timeline 1, and so far it has been great. I have been introduced to some great books both old and new (but all new to me).

Jo Zebedee’s Abendau’s Heir
Brian Aldiss’s  Non-Stop
Martina Devlin’s About Sisterland
Ursula Le Guin’s  The Dispossessed
(which I, alas, didn’t get to discuss because I got sick on a wrong day)

Unlike the majority of the club members, I have enjoyed all I read so far. Maybe it’s the thrill of engaging with something I forgot I loved and the joy of rediscovery… but, frankly, who cares!

I never fancied myself as much of a critic and, for an aspiring writer, I am not really that well read (I blame being a recovering scientist). So I probably miss a lot of more well read people might see. Also, it does feel really weird pointing out what I wish was different in a book while being extremely aware of how absolutely delighted I would be if I could produce anything even half as good as what we’ve read so far.

But even so, sci-fi being a narrower slice of the literary world than, say, literary fiction, I could pick up some parallels – like the little people on a spaceship and intelligent rats of Aldiss being reinvented in Terry Pratchett’s Bromeliad Trilogy and Amazing Maurice and his Educated RodentsSeeing connections like these whether they are real or just perceived by me is rather fun.

Another surprising result is that I am learning what I like. Of course, I know if I liked something I have just read, but I have never given much thought to what sort of things I like in general.

It looks like I’m a bit of an epic fantasy kind of gal 🙂
My main issue with the first three books on the list was “I want more details!” (which is something good to say about the stories themselves, if they didn’t grab me I wouldn’t want details anyway). This was particularly the case with the Abendau’s Heir. It is a 300-page novel that could easily be 600. I crave detail, I want to know more about the worlds themselves, what they look like, feel like. My mind does fill in the gaps and the action propels the story and induces a satisfying ‘what’s next?’ but I do wonder if I’m seeing what the author is seeing.
It does give a certain cinematic, script-like quality, but given that it is not a film (yet? 🙂 ) I would like more description.
Similarly, About Sisterland was even more script-like for me: women-in-charge dystopia is an interesting concept. The main character is very believable too, but I have to take too much on faith. What was it like growing up in Sisterland? We’re told about boys and girls being kept separate in “girlplace” and “boyplace” but very little detail is provided about what it was really like.
I get it intellectually but I don’t get it emotionally, which for me needs to come through the direct experiences of the character.

The Dispossessed is absolutely beautiful in that regard – Le Guin walks us through what it’s like to grow up in an isolated anarchist colony from birth to adulthood through the eyes of main character Shevek. The narrative alternates present day and the back story so they finally join in the end. As a result one might say there’s less space for the dramatic stuff to happen, on the other hand, what does happen feels so lived through and so real that the overall impact is huge.
Can’t wait for the next book club meeting – Neuromancer by William Gibson. 🙂

A little bit of magic (peptalk)

I am often discouraged with my art (art being a loose term that includes, at various times, writing, drawing or painting); what usually helps is being around like-minded people or, failing that, a virtual company of the artists I admire.

However, sometimes this fails to encourage me and even makes me feel worse. I think about these amazing, successful people and all I get is – just don’t bother. The magic that burns bright inside them and makes them produce those amazing works is strong. Fine, they practice a lot. They overcame a lot. But at the end they just do it. They sit down and write an amazing story or do an amazing sketch. It just rises out of them and flows out of their pen.

This sort of ‘you either got it or you don’t’ thinking makes me sad and makes me stop trying. Guess what happens when I stop trying? Nothing. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. But every so often I come across something different.

It all began with Ken Robinson’s book “Finding Your Element: How to Discover Your Talents and Passions and Transform Your Life” and the distinction between aptitude and ability.
The book has a very illuminating story about Feynman getting an idea related to his particle physics research while observing a waiter dropping plates – a logo on one of the plates was spinning and caught his eye.  The idea led to more work eventually culminating in the Nobel prize. Yes, it does take a certain amount of alignment of the mind, aptitude, to notice those things. But it is nothing without the consistent application of work. After all, an idea not fleshed out, written down, and shared is just an interesting thought someone had.

How does this relate to writing? I believe there’s a certain way of looking at the world, a way of noticing things that are uniquely suited to writing. That voice at the back of my mind that goes ‘this can be a great line in a poem’.
I am a collector of different words and turns of phrase that could be later used for something else.

JK Rowling has a little article on Pottermore with the list of names of possible characters in Harry Potter. Many of them ended up in the finished work.
You know who else wrote a list similar to this? Me. At some stage during my school years. Do I mean that I could have written Harry Potter? No. I’m not JK Rowling. The point is our minds are not fundamentally different. The difference is that she kept going with her list and I didn’t with mine.
Another example is my favourite author Neil Gaiman. I have watched several interviews with him on youtube during coffee breaks, and I was so glad I did. Guess what, he also steals ideas from his kids – ‘Wolves in the walls’ is a phrase he got from his daughter and then developed into a story.
I am also prone to doing this – I have a published poem that has borrowed heavily from what I heard from my then 3-year-old son.

If writing is mysterious to me at times, the visual art is even more so. At least writing consists of recognisable units like words.
I have dabbled in drawing, painting, and (more recently) sketching pretty much all my life. I enjoy it but I am plagued by even more doubts of my ‘general worthiness’ when it comes to visual art than when it comes to writing.
Enter Jim Kay – I have learned about him recently while looking through illustrated Harry Potter. Naturally, I googled him and discovered this charming little video of his process. He is clearly incredibly talented, what is even more clear is that he works incredibly hard and gets himself all the help he can get from dressing up as Dumbledore to get the folds of fabric just right to making paper and plasticine models of Hogwarts.

Do I feel that there’s no magic in art? No. But there’s no ‘I don’t have it so don’t bother’ magic. How about ‘I have access to this magic too’?

The conclusion to all this is not surprising: put the hours in and do something for your art. Every day, even a little bit. You are not doomed to be shite unless you do nothing at all. And, hopefully, neither am I 🙂

John Hewitt International Summer School 2016

I have returned from the John Hewitt International Summer School (JHISS) last Saturday and I am fucking miserable.

There, I said it. Return to everyday life is harder than I expected.
While it is a very busy and intense week full of readings, talks, workshops, poetry, fiction, music and theatre, I found the experience surprisingly…relaxing.
Taking a holiday from cooking, cleaning, childcare, laundry and pointless fights over child’s socks freed up mental energy reserves I forgot I had.
But I should start at the beginning.
I did not think I would get a bursary. I am rubbish at describing who I am, what I do and why I deserve nice things (like a fully paid accommodation and free entry to all JHISS events). I filled in the application form anyway, as a part of a promise to myself to keep going with this poetry thing.
So…when I got a polite “no”, I was not surprised and even mildly relieved. I was settled (if not particularly happy) in my comfort zone (*cough* rut).
Then I got the “never mind, you got it” email and this shit got real.
My husband took a week off work and away I went.
Sitting on the train to Portadown I had no idea at all about what is going to happen. Eventually, I found  the Armagh bus, got lost between the bus station and the Royal School (even though it is a 5 min walk).
All I knew about JHISS is that it happens every year, it has poetry in it and it is a GOOD OPPORTUNITY. My poetry pal Laura Cameron got bursary in 2015 and had only good things to say.
The time really flew buy and I got very attached to my green lanyard.
The truth is, I probably could have got more out of it. I did not mingle that much and had not engaged in much coffee-break writerly discussion. And I knew this is how it was going to be.
I am very introverted and I know myself well enough to know that I need to pace myself. So I went to the majority of the events, participated in the workshop (and contributed out loud), read my drafts at the student reading and the open mic.
By Friday I got to meet several people and actually talk to them like a normal person.
But I left with an all too familiar feeling that “I am just getting into this and it is all over!” Damn.

These are a few of my favourite things from JHISS 2016 (in no particular order):

1. Another workshop participant telling me that I have some “raw talent”, that I should write everyday (inspired or not) and not let it go to waste.
2. Walking across Armagh Mall with Stephen Gordon on Saturday morning and talking about the importance of reading your work to other people, not giving up and showing up at the page.
3. Meeting the person who wrote The Poem I Wish I Had Written (Matthew Francis, “Street lamps”), hearing him read, participating in his workshop and getting some very helpful feedback and heaps of encouragement.
4. Andrew McMillan’s reading from “physical”. I can’t remember breathing.
5. Hearing Sinead Coll (another bursary student) sing at the open mic…and realising that true community events do exist and I have just possibly walked into something from “Good Vibrations”. That open mic was something surreal and wonderful and I was so happy I got to be there and brave enough to read a few poems.
6. Going on a walking tour of Armagh, even though there were only me and Martin Tyrell who showed up for it! And getting to talk to Martin about summer school, unacceptability of cappuccinos during certain parts of the year, power of stories in general and “Snow, Glass and Apples” by Neil Gaiman in particular. Armagh is absolutely enchanting and I encourage anyone who is planning to go there to take a walking tour – it was really worth it. 

I am sad that the summer school is over. But I got the answer to the question “Could I be a writer?”. Which is really why I filled in the form in the first place.