Sunday, September 23, 2012

The best ways to learn to be a writer?

For the past few years, I have daydreamed about doing an MFA in Creative Writing. As I conceive it, an MFA (Masters of Fine Art, taught in American universities) or an MA (Masters of Art, taught in British universities) would provide me with expert tuition in writing. In my daydream, I cycle happily along to the university each day, spend my time engaged in exciting writing activities, and at the end of two years I emerge, in my cap and gown, as a Writer.


1. Money.
That two years would cost about the same amount as buying thirty gas combi-boilers. When we bought one gas combi-boiler a few years ago, I was so alarmed by the cost that I demanded a fairly detailed breakdown of fuel bills to demonstrate that, within five years, the reduction in our household gas bills would justify our initial expenditure on the boiler. I'm struggling to work through the potential returns on investment for an MFA/MA.

I can imagine that, if I was a business person for example, it would make sense to buy an MBA because it would greatly increase my eligibility for a higher paid position or better paid job in the future. But spending that much on my writing? There is, as far as I know, no career track for writing and an MFA does not guarantee publication (although it might help). Paying for an MFA/MA at this point in my life seems tantamount to investing money into an activity which is, in many ways, no more than a hobby. (There are much livelier discussions about the balance between how much an MFA costs and what it might be worth at the Doubling Down pages).

2. Time.
One of the major themes running through many of the Cafe Aphra debates is our lack of time: how can we make the time to write? How can we protect that time from the clamor and demands of our daily lives? How can we make the most of the time that we have available?

To undertake an MFA/MA is to invest time, a huge amount of time, in writing - which would be fantastic. But it would be writing for that course - not writing my novel - and it would further compress the limited time that I have to engage in the other areas of my life (parenting, being a partner, working, cleaning, cooking....).

And if I haven't got enough time to complete the course to the best of my potential, then it would have been a wasted investment of time and money anyway...

3. Value.
From the outside, I imagine my two years on the MFA in relation to the following: I would be tutored by experts; I would hone my technical skills; I would develop a wider repertoire; I would take the opportunities to perform to the very best of my potential, and I would be able to showcase my talents to a new (and receptive) audience. If I was a musician, taking a formal course of this kind would be a no-brainer: of course one needs structured exercises and high quality tuition to be able to play an instrument to the best of one's ability, right? In this month's 'Poets and Writers', Gregory Spatz calls this the 'teachable talent' and argues that creative writing can be successfully taught.

I agree that we all have the potential to write better 'stuff' than we currently manage to do and, in my daydreams, I imagine that an MFA will provide the opportunity for me to fulfil my potential. But my daydreams about the quintessential university course - the one which will transform me into the ideal writing version of myself - are counter-balanced by a nightmare scenario in which a sausage-making standards-driven university chews me about a bit and spits me out as an inferior plagiarist who can only write in the style of other people. I want to write well, really well, but I still want to write as me.

4. Community
There was a sentence from Spatz's article that really jumped off the page for me: 'I... tell students that... the single most valuable thing they can hope to walk away from the MFA workshop experience with is a handful of lifelong faithful readers: two or three people with a shared vocabulary for stories, who will always be willing to trade drafts of new work no matter what else is going on in their lives and who will know how to get inside that work to give prompt, constructive criticism that makes sense, long after the MFA work is done.' When I first started thinking about enrolling on an MFA, I aspired for that kind of community. Since then, the vision of Cafe Aphra has been born and a new kind of community is being generated which has the kind of inherent value which Spatz attributes to an MFA program. 

I haven't begged, borrowed and stolen tens of thousands of dollars (which I would have had to do to undertake an MFA). I haven't further compressed my family time and my work time so that I can attend university courses. I have a huge amount of things that I need to learn about writing.


I have found a writing community and, together, we are striving to become better writers. We are working together to become the writers who we might yet be, and perhaps that is, after all, as much as any MFA/MA program might ever hope to provide.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Writing communities

"Hi. I'm Zoe Fowler and I'm a writer...."

There is something about those words which carries echoes of Alcoholics Anonymous: I'm confessing to something; revealing something that I might otherwise keep hidden from people (and in most areas of my life, I'm more likely to say "Hi, I'm Zoe and I'm a mom"). When I say that I'm a 'writer' I'm taking on an identity which only feels truly comfortable when I'm within a community where other people are similarly afflicted, and it's only recently that I have had a community within which I can 'be' a writer.

I take my writing seriously and I work hard. My daughters leave for school early in the morning and I wave goodbye to their big yellow school bus, come back into the house, squeeze the last drops of coffee from the coffee-maker, and sit down at my desk to start writing. I'm lucky and I appreciate how lucky I am. I have a tiny room at the top of the house which is crammed with books and paper and bottles of ink. I have my own desk. I have a partner who earns sufficient money to support me while I write (and a visa whose conditions forbid me from engaging in paid work). If I think of the advice given out by Virginia Woolf, it seems that I have all of the things that she recommended: "A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction." I have both and I'm trying, really trying, to write fiction.

But I'm not sure that the space and the money are enough. I think that Mrs. Woolf was a tad disingenuous when she said that a woman just needed money and a room of her own. Woolf, of course, had money and she had a room of her own (well, several houses actually, but what's a property or two between friends?), but she was also part of an extensive community of writers and artists: E.M. Forster, J.M.Keynes, Roger Fry, Vita Sackville-West, Duncan Grant... I'll leave it to the academics to analyse the exact effects that being part of the Bloomsbury Group had upon Woolf's writing, but their influence, their creative stimulus, generative ideas, and aesthetic guidance could not have been insignificant influences upon her writing (and we might also need to acknowledge the usefulness of having a husband who ran a printing press).

I'm in awe of Woolf's writing - I couldn't write with her genius and dexterity even if I had Maynard Keynes as a house mate, occasional sleepovers with Vita Sackville-West, and regular dinner parties with E.M. Forster. My point here is merely that a woman's writing improves through having access to a creative community of writers. A room of one's own is all very well and good, but good company is important as well.

My first few attempts at finding a creative community were not very successful. The first time that I attended a self-proclaimed 'writing community event' was two years ago. I'd started to think about writing, I'd started to even spend a bit of time trying to put words onto paper, and when I found a flier for a local event for regional writers, I plucked up the courage to attend. The afternoon meeting took place at the Tyneside cinema in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. It's a stunning location and the meeting was well-attended by (mainly) men I didn't know who talked about writer's block and publishing deals and the value of paying for a good copy editor. During the two hours that I was there, I felt that I was shrinking. I thought that I had been 'writing' and that I was on the way to becoming a 'writer', but that room was filled with "real writers" who wanted to talk about themselves. By the time I left, I knew that I wasn't a "real writer" and I was no longer sure that what I had been doing - putting my pen to paper to record made-up stories about imaginary people - was even "writing".

My next attempt to find a community was more modest. I saw an advertisement for a workshop for 'beginning' writers. The location should, perhaps, have given me a clue as to who would attend the group: it was held at the Age Concern building and, predictably perhaps, the group's average age was approximately 78. There was an elderly man who wrote witty, lewd and, sometimes, obscene sonnets about a much younger woman with whom he was enamoured; there was a delicate mohaired woman who wrote very short prose poems about different varieties of the color purple - she could spend five minutes reading out 12 words because purple was such a spiritual color for her that she let each word of her poems hang in the air before moving on to the next word; there was a fifty-something year old man (the other baby of the group) who wrote unpunctuated short stories about the Newcastle Rock'n'Roll scene. These last stories frequently fed enthusiastic discussions about who had seen which bands in the 1960s. I loved that group because it felt like being part of a local history project. I'm not sure, however, that it was useful as a writing group - the other members didn't know what to do with a woman in her thirties who was writing about the brutality of slave riots in the 1600s. They would sit politely as I read out graphic descriptions of burnings and beatings. Then there would be a long period of silence during which the mohaired lady would stroke a purple wool keyring that attached to her bag and the elderly sonneteer would discretely adjust his flies... then someone would say that they really enjoyed my story and they couldn't wait for me to read more. Then there'd be another short pause before we started talking, with significant relief, about The Who, The Animals, and the Rolling Stones.

And, at some point over the past two years, I also found myself in another writing group filled with beautifully manicured ladies who all considered themselves to be writers. They had had some success and were keen to share sage advice. They looked through drafts of my work and recommended that I changed it, rewrote it, made it closer to chick-lit, took out the lengthy descriptions, made my heroine more sexy, brought in a love interest, used shorter words which would be more accessible to the common reader.... They wanted me to write a different book, they wanted me to be a different type of writer. And I tried to follow their advice, but realized that I didn't want to write like them any more than they wanted to write like me. Their advice was relevant for the kinds of books that they published but was of limited value for the kind of book that I wanted to write.

I think that I booked a place on an Arvon course when I was at a low ebb. I had spent enough time writing to know that it wasn't as easy as it had first seemed. I had attended enough writing events to know that I wasn't going to easily slot into a pre-existing writing community. I had no way of being able to assess the quality of my own writing or to know whether it was worthwhile persevering with my novel.

The writing course was based at Moniack Mhor: a magical place near Inverness which is nothing more than a couple of white stone cottages crammed with books and a large communal sitting/dining room. At that particular course, the combination of the tutors, the other course participants, the location, the food and the weather, came together as a perfect storm which transformed several of our lives and generated the on-line writing community which is now growing into Cafe Aphra. For a week I felt like a writer - I lived and breathed writing - and then when I was plunged back into my daily life we continued to support one another as a virtual community: via email, an improvised forum and, now, Cafe Aphra.

Our community works because we recognize that we are all different: we are writing different types of books, we live different lifestyles in different parts of the world, we have different political ideals and different professional backgrounds. Our community is a safe space in which we can share our work. We respect one another as writers, as individuals, as human beings and, therefore, no-one is going to attack our work or be vociferous in their criticisms. We offer our thoughts on other people's writing, but we know that our thoughts, our advice, our recommendations are essentially subjective. We celebrate one another's achievements without a sense of envy; we support one another through challenging life-moments with empathy; we offer encouragement at those times when the writing won't work; we suggest practical advice when it's needed.

And, nowadays, my routine has shifted a little. After I have made the breakfast and the packed lunches, after I have made the beds and fed the cat and walked the children to the bus stop, after I have walked home and squeezed the last bit of coffee from the coffee-maker... after all of that, I go up the stairs to that room of my own and switch on my computer and find myself within a community where I can say, "Hi, it's Zoe here and I'm a writer."

Thursday, September 13, 2012

The Summer of Women

This has been the summer of inspirational women.

It started with the Jubilee. The nation, the Commonwealth, the world celebrated sixty years of reign by Queen Elizabeth II. Aside from the all the pomp and ceremony, the necessary rituals and rigmarole that come with her position, Her Majesty is a constant and consistent example of a strong, loyal and dedicated woman: tireless, despite being in her eighties, and a model of decorum and exemplary behaviour.

Then came the Olympics. From the outset, women were portrayed as strong, brave and vital. When Danny Boyle’s industrial revolution began in the Opening Ceremony, a group of Suffragettes marched into the stadium and re-enacted the 1913 death of Emily Davison (a prolific feminist writer herself) as she tried to attach a protest banner to the King’s horse at the Epsom Derby. This was the defining moment of the suffrage movement. The banner itself was carried in a box into the stadium, reminding us of the passion and determination of these women in the face of injustice.
Next on stage were eight hundred NHS nurses, most of them women. Around the stadium they danced, pushing beds of children around, demonstrating compassion and a sense of humour. J.K Rowling appeared, reading to us from Peter Pan, just before her villain Voldemort arose to threaten the children. As the air turned dark with threat, an army of Mary Poppins swooped from the sky to the rescue. Mary Poppins is widely regarded as a delightful disciplinarian who brings order to chaos. She epitomises a combination of fun and authority and presented an example of women as no-nonsense achievers. And so, in this tone, the games began.

Olympics Opening Ceremony
After five slow, uncomfortable days of waiting for a British medal, the women started to win them: Lizzie Armitstead, Heather Stanning, Helen Glover, Victoria Pendleton, Laura Trott, Jessica Ennis et al. They went out there, did their best at what they had trained for and succeeded. We watched women winning medals where they had never won before in sports like Judo, Taekwondo and Boxing. We also saw many women who had overcome the odds to be there. Jo Rowsell won gold in team pursuit track cycling then whipped her helmet from her head, showing a scalp naked from alopecia. Gemma Gibbons, who won silver in Judo, whispered her love to the heavens for her late mother. Heather Stanning, winner of our first gold, is actually Captain Stanning who was on leave from her post in Afghanistan. Mary King, who at 51 years of age is Team GB’s oldest medal winner, survived a broken neck in 2001. Hockey team captain Kate Walsh was hit in the face during their first match, fracturing her jaw. A metal plate was inserted and she returned to take her team to a bronze medal.
Heather Stanning and Helen Glover
The Paralympics are, to grab a cliché with both hands, a triumph over adversity. The word ‘inspirational’ barely covers the feelings pulled from me as these athletes showed not their disabilities but their outstanding abilities in their fields. Swimmer Ellie Simmonds, half my age at 17, was praised for her maturity and focus as she propelled her 4ft 1in frame to win four medals. Her American rival Victoria Arlen, also 17, spent two years in a coma and only entered the water for the first time eighteen months ago, unable to move her arms. She now has three silver and one gold medal. Eighteen months? That’s less than six hundred days and she managed to turn herself from – her own term – a ‘vegetable’ to a Paralympic gold medallist. That level of determination is incredible.

Ellie Simmonds

It wasn’t just our own athletes that stood out of course; there were others that inspired awe and praise. For the first time ever Saudi Arabia allowed women to take part. When you consider that the Saudi Ministry of Education has banned sports for girls, you realise the magnitude of this decision. Public backlash was fierce with the two women enduring personal attacks on the internet and their families suffering racial abuse. The tide turned and Saudi eventually supported their female athletes, hopefully setting a new precedent for the future of the nation’s women.
These women were breathtaking in their skill, strength and resolve. I think it was their resolve that struck me the most. There were tales of years, years, of training to reach the level of fitness and expertise required to win an Olympic medal. They had forgone the lifestyles of their peers, committing themselves to intense training six days out of seven, early nights, strictly controlled diets, moving away from friends and family to find the best location to train without ever losing their focus. These women showed the world that, in the words of Captain Stanning, ‘Work hard and do your best and you can achieve anything’.

I sometimes think, hope, that my writing will spring from my fingertips in a flow of creativity that requires barely any effort. I worry that if the words don’t fall fluently on to the page then I am not a writer. The summary of success I read about in interviews of some authors (‘Oh, I wrote a couple of novels, sent them off and got a six-figure, three-book deal’) makes me feel that it should be easier. I know that the brevity of these statements is grossly misleading, that the reality of the slog, the rejections, the isolation and the loss of hope is not a tale the articles generally want to tell.  Yet I still often lose sight of the fact that writing is a skill that needs practice, commitment and graft. 
A few weeks ago I took my two daughters to the cinema to see ‘Brave’. I wanted my Scottish girls to see another Scottish girl in a tale that wasn’t just focused on getting the guy. Merida, the heroine, was yet another excellent example of a strong woman who knew her own mind, followed through on her resolve and had the courage to fix the mistakes she made and then learn from them. She also had the best hair ever seen in animation history.


Watching and reading about these women has brought me here to this point today. I am a working mother of two who harbours dreams of finishing her novel and seeing it published, yet I haven’t touched it in months. I think about my characters like absent friends, wondering what they are doing, recalling episodes in their lives and conversations they have had. I fantasise about what the book cover will look like, what I will wear to the publisher’s launch party, who will play whom in the film version. But my commitments to family, home, friends and work have pushed it all aside for almost a year. I struggle to get a grip of the tasks that need doing and try to fit everything in, but I also know there is a lot of time that I waste either through inefficient planning or sheer laziness and procrastination. I want to finish my novel.  I believe I have an important story to tell and a responsibility to tell it. I want to see how far I can go with it in the difficult world of publishing. But I also need clean the bathrooms, make the packed lunches and go to work.
Would Sarah Attar, the Saudi athlete, have received a standing ovation when she finished last in the 800m heats, if she had cowed to those who called her ‘whore’ on Twitter and stayed home? Would Kat Copeland, one half of the gold winning lightweight double sculls pair, and a teacher from Teeside, have stood weeping with incredulous joy on the podium if she had said ‘Nope, sorry, got too much marking to do this week, I can’t manage rowing practice’? Would Victoria Arlen feel the thrill of possibility and sense of achievement she must now have if she had shied away from getting into that pool? No.

I have reached a stage with my novel when frankly, I want someone else to finish it for me but let me take the glory. I have avoided writing the trickier bits and have an awful lot of editing to do. The joyful honeymoon period of creating my characters and plot has passed and the thrill of research is over. The frenzied pace of writing that I kept up for months when in full flow has seized up. I am at the stage where I need to tidy up after the party and that’s never much fun. But I know that to get where I want to go, I need to get on. These women have shown me what can be achieved if you have unwavering focus and determination to fulfil your chosen role.
So, I have resolved to use them as my inspiration. For the last few weeks I have got up at 6am to get an hour of writing done before the rest of the house comes to life. I am tired, but look: you are reading my first ever blog. I will do as Captain Stanning suggested, as she held aloft her gold medal in glee. I will work hard. I will do my best. I will see what I can achieve.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

How to post a comment

Want to comment on something but not sure how to?
It should be easy and hopefully more so with this...

Scroll down to the bottom of the post, where it should say in small letters either No comments or 3 comments, or however many comments there already are on that post. Click on this phrase. You should go through to a page with the comments on it and a small white box where you can write your own comment. Here you will need to go to the drop-down menu that says: "Select profile" and choose the profile you want to comment under.

This can be with: a Google account, LiveJournal, WordPress, TypePad, AIM, Open ID, or just a name or URL, or as Anonymous. If you want to comment from your Google Account or blog I believe you will need to be logged into it at the time when you post your comment. 

When you're happy with your comment, press publish. You can also preview your comment before your publish it if you want to.

In theory, it should be a simple process. However, I have noticed that I have had some problems with posting comments when using Mozilla Firefox. When I changed browser and tried doing it with Safari (I use a mac) I had no trouble. So, if posting a comment is proving difficult for you I would suggest that you try using a different internet browser and see if that does the trick. ;)

Friday, September 7, 2012

All Women Writers Together

All Women Together.......
 ‘All women together, ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn…
for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds.’
(Virginia Woolf).
APHRA – The Inspiration: Imagine a woman who writes. She’s blazing a trail of poetry and drama and words, but she’s in debt, lacking time, scandalizing friends and society; she’s a ‘darling’ among the creative set but struggles to gain acceptance in the eyes of the wider public.  Aphra Behn, writing nearly four hundred years ago, overcame each of these challenges and became the first great English female writer. Her life might have been very different from ours, but the challenges and experiences that she had around her development as a writer are not so very different from our own. We, too, are busy women, working women; we are women with professional and familial obligations and responsibilities; we struggle to find time, we struggle to make financial ends meet; and we are women who write. None of us are big published writers, but we share an interest – even passion - for writing and a desire to find a way to write within the crammed corners of our lives.  We have named our community in honour of Aphra Behn’s life. We do not have publishing credentials – yet – but we are inspired by the story of Aphra Behn’s life, by her achievements, talents and integrity. And we think that Aphra would have approved of, and encouraged, our efforts.

APHRA – The Facts: Aphra Behn was born near Canterbury , England, in 1640 and grew up during the Civil War.  At the age of 20 she visited an English sugar colony in Surinam, South America, where she is believed to have met the African slave leader whose story provided the outline for ‘Oroonoko’ - one of the most notable novels of the time and widely credited as the first book to describe the horrors and inhumanity of slavery.  On her return to England she was sent as a spy to Antwerp and there, naturally, devised her own version of a spying code.  On home territory again she was imprisoned briefly for debt before she turned to writing to support herself. 

APHRA – The Scandal : In her time, critics in Restoration England were scandalised by her lively wit and sexual candour and she was criticised both for her work and for her right to do it.  Notwithstanding the opposition she attracted, which came often though not exclusively from other women, she was one of the most popular novelists of the period and such an accomplished poet that there was serious talk of making her a female laureate.  Her pseudonym – which was amazingly the same as her espionage identity -  was Astrea Behn and it was under this name that she was buried in Westminster Abbey after her death, aged 49, in 1689. The inscription on her tomb reads, ‘Here lies a Proof that Wit can never be, Defense enough against Mortality.’

APHRA – The Writer: Aphra Behn has been described as someone who wrote for her bread, but who also cared deeply about her craft: its purpose and practice. She claimed her right to work and claimed the merit that her work deserved.  Like many busy people, she wrote quickly and, as many of her contemporaries were forced to do, often in a room full of people; like many of us, she did not have ‘a room of her own’.  If she was writing today, she would probably have retreated to a cafe with her laptop or notebook , been seen in a corner of the public library, or perched with a notebook on the edge of the kitchen table. 

CAFE APHRA – The Community: Surrounded by literary friends and patrons, Aphra Behn was fortunate to be grounded in a strong creative community and this forms the driving principle of Cafe Aphra. We believe that women writers can support each other if provided with a forum through which to do so. Aphra Behn was the first woman who showed the world that women can write, and do write, and will write - even in the face of substantial adversity.  No more Shakespeare’s sister -  Cafe Aphra aims to provide the space and the community to encourage, support, inspire and recognize women to write because...

The pictures of the pen shall outlast those of the pencil, and even worlds themselves.’.
 (Aphra Behn, Orinooko)