Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Café Aphra November Writing Challenge 2012!

Inspired by NaNoWriMo, a wonderful project run by the Office of Letters and Light every November since at least 2001, Café Aphra have decided to set our own challenge for the month of November.

Many of us are stuck with our writing, either through a lack of time, inspiration or discipline. Some of us need a kick-start to just get going again, to break through those barriers, blockages and general blahs that are stopping our fingers from writing those words.

Café Aphra proposes that whoever wants to join us in our November Writing Challenge can pledge to write a certain number of words every day for the 30 days of November, or alternatively can set themselves a similar goal. Such as, for example: “to have finished chapter 3 by the end of Week 1 and to have written chapter 4 by the end of Week 3”. 
Whatever works for you and makes sense for your writing right now.

Our idea is this: It doesn’t matter what we write. It might be a short story, flash fiction, an existing novel, or a blog, article, poetry or play. It's about working the muscle of the imagination and letting free some of those words. Creating characters and plots or putting words together to form random beautiful patterns like colours in a kaleidoscope. We want to encourage and support each other to establish the discipline to sit down every day and write creatively. Something. No excuses allowed. None. Something – anything – but something every day.

Practice makes perfect and habits are easily formed. Important: The idea is NOT to judge our writing during this period. The idea is to get the words on the page, to break through those blockages through sheer repetitive action. At the end of the month we will have written a certain number of words, or chapters, or stories or poems. It may not be much, but it will certainly be more than if we had not done the Challenge.

We will have produced a substantial body of work that we can go back and re-edit later, and crucially we will have carved out time from every day and established a personal writing routine for ourselves that can be carried on after November, modified and adapted to suit our needs.

Café Aphra will continue to post blogs here, but the November Challenge will mostly be focused on our Facebook page.

To make our November Writing Challenge work, we really need to support each other. Group encouragement and some healthy, friendly competition will make or break this challenge for the individuals involved. We can stay up-to-date about how we are all doing via wall posts on our facebook page and motivate each other to keep going.

What have you got to lose?

And what could you gain?

So... what are you waiting for?!

If you’re interested in joining us, please visit our Facebook page to get in touch and keep posted. There will be words of support and encouragement, cracks of the whip or wails when we struggle. There will also be collective cheers and pats on the back for those good days when one of us feels a break-through was made, however small.

Café Aphra is all about fostering a community of writers - let’s use this challenge to form some connections, get some writing done and see where it takes us.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Mnemosyne - The Mother of the Muses
Mnemosyne,, the Mother of the Muses, has been on my mind a lot recently as I search for inspiration for my first novel or collection of short stories. Plot, structure, characterisation, pacing etc are one set of difficulties but there is another fundamental question that causes me to seize completely.  That stumbling block is purpose.  What is it exactly that I am trying to achieve with my writing?  This is not the first time I have wondered about the purpose of literature.  This topic has occupied my thoughts for many years. Rewind 10 years or so ago to a casual phone call with an old friend from university when we ventured rather close to philosophy when I asked her what she thought the purpose of literature was. After all,  she had studied it for four years while I had veered off after two years to specialise in Psychology.  We were both entirely sober at the time, and she had the benefit of a further two years' study and a clutch of creative writing experiences so I had high hopes of enlightenment or at least serious discussion. I was seriously disappointed.  After a nanosecond, more to breathe than to reflect, she informed me that the purpose of literature was entertainment.  She had clearly answered that question to her own satisfaction a long time previously.
I was flabbergasted.  That is not what literature meant to me: I like written arts to shake up my preconceptions; I like them to astonish my ideas or inform new ones; I love to be lost in a different world that I may never recognise or experience physically but in which my psyche is perfectly at home. I like them to be audacious.  And if I am lucky enough to discover a novel that has the whole Yvonne Stevenson-Robb package, then I love beautiful, inventive language too. I am supported in my argument by Jane Austen whose views on novel writing are laid out in Northanger Abbey thus: It is only a novel... or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language”.
Surely then, literature or the act of reading, can be more than just entertainment or a casual leisure activity. Is my friend correct and am I some kind of snob?  Should we define more clearly what we mean by entertainment or should we all just defer to Jane's quote above?
These are questions that I find myself asking more and more as I attempt to find a way into creative writing.  I assume it relates to finding your voice as a writer and is a signpost to finding the genre which best suits your purpose in writing. This is where I am lost at the moment.  I am very happy to have ideas that I feel would make a great poem or short story or novel but as soon as I start to sober up from the intoxication of research or recover from the beauty of a breathtaking sentence, I start thinking that really it was not such a good idea after all. The next difficulty is in knowing the style I want to use for the topic I have chosen, which is inextricably linked to whatever effect you want your book to have on people. Once at this stage I get lost in the purpose of literature and then I grind to a halt. Again.
Perhaps you have shared this experience?  I suspect it is very common and I recognise that all these questions could be little more than displacement activity.  So I am going to do what I generally do when I am stuck and that is to take the advice of actual and virtual friends to get something finished. 
I have one actual friend, with three or four novels under her belt and now a qualification in creative writing, and her advice is simple.  ‘Park your bum in front of the computer and just do 1000 words a day.  It doesn’t matter if it is shite.  Take the same approach to writing as you do to knitting a very long scarf. You can always re-shape later.’ As a knitter myself, I can see plain sense in this method.  Another friend, also a writer, once actually knitted her son a very long scarf.  She started out with great enthusiasm, then became bored and involved all of her friends, her mother and grandmother in knitting rows in the magnum opum.  Eventually she tied it to the banisters and spent a drunken evening swinging from it in the hope that it might stretch. The parallels with great creative literature may not be immediately apparent, but perhaps writing groups have something to learn from this idea!!
Another non-virtual friend and I went to my favourite Cafe for writing, called Buchanan’s Bistro in Banchory, Scotland, and we had the talk about the purpose of writing.  She said all the cerebral stuff is entertainment too, so just get on with it. It’s time to move on I suspect.  As another co-founder of Cafe Aphra and a very direct woman, I think it advisable to listen to her. However, my proviso would be that literature and general entertainment writing probably do fulfill different functions (both equally valid) and therefore what I need to do is just work out what kind of writer I would like to be.  What purpose and hoped-for reader response do I want to create in my writing? I guess the only answer, as in every other aspect of life, is that you can only find that out by doing. 
Buchanan's Bistro, Banchory, Scotland
Finally, in an audacious move for a technophobe, I turn to virtual friends for creative direction. There are three ideas bouncing gently in the outer atmosphere of my consciousness requiring only a burst of gravitational pull to send one creative concept directly onwards. Or at least that is the hope.  Call it market research or call it laziness, it does not matter.  The point is, it would stop the stalemate of ‘not writing’ on which more will undoubtedly be written in future blogs.

Actually, it is pertinent to point out that seeking audience feedback whether virtual or any other way, is not so very different from what authors used to do in the time of Dickens when they would publish one chapter in a newspaper and if the audience liked a particular story, more chapters would be written and if no-one was interested, the idea could be left aside. It is also similar to the digital publishing tool ‘Unbound’ which works in the same way but by attracting money online for publishing to go ahead.
You will be pleased to know that I don’t want any money.[Although advance orders might be nice]. But I would greatly appreciate your kindness in reading the following three short synopses and telling me which one you think sounds most interesting.
1.     A collection of short stories and poems on the consequence of fertility issues and choices in women’s lives. It would be told in a number of different voices looking at the experience of the biologically fertile period in the lives of women in other times and in different countries.  It would include a range of stories from comic to dramatic, from thought-provoking to shocking and from a different perspective on the usual meaning of fertility to include a wide range of creative outputs.
2.     A novel based on parents’ experience of arranging the sex life of her learning disabled adult son because he has been unable to find a girlfriend in the usual way.  It would follow the relationship that develops between the sex worker, the mother, the father and the son as well as the impact of this unusual arrangement on the siblings of the young disabled man.  It would have a strong psychological bias and would be both comic and tragic dealing with a serious subject in a way that allows humour to shine through. 

3.     A historical fiction novel about a young Scottish girl whose family emigrate to Australia in the 18th century.  After a shipwreck in the Torres Straits she is washed ashore and accepted by the Tourareg people.  She marries a local warrior and has children on the island before she is rescued and taken back to Sydney where she is outcast for having had relations with a black man.  This novel would obviously include the need for a prolonged visit to Australia, but do not let this sway your deliberations.....
Think about it.  How often do you get asked to make like the Greek goddess Mnemosyne the Mother of the Muses, the nine Greek goddesses whose role it was to inspire poets and musicians and to promote the arts and sciences.  Not every day I suspect.

Your comments will be eagerly awaited and my understanding of my own purpose in writing might become more recognisable.  
Mnemosyne and the 9 Muses

Monday, October 1, 2012

The Art of Giving

The Art of Giving

I went to see the The Edinburgh Book Sculptures Tour 2012  recently when it visited Aberdeen Central Library. Ten book-sized sculptures, twisted bits of paper, cut up pages, glue and occasional flashes of colour that made up incredibly detailed, beautiful images of scenes and messages from and to the literary world. They were found throughout 2011 in various locations across Edinburgh including the Scottish Poetry Library, the Writer’s Museum and the Edinburgh Book Festival. They are extraordinary, brilliant pieces of art but what astounded me most was their provenance. To this day the artist is anonymous. From a note left by the artist with the final offering we know that she is a She, but that is all. She has not revealed herself despite a media search and mass, adoring calls for revelation. She has not stood up and said ‘It’s me and I’m available for commissions’ which would undoubtedly make her fortune as they are wildly popular and surely collectable. The very idea of this woman devising, inventing and creating these exquisite works, then simply leaving them in spots across the city and waiting for them to be discovered for absolutely no personal gain, in this time of rabid materialism, is nothing short of astonishing. It is the purest example of a gift I have ever seen.

It got me thinking about the impulse to give, to what extent people give and at what cost. Myself, I am not comfortable with receiving. A life coach once told me that it was something I needed to work on, but I remain a giver. I adore thinking about, choosing, making or buying and handing over gifts to people and knowing that they will cause pleasure. I am much more comfortable offering hospitality and assistance than receiving it. I find my own experiences of birthdays and Christmas stressful and I am getting worse with age. I am happy to save up and buy myself something, but perhaps I feel I have earned that by going without something else first. I can clearly imagine what She felt as she sat and thought about what to create for each location she wished to give something to: the glee with which she devised and crafted each piece, the leap of joy she felt when she hit on another clever idea or link for her potential recipient; the pride and perhaps nerves experienced when the piece was finally finished; the thrill of stepping into the beneficiary building, of scouting out the best place to leave it, the wait until the coast was clear, the adrenaline rush when she placed it on the shelf or table, heart thumping in case she was caught and then skipping out in delight to wait in happy anticipation for it to be discovered. And when they were found it wasn’t just the receiver who was thrilled but the entire world that was quick to follow the discoveries through social media sites, newspapers and television news articles. People were talking about it in magical, wondrous tones. The country was knee-deep in recession, addled by a corrupt media and struggling under a confused coalition government. Saturday night family entertainment involves tearing false idols down from their pedestal five minutes after they have enjoyed throwing them up there via a 36p phone vote. In this context the fact that we could still be enchanted by the simple act of giving showed a side of humanity that had been missing for a while. The act of giving as much as the gift itself reminded us to be kinder, live simpler, smile more.
        What about other forms of giving? Giving of our energy, time and attention is something many multitasking women do to a relentless extent. We often give too much of ourselves to too many things. I give most of what I am to my daughters, my husband, my friends and my local community. I also have a part time job and some voluntary roles. I give myself very little time to write; an hour a day at 6am even though it is what I really, really want to do and occupies half of my waking thoughts. To me writing is an indulgence; it doesn’t contribute to my family or my home directly. It is a purely selfish act. However, I sew and bake a lot. I give other things that I have created with my hands; cakes, preserves, quilts, cushions. I enjoy creating them and do not see the making of them as a self indulgent act. Is this because I do it in the kitchen, not shut in my study away from my family? Is it because I produce something tangible that people enjoy using or eating, rather than 70,000 words I feel acutely uncomfortable asking people to proof read for me? Is it a question of what I believe I deserve? Like treats, I can only give myself time to write if I go without something, in this case sleep. In my fairly traditional marriage my husband is the breadwinner and I am responsible for the majority of domestic and child related tasks. Although at times I feel that I am the giver, on reflection, my husband works long hours in a high-pressured job in order to provide us with all that we need. Are women driven to give to please and men to provide?

But what if I look at this from a different angle? Reading does not come easily to everyone and I believe that the ability to read and discover other lives, worlds and characters in the pages of a book is one of the greatest gifts of my life. Books, tales, stories, words: they are also one of the most precious possessions and memories that I own.  I want to share my writing with others in the form of my novel, but I am not confident enough in my own skills to believe that it is my ‘gift’ to the readers of the world. I do want to give people pleasure from reading it, to introduce them to my characters like new friends, to offer them a thought-provoking theme in a tale that stirs emotions. I want to give them the same joy I feel when lost in a book, curled up on my window seat, gripped by the story in my hands. In that way, I suppose it is the same as wishing to give those I care about any other sort of gift.

The legacy of the Edinburgh Book sSulptures is perhaps then a perfect example of the basic simplicity of a gift. An offering from one to another that gives joy in the one who receives as much as to the one who gives. The act of writing makes me happy. If, one day, it will give another enjoyment when they read it, it will make me happier still.