Thursday, November 28, 2013

Dinner at the Saturnines

“I received a message from a Mister Stamford, informing me that Menac’s to go to his school.” Count Saturnine took a long slurp of his soup. It stuck to his upper lip and dribbled down his chin. Barnaby Featherspoon stared at him before reaching over with his napkin to dab it clean.
“For heavens’ sake,” the Count batted Featherspoon’s hand away. Menac sniggered. His mother slapped him across the back of his head.
“Who is this Stamford?” she asked.
            “Damned if I know.”
            “Damned anyway, I expect.”
            “What was that, my dear?”
            “Nothing, my husband.”
            “Turns out he’s on the Grand Council. Upshot is, Menac’s going there.”
            “I want to stay here,” Menac said.
            “Speak when you are spoken to,” his mother snapped.
            “The boy can speak, wife. Don’t smother him like you always do. Ignore her, Menac. She’s like all women, stupid and vain.”
            “The only reason you aren’t the most stupid, vain person in this room is because that thing is sat next to you,” the Countess hissed, jabbing her knife at Barnaby.
            Mr Featherspoon gasped.
            “Ignore her, Barnaby. Anyway, Menac’s going...”
            “I don’t want to!”
            “You’ll do as you’re told boy!” The Count sprayed soup from his mouth. “You can’t stay coddled up here. Let’s see if they can’t beat a bit of gumption into you.”
            “I have gumption!”
            “You’re a weak, snivelling little shit. We provide everything you require, yet you mope and whinge. They won’t tolerate whingers there, I tell you. They’ll beat you to a damn pulp.”
            Menac’s mother nodded. “You’ll have to be clever, learn how to charm Imperial advisers.”
            “I daresay your mother can give you first-hand tips on charming Imperial advisers.”
            “Your father could give you chapter and verse on diminishing one’s fortunes through inappropriate connections.”
            “As if you had any idea of Georgie’s position at Court!” Mr Featherspoon spat.
            “I’ve an idea it’s much the same as yours,” she snapped.
            “I am clever. I don’t whinge!” Menac shouted.
            “Go to your room. The sooner you’re out of this house, the sooner I can murder your blessed father!” His mother threw a silver vase at the Count, complete with flowers and water. It landed on his dinner plate.
            “Oh you’d like that. You’d turn this house into one big, gaudy ballroom. I’m going to the colonies. I’d rather bake in the heat or drown in a monsoon than spend another hour with you.”
            “You know Imperial advisers think you’re a preening monkey?”
            The Count stood, throwing back his chair. The Countess leapt from hers, wrenched a carving knife from a servant who was preparing to carve a goose and threw it. It flew, point first, into the rug. The Count slapped his wife’s face. She fell next to the fireplace, picked up a poker and whacked him between the legs. The Count went down cursing. Barnaby ran around, screeching, and snatched a handful of her hair. Menac crawled under the table and slipped from the room.

by Audrey Miles

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

3 - 2- 1

And so we've arrived at the final countdown. The last few days of November are waiting.

How's it gone? Here in New England it is the evening of the 26th. The supermarkets are crammed with turkeys, and every conversation focuses on how far people intend to travel for Thanksgiving. My mind rests upon how this month has gone for everyone. Did you make the progress that you hoped for? Did you conjure the words, or edit the words, or polish the words to the extent that you planned at the start of the month?

And the thing I wonder about most, as we visit this little cafe that sits in the cloud, is how our target-setting and aspirations have affected our writing practice.

I will be the first to confess that I have struggled. Those first few days when I found time to write for an hour and work on my opening chapter were soon lost: I was preparing for my GRE examination, drafting my applications for university admission, chasing down pieces of paper which evidenced the marks and levels of my previous education. To be honest, it could have been anything. It was a series of those moments when real life interrupts one's writing - familiar to all of us, I am sure.

In the middle of the month, I felt as though I had fallen off the bandwagon and I watched with envy as emails arrived explaining how well it was going for other writers. But I scrambled and floundered and snatched at words, doing my best to reestablish a kind of writing practice.

And I found it. My first chapter - my goal for this month - has not been fully written, but it has segued into a short story which has taken me in directions I had not expected. And my commitment to my writing practice has resulted in:

  • a concretization of some of the major characters in my book;
  • a short story set in Vermont about social disengagement, the recession, and gun ownership;
  • a personal statement and the collation of a manuscript for my university application;
  • and a renewed sense that as a writer I am not alone. 
The last of these is the most precious. I can visualize Linda Dawn writing at her desk in Toronto; I can hear Sara's voice offering guidance from her home in Spain; I can imagine Dale working in Cardiff and Jan finding her pen in California and so many other members of our community who are scattered across the globe and who come together in this place because of their interest in writing. 

I hope that you'll feel able to comment on how it's gone: to drop me an email, to comment on this post, or send a message via our Facebook page. Our successes - that determination to snatch some time, to find some words, to write - is worthy of celebration. Despite all that November has thrown at us, we're still writing, we're still wanting to write, we are still writers. 

Enjoy the rest of the month (and, if the mood takes you, eat turkey). 


Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Space Between the Words

The Space Between the Words

Now you have gone into that space
Beyond language

You have gone into the pauses in our conversation
The time beyond time and time within time

You are in those moments when we sit in the audience
Waiting for the curtain to rise

And the end when the curtain has closed
And the actors have taken their bows

You are within the pauses of the bird’s song
When we strain to hear the next note

In the water between the fish
In the traveller’s silence within a foreign language

You are in the air that fills the sky
In the moments after the sunset

You are between night and day
Spirit next to soul

You are in the space between the words
The moment before the artist picks up her brush

By Vicky Letterman

Thursday, November 21, 2013

One Moon, One Star

There is just one star in the sky when she pulls herself out of the water. Glancing up, the moon hides against blue-black infinity, shows itself, then hides again. Bursts of cloud weave, dance, disguising chunks of the moon’s white surface nibbled into scalloped edges. The green and white sea flexes it’s power, playful, deadly, siren-dangerous, as always. The tide begins to turn. She must be careful. The sea can take you back if it wants to. She can’t go yet. Not yet.
The salt tastes delicious around her mouth. She scents the silt and seaweed remembering green, purple and darkest blue from her water world. Warm wind washes over and around her and welcomes her at last to the land. She is exhausted but cannot rest; her time here is measured by the tide. There should be enough, just. Yes, there should be enough. This is not her first time.
She turns her back to the sea and the single star, shining softly down on her, and makes her way, slowly, up the sand. Now the crashing water starts to subside. She barely notices and continues to force her way up the beach, purpose intact.
A lifetime later, a constellation of small sticky pearl-green shells huddle, glistening, in the moonlight. One thump at a time, they are covered by warm white sand, as the moon’s edges are stolen into a different shape. The thumps continue until half then all her investment is covered, leaving only tell-tale mounds of effort.
She turns back and makes her way to the water’s edge. She looks up, disorientated because now hundreds of stars stud the sky. She remembers the point where the single star was fixed and turns, finally, in the right direction. She notices, for the first time, others dragging themselves back to the water scratching parallel lines behind them. They, too, are ready to be taken by the tide. She turns towards the clouded moon and silently slips away.

 by Yvonne Stevenson-Robb

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Lullaby for a Winter Evening

Lie down and let me tell you about snow
about geometry and silence
two parts cold to one part marvel
let me tell you of the twofold
mystery of its nature
how a single flake
dissolves at once
how two flakes linger
when they gather
whitely on the ground

Lie down and give your face to snow
drifting down like petals
in a spring orchard
taste it on your tongue
a fleeting kiss of ice

Lie down and listen to the wind
wind through the apple trees
twisting the bare twigs
into complex runes
against a curtained sky
spelling out a recipe
for snow

Sally Zakariya

Thursday, November 14, 2013

In Sickness and In Health

His feet repulse her. It’s her own fault. She threw a pair of socks at him telling him to put them on and keep them on. He just took it to heart. The socks, one folded into the other, were odd. One yellow. One black. He’d not taken them off. Not for days.
       He’s lying on his side now, away from her. She reaches out to his back. It’s freezing. She squeezes her eyes, waiting to hear him not breathing. Ten, nine, eight. How long should she wait. Seven, six. The bedside clock quietly matches the seconds. It’s years since the alarm went off but the ticking is soothing. Breaks the silence. He used to rise before her. Brought the tea. Left the house at eight.
      He snorts - a mix of breath and snore. He moves his foot back, brushing her calf. She stares at the ceiling, moving her legs to the edge of the bed. Stretching one foot from under the quilt she wriggles her toes. Long wisps of grey hair spread out on the pillow. He needs a haircut. And his bloody feet. Toenails. The heating’s come on. He’s still sleeping. She gets up.
       The steam from the kettle mists up the window, there’s no way of knowing what kind of day it will be. This bit of the morning is the best. Alone and quiet. Now the hour’s gone back it feels lighter, like you’re waking earlier. She stares at the disappearing pattern on the window and pulls his cardigan round her. Hugging her arms she smells him, back when his feet danced and chased her round the table.
       Her throat catches a sob before it breaks. Head bowed, she feels him behind her, his hands gripping her shoulders moving to rub the back of her neck. Massaging her tiredness. Kissing her hair. His feet so light, he’d creep up to her at the sink. Grabbing her, spinning they’d dance a while, kiss and laugh. Giddy memories, unsteady like young love.
       It’s getting lighter outside. He’s not down yet. The flutter in her chest stabs a bit, worse than yesterday. She puts the kettle on again to drown out his shuffle, one hateful foot at a time. She keeps her back to him, eyes closed. She feels sick but swallows it. He’s behind her. Helpless arms hanging.
       Will he say her name? If so, it won’t be a bad day. He mumbles and she can’t make it out. She takes his cold rough hands as they slowly two-step to his chair. He leans in to her, his cheek touching hers - like a waltz. He kisses her forehead and hums a tune, letting her take his weight. She takes his burden laughing at his tune - the wedding march.
       He falls back in the chair smiling and she forgets for a moment that his feet repulse her.


by Pauline Moore

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Falling off the bandwagon

Cafe Aphra's Alternative NaNoWriMo has been getting some great feedback from a steadily increasing number of writers. People have been telling us how they've been more committed to their writing through setting their own targets. These conversations are less about how many words we've written and more about our reflections upon our writing practice - how and where and why we write. We've been celebrating and sharing our writing and our reflections upon writing via this blog, the Cafe Aphra facebook page, through emails and face-to-face conversations.

And this all makes me feel more guilty about the fact that I have fallen off the bandwagon. It's not just that I've slipped. One minute I was there, sitting among the trombones and the music boxes and all the other bits and bobs which would be part of any halfway decent bandwagon, and the next minute I'm all alone watching everyone else share the bandwagon's journey over the horizon.

There are many excuses I can offer: I've had ongoing problems with my eyesight so it's been difficult for me to work online and my computer has been going through an unexpected adolescence which has involved tantrums and sulks and all the histrionics that one might expect from a teenager; I've had endless visitors and childcare crises and I've been left with both biscuit crumbs and small children hiding behind my sofa. My tumble drier started smoking, the house rabbit ate the edges of my notebook, and my dog tried to eat the edges of my landlord's handyman.

But however many excuses I can offer, the relevant thing is that I haven't been writing these past few days. Not a page. Not a sentence. Not a word.

My writing has been through dry spells before. My husband tends to notice before I do: whereas many a loving spouse might ask their wild-eyed wife if it is her 'period', the corner of my husband's mouth merely twitches with resignation as he observes that 'maybe I should do some writing'. This dry spell is different though. I've been able to look through the emails and comments of the other people who are writing in Cafe Aphra and I know that I'm not alone in the struggles that life throws our way. It's part of the process of being a writer. Our writing practice is as much about navigating the challenges of the everyday as it is about the content that we put down on the page.

And being party to other people's struggles is a good way of putting one's own challenges into a different perspective. A few days ago, I was feeling very sorry for myself. To keep with the metaphor, I fully expected that the bandwagon should turn about and come back for me; after all that's what friends do, right? And then I received an email from a friend within Cafe Aphra. Her email resonated with the words of Oriah Mountain Dreamer: "I want to know if you can sit with pain, mine of your own, without moving to hide it, or fade it, or fix it." She didn't want the excuses or the reasons why I wasn't writing. Our emails bounced back and forth for a little while, and then she went back to her writing and I realized that what I need to do isn't to focus on cleaning up the biscuit crumbs and mending the tumble drier and worrying about the computer. I need to pick myself up, brush myself off, and chase after that bandwagon. I've got a notebook and an ink pen and a new pair of reading glasses. I'm ready to climb back on board.
"We are what we repeatedly do, excellence then is not an act, but a habit."
— Aristotle

Monday, November 11, 2013

Danzas Nocturnas

You like dark corners, forbidden places
Just the things I say ‘no’ to.
A rebel spirit stirs your
Contrary and unstilled blood,
A memory of ancestors that can still
Be glimpsed in your wilder moments.

You are a faux agent provocateur, sir
Running with the pack when it suits you
Posturing before the rest of the neighbourhood’s
Petty brutes and hoodlums.

You seek me out in the middle of the night
Pushing through the bathroom door and pausing
To pour yourself onto my lap, an ecstasy of purring
As I sit and pee and stroke your head.

When you wake with a comic expression
Of sleepy slant-eyed resentment
And yawn enormously with a foul little belch
I am amazed by the extending length
Of your elastic yoga-stretched body.

Little sausage, fly-hunter
Tip-toe dancing bull fighter,
You pounce on the prey of your imaginings
Then wrap your tail in a circle and sit in it
Picturesque as a Chinese vase
By the fireplace.

by Sara Roberts

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Flash yourself unstuck

Do you need to kickstart your writing this month? Has your November challenge so far been less than prolific? Don't worry.... several of us here at Cafe Aphra & Friends are in the same position. 

Today I successfully avoided working on my novel by starting on my next assignment in the online flash fiction writing course I am doing, courtesy of Fish Publishing (which I would warmly recommend). One of the tasks in today's section on dialogue was the following:

A husband has crashed his wife’s car and has to tell her but is avoiding coming out with it directly. The wife didn’t insure the car and at some point has to come clean about that too. Build a dialogue that has no lines of summary, no attribution, no description of tone, no characterizing of voice or words; just two voices. 

Because you have no attribution - no he said or she said - you must portray those silences and pauses through punctuation. With only their exchanges you must deliver who they are, what sort of people they are, the subtext and where they are in time and space without letting it seem forced or contrived. 

150 to 300 words. 

(Adapted from Richard Bausch’s exercise - Character and situation through Dialogue)

I immediately felt motivated to start writing and once again witnessed the power of flash fiction to get us unstuck when we are in a writing rut. The results may not have been been brilliant, but I had fun doing it and it gave me a sense of satisfaction at having achieved something - indeed, at having finished something! A rare gift indeed.

So I thought, how about suggesting this to all us NaNo writers out there this month who are looking for a way back into writing and rediscovering the joy of it? 

If anyone feels like giving it a go, they can post up their results here as a comment or email them in and we'll publish them as part of our Flash Fiction Fridays series. (Check out this week's great story by Derek Dohren by the way, 'Elena'.) 

Go on - try it! 
What have you got to lose?


I suppose what first intrigued me about Elena was her long jet-black hair. Despite her advancing years, she looked like a Disney princess. I imagined she had an army of little animal helpers who did the washing up at home while she sang sweet songs and brushed her tresses. On more than one occasion, I found myself lingering a little longer than was decent on her siren features. I must rein that in, I thought. Mustn't make it obvious.
Other blokes in the office had warned me. Geoff Breen had had a nasty run-in with her. He'd fantasised about her long enough before making his move, but she'd cut him dead. He was so screwed up about it. "I don't know whether I want to shag her or punch her," he'd told me. "Maybe both, I don't know. She's a right cow. Probably lesbian." We'd laughed. The problem is that Geoff doesn't understand women, not like I do. You have to be a bit smart, you know, sensitive. Now I was seeing Elena for the first time I could see what the fuss was about.
If the shimmering hair provided the initial hook, it was a curious dichotomy in her personality that held me captive. She was an unlikely alliance of disparate ideologies. She had this strict Catholic upbringing thing, evident in the slightly pinched features she projected when making a serious point; the cross and chain she allowed to drape over her clothes. Not so much Madonna, more Mother Teresa - no, Joan of Arc. Hard but still feminine, you know.
And yet more dominant was a Bohemian outlook personified by the deliciously floppy hat she tossed onto the coat-stand as she arrived at our meeting. That, and the madly erotic whiff of her musky perfume that spoke to me of something molten beneath the skin, a throbbing sexuality. It just needed the right man. I fixed the knot in my tie. Christ, was that a marijuana plant tattooed on the back of her neck?
"So", she said (looking specifically at me), "What do you think Michael? You've been very quiet."
"Oh, I completely agree", I heard myself croak. " We can't always be seen to be beating our staff with a stick."
"What?" exclaimed Martin. "You were all for cracking down hard this morning. 'Give them the dole queue if that's what they want', you said."
Elena smiled. Without taking her eyes off mine she announced, "Martin, you have to remember that changing one's mind requires one to have a mind. I think Michael's being very sensible."
She ran slender fingers through her hair and a fresh rush of perfume hit my nostrils. Did she wink at me? Clearly, I had her in the palm of my hand.
"Michael, this is bollocks,” Ian said. "We can't back down now. The press will slaughter us."
"Well, Michael and I now see eye to eye,” said Elena. "It's clear there's some mileage in talking this over."
Elena fixed her gaze on Martin and tossed her hair. I knew it was for me. I fumbled for the knot in my tie. Geoff Breen's going to be so jealous, I thought.

by Derek Dohren

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Day 6: Linda Dawn

I set a goal to write 5 minutes in Nov.  My plan was to write when I got up in the morning before getting on with the day. As you may well know that is easier said than done. Not discounting needing to pee, as I get older it seems to take longer and longer to get settled into the day.  This morning, for instance, I was going to write about the vivid dream I was in on awakening, instead find myself telling you how and where I write.

I write at my computer desk which is in the bedroom of my small walk-up co-op apartment in down town Toronto. I live across the street from the University of Toronto Bookstore in the heart of Canada's largest University. As well, I am close to 7 major hospitals, between 2 men's shelters and near the Centre for Addiction Research and Mental Health.  There is a streetcar stop outside, a subway 3 scant blocks away at Queen's Park, the seat of Ontario's provincial government. 

Outside my windows is a well kept courtyard in which I have a small perennial garden. I'm going to plant bulbs - daffodils and alliums later, if it doesn't rain. They are the only bulbs the black squirrels that frequent us don't like. Despite the myriad life surrounding, my home is a lovely little oasis once you're through the gate.

I still write on a hard drive with a monitor and all. When this one dies I'll move to a lap top. For expediency in this Nov. challenge I decided to build an MSWord file and just write into it by date rather free-form. This morning is the exception as I'm writing this directly to Zoe via email and taking more than 5 minutes!

It's Wednesday so the landscapers are here cutting the grass, trimming edges and I hear their sounds along with those of a helicopter overhead and one of my neighbour's doors shutting. I can smell the peelings from vegetable soup I made yesterday, because the compost is sitting beside the door not far from me waiting to go out. I can taste the fresh fall day and want to get on with it. How do I write? Whatever comes to mind at the time. Have a great day!

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Day 5: Bonfires, buses, and bungled beginnings

Well done all - we're 5 days in, nearly 18% completed, and finding our daily writing rhythms. I've loved the various posts we've received. Sara's had a slightly delayed start, but the motivation and enthusiasm for her writing leaps off out of her emails, and I know that she'll be busy working today. Jan's hunting for her pen (!) - use a pencil, Jan, and, if that's disappeared too, just sing out those words until they're written in your soul. We have also been joined by some new writers who'll be hanging out with us in Cafe Aphra for our November journey. Welcome.

Today my mind is upon how much little control we have over the direction of our writing. I've never been a great one for planning, but I thought I was sitting down to write a first chapter set in England. Instead, the novel has situated itself in America. Rather than the blue double-decker bus I used to ride to school, Jenna (or possible Jo) rides a bright yellow American Thomas; rather than living on a cul-de-sac in some Northern English council estate, she's living with her father in an aluminum trailer; and she sneaks into a white clapboard church on Rte 15 rather than practicing the piano in a Norman stone church.

Maybe the relocation of the chapter to America has been influenced by the very different rhythm of the American fall. Most noticeably, there is no Bonfire Night here in the US. I am missing the flames and fireworks, the children collecting pennies for their guys, the parents worrying about the effects of too much cinder toffee on their children's teeth. The American Fall progresses steadily through Columbus Day, Hallowe'en, Veteran's Day, and finally reaches Thanksgiving before anyone starts to think about Christmas. I'm surprised that I'm writing about America, but that's probably because I haven't stopped to redraft, refine and to police such details off my page. The November challenge is giving a different rhythm to my writing and if I've ended up with an American childhood, so be it!

I'd like the next post to be about where and how we write. I've been walking down to Simon's, my favorite coffee shop, buying a large latte and writing for an hour. I'm both committed and well-caffeinated! Yesterday, I tried to write at home and it didn't go so well. I'm not sure if it's the walk or the quality of the coffee which motivates me, but I'm going to be back at Simon's later today. Where are you?

Finally, because I have mentioned rhythm so many times in this blog, today I'm leaving you with a little bit of Paul Simon....
"You want to be a writer, don't know how or when? Find a quiet place. Use a humble pen."

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Life Colours

Decades decay
Only remnants remain
Rust resists
Orange rots to brown.

Still, babies are born
When the sun shines yellow
Or under shades of midnight blue
As lovers jostle everything but touch aside
               for an indigo moment.

Grass and children grow tall
Life colours expand to red
White divides, becomes
A faint rainbow that explodes
 Inverts to grey.          .

Charcoal edges the space when children leave                       
Friends and painters die
                                  (or you do)
Then decades decay
And remnants remain
Orange to brown,  again.

I remember, rich fuschia pink
I wonder why I did not like pink.

Quiller Irvine.

Friday, November 1, 2013

November 1st: the beginning

And so November begins....
A range of writers, a range of writing targets, and a huge sense of anticipation. 

Linda Dawn will be free-writing for five minutes a day through November. Linda Dawn, we would love to know where this writing takes you - poetry? memoir? fiction? reflections on your day? I imagine you at your desk today, picking up your pen and watching the words spiral across the page. Did you write this morning or will you find the space in the evening, after night has fallen across your city? 

Sara, Heather, and another member of our cafe have each committed to working on their ongoing writing projects for at least an hour a day. They're driving hard - thirty hours across the month. A whole load of writing! I'm fortunate enough to know both Sara's and Heather's writing - it's beautiful, thought-provoking stuff with powerful characters and a strong sense of place. Heather has the most accessible witch I have ever met and I almost wept with laughter at one of Sara's readings. Here at Cafe Aphra, we're with you every minute. One day I know we'll buy your books and read the parts that you'll write this November. What a privilege to know you now while the writing is happening. Let us know how it's going!

Last year, D's target for November was to take 30,000 words out of the draft of her novel. This year she has committed to writing one hundred pages on a new work: a dystopian novel set in Cardiff, Wales. And Plantagenta, after the enormous success of her film's premiere last night, has set the goal on working on her new filmscript over November. 

Meanwhile, I intend to write a draft of the first chapter of my new novel. I have piles of notes on my desk: some neatly written while perusing books on early blues music in the library, others scrawled in half-asleep hand-writing when it has seemed important to commit a sentence or two to paper before falling asleep. My goals for November are to find a little bit of order, a little bit of organizing, and a whole lot of words. I'll keep you up-to-date with how it goes. In the meantime, I need to take the cat to the vets, collect the children from school, take the laundry from the washer and walk the dog. But I'm driven to write today by the knowledge that you are all doing the same. 

Following the last blog about our alternative NaNoWriMo, I've been mailed by many other writers who are musing on their targets. In the words of one emailer, they'll seek inspiration from what we achieve here. The invitation to join and share targets is open to all, but you are also welcome to share our journeys as we travel through this month. Thank you for sharing and good luck taking the first step towards your November target!

Do not wait; the time will never be "just right". Start where you stand, and work with whatever tools you may have at your command, and better tools will be found as you go along.
(Napoleon Hill)