Sunday, 8 January 2017

The joy that comes from a mess and how do you go about polishing a story?

Emma Donoghue.

I have just added a second quote to my right-hand column. It comes from an interview in yesterday's Guardian with the author Emma Donoghue. It encapsulates how I feel about writing. It's the first time I've come a cross a successful author speaking so plainly. Certainly, none of my tutors have been as bold as to say, in effect, 'Just write, you can make sense of it later'. My problem is that I don't pay enough attention to the after bit.

Perhaps, having come to fiction writing late, my head is full of a lifetime of ideas, all competing to escape, so I write them down and, the ones I like, I share on SeniorFiction. Most have been read and re-read half-a-dozen times before I have the courage to share them, even then I continue to edit the stories online. I tell myself that what all successful authors have is an editor. I know I need an editor buddy to do, in the words of Emma Donoghue, 'The polishing'.

Ian Rankin.

Over the years I have read enough articles, listened to and watched successful authors talk about how they write, a few of whom are honest enough to go as far as to say what they have with their editors is 'a relationship'. Ian Rankin is one of them. He also says that such relationships are not always successful. In one of his interviews I remember him describing an editor he worked as 'a real plot doctor'. The book was called Westward and published in 1990. It was, to quote Rankin, 'a mess'…

…which brings me neatly back to Emma Donoghue.

Perhaps the moral of this story is the age old one of 'be careful of what you wish for', but if anyone out there wants to edit one of my stories and sell it, providing we share the money fifty-fifty I'll be happy. I'll also agree to the editor having his/her name alongside mine.

Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Living with Isla and the Part stories

Isla Goodchild has been with me since early-2011 when I joined the Beeston WEA writing class, then led by Mike Wareham. He was a good tutor. I joined the class because I was looking for ideas as to how I might write a memoir. The local historian in me was already well aware of reminiscence writing, life story telling and autobiographies, having read hundreds over the twenty odd years Susan, my wife, and I published Local History Magazine. What I hadn't expected Mike to do was divert me, by introducing me to short story writing and its challenges.

Quite early on, Isla Goodchild came into my life. I knew from the off who she was — a amalgam of people and events, men and women, personal, family, work, politics. You name it, she was it. I could see her, hear her, feel her and she has been part of me ever since. Early on Mike asked the class to write in a gender not our own and there was Isla, in my head, waving, 'I'm here, I'm here'.

I love her. I have been writing and parking stories about her ever since. I have probably said before that I am more interested in how words tumble onto the page and how we remember the past, how we prioritise what we write, how easily we are distracted and diverted. Story telling is not a straight line, so why should we expect a life story to be a chronology of dates and events. It is not how we remember things.

Our heads harbour the lives we think we have lead, the ones we wanted to lead or could have had, and when we speak of them those we love and others are there waiting to correct us.

When I first met Isla in 2011 she came, it seemed at the time, out of nowhere, prompted by Mike Wareham. I quickly realised she has always been part me and her life is mine and those of others I have connected to, some fleetingly, whilst others will be with me I until the day I die.

Life is a collection of parts and this fact is enough to explain why I have began to post my Part stories. 

Saturday, 10 December 2016

Remember as we write?

What comes first, the thought or the word?

It could of course be an image or something we hear. I sometimes hear a story in my head which prompts me to write and as I write the story changes. I have, on occasions, watched my hand write, then read the words. I have had 'out of body' moments for as long as I can remember. Watching myself. And since my mother died in 2006 I have thought myself to be her a few times, not that we were ever close, given that I rarely lived with her.

Published fiction is 'sanitised' fiction insomuch as what the author writes is picked over by the publisher's editor and comes out in a form which may be different in terms of plot and wording. What the author writes and what the reader gets are two different things. Neither should we forget how many times the author re-works his or her text before it is handed to the editor. All writers do it, self-edit.

Should we be afraid of what we write? Perhaps. I am glad that I have come to fiction writing through my interest in local history and life-story telling. I see the me in what I write, the good and bad, what I want the truth to be and what it is. 

Some years ago, a friend's mother was worried that she was showing signs of dementia. After a long chat we came to the conclusion that her mum was a seventy-something with too much unoccupied time and that she needed an interest. The solution turned out to be bread-making, so my friend bought her mum a bread machine. Within a week she had become the family baker and so she remained for next ten years or so. There was always something to talk about, orders to make, recipes to discuss. I was able to help because I introduced my step-father to soup making and bread-making when he was 71 and recovering from a heart attack. Not that he appeared to be in any danger of suffering from dementia  as his mornings were taken up by the Red Cross shop he managed in Eastbourne, then his afternoons were spent in the kitchen, shopping or help my sister in Hastings look after her garden. My mother watched and read. Both made it into their mid-eighties without any hint of dementia.

My friend's mum finally succumbed to dementia and my friend said to me "I can tell you the moment I knew the worst and what made it worse was that Mum knew too". It was when she forgot something and no longer knew that she forgot things. It seems as good a description of dementia as any others I have heard or read.

You may wonder what all this has to do with writing? I believe that how we write is an exercise in how we remember. Nothing comes from nowhere. I begin to write and unlock memories of sorts, but if or when I forget how to write that is when I will be locked in my head, unable to communicate.

We articulate our thoughts with words, except when we cry or scream or act in some physical way. Even then we will return to words.

Perhaps all published fiction should be accompanied by an online copy of the author's original text. We may find we prefer the un-sanitised version, but then what would editors and publishers do to re-order the world?

Thursday, 17 November 2016

Memories of trollies and Joy - memoir or poem?

I wrote this memoir cum poem prose style for a WEA Beeston writing class I attended from 2011 until the end of 2013 in response to an exercise we were set by our tutor. It is based on memories. I did think of it until recently as a poem, now I'm not so sure. I admit to liking it, for having been inspired to write it, and for the memories it brings back.

Re-reading it after a long time, I am struck by what I now remember of the seventeen year old I then was. Joy knew me better than I knew myself and I never said. 'Awe' best describes how I felt.

I liked girls, but I held back, always waiting for permission. My distant cousin Caroline gave me permission, but family warned us off and, aged 16 and 15, we obeyed. She died of breast cancer aged just 38. We were close to the end and she used to come and stay with me and Susan after her marriage ended.

An early girlfriend told me I was 'undemonstrative' and I remember going home and looking the word up in my beloved Words dictionary.

I let another girl go for fear of being overwhelmed by my feelings for her. She didn't understand and life moved on. She went to university in Reading. Her name was Anne and she was a vicar's daughter. I wonder more with the passing of years what became of her, her life.

I was thirty-one before I got the permission I wanted, to be me, and I fell in love in a moment and made it the subject of my first poem, written a couple of days after Christmas 2010, inspired by my grand-daughters. Again, it is a memoir of sorts.

I have just helped a friend publish a collection of poems, which I will blog about on my beestonweek blog next week. They are full of memories and passion and in them I recognise something of myself.

Right now though, I leave it for you to decide, is this memoir or poem?

Memories of trollies and Joy

Another day done
And over the road
I stand at the bus stop
With four in front
It's damp and I'm cold.

I wrap a scarf around my face,
To keep the sulphur out,
Every 3 to 4 minutes they come
Along the Harrow Road from
Paddington Green and Kensal Rise.

Then thru the February fog
Still a distance away
Pinheads of light, an indistinct shape 
Enveloped in winter's dark folds
A trolleybus comes.

Embryo like, it clings to its wires
Smog yellow, dirty red
Then a surprise, it's three in a line
As they come to the Jubilee Clock
A 664 for Cricklewood, then mine…

A 662 that's Sudbury bound
5:45 and it's heaving
'Room on top. Two upstairs'
'Don't hang about'
'And you, son, inside'.

Two regulars look and nod
I see Joy in the front wedged tight
She turns and gives a little wave
Maybe a chat when we get off
I can't wait for our Wembley stop.

She's engaged
I wish it was me
We always talk
We met on the trolley
Older than me, I love her to bits.

Wet windows inside, Pearl lights
Warm bodies, Narrow seats
Grey faces, Woollen coats
Baskets and bags, where voices
And silence share the same space.

Painfully slow we glide
On and off they get at every stop
Harlesden's rush hour crowds
Craven Park 'rumbles' ahead
And then Mr. Jones.

Every time the same
'How's Pop?…'
'Tell him he owes me a pint',
Then he takes a bench to himself
And I slide in with Joy.

Small talk, shared passions
Barham Park Library
Books and museums 
Past Stonebridge and Tokyngton Hill 
The trolleybus goes, unnoticed by us.

Above the rooftops to our right 
Wembley Stadium, all lit up tonight
We shudder to a halt
Roads and pavements overflow
A welded line of buses, cars and us.

Then an exodus above our heads 
And the Trolleybus sways
To the rock of the stairs
Joy. Heaven. Puts her hand on mine
'Time for tea I think… My treat'.

'Shall we get off and walk?'
Down the trolley and off the back
'You'll break your necks one day'
We hear the clippie shout
As holding hands we jump.

In a world of our own
Shrouded by vapours which cling
We could be any High Road couple
Past the Majestic and old Town Hall
We see Lyons still open for tea.

No one we know
Joy tells me her fiancé's away
Gone home to Sunderland
'Are you expected?…
If not, come home with me'.

'I'll phone' I say. 'Nanna won't mind'
Nothing happened
It never did
But those times were special
Joy, the trolleybuses and February.


Twelve months later
The trolleybuses had gone
My Nanna was dead
And Joy was married
I was there for them all.

The day Joy married
Was the only time we kissed
She squeezed my hand and said
'Next time it will be you. I promise'
We never spoke again.

There was one last glimpse of Joy
Years later on the Bakerloo Line
Our carriages stopped, side by side
I saw the wave, then her smile
And she was gone. This time forever.

Robert Howard
26 March 2011.

Written as an exercise whilst going to

a WEA Beeston Branch writing class.

Thursday, 13 October 2016

A bouquet of words

My earliest experience in art occurred at the Benjamin Rush public school,’ (Louis) Faurer remembers. ‘Miss Duncan, who seemed to float on a rose petal scent, having requested that numbers be written on paper with lead pencil, was shocked when my sheet yielded a drawing of a locomotive.’ He also submitted drawings to Walt Disney aged 13, who invited him out to California. ‘It seemed unreachable and so I didn’t go,’ he said

Louis Faurer (1916–2001) - New York photographer’. Click on The Guardian, 13 October 2016 to see photographic essay of his work.

The text above is the caption to image no.3 and what jumped out were the words 'Miss Duncan, who seemed to float on rose petal scent'. I lost the 'a' without noticing at first, yet it conjured up a powerful image in my head, not at all related to the photograph itself:

Photograph © Louis Faurer estate, courtesy of Deborah Bell and Howard Greenberg Gallery. An exhibition of Faurer's work is at Foundation Henri Cartier-Bresson, Paris, until 18 December 2016.

The description of Miss Duncan reminded me of my first ever 'poem' written just after Christmas 2010, which I called 'Unknown Certainty'. The first four lines were:

Grey blue eyes and rowan hair
Smell of cloves and apple pie
To all the world another woman
To me a perfect vision

The poem is my account of my first evening with Susan. I ramble on with another four verses before ending:

There is no going back
The past's undone
The future beckons
Unknown certainty awaits.

Susan is not alone in this respect and Miss Duncan reminds me of this. All the stories we tell or we write come from somewhere and, I suspect, smell is more important than we realise. 

'A bouquet of words' sounds like an original thought, but it isn't. Typing the words into the web, I came up with this link to a blog post by a writer called Sean Platt:

Well worth reading if you have any doubts about yourself as a writer. Here are a couple of paragraphs:

'Each of us has what it takes to be a better writer.  It is already inside us, waiting for its salutation. For some, this means discarding the rules that the gatekeepers have handed down, and listening to the quiet whisper of our instinct.  Only we know how we view the world, and it is us who best understand how to make our thoughts sing...
When we speak through our heart, our fingers dance across the keyboard or glide across the page, then we can make every post as pretty as a bouquet, each word placed as perfect as a posy.'

Sunday, 28 August 2016

Waiting in the wings like other stories for Pat

I have posted another story today, Love is all it takes. My usual girl man theme, except this time is boy girl woman. You can click the link here of go to the entry in the right-hand column.

I have some others still to post and even more to type, edit, then publish here. When that will be I am not sure.

It does have adult content.

This one inspired by a painting:

Pat is a friend in Gainsborough who we do not see enough of, but she says kind things about my writing and I have been promising to post a story for ages, so here one finally is.

The truth be I am slowing down and sleeping more as my heart condition takes a firmer hold of how I feel. I have had all the tests and scans and see my cardiologist this coming week, when I hope I will get a good indication of when I will have open heart surgery. As a friend said recently, 'It's not knowing when, so you put your life on hold' and that about sums up how I feel. I want to get on with life again, but for now I will settle for doing a couple of final promised jobs for people, then my decks are clear!

Wednesday, 4 May 2016

Memory is what you make it

The local historian in me has long known that the past is created by what we choose to remember, be it about ourselves, other people or the order of things. An invitation on one of my favourite short story websites,, prompted me to write a story about memory, which I have added to my list in the right-hand column and called 'Murdo's memory'.

We do have the habit, as a society, of forgiving and not admitting the sins of the great and the good whilst never forgetting and readily exposing the sins of the poor and the frail. I am sure you do not need me to list examples of my observation; you can, I'm sure, quickly compile your own list.

As a child from about the age of four until I was fourteen I always shared by bedroom with a lodger, one of whom, a man who called himself 'Karl', sometimes 'Leo', got me to share his bed to keep us warm and for about three years sexually played with me and got me to do the same with him. It was 'our secret' and I kept it until I told my wife. Today we would call it 'sexual abuse' and there are many poor souls with similar experiences to me who are still traumatised by the experience.  I can make no such claim and responded by being determined that any children of mine would have their own bedrooms and so it was.

I also had a female cousin my own age who liked to share a bed with me on family holidays and we became openly close after leaving school, to the point where we were warned off one another and dutifully did what we were told. At best we were second cousins, maybe third. My maternal great-grandfather was the brother of my cousin's maternal grandfather. Neither of us worked out the link and when she died of breast cancer aged thirty-eight, she was convinced had we stayed together her first husband would not have been there to punch her breasts repeatedly when he got angry with her. I am in no doubt that she was right and I took some comfort from the fact that she and my wife were good friends.

I tell you these things because how I have chosen to remember my life has freed me from the pain and trauma I witness in others. I can do nothing about the past. Bitterness will never make me once a rich child from a stable loving home. I had the childhood I had and in the order of things it was not bad. My memories of it are mostly happy.

My grandparents, who brought me up, were of their time and a little distant, but I did feel protected and cared for. More hugs and kisses would have been nice and the lack of such affection probably explains why Caroline and me took mutual advantage of the opportunities we had. Leo/Karl depending on his mood was always kind and generous, but he exploited me none the less and what he did was wrong, very wrong, but I know enough about life to know that what happened to me was not uncommon in the 1950s.

My experiences and memories are the stuff of fiction and not a week passes without some author writing a successful novel based on childhood or matrimonial abuse. So it is with how we remember dead members of our armed forces. We make heroes out of them all and, in truth, I do not know what else we can do. The truth is something we bury with them and I can live with that. As for the living, we can call them to account and we should, but only if we do it regardless of class, gender, faith, race or wealth. I find it difficult to punish just the poor, the black, other minorities and those least able to defend themselves.

I have long been of the view that story telling is a more reflective and understanding way of dealing with injustice than prison and scaffolds.