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Kate's Writing Blog

The thrill of launching into a new field of study...

The OCA package reached me in Gondar on 28 November 2009. I have done distance-learning courses for many years (initially science courses with the Open University, then later a creative writing course with the Open College of the Arts) and always relish those moments when I remove the packaging and examine the pristine course material. I couldn't wait to get started.

Alas, these first weeks of the Lifelines autobiographical writing course have coincided with my family's staggered move from Gondar to Dib Bahir. I have been to Dib Bahir three times in the last month. My office there is still not ready (no electricity), so I am working from home in Gondar. All this disruption has meant that my work on Lifelines has been done in fits and starts.

I have drafted my Mission Statement (Exercise 1.1) for writing my life-story, which currently has eleven points that reflect my interests and, I hope, the interests of a varied target audience. I intend that my autobiography should go beyond my life-story and views, with information about the culture, geography, history and natural history of Orkney (where I grew up) and Ethiopia (my adopted home) woven into my adventures.

friends: Marta, Kate and Wubit
friends: Marta, Kate and Wubit

For Exercise 1.2 (A Friend), I wrote about my good Ethiopian friend and colleague, Marta Bekele. She has worked with me for more than ten years. There is so much to say about my friendship with Marta (we've shared many escapades over the years) that I found it a challenge to compress the piece to the 300 words stipulated. I referred repeatedly to the letter by Heloise of Paris in the course material to remind myself to concentrate on particular episodes. I feel I'm learning an important lesson here and need to keep practising this technique. In Marta's case, I contrasted Marta's job interview (when she was shy and reticent) with her addressing with fervour a crowd of hundreds of people years later; a third episode was her grief at the graveside of my poodle, where she sat with a "crumpled wet face". I wanted to show how Marta's confidence has grown during the time I have known her and also what a big heart she has.

The Brief Lives (Exercise 1.3) device has been rather fun to experiment with. After initially choosing people I knew well or read about in the papers, I now find myself watching people I hardly know and making 12-word descriptions of them. For example, about Mr X: 'a chubby-cheeked, baby-faced businessman who has made a fat fortune from onions' or 'a rotund onion merchant with his mobile phone glued to his ear'. I'll keep practising!

the escarpment
the escarpment

For Exercise 1.4 (A Journey), I wrote copious notes about my walk from Dib Bahir one kilometre up the escarpment on the northern side of the Simien Mountains, to Debark (from where I took a bus to Gondar the next day). I did this walk on 21 January in the company of my brother-in-law, Atenafu, and it took us five hours plus a half-hour detour to see the viewpoint at Lema Limo, which I'd first visited in 1998 and hadn't seen for nine years. Although I'd walked part of the way on a number of occasions, this was the first time I walked from Dib Bahir all the way to Debark, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I could write a book about the experience (and perhaps one day I shall) - the breathtaking views, the birds and animals we saw (Colobus monkey, Grivet monkey, Hamadryas baboon), the scent of the wild roses, the people we passed, and the historical aspects of the route. However, the instructions were to produce at least one paragraph which reflected on the experience, including my physical and mental state, and the emotions I felt. Remembering the importance of focusing on one episode, I wrote several short paragraphs about the Lema Limo viewpoint and how I felt standing there: moved (by memories), exhilarated (by what we'd achieved and the experience of the walk - I briefly mentioned the flora and fauna), irritated (by the ugly new road bulldozed through the woods), a little tired and cold (at an altitude of 3,000 metres now), yet feeling no hunger or thirst (despite having consumed little during the walk). Before doing this course, I would have turned my notes into a long descriptive piece of prose, but when I look at my 300 words, I see a much more powerful piece of writing. Instead of concentrating on what I saw on the way, I have brought my feelings to the fore, which is much more interesting for the reader. I still provide brief information about what I saw to inform the reader, but the piece is enriched and strengthened by the emotions and feelings I experienced at Lema Limo. This was an extremely useful exercise.

For Exercise 1.5 (Photographic Memory) I chose nine photographs to write about. Since most of the photographs of my early life are in storage in my parents' loft in England, I had to recall photographs from my past without being able to see them. I hope to visit my parents this summer and the time I spend going through the family photograph collection will be a very important part of my work for my autobiography. This exercise was easy and enjoyable. I shall use this technique to generate patch notes (see below).

I amalgamated the Curriculum Vitae exercises 2.2-2.5 into one table in Microsoft Word. The left-hand column gives the years (from 1961 to the present, but after I've done some research into my ancestors I shall include earlier years). The other columns are: Key Events, Social/Emotional/Biological, and Films/Books/Food. I've been working hard to fill the columns. For example, one key event was going on tour with my school orchestra to Italy in 1978, an emotional event was being lost in Dudley Zoo as a small child, and a memorable food was sliced banana with Birds custard, which was a favourite and staple dessert throughout my childhood. Because I've prepared these CVs together in Word, I can continue to work on them throughout the course, printing out updated versions from time to time to pin up next to my workspace.

Exercise 2.6 urges students to expand their diaries. In my late teens, I kept journals. Later I was too busy to keep diaries although I have many other records that I can use to jog my memory about key events (for example, financial records, letters, postcards, photographs). Three years ago I began to keep brief daily notes in a pocket diary. On the day I received my Lifelines course, I began a second diary, which was in the expanded form, writing more about what happened and how I felt about it. (I used the hardback notebook supplied with the course material.) I've managed to keep this up, even though there are sometimes gaps of several weeks between entries. I'm already a quarter of the way through the notebook.

Having completed all the exercises in Chapters 1 and 2, I must now do Assignment One and that will be my next task.

Apart from working through the course, I have been busy on related activities, all of which will help towards the writing of my autobiography.

This month I entered a Memoir Competition with a piece entitled True Grit at Shimbekit about the last day of my Millennium walk 500 miles across the northern Ethiopian Highlands, when shots were fired and I was assaulted, and then detained by militia. The limit of 1,000 words forced me to be concise. I open the piece right in the thick of the action, with the first shot being fired. The competition is being run by Leaf Books Ltd and the first prize is £200. Even if I don't win anything, it was a useful exercise, as I shall certainly be including the episode in my autobiography.

Because I hope that my autobiography will be considered a literary work, I am paying attention to style. Consequently, I've just finished reading Chapter 1 of Style by F L Lucas (1966). He believed that "education, learning and research, instead of making men speak and write better, often make them do both worse" and understood one professor's wish that "the inhabitants of University towns were rather more like Polynesians"! He describes writing style as the effective use of language and the ability to rouse emotions - "so long as men remain emotional creatures, they will continue to be taken, like rabbits, by the ears". To have style is to have "a sense of what to say, how to say it, and what to leave unsaid... to put a case with persuasiveness, or facts with precision". Chapter 2 deals with what Lucas believes to be the foundation of style - character. That should be interesting.

In January I finished reading P D James's Time to be in Earnest - A Fragment of Autobiography and the autobiography of my OCA course tutor, Alan Duckworth, entitled Snowing like Billy-Ho!.

PDJ's autobiography was written over a year, 1997-98, starting with her seventy-seventh birthday. She wrote it as a diary, but also reflected on past events in her life. For example, on 11 August 1997 she walked round Holland Park, "one of London's loveliest parks". In the same chapter she reflected on how fortunate she had been to live only in beautiful and historic places, such as Oxford, Ludlow, Cambridge and London. This led to her reminiscences about her childhood in Ludlow and her early schooldays there.

AD's autobiography is structured quite differently. He focuses on "magic moments" in his life ("those moments in your life you always remember") and his book is also a social history. Reading it brought back memories of the 1960s and 1970s, when I was a child, although Alan is older, so includes the 1950s too. In the chapter 'Man's Best Friend' about the pets in his life, Alan writes: "in the 1950s there was Lassie for dogs and Kit-e-Kat for cats". For me, this sparked a memory of working in a supermarket in 1978 when I was 17. I would build up perfectly neat displays with cans of Pedigree Chum and Whiskers, only to have those blooming customers come and ruin them! Another patch note (see below).

A few years ago a friend sent me Michael Buerk's autobiography, The Road Taken, and I am now re-reading it, paying particular attention to the way he has structured it. Michael Buerk has a place in my autobiography because it was his bulletin on the BBC Nine O'clock News in 1994 that inspired me to come to Ethiopia. Another patch note!

Apart from reading about writing and reading autobiographies, I am continuing my habit of reading literary classics, in the hope that I shall learn something from the great writers. This month I read Breakfast at Tiffany's by Truman Capote (beautifully-crafted and flawless - one of my favourite authors) and started Men without Women by Ernest Hemingway (a collection of short stories - I don't care much for the gruesome bullfights, but the writing is very good, in his distinctive style), and The Castle of Crossed Destinies by Italo Calvino (this is the first time I've read a Calvino novel, so I'll finish it before commenting).

I subscribe to The Literary Review and every month read it from cover to cover.

Kate's "shed"
Kate's "shed"

In the 'Tools of the Trade' section at the beginning of the course, the best environment in which to write Lifelines is described: "a shed in a rural setting with electricity points, a computer and appropriate software, a desk with a telephone and an adjustable chair, and a private library of about 3,000 books". I have all this, except that my chair is not adjustable, the electrician will wire my "shed" next month, and at eight years old my laptop is ready to go into a museum.

The collection method of 'patches' is described in 'Tools of the Trade' and for the past two months I have been noting self-contained short pieces of text on record cards as patch notes ready to write up as patches that I shall organise and sew together to create my autobiography. For example, one patch note is for 1978 when - as mentioned above - I went on tour with my school orchestra to Italy. I was a violinist. I have already started working on expanding this into a patch piece, but I needed to check some facts. To do this, I used the Internet to find the orchestra's conductor - my music teacher, who is now retired. It was quite a surprise for him to hear from his former pupil after 32 years! He is now helping me by providing me with information and photographs of the tour. Not only is this useful material for my autobiography, but it is very pleasurable to delve into one's past and reconnect with people after decades.

In my autobiography, I expect to give some information about my ancestry. My parents are my primary source. My mother has sent me information about my maternal great-grandmother, Emma Mountain, who was married to a Nottinghamshire shepherd. Emma was an orphan, her parents and brother having drowned. There's a story there. Another patch note to be expanded. I have Family Tree Maker software and - when I have time - I wish to organise my family history. Even though I won't use all this information in my autobiography, it will be a very interesting project in its own right.

I'm realising that it is a massive job to write the story of one's life. It would be a luxury to take a year off to do it, but I have a family and I have to work and so my writing must be done around my other commitments. The main thing is to make a start and in a year's time I'll be much closer to my goal.