Kate's Writing Blog

"A good writer always works at the impossible."

My Acer laptop is now eight years old and showing early signs of Alzheimer's, so when I was in Addis Ababa in February, I bought a new Toshiba laptop. I feel like a concert pianist sitting at a grand piano when I use this Toshiba. The keyboard is silvery and the screen extra-wide. After warming up with scales and arpeggios, what great symphonies am I going to compose with these keys, I wonder?

Although I had work to do in Addis Ababa (including having a half-day's training on donkey dental care - rasping teeth - at the Donkey Sanctuary clinic), I took some time off to look around the many bookshops and secondhand book kiosks that are sprouting up in the city in response to the demands of a growing literate public. I was on the look-out for autobiographies (and biographies) as I am keen to read as many as possible, to analyse the authors' methods and structures. Here are the autobiographies I bought secondhand:

McVicar by Himself - John McVicar (convict)
Loitering with Intent - The Child - Peter O'Toole (actor)
Don't fall off the Mountain - Shirley MacLaine (actress)
The Enchanted Places - Christopher Milne (son of A A Milne who wrote 'Winnie the Pooh')
Hannah - The Complete Story - Hannah Hauxwell (countrywoman)
My Life in Pictures - Malcolm Muggeridge (journalist and broadcaster)
Arias and Raspberries - Harry Secombe (singer and TV presenter)
Crowdie and Cream - Finlay J Macdonald (BBC presenter from the Outer Hebrides)

That's quite a range of people (though most of them seem to have been involved with film or television) and I intend to read these books over the coming months. I've started with 'Crowdie and Cream' because of my Scottish island upbringing (I lived in the Orkney Islands during my childhood). Finlay Macdonald was a Harris man.

I am still reading Michael Buerk's autobiography, The Road Taken. He has a fascinating chapter on his ancestry. His grandfather, Jacob Buerk, was a civil engineer in Vancouver who "played a major role in the development of Western Canada". His company built many famous buildings, including the hotel called Chateau Lake Louise in the Rockies. I visited that hotel in 1988. Michael Buerk's maternal ancestors were from Birmingham, so he (and they) must have walked where my ancestors (the Feredays) walked. It's strange to think how we are all linked. What is it they say? - six degrees of separation? (We are all linked to someone else on the planet through six people.) For example, I know someone who knew Princess Diana who knew Queen Elizabeth II who knows... well, many people, etc, etc, including the American horseman, Monty Roberts - I have his excellent autobiography, The Man who listens to Horses, and read it years ago but shall enjoy re-reading it while doing this course (I admire him greatly - if you have not read his book, please go and do so). Monty Roberts demonstrated to Her Majesty his way of humanely handling horses.

I have read Chapter 2 (The Foundation of Style - Character) of F L Lucas's book, Style. He writes: "style... is personality clothed in words" and "if handwriting reveals character, style reveals it still more". He supplies an anecdote: "Napoleon was no sentimental aesthete. But even he, when asked to appoint some person to a post, replied... 'Has he written anything? Que je voie son style!' - Let me see his style!". Lucas explains that "character is not only a compound of extremely various qualities, but the qualities themselves vary from year to year, even from hour to hour. The Spaniards will wisely say of a man, 'He was brave that day'." He points out that "writers often... write with the best side of their character, and at their best moments... authors seem often less admirable and less interesting than their books". However, "a writer's worse qualities... are likely to get into his work - and to betray themselves there". Amongst several examples, he mentions Byron, describing his "histrionic melancholy and melodrama", yet his poetry also showed that he had a "scorn of scams and a detestation of tyranny". Lucas prefers writers who have "never given in to the world" - he respects their independence. He believes that "the author of character will not bow too much to the character of his audience. Courtesy is better than deference". He concludes by identifying the characteristics that are most important: "good manners and courtesy towards readers... good humour and gaiety... good health and vitality... good sense and sincerity". I'll bear these characteristics in mind when I'm writing and shall endeavour to keep my bad qualities out of my work.

I also read Chapter 1 (What is the Big Idea?) of Part 1 (Subject and Theme) of Writing a Book that makes a Difference by Philip Gerard (2000). His book applies to fiction and non-fiction (including autobiography). He opens with: "a writing project begins... [with] faith - that if your passion is genuine, if you have mastered the elements of your craft, in the act of writing you will learn the rest of what you need to know in order to do justice to your subject". He quotes Steinbeck (from 'Journal of a Novel'): "a good writer always works at the impossible".

I like that: A good writer always works at the impossible. I've put this on a Post-it next to my workspace as a reminder. Writing my autobiography seems an impossible task - so much research to do, so many patch notes to convert into passages of text, so much re-reading and revising, so many other commitments competing for my attention. But the process of researching and writing it over the coming year should make me a better writer.

Returning to Gerard, he writes: "Many thrillers and mystery novels, ...completely captivating 'reads', melt from our memories as soon as the plot is solved. Because the gripping plot... is not only complete but is all there is to the book. We're left with no ideas, no impressions that challenge or provoke us to thought, no intriguing patterns that tease us into comprehension on a higher level, no experience of beauty, no significant new understanding of ourselves or the world. In short, there's nothing to possess... [A good] book... lives in our imagination as a memory of patterns that pulse with meaning... enduring works of narrative seem to achieve a golden balance between immersing the reader wholly in the world of the story and making the reader aware at some level of its beauty and meaning - its art. The reader hovers just above full immersion, and that perfect space of distance, like the cushion of air beneath a hovercraft, keeps us airborne very close to the ground". Gerard goes into this topic in depth and his advice is very helpful - I highly recommend his book (and that's after only reading the first chapter).

Another sound piece of advice Gerard gives is: "always include your reader in the process by which you arrived at your position. Instead of demanding that the reader experience anger or love or indignation or outrage over injustice simply because you say so, create for the reader the same experience that led you to your reaction".

Bearing in mind what Gerard said about the "golden balance" and creating for the reader "the same experience that led you to your reaction", I shall work to achieve this in my autobiography, by not only writing about me, but also describing significant events that affected me (and which would, I expect, affect my readers too, if I write about them in the way Gerard advises). For example, I was almost eight years old and living in Orkney when the Longhope Lifeboat Disaster happened. Eight brave lifeboatmen were drowned attempting to rescue the crew of the stricken SS Irene on a stormy night in March 1969. Everyone in Orkney was stunned by the loss - two fathers and their two sons were amongst the dead; seven widows and ten fatherless children were left in the small community of Longhope in the Orkney Islands. It still brings tears to my eyes to think about it now, after 41 years. Not only shall I write about this tragedy in my autobiography, but I'll also describe how it affected me (my lifelong distrust of boats and the sea, how I reacted when a small ferry I was on was overtaken by a storm in the Mediterranean Sea in the 1980s, and the fact that I now live in a landlocked country). I may even include a poem I wrote recently about the disaster for submission to Mslexia women's writing magazine (New Writing, Issue 46: Into the Deep). Having taken out an annual subscription for Mslexia, I received my first quarterly issue last month and have found it to be very useful. Apart from informative and educational articles, new writers have the opportunity to have their work published.

In that first chapter Gerard gives a great deal of excellent advice - too much to include here. So I'll end with: "Every writer, even the tentative novice, is part of the great legacy of narrators in history, who help create and sustain a culture's ideas of itself and what it values". This means that even if my autobiography is not a literary classic, it will still be important as a record of what it was like to live in the late 20th century and the early 21st century.

I should mention that Gerard sets thought-provoking exercises at the end of the first chapter. The first one is: "If you had the power to instantaneously change one thing in the world... what would it be?". I would turn everyone into vegetarians. The exercise required explanation, arguments for and against, consequences and unintended consequences, etc. I have been a life-long vegetarian and it's a subject I shall certainly include in my autobiography. Another exercise asked: "What is the most important thing that ever happened to you, and why?" At eighteen months old I inserted the handle of a metal spoon into an electrical socket and miraculously survived the resulting electric shock. My life almost ended there. That's an incident that should be in my autobiography. I must ask my mother to write down the details. These days I am bombarding my parents with questions about our ancestry and my childhood. Another life-changing incident was seeing Michael Buerk's December 1994 bulletin on the BBC Nine O'clock News about the plight of street children in Addis Ababa - this led to my first coming to Ethiopia later that month.

Oliver Fereday
Oliver Fereday
On the subject of ancestry, my Father has supplied me with details of Feredays going as far back as James Fereday, Gun and Pistol Finisher [quelle horreur - the other thing I would change in the world is to destroy all guns and land mines!], whose birth date has yet to be established, but he married Eliza Dewsbery in Aston (Birmingham) in 1828. They were my paternal great-great-great-grandparents. My great-grandfather, Oliver Fereday (1870-1948), was a tinsmith, a widower who committed suicide (gas oven). There must be a story there. According to my father's aunt, he left school at 13 but enjoyed reading "Thackeray, Dickens, McCaulay, Walter Scott, etc" and inherited "bookcase and books" on the death of his father (Edwin Fereday) in 1919 (according to Edwin Fereday's will, details from Birmingham Public Library). He also wrote poetry. My father sent me two of his poems, which are good. I think I would have liked Oliver if I'd known him as we share the same literary interests. Perhaps I'll include one of Oliver's poems in my autobiography, and his photograph, in which he looks very handsome. He gave this photograph to my grandfather, Henry ('Harry') Fereday, and wrote in Victorian script on the back: "To Henry with best love from dad".

My relocation from the city of Gondar to the village of Dib Bahir (120 kilometres to the north-east) is still in progress. I was away in Addis Ababa and Dib Bahir during most of February, resulting in little progress on Assignment One, which is now two months late. I next go to Dib Bahir at the end of next week, so this gives me a window of opportunity to complete and submit Assignment One to my tutor. When Assignment One is done, I shall continue with the next Lifelines exercises.

Dib Bahir village (view north)
Dib Bahir village (view north)

While in Dib Bahir last month I went down with a type of influenza and was sick for a week, spending four days in bed (or rather, on bed, since during the day it was too hot to lie under covers). Whilst my body was incapacitated, my mind was - a lot of the time - alert and busy. I composed two short stories in my head (making sure they had good endings), and a week later, when I felt strong enough to hold a pen, I wrote them down. When I returned to Gondar last week, I typed them up on my laptop. I am still working on them, and plan to submit them to The Bridport Prize, the "richest open short story competition in the world". The deadline is 30 June, so I still have plenty of time to work on them, to put them away for a few weeks, then to pull them out and read them again with a more critical eye. I sent away to Bridport for the anthology of winning short stories (and poems) of last year's competition (which I didn't enter owing to a heavy workload at the time). The story that won first prize appeared delightfully simple yet was cleverly done and very deserving of its award (though, I felt, it was not in the league of Graham Mort's The Prince which won first prize a couple of years ago and was described as "wordperfect" by the judge), but when I read the other stories, although a few of them were good and memorable, I thought most rather poor - it depressed me. Inadequate endings were common, and Lucas would have been dismayed by their lack of good style. I expected better of Ali Smith, the short story judge, although perhaps the overall standard of entries was poor and she had to pick the best of a bad bunch.

I am still reading the short story collection Men without Women by Ernest Hemingway (most memorable are The Killers and Hills like White Elephants) and the novel The Castle of Crossed Destinies by Italo Calvino.

I've also read a short story by the American author, Stephen Crane (1871-1900). He based The Open Boat on his experience of spending two days with three other men in a small dinghy off the coast of Florida when the ship they were on exploded and sank in 1897. The story is long and he divides it up into sections numbered 1 to 7. The dialogue is realistic and adeptly used to move the story forward, and there is humour. For example, a man waves his coat at them from the shore - but nobody comes to rescue them - and one chap in the dinghy asks: "Was I brought here merely to have my nose dragged away as I was about to nibble the sacred cheese of life?". Crane's descriptions of the sea are well done and I referred to them for inspiration when I was writing my poem about the Longhope Lifeboat Disaster. He wraps the story up very well (I like a good ending - as mentioned above, I feel that so many short stories fail to achieve that). Although still young, Stephen Crane died of tuberculosis three years later, poor fellow. (These days TB is curable.) I also read a short story entitled 'An Unscheduled Stop' by another American, Alice Adams (born 1926). It is capably written but - alas - lacks a strong ending, which left me feeling disappointed. The ending is all-important and when I write a short story I concentrate on that more than anything else. There is nothing worse than an ending that leaves the reader hanging, wondering "well, what happened next?" or, worse, angry at being left high and dry (only rarely can such a finish be carried off successfully).

For sheer pleasure, I am - unusually - re-reading a novel I read only a year ago. It is Bel Canto by Ann Patchett. The book is about vice-presidential dinner party guests who are taken hostage by rebels in a South American country. The Italian 'Bel Canto' means 'beautiful singing' and refers to the talented opera soprano who performed for the guests at the dinner party and is also held hostage. The novel, published in 2001, won the Orange Prize and the Pen/Faulkner Award. It is deftly written - apart from her use of 'maybe' (instead of perhaps) and 'the ones' (instead of 'those'), which I find irritating (I'm sure Lucas would agree with me) - enjoyable and humorous, with skilful characterization. "You'll find a few hours of entertainment and maybe [urgh!] even a strange yearning to be kidnapped," said Time Out. "What gives this novel its power is Patchett's flair for sketching the subtleties of her characters' behavior," wrote the New York Times Book Review. This novel is a gem and I highly recommend it.

In January I set up my profile on the OCA community website and began to participate in the forums. It is noticeable that there are many more art and photography students active in the forums than those doing writing courses. I have set up two new discussions in the Creative Writing forum - one on 'Favourite Books' and another on 'Memorable Short Stories'. I am a strong believer that to write well, one must read extensively as well as writing daily. One writing student pointed out that although the art and photography students made good use of their online portfolios to show their work, the writers did not. This prompted me to promise that I would put some of my writing in my portfolio for other students to see and comment on - I must do this soon.

Finally, an OCA tutor put a notice on the website about 'Ten Rules for Writing Fiction' (most of which apply to non-fiction too) to be found at the following website:
www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/feb/20/ten-rules-for-writing-fiction-part-one
I had a look and printed off the rules so that I could read them through at my leisure and keep them for reference. The rules are written by well-known authors. I thought Sarah Waters gave very good advice in her ten rules, including: "Read like mad. But try to do it analytically - which can be hard, because the better and more compelling a novel is, the less conscious you will be of its devices. It's worth trying to figure those devices out, however: they might come in useful in your own work. I find watching films also instructive...". I agree absolutely and both read as much as possible (making notes as I go) and watch films as often as I can. Roddy Doyle wrote: "Do not place a photograph of your favourite author on your desk, especially if the author is one of the famous ones who committed suicide". I wonder if that applies to favourite great grandfathers who were poets? Whilst browsing on The Guardian's Books web pages, I came across articles by Hilary Mantel (of Wolf Hall fame) and printed a few of these out to read later - as one would expect, she writes with panache and superb style (Lucas would be proud of her).

And now I must finish Assignment One.