A prescription for blocked writers

I’d written my Work In Progress into a dark, locked cellar. It was time for something to stimulate and inspire. My budget precludes a long writing course, and I don’t like online learning. But since 2014 I’d had positive experiences at a Guardian Masterclass with William Ryan, a summer workshop with Marina Warner, and a Spread the Word mentoring session. So I booked “Building Stories” with London Lit Lab. The course aimed to “use the experience of our public and private spaces to inspire evocative fiction.” At the very least I’d have the privilege of working in two of London’s most impressive buildings. At best I’d start writing my way back upstairs.

Attendees included published and unpublished writers, academics, artists and therapists hoping to write fiction or poetry, and our tutors were Zoe Gilbert (Folk) and Lily Dunn.

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RIBA, 1st floor landing, with busy participants

Our Saturday setting was the Royal Institute of British Architects, designed by George Grey Wornum, with interiors by his wife Miriam. Light from huge windows and etched glass doors floods the gleaming floors and emphatic angled spaces. Why architects would need a ballroom isn’t obvious, but they have one here to suit the most demanding Cinderella, with a grand staircase for her glass slipper to trip down and curved sofas inviting assignations. The library was modelled on a cruise liner and the soundproofed council chamber had a throne. In our conference room, originally white leather walls had turned uncleanably yellow from the smoke of a thousand meetings. We creaked across sprung floors and hauled ourselves up from the public space to narrower private staircases. Then we jotted our sensory impressions in short unpolished phrases, some of which we shared, anonymously.

An architect helped us study plans from the RIBA archives, including homes, schools, a debtor’s prison, a pheasantry, and an exhibition space. Our new understanding transformed them from codified diagrams to pictures in the mind’s eye. Stories unfolded.

Next, we were to imagine a building used other than for its original purpose. Writing an activity that didn’t fit the space would subvert it, creating tension. A derelict house, bereft of domesticity, is sinister. A church converted to flats must be deconsecrated. When a psychiatric hospital becomes a gated estate of private homes is it more or less of a refuge for the residents? Tube stations in the Blitz with people sleeping on the platforms, stables for cars instead of warm, living horses, ice hotels, the ruined swimming pool where Djokovic practised tennis as a boy. Map the mismatch, said Zoe and Lily. We scribbled away under the nicotine walls. I found myself immersed in a semi-serious idea from years ago, clamouring to be used. It had come to the fore because repurposing a building activates parts of the brain we don’t often use.

After lunch we discussed the psychology of spaces. How conversations run depends whether we’re sitting in a cafe or on a roller coaster. The rooms we’ve lived in are repositories for dreams, thoughts, conversations we’ve had in them (think of Proust). I was reminded how unsettled my father’s house seemed, when he was in hospital and I was popping in to pick things up. Something intangible had left with him, as though the house already knew he would never return… In the deadly quiet of the soundproofed council chamber we read of a Kate Chopin heroine in her hallway and her bedroom, her emotions and expectations adapting to each. The more private space meant she could explore her own secrets, have her epiphany and the story could move on.

We imagined someone with a secret, in a place where they feel safe. What happens? Zoe had postcard portraits, for anyone without such a character in mind already. Hooray! One was Protagonist J, in my stalled WIP. Now I know what he looks like! I described his safe space, nothing like the cold flat air of the council chamber but encouraged into existence there. Then I threatened it.

For a final Point of View, we were given a secret character – mine was a woman with a migraine – and had to write her POV on entering RIBA that morning. Could the others guess her traits from our narrative? It was an elegant way to end the day by referring to how far we’d come since we met.

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British Library foyer, showing “The Tapestry”, from a Kitaj painting with the same name.

The British Library was a contrast on Sunday, our home turf a colourless basement “learning room” with an enormous expanse of white table, and no natural light (but better than my cellar). In groups we tried Erasure poetry, extracting evocative words and phrases from existing work(s), erasing or juxtaposing them to “write” something new. I was tired so on this occasion it didn’t do much for me, but others were immersed and stimulated, creating new poems together on huge sheets of paper. (My Erasure on that sentence might be: It did       for me,      creating    on     huge sheets. ) I thought of Rachel Whiteread’s blank windowed buildings, and of my favourite sentence from Reservoir 13: “There was weather”. So often, silent spaces are as important as what’s there.

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Council chamber, RIBA
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Our learning room at the BL

We wandered the British Library, making notes for a story about some aspect of the building, or an object housed there. Touch, memories, smells: not only visuals. We drew mind maps of our journey, and of imaginary places in the invisible, non public parts of buildings. This time the huge sheets did work for me, my notes proving fertile fodder later.

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Who knows what’s in the invisible spaces of our public buildings?

In the afternoon with much shushing and confiscation of pens, we wrote in the Reading Room, normally closed on Sundays. (Pencils only, for fear of marking valuable books.) This room exuded concentration, and we all wrote for forty minutes in palpable silence like brocade drapes muffling us from distraction. (Bit overwrought – Ed.)

BL lightswitch
We stood back for the bigger picture and homed in in the details

Lastly, we discussed editing, considering two versions of a Raymond Carver story. A useful, practical discussion, ending with wine and some shared readings of our stories, before I dived even further underground for the tube home.

Thank you to Zoe, Lily and colleagues for a constructive and enjoyable weekend. For me, the tendency to focus on more literary fiction was especially welcome. These courses don’t end with the final well earned glass of wine, but give participants ideas to draw on for years to come. I enjoyed taking the writing medecine so much, I’ve treated myself to a day at Chawton too. I’m on my way back upstairs!

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©Jessica Norrie 2018

 

 

 

 

A bookshop discovery

If Bah Humbug was a person they’d look like me, and yet even I was attracted by the signs of Christmas in this bookshop. I do like to highlight good independent bookshops, dead and alive. How can a small town like Great Malvern (population under 35,000) support a decent independent bookshop, in these days of discounts and globalization? This town has found one way to do it. Malvern books 3

Their bookshop is a cooperative, owned and run by its shareholders. The website tells me shares cost £50 each, and you can buy one, or two. It also tells me they pay their staff a living wage, whereas I’d been under the impression it was staffed on a voluntary basis by the shareholders. But so much the better (and more reliable probably) if it’s providing employment.

There are two rooms, one with a mezzanine, on this extremely steep hill – if after fortifying yourself in the bookshop cafe, you continue straight on and can walk perpendicularly up “Happy Valley” (I always wanted the chance to write that) you will find yourself on  top of the Malvern Hills. But it may be wise to stop and peruse the books, guides, maps and local author in the room on the right first. You may find a (slightly) less steep route.

Malvern books 1

The room on the left is the main bookshop area, with a good shelved and tabletop collection of contemporary fiction and non fiction, a colourful childrens’ section, the counter where the helpful assistant lets you browse in peace but is on hand if needed, and a jolly looking café with a good selection of high quality cards in support of various charities.  Somebody’s had fun dressing the window for Christmas and there was about to be a talk by journalist Matthew Engel when I was there. Another successful talk the previous night had depleted the stock – which is exactly what we want to hear happens when an independent bookshop puts on an event.

(Presumably they know they have a doppelganger in Texas? I found it when looking for their Twitter handle.)

Malvern is one of my favourite places. It’s a spa town half way up the extraordinary Malvern Hills, home of Elgar, with a theatre, an Abbey, a lovely park with a bandstand, excellent music events, and other places to buy books too – the Amnesty International bookshop, and the St Richard’s Hospice bookshop in Malvern Link which was the cleanest, best organised and most professionally run charity bookshop I have ever visited.

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Photo from the Hasting Pier website, July 2016

I was gladdened by the Malvern Book Cooperative because in the same week I was saddened by what’s happening to another community run project, one in which I do hold £100 of shares. My grandparents both lived in Hastings when I was little, and I have happy memories of visits to the pier. So I was grieved when the already unsafe structure  burnt down in 2010 and only too pleased when local people got together to rebuild and run it again. They made such a success of it – a new, solid, fireproof, elegant pier, with catering and entertainments, helping to regenerate the town, and sharing all it learned with other local projects such as Bottle Alley and St Leonards sea front. Alas, their application for a grant of £800,000 to cover becoming independent over the next three years has been refused, and the pier taken into receivership. The letter to shareholders was upbeat – jobs will be protected, the receivers are specialists in administering heritage projects and there are interested parties already. All is by no means lost. But it seems so sad, for the notional value of a three bed semi in London, that so much goodwill, good design, and regeneration could be again at risk. I’m using these photos from the Pier site, which are not my copyright, and hope they will not mind as it’s part of my response to the request to continue to support and promote the pier.

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Photo from the Hastings Pier website, June 2016

As the website says: “The pier will remain open to the public whilst the administration takes place, and the pier will be fully operational and staffed for 2018….Hastings Pier Charity encourages you to keep visiting and supporting the pier, and look forward to the next stage of the development of Hastings Pier.”

Please visit and use it!

There was more cheerful news from the Herne Bay pier when we visited last month: the local knitting coop had decorated the railings with these eccentric crafts for Halloween and Armistice Day while the beautiful bronze statue of Amy Johnson looked out over the sea nearby. Local people and businesses raised the funds for and commissioned this statue, installed in 2016, which is also significant for being “one of only about 17% of statues listed in the Public Monuments and Sculpture Association (PMSA) of a woman as a lone standing statue”.

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Here’s a last minute addition to this post: the wonderful Dalston Eastern Curve Garden where we sang carols last night, drank mulled wine and enjoyed the light show. Thank you to the Boilerhouse Singers for keeping us warm with some lovely music.

Dalston Curve
The Boilerhouse Singers at Dalston Eastern Curve Garden

If you have a brilliant local community project, bookshop, building or activity, do support it. These are the things that give our towns character, conscience and individuality. I’d be fascinated to hear about any that you’re involved in – and who knows, maybe it would spur me to plan a trip and support it.

© Jessica Norrie 2017