Tag Archives: Creative Writing

Wild Writing & Free-range Teaching

First published in Writing in Education Summer 2016

Kevan writing at Loch Maree Sep '12

Writing by the shores of Loch Maree, Highlands, Summer 2012

Imagine turning up to a lesson with no notes, no lesson plan, no ‘learning outcomes’ – just your years of experience, skills and writer’s imagination? By adopting a more fluid, sensitized, reciprocal approach (akin to what Philip Gross describes as ‘the discipline of indiscipline’ 2006) you, the lecturer, become the author of the moment. The act of creativity is restored to the classroom. The frisson of risk electrifies the process, as with one’s actual writing practice, when, in those precious hours snatched from the demands of the week, you sit down to do some of your own writing. Yes, you do the research, you make your preparations, but when you turn up at the page or the screen to write something else happens: a different part of the brain engages – a lateral process takes over. If we wish to authentically offer our students genuine techniques or practices, one’s we use ourselves in our craft, then where better than to start with this – the white heat of the moment –– when anything may emerge? As a writer it is this moment when I am freest and most fully alive. There is a sense of being an explorer in an undiscovered continent. This is the quality I wish to bring into the classroom. As Stephanie Vanderslice suggests, ‘it is more important than ever to draw back the curtain on the wizard and show undergraduates the many invention tricks writers rely upon to get started and to keep the well of inspiration at an optimum level.’ (2011: 32)

Alas, teaching (of the ‘factory farming’ kind: I’ve personally found this worse in FE than HE) can seriously debilitate the creative aquifer. Schemes of work … Lesson plans … Set texts … Assessments … The structures of creative writing as a taught discipline can stifle the very thing they are trying to nurture – resulting in exhausted, demoralized lecturers (as informal conversations at conferences suggest and the strikes of 2016 attest) and uninspired, disengaged students (re: the dreaded Student Survey). In this article I argue for a possibly radical approach (accepting that any writing teacher worth their salt probably uses some form of ‘wild writing’), but one that can still work in tandem with existing pedagogical systems. There is a place for the lecture, the seminar, the practical focus of a workshop, tutorials, assessment … for hard pedagogy – but also, as I would call it, for wild writing (following in the spirit of Roger Deakin’s ‘wild swimming’ (2000) and the other analogous activities his approach inspired). Wild writing empowers both the lecturer and students. It credits teachers with intelligence and resourcefulness. Wild writing encourages us to take risks, to go beyond comfort zones and familiar ways of doing things.

Although wild writing is a practice I have been intuitively cultivating all of my writing life – a cross-fertilisation of my storytelling, creative writing and teaching skills, I first articulated it as a practice when I was invited to North America in September 2015 to offer some workshops privately to a small group. Wild writing spontaneously happened as we toured Rhode Island and beyond. One time, a scintillating cove inspired some ‘reflections’; another time, it was the site of an old fun fair which unearthed long-buried emotions and memories. However, I will focus on the experience of devising my ‘Wild Writing’ class, which took place at Hawkwood College, Gloucestershire, in the Spring term of 2016. In doing so I do not wish to be prescriptive, but at best inspirational – so I won’t be offering detailed activities – for the very spirit of wild writing is to be in the moment, to draw upon the actuality of the workshop, the resources and experience of the group, and your own ingenuity. This accords with what Harry Whitehead describes as a praxis of ‘nomadic emergence’  (2013).

Faced with the relentless treadmill of teaching – my life measured out in Tutor-Marked Assessments and coffee spoons, writing workshops and marking – my original motivation was to devise a way of breaking free of this cycle and reinvigorate my pedagogy. If I am bored the students will be too. Rather than regurgitate the usual saws about using notebooks, showing not telling, et cetera – which can be found in numerous books, blogs and MOOCs  –  I wondered what new approach I could offer based upon my actual practice as a writer? My USP, to use that hissing serpent of a marketing term. I don’t want to be a Mr Potato Head teacher: change my distinguishing features and I could be saying the same as anyone else. The best teachers, the ones you remember, are always the ones who do things differently. Who break the rules in some way, even if it’s just in their ‘manner’. My favourite English teacher at school, Mr Alsop, would at the drop of a hat, sound off about his pet subjects: Rugby and Bruce Springsteen. His droll delivery was reminiscent of the late comedian Mel Smith. Somehow, through his raconteur genius he enthused the class with his love of literature. We enjoyed his class and so we paid attention. He engaged our interest. And there was a frisson of unpredictability about his lessons: that we could go ‘off-piste’ at any moment.

Play is an often forgotten element of learning, but one that the poet Paul Matthews advocates: ‘Writing can become very intense and inward at times, so play and laughter (as well as tears) are a vital part of any group work.’ (1994:7)

As I was teaching two Open University modules (A215; A363) and another Adult Education evening class locally on novel-writing, I wanted to try something different, something less technical and more spontaneous. This not only provided a personal ‘call to adventure’ to my own pedagogical ingenuity, it actually helped as a counter-balance to the other classes I taught. As I put it to a friend, one approach was ‘Apollonian’, the other ‘Dionysian’: left-brained and right-brained, if you will; although such crude demarcation of our mind’s complexity is flawed – a false dichotomy – as Gilchrist (2012) and others have demonstrated. The two approaches, the creative and the critical, cross-fertilise in the best workshops and writing practice – but for now, as an experiment, I wanted to separate the methodologies and see what would happen.

The first half of my week was dedicated to traditional pedagogy, but my Wednesday night ‘Wild Writing’ class became something I actually looked forward to: a safety valve from the assessment-focused pressure of the week. A chance to take a different approach; to turn off the SATs-nav.

Unlike my other classes, I deliberately did not devise a scheme of work for my wild writing workshops. I did only the vaguest of lesson plans – a hastily-scribbled idea which would emerge on the day of the class, usually while out ‘wild-running’ in my local woodland, allowing the birdsong, running water, sun-dappled shade, and green work its magic on my consciousness. Rather than forcing a theme or an activity onto the page or screen, I would allow things to emerge – by simply being fully present in a natural environment. Taking a leaf from WB Yeats’ ‘Wandering Aengus’, I went out to a hazel wood… Soon the fire in my head was lit.

In the first session I explained my ‘anti-outline’ – each week we will see what emerged. I might have a few prompts up my sleeve, just in case, but I was determined that the workshop would be an organic emergent process. To break the ice, I got everyone to give themselves a ‘wild’ epithet, an alliterative one which provided a useful mnemonic. This also encouraged them to ‘inhabit’ the wild paradigm, to feel the wildness inside themselves. I read out the course blurb, to focalize:

Are your words too tame? Your thoughts too feral? Do your ideas need liberating? Let them out of the cage, and allow them to prowl the page! This rule-breaking writing workshop is designed to encourage you to explore the untamed fringes of your desires and fears, to express that inner howl, to give voice to that long-denied cry. You’ll be supported in a friendly, safe environment to venture beyond comfort zones and tap into words that can electrify, shock, motivate and move. All you need is a pen and paper and a willingness to be wild!

I asked them to come up with their own definitions of ‘wild’ – writing suggestions on Post-its, and sticking them on the board. They came up with:

Raw

Unfettered

Free

Sensual

Vulnerable

Uncensored

Secrets

Passionate

Spontaneous

Edgy

Nature

Embodied

Fear/less

Landscape

Deep emotion

Out of the box

Undefined

Pure

Untamed

Energy

Down to Earth

From the unconscious

Climate

Nonsensical

Life going wrong

Experiential

Abstract/extreme

This was a promisingly wide-spread demarcation of territory. A freewrite on the theme also bore fruit – the very nature of that practice lent itself to the prompt perfectly.  The best freewrites are of course ‘wild’, that is ludic, non-linear, exploratory, transgressive, and syntactically feral. In the spirit of Natalie Goldberg, I encouraged my students to ‘lose control’ (1991:3).

The first lesson’s emergent theme was summed up by this in-the-moment acronym: SOAR (Sensuality; Observation; Awareness; Reflection), something of an OCD of mine! Being fond of creative acronyms and aware of the potential can of worms I was opening I created a ‘safety net’ for the workshops using my principle of MAC: Mindfulness; Autonomy; Confidentiality.

Mindfulness: being aware of the potential impact of what you are sharing. Not to censor yourself, but if the writing contains strong language, disturbing imagery, controversial elements, et cetera, just to let people know.

Autonomy: you always have the choice about what you share. No one is expected to share, although everyone is encouraged to do so at least once in the workshop.

Confidentiality: what is shared within the workshop is confidential. If you wish to share or discuss your own work outside of the workshop that must be your choice, but respect the privacy of others.

I also emphasised that the wildness should be focused on the page, and usual workshop etiquette applied. For such a class it was essential that ‘strong container’ was created to hold the participants in their process. My wish was to encourage my students to go beyond their comfort zones (in their writing). To try out new forms or genres. To go to the edge of what they think they ‘can’ or ‘should’ say, what they might be ‘allowed’ to write about. To inject their writing with some adrenalin, with strong emotions, with a bold, embodied voice. To have the courage to show up to the page and to face its nullifying whiteness, to shatter its silence, and defy those negative voices which might have inhibited in the past. As Whitman put it in ‘One Hour of Madness and Joy’: ‘O to have the gag removed from one’s mouth’ (1959:80). In response to my suggestion to recite this poem of Whitman’s out loud, outside, a student responded: ‘Just what I needed to shout right now. Thank you.’

Over the ten weeks I tried a range of approaches, using not only the usual examples of writing (‘wild writers’ such as Emily Dickinson, Mary Oliver, DH Lawrence, John Clare, Ivor Gurney, Gary Snyder, Nan Shepherd, Robert Macfarlane, Ted Hughes, Helen MacDonald, and Henry Miller) but also different media and methodologies. Beyond the usual triggers of art, music, movement and objects that any creative writing teacher might draw upon I tried out the following: Using different approaches to handwriting (writing without looking at the page; writing in different directions, e.g. from the edges of the page inwards, across the margins); Using what arises (my experience of storytelling has taught me to use whatever arises as part of the performance, so, if a phone goes off, include it in the oral narrative. I applied this approach to each session. If we were interrupted, e.g. by a fire alarm test – I saw it as a gift. A news item, or the weather – anything may trigger a creative response). The details here are not as important as the general approach: be wildly inventive. What I deliberately did not do was draw upon my usual repertoire of creative writing resources – my tried-and-trusted handouts, my go-to activities. I did not want to be teaching on auto-pilot. This forced me to invest creative energy into the actuality of the workshop – what I love doing best. This is when I feel I am firing on all cylinders as a teacher – plucking ideas, quotes, activities and approaches from the air. Not as a micro-managed teaching drone. As Freire puts it, rather than being the ‘anti-dialogical banking educator’, focused on recruitment, retention and results, I wish to emphasize the ‘dialogical character of education as the practice of freedom’ (1996: 74). Student and teacher should enter into a porous space where learning can happen in any direction – where both parties can feel a sense of creative liberty within the classroom, as sacrosanct as the white page or blank screen.

Student Writing

Much of what was written in class was ephemeral by nature – composed quickly in response to a prompt, shared fresh from the notebook, and then ‘let go of’ like Buddhist sand mandalas. A few pieces were brought in the following week after being worked on at home (e.g. the prompt to ‘write about a wild time’, triggered a visceral, kinetic piece of life-writing about seeing a punk band as a student in the 70s – something the student hadn’t thought about ‘in years’). The emphasis of the workshops was on process more than polished ‘artefacts’, but here is a smattering to give some idea:

Shooting Crows

I watched a man shooting crows.

I felt the recoil and fall.

I teased apart the feathers

and the little cracked hearts for answers.

All I found was the finish,

the filth and the spore.

There’s no meaning in dried eyes.

The resting of the carcasses

in the field down by the burn

where the ducks nested;

the sorrel greened on the blood.

Student 1 Prompt: write about the natural world.

Elephant in the Room                                                          

In our room there’s a jade green hippo

with carving knife teeth in a man-trap jaw

Baleful eyes bubbling from the brown

sluggish river of sewage and mud

Submerged in slurping bellicosity

it’s poised to drown me in the sloppy miasma

and amputate my manhood

Give me an elephant in the room

any vindaloo Taj Mahal tiffin

with trumpet voluntary to welcome me,

an embracing trunk to snuffle my neck

and never to forget we’re lovers

It would sprinkle me with cool paddy water

Whilst we swayed through orchards of pink mango

Student 2 Prompt: Write about something extremely improbable.

 

‘You want wild words’

You want wild words

Man made creations

Tamed by the intellect

I will show you wild Ness

In her bare foot bare faced

Nakedness

crouching low amongst the

Dank rotting earth

Student 3  Prompt: What does wildness mean to you?

 

Skep Skin

 

A hive in my hand

honeycomb hollow

oozing nectar

golden energy

gathered again and again

a lifetime’s work

in a teaspoon

stir into your tea

consciously

soothing the raw edges

of the day

sweetness delivered

by black and yellow drones

a sticky note

from the flowers

a souvenir of the sun

summer on the wing

an orchard on my tongue

Student 4 Prompt: write about what’s in your pocket right now (a small tin of Burt’s Bees handsalve).

Conclusion

I found running my wild writing workshop one of the most interesting and rewarding things I have done in recent years in terms of my teaching. As in all teaching I learnt just as much in delivering it as I hoped my students did in experiencing it. It was a continual learning curve which forced me out of any kind of pedagogical complacency. It was challenging and engaging in the right places – making me re-evaluate everything I usually do in a writing workshop.

From my experience of running these workshops, I would advocate the following: include a ‘wild writing’ hour in your weekly schedule – it’ll be good for you and your students. Suggest it your department: see what happens. Get out of the classroom – take your group into nature and write ‘on the hoof’. Allow yourself to go to the edge of your practice, of your writing, explore those uncomfortable places, give voice to the shadows, the songs of the maniacs:

He who approaches the temple of the Muses without inspiration, in the belief that craftsmanship alone suffices, will remain a bungler and his presumptuous poetry will be obscured by the songs of the maniacs. Plato (Flaherty, 2013: 63)

Institutional bureaucracy is inevitable, but when it actually impedes teaching and, as a result, impacts upon the sacred cow of ‘student experience’, then it must be questioned. Common sense would surely suggest that we only use systems that support what it is we are trying to do, rather than force ourselves into straitjackets that over-complicate, dessicate and demoralize. In recent years much has been written about the debilitating tendency in universities to focus on the financial aspects of the process (Warner, 2015). This mindset is counter-productive to the quality of teaching and research. Students are expecting guaranteed results as the pay-off of their ‘investment’. As student satisfaction is the gold standard that we are now beholden to, there is a worrying trend which those in HE are all too aware of (the thing that should not be spoken): reducing standards to ‘please the students’, because they ‘pay our bills’. Although I haven’t had to do this myself … yet … the notion appals me. When we compromise standards for the sake of student retention and satisfaction something is deeply-flawed. The baby has been thrown out with the bathwater. Surely we need to be less goal-driven and target-focused? The best writing does not emerge through narrow commercial imperatives or through a checklist of techniques, a dry naming of parts. We must create a culture of learning, knowledge, open-mindedness, exploration, and invention. Wild writing could be a small part of that: an oasis of creativity for creativity’s sake, mutually enriching to teachers and students.

NOTES:

Deakin, R. (2000) Waterlog: a swimmer’s journey through Britain, London: Vintage.

Flaherty, A.W. (2013) The Midnight Disease: the drive to write, writer’s block, and the creative brain, NY: Mariner Books.

Freire, P. (1996) Pedagogy of the Oppressed, (Trans. Myra Bergman Ramos), London: Penguin.

Goldberg, N. (1991) Wild Mind: living the writer’s life, London: Rider.

Gross, P. (2015) ‘A Walk in the Abstract Garden: how creative writing might speak for itself in universities,’ Inaugural lecture, University of Glamorgan, 10 December 2006, published in Writing in Practice: 1. http://www.nawe.co.uk/DB/current-wip-edition-2/articles/a-walk-in-the-abstract-garden-how-creative-writing-might-speak-for-itself-in-universities.html  [accessed 11.06.2016]

Matthews, P. (1994) Sing Me The Creation: a creative writing sourcebook, Stroud: Hawthorn Press.

McGilchrist, I. (2012) The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, Yale University Press.

Miller, James E. (ed.), (1959) Completed Poetry and Selected Prose by Walt Whitman, Jr, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Vanderslice, S. (2011) Rethinking Creative Writing, Ely: Frontinus.

Warner, M. (2015) ‘Learning My Lesson: Marina Warner on the disfiguring of higher education’, London Review of Books, Vol. 37, No. 6.

Whitehead, H. (2013) ‘Nomadic Emergence: Creative Writing Theory and Practice-Led Research,’ in New Ideas in the Writing Arts: Practice, Culture Literature, edited by Graeme Harper. Cambridge: CSP.

Many more titles were used during the development and delivery of these workshops. For an extensive reading list of Wild Writing titles, or to offer suggestions or comments, contact Kevan: km364@le.ac.uk

Kevan Manwaring is a Creative Writing PhD student at the University of Leicester (Supervisor: Dr Harry Whitehead). Since 2004 he has taught creative writing for the Open University and is a Fellow of Hawthornden, The Eccles Centre for North American Studies (British Library) and the Higher Education Academy. He has co-judged The London Magazine annual short story competition and won an AHRC Essay prize for ‘The (Re)Imagined Book’. In 2015 he was a consultant academic for BBC TV’s The Secret Life of Books. He blogs and tweets as the Bardic Academic.

Wild Writing is currently running at Hawkwood College (May 2017). Limited places are available. Book here: http://www.hawkwoodcollege.co.uk/courses-and-events/arts/wild-writing—kevan-manwaring

 

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Ways Through the Wood

Hypertextuality in Fiction

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In writing my novel The Knowing – A Fantasy, a book which explores borders of different kinds, I have attempted to push the boundaries of not only genre, but also of form. Being more interested in the creative tension between – whether that is between the ‘Actual and Imaginary’ (as Nathaniel Hawthorne put it), the magical and the mundane, the secular and the sacred, the fictional and factual, Fantasy and Realism; or between cultures, countries, people, species… – I have fashioned a story that walks between worlds in myriad ways. To accommodate this porousness I have decided that the optimum way for the reader to interface with this – with the multiple paradigms I offer – is to create, for now, an e-book which allows the reader to interact with the text, to choose whether they wish to know about a particular character or subplot, or to stick with the main narrative (rather than swamp the text with footnotes).

I was mindful to avoid the fascinating, but overwhelming modernism of Ulysses, or the atomised postmodernism of House of Leaves (although I would nick a leaf or two from both of those books*) – that kind of level of experimentation comes at a cost to the narrative, and wasn’t right for my project. Similarly, at the other pole of culture, I didn’t want to evoke the flavour of those ‘Choose Your Path’ books which flourished for a while in my youth (e.g. Fighting Fantasy; or my favourite, Lone Wolf). However fond I was of those back then, that approach wasn’t fit-for-purpose either. This project wasn’t about the ‘deciding the outcome of the story’. I did not want to give away complete authorial control.

However old-fashioned, I still believe in the power of storytelling, and the craft and responsibility of the storyteller. I have a penchant for prose stylists, but also have a weakness for a decent storyline, well-wrought characters, snappy dialogue, and emotional engagement. I want to be swept along by a story.

So, a rattling yarn, but one told with elan and a substructure of complexity – with a depth of ideas and research underpinning the (hopefully) purring prose.

And so I have used hypertextuality to allow for multiple narrative threads to co-exist. I like the idea of each link being a kind of portal to a pocket universe, to another modality or mindset. It bestows upon the reader agency – one that is intrinsic to the novel, for The Knowing, is, on one level, an epistemological enquiry: in plain English – What do we know? How do we know what we know? Why is some knowledge perceived as more valid than others? I, as the writer, was driven by my epistemological hunger (following the idea of ‘write what you want to know’, and developing ‘archive fever’ in my PhD research). The characters are driven by their desire to know. Janey in particular is ‘gifted’ with the ‘knowing’ (Second Sight), which allows her to discover things beyond her experience or 5 senses. She uses this to access the memories of her ancestors, the McEttrick Women, via the heirlooms kept within her mother’s old biscuit tin. Deploying metonymic representation, each ancestor is symbolized by an object. When Janey holds them in her hand, she receives a download of memory. This psychometry I wished to suggest in the way the reader taps on the image in the e-book – which allows them to access that ‘voice’.

Critically, the choice to do this is driven by the reader’s desire to know.

I also like creating visual furniture within the novel – paratextuality – being fond of marginalia, and having discovered, within Robert Kirk’s journals and manuscripts many fascinating and revealing examples. For me, a book is an aesthetic experience as much as a narrative one – this may seem at odds to some with the concept of an ‘e-book’, but even within that format it is still possible to enjoy stunning cover art, fine font, illustrations, and so forth. And so I have delighted in creating motifs for each of the characters, and labouring endlessly over the minutiae of formatting and text navigation.

Also, I do not find the use of an e-reader antithetical to this aesthetic consideration, but intrinsic – for it captures the tension I revel in, between the ancient and the modern. To read the voice (sometimes actual, sometimes fictionalised) of a 17th Century Scottish minister in such a state-of-the-art form makes it more poignant – the ghost in the machine. And the hidden magic of the e-reader echoes the journal that Janey receives from Kirk – written on ‘Janus paper’, which allows a reader to view what the writer is scribing upon its twin, wherever in this world or another they are, attuning to the consciousness of that reader and translating accordingly.

This allows for a ‘hybrid’ voice, somewhere between Kirk’s 17th Century idiom, and Janey’s own – a deliberate choice, for I decided that coherency and fluency was more important to the narrative effect than strict accuracy to Kirk’s idiolect and ecolect. Of course, I have tried to evoke it – and having transcribed his monograph, and poured through his notebooks, I am deeply familiar with it – but have tempered its more obscure eccentricities (erratic spelling; idiosyncratic rendering of Gaelic; obscure references) in favour of clarity.

Still, I hope his, and the other voices I have ‘channelled’ come across convincingly – they certainly felt real to me as I wrote them. Time and time again, it feels like one is merely the amanuensis, taking down the character’s dictation – in the way that Robert Campbell, Kirk’s cousin, took down the minister’s words as he lay upon his sickbed, the words that would become The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies – a lost version of which I would go onto discover in the archives, but that is another story…

The Knowing by Kevan Manwaring is published as an ebook on 20th March and will be available via Amazon’s Kindle store.

*Joyce’s heteroglossia; and Mark Z. Danielewski’s ‘leaves’ motif – fragments of text, of experience – symbolized by Janey’s heirloom wunderkammer, her box of leaves.

The Sci-Fi Croft

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Sunset, the Croft, Gairloch Bay, K. Manwaring, Sept 2016

 As I was up in Edinburgh doing research in the archives for a week I thought, what the hey, why not have a Highland fling? But instead of tossing the caber willy-nilly, so to speak, I decided my ‘fling’ would involve a 9-10 day solo writing retreat in a remote croft on the coast of Wester Ross. Boy, I know how to party! Actually, I can’t think of anything more pleasurable (solo). It would be my third visit to the croft – a private residence and long-time family shieling which I had the good fortune to gain access to through a chance encounter at a Resurgence Readers’ Summer Weekend, where I was performing five years ago. Belonging to a musician and eco-minded soul, the old fisherman’s cottage, nestled within its private cove at the end of ¾ miles of rocky track overlooking Gairloch Bay, radiates many a well-spent summer, family holiday and contentedly peaceful time simply looking out over the sea-loch. That view – from the conservatory – would be all mine for the next few days as I wrote at the desk there. Rush-hour at the croft would involve a family of sheep munching their way past (or, excitingly, a pine-marten hopping over the shore-line, a heron taking flight, a pod of porpoises breaking, a seal spyhopping, or a shy sea-otter ruckling the smooth membrane of the brine).

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Rush-hour at the croft. K. Manwaring, September 2016.

Every couple of days the local fisherman would come and check on his lobster pots – perhaps the only person I’d see from one day to the next, unless I trekked the seven or eight miles into town to check my emails and recharge my phone at the Gale Centre, a fabulous community initiative located in the old tourist information centre, or savouring the soul coffee, ‘mountain scones’ and ambience of the hip Mountain Coffee Company, with its John Muir quotes and well-stocked bookshop. The croft has no electricity – only gas, for the oven, and, mercifully, shower. So I couldn’t rely upon my netbook to stay the distance. The last thing I wanted was for it to cut out half-way through a chapter. So I wrote long-hand, which I got into after the initial sluggishness melted away. I would heat a hot-water bottle in the day to keep warm when the temperature dropped (it was at times ten degrees cooler than the south) and fire up the log-burner at night. Gas-light and candle-light made some evening reading possible, but not much writing, so I mainly worked in the mornings, making the most of the light and a fresh-head (well, not that fresh after a wee dram or two for a night-cap). But a pot of strong coffee soon enabled my brain to achieve lift-off.

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View from the conservatory at the Croft, Gairloch Bay, K. Manwaring, September 2016

For it was in this low-tech setting that I worked upon my new science fiction novel, which has suddenly found its way to the top of my ‘to do’ list after winning Literature Works’ One Giant Write SF novel competition, which I entered in the summer with three chapters and a synopsis, not suspecting I was actually going to win. I’ve entered so many such competitions, so I usually try and forget about them after I’ve sent off my entry. I literally discovered I’d won a couple of days before heading north, so rapidly had to prepare materials for my three-week trip, in case inspiration struck.

And it did! Well, I would say it didn’t exactly strike: I had to cosh it over the head and drag it back to the croft – press-ganging it into service on a daily basis whether it wanted to or not. Perhaps the Muse had other plans and was just about to gambol over the hill to shower her favours on some wandering poet. Instead I forced her into my chilly, hellish paradigm – subjecting her to long exposure to deep space and nightmarish scenarios. Poor gal! And yet she did oblige me, after some cajoling (i.e. Apollo levels of ‘rocket fuel’).

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The light across the bay was, at times, breath-taking, but perhaps distracting!                          K. Manwaring, Sept 2016

At first, sitting down at that desk, staring at that blank page, was, I have to admit daunting. There I was, ten-days in a croft, with nowhere to hide. It was like looking at a map of Antarctica. But, one step at a time, even the vastest continent can be crossed. And so I plodded on, pushing ink, dragging my sled of ideas. I find it can often take a day or two to get into the zone. At first it feels impossible to write – what an absurd notion! Who are you kidding? You’re not Hemingway, standing manfully at your Remington, hammering away, chomping a cigar, but a sleepy Slow Loris, gummy-eyed in your hammock of dreams. The page yawns. The impotent pen hangs there uselessly. One wades through the bog of ineloquence. But eventually, almost always, something happens, and you start to bog-trot, jog, run, and then, next thing you know, you’re flying.

I found my remote location, and the logistics it entails – long exhausting treks to the nearest town for provisions, lugging back groceries over the rocky track; lashing the cover to my bike in high winds; drying dripping clothes by the fire; going to the loo beneath profoundly dark skies slashed open by the bright wound of the Milky Way; the endless soundtrack of buffeting wind, rain rattling on the conservatory roof, big humanless silences – strangely apt and very conducive to my project.

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Running in the Torridons – not for the faint-hearted! K. Manwaring, September 2016.

There is something perhaps blindingly obvious about the massive, dramatic landscapes and seascapes of Scotland that makes you think big, outside of the box, beyond the human. Dwarfed by the mountains – in Gairloch’s case, the jagged peaks of the Torridons – the human presence on the face of the planet is put into perspective. We are less important than we realise. The fragile structures we create are shanty towns compared to the majesty and magnitude of the natural world. And yet humans are undeniably having a significant and long-lasting effect on the biosphere. The mess we have made of this, our one precious home, will outlive us for millennia. This is indeed the Age of the Anthropocene. The outlook does look bleak. Boltholes like the croft are certainly enticing when one thinks of things to come. Some have already gone off grid, or are skilling up for power down. It is enough to bring out the survivalist in all of us – but unless you have the skills, land and community to match, it is a delusional fantasy. And a misanthropic one. No man is an island. When one lives in such an isolated place one realizes how important human contact is, how vital a friendly neighbour. Paradoxically, the further away from people you live, the more you need them. To jumpstart your car if you have flat-batteries, to pick up some groceries if lacking mobility, some medicine if illness strikes, call a doctor, or simply to spend a few minutes chatting, asking how you’re fairing, maintain your connection with the human race.

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The End of the Road? No, actually just the single-track down to South Erradale (admittedly, a road which terminates at Redpoint…). K. Manwaring, September 2016.

In contemplating bleak outlooks for humanity, I realised I was following, in my own small way, in the giant footsteps of George Orwell, who, during 1946-1949, spent time on the isle of Jura, at Barnhill, whilst working on his dystopian classic, Nineteen Eighty Four. I can see why his location would have served him well. But I found myself seeing beyond the ‘boot stamping on a human face – forever’, as Orwell’s big brother imagined the future. Instead of a (predictable, default) dystopia, or a naïve utopia, I found myself envisioning something more balanced, or subjective, an ‘Ustopia’ perhaps, to use Margaret Atwood’s witty, hybrid term. One (wo)man’s utopia is another wo(man)’s dystopia, after all. And we carry our demons with us. A central idea of my novel is that: no matter how far in the universe we travel we will always have to confront our shadow.

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Lighting the darkness. View from Gairloch Sands. K. Manwaring, September 2016

The paradox of paradise is – if you find it, you destroy it. But I was determined not to leave this little Eden any the worse for my visit, which meant emptying the loo, replenishing the log-pile and packing out all my rubbish and recycling, as well as the usual cleaning, turning off of gas and water, ensuring all surfaces were free of mice-temptation, and any preservable food-stuffs sealed safely away. It reminded me of living on a narrow-boat. You had to take care of everything yourself – living lightly, leaving only diminishing ripples and good will in your wake.

I left the croft after nine nights and ten mornings with a third of my novel written (at least in ‘dirty first draft’ form). However squawling, red-faced and ugly my words at this stage, I had made a start. My last full day was blessed with golden sunshine and a glorious sunset. I girded my loins for the long ride south (over 600 miles on two wheels), but for one last evening, savoured the stillness, the silence and the solitude.

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Croft-life. Out of this world. K. Manwaring, September 2016

A Night at Heorot

In the middle of the night Grendel arrived in bloody fashion, slaughtering sleeping warriors slumbering after the feast. Beowulf confronts the night-lurker and grapples with him hand-to-hand. The Geat rips off one of Grendel’s arms, who flees into the night.

There comes a time when you finally have to knuckle down to it – the Great Task. You have summoned the Hero (within) and now you must step up to the mark (or to the desk, unless you are of the Hemingway persuasion, in which case you can stand). This will be your defining moment as a fledgling writer – as you really one, or was all that talk just hot air?

Virginia Woolf talked of the importance of a ‘room of one’s own’. Wherever or whatever it is – be it a boatshed like Dylan Thomas’; a garden office frequented by Philip Pullman; a cork-lined Parisian apartment resided in by Proust; or pottering in an Edinburgh café like JK Rowling, for the time you spend writing there, it is your Heorot. See Hrothgar’s hall as a metaphor for your imagination – vast and majestic. This is your special place – the place you go inside yourself when you write – utterly unique to you: ‘the famous mead-hall was finished and done./ To distant nations its name was known,/The Hall of the Hart…’174 This ‘hall of the heart’ is a precious place and deserves protecting – like Beowulf, Hrothgar’s retainer, guard it jealously.

And yet, be prepared to go through Hell while you’re there. You will face your demons. You will gnash your teeth and tear out your hair. You will sweat, bleed, and weep.

Writing is a lonely business. No one else will write that masterpiece for you (unless you pay a ghost writer, in which case – get out of here, you’re a celebrity). Doris Lessing wisely said: ‘Literature comes from a man or woman sitting alone in a room with a phone off the hook, probably a cup of coffee, and in the good old days, a cigarette.’ Don’t make excuses, make it happen. Steinbeck wrote: ‘This is the writing job, the loneliest work in the world. If I fail there is only one person in the world to blame…’

Although we should be wary of ‘spontaneous house-work’ (the compulsive sharpening of pencils, obsessive desk tidying, and other random displacement activities) there is something to be said for an orderly writing space. I love the description of Blake’s room, from a letter of Samuel Palmer’s (1860): ‘his rooms, were clean and orderly; everything was in its place. His delightful working corner had its implements ready – tempting to the hand. The millionaire’s upholsterer can furnish no enrichments like those of Blake’s enchanted rooms.’ Your study, if you are lucky enough to have one, is your Heorot. Yet imagination is the ultimate upholsterer – with it we can re-enchant the mundane. And so, we do not need a fancy ‘garden office’ with perfect views, however enticing that would be. All we need is a knee and a notepad. With our imagination, we are free – wherever we are, as Shakespeare so eloquently put: ‘O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space …’175 The chilling caveat here is ‘…were it not that I have bad dreams…’ but as writer’s we can turn those ‘bad dreams’ into prose, poetry, and plays.

Like Beowulf, you are going to give Grendel – a bad dream incarnate – a run for his money. Hero and antagonist finally clash in a spectacular melee, and in that conflict (between Higher and Lower Self; between our dreams and our nightmares; our fears and desires) the most exciting, muscular writing is created – sentences with frisson fly off the page. However difficult circumstances can be (and writers over the centuries have endured the worst) from such creative tension the best work can be produced. A place of safety, of comfortable happiness, of artistic complacency, can produce bland results. Writing from our comfort zones, we have artistically ‘snoozed off on the couch’. We have regurgitated TV dinners and soap operas. But if you are prepared to take risks and make yourself vulnerable – as Beowulf does, stripped down, armour-less and weaponless – then something good might result. Writing with an edge. It is terrifying, grappling with our demons in the night – but if you can hold your nerve you can produce something of true worth.

This is what I call the ‘unflinching gaze’. If you can stay with that which you find most challenging, most unbearable – you will produce writing of real authenticity and power. You will find the voice in the shadows. It takes a warrior’s heart to endure this:

A terror fell on the Danish folk

As they heard through the wall the horrible wailing,

The groans of Grendel, the foe of God

Howling his hideous hymn of pain,

The hell-thane shrieking in sore defeat.’176

Withstand this and you will be a true hero. Burn the midnight oil – metaphorically, or literally. Stay with it. Wrestle this beast into submission – and when you finally come up for air, perhaps returning to it the next day with a cup of coffee, a bit wiped out, you’ll be unspeakably satisfied, as was Beowulf: ‘he was happy with his nightwork/ and the courage he had shown.’ Somehow, against all odds, you have managed to wrench this ‘dirty first draft’ – like Beowulf ripping off Grendel’s arm. It’s not the whole beast, but it’s one helluva start:

This bloody stump is your first draft, plucked from the abyss. It is raw and dripping – ugly to all except its creator – but you have rendered it with your own hands. Your night in Heorot has produced results. You have showed what you are made of. Perhaps you are a writer after all (many fail this first test of courage). As Hrothgar had said in his parting saw:

Be mindful of glory, show forth your strength,

Keep watch against foe! No wish of your heart

Shall go unfulfilled if you live through the fight.’177

Writing can redeem the worst experiences and celebrate the best. It is essential we face our demons in the dark, share our hard-won wisdoms, and sing our journey’s song. The personal is powerful. Go where the pain is – that’s where the power is. In the next installment we’ll examine this bloody stump in more detail.

Extract from Desiring Dragons: creativity, imagination and the writer’s quest
by Kevan Manwaring, Compass Books, 2014

The Art of Bragging

In the age of mass-vanity projects like Facebook, the art of bragging has never been more rife. Social media risks making of us all self-obsessed narcissists, locked into an endless game of brinkmanship. Looking enviously at our friends’ latest updates, we are forever keeping up with the Jones. The consequence of leading such goldfish bowl lives is continual status anxiety. And yet, once bragging was a bardic art – and perhaps something can be salvaged from it for practical use, as we continue…

The Writer’s Quest

Part 3:

Ego the Giant and the Art of Bragging

The arriving band of warriors are challenged on the shore by Hrothgar’s thane. They bandy words in ritual exchange. The coast-guard accepts Beowulf at his word, and agrees to escort them to Heorot. He arranges for their ship to be guarded. Off to Hrothgar’s hall they set, the sight of which impresses the Geats. Here, they are challenged a second time, by the royal herald. When the King is convinced of their honourable intent they are allowed in. Hrothgar fondly remembers how in his youth he had taken service with King Hrethel of Geatland. He has heard of Beowulf, who now declares his intent – to banish the curse of Grendel from the hall once and for all, without arms or armour to boot. Beowulf boasts of his prowess, but at the welcoming feast is challenged a third time – by Unferth, the King’s advisor, who mocks the validity of his account of a swimming match against Breca. Beowulf soundly rebuffs this attack on his honour. He wins mead from the hand of Wealtheow the Queen. As the banquet ends and the company departs, Beowulf prepares for the intruder.

Reputation is everything in this Age of Heroes. As our hero Beowulf makes landfall on Danish shores he is confronted by no less than three threshold guardians: the watchman on the wall (who first challenges him on landing); Hrothgar’s herald (who makes him follow the etiquette of the court); and Unferth (who mocks him at the feast). At each of these junctures Beowulf steps up to the mark, as we must – no matter how fierce the guardians we encounter.

Remember, they are there to test our tenacity. That is their very purpose.

Although these ‘threshold guardians’ could manifest in a myriad of ways (they are the ‘Ten Thousand Things’ the Buddhists talk of – Maya – which we can be easily enamoured/distracted by). In the context of Beowulf if we wanted to get symbolic about things, we could say these three guardians are the Inner Critic, the Outer Critic, and the Envious Friend – each of these can sabotage us.

The most insidious is perhaps the first – the Inner Critic – the voice inside our head that tells us that

we’re not good enough, that it’s not worth it, that it’s all been done before. Some of these messages may actually be hand-me-downs from family, from school: a schoolteacher who ripped up your English essay in front of the class; the sneering sibling; the discouraging parent. We need to exorcise them. Prove them wrong. As with any of these guardian figures – see their challenge as a gauntlet thrown down before you. Pick it up, face them, defeat them.

The Outer Critic can be harder – it seems apparently objective. The bad review; the poor grade; the heckler; the low turnout; the lack of sales. Many artists make a point of not reading their reviews. Some feel, whatever their sales, gongs (or lack of them) they will do it anyway: create, because they must. Why should anyone deny you of your raison d’etre? The Outer Critics are like the mountain ranges, deserts, or wide oceans the hero must cross to achieve their goal. The tempests of fate, misfortune and the marketplace. Lash yourself to the mast, stop your ears with wax to ignore those maddening voices, and weather the storm. Do whatever you have to, and don’t let the bastards grind you down. Your dream is more important than their hot air. It is oh-so easy to criticise, so much harder to create. The cynic never achieved anything. Let them polish the chip on their shoulder while you get on with forging art (that being said, it has to be acknowledged that there is a place for criticism at later stages of the creative process – indeed it is essential; and an insightful review can provide a good introduction, and sometimes enhance one’s appreciation of the end product, placing it within a wider cultural context).

The final one, the Envious Friend, is the so-called buddy piqued by your tenacity, your achievement – the very fact you made it happen, or intend to – who sabotages you with a passing comment, a snide remark (their own shadow speaking). CS Lewis said to JRR Tolkien, upon hearing him read out an extract from The Lord of the Rings ‘not another fucking elf!’ There are those who, through their own insecurity, might want to shoot us down – although sometimes their ham-fisted asides might be healthy ballast, to stop us getting too inflated, we shouldn’t let them stop our creative flow. Rather than think – ‘that person’s success overshadows my own’; instead try ‘when a friend follows their star, it empowers me to do the same’. I like Julia Cameron’s dictum: ‘Success occurs in clusters and is born in generosity.’165

And yet, we need to be mindful of Ego the Giant. He can easily get out of hand. The way Beowulf is ‘bigged up’, first by the poet, then by the watchman, the herald, and then himself, it is no wonder it all seems to go to his head. He is depicted as some kind of super-hero, ‘with the strength of thirty in the grip of each hand.’ The sections dealing with Beowulf’s arrival in Denmark, at Heorot, are full of boasting. There is a cultural reason for this – the art of bragging (from the Norse god of poetry, Bragi) was an intrinsic part of the warrior culture of the times. A man was as good as his word. The verbal contract was sacrosanct. To go back on your word was to lose honour. And honour was everything. Also, ‘beautiful speech’ (that is, ornate speechifying) was as much a part of a man’s ornament as his torcs, armour and sword. Verbal bling to establish status. Finally, in battle, the hurling of insults and swaggering boastfulness was part of the ritual combat that acted as a kind of foreplay to the real thing – like fighting cocks brindling their feathers, raising their heads, puffing out their chests and making a lot of to-do before going in. This bardic posturing is simply the preening of wattles. In the poem, this takes on a formal quality when Beowulf states his intention to the hall, like a personal mission statement:

I shall either perform deeds fitting an earl

Or meet in this mead-hall the coming of death!166

Beowulf’s boast has the gravitas and finality of a vow about it. The clock of destiny has been set ticking, as the poet lugubriously reminds us: ‘Fate goes ever as fate must.’167

A writer can choose to do something similar – writing down their intention, and committing to it. Mature artists practise the art of containment, carefully incubating their project until it is ready to hatch. What one should avoid doing at all costs is telling an acquaintance (or passing stranger in a bar) about it. Whenever someone says: ‘I am going to write a novel’, the chances are they won’t even start it, let alone finish it. If they were serious, they would be doing it, not talking about it. And two other things: you can tempt fate by doing so (if you want to make the gods laugh, tell them your plans); and you risk talking the life out of a project. Some ‘writers’ love talking about the book they are going to write and sharing the intricacies of the plot, the wonderfully quirky characters, the thrilling scenes – and you can hear the steam escaping from the boiler. It is all hot air and bluster – and their engine is left depleted. They are getting off on the idea of doing it, rather than the act of doing it. It can be buzz, when you feel fired up – but channel that into the actual writing. Write while the fire is in the head, and keep writing – you might find you manage to write half the first draft in one sitting, or even the whole thing (as Kerouac famously did with On the Road in a six-day amphetamine haze). This is when the ego can be your ally – it can give you the strength, the self-belief to keep going. You need to believe in yourself – if you don’t, who will?

The ego is a vehicle you can use to deliver your message; as long as it doesn’t get out of hand. Don’t let your ego become a boy-racer. Let it be the ‘Parker’ to your ‘Penelope’, and your FAB1 will cruise to its destination, not end up a burnt-out shell in a ditch.

Beowulf is challenged in the mead-hall by the malcontent Unferth – about a particularly swimming-match undertaken against a childhood friend, Breca, who apparently won. For Unferth:

His bold sea-voyaging, irked him sore;

He bore it ill that any man other

In all the earth should ever achieve

More fame under heaven than he himself.168

Rather than being derailed by this (which would have disastrous consequences for Heorot) the hero rises to the challenge – dispatching Unferth’s ungracious attacks on his reputation like so many monsters of the deep (‘To slay with the sword-edge nine of the nicors’ 169). Beowulf’s riposte casts himself in an even better light – he was delayed in completing the swimming-match because he was attacked by sea-monsters (‘The grisly sea-beasts again and again/Beset me sore.’ 170). He wrestled with them to the sea-bed and slaughtered them all, making the shipping lanes safe for all. Swimming for five days in a freezing sea, wielding a sword and wearing chain-mail, fighting sea monsters single-handedly … it all sounds rather far-fetched, and yet we are expected to swallow it. The inhabitants of Heorot clearly do, responding to the bragging match in good spirits – this is the equivalent of an Anglo-Saxon rap battle. Beowulf’s boasts become outlandish:

Bloody from battle; five foes I bound

Of the giant kindred, and crushed their clan.

Hard-driven in danger and darkness of night

I slew the nicors that swam the sea…’ 171

It would appear that a warrior’s boastfulness is linked to his power – that strong words give a keener edge to his sword (akin to shamanic power; a medicine man singing his wares; a doctor in a mummers play stating his proficiency; a New Orleans Mardi Gras ‘Indian’ chief strutting his stuff):

In the shades of darkness we’ll spurn the sword.’ 172

What might appear to us as simply swagger and braggadocio is a way of preparing for the task ahead. Talking ourselves up (e.g. imagining ourselves as the writer we can be) might be a way of helping to make it happen – we enlarge our sense of self, and then step into that space. The opposite – being self-deprecating – can be self-defeating. Talking ourselves down can just be a cowardly ‘get out clause’, a petulant cop out (like saying: ‘I didn’t want to do it anyway’). Cynicism can be a mask for fear of our own failure. If we put everything ‘down’ (including ourselves) then nothing will be a disappointment. We don’t have to try. We have let ourselves off the hook.

Attempting the ‘impossible’ – creating a work of originality and stunning skill – takes courage and a certain barnstorming attitude. The odds are stacked against you. But everyone loves an underdog. We love to root for Samson. It looks like Goliath is going to give him a pounding. Prove them wrong!

Beowulf sees off his competition – wiping the floor with Unferth, the epitome of sour grapes. What the Geatish champion says is almost irrelevant – it is the way he says it, with such conviction. Nothing can shake him; a quality that the King appreciates. Hrothgar values: ‘the warrior’s steadfastness and his word’, and allows him to join the feast to ‘relish the triumph of heroes to your heart’s content.’ He has earned a taste of the hero’s portion – by stepping up to the mark (unlike the niggardly Unferth).

By not hiding his light under a bushel he wins the favour of the Lady of the Hall, Hrothgar’s comely wife – who, in the role of mead-giver, is a variant of the Goddess of Sovereignty figure:

Then the woman was pleased with the words he uttered,

The Geat-lord’s boast; the gold-decked queen

went in state to sit by her lord.’173

In her sun-like imagery she is worth more than gold itself – for Beowulf has won the Muse. By being in his power, (potently fulfilling his potential) he has attracted her. The awen has descended and the Goddess graces him with Her presence. For a deeper exploration of ‘Courting the Muses’ see The Dragon’s Hoard. But, for now, let us end this testosterone-driven section with a footnote to the god of bragging.

We get the word and notion of ‘bragging’ from the Norse god of poet, Bragi, who drunk of the skaldic mead stolen by Odin from a giant’s daughter – thus, the ‘gift of the gab’ is seen as a gift of the Gods. An important caveat – as Odin flew back to Valhalla, godly stomach bloated with the mead he had guzzled down, some of it ‘leaked’ out and fell to Earth… Those who received this divine micturation (Odin’s urine), instead of the good stuff direct from the source, have a tainted gift (politicians come to mind…). Their lips are lubricated by the bladder, not the vat (perhaps that is why the fool’s symbol is the ‘bladder-stick’ – to flag up their seemingly foolish talk and acknowledge their mandate for ‘taking the piss’). Yet Bragi’s gift is a double-edged sword. Bragging can easily become ‘full of sound and fury, signifying nothing’ – as in the classic pub bore; a drunken tongue-lashing; a talk-show host; or Prime Minister’s question time: rival primates either side of a territory-bounding stream, banging their chests and raising a din. We need to follow Beowulf’s example – he decides to face his foe in single-combat, unarmed. When all the noisy revellers have gone to bed, he will be left to face his enemy alone. Stripped of the showy trappings of his personality – his ego – he is ready to confront the painful truth.

Ego the Giant and the Art of Bragging questings:

  1. List your best qualities.
  2. List your worst.
  3. Consider both lists. What would help you in your Writer’s Quest? What would hinder?
  4. What messages does your Inner Critic give you?
  5. What messages does your Outer Critic give you?
  6. What messages does your Envious Friend give you?
  7. What messages would you like to give to them? Write them out, read them out, shout them out!
  8. Create a caricature of yourself, exaggerating your qualities. If you can draw, do this on a balloon. Then pop it. Or make a piñata of yourself and take a baseball bat to it. Learn to laugh at yourself at regular intervals. You are fallible and sometimes foolish. That’s okay.
  9. Create a scrapbook or album of your achievements. Reflect on what you can do, have done, and will do. Write a series of affirmations reminding yourself of these.
  10. Find a ‘believing mirror’ – someone who wants to support you in your creative journey. Book your tired old ego in for a massage now and then.

Scribbling in the Margins – Writing Marginalia

***This exciting project culminates in the launch of the App on 27th November. Here is a piece describing the evolution of my commission***

When I first read the brief I must admit my eyes glazed over. Recreating De-Industrialsed Places? What could be further from my field of interest? But then the stubborn streak which makes me a highly-motivated writer kicked in. Two principles of mine rang out: I am a writer and I can write about anything. And, wherever you live is interesting. Then I re-read the brief and I realized (sound of penny dropping) that it did intersect with my own interest in psychogeography and narratives of place. I had just completed two collections of folk tales, recording obscure stories of Oxfordshire and Northamptonshire, and that illustrated to me that there are treasures everywhere waiting to be unearthed. They are not just in picturesque villages. I was all too aware of that, having grown up in a depressingly de-industrial Northampton (where I was to write my first novel, inspired by my research into the history of the town). I had taught myself the history of where I grew up because I wanted to know why it was like the way it was. Its architecture, its town-planning, its genius loci, had a very real impact on me, growing up, as it still does on all who live there. Phenomenologically, it influences quality of life on a daily basis. It’s the Affect, stupid.

There was something about Leicester’s red-brick factories that reminded me of my ‘dirty old town’ – so that, in itself, was a way in.

I can’t recall when or how I first alighted upon the idea of exploring the graffiti-culture of the Cultural Quarter, aka St George’s. It probably happened, like a lot of my ideas, in the white heat of a black coffee-high, in the snow-storm of my daily online work. I probably read the brief while scanning emails in a coffee-break. I must have let it digest while I munched on a chocolate digestive and then, ping, like a microwave ready-meal, there it was. I would write about marginalized voices – graffiti artists – those who ‘write in the margins’ of our urban landscapes, below the radar of the commerce-mainstream, out of sight of the CCTV cameras.I quickly wrote the proposal, while the fire in the head was with me, and fired it off.

It got commissioned. So all I had to do was write the thing. Gulp. But, trusting in the powers of research, all things are possible (or writable), I set to work.

Initial field-research went thus: I simply walked around St George’s with my eyes and ears open, oblivious to its history, avoiding any apps or maps, or guidebooks. Next, I went round it again listening to the excellent St George’s app. This revealed to me many things I hadn’t noticed – and re-framed the ones I had. Then I walked around some more until the walls began to speak. I pressed my head to the brick and ink oozed out…

I followed this up with a visit to the Leicester Mercury archives. Housed in the University’sRaiders of the Lost Ark-like special storage warehouse, they would prove invaluable. I was helped enormously by Simon Dixon, Digital Humanities and Special Collections Manager, who quickly located the relevant files amid the acres of musty shelving. I scanned the clippings about the city’s graffiti subculture, noting how its reporting turned from depicting it as a ‘problem’ to a source of local ‘pride.’ To bring it up to date, I visited Izzie, the proprietor of HQ – the fab Graffiti ‘centre’ on Charles Street. She told me of ‘official sites’ and sent me links of some recent photographs.

Armed with a whole wadge of notes, photographs and photocopies I retreated to my bat-cave to turn the chaos into some kind of sense. I came up with a framing narrative that pushed the boundaries of the creative and critical modes of writing. This was ‘historicalnarrative non-fiction’ after all, so I felt behoven to tell a story. And that is what I set out to do – placing myself in the picture, as the wide-eyed researcher exploring the zone with the help of a ‘Trickster’ guide figure, in the form of Elephant Head, a Ganesha-esque skateboarding graffiti-artist … and that’s when the fun really began.

Originally published here:

http://affectivedigitalhistories.org.uk/blog/2014/11/scribbling-in-the-margins–writing-marginalia

Mad March Hare

Last week saw me jinking about like a Mad March Hare – clocking up around 900 miles on my Triumph Legend motorbike, as I whizzed from the end of the land to the Midlands.

After a pit-stop at my friends in Totnes to break the journey, on Saturday 8th I gave a paper on ‘Borderlands: fairy and liminality in the Scottish Borders’ at the Haunted Landcapes Symposium, Falmouth University. The paper relates to my current research project – I can say no more than that! The Symposium was very stimulating with some excellent papers – notably Prof. Ronald Hutton’s keynote speech on the ‘Greenwood’. After a late night, very early start and several hours of panels, my mind felt as though it had run the London Marathon, so it was a pleasant contrast to ride over to Plymouth afterwards and hang out with my old school buddy, Lee Auburn, who is now a manager of Waterstones and budding writer himself. The next morning we went for a greasy breakfast down at Cap’n Jaspers on the Hoe, before I hit the road. I caught some rays down at Wembury Point – the sun glinting off the bay – before heading over the lonely roads of Dartmoor, the wide open spaces reminding me of Scotland.

It was good to get back, but I had another big day to prepare for…

On Tuesday I set off early to get to Northampton – for I was booked to run a morning of storytelling workshops in my old Middle School, Delapre. I hadn’t been back since I left, in July 1982 – so it was incredibly special to return there as a visiting author and professional storyteller. The classrooms and corridors were as I remember them – there was even one of the teachers still there! My hostess was Yr 5 teacher Anna Letts, who is the daughter of Mr Letts, the Deputy Head during my time. Her pupils are working on a Robin Hood project at the moment, so she was keen for me to focus on relevant stories. It just so happened there was one in my Northamptonshire Folk Tales book (Robyne Hode of Rockingham). I performed a couple of tales in Assembly (held in my old art room – where my imagination was kindled) before the whole year group, before running my Climbing the Beanstalk workshop in the respective classes. I ran one of these in my actual old classroom – which was a poignant experience. The kids were attentive and enthusiastic – and it was so satisfying to see them stand up at the end of only one hour and perform the story back to me without a text.  The morning went all too quickly. I left on a high – what a precious opportunity. The next day I got this lovely message from Ms Letts:

Hi Kevan

Thanks so much for your visit last week, the children enjoyed it and I certainly learnt a lot, I”ll be using the beanstalking technique in future.

I’ve written a blog post, so have a few of the children:

http://year5l.delapreprimaryschool.org/

http://year5t.delapreprimaryschool.org/

 So, from doctorate research paper to a Primary School workshop (and teaching undergrads and evening classes inbetween) – I love the diversity of my life. Certainly keeps me on my toes!

On Thursday I was on the road again, riding through the morning mist up the Fosseway to Leicester, where I have been commissioned to write a piece of historical narrative non-fiction, having won an AHRC award. I met up with the core team – including Dr Corinne Fowler (Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester) and Gino at the Phoenix, who was co-ordinating the digital side of things (the 8 commissions will be turned into an App, website and projections). I spent the afternoon exploring the Cultural Quarter on foot, taking photographs and making notes. Then in the evening I caught up with my old friend Lesley, who kindly put me up. The next morning I met up with Simon, head of Special Collections, who took me to a ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ type warehouse where the Leicester Mercury archives were stored. We rifled through the stacks and found some relevant files, which I took back to look at in the David Wilson Library – a swish new resource on campus. Finally, I visited HQ on Charles St – a graffiti art store, to connect with the owner, making a useful contact. I left Leicester with plenty of material to kickstart my commission. The ride back down the Fosseway in the afternoon sun was a pleasure.

Yet – no rest for the bardic, I had to prepare for my creative writing dayschool in Devizes the following morning. I put together my workshop plan and handouts and tried to get some rest. The next morning I was up and off early – running my writing class from 10.30-4.30pm. By the end of the day I was running on empty, but fortunately I had a lovely meal waiting for me in Wroughton, and a great evening of entertainment – a charity benefit at the local working mens club (!) with Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull headlining, supported by my partner’s band, Talis Kimberley, and an R’n’B outfit. I kick-back and enjoyed a well-earned pint. What an amazing week! Spring is definitely springing!