Mastodon The Writing Desk: February 2011

23 February 2011

Rupert Brooke: The Great Lover

I have been so great a lover: filled my days So proudly with the splendour of Love's praise,
The pain, the calm, and the astonishment,
Desire illimitable, and silent content,
And all dear names men use, to cheat despair,
For the perplexed and viewless streams that bear
Our hearts at random down the dark of life.
Now, ere the unthinking silence on that strife
Steals down, I would cheat drowsy Death so far,
My night shall be remembered for a star
That outshone all the suns of all men's days.
Shall I not crown them with immortal praise
Whom I have loved, who have given me, dared with me
High secrets, and in darkness knelt to see
The inenarrable godhead of delight?
Love is a flame; we have beaconed the world's night.
A city: and we have built it, these and I.
An emperor: we have taught the world to die.
So, for their sakes I loved, ere I go hence,
And the high cause of Love's magnificence,
And to keep loyalties young, I'll write those names
Golden for ever, eagles, crying flames,
And set them as a banner, that men may know,
To dare the generations, burn, and blow
Out on the wind of Time, shining and streaming...
These I have loved:
White plates and cups, clean-gleaming,
Ringed with blue lines; and feathery, faery dust;
Wet roofs, beneath the lamp-light; the strong crust
Of friendly bread; and many-tasting food;
Rainbows; and the blue bitter smoke of wood;
And radiant raindrops couching in cool flowers;
And flowers themselves, that sway through sunny hours,
Dreaming of moths that drink them under the moon;
Then, the cool kindliness of sheets, that soon
Smooth away trouble; and the rough male kiss
Of blankets; grainy wood; live hair that is
Shining and free; blue-massing clouds; the keen
Unpassioned beauty of a great machine;
The benison of hot water; furs to touch;
The good smell of old clothes; and other such
The comfortable smell of friendly fingers,
Hair's fragrance, and the musty reek that lingers
About dead leaves and last year's ferns...
Dear names,
And thousand other throng to me! Royal flames;
Sweet water's dimpling laugh from tap or spring;
Holes in the groud; and voices that do sing;
Voices in laughter, too; and body's pain,
Soon turned to peace; and the deep-panting train;
Firm sands; the little dulling edge of foam
That browns and dwindles as the wave goes home;
And washen stones, gay for an hour; the cold
Graveness of iron; moist black earthen mould;
Sleep; and high places; footprints in the dew;
And oaks; and brown horse-chestnuts, glossy-new;
And new-peeled sticks; and shining pools on grass;
All these have been my loves. And these shall pass,
Whatever passes not, in the great hour,
Nor all my passion, all my prayers, have power
To hold them with me through the gate of Death.
They'll play deserter, turn with the traitor breath,
Break the high bond we made, and sell Love's trust
And sacramented covenant to the dust.
Oh, never a doubt but, somewhere, I shall wake,
And give what's left of love again, and make
New friends, now strangers...
But the best I've known
Stays here, and changes, breaks, grows old, is blown
About the winds of the world, and fades from brains
Of living men, and dies.
Nothing remains.
O dear my loves, O faithless, once again
This one last gift I give: that after men
Shall know, and later lovers, far-removed,
Praise you, "All these were lovely"; say "He loved".

22 February 2011

Visit to Shakespeare’s Birthplace

Stratford-upon-Avon is a welcoming little town and is the home of the Royal Shakespeare Company.  We had come to see William Shakespeare’s birthplace and see if we could get some sense of his life.

The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust

A charity called the The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust has been established to promote his life and works.  First impressions were disappointing, as we were faced with a hard sell to visit all five houses.  We then had to endure a well intentioned audio visual presentation and I wondered if it would be possible to get a refund. The day was saved by the knowledgeable guide who took us on a tour of William Shakespeare’s first house.

Shakespeare’s famous visitors

As always with these things it is the small details that make all the difference.  I was fascinated to see an original window from Shakespeare’s birthplace had been covered with graffiti. Scratched into the glass were the names of famous writers, including Charles Dickens, John Keats and Walter Scott.  I also saw that famous visitors included several of my personal heroes, Mark Twain and Thomas Hardy.  We entered one of the bedrooms and the guide explained that this was the room where Shakespeare was actually born.  I looked out of the window and wondered if the view today is much the same.  Apart from the gift shops, I suspected that it was.

Living Shakespeare in the garden

The Birthplace Trust work hard to make this a ‘living museum’, with the staff all dressed in costumes of the time.  It was when we found our way to the garden that this really came true for me, as there was a live performance by RSC actors, with visitors from around the world joining in.  I am sure William would have approved.

Excavations at New Place

The high spot of our visit was a complete surprise.  After a good lunch at one of the lively riverside restaurants, we asked for directions and found New Place.  We nearly didn’t bother, although it was where Shakespeare lived for most of his life and died in 1616, the guide book said it had been demolished soon after and was now the garden of a different house. We found, however, that the garden is now the site of a major ’Dig for Shakespeare’ and new finds were being made as we watched. The foundations of New Place can now be clearly seen and the Dig is planned to continue throughout 2011.

Shakespeare’s tomb at Holy Trinity Church

We finished off our day in Stratford-upon-Avon with a visit to Shakespeare’s tomb. In a beautiful riverside park, the church is used for services so we had to wait for one to finish.  It was well worth it though, as we were able to see that it is not a myth.  His tomb really does bear the inscription "Good frend for Jesus sake forebeare, To digg the dust encloased heare, Bleste be the man that spares thes stones, And curst be he that moves my bones."

19 February 2011

A writer's week on twitter - poetry

Not all writers are poets but all poets are writers (discuss?).  This week I have been exploring poetry on twitter – and learning a lot. 

Haiku on twitter

It is strangely satisfying to share a complicated idea in less than 140 characters – and definitely good practice for writers used to 2000 words a day (more on a good day...). 

The ultimate in this has to be the clever use that some poets are making of the Japanese Haiku form.

It was looking out for these that I discovered Lori Franklin (@JaneBeNimble), who has written more than she can remember (and inspired me to re-discover the poet within me!).  I asked Lori for her favourite and she suggested: 

Carrying the pail ~ hand tightly grasping handle ~ petals drift away

My own favourite of Lori's is:

Rain carving ~ channels through rock ~ my love ~ on a journey
~ to your sea

Dreaming in Darkness

Another of my favourite poetry ‘discoveries’ is Jessica Kristie, (@JessKristie) from the California Bay area who after many years is launching her new poetry compilation Dreaming in Darkness in March (she started when she was ten.)  Jessica encourages everyone with an interest in poetry to pursue their dream of being published.

I asked if she had advice for others planning to publish poetry and she said “It’s not an easy road and requires determination and a thick skin.  Writing talent is subjective and, like all art, can be heavily criticized.  Know your skill level. Be honest with what you are good at, and what you can improve on.  You have to work at it and find your niche within that world.”

I have wondered if it is harder to get poetry published and Jessica told me “There is a lot of opportunity out there and people still do enjoy poetry.  There are plenty of book publishers, magazines and online writing venues that take poetry submissions.  Take your time to research and find the one that best suits your work - then submit submit submit!”

How twitter can help poets

I asked another of my favourite 'twitter poets', San Fransisco based Nikki Dreams (@NikkiDreams) if posting had helped her develop her poetry. Just asking the question inspired a heatfelt post on her blog. She says “Twitter is a hugely viral way to get instant feedback and provide expose for more people to your work. I use Twitter more and more as a tool to get that exposure.”  Nikki agrees that the art of writing micro-poetry on Twitter is great practice and allows you to break with accepted grammatical rules that actually work better in poetic formats.

Interestingly, Nikki told me that one of her ‘little bursts’ on Twitter evolved into a full screenplay that she is now writing (see How twitter can help poets on her blog Nikki Dreams and more of her amazing poetry on Translucidity).

18 February 2011

Goethe's Faust

Wendy Swain
Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans.  The moment one definitely commits oneself, then providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred.  A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one's favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way.

Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it. Begin it now.

Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe

16 February 2011

Writers habits: Dylan Thomas

Dylan Thomas
When I was studying English I had to write an essay on ‘Under Milk Wood’ by Welsh poet Dylan Thomas.  It may not have been a great essay but I did become interested in Thomas and how he wrote. 

The Writing Shed

Years later I went to Laugharne in West Wales to see his ‘writing shed’ (pictured in the header to this blog) and the world he lived in.  Perched precariously on the cliff, with spectacular views of the River Taf and out to sea across Carmarthen Bay, the little wooden shed has been preserved and is visited by people from all over the world.

Carmarthen Council’s website notes that Dylan Thomas paid £75 to have his shed built on the cliff. It was originally intended as a garage for his car but quickly became Dylan’s ‘writing shed’, where he produced some of his best work. 

Writing routine

He settled into a routine of reading and writing letters in the mornings, doing the crossword and drinking in the nearby pub at lunchtime.  He would then work in his shed from two in the afternoon until seven in the evening.  Like Roald Dahl, he would read his work aloud, over and over, perfecting the alliteration and hearing the rhymes. 

The hut had a simple stove for heating in the winter and Dylan covered the walls with photographs and magazine cuttings of his favourite poets, Byron, Whitman, Auden and William Blake.

There is an ongoing debate about how much of Under Milk Wood was written in his hut, as it describes a nearby harbour at New Quay.  Shy and often insecure, Dylan Thomas struggled to cope with fame but would have been happy to know he has left his mark on the world as a poet.

14 February 2011

William Shakespeare ~ Sonnet 116

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come:
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

13 February 2011

Writer’s habits: Roald Dahl

Roald Dahl
I met Felicity, Road Dahl’s widow at the naming ceremony for Roald Dahl Plass in Cardiff.  It was neither the time or place but I would have really liked to ask her about his writing routine.   As I don’t have a routine I am intrigued at his discipline.

His writing place was a green shed at the bottom of the garden where he would sit in a green armchair, writing with a specially made wooden board on his knees.  He would always write from ten in the morning until noon, then take a break and write again from four to six in the afternoon.

When he was living in America he discovered Ticonderoga pencils and yellow legal paper  - and never used anything else from then on.   Interestingly, Roald Dahl did not find writing easy and often spent as long as six months on one  short story.  He would rewrite his work over and over again until he was happy and reading it out loud was an important part of his writing process.

Roald Dahl published 57 books during his writing career. Sixty five years after the publication of his first story, The Gremlins, Dahl's books continue to sell at a rate of over a million copies a year.

Other posts about the habits of famous writers:

Remember: Christina Rossetti

Christina Rossetti
REMEMBER me when I am gone away,
Gone far away into the silent land;
When you can no more hold me by the hand,
Nor I half turn to go, yet turning stay.
Remember me when no more day by day
You tell me of our future that you plann'd:
Only remember me; you understand
It will be late to counsel then or pray.
Yet if you should forget me for a while
And afterwards remember, do not grieve:
For if the darkness and corruption leave
A vestige of the thoughts that once I had,
Better by far you should forget and smile
Than that you should remember and be sad.

From Goblin Market and other Poems. Christina Rossetti.
Cambridge: Macmillan, 1862  (found on Amazon for a penny)

The Creative Spark

There is a German proverb “Von nichts kommt nichts.”  I used to translate it as ‘you can’t make something out of nothing.’  The phase takes on a new significance, however, if you see it as an idiomatic expression, meaning something different from what the words literally imply. When an idiom is translated into another language, its meaning is often changed. Perhaps it is better understood as nothing comes from nothing?   This is an interesting starting point for anyone pondering on the creative process. 

Creativity is a wonderful thing. It is very personal but its consequences are invariably very public.  As writers, we have to create conditions where we can tune in to that elusive creative spark and somehow nurture it into a flame.  This is an interesting metaphor for how my own creative thinking seems to work.  You may have seen documentaries where they show how to light a fire with a flint.  There is definitely some preparation.  As well as having the right sort of flint to hand, you need some good dry tinder that will light from a tiny spark. You have to hit it in a particular way and be ready to catch the spark before it is gone.  Even then, technique is important, as you must blow just hard enough to make a flame. 

The spark can come unexpectedly (and often inconveniently) when driving or even in the shower.  I have to be vigilant and make sure I write these little ‘spark’ ideas down as soon as I can, then let the tinder of my subconscious do its work.  Some show great promise but quickly fade. Others flare up into a fire that I can barely control, consuming my every waking moment.

Visiting Beatrix Potter’s house at Hill Top

Beatrix Potter
Beatrix Potter bought Hill Top farm in 1905 with royalties from her first children’s books, written at her parent’s home in London and inspired by her visits to the Lake District.  She wrote many of her famous children's stories in this 17th century stone farmhouse and her books are illustrated with pictures based on the house and garden. When she died in 1943, Beatrix Potter left her property to the National Trust.  This included over four thousand acres of land, cottages, and fifteen farms.

Time capsule

I visited Hill Top on a sunny day in September last year, just as the tourist season was coming to an end.  The National Trust guides are passionate about the details of her life and work. The guide explained that one of the conditions Beatrix insisted on with Hill Top farm was that everything should be left as it was when she lived there. 

Her house has become a fascinating ‘time capsule’, as since it was opened to visitors in 1946, the National Trust have carefully kept to the agreement.  This even includes exactly matching the colour and material of any furnishings, such as the curtains, when they have to be replaced.   

Beatrix Potter’s ‘writing house’
Hill Top Farm today
The first thing that strikes any visitor familiar with the work of Beatrix Potter is that the garden is almost exactly as she illustrated in her books, with a green watering can and one brown rabbit nibbling at the grass. Entering the farmhouse you find yourself in a surprisingly large and fairly dark room, with a big range in the fireplace.  The guide explained that Hill Top was Beatrix Potter’s ‘writing house’ and so didn’t really need much of a kitchen.  She owned several houses in the area and would rarely stay overnight at the farmhouse.

Up some creaking wooden stairs were several bedrooms, the first of which was set up as her writing room. A small wooden writing desk faced the window with views out over the garden and on it were some letters to her publisher. They were written in Beatrix Potter's neat handwriting and looked real, not photocopies. I was told that the National Trust go to a lot of trouble to make them look as genuine as possible.

Beatrix Potter’s bedroom

Although Beatrix Potter didn’t often sleep at Hill Top she did have a bedroom, which has been kept as if she had recently been there. I was fascinated by the small details of Beatrix Potter’s life, such as her rings on the dresser that were left as if she had just taken them off  - she must have had very small fingers, as they were tiny.

The old stone farmhouse had thick walls and in her bedroom a window seat had been made so that she could sit and look out over her garden.  When I visited, a young woman was sat in the window seat with her daughter, reading aloud  from The Tale of Peter Rabbit, one of  Beatrix’s children’s stories.  Beatrix Potter would have approved. Very much indeed.        

Postscript: Miss Potter

The surprisingly moving 2006 film ‘Miss Potter’, starring Renée Zellweger in the title role with Ewan McGregor as her publisher, was not actually made at Hill Top but at another property she owned close by. In the script for Miss Potter, her Mother asks ’What I don't understand, Beatrix, is how you're going to pay for this farm?  Beatrix Potter replies ‘I'm a writer, Mother. People buy my work.’