Thursday, 30 April 2009

Love Gods & Chocolate Sauce

What's in his pockets?

Any evening that involves a good book, great friends and chocolate sauce is pretty perfect. Book Club night is a bright beacon in a diary crammed with work, school runs and all the things you 'have' to do for all of us. It's a brilliant excuse for a girl's night out with the improving element of discovering books you wouldn't have come across yourself - last night was Stefan Zweig's 'Beware of Pity'. He is a 'forgotten' author - staggeringly popular at the time (doorstepped by fans), but virtually unknown now. How does that happen? His tale is tragic - persecuted as a Jew, his library burnt by the Nazis, he fled to south America. This cultural cosmopolitan and true humanist was so dismayed by the world around him he committed suicide with his wife. Thanks to Pushkin Press, his work is now 'back', and for anyone who enjoys beautiful writing and tense psychoanalytical dramas 'Beware of Pity' is a great recommendation.

Zweig excelled at characterisation. It was interesting to find out from our hostess last night that he was a friend of Freud. As ever it's in the subtle details, the movement and change in a character. I read the other day that at any point a person is either getting better or worse. If you start to think of your characters in this way - as fluid rather than fixed, they automatically become more dynamic. Take today's clip - dear John from 'Ali McBeal' was a fabulous character, brilliant, eccentric and above all human. David Kelly's use of Barry White to show John getting his groove back is a stroke of genius. Every character, or person for that matter, has an internal soundtrack - what's yours? The way things are going I might just try channelling Barry ...

Change is the single most important element in any story - who wants to read about a character unaffected by what's happening to them? Change is dynamic, it propels the story forward. Goethe said 'It's not so important where we stand, but the direction in which we are moving'. Which way are you moving? Which path are your characters on?

TODAY'S PROMPT: The key to great characterisation is getting inside your character's head, to inhabit their skin, their life, the world around them. Why not try this - what have you got in your pockets at the moment? (Me: Zippo, several pennies, Thai Buddha talisman, fortune from fortune cookie: 'Passionate new romance appears in your life when you least expect it'). What would you make of that character? Ans: Lapsed smoker, needs pennies for Jelly Belly machine for kids, hoping for good luck, had dim sum for lunch yesterday. Why not take a character you are working on and get them to 'empty their pockets' for you. You may be surprised ...

Saturday, 25 April 2009

200




Welcome to the 200th post! Unbelievable - and as we are also coming up to WKDN's blogoversary at the beginning of June, I've decided to have a little fun. We've talked about how easy it is to self publish via sites like Lulu, Xlibris and Blurb. I've decided to publish a selection of the first 200 posts and prompts as a workbook. As tempting as it was to go for the full colour 440 page coffee table version I thought £87 (cost) might not be the best price point for a little book on writing :) So, I'm formatting a regular black and white book with space after each prompt for you to scribble down your ideas - it's really good fun getting it together and I hope some of you will find it useful. It will be small enough to stick in briefcase/pocket/nappy bag, you'll be able to order online from Blurb, and I've decided any profits will go to one of my favourite charities, War Child:

'War Child works with children affected by war in Iraq, Afghanistan, Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda. We work with children who have been hit hardest by the joint forces of poverty, conflict and social exclusion. Our groundbreaking work with former child soldiers, street children and children in prison has supported and helped thousands who would otherwise not have been able to reintegrate with their community, gain access to education or enjoy sustainable livelihood support'.

The charity does amazing work - I'm hoping after costs there will be around £4 - 5 profit from each book. That way for each book sold one orphaned child could be put through school for a whole year. What would you be happy to pay for a writing book - £7.99, £9.99? It's going to cost £3 - 3.50 to print each book (plus taxes, shipping). If any of you have any experience with selling books I'd love to have your advice, or perhaps some of you have already published your blogs?

So - that's the grand plan. Now I just have to figure out how to format, edit, price, design the cover and publish the thing ... watch this space.

TODAY'S PROMPT: It has never been easier to print your own books - if you haven't had a look at Blurb's BookSmart editing programme I'd recommend it. As long as you go for one of the colour options you can just 'slurp' your whole blog in seconds (sadly for recession busting B/W I'm having to cut and paste the whole thing into Word then load it back up again). I'm thinking particularly of some of you artist bloggers - even if you print one copy for yourself imagine seeing your words and images in print!

200 posts have seen us all come a long way. WKDN is being read around the globe (and thanks to intrepid Misssy has even featured in The Pakistani Spectator this week!). There's something really satisfying thinking about seeing some of these posts in book form. This year may not have seen the novel published yet, but there will be one book to show for all these months waiting and writing. Thanks to you all for hanging around - as I just wrote in the Introduction to the book, you all have made WKDN what it is. x

Thursday, 23 April 2009

I'm bored ...




Do you ever have those moments where you open your mouth and it's like you're channelling your mother? 'I'm borrrred ...' is in the universal lexicon of whines guaranteed to grate any parent's nerves, along with 'are we there yet?' Perhaps you can think of a few others? When the little one started whining about being bored and having nothing to do yesterday, I found myself saying 'only boring people get bored', just like my mother (and presumably hers before), used to say.

I don't know about you, but I don't have the chance to be bored these days. I don't have time to do everything I want - boredom seems luxurious somehow. Some things are boring right now (waiting for news on the book, not knowing if we're settling here or not). That kind of boredom has become like toothache - an incessant background discomfort beyond my control. All you can do is ignore it, make the best of where you are and try to get on with something new. I think some boredom - especially for kids - is vital. How are you going to learn to entertain yourself or use your imagination otherwise. It's like the 'right' kind of stress gets you going (as opposed to the soul-sapping beyond your control sort).

Perhaps you've also seen how small children are more interested in playing with the box than the toy inside? In fact, when we were really hard up in Spain while the pilot was training, our daughter had very few toys - her favourite really was a cardboard box. It was a babywalker, castle, hideout - the photos have gone down in family history as a Monty Python style 'Eee when I was a kid we were so poor ...' joke. She loved it though. When I picked the three year old up from playgroup yesterday, the kids were all outside playing in the sun, fascinated by a pile of timber one of the parents had brought in and completely ignoring the toys around them. Between them they had built a 'ship' complete with mast, oars and seats. Maybe we should just let children get on with it a bit more - their days are so full. Perhaps boredom is good for you.

I had a 'Swallows and Amazons' type childhood. Mr Titchmarsh's competition has made me think about how I grew up in comparison to our children. Admittedly we lived in a remote Devon village but at my daughter's age I used to cycle for miles - complete freedom. There were no computer games, no constant kids' TV. In the playroom we had my Dad's sideboard sized record player from the 60's and all their old records (including Joey Dee from today's videoclip), and I remember stacking up 45's on the turntable as we played. If my days had been filled with activities I honestly don't know if I'd have started writing so young. Perhaps this is why I'm quite 'hands off' as a parent - they spend too much time watching TV like all kids now, but there is still nothing better than overhearing them and their friends making up a story, or just watching them paddling in the river with the dogs.

TODAY'S PROMPT: Do you think boredom can be good for you? I read recently how periods of 'ennui and nerve restlessness (lead to) spiritual development'. This makes sense somehow - fallow periods between bursts of creativity. Today, if you're feeling bored with things beyond your control (work, books, the recession ... insert your current bugbear here), why not think about how you can get moving. Frozen creativity is soul-sapping. There is always something we can do. For those of you with books ready to go, why not take a look at Authonomy. You can upload a sample of your work, and people get to vote on whether it should be published. A friend recommended this at the weekend, and one of the Mums at school has just landed a contract with Harper Collins - so, you never know ...

Monday, 20 April 2009

You Who?

Alan Titchmarsh, novelist, TV gardener and all round Renaissance man recently beat James Bond himself Sean Connery into second place when he was voted most fanciable man in a Saga survey of women over fifty. No mean feat, and he has just launched a writing competition that may interest several of you working on memoirs:

Alan Titchmarsh People’s Author Competition "We want strong, real life inspirational stories that you would like to share with the British public. The winner will receive a publishing deal with an advance of twenty thousand pounds. All you have to do to enter is write to us – tell us a bit about yourself, a few pages about your story and submit no more than five thousand words detailing some of the fascinating events that you’ve experienced". There's more about the televised competition on Alan's website - the prize is a contract with Orion, £20,000 advance and advice from his agent.

I'm rather tempted to have a go myself. Recently I wrote and recorded a radio piece 'Light Year' about growing up in Devon. I remember loving Laurie Lee's classic memoir 'Cider with Rosie' - little had changed in the remote part of the world I grew up in since he wrote the book. The ability to write about your own life lyrically, to present fact with the spin and drama of fiction is a real skill. It's not something I've tried and it could be an interesting challenge. The competition is open until June - why not have a go?

I was talking to one of the Dad's at school the other day (usual question: 'Any news about the book?' 'No, still waiting'). He's a marketing and sales whizz (cars not authors), but his take on selling 'yourself' as an author was interesting. He suggested selling authors is like selling anything else - find one unique angle and pitch that.

Maybe you're the same, but I feel like the children's character Worzel Gummige most days. He was a scarecrow with several heads - each head did one thing well. So you have your 'mummy' head, your 'business' head, your 'writer' head, and so on ... In terms of selling 'me' I don't know which works: the art angle (KLB, international art consultant, curated palaces, embassies - ie, what I was and what inspired the writing), or the 'real' me (KLB, juggler of parenting/writing/hound and home ... what I am). Art expert or working mother? Trying to see what is unique about you and the choices you've made in your life is enough to make anyone feel like a confused scarecrow ...

TODAY'S PROMPT: I re-read O'Donohue's 'Divine Beauty' during Easter. He wrote: 'once we begin to glimpse who we really are, many lonesome burdens and false images fall away; our feet find new freedom on the pastures of possibility'. In an article about slummy-mummies (painfully familiar), I read recently about the Hoffman Process - from the article it seems 'no one was allowed to discuss their real identity. For seven days we didn't utter a word about our children. We had to start conversations based on our life experiences, ideas and feelings'. It sounds like an interesting way to get in touch with who 'you' really are, not who you perceive yourself to be. Today, why not have a think about who you 'are'? How many heads do you have? If you were going to write the story of your life, what would you concentrate on?


Saturday, 18 April 2009

Something for the weekend ...




I first heard the Bee Gees one hot summer night when I was about the same age as my daughter at the house of my 'cool' uncle and aunt. They were the kind of relatives who never remembered your birthday but she was petite and blonde and had a 'fro Shaft would have been proud of, he was training to be an osteopath and was so ridiculously good looking with long 70s blonde hair (not unlike Barry Gibb), that on their honeymoon a Greek ferryman was so overcome he kissed him full on the lips as they disembarked at their island. They had a full skeleton in the corner of the living room, 'Saturday Night Fever' on the turntable and to a 7 year old in Devon it all seems gloriously exotic.

Saturday nights in Hampshire are rather less funky these days. Sometimes I miss that 'end of week' excitement. With the pilot's schedule there is no regular shape to our weeks - I miss meeting friends on a Friday or Saturday night in London for a meal, club or theatre. In fact I should be in London today - at the Book Fair, but the pilot is somewhere (he left at 4am he did say where he was going -Cyprus? - but it was a bit of a blur), my babysitter is awol, the 7 year old is on a sleepover, so I am here with the hound and a sleeping toddler. My visit to the Book Fair was something I'd been looking forward to for weeks, hoping to report back from the 'How to Get Published' masterclass with all kinds of inside tips for us all. Best laid plans and all that. Still, I've contacted lovely Danuta Keen who was chairing the event and hope to chat to her about all the latest news so watch this space.

Meanwhile I ended up spending the day yomping through bluebell woods with several kids, lovely friends, the hound and her paramour the Glaswegian labradoodle. It was idyllic - and if you can't be where you wanted to be it certainly made up for missing the Book Fair. The woods around here a blaze of colour - it's like patches of clear sky have fallen to earth. The smell is intoxicating too - bluebells mingling with wild garlic. I don't quite know what is going on with life at the moment - none of my great plans are working out (even the simplest ones), but I've come to the conclusion the only way to 'stay alive' in the sense of today's video clip is to roll with it and make the best of things. I'm not giving up, but in the words of John and Son the other day I'm 'letting be' which is a first.

'Mojo' is one of my favourite words, first equal with 'boondoggling'. Getting your mojo back has become something of a joke post Austin Powers, (or indeed 'bojo' thanks to our book reading hound on children's TV, Bookaboo). I don't quite know what the definition of mojo is, but you know it when you see it whether it is John Travolta strutting down the street or a couple of dogs pronking through bluebells. You also know when it's missing. Rather like Bookaboo, as a reader and writer I always turn to books first for solutions rather than burdening other people - maybe you're the same? I recently read this passage at the end of Estes: 'Let life happen to you. Work with these stories - your life - not someone else's. Water them with blood and tears and laughter until they bloom. That is the work. The only work.'

TODAY'S PROMPT: Which books have helped you through periods of change, times when you have lost your way or 'mojo' for that matter? As we walked this afternoon, a friend talked about how old trees tend to fall inexplicably only for new trees to grow from the roots, and bush/forest fires are natures way of clearing a new path for stronger, fresh growth. Maybe it's all part of the circle - whether in terms of life or creativity. Estes talks about how your 'ego plans' slip from your grasp, how change is inevitable and you need to clear the ground to learn your real life and work. Instead of sinking into cold bitterness, you can come back stronger than before, revivified and reborn.

I was thinking about that this afternoon - after the freezing winter, the seemingly endless months of dark and cold, the spring flowers are more beautiful than I have ever seen. Do you think that is all part of the great plan - the harder the tough times are personally or in terms of writing, the greater the opportunity for flowering and growth? Today, why not have a think about some of the things that support you in your life and writing - the things that you love to do. When was the last time you did them? For anyone feeling a little more Austin Powers than John Travolta, here's the greatest example of getting your groove back known to man (union jack y-fronts optional). Have a great weekend.


Thursday, 16 April 2009

Noblesse Oblige ...

Our resident starlet and scourge of advertising execs everywhere Scarlet has graciously awarded WKDN the Noblesse Oblige award. It is a heavyweight blog award, and I'm very touched.

The recipient of this award is recognised for the following:

1) The Blogger manifests exemplary attitude, respecting the nuances that pervades amongst different cultures and beliefs.
2) The Blog contents inspire; strives to encourage and offers solutions.
3) There is a clear purpose at the Blog; one that fosters a better understanding on Social, Political, Economic, the Arts, Culture and Sciences and Beliefs.
4) The Blog is refreshing and creative.
5) The Blogger promotes friendship and positive thinking.

The Blogger who receives this award will need to perform the following steps:

1) Create a Post with a mention and link to the person who presented the Noblesse Oblige Award.
2) The Award Conditions must be displayed at the Post.
3) Write a short article about what the Blog has thus far achieved – preferably citing one or more older post to support.
4) The Blogger must present the Noblesse Oblige Award in concurrence with the Award conditions.
5) Blogger must display the Award at any location at the Blog.

Phew. As we approach WKDN's blogoversary, what has it achieved? A year ago 'Wife in the North' was all over the papers. The pilot thought blogging was insane (if not a little sad - he still does), but I was - frankly - feeling pretty frustrated with writing. 'Frustrated' is the polite word if I'm being honest. Which is probably why my first post was about Contentment. After sacrificing Venice to hire an editor to work on book one, I waited a year for it to be submitted by my first agent - nada. On her encouragement I'd finished book two ... and waited. The story of this was filled in by this post. If you want to write professionally you accept the length of time things take - up to a point.

Giving up was never an option (I don't know at what point determined turns into delusional), but rather than sitting back waiting to see the book published, I thought why not do something useful (I mean, as well as running a business, a home and raising children - like we're all sitting around twiddling our thumbs ...)? I had a hunch there must be other writers out there - some just starting out, and perhaps there was a way to reach out and share some ideas about writing. Perhaps a blog for people juggling life and writing might help make the waiting for all of us a little easier and a lot more fun.

Will You Slow Dance With Me? is a pretty typical post. WKDN was never intended as a 'nuts and bolts' type writing site (and that post roams all over the place). You won't find any 'write 250 words about springtime' type assignments, but I hope it's helped people to think outside the box about their work. That it has been read in 90 countries by thousands of people and has a core band of subscribers and commenters is more than I could have hoped for a year ago - it really is like a global writers group, and the contributors to each post make it what it is. So heading towards our 200th post really this award is down to all of you - thank you.

A year on, am I contented? Nope. Am I still waiting to see book one published? Yep. Personally 2008 turned out to be without a doubt the worst year of my life. Everything I felt was certain, isn't - but I'm going to make 2009 a fresh start. The kids are growing, the hound is hairier, the pilot's happily flying, and, professionally, I'm finally with a great, enthusiastic agent so from my side I'm just aiming to keep all the balls in the air and get down to writing better and better books. Writing WKDN with all of you has been a blast - fun, challenging, thought provoking. Long may it continue.

TODAY'S PROMPT: Put down your pens and raise a glass to the Awardees ... I'd like to pass this on to all of you, but it goes to our transatlantic comedy duo Emma & Misssy, to the teachers we wish we had had - Pseudo, and VodkaMom, and to three people I learn something from with every visit to your sites Tessa, John and Shelly. Several of you are in the process of submitting manuscripts, some of you are already published writers. All of you have reached out beyond the blogs, and shared your work, friendship and advice. Prof Shelly is our sensei - his posts are the MA in Creative Writing I never had the chance to do with all the travelling and parenting, and I'd like to give him a special mention for the incredibly generous way he shares his expertise with all of us. Congratulations all x

Wednesday, 15 April 2009

Be Honest ...

Here we all are staggering through the final stages of the Easter holidays ... I adore my family, but I am really looking forward to getting my writing time back next week when everyone goes happily back to school. In the midst of frustratingly low word counts I was truly touched to receive not one but two awards for WKDN this week. They are for rather different things, so today I'd like to feature the 'Honest Scrap' award from our friend Natasha in NYC. If you haven't ventured across to her new blog, do check it out - the creativity is truly inspiring. 'The award is about bloggers who post from their heart, who oftentimes put their heart on display as they write from the depths of their soul'. Thank you Natasha - I'm really glad that WKDN has proved equally popular in the US and the UK (who says we're divided by a common language?!)

On accepting the award, you are asked to list 10 honest things about yourself. As creativity network Whohub asked to interview me about writing last week, I'm posting this interview as my response because it really made me question (honestly), why I started writing, and what the future holds. Also you get around 20 honest answers, which in the current climate is a recession busting BOGOF :)

TODAY'S PROMPT: With the Honest Scrap you are asked to nominate seven or so blogs you feel deserve the award. It's the 'or so' that allows me to throw this one open to every single blog on WKDN's sidebar - it's been great following you all over the months, and I'd like to also open this to our regular commenters. The honesty of your comments have helped make WKDN a truly challenging and interactive place to write, and they take each post's theme and run with it. So today, why not have a think about honesty? To me it's to do with being open, authentic - the quest to find a true voice (like Tom Wait's lovely ballad in the clip today). It has an integrity and grace to it. What does it mean to you? Why not try completing this sentence as many times as you can: 'I honestly ...'

Tuesday, 14 April 2009

#Amazonfail

Now I see the point of Twitter. It was ablaze over the weekend - #amazonfail the hot topic. In terms of picking up the latest industry news Twitter is like a global grapevine - 21st century jungle drums. News spreads like wildfire. For anyone who missed the story, certain books with 'adult' content mysteriously lost their sales ranking. It was quite extraordinary watching writer after writer reporting that their titles had gone missing. If you log on to Twitter and search #amazonfail you can catch up on what Amazon is now referring to as a 'glitch'.

The 'disappeared' books were not only specifically hardline gay, feminist or other titles apparently deemed 'adult' by some faceless censor at Amazon. They were great works of literature by the likes of Lawrence and Winterson with certain adult themes. Meanwhile it seems titles by Penthouse and Playboy retained their ranking. Has the world gone mad?

Does Amazon really think people need protecting or that titles like this need the cyber equivalent of being put in a dark backroom? Maybe I'm being naive or too liberal - my first book has gay characters and apparently this could be a problem. It's not the main storyline, but it is integral to the plot - and the events that happened in the book really did happen to an acquaintance. Perhaps working in the arts all these years I've grown up accepting people for who they are rather than what they are - it's life. For a bookselling behemoth like Amazon to now apparently appoint itself judge and jury about what is or is not acceptable in literature is extraordinary. It makes you wonder what all those hard fought cases for freedom of speech were for. In closing here are a couple of quotes from the three year old's little MQP board book 'A Question of Freedom':

'I believe we are here on planet Earth to live, grow up and do what we can to make this world a better place for all people to enjoy freedom'. (Rosa Parks)

and

'He whose honor depends upon the opinion of the mob must day to day strive with the greatest anxiety, act and scheme in order to retain his reputation. For the mob is varied and inconsistent, and therefore if a reputation is not carefully preserved it dies quickly'. (Benedict Spinoza)

TODAY'S PROMPT: What is your take on this? When you think of what is freely available on the web - or Amazon for that matter, seeing Lawrence, Winterson and 'The Well of Loneliness' knocked off the sales rankings is mindboggling. Do you think the general public is more accepting of 'difficult' themes in literature than Amazon gives them credit for? Apparently the 'glitch' is being fixed, but the fallout for Amazon will be interesting. Do you think some books/films/online content deserve genuine censorship - or do you think freedom of expression should mean complete freedom and individual (or parental) responsibility?

UPDATE 15/4/09 'Glitch' blamed on French employee ... http://www.mediabistro.com/galleycat/bookselling/amazon_worker_details_companys_error_113978.asp?c=rss

Tuesday, 7 April 2009

The Great Escape



Happy Easter everyone - the pilot escaped for Turin at 2am this morning, so I'm facing the chocolate feeding frenzy singlehanded. A trail of hidden minieggs leading from their rooms bought me an extra half an hour in bed, but we've been up for several hours, the kids are bouncing off the walls, the hound ate my Green&Blacks egg (completely ignoring the sickly childrens' eggs) and I'm on my second pot of coffee ... Time for wellies and a long walk to burn off some of that energy.

If you grew up in the UK perhaps you remember the Great Egg Race? The incomparable Prof Heinz Wolff presented the show - teams of academics had to get a raw egg from point A to B by devising Heath Robinson type contraptions. The most elegant and elaborate machines invariably left their teams with literal and metaphorical egg on their face. Sometimes simple really is best.

Just getting from A to B can seem impossible whether it's a plot or life problem. The simple solution you sense is out there remains tantalisingly out of reach. Often the best thing you can do is step back and let the problem rest. The more I think about this island writer's retreat the more I like the idea. A couple of us have joked about it recently - imagine an Arvon type centre but in the sun with kids' clubs, spa, great food, company, wine ... Another idea to add to the collection of Grand Plans. Escape - getting away from the everyday is vital for any writer. Even if it's half an hour in a cafe with your notebook rather than two weeks on a beautiful island it all adds up. Every writer on creativity recommends retreat, regrouping, whether it's Pinkola Estes' idea of resting and 'attending to the bones' or Julia Cameron's recommendations for regular 'artist dates'. It's impossible to put out good work if you're not putting something back into yourself.

Knowing when to step back, give up, or push on comes down to gut instinct I think. The determination to succeed in the face of failure or rejection is something you need with any creative venture. We've talked before about the incredible popularity of 'Mamma Mia' - how it appeals to people of all ages. There's a documentary about the story of the show on TV tonight - apparently 18,000 people in 190 cities worldwide watch the show every single night. It's success is down to the determination of one woman - Judy Craymer the producer. 'It's been said that for a long time the story of Mamma Mia was the story of Judy Craymer and two blokes with beards who kept saying no' she said in an interview recently. It took her a decade to turn a 'no' into a 'yes' and get the boys from Abba on board. Getting from A to B takes vision, self-belief and determination - Mamma Mia is escapist entertainment at its best, and its real life story is an inspiring example of what can happen if you stick to your guns and follow your gut instinct.

TODAY'S PROMPT: What do you think is the secret of popular success? Why does something like Mamma Mia have global appeal? Feel good movies and books are needed now more than ever - a recent fiction forum in Marie Claire focused on 'Comfort Reads'. The books they chose were 'Captain Corelli', 'Adrian Mole', and titles by Alexander McCall Smith and Vikram Seth: 'page turners to snuggle up on the sofa with' ... 'comfort reads that give you a big dose of the feel-good factor'. Does popular necessarily mean low-brow? (Look at the success of the Da Vinci Code or Bridges of Madison County - incredibly successful books that crossed over to film, but they were panned by many critics). What would you need to happen to feel you have succeeded with your writing? I read an interesting idea the other day - what stops many people taking a chance creatively is not the fear of failure. If you fail, you just start over. But what if your success is only in the mediocre range? Today, why not step back and have a think about where you want to be, and the best way to approach any problems you are facing - how are you going to get from A to B?

Sunday, 5 April 2009

Aging (Dis)gracefully


The story of a 'dirty old man and a sluttish young woman' as Peter O'Toole described 'Venus' doesn't perhaps sound like the beautiful tale it became in the skilled hands of Hanif Kureishi. The topic is 'off' - taboo, an impotent OAP lusting after a young girl is the stuff of awkward cliche. As a teenager I remember being chased round a cocktail party by some charming old dear in his seventies - his wife apologised as I left 'He doesn't mean any harm. He is awful,' she said, 'but I do love him'. Kureishi took the cliche of the harmless old flirt a step further. O'Toole plays a celebrated actor and old roue on his last legs. His character retains the essence of his youthful self - the good and the bad. Lusting after his friend's young niece is his swansong. He takes his long-suffering ex-wife a final champagne feast, but takes his dying breath with Venus on the beach at Whitstable after a last supper of oysters.

Hanif Kureishi's work is always challenging. I love the way he makes you look at a subject with fresh eyes. Maybe you remember - 'My Beautiful Launderette', one of the first films of my generation to deal with an overtly gay theme in a mainstream story? It was interesting reading about how his work has changed over the years. When he was interviewed about Venus, he said 'once I had children, I had to worry about my writing because first, your day is limited, and second you've got to make money out of this game. The writer's block was forced, as it were to disappear'. Perhaps you identify with that? I certainly do. He went on to say: 'I feel guilty sitting in my house all day doing nothing. I have to pay for my kids to go to school'. It's reassuring to hear someone of Kureishi's status talking about juggling work and family the way we all are.

'Venus' is sublime - painful, beautiful, funny. If you haven't seen it do look it out on DVD. It's central motif is Velazquez's 'Rokeby Venus'. It's a gorgeous painting, and the line of the nude has been echoed by artists ever since - most recently Sam Taylor Wood in a self portrait:


Interestingly she also produced this beautiful image of Robert Downey Jr - the vulnerable pose is more typical of female nudes, but the challenging stare isn't (unless you take Manet's 'Olympia' or Goya's 'Maja' into consideration - atypical and at the time deliberately shocking paintings). What do you think of these images - where does nude and naked cross over?

To me, this is what great art and writing is all about - taking eternal truths, things we know but haven't noticed properly before and creating something lasting, provocative, beautiful. O'Toole's character wasn't easy - he was selfish, flawed, but (crucially) intelligent, experienced, talented. Instead of being repulsed, I found myself wondering if Venus hadn't got the best end of the deal. She had the youthful beauty but he brought everything else to the table. In western society the older man/younger woman scenario is typical - Kureishi just pushed the boundaries. When the tables are turned as in 'The Graduate' with Anne Bancroft playing the glorious prototype of all Cougars to come (jaded, smouldering, draped in leopard skin), it's still surprising.


TODAY'S TOPIC: Youth and beauty vs age and experience is a central dynamic in countless stories. What are the great examples you can think of? Which stories touched you? Do you think as women gain ground in Hollywood we will see more great roles for women over 40 (the absence of which is a regular lament)? I read an interview with Charlize Theron yesterday that discussed this problem - like many she has set up her own production company so that she can dictate which projects she develops and takes on. Actresses like her interest me in the same way Kureishi's writing does - they don't shy away from what is awkward and uncomfortable in real life. Today, why not think about how age features in your work - are your characters all 'like you', or do you explore every stage of the journey we're on? Which subjects wouldn't you write about - what is too uncomfortable for you? In O'Toole's character you saw a reflection of his youthful self - the good, the bad, the ugly and the beautiful - just like Venus and her mirror. When it is really great, art and writing holds a mirror up to us all.




Wednesday, 1 April 2009

Number One

Apparently 'God' is now following me on Twitter ;) Didn't see that one coming when I was asking Him for some help this week. Perhaps He moves in mysterious ways and knows where all the email Feedburner subscriptions have gone - apologies to anyone who has missed a few posts, Blogger are working on the problem.

I don't know about you but I love being surprised - if you've lived and travelled, once you get to this stage in life you feel like you've seen it all/heard it all. Researching infidelity for the next book I came across a whole genre I didn't know existed - Christian Lit, big in America but unheard of over here. We have a lot of MBS books, but nothing I think like the Fireproof phenomenon from Sherwood Pictures, 'the (quote) hope-filled, heartfelt moviemaking ministry of Sherwood Baptist Church that continues to touch the world from Albany, Georgia'.

I'm sorry but as an averagely cynical Brit that just makes you ... Anyway. In the UK you get Sister Wendy, the self taught fantabulous art nun, or Songs of Praise. What you don't get are burly firefighters battling their inner demons and pornography to save their marriage. Perhaps I'm missing something - as the Grumpy Old Bookman recently commented in Writers' News for William P Young 'religion was the key to his success'. Clergymen marketed 'The Shack' and it has sold 2 million copies. As Grumpy said 'It's hard for us Brits to appreciate just how powerful these outlets can be, because we have nothing like them'. Oh, and Mr Young self-published.

I think a lot of the MBS books reach a market filled with spiritual hunger, where nothing makes sense. Whatever your beliefs - Christian, Jewish, Islamic, Hindu, Shinto, Buddhist, Atheist, Agnostic etc - I get a sense that these are fairly spiritually bereft times we are living through in the West and people are trying to come to terms with them through explanation or belief, (and mine for the record are at the High Church end of C of E - can't quite do the full C because I do believe in women priests, and other issues that I see as a basic question of human rights - probably why I first studied philosophy rather than theology). Both of my children were christened by remarkable women vicars. One of them, I grew up with, the other it was her first christening and it was a joyous day for us all.

Perhaps we're all alone, and scared, and searching for something. My world view suits me. I don't go to Church (right now can't get the children to sit still long enough), and never felt happy with my Methodist background (and my Dad built churches ...). But I find perfect peace in a few stolen moments in a centuries old cathedral or church as much as I do from a deserted beach in New England or a forest in Hampshire. Maybe it's just a sense that you have or you don't of your own insignificance and that there is someone, something, some cosmic spiritual order bigger than you. Call it God, call it landscape, call it love. I love writers like John O'Donohue for this reason. I can't do 'happy clappy', or 'heavy' lace and reliquaries and got hysterically giggly the one time I tried Transcendental Meditation. I don't get it. I love life. It's wonderful, surprising, messy, bewildering, and heartbreaking, but as they say it's probably better than the alternative, and it's this basic gratitude that has carried me through some dark days recently. But I'm very curious about the whole rock'n'roll Christian scene in America I didn't know existed. What are your views on MBS or Christian Lit? Do you write it? Does it affect you?

With Blurb, Lulu, My Publisher, Shutterfly, Snapfish, Xlibris etc it has never been easier to self-publish. Have any of you tried them? It's never been easier to get your book in print and self market so what's stopping you? If your book has a particular - rather than mass commercial market - why not check some of these sites out? As the local parish magazine that dropped through the door last night helpfully pointed out: 'The happiest people don't necessarily have the best of everything: they just make the best of everything they have'. So - you have all this online magic at your hands - if you feel your book has a limited local audience why not give it a whirl, print to demand and try your local bookstores? Or, perhaps, enlist your vicar.

TODAY'S PROMPT: Even if He isn't talking to you through Twitter ;), there's a whole bunch of stuff we all take for granted everyday. Have you ever noticed how small your children seem at night asleep - I'm sure their personalities during the day project them beyond the confines of their little bodies? Our perception of life is everything. How about when you are really tired and have been up working all night and the rooms feel smaller like Alice in Wonderland? (Hope that's not just me?) Or rub the mist off a full length mirror after a morning bath and how insignificant is your head compared to the rest of your body? But we give faces a lot of attention. So - what do you focus on? What - or who for that matter - do you take for granted?

The Parish mag went on to say 'Life isn't about how to survive the storm but how to dance in the rain' - at which point the inner cynic in me reared up. I am sick of the storm but would love to hear more about the great things happening in your part of the world. You say 'patata' I say 'pohtahtoh' and so on. When the stats went back up this evening I was amazed to see how many people are subscribing, and that WKDN is reaching over 90 countries now. So - if you're not 'dancing in the rain' how about sharing three simple things that amazed you today? Our top ten countries are: US, UK, Canada, Germany, Spain, France, Netherlands, Italy, Japan and Ireland. There are 10 posts to go before the big 200 so if one new or old commenter pops up from each country I will write about that country and what I found amazing it. Three things. That's all. I'll start with the UK:

1) a full rainbow over the Bishop's Palace driving into Bishops Waltham this afternoon
2) three children and an Afghan Hound bouncing on a trampoline at sunset
3) a forest full of bluebell leaves - no flowers yet but a glistening field of green leaves full of promise.

So - what amazed you today? x
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