Writing: A Family Affair

This Week’s Bit of String: Cabins in the woods

Beside a small but deep New Hampshire lake, opposite heavily forested hills framing each sunset, there’s a family resort with rustic woodland cabins, and a neighbouring converted farmhouse. That’s where I grew up—my parents rented part of the farmhouse, while my mother worked at the Lodge.

The lake and woods provided constant entertainment, but we were also fed a rich diet of stories and music. Bible stories, fairy tales, chapter books such as Heidi, Charlotte’s Web, The Borrowers, and more. I remember my father explaining A Midsummer Night’s Dream to me, very animated over who loves whom, his massive volume of Shakespeare’s works open tantalisingly between us when I was about three years old.

My parents also told us what went on in the world. Oppression in the USSR, famine in Africa, the Challenger. No matter how young we were, they couldn’t keep from us all the things that moved them.

Paddling toward the sunset on our favourite lake.
That’s what I’m talking about.

We saw our first musical when I was five, a Prescott Park outdoor production in Portsmouth. It was The Music Man, and we were enchanted that song could be integral to storytelling. Add to that my dad’s devotion to Grateful Dead and other similar groups; we knew no topic was too big or small to warrant a song.

From all these sources, flocks of what ifs fluttered through our minds. Every time we packed to visit my grandparents, my sister and I pretended we were orphans escaping a workhouse. We created fortresses between cabins, looting junk piles for crockery and defensive chicken wire. During the off-season, Mom walked us through the woods, imagining we had to sneak past a different Disney villain at each cottage. Our stuffed animals served as characters when we acted out the Chronicles of Narnia and other dramas.

I don’t remember many limits proscribed to our ideas. It’s only fair; if you ensure your child knows all about crucifixion as a pre-schooler, you can’t really criticise them for occasionally manifesting morbid fascinations.

When I was about four, my mother let me use her typewriter to write stories. I never finished, unable to come up with a satisfactory ending (a problem which sometimes persists). But I was given space to try, mentally and practically.

So it wasn’t that surprising, while I planned my annual, too-brief visit to New Hampshire this summer, that my dad suggested, “What if we had a literary festival of our own, in our family?”

And lo, the First Annual Short Stuff Showcase came to pass.

More Than Stories

We moved away from the lake almost thirty years ago. But for a few glorious days last week we converged in its cottages, holding our Short Stuff Showcase in front of Playwood, the little recreational cabin that has witnessed many a ping pong tournament and rainy day video session.

It was the first time some of our partners saw our childhood home, and we were accompanied by my sister’s boyfriend’s family. His brother-in-law joined in with a striking poem about raising children to love a fearsome world, especially poignant as his toddler climbed around him with a heart-melting grin.

Homemade posters for the Short Stuff Showcase
Not to be missed.

We opened with a trumpet-mouthpiece fanfare from my musician husband, who also contributed along with several others by keeping the small children occupied.

The programme continued with a variety of pieces from each of us: humorous and profound, original and recreated. My youngest sister enacted her favourite fairy tale with our old Cabbage Patch dolls, and my sister-in-law led us on the emotional roller coaster that was her diary from the summer she was ten.

My mother shared a song to convey her hope and faith for us, while my brother wrote a wonderful rhyme about establishing inner peace that can be reflected in art. I read out one of my lighter stories, “The Honorary Mothers League,” wanting to make everyone laugh. My dad mixed it up by both reading a silly song and then speaking about his appreciation for my mother.

At sixteen, my son might have been forgiven for eschewing the event, but the moment I’d mentioned it to him, he responded, “I’m in.” We’d discussed various ideas he could build on, and the night before, as we gathered round the hearth in our cabin, he scribbled a highly inventive tale about a bullfrog, a meerkat, and a crumple-horned snorkack. It was fun and also somewhat meta, defying the fourth wall.

Photo of us four children, across the street from the lake.
The Dream Team: 4 kids and a lake. I’m the one with the teeth. They’re better now.

My other sister had composed a poem about how we ourselves are the showcase, more than any small piece we produce, putting into beautiful verse a feeling that had warmed me throughout our gathering.

Living for a few years in an idyllic setting doesn’t equate to a completely idyllic childhood, and we’ve all had serious trials. There were plenty of instances, as we got older, when I’m sure our modes of self-expression caused our parents much more consternation than when I was four, pecking out a tale of a girl escaping a wolf.

And yet here we were, with beloved partners and children, with jobs we’re passionate about and the confidence to share. Our abilities to communicate and express ourselves through writing, and to empathise with others’ stories, have been indispensable bringing us to this point. We are the showcase.

Passing the Torch

When we weave stories, the ultimate tapestry will be partially comprised of bits of string stored since we were very small.  I’ve already passed a bizarre combination of music, film, literature, cuisine, and holiday traditions to my son, and he’s freely adapted it. He must barely have been in school when we got him a binder to keep all his different story beginnings in.

Checking in at the Twittersphere, I found a few writer friends had much less family support than I did. Some families see writing as a futile or worthless endeavour. I’m impressed by people who overcome that initial discouragement to devote themselves to a pursuit that doesn’t frequently offer encouraging results.

On the other hand, the historian and writer Christine Caccipuoti Tweeted that her family was supportive “1000%. They had a policy of never saying no if I asked to buy books (as opposed to toys), allowed me to stay up all night if I was writing, left me alone to do so when I asked, and fostered my love of acquiring pretty notebooks to write in.” Fantastic, I could use that kind of support as an adult. How did your early childhood and family culture contribute to your writing life?

For more tips about supporting kids to become writers, there are a couple of articles here and here. There could be a Short Stuff Showcase in your future, too!

Making Hay

This Week’s Bit of String: Do the books make the town or does the town make the books?
Murder and Mayhem bookshop, with a hound painted on the front.
Check out this crime story bookshop!

The bus wound past hills dripping buttercups into golden meadow pools at their feet, and past chomping sheep, unabashedly sheeplike and not the least bit sheepish. I disembarked beneath the castle ruins in Hay-on-Wye. As I made my way through busy, merry little streets, I saw at least one bookshop on each.

I camped on the other side of the Wye, about a mile from the festival site, so for each event I crossed through town. Guitar players lounged outside cafes and pubs, the queue for the sheep’s milk ice cream parlour outlined the market square,

Stand offering notebooks with covers salvaged from old hardbacks and record albums.
Rebound Books. I’d take them all!

and a man with his inebriated accomplice tried to sell anti-religion t-shirts to a polite elderly couple. The local Big Issue seller wore a scuba diving suit in the rain, and sheep-shagging costume in the hot sun.

Houses on the Brecon Road to the festival got in on the game, hiring vending trucks or just selling packages of biscuits and copies of the Guardian. One stand offered wonderful notebooks made from vintage hardcovers. A church set up a facepainting marquee and chatted to visitors about their stories, sending them off with free books about faith. Another stand offered poems and prints thereof for sale.

Flowers in one of the festival courtyards
At the festival

The festival itself was a network of baize walkways and shining white marquees around courtyards of sun loungers and fairy lights.

With all this scenery to take in, I barely wrote a word during my weekend away. It’s tricky to balance time spent absorbing writing material while actually striving to write it down…or is that just me?

Books for Activists, Activists for Books

The first talk I attended was about finance. Partly to challenge myself, but mostly because Marcus Brigstocke co-hosted it. His frank, laid-back humour was evident as he interviewed a professor on the financial industry. David Pitt-Watson reminded us the financial sector uses our money, and we should make our wishes known to it. He suggests write to pension funds and other companies we may be invested in, to insist our money is in ethical causes, such as green energy.

The Poetry Bookshop
I bought The Life and Rhymes of Benjamin Zephaniah here from his former agent who knows him well.

Late that evening I came to Benjamin Zephaniah’s talk about his new autobiography. He exuded utter delight, dreadlocks swishing as he gifted us his rhymes. He says he created many of his poems out of anger, at racism and poverty. But he didn’t seem angry in the slightest. Maybe just for that night, because he was there at Hay with an enormous, rightly appreciative audience. Or maybe creating those poems helped dispel the anger somewhat while still adding fuel to his activism.

Hearing Voices

After a stormy night, I hiked various paths between England and Wales, coming to shelter from the downpour under a town centre marquee where a group of men sang sea shanties. Back at the festival in the afternoon, I got the most delicious smoothie of my life and attended an Ian McEwan interview. On getting story ideas, Mr. McEwan says, ‘I’ll hear an inner voice, and like the cadence of it, and want to find out who’s speaking.’

Dresses and flowers made of book pages and sheet music
A charity shop reflects the bookish theme with its page art.

I wonder if he ever finds the voices are giving a brief diatribe or vignette rather than a full story. That happens to me sometimes. Do I need to be more intrepid in tracking them?

Still, the incredibly successful novelist’s passion for finding out about characters was reflected, somewhat askew, in Jim Broadbent’s interview later. Intriguingly, the actor devised a plot for a graphic novel called Dull Margaret, based on a painting by Bruegel the Elder. This was recently brought to life by Dix, an illustrator for the Guardian. I was struck by Mr. Broadbent’s relaxed approach to story-writing, paraphrased here:

Big screen surrounded by cutouts of leaves and plants in an event marquee.
One of the busy festival venues

Audience member: So is the need for love, is that the message of the book?
Jim Broadbent: Message? Yes, I suppose it might be. It’s just the story, you know.
Another Audience member: Graphic novels are popular with young adults. Are they your target audience, or who is the ideal reader you had in mind?
Jim Broadbent: (Smiling) Well, me. I was ready to read it.

He was obviously very taken with his character, a mistreated woman who tries to get her own back. If only that passion for character were enough to get the rest of us published. Or are we just not quite sufficiently mad about ours?

Defining Poets

I went to Simon Armitage’s lecture on Bob Dylan’s Nobel for ‘creating new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.’ He assessed Dylan’s lyrics as less-than-spectacular poetry. But perhaps, he suggested,

Brick house on the Wye River
Would I get more writing done in this house, or would the river lure me constantly away?

Dylan’s ability to reinvent himself, his individual language and spontaneity, were a liberating influence. ‘The problem with sticking it to the man,’ Armitage remarked, ‘is that the more successful you become at it, the more you are the man.’

For the final evening in Hay I listened to a reading of WWI poet Wilfred Owen’s letters and work, stunningly presented by festival founder Peter Florence. I had no idea how raw and ahead-of-his time these were. And Owen underwent such a transformation. Initially he wrote to his mother that he didn’t wish to go to war, that he could serve the country better alive than dead, thanks to the spring of verse welling within. In the end he insisted he return to the front even after a head injury because the war made him a true poet.

Grand facade of the Richard Booth bookshop
Books from around the world! I bought a maths one to bring home to my son, about ancient counting systems and the concept of infinity.

It’s sad in a way, that he was right, that he is known as a ‘War Poet.’ But it was an incredibly important role. It makes me wonder what makes us artists. Is it our art’s substance (which largely is foisted upon us; the residue of past experience or that ‘inner voice’ appearing from nowhere) or the form we work to give it?

Look at Hay, though. A beautiful, hill-guarded town with lots of old streets intact and the Wye alongside it—yet it’s reinvented itself as a book and festival town, and that’s what brings most of us there. I seriously recommend it.

Sign Language Poetry

This Week’s Bit of String: Children’s hands tied to their chairs

Imagine going to a special school, for children who share with you a unique difference from much of the world. But if you use this difference, you’ll be punished. This school tries to make you as un-different as possible, in accordance with the wishes of Those Who Know Best.

It would be a bit like taking Defence Against the Dark Arts without being allowed to do magic, wouldn’t it?

Shockingly, this was the experience for many hearing impaired children from 1880, when hearing people took over the deaf schools and prohibited sign language, through the 1960s and possibly even the 70s. One woman who went to deaf school in the 70s remembers that if she were caught signing there—despite coming from a deaf family with whom she signed all the time at home, not to mention her classmates were deaf—her hands would be tied behind her to her chair.

Curbing minority languages has a long history. African slaves brought to Haiti were banned from drumming, as they’d used drums to communicate over long distances. The drum again became an important art form to Haitians once they’d battled their freedom back. Gaelic and Welsh were previously marginalised by the British education system before making a comeback.

Likewise, sign language is once again a vital means of communication for the hearing impaired. It is becoming more of a fixture in public life, too, including at Ledbury Poetry Festival on the 8th of July, when I attended an event showcasing British Sign Language (BSL) Poetry.

Sign Art
Tudor street in Ledbury
Ledbury street

I’m ashamed to say it never occurred to me that sign language poetry existed (also known as sign art). I was thankful for the opportunity to be enlightened.

Ledbury’s event featured the signed poetry of Paul Scott. How can you have poetry without words? Well, poetry is more than just words, I would argue. It is emotion, rhyme and rhythm. You can have all those things without words.

Mr. Scott makes his poems rhyme by using repeated hand gestures, coming back to the same signed refrain, in a way. There is certainly rhythm in his movement. These elements were further illustrated at this performance with Victoria Punch’s ‘vocal gestures.’ She did not use words to echo Mr. Scott’s poetry, but sang notes and sounds to correspond with his phrases. This way, she did not detract attention from his language but lent emphasis to its patterns.

The performance was further complemented by film-poetry by Helen Dewbery and Chaucer Cameron. Most of the images used were abstract, and timed to correspond with Mr. Scott’s phrasing, as Ms. Punch’s vocals were. In all, this became a rich sensory experience while also allowing us a glimpse into the world of those whom some might see as sensorily deprived. Very fitting, as the message of Mr. Scott’s poems is that he feels the world deeply and wants us to know he is not deprived.

Matters of Translation

Because BSL uses a different syntax to English, hostess Kyra Pollitt did not offer a straightforward interpretation, but gave a summary of the poems between performances. This method made me realise the power of sign language. A single hand motion and/ or facial expression can indicate a great deal, without equivalent sentences being necessary. These generously provide the emotion necessary to poetry.

Tudor-sided corner building with gothic-style tower.
Ledbury’s former library building

Signed poetry can easily utilise the second person point of view. Mr. Scott’s poem ‘Who Stole My Heart’ implicated us as an audience, not in an excessively accusing way, but by making us aware of issues that concern him. Some of the audience felt this new language was more open to interpretation, but it seemed very direct to me (particularly when teamed with the preceding summary, the vocals and the film).

Other unique sign language qualities which enhance poetry: it allows for simultaneous symbols, which can add layers of meaning. It’s also a constantly, rapidly evolving means of communication, enabling the creation of new words to suit the work. There’s a cinematic aspect to it: sign language poets can zoom in or out, pan or freeze. As Ms. Pollitt described the art form, it creates ‘a collage of experience, making a medley.’

This uplifting event forced me to realise how intimate, and perhaps healthy it is to have an occasional holiday from words. I don’t know about you, but for me as a writer I’m often describing or narrating things in my mind. Of course it’s good to keep exercising those author muscles, but sometimes the phrases we’re turning turn our attention from the people in front of us.

This, on the other hand, was poetry with its heart on its sleeve, and I wholeheartedly recommend it. It’s scary that this form of communication was repressed for so long and generations missed out on learning from it–but as so often happens, trying to stifle a group of people results in feeding their resourcefulness and creativity. For other examples of sign language poetry, here is DeafFirefly’s website, linking to her YouTube channel and to the pages of other sign language poets.