Writing between the lines

IMG_0530About a holiday taken with others. If you want to choose exactly what/where to visit, go alone or become a dictator. There are some wonderful art galleries in Belgium and the most beautiful riverside areas. No, I didn’t get to many, as I’d predicted, for I was holidaying with 7 others, including one engineer, one planner, one shopachocaholic and three teenage boys, one a football fanatic, one hyperactive and the other uninterested in the world outside the ipad. (The story of the engineer’s day will appear on this blog at some point.)

Bear with me. There will be a writerly message in this post. The philosophy is that writers should be open to all new experiences. There is always something to be gained, and I did.

This diversion en route to Maastricht to admire a transparent church in the middle of a field was the brainwave of our planner.  Yes, it was difficult to find. The satnav, using the postcode, brought us to a small, uninteresting village. As we trekked around in 37 degree heat, with nothing likely in view there were numerous complaints in tenor voices. After all, there was no shelter from the sun and we were delayed from a much more important stop to photograph a football stadium to add to the list of visited stadiums by our fanatic. The church wasn’t visible from any of the surrounding roads.

Isn’t it great that continentals have learned to speak English? Very sensible of them, given the language limitations of ourselves.  One local directed us to the remote lane that led to a field of maize.    IMG_1617

Shopachocoholic spotted the faint steeple outline hidden behind a water tower. We walked between fields of pear trees and maize until it came better in view.

The walk wasn’t really that long in the heatwave. And it was exciting to spot an apparently rusting edifice afar, at least for our planner, such that the remaining over-heated 6 considerably cheered up.

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The design of the structure imitates the village church standing not far across the landscape. It was designed by Gijs Van Vaerenberg and built in 2011 by Belgian architects Pieterjan Gijs and Arnout Van Vaerenbergh in conjunction with the art museum Z33.

Is it transparent? Yes. When viewed directly from any side of the church, its walls appear to be roughly see-through.  Is it substantial?  Yes. If you see it from the right angle, the building seems like a solid chapel.IMG_1619

We approached the solitary church to find that it was amazing cool inside. The strong sunlight hit the ground fragmented in an intricate design worthy of a photograph in its own right. Planner provided one.

We all but one stayed inside and admired the construction. 100 layers of stacked steel forms create the semi-transparent walls.     IMG_1625

Each layer is separated from another by over 2,000 squat steel columns. It weighs over 30 tons. By the time we had absorbed half of this, hyperactive had climbed to the top of the spire. From his point of view, the church had been built with flat layers for just that purpose.  IMG_1631

Planner was photographing his find; engineer was closely inspecting construction and metals used; shopachocaholic and co. were ready for the next excursion; hyperactive was circling the cross on the top. I’m a writer so I was making associations and thinking of allusions.

The different perspectives allowed by the structure considerably change the outlook, and that changes according to the direction of focus. Of course I thought of narratives that change according to point of view, and how the author can alter again by redirecting his/her focus.

The unexpected cool of the interior on this hottest of days made for a dramatic in/out contrast. It reminded me of the heat or being inside or the cool of being outside a situation.

What was the purpose of this church, clearly not designed in any way for services or ceremonies? Effectively a giant optical illusion, it makes a number of statements and these are relevant to the writer.IMG_1623

I believe the architects’ intent was to show the permanence of architecture in relation to the landscape dependent upon weather and man’s use of the land, and the steeliness of church institutions against all onslaughts. The creation of a quiet place of reflection so far from other buildings means that a visitor is both removed from and exposed to the outside world.

The church is called Reading between the Lines. The landscape is read between the lines of the walls, depending on direction of viewpoint, but so is the temporary view of that world. My greatest pleasure in reading is when I surmise something that is not stated, or when it is stated but needs decoding.
MesopotamianMost tellingly, these artists of construction dreamed up a way that the visitor would be both absent and present in the landscape, as indeed the artists are. When I read fiction I don’t want to be aware of the author. S/he can let his readers invest in his characters, not in himself. He is wise to refrain from presenting himself as informer about the plot or background. However, he is the creator. The writer is both absent from the current scene, and always present.

 

Writing/painting: pollination

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Some writers complain of writers’ block. Perhaps they are due for pollination from other sources.

I’ve written before about how cross-fertilization within the arts is something to seek out and to treasure. A writer, performing artist, teacher, does him/herself no good by constantly giving out and never feeding the self. Exposure to other art forms stimulates unexpected associations that would not otherwise occur.  Learning the techniques involved in these arts achieves even more than just appreciating the painting, dance, acting or exposition. You can imagine the reception of new stimuli neurologically: neural pathways highlighted and speeding like electric sparks across the cortex. For a writer, new associations, especially unexpected ones, enrich the language that later emerges under the pen.

This post results from participation in a wonderful watercolour workshop arranged by Pelisande courses near Stroud.

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A small section of the participants at work

An original idea for a botanical painting workshop, Bugs and Botanical provided two outstanding tutors with complementary skills to tutor on the topical subject of pollination. 15 participants learned from RHS gold medal-winning botanical artist Julia Trickey (plants) and Cath Hodsman, ASB, Natural History Museum wildlife artist (insects).

The two artists chose aquilegia as the flower to examine and paint because of its unique method of pollination. The nectar lies in the tip of the curled spurs, coyly tucked away at the furthest point from the seductively displayed pollen on the pistils. labelled aquilegia

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Julia Trickey painted in session

Aquilegia, a beast to paint, is like an unfaithful wife. It can be approached for its nectar from the front (by humming hawkmoth) and from the rear (by bumble bee). The hawkmoth zooms into the front entrance legitimately, showing off its tremendously long proboscis (as long as its body). The aquilegia meanly keeps its nectar as far away from its front entrance as can be, but the hawkmoth can reach it, hovering humming-bird style at the flower’s mouth.

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Cath Hodsman

Here is Cath’s painting, showing the hovering wings and proboscis’ tell-tale golden cache, post-visit, held away from its body.

Under the microscope the fluffy body is more like a loofah, quite rough in texture. The wing has minute overlapping segments like the  tessellation of a Roman mosaic.

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Cath Hodsman

Not to be outdone by the moth’s super-long proboscis, the bumblebee, displaying no shame about its lesser member, flies straight to the back of the flower and drills through the tube, filling its sac with nectar. This means it gathers no pollen on its furry body, a job carried out unwittingly by the moth. For its efficient pollination work on most other flowers, the bee is the ultimate in hairiness, even its eyes have hairs.

Under the powerful microscopes, the worthy bee, post nectar-gathering, is weighed down by its enormous load, carried like panniers either side of its thorax. Its complex eye has a surface like a fine metal grille. Not enough to say ‘I have eyes in the back of my head’ it has enormous eyes, comparable to the cheeks on a pig, plus three simple eyes, in the middle and either side of the top of its head. It must never stop looking.

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Cath demonstrated her technique for painting every detail in the microscopic accuracy for which she is acclaimed, and is used by Kew Gardens as scientific illustrator. Her painting is a matter of many painstaking layers, very fine brushes, a steady hand and tiny movements: dots for the bee and dashes for the moth. Her drawings are the amazing result of reproducing what is seen when enlarged very many times. When a writer can portray a character or setting in that detail, readers can feel they are truly entering the lives of those in the narrative.

It was a privilege to listen to Cath’s extensive knowledge of wildlife, and equally to watch the exquisite painting of flowers by Julia. Under her hand the complex form of the aquilegia came to life, petal by petal and not just with great attention to accuracy but with incomparable interpretation. Before painting, Julia examines the plant in detail so that its structure is as clear as the light and shade on its form.

JuliaTPainting wet on wet, Julia’s not so small brush delivers a touch of colour that slithers into place, The brush comes away leaving a perfect petal behind it, immaculate edges, veins, light, shade and shape. Note the plate beside her. It indicates how little paint she uses; she uses the cloth in front of her as often. Julia has videos of her techniques, as well as her beautifully illustrated books so that those who attend her courses can follow her techniques at home.  http://tiny.cc/76n1yx

During the 2 1/2 day course, participants worked intensively on their own attempts at both flower and insect, straining their eyes to capture the details that make the difference between a cursory and an informed detailed illustration. Fortunately, Pelisande courses include delicious food. Participants went home enriched in mind and body, if cross-eyed.

The humming hawkmoth pollinates jasmine, honeysuckle, gardenia, pittosporum, plumeria, oleander, star-jasmine and flowering tobacco amongst others. Writers would love to think that their words were that widely imbibed.

Among most species that breed in water, the males and females each shed their sex cells into the water and external fertilization takes place.  Ideas and images in our environment are cast out in different artistic forms. They are absorbed, then mentally reworked into the receiver’s mental system. In the case of fiction writers, a story emerges mostly many years later.

Among terrestrial breeders, fertilization is internal, and the parallel for the writer might be the unconscious adoption of behavioural tendencies that can come from early relationships. These then enrich the development of characters in the writer’s stories.

In reproduction, by recombining genetic material from two parents, a greater range of variability for natural selection to act upon, increases a species’ capacity to adapt to environmental change. So in writing, by reworking imageries from different art forms, something new can emerge that has greater meaning to readers than the unpollinated material that went before.

 

 

© Copyright 2015 Rosalind Minett

 

Bath Literary Festival, 1. Two authors, two issues.

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New authors might sit back and consider the undercurrent in their fiction. Despite a variety in the subject matter, authors may unconsciously repeat themes that have marked their lives.

March 2015. Bath Literary Festival offered its usual treats, the most popular being the talk by Kasuo Ishiguro, booked out within minutes of the programme going live. His first novel for ten years, The Buried Giant, has surprised readers by its fantasy genre. Ishiguro suggested that all of his novels had an underflow of unspok

BuriedGianten, part forgotten material.  There may be fantastic creatures in his novel but ‘buried’ in his title refers obliquely to the human tendency for suppressing memories about painful matters.

He had given a wonderful one-hour interview on BBC4 covering similar ground, whereas Elif Safak was newer to the Bath audience.

The two authors had ‘burying’ in common. Shafak referred to the ‘collective amnesia’ of Turkey, uncomfortable events in history more easily ignored if historic artefacts were not preserved.

medium_01-elif-shafakSpeaking fluently, extemporaneously and passionately in her third language, Safak also had amnesia on her mind, collective amnesia, for so much has been suppressed. The role of the woman, the existence of minorities. There is little urban memory, so that residents do not know the origin of their street names, for instance, and are not encouraged to ask questions or to care about the past. Shafak mourns the loss of cosmopolitanism in Turkey, which is why she loves London. The variety of cultures, nations, sub-groups is precious and stimulates creativity.

As a lonely child, Shafak found the books she read more real than the Turkish world around her. The questions she asked, the situations she wrote about, caused social bullying. She was spat at in the street, prosecuted for her first book, and her work came to the world in translation.

Shafak gave the listeners an insight into the current Turkish situation that was far more powerful than a description of her latest book (The Architect’s Apprentice, out late April).  It was a talk which had the full hall flocking to her queue as soon as her event ended.

‘No,’ she advised a questioner. ‘In the evenings, the streets (in Istanbul) belong to the men.’

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There was a parallel with Ishiguro’s talk. Ishiguro had rebelled against being an author who ‘explained Japan’ to other audiences. (He has lived in England since childhood). Safak had ridden the salt water of being a female author in a patriarchal society, so that the ‘wonder’ of her success appeared to be solely that she was a woman.  Both authors wanted recognition for the content of their novels, not to be defined by the stereotype.

But the real highlight of this literary festival came in the smaller room, the salon, with a smaller quieter audience, many of whom were deaf. London-based artist and writer Louise Stern grew up in Freemont, California, and is the fourth generation deaf in her family. Her debut novel ‘Ismael and His Sisters’ is set in a Mexican deaf community and is an extraordinary analysis of the way we experience the world and the barriers we build out of language. She hardly talked about her book, but about communication. It was very powerful.

That is the subject of my next post.

Film review: Tenderness vital for child development

Last night I saw a French Canadian film, Monsieur Lazhar. It was one of those films that immerse you completely in the watching, and fails to leave you for many hours, perhaps days afterwards.

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Lazhar is an Algerian who sidles into an unexpectedly vacant teacher’s job. The Head is pretty desperate and has no applicants, so that when he presents himself, obliging and immediately available, she takes him on. His class of 11-12 year olds in this small primary school in a suburb are trying to adjust to the suicide of their teacher, found hanging in their classroom by the scamp of the class. They quickly take him to their hearts and their grades go up as he stretches them academically. We realise he hasn’t the teacher training to rely upon. He starts with a dictation from Balzac. However, his total commitment to the children pays off.

The plot unravels to reveal why Lazhar needed the job and his especial sensitivity to the children’s feelings. We also find the effect the suicide has on the different children in the class and their various perceptions of events. The teachers, the Head, one of the children gradually reveal what caused the suicide.

It is a beautifully written and directed film (Philippe Falardeau) with memorable acting from all actors, including the children. It was good to see how each child was individually portrayed, not as a class mass. The quality of acting gained from two of the children was exceptional. I also enjoyed the clever and amusing small part of the drama teacher making a play for Lazhar. The scene where she hopefully has him to dinner was delicately and subtly managed.

The themes of this film are far bigger than expected. What should we say or not say to children who have witnessed a terrible event. How should we deal with their distress and possible misunderstandings? The film shows the tension between the ‘Let’s move on, help them to forget it’ and the opposite view. One child uses her oral presentation assignment to throw the whole subject open, putting a very different slant on the event.

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Bigger still, and a subject that badly needs much public re-think, is the zero tolerance policy for touching of any sort. The sports teacher has the children running in circles (literally) because he cannot help them climb, or mount the ‘horse’ any more. The other teachers reflect on the impossibility of disciplining or restraining students. Lazhar, never having been trained as a teacher, has tapped the back of a child’s head when he threw an object at another child. (Sackable offence?) Ultimately, we learn what happened when the dead teacher comforted a boy who was crying.

The outfall for good will and love is undeserved punishment, but the last shot of the film makes its emotional point.

The Dalai Lama advised that tenderness is vital for a child’s healthy development. How sad if teachers and others must withhold what they see is sorely needed.

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Ballet teachers are in difficulties for no longer can they easily correct a body position,  such as a leg in arabesque, (“higher, turn it out”) with a push or point as before

Nowadays, it is felt that children cannot be allowed to trust automatically. Unknown adults must be mistrusted automatically.

father-holding-handFor this reason, as well as the wonderful direction, acting and literary feel of the film, I hope ‘Monsieur Lazhar’ will gain a wider audience. We all need to re-think.

Perhaps it is down to writers to help things along.  Falardeau has certainly done his bit.

Towards a super-blog?

Eye-catching and complex. This is the kind of illustration that attracts my attention. I’ll scroll down if I see something like this. Ideally, a blog post needs a visual with immediate appeal.

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Let me start by emphasizing that this post is a personal view. I don’t have the blogging qualifications to give the answer to my title, but I am a reader of blogs, so my reactions to blogs won’t be unique.

In this post I am highlighting four blogs I have come across and followed with delight – delight because I cherish mastery. Each of these blogs, despite being so different from each other, displays a mastery of the chosen field: blogging. It’s become apparent to me that blogging is a new art form, and one that can make use of existing art forms as well as new technology.

This is my personal criteria for a blog to be excellent: it has to attract the eye, serve an immediate need for specific information, be clever in its use of the web-site technology, to entertain and be memorable.

I am sure there are thousands of wonderful blogs, but I’ve been too wrapped up in managing my own blog struggles to surf a lot. I was handicapped by not having been a blog visitor before having to create one. It was like being told to trampoline before I’d learned to jump. Nevertheless, it didn’t stop me noting quality as soon as my blogging trawls began.

The following blogs each offer something special, and they’ve each paid due attention to the appearance and ease of use of their blog. Furthermore, each demonstrates commitment to the work of blogging and the responsibility of delivering quality content.

The Inky Fool. My prize for erudition. http://inkyfool.com   Mark Forsyth generously presents information on words, where they might be found or used, their derivation or intricate, fascinating details about them. Example posts:  an examination of the origin, role and place of Sherlock Holmes in literature; the Anglo-Saxon version of Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Wordiness can be great fun. It’s a wonderful site, and incidentally makes you want to rush off and buy these unique books. The blog is impressively elegant and is easy to negotiate.Inky Fool

The Bloggess.  http://thebloggess.com   My prize for hilarity. Jenny has a huge following and a book that developed by demand as result of her entertaining blog. (Enviable position!) She appeals to all our rebellious and unworthy urges, provides a fun outlet for all the cringeworthy mistakes anyone might have made and states outrageous things with a jokey corollary so that no-one could reasonably complain. (Unreasonable ones do). Example posts are shown, but these can’t do justice to the fun of Jenny’s discourse.

AnneRAllen. http://annerallen.blogspot.co.uk. My prize for quality writing – as it happens, about writing. There are many writing blogs, often with advice that is very ‘samey’.  This blog convinces with sensible, knowledgeable advice, well written articles and links to useful information. Example article =        12 Signs Your Novel isn’t Ready to Publish    The presentation is clean and spare. The opinions do not appear to be derivative, as is true of many writers’ blogs. I’m a Brit, so in British terms, AnneRAllen is a Liberty’s as opposed to a British Home Stores writers’ blog.

Morgen Bailey.   http://morgenbailey.wordpress.com/ My prize for multi-tasking, and a separate prize for responsiveness. The presentation is of layers upon layers of related sections. The multitude of key words to click and explore fairly represents the true multi-tasker. Look at how comprehensive this is:

I’ve admired, enjoyed and explored these blogs. I know there will be many others of excellence, but these provide good examples of successful blogging. They provide a real service.

Regarding my own two blogs, I’ve been told my other one is (not Rolls Royce, lol, but) unique. It provides no service! It developed out of a mischevious attempt to retain some privacy while still giving exposure to my book. The Me-Time Tales blog has the characters do the writing. I let them take charge and dominate me. Now the blog has taken on a life and narrative of its own and has received to date 5,500 visits in its five months of life. Since it doesn’t have articles, guests and so on, I guess it will stay in its weird form until it dies. Everything has a natural life and I am prepared for this. http://fictionalcharacterswriting.blogspot.com

And this blog? It will be some time before I have learned all the skills necessary to develop it into the superblog I would like – a resource for character-based writing, and to discuss writing in process.  Meanwhile, I continue to search for blog masters and to learn from them.

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Do leave a comment if you have learned something useful about blogging. 

Writers’ and Readers’ Last Minute Xmas Sav(i)ours

Yes it’s that time again. Mary couldn’t get a cloth to match the curtains and Reginald’s special chair ruins the symmetry of the display. Now, Harold’s coming, totally unplanned-for, there’ll have to be a rattan chair from the conservatory squeezed onto a corner between – ? – whoever looks thinnest on arrival. PRESENTS!!! Thank goodness for the last minute saviours discussed hereSONY DSC

There are characters sorry, personable individuals whom you know, and what’s more have to suddenly buy for. (Yes, we’re all busy, can’t remember everyone) OR (ouch, didn’t know he’d be there for lunch so didn’t buy him anything. He’s bound to embarrass me by bringing something lovely)  It all adds up to: “Must get something for Betty or Betram, but what???”

Let me help. Books can come in different sizes, shapes and surprises.

Ignore that set of highly reviewed and popularised paperbacks on the front tables of your local large bookstore.  Other people will have had the same thought – “Ah, the latest X or Y” (I daren’t specify or my life won’t be worth living).  Be original.  You can’t? You have gone blank with Christmasistis? Here are some books that will please more than one of the following people. If so, their pleasure may warm your attitude towards them. Christmas is the time of Goodwill to All Men. I’m sure this was meant to include women. The books do.

Working out which book for which person is a small problem; all the rest is done for you.

CHRISTMAS GUESTS INCLUDE:
Lorraine: She has frequent periods of depression following failed relationships. In her downs she retires to bed and reads avidly. Take those romances away, they only make her cry. She needs mental stimulation and a new way of thinking. If she can’t cope, there’s flash fiction. That means she can be diverted between pages.

Cyril:     Once he represented HM as consul in a distant island. Life was slow, uncultured and extremely comfortable. Now returned, he is at a loose end, swings between part-time and futile consultancies and no longer feels sufficiently important. He needs a book that will give him instant gravitas.

Avril:     Sharper than we would like her to be, she appears to have read EVERYTHING, mostly with a cynical eye. She needs to be charmed, to be softened up, to learn that books exist outside her realm.

Dominic:   He is a dandy, valuing appearance far too much. Apart from a mirror, he needs to think big, and particularly to think. Go carefully, too taxing a book will prevent him from opening the cover. 

StJohn:          Actually he is a late middle-aged reviewer on DareISayIt newspaper. He thinks he has his eye on everything literary. Most people buy him rare brandy or titbits from Fortnum and Mason’s. Surprise him and he will admire you for ever. But it better be good.

Tom:            He gains enormous pleasure from reading books that have faults. It will fill the room with his tenor bleats if you can find a badly edited book with an erudite author. Unfortunately, I dare not nominate one or every word I write in the future will have spit on it. The other alternative is a book that deliberately compiles mistakes but this is a poor substitute.

Adrienne:    She reads romances hidden between the pages of Margaret Atwell novels and now she has run out of this fodder.  I have just the book for her. An unequal relationship, breached ethics. Let her brood on the outcomes of forbidden lust. OR accept the unlocking of certain females.

Siobhan:      She’s everyone’s cousin, newly arrived from time overseas and totally, but totally out of touch, darlings.  Give her a break. Let her eat cake. There’s plenty in one book here.

Mary:            Always the hostess, never the guest. Give her something so gripping she won’t bother ever making a hot toddy for anyone again, let alone a cooked meal, particularly gourmet. 

Derek:          Was he invited???? I can’t bear him. Can you? No, no-one can, the pontificating has-been. Anywhere, here he is bearing orchids reduced price from B and Q masquerading as high class florist’s choice for “lovely ladies”.  Uck.  Give him something that will make him see women differently. OR a huge book that will cause him to retire to the study almost permanently.

It was a ‘no-kids’ invite, thank goodness. Kids books might emerge on another post. But only if amazingly different.

Have fun with the party games, everyone. Here is one of them is ‘fit the book to the beast.’

PREZZIE CHOICE: SEE DESCRIPTIONS IN THE FOLLOWING POST. Author names include: Kerr, Schott, Merceron, Minett, Deng, Hollis, but there are more . . .