More than, and exactly, a signature

SOAT elizabeth gilbert

If Eat, Pray, Love was your introduction to Elizabeth Gilbert (as it was mine), you could never have known just how capable she is as a writer of producing the work of magnificence that is Signature of All Things. I came to Signature by mistake because a friend recommended I read The Last American Man and because I trust his judgement (and even though I had also read Committed) I went looking for it, and couldn’t find it. But her latest, a novel, was on the shelves. I’m a sucker for the 19th century, for explorations and botanical drawings and for the secret lives of women, so I bought it. (For a quick synopsis see here. And if like me you didn’t know her pre-history to EPL then see this site.)

It’s completely fantastic on several levels: Continue reading “More than, and exactly, a signature”

An analysis of reading to discover oneself as a writer

I follow the blog and email newsletter Writers Write, and a while ago Mia Botha posted this (which I’m repeating in toto because it’s such an interesting exercise to do):

   Mia Botha      How To Own Your Story

One of the first things we do on a Writers Write course is ask you to list the last five books that you have read. The rule (of the very big thumb) being that you will probably write what you like to read. I always smile when people list all these wonderful literary works, Pulitzer Prize winners, and Man Booker Prize winners, and then somewhere, usually around number four, they add something like a good old bodice-ripping romp. This is always done with a lot of blushing and explanations like, ‘It’s a fun read’ and ‘It’s for when I really need to relax’… Continue reading “An analysis of reading to discover oneself as a writer”

‘I found myself here’

Billy Kahora from Brittle Paper
Billy Kahora left home to study in another country at the end of school because he and his parents could not see a future for him in Kenya. His parents wanted him to go to the US but it was expensive and a year studying there would cost the price of a degree in South Africa, so he came to Rhodes. His parents were keen for him to get into urban planning, but Billy chose journalism, English and politics. Visiting Rhodes last week he said to a class of writers: “I found myself here, trying to find a form.” Continue reading “‘I found myself here’”

‘Writing is social as well as solitary’

I’ve been struggling with a piece of writing for an academic journal which needs revising. The editor of the journal sent the two reviewers’ comments to me and my co-author with a simple comment “you’ll see that the one reviewer is a tough customer”. This review is nearly seven pages long and feels like somehow we touched a nerve and set this person off. The lecturing tone also makes me feel like an intruder into someone else’s disciplinary home, so the decisions about how to rework the piece feel very fraught. This was the state of mind I took with me into a writing workshop with Pamela Nichols one recent Saturday. It didn’t take long before Pamela’s use of the “Toulminised” method of argument and lots of little squares of white paper with words like “claim”, “context”, “reason 1”, “reason 2”, “evidence for 1”, “evidence for 2” had sorted out this particular fog and indecision. I (and my co-author who was there too) now have a very clear idea of what we want to say, and how to find the important bits in the review and to ignore the unimportant bits. Continue reading “‘Writing is social as well as solitary’”

Writing a marathon

Last Friday six of us got together at Chase Street to write a marathon. We used Natalie Goldberg’s instructions from Writing the Bones to guide us and modified the times slightly to suit our afternoon constraints. In essence the marathon is about writing and writing a lot in the company of other writers. Goldberg starts with 10 minute sessions and builds through 15 and 20 to 30. To get going everyone can throw a prompt into a pile, you can use or not use this prompt. Some of the writers came with a story and stuck to it all the way through, others like me, just let the prompt take me where ever it could. After a session you read your piece without comment from the others and then you move on. The writing again and again and the reading aloud have wonderful effects, in my case — and another two of the writers — it has provoked pieces I want to now take further. It’s given me material for more writing. Continue reading “Writing a marathon”

‘I have a desire to encounter’

I’ve spent a long time now in an academic environment (2014 begins 18 years of identity transition for me from journalist to teacher/researcher). Nevertheless I’m still a writer (of many sorts and forms) and I still value, and want to hold in tension with the priorities of my work life now, the experience and creativity and unpredictability of writing. So when this commitment gets a bit wobbled — as it does with any encounter with journals, editors, peer reviewers, institutional bean counters, rating committees, etc — I often put myself into conversation again with artists, the people who are consumed by an alternate vision of what matters, so that it brings back into perspective the tightrope I’ve chosen to walk to hold onto this commitment. Continue reading “‘I have a desire to encounter’”

When irascible women go travelling (and write about it)

Jenny Diski Stranger on a train Robyn Davidson Tracks

If you expect travel to be a vehicle for the psyche and you expect travel writers to deliver a satisfying story about growing, changing and knowing themselves better (via foreign space and human encounters), then steer a clear path around both Jenny Diski and Robyn Davidson, both of whom I read because of a trip to Australia. I was in need of a book for the long plane journey from Joburg to Sydney and borrowed Diski’s Stranger on a Train from friend Gillian and then having finished it within days of arrival needed another so borrowed Davidson’s Tracks from brother-in-law Tony (choosing to start here on my reading tour of this new place).

I hadn’t intended to think of the two together but Davidson’s book of crossing the outback with camels from 1980 and Diski’s 2002 accounts of a boat journey plus two train journeys, came together in my head in surprising ways. (I had heard of Davidson’s 1977 adventure from Alice to Perth (via Uluru) at the time and who knew they would choose 2013 to make it into a movie with Mia Wasikowska as Davidson.)

Both books are nicely surprising in multiple ways; let me enumerate: Continue reading “When irascible women go travelling (and write about it)”

Space of failure


Fail, fail again, fail better.* This Samuel Beckett quote became quite a mantra last weekend when I spent two entire days inside the MA room of the Insitute for the Study of English in Africa with creative writing teachers and writers thinking about how to write and how to teach writing. The draw to give up my garden and dogs and books for a weekend was a visit by Lance Olsen (from the University of Utah) and author of numerous novels and the book Architectures of Possibility which had caught the attention of the course co-ordinators of the Rhodes University MA in creative writing. Olsen was asked at short notice if he would come to Rhodes and he said yes.

Olsen’s style of running a workshop is to pose issues/questions and then to let the conversations run… Continue reading “Space of failure”

On Poetry… Form

So back to Glyn Maxwell On Poetry (it’s been a while I know, but all sorts of other things have got in the way like seven books of Game of Thrones). He begins this chapter by saying “You master form, you master time.” Yes time again, that enduring preoccupation, and then two pages later: “You master form, you don’t master time.” Yes, also true.

This chapter is about the left margin, the centre-aligned poem, the length of line, indent and repetition (which is never repetition, each separate same word has different meaning in a poem; say “Never, never, never, never never” and see. There needs to be some way of affixing the poem in the whiteness and often the left margin is it — the “fixed string’ for the music (page 56). Continue reading “On Poetry… Form”

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