Writing with Writers by Valerie Bird
Writing with other writers
It’s a story I’ve told so many times of four women meeting at a writing workshop twenty five years ago and realising that they were better together than waiting on the words of their tutor. Renegades we were, convinced of our worth; a good and unusual feeling for women. The honest sharing, listening and encouragement has continued to this day. Two of those women, Henrietta Branford and Vera Forster, are sadly no longer alive, but their spirits are always with us. Other writers have joined us, Sandra Horn and me. Many short stories, poems and novels later, this is what keeps me believing I am a writer.
Recently I’ve begun to meet a younger friend who, having completed an OU creative writing course some years ago, finds that the pressure of work keeps him from putting pen to paper. Once a month we meet to talk about what we want to write, ways to get round the lack of time, keeping the ideas floating around our consciousness so that one day we’ll put those words on paper.
I’m lucky in that my work comes in batches, my brain blocked for short periods, when nothing creative can slip past the portcullis. Reading other people’s work, though, is my constant companion, good and bad writing, learning why that is. The critical faculties always alert which is, I think, the best way of enriching your own writing. Yes, we all have our preferences, genre and style. For me plot is important but the way of telling, the language and portrayal of characters essential. If I’m not persuaded that those people ‘live’ or ‘have lived’, that there might be one person I can root for, even when doing dire deeds, I’m let down.
As I wait for my latest publication to come out on Amazon - ‘Incident on the Line’ - I am pleased to look back and see that I began writing this novel in the summer of 2014. That is only two years to fruition. I had just read a story that opened with the name of a character, abrupt and focused, which is how I decided to start. Greta Salway came from thin air to become a renowned crime writer meeting her ex lover thirty years after their liaison. How could that work out?
My previous novel ‘Ladybird, Ladybird’ published in 2014 was seven years in the making. I had an image of a couple sitting upright in their camper van, Lego characters. Stiff and looking one way, but what if one of them encountered something different, always longed for something different? I saw two young women from the top of a double decker bus, arm in arm carefree and laughing, which is what he saw too. I had to follow their trail to love and tragedy.
'A Retrospective' arrived when I was experimenting with dramatic opening paragraphs, how to grab the reader's attention. A man smothers a woman with a pillow - who, why? She was his mother dying of cancer, a mercy killing. Apart from the guilt induced, he finds that a child might have witnessed this act, a child who seems to know more about his mother than he, and brings him a parrot!
‘The Angel Child’ came before, inspired by a newspaper cutting of a old woman who’d been found dead in her garden, having lived outside, nesting in trees; The Birdwoman. I thought she must have lost her lover who would already be married with a child, the angel, who it was impossible to leave. ‘The Angel Child’ as a short story was published in the magazine, ‘Acclaim’. From a short story another came; the balloon man, the fortune teller, and on to a whole novel; this was magic realism.
‘The Eye of God’ was written for my MA, looking at why novellas tend to be out of fashion as well as the power of myth and folk tales. I wrote an up-to-date version of Jack and Jill.
In this new year, 2017, which holds so many ifs and buts, I am resolved that my schedule will be reassessed - brave words! Writing is one of my main pleasures - or having written - so surely I must be able to allow myself more time. push other activities aside, to give writing priority. Our regular writers’ meeting keeps me on track, the desire to produce something to read and elicit a response, is the perfect stimulus. Nevertheless I cannot continue to pretend that I can only write in the evenings, a pattern set up when I was working full time.
Sneaking off to a coffee shop is a good starting point. The change in environment helps and, to justify the expenditure, I have to churn out some piece of script. And there are so many characters lurking there too. I have found a beautiful young man who an elderly woman becomes convinced is her long lost child. There is the woman escaping her friends who wish to comfort her after the death of her husband. What fun it is, she finds, to be on her own assessing her prospects, as well as that group of elderly men. An old couple walk in hand in hand, she a past beauty, he a brown and wizened man; as they drink their coffee and eat their cake in silence, the current of love that runs between them has to be explained. And on to the man carrying a bunch of gladioli under his arm like a rifle. Here so many short stories abound.
A walk afterwards with what I’ve written talking back at me, reassembling, regenerating, is another way to keep it all alive. This is old hat, you all know, I’m not alone.
Which is why I was so delighted to be asked to write a blog for your esteemed writers’ collective. I’ve read your short stories and blogs where you display the pleasure of together recognising the value of the writing craft.