creative writing

The Stranger in my Life

The Stranger in my Life
Janet Holt & Helen Parker
Biography, Creative non-fiction
Kindle
1 January, 2014
E-book
366

I was first made aware of Janet Holt's book, 'The Stranger in my Life' when I read 'Take Three Birds', a sort of autobiographical travelogue co-written by Jill Pennington, Tottie Limejuice and Janet Holt. Both Jill and Tottie made various mentions of the difficult times Janet had been through in her past, and also that she had written a book to tell her personal story.

My curiosity was piqued, and as soon as I completed 'Take Three Birds' I delved straight into Janet's story.

All through the book I had to remind myself that I was reading a true story -- Helen Parker, who wrote the story for Janet, is what I would describe as a skilled creative writer of non-fiction. In spite of the book using considerable use of backtracking in order to put events into perspective, at no point did I feel confused by the frequent shift in time. Perhaps it was her use of first person point of view which rendered the whole more credible in spite of the seemingly far-fetched subject matter.

In substance, Janet Holt loses all recollection of a few days of her life during March 1976. The story tells of her quest to resolve the puzzle which has haunted her for some 34 years, during which time she suffered terrible nightmares and frequest bouts of anxiety. Nonetheless, she manages to successfully run a farm and hold down rewarding employment and a long-standing relationship for much of that time.

Thanks to the concern of a close friend, in 2010 she seeks out medical care to find the root of her anxiety problems. The sessions with the psychologist lead to a series of revelations which deeply affect her and present her with a new set of problems to resolve.

I found the writing very convincing and at no time did I question that I was in Janet's head as she lived through each phase of her traumatic story. Top marks to Helen Parker for her role in the creation of the finished work, and to Janet who opened up her amazing story to the general public.

NB. Don't do as I did -- I Googled Janet to understand her story more fully, and ended up 'spoiling' the end for myself!

Take Three Birds

Take Three Birds
Jill Pennington, Tottie Limejuice, Janet Holt
Autobiographical travelogue
Kindle
15 December, 2014
e-book
188

My only reason for having chosen to read this book was the fact that I recognised two of the authors names from writing groups on the social media. By the end of the read I was pleased to have given the book a chance.

In hindsight, the book description is accurate, but for some reason I had expected to be presented with a story of sorts, rather than what is basically a diary of events garnished with each writer's background story and their impressions of one another. Frequent use is made of the inclusion of what appear to be complete transcripts of social media messages and emails.

The tale hops from one head to another as each writer in turn picks up the threads of the story from a personal viewpoint -- the preparation, the journey, the hospitality, the food, home ground and finally conclusions drawn and consideration of future plans. We gain insight into the strengths, weaknesses and foibles of each of them and by the end of the book have a fairly good idea of how each of them ticks. I, for one, certainly felt as if I had made three new friends as I recognised character traits similar to my own in each of them.

I want to justify my middle-of-the-road rating by saying that much as I enjoyed the book, it does not offer any mind-blowing concepts or psychological thrills. It certainly held my attention from beginning to end as a light and humorous read, even though I kept waiting for the 'book-planning' discussions that were hinted at, but never evolved, possibly due to the excess of wine consumed. Full marks to Tottie for her editing -- to Jill for her overblown enthusiasm and girly giggles -- and to Janet for having taken the bull by the horns and acted on instinct.

The Venice Experiment

The Venice Experiment -- a year of trial and error living abroad
Barry Frangipane & Ben Robbins
Travel
Kindle
26/06/2011
e-book
256 pages

An amusing series of brief anecdotes recounting the author's personal experiences during his experimental year in Venice. Having lived in Venice for some 40 years myself, I recognise many of the situations he describes and can feel his bewilderment when faced with some of the typical Venetian behavioural oddities. On a few occasions, I did feel that perhaps he himself had fallen victim to some of them when he made sweeping generalisations about the 'status quo'.Just one example which struck me in particular was the affirmation that Venetians don't own ovens! The truth is that Venetians who rent out apartments to foreign visitors, rarely include an oven as an essential electrical appliance because of the added expense, both as furnishing and as an included utilities cost. My Venetian husband was adamant -- 'how do you think we all cook our lasagne?'

On the whole I would recommend the book to aficionados of Venice who are interested in learning more about what it means to live the life of a 'Venetian' from a non-Venetian point of view. An easy read covering a wide variety of Venetian traditions, events and daily routines, especially useful to those who are able to carry out their own 'Venice Experiment' enjoying an extended stay in the city.

Reflections on Venice Writing Retreat, 2015

Eating 'al fresco' at the Venice Writing Retreat 2015 Photograph by Angelica Hopes

Eating ‘al fresco’ at the Venice Writing Retreat 2015
Photograph by Angelica Hopes

It’s not over really — still things buzzing around my head and odds and ends of loose strings to tie up before I can say that the Venice Writing Retreat 2015 — also referred to as the Venice Editing Masterclass (I like the ring of that) — can truly be considered packed up and put away.

As I am still uncertain when that end will be, let me see if I can go back far enough to remember the beginning. I risk being accused of giving you too much ‘background’, but for me this all started years ago, so bear with me.

My parents recognised me as a ‘leader’ when I was only knee high to a grasshopper, though some might have been a bit more pragmatic in their assessment of my skills — I think the term they used was ‘bossy boots’. Leaving aside gratuitous interpretations of my powers of ‘leadership’, it so happens that much of my useful employment and social interaction over the years, has entailed the organisation in one way or another of groups of individuals of varying ages, herding them in both my private and professional lives according to a set of rules, often devised by myself. Well someone has to do it don’t they?

The list of examples of aforesaid situations and large group events is endless (and insignificant to the extreme) and includes large scale kids’ parties with entertainment; coach-loads of opera devotees; wine tasting; darts’ tournaments and beer slurping; puppet making workshop; English lessons; candlelit dinner parties for large groups of anything-but-romantic tourists; a World Cup fanatic ruckus (also present, some of the opera devotees); guided visits to renowned landmarks scattered around Europe; guided visits to totally unknown landmarks in the same geographical areas including a never-to-be-forgotten visit to a pig farm in the Italian Alps, and to a bakery owned by the same people. I hope I am getting my point across — the fact that I was obviously destined to organise things?

It’s still a bit fuzzy in my mind as to how and why the seed of the writing retreat idea blossomed to such proportions. It could be that after I had successfully completed a couple of formal creative writing courses, I was feeling totally bereft at the lack of opportunities to hone my writing skills with like-minded wannabe writers — or at least — wannabe writers in the English language. Could just be I had been looking in the wrong places, but the fact of the matter is that I began to mess with the notion of holding some sort of writing event on my own doorstep. It only took a few ‘likes’ and a little research on Facebook (yes — I know — it’s so embarrassing), to ‘meet’ up with Roz Morris who already regularly tutors writing workshops for ‘The Guardian’ newspaper. She and my published-writer-brother, Henry Hyde were ‘linked’ up virtually both through their personal pages and also through the common interest they hold in ALLi, The Alliance of Independent Authors.

In fairness, Roz Morris was one of several authors who had caught my attention and who had accepted to take part in my event, should it ever actually happen. But it soon became clear that I would need to launch the first edition of the Venice Writing Retreat using a special set of rules — an experimental set of rules created ad hoc for my ‘first time’, for my ‘beta’ event. Roz was allowing me to use her as a guinea pig though perhaps her connections with Henry gave her greater confidence in the potential success of the event. Her risk was limited — controlled. Regardless of the outcome she would be assured her return flight to Venice, her accommodation, her food and fees. But I was not in a position to promise her a full classroom. Being the professional that she is, she accepted those terms and went about preparing her detailed notes and presentation with which she would teach her class, regardless of how many students it might have contained at the final count.

Setting up venues and equipment — a tailored web site and outside catering were child’s play for me. I had found myself in a similar situation on many occasions for both work and social events. A good number of years as a European travel guide with one of the toughest companies in the business, had taught me certain organisational skills the hard way. In more recent years, extensive experience with the joint management of a non-profit outfit responsible for laying on large-scale entertainment had provided me with unexpected strengths in other aspects of people handling.

But in spite of a somewhat exaggerated confidence in my ability to handle anything that came my way, I was suddenly faced with my ‘bête noire’ — my major stumbling block — marketing. It has never been my forte — I can talk the hind legs off a donkey, but if I have to sell myself, I just fall apart. My confidence slips away from me and I become apologetic about my very existence. My thoughts become addled and I forget all the sensible selling ploys that I had planned so very carefully. I cringe and back down and desperately hope that my social skills will be enough to get me through.

So from my point of view, using a mish mash of methods ranging from personal contact to Facebook ads; locally distributed flyers and the backing of a number of warm-hearted champions of my cause — to have managed to get any participants at all, was a major success. To the small group of participants I am totally grateful because, for whatever reasons, they trusted that the event would happen, and that it would happen in one of the most desirable locations in Europe. They were collaborative and understanding and went out of their way to ensure that the workshop was a success. They were attentive and sensitive students, hanging on to Roz Morris’s every word. They were quick to offer a hand when the time came to move tables, serve lunch and clear up. They endured the unusual heat and humidity and then threw themselves headlong into the fascination of the city, making sure they would take home a wide range of memories from our few days together.

And yes — there will be a second edition because it would be so sad not to repeat the wonderful experience all over again — the camaraderie and sense of belonging, and finally understanding that all we wannabe writers have the same fears and literary skeletons in our cupboards.

So watch this space. I’m certain it won’t be long before I begin all over again!

For more specific information, and a more objective report of the Workshop 2015, visit www.creativeretreatsinitaly.com

Photograph courtesy of Angelica Hopes

‘Tenth of December’ [book review]

Tenth of December Book Cover Tenth of December
George Saunders
Short story (contemporary)
Bloomsbury Publishing
3 January 2013
Kindle
271

His writing leaves you feeling a bit like being flooded with emotions that you weren't aware you had, or had subconsciously chosen to repress. Reminds me of the free writing we did at school which has then been thoughtfully and sensitively knocked into shape to reveal an incredible insight into the workings of our minds and the frailty of human nature. His words open up sores and place us before self-criticism. No easy escape as you feel drawn to continue in spite of -- or perhaps, because of -- a tumble of intricate mental meanderings leading you to the end; an end which is never final, but just a brief breathing space for reflection in the repetitive toil of life.

My faith in the power of short stories has been restored.

Wait for me

Photograph by Janys Hyde

Wait there my boy, we must depart,
but I’ll soon be home, you’ll see.
Away he trooped with all the men
without glancing back at me.

They soon retreated from my view,
a bright patch in the distance.
How war affects the strongest man
had still not touched my conscience.

I was too young to even know
that they’d live in fields of mud,
amid the blast of massive guns
and the stench of death and blood.

But he did not keep his promise,
they say t’was not his fault.
There had been far too few of them
to make the final assault.

They finally recovered him,
when all the war was over;
a fallen hero at the end
amid red poppies and white clover.

Words & image by Janys Hyde

The Sign

High on the hill, time creeps by almost unnoticed, but for the cadence of the seasons. For the main part the idyllic isolation is undisturbed if not by the occasional strident call of a lamenting fox or the violent passage of an electric storm.

But last month changed all that.
The tall figure of an elderly man, balding head uncovered, dressed in a long black robe which flapped angrily around his legs, took to stomping back and forth across the hilltop several evenings a week. Cloaked by the mantle of darkness he closely inspected the few trees scattered along his way. Mumbling and grumbling to himself he fiddled restlessly with a rosary chattering in his right hand, stopping every now and again to launch a mild imprecation and gesticulating towards the heavens cry -‘Why don’t You do something? Give me a sign! This Mafia business has gone too far – it’s too much,’ but getting no response, he returned to his mumbling and nervous shuffling. Swish, swish, swish, chatter, swish, chatter.

As the days went by, the man concentrated his attention on one tree in particular – a gnarled and majestic oak with several low hanging branches. He circled it time and time again, kicking up clouds of dust as he went, his mumblings and imprecations alternating with greater frequency until one evening the pattern was interrupted.

He arrived carrying a length of rope and a folding stool tucked under his ample vestment. No longer mumbling, his rosary abandoned, he threw the rope over one of the lower branches of his chosen tree and tying one end securely to another branch nearby he then arranged the stool underneath. With quiet concentration he clambered up onto the stool, taking care to lift his long robe out of the way. His hands tested the strength of the noose at the loose end of the rope before slipping it over his head and tightening it snugly around his neck. Balancing himself, arms stretched out to his sides, he raised his eyes to the sky and shouted to the wind, ‘Per l’amor’ del cielo – give me a sign!’

Behind him, swaggering stealthily towards the lone tree was another figure of a man. A younger looking man wearing a dark flannel cap which almost hid his gleaming eyes and black curly hair. His teeth shone white in the darkness, his mouth set in a wide beam of indecipherable amusement. He rounded the tree and came close to look up directly into the face of the man teetering on top of the stool. Thumbs tucked into the welt pockets of his rough waistcoat he looked up to take in the scene. He began to laugh and with a single, deft movement, kicked the stool from under the robed man’s feet.

***

From the distance brilliant flashes were rolling in silently, tinting the night sky purple and orange, illuminating the surrounding hills and the silhouettes of the two men,. A single blinding flash followed immediately by a deafening crack, seared the oak and travelled at the speed of light down the gnarled trunk and into its immense underground network of embedded roots. They glowed eerily in the dark as the mighty force exploded into the surrounding earth.

Word count — 537
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Hang on a tick

Janys Hyde ScribblerIsn’t it strange how you can write all your life — and in my case that covers quite a few good years — and then suddenly, when you decide you want to make it all official and ‘come out’ — make it known publicly that you consider yourself a writer, you find that words fail you or no longer seem to make any sense. They seem to lose their worth and can no longer render your ideas in quite the same way as they have done for goodness knows how long. For years you have been perfectly capable of getting your meaning across to those you have had to address, be it friends, family or colleagues and even strangers — there has never been a breakdown in communication as a result of your incapacity. Instructions have been followed — copious exchanges have been made — words have been spent on the myriad subjects of quotidian exchanges — you have been given exactly the sort of response you had hoped your words would arouse. So what happened — what burst your writing balloon?

Well I suppose the problems really began when you took that decision to crawl out of the woodwork with the aim of writing meaningful stories. For some inexplicable reason you decided that the tools you had for writing were no longer sufficient. We’re not talking about those fundamental tools such as grammar, punctuation and spelling — they don’t count really because under normal circumstances, even a basic education will probably have ensured that they are an instinctive part of your writing process. And if they are not, perhaps it would have been wiser to concentrate on those to begin with rather than take on the burden of a fancy creative writing course.

We’ll take for granted your ability to write ‘correct’ English, so you started to look around to see what the market had to offer for so-called ‘creative’ writing — courses, books, workshops, master classes, private tuition, blogs, web sites — it’s all out there, not so much for the taking, but certainly for all tastes and pockets. And if you were not very careful, you could even have foolishly overlooked with what authority on the subject many of those who offer aforesaid facilities are doing so. Everyone seems to be hopping on the ‘Creative Writing Bandwagon’, though I do wonder how much ‘copying and pasting’ is going on to a greater or lesser degree!

Ok — so you chose something which seemed to fit the bill – you followed the introductory lessons, foundation module or opening pages, and suddenly you fell to pieces. And as if not knowing which end of your pen to use or how to type was not enough, you found yourself having to expose your puerile efforts to peer critique. And as we all know now, mainly in hindsight having suffered at the hands of at least one of these assholes, peer critique always involves at least one know-all who has ‘been there, done that’ and has all the answers. They are particularly vitriolic if there is a tutor to impress, gleefully lashing into you efforts and highlighting your ‘lacunae’ using highfalutin terms that even the tutor is hard-pressed to understand — (you can see that I picked up a few of them myself in that last sentence). What I have always found very curious however, is how these superior peers (the assholes I mean) rarely present any of their own work for ‘positive critique’ — how is that, I wonder?

So where does all this leave your confidence? Rock bottom is an understatement. And here is where your real problems begin, because not only do you have to deal with peer critique, you religiously wade through the whole course, or the whole book, or sign up to one or more of the online workshops, and ‘like’ all the blogs and social media pages — and in most cases, you will have done all of those things and a lot more. You start to take notice of all the suggestions for publishers and how to get your book out there — stuff normally found in the last chapter of the book, or final module in the course — only to discover that many publishers will be looking for letters after your name — for writers with fancy degrees — and/or they will be wanting a copy of your list of published works. You start to carefully read all the profiles existing ‘writers’ have created for themselves to see how they got away with it — what ‘qualifications’ they have to have been published — forgetting that in spite of them being written in third person (what’s that???) in most cases it will have been the writer him/herself who will have written all that personal blurb about how brilliant they are and how many awards they have won and stuff. They call it marketing — but your creative writing education hasn’t got to that part yet, and if things continue as they are, you will probably never have to worry your pretty little head about marketing anyway.

This is deflating, big time. And everywhere you turn you see writers publishing and talking books, and signing books, and having a knees-up at book fairs and literature festivals and you feel totally out of it all. So just to be sure that you have got it all right in your head, you buy more books — as if the official book list at uni hadn’t been long enough, you can’t help feeling that you have missed a vital point somewhere — that secret key to open the flow of words which is taking so long to surge from your head to the page. It’s in there somewhere, so just a few more angles on ‘how-to-do-it’ and you will be sure to get it right.

I don’t know though — sometimes it all seems so wrong. I can’t help asking myself if Shakespeare or Milton had these problems. How many writers of the Classics read books on ‘how-to-do-it’ I wonder. They will very likely have had their off-days, or even weeks, months or years — but I can’t somehow believe that there was the sense of one-upmanship or competition that seems to hover above the writers’ world of today like a heavy black cloud. A continual ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ attitude — who is fastest on the draw to get out a new publication. And I have read some of these publications, and frankly, even though many are blessed with an intriguing storyline, quite a few of them leave a lot to be desired when it comes to tying up the loose ends. I would like to say that typos are the worst of the proofreading hiccoughs that I’ve come across, but no, much to my dismay I have found that there are much greater sins that cannot simply be explained away as the slip of a finger on the keyboard. Do these people own a dictionary? Are they all so presumptuous as to believe that they know how every word is spelt just by hearing it? I mean, the English language is notorious for similar sounding words with completely different spellings isn’t it?

But I’m ranting. Let me set aside my basket of sour grapes. My vision is blurred — becoming a little distorted. Too many writing manuals and blog articles on how to get it right.I think it’s time to clear the shelves and open up a breach in the clutter, although in reality probably most of the clutter exists in my own head. And maybe it’s about time I just got down to writing without worrying too much about how it all comes out and what everyone else is up to. Others have been there before me with their doubts and uncertainties and deep down, even some of the published authors (yes – you can call yourself an author once you’re published!) still have their off-days. Nothing new about that. Should I face up to the fact that I am trying to camouflage a flaw in my ability to write? Maybe I should just give up and get back to learning how to crochet or play bridge?

Hang on a tick — let me just finish my latest purchase. So many people (writers??) have recommended Stephen King’s ‘On Writing, A Memoir of the Craft’ so I must give it a go. It could prove to be exactly the push I need.

Cyber Trap

Janys Hyde ScribblerI’ve never been a great fan of Facebook. It has always disturbed me that something I might say in ‘private’ to a Facebook ‘friend’ — or even a member of my Facebook family come to think of it — might end up in Timbuktu without my ever having given permission for it to go there. The privacy settings are often convoluted and obscure and seem to change with such a mind-boggling frequency that — unless you happen to live on Facebook, you can overlook an important change at the bat of an eyelid and end up with your most intimate revelations at the mercy of all. I suppose the first note I should make to myself here is that ‘intimate’ revelations should probably remain within the four walls of home.

In spite of a list as long as my arm of good reasons to avoid Facebook — and following on from a couple of feeble attempts to abandon ‘social’ networking altogether, I recently allowed myself to be convinced that I might somehow get Facebook to work for me and my specific goals in life, but first of all, I needed to seriously think about what those goals might be. I subsequently opened up a couple of Facebook pages to cover two of my interests, namely Venice and writing – in the hope that they would remind me to channel my energy more accurately.

They do say that ‘a little knowledge is a dangerous thing’ but they also say ‘a little knowledge that acts is worth infinitely more than much knowledge that is idle’ which is perhaps more suited to my relationship with internet and all that surfs in her. I had the dubious good fortune to study various aspects of the internet and how to build web sites and upload information for the world to see, and as one would assume, I was also taught a lot relating to the good, the bad and the very ugly idiosyncrasies of the net with which lesser mortals don’t normally bother themselves. All this has left me with a hefty distrust of the cyber world and most of what it stands for. My ‘little knowledge’ acted accordingly.

So let’s take a step back and give some thought to those ‘goals in life’ which I was looking for a couple of paragraphs back. If nothing else internet has been encouraging on this point – only a recent discovery, but it seems that there are an awful lot of other women out there, very much like myself, who continue to try to find their ‘niche’ in life – who have spent the greater portion of their existence having/bringing up/weaning off children/partners without ever having given serious thought to what they themselves wanted to do or be when they grew up/got old. Sad though the situation would seem when exposed so harshly, it’s strangely comforting to know that I’m not alone. It so happens that many of the women I have met through the net (if only virtually in most cases) are writers/wannabe writers like myself, which has made my discovery all the more interesting and relevant.

Now I can admit that I – like many it seems – am just beginning to find the time and context to come out of my sacrificial shell and tug my own strings instead of having to wait to see what everyone else around me wants before I make a move – I’m finding it difficult to organise my thoughts and actions as an individual person. My brain is rusty, not to mention my limbs and emotions. For too many years I have functioned only as a complement to the needs of those around me. The freedom is overwhelming.

And that is where the similarity with other women would seem to fall short. If I am to believe even if only in part, the kind of personal image many of these cyber women are promoting, it would seem that they are all super-women – they manage to spend considerable time in every conceivable corner of social networking available online, hopping from Twitter to Facebook to LinkedIn to Pinterest to Goodreads and to a series of ‘virtual clubs’ that I have never even heard of, let alone considered signing up for. They blog and Twitter and somehow even find time to write books – and I do mean books in the plural. So what the heck am I doing wrong?

But I really must finish talking about my goals mustn’t I? Well I think I’ve found what I don’t want to be. I still don’t trust internet and will not be signing up as slave to a whole bunch of social networking. Really, I am not doing anything wrong, but maybe just a little differently. Perhaps I am being more pragmatic than some about my approach in recognising at the outset that I am no super-woman before I even attempt to throw myself into the scrum. Rumours are already coming through that it isn’t all that some would like to cook it up to be anyway. It takes an awful lot of dedicated effort to really make social networking work as a marketing or promotional tool, and even then you have to be absolutely certain that you have a good product to market, be it yourself or, in this case, a book.

Meanwhile life passes you by, children grow up loved ones get older, and at 60 plus years of age, I hope still to have time to give some thought to where I want to go with my life. I might even find the time and inclination to create that good product. No rush and most definitely, no hassle …

***
For those into word counts, this piece is 966 words long, without the title

Creative writing exam

I find myself at that critical moment when I have written my couple of pieces of prose and have laid them before my peers for their considered critique. We are all more or less in the same boat, and probably at about the same level of writing ability. My prose has already been drafted, redrafted, edited and redrafted until it has begun to satisfy my own personal view of improvement. I am feeling all written out. Then along comes someone with a comment on the structure of one of my pieces — and if I may add — a very valid criticism — and I can feel myself falling to pieces. I still have the report/commentary to write and all of a sudden the steam has run out …

And the deadline is May 31st, and it no longer seems an age away …