May Palm-Sized Prompt

This month’s Palm-Sized Prompt was on the topic of things you’ll never do/never do again, and people who are no longer in your life.  I thought about writing about wanderlust or adventure, but when I sat down to write, I found what is generally true to still be so: we write about our obsessions.  We put on the page the things that have been occupying our minds.  This time, as I have before, I wrote about my grandfather and my struggle to understand what Lewy Body dementia is doing to him.

skydiving-2

Read my response, “Things I Will and Won’t Do”, on the Palm-Sized Prompts website.

Lewy Body dementia, or dementia with Lewy Bodies, has gained more awareness in the past year and a half since Robin Williams’ death, but it is still an illness with which many are less familiar.  Sharing symptoms with both Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, DLB may actually make up about 10 per cent of all cases of dementia, but it tends to be mistaken for other conditions.

Lewy bodies are tiny deposits of protein in nerve cells.  Although researchers don’t know why they appear in the brain or how they contribute to dementia, the presence of Lewy bodies is linked to low levels of important chemical messengers and a loss of connections between nerve cells.  Death of nerve cells and loss of brain tissue occurs over time.  Along with DLB, Lewy bodies are the underlying cause of other progressive diseases affecting the brain and nervous system, such as Parkinson’s.

Symptoms partly depend on where the Lewy bodies are located, with those at the base of the brain linked to problems with movement, and those in the outer layers of the brain linked to cognitive symptoms.  However these issues can occur together; about one third of people diagnosed with Parkinson’s eventually develop dementia, and two thirds of people with DLB develop movement problems at some point.

Initial symptoms are usually subtle, but usually a person will have some symptoms of Alzheimer’s and some of Parkinson’s.  Problems with attention and alertness are common, but it varies widely over the course of a day, hour, or even a few minutes.  Difficulties with judging distances, perceiving objects in three dimensions, and planning and organizing are among other symptoms.  Some people experience depression.  Day-to-day memory is also affected, but not as much in the early stages of Alzheimer’s.

Visual hallucinations occur in most people with DLB, and less commonly auditory ones.  Motor symptoms can lead to falls.  Sleep disorders are also a common symptom; the person may fall asleep easily during the day, but have restless nights; they may exhibit violent movements as they try to act out nightmares.

As a progressive disease, symptoms become worse and more numerous with time, generally over several years.  Day-to-day memory and other mental abilities begin to more closely resemble those of middle- or later-stage Alzheimer’s disease.  People can also develop challenging behaviors, like agitation, restlessness, or shouting out.  Worsening movement problems affect walking and make falls more common.  In the later stages, many people have problems with speech and swallowing.  Rate of progression varies, but on average a person might live for about eight years after the first symptoms, similar to Alzheimer’s.

You can find more information on the Alzheimer’s Society website:

https://www.alzheimers.org.uk/site/scripts/documents_info.php?documentID=113

On Eclectic Iron: A breath of fresh air

The weekend before last (Thursday, 4 June-Sunday, 7 June), I volunteered with Iron Press at their second literary festival, Eclectic Iron.  In 2013 they celebrated their fortieth anniversary with the Iron Age Festival.  This year they followed its huge success with another fantastic weekend of poetry, theatre, and music.  I was lucky to be a part of the Iron Age Festival, and I am so glad I had the opportunity to volunteer again during Eclectic Iron.

Living in a small town in North Yorkshire, it’s easy to feel disconnected from social events, literary or otherwise.  There are a number of literary festivals to choose from over the year within driving or (sometimes) public transport distance, but in the interim, it’s hard not to miss Newcastle and its thriving literary community.  Needless to say, I am counting down the days until we move back up north.

The festival began Thursday with the performance of “Fracking in Cullercoats”, a play written by founder and editor of Iron Press, Peter Mortimer.  Unfortunately I wasn’t able to attend the event, but after seeing the script-in-hand readings of “The Filleting Machine” by Tom Hadaway and “I Knew Him Horatio” by Leonard Barras at the start of the last festival, I was sorry to miss it.  According to the other volunteers, it was standing room only and a rousing success.  The drama students from Marden High School in Cullercoats, who worked with Peter over the spring term, not only performed the play, but were also involved in various aspects of the production, such as design, publicity, lighting, and sound.

The first event I was set to volunteer at Saturday was a reading by Colette Bryce at the Cullercoats Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI), with music by Katie Doherty.  When I arrived, there had been a malfunction in the new online booking system they tried to use this year, and attendance had been booked for nearly three times the capacity the RNLI could hold.  We were worried about fitting in all the people who had bought tickets, and as they had enough volunteers already, I left to enjoy the sun and the beach.  (Luckily they ended up with just a full audience, rather than being beyond capacity.)

Cullercoats Bay

I sat on the end of one of the two piers that encloses Cullercoats Bay harbor, which were built late in the nineteenth century to protect the fishing boats, to write.  Cullercoats has a long history of fishing, told in folk songs, the paintings of Winslow Homer, and the works of contemporary, often local, artists.  I was reminded of how Iron Press always works to include the sea and its influence in their festival, when a man walked up to me and, when I turned around, said, “You’re not Joan.”

“Nope, I’m not.”

He apologized for interrupting me.  As part of the festival, Iron Press had organized “the two shortest writers’ residencies known to humankind.”  Two writers, Joan Johnston and Sandy Chadwin, each spent three hours on the rocks near Cullercoats Bay at low tide, denied all technology, but left with the natural world for inspiration.  Two years ago during the Iron Age Festival, an event had similarly planned to venture out on the sea with a Cullercoats fisherman, and for participants to complete a haiku workshop the next day based on their experience.  The event was foiled by a storm; this year’s sea influenced writing faired much better.

By sitting and writing on one of the piers, I had inadvertently appeared like one of these writers-in-residence.  Although I wasn’t writing about the sea or the beauty around me, it was inspiring to sit in the midst of it.  The wind that day was roaring, sometimes blowing sand into my eyes of course, but still creatively stirring.  Of course, I don’t envy the three (continuous) hours the other two writers spent on the rocks; one humorously recounted how she had to hide behind some of the rocks to use the bathroom.

Fisherwomen, Cullercoats, by Winslow Homer

The first event I attended at this year’s Iron Press festival was The Rescue of the Limerick, held at the Fishermen’s Mission.  The poetry was introduced by the lovely and soft-spoken Eileen Jones, co-editor of the collection Limerick Nation and one of my fellow volunteers from the Iron Age festival.  A number of poets took us on a tour of the UK, with a few limericks for each town, and a fair amount of laughs.  The musical accompaniment for the event was provided by the lei-wearing Seaton Sluice Ukulele Band, which maintained the carefree atmosphere.

I’ve always loved how Iron Press always includes music performances with the readings.  For some events, it breaks up longer readings, or readings by two writers.  But it also reinforces how creative pursuits overlap, and how mutually beneficial exposure to another art can be for an artist.  In particular at the Limerick event, I enjoyed the singing of a folk song called “The Cullercoats Fish Lass”.  The ukulele band had the audience join in for the chorus, “Will ye buy, will ye buy, will ye buy my fresh fish?”  It was yet another way of evoking the fishing history, particularly the fishwives made famous by painter Winslow Homer, and the influence of the sea on Cullercoats and its artists.

I ended the night at the much anticipated Tony Harrison event.  Of course, no festival would be complete without an event preceded by a frantic search for extra chairs, but as I perched on one of the tables in the back with the other volunteers and event managers, we could relax knowing there were just enough in the end.  When he arrived, Harrison was quietly taken to a private room, where he remained until it was his time to speak.  The reading was preceded by cello music by Liz Maynard.  While I really love the sound of a cello, without much knowledge about how to play, the first song seemed to get off a little rocky.  The rest of the music was beautifully performed, providing a solemn and classical ambience for the stories and poetry to come.

When Tony Harrison came out, I couldn’t help but think how small he looked.  I was introduced to his work by my husband, and in the few pictures I’d seen before of Harrison, he was always shown in a large overcoat; so it was a surprise to see the slight man, from whom so many significant works have arisen.  He spent nearly half of his time before the audience telling stories.  It gave some background information to each poem he read, but they were also gave some insight into the life he has led; these stories were one of my favorite things about his reading.  He talked of his mother and father, and of their deaths; he read poems about the hole his mother’s death left in his father’s life, and in the relationship between father and son.  (Poems at links)

Harrison spoke also about how he wrote poetry in response to the first Gulf war, and how he insisted the Guardian print them in the news section, because most people would just throw away the culture section and never see them.  He had almost jokingly agreed to go into the combat zone during the next war, and send poetry from there, perhaps never expecting the Guardian to follow through.  So he had to laugh when they called him up in 1995 and told him to get his helmet; they were sending him to Bosnia.  From there, he wrote poems such as “The Cycles of Donji Vakuf”, detailing the pillaging of a town taken by the Bosnian Muslims:

“And tonight some small boy will be glad
he’s got the present of a bike from soldier dad,
who braved the Serb artillery and fire
to bring back a scuffed red bike with one flat tyre.
And among the thousands fleeing north, another
with all his gladness gutted, with his mother,
knowing the nightmare they are cycling in,
will miss the music of his mandolin.”

– “The Cycles of Donji Vakuf”, Collected Poems

Harrison also read “Shrapnel”, a poem about an air raid he survived, because a pilot dropped all his bombs on a nearby park, rather than the surrounding houses.  It concludes with mention of the connection his street, which survived the raid, had to the bombers responsible for the 7/7 attacks in London.

“A flicker of faith in man grew from that raid
where this shrapnel that I’m stroking now comes from,
when a German had strict orders but obeyed
some better, deeper instinct not to bomb
the houses down below and be humane.”

– “Shrapnel”, Collected Poems

While I can only write a few things about such a wonderful event, I know it’s not one I’m soon to forget.  Harrison, though seemingly reserved when not in front of a podium, is a man who has seen and written much, the intriguing kind of person you’d want to sit and speak with at length, no matter how intimidating it might be.

I wish I could remember the bit he ended on; it had something to do with life being like a pint without a refill—so drink it slowly.  Of course it was much more eloquently worded.  But with that, Harrison stepped off the stage and disappeared through a side door.

porch

Sunday, the last event I could help out at before driving back down to North Yorkshire was Hot off the Press, a celebration of two new books from Iron Press.  Vicky Arthurs and Lisa Rodgers read in the RNLI from their new books, Limehaven and The She Chronicles, respectively, with music by Jack Arthurs.  The RNLI is one of my favorite venues in which Iron Press has held their festival events.  Situated right on the sand in Cullercoats Bay, the open area upstairs has a fantastic view of the sea from the large windows on two sides of the building.  It’s hard not to get caught up in the lull of ocean and sky, stretching out behind the poet or musician.

Limehaven was the name of Vicky Arthurs’ grandparents house, so the collection focuses on them and the childhood memories that inspired her poems.  Much of Arthurs’ collection evokes that intangible, ethereal aspect of memory:

“I’m diving for purls in a swirling ocean,
Riding the waters where dreams swim free,
I voyage on your needles — they carry me, carry me,
Carry my coracle far out to sea.”

– “You knit the ocean”, Limehaven

It’s similar to the type of writing I’d like to use to explore my relationships with my own grandparents, so I picked up a copy of her book.  Other pieces play with the misunderstandings and creativity of childhood.

The She Chronicles is based on Lisa Rodgers’ research into various pioneering women of history.  Another volunteer compared it to the style of Carol Ann Duffy’s The World’s Wife, and I can easily see the resemblance.  But Rodgers’ work particularly focuses on women who were vilified in their own time, women who pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable in order to follow their own paths.  Despite some hairy endings, it’s something many of us could aspire to do, or at least honor in poetry.

Cullercoats Bay at night

As we left Tony Harrison’s reading Saturday night, I said to one of the other volunteers about the festival, “Events like this are exactly why I can’t wait to be near Newcastle again.”  Not just listening to the readings, but being around literary types again, was like a breath of fresh air.  I know I’ve become too still, too comfortable in an unfulfilling state of monotony over the last few months; but I think it’s important for all people, artist or not, to once in a while touch base with what makes them feel most themselves.

So writers, go to that literary event you’ve been contemplating attending; sporty people, go see a game of something; dramatists, actors, go see a play.  Whatever helps you breathe easier, brings you back to your center — go, find what makes your heart sing.

I’ll just be here in my little North Yorkshire town, anticipating the next Iron Press festival, and looking into what events I might make it to when I’m next visiting Atlanta.

 

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This post is part of an on-going series devoted to exploring the writing communities of Atlanta, Georgia, Newcastle upon Tyne, England, and the surrounding areas.  Please contact me if you have recommended events to attend!

Coming off the Back Burner

It’s hard to know where to begin.

It’s hard to get back on track when life, a visa application, an international move, and so many small things have derailed what little normalcy you had.  But all those personal things — they aren’t really what this blog is about.  They have a tendency to push into and wind around the structure of writing time, nudging it further and further towards the back burner.

Recently I wasn’t as successful at pushing back.  Granted, those things involved immigration and a few starts at nonfiction pieces influenced by the whole experience, but after finally getting moved and somewhat settled, I have felt my writing’s absence.  It’s in how I end even busy days feeling I accomplished little; it’s in my persistent restlessness.

State of Mind by Amrita Bagchi

Last year I received my report from the Literary Consultancy about my novel-in-progress, part of my New Fiction Bursary from the Northern Writers’ Awards.  It offered numerous pages of critique on themes, plot, structure, characterization, and style of prose, concluding with a summary and section on commercial consideration.  Although I was complemented on my “generally sturdy and competent” prose, descriptions of natural scenes and certain encounters, as well as “usually convincing and engaging” dialogue, the TLC editor concluded that it is not ready for submission to any agent or publisher yet.  (I include the “yet” because he did)

His recommendation basically boiled down to this:  either take on the demanding and difficult task of remedying the problems with the plot, or set it aside as a practice piece and move on to the next project.

I think there’s a little piece of everyone that, when submitting something for feedback or evaluation, we want to be told it is wonderful just as it is.  It would validate the work we put into it, and honestly, feel like nearly-instant gratification.  But that would be too simple; eventually, such immediate success would lose its meaning.  If everything anyone did was instantly successful, it also would lack the development and depth gained through multiple drafts and reworks.

After receiving this feedback, I took some time away from my novel, thinking about the implications of either option.  If I set this work aside, a part of me would feel like all the work I put into it was somewhat wasted, though I know it wouldn’t be.  The next time I begin a novel, I would hope I’ve learned enough drafting this one to be able to avoid some of my mistakes.  Most importantly, I didn’t feel like I’d said everything I hoped to say — and with the depth I’d hoped to say it.  I’d hoped to address complicated themes of family and identity, and I wasn’t entirely successful in this pursuit.  I still have things to say, and because my initial idea is rooted in family history, I still have questions and ideas to delve into further.

By Gabriel Moreno

With Robert J. Ray’s The Weekend Novelist Rewrites the Novel in hand, I began considering the ways I could rework my novel.  It’s too easy to fall into the trap of line editing, so I wanted help with structuring how I tackled the different aspects that needed work.  I was inspired to add a new character, to strengthen certain characters’ personal plots, and I was still considering how to strengthen some themes, and then life intervened.

Now, a few months later, I’m finally trying to pick up the pieces of what I dropped then.

In month since I began writing this post (embarrassing, I know), I have set aside Ray’s book.  I’ve taken a few tips from it, such as his charts and index card ideas.  I’ll pick it up again at some point, but jump forward a little in it.  I grew frustrated with the book because I reached a section that recommended strengthening a romantic triangle between the characters.  Does every novel really need to be so focused on romance?  I could write a whole post on just that.  I even wrote a scene in my novel to dispel any idea of romance developing between the two main characters.  I know lust and love are strong motivations, and I could see the use of considering triangles of tension between character, but must it be romance?

The charts have been useful though.  Now not only do I have a revised plot diagram (I decided to stick with a “three-hump” structure), I also have grids I made while reviewing my draft, considering:

  • Characters:  Name, role (protagonist, antagonists, etc); an object associated with them (something they carry, use, or which represents them).  The objects section can be expanded upon further, in a separate list; when you see an object surfacing in association with a character three or more times, it can become a symbol.  Becoming aware of this can help tighten the story.  Ray considers objects in these categories:  jewelry, vehicles, weapons, wardrobe items, food, drinks, tools, money.
  • Subplots:  Tied to characters besides the protagonist; entry/exit arc; an object; how the character is connected to the protagonist (blood, money, power, organization, back story, etc).  Ray recommended you identify six.  I explored this chart further through free writing, alongside developing back story further.
  • Flashback:  Location in plot (act, scene); character; trigger; setting; purpose.  This helps identify if you’re relying too heavily on past events; too many flashbacks can kill the story’s momentum.  Ray suggests using them more in Act Two.  He also examines books with unusual structures, such as The English Patient.
  • Scenes:  This is the grid I will probably be using most for a little while.  It helps you track the plot of your novel:  scene name (I just did Act #, Scene #); setting (where, time of day, weather if important); characters involved; objects present; and the important action of the scene.

I made the final list a while ago, but in the process of getting back to work on editing, I transferred the grid to index cards, which I then hung on the wall near my desk:

notecards

As you can see, I’ve already made a few notes on different cards and marked some with sticky notes… some of which haven’t stuck very well, unfortunately.  This is basically storyboarding though, in written form.  While the chart was useful and travels well, I’m a fairly visual person.  Having these cards to refer to makes it easier for me.  As I add scenes or change scenes, I can rewrite or add cards.  When I review the board, I can add sticky notes or highlight things to call my attention to new ideas as I’m writing and rewriting.

If you’re editing a novel, I would recommend referring to Robert J. Ray’s book.  It’s given me some new ideas for structuring the editing process, and he goes into depth about the meaning of these grids/lists and the things you should consider while reworking your book.  As with anything though, take it with a grain of salt.  This is, after all, your book.

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The deadline for this year’s Northern Writers’ Awards is Monday, February 2.

(Not) Talking during trailers at Scene Missing

I can count the number of video games I’ve actually played—or tried to play—on one hand.  It’s not from a lack of interest, but more a lack of experience.  I can never remember which button is where, or what it does, so the only times I played Little Big World with my fiancé, I spent the majority of the time making my character jump up and down and clinging feebly to his character’s hand as he pulled me along.

When I went to Scene Missing’s video game-themed event, I was worried I’d miss out on a lot of references.  Scene Missing enlists seven writers and comedians to respond to seven different movie trailers, or in this case, video game trailers.  However, since the writers are just responding to the trailer, the audience doesn’t necessarily have to be much more familiar with the movie or game.

There are always good illustrations to advertise Scene Missing.

 

It is described as “the literary equivalent of talking through movie trailers”, but as I found and was told by another attendee, readers at Scene Missing aim more for humor than literary content.  This means the readings are accessible to a wider range of people, but those hoping for a truly literary event may be left wanting.

The event itself developed out of the interview and pop culture review website by the same name that has been active since 2004.  Founder Jason Mallory started off interviewing comedians like Louis CK and Paul F. Tompkins, before turning his focus more towards reviews, the local scene, and Atlanta writers themselves.  Back-and-forth reviews, in which two or more writers collaborate to review a movie or music video, eventually expanded into personal essays using the trailers as prompts.  After participating in the “Titans of Talking” event in 2012, Mallory decided to take what was happening on the website to performance, and was approached by none other than Write Club Atlanta’s Myke Johns and Nick Tecosky (Write Club keeps popping up in these events, doesn’t it?), who were interested in producing and helping advertise.  Since then, a branch of Scene Missing has started in conjunction with Write Club San Francisco, and there is another in the works in Chicago.

We were in the same room where Write Club Atlanta holds its shows, the Highland Inn Ballroom, in the Poncey-Highlands.  The set up was basically the same, minus the omnipotent timer.  At the beginning, we were made to take an oath that didn’t seem to have an end, but basically warned us not to talk during the trailers unless we were going to dress in a blue body suit and run around the room collecting gold coins.

No thanks.

 

Eli Banks started us off with a response to Portal 2, set up as a journal by a test subject at Aperture Laboratories.  There were a few laughs based on the relatable habit of not writing in a journal as much as you intend, but others clung to the fairly well known nature of the fictional Aperture Laboratories, such as reference to “the bloodstained bullseye” the narrator aimed for when testing the long fall boots.

Amy McDaniel, founder of small press 421 Atlanta and visiting professor at Agnes Scott College, followed up with a list response to Mirror’s Edge.  Jumping from topic to topic, her piece seemed to be attempting verbal parkour, a pretty direct reflection of what little you could get from the trailer.

Rita Leslie was the first of the group to diverge more from her trailer, which was Bioshock Infinite.  Her piece drew a good many laughs, describing a date with a gamer who seemed more interested in the game than his date.  She opened with the description of her date’s home by asking, “Why would you bring someone with ovaries here?”  Gaming ladies aside, it set the tone for the rest of her encounter with the guy.

Jerad W. Alexander followed with a creepy fictional investigation into late Cold War/Reagan era chemical testing on children, which served as a prelude to Dead Island.  It had a noir-esque feel to it, not only for the mystery or the gruff man I imagined searching through dusty, disavowed files, but also for the dark feel of the entire piece.  The serum, meant to increase aggressiveness, led to the children appearing like a “neon Lord of the Flies” within their containment area.  One line that stuck with me, “the only thing to destroy America is Americans themselves,” felt true in both the context of the story and a cynicism-for-the-future kind of way.

Dayne Swerdling strayed farthest from the rest of the acts by responding to Red Dead Redemption’s trailer with a stand up act.  (Coincidentally he’s from my hometown, though he went to a different high school and graduated a few years after me.)  His jokes landed well with certain people in the audience, spoken around a bit of straw hanging from his mouth.  My favorite part had to be the interpretative dance he ended with to a Dixie Chicks song.

Julian Modugno drew the Legend of Zelda into the context of social advocacy and activism by pointing out that, as in other games, it allows the player to experience saving the world and being “the one” who can make a change.  Modugno took this call to action when Occupy was active in Atlanta (“the greatest city in the South by default, not including New Orleans,” I quote).  However, his attempt to contribute led to likely widespread cases of food poisoning among the 99% activists when he brought them improperly prepared curry.  Although he mourned having given the only significant social movement in years curry diarrhea, and while he gained many laughs in the telling, the message was clear.  “We can’t expect to be saved,” and regardless of a lack of any special powers or weapons in a video game, we can all do something to improve the world—or at least try.

Jack Walsh ended the night with a story, in response to Mortal Kombat, about an older kid taking a beginner’s karate class.  A teenage bully, held back long enough to be in the protagonist’s class at school, begins to help out at the karate class and pick on him.  The tale culminated in a show down between the two while the instructor was out of the room.  After taking the older kid down by jabbing him in the eyes, the protagonist was surrounded by young, wide-eyed children whispering eerily, “Finish him.”  Of course, as soon as the tables are turned they are whispering the same thing to the bully, simply desiring to see someone’s head get pulled off, spine dangling, dripping, just like in the game.

 

Having been to three Atlanta literary events now of a particular persuasion, I can see where different groups of people overlap and bring the vibrancy and diversity I’ve come to expect at shows like Naked City, Write Club, and Scene Missing.  You can narrow them down to categories as simple as young and mature, or writers and listeners, but more specifically there are writers, actors, performers, comedians, and even puppeteers.  While Scene Missing may draw more comedians and the like to the stage, its audience is as large and varied as that at Write Club; Naked City may have a smaller general attendance, but many there are members of this far-reaching collective of people who appreciate good writing—and a show.

I’ve recognized audience members attending different events, heard about Write Club combatants befriending one another, and begun to feel fairly at home even when I haven’t been to a particular event before.  These three events create fantastic places to debut a piece of writing or just enjoy the work others have created, all within a supportive atmosphere of fellow artists and creators.  The cross over is acknowledged in the ways the show-runners have supported each other along the way, from the conception to continuation and promotion of these events, but somehow most people don’t seem to often verbalize what an incredible thing this is.  There is the feeling of “this is just how it is,” people come and go, connections are made from group to group, and the gigantic venn diagram that is attendance and types of artists grows more and more.

Perhaps I’m just a little too interested in human connectedness or the sense of community between groups of writers or other like-minded people, but this is something to celebrate.  Until now, I’ve only really experienced something similar in writing groups that gather for workshopping each other’s work.

The majority of writing events I knew of before followed either the workshop model or the reading-at-a-coffee-shop-or-for-a-launch-event, so it was a pleasure to go to three events that took the latter of these styles and added their own twists.  These were not gimmicks, but formats established to spark creativity and present prompts, to drive away monotony.

Soon I’ll be traveling back to England, where I will try to find new writing events to explore, but when I’m back, I’ll be glad to return to any of these.

 

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This post is part of an on-going series devoted to exploring the writing communities of Atlanta, Georgia, Newcastle upon Tyne, England, and the surrounding areas.  Please contact me if you have recommended events to attend!

Literary fisticuffs at Write Club Atlanta

It makes sense that, as I later found out, Naked City is sort of Write Club’s younger sibling.  When I entered the Ballroom Lounge at the Highland Inn a few minutes after doors last Wednesday night, the music was already loud, and the seats were nearly full.  Even in a venue bigger than the The Warhorse Cafe, it seemed like there were three or four times as many people there than at Naked City.  Perhaps we were all anxious for what they have dubbed “the tenderest bloodsport,” “emotional violence for the disgruntled pacifist,” or “no-holds-barred brain wrestling.”  The night was, after all, postponed a week by the copious amounts of snow and ice Atlanta has been receiving lately, and I think most people were left with the remnants of cabin fever.

The first rule of Write Club is:  Tell 5-7 people you know about Write Club.

Nick Tecosky hosts. Photo credit: Dustin Chambers

Write Club began in Chicago in 2010 and has already started branches in six other cities — Evanston, Atlanta, Athens, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Toronto.  Write Club Atlanta started at PushPush Theatre in June 2011, before moving its shows to the basement of the Highland Inn.  I appreciate the history of places like this, echoed in things like the tin ceiling tiles that hung above our heads.  I don’t know if they’ve been there since the Inn was built in 1927, but I like to imagine they were.  Hosting another spirited and inventive writing event in an old space allows the new to mingle with the old; it shows how, although we have progressed and changed, the past doesn’t have to be ripped down and replaced.  Most importantly, it reminds me of how dynamic Atlanta and its writing scene is.

There are three “bouts” at each Write Club event, pitting two writers against one another for 7 minutes apiece.  Since they describe them as “bouts,” and obviously because of the name of the club, I was half expecting (and fully hoping) there would be a bell that would chime for each round literary fisticuffs.

Unfortunately there wasn’t. Maybe if I buy them one I can get in for free?

February 19, the themes were alone vs. together, love vs. lust, and dominant vs. submissive.  

Myke Johns, the producer of Write Club, started us off with “love,” and somehow managed to convincingly describe an air force drone feeling lust and then love for a plane.  Randy Osborne followed with a piece focusing on a porn shop from the past, pointing out how while some people bent over hymnals on Sundays, others were bent over porn magazines.  He rounded it out with ruminations on how being assigned the theme of “lust” was outside of his normal writing topics, describing his own work as now “speaking more for the dead.”  Instead of visiting porn shops, he spoke of older married people together “hunting for ways to feel free.”  While I thoroughly enjoyed Johns’ piece, I felt like Osborne’s had a bittersweet poignancy to it, driven by the juxtaposition of lust and age.

Next was Jesse Price representing “alone.”  He shared a story of dating a girl who was also dating another guy, the latter being “just physical.”  Against Price was Kara Cantrell, who discussed togetherness more scientifically and brought up the second law of thermodynamics.  Cantrell’s piece was the best example that night of how creative prose doesn’t have to be confined to a story; at times like a list, at others an essay, I was really looking forward to how she would bring it all together in the end.  Unfortunately she ran out of time — but the end of her piece will be on the Write Club podcast soon.

We ended with a couple facing off, beginning with Ellaree Yeagley writing for “dominant.”  Yeagley’s story was quite literary in tone, and it considered two fortune tellers giving readings on a set of train tracks in Alaska.  It wasn’t entirely clear which character was meant to be dominant: the new, assertive woman trying to steal business from Old Ironsides, or Old Ironsides himself, who considered her a quack and quietly remained committed to the pageantry of his own art.  This way of responding to the theme in a less direct way was one of my favorite attributes of some of the works read at Write Club, and Yeagley’s piece did it best.  Adam Lowe responded with a funny tale of a man who continuously committed small crimes in order to be tortured in a jail.  Humor is not easy to write, and I have yet to conquer it, but Lowe carried it even further by putting on some pretty fantastic voices for each character.  He also got cut off by the timer, so the podcast covering this show will have some more great endings to hear!

The best part is that, although Randy Osborne, Jesse Price, and Adam Lowe won their matches, the ones who are really “winning” are the charities these writers were representing.  Safe Harbor, Cool Girls, Inc., and Child’s Play are all receiving donations from Write Club.

Sometime last year at Write Club Atlanta

Write Club matches Naked City’s enthusiast atmosphere and refreshing premise, but for younger writers trying to get their voices heard, it may only yield motivation and inspiration at first.  Due to the limited number of spots, which are delegated in advance, newcomers might have to wait a little while to put on their literary boxing gloves.  According to Myke Johns, Naked City was formed in response to this limitation, allowing another venue for writers to test out their works on an audience.

Although both events share aspects similar to other writing events I’ve been to over the years, I can honestly say I’ve never been to something like Write Club.  There are benefits to a simple open mic night, but at the same time, open mics can start to blend together over time, a steady flow of mature and new writers.  Write Club, and Naked City to an extent, breaks out of this routine by having a specific format, and I’ve struggled to think of similarly atypical literary events.  While both events assign a theme to a writer, there is additional pressure to “outwrite” the competition in Write Club, even if it is out of the writer’s general subject matter.  In the first Write Club show Ian Belknap, host and founder of the Chicago original, was forced to write about light.  Time Out Chicago described how “in just seven minutes he was able to discount the compulsively optimistic of the world in favor of the more genuine light that shines from the darkest places.  ‘The light inside me might be the size of a gnat fart,’ he wrote, ‘but it’s strong.’”

At the end of the night, I was left wondering if such a venture would work in Newcastle.  With the strength of spoken word and slam poetry there, I have a feeling they could bring some pretty brutal competition.

After a night of lust, love and writing, I think it was appropriate that the King’s of Leon’s song, “Sex on Fire”, came on the radio as I was driving home.  Hearing it always brings me back to the first year I lived in England, on an exchange program, when that song was just getting really popular and blaring every night in bars and clubs over the air of barely contained desperation to “pull,” or pick someone up.  But as I was getting past Briarcliff Road, where Ponce de Leon Avenue begins to wind through trees and past huge houses before it opens up on highway 78, the song was just celebration for me.

Five years ago I might have thought I could write a novel, but once I got past 15,000 words, I don’t know if I could have kept going, or if the end product would have even been worth it.  That was the time when I first had the idea for my novel, and wrote the first thousands of words that I would eventually scrap completely.  I reworked it three years later, and the night of Write Club fell just a couple of days after I had finished my first draft.  Now begins the process of editing and researching how I want to publish.

Looking out at the many people waiting for the event to begin earlier that night, I had thought about how interconnected writing communities are.  Write Club began in Atlanta when Ian Belknap hosted a few pickup shows here, before asking Nick Tecosky to host.  At the back of the room, just by the door, Vouched Books had a table set up.  They are a country-wide organization that reads, reviews, distributes, and advocates small press literature.  And there I was, the local girl who’d gone 4,000 miles to England, and then back, just to find a place to belong an hour from home.  I love these writing communities, and the twin cities that house and influence them.  I can’t wait to see what else they have to show me.

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This post is part of an on-going series devoted to exploring the writing communities of Atlanta, Georgia, Newcastle upon Tyne, England, and the surrounding areas.  Please contact me if you have recommended events to attend!

I became a resident of Naked City

Naked City?  Do I have to get naked?  Or is it just some kind of metaphor for the process of stripping yourself bare by reading your writing in front of strangers?

I am a stranger in my own city.  I knew this when I entered The Warhorse Cafe for the first time and could only find one person I recognized (at least at first).  I was born and raised in the suburbs of Atlanta, and yet I’ve been to more writing events 4000 miles away in Newcastle, England.  

How much can really be different though?

You have weirdly outgoing writers, reclusive writers, and those awkwardly situated somewhere in between, like me.  We’re all creative types.  What I want to find out is how these events differ atmospherically.  Is there a gimmick?  Who can read?  What kinds of pieces do people read, and how long are they allowed to stand in the spotlight?  Is there a spotlight?

Grey Street, Newcastle

The last literary event I went to was Material’s Issue #7 launch last December in Newcastle, and I didn’t even get to stay for the whole thing.  Before the second half, I had to hop a train to Darlington in order to get home that night.  (Somehow I still managed to make it into a few photos though, which I only just realized today)

I’ve helped out with Material since November 2012, despite it being harder for me to be involved in launch events whenever I’m in the US.  As a smaller literary magazine, we value the active literary community in Newcastle.  For those of you who have never been to the northeast of England, I can’t emphasize enough how significant the writing community is there—as if just having New Writing North and Mslexia as amazing local organizations and resources isn’t enough, check out New Writing North’s writer’s guide to the North East.

Through one of the front windows of Blake’s

There are various venues that have been used for writing events in Newcastle, but Blake’s has always felt like home for Material.  Maybe I’m a little biased, since it’s where I met the co-founders for the first time, but that little coffee house has some character.  Located on what has been voted one of the best or most beautiful streets in England by various polls, Blake’s is just across Grey Street from the Theatre Royal, nestled in the elegant curve of Georgian buildings.

With a mug of tea or coffee, or a pint of something stronger, the quiet of Blake’s cosy atmosphere was only disrupted by the steady sounds of a kettle or the occasional yell of passersby out for a night on the town.

So when I walked into The Warhorse Cafe to loud music reminiscent of what you’d hear in a bar, and there was something at the front of the room called “the wheel of consequences”, I knew that this would be a little different.

Exterior of the Warhorse Cafe

The Warhorse Cafe is part of the Goat Farm Arts Center, which is housed in a repurposed 19th century industrial complex on the west side of Atlanta, just north of Georgia Tech.  Although the GFAC contains performance and exhibition halls, its industrial appearance has been used in filming for both The Walking Dead and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.  The Cafe draws on this style, with a giant iron wheel on one wall, old typewriters and Singer sewing machines on various shelves and tables, and sprigs of cotton in a vase in the bathroom, a nod to the GFAC’s origins as a factory that manufactured cotton gins.

Inside the Warhorse Cafe

If Material’s launch was a standard open mic/coffee house reading, Naked City is a literary circus.  Gina and Berny, the hosts, fill the space between readers like comedic ringmasters.  The beginning of each reading is heralded by them asking if the writer is ready, then shouting, “Audience of Naked City, ARE YOU READY?”  Each reader is allowed five minutes; if they go over, they have to spin the wheel, winning them the chance to get a free drink or gift bag of oddities, or the consequence of having to buy Gina or Berny a drink.

Although some writers shared pretty standard short stories, there was also an acted out piece that drew attention to the silence she controlled at the podium, a creative essay about commuting on a bicycle from Cabbagetown to Chamblee, the question of whether breasts could be disguised by a Groucho mustachioed shirt, and a breathless rant about someone named Allie.  I think only one or two of the eleven readers ever directly named the theme of the night: obsession.

No matter what country I am in, I know good performance writing when I hear it.  I thrive on writing for the page, and only a few times have I actually written something specifically for performance.  Performance writing and storytelling are entirely different to writing what others will read themselves.  It isn’t just about knowing the pacing or where you will put emphasis when you perform it; it is having a presence, whether on stage at a coffeehouse or under a loose bit of ceiling insulation in an industrial space.  

I see the similarities between events like Material’s launch and Naked City because both events were dominated by writers who commanded a presence, who read with a tangible passion for the written word.  Americans get a reputation for being loud, but I have heard Brits who could make a room reverberate with their words, even without a microphone.  These are events peopled by those who know the value of words, because they have felt how words can change and affect you.

But it is refreshing to find a new community to explore.  While standing outside during the intermission, I spoke with a French man visiting Atlanta and the man who wrote the piece about bicycle commuting.  The former was celebrating his surprise at the city, finding it so diverse and artsy.  The latter described how much Atlanta has changed since he grew up in the area; it is so dynamic now, he explained.  Groups like Naked City are developing all around.  Recently he went to an event called Carapace in the Virginia Highlands, where people get up to tell stories, without notes.  It reminded him of the railroad workers he used to encounter at his job, and how talented they were at storytelling.  They had told a story so many times, they knew just where to pause, how to tell each part of it just right.  It reminded me of how similar oral traditions are to performance writing.  When preparing a piece for performance, the writer will practice many times, alone or with a friend to provide feedback, just as storytelling is honed through the act of telling.

Whether performance writing around Atlanta is reaching back to the storytelling which winds deep through the history of the South, or whether it is just finding new ways to tell a story, Naked City is a part of a wider network of events and people.  When I left that evening, winding between empty warehouses with walls of broken windows and well lit lofts, I knew I had just scratched the surface of Atlanta’s literary community.

Though I can’t think of any other place where the consequence for going over time is to scrub a dog bone with a tooth brush and cleaning solution for the rest of the night.

 

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This post is part of an on-going series devoted to exploring the writing communities of Atlanta, Georgia, Newcastle upon Tyne, England, and the surrounding areas.  Many thanks to Rachel K. Pendergrass for inviting me to come along.  Some writers mentioned include Kevin O’Gara, Diana Lancaster, and Nathan Spicer. 

Some Books I’ve Read in 2013

It’s that time of year when people like to look back on the months past and evaluate how it’s been.  What better time to briefly consider some of the books I’ve read this year?

 

1.  Finishing Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

Bird by Bird is definitely my favorite book about writing I’ve ever read.  It’s easy to take in in small bits at a time, giving both good advice and interesting anecdotes.  When I was finding it difficult to begin the first bit of my novel, when I was feeling paralyzed by anxiety, I used her “one inch picture frame” technique.  She advises to keep a small picture frame on your desk.  When you’re having trouble getting started with writing, imagine what you can see in a small frame like it—and fill it.  It gives you a smaller space to focus on, and even if you don’t write much more than that, it’s a starting point to build on later.  Sometimes, once you fill your mental one inch frame, you can keep going.  I would recommend reading the whole book itself, but you can also find a list of quotes from it places online like here.

I plan to reread Bird by Bird in the future, maybe even this year as I need encouragement while finishing my book.

 

2.  Rereading The Probable Future by Alice Hoffman

My decision to reread The Probable Future by Alice Hoffman was pure indulgence during an autumn trip to Amelia Island with my family, but it reminded me of how much I like Hoffman’s writing style.  Some of her books can tend towards the contemporary fiction I really don’t like—the kind of novels that lean too heavily on a flashy plot but seem to have been quickly written, which are primarily coughed up by writers that push out new books every few months at times.  However that is the exception and not the rule for Hoffman, and The Probable Future is one of my favorites by her.  It has a subtle and natural beauty to it, like much of her writing.  For example, many creative writing classes and tips advise not to start a story with a description of weather, but when Hoffman does this in The Probable Future, I almost didn’t notice.  The description was woven into backstory, and resurfaces throughout the novel, necessary in giving context and atmosphere to the family on which the story focuses.

 

3.  Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Gone Girl was a nice surprise.  I usually like to wait a little while for the hoopla to die down about popular contemporary fiction, just to see if the excitement is well founded.  I decided pretty quickly to get a copy of Flynn’s book primarily because it’s a thriller, and some who had read parts of my novel-in-progress compared it to that genre.  The novel employs a narrative told by two protagonists, man and wife Amy and Nick Dunne, and though they weave a twisting story, the real intrigue for me was in their relationship.  One of the book’s strengths was how Flynn’s writing persuaded me, as the reader, to feel a certain way about the protagonists, then in a brief space of page completed flipped that.  The story itself fizzled out a little towards the end, but it seems like a more natural way to round out the novel, and it fit pretty well with Nick Dunne’s need to be liked.

It is the power play between the male and female protagonist that makes Flynn’s novel really compelling, and she has attracted a lot of attention for her representation of the wife.  So between the female character stereotypes of the motherly/virginal/good, whore/femme fatale/bad, and strong/independent, where does Flynn’s Amy Dunne fit?  And why is Flynn being accused of misogyny in her writing of Amy?  I think Amy’s character is more complex than these archetypes, but I’d have to write a whole other blog post to really get into that.

I’ll probably read another of Flynn’s books at some point in the future.

 

4.  The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

Of the books I’ve read this year, The Shadow of the Wind would probably have to be my favorite.  Considering how I ended 2012 with a new overall favorite, The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey, I’m not really sure how Zafón’s novel matches up.  When I visited Barter Books in Alnwick (a favorite secondhand book store in a converted railway station) with my parents last summer, I recognized the title as a past bestseller, and when I found out it concerned a secret library known as The Cemetery of Forgotten Books, I was hooked.  

Absolutely lovely.

 

At first it was really slow reading, to the point that I considered abandoning it, but I always ended up picking it up again.  I think part of this was due to the style in which it was written, and I have to wonder if it’s because the book was translated from Spanish.  Most contemporary fiction originally written in English seems to have a certain distance or dryness to its description in comparison.  I’m not saying it’s a bad thing, I know I write within this style, but the more ornate descriptiveness of writers like Zafón is something a reader must get accustomed to if they aren’t already.  The only time I can remember reading something with a similar style was when I started Shahriar Mandanipour’s Censoring an Iranian Love Story.

The further I got through The Shadow of the Wind, the more I was drawn in to the story, to the point that by the end I was literally having trouble putting the book down.  I got the prequel for my birthday, The Angel’s Game, and I’m getting through this one pretty slowly.  With a protagonist who is an author, The Angel’s Game strikes close to home with its ruthless comments on the ego and struggle of writers, but they are so accurate it’s hard to argue.  I have no doubt my next year of reading holds the following two books Zafón wrote in the series, especially the most recent one, which is supposed to be about the beginning of the Cemetery of Forgotten Books.

 

 

Honorable mentions:  The Boy Who Could See Demons by Carolyn Jess-Cooke, Nocturnes by Kazuo Ishiguro, and rereading Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim by David Sedaris

 

Have you read any of these, and what did you think?  What were your favorite books that you read this year?