Sunday, 4 December 2016

Beating Blank Screen Syndrome

View from my window around noon!  Gibraltar in a thunderstorm

Gibraltar is soaked.  There's a deluge going on out there of almost biblical proportions.  Parts of the nearby Costa del Sol are under water, sides of hills seem to be disintegrating and the sea is reaching up hungrily towards the land to greet the torrent that approaches it.  The sky is so dark that mid-day seems to be early evening and early evening is dissolving in the clouds and becoming night.

I ought to be grateful really.  There's nowhere that I need to be and my home is reasonably dry - except for the bit by the living room window that still leaks when the wind is this strong.  Better still, the kids are quiet catching up with homework, the husband is engrossed in the snooker and even the dog is happy to curl up in his favourite corner and avoid the outdoors.

So suddenly I have time.  Now there's a luxury.  If there is one thing that impedes me from completing the fiction pieces I want to write, or from producing poetry more often, perhaps enough poems to put together into a slim volume, it is lack of time.

Like most writers, I have to earn a living, and I have not managed to earn enough from writing to keep the kids alive and a roof over our heads. Yet.  But I am working on it.  There are outlets for writing in the big wide world.  Probably more now by virtue of the Internet which relies on words as much as on visual material.  It is not easy to find outlets for written work, but with some persistence and a professional approach, it can pay.

In the meantime, I have to get on with the day job and the novel lurks in the recesses of the hard drive waiting to emerge to the light of day.

So, just as I have that precious pocket of time, lo and behold, I am beset by BSS - Blank Screen Syndrome, formerly known as BPA - Blank Page Affliction.  What is it about that white screen and blinking cursor that banishes all those ideas that normally clutter your brain making you forget what you went in the shop for and what time your daughter's dentist appointment was, or where you put the butter (yes, I have been known to find a melting puddle of butter at the bottom of a shopping bag having forgotten to unload it)?

What to do about it?  Well, if you leave it too long, BSS erodes that special bit of time  you have carved out for yourself.  The more you stare at the screen, the more you'll fret that you have nothing to write and even if an idea crops up, your confidence will have begun to wane and you won't see the value of it.  So my tip, for what it's worth is simply to start writing.

Some writers recommend just hitting the keys at random, writing any old rubbish which you can always delete once the words start to come.  Some advocate free writing where for ten minutes, to a timer, you write whatever comes into your head; disjointed thoughts, shopping lists, anything.  This seems to act like a mental unblocker, clearing the mind and leaving you free to write what you need to.  I've never tried free writing.  Instead I move away from the screen, but I write something, anything, in longhand.  A letter to an old friend, perhaps, or I'll organise my week in my diary (I still have an old-fashioned Filofax).  Sometimes I'll just write an entry into a journal.  I'm not a great diary keeper, my journal entries can be six months and more apart, but it does serve to unblock the words.

So, having burbled on my blog about Blank Screen Syndrome, the torrent of words is ready to emerge. The weather is still ghastly, the snooker is still on, the kids are still quiet and the dog is snoring.  Christmas short story on its way.

Sunday, 13 November 2016

Sing your own song

"Everyone is looking out of the world through their emotion and history."

So said Ben Okri, an award-winning writer of intensely beautiful and spiritual prose and poetry.  Okri's work is steeped in the myths and fables, and in the history of the Nigeria of his birth and formative years.  His voice, unique though it is to him and to his creative talent is also, in part at least, the voice, or one of the many voices, that make up the song that is Nigeria.

It is probably far too simplistic to say that the place where you live is the major influence on your writing - the landscape and the culture that surround you when you are young, growing up, or where you spend such a long time that it gets right into you.  There are all sorts of factors that give you the voice that is uniquely yours and these would include your education, your family make-up perhaps, your experiences at different points in your life, your health, your relationships with others.  

I'm particularly fascinated by how where you are - your location, the place that you physically inhabit in the world - influences your writing.  After my post last week about what being a local writer in Gibraltar might mean, this week I have been mulling over how being Gibraltarian or being in Gibraltar might affect a writer.

There has to be something, I pondered, in the fact that we are so many people crammed together in such a small space.  The noise of everyday, which rises quite a way up into the Upper Rock even when you try to escape it, carried on the breeze that whips up dull sounds of traffic or the sharper roar of an aeroplane taking off, or the boom of pile drivers cutting through the sizzling of the cicadas in the trees on a summer afternoon, must surely permeate all our thoughts.  The intensity of the blue of a winter's sunny morning out at Europa, one of the few spaces in Gibraltar where you can feel surrounded by light and open space is at once refreshing and soothing, inspirational perhaps.

I guess we find stories in our history, that mixed bag of events where cultures met and mixed and clashed and from which we are emerging, slowly, perhaps painfully, as our own nation with roots that are embedded in traditions from all over the world.  This means that our language is mixed - English and Spanish are entwined somehow.  Some of us prefer one language to the other, some of us write in one language for some purposes and in the other for different types of expression.  It is a reflection of how we use those languages day to day.  Still others of us speak in other languages: Moroccan, perhaps, Urdu, or Hindi and a host of others.

Some writers will be of one nation or other and have visited, lived in or near Gibraltar, and have found their inspiration here for a piece of work.  I think of Thomas Mogford's detective novels, for example.  Gibraltar's own contribution to world literature is still small, still very much developing, but even what there is has a fascinating story to tell of how place influences voice.  

Take Humbert Hernandez's short stories "El Accordeonista y otras historias". These are stories based on his young days in post-war Gibraltar and reflect a lost period which just about remains in our collective memory.  They are stories of his childhood, and fittingly, he writes them in the language of his childhood: Spanish.  

Gabriel Moreno writes in both languages, and uses language to explore that duality of identity that many Gibraltarians experience - a classical post-colonnial English education focusing largely on English rather than Gibraltarian history and literature - yet a day to day cultural existence that is predominantly Spanish - villancicos and polvorones at Christmas and torta de patata on the beach in the summer.  Speaking at the Gibraltar International Literary Festival last month, he fascinated me with his view on English and Spanish in writing; the former being presented as a precise language which cuts through emotion and positions meaning almost as if writing is a form of engineering, whereas Spanish flows in a wave of passion and emotion, carrying meaning like waves to the shore.    (Those are my words not his - he described what I am trying to convey much more succinctly and in a more learned fashion, but this is what I "heard".)

Sam Benady and Mary Chiappe, an older generation than Moreno's, use classical English language and writing techniques to create their historical whodunnits, and yet in so doing, they express a uniquely Gibraltarian world-view of a particular point in time and place.  Mark Sanchez' novels come from a Gibraltarian experience, not just in setting, but in "The Escape Artist" from the perspective of a Gibraltarian student in an English university. (Click the link below).  

The Escape Artist

Kailash Noguera writes from the depths of a hispanic passion that sometimes bursts full of light and sometimes broods darkly, harsh as the Rock that birthed it.  David Bentata and Levy Attias bring us works that are imbued with the spirituality that influences so many of the people that have their roots here. Sonia Golt displays the flamboyance that is the Mediterranean: sunshine and sea-spray and falling in love.  Rebecca Faller uses her native English in all its glorious, incisive fullness with the precision of a military operation to cut out a sharply-defined view of her adopted Gibraltar, warts and all and with a tinge of humour - because you cannot get away from laughter in this tiny city.

I could go on.  Gibraltar's writers and those writers in and around Gibraltar, are all writing  Gibraltar's song.  We are all writing our view from our place, our history and our emotions.

If it is true that there are only seven basic story plots, then there are as many ways of telling a story as there are people. Each of us has a unique view out of their own world, an individual experience which to a greater or lesser extent may be shared with some others, but the beauty of writing is that we each have our own very special voice, and each is as valid as the other.  

That last thought is rather comforting.  Rather than wondering if I ought to try to write like this or like that, I just have to write  I write my view of the world, for better or for worse, with my way of expressing things, with my experiences, influences, passions or my own brand of cold cynicism, shaping and colouring what and how I write. sharpen yet another quill and write some more...I'll do it my way.

Photo courtesy of

Sunday, 6 November 2016

How local is local in Gibraltar?

I need to lay my cards on the table straight away, just in case I fall prey to the hordes of slavering gossips just waiting for me to make a politically incorrect statement so that they can pounce on me like half-straved hyenas. This post is written from my perspective as a writer.

What do I mean by that - the perspective of a writer? Well, firstly, a writer knows no boundaries.  We are people that inhabit our imaginations and explore worlds of fiction as often or more so than we do the real world.  We question, we cast doubt, we nose into shadows and into the shadowy.  We take inference from shades, from glances, we respond to nuance.  If there's one thing we know for certain, is that there is no certainty and that reality is only what you make it and never what it seems.

So, from a writer's perspective, where everything is possible, fleeting and elusive, what does "local"  mean?

We work with words, and while sometimes we insist on definition, we also understand and use allusion.  We use words to create images and illusions and we know more than most, how words can destroy and well as create.

Local means "belonging or relating to a particular area or neighbourhood, typically exclusively so" according to my dictionary.  

This means, then, that anyone who belongs to Gibraltar or relates to Gibraltar as a defined neighbourhood, could be classed as a "Gibraltar writer".  So far so good - the geographical boundary is defined and the journalist in me is satisfied, and yet the definition is broad enough to encompass a wide variety of writers and writing.

Which leads me to wonder why I don't feel satisfied, why I feel that something is missing. Perhaps it's that in practical application, the word "local" in a Gibraltar context can often mean something far more narrow.  When I look for a job and I'm asked if I'm a local, I have to produce my red ID card.  I wonder if I lived in La Linea, which to me, used as I am to living in a larger geographical environment, would feel local to Gibraltar, would I be considered a "local".  Experience tells me I doubt it.  My answer is that even if I lived in Estepona, I would feel local to Gibraltar.  For years I lived in Gillingham in Kent, and still think of myself as local to London, forty miles away.

Context, then, is essential when looking at the way that words are interpreted.  My concern, however, is how local is literature?

If a writer is born in Gibraltar but writes in New Zealand, is he or she a "local" writer, in the popular perception of the word?  If a writer is Canadian but lives in Rosia and writes about the Great Lakes and the Mounties in tense whodunnit thrillers, is he or she a local writer to Gibraltar or would we treat their work as an irrelevance in terms of local literature?  Is an American writer based in San Roque and writing educational books for Grade 6 Maths lessons remotely a local writer as far as Gibraltar is concerned?  Is a writer based in Sotogrande, writing in Spanish a series of historical novels set in Roman times and dealing with the Roman conquest of Spain, a local writer?  Then again, is a historian based in Birmingham writing about 17th century slave merchants and how they used Gibraltar as a base, someone with a local interest and local connection and therefore a "local" writer?

I have to say - yes to all of them.  These writers live nearby.  They share space, in some cases language, in other cases a shared local experience, in others a mutual historical heritage and in still others useful knowledge that can be shared for the betterment of our community.  There would be no need to exclude them.

In Gibraltar, we know from decades and generations of experience that the greater the inclusivity of people of all sorts of ethnicities and backgrounds into our community, the richer our community, the richer our learning, our art, our means of expression and above all our literature.  That is why having an annual International Literary Festival is so important.  And that is why, to be truly part of international literature, we need to open our arms wide to all writers who in some way or other are "local".  We should eradicate boundaries rather than uphold them.  Whoever turned down an English writer living in Santa Margarita seeking a stall to sell his books in Gibraltar as not being local enough to warrant permission ought to consider why they would set up a barrier to expanding our "local" experience of literature and the thoughts, creativity and ideas that literature provokes and encourages.

Our small, fledgling writers' group, Gibraltar Writers, embraces locals of all sorts of backgrounds, and all sorts of writing.  They may be visitors staying during the lifespan of a short term work contract, or born locally, or immigrants or itinerant travellers. Their first language may not be English, their preferred language for writing may be anything else they want it to be, including Elvish and Klingon.  Why? Because by embracing thinking and ways of expression from all over the world, by sharing the experiences of all sorts of people, Gibraltar can truly find its own, unique voice in the world of international literature.

Words can destroy boundaries, so let us not put limitations on our writers and those who write for and about us.

Thursday, 3 November 2016

When the muse strikes

Most writers will tell you that if you want to write, then write.  There is  no such thing as waiting for the Muse to strike.  There is no substitute for practising your craft as often as you can.  The same is as true for writers as it is for a piano player or a potter - practise, practise, practise makes perfect.

The message came over loud and clear during the 2016 Gibraltar International Literary Festival.  I was fortunate enough to attend a number of talks given by visiting writers, and also by local writers - more about the distinction in another blog.

The first emphasis on the value of writing as much and as often as possible came from Giselle Green. An award winning novelist, Giselle Green was born in England, grew up in Gibraltar and now lives in Kent, not far from where I, born in Gibraltar, grew up.  She has been a busy Mum, raising six sons.  I'm raising a brood of six myself, some boys some girls.  What differentiates us, besides Giselle's obvious talent, is that she writes, and wrote for years, a lot.

Giselle Green's website

Photo borrowed from Giselle Green's website

"It's all grist to the mill," she said, "writing around a large family or other commitments is very hard, but the more you do, the better your writing will become until one day it will be good enough to publish."  I can't do justice in words to the sense of encouragement that gave me.  Keep going was the message, so back to the keyboard it is, even if the best I can do sometimes is a couple of posts on Facebook and some entries on this blog.  I passed the message on to the Gibraltar Writers' group and I think it hit home with them too.

I listened to Gabriel Moreno talk about his constant exploration of language, from listening to the lyrics of rock songs as a young man to the voracious reading and analysis of English and Hispanic poets.  Without that constant playing with words, his writing, the lyrics of his songs, the beautiful music of his poems would never have taken shape.  He inspired during his talk, which interestingly also linked language to culture, identity and the expression of these, and he inspired during a wonderful evening of poetry, music (and, in my case, large gins and tonic) with poet Rebecca Faller adding her sharp, witty and often amusing poems to the event.

Gabriel Moreno

Photo by angels from

Tom Mogford, who writes fast-paced "whodunnits" set in Gibraltar, or in nearby Mediterranean countries and following the adventures of a fictional Gibraltarian detective, also told of his many attempts at approaching potential publishers and dealing with rejection letters - one he read out took four years to reach him!  He kept going and going strong, his fifth book in the series recently being published.  Another inspiration.

Thomas Mogford

Shadow of the Rock

Louis de Bernieres was another author who spoke at the Literary Festival and he talked, among many things, about how he is a voracious reader.  Writing and reading go hand in hand - whether you read to understand your genre, your market, for pleasure, for research, this is the way a writer learns best how to handle the chosen medium: words.

Louis de Bernieres

The Dust that falls from Dreams

Back to the local authors, Carmen Gomez' gave an interesting exposition of her book with all its many observations of Gibraltar and the Gibraltarians during a time of cultural and economic upheaval, a time which was key in developing a post-colonnial identity.  Unfortunately I could not attend David Bentata's talk on his poetry which was a shame because I am utterly fascinated by what is being written by such a large number of talented and creative people, in a tiny city, where only a few years ago it was rare to find local published poetry and fiction among the mainly non-fiction historical works which focused on Gibraltar as a military base.

I did, however, attend the talk by Christian Hook, an award winning artist.  Hook is incredibly talented and already feted by Gibraltar and internationally.  He has produced a book hence his link to this year's literary festival, but what I found particularly interesting and ultimately inspiring, was his view on creativity and how he achieved his success.  Like the other creatives whose talks I attended, Christian spoke of the sheer level of work and dedication that eventually led to his success: hours and hours and hours of drawing the same object over and again until he was finally good enough to start work as an illustrator.  He combined self-belief, a sense that his gut instincts will lead him to the right places and sheer effort and talent and summed up that overall, without work, talent goes nowhere.

Christian Hook

I daresay there are many motivations behind holding a literary festival: there is the promotion of a town to encourage visitors, boost the local economy, engage international attention, maybe even to give a bit of a leg-up to a growing cultural movement towards the written word.  The Gibraltar Literary Festival seems to have a mix of purposes, although the salient one seems to my eyes to be more about the tourism product and providing an opportunity for the middle class literati to indulge themselves.  Still,in so doing, some of the underlying reasons for  having a festival in the first place are addressed: to bring Gibraltar closer to the rest of the world in cultural terms, to  give at least moral support to a growing body of literature based in, around and about Gibraltar, to somehow give some kind of international validity to Gibraltar's ever-evolving cultural identity.  

This latter deserves far more pointed and constructive attention than is provided for by just holding an annual International Literary Festival in the current format, and I will mull over this point in future posts.  But for now, as a writer and a reader, I enjoy the festival to the max.  Tomorrow, I will keep writing.  And the next day and the day after that regardless of whether the Muse comes to pay me a visit.

Sunday, 14 August 2016

Summertime, seaside and sonnets

Low tide on the Medway Estuary

Some writers use the summer as a period of "downtime".  It makes sense - the days are long and drowsy, filled with the warmth of sunshine, the scent of wildflowers and the sleepy hum of bumble bees. The break from routine refreshes us and our creative muscle becomes toned and honed so that we can return to that writing project that will then fill our autumn evening.

So the idyll goes.  Many others of us are still stuck in the treadmill that takes us in long grey lines of commuters to the conveyor belt of activity that is the office or warehouse or wherever it is we spend our days and we are still trying to scribble out that masterpiece late into the night wondering if anyone is ever going to bother reading those words that seem so difficult to draw out of our exhausted minds.

Taking a walk by the Thames can be surprisingly inspirational

Yet even for those stuck at work, the general slowdown that comes each summer can be a bit of a breather, a chance to relax, refresh and restore the spark to their writing. 

Some city dwellers are lucky enough to find local parks with a lake, such as Capstone Park in Chatham

Summertime is thought of as synonymous with the sea.  A good walk along the shore can do wonders to dissolve those cobwebs, clear the fog of overwork (surely I am not the only one who suffers from acute brain fog after one of those interminable meetings where nothing is actually decided?), and inspire.  The sound of the waves, their movement, the way the light plays on them, what they mean to the poet, for example, can all be expressed in words, words that have a gift of arising as the mind relaxes and the writer observes the sea. Take these, from Pablo Neruda in his poem "The Wide Ocean".

The falling wave,
arch of identity, shattering feathers,

is only spume when it clears, 
and returns to its source, unconsumed.

I rather think that a description like this comes from the poet's close observation of wave after wave after wave crashing along the sea shore.

I love being by the sea.  Just an hour after work is enough to energise me.  And I love taking a stroll along the ragged edge of a river, or the wide marshes on the fringe of the estuary.  Some people do similar.  Or they fish, collect pebbles, shells, dig around the mud for cockles and mussels, take photographs with their complex cameras and long lenses.  On my walks along the canal bank, I see students sketching, retired artists daubing watercolours on canvas.  Bodies of water appeal to thinkers as well as doers.  Writers collect words.  Then they go away and mould them into poems, or sentences that pick up the thread of their novel, or add meaning to a story-line. 

So whether you are on holiday at the seaside, or stuck at work, it's worth making the most of those lingering hours of daylight to go down to the river, or lake, or sea, or pond.  Let your mind wander and let the words flow like the incoming tide.  As the sonnet by John Keats goes:

It keeps eternal whisperings around 
Desolate shores, and with its mighty swell
Gluts twice ten thousand caverns, till the spell
Of Hecate leaves them their old shadowy sound.
Often 'tis in such gentle temper found
That scarcely will the very smallest shell
Be mov'd for days from whence it sometime fell,
When last the winds of heaven were unbound.
Oh ye! who have your eye-balls vex'd and tir'd,
Feast them upon the wideness of the Sea;
Oh ye! whose ears are dinn'd with uproar rude,
Or fed too much with cloying melody,--
Sit ye near some old cavern's mouth, and brood
Until ye start, as if the sea-nymphs quir'd! 

John Keats

Sunday, 7 August 2016

Stuck in a writing rut?

Not so much stuck in a writing rut as just a bit plain stuck.  I can't complain, mind, there are few more perfect places than being stuck at the home you grew up in, surrounded by family and friends and occasionally benefiting from a cuppa made by your Mum in just the way you like it.

So I'm in Kent, UK for more than just the two weeks that I expected to be, and unlikely to be back home in Gibraltar before the end of August.  The pros, besides loving spending precious time with the family, are many:  I can't go to work so I am having to relax, something I find difficult to do; I can nose around old haunts and see how these have changed, or not, improved or worsened, all of which is quite fascinating; I can go to London which is only a train ride away and I simply love London; I can enjoy warm sunshine without having to hide from the intensity of August Mediterranean heat; I can take a walk on cool grass, breathe clean, country air within a short walk, lay flowers on my father's grave, visit my grandparents' grave and remember my youth.

St Mary Magdalene Church, Gillingham, Kent

The cons: I need to get back to work (no work, no money, although with the internet I have been able to complete some of my writing commissions and hope to Facetime or Skype some clients before they find other writers for their projects); I struggle to get into a routine, interruptions are numerous, distractions more so.  So when I do manage to sit at a computer or tablet, or get my notebook and pen out, I find the hours stroll by at a noncholant pace and I write nothing.  Not even something vague which might be shaped into something useful in the future.  Just plain nothing.

There's only one thing for it.  When I get stuck in as much of a writing rut as I am at the moment, the best thing I can do is walk it off.  Visit places, see people.  For the writer, embracing these distractions can sometimes pay off.  People are endlessly fascinating and even a brief glance at the people in the supermarket queue in front of you can spark an idea, or crop up in a short story in a few months' time.  Places are evocative of emotions, and emotions are what stories appeal to, strive for and evoke.  

Tonight I'm browsing through some of the snapshots I took on my phone of the places I've been to in these past few weeks.  Tomorrow I know that I will be writing.  I've walked, I've contemplated.  By tomorrow the ideas will be formulating and the words will start to flow.  A writing rut?  What's that?

On London Bridge

Rochester Castle, Kent

Friday, 29 April 2016

Gibraltar's Writers Write Together

Photo by punsayaporn courtesy of

The first meeting of a group of Gibraltar Writers for a couple of years was almost the highlight of my writing month in April.  Although there are many writers in Gibraltar and in the past couple of years there has been an increase in the numbers of books published by Gibraltarians or about Gibraltar, there has never been a supportive, cohesive group or community of writers that can work together to drive forward the development of Gibraltarian literature.

With a bit of work in the local press, the moral support of Gibraltar Cultural Services staff, and making use of an existing Facebook group and social media, I pushed it.  Not sure why, because it will mean a good deal of commitment on my part and devoting time which I had been hoping to spend dawdling about reading the mammoth "to read" pile of books I've amassed over the years.

Gibraltar Writers Facebook group

I guess on reflection, it was always about the human need of finding safety in numbers.  Writing can be a pretty lonesome enterprise and I have blogged before about the useful work of writing groups.  For me it is all about finding support among others who love to write, about sharing skills and experiences, about helping others to tap into their creativity.

I'm also nurturing this idea that a strong creative writing group can also contribute to the local community as well as develop Gibraltar's own unique literature and the individual talents of all those closet writers on the Rock.  Writing can be cathartic, it can be a way of tapping into emotions or parts of the psyche that needs healing.  It can help a dying person come to terms with parting from their loved ones and vice versa, while also leaving a legacy of unique written memories behind them.  It can help those who have become disengaged from society to find an outlet for their frustrations and learn new skills, communicate usefully and re-engage with society.  It can bring a sense of value back to the lives of those who have felt discarded and cast aside by society. 

We split into pairs to get to know each other better and to work on a short writing project.

So what happened at the first event of Writers Together?  Well, we got to know each other a little, we planned ahead to what we could do in the future, and we got writing with a mini workshop.  I was struck by the diversity of writing styles and ambitions in terms of what the writers want to achieve with their writing, from memoirs for their grandchildren to stories, travel articles and content for a professional website.

Next steps - another get together next month, with hopefully more writers coming together, and another mini-workshop.  At the end of the day, you can't be a writer until you start writing, and you can't get better unless you practice, lots.

And as for the other highlight of the month - it's a freelance writing gig.  A proper, writing commission that puts all those wishes into focus and gets me actually working and forced to type whether I am hit by inspiration or not.  Can I call myself a professional writer yet?  Perhaps I will when the articles are actually published - just watch this space!

Photo courtesy of