Monday, 10 November 2014

Between the land and sea

Winners of the Gibraltar Poetry Competition 2014 with the judge, Mr Durante, and the Minister for Culture, Mr Linares
The Gibraltar Autumn Festival is in full swing and once again the poetry competition took place and attracted over 200 entries.  Among them mine, a poem inspired by the sea, an ever-present feature in my life.  I was delighted when this was chosen as the overall winner, and no less delighted if truth be told, when my son won his age category with a poem called "Over the bridge" which was inspired by the strong emotions provoked by exams -  he has his mock GCSE exams looming this month.

Me, receiving my prize from the Minister and looking embarrassed - I hate photos!

The competition judge, Charlie Durante, spoke in his introduction to the award ceremony about the breadth of themes touched on in this year's entries, including war poems.  I guess this year, marred as it has been by some conflict or other around the globe and the threats that ideological extremism pose to any lasting peace anywhere, joined by the memories of the First World War so strong this the year of this war's centenary, the theme of war cannot be far from our minds.

My boy, David Anderson, surprised and delighted at winning his category.

It is always interesting to browse entries and see what others see around them, what inspires them to make an observation, write it down and record it for posterity. Poetry opens a single window to the poet's thoughts which in a poem are expressed in a deeply personal way, a unique way which cannot be echoed by anyone else.  So in reading some of the winning entries which we are lucky to read in the Gibraltar Chronicle, sponsors of the event, we are able to dip into insights to the world about us.  David kindly allowed me to reproduce his poem below and I was surprised that he (usually to be found nose to screen in the depths of some computer game or other, communicating in binary code or peculiar adolescent grunts and trading in bit coins - whatever these are) demonstrated such a sensitive view of how it feels to sit at a desk in the exam room, waiting to turn that question paper round, knowing your entire future is at stake, and perfectly aware that any conscious knowledge of the subject you might have had escaped your over-worked brain over breakfast that morning.  His poem is about the tension of crossing that chasm of fear and tackling those exams.  Maybe although I never seem to catch him with a book in his hand, the boy is literate after all.

Mother and son, proud moment

My poem was sparked by a photograph my very talented photographer daughter took of her son last year on a beach.  The sense of wonder that a two-year-old displays in his face as he looks around the infinite spaces of sea-shore and horizon beyond borders on the indescribable.  When I look at my grandsons and recall how my own children looked at the world around them with insatiable curiosity, absorbing details, thinking about what they see, working out their world and what might lie beyond the horizon, I see the child-like wonder that adults have usually lost.  That we should also view the world about us with the same sense of non-judgemental curiosity would be a wonderful thing itself.  

And there was a third family entry.  My 12 year old daughter, Carmen added her thoughts to the event and came up with a poem expressing her feelings and fears about the shadow cast by the ebola epidemic, which even in the twenty-first century awakens the horrors of plague and disease experienced for generations.  I am a very proud Mum at the moment, needless to say.

Congratulations to all the winners and runners up - many poems were terrific.  I also congratulate all who entered, because it is not without a little courage that you put your intimate thoughts out for the world to see.

Over the Bridge by David Anderson

It’s a darkness,
A cloud, dense and purple,
That threatens to engulf my world,
To choke me,
To clasp me to its icy chest
Till my ribs snap
And I breathe no more because
It hurts when I breathe,
And I’m standing
In the yellow stains of school-room lights,
Gagging breath clogging my throat-
Just waiting for that one bark;

And then there’s light,
Blinding bright till my eyes smart,
Shining from the sheet
That lies on my desk,
Neat and clean and blank,
Like my sorry schoolboy mind.
And there’s a chasm there,
A yawning gap
With red, raw rocks,
Like hunting teeth,
That want to tear at
The thin threads of knowledge
My teachers tried to weave;
Except, there is a calm voice
In the flood of alarm
That leads me to step
Across a swaying rope bridge,
From cliff edge to mountain top,
Across the gorge of ignorance.

And I step, trembling,
Nib of pen shaking,
Fog thinning and clouds lifting,
And I edge,
Word by word,
Over the bridge.

Between land and sea by Jackie Anderson 

Between the land and the sea I stand,
By lace-frilled shore,
On strip of sand,
A beach that to my tiny frame
Stretches like the stretch
Of time that passes slow,
Time that only just has been and
Time that without fail is yet to come.

With fingers still to find their strength,
I trace the shapes of paths
That reach the lapping waters
And seek to reach beyond,
Beyond the edges of the blue,
Beyond the reaches of my childlike mind,
Further than those places where
The crooning, soothing sea touches sky.

I pace the shore,
Toes deep in tiny grains
To anchor me to the earth
And hold me close to all that I hold dear,
To ground me to a haven.

And yet I gaze and seek
To reach beyond the blue,
And take the magic of the sun
In the palm of my hand,
Hold the rainbow in my eyes
And breathe the mysteries that lie

Where sand and sea and child touch sky.

Catch me if you can by Carmen Anderson

I travel
I race
I leap
Through sky and sea and fields.
I’m coming for you,
Closer and closer every day.
But I don’t understand;
You have technology,
You have computers, cameras, phones,
But you can’t stop me,
You can’t kill me,
You can’t cure my work.

I thunder through towns
I rampage through cities.
I terrify.
I destroy.
I devastate.
And you can’t stop me.
You are to busy,
You are too rich to care,
Too complacent in your comfort.
You don’t think that I’m going to catch you.
But I will,

You stop and think and change your ways,
You dedicate time
To stopping me,
To killing me,
To curing me.

The thing is,
You have to do it
Before it’s too late
You’re smarter than me.

But I’m fast,
Catch me if you can.
Because I will catch you.

Sunday, 12 October 2014

Place as source of inspiration

Gibraltar Harbour - has inspired stories and poems

I'm one of those people who are never short of ideas for writing.  Not that I'm blowing my own trumpet here, there's nothing special about that, and because writing is not my job, I am not forced to come up with ideas and angles and article selling points day after day - if I were, then I would have written a very different first sentence to this blog and I have infinite respect for those who achieve publication after publication under the pressure of deadlines and still find ideas for success. 

I often find that my ideas come from location, from places.  There is a good deal written about the importance of location and setting in writing - who can ignore the threatening presence of the windswept moors in "Wuthering Heights" or the architectural landscape of "Gormenghast"?  

What I have been finding in recent months is just how much the places I live in or visit can have an impact on my writing.  For example, the ancient graveyard of Newington Church on a frost-bitten evening was the perfect setting for my short story "To Hear an Angel sing"; 

Newington Church, Kent, image by Sonia Vallejo

and following on the Christmas theme, crossing the new Sheppey bridge in Kent and driving to Sheerness in the pouring rain helped to inspire another story: "Home for Christmas".  

The back streets of old Gillingham and Chatham, steep hills lined by rows of terraced houses that were the homes of the dock workers in the early part of the twentieth century, leading down to the dirty grey waters of the estuary inspired another story: "Please stay for Christmas".  The fact that all these are Christmas stories is neither here not there - I spent many Christmases in the Medway towns, where I grew up, and despite having lived away for over 6 years now, Christmas and Medway are inextricably linked in my mind.

But every place, I am certain, has its inspiration, whether for its beauty, the majestic  nature of its landscape, the architectural wonders displayed, or the closeness to nature.  I personally like looking beyond the picture postcard.  I like to look for the story within the place, rather than just the story inspired by the place, and doing this can sometimes bring about a storyline that just has to be followed, or characters that simply beg to be created and developed until their stories are told.  In this way, when I recently visited the lighthouse at Gibraltar - for the umpteenth time because I lived here as a very young child and still walk here with my kids regularly, a place so familiar to me I can easily visualise it, yet a place where I see something new each time I visit - I found myself thinking about what it must have been like, in less technologically - advanced days, to be a lighthouse keeper.  And that led me to thinking about what it might be like to be a redundant lighthouse keeper, one too old to look after the lighthouse any more.  And those thoughts led to my most recent poem, a section below.  Location for inspiration.

The Lighthouse Keeper

His fisherman’s fingers are
Blackened from mending nets
On wind-swept, sun-burnt beaches,
And from the oil, the working of the wires,
Night-long fires, generator,
Guano-stained glass that must be cleaned each day,
Like a constant wife he’s
Tending, nursing, birthing light

To burn the length of night.

Image courtesy of Little Lenses Photography

Thursday, 11 September 2014

R and R

Finding time to drift with the tide of imagination

If finding a space for writing and time for writing is often difficult, getting into the right frame of mind for creative writing can be even harder.  On the odd occasion I manage to eke out a spare hour or so between tasks at home which I can actually dedicate to progressing my latest project, I often find myself dawdling about, distracted with this and that (Facebook or Twitter, more often than not) and just generally finding thoughts of all sorts popping into my head except, sadly enough, the thoughts I need about plot, or character, or mood, or setting, or rhythm, or imagery that I need.  All too suddenly, that spare hour is over and it's back to the housework, or kids, or getting ready for work.  And there's never the space in an overworked schedule to relax.

Relaxing by a waterfall is a perfect place for creative thinking

In fact in the last six or so months, I have found it almost impossible to concentrate on anything for long enough to create anything, except a tangled mess of words.  My attempt to co-ordinate meetings for Gibraltar Writers fell apart because I could not find time to make it to the meetings I had arranged. My attempts to blog were disorganised and lacked any direction.  And the characters in my work in progress suddenly became elusive creatures that could not be pinned down in my mind let alone on the page.

Then a spate of illness forced me to do the one thing that the creative mind, I believe, most needs to be able to function.  Rest.  After months of working long hours, I suddenly found myself forced to be at home resting.  It took a full fortnight or so to start to be able to think thoughts from beginning to end without getting into a muddle.

Or a lakeside break - perfect for peace and quiet and time to think

Rest and relaxation.  Maybe that's why some of the best ideas come to us in the shower, or bath, or while working out at the gym, or walking.  In fact, walking has often been a favourite pursuit of many a writer - think Wordsworth or Woolf.  Rest and relaxation releases the  mind and allows it to wander, it allows thoughts to penetrate which are not necessarily logical or pertinent to the moment.  These are unfocused thoughts, derived perhaps from the subconscious.  They are the thoughts that day dreams are made of.  And those are the dreams that one day can blossom into that special novel, or poem or play.

Or a city break - just to get away from the routine.  This was the entrance to 2014's Love Festival at London's South Bank

So if I have a tip for the month, just as summer draws to an end and we enter the bustle of autumn, a new term, the return of co-workers from holidays, and head towards the rush and clamour of Christmas, it is to make sure to take enough rest, to find those times to relax and allow ourselves to dream.....and write.

Sunday, 9 March 2014

Time and Space for Writing - in the mind

So I managed to book rooms, and made a stab at hosting a writer's group.  And wrote a story.  And then it all went wrong.

No-one turned up.  Well, two did, but by that time, I'd had an eleven hour day, was hungry, cold, disillusioned and went home.

Then the next time, the room had been double booked.  So no great success there, plus the guilt of letting other people down.

Clearly I need to take control again, make sure that my writing time is there and that everyone around me respects it, and that I can give some thought to communicating with other local writers.  At home I've set aside Sunday mornings and the family is easy going about it.  The first hurdle has been cleared.

But in recent weeks all I've done is work, so intensely I can barely think when I get as far as home, can sleep only in fits and starts and reading is a struggle, let alone writing.  Now that is a much deeper problem, and one that many writers must face, because it is an unusual thing for writers to be able to learn a good enough living from just writing alone.  Not unless they are so hugely dedicated, so good at their craft, networking, marketing their work and so on, that they have very successful freelance writing careers.  And I have huge admiration for these writers.  But I am in that dilemma where I must work to raise the family, keep a roof over their heads etc. but I cannot rely on writing income because I have no time to hone my skills, market my work etc. quickly enough to obtain enough commissions to be a full-time writer.

But that's ok.  Not all painters expect to exhibit their art in galleries and have a bidding war going on over their canvasses at auction houses.  But they still paint, and hang their art on walls in homes or maybe even in local cafe's and enjoy the creativity, the production.  Which is pretty much how I look at my writing.

So when work interferes to an extent where my hobby can have no time in my life because in the time I have my brain is dulled by mental exhaustion, then it is pretty clear to me that my work-life balance has to be redressed.  Because unlike sport, or cookery, or flower arranging, or going to a wine-tasting club, or salsa classes, writing needs enormous engagement of the mind.  Work does not interfere with me walking the dog - and I used to use this time to work out plots or characters in my head, but recently I've been wording up emails or working out lists of things to do the next day in the office.  Physical time is there every day because I get up extra early and I go out late in the evening to  walk.  But it's mental time.  My brain is so cluttered and tired, that even thinking about storylines is tiring.

I decided to see if there were any tips out there I could put to use - I can't afford not to work, though that would be a fine thing and I found these three I'm going to try out next week:

1.  The right tools to write with

      Being prepared is essential, so since I give myself two hours on a Sunday, then I can make best use of this when I have everything around me I need - laptop, notes, a notebook, a cup of tea, and the door to my room closed.  I make sure my pens work, the laptop charger is to hand and that any notes I may have scribbled down during the week are to hand so I can refer to them.  If I approach my writing like I do my work, then for those two glorious hours, I can focus on the task of producing the novel or story or poem I want to write.

2.    Music

       I find quiet background music helps me focus.  It makes me detach myself from work altogether so my thoughts are less likely to wonder back to what I left at the office on the Friday.  Each person will have their own trigger item or routine that will help them focus - a friend of mine sets an alarm for her one hour writing session, it focuses her on trying to finish the piece she is working on in that time.  When the alarm goes off, she finds she has achieved some progress and that keeps her thinking on what she is writing rather than on the everyday things that can be so distracting.

3.   Setting a goal

      In a way it's using a technique from the office, but if it is successful at work, then no reason it can't be successful in my writing.  My goal this week is to try to enter a story for the Gibraltar Spring Festival short story competition.  I've only got till 14th March to get it ready.  My preparation for this was giving it some real thought when out walking the dog (and yes, I did occasionally get distracted thinking about work, but like everything else in life, discipline helps), and then I wrote it out during my session.  It needs to be finished and polished, so I will have to carve out an extra session this week, and I'm sure it will be worth it.

I'll give these three things a try.  The long and the short of it is that writers write.  Less bleating, more writing.  There can be no success without trying.

Sunday, 9 February 2014

Time and Space for Writing

When and How?

It's what every writer I've ever met seems to crave - time and space for writing.

Carving out a chunk of time from a busy life just to sit and write seems to be incredibly difficult.  But no-one can think of being a writer if they don't write and in the same way as footballers make time to train and play their sport of choice, or swimmers spend regular sessions in the pool, so writers should and could set aside a session of writing time.

So why does it seem so hard?  I've been trying to be a writer for over thirty years.  But I relegate this most desired of activities to such a low place of importance in my daily life.  I work, I do the shopping, the household chores, walk the dog, visit family and friends, clean the car, far more readily than dig out my laptop or tablet or notepad and just write.  Perhaps I view writing as a guilty pleasure rather than as a hobby or a job.  And because I probably look at it as that - something that I do when everything else has been done - people around me don't expect me to put my writing first and certainly not before them.

So this year, with the help of Gibraltar Writers, I have finally found a session - only small and modest - where all I do is write.  No TV in the background, no phone to interrupt me (mobiles on silent only), no kids  breaking my train of thought, no dog to take to have an untimely wee, no hearing the washing machine telling me the kids' uniform and hubby's trousers are ready to hang out to dry, not even wondering whether the kids have had their supper (their dad is perfectly capable of seeing to their needs).  One Tuesday a month, I can go to the John Mackinosh Hall, to a dimly lit and sparsely furnished room where internet connectivity is so poor that social media sites can rarely interfere with my train of thought, turn on the laptop and just write.  Okay, so two hours a month is hardly going to see the 21st century version of War and Peace written, but I produced a short story draft last month, and this month, maybe the first draft of a competition entry.

Which takes me to the next point.  Space.  I live in a pretty cramped apartment.  Tucked into a corner of the living room is my desk and computer.  Space to write, physical space is important.  It's nice to have a desk and computer.  I have books on shelves near me and in the drawers I have notes and old print outs of manuscripts.  So far so good.  But just behind me is the TV.  It's where the family watch evening programmes.  Not conducive to uninterrupted thinking. 

Space for writing is about mental space as much as physical space.  We have the technology these days - tablets with a plethora of novel writing apps can help you achieve that goal of writing the novel.  But it's no more sophisticated really than paper and the back of an envelope if you cannot think your plot, or dream up your characters.  Just as a swimmer will need a pool or some body of water to master their craft, or a footballer a pitch or a basketball player a hoop high on a wall and a ball, so a writer needs space physical and mental to dream up those stories and string those words together.  J K Rowling did it in cafes and hotel rooms.  The John Mackintosh Hall monthly session is a step in the right direction for me.  And in the summer, there are shady, quiet corners of Alameda Gardens, begging to be used to dream up a best seller!

Monday, 16 December 2013

To Hear an Angel Sing

It's Christmas.  It's the season of all things fun and jolly, bells ring, there's wassail bowls and turkey and pudding, and loads of shopping, tree, presents, bells ringing, choirs singing......

But not for everyone.  I've personally been pretty lucky not too have too many tough Christmases, but I have spent time with those who have.  This story is for those who have nothing, nowhere to go, no-one to turn to.  Winter is always harsh, and midwinter is always dark, and only after the darkest night comes the light of a new day.

To Hear an Angel Sing    

 "It’s one of those nights, and here I am, leaning on a gravestone, squinting up at the church and struggling to breathe.  The cold is the kind that slices into your lungs and so you hold it in a little, just enough for your head to stop reeling and to delay the pain of its nails as it rasps its way out of your throat.
     I pull my scarf up to cover the tip of my nose and exhale into it.  That way its warmth stays with me a little longer. 
      It’s pink and fluffy.  The scarf, I mean.  I didn’t choose it.  It’s not really my colour; clashes terribly with my red curls.  Not that anyone can see them.  It’s the longest it’s ever been, my hair.  Mum always kept it cropped close to my scalp.  Saved hassles with lice as she dragged me from school to school, always one step ahead of the man that fathered me.  Kept its real colour hidden too.  Life’s not always easy for a skinny Scots boy with red hair and freckles.  God knows how much fighting my knuckles could have taken if those Geordie lads had seen ginger curls.  They’re tucked neatly under the matching hat now. 
     I’m not complaining.  To be honest, I would have cried with delight when the woman clipped past me and dropped them into my lap - if I hadn’t been too dozy for tears.  That’s the problem out here.  You need the daylight for scavenging in bins or looking out for a better spot to spend the night.  Or, if you’ve got the energy, to look out for a handy coffee morning where you can warm up and fill your belly with Garibaldis. 
     But at night you  have to watch out for yourself and you sleep as deep in whatever bits of rag you can gather together.  You sleep with one eye open and look out for Old Bill, or dogs or drunks, so during the day you sleep.  You can’t help it." 

The rest can be read by downloading the story from Amazon.  I'm still startled at how easy it was to upload it and have my friends and family across on both sides of the Atlantic purchase and read it.  I got  feedback within minutes - all of it positive so far, glad to see, my sensitive ego can only cope with "constructive" criticism.