Friday, 2 September 2011

Writing groups


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Not long ago I talked about writing courses, and how beneficial they can be. I only briefly mentioned writing groups, but here I would like to emphasise what a boon a supportive and constructively critical writing group can be. Back in March I joined one which disappeared shortly afterwards, but I have had more luck recently in going to one organised by Ali Cocks at The Treehouse in Aberystwyth. It is on Mondays, 6.30-8pm and I recommend coming along to join a select group (give Ali a ring on 01970 611133 if you want to know more).



Most of the time is spent discussing thought-provoking topics relevant to writing with some time apportioned to short writing exercises to encourage the creative parts of our brains to get into gear. Whenever I have been part of a writing group or on a course I usually enjoy these exercises and it is often surprising how much you can write once an idea sparks in your brain. These small pieces and character sketches can be the basis for scenes or characters in longer works so are really useful.

When we met this week the main topics discussed were the pitfalls of writing sex scenes, erotica, and various literary theories and articles on the subject. As part of the research for the session one of the possible readings was The Story Of O by Pauline Réage (pen name). I found it almost as disturbing to read as the Marquis de Sade's Justine, or the Misfortunes of Virtue. However, as soon as I started interpreting The Story Of O as a satire on marriage and the privileged wealthy I found it to be much less distressing. It certainly raises many questions and forces you to confront your prejudices. Is that the difference between literature on the one hand, and commercial fiction - which aims to leave you within your comfort zone and give you exactly what you expect when you hand over your £5.99 - on the other?

One exercise we tried was writing a sex scene from the perspective of our opposite sex. By strange coincidence I had been editing my work-in-progress Soft Collisions all day, including a sex scene described twice: once from a man's point of view, and once from a woman's, in order to show the silly misunderstandings that can occur. I had feedback from one reader of the draft version of my novel that the repetition of the scene from two perspectives was duplication, and they wanted to move on to something new rather than read a similar scene again. However, an alternative perspective is that we're too fast nowadays, we have no patience, we fail to consider and appreciate things in the way they are intended because we expect everything to have a 'ME' or 'i' or 'Wii' stuck to it as an egocentric sop. Should I change the scene? Or would that be pandering to the lowest common denominator?

Since this blog is my writing playpen I am going to include some of the snippet pieces I wrote in the last two classes. These are unedited fragments so don't expect resolution. However, quick exercises like these are useful: they can lead to something that could be reused, even if it is only to extract the one sentence or image or word combination that has value. The point of doing them in class is to get you writing. And any opportunity, encouragement or inspiration to that end is to be valued.

The beginnings of a sex scene
I sometimes think of writing as golden liquid poured on top of an irregular and rocky hill. It is possible to carve a channel first, to try and make sure the inspiration flows the way you want; if you have the skill and have prepared well then it should obey that path of least resistance. Mostly. Another approach is just to pour the miraculous liquid on the top and see where it goes. That can be unpredictable, who knows where it will run or pool? This happened with the sex scene below. I was going to write something aiming for the erotic, but before I knew it I had started giggling instead.

Think sexy. Think sexy.

She lay on the bed naked while he undressed facing away from her. She wanted to appear alluring and quickly alternated between poses but none worked: one leg over the other (resembled coffee in a cafe), legs straight (felt like a tense plank), knees parted (bad Playboy photograph). She realised that any position selected would be a camera-smile of the figure that felt as artificial as it looked. She felt like yelling Relax! Relax! at her body. The thought of doing so made her shoulders tense.

Why was he taking so long to undress? He wasn't exactly folding his trousers, but there was no sense of carefree abandon either. If this was his idea of foreplay then the sex was going to be a disaster. She'd hoped sex would become simpler when she reached 40 and was still single - surely adults should be over their hangups by then?

She had to stifle a laugh when his shirt came off and she saw what a hairy ape-like back he had. Standing there in slightly baggy blue briefs and black socks he was a huge disappointment from what she had expected on seeing him in a suit when he chatted her up. Images of a suave, mature, sexually sophisticated James Bond had evaporated. He was more Brooke Bond.

The urge to laugh felt good - why be so self-conscious about her own body when men didn't seem to feel any shame about their primitive ridiculousness?

Oh God. She was intellectualising again. She had to stop that.

Think sexy. Think sexy.

She gave her nipples a squeeze, trying to help her body to suppress her mind. However, it just tickled and she had to struggle not to giggle.

She succeeded and it was just as well. At that point he finally removed his briefs and turned round, looking down at her with a shy smile. She glanced unintentionally from his face to his dick. Thankfully it was apparently normal, not bent to the left, or invisibly small amongst his pubes like a peeking mouse, or – just as bad, for different reasons – a swinging bulbous monster trunk...

Oh no, she felt like laughing again at that image, an air-pressure eruption building in the chest and waiting to be ignited by the spark at the back of her throat. Please don't laugh now, he looks so serious; despite all the muscle his ego might snap. He's only a man.

She managed to convert the mirth to a harmless smile and patted the bed beside her. This could be hard.

The insurance man
We drew random words - nouns, a mood, and a perspective to write in. I had the nouns 'insurance dream earplug' to combine with 'passion' and had to write about it in a stream of consciousness (something that I often find difficult). As usual my mind took some flavour of the words and started to work on an idea, though didn't have enough time to realise it fully during the class.

The crowded city smells and sweat had been clothes-absorbed, stink of train-squashed bodies touching in unwanted intimacy, he could only distract himself from the desire to strip naked in the street by chanting a mystical mantra that calmed him.

Om mani padme hum, Om mani padme hum

The sounds were in his mind but still seemed to echo in his nasal cavity, a calming reverberation.

Hurrying down the road he lived on now, avoiding eye contact, the fibres of his suit chafing and rubbing to the point of distraction but he must keep them on a bit longer, he was The City Man, The Man With A Briefcase, Mr Insurance, and there were standards to keep up in public.

Om mani padme hum, Om mani padme hum

He was home, at last. It seemed as if the air was fresher, could now really enter his lungs, expel the vile air that had been tainted by others. Door locked, curtains closed, finally the filthy clothes were stripped off, hurried and frantic removal as if radioactive, thrown into the laundry basket. Blissfully naked he ran a hand over his skin, calming himself with touch and the soft light that filtered from around the edge of the curtains, a temple for the body that was a temple for the soul. His bodily metronome slowed.

He grabbed his yoga mat and began the first sequence with a smile.

A woman on her way to end a relationship
It felt more like Autumn than August as the gutter leaves swirled, crinkly-dry, a dessication without any freshness. Her eyes felt dry just looking at them, sad reminders of the end of summer, brightness, life. The grey sky was heavy. The heaviness of slate, of stone, of cement, of all dead grey things associated with men.

She wished she had not left the house.

Another woman passed. They took each other in with a microsecond's sideways glance. Younger, but cheaply dressed. Have confidence.

Her phone buzzed, an angry wasp in her pocket. She dare not put her fingers near it: she withdrew them from the dark softness. It could be a distraction. Or it could be him. She didn't want either of them.


Piano empathy
Another exercise based on random words. I drew 'piano' and 'empathy'. As an exercise I recommend that you try playing with a dictionary: choose some random words, and see what inspiration it gives when you sit down with them for a quarter of an hour with a nice cup of tea.

We always fought. In normal life.

"Shall we go Tesco's? It's nearer. Do it all in one go, see?" he would ask in his whiny voice. Then he would sulk. Go along anyway, simmer, then finally on the journey home boil over and come out with all this politics, all these evils he felt supermarkets represented. Currents I hadn't expected swimming below the surface.

What we bought. What we watched. How the kids were raised. He could seem prickly, repellent.

"How can you live with such a man, Doris?" my friend would ask.

They didn't know though. They didn't know his talent, his greatness that could please me.

No, not that. Take your mind out of the gutter.

No, he could play the piano beautifully.

At those times, when he was rapt in Clair de Lune or Chopin and let me stand by him in silence watching; at those times I felt empathy for the beauty he could create.

If there isn't a writing group near you consider setting one up! A cafe or room, some publicity, a bit of research and lots of enthusiasm - who knows, it could be the next Bloomsbury Group!
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