Tuesday, June 22, 2010


One of the first difficulties to surface in a writing class is unrealistic expectations. People want to learn how to write - meaning how to write stories or poems or articles or essays. They want to know how to start and how to keep going. They want formulas, tips, short-cuts. What they really want is someone to wave a magic wand so that they can be writers.

The woman I already think of as Dutch sweeps her arms wide in a dramatic gesture. "I want the words to flow on to the page, perfect from the beginning - I want to be inspired!" she says. She reminds me of that voluptuously flamboyant old-time movie star Mae West who said "Let Shakespeare do it his way, I'll do mine, and we'll see who comes out better." I don't think Dutch has a sense of humour, unlike Ms West, so I just say that most writers probably want that too but it doesn't happen often. Writing takes work and persistence - inspiration is a bonus.

The Charmer says that he doesn't have much time for that sort of caper, yeah, but. This is the university student whose efforts so far have been insultingly scrappy, on one occasion scribbled on a half sheet of paper in the time it had taken me to set out my books and papers. How does he expect to learn how to write acceptable essays with that sort of attitude? The Poet sighs and gazes poetically at the ceiling.

When the Letter-Writer asks "But how do you start?" I tell her that in one sense it is easy enough. She already has the hang of it. Think of a word and write it down. Think of another and write that down next to the first word. Keep going, one word after another. I see a roomful of dubious stares. Think about it, I say. When you write a letter to a friend, you don't spend hours gazing at the wall. You warm up the PC, type Dear Polly, and jump into it. You rattle on. At some point you read what you've written, change a word or two, add a phrase, correct the spelling and grammar, sit back and evaluate the tone, the colour, the sense, and then you press 'send' and it's done. You have written a letter, and you didn't bang your head on your fist even once.

The looks on their faces say that it can't be that easy. No it's not. But it's a start. That's OK for letters to friends. And here's the thing: it's even OK for the first draft of something more significant. The next step is what makes the difference between a writer and everyone else. That's what we have to learn: how to make that first draft into something exciting, beautiful, powerful, amusing or profound, something that other people want to read. That is what takes effort, judgment and practice.

Writers have to learn the trade one way or another. There are no short-cuts. There is no magic wand. We have to provide our own motivation, our own persistence, our own power. Batteries are not included.

Reminder: The characters in the writing class pieces are imaginary

Tuesday, June 1, 2010


I like cats. I like mice. When we were at boarding school my brother once lent me one of his. I tucked it into the sleeve of my blazer, and then it disappeared. I wept, and my brother was not pleased. I've read Beatrix Potter. I lift spiders and beetles and even flies out of puddles.

My cat likes mice. It is said that if you have a cat, you won't have mice in the house. This is not quite true. You probably won't have mice living-in, unless you're Beatrix Potter, but it is no accident that the words "cat" and "mouse" go together.

Last night my cat, which is gentle, well-fed, and never lifts a paw in anger, brought a mouse inside to play with. It was tiny. Nose to tail it was no longer than my finger. It got loose and ran along the skirting board and squeezed between books on the lowest shelf of the bookcase. The cat clawed the books out onto the floor and managed to catch the mouse. I grabbed the cat, whose mouth held the whole mouse apart from its tiny tail, which twitched anxiously. We were all on the floor, with urgent questions about life and death quivering in the air.

My instinct, right or wrong, is to rescue rather than to let nature takes its course. Nature can do its sometimes cruel work outside where I don't have to watch, but not on my living-room carpet. The mouse, loose again, fled here and there, including snuggled beside the instep on my furry slipper. I couldn't quite twist around to pick it up, and it streaked across the carpet and under the sofa. There it stayed, while the cat prowled around the perimeter poking his paw underneath in dangerous, sweeping strokes.

He gave up eventually and went outside, while I settled down with my book, one eye on the page and the other on the sofa. I felt ridiculously uneasy. I couldn't do anything, and arguably it was pointless to try. The mouse was probably injured, although it seemed fast and frisky, and a merciful death was the best outcome. I have more than once delivered that merciful death for a small and mortally wounded creature, but I couldn't get near this one to see what condition it was in. I went to bed troubled.

This morning the books were scattered over the floor again, and the cat was ready to pounce. This time I was quicker and snatched the mouse before he did. It seemed undamaged so I took it outside and dropped it into the shrubbery, where it blinked once and slipped under the euphorbia. The cat went out in a huff.

Several hours later a mouse (the mouse?) lay dead on the back doorstep. I buried it. That's life - and death.