Sunday, 9 May 2010

Writers In Prison Network

The Writers In Prison Network are currently recruiting four Writers in Residence for new projects in Prisons and Young Offenders Institutions around the country. The writer in residence complements the role of the education departments in the prisons, although is not part of the education department.

Describing creativity as "the only legal way to escape", one of the aims of these projects is to enrich life in prison. Literacy levels amongst prisoners are shockingly low (around 60% of prisoners below level 1 literacy, making them eligible for less than 4% of jobs...), and having access to a 'real' writer enables them to harness some creativity, and learn valuable basic skills, better preparing them for life on the outside.

Applicants don't need to have experience of having worked in prisons before, and nor do you have to be a 'published' writer, although anybody who understands how publishing works and who has at least one article or story published is likely to have a bit more credibility with the prisoners.

The four new projects are at: HMP Castington, a young offenders institution in Northumbria; HMP Drake Hall, a young offenders institution for female foreign national offenders; HMP Hewell, an amalgamated prison which houses prisoners in three categories, including an open prison; and HMP Warren Hill, a young offenders institution in Suffolk.

The working day can be diverse enough to include anything from helping prisoners prepare a weekly newsletter, to helping prisoners tell their life stories in a storytelling group. Some writers in residence run workshops on topics from grappling with the short story form, to developing characters; and one currently-running project has one writer in residence helping prisoners who have written a play to prepare and perform it. So there's plenty to get your teeth into for anyone who really wants to make a difference to peoples' lives through creativity.

More information here and here.

Friday, 7 May 2010

Lesson One: Not to become bitter

This post first appeared on my Red Room profile

Bitterness, much like eccentricity and corpulence, appears to be somewhat of an occupational hazard for writers. Just as sitting on your rump all day writing is guaranteed to make you fat, and spending whole days inside your own head sure to make you a bit weird, the challenges writers face are likely to make them bitter.

It often begins when writers try to find recognition for their work, only to find themselves competing against legions of other hopeful writers for the attention of agents and publishers. The journey from writing to publishing can be a long one, and in itself this can be a cause of great grudge-bearing even for the best of us. But bitterness does not end once writers publish, and not even when they win awards and become successful: even many of the greats were caught up in long running feuds and sniping that not even their success could ameliorate.

The British writer Anthony Burgess could not bring himself to write an obituary for his contemporary, the writer Graham Greene. Burgess had for years simmered with resentment that Greene was popularly, and critically, considered to be the better writer of the two. This ill-feeling apparently continued for Burgess even after Greene's death, so embittered had he become by virtue of his competitor's success.

And bitterness is not a trait uniquely British. The American writer Truman Capote famously bitched of Jack Kerouac, a contemporary of his with a high daily productivity rate: "He says he writes up to 2,000 words a day. That's not writing, that's typing."

Recently, a friend and I were discussing the tendency for writers to become self-occupied and bitchy. He had recently been on a train journey back from a literature festival, and been involved in a conversation with two other writers. The conversation had in content mainly been critical: of agents, of publishers, and of other writers and their process. He had been struck by how quickly writers become embittered by everything they face. Thankfully, my friend and I have both recently celebrated recent successes, and I hope there will be many more to come: but it seems that even success itself is not a bar to bitterness. My new ambition as a writer, other than producing great work, is to become more stoic...

Sunday, 2 May 2010

The Corner

Writing advice is there to be ignored. It's the baying of the overly-prescriptive to the uninformed. I don't like it, I don't agree with it, and I generally find that most of it is fit only to be ignored. To wit, the oft-given piece of advice that no writer should ever read fiction alongside writing fiction, lest the voice of the author they're reading should creep into their own work. It's impossible, it's untenable, and anybody who goes around telling people this sort of rubbish ought to have a quiet word with themselves.

Everybody knows the single most important thing any writer can do to keep honing his or her craft is to read. And I mean, read a lot. We can learn a great deal by osmosis: good structure, tight pacing, believable characterisation. Hell, you can even learn how to write books where a teenage vampire is torn between his love for his girlfriend, and his crushing desire to eat her, if you're that way inclined. And the second most important thing any writer can do to keep honing his or her craft is to write. A lot. Like, every day. So how can both be true? Either you write, or you read, according to this dictum: you don't do both at once. (God forbid).

On the contrary, I firmly believe that any writer who has developed a strong enough voice can read whatever they like, whenever they like, alongside writing. If you choose your books smartly, it's going to help your writing process. Take that, opinionated advice-givers!

At present, I'm working on a ridiculously complicated, and very large, project. Even before beginning, I had a notebook full of characters - and not a weedy little notebook either, I'm talking about the type that's got pouches and seperate sections of coloured and graphed paper, the type that's so big it won't even fit into a handbag - and sheets full of diagrams. This project is so complicated it wasn't enough to draw a simple linear storyline, or even two or three simple linear storylines. What was required was to draw several pictorial diagrams, including Venn diagrams, and spider diagrams, and all sorts of stuff that have left the back pages of my process book looking like something from a very creatively taught secondary school Maths class. The central conflict and deceit is based around three main characters, with two important characters on the periphery around them; and, because of where the novel takes place, there at least another dozen less important characters, without whom the novel could not exist.

It was a doozy to get started. I didn't know where to begin at first. Intimidated by the scale and complexity, I procrastinated rather by drawing several more diagrams than I needed, strictly speaking. This gave me comfort in thinking that I was doing something 'important'. It gave the illusion that I was working on the book, even though I wasn't really working on the book. Anyway, in the end, I ran out of differently coloured pens for drawing the graphs, and realised I could excuse myself no longer. It was time to get started, dammit, and start I must, somewhere or other.

Overwhelmed by the complexity of what lay before me, I stuttered over knowing how to tackle the project. To help me along, I took my inspiration from other works with very heavily populated, complex storylines. I noticed how the writers began somewhere, concentrating on small vignettes of story, little illuminating flashes of character and incident. The scale of the novel was not given away in the detail - the detail was what made the complexity manageable, and the story intriguing for the reader.

Of biggest help in this project has been The Corner (A Year in the life of an inner-city neighbourhood), by David Simon & Ed Burns. This is the book upon which the television series The Wire is based. Although the subject matter of it is very different from the subject matter in my project, it has a similar scale of complexity and inter-tangled storylines. Technically, it's not a work of fiction, thus negating everything I have said earlier on in this blog post, but it certainly reads like a novel. Most importantly, despite the scale of it, it is not intimidating for the reader. Thirty pages in, I was hooked. How do they do that? I'll tell you how: with vivid detail, interesting characters, and sympathy. As an aside, I can't advise highly enough that you watch The Wire, all the way from the beginning of Season One, all the way until the very end of Season Five, without missing any out. Do not dismiss this series as "a cop show". It is so much more than just a cop show. Witness:

Only by reading The Corner could I see how to get started on my own project. By noticing how Simon and Burns allow the bigger picture to emerge, slowly, from the smaller details, I was able to let go of my anxiety around writing something more complex than I would usually attempt. This has really helped me get started on my own work. Genuinely, I don't think I could have started it without this kind of 'help'. And that's why, (she said, extrapolating furiously), I'd recommend that others also find things that will help them with their current project. Reading is not only something to occupy your mind in the downtime. Its something that can fill you with inspiration, and knowledge about form and structure.

Currently reading:

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle Haruki Murakami (Can't help myself, this is the fourth or fifth time now)
The Trial Franz Kafka
Arthur and the Women Kingsley Amis
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest Ken Kesey
The Great Gatsby F. Scott Fitzgerald