A few weeks ago, back in the world where we were allowed to go to the cinema, Ian and I went to see Lowry and Son starring Timothy Spall as the painter and Vanessa Redgrave as his bedridden, stifling, mother. Laurence Lowry was a rent collector, like his father before him, and lived in an industrial town in Lancashire, called Pendlebury. Often accused of being a Sunday painter, Lowry retaliated with the words, “I am a Sunday painter who paints every day of the week.” And paint he did, in the candlelit attic of their bay-fronted, redbrick Victorian terraced house. Few appreciated his talent, least of all his mother, and he saw little success until after she passed away.
“I paint what I see,” he said and he did, repeatedly churning out painting after painting of the urban landscape in which he lived and worked. He was famous for his meticulous renditions of swathes of brickwork and hundreds of drab mill-workers, scurrying home, bent by wind or drizzle, their eyes fixed to the pavement. These became known as matchstick men, somewhat derisively but, you know, that was exactly what he saw.
Read the way he once described the Acme Company and notice how his words paint a clear picture:
“I saw the Acme Company’s spinning mill: the huge, black framework of rows of yellow-lit windows standing up against the sad, damp-charged, afternoon sky. The mill was turning out hundreds of little, pinched figures, heads bent down... I watched this scene – which I’d looked at many times without seeing – with rapture.”
These are the words, not just of a painter, but of a writer.
For many years my students have heard me ask them to ‘paint a picture with your pen’. I also share the inspiration of the British actor and painter, Antony Sher, who wrote in his memoir, Beside Myself, that "a drawing is just a piece of writing that has been tied up and a drawing is just words that have been untied." Lowry endorses this theory.
As I write this, much of the world is being forced to stay home and self-isolate because of the devastation COVID-19 is wreaking on us all. If, like me, you find yourself gazing longingly out of your window, pick up your pen and describe what you see in such detail that you create a vivid word-painting. Write so that someone else, totally unfamiliar with where you live, might picture it too. Lowry usually put people in his work. When you write your piece please endeavour to add a person, a bird or other living thing, to your writing too. People interact with the landscape, adding an extra layer of meaning.
“I wanted to paint myself into what absorbed me,” wrote Lowry.
Your challenge is to write yourself into what absorbs you, whether your view be of fields, factories or the street outside. Let us see it and then, if you would like, I invite you to add your writing to the comments section of my blog at www.joparfitt.com/inspirer-blog.html and I’ll be glad to give you my opinion.
10 reasons why daring to share may be the best thing you ever did
A scene from The Writers' Circle in The Hague; credit Natalie Carstens
“What’s so interesting about me?”
“But isn’t writing about myself just self-indulgent?”
“Aren’t I just being a narcissist?”
“Isn’t it a bit of a pity-party?”
These are typical of the questions I get asked when running a writing workshop. Many students are understandably nervous about sharing true stories about some of the bad things that have happened to them.
I don’t agree.
In 2018, Terry Anne Wilson and I published Monday Morning Emails. It was the most honest and open book I had ever written. I shared about the abuse I suffered as a child, the mental health issues my twenty-something was going through, the pain of living a life in limbo as an expatriate whose next posting was controlled not by us but by my husband’s company. I shared about the ageing and illness of my father, who passed away soon after the book’s release. These and many other issues. Yes it was tough to do. Yes, Terry Anne and I sometimes questioned our motives but deep down we both knew that no one else had yet dared to share such truths about the mobile life and it needed to be done. The outpouring of gratitude and the emotional reviews we received since, prove we did the right thing.
And so, when I’m teaching, I do my best to soothe the worries of my students and encourage them to put pen to paper and even go so far as to press the terrifying Postbutton on their blog or social media platform. Here are some of the reasons I believe daring to share tough stuff is worthwhile:
What do you think of my new phrase – writing ugly?
A few weeks ago I got an email from one of my current mentees, Keri.
“I guess my biggest fear is that the book just keeps dragging on and I’ll never finish it unless I give myself some targets,” she wrote. “ I want to embrace the writing 'ugly' concept we talked about.”
Like we talked about? Did we? Did I come up with that fab phrase? Sometimes I surprise even myself with my word acrobatics. I basked in the glow for a few moments, but deep down I knew this was not my phrase. It was not my phrase but I wanted it. Badly.
Ever since I found the wonderful Anne Lamott’s phrase the Shitty First Draft in her book, Bird by Bird, it has helped me and my students out of many a sticky situation. I love it and use it so much that folk now know it by the acronym SFD.
I can credit the Shitty First Draft as the reason I manage to write quite so much. 32 books and counting and still the irresistible ideas keep coming, usually in the middle of the night. I write this newsletter, I write poems, I write a journal and I write blogs and articles and every single time I stand by the SFD. I love it because, like with a belch, it’s ‘better out than in’. I know I’ll feel better about myself if I have written something, however badly, and reached the end. The thoughts and ideas have been set free of the bustling city that inhabits my mind and are on the page.
I love the SFD. I need the SFD and yet writing ugly has me in its thrall. Writing ugly seems to take the SFD a step further; it’s as if it wants me to write badlyon purpose. And, as I lay there, wide awake, one evening around midnight last week, I realized the power of this new phrase.
Writing ugly is about writing a scrappy, illegible table of contents for that book on a piece of paper you tear from the back of a book.
Writing ugly is about setting the timer for ten minutes and making yourself write with no particular direction in mind, again longhand, just to see where the words take you.
Writing ugly is about chucking random phrases down, one on each line and calling the result a poem on short lines, like novelist Catherine Cookson did.
Writing ugly is about ‘putting your pen on the paper and just going’, as Natalie Goldberg instructs in her seminal book on speedwriting, Writing Down the Bones.
Writing ugly is about sending your sabotaging inner perfectionist on a long hike.
Because, you see, the fundamental difference between the Shitty First Draft and writing ugly is that there is no sense even of ‘draft’ in the new phrase. And without the pressure of the knowledge that what you put down has to ultimately be useable, you can let rip. What does it matter if what you throw at the page never actually turns into a draft of something?
I had to thrash it out with Keri.
“Is that my phrase or yours?” I asked her. “Because I think I want to adopt it.”
“I think it’s mine, actually,” she wrote. “But you came up with the title for my book and so you can keep it. By the way, I plan to write ugly from 1 Feb - 30 April to really make some progress. I realise, after the ugly writing there will still need a whole lot of re-writing/edits afterwards...”
Keri knew intuitively that writing ugly was akin to limbering up, flexing her writing muscles and simply getting words down on paper and out of her head and the ether. She knew that it was a preliminary stage and gave me the credit for an idea that was actually all hers.
So there it is. I have taken my new phrase for its first outing. What do you think? Will it catch on?
I don’t know about you but I’m a big fan of Masterchef on the telly. It always seems to me that the chefs that get the most enthusiastic and throw the biggest variety of ‘stuff’ on the plate get voted off, while those who make something utterly delicious out of a small and carefully selected number of ingredients get through. Only today I watched Tom get through to the next round with his simple asparagus and hollandaise sauce. It’s the same with writing.
Ian and I have just spent a few days in Sicily and I knew that the trip would provide me with something inspiring for this newsletter, I just wasn’t quite sure what that would be. On the first morning we set off to visit the Greek and Roman amphitheatres for which Syracuse is famous. Within seconds I had stopped in my tracks.
“What’s that smell?” I asked. “It’s gorgeous. Like honey.”
“Oh yes,” Ian responded with more enthusiasm than I might have expected. “Where is it coming from?”
I looked around and noticed that the grove of olive trees at the roadside seemed to have been planted in a meadow of little white flowers. The flowers looked like the alyssum that Brits like to use in their rockeries. “Maybe that’s what gives local honey its flavour?” I wondered and we walked on, vowing to check it out on Wikipedia later*.
Less than an hour later, in gardens that have been created out of an old quarry I saw what would be the first of many lemon trees. I remembered that Sicily is famous for its lemons.
“Honey and lemon!” I said out loud to no one in particular. I could see a theme for the Inspirer was emerging. But then we visited the amphitheatres and I became enthralled by the deep pits that had been constructed beneath the stage for the ‘machinations’. More than two thousand years ago the theatre sets revolved, rose from stage doors and dropped away. Machinery was hidden from view but had a crucial part to play in the performance. I could feel a metaphor coming on and thought that maybe the machinations could represent the editing and punctuation, the rules and the conformities that turn the ‘shitty first draft’ of a piece of writing into something fit to be shown to the world.
So now I had a lemon and honey theme and an importance of behind the scenes theme for this piece. Already I knew it was too much, and as the holiday progressed I began to see typical ingredients popping up in Sicilian cuisine. Pistachio nuts, blood oranges, wild fennel, ricotta cheese, sundried tomatoes, capers, olives, basil, swordfish, pumpkin, pasta, of course, courgetti, aubergine, aubergine and yet more aubergine and golly those lemons were enormous – almost as big as rugby balls. There was no way I was going to get away with cramming all those different ingredients into one dish. If I did, I was bound to get voted off (aka unsubscribed).
But it was obvious wasn’t it? The lesson I learned in Sicily and that I am sharing with you now is that of selecting the finest ingredients and then stopping. The lemon and the honey belong together. The Greek and Roman history in another. The aubergine, capers, courgette and tomatoes can be set aside for caponata. They cannot all go on one plate nor in one dish. It’s the same for a poem, an article, a book. The finished piece will be better for being made with fewer, finer ingredients so that each element is the star of its own show. Better still, as you live your life, paying attention and foraging for inspiration you can collect a host of ‘ingredients’ in you metaphorical basket and use them not for one piece but for several clear and simple pieces rather than a larger muddled one.
“A painting is never finished, it simply stops in interesting places,” said artist and teacher Paul Gardner. Writing is like that too. We can fiddle and add to it forever, but we must learn to stop and remember less is more and that sometimes just lemon and honey is enough.
*the flower did indeed turn out to be alyssum maritima (sweet alison) and yes it does smell of honey, though most Sicilian honey takes it flavor from orange blossom.
Jo Parfitt's Monthly Inspirer