Tonight, we’re waiting for snow to fall here in the west of Ireland. It’s still a bit early for a White Christmas, but you never know – once it gets here, it might decide to stay. Snow that is, not Christmas (although the shops have been flogging all things festive since the end of the summer holidays, or so it seems).
I thought I’d get ahead of the posse with my snowman picture taken several winters ago. I couldn’t remember if we gave him a name, then discovered the photograph was labelled ‘Baldy the Snowman’. There’s no end to my family’s creativity. I mean, we called the seventh cat to join our household … Seven. Ingenious, eh?
Is is any wonder then, that I find titles for poems and stories difficult? REALLY difficult. I have a poem about my late father that people who have heard it like – except for the title. So far, the poor little poem has had nine (yes, really) titles. And I’m still not sure I’ve arrived at the definitive one. The poem is awaiting some judge’s decision in a competition, so I won’t say any more about that one, but I’ve heard it said that titles can make or break a piece.
In an article about writing short stories published by the Bath Short Story Award organisers, writer Tessa Hadley said, back in 2013: ‘A title clinches something, it crisps the story up and seals it like a top on a bottle.’ I couldn’t have put it better myself.
Meanwhile, I am steeling myself (and sharpening the calculator) to do the end of year sums. For each of the past three years I have tried to send out 100 submissions – that’s competition entries, magazine and publishing submissions, grants and bursary applications. It’s a lot of words posted (ah sure, doesn’t An Post need the business?) or fired off into cyberspace. I didn’t get anywhere near the century in 2015 or 2016, but so far this year I’m at 96 and counting.
The acid test is to punch numbers into the calculator and work out how much this writing lark has cost me, and if I got enough back (my Arts Council award will help bump up the figures). This year’s statistics might just be the tipping point to make me take up knitting again. Or bird watching. Or deep-sea diving. Or moon walking. Or kitchen floor cleaning.
Heck no, what a daft idea – I’m going to have to stick with the writing!
I have kept my head down lately, trying to complete some half-finished writing projects, not least because there seems to have been an unusually high number of competitions and submission opportunities this month.
I’m still out there, trying my luck with poetry, flash fiction and stories (and wondering if I’ll ever find time to finish my ‘prize-winning’ novel!).
Proof that persistence pays off has been publication this month of my poem in literary magazine Skylight 47. I went down to Galway for the launch with my friend *Jessamine O Connor, who was representing the Hermit Collective, featured in this edition. We both got to read our poems, with a warm reception from a good sized audience, which was a nice way to spend a Thursday evening. The magazine was launched by lovely poet and novelist Penelope Shuttle.
Meanwhile, although I’m rarely short of new ideas, I have recently found myself recommending all writers have a go at revisiting some of their own old work from time to time – after all, why reinvent the wheel? Now that’s not suggesting you go off with someone else’s material, that’s plagiarism and is not what I’m on about here.
I’m talking about how a sideways look at something you wrote ages ago might just present a new opportunity. Often, old work can benefit from a refit.
Just because a story or poem has been rejected by a publisher, magazine or competition, doesn’t mean to say you can’t do something else with it. It may not have been what the publisher or judge was looking for at the time, but if you thought it was good enough once, why not again? And why should one really good idea be confined to a single form?
In my case, I’m often flirting with old flames (literary ones, of course) – I’ve even won a short story competition with a piece that started out as a poem, and I’ve recycled (upcycled?) poems into flash fiction and been subsequently competition shortlisted.
As I said, why reinvent the wheel?
*Jessamine O Connor launches her latest book of poetry ‘Pact’ on Friday, December 8th at King House, in Boyle, County Roscommon (ROI). She’s invited a few other poets to read some of their work too – and I’m one of them. A 5pm start – all welcome!
The following article appeared in the Roscommon Herald earlier this year. I reproduce it here after discovering there are at least 100 (yes, you read right!) people called Louise Cole on Facebook. And I’m not really one of them – although I do have a Facebook presence. So you might understand why I’m so touchy about the middle letter in my moniker. And I checked: the underwear model is still there, doing her thing…
When I had the opportunity to read some of my poetry at Listowel Writers’ Week in Kerry recently, I was thrilled. But then the compere got my name wrong – instead of Louise he called me Denise!
Luckily, I was able to set the record straight before I began – and related the story of how I write under the name Louise G Cole, the middle letter being key because if you Google ‘Louise Cole’ you get a raven-haired skimpy underwear model. Clearly, she isn’t me (I’m blonde, see), but if you add the ‘G’ to my moniker, Google finds me.
It set me thinking about names and their glorious possibilities.
I once I edited a little health magazine which was pitifully short of contributors, so I used to write most of the content myself. I became Persephone Braithwaite, Felicity Burton Latimer and Veronica Whitcliffe for some of the articles, just to make it look like we had lots of writers on our books. I can’t remember how I chose the names, except to say Burton Latimer is a village in Northamptonshire where they make Weetabix!
Many writers use pen names; JK Rowling famously started publishing crime novels as Robert Galbraith which not surprisingly, became way more popular when word got out. You have to wonder why she still continues with that name now that everyone knows. When she penned the Harry Potter books (I can’t believe the first one was out 20 years ago), Rowling chose to use initials in her name, to hint the books were written by a man, so that boys might be inclined to read them. She’s really Joanne Rowling – and had to acquire an extra letter because she doesn’t have a middle name; she chose K for her grandmother, Kathleen.
Some writers changed their name because of the times they were in: George Elliot was really Mary Anne Evans writing in a man’s world in the 1800s, and the Bronte sisters had a go at writing under male names as Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell.
In the 1970s, comic actor Ronnie Barker wrote scripts as Gerald Wiley for fear of saturating the market with his own name, which is something prolific author Stephen King was aware of when he published as Richard Bachman. In 1984 ‘Thinner’ by Bachman sold 28,000 copies for its first print run, then ten times that number when the author’s true identity was revealed.
Plenty of celebrities, as well as writers, were born with names they changed in order to make it big: John Wayne was really Marion Morrison, Judy Garland was Frances Ethel Gumm, Elton John started out as Reginald Kenneth Dwight.
Joseph Conrad is certainly less of a mouthful than Teodor JK Korzeniowski, then there’s Dr Seuss who was really Theodor Geisel, and Lewis Carroll who began life as Charles Lutwidge Dodgson.
Me? I’m just happy to get the ‘G’ included. And it’s for Gillian, if you’d really like to know.
I say you chaps! I’ve found some splendid new words to play with since coming to Tŷ Newydd. Welsh ones, as well as some half-forgotten English ones.
Apparently, the Welsh language has been around for 1,500 years, despite various attempts to kill it off; it is now spoken by more than half a million people in Wales, plus another 160,000 around the world.
Being married to a Welshman, I should have known this already. In my defence, I might not speak the language, but I can bake passable Welsh cakes when tasked. But not this week, this has been all about (my) use of the English language.
The Autumn Poetry Masterclass with Gillian Clarke (who wrote ‘Storm’, today’s Friday poem from Picador) and the lovely Maura Dooley has been a challenging but very rewarding experience. I have discovered lots of unknown (to me) brilliant poets, made some new friends, and stand in awe of the talent of my fellow participants. We’ve had some fun, too. What is there not to like about the surrealism game as a rich source of writing prompts?
Our guest poet this week was Jonathan Edwards (‘My Family and Other Superheroes’), whose dead pan humour reminded me why I love this country and its people so much. He’s from Newport, which is in South Wales, and bears a particular brand of Welshness that I’m partial to. I defy anyone to read Jonathan’s collection without a smile on their face.
We’ve been blessed with fine weather this week, rain only stopping me from going out to play (a dated concept which probably gives my age away) on our last afternoon. And I should have been writing anyway, so I did. Lots. Not sure if quality and quantity are evenly distributed, but we’ll see.
Our grand finale has been the production of ‘Y Dryw’ an anthology of some of our work from the week. It means ‘wren’ – there are lots of them in the grounds here, and they have a particular affinity with writers, so Gillian tells us.
The last evening included another fabulous feast from chef Tony (delicious chocolate brownies for afters), followed by a poetry reading in the wonderful Tŷ Newydd library, which during daylight, has a beautiful view of the sea. Tonight it was echoing to the voices of some lovely new poets…
And just in case you’re wondering, Iechyd da! means Cheers!
I’m here at Tŷ Newydd, at the Welsh Literature Centre, enjoying an excellent Autumn Poetry Masterclass with Gillian Clarke and Maura Dooley, but trying hard to ignore some of the literary pretentions of some of my fellow participants, aka the Dead Read Poets’ Society.
In the company of such well-versed writers, I could be intimidated. But I’m wearing my bullet-proof knickers and choosing not to give-a-damn about what anyone else here is doing/has done/will do any minute now. Anyway, I’m writing poems in purple ink – isn’t that pretentious enough? Perhaps not.
No, I haven’t read Homer and can’t quote from Joyce, Beckett or *Yeats. I’ve never heard of Bolshie Wiseman McEverybody whose spoken word performances are to die for. I haven’t just spent three years mastering the nuances of Heaney/McNeice/Whitman. I’m just a fairly ordinary wordsmith (albeit with third level education from too many decades ago), who finally realises she has something to say, and poetry is the way she wants to say it.
And now I’m talking about myself in the third person.
Meanwhile, Gillian Clarke is encouraging us to hear the music of words, but to attend to the shape of the poem on the page. Maura Dooley is helping us look through windows to find the right words, but to remember why we write, suggesting a poem is a temporal art making an incision in time. I like that analogy, since I do a lot of cutting and (imaginary) knife-wielding as I’m writing.
This is the second residential writing course I have ever done, the first being the Spring Poetry Masterclass earlier this year with Gillian Clarke and Carol Ann Duffy (I waxed lyrical about that experience on this blog in three parts: here 1,here 2 and here 3).
More gushing is unnecessary; the place is lovely, the tutors are experienced, generous and patient, the food is delicious, the sun has shone (for some of the time, anyway), and Magi the cat is as friendly as ever. And my fellow participants are an interesting, eclectic bunch, and while some of them seem to be trying too hard, there is some serious talent here, and I am in awe.
We have plenty of writing/thinking time between workshops, so I’ve managed to walk into nearby Criccieth, a lovely little seaside town with a castle. But of course, I don’t go anywhere without my (purple) pen and a notebook to capture sudden flashes of inspiration. There seems to be a lot of them about just now.
*OK, so I can quote Yeats, really. I mean, I live in Ireland, it would be a scandal if I couldn’t, wouldn’t it? Heaney, too. But I draw the line at Joyce.
Let’s cut to the chase: I don’t. Travel light, that is. Ever. Not even for a week in Wales (Hello Tŷ Newydd!).
On the other hand, I am ace at packing (think Russian dolls), so space is rarely an issue.
It’s the weightlifting that’s a problem when I travel. Which is probably why I don’t do much of it. I’m a rubbish sailor, and not much better in aeroplanes, but I’ll do my best if I can take EVERYTHING I need. But then there’s the full-body workout required to cart stuff around.
Like my suitcase, rucksack and handbag, stuffed to overflowing with essentials. I mean, who doesn’t go on a Poetry Masterclass without four different notebooks (A4, A5, mini and micro), two blue biros, a black one and a pencil? And purple, red and green biros and a highlighter pen, just in case. Scissors, Sellotape and a glue stick, again just in case. Paperclips (because I forgot the mini-stapler – what was I thinking?). A sewing kit (because you never know), snacks in case they forget to feed me (as if – the food here is legendary), and enough shampoo and conditioner for three weeks (I might get stranded here and will need to wash my hair).
Then there’s the footwear situation. I packed my walking boots this time because Tŷ Newydd is in set in beautiful (but muddy) walking country, but there are other shoes and boots required, too.
I always wonder at stories of people who go back-packing across God-knows-where with little more than a toothbrush and a microfibre flannel. How do they do it? Don’t they need at least two changes of clothes per day, plus some spares? And what about technology? Phone and lap top are essential, although I had to concede that bringing the tablet as well was overkill, and I had to leave behind my ‘proper’ camera (my trusty Canon DSLR) because I’m here to write, not take photos (ahem, the phone did it). Then there’s the hairdryer, hot brush, ten types of hair clips, two types of hand cream, bottled water, and a partridge in a pear tree.
But I did ditch the coat, on promise of good weather, settling instead for layers under a mac-in-a-bag cagoule (and then the clouds rolled in).
I also ceded the dictionary (they’re available on-line when the internet works), but suggesting I leave behind my 40-year-old Thesaurus was a step to far.
I’ve heard some folk say that using a Thesaurus is akin to cheating. NO! It’s just a tool, that’s all. A book of words that won’t write for you your poem/story/novel/begging letter/blog post (delete as appropriate). But when you get to a certain age (so I’m told), all the words in your head swim around out of reach, and the thesaurus can just prompt the right ones to surface.
Now, I need to find a competition that gets you to use weightlifting, Roget and poetry all in the same sentence. Any ideas? (Answers in poetic parentheses, please!)
Reading, writing and other stuff from Louise G Cole