How to harness your demons

Hamlet of Sachs Harbour, NWT, April 1992This week’s guest post comes from Joan Mettauer, author of Diamonds in an Arctic Sky, and explores how you can tackle life’s most brutal challenges by using them in your fiction.

The course of your life can change in an instant. I know it can, because mine did.

When I was young, I took too many things for granted – like life itself. Happily married, with two wonderful young sons, my world was suddenly turned upside down one sunny August afternoon when my eldest son died in an accident. He was just three weeks away from his third birthday. I became a bereaved mother at age 32, and a divorced, single parent at age 33. Unfair? You bet.

Having lived in various northern communities in Canada, I soon leapt at the opportunity to move to Inuvik, Northwest Territories, which lies high above Canada’s Arctic Circle in the ‘Land of the Midnight Sun.’ We all know, or have heard, that people deal with their grief in different ways; some eventually become addicted to prescription drugs, alcohol, illegal drugs, or even sex. I was on the downward, slippery slope to becoming an alcoholic when I finally woke up one day and said, ‘That’s enough.’

The Hamlet of Grise Fiord, the place that never thaws, on Ellesmere Island, Nunavut, 1976

The Hamlet of Grise Fiord, the place that never thaws. This is one of the coldest inhabited places in the world, 1160km north of the Arctic Circle. Visited on a supply trip, 1976.

The Compassionate Friends, a grief-support organisation for bereaved parents, encouraged me to keep a diary, and to write about my grief. I couldn’t do it though, as my feelings were just too raw at the time. Their suggestion was never far from my mind, though, and 25 years later I finally found the courage to put into words my most private thoughts and feelings. My first novel, Diamonds in an Arctic Sky, is the result of my determination to face grief head-on.

Write what you know

Diamonds in an Arctic Sky-JoanMettauer-CoverWhen I retired and decided to start writing full-time, it was quite natural for me to write about the things I knew best – living in the north, and surviving the death of a child. My books’ heroine is Andi Nowak, and her life mirrors my own. Through Andi’s eyes and emotions I was able to pour out my own story, without having to think twice about how Andi was feeling. I knew exactly how she was feeling at all times. The serenity and beauty of the north play a large role in healing Andi’s ravaged emotions, and helping her come to terms with her grief. I feel that having something, or someone, important in one’s life is an essential element in restoring peace and equilibrium.

Add some dazzle

While plotting out the storyline for Diamonds in an Arctic Sky, it quickly became apparent that I would have to add something ‘extra’ to make the story more intriguing and readable. Alas, my life, interesting as it was to me, needed some perking up! I thought it would be great to add mystery and suspense to the story, and at the same time tell my readers another little-known fact about Canada’s north – we have a flourishing diamond mining industry. So I created a fictitious diamond mine near Inuvik (the real mines are all closer to Yellowknife, near Great Slave Lake).

I have read quite a few ‘how to’ books for writers, and also realise that to make my characters more believable, they must have struggles, internal battles and low points in their lives. Andi’s battle with alcoholism seemed like a natural and believable fit into the story, and gave her another personal challenge to overcome.

In my case, turning the events of my life into a work of fiction proved to be remarkably easy. The basic theme of the story echoes my life in Inuvik. The wonderful people I met in Inuvik made a huge impact on my life, so it seemed natural that most of the characters in my book, with the exception of North, Andi’s friend and eventual lover, are based on people I knew or worked with. Fictitiously, of course!

Joan MettauerAbout the author

Joan Mettauer was born and raised in Alberta’s heartland in Canada. Her love affair with aviation was sparked at an early age, and she dedicated most of her working years to the flying business. Living in various Northern communities, including Lac La Ronge, Saskatchewan and Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, she travelled throughout Canada’s Arctic. Her final years in the aviation industry were spent in Inuvik, N.W.T., from where she bid farewell to the North. Now retired, she resides on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, with her husband. Diamonds in an Arctic Sky is Joan’s first novel.

Threads of memory with Susi Bancroft

A Route Through cr Susi BancroftI discovered Susi Bancroft’s distinct blend of sketch and sew at the RWA’s exhibition Drawn (on until 7th June 2015). The energy in her ‘Handwashing in Hospital’ triptych intrigued me enough to contact her to find out more about her artistic endeavours.

Handwashing in Hospital cr susi bancroft

Handwashing in Hospital © Susi Bancroft

The textile artist told me that one of her earliest memories is of her mother knitting – “the clicking sound of the needles, watching a piece grow: a doll’s vest, a cardigan; the sound of the fire in the grate whilst she worked and I watched.”

It sounds deliciously domestic, and fuelled Susi’s own interest in craft. “I still have a doll’s coverlet I embroidered when six or seven years old.”

In particular, Susi relishes the thought of continuing her family traditions of “making by hand, through generations. That inspires me.”

Heart Hands cr Susi Bancroft

Heart Hands © Susi Bancroft

One such piece is an embroidered tablecloth, begun by her maternal grandmother “including stitching all the forget-me-not flowers” and added to both by her mother and herself. “I will pass it to the children in my extended family to continue,” she says. “The idea is that the viewer can’t tell whose stitches they are looking at.”

It’s a poignant idea, and one that captured Susi’s attention strongly enough to make her develop her skills further through “a mix of practical hours of stitching and drawing.” She has a background in both academic research and practical skills work such as a City and Guilds Diploma, and has worked in education and research as well as being a practising artist.

Creating art using fabric and threads feeds Susi’s urge to express herself. “I can reveal what I want to, connect and relate, and also reserve something,” she says, “I love the tactile quality, as well as colour, texture, the movement, rhythm and repetition.”

cr Susi Bancroft

She refers me to the artist statement on her blog, where she explains eloquently, “I treasure the sense of touch – the dialogue between fingertip and brain and its power to subtly release and evoke connections, memories, narratives. Art making for me is about the play between theories in my head, drawing, fabric and thread, and thinking through my hands.”

The connections she mentions are a driving force, as she seeks to link past and present aspects of her family both with metaphorical and literal threads.

“I also work with deep issues – death, bereavement, pain – and an essential part of my work is the conversations I have about these matters whilst sharing the work,” she says. “I integrate meditation and breathing techniques whilst working too – that’s an area that fascinates me.”

One particular artwork for an exhibition with the group she belongs to, Brunel Broderers, was inspired by Beatrix Potter’s The Tailor of Gloucester. “As a child I thought it was one hundred and twenty buttonholes in the story, and it was still a surprise – as well as a relief – to find it to be ‘one and twenty’ when I decided to handstitch the buttonholes for this exhibition!” she exclaims. “I wanted to highlight tailoring skills – a buttonhole is hardly ever examined by the wearer, but so skilled in the making. I also wanted to highlight issues around fast fashion and working conditions. My Suited exhibition piece was a sketchbook of samples of my attempts at tailored buttonholes and a series of projected images of these attempts and struggles…”

No More Twist cr Susi Bancroft

No More Twist © Susi Bancroft

The name of the piece, No More Twist, comes from the detail in the story that one buttonhole remains unfinished by the mice until the tailor’s cat reveals the ‘twist’ (presumably thread) that he has naughtily hidden, an apt line to marry Susi’s textile art to the tale!

She says: “Stories inspire me, yes, particularly children’s literature and illustration.”

Find more of Susi’s work at her boostitch blog and on the Brunel Broderers website. Their next Exhibition is at Nature in Art near Gloucester in August 2015.

Know an artist you’d like to see showcased on SkyLightRain.com? Give me a shout at judy(at)socketcreative.com.

Midweek writing prompt – glimpses

Glove in cemetery cr Judy DarleySometimes I take a moment write down the curious things I’ve seen in a single day, and challenge myself to turn one of them into a work of fiction.

Today I saw:
A chain of children linked by a blue rope, each clinging to a knot like a memory tied.
A black leather glove on a sapling’s spike, one finger giving a jaunty wave to the sky.
A young man walking a small black dog, flustered by its uninvited interest in strangers.

Why not either create your own list of glimpsed scenes or take one of these and turn it into the beginning of a tale?

If you write something prompted by this, please let me know by sending an email to Judy(at)socket creative.com. With your permission, I’d love to share it on SkyLightRain.com.

Poetry review – Of Love and Hope

Of Love and Hope coverFewer subjects seem to inspire more poetry than the thorny topic of love, so it takes a lot for one book of love poems to jump out from the pile. Of Love and Hope does it rather beautifully though, without shouting for attention, but simply by being spilling over with thoughtful, evocative words.

The fact that this poetry anthology is sold in aid of Breakthrough Breast Cancer and Breast Cancer Care certainly helps. Nothing assuages the guilt of paying out for yet another book (when your shelves are already packed with unread ones) like knowing the proceeds go to a good cause.

Plus you really are likely to read this one. Editor Deborah Gaye has brought together a carefully selected array of poems that twist, flip and sigh their way into your emotions.

The poets who contributed to the anthology are truly top-notch, counting among their number Seamus Heaney, Wendy Cope, Carol Ann Duffy, Victoria Wood, Arthur Smith, Sir Paul McCartney, Roger McGough, Samantha Wynne-Rhydderch and Margaret Atwood. An impressive guest-list! Continue reading

Treehouse retreats

The Birdhouse, Crewkerne, Somerset

The Birdhouse, Somerset

One of the happiest memories of my childhood is the treehouse we built in the apple tree that stood in the centre of our lawn. Little more than a few planks of wood and a spindly rope ladder, it nonetheless offered impressive aerial views and a sense of solitude.

A press released recently popped into my inbox about The Birdhouse, a “beautifully handcrafted treehouse set in a woodland garden on an organic farm in Crewkerne, Somerset.” I’m always on the look out for enticing retreats – the kind of places where the only distractions will be the rustle of the wind through leaves.

Only recently opened to its first guests, the building is all pale wood and flowing light, with plenty of windows letting in the sky and branches beyond. It provides a blend of indoor/outdoor living I find deeply appealing, set alongside modern luxury cunningly disguised to look pleasingly rustic – “Whilst modern and shiny, the bespoke kitchen is clad in 80-year-old boards reclaimed from the parachute regiment Nissen huts from Salisbury Plain,” says Tabitha Symonds.

The Birdhouse living area

The Birdhouse interior

Tabitha, rather than being this property’s owner, is the founder and director of oneoffplaces.co.uk, a company that seeks out unusual properties across the globes, sorts and presents it in enticing segments, such as windmills, yurts, and, yes, treehouses, including an ecofriendly option in Tarzali, Australia, that promises sightings of red-legged pademelon wallabies, coppery brushtail possums and other wildlife sadly lacking in Somerset, England.

Ecofriendly treehouse in Tarzali, Queensland, Australia

Ecofriendly treehouse in Tarzali, Queensland, Australia

Which undoubtedly makes The Birdhouse a far better place to retreat to with a laptop or notepad.

It’s a setting that looks its best in sunshine, but I think it would be a marvellously romantic place to wait out a storm – snug and secure with the sound of creaking branches, lashing rain and your imagination to keep you company.

 

The Birdhouse bedroom viewsThe Birdhouse bedroom views

The Birdhouse bedroom views

Staying at The Birdhouse costs from £380 for two nights (minimum stay). Week-long stays from £800. Find details of this and other quirky hideaways at the oneoffplaces.co.uk website.

Stayed somewhere wonderful recently? Let me know by sending an email to Judy(at)socketcreative.com. I’d love to hear your adventures and love to publish enticing travel pieces on SkyLightRain.com.

Strays, a small poem

Woman preparing pineapple, Borneo cr Judy DarleyA small poem of mine, Strays,  has been published in the current issue of Literary Bohemian, one of the most beautiful online publications of travellers’ tales that I know.

The poem appears in Issue 22 – Something About Water, although my ode is entirely earthy (it is set on an island, but a sizeable one) – curious when so many of my poems and stories are water-themed and inspired. As the editors comment, the issue is mostly about water, but also about sex and war. I think my poem encompasses both of the latter in a small way.

There are some wonderful reads in the issue, so do have a browse. I’m particularly taken with Ariana Nadia Nash’s The Pond. It holds the depths of a novel in just four brief, beautiful paragraphs. Impressive.

You can read Strays here. I’ll warn you, it isn’t one of my prettiest. I wrote it during an extraordinary trip to Borneo. The lady pictured here features in the poem, though I’m happy to say she doesn’t have a starring role.

Of love and lions with Paul Smith

Out of the strong came forth sweetness cr Paul Smith

Out of the Strong Came Forth Sweetness © Paul Smith

A few years ago I encountered the above sculpture by Paul Smith at an art fair. It connected with me in a way I didn’t expect. I’ve been having dreams about lions for many years, and in each of the dreams the lions shift constantly between being threatening and protective. It resulted in me writing a poem that will soon be published in an anthology from Avalanche Books.

Paul’s sculpture helped me make sense of the complex emotions that sprung from my lion dreams. “My main driving force in my work is my interest in the place where animals and humans meet,” he says. “Sometimes comforting, at other times strange and uncertain…”

His sculptures reveal the truth of a relationship’s strength being entwined with its participants’ willingness to offer up their vulnerability.

Forest Spirits handfired clay cr Paul Smith

Forest Spirits © Paul Smith

Paul’s work often depicts couples where one is human, and the other a bear, wolf or a lion. and frequently he shows one figure seemingly giving themselves over to another. It looks powerfully trustful – the essence of letting go, which is something I think we all aspire to on some level. We all want to rest in another’s arms, don’t we? Quite simply, at ease.

Deep Down cr Paul Smith

Deep Down © Paul Smith

Paul also explores mythology through his work, translating fantastical ideas into familiar forms. His figures, whether human or animal, are solid, friendly. It helps, perhaps, that his medium is clay – a material many of us play with when very small.

“I think I was born to be an artist,” Paul says. “My parents tell me that toys didn’t really interest me until I started playing with plasticine and Lego. Making an idea physical and real is really thrilling.”

Bird in Hand cr Paul Smith

Bird in Hand © Paul Smith

At school art was Paul’s strongest subject, which led to him taking a fine art sculpture degree. “After leaving college I started to follow a career in social work, but, at the age of around thirty, I found employment as a sculptor/mould maker.”

After around ten years of this, Paul followed his creative desires and set up as a self-employed artist in 1998.

“I like the flexibility that my life has now, both creatively and that old chestnut, work/life balance,” he says. “When I first started my self employed life I chose ceramics as it was the most convenient and cost effective way to make sculpture. The immediacy of making a sculpture in clay and firing it is really pure.”

Strange Little Girl cr Paul Smith, and real dog

Strange Little Girl © Paul Smith, and real dog

Influences on his current work include the writing of Angela Carter, “particularly her re-tellings of fairy tales in her collection of short stories The Bloody Chamber. It was the magical blurring of the divisions between the human and animal worlds in her stories that gave me the courage to go wherever my imagination dictated.”

Find more of Paul’s work and details of upcoming exhibitions at www.paulsmithsculptures.co.uk.

Know an artist you’d like to see showcased on SkyLightRain.com? Give me a shout at judy(at)socketcreative.com.

Midweek writing prompt – Intimacy

Ladybird cr Judy Darley

Ladybird at Arnos Vale © Judy Darley

One of my poems, Intimacy, was recently published by the delightful Nutshells and Nuggets. It got me thinking about how we can develop fully rounded, believable protagonists, simply by sharing minute details of their personality and appearance – the things that make them vulnerable and beloved.

This week, I invite you to get up close and personal with your characters. Discover the look in their eyes when they’re anxious or hopeful, the freckle on an earlobe, the tiny scar on their left ankle, their passion for walking barefoot over sun-warmed tarmac, their mortal fear of ladybirds…

If you write something prompted by this, please let me know by sending an email to Judy(at)socket creative.com. With your permission, I’d love to share it on SkyLightRain.com.

Book review – No Other Darkness by Sarah Hilary

No Other Darkness by Sarah HilaryIf you’ve read Someone Else’s Skin, Sarah Hilary’s stunning debut, you’ll have high expectations of the second book in her Marnie Rome series.

Quite rightly so. What you might not be prepared for, even with the book’s title, is just how dark you’re expected to get.

Here’s a clue: it begins with a pit, in the ground, containing the bodies of two little boys abandoned five years before; a family fostering a shifty teenage boy; a weird neighbour who collects dolls, and that’s not even the half of it.

Hilary conjures up scenes with her usual verging-on-poetic adroitness, in which aromas have sounds – “The smell coming up was squeaky and high-pitched, like the wail Cole had let out” – and emotions reek – “Marnie could smell remorse leaching from the woman’s skin, a sweet-sour smell like a nursing mother’s.” Continue reading

Engage in a democratic writing contest

Harbour Festival audience cr Judy DarleyFancy challenging yourself with a different kind of writing competition? Poetic Republic run two contests, one for poetry and one for short fiction, with entrants playing a significant part in the judging process.

What does this mean? The submissions are read and judged by other entrants., in an anonymous peer review process. Over seven weeks in May and June 2015, participants with read each other’s work in small groups of 12 poems or 7 stories in a three-round process.

“The combined effect is very powerful,” say the organisers. “In the final (third) round, everyone reads the shortlisted 12 poems or stories.”

During judging, participants have access to groups of poems or stories but the material is not published on the website. From each group of 12 poems or 7 stories participants select their preferred four and leave a short comment against their choices.

“Commenting is a valuable part of the process but it is also fun and fascinating. We have set out some thoughts about comments which may be useful.”

It’s an unusual but rather brilliant collaborative process. Considering what an insular activity creative writing can be, the idea of being part of something so outward-looking is rather intoxicating.

Each entry costs £7 for poems or £12 for stories. First prize in each competition will be £2,000. The best commentator in the short story contest will be awarded £250.

The resulting eBooks will include a selection of the most highly rated poems or stories along with the most interesting or insightful comments. To be shortlisted or included in the publication entrants must have taken part in the first two rounds of judging.

The deadline for entries for either competition is Thursday April 30th 2015. To find out more, including the rules, and to enter visit www.poeticrepublic.com.