Writing prompt – incarceration

Lemur, Bristol Zoo, by Judy DarleyI once came across a call for poetry, short fiction and creative non-fiction, which specified that submissions were free of charge “for people who are currently incarcerated.”

Today I invite you to dream up a story with a fresh take on incarceration, bearing in mind that not all those charged with a crime are guilty, not all those locked up have been charged with a crime, and not all jails are physical.

Even more intriguingly, not all those who are trapped are aware of their lack of liberty.

Use this as the starting point of a tale.

If you write or create something prompted by this, please send an email to judydarley(at)iCloud.com to let me know. With your permission, I may publish it on SkyLightRain.com.

Book review – One Scheme of Happiness by Ali Thurm

One-Scheme-of-HappinessA deliciously discomforting read that will creep under your skin.

Set against a vividly realised setting of a small Northern town in the shadow of a defunct lighthouse, author Ali Thurm paints a journey into obsession and manipulation with steadily building menace. The title is drawn from Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, and Helen, Thurm’s narrator, regards Fanny Price as her role model. They are both quiet and easily overlooked. Helen hopes to share in Fanny’s happy ending, and is prepared to do whatever she can to achieve that.

Helen has been living with and caring for her ailing mother for twenty years, and has become a little set in her ways. When her mum passes away, it feels like the start of something, but at first it isn’t clear what. A friend of her mum’s suggests a trip abroad, “now that you’ve got some money”, but Helen isn’t ready for the unknown. “Why would I give up the comforts of home to wait around in airports and be ruled by timetables? (…) I don’t want anything to change. This is where I want to be.”

It takes the return of two old school friends to help her realise that this is only partly true. Through the fog of grief and coping strategies, Helen’s former bestie Vicky emerges, with her husband Sam, who Helen adored at school, coming home for reasons unspecified until the novel’s end.

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Writing prompt – surface

Judy all at seaMy sister snapped this pic of me enjoying the balmy depths of the South China Sea. It’s such a peaceful scene, and yet it is part of a power struggle that’s been going on for decades as countries vie for control of this major shipping channel and its oil and gas reserves. It’s also, according to Philippines’ Department of Environment and Natural Resources, home to one third of the entire world’s marine biodiversity.

Yet from this level, it looks gloriously tranquil. Transform this into a metaphor for someone who seems calm but is cracking apart beneath the surface, or play with what you see above. What’s could be lurking below the sunlit surface?

If you write or create something prompted by this, please send an email to judydarley(at)iCloud.com to let me know. With your permission, I’ll publish it on SkyLightRain.com.

Book your Flash Festival tickets now!

Trinity College Bristol***Cancelled for 2020 due to coronavirus pandemic***

Celebrating its fourth year, Flash Fiction Festival 2020 spreads out over three intensely creative days in June. The festival unfurls on Friday 19th, Sat 20th and Sun 21st June, welcoming fabulous flashers including Kathy Fish, Nuala 0’Connor, Ingrid Jendrzejewski and Tania Hershman.

`the weekend takes place at Trinity College, Bristol, and is packed with inspiring workshops tackling every aspect of flash fiction, from Climate Writing with Deb Tompkins, Creative Visualisation with Karen Jones, Getting to the Heart of the Matter: Creating Emotion & Yearning on the Page: with Kathy Fish, Going Further With the Novella-in-Flash: With Michael Loveday, Writing the Prose Poetry Sequence. With Carrie Etter, I Didn’t Sign Up for This! How to Get on Stage and Read Your Work with Confidence: with Nancy Stohlman, Hybrid flash with Tania Hershman, and Foraging For Inspiration with me!

These are just a few of the wonderful offerings tempting you to sign up. See the website to find out what else is happening.

I helped out at the festival in 2019 and came away with a notebook full of ideas, and a hunger to power up my laptop. The festival team, headed by directors Jude Higgins and Diane Simmons, plus festival curator Meg Pokrass, make this a weekend of imaginative adventures, attracting some of the loveliest writers ever to dip a toe into the art of flash writing. Join the throng before all spaces fill up!

Book your flash festival admission here.

Novella-in-flash review – An Inheritance by Diane Simmons

An Inheritance Diane Simmons coverLifetimes pass in a twinkling in this novella-in-flash from Diane Simmons. Eighteen tightly woven short stories sew together moving glimpses into the love, betrayals and reconciliations of four generations over a span of seventy years from 1932 to 2002.

We enter their world via a door into a pawnbrokers’, where kind-hearted Thomas is moved to help those who enter his dad’s shop in their darkest hours. By the end of the novella, we’re rediscovering the unclaimed items from that shop, alongside Thomas’ grandchildren, and understanding the desperation and hope those shops and their glinting miasma of contents represented.

The book’s earliest flashes stream by at disconcerting speed – it took me a few disconcerted chapters to adjust to their pace. Deaths and funerals rattled by with unnerving rapidity, and I found myself craving deeper delves into the lives Simmons’ wafted past my eyes. One blink, and I felt I might miss a crucial triumph or catastrophe.

The velocity eases as the novella progresses, however, and I realise now how accurately Simmons has captured a sense of the past through the her use of acceleration in those early chapters. Ask anyone about an ancestor, and the likelihood is that in return you’ll receive a blurred array of snapshots – births, marriages and deaths, an anecdote of a feud or act of selflessness and little more.

As we near the current century, we have a chance to catch our breath, and fully focus on the people before us.

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Theatre review – Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Mark Meadows and Pooky Quesnel as Geroge and Martha in Whos Afraid of Virginia Woolf at Tobacco Factory Theatres, Bristol. Photo Mark Dawson1

George and Martha invite Nick and Honey to join them for a nightcapIt’s way too late in the evening, but what do they have to lose?

So reads the description on the Tobacco Factory Theatres’ website, and the answer is really quite a lot. Dignity, trust and self-respect are just a few of the traits that will be ripped to shreds by the end of the three act, three-hour and 15-minute performance.

Martha (Pooky Quesnel) and George (Mark Meadows) are already deeply embedded in the academic community that Nick (Joseph Tweedale) and Honey (Francesca Henry) have just joined, so perhaps it’s natural that the younger couple accept an invitation for a post-party party at Martha and George’s. But even the hosts aren’t prepared for the toxic darkness of the games that unfold between the four players.

Joseph Tweedale and Honey Francesca Henry as nick and Honey in Whos Afraid of Virginia Woolf at Tobacco Factory Theatres, Bristol. Photo Mark Dawson

Joseph Tweedale and Honey Francesca Henry as Nick and Honey in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf at Tobacco Factory Theatres, Bristol. Photo by Mark Dawson

The drama is almost entirely semantic (despite some exuberantly comic dancing from Henry). In Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,  language is weaponised, and aimed to cause maximum damage. Director David Mercatali says “When I first read it, I couldn’t believe words could be so exciting.” His four-strong (extremely strong) cast make the most of Edward Albee’s scorching lines, veering from joyful to tearful and vindictive to protective on the head of a pin. At the heart of it is a couple disappointed by circumstance, and displacing that onto each other despite a deep burning love. Without the affection and evident flickers of adoration, the cruelty might be impossible to bear.

Pooky Quesnel as Martha in Whos Afraid of Virginia Woolf at Tobacco Factory Theatres, Bristol. Photo Mark Dawson

Pooky Quesnel as Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf at Tobacco Factory Theatres, Bristol. Photo by Mark Dawson

Quesnel eases us in with a double-feat of performing Martha doing an impression of Bette Davis, with a touch of Elizabeth Taylor thrown in. George already has his slippers on before she announces they’re expecting guests, delivering her first kick to George as he berates her for “springing things on me all the time.”

Meadows delivers George’s commentary with razor-sharp humour.

“In my mind you are bedded in cement up to the neck,” says George to Martha in an acerbic moment. “No, up to the nose, it’s quieter.”

The laughter, anecdotes and snarky remarks grow increasingly frantic as the booze flows and each individual makes admissions that they’ll most likely regret. A gun presents a joke and flowers become missiles while a broken bottle crushes to dust under their feet.

Mark Meadows and Pooky Quesnel as Geroge and Martha in Whos Afraid of Virginia Woolf at Tobacco Factory Theatres, Bristol. Photo Mark Dawson

Mark Meadows and Pooky Quesnel as Geroge and Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf at Tobacco Factory Theatres, Bristol. Photo by Mark Dawson

The Tobacco Factory’s in-the-round space presents the ideal arena for the challenges, with Anisha Fields’ minimal set providing only the essentials – two chairs, a long low backed (thankfully – for those sitting behind it) sofa with books strewn beneath it, a side table with a record player, and a well-stocked bar. It paints the era without fuss, and keeps our focus on the couples.

Quesnel is startling and unnerving, veering from welcoming hostess to seductress to weeping child desperate for love. Meadows is equally adept, revealing George’s underlying rage in small parcels between entreaties and insults. Over the course of the play he refers to Martha as his “yumyum”, and a “cyclops” without missing a beat. And when Honey coyly asks to use the bathroom, George says to Martha: “Show her where we keep the euphemism?”

Tweedale’s Nick holds his own against George, defending both his own wife and Martha against the barbs that come their way, even as the alcohol reduces him to a jocular jock, leaning into the toxic tomfoolery. Henry’s Honey is keen to like and be liked by all, slipping in observations that strip away the veneer momentarily. Her comic timing lifts some bleaker moments into laughter, keeping us on the right side of this emotional juggernaut of a play.

It is long, and could perhaps benefit from having a few lines shaved off here and there, especially in act two. But it’s hugely enjoyable too. Even as you squirm in your seat for those on stage, feeling your own adrenalin heighten, you can’t help being aware of the glory of seeing sharp minds battle it out and wonder who if anyone will make it out alive.

A searing indictment of thwarted ambition, with deep sadness and enduring love at its heart.

Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is on at Tobacco Factory Theatres, Bristol, until 21st March 2020.

Images: Mark Dawson Photography.

Seen or read anything interesting recently? I’d love to know. I’m always happy to receive reviews of books, art, theatre and film. To submit or suggest a review, please send an email to judydarley(at)iCloud.com. Likewise, if you’ve published or produced something you’d like me to review, get in touch.

Writing prompt – rose

Rose by Judy DarleyWhile meandering through a local cemetery, I spotted red flowers blooming on a tree. A closer look revealed silk roses attached with green wire. Someone’s clearly had enough of waiting for spring!

Who might have attached these pretend blossoms? What purpose might they have had. How could this perhaps bring two lonely strangers into each other’s lives?

If you write or create something prompted by this, please send an email to judydarley(at)iCloud.com to let me know. With your permission, I may publish it on SkyLightRain.com.

Short story – Enduring Night

Iceland by Judy DarleyI’m utterly delighted that my short story Enduring Night, inspired by a visit to Iceland, is feeding the wonderful, eternally ravenous The Cabinet of Heed. It has taken up residence in Issue Twenty-Nine, out now.

Enduring Night is a love story that may not be a love story, set against the elemental beauty of Iceland in the snow.

It begins with a moment of anticipation, which I wrote before I actually visited Iceland, and long before the rest of the tale took shape.

I haven’t been here yet, but this is what I imagine it will be like. Dark as ink from waking till sleeping, with an occasional reprieve when the sun lifts its lead-heavy head. Fissures of aurora borealis dancing above bare-branched trees as ice crystallises in the air. Eyeballs rolling in the fight not to freeze; skin tightening; breath blooming like fog.

Read Enduring Night in full.

Enduring Night

Writing prompt – family

Me and Mum_Colby Gardens 2017 by Judy DarleyThis curious picture shows my mum and me reflected in a pool of water. As her birthday happens this week, it seems like an excellent writing prompt. What eerie marine family might this photo represent? How could you capture the essence, or at least a suggestion, of your own family in a slightly askew tale?

If you write or create something prompted by this, please send an email to judydarley(at)iCloud.com to let me know. With your permission, I may publish it on SkyLightRain.com.

Book review – With One Eye On The Cows

with-one-eye-on-the-cowsGathering together 137 stellar micro fictions, With One Eye On The Cow: Bath Flash Fiction Volume Four is an anthology full of stamping, harrumphingly insistent words.

I have a particular fondness for slow-burn flashes, by which I mean the ones that burrow in and quietly stop then restart your heart. Not the well-worn trope of a twist in the tail, but the stories that seed in subtle clues that burst into bloom with startling vivacity. Those authors in my opinion have mastered the tricky craft of the short short.

A Kind God by Jesse Sensibar is a particularly fine example, beginning with the sublime and finishing with the prosaic, with a sliver of shock in between.

Elsewhere we rub shoulders with displaced families, and a vastly varied assortment of starting points of PTSD. We encounter the bravura of sexual, awakenings and dawning realisations, and seethe with the knowledge of thoughtless wrongs impossible to undo.

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