The Return of the Lost Daughter: How to Write a Novel

man sitting on handrails
Photo by Suzy Hazelwood on Pexels.com

By Natalie Nera

Writing is hard but persevering with writing is even harder. You run out of steam. You do not know what to write. You are not sure if what you have written is any good. All of my “writing” friends go through the same grueling process over and over again, we all have been there. We may not achieve the literary heights but that is not the point. The river of literature keeps flowing and is very broad. We can all fit in.

So if you are considering to write your first novel, here are my tips on how to deal with the challenge:

  1. Make a plan. Like with any piece of writing, it is important to understand what you are writing about, what your characters are like, their motivations and why or why now? There are plenty of questionnaires you can download from the Internet, or make your own. This work is important. It does not matter if it takes you a week or six months. It does not matter if you keep it all in your head, or write it down, or what system you use. Mind maps? Lists? Flashcards? It is up to you but you must do it. If you don’t understand what you are writing about, what chance will your readers have?
  2. Scared of the length? Everybody is daunted by the word count of a novel. Fifty or preferably eighty thousand words, possibly even more. If you have a plan, you should not be scared. It sometimes helps to segment your task. For example, if you think of your novel as twenty stories, then it becomes doable.
  3. Author’s block. Everyone hits the wall now and again. Some days everyone feels that there is nothing heavier than your pen. Write through it. Sit down with a piece of paper and write anything, even unrelated to your mammoth task of completing a novel. Describe last night, your journey to the shop and back. Don’t edit, just keep writing and then see what happens.
  4. Writing buddies. Everybody should have their writing buddies. Friends who do the same thing as you and who will understand when you are stuck when things don’t go your way when you get rejections when your self-confidence tumbles.
  5. Peer review. This sounds like what scientists do before they publish their latest discovery but we authors need it, too. Someone who can read your manuscript and give you honest feedback, which will make your writing ultimately better. No one is the best adviser to oneself. You need another pair of eyes, a fresh perspective.
  6. So you finished your manuscript? Congratulations. Now, you have to edit it, re-draft it. Perhaps even start again. If it becomes published, even better, but do not expect miracles. For most authors, first-time novels do not hail big success. Still, this is a great reason to celebrate. You have learned a lot about the craft of writing, the whole process and become a better writer.

If you are still up to the task, not put –off by the long, lonely hours, constant redrafting, constant setbacks, rejections, and low pay, then you have become a part of the family of masochists obsessed with words and stories.  Welcome!

NATALIE CRICK: Memories and Fragments

Heather Benning, The Dollhouse
The Dollhouse by Heather Benning, 2014

 

Rachel Richardson says: ‘A reader’s interaction with a poem is largely created through the collection of images that animate the language and make us feel we have just participated in an experience’. I find that memories in language create the strongest sensory experience for myself as a reader and writer.[1]

 

In April 2019 I take part in a week long Spring School poetry course at Newcastle University. Wednesday’s tutor, Tara Bergin, tasks us to observe something during our lunch break and write about what we can see. I observe a tall glass of lemonade. The liquid is clear, with bubbles collecting at the brim. A thin curl of lemon floats on the surface like a half-smile. My notes bleed into a first draft. I do not restrict myself to the lemonade I can see, the soft fizz I can hear, the sharp citrus scent, instead I allow the sensory input to trigger other images, stories and most importantly memories to give the poem emotional weight.

 

Robert Pinsky’s poem ‘Shirt’ seems to follow the same process. Pinsky observes the object; ‘the shirt with nearly invisible stitches along the collar’. The examination becomes a manifestation, ‘the presser, the cutter, the wiring, the mangle’. By the end of the poem, the shirt lives and endures a journey: ‘He stepped to the sill himself, his jacket flared / and fluttered up from his shirt as he came down’.[2]

 

 

The imagist movement called for a return to restrained and precise use of the image.

According to Ezra Pound, image is ‘that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time’.[3] I wonder if my poems are fragments of real stories. If so, can nostalgia be strange and disturbing? Reflective nostalgia, defined by Svetlana Boym, ‘meditates on the passage of time and layers of fragments of memory’.[4]

 

I find a beautiful example of a memory explored in fragments; flickers and flames of a burning dollshouse. ‘The drone builds’ and still it burns.[5] Fragments overlap in a short film Heather and Chad Benning made about the burning; The Dollhouse.

 

There is a cold crusted winter field. I can see the house; walls growing decay, lace- curtains and a girl’s portrait swirling with red fire. And the same girl’s voice drifting in the lofts where ash dusts the pillows.

 

Pound describes the excavation of the desired object in a poem as discovering its ‘luminous details’. The details in The Dollhouse are luminous; I can see them and they are on fire.[6] I search for luminous details in my own poems and cup them in my hands in case they melt. When almost gone, I paint over signs of decay to restore the image, to redraft.

 

[1] Rachel Richardson, ‘Learning Image and Description’ in Poetry Foundation (March 27th 2015)

[2] Robert Pinsky, ‘Shirt’ in The Want Bone (New York: Ecco Press, 1980), p. 53

[3] Ezra Pound, ‘A Few Don’ts by an Imagiste’ in Poetry, (March 1913), 200

  [4] Svetlana Boym, ‘Nostalgia and its Discontents’ in The Future of Nostalgia (New York: Basic, 2001). p. 22

[5] Sheri Benning, ‘Dollhouse on Fire’ in PN Review, 45.4 (March – April 2019), 62-67

[6] Pound, ‘A Few Don’ts by an Imagiste’, 200

 

The Return of the Lost Daughter: Inner Spaces

Natalie Nera

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Francis Bacon: Study for a Head, 1952, Google Images

This creative essay was inspired by Hatton Gallery in Newcastle and published in Jun 2019 in Bridges online.

 

You sit. You look. It is a quiet place. It is not your place. Screaming faces in the paintings on the walls replicate the scream you hear inside you, the rage that runs through you every time someone suggests that being a writer is your own selfishness, self-indulgence, that equates to being a bad mother and a wife. I know that is not what Francis Bacon meant when he created his images but that is how I feel.

Homer was a poet and a story-teller. For it, he was worshipped as a deity, so were his successors. Across centuries, folk story-tellers meant that the memory of the peoples remained preserved.

Stories, words are so much more than self-indulgence, they are the beginning and the end of everything, the ideas we need to formulate in our heads, news on TV, soap operas, articles that we read and make us go ‘Agh!’, or ‘Oh, no!’; adverts that sell products through a story, sometimes only loosely associated with the subject, but it makes us salivate, makes us want more. Who can resist a bank card that can ensure your family’s happiness? How can a woman say ‘no’ to a lipstick that makes her as beautiful as Aphrodite?

Imagine if the world as we know it, finished today. What would you do? What would become of all the ‘useful’ IT managers and business graduates, overpaid high-fliers with vague job descriptions? You would make a fire, you would build a shelter, you would prepare your meal and then lie down in the darkness, listening to rain drumming on the roof of leaves and twigs. You need stories. You also need music, dance around the campfire. You need to laugh, you need to find a cave to paint a picture. There would be no need for shareholders, capital gains or bonuses. It is who we are, it is our soul, the essence of our existence? For if you forbid people from telling stories, they lose their sanity. They lose their history if their stories are not passed on. And with it, their ability to comprehend the world they live in wanes. The meaning of our being will be gone.

One can only take a look at the people who suffer from mental health issues, people traumatised by war experiences, and how they respond, how they get better through taking up a ballet class or life painting class, through being encouraged to write a journal, think of a verse that expresses their pain. Shrouded in mystery of who we are as entities, as animals, what is our brain, why does it need to be creative, why does it suffer when it is not? The healing begins.

Recently, I have watched one of the TEDx talks on YouTube. Sir Ken Robinson asked if schools kill creativity. I was shocked but not entirely surprised to hear that a five-year-old is forty-nine times more creative than an eighteen-year-old. So the question is not how do we learn creativity but how do we stop unlearning it? Based on this evidence, it appears that we are already born with creative brains but the educational system perceives it as threatening, squeezes it out of us, sidelines creativity in favour of memorizing timetables. You draw a person in uneven lines, the grass is purple and the sun green. You are told that this is not how the world looks like. You feel guilty and ashamed of not conforming to the idea of the world.  This explains why a six-year-old will start telling their parents why they cannot draw any more although they were perfectly able to express themselves in that way only several months previously. Eliminating the creative self thus equals an institutionalised act of self-harm.

Creating is breathing, it is being but when practiced well, it also becomes a craft. We are craftspeople. The technical skill behind any successful creative act cannot be underestimated. It is not an easy job for it takes daily practice to master.

We accept that it takes many years of training for a gifted athlete to win Wimbledon; we accept that a bright person has to study and work hard to become a heart surgeon, so why is it so difficult to accept that the same is true for poets, writers, painters or other artists? Why do we think that there is some magical device, like a sort of Nuremberg Funnel that enables art to happen? You somehow conjure the results out of thin air, without any effort or time?

Maybe we can blame the Byrons, Baudelairs, and Rimbauds of this world, absinthe drinking van Gogh and Manet, the pop stars in the infamous 27 Club, meteorites with wild ways and insane talent that shone briefly before crash-landing with fatal consequences. We can blame even the likes of Katie Price who is credited for writing several books although it is known that her ghostwriter pens the stories, she lands the brand name of a TV personality to shift the copies.

Creative people need to spend hours and days in solitude, working on their pieces, chiselling every word, every stroke of their brush. But that’s not what general public sees, or perhaps even wants. They notice a self-promoting media star who spends days fashion shopping and self-pampering whilst somehow also remotely and telepathically creating all these bestselling books. How difficult can writing be, right? Because anyone can write. If it so easy, why should anyone be paid for it?

The myth of an artist. No one wants to hear of a married woman with a house, a husband and two children, who does not drink, does not smoke and does not take drugs, who is, in fact very boring and ordinary, who however sits at her desk, works relentlessly on her stories, in constant search for the right words and expressions. She gets up at five in the morning to iron her kids’ school uniforms and her husband’s shirt. She makes porridge. She makes sandwiches for lunch. She puts a washing machine on. She hoovers. After the school run, she sits and writes until it is time to think of cooking the evening meal and pick up the kids again. By eight the kids are in bed. By eight-thirty she is falling asleep on the sofa. She has not stopped for thirteen hours. She is not glamorous. Or beautiful. Or seductive. Or hedonistic. She lives in her head, with her stories, obsessing about getting the words right. But that is not the portrait of an artist the public want to see.

Why do you need to be attracted to the perceived personality of an artist? Shouldn’t the artist’s work be enough? Surely, if I thought I am such an interesting person, I would have written an autobiography. Instead, I collect stories of other people, like a magpie, picking the best and most shining jewels I can see. I display them but I am not one of them. I am the greedy bird, I am the observer in the corner.

I retreat in my inner space, scream inside my head and splay myself across the pages. Is this self-indulgent? Why do people have the need to judge it, label it, dismiss it, put me down for who I am? Why do they take the time and energy to make me feel guilty? Would my story-telling be justified if I also worked in the local Co-op or cleaned toilets for living? Would I be seen as more deserving, a martyr of art, whose self-sacrifice has earned her the right to write? What do they know about the life I have lived, things I have done, jobs I have held? Time to accept that is who I am. And time for the others to accept me for who I am.

 

 

 

NATALIE CRICK: DRAFTING A POEM

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Painting 1946, Francis Bacon

 

  1. Francis Bacon said: ‘all painting is an accident. But it’s also not an accident, because one must select what part of the accident one chooses to preserve.’[1] My accident is using too many strong images in a draft. I remind myself that nothing is ever wasted.

 

  1. I am moved by strangeness and deviance with a common thread of extreme emotion. The complexities of human behaviour; vulnerability to violence. I ask myself: What’s the most important thing for you in a poem? My response is: I want to be moved by a poem.

 

  1. Writing poetry is a personal process. An alchemy of production. I extract my ideas for poems from a vast number of raw materials (art, music, films, novels) and stitch them together to create new bodies.

 

  1. Colour seems to pervade my drafts literally and metaphorically. I understand I have been enacting colour to shape a reader’s experience aesthetically and emotionally.

 

  1. There are particular images and ideas that I want to interrogate before preparing to write. I usually begin writing a poem by jotting down one powerful phrase in a notebook. This could be a first line, concluding line, or the beat from a poem’s heart.

 

  1. In early drafts I try to place prominence on softness and silences. These disarmingly careful moments spatter my drafts: my objective is to create a disturbance of distinction. My drafts play with repetition for claustrophobic effect.

 

  1. At times, my poem- patients are reduced to automata – mechanical matter. I cut off limbs and transfuse blood from what has previously been the life of the poem. As my drafts develop, I become compelled by how words function and how they can operate in shocking and strange ways; an explicit preoccupation in my poetry. My actors assert themselves, demand a life force.

 

  1. By the end of my drafting there are still lines to be written. My poems pulse.

 

 

 

[1] Francis Bacon, Interviews with Francis Bacon, 1962-1979, ed. by Francis Bacon and David Sylvester (London: Thames and Hudson, 1980), p. 16-17

 

The Return of the Lost Daughter: Creative Writing Degrees – Are They Worth It?

By Natalie Nera

Natalie Crick Image Blog Article 2nd October 2019
In my dreams. In fact, I have no desk or chair at the moment.

 

It is a self-indulgent degree. Why don’t you study something proper? Like engineering or business administration? You are just a selfish person who has inflicted a great injustice upon your children and husband, your vanity project of getting a useless degree. You are a bad mother. You are a bad wife.

This is just an example of an array of abuse I have had to endure during my two years at Newcastle University. Please don’t misunderstand – no one at the university did this to me, it was certain people on the outside who did that, judging, pushing, pulling, dismissing, but ironically none of my critics offered any free childminding.

I must admit it got to me. After the first semester, I had, what I now recognise as a nervous breakdown. I was completely blocked, in tears every day, suffering from an imposter syndrome (which never quite goes away, as I am assured by much more accomplished, lauded, and award-winning authors). I very nearly gave up. For how can I justify my not cooking evening meals twice a week for three months when I don’t even get a distinction?

No, I was not considered the next best thing by my tutors and did not get any distinction mark until my dissertation. But I did my best, getting up at three or four in the morning, working flat out on my “university” days, making sure that the impact on my family life is minimal but still, the comments you have to put up with while you can’t wave your Pulitzer Prize to make them go away do get to you.

That said, my course, now hailed as the fifth-best in Britain in the Times newspaper, is the best thing I have ever done. I loved every minute of it, every session, every task I had to do. Even the modules that were not my cup of tea, taught me a lot about writing and about my own creative potential. Before you sneer and dismiss it as a soft option degree, perhaps you should try it, go and read one thick book a week for each module to try and keep up with the demand. Try to produce a masterpiece for each module accompanied by an essay each semester – 8,000 words if you study part-time, 12,000 on a full-time course. And then, having done all of this, you have to produce 15,000 words in about six weeks, if possible to a publishable standard.

Ask the dropouts or those who transferred to other universities and found the demands are not as high. Ask all of those students who ‘merely’ passed sweating blood. Of course, you can measure maths better than creativity but is it easier? No.

And then I look at some of my colleagues who as ‘students only’ produce award-winning poetry, get published in prestigious magazines all around the world. This is what a  high-value and high-quality course offers – an environment where you can develop your skill, find your niche, find your inspiration and like-minded friends for life, with the same passion for writing.

So is it worth it? Some would claim it is not. I would say it depends on why you are there. If you are already an established author/poet, this is not necessary. If you study it to get ‘an easy ride’, you will feel disappointed and probably crash out. If you expect that you get to be held by hand without pro-actively creating opportunities to write as much as possible, to work on your craft, chisel it, hone it, then you will also be disappointed.

I set out to do my degree to follow my life-long passion with a question of whether I could do it in English, not my mother tongue. I also wanted to improve my written English enough to be able to translate literary texts competently. And I have achieved both, battling through various unpredictable life events, each of them could have meant the end of my degree. Following them plus some unfortunate political developments, this summer we moved the house and countries while I was working on my portfolio.

For me personally, it is a resounding yes, the degree is worth it. Every second of it, I would do it all over again in a heartbeat.  I am envious of those who are about to start. I would like to be the fly on the wall, at least to listen to the stimulating discussions about literary works. But should YOU do it? I have no idea. The question is WHY you want to study it.

A dentist of mine, many years ago, told me his story why he became a mature student to pursue a career in dentistry. I could not protest much because at that very moment my mouth was open so wide that my jaws were practically dislocated and my tongue went completely numb. But his words stuck in my mind: “What would you want to do if someone gave you a million pounds? Now, you have your answer. What are you waiting for? Go and do it.”

 

NATALIE CRICK: ON WRITING ‘WATER BABY’

Natalie Crick Image Blog Article 2nd October 2019.png
Photo by Natalie Crick

 

I wrote ‘Water Baby’ to be a soul-bearing message in the aftermath of death, reflecting themes of loss, loneliness and secrets in Rainer Maria Rilke’s poem ‘I Am Too Alone In The World, And Not Alone Enough’. When re-drafting the poem I moved away from Rilke’s poem to some extent and, like Robert Bly’s translations, drew out the meaning to create my own interpretation.

 

Throughout the poem, I try to evoke an authentic voice of a grieving mother, whilst reflecting upon several techniques used by Rilke. Rilke repeats: ‘I want’ several times to voice the narrators’ own needs and desires. [1] Mirroring Rilke’s speaker, I used repetition too, but in a more desperate plea to reconnect with a dead child: ‘I want to feel / the warm milk of your smile’; a plea intensified through use of sensory language.

 

In writing this prayer-like poem, I read Rupi Kaur’s poetry. Though Kaur’s own plea of ‘I need you to / run your fingers / through my hair / and speak softly’ is in a different, more erotic context, I feel her words are resonant and they inspired me to write with emotional fervour.[2]

 

James Wright personifies the sea in ‘At The Slackening of the Tide’, when the speaker hears ‘the sea far off / Washing its hands’,[3] influencing my decision to personify the sea in ‘Water Baby’; the ocean is given ‘clamouring jaws’ and a ‘mouth’. I found Wright’s image of a dead child ‘floating in the oil’[4] very moving and the ocean in my poem was soon ‘awash with children’, symbolising the enormity of losing a child.

 

 

In writing the first stanza, I was intrigued by Jane Duran’s poem ‘Miscarriage’ and her description of the womb’s ‘particles of silk / wasted, perish’[5] and so I wrote about similar images of frailty, such as ‘lips hushed, lilac chilled’ to portray the physical fragility of the child in ‘Water Baby’.

 

[1] Rainer Maria Rilke, I Am Too Alone In The World, And Not Alone Enough’ in Selected Poems, trans. by Robert Bly (New York: Harper and Row, 1981), p. 25

[2] Rupi Kaur, ‘The Loving’ in Milk and Honey (Missouri: Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2015), p. 72

[3] James Wright, ‘At The Slackening of the Tide’ in Collected Poems, ed. by Anne Wright and Robert Bly (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2011), p. 63

[4] Wright, ‘At The Slackening of the Tide’ in Collected Poems, p. 62

[5] Jane Duran, ‘Miscarriage’ in The Poetry Cure, ed. by Julia Darling and Cynthia Fuller (Newcastle: Bloodaxe, 2005), p. 88

 

 Later today (Wednesday 2nd October!)  ‘Water Baby’ will be published on Porridge Magazine’s online platform. You will be able to read ‘Water Baby’ alongside another of Natalie’s poems, ‘Farm Talk’, on the Porridge Magazine website at  https://porridgemagazine.com/ 

 

 

The Return of Lost Daughter: Why every Writer Should Become an Editor

The Return of Lost Daughter: Why every Writer Should Become an Editor

By Natalie Nera

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Not so much a room of my own but a borrowed chair and a kitchen table

I have been on both sides of the barricade – the aspiring author licking her wounds from yet another rejection, and the editor who has to fight off persistent attacks from authors who hate being rejected or hate the fact that they are being asked to make changes in their drafts.

Being an ambitious literatus is one thing: you sit in your darkened room, scribbling away in the hope that someone will recognise your hidden genius, preferably sooner rather than later. Becoming an editor is, on the other hand, a cure for any overblown sense of one’s own talent, – and a course of treatment that should be compulsory for any wannabe writer.

First of all, – and this may seem self-evident -, reading other people’s manuscripts teaches you how to identify flaws in a story/poem/script, what works and what does not. You also think about possible solutions to these creative problems. If you can find issues in other people’s works, you become better at spotting them in your own texts, making your writing ultimately better and more polished. This is essential if you are serious about writing, and the difference between an amateur and a professional.

Amateurs get upset at any suggestion that their text is anything other than amazing and faultless. Professionals may disagree with the feedback but take it all on board and work on their drafts to improve them. They understand that writing is a process that is never finished, never completed and never perfect, which does not mean that you should not aim towards perfection like a jeweler polishing a diamond.

Secondly, once you have had to deal with at least one undiscovered Pulitzer Prize/Man Booker Prize/Ted Hughes Award/Nobel Prize candidate who gets irate with you for pointing out the obvious, such as the lack of any narrative arc, cardboard-cut characters or overwriting with strained metaphors, you know you will never do it yourself again to an editor.

Instead, after the initial wave of emotions at being rejected (and it is a nearly physical pain), you take a deep breath and think what you can take from the comments, how to improve your piece. And trust me, the spiel “My tutors gave me high marks for this,” does not work either for it is the editor, not your tutor who ultimately decides whether your masterpiece is going to be published.

I received fantastic feedback from my tutors for one of my short stories, it was highly praised, yet whenever I submitted it, it got rejected. Ten times. Each time, I made changes to it, re-drafted it, time after time, again and again until it got accepted for publication by a very prestigious magazine in Britain. On and off, I worked on this particular short story for eight months.

If I have preached to the converted I hope I am going to be forgiven. But let me finish with one saying a very dear friend of mine, of more mature years and life experience, used to tell me all the time: “Talent is cheap.”  Being talented does not make anyone special, and I always remember that.

Natalie Crick: On writing ‘The House Where Love Boy Lives’

Natalie Crick: On writing ‘The House Where Love Boy Lives’

An image by Joelle Chmiel
An image by Joelle Chmiel

This week I was excited to learn that one of my favourite literary journals, ‘Visual Verse: An Anthology of Art and Words’ has published my poem, ‘The House Where Love Boy Lives’, in response to a beautiful work of art by Joelle Chmiel. You can read my poem in full on the Visual Verse website at:

https://visualverse.org/submissions/the-house-where-love-boy-lives/

 

 

I wrote ‘The House Where Love Boy Lives’ following a workshop by David Spittle delivered as part of my MA Writing Poetry Summer School 2018 module at Newcastle University. I’ve provided an insight into the thoughts behind my writing process and inspirations for the poem.

 

This poem is inspired by themes of collecting from David Spittle’s session.

 

Theodore Roethke’s evaluation of his collection, Words for the Wind describes ‘poems of terror, and running away – and the dissociation of personality that occurs in such attempts to escape reality’.[1] Boy too dissociates from humans into a world of dolls, clocks and paper angels; his only joy is in collecting obsessions inside ‘this House of things preserved and kept’. The line: ‘dwindlings in a doll’s house’ in Amy Clampitt’s poem ‘Winter Burial’ made me imagine Boy to live without structure, time and routine amongst his collections. [2] Indeed, Jean Baudrillard states that ‘the setting up of a collection itself displaces real time’.[3]

 

I feel that Judith Willson’s poem, ‘Common Things Explained’, also has the atmosphere of a doll’s house. Like Boy, who collects clocks, Willson’s narrator ‘winds the clocks and waits’. Willson continues: ‘she walks through the dark house, lighting a trail of moons’[4] which perhaps mirrors Boy’s mannerisms as he ‘glides through the hall’ before ‘extinguishing a graveyard / of candles’ though, whilst Willson’s nameless girl fills her house with moonshine, Boy’s house is a sad place ‘where light no longer lives’.

 

Robert Pinksy explains that ‘units of varying lengths’ can give ‘movement or dynamism’ creating an ‘emotional release’[5], a technique I adopted in the fifth stanza by following a longer sentence with the shorter line: ‘Mum nods, agrees’. This creates tension and contrasts with the gravity of Boy’s delirium, as he sees ‘lungs, necks and eyes in the House’.

 

During the Summer School week, poet Helen Tookey explained that unsettling images are created through distance and lack of personal eye, influencing my decision for Boy and Mum to remain mostly nameless.

 

 

[1] Theodore Roethke, ‘Theodore Roekthe’, in Don’t Ask Me What I Mean, p. 247

[2] Amy Clampitt, ‘A Winter Burial’ in Westward (London: Faber and Faber, 1991), p. 46

[3] Jean Baudrillard, ‘The System of Collecting’ in The Cultures of Collecting, ed. by John Elsner and Roger Cardinal (London: Reaktion Books, 1997), p. 16

[4] Judith Willson, ‘Common Things Explained’ in Crossing the Mirror Line (Manchester: Carcanet, 2017), p. 43

[5] Robert Pinksy, The Sounds of Poetry (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998), p. 110-111

 

The Return of the Lost Daughter: Can I Write in English?

The Return of the Lost Daughter: Can I Write in English?

By Natalie Nera

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Natalie Nera

I have been obsessed with this question for many years. I have read books about it. I have read what other authors think and say. I have written several essays on the subject. Sometimes I wake up at night, deliberating on many aspects of this issue, having furious arguments with myself. One of my passions, yearning to understand and unravel something that is perhaps in essence unknowable.

When I moved to Britain fifteen years ago, – and my reasons were entirely personal -, I was clueless about the price I was going to pay. I was a young woman with eight years of work as a journalist behind me, one translated and published book (9/11 by Noam Chomsky) and a stack of magazine publications.

All of a sudden, the tool of my trade was not there, I was taken out of the business that works almost entirely on personal recommendations and contacts. I tried a correspondence course in English to improve my chances, and gave up after the first assignment because I hated everything about it; I joined a local writing group who generously tolerated my lame attempts with word for word translations into English. It took me the best part of those fifteen years to get to the stage when I felt: “Now, I can try this. I am as ready as I will ever be.” I don’t write conventionally like a native speaker and never will. My limitations are obvious and frustrating but also bring out another part of my creativity. I am an artist who can only paint with her feet. I am a deaf composer. I am a blind architect.

This very personal experience of being imprisoned in a stalemate situation where I have many skills I cannot use because they are language and culture-dependent, is also another reason for my preoccupation with this matter: can you write creatively in your second language?

The simple answer is ‘yes’. There are many literati around the world who produce beautiful prose, scripts or poetry in a language different from their mother tongue. Kapka Kassabova in Britain and Ilya Kaminski in the USA prove that it is possible. Milan Kundera? Vladimir Nabokov? Or more recently Aleksandar Heman? Indeed, a very simple answer with complicated and entangled explanations. It is not enough to tell people it is possible. The question posed should be about how likely it is. Not everyone can become a success story.

Josef Škvorecký, one of the most underrated authors of the XX century, an émigré, a scholar, translator, noted that many great writers in exile failed artistically.[i] Failures don’t make it into textbooks. Only fantastically talented artists, who achieve fame, do.

I am not a great writer and my exile was self-imposed, an act of unintended self-harm. But I understand. You don’t know what you have lost until it is gone. You might think that, at the age of computers and the Internet, it should not matter, that you can continue writing, uninterrupted, anywhere. But you can’t. You can’t compete against the locals. You have nothing special to offer and more deficiencies to care to mention. Your context is gone. Your words are slowly going too, being replaced by a peculiar hybrid of multilingual stew. You become a stranger in your own homeland. You are a stranger in your new land. Your path is murky, grim, perhaps finished forever, those promises and endless opportunities taken by someone else, and you don’t know who you are anymore. Your stint at the call centre. Cleaning B & B. Washing up in the local accommodation place. Teaching Russian in the evening at the local college. Freelance jobs nobody ends up paying you for although you had spent nights slaving over them.

Depressed? Oh God, was I depressed? Yes. It could have broken me. It nearly did. Here I am now with three published books in my mother tongue under my belt, several magazine publications in English and my translations of Czech poetry begin to get noticed, too. It sounds grand but, trust me, it is not. Having said that, I am more confident in my ability to do my job. I am also more confident at not succeeding: rejections are an opportunity to improve. They mean that I have to work harder. Re-draft. Try again elsewhere. In that, I find a weird obsessive joy that finally there is a clear direction I lacked all those years ago.

[i] Josef Skvorecky,. “At Home in Exile: Czech Writers in the West.” (Books Abroad 50.2, 1976), pp. 308-313

Natalie Crick: On writing ‘Chadlington Village, Hampshire’

George Shaw, Poets Day, 2005-2006
George Shaw, Poets’ Day, 2005 – 2006

Natalie Crick: On writing ‘Chadlington Village, Hampshire’

 

On Monday (16th September) submissions for this year’s Mslexia and Poetry Book Society Poetry and Pamphlet Prizes 2019 closed. Last year one of my poems, ‘Chadlington Village, Hampshire’ was a runner-up in the competition. You can read the judge Carol Ann Duffy’s thoughts about my poem on the Poetry Book Society website, at https://www.poetrybooks.co.uk/blogs/news/womens-poetry-competition- runner-up-natalie-crick and more wonderful prize-winning poems are available to read here too.

 

Chadlington Village, Hampshire

 

The missing girl’s name was Elizabeth Gill.

She was 12 when she disappeared.

She was last seen wearing a pink jumper.

 

The villagers kept vigil. Prayers,

curled with the cold, drifted and strayed.

Doors were locked. Rumours spread.

Police divers slipped into the lake by the hill.

 

Come Autumn, the sheep are fearful. They

scatter, champing on panics of sun. Mr Tilley and

the old dog guide them into the other field.

After the storm, leaves collect in the warm

ditches. Somewhere in the dark, the gilt eyes

of foxes open. Here, where things live and perish.

 

Jordan and Dave soon marry. Jordan’s curls

are starred with buttercups and lilies. Jan gossips

that the couple are far too young for love.

They marry on the village green. Behind the poplars,

a flutter of wind ruffles a thin, pink sweater.

At night there are dreams about where the girl might be.

Dreams about her ghosting the moor.

Dreams about her rising from the lake,

blue of cheek and lung.

 

Tomatoes swell in June. Soon the fruit flushes red.

Jan and Tom collect wild herbs; thyme, bay, sage.

Ken eats straight from the pan, refuses to

wash his hands beforehand.

Tom touches the steak on his dinner plate

with a finger, watches the blood seep.

 

With July comes the Summer Fete.

Chinese lanterns dazzle at dusk to charm the crowd.

Someone has laid out drinks. A sandalwood scent

perfumes the air filled with champagne laughter.

In the background a brass band toots and booms.

Young Kerry flaunts two pink roses;

one at her hip, one on her breast.

She and Dina dance to the beat,

dance into the shadow of a black poplar,

where the girl was last seen.

 

Another Spring, another March, another month

spent wondering.

Jan scolds her crocuses – don’t open!

Remember, Spring just isn’t Spring anymore!

On Wednesday, a thin man is seen

and he’s moving through the wheat.

But maybe he’s the Father. It’s hard to know

in this light. He keeps coming back

to the place he remembers most.

 

All of the Junes go by like gusts of milkweed

and still the girl is missed. There are sightings:

Mrs Tilley saw her at the visitor centre

buying a Magnum ice-cream.

 

In August, heat rises in mists of gold.

Some suspect the cow field to harbour

secrets and aren’t shy to voice their opinions.

From a window across the green, Tom watches

Kerry undress in a pool of yellow bedroom light.

Butterfly eggs are laid on a leaf’s veined spine.

 

The missing girl’s name was Elizabeth, or Liz or Lizzy.

She has not been forgotten.

She has been looked for in the lambing sheds, in the lofts,

in the lake by the hills.

 

Mrs Tilley’s dog finds her stained skirt.

Whilst the village is sleeping, moths breathe in the green,

flit from lit to shadow, from seen to unseen.

 

Previously published in Mslexia (Issue 80, 2018/19), the Poetry Book Society website and listed in PBS Spring Bulletin (2019).

 

I wrote ‘Chadlington Village, Hampshire’ following a workshop by Sean O’Brien delivered for my Summer School 2018 module as part of my MA in Writing Poetry at Newcastle University. I’ve provided an insight into the thoughts behind my writing process and inspirations for the poem.

 

 

Having enjoyed Sean O’Brien’s session on the long poem, I decided to write my first ever long poem inspired by a novel I have recently read; Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor.

Adorned with beautiful, poetic rhythms of the natural world, McGregor defines the sad truth that, while a young girl remains missing, everyday life must go on.1

 

David Morley asks the question: ‘What are the qualities that make for a successful long poem or sequence? Are they sound, scene-making and tone?’ 2 I came to the conclusion that long-poems need to do more than simply narrate; an underlying shape, coherence and musicality are needed.

 

I observed in ‘At the Fishhouses’ by Elizabeth Bishop that simplicity in structure creates a powerful poem. The repeated refrain: ‘cold dark deep and absolutely clear’ strengthens the form. 3  I repeat the missing girl’s name at the beginning and end to remind the reader that she is still to be found. However, through the passing of time her name is now remembered as ‘Elizabeth, or Liz or Lizzy’; perhaps the villagers are beginning to forget.

 

 

Oliver states: ‘texture is vital to all poetry. It is what makes the poem an experience’.4 I admired the great detail apparent in ‘At the Fishhouses’ and tried to flood my poem with anecdotes of village life, when ‘with July comes the summer fete’, in combination with McGregor-inspired images of natural beauty, such as ‘butterfly eggs are laid on a leaf’s

veined spine’. All of this occurs against the painful passage of time.

 

By repeating months of the years and varying the tone my poem developed an incantatory dimension and a certain pitch of intensity; facets I had admired in Alice Notley’s poem, ‘I the People’.5

 

At the close of ‘At the Fishhouses’ it becomes apparent that the power of apprehension is momentary. Time marches on, and the moment of finding out what happened to Elizabeth Giles may be gone forever; ‘our knowledge is historical, flowing, flown’.6

 

 

 

 

1 Jon McGregor, Reservoir 13 (London: 4th Estate, 2017)

2 David Morely, ‘So you want to write a long poem’, Poetry Review, 98.2 (2008), 81-84 (p. 83)

3 Elizabeth Bishop, The Complete Poems 1927-1979 (New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1983), p. 65

4  Oliver, A Poetry Handbook, p. 94

5 Alice Notley, Grave of Light: New and Selected Poems (Wesleyan University Press: Connecticut, 2008) p. 171-172

6  Bishop, The Complete Poems 1927-1979, p. 66