I’m just back from the latest Dark Angels course at Merton College, Oxford. It’s been an intense and inspiring few days of writing, listening, exploring and working with a group of wonderful writers.
Our archangel tutors, John Simmons, Jamie Jauncey and Stuart Delves did what they do so well, feeding us prompts, giving us briefs and deadlines and then setting us free.
Our voices ranged wide. Even when we were given the same starting points, the writing that came back was very different in its tone, content and imagery. Over the course of a few days we heard tales that inspired laughter, sent chills down our spines, brought tears to our eyes, and made us think about the world around us.
Spending time in my rather blank, spartan, but perfectly adequate room, it was easy to see how Merton was designed for study. A tour of its ancient library, accompanied by an enthusiastic Classics student reinforced its long forged links with learning.
Separated from the rest of the busy, commercial world of modern Oxford by the college gates and portals, it would be easy to imagine a rather monastic, or closed off existence. But for me, it was the opposite. The shared experience of living, eating and working together with my fellow writers gave me a great feeling of opening up.
Writing and reading is important to me. Not just because it’s my job, but because its part of how I define myself. In choosing an identity for this blog, I sought out words associated with writing. So there’s an uncomfortable irony in the fact that writing and reading barely get a look in amidst my tales of racing and training.
I want to change that. The running, training and triathlon side of things will remain. But I want to reflect something more of my writing self. So, I’m going to commit to posting once a week on a writing theme. In this, I’m following in the footsteps of the great archangels, John Simmons and Jamie Jauncey whose weekly blogs I always enjoy.
Those are huge steps to follow in, but just as consistent training has helped me improve as a runner, I hope the discipline of a weekly blog will help me unlock more of my writing self.
I’ve been thinking recently about how a sense of place influences my writing.
In September I spent four glorious days on a Dark Angels creative writing in business course in Aracena, Spain. My fellow writers all drew on the landscape, the history and the culture of the area to produce some highly imaginative and creative writing. It was truly magical to hear the different voices and interpretations of the exercises we did together during the day and to revel in a final evening of stories and performances.
The first day, we used a passage from Don Quixote as inspiration, and along with the warm sunshine, good company and relaxed atmosphere, it’s encouraged my recent writing to take on a rather lyrical, allegorical tone.
Compare and contrast with a few years ago, when I visited Japan. There my writing took on the style of the haiku. Pared back. Economical. Each word working hard. Packed with meaning. I have a notebook filled with poems and scraps of free verse from my time there. And when I think of Japan, that’s the kind of language that fills my mental landscape.
I’ve also recently written a piece about where I live. For this I drew on both the geographical setting of the river that runs nearby, and the voices of its history. For this is an area of rich voices, identifiable by their distinctive accent. I wasn’t born here, so it’s not my accent; but listening to The Unthanks sing of the shipyards, I can fair see the bulkheads blocking out the daylight or hear the pounding of boots on the slipway.
Professionally I write for one client. One tone of voice. But it has to have something of all these voices. It has to be economical, because I write for busy people who want me to get to the point. But it cannot be too obscure. They cannot be expected to work hard to find the meaning.
So, I look for the phrases that will surprise and delight. The words that show there’s a real human being behind those marks on the paper or screen. Sometimes that means a change of rhythm or pace. Sometimes it’s a colloquial phrase – something you’d actually say.
Though I have to be careful not to be too colloquial. I was recently asked to rewrite a line where I used ‘tea’ in the northern sense of ‘dinner’ or a meal you have in the evening. After all, not all our customers are northerners.
I’ve been asked if writing for one client can get boring. It can be a challenge certainly, to keep it fresh and interesting when covering the same themes. But there’s always a new way of looking at things, new insights from our customers or new influences from the wider world to take on board.
And when I spend some time thinking about my writing, I can see that I do adopt different voices – at work, on my blog, and in my personal writing. They’re all slightly different, but all part of me. And they’re all influenced by people I’ve met, places I’ve visited. To me, it’s a rich source of inspiration.
Does a sense of place influence your writing too?
If you want to know more about what happens on a Dark Angels writing course, tutor John Simmons describes it beautifully in his latest blog post.
That was my favourite word on Tuesday. It sounds like a tree full of chimpanzees with a bowl of trifle.
A perfect word for a day of travelling north on the train. Watching the waves and the rain through the window. Arriving in Edinburgh to the skirl of the pipes and a bustle of excitement at visiting the Book Festival.
Meeting Lesley in a whirl of a hug and setting off walking, talking ten to the dozen. Drifting through the street theatre, finding a warm café and settling down with cake and coffee and more chat.
Dodging the raindrops and ducking into the gallery in search of art and landscapes and portraits that looked freshly painted. Smiling at Vincent’s silver trees and light shadows between the clouds on a hillside.
Parting with plans ready made for another meeting. And then solo, finding my way through the street magic to a quiet enclave of tents, books and stories.
My favourite writer greeted with affection by an appreciative crowd. Remembering the last time we were together in this place when two mischievous authors tested the skills of the sign language interpreter. Mr Gaiman tells his enraptured gathering of short stories that won’t stay short. Of the old country over the duckpond. Of the older country that sank and the even older one that blew up.
Speaking with affection for one of his best loved characters and how she came about. Mixing the inherent sexism of language, with the essence of a myth of the beauty of death. “It’s a great job. It gets you out and about. You get to meet people. You get to meet everyone.”
Of the unprompted applause when he speaks of The Doctor’s Wife and the best ever answer to the question, “What’s your favourite book?”
And stories, stories, stories. Those told and loved. Those waiting for the right moment. The rare one that came dream bound and perfect. Going to Hell in a hot air balloon. Vikings sailing to Jerusalem. A wild head full of dark, bright imaginings and always the promise of more.
And later still, more writers, more words from Dark AngelsJamie Jauncey and John Simmons. Words loved and hated. Words mangled out of meaning. And the clear sharp minds that cut through like a skater on a lake. A reminder that writing should be kind, human. That being a writer is about simply being. Right now in the moment.
When I return home, much later and more weary, a million shades and colours dance in my dreams.
I have had an amazing, inspiring and humbling week. I have sung, read, listened, thought and written at high volume. I have given my writing the same focus, energy and passion as my running.
In two days at Toftcombs, I have been whalloped by words, lambasted by language – Russian, Swahili, Arabic, Spanish; flailed by the feathers of a parakeet, smothered in spices and chocolate, bombarded by beetroot.
I have exhausted my mind, my memories, my emotions. Delighted in discovery and found the quiet confidence of belief.
I am beaten. Empty. Satiated. I have feasted well and am satisfied. I left joyful and hopeful, but craving rest.
I have never felt less like a run. My adrenaline habit had been fed by a riot of images, ideas and conversations. By simple complex human connections. After a late night that I never wanted to end and sad sweet goodbyes to my housemates of the past couple of days, I felt weary.
But a run was the plan. And a much anticipated run too. A new course promising pace. And a chance to see some old friends I’ve never met before.
Alastair met me at the appointed time and place and we drove to Cramond, catching up on his time in Tyneside. We were only parked up for a moment when Lesley arrived. I couldn’t get the car door open quickly enough. She has the best and brightest smile and the most enveloping hug.
Busy with parkrun preparation, I began to shake off my tiredness. The cold air had me pondering extra layers as we made our way down to the course.
The sea churned into mudflats. The trees glistening golden leaves, shaking off the remains of a shower. This is a course that promises riches.
Al knows everyone and introduced me to a couple of the parkrun regulars. I was keen to be moving, to warm through my cold legs. A few jumps, heel kicks and knee lifts and some perfunctory stretches and I Geordied up, ditching my hoodie and long sleeved top.
Before I knew it, we were lining up at the start. I felt small in the crowd, unsure where to place myself, not catching any eyes. An almost casual three, two, one – go. And I start the Garmin.
Al running beside me, we set off at a lick. Two days of reading out loud, talking and discussing words around the fire have left me with a dry throat. The cold air catches my breath and I struggle to soothe it, coughing to clear my airways.
“Are you okay?”
“Yes!” I say confidently, resolutely. At least I’m not cold now.
We wave and smile at Lesley and the camera.
Out along the sea front and the wind whips my face, but my legs are warming through and stretching out and I sense this first kilometre is fast. The Garmin beeps and I check it at 4:44. That is fast for me and it’s the only time I look at my watch.
Al pulls ahead, running easily and I keep pushing to keep pace. But the wind’s stronger now and I start to drift backwards through the pack. Never mind, never mind. Run your own race. Keep pushing. You have a precious 15 seconds in the bag.
The runners stream ahead, impossibly distant. I cannot see the turning point. I sense I have slowed and Al is more distant still.
I feel empty. My core is hollow. There is nothing left inside. I am here running beside the sea, on a cold autumn day and I do not feel it. My heart has left me.
I always wondered what it would feel like to run cold, not caring. Just the white clean focus of a race. I do not like it. The emptiness unsettles me. I need the heat of the passion, the desire to race.
I feel my dreams of a sub 25 min or a PB are over. And I’m sad, because I feel like that’s letting Al down. But then I think, it’s Al, he’ll understand. I keep his bright red shirt in my sights and my stubborn legs propelling me forwards.
I realise I cannot feel my toes and have been clodhopping flat footed for goodness knows how many strides. I try to wriggle my icy extremities and roll through my feet.
As the turning point approaches, Al’s spotted that I’ve dropped back further than he realised and veers off the racing line, slowing down to meet me. “Come on,” he encourages, “Not far now.”
We turn and I am lifted. Is it that I am out of the wind or just that I have my good friend running beside me? I don’t know, but I feel more hopeful.
It’s hard though and my breath is still patchy. I slow to catch it, but cannot afford to lose the speed. When my breathing is like this, it’s too easy to let everything else go. I push on and try to stretch out, allowing myself a brief grunt of frustration as another runner passes, pushing a buggy, and shows us a clean pair of heels.
Al is jogging. I can hear this pace is easy for him though it’s not for me. As we pass Lesley again, he fools around for the camera. I cannot even spare the energy for another smile.
The final stretch approaches. We are into the last kilometre and I’ve tried to pick it up, once, twice, three times. Fighting the urge to slow down. Doing the opposite of what I feel and going faster.
“Don’t go until we get into the trees,” Al advises. Even when we get to the trees I know there’s still a fair distance and I’ve learned my lesson from parkrun a few weeks ago when I tried to chase down the girl in black from 800m.
This time it’s a girl in blue who is my nemesis. She eases past as we approach the end. Marshall’s fluorescent jackets teasing us towards the finish.
“Come on!” Al cries. “You can crawl from here and still get a PB.”
Can I? I have not looked at my watch, but I sense I have picked up the pace in the last kilometre and maybe dogged determination was enough for the middle two.
Now my blood is up. Now my heart is in it. If you’re a girl, you don’t get past me this close to the prize. I start to rev through my gears. A bit faster. And again. Get the arms moving. Stop thinking, just bloody go for it. I put the hammer down and sprint for the finish. The girl in blue doesn’t stand a chance.
Over the line. Stop the watch. Collapse, fighting for breath.
Al keeps me moving through the funnel. I just want to keep my head down and recover. Eventually I scroll through to today’s time – 24:43. You beauty!
The demons of doubt and tiredness have been beaten. This run was good. This run had heart. This run did matter. It would still have been a glorious run, because my friends were there. But to break that magic 25 minute mark for the first time is very special.
We escape to extra layers and warm ourselves with hot drinks and cake in the nearby cafe and another cuddle from Lesley. It is a fitting way to finish a brilliant few days and I feel incredibly lucky.
I’m lucky I have found running and it has found me. I’m lucky it’s brought me new friends and unimagined experiences.
I’m lucky too that my first love has not left me. Through running I began to return to writing for myself again after too long away. Two days at Toftcombs in the company of some stunning Dark Angels has reminded me of writing’s richness and the power it has to speak to my heart, if I let it.
I have returned to my neglected love and been welcomed with open arms. We have vowed not to take each other for granted again, but to spend more time together, working on this relationship, and enriching each other’s company.
Apologies for being so quiet over here at The Scribbler. There’s been a lot of action going on in my running blog, the highlight of which was the 2010 Great North Run.
I had an amazing day, involving a beer bottle, an Olympic champion and a Radio DJ. And thanks to some amazingly generous donations, I also raised over £1,300 for Sands in memory of my baby sister, Ava. That’s over £100 per mile.
You can read about my fabulous race, and see some pictures here.
And I promise I’ll be back with some word stuff very soon. I’m heading off to Scotland to join the Dark Angels, so hope to report back on that and much more.