Writing Creative Non-Fiction – Assignment #4: On Woolf on Cavendish

This week’s assignment offered a choice of character depictions. I opted to go with reviewing Virginia Woolf’s 1925 essay, The Duchess of Newcastle, from The Common Reader First SeriesIts subject is Margaret Cavendish the Duchess of Newcastle. I very much enjoyed getting to learn about her. Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

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It is difficult to come away from Virginia Woolf’s essay on the life of Margaret Cavendish with anything but a sense of admiration for the person the Duchess of Newcastle was: a libertarian who lived life on her own terms, a prodigious thinker, prolific writer and designer, all-round force of nature and perhaps proto-feminist. What is even more remarkable about her life is the context within which it was lived, times which seen from the lofty, enlightened heights of our 21st-century sofas seem like the dark ages. Given the latitude to explore and later express a non traditional interpretation of the roles of daughter and wife by both her mother and husband, we get the sense that virtually every thought she had was encouraged and articulated in some shape or form with no attempt to self-censure. It helped perhaps that there were no children to encumber her free spirit. Given Virginia Woolf’s own life and character – and reputation for being a free spirit of sorts too  – the largely positive portrayal here does beg the question of objectivity given the tendency in all of us to eulogise those who inspire us and worship them as heroes.

How then could one look to build a balanced, more nuanced view of her life and work? As a starting point, one could perhaps look to see what the opinions of her contemporaries were. The consensus appears to be that she was considered a maverick of sorts, an assessment which lives on in her ‘Mad Madge’ nickname. What we know of the societal context and the social mores of the time suggest that this assessment errs on the more negative side of Virginia Woolf’s. No surprise there as even in our day those who benefit from societal power structures tend to take a dim view of non-conformists as mavericks and upstarts. That this is the view which survives is thus a backhanded compliment of sorts and casts a positive light on her legacy.

A second task would be to ascertain how much of her work survives in the various archives. A search in the national archives website identifies over 700 items which suggest that there was enough interest in her work to preserve it. Tracking down a few of these works and where they are stored would constitute a valuable activity, both for the works themselves but also the prestige of the collections which house them. That her life and legacy are the subject of a number of ‘serious’ academic investigations is also another indicator of the heft of the ideas which she espoused.

A third prong to the investigation would be to attempt to assess what debt current thinkers and philosophers owe to her by how much she is referenced and how ideas she raised have been incorporated into their works.

My belief is that each of these prongs taken together would help build a composite picture of the life of the Duchess of Newcastle. From the little I have seen already, I am beginning to side with Virginia Woolf.

Writing Creative Non-Fiction – Assignment #3: An Interview of Sorts

This week’s assignment was to interview someone, summarizing what we learned about them in 300 to 500 words. Here goes.. Image by Clint McKoy on Unsplash

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R was hunched over his phone typing furiously when I pushed the door open and walked into the restaurant, one of the many that dot the roadside on this corner of the seaside boulevard. I was three minutes late but he, ever the most punctual of people, had arrived early and was in the middle of typing an acerbic note to me.

In the 11 years since I first met him, six of which were spent cooped up in the same office space, memories of questionable banter and several meals and evenings out; a veritable tour of brews – and the uninhibited honesty that comes with having those – and cuisines are a large part of what remains. That we opted to do this over food was entirely in keeping with that shared history, particularly given the reasons: he opted to retire a year ago, I am on the cusp of moving on from the organisation that was part of our lives for all those years. It thus felt right to catch up properly before I headed out.

Selecting a main took more time than usual as it was our first time in a Turkish restaurant, the choice between the varieties of kebabs, casseroles and koftes somewhat overwhelming. For drinks, though it was more clear cut, ‘an EFES* for the young man’ he declared as he waved his hand in the manner of one holding court. Over food, our conversation turned to the subject of our time out here in this grey corner of Scotland, more than 30 in his case.

‘It’s the longest I’ve been in one place’ he said and then proceeded to reminisce on his life before the ‘Deen. Madras, Delhi, Goa, Aden, Perth in Australia, London, Perth in Scotland were a few of the places he mentioned, all of which he’d spent five or less years in, thanks to the somewhat itinerant lifestyle of a father who was in the diplomatic corps. I was curious as to why he hadn’t taken the opportunity of being retired to move somewhere else, warmer perhaps. ‘Aberdeen feels like home now’, was his response. All that is left elsewhere are tenuous links to vaguely familiar extended family members – “Our fathers have all died”, he said. “Us kids didn’t bother to stay in touch, we’ve all made other connections.”

In the tone of his voice, I sensed a faint nostalgia, once I know only too well. It is the burden of the prodigal to go out into the world – to a far country – to seek his fortune. At the best of times, that home can become a distant memory, at its worst home can become nowhere.

* a Turkish beer, settled on because in a few weeks time I’ll be working out of a ‘dry’ country…

Writing Creative Non-Fiction – Assignment #2: On Detail and Deduction

Jan van Eyck, Portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and his Wife. https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/NG186

Last week’s assignment was to take a look at an image and attempt to deduce and interpret what it is about from the details one can see. I went for the image above, Jan van Eyck’s Portrait of Arnolfini. Here goes.

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What strikes me the first time I look at the picture is how young and frail she looks. With eyes looking downwards and away from his face, as though in deference, one gets the impression that she feels entirely in his power, her demeanour almost apologising for intruding into his space. He, on the other hand, has that stance that screams importance, eyes forward, looking towards the one who has crafted the scene, seeming to declare that he owns everything in sight. I am here and in charge. All this is mine, notice me!

From the rich green of her thick dress, and the fur that lines its neck, hem and sleeves, I imagine they are well off. The pet resting in the foreground of the image suggests daily sustenance is not a problem, as do the finely decorated bed, the ornate chandelier,an exquisite rug and what seems to be solid oak floors; all trappings of luxury. The folds of her dress bunch together, held by her hand which seems to protect what looks like the beginnings of a baby bump. In the mirror behind them a woman lurks, her gaze matronly, a hint perhaps of motherly pride in her eyes at the scene which unfolds before her. She is not the only one looking on, various religious inscriptions adorn the rim of the mirror, suggesting this is a devout house, perhaps one that has unfettered access to the parish priest and is a patron of the local assembly.

I imagine all of this is the crafting of the man who hides in the shadows in the mirror behind everyone else, the signature on the wall the only thing that identifies him. If The Man is his patron, perhaps this is the artist’s gift, his art offered up to the service of the one who gives him sustenance.

Week Two

Between a super busy week at work and beginning to pack up my life for an upcoming move, I made slow going of studying this week, hence the lateness of this week’s wrap-up. A highlight was receiving largely positive feedback on my first assignment, an exercise in people-watching which took me to a city centre Burger King.

This week’s learning focus was research; tips and tricks for getting beneath the skin of a place to understand the wider context behind the story we’re trying to tell and to ground it in facts and truths. Memory being as fickle as it can be, there was rightly a focus on building systems for capturing details about the people, places and things we write about. Upon reflection, some of the great essayists who have inspired me on this journey have documented their own systems for doing just this including David Sedaris and Ryan Holiday (both of whom have inspired Austin Kleon) to name a few. Also introduced this week were a number of tools: brainstorming (a la mind maps of ideas around a central topic) and foot stepping, physically visiting the area one wishes to write about to absorb its very essence into one’s mind. That I suspect will be very useful over the next few years as I travel more.

More imminently though is the small matter of the next assignment, to apply the tools discussed over the course of the week to observe an object in great detail to see what deductions one could make about it from that… Hopefully, I find enough time in these last few weeks to deliver on that…

Writing Creative Non-Fiction – Assignment #1: People Watching

Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

Last week was about thinking about the underlying reasons for writing, this week was starting off on the journey towards sharpening our powers of observation, the idea being to hone our ability to find stories in the quotidian.  A city-centre eatery late one night was my muse.

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It is a little after 8.30pm when the smell of French fries wafting in through the door draws me in. The first thing that strikes me as I stride through the door is how empty it looks, the bulk of the two-storied structure being cordoned off, with only the small section to the right of the counter open for use. I find the emptiness surprising given it is next to a major bus station and right in the centre of town. As I wait for the chance to order, I find myself behind three people, all decked out in the garb of people dressed to brace the cold, with the brightly coloured logo of a food delivery service gracing the insulated bags they hold.

A few feet away from the space I find for myself and my tray are three men with youthful faces, chattering away in a language which is not English, possible South East Asian if I were to hazard a guess. Their half-eaten burgers suggest they’ve been here a while, given how much of their time is spent in conversation interspersed with raucous laughter. When they are finally done, one of the three gathers up their trays and proceeds to empty them into the bin and then they leave, taking their mirth with them. Clearly close friends, or people connected by a shared lived experience I suspect.

Apart from them, the only other people in the room are a group of much older people – 2 men and 2 women occupying the central tables and someone sitting alone, sipping from a cup looking out onto the streets. Of the four, the woman who looks the oldest is slouched in her seat, hands folded together in her lap, two shopping bags beside her, listening it seems. Across from her a younger man with hair the same ginger colour as hers sits, leaning in, several discarded sachets of milk at his elbows, gesturing wildly. Between the accent and my hunger, I can barely make out what the subject of their conversation is but the name of the suburb to the south of the river comes up several times. Maybe a family squabble then, or given the reputation the small town has for being a difficult place, maybe an appeal to the matriarch of the clan for an intervention. All I can see of the fourth person are feet clad in streaked sneakers, the upper body obscured by a heater.

When I steal a glance at the group on my way out, I find the fourth person is fast asleep. Maybe, I have misread the situation after all.

Lift Off

Photo by Green Chameleon on Unsplash

One of my objectives for 2020 is to complete a Creative Non-Fiction course, which is how I signed up for the National Centre for Writing’s Start Writing Creative Non-Fiction course. Once a week, or so, I’ll drop a few thoughts on exercises completed, thoughts and progress on here. Here goes the first one.

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The focus of this first week has been pondering the question ‘why?’, exploring the motivations for taking on the course, and perhaps the underlying book project which it is assumed one is working on. For me, the course is an attempt to go beneath the surface and understand the techniques behind good writing, in keeping with the theme for this year of Delving Deeper. Progress on that elusive memoir, The Small Light in Things. will be a very welcome bonus.

In my head, The Small Light in Things will focus on the last ten years of my life, ones in which I upped sticks on the cusp of turning thirty and began life anew on a new continent along with all the change that instigated. It will be a story of surviving – of navigating a culture shock, the first tentative steps on a journey of evolving faith and changing, by degrees as it were. It might be cathartic, or not, but my hope is that I get to properly process all of this with hopefully the benefit of some distance and detachment.

Three books come to mind as exemplars of what I am trying to achieve here: Teju Cole’s Every Day Is For The Thief, Richard Rodriguez’s Hunger of Memory and Etgar Keret’s The Seven Good Years, all of which reflect on times of change and evolution with the benefit of some distance. What resonates with me in these books, particularly Every Day is For The Thief and Hunger of Memory, is the lived immigrant experience -both in the other country and in the country of birth. Time, life and the experience change us in ways which are not immediately obvious, that is what I’m hoping to tease out from the past ten years of my life.