Pamela Johnson reviews an essential guide to life writing …
‘Do it anyway.’ That’s the mantra Cathy Rentzenbrink, author of the bestselling memoir The Last Act of Love, uses to quell all writing doubts. Rentzenbrink is full of plain-talking writing wisdom which she has generously shared in her latest book, Write it All Down: how to put your life on the page.
Do you carry a story around in your head that you’d like to put down – an aspect of your family history or an unusual experience? If new to writing you may think your story is insignificant but if it’s significant to you then it could be worth the effort of telling it. Rentzenbrink’s philosophy is that everyone’s life would be improved by picking up a pen. She speaks from experience. It took her several attempts and a couple of decades before she finally wrote the story of her brother’s short life. Her new book shares all that she learned about writing in her struggle to get that story down, followed by two other books and a novel.
The book is in four parts with plenty of exercises to keep your fingers clicking on the keyboard or pen gliding across the page. It opens with a warm introduction, ‘Dear writer, I am so pleased to meet you. Welcome.’ The warmth of that voice permeates every section.
In part two, ‘Excavation’ she guides you through many ways to access memories, noting, ‘…it is the act of writing itself that dislodges memory and engenders meaning.’ You might need to write to find out what matters most. She is also very clear on a little-understood aspect of writing:
‘… the single biggest thing that trips up inexperienced writers is underestimating how much work, both on and off the page, goes into any project, and how much of that work doesn’t end up being reader-facing but is essential to the process.’
There’s a section on crafting and editing and another on forming good writing habits that work around daily life. The final section is what she calls ‘An Inspiring Addendum’, which consists of paragraphs of wisdom from other published writers of memoir. Here you will find Kate Mosse, Maggie O’Farrell, Lemn Sissay, Kit de Waal, Terry Waite and many more.
I asked Blue Door Press author, Annabel Chown, if all of this rang true to her writing experience. Aged 31 and working as an architect, she found herself with a cancer diagnosis. ‘I first started writing “morning pages.” It was awful but interesting. Alongside the therapeutic aspect, I had a desire to capture this surreal world I was now in, get it down on paper.’ Only several years later did material in the morning pages become something she could work with to produce her memoir, Hidden, now read by many others.
If you have a first-person story that niggles away and demands to be written, whether book length memoir, personal essay or article, and you find yourself hesitating Write It All Down might just be the place to start.
In January 2022 Joelle Taylor won the T.S.Eliot prize for her collection C+nto and Othered Poems. This prize, £25000, is considered the most prestigious award in UK poetry.
In this interview Taylor describes her winning collection: it’s the story of the butch counter-culture, mainly in London, in the late eighties, early nineties. There is passion and heartbreak on every page; hearing her perform focuses the intensity of the poetry. It is extraordinary, words imprinted by way of her body, both through her and through the listeners/readers:
“ … there are girls who have nothing to eat but themselves
their small spines flagpoles stuck into soft mattresses in Brixton bedsits all of our mothers are warnings.”
(the Unbelong mother C+nto)
Taylor is from a working class Lancastrian family. She has her roots in ‘physical theatre’, in drama, and through this she has become an educator, writer, performer.
In 2000 she became UK slam champion, founding the UK’s youth slam championships, SLAMbassadors, for the Poetry Society in 2001. When, five years ago, she interviewed Sabrina Mahfouz (for the Poetry Society), they compared notes and Taylor described her own first experiences as a poet. There were two camps: Slam Poetry was seen as dumbed down page poetry and she was one of these “illiterati” in the performance world. Sabrina and Joelle described an hierarchy, obsessed with ordering difference, allowing only the “top couple to have critical importance”. Spoken word was working class and page poetry was “for real clever people”.
But things changed and eventually they were performing “at the ICA not the back of the Betsy Trotwood1.” Now poetry venues are mixing page poets with performance poets, mixing different ways of reading. Taylor says of her performances, they act as
“……a ‘quite primal’ function of poetry: coming together in a space, and seeing how the poem inhabits the body….”.
Here Taylor reads from C+nto, describing this, the second chapter, as the origin of her winning collection. It is memoir, personal history, loss of friends: “written for all those wrong-walking women.”
“& now thirteen a man pulls you over the back seat of a bus
and stubs his kiss out on your cheek”
(Round three the body as trespass C+anto)
In her collection, Songs My Enemy Taught Me (Outspoken Press) Taylor describes her own story of surviving sexual abuse, and how using that experience she set up workshops with vulnerable women across the UK.
“some girls fall from sunlight skies straight down into flat-pack floral dresses grab their smiles from a hook behind the door rescue their faces from the rip-tides of mirrors
some girls are always falling” (C+anto)
The title linking the collection is taken from the Latin verb cuntare (to narrate, tell, or recount a story) an allusion that, apart from the obvious, points to Dante and then cantos by Ezra Pound, cantos being the sections of one long incomplete poem much as Taylor has done here. In the preface to the collection, she says
“This book is a walk through a maze of vitrines, one consistent narrative told in different parts.”
Taylor starts the preface with “This is a book of silences ….there is no part of a butch lesbian that is welcome in the world…we have regressed as a community.”
“We all walk around with legions of ghosts within us,” she says. “And sometimes they force their way through your mouth, your pen.” (C+anto)
These ghosts force their way through with imaginative and precise and playful language:
“we are untamed a wilderness of women we are waste ground nothing grows on us … snake boy come now, heretic healer where are the maths that solve us? How do we fit into your algebra your binary code?”
(Round Two the body as protest C+anto)
This story of the butch counter-culture – mainly in London, in the late eighties, early nineties – is told through four women, Duduzile, Angel, Valentine, and Jack Catch, composites of women Taylor knew. Those were the times “when we were handsome”. (C+anto)
“I’ll be in the back bar of heaven Cass will be getting a round in releasing that laugh a flock of wild birds
escaping her mouth and none of this will matter I’ll
be riding the ghost roads with Valentine bare back knee clench on her Harley I’ll be stretching skins with Jack
Catch or scuffing the city with Dudizile men will
stare like open shaft mines I’ll be walking white lines
with Angel tight mouth antelope heart.”
(from C+nto – Round Seven the body as uprising)
This collection is not just describing the ghosts of people but ghosts of places. O, Maryville follows the story of one night in a dyke bar (Maryville) that’s a recreated version of lesbian clubs and bars that have disappeared. It has stage directions, scenes, light, sound; these four butch lesbians, Duduzile, Angel, Valentine, and Jack Catch, protect the space:
“o, Maryville / let us walk alone at night / & let the night not follow us/…o Maryville / keep us alive this death/ keep us from prayer/ deliver us from ego/ for thine are the body / the birthing and the burning / forever and ever/ are you a man?”
(Scene One Psalm C+anto)
Taylor says that those lost clubs celebrated unity while “the internet celebrates difference”. She believes “The whole ethic of the live poet is to create poetry for people who don’t like ‘poetry’; it’s to bring people into an understanding of what they already know.”
“men are broken things breaking things”
(Round three the body as trespass C+anto)
In a Radio 4 programme2 looking at aspects of butch, Joelle describes it as an armour, walking out in the world and attempting to “avoid male attention, conceal vulnerability”.
“in the morning I dress in the reflection of the class
ceiling careful colours the shade of the UnBelong I
am my mother in my father’s suit still the girl with the
face of a man still wrong walking.”
(the Unbelong mother C+nto)
Yet trying to avoid attention, as opposed to willing it, seems just as dangerous, neither will defeat the fear and hostility. The butch world can be scary and violent, display doesn’t defuse the aggression. And it is mainly violence against butch lesbians. Butch women are murdered. There is rising global homophobia.
‘I ask all who are still at liberty, to take this message seriously and flee the republic as soon as possible.’
Final social media post from a LGBT group in Chechyna, 2017
(Scene eleven December C+anto)
And Taylor incants an extraordinary poem, ‘Eulogy’, the names of dead strangers – murdered lesbians across the world. With her recitation she absorbs each woman and distills an acknowledment of intense grief.
“This town is teeming with invisible women
they are not there everywhere”
(December viii C+anto)
In an interview for The Guardian, Taylor says: “Five hours away from London they are pulling lesbians on to motorways and beating their skulls open. It’s happening in Chechnya, in Hungary, in Russia. It’s happening in Uganda, in Ghana. Three-quarters of Poland now is an LGBT-free zone.
All these little things are very important on an individual level” – a reference to the internet infighting – “but they are literally murdering us. So could we just get together?”
Meanwhile, as Taylor says in Scene Eleven C+nto
“& as the cigarette is lit the smoke that dances from its end becomes a glass bead curtain & through it you are sat, quietly, reading this book.”
The intrigue of the unreliable narrator. Sam Marsdyke is a classic first person, ‘unreliable narrator’. He is the son of a farmer living in an unfashionable part of the Yorkshire Dales and tells us about his life tending sheep and amusing himself amidst the wild, remote hills. It’s only as the novel unfolds that we realise that he is not exactly being truthful with us. The first clue is when he presents a family who has just moved in nearby with some mushrooms. We, and the family, think they are a genuine present, but soon discover they are riddled with maggots. Was this deliberate? We’re not quite sure. Sam is nineteen and is both mature and childish. He becomes fascinated with the fifteen-year-old daughter of this family. When we learn that he got chucked out of school for an altercation with a girl, we become increasingly uneasy about his interest in his teenaged neighbour. Where do his intentions lie?
The lure of a dialect brilliantly represented. Raisin’s great achievement is the way he enables Sam to speak in a dialect which is both descriptive and powerful. This is no mean feat; too often dialect in novels comes across as artificial and unconvincing. But Raisin uses just the right amount of dialect and standard English. Here’s Sam describing a local who is feeling out of sorts in a pub which has been turned into a vertical drinking establishment with loud music and lager: “He was a fair show of how a person can mould and rot to naught. I glegged in at him, shuffling back to his seat, a generation of sorrow and drink worn into his face.” Phrases like “fair show” “rot to naught” and “glegged in” suffuse the text bringing the reader a visceral sense of the character of Sam and the local area. The dialect is earthy and rings true, but it’s never overdone.
The pull of the pastoral. Sam is a creature of nature, talking in a very plausible and real way to the animals around him. Here he is talking to the cock of the farm, “Cock-a-doodle-doo, eh? You barmpot, it’s the middle of the bleeding night, some alarm clock you are. But there was no talking to him, perched up on the beam there like a pineapple. Cock-a-doodle-doo, he called again, how many girlfriends do you have Marsdyke? I’ve got twenty.” (Chapter 4). There is a sinister humour here as Sam feels the cock is teasing him for his lack of success with women. The novel is, like Thomas Hardy’s best work, full of the sights, sounds, tastes, textures and smells of the country. Like Hardy, there is a sense of the menace of nature, we see lambs being born and dying, the maggots that lurk behind lovely mushrooms, the sexual drives that infuse both animals and humans. Again like Hardy, Raisin shows how modern culture is ruining and changing the countryside with its second homes, its technology, its relentless inroads into the traditional rural communities which are represented as dying off.
Is Marsdyke the corrupted descendant of Gabriel Oak? Marsdyke shares many similarities with one of Thomas Hardy’s most famous characters, Gabriel Oak, who like, Marsdyke was a sheep farmer and spent quite a bit of time spying upon his beloved from afar. However, where Oak proves himself to be true and sane, I don’t think it’s going to give too much away to say that Marsdyke is deceitful and disturbed in mind. And yet, like Oak, we feel a lot of sympathy for Sam because we see how much a victim of circumstance he is: his father is brutal, his mother emotionally ill-equipped to help Sam, and the culture that Sam has been born into, that of the farming community, is dying. What chance does Sam have?
The pleasures of reading a wonderfully accessible literary novel. I adored reading this novel. It is so well-written and nicely structured; it is funny, suspenseful, moving and horrifying. I learnt so much about human psychology, the nature of language and dialect, remote rural Yorkshire and human culture generally. I’m really looking forward to reading Raisin’s new novel, A Natural, which is published in March 2017.
See Pam Johnson’s interview with Ross on the writing of God’s Own Country, here