Thursday, 30 June 2016

Winchester Writers' Festival 2016: Meg Rosoff and Magical Fierceness

Meg Rosoff giving the Keynote Speech
at Winchester Writers' Festival 2016
Rather unbelievably, it’s time for my annual follow-up post on the Winchester Writers’ Festival, where I gave a lecture on self-editing and a day course on building character. There was the usual buzz of creativity and connection as writers milled around, attending readings, talks, courses and one-to-ones with agents, editors and writers like myself.

What do writers talk about at events like this? Well, their writing, of course, their hopes and their struggles, their frustrations and their triumphs. All of this against the backdrop of the annual review of the State of Publishing. We listen to those in the know, those in the trade – but also those in the independent sphere. Both schools of publishing practice have learned to co-exist fairly amicably, really. Perfection doesn’t exist on either side: indie authors sometimes haven’t taken on board the need for professionalism in presentation and content. Trad publishers are often way behind the times in their view of the indie world. But, catching up has been done, on both sides.

Every year the Festival officially opens on Saturday with the Keynote Speech. This year featured Meg Rosoff, with a quirky Powerpoint sequence behind her, discussing the nature of ‘voice’. This it turns out, is your ‘DNA’ as a writer. It’s your individual personality in words. It takes some finding and developing. When found, it creates that state we all seek and sometimes achieve:  the zone, ‘writers’ magic’, the state where you tap into your true self and meaning, where inspiration and expression fuse.

The Stripe Auditorium
In case this all sounds a bit airy-fairy, let me assure you that Meg was sharp as a tack, cynical, acerbic and total fun. She introduced us to the wonderful German word Durchlässigkeit, which means ‘throughness’, for that sense of a perfect flow of energy between conscious and unconscious mind. The term comes from dressage, referring to the harmonius co-operation of rider and horse. She said that a wall exists between the conscious and the unconscious and it’s up to us to establish and encourage connections: ‘If there’s a wall, you won’t get resonance.’

Meg went on to stress that we need to access the ‘dreamy state’ by such practices as morning writing, when ‘the brain hasn’t closed the bridge’. She herself waits for her books to come to her and tell her what their meanings are, what their resonance is. This is a process you can encourage but not force: ‘Sometimes you need to wait for the brain to be ready.’ If you want to home in on what is important to you, storywise, she recommends you to consider the turning points of your life and what they meant to you.

Throughout her speech the audience responded with laughter and murmurs of agreement: she really spoke to us, part-reassuringly, part bracingly. It was clear that writing – which she came to at the age of 46 after a rocky career in advertising – was as frustrating and rewarding to her as it is to the rest of us. She described the months when the book won’t come, the glorious breakthroughs of meaning, the buzz of inspired productivity. She spoke to an audience resonating to her message.

I came away struck in particular by one thing she’d mentioned: early in her career she’d written a pony book, which was no good, she claimed, but which got her an agent. Her agent said, ‘There are no rules. Write as fiercely as you can and I’ll find someone who will read it.’ I loved the idea of fierce writing – and the idea of a champion who would fight for that writing to be read.

During my one-to-one appointments
A couple of hours later I was meeting writers for one-to-ones in a room full of agents and editors, all listening to pitches, all responding to dreams and aspirations in a world that is commercially hard-headed and has always had to be. Yet I know that in that room, a writer or two will have fired up an agent or an editor with enthusiasm and months down the line we’ll hear of the book deal and the dream fulfilled.

Keep crossing that bridge into your inner life and self. Keep writing fiercely. Keep trusting that out there is the agent or editor or reader who will look at your work and ‘get’ it and champion it.

Finally - shout outs to my lovely friends at Winchester: Judith Heneghan, Sara Gangai, Barbara Large, Adrienne Dines, David Simpkin, Judy Waite, Nik Charrett, David Evans - and also to Imogen Cooper, Beverley Birch, Jenny Savill, Eden Sharp and Andrew Weale for fascinating conversations.

After the Festival Dinner

Conference Director Judith Heneghan at the Festival Dinner

With Adrienne Dines

Thursday, 2 June 2016

Moonstruck: Meeting Buzz Aldrin

I’m sitting in the gallery of the Sheldonian Theatre, one of the most beautiful if not one of the most comfortable venues in Oxford. Looking down across the packed floor, I see a tanned face and a white beard through the glass of a side door. Moments later, in he comes, wearing a beige blouson jacket with embroidered badges on it. He waves like a king and air-punches like a prize-fighter as he makes his way through the applauding crowd.

He’s Buzz Aldrin.

His sassy, witty ‘Mission Director’ Christina Korb conducts the interview, trying to keep him on the straight and narrow, but even she has trouble managing the blurted reminiscences and anecdotes. The man is bursting with things to tell us. He’s opinionated, forceful, waving be-ringed hands, boasting about the Omega watch he wore on the outside of his spacesuit because it’s kinda hard to see the time otherwise.

I read Andrew Smith’s fascinating book Moondust: In Search of the Men who Fell to Earth several years ago, struck by the poignant reason for its composition. At that time, only nine men were alive who had walked on the surface of the moon, so he set about interviewing them while he could.

Well, there’s fewer than nine now. That is why several hundred people have queued in the chill rain outside and will later queue for the best part of an hour to get their books signed. I’m one of them. For a moment, we’re in contact with history, with what now seems a lost idealistic era. I grew up with the sense that space held all potential. I’d read Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Martian and Venusian series, and Isaac Asimov and Arthur C Clarke and Ray Bradbury. The stars, the planets and the dear old moon itself held out dreams of human aspiration, adventure and fulfilment.

So we lap up the bombast and the showboating, enjoy the clearly oft-repeated wisecracks, the whole display of it, because although this man is 86 now he is more alive than most we’ll ever meet and this man walked on the moon! He wears a T-shirt saying ‘Get your ass to Mars’ and is passionate about sending humans there, saying that a human can do in a week what took Spirit and Rover five years. He describes his spacewalk, saying he ‘wanted to putt putt putt around like George Clooney in Gravity.’ He’s contemptuous of the Russians – yes, they put Sputnik up there but ‘if you put up a dumb satellite you don’t give it a parade and everybody loves a parade!’ What’s more, they put a dog in orbit and left it there – ‘at least we brought our monkey back.’ He expresses regret at the loss of Neil Armstrong and talks of his family and the kind of destiny he’d felt – his mother was called Marion Moon and his father knew the Wright brothers – yup, it was all meant.

The door of the Sheldonian open with a view
 of the Bodleian's Divinity Schools behind
When I eventually reach the head of the queue and he signs my copy of No Dream is Too High, I burble something about looking up at the moon from a Scottish garden when I was a little girl, amazed to think he was up there. ‘My mother came from Edinboro …’ he smiles and I pass on, past the selfie-taking crowd. Outside the Sheldonian I wish the clouds would part and I could see the old man’s stamping ground.

I remember another night, years ago, when I looked at the moon and it gave me an idea for a story of ‘something strange, spectacular and out of this world’ that grew into a children’s book, Hinterland, still not published though it made it to the shortlist of a significant prize in 2013. I remember the magic of writing that story, of describing grey dust and a terraced crater like an amphitheatre and ‘hanging like a jewel against the dense black void, with fat blue oceans and swirling white clouds’, our planet. And I think to myself, I need to rediscover what that story meant to me, and maybe, just maybe, roll it out onto the launchpad once more and send it into the ether myself.

So thank you, Buzz.

And thank you, Blackwell’s Oxford (best bookshop in the world), for hosting this event!

Further reading:

Buzz Aldrin: No Dream is too High – Life Lessons from a Man who Walked on the Moon
Andrew Smith: Moondust: In Search of the Men who Fell to Earth
Andrew Chaikin: A Man on the Moon: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts

Raindrops really, but these white globes
lend a suitably otherworldly tone to this picture of the Sheldonian!