The List: Megan Bradbury and Lauren Frankel

Like many of the writer friends we’ve profiled so far, this month’s guest bloggers Lauren Frankel and Megan Bradbury enjoy tracking each other’s literary progress. But they gave this idea their own twist, thanks to something they call The List.

Lauren

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Image by Rosalind Hobley.

I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that without Megan I wouldn’t be a published writer. Who knows? I might not have a six month old son, either.

Let me explain. Megan and I met on the UEA Creative Writing course some years ago. She was young but fiercely serious, with a great laugh and strong opinions. When other students trashed my writing, she would jump to my defence.

After we left UEA, I doubted that I would ever finish a novel. I was slow as molasses – a procrastinator and a perfectionist to boot. When you’re trying to write your first book, nobody cares whether you finish it or not. You don’t have an editor giving you praise, deadlines, or a bollocking.

Megan and I kept in touch, and hearing about my writer’s despair, she invited me to send her a list of my goals each week by e-mail. She and her friend had been sharing theirs, celebrating one another’s large (and small) achievements. Up until then, I hadn’t dared to give myself weekly targets. I thought it would be too depressing to see myself failing to reach them over and over. But I agreed to try it.

Each week, Megan, her friend Kirsten and I would share by e-mail what we’d achieved in the previous week and what we planned for the current one. Soon other writers were joining us in the e-mail ‘achievement’ chain, which meant that four people now cared how my work was going. As I reviewed their weekly goals and accomplishments, I felt spurred on to aim higher – and also to think more about the long term, a thing which had terrified me previously.

With Megan’s encouragement and the help of my ‘list’ friends, I finally managed to finish my novel. To rewrite it again and again when I wanted to give up.

Hyacinth Girls - cover image

Image used with the kind permission of Crown Publishing.

And as for the baby… well. I never put having a kid on my shared ‘to do’ list. But I made a private list. And he was on it.

Megan

IMG_9123In the autumn of 2011, my partner and I drove 560 miles from Edinburgh to Penzance. We were moving to Cornwall to live with relatives who had offered us a room rent-free for a year – we would now be able to write full-time without distraction.

I was excited but also scared. We had given up our jobs and our home. We had travelled across the country with no plan other than to write.

As we drove into Penzance I visualised myself in twelve months’ time, driving back along the coast with nothing to show for my year – no money, no job, and no novel.

I spoke to my friend, the poet, editor and copy-writer Kirsten Irving, and together we came up with the List.

The idea behind the List is very simple. Every Sunday we write a list of things we plan to do in the week ahead, and when that week is over we review what we did (or didn’t do).

The List can include anything:

  • Write a chapter of the novel
  • Take shoes to be re-heeled
  • Drive mother-in-law to Morrisons

By including non-writing activities, the list makes the act of writing seem less precious. Most importantly, it shows what I have achieved in weeks when I feel I have done nothing. I may feel I have not written well, but I can see I have improved my running times or read an excellent book.

When I first met Lauren, I knew we’d be friends. She always gave superb editorial advice and could be relied upon to recommend interesting books. She made me feel my writing was special. A few years ago, when she mentioned she needed more support with her writing, I told her about the List and asked if she wanted to join.

I’ve been exchanging lists with friends every week now for four years. My fellow Listers pick me up and dust me down every Sunday. They are there for me when things go wrong.

I recently completed my first novel and it’s due to be published in the summer of next year. I know I couldn’t have written it without them.

Megan Bradbury’s debut novel Everyone is Watching will be published by Picador in summer 2016.

Lauren Frankel’s debut Hyacinth Girls, published by Crown, came out this month.

Growing Mature Together

Emily and I have sometimes envied Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby their shared university years. If we could defy time and pal up with just one of the pairs of writers that we’ve profiled on this site, I’m pretty sure that we’d both pick these friends: two women who ‘didn’t exactly grow up together’ but ‘grew mature together’ and considered that ‘the next best thing’.

Unlike them, we met after separate and rather different undergraduate experiences: Emily partying hard in London while I pored over books in Cambridge.

book stacks

In the best possible way, co-running Something Rhymed feels akin to studying together. We now spend hours on end searching the stacks at Senate House Library, and we regularly exchange bulging folders of notes. We’ve created for ourselves a second stab at studenthood – this time together and with a curriculum of our own.

This month I’ve relished the chance to re-read the poetry of Marianne Moore, which I’d first come across as an undergrad. We toyed at first with profiling Moore’s friendship with fellow modernist Hilda ‘H.D.’ Doolittle, who she met in 1905 when they were both studying at Bryn Mawr College, Pennsylvania. But we ended up becoming even more fascinated by a bond that began in 1934 when the middle-aged Moore took final-year undergraduate, Elizabeth Bishop, under her wing.

Both Emily and I have benefited from the wisdom of women writers older and more experienced than us and, as with Moore and Bishop, these mentorships have sometimes blossomed into friendships. Now that we teach ourselves, we’ve had the chance in our own small way to continue this intergenerational sisterhood.

Without ever really discussing it, we must have both come to the conclusion that – in the widest sense – the best students are also teachers; the best teachers, forever students. We each tend to enrol in one writing course per year – sometimes together, sometimes separately – to remind ourselves what it feels like to sit at the other side of the desk. And yet we were surprised (and heartened) to learn that a poet of Moore’s stature had taken this same approach.

Inspired by Moore, this month I’ve been attending Berko Writers’ screenwriting course, taught by Abigail Webber, formerly a commissioning editor and now a script consultant. I have written poetry, fiction and non-fiction over the years, taking my first steps into all of these forms as if entering familiar rooms. But screenwriting has always felt like a closed door – and one on which I felt nervous even to knock. My heart pounded so loudly during the first session at Berko Writers that I promised myself never to underestimate the courage it might take for one of my own students to step into my class.

The course has opened up that locked door, and screenplays no longer feel to me like a forbidden wing in literature’s house. Emily’s acting background and her storyteller’s skill lead me to suspect that she might one day turn her hand to scripts and that I might get to share with her the tips that I’ve recently gleaned.

Emily’s storytelling skill and lyricism were recognised last night at the awards ceremony for the prestigious Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize 2015. Emily’s shortlisting opened up for her – and for me as her guest – the usually closed doors of the dining hall at this Cambridge College. Here we had the chance to chat over dinner with its president, Professor Janet Todd – a feminist heroine of ours. In the hall at Lucy Cavendish, among its students and fellows, I enjoyed the great privilege of cheering on my friend as she was announced the winner. As I sat there, watching her receive her prize, it dawned on me that this shared moment of celebration more than made up for our separate university years. Growing mature together is, in fact, the very best thing.

Emily Midorikawa is announced the winner of the Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize 2015

Emily Midorikawa is announced the winner of the Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize 2015

 

Buying Ballet Shoes as a Grown-up

One of the struggles Emma Claire and I face when we compose our profiles on each month’s literary pair is how to condense many years of friendship into just a few hundred words. Interesting episodes and key details about each woman’s personality often have to go by the wayside for the short-form writing we do here on Something Rhymed.

Marianne Moore’s commitment to lifelong learning, well into old age, was an aspect of her life that almost failed to make the cut. Moore’s enthusiasm for dance and even creative writing classes, though intriguing, didn’t seem to be quite relevant enough to her friendship with fellow poet Elizabeth Bishop.

But when we thought of the great affection with which Bishop had written about this aspect of Moore’s character, we decided it was something we wanted to explore through our writing this month.

The subject of adult education had, in fact, been floating around my mind ever since February’s Something Rhymed challenge, when I took Emma Claire to see a gallery exhibition about the Russian ballet The Bolt.

This image is in the public domain.

This image is in the public domain.

Ballet has been a love of mine for many years, and – having previously had lessons from the ages of four to eighteen – I took it up again as a hobby a few years ago. Like Emma Claire’s morning yoga sessions, it is an activity that hovers around the fringes our friendship. I’ve occasionally met her before or after an evening at the studio, and have mentioned class to her in passing, but a lack of shared vocabulary means I’d never thought to talk of it in detail, thinking it would be boring for her.

That trip to the gallery made me rethink my reticence, though – its costumes, rehearsal photographs and choreographer’s notes sparking questions from Em, not just about the exhibition itself, but also my own long-held fascination with this dance form. I was soon recalling the elderly babysitter, Mrs Tomlinson, who had enchanted my imagination at four-years-old with her crayon drawings of the Nutcracker’s Sugar Plum Fairy and the sad story of Swan Lake. I told Em of my childhood (highly unrealistic) dream of becoming a professional dancer, and also the rewarding but humbling experience of returning to ballet as an adult after such a long hiatus.

An idea for a story about dancing had pushed me to take the plunge and buy a new pair of ballet shoes. I’d wanted to immerse myself in that world again, because I wanted to write about it.

But taking class has, in fact, enriched my life in other unpredicted ways. It’s a part of the week to which I now always look forward. An hour-and-a-half of ballet makes for a wonderful way to change gears after several hours at my desk. The concentration required to try to master the steps empties my mind of any work-related stresses, and afterwards I feel refreshed and more enthusiastic about whatever I have to do tomorrow.

Being an initially extremely rusty student has also helped me in my work as a teacher. The experience of being unable to remember where to place my arms, and finding my feet no longer seem to work as they used to, has served as a great reminder of how daunting it might be for one of my adult writing students, who finds themself sitting in a classroom again after many years out in the world of work.

Though it’s unlikely we’ll ever find ourselves standing together at the barre, I’d been wondering, since our visit to the Bolt exhibition, about other ways in which Emma Claire and I might enjoy ballet again together. Then I heard about the Royal Ballet’s new production Woolf Works – based on the writing of Virginia Woolf – which opens in London this month.

Emma Claire and I have just bought tickets, and I’m excited to go and see a performance with her for the first time. Not only should it give me the chance to share with her something more of my love of ballet, but the subject matter will surely open up new conversations about one of Em’s own great passions, the writing of Virginia Woolf.

Elizabeth Bishop and Marianne Moore

Elizabeth Bishop was in dire need of maternal affection. At five years old, she’d witnessed her own mother committed to an asylum: the last glimpse Bishop ever got of her.

In the mid-1930s, as a shy, bushy-haired student at the all-women’s Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York, Bishop devoured many poems by the older modernist writer Marianne Moore. Later, she’d wonder whether she would ever have become a poet if it hadn’t been for reading the likes of ‘Marriage’ and ‘Peter’.

Elizabeth Bishop. Image used with kind permission from the Elizabeth Bishop Society.

Elizabeth Bishop. Image used with kind permission from the Elizabeth Bishop Society.

Moore was perhaps ready to adopt a literary daughter. Her own mother rarely left her side, watching while she wrote or busying herself in the adjacent room, ready to cast her sharp editorial eye over each new poem. During the last three decades of Mrs Moore’s life, the pair even shared a bed.

Moore may have had a surfeit of maternal attention, but she could connect with Bishop’s parental loss. During Moore’s infancy, her father had cut off his right hand in a fit of delusion and had then been committed to an asylum. She could not recollect a single memory of him.

When Moore was approached by an old childhood friend, now the librarian at Vassar College, she reluctantly agreed to meeting the twenty-three-year-old Bishop. The young woman rushed from Grand Central Station, relieved to have just about made it on time to their meeting place beneath the imposing lion statues that flank the New York Public Library. Moore, who wore two wrist watches, was already waiting for her. She cut a quaint old-fashioned figure, her rust-pink hair braided around her head, her man’s polo shirt two sizes too large.

Marianne Moore in 1935. Creative Commons License.

Marianne Moore in 1935. Creative Commons License.

Despite Bishop’s nerves and Moore’s reservations, the pair hit it off immediately. The older writer soon placed her protégée’s work in an anthology, writing an insightful preface to the new poems. But there was always a familial aspect to their friendship as well as a literary connection: they would take trips to the circus and the cinema and to children’s talks at the Natural History Museum. And, however early Bishop showed up, she would always find Moore there ready and waiting.

Soon, Bishop was invited to the narrow over-crowded apartment that Moore shared with her mother in Brooklyn – the unlikely but popular meeting place for Moore’s coterie of fellow high-modernist friends, among them H.D., T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams.

Elizabeth Bishop is standing on the right and Marianne Moore is sitting beside her. Other writers include the likes of W. H. Auden, Tennessee Williams and Gore Vidal. Image used with kind permission of the New York Times.

Elizabeth Bishop is standing on the right and Marianne Moore is sitting beside her. Other writers include the likes of W. H. Auden, Tennessee Williams and Gore Vidal. Image used with kind permission of the New York Times.

Unlike Moore and her mother – who impersonated each other to the extent that it was difficult to tell where one ended and the other began – Bishop retained her separate identity. Six years into their friendship, she sent her mentor her latest poem ‘Roosters’. Moore and her mother objected to what they considered Bishop’s vulgarity – particularly her reference to a ‘water-closet’! Staying up until the early hours of the morning, the mother-daughter duo rewrote the younger woman’s poem, removing everything that had affronted them. Although Bishop incorporated some of the changes, she retained her lavatorial images. And the friendship survived undented.

Activity:

In her old age, Moore soared to an extraordinary level of superstardom: appearing on the Tonight Show, featured on the cover of Esquire, inundated by fans who showed up at her door. But in her memoir of her friend, Bishop lovingly recalls how the elderly Moore continued to attend creative writing classes as a student (sometimes to the tutor’s horror!) and even enrolled in a dance school, where she learnt to tango.

This month, we will follow in Moore’s footsteps by embracing lifelong learning.

Crying Tears of Laughter: Irenosen Okojie and Yvette Edwards

In her work as a reviewer for the Sunday Times, Dorothy L. Sayers often took the opportunity to praise the work of her friend Agatha Christie – calling Murder on the Orient Express, for example, ‘a murder mystery conceived and carried out on the finest classical lines’. Inspired by this, we asked April’s guest bloggers, Yvette Edwards and Irenosen Okojie, to each sing the praises of their writer friend.

They met when they appeared together at a literary event, a couple of years ago. Irenosen takes up the story:

SONY DSCIt was a platform to showcase new writers; at that point the buzz had started to build about Yvette’s writing. When she read, her work immediately captured me. It was evocative, fearless and powerful.

Not only that but she was very warm, generous and humble. She was the star attraction on the bill but she didn’t behave that way and she didn’t distance herself from me or the other writer. She was incredibly chatty, curious about our writing journeys and happy to offer advice.

One of the images I never forget from that evening was Yvvettes’s mother managing her stack of books being the literary equivalent of a roadie. I enjoyed this tiny window into their relationship.

We all exchanged details; afterwards, I bought a copy of her book A Cupboard Full of Coats. It was so engrossing I read it in one sitting. What I really loved was that the female protagonist was complex and darkly drawn, unapologetically so. It is a brilliant debut novel, a heartbreaking read worth every penny.

One of the things I admire about Yvvette is her tenacity. She didn’t have an easy writing journey but she never gave up.

Over the next year, we’d bump into each other at literary gatherings, our friendship developed from there. We’d email back and forth and she’d encourage me to keep writing when things were difficult. Writing can be such an isolating endeavour that friendships and support are invaluable.

My favourite thing about her other than her literary prowess is her humour. She’s one of the most hilarious writers I know and is never without a funny anecdote or encounter. I cry with laughter whenever we meet up. She could have been a stand-up comedian had she not wanted to go into fiction writing. She’s a natural storyteller. When you engage with her, this becomes apparent.

It’s been fun and heartening watching her journey so far being both a fan and a friend.

Yvette says:

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Irenosen is a power ball of energy that continually amazes me. She is always busy, is always writing as well as juggling various projects, passionate about everything literary, from the craft itself to championing events, interviewing other authors, getting involved in awards and prizes, reading, judging, spreading the word.

I think her website is a perfect reflection of her as a person and as a creative.  It is warm, full, interesting, regularly updated, filled with information about her own work as well as the projects she’s involved in.

It is vast and varied and quirky. You could pop in, intending only a short visit and a quick browse, and hours later still be clicking into tabs and links, discovering fabulous pics, astute observations and confident commentary, writing that’s rich, humorous, profound. It’s impossible to sum up either Irenosen or her website with a mere handful of words.

And that’s what her writing is like. It defies strait-laced and simple definition.  It doesn’t slip into any pre-packaged boxes or notions or expectations.  You can never exactly anticipate the journey she’ll take you on, or the destination you’ll reach, but you can be confident it will be interesting, that there will be surprises in store, that you will be challenged and entertained along the way, that you’ll emerge from your journey both heady and giddy, like stepping off a super roller coaster at a different place to where your journey began.

And if you do decide to take the matter up with her, there is every possibility she’ll hug you, throw her head back and laugh.

A Cupboard Full of Coats (Oneworld) by Yvette Edwards was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, and shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize.

Irenosen Okojie’s first novel, Butterfly Fish, and a collection of short stories, Speak Gigantular, will be published in June 2015 by Jacaranda Books.

 

Travellers on the Same Road

Image by Luke Detwiler (Creative Commons Licence).

Image by Luke Detwiler (Creative Commons Licence).

Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers never shared the extraordinary levels of closeness enjoyed by their contemporaries Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby, who saw each other as literary ‘travelling companions’.

Neither were they spurred on by the kind of highly motivating personal rivalry that fired the bond between modernists Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf, another pair of author friends of a similar generation.

What Christie and Sayers had instead was a solid working friendship, and, for them, this was presumably enough. For Emma Claire and me it never has been, though.

As some of our readers will already be aware, we got to know each other at a time when we were both living carefree lives as young English teachers in rural Japan. It was still some months before we’d admit to anyone else – and each other first – that we had serious ambitions to write, and so, although I remember us sometimes talking about books we were reading, writing was not a big part of our friendship. We spent our time doing other things: travelling the country, going to parties, and sampling the wares of local noodle shops and bars.

Back then, I would have been delighted to be told that, once we’d ‘come out’ to each other as would-be authors, the similar direction in which we’d chosen to travel would allow us to support each other through the years to come: celebrating individual triumphs as a pair, providing each other with a sympathetic ear when necessary, and –  through our mutual interest in female literary friendship – eventually finding a way to write together.

Image by maroubal2. Creative Commons licence.

Image by maroubal2. (Creative Commons Licence).

This would have sounded fantastic, and of course it is. What could be better than your closest co-worker also being one of your closest friends?

The only niggling problem is that recently it began to dawn on us that, bit by bit over time, our whole friendship had become consumed by work. When we went out for the evening, supposedly for fun, our thoughts would soon turn to ideas for feature articles we could write together. When one of us invited the other over for dinner, we’d find ourselves talking about the next literary event we’d be doing together, or our jobs at the universities at which we both teach.

Now that we’ve become aware of this, we’ve started to make a concerted effort to have times when we turn off the ‘shop talk’, although sometimes it can be hard. As I write this, I’m acutely aware that, despite having sent Emma Claire three emails today and talked with her on the phone, each of these conversations was about our various joint projects.

That’s why it was especially good to go out for cocktails and noodles recently. The drinks were fancier than the cans of alcoholic fruit Chu-hi that we used to buy in our twenties. The ramen broth was floating with all sorts of extra ingredients unseen in the traditional joints we used to frequent. But there was something about the night’s holiday atmosphere that took me back to those heady, early days in Japan.

It reminded me that, though a working writers’ friendship is a wonderful thing, to have found someone with whom you can truly ‘travel’ is many, many times better.

Cocktails and Candour

London buzzed with a carnival energy on the night Emily and I met for cocktails at the Hotel Café Royal. It was the evening before the Easter weekend and Piccadilly Circus milled with people who had just arrived or were just about to depart, almost everyone wheeling cases or carrying backpacks or cradling cones of spring flowers.

Something Rhymed’s April ‘challenge’ to follow in the footsteps of Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers provided the perfect excuse to embrace the city’s festive atmosphere. Surrounded by holidaymakers and all decked out in my cocktail dress, I took in afresh the grandeur of Regent Street – its buildings tall and white against the clear blue sky.

Inside the revolving doors of the Hotel Café Royal, I entered a marble lobby filled with tall vases of orchids, and the bustle of the street gave way to a hushed sense of glamour. It was easy to imagine Christie and Sayers, the Queens of Crime, meeting here with fellow members of the Detection Club, for their lavish club dinners.

The Café Royal, London (William Orpen, 1912). Creative Commons License.

The Café Royal, London (William Orpen, 1912). Creative Commons License.

Unlike the ‘shop talk’ that took up much of their usual meetings, the club’s spring and summer dinners focused more on celebration.

Now that Emily and I teach at the same university, co-write literary features and run Something Rhymed together, we have to remind ourselves to make time for purely socialising. But we long ago pledged to mark every writing success, however small. During the past few years this commitment to celebration has become more important still.

In the Green Bar, we toasted Something Rhymed over a pink champagne cocktail and a luridly blue martini, and we agreed just to chat for a while, putting off the task we’d set ourselves to compose our own set of literary rules.

We got on with that part of April’s activity in the distinctly less rarified surroundings of a Soho noodle joint, writing in between slugs of Asashi beer, and miraculously managing to avoid staining our dresses with broth.

This ramen shop brought to mind the early days of our friendship, when we both taught English in rural Japan, secretly writing in between classes. Looking back on the ways our friendship has developed since then, we realised that another unspoken ‘rule’ had developed over the years and that we had this to thank for the development of our collaboration: as well as committing ourselves to celebration we’ve also committed ourselves to candour.

Rules

Rules for Our Collaborative Work

I’ve learnt so much from Emily about the importance of honesty, and the courage it sometimes takes to speak the truth as we see it. This is not to say that we talk about all aspects of our lives: there remain subjects we keep to ourselves or are more likely to discuss with others. But whether we’re seeking advice on personal matters, critiquing each other’s fiction, dividing workloads, or thrashing out a line of enquiry in our collaborative writing, we always endeavour to speak our minds.

This fundamental tenet led us to formulate a few more specific rules. In terms of maintaining trust between each other, we’ll always be clear about which projects we’d like to work on together and which we’d prefer to tackle alone, and we’ve also agreed that we must never co-publish anything that we can’t both stand by. And in terms of establishing trust with our readers, we’ve promised always to acknowledge speculation.

In this way, we hope that our collaboration will thrive and, more importantly, that our friendship will endure for a lifetime.