Celebrating Past and Modern-day Writing Friendships

Especially over the past year, when we have been hard at work on our joint-book, we have been focusing mostly on historical literary friendships on this blog.

Reading the novels and stories of Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot, Virginia Woolf and their friends has given us much to think about, as have our conversations about these important literary relationships.

We’ve often been struck by how relevant the issues faced by these authors of the past still feel to female writers today – particularly in terms of the need to balance the desire to write with other pressing responsibilities.

Austen’s great friend and governess to her brother’s children, Anne Sharp, had time to pen her theatricals only in the hours in between teaching lessons.

Before the tremendous success of her first published novel, Jane Eyre, Brontë faced similar struggles.

But just as Sharp benefited from the support of Austen, who did her best to improve her friend’s work life, Brontë was lucky to have the future feminist author Mary Taylor to encourage her literary efforts.

The two of us have been teachers for about a decade now and have thankfully never found it as limiting as Brontë, or even Sharp, did. We have been lucky in that, rather than teaching a broad curriculum, we are teachers only of writing – a subject in which we naturally have a genuine interest.

Nonetheless, there have been times in both of our pasts when, being short of money or eager to get a foot in the door at a particular institution, we’ve taken on too many classes and our own writing has suffered as a result.

This need for authors to try and find the right balance been writing and other aspects of their lives came up at our recent Writing Friendships event at City, University of London, made possible by the generous support of Arts Council England.

Susan Barker
Susan Barker

We were joined by writers Susan Barker, Ann Morgan and Denise Saul – all also former guest bloggers for Something Rhymed. The feeling among the group seemed to be that, although teaching (and teaching writing especially) can provide inspiration for an author, it’s important to fiercely guard your own writing time.

But we all also felt that it was equally important not to cut yourself off from other people. In the talks by Susan, Ann and Denise, audience members were treated to insights about the literary friendships of each woman on the panel.

Ann Morgan - image by Steve Lennon
Ann Morgan – image by Steve Lennon

Ann, the first speaker of the evening, talked about the important bonds she’d forged through her web project and non-fiction book, Reading the World. Susan spoke about the invaluable advice and support she’d received from Liang Junhong, a friend she met while she was living in China and working on her novel The Incarnations. Denise talked about collaborating with other artists as part of a video poem project, Silent Room: a Journey of Language.

Denise Saul - image by Amanda Pepper
Denise Saul – image by Amanda Pepper

Audience member, Rosie Canning, has written up a fuller account of the evening, which you can read here.

We are grateful to Rosie for commemorating the event in this way, and to everyone who came along to support us. We’re sure to be running more Something Rhymed events in the new year, so do keep an eye on our blog for more details.

 

Writing Friendships event at City, University of London

Emma and I have just returned from an enjoyable weekend in Lincolnshire, where some of our readers may recall I used to live in the early years of our friendship.

We’d gone there to teach two friendship-themed writing workshops together. It was fun to be able to take Emma to a few of the places I used to know well, to introduce her to some of my former evening class students, and also for us to meet plenty of other people for the first time.

For those of you who couldn’t make these sessions, we’re delighted to be able to let you know that we have another event coming up next month, this time at City, University of London, where both of us teach on the Novel Studio programme.

city-uol-logo-rgb-dk1aWriting Friendships at City, University of London

As long-term friends who’ve supported each other’s careers from the beginning, we know just how important building strong links with other writers can be. We’ll be joined by Something Rhymed guest bloggers Susan Barker, Ann Morgan, Irenosen Okojie and Denise Saul, who’ll be sharing their own experiences of literary friendship and offering practical advice to new and advanced writers on ways in which they can forge and develop meaningful writing relationships of their own.

Once again, this event has been generously funded by Arts Council England.

When: Wednesday 16 NovemberPrint

Doors open 6.15pm, event runs from 6.30-8pm, followed by drinks reception – a chance to make new writer friends

Where: The Northampton Suite C, City University of London, Northampton Square, London, EC1V 0HB. Details of how to reach the venue appear on this page.

Tickets: Places are free but limited for this event and must be booked in advance through the City, University of London website. You can do this here.

We are grateful to City, University of London and Arts Council England for helping to make this event possible. We hope to see you there.

 

Work and Play

Inspired by Helen Keller – who encouraged her friend Nancy Hamilton to turn her hand to something new – this month Emily shared an aspect of her life that was, until now, foreign to me.

Visiting the Gallery for Russian Arts and Design
Visiting the Gallery for Russian Arts and Design

Emily and I exchange long-treasured books, swap outfits and befriend many of each other’s pals. We trade critiques of early drafts, seek support during painful times and feel at ease in each other’s homes.

But there’s a central aspect of my friend’s life about which I know very little.

When Emily embarked on a story set in a remote children’s dance school, she reconnected with her own history of ballet by enrolling in a weekly class. Through my friend’s writing, I have become familiar with the intricacies of a dancer’s kit: the toe pads and foot tape, the pink stitches darned across a pointe shoe’s hard-blocked end. But I have never seen Emily’s own ballet kit. I feel as if I have met my friend’s fictional dance school principal – the eccentric Miss Violet who inspires distrust and adoration in equal measure. And yet, I have never asked Emily about the women who first encouraged her to take up ballet. I may have watched my friend’s characters warm up at the barre, but I have never seen Emily perform.

Last week, Emily took me to the Gallery for Russian Arts and Design to see an exhibition about a ballet that I had never even heard of before: The Bolt by Dmitri Shostakovich. It turns out that I may not be alone in my ignorance since the ballet was banned by Stalin back in 1931 after only one performance.

It was at first difficult for us to discern what the authorities found so troubling. After all, The Bolt celebrated the lives of Soviet factory workers and the communist league came up trumps.

As Emily and I explored the exhibition further, however, it became clear that the production’s playfulness had likely proved controversial. Perhaps, like us, audiences would have been more drawn to the bold colours and extravagant designs of the bourgeois baddies’ costumes than the sackcloth uniforms of the party faithful. These vaudeville designs were matched by the score, which Soviet critics condemned as flippant satire.

Tatiana Bruni, Kozelkov's Girlfriend, Costume Design for The Bolt, 1931, Courtesy GRAD and St Petersburg Museum of Theatre and Music
Tatiana Bruni, Kozelkov’s Girlfriend, Costume Design for The Bolt, 1931, Courtesy GRAD and St Petersburg Museum of Theatre and Music

I had expected that our outing would reinforce my sense of Emily’s self-discipline: her finely-tuned writing schedule matched by her rigorous ballet training. But I came out of the exhibition reminded that this aspect of my friend’s character is matched by her playfulness: the way she laughs uncontrollably when something tickles her, the uninhibited way she’ll get up on a stage or pose for a photograph, her willingness to take risks in her writing.

I may never be able to join my friend at the barre, but our daytrip showed me that there’s so much about exuberance and joie de vivre that I stand to learn from showing more of an interest in this part of Emily’s world.

Hot Off the Press!

We are delighted to announce that two of our guest bloggers have books out this month, and both of them promise to take us to new and unexpected places.

Beautiful and brutal, Emily Bullock’s novel The Longest Fight recreates the gritty boxing world of 1950s London. And her writer friend Ann Morgan has just launched her non-fiction debut Reading the World: Confessions of a Literary Explorer, which invites us to join her on a quest to read a book from every nation.

Having stood by each other through their fair share of knocks, it is cheering to see this pair of writer friends experience knockout success together too.

The Something Rhymed party

From the mad tea party in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to The Great Gatsby’s  glamorous shindigs to the almost unbearable occasion to mark Blanche’s birthday in A Streetcar Named Desire, literature is full of social occasions that linger on in the minds of its audiences.

In the hands of a writer, the bringing together of a sizable cast of characters can lead to moments of revelation, conflict or panic. In Larry’s Party by Carol Shields, the whole plot builds towards the titular gathering. A devastating mistake made at a party by the timid protagonist of Rebecca signals an important shift in Daphne du Maurier’s novel. A mysterious soirée in A Murder is Announced marks the shocking point at which Agatha Christie’s village mystery truly begins.

Emma Claire and I were hoping for considerably less drama at our party – the first we’d ever organised together – and yet, we wanted it to be an occasion that would remain as a memory, in a good way, for all those who were there.

We decided to make an occasion of it with a traditional British afternoon tea.

We were inspired by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, who once organised a get-together for Zora Neale Hurston, and also a feeling that we wanted to provide an opportunity for female writers we knew to make new writer friends. Owing to the size of my London flat, we were forced to keep things small-scale, so we invited just four writing women and asked each of them to bring along a female writer friend.

Our guests were Susan Barker, Emily Bullock, Ann Morgan, Irenosen Okojie, Yen Ooi, Denise Saul and Zakia Uddin – some of whom will be known to Something Rhymed readers through their guest posts on our blog.

IMG_1153In a written story, it is often the things that go wrong at a party that cement it in the reader’s imagination. We thought we might have a situation like that on our hands when, only five minutes before our first guest turned up, I opened the freezer door to get some ice and suddenly discovered two forgotten bottles of fizz – one smashed to pieces and one that promptly exploded everywhere when Emma Claire eased out the cork.

It’s the sort of incident that, if you’re hosting on your own (or feel that sole responsibility for a party’s success lies with you), can become magnified out of all proportion. In The Garden Party by Katherine Mansfield, though the majority of family members are remarkably untroubled by the genuinely terrible news that arrives halfway through the tale, there is much concern earlier on about the feared disappearance of the little flags for the sandwiches.

But as the two of us struggled to leap out of the way of the flying foam, we found we were unable to stop laughing: a reminder that, having the right friend at your side at moments like these swiftly transforms them from catastrophe to comedy.

Zakia Uddin, Denise Saul and Susan Barker listening to Emily Bullock reading an extract from her forthcoming novel, The Longest Fight.
Zakia Uddin, Denise Saul, Susan Barker and Emily Bullock (reading from her forthcoming novel, The Longest Fight).

Amazingly, too, the sparkling wine down Em’s dress seemed to dry out in record time and had virtually disappeared by the time everyone arrived. We’d wondered earlier – completely unnecessarily as it turned out – if, with a group of people who didn’t really know each other, conversation would be initially stilted. So we’d asked each writer to bring along a sample of her work as a way of introducing herself. In between the sandwiches, cakes and replenishing of glasses, we were treated to extracts from novels and short stories, and some of Denise’s poetry.

We talked about professional issues too. Questions about book launches, ways of spreading the word about our work, and university programmes were just some of the things we discussed. If I had to sum up the occasion in a few words, I’d say it was five hours of warmth and good conversation, and lots of laughter: not the conflict of great literature perhaps, but – for Emma Claire and me, and we hope for all our guests – the stuff of a great party for writers.

Celebrating Female Friendship

When this month’s guest bloggers, Harriet Levin and Elizabeth L. Silver, let us take a look at one of their on-line chats, we felt privileged to be witnesses to a conversation that so clearly conveyed their mutual appreciation of each other’s support.

This has, of course, been a common theme in all of the guest posts this year. Like them, Rachel Connor and Antonia Honeywell, and Sarah Butler and Tessa Nicholson, have gone from living close to their writer friend to being separated by geographical distance. But they all wrote of how they’re still able to rely on their pal’s advice, even though they are physically far apart.

IMG_1146Jill Dawson and Kathryn Heyman, too, who live on opposite sides of the world, told us how their frequent phone conversations, about ‘writing, gossip, lipstick’ amongst other things, keep the relationship going.

Kadija ‘George’ Sesay and Dorothea Smartt spoke of the pleasures of working with each other professionally. Zakia Uddin shared a story about hearing valuable literary advice from Susan Barker on a crowded London night-bus.

Julie Sarkissian and Haley Tanner, and Emily Bullock and Ann Morgan, were keen to emphasise how much they valued having someone with whom they’ve been able to share the struggles and eventual triumphs of their books-in-progress.

We are grateful to all of this year’s guest bloggers for posting these inspiring words about the crucial role that the friendship of another woman has played in their writing lives.

Since launching Something Rhymed at the beginning of the year, we’ve often found ourselves wondering why the literary friendships of our most famous female writers are generally less well-known than those of their male counterparts.

Recently, we’ve been mulling over a number of theories, but one conclusion we’ve come to is that the all-too-common depiction of ambitious women as inevitable jealous rivals could have played a major part in this. Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf are two writers, in particular, whose reputations have suffered in this way. This month’s pair, Maxine Kumin and Anne Sexton, are another, historically later, example.

At Something Rhymed, we’re keen to try and promote some more positive representations of women’s friendship, so with this in mind we’ve just launched our #SomethingRhymed hashtag on Twitter with this tweet: Women’s relationships are too often seen as bitchy & backstabbing. Tell us about a time when a female friend supported you. #SomethingRhymed

We’ll be sharing our own stories (in 140 characters or less!) of helping each other out personally or professionally. Whether you’re a writer or not, we’d love to hear about your positive experiences of female friendship too. If you’re not on Twitter, but would still like to add your voice to the conversation, why not leave a message in the Comments section below?

Remember

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Sharing the Knocks and Knockouts: Emily Bullock & Ann Morgan

Emily Bullock & Ann Morgan
Emily Bullock & Ann Morgan

In this month’s guest blog, long-time writer friends Emily Bullock and Ann Morgan take up the June challenge to send each other a book with a dedication inside.

Emily Bullock

Ann and I first met on the interview day for UEA’s Creative Writing MA… So she tells me, and over the years I’ve come to think of her memory as my own. We were then lucky enough to be in the same writing workshop. Was I first drawn to the person or the pen? I no longer recall that either. But I do know that I liked both a great deal. Ann spent some nights on my airbed, which sealed the new friendship, and all these years later we are still friends.

The book I have chosen for Ann was inspired by her Year of Reading the World. Through this project, she came across a writer who didn’t get to read a novel until she was a teenager. The anecdote stayed in my mind because Ann is such a good storyteller. The first novel this writer got to read also seems the right selection for Ann because of her adventures in reading a book from every country, and the writing journey we have both been on, which will finally result in our debut books coming out next year.

In the words of all the best DJs – Ann Morgan, this one’s for you: Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne.

Around the World in Eighty Days
Image used with the kind permission of Penguin Pocket Classics

And my dedication:

‘What had he brought back from this long and weary journey?’

The airbed has deflated but we go on: friends and writers. I feel fortunate to have you as a travelling companion.

Ann Morgan

Emily’s right: we did meet at the interview day for our master’s. I can even remember the book she was reading – Salt: A World History by Mark Kulansky.

If it seems a bit freaky that I can recall so much, it’s no doubt testament to how well we got on. Almost from the word go, we were chatting easily and seemed to understand each other’s take on books and writing. The friendship was particularly important for me as I was commuting from London to study on the course in Norwich – hence the airbed (in case you were wondering).

Ten years on, we remain great friends. We’ve seen each other change, grow, struggle and succeed, and it’s lovely that our debut books, The Longest Fight and Reading the World: Postcards from my Bookshelf, will be coming out at roughly the same time in 2015.

In recognition of this, I’ve chosen a novel that links together our projects: Seconds Out by Martín Kohan.

Seconds-Out
Image used with the kind permission of Serpent’s Tail

It’s the book I read from Argentina during my Year of Reading the World and centres on boxing, which is the subject of Emily’s novel. The story also seems appropriate because I think both of us would agree that the journey to publication has been a bit like a battle on occasions. As a result, my dedication reads:

‘It has felt like the longest fight at times, but it’s been great to share the knocks and knockouts with you. Here’s to the next bout.’

 

Emily Bullock’s novel The Longest Fight will be published by Myriad Editions in spring 2015.

Ann Morgan’s non-fiction book Reading the World: Postcards from my Bookshelf will be published by Harvill Secker, also in spring 2015.