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.