Sheer Good Fortune

As regular readers of Something Rhymed may have guessed, Emily and I have been busy these past months working on other projects.

I’ve become Director of The Ruppin Agency Writers’ Studio, which offers mentoring by authors and agents to writers of fiction, narrative non-fiction and YA.

Emily has been holed away in the rare books rooms of various libraries, researching a transatlantic group of Victorian clairvoyants for her new book Out of the Shadows, which will be published by Counterpoint Press.

And we’ve both made significant changes in our personal lives too…

When Emily and I launched Something Rhymed back in 2014, we published a post on Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison – writers whose friendship combined from its inception the personal and professional, the celebratory and consolatory.

These legends of American letters grew close when they shared a bill at the Hay Festival in Wales during a time when both women were concerned about their mothers who were ill back home. In the decades since then, these ‘sister friends’ moved seamlessly between the public and private aspects of their friendship, paying tribute to each other’s literary accomplishments at huge official gatherings but also talking about family over dishes of Angelou’s fried chicken or wedges of Morrison’s carrot cake.

It was just such a combination of intimacy and admiration, celebration and consolation that prompted Angelou to help put on an event to honour her fellow author during a period when she knew that Morrison needed to be shown love and comfort following the death of her son.

The event was poignantly titled Sheer Good Fortune after the dedication Morrison had made to her boys at the beginning of her novel Sula: ‘It is sheer good fortune to miss somebody long before they leave you’. And now, in the wake of Morrison’s recent death, such a sentiment feels particularly resonant.

Back at the Hay Festival in 2014, Morrison announced from the stage they’d once shared the sad news that Angelou had died. Emily and I, sitting in the audience side by side, promised each other to follow their example by not only continuing to offer each other solace during dark times but also to celebrate each other privately and publicly, professionally and personally.

Over the years, Emily and I have been there for each other during bereavements and breakups as well as periods of professional and financial uncertainty. This only heightens the pleasure we’ve taken in the sheer good fortune each of us has experienced of late.

I will never forget the excitement in Emily’s voice when she called to let me know that she was expecting a baby. And then, not long afterwards, when we were in a tiny French restaurant in Earl’s Court marking both her pregnancy and her birthday, she shared her news that she and her long-term partner Jack had got engaged on the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral.

A few months later, when I was delivering bourguignons, curries and Spanish stews to Emily’s flat in preparation for the weeks following the approaching birth, I told her about my partner Jonathan’s proposal to me and mine to him on a hillside overlooking a market town in Shropshire. Once I’d stocked up Emily’s freezer, we headed back to Earl’s Court, this time to one of our favourite coffee houses. There, we celebrated my engagement to Jonathan and Emily’s marriage to Jack and her pregnancy alongside a female friend we’ve  known since our days as young English teachers in rural Japan.

Wedding shoes – Emily & Jack getting married
The spot where Jonathan and Emma proposed to each other.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Emily and I had dedicated our co-written book A Secret Sisterhood to Jack and Jonathan – a strange choice, perhaps, for a book on female literary friendship, but it felt fitting to us since our partners had always appreciated the importance of our own writing friendship, and had supported it at every turn. In our Acknowledgements, we thanked Jack and Jonathan for ‘keeping us well fed during long stints in our studies, and, most of all, never failing to be there when we emerged’.

No sooner did Emily and I emerge, however, than we each went back into hibernation – separately this time. Although we are no longer editing at a shared desk, sustained by Jack’s late-night dashes to the local kebab house or breakfasts with Jonathan at the greasy spoon, the four of us have found new ways to offer each other personal sustenance and professional support.

Emily and I have gone back to reading each other’s drafts, for instance, with a freshness and curiosity that was impossible when we’d already pored over the research materials side by side and laboured together over chapter plans.

And, when Jonathan and I set up The Ruppin Agency Writers’ Studio – a development scheme for writers of fiction and narrative non-fiction – Emily was one of the first people I asked to join our nationwide line-up of mentors. I know first-hand, of course, the quality of her feedback and the dedication she shows to other writers. Like me, Emily is originally from the north of England and we’ve both supported friends and family with access needs, so Emily shares our belief in making mentoring accessible across the country in person and via videocall, and she understands why we are committed to offering a free spot to someone of limited means. Like me, back when Emily was unpublished, she benefited from a period of mentoring by a more established author. Now that she is bringing out books on both sides of the Atlantic, she’s as keen as I am to offer other writers similar opportunities.

During a summer spent largely setting up The Ruppin Agency Writers’ Studio and continuing to work on my new novel, my friendship with Emily has offered me the most joyful of excuses to escape from my writing shed. During my first meetings with baby Lola, I have enjoyed rocking her to sleep in the nursery, pushing her pram through the park and chatting with Emily about everything from marriage to mentoring, motherhood to manuscripts. And, over the years to come, I’ll look forward to helping Emily teach her daughter what creative women have always known – that together we are greater than the sum of our parts.

Emily and Lola

Emily will be on maternity leave for the rest of this year, but I will continue to run Something Rhymed after its summer hiatus.  

We are looking for female writing friendships to feature on the site from October onwards. Please do take a look at our submission guidelines and get in touch if you’d like to pitch an idea.

It would also be lovely to hear from any of you who might be interested in the following literary projects I’ll be involved in over the coming months:

You can apply for all the mentoring and editing packages offered by The Ruppin Agency Writers’ Studio via its website, or direct any queries to studio@ruppinagency.com. The deadline for the selective scheme (including the free spot) is 5pm on Monday September 2nd but we accept ongoing applications for all other packages.  

Booking is now open for my one-day novel writing courses at the gorgeous Cambridge Writing Retreat. On Saturday October 19th, we’ll be asking what ‘Show Don’t Tell’ really means. And on Saturday November 23rd, Jonathan will join me in his role as literary agent to help writers work out what steps to take once the crucial first draft is complete.

And do save Saturday October 26th for the University of East Anglia’s Doris Lessing centenary celebration. I’m looking forward to sharing more stories about Lessing’s friendship with Muriel Spark during my conversation on stage with Rachel Cusk and Lara Feigel. This event also includes access to UEA’s Doris Lessing 100 exhibition, which contains archival material on display for the very first time.

 

 

In the Hands of Chance?

Image by Angela Monika Arnold (Creative Commons licence)
Image by Angela Monika Arnold (Creative Commons licence)

A chance meeting in the ladies’ lavatory at a wedding marked the start of the friendship between last week’s guest interviewees, Polly Coles and Liz Jensen.

This got us thinking about some of the other unplanned first encounters of writers we’ve featured on Something Rhymed.

Susan Barker and Zakia Uddin, for instance – saw their paths collide back in 1999 at the Statue of Liberty, where they both had summer jobs. Rachel Connor and Antonia Honeywell formed an immediate connection when they happened to be paired as students in advance of their first MA Novel Writing workshop at Manchester University.

Of the monthly profiled writers, some like Charlotte Brontë and Elizabeth Gaskell and Harriet Beecher Stowe and George Eliot knew of each other by reputation before they met. Diana Athill formed a connection with Jean Rhys through her job as an editor at André Deutsch, and the friendship between Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison really blossomed when they both found themselves appearing at the Hay Festival in Wales.

But others, especially those who met early on in their literary careers, got to know each other under circumstances largely governed by happy twists of coincidence.

What would have happened if Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby hadn’t each passed their university entrance exams and found themselves at the same Oxford college? Or if the teacher’s job in L.M. Montgomery’s hometown on Prince Edward Island had been given to someone other than Nora Lefurgey? Or Anne Sharp hadn’t gone to work as a governess with Jane Austen’s family?

Some might say that, with such similar political views and overlapping fields of work, Brittain and Holtby would likely have met eventually, but one can more easily imagine a life in which Austen had to manage without Sharp’s friendship, and Montgomery never found a kindred spirit in Lefurgey.

And since both Brittain and Holtby were always keen to credit the other for the role they had played in shaping their own success, this raises the question as to whether each woman’s life might have run a quite different course without the help of her valued friend.

Unlike the vast majority of our monthly guest bloggers and featured authors, who were already well on their way with their writing careers by the time they became acquainted, regular readers of Something Rhymed will know that when Emma Claire and I met neither of us had published a single article or story.

In fact, we had been scribbling in secret up until then, and hadn’t had the courage to share our ambitions to write with anyone else.

It’s nice to think that, having so many things in common, we would have found each other, perhaps on-line, eventually – an advantage female writers of today have over those in Montgomery or Austen’s times.

But it’s far nicer to be able to recall the fact that we’ve been there for each other through all the ups and downs of our writing journeys, and to think that, as Brittain once said about Holtby: ‘although we didn’t exactly grow up together, we grew mature together, and that is the next best thing’.

Diaries, Diversions and Double Beds

As a young woman, L.M. Montgomery, the woman who would later publish the famous Anne of Green Gables series, kept a giddy collaborative journal with her writer friend and housemate, Nora Lefurgey. Inspired by them, we have written a joint diary post about a trip we made together to Ilkley.

Emily: We get off to a slower-than-expected start when, on arriving at King’s Cross railway station, the board tells us our train has been cancelled. But it doesn’t maGregPhoto.comtter: our Something Rhymed event at the Ilkley Literature Festival isn’t until tomorrow – we’ve allowed ourselves an extra day for lots of rehearsing – and even though we’ve arranged to meet our friends at the town’s Playhouse bar later, we still have plenty of time.

Plus, with the two of us together, these things are always all right; they would be even if we were cutting it fine. 

An hour or so later, we are on the train making our journey north. I plan to work on a blog post that’s set to go live tomorrow, while Emma Claire puts the final touches to an article we’ve written for Shooter Lit Mag. But we keep talking, and so we don’t get as much done as we’d have liked.

Emma Claire: The article is about Emily Dickinson, and so I have been reading her letters and am itching to share my findings with Em: the only friend who I know for sure will find Dickinson’s love life as fascinating as I do. DespitGregPhoto.come at least one proposal of marriage; a darkly mysterious correspondence with someone she called ‘Master’; and a late-life erotic liaison with a man eighteen years her senior, Dickinson famously never married. And yet, as an adolescent, she had harboured such high hopes of romance. I can’t help disturbing Em from her blog post to share this snippet from one of Dickinson’s letters: ‘I am growing handsome very fast indeed! I expect I shall be the belle of Amherst when I reach my 17th year. I don’t doubt that I will have perfect crowds of admirers at that age. Then how shall I delight to make them await my bidding and with what delight shall I witness their suspense while I make my final decision’. Who would have thought that such a sociable creature would have become mythologised as a crazed recluse?GregPhoto.com

Emily: When the man with the refreshments trolley reaches us he says ‘What can I get you, girls?’ We wonder for how long people will keep calling us that. We are almost thirty-five.

Emma Claire: Now that Emily has pointed it out, I keep noticing people’s tendency to refer to us as ‘girls’. We got to have a brief chat with Edna O’Brien at tGregPhoto.comhe Small Wonder Festival recently and, although we were there in our role as lecturers accompanying our New York University students, she greeted us affectionately with the words: ‘Two girls!’ Both with Edna O’Brien and with the man on the train, I found myself quite enjoying the image of us as young friends – perhaps because, in both cases, their tones seemed wistful rather than patronising. Life’s thrown quite a lot at Emily and me during the dozen or so years since we first met, beating much of our youthful naivety out of us. And yet, now that we’re far closer to forty than twenty, I feel as if my friendship with Emily has helped me not only to mature but also to prolong my girlhood.   

GregPhoto.comEmily: Through the window, we pick out places that bring back lots of memories: towns I remember from days that seem distant, when I used to commute to London from my old flat in Leeds every week. As we pull into Grantham, Emma Claire says she always recalls switching trains here, stepping down to take the much slower service to the village in Lincolnshire where I lived in my mid-twenties. Ever since I first got to know her, Em has been a regular house guest.

Emma Claire: During the years when I was living in central London and Emily and her partner were moving between various towns and villages, my visits to them always felt like mini-holidays. By the time I reached Grantham, I would already have begun to unwind. My memories of those weekends are full of small pleasures: picking rocket from tGregPhoto.comheir back garden; mixing gin with triple sec and a squeeze of lemon; shopping for sushi-fresh fish in their local market.

Since they moved to London and we started SomethingRhymed.com, I have become a far more frequent overnight guest – something that particularly struck me this weekend when Emily and her partner came over to my place for breakfast on their way to other friends. It had been five years since Emily’s partner had visited my house, and yet these days he welcomes me into theirs on an almost weekly basis.  

GregPhoto.com

Emily: When we arrive in Ilkley at last, we find our hotel with minimal trouble. Phone maps have made everything easier than it used to be, but it’s still far from unusual for us to get lost, particularly when we are chatting as we wander.

Through the front door, in the narrow corridor, Emma Claire, who’s made theGregPhoto.com two-night booking, gives her name to the man on reception. He nods, but seems strangely reluctant to show us to our room, and so we wait with our bags while he disappears out the back. We can hear the hum of his voice. He seems to be trying to find someone, anyone, else to show us to where we will be sleeping.

When he emerges at last, unsuccessful apparently, he leads us up the stairs. In the room, we see a large bed for two. The man talks us hurriedly through the facilities, his eyes focused away.

Once Emma Claire has explained that she’d requested a twin, our host visibly relaxes. He insists on showing us to three different rooms, asking us to take our pick. On our own again, with the door closed, we laugh about what’s just happened.

Emma Claire: ButGregPhoto.com we also feel that we’ve been given an insight into what it could be like for gay couples on their travels, and the way that such situations could become far more tiresome than funny. But we keep on laughing, wondering if there’ll ever come a day – now that we’re really no longer girls – when we might feel flush enough to book separate rooms. 

Emily: It’s not long before we have to get back out to meet Gail and Irenosen, also in town for the festival. The sky is dark and brooding and we are walking along the sloping streets, neither of us entirely sure where the Playhouse is, despite having been to Ilkey before – and in my case to the theatre itself.GregPhoto.com

Over the years, Em and I have got ourselves lost in so many locations: along the country roads of Japan’s Ehime Prefecture, circling the streets of Barreiro in Portugal, and on several nights out in London. This time, though, we keep up today’s earlier form and find our way fairly quickly – not that it would have mattered if we hadn’t, not really, with the two of us together.

 

A Friendship Important in So Many Ways

'A rainbow in somebody's cloud' - Maya Angelou Image taken at the Hay Festival, 28 May 2014)
‘A rainbow in somebody’s cloud’ – Maya Angelou
(Image taken at Hay Festival, 28 May 2014)

We are saddened by the death of Maya Angelou, a writer whose life and work has been an inspiration to people the world over, and a woman from whose great capacity for friendship we’ve learned so much this year.

Regular readers of Something Rhymed will know that we profiled Angelou’s relationship with Toni Morrison back in February. Influenced by their championing of each other’s achievements, we set ourselves the task, on a much smaller scale, to follow their example.

We made lists of the things we admired about each other and developed them into pieces of creative work. Although we’d always considered our friendship to be a very open one, we were surprised by how many of the points we noted down we had never spoken of before.

It made us wonder how long we might have gone on silently appreciating, but never expressing, that we valued these qualities if we hadn’t paid attention to Angelou and Morrison.

When we discovered that Morrison would be appearing at Wales’s Hay Festival this year, we quickly bought tickets to hear her talk. We knew that she and Angelou had bonded years ago at Hay, when both women found themselves far away from home at a time when their mothers were ill. And so it felt particularly poignant that it was during yesterday’s festival session that many audience members (ourselves included) first heard that Angelou had died.

Morrison eloquently gave voice to the gasps that rippled through the vast tent when she spoke of her personal loss. ‘I thought she was eternal,’ she said. ‘I thought she always, always would be there.’

As writer friends ourselves, it is difficult to listen to language like this without wondering how one of us would cope in a similar situation, how we would feel if the person we’d come to rely on to such an extent was suddenly gone from our life.

Morrison, who called Angelou ‘a real original’, was understandably reluctant to say too much about her death. ‘It hurts so much that I have no treasurable, powerful, elegant words to say about that,’ she told the crowd. ‘I need time to talk about Maya. She was important in so many ways.’

But what struck us as we listened was the extent to which each of these women had already made significant efforts to commemorate the life of her friend.

Morrison’s speech in praise of Angelou at the USA’s most recent National Book Awards was a case in point, as was the party Angelou threw for her friend in 1993 – a response to what she saw as a lack of official national acknowledgement when Morrison won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

We are thankful for what we have learned from this literary pair: that it is important to celebrate the lives of our close ones, not just in fine tributes once they are gone, but also when they are still here.