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Fledgling Fiction: adjusting my fictional satnav with Allan Sutherland

doodle with several faces drawn with simple line and shading in the foreground and a large claw, in the foregorund

Allan Sutherland: Creative Writing. Image © Gini

Last night I dreamed I went to Manderley again – a sentence that had me clinging haphazardly to my mother’s childhood. The mental maps I construct and reconstruct of my lived experiences flickered into action, like a satnav just poised to be programmed.

‘Rebecca’ was part of my mother’s teenage. I wasn’t there, but mapped my way through it by the pitch of her voice, the fluidity of her descriptions, the hesitations, facial expressions and of course the light, living and dying in her eyes.

My mother grew up in Nazi occupied Denmark. I speculate that this surely had some part to play in her fascination with du Maurier’s gothic romance. For her it was the right time and the right place. By the time I came to it the landscape had changed. My mother had changed. And I was soon winging off at a tangent, reading Johannes Møllehave.

Books didn’t have that same depth of emotional influence on my teenage, but nevertheless I still remember reading Møllehave explaining that his wife’s name, Herdis, meant ‘sword in the heart’ and knowing that she was the sword that had pierced his heart.

Møllehave led me to Grundtvig and Grundtvig to Kierkegaard. The fact of Danish-ness overwhelmed me much the same way as the fiction of Manderlay had deeply touched my mother. And surely somewhere in these seemingly disparate route maps lies the key to our relationship.

As I write this Møllehave is dying. He is telling the world that Herdis, who died some years ago, was unfaithful to him with Jens Otto Krag, the then prime minister. I was a perceptive teenager.

Turn around as soon as possible – my fictional satnav instructs as our workshop leader directs our attention to the next memorable first line on the list. He’s not that keen on ‘Rebecca’ – wonders if du Maurier should even be included. I have the same speculations about the florid exuberance of Kipling and as for ‘Call me Ishmael’…

We don’t see eye to eye, this acclaimed and experienced Creative Writing workshop leader and I. Our mental satnavs have little in common, but I’m here to learn and have taken on board his suggestion, made to one of the other participants, that death-bed confessions don’t make great stories. Hence my abandonment of my mother’s startling revelation – uttered as together we tackled the process of her dying. But it was, still is, unforgettable. I can’t shake off the feeling it would have been a memorable first line.

Dreaming of Manderley may or may not have been a great opening, but du Maurier’s last words will keep Rebecca ever relevant to my life: “And the ashes blew towards us with the salt wind from the sea”

First lines were not where we started. This was a Creative Writing workshop and the group’s first challenge was to create a list of characteristics and their opposites. Our joint list was quite fulsome and fun to concoct. From this we were then asked each to pick three as the initial building blocks for a character.

I have never worked like that, it was a challenge and my first attempt produced a superficial specimen that reminded me of a politician. A cunning, cardboard-cut-out character who presumed she was one step ahead, always. She was. I soon had to let her go.

Choosing a phrase to complete a sentence was our toe-dip into the beginnings of creating storyline; my ‘juicy spectacular’ was considered a bit of a red herring – as was my contention that the characters in my story did not necessarily have to be sentient. I could feel myself slipping away; the words taking over, demanding compliance.

I think it was Bob Dylan who pointed out the painfulness of taking on board stuff that seems to challenge your world view – a challenge that impacts on your being and your carefully bolstered sense of self.

I really do want to learn something from the day so set about the exercises with a renewed diligence. Nevertheless, the dead Rebecca haunts my efforts. The dying Møllehave, my dead father and mother, Grundtvig, Kierkegaard and even the deceased Terry Pratchet all join in.

I wish I could have persuaded my father to read Pratchet. The superficial frivolity of Terry Pratchet was a barrier Pa could not overcome, but the calm and considered curiosity of his approach to death has linked the two of them together in my imagination.

My father was a rock, radiating love that intensified as he himself slipped away. He made the very best of an unnecessary death. His legacy was beyond anything I could have hoped for or imagined. Words I do not use lightly.

I might have believed myself to be a perceptive teen, but I did miss the obvious for such a long time.

Pa, like Johannes, had a sword in his heart. And Mama was that sword. Not that she could ever have been unfaithful to him, the love of her life, but because deep in the heart of her was a secret; a secret that Pa never discovered; a secret that challenged him throughout their life together. A secret that was, in its origins, no more significant than a grain of sand.

The analysing of opening lines, I’m ashamed to admit, fails to hold my attention. I don’t think its a fault of those specific lines, more a reflection on how I relate to the world and words.

And letting go of my domineering politician leaves a void. I fill it by speculating on which three characteristics I will need to start creating my mother.

Everything about her life was dominated by her love of my father. It never wavered; she showed no hint of ever questioning or doubting herself or her commitment. This focused fidelity had no opposite, no cracks nor any flaws.

Nobody disliked my mother. Close friends admired her generous nature, her gentle positive regard. She was a good person. Like all good people, there were little questions momentarily raising startled eyebrows, but her apparently spontaneous generosity was sweet to experience.

As in my original selection, my third choice is the most problematic. Mama was humble; an intensely complex kind of humble. She had the humility of someone deeply loved – the kind of love we all feel humbled to be able to give and receive. She claimed to have learned her goodness and generosity from my father. She had sacrificed a lot to be with him and learned to prize love over any and every loss. Self-effacing, she abandoned the values she had been brought up with, for those she would learn from him.

The key to all of this was a sure and certain conviction in the value and rightness of her own judgement; conviction that allowed her to maintain her secret; conviction that resulted in a heartbreaking revelation and the consequent sharing of that secret with me. It came too late for anything other than love and dismay.

As a group, we are slow learners. The workshop comes to an abrupt end as time runs away with us. I was hoping for more. From his comments, so was our leader, but we were both probably being unrealistic. We begin to gather up sheaves of paper and pack our bags.

As a group, we do prioritise fun and the day has been punctuated with much laughter. We have shared food and drink and our fledgling fictions. It has been enjoyable and our minds have been prized open just wide enough to glimpse the pearls within.

I begin to reckon it a success.

It was my last day there.
Today I exist in an alternate universe
the one where my long-term friend
and aching wound, is dead.
Found dead. Discovered
after life had escaped her body.
She called on Thursday. I missed it.
She left no message. No last words
to burden me. No flashing light
on the answering machine
of my landline. And Friday passed.
Saturday, this workshop challenged me
with its strange preoccupation:
death echoing through the ether.
So here we are, Sunday, she is found.
There is a full stop to her anguish
and I am living in this place with
not enough air.

Here is my grief.
Here are the tears;
tears and this sparse breath
attempting to bring sentience
to the cardboard cut-out named politician.
Here is my shame, your shame,
for creating her.
Politician and cardboard army
sweeping us all before it;
a tangled web of disappointments.
Herdis, and Herdis and Herdis;
blood seeping through our souls.
Ash blowing toward us
with the salt wind
of our failed dreams.

Travels is a series of Awards for All funded workshops which aims to equip participants with new skills and to awaken fresh curiosities for a variety of ways to create and communicate their own tales. On 13 May LinkUpArts produced a creativing writing workshop at Salisbury Arts Centre.


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Richard Downes

thank you

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