Wednesday 29 April 2015


Always fascinated by our creativity and how it can be encouraged and so easily closed down,  and because I have a growing collection of books exploring the writing process, a while ago I bought a copy of a book about Proprioceptive Writing: Writing the Mind Alive by  Linda Trichter Metcalf and Tobin Simon. I dipped into the theories of a process in which a writer slows down, focuses, has music playing in the background (baroque music works best, it said), lights a candle and listens to their thoughts. The book made great claims for the process - I am quoting here:

Here's what you can expect:

  • opening the floodgates of expression
  • unburdening the mind
  • resolving emotional conflict
  • liberating the imagination
  • increased capacity to focus
  • increased awareness, confidence and self-trust
  • growing sense of intelligence
  • burgeoning creativity
  • following thought flow to its source in story and emotion
and this reader, being a sceptic, leaped in, scanned, cherry-picked like crazy. "I have never been able to write with music on," I said to myself, so ditched the musical element immediately, never tried it. I lit a candle on my desk, and waited for inspiration to hit. A few minutes later I blew the candle out, felt utterly silly, and the book slipped into its place on the shelf, to be revisited in due course. As and when. Or rather, forgotten about. 

Fast forward a few years. I arrive at my lovely writers' retreat, Anam Cara, in Ireland (where I am writing this). Staying there too is a lovely woman called Ginny Keegan who has just been leading a week-long workshop on guess what... Proprioceptive Writing. You can find a description of the workshop that had just finished here, together with a link to Ginny's website:

Ginny had agreed to run an afternoon workshop for some local writers and kindly invited me to join in - so, with some trepidation, and not completely convinced but trying to keep an open mind, I did so. What follows is a description of my first experience of doing a proprioceptive 'write', together with  a snippet of the result. I ought to start by saying I'd been feeling creatively wrung out, finding it hard to fight through (as I always have to) the negative voices all writers experience, I'm sure, at one point or another - no one wants this - forget it - this is rubbish. 

Also - importantly, I don't like to write at a table with other writers - just a 'thing' of mine. I am hugely aware of the other writers, their writing/not writing movements. And I don't write to music -see above. I have always found it very intrusive. 


After a brief introduction and explanation, we all moved, in silence, to the dining table. Plain, unlined paper awaited us, and small candles were set by every place. We followed our instructions and lit the candles. No speaking, no interacting - just slowing down, calming down.
Ginny had told us she would start the music, and we should listen to our thoughts, and write them down. Every so often, she said, if a word seemed resonant, holding deeper possibilities, we should question it as we wrote: 'What do I mean by 'deeper'...' for example. And let that question take you where it would. Not to censor. Not to write for feedback, for publication, for anything other than an exploration.

The music began. Baroque music which apparently works alongside the brain's own rhythms, echoes the heartbeat, calms you.
Whatever it does, my own thoughts and connections started flowing and I duly wrote them down, with no real expectations of this being useful but still. I'd give it a good go. At no time was the music anything other than a gentle accompaniment. I was aware of it running alongside me, but that is all - no intrusion.
The process of slowing down and questioning one's choice of words was a rather potent one, utterly surprising, occasionally emotional. I was completely but completely unaware of time passing, and the 25 minutes were gone in a flash. I hadn't noticed the other writers round the table.
During the process, I found myself revisiting a scene from my early childhood that I hadn't thought about consciously for decades - and this is that snippet.

I am remembering being in our kitchen, at the table, aged three or four, with two friends, and my mother has got us drawing a house - she will tell us which house is the best house.
Mine is multi-layered, and I use ALL my crayons - there are hundreds of windows, five chimneys because I can 'do' five, and smoke rising into the sky. It covers the paper and I have to turn over to finish the house on the other side.
My friends have drawn careful houses, two chimneys, two windows for bedrooms, two windows downstairs and one front door - just like we are shown at school when they say 'Shall we draw a house?'
I see my mother looking at the drawings. I see her struggle with herself. I see her say the other houses are lovely, and what was I doing? I know how to draw proper houses, don't I?
And the others get a biscuit. 

I had revisited for the first time a formative moment when my creativity was 'not good enough', judged wanting by someone important. I had been working round a table, on 'safe' ground which turned out to be the opposite. It was absolutely astounding. 

Later, we shared our writes in a session during which there is no feedback, during which our words were listened to, acknowledged. But no comment, no critique, no feedback apart from the session leader (Ginny) who would only reflect on the process as evidenced by the write. Not a word about the content. The content, our thoughts, are ours.

It's certainly not an end in itself. But now, thanks to one session of Proprioceptive Writing, I have learned a new way of opening up - I can begin to unearth where my struggles with creativity come from, the hard work it always is to get through.  Isn't it through looking at where we've come from that we can understand where we are, and go on ahead on more solid ground?

More importantly, maybe I can point other writers towards a process that will do good things for them too. And, less importantly perhaps, I know the foundations of my dislike of working round a table...

Thank you Ginny!

Thursday 16 April 2015

Paul McVeigh's 'The Good Son' launches in London

Author, signing books!

Hmm. The moral of the story seems to be don't have a rather nice carafe of Sancerre rose before attending a book launch, so you end up arriving late, as an Eminent Poet support act is about to begin reading. But that's what happened, so Nancy and I stumbled in quietly as possible, to find the cafe at Waterstone's Piccadilly packed, and we had to stumble through the audience, and to the back to find seats! Ah well. We got there, to celebrate the launch of a smashing book, one that has already garnered great reviews, so don't go by what I say - just read it before everyone asks if you have.

It's funny, it's poignant, clever, grabs you from page one and won't let you go until the end, when believe me, you won't forget the story, or the central character, young Mickey Donnelley. What more can you ask of a book? Mr McVeigh kindly agreed to answer a few odd questions for the blog  in celebration of the launch - so here you go.

VG: If you could choose a scene from The Good Son and have it painted, which scene would you pick, who would you choose as the artist, and why on both counts.

Paul: Most of the novel takes place in a couple of streets in a housing estate in Belfast during the Troubles, so one of the scenes that stands out for me visually is the first time the main character Mickey leaves Ardoyne. He stands on Napoleon's Nose (a high point on Cave Hill, Belfast) and from this view he sees Belfast Lough and a ship leaving, heading out of Northern Ireland and away from the Troubles. Quite pivotal for him. I would chose Turner to paint it because he is one of my favourite artists and his paintings of the sea are incredible. 

VG: When The Good Son is made into a film, who would you like to play in particular Ma, Da and  Paddy? 

Paul: Ha! I wish. It's hard to be obvious. And not just chose your favourite actors and make them fit. I loved Imelda Staunton in Vera Drake and I think she would play Ma to perfection.
That stoic quality she captured so well, the no nonsense working class mother and the understated compassion. She would be brilliant.

For Da, Daniel Day Lewis is one of my favourite actors. So intense. I think he would bring out the hopelessness and despair of the man, behind the simplicity of how Mickey sees him. He could also play the darker, violent side.
He'd make a deep impression of a character who isn't in the novel for a long time but has a huge effect on the family.

Paddy. I don't know many young actors. Do you have any suggestions?

VG: Erm, nope, come to think of it. Sorry! Next question, she said, sidestepping neatly. Is Mickey Donnelly a heroic character in the classical sense? (Wikipedia - "a hero is a character who, in the face of danger and adversity or from a position of weakness, displays courage or self-sacrifice—that is, heroism—for some greater good. Historically, the first heros displayed courage or excellence as warriors. The word's meaning was later extended to include moral excellence."

(I think he is... but over to the creator...)

Paul McVeigh
Paul: Yes, I think he is. That's been on my mind recently. As writers we can show someone's true character by putting them under extreme pressure. How they react reveals who they are, or are to become. When you have a character like Mickey, who refuses to give in to the despair of poverty and war, fights to maintain his dignity when all around them are losing theirs, in a society where everything he stands for is mocked or brutally destroyed and yet stands in front of them all and says 'I don't care what you think. I know who I am,' then I think you have a hero. He is only a small boy, fighting on all fronts and living in fear, but he is fearless when it comes to protecting the ones he loves. He will take on his older brother, his father, the boys in the street and even the IRA if he has to. He protects, without them even knowing, never wanting to embarrass or trouble them (with Ma), or for them to the evil exists (with his little sister Maggie). Mickey sacrifices his own moral integrity to allow the ones he loves to keep theirs. But he's not a Saint either. He has flaws and a wicked sense of humour, and that keeps him from being too perfect or overly sentimental.

VG: I wish the book so much success, Paul - but suspect it doesn't need my good wishes. Here is just one review, from the eminent Booktrust:
Whatever your age, gender or nationality, so compelling is this narrative that while you read it you're eleven or twelve, on the cusp of puberty: a boy discovering your identity one summer holiday in Catholic Belfast at the height of The Troubles.
To grown-ups, Mickey Donnelly's the archetypal good boy. Polite and amenable, he'll do anything to help his mammy. It's just as well. Mickey's da is oppressed and floundering. He's an alcoholic, free with his fists, and prone to slipping his hand into Mickey's ma's purse to buy his next drink. That's why she keeps checking it's in her pocket. Mickey was heading for grammar school till lack of money ruined his chances. His brother tells him he's so soft he'll never survive the rough local school. If Mickey can't escape via grammar school, he'll escape to America through acting.
Paul McVeigh's Belfast is emotionally raw and brutal. The streets are barricaded, Brit soldiers drag children from their beds in the middle of the night, and their play parks are bomb sites. This is Troubles-era Belfast, though it could equally represent children's experience of warzones anywhere.  The Good Son is a triumph of empathy and the understanding of human dynamics, yet to say that is to vastly understate the range of McVeigh's writing. Mickey is the funniest, most endearing human being for whom we feel huge compassion as he faces each adversity. This novel envelops the reader with its humanity and its down-to-earth humour leaves you laughing.

The Good Son is published by Salt, and is available from all good bookshops. Support the indies!