Claire King

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Posts Tagged ‘Sarah Dunant’

Literary ladies, canons, bottoms and inspiration.

Posted on: April 30th, 2011 by Claire - 6 Comments

I have just the juiciest and best talks on writing and books linked below! They’re taken from the launch of the Newnham College Literary Archive in February. You might not have heard of Newnham. I spent three of the most amazing years of my life there in its beautiful surroundings.

But even more fabulous than the gardens and the buildings are the alumnae, of whom you will have heard. I am privileged to count myself amongst such amazing women as Sylvia Plath, AS Byatt, Margaret Drabble, Salley Vickers, Mary Hoffman, Caroline LawrenceJenn Ashworth, Ali Smith, Patricia Duncker, Sarah Dunant, Gillian Allnutt, Wendy Mulford, Claire Tomalin; Elaine Feinstein; Lisa Jardine, Joan Bakewell, Katharine Whitehorn, Julia Neuberger… It reads like a ‘Who’s who?’ of literature, doesn’t it? And that’s before you even start broadening out to include actresses and directors such as Miriam Margolyes, Eleanor Bron, Emma Thompson…

Sorry, I am a little bit star-struck. So imagine, in February I found myself sitting in a small room, densely packed with women of this caliber, to talk about literature. It was a very exciting and inspirational moment for me! And that was really the idea Newnham had in creating the literary archive – to bring together donations of work, photos, manuscripts etc from these and other alumnae, to celebrate the achievements of Newnhamites past, and to encourage and inspire current and future students.

You’ll notice that I’m only mentioning women. Newnham is an all-women college, and whilst in many respects that doesn’t make a bit of difference to studying there and our lives afterwards, it does mean that topics specific to women, or examined from a women’s point of view are often on the table. I don’t believe this is intended to create a gender gap, but to acknowledge that one exists and take that as a context.

Over eighty years ago, Virginia Woolf visited Newnham to give a talk to the students on ‘Women and Fiction’. She discussed the idea that, ‘a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction’ and this talk was to become  ‘A Room of One’s Own’, an essay that has proved inspirational for many women writers ever since.

Alison Wells’ recent series on Mother-Writers on her blog highlights, I think, that we still have a lot in common with women writers of the last century. Do we have the space yet to write as successfully as we could – either physically, or figuratively?

I’m so pleased that the video clips of the talks and the Q&A have been made available and I really recommend having a look when you have a chance (men and women alike, of course!). They are really worth it.

Here are the links, enjoy:

Sarah Dunant on Renaissance art, inspiration for her novels, and babies’ bottoms. This talk inspired this post Everything Speaks.

Nicola Beauman on Persephone books, and why women write so well. This talk inspired my post The Illicit Pleasures of Dorothy Whipple

Claire Tomalin on biography

Q&A Part 1 (on Feminism; female writers and racy novels; the literary canon; crime writing; and is there a difference between men and women?) and Part 2  (Male/Female ratios in publishing and reviewing; positive discrimination; The Orange Prize; the impact of new university fees on reading literature at universities)

Everything Speaks: The Intention in Our Words

Posted on: February 25th, 2011 by Claire - 28 Comments

Further to my last post where I wrote, tongue in cheek, a list of rules *they* would have us follow when writing, a lot of discussion has taken place on the blogosphere. Are there rules? Guidelines? How does it work? Debi Alper will be speaking on this topic at the York Festival of Writing this year, and in responding to this question on her blog I crystallised the only ‘rule’ for writing in which I truly believe:

Everything speaks – so write with intention.

‘Everything speaks’ is a principle that I have been using in my day job for some years. There it refers to the environment into which we welcome our clients, the way that we present ourselves and interact. From the books on the shelves and how they are arranged to the speed at which we move – everything gives a message to others. It can either be put there intentionally, or can exist unintentionally, but the message will be there nonetheless.

 

I was recently reminded of another way in which this axiom is relevant in a brilliant talk by Author Sarah Dunant. She was presenting the Italian art which had inspired her renaissance trilogy and used the painting Venus of Urbino as one of her examples. I don’t have one I can publish here on the blog, but a quick google and you can have a look at it.

I am utterly ignorant in art history, although Sarah’s talk was very accessible. She highlighted the detail in these paintings which provide clues and messages for the viewer. The painting is not just a pretty picture, it is dripping with symbolism. Everything speaks.

For example, Venus is staring straight at the viewer. This is a remarkable departure from the way women had been portrayed (beautiful, madonna-like, eyes turned down). In the background is a sleeping dog, likely symbolism suggesting unfaithfulness. The pot of myrtle in the window: a symbol of constancy. And what are those maids doing in the background? Is the chest they are rummaging in a marriage chest? Look at that screen behind her – bisecting the painting and pointing right down to her loins, which occupy centre stage in the picture…it’s a story all in itself.

There are clear parallels between artists and writers. Just as the painter chooses a palette of colours, a composition, the elements of the painting, so, as writers, do we:

We choose the point of view according to the focus we want to give to our story, the perspective, the light and the shade.

We choose the tense that will give us the feeling we want, that will best add to the reader’s experience.

We choose the setting, the palette of colours, the scents and sounds of the backdrop to highlight themes, to evoke emotions in the reader.

We balance the action and the description, choose the moments of tension and release…In a nutshell, every line of dialogue, every apple on every tree, every pot boiling over or empty letterbox, every character flaw – everything in our writing speaks. And at the expense of any rules that *they* may set, it is this that we should always remember.

In this case, the best we can do is educate ourselves about the craft of writing: through reading, through learning, through experimenting and practicing. In this way we build the resources available to us so that ultimately we can write consciously, with intention, and achieve the result we want.

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