Collecting stories with Anna Maria Murphy

On Saturday I went up to Liskeard for a writing workshop – Collecting Stories. I’d been looking forward to it since I first heard about it.  Not only was it an opportunity to spend the whole day focusing on writing, but it was also a chance to meet Anna Maria Murphy (best known to those outside Cornwall for her work with the Kneehigh theatre company).  I’ve been an admirer of her work for some time, so I was keen to see her in action and find out more about her writing projects and processes.

Process is one of the things that I’m always interested in when I talk to other writers.  It’s something extremely individual.  But the one thing that almost all writers seem to agree on is the importance of the notebook.  How each writer might use their notebook, and what type of notebook they choose is a different matter entirely.  Discussing writing materials reminded me of how much I used to enjoy writing in pencil.  It’s something I haven’t done for a while; I’m not sure how I got out of the habit, but it’s one I intend to take up again.  There’s just something about the flow of writing in pencil that you don’t get with a biro…

After spending some time in the garden using the natural world as inspiration for kennings, we set off to explore Liskeard.  Anna Maria Murphy opened our eyes to the wealth of possibilities.  Potential inspiration is everywhere – we found plenty of ideas for stories and characters in the car park.  As we walked, we created our own ‘story maps’ of our journey, jotting down details that we could use later.

collecting storiesCollecting stories in the car park

Our next challenge was to go into charity shops (often a particularly good source of stories) and either talk to the people working there about the most unusual items they’d come across, or choose an item of clothing, and conjure up what kind of person might have worn it.  We also spent a while surreptitiously observing people, taking note of what they were wearing and their mannerisms.  What the people shopping in Liskeard thought of us, scribbling away furiously in our notebooks, I don’t know, but plenty of people were happy to stop and talk to us.

Back at the Liskerrett Centre, we shared our stories and looked at ways of developing characters from the material we’d collected.  It was heartening to realise how much could be gathered in a short space of time.  I came away feeling inspired, with a notebook full of ideas ready for potential development.

Stories, it seems, are everywhere.  You just need to know how to look for them.  Now, where did I put my pencil…

The Collecting Stories workshop was part of the Vital Spark Festival – a celebration of creativity in Liskeard that runs throughout January and February.


Discovering treasure

Last week I headed up to Aberystwyth to the National Library of Wales to do some research for the latest project I’ve been invited to take part in.

26 Treasures has been set up by writers’ organisation This year’s project follows on from the successful partnership with the V&A last year.

I’m one of 26 writers who have been paired with an object, or ‘treasure’ from the National Library of Wales.  Each of us has to write exactly 62 words in response to the piece we’ve been allocated.

Some of the writers will be writing in Welsh, others in English.  Each response will be translated into the other language, giving the project a lovely bilingual element (it will also be part of the Translation Challenge at the National Eisteddfod).

The first step was to make an appointment to meet my treasure in person.  So off I set, admiring the Welsh countryside and enjoying the companionship of Radio 4 as I drove.  All I had to go on was a title ‘Two Sisters of Llanfechell’ and that it was a photo.  I have to admit, I was intrigued.

I’d already registered online, and when I arrived I had to have my photo taken for a reader’s card so I could access the reading rooms.  With security checks and guardians appeased, I was finally able to see my treasure.

The photograph dates back to c. 1875, and is of two servant girls, Cadi and Sioned.  I sat and contemplated it for a while, wondering what these women would think if they knew that I’d travelled all that way to see their photo, years later in the 21st century.

Then I started doing a little digging.  It turned out that there’s an even more fascinating story behind the photo.  It’s part of the John Thomas collection held by the National Library of Wales. Thomas made his living as a photographer travelling around Wales from the 1860s onwards.  This was a time of great change – the railways had opened up the country, and the traditional way of life was changing.  It was also the time when photographs were becoming very popular, and even the working classes collected small portrait photographs of the celebrities of the time, from popular preachers to the royal family or society figures.

But what John Thomas also did was unusual, radical even, for the time.  He took working class people and travellers and dressed them up in fine clothes, photographing them with a fancy backdrop.  He made them appear as if they were something other than what they actually were, subverting Victorian conventions in a very modern way.

My photograph shows Cadi and Sioned in their working clothes, but there’s a twin with them dressed up in finer apparel.  I wonder what they thought of that?

Onto the writing.  Now how am I going to fit all that into a mere 62 words?

In search of lost time

Time.  It’s strange how sometimes weeks can fly by, but sometimes a few minutes feel like hours.

Most people seem to live such fast-paced lives; we’re always rushing. I noticed it particularly when I was working in London.  Even when you’re not actually dashing from one commitment to another, there’s something about being in the city that speeds everything up.  You rush to get on the underground.  Slow-walking tourists annoy you and having to queue for more than a minute has you tapping your foot impatiently and muttering under your breath about why some people take so long.

Often we’re so busy trying to cram everything into our already-overflowing lives that we rarely take the time to enjoy the experience of doing something.  Obviously there are some things that you just want over as quickly as possible.  Trips to the dentist, for example.

A few years ago I spent a few months travelling around New Zealand and Australia.  The opportunity to step off the treadmill was an enlightening experience.  With few responsibilities, it was the perfect opportunity to really experience everything – to be in the moment.

Unfortunately, real life beckoned me back before long.  But feeling of being in the moment is something I’ve tried to hold on to.  A few minutes a day can be enough.  And it doesn’t have to be anything extraordinary.  Sitting looking out of my window and watching the sun glinting off the water made me realise how lucky I am to live in such a beautiful place.

And it also gave me an idea for a short story…