Poetry Friday: Mirror (Sylvia Plath)

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Sylvia Plath’s poem is heart-rending to anyone who’s ever struggled with self-image, literally disliking what they see in the mirror in front of them or with their perception of themselves. When she calls the mirror a “little god”, she’s absolutely right in the petty yet all-consuming obsession that can result from putting too much faith in your perception of the reflection rather than trying to see the ‘truth’ – whatever that might be. It can be destroying, looking at your reflection and seeing what you think is less than what it should be, whether you struggle with body consciousness, weight, not being able to get your hair right, or whatever – it’s never as trivial as it sounds to someone else, and can be horrifyingly oppressive.

Plath’s mirror claims to reflect “faithfully” while the woman herself reaches for “candles or the moon”, trying to change her reflection and dim what she sees – but I think there’s enough language at the beginning – “swallow”, the protestations it’s “not cruel” – to suggest that she’s aware at least in part that what she sees is not necessarily truthful after all. The woman returns over and over, watching her young self “drown” not just in age, but in dislike of herself too.

Mirror

I am silver and exact. I have no preconceptions.
What ever you see I swallow immediately
Just as it is, unmisted by love or dislike.
I am not cruel, only truthful—
The eye of a little god, four-cornered.
Most of the time I meditate on the opposite wall.
It is pink, with speckles. I have looked at it so long
I think it is a part of my heart. But it flickers.
Faces and darkness separate us over and over.

Now I am a lake. A woman bends over me,
Searching my reaches for what she really is.
Then she turns to those liars, the candles or the moon.
I see her back, and reflect it faithfully.
She rewards me with tears and an agitation of hands.
I am important to her. She comes and goes.
Each morning it is her face that replaces the darkness.
In me she has drowned a young girl, and in me an old woman
Rises toward her day after day, like a terrible fish.

Creative writing inspiration: Well like an iceberg

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Creative writing inspiration: Well like an iceberg

Creative writing inspiration: Well like an iceberg

Find more inspiration on my Pinterest board

How to start a great essay

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Essay writing is a great way to practise writing skills, whether your preferred genre is fiction or non-fiction. You need to have a clear goal in mind, your phrasing needs to be both beautiful and clear, and you need to make every word, as when writing poetry, count.

It’s always been a great art form too – although I suppose essayists were something like the newspaper editorial columnists of their day! While columnists write generally on relatively transient and personal ideas, the great essayists wrote meditations where they really thought about the big questions. William Hazlitt and John Stuart Mill wrote essays in the Victorian era on everything from the need to give women the vote, to what the study of philosophy should be or critique of individual poets.

Most of us won’t be writing anything quite that elevated just yet, but we’ve all – I’m sure! – write. As April’s fast approaching and with it Easter, quickly followed by exam season (and the two weeks’ sun that always appear the moment you set foot in the exam hall!) I thought I’d turn a little towards the form of academic writing.

What is a great introduction?

A great introduction is essential for a great essay. It’s like starting out on a journey – if you don’t know where you’re going, you might get there eventually but it’ll take way too long, and it’s not that likely. So, a great introduction needs to:

  • Set up an argument or thesis.
  • Introduce your voice
  • Give the reader a map for the rest of the essay.

Planning from a question

Like I said, essays can be on all sorts of topics – and there’s a list of competitions below if anyone’s interested! The below topics are taken from the Trinity College Cambridge 2014 prize questions:

“People who are bored cannot tell stories” (Walter Benjamin). Is there any worthwhile place for boredom in the study of literature? Is it ever interesting to be bored?

What has been the contribution to human history of domesticated animals?

Is atheism scientific?

and my favourite this year:

If you were a Muggle, living in a Harry Potter world, things might well look to you pretty much as they do in actual fact. So how do you know that you are not such a Muggle? 

Working through question to introduction

Here is a question, written in a similar tone to those set for the AQA LitA AS-level Tennyson paper:

Remind yourself of ‘June Bracken and Heather’, the last poem in the selection. To what extent do you feel that this poem provides an appropriate conclusion to the selection?

You need to understand the question first – it’s asking whether this particular poem has the same themes and ideas that you would find in Tennyson’s poetry elsewhere in this selection by Michael Baron. If you gave someone this poem, would it be a true reflection of what Tennyson does?

From there, obviously you need to decide your broad answer to that question and, because it’s this particular exam board question, you need to compare it to some other poems so you meet the assessment objectives. My initial thoughts on the question would be:

  • It has some similar themes, like love (In Memoriam, Mariana, Lady of Shalott)
  • But it treats those themes differently, not thinking too much about grief (In Memoriam is grief-stricken)
  • It’s a much calmer, more beautiful and accepting poem – a lot of his are about loss (but Crossing the Bar is similar)
  • There’s a broader range of male/female relationships (Merlin & Vivien)

Breaking down an introduction:

That, actually, is a fairly decent essay plan. In a literary essay you have to do other things too like explore language, form and structure, but essentially, that is what I would be talking about as I go through the essay. So the introduction comes next, which I’ve broken into its parts:

“June Bracken and Heather” is an interesting end to the collection as it provides a calm, even serene, ending to the often-anguished discussion of loss, grief and death that frequently epitomises Tennyson’s work.

An opening sentence which shows immediate involvement with the question – gives the writer’s opinion of the poem itself (calm, serene) compared to the rest of the collection (often anguished). It has a very distinctive voice, using some very precise and thoughtful vocabulary (serene, anguished, epitomises) which tells me the writer has a strong opinion on this question and knows what they think of the poetry too.

As Tennyson himself suggested concluding his collections with “Crossing the Bar”, it seems likely that he wanted to end on a reflective note at peace with his age and the events of his life, rather than a more tumultuous emotive poem.

Here’s where we’re bringing in some of the points from the bullet point plan – mentioning Tennyson’s own wishes is interesting, because most people answering this question won’t know that, it suggests some background reading which indicates again you’re really thinking about this. There’s more descriptive language (tumultuous, reflective) which shows the writer’s response to the poetry.

“June Bracken and Heather” similarly portrays a man who is at peace with himself and his relationships, despite the difficulties he has experienced and written about in poems such as In Memoriam, exploring not only Hallam’s death but the subsequent doubt he experienced, or his mythology-inspired works such as Merlin and Vivien, where he explores more complex male/female relationships.

Returning to the original question to add some of the other bullet points – which means I have a very clear idea immediately what this essay is going to cover. The comparisons are interesting because they raise both similarities and differences with the other works, and a range of different themes to be explored later.

The introduction in full:

“June Bracken and Heather” is an interesting end to the collection as it provides a calm, even serene, ending to the often-anguished discussion of loss, grief and death that frequently epitomises Tennyson’s work. As Tennyson himself suggested concluding his collections with “Crossing the Bar”, it seems likely that he wanted to end on a reflective note at peace with his age and the events of his life, rather than a more tumultuous emotive poem. “June Bracken and Heather” similarly portrays a man who is at peace with himself and his relationships, despite the difficulties he has experienced and written about in poems such as In Memoriam, exploring not only Hallam’s death but the subsequent doubt he experienced, or his mythology-inspired works such as Merlin and Vivien, where he explores more complex male/female relationships.

In proportion

Introductions should also be in proportion to your essay. If you’re writing 2-3 pages, a lengthy paragraph is plenty. If you’re writing a page, then a couple of sentences may well be appropriate. In a dissertation, you might well spend a couple of pages setting up your ideas, definitions, and initial thoughts. When someone’s read your introduction, they should have a very clear sense of what they will read next. To follow the metaphor from earlier, it’s like getting in the car and giving the passenger the map with the directions – they’ll know where you’re going, and enjoy the ride more without trying to work it out alongside you.

Competition entries

Cambridge University – range of subjects, for Year 12 students

Commonwealth essay prize (under 18s)

Connells Guide essay prize (sixth form)

50 books that will change your life

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Was the title of the list posted on World Book Day last week! I have actually only read 26 of them – though with a lot, the reason for not yet reading them is that they’re YA fiction published after I was originally at that stage, I suppose, so it takes longer for me to get to them. “Change your life” is a big goal – I have actually had a couple of those recommended to me with that suggestion – one was The Fault in Our Stars which got me re-reading a lot of YA fiction, so maybe that counts? The other was The Life of Pi, which definitely did not change my life!! A book that has though, I think, is The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell, my favourite book.

I think the strategy is interesting – categorising books by what emotion they’ll provoke, which is a slightly different approach. Sometimes you’re just in the mood for something weepy (The Time Traveller’s Wife) and sometimes you want something inspirational (The Sparrow) and sometimes you just want plain old entertaining (The Hunger Games, Twilight).

How many have you read? Are there any on the list you’ve been meaning to get around to?

50 books to change your life

 

Theme: what it is and how to use it to make your writing sparkle

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This morning I started redrafting a story I wrote towards the beginning of last year and abandoned for reasons I can’t quite remember! I’ve read through it and had the ‘oh, actually it’s quite good’ thought, which is always pleasant – and far more likely after a long break from the work itself when your head’s not so buried in it.

In amongst the small ideas, it’s missing something broader – it’s lacking a central spine or theme, to unify it and really take the reader through the entire piece. It got me thinking about what really ‘theme’ is, and why it matters.

I’d define theme as what the story is about – not the plot or the characters, but the big moral or philosophical ideas about life, the universe and everything. Thinking about theme, you can see it in every novel and they’re always the stronger for having something more wide-reaching to say:

  • Harry Potter (J K Rowling) – the importance of friendship, of bravery and the courage to always do the right thing
  • Emma (Jane Austen) – being honest with yourself; allowing others to make their own decisions; realising you don’t always know best
  • The Lord of the Flies (William Golding) – how thin a veneer of civilisation we have, and how quickly it can be destroyed
  • The Fault in Our Stars (John  Green) – coping with illness, making the most of life

Not insignificant, then!! So, I went on a search to find what some others thought about theme and how to incorporate it into your writing.

I quite like this definition from Writer’s Digest:

Theme is the relevance of your story to life. To reality, as reflected in your fiction. Theme is love and hate, the folly of youth, the treachery of commerce, the minefield of marriage, the veracity of religion, heaven and hell, past and future, science versus nature, betrayal, friendship, loyalty, Machiavellian agenda, wealth and poverty, mercy and courage and wisdom and greed and lust and laughter.

Romance novelist Helen Fairfax has this interesting post – http://helenafairfax.com/2013/07/19/writing-tips-using-theme-to-deepen-your-writing/

where she discusses a workshop she went on to explore the idea of theme further and had this to say:

There can be several themes running through a novel, of course, but there should be one strong theme which is the emotional core of your book, and the main idea you’re exploring.

She suggests Pride and Prejudice’s opening lines give away the theme – searching for love – as well as the title – beware both pride and prejudice when judging people.

Useful points from her post include introducing the theme early – the title, first line or paragraph should give suggestions. Use the theme to help sub-plots or propel the main plot. In a longer novel, the sub-plots could circle around the major themes, developing it in different ways to the main plotline. Use the theme as metaphor or symbolism – in the names, setting or in the descriptive language you employ. In Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black, the theme of isolation echoes throughout, from the abandoned old house on the marsh, cut off by the causeway when the tide comes in, to the character’s desire to be alone leading him on a cycle ride to clear his head.

I’ve also gone back to Rachel Aaron’s 2k to 10k, which I find enormously helpful, to go over the structuring and hooks involved in building a story, which she calls story Velcro.

The current draft is around 11,000 words, and I expect it’ll probably end up around the 16-17k mark when I’m done. Next task is to take this reading, and return to my original text to develop the themes further and firmly embed those hooks!

Poetry Friday: Anne Hathaway (Carol Ann Duffy)

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A favourite of mine – have studied it a lot with students and it’s always proclaimed the favourite at some point. I think I first came across it when teaching GCSE but it’s just as popular at A-level, perhaps more so because I think the students can understand some of the nuances of longing a little more by then.

Shakespeare famously left Anne Hathaway his “second best bed”, as Duffy uses for the inspiration in her epigraph – because, it’s widely assumed, the best bed was the one reserved for guests and so he’s leaving her the bed they shared together.

On first reading, the poem is a beautiful elegy to a writer, full of fantastical imagery and lyrical fairytales: the height of romantic description. It is slow, thoughtful, and ends sombrely – the “casket of my widow’s head” meaning she’s left with just her memories and imaginations (casket also having the dual meaning of both coffin and a box for the most precious of documents and possessions).

On a second reading, however, the poem becomes more than that – it’s an intensely private recollection of a relationship, loving one another in the most intimate moments. The way they touched, kissed, the sensation Anne expresses that she is only here now because she has become something more or other than herself as a result of his having touched her, as if he has brought her to life. It’s far more physical than the elusive “verb dancing in the centre of a noun” would suggest at first thought, and therein lies some of its appeal for me. It’s a poem that requires a second reading but doesn’t demand it. You can read this, think it’s lovely, and move on. But it rewards a second look.

 

Anne Hathaway
by Carol Ann Duffy from The World’s Wife

‘Item I gyve unto my wife my second best bed …’
(from Shakespeare’s will)

The bed we loved in was a spinning world
of forests, castles, torchlight, clifftops, seas
where we would dive for pearls. My lover’s words
were shooting stars which fell to earth as kisses
on these lips; my body now a softer rhyme
to his, now echo, assonance; his touch
a verb dancing in the centre of a noun.
Some nights, I dreamed he’d written me, the bed
a page beneath his writer’s hands. Romance
and drama played by touch, by scent, by taste.
In the other bed, the best, our guests dozed on,
dribbling their prose. My living laughing love –
I hold him in the casket of my widow’s head
as he held me upon that next best bed.

Revamp or move on?

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I’ve just gone through a little computer-filing tidy up, trying to get my stuff in order, especially writing things. I still have a stack of paper ideas to get into a notebook – I’m aiming to have all ideas either in one digital scrivener file, or in a notebook.

I’m astounded by how many words I have written and discarded.

I’m not talking about drafts which eventually led to something finished, either, but something started where I’ve sometimes written upwards of 50,000 words, and abandoned without finishing. There’s three half-written novels and over a dozen short stories. The ‘ideas fragments’ files includes many many more, which haven’t been really developed at all.

So the question I’m now left to ponder is what to do with all of that? I’ve signed up for an Arvon course in the summer which I’m excited about, but I also want to be meaningful – it’s a great opportunity, part funded by a teacher’s grant, and it’s both expensive (even with the grant) and a week of holiday time. So I want to come out of it with something useful. I was thinking about redrafting something that’s been in my head for a long time – the only problem is, I don’t know how to get it out. It’s one of the 50k monsters. I’ve changed viewpoint, voice, tone, location, time period. I can’t figure out quite who this elusive character IS that I have in my mind, other than she seems to fit into everything, and nothing, all at the same time. She pops in and out of my head, but never brings her story with her. I quite dislike the airy-fairy idea of characters really existing – I’ve never really found that idea sits right with me, but at the same time she really does seem to be hiding from me.
I have a few ideas what to do with her – but nothing concrete. And while I don’t, I’m wary of starting yet another version of her story and ending up with thousands of words to discard with all the others.

Do I keep thinking about her, and trying to figure out where she comes from? Or do I move on, either to something brand new or another story that I have but have not finished? I don’t know. I do know that I’m ready to write, and I feel like I’m stumbling over her pushing herself into my brain.