{Wed 18 February 2009}   Watercolour revisited
Watercolour revisited

It’s amazing how a fresh project and the smallest amount of feedback can help one to see old work with new eyes. I’m working on my first e-poem – a conversion of an existing paper-based one. Discussion in the E-Poetry module of the MA made me realise that some of the poem’s “argument” had never made its way from my head to the page. In trying to describe my first experience with watercolour painting, which challenged all sorts of preconceptions I’d held about the medium, I was so focused on my emotional response that I hadn’t given a clear enough picture of the activity to justify my response.

I’ve brought back some structures (layout, punctuation) that I used in earlier versions, but also introduced a few new words, including a whole new line, and deleted some unnecessary ones. I’m pleased with the textual result now (the e- bit is still to come), although in two minds about the title – should I revert to the original title of “Watercolour”, or retain “Primeval Watercolour”?

You can see one of the many earlier versions here, if you’re interested, but here’s the latest version:


Primaries pounce
on the primitive page,
usurping space with bizarre pizzazz;
opposing waves squall and break,
brim-brilliant crests crash,
create a jazz of chaos:
interference drags a screaming thread of blue
across careless orange splotches;
raging red gobbles new green;
panicking through cooling pools of sulphur,
a purple pulse breathes whirls of fire,
willing them to swirl against caking air,
to savage expectations, flay the fair
and even strokes of intent
with edges of the depths,
fan water into flame
with split-atomic spatterings
of aquamarine and shame,
of line, design, all reason—

Oh, Image, imagine
Imagination’s breathing:

Update 12Aug09: See the digital version of this poem here.

The Loquat Tree

Following the “film of  your life” exercise in our Memoir workshop with Jonathan Taylor, one of the next instructions was to create ” the photo of your life” by choosing one of the memories to “write a passage describing minutely where you were, what you were wearing, what was around you (scenery, furniture, wallpaper, carpets, flowers, etc.), who else was there, what happened, what was said, and so on. Be as detailed as you possibly can. If you can’t remember details, make them up.”

I found this exercise interesting  because it caused me to doubt the accuracy of my memory, and also because it engaged my interest in research!

One thing that struck me as I read the question and looked for instances in my descriptions to answer it, was that I have absolutely no memory at all of what I was wearing at any point.

I had decided to write about climbing the loquat tree, but as I tried to describe the texture of the bark, and its smell, I suddenly wondered whether I was remembering it correctly, so I looked it up on Google. I found very many sites giving descriptions of “Eriobotrya japonica”, with varying assessments of the size of the mature tree, the number and prevalence of its varieties and fruit colours, and contradictory descriptions of it as a “shrub” or a “tree”.  I am sure that the tree in our garden in Northcliff was very large; clearly it had been there for many years (although a smaller tree may be “large”, when one is seven years old, of course, but I know that it was climbable).  I am also sure that it was not a “shrub” – I remember a  large single trunk, although it was vertically ridged, so possibly the individual “shrub” branches had grown together over many years. This is possibly why I found hand- and footholds to enable me to climb. The shrub-like growth of the higher branches may also be why I remember that it was not very comfortable to sit in the tree for long periods of time (as I sometimes did in other trees).  Suddenly, simply “remembering” is not very simple at all! But the discoveries I make during the process are intriguing, and I see why it may be necessary to “make things up”. Even if I base my descriptions on research, so that they are “likely” to be fairly accurate, that does not make them into my own memories.

Anyway, here’s what emerged:


My hands slid over the bark of the tree, seeking purchase. The bark was smooth over the sinuous vertical ridges of the separate boles that had grown together long ago to form this wide trunk, but split in places by small lumpy outcrops or the base of a broken-off twig.  I loved the occasional harshness that pressed against my skin, and the smell of the dust disturbed by my hands as it mingled with the strong oriental perfume of the few white flowers that had not yet given way to fruit. As I found a handhold, then another, then a foothold, I entered the world of the tree, leaving sunshine and everything else behind. My goal was the sweet orange-yellow globes that I could see hanging amidst the shiny dark green leaves above me. I heaved myself up, scraping my tummy against the cool wood as I stretched for branches small enough to hold onto securely. It was only when I had settled, breathless, into the sharp fork between two of these branches, that I noticed I had grazed my knee. It wasn’t sore. I studied the greenish-grey dirt around the broken skin. It must have rubbed off the tree bark as I climbed. Then, as a shaft of sunlight played across my shoulders, I lost interest in the wound and looked again towards the golden fruit. Placing my left foot uncomfortably into the sharp fork beneath me and the right on a knot in a neighbouring branch, I seized the branch in front of me with both hands and stood up. From this position, I was able to reach up and break off a cluster of the fruit. I had done it! I noticed that I could now see through the leaves into the lower garden. Apart from the fact that the grass was fairly short, there was no sign of human habitation or civilisation. Inside this tree, clutching my prize, I was king of my own wild world.

Ode to Autumn by John Keats – Wordled by Tia

Today we had a fun exercise for the E-Poetry module – take a classic (out of copyright) poem and convert it into an e-poem. Using Wordle feels like cheating, because it’s so easy, but I think the effect is rather pleasing. I just played around with colour choices a bit to obtain an Autumn palette, and fiddled with the randomization and shape to get the impression of Autumn leaves swirling in a park.

Click the image to be taken to the larger version on the Wordle site.

Oh, by the way, “Anonymous” is me. I didn’t realise the implication of attribution when I chose not to input my name. Moving too quickly…

Ode to Autumn by John Keats

The subjective truth of memories for Memoir

This week in the MA we’ve been working on Memoir. There has been useful discussion around the subject of “truth” in the genre: the difference between memoir and biography, the necessity of being entertaining in order to attract a publisher and an audience, and therefore the necessity of holding to a theme, being selective in what one portrays,  which might mean not telling everything, or even embellishing sometimes  in order to hold the attention… what this means for a supposedly “non-fiction” genre, the expectation that the audience understands that a memoir presents subjective rather than objective truth, etc.

For an exercise, we were instructed to run “the film” of our lives, beginning with our earliest memories, fitting in what we could in ten minutes. I took a little longer over it, as the act of remembering in this way is foreign to me and I felt I was exercising nearly-atrophied muscles. I found that I remembered impressions rather than events – and for some reason they are all to do with being outside in the garden. It was difficult to write a quick list, because the act of writing is actually what draws out the memory for me. I start with a fleeting impression and can’t progress to the next one until I’ve dragged it out to coherence word by word. I also checked a few facts with my Mom, with a startling result in one case. This is what came to me (it is unpolished – the exercises that build on this one are better written – see subsequent posts).


I remember cherry trees when I was three years old – how I loved the hugeness of those three trees in our back garden and how exciting the long cherry season was. They were different types of cherry so the fruit kept coming for ten weeks (I have that time detail through checking with my mom now). We only lived in that house in Linden, Johannesburg for a few months. There was also a swimming pool incident – I remembered that my brother (Ian, one year old) nearly drowned in the low water that was left after it had been drained for repair, but my mom tells me now that it wasn’t my brother but our friend Trevor, who was slightly younger than Ian.

We moved from Linden, Johannesburg to Cape Town. The house there had very thick walls – I don’t have a visual memory of these, but they felt solid and cool and the fact that they were thick has stayed with me because there was an earthquake while we were there and much was made of the fact that the house didn’t fall down. I associate our faithful, not-too-beautiful, but very much beloved dog, Juno, a boxer, with the garden of this house – a spacious half-acre with no trees – maybe that’s why it seems spacious in my memory. (In fact, my mother tells me, we acquired Juno from the SPCA when I was two and we were living in Parkview, Johannesburg (before we moved to Linden). Mom says that Dad and I set out to rescue her from imminent euthanasia at the prompting of a dog-finder who had been unable to find our lost Rhodesian Ridgeback who had wandered. As I was only two, I hardly think I was the initiator of this noble mission, but who knows? I don’t remember any of it.)

In another house, in Northcliff, Johannesburg, where we lived for three years (my age – six to eight), I remember a quince tree in a neglected corner of the garden behind the house. It wasn’t an attractive climbing tree (or bush? For some reason, I think of it as a bush) but mysterious because we were unfamiliar with quinces – no one really knew what to do with them. The light yellow fruit was so large, but so inedible! There was also an avocado tree, I think, which didn’t give much fruit so we thought of it as a disappointment. In the large front garden, there was an enormous loquat tree. I could climb into this, with difficulty. I liked the difficulty and the way it made me feel especially agile and clever when I overcame it. The fruit was tasty when ripe, but awfully bitter when not. Although the ripe orange-yellow fruit was smooth to touch, I seem to remember that it was also furry at some stage – maybe in early development or just around the base?

As I think about that loquat tree, more impressions from the outside of the house begin to cluster around it. There was a large swimming pool with a tough blue plastic cover over it. I remember the smell of that plastic, and its yielding support underfoot when we walked on it (which was very exciting as we weren’t allowed to do it). I think there was also a wendy house or a shed or other such hiding place at the bottom of the garden beyond the loquat tree – or if there wasn’t, we children met there as though there were when we pretended to be Peter (me) and Jane (I forget whose role that was) and others from Enid Blyton’s Secret Seven. I also remember games where I was an Indian warrior called Bravery. I presume my brothers were cowboys – oh yes! I remember the cap guns – toy guns that would give a loud report as they were fired – simply a hammer coming down on a strip of tape, and the smell of the tiny curl of smoke that would rise from the gun. I always preferred a bow and arrow – I’d somehow formulated a concept of the noble savage – must have been from something I’d read.

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{Mon 2 February 2009}   Seeking the ideal daily routine
Seeking the ideal daily routine

Sue Thomas posted this question under Talking Points in our Creative Nonfiction module today:
I came across this very interesting website http://dailyroutines.typepad.com/ which prompted me to ask – what is your daily routine? Do you have one? Do you wish you had? What works for you?

I found this website fascinating. One thing that struck me particularly was how few writers write for more than three or four hours a day. Another was how many of them write in the morning. I am also a morning person. Sometimes, I jump out of bed with a huge sense of urgency at 3, 4, 5 or 6 and head straight to my computer. If I do start writing then and if nothing else actively demands my attention (I am very good at procrastinating about things that should be done but aren’t actually shouting at me), then I can write or design projects easily until 11 or 12 am.

Usually, though, I have a much more disciplined routine which results in far less writing! This is because I’m married. Because I currently work and study from home and my husband has to travel to work, all the housework and catering falls to me. His necessary routine dictates mine. We rise at 7 (if I’m not already up) and I must have a cooked breakfast on the table by 8am at the latest so that he can be at work by 9. I usually fit in some housework and about 45 minutes of exercise between 7 and 9 as well. I am much more regular about exercise if I do it in the morning. If I miss, sometimes I can persuade myself to get on the stepper in front of the TV in the evening, but I have to talk to myself sternly to make myself do this!

From 9 I’m back at the computer and work through until 12 or 12.30, when I break for lunch for an hour (in which time I’ll do some laundry and possibly get onto the stepper in front of the TV if I missed it in the morning). Then at 13:00 or 13:30 back to the computer until 6.30 pm. I often have a concentration slump somewhere between 2 and 4pm, so I might read online news, answer emails, browse websites or even watch TV then. At 6.30 I start preparing dinner to serve at 7pm (I don’t do fancy cooking!). By 8pm I’ll finish clearing up, laying the breakfast table and preparing my husband’s work lunch for the following day. Then it’s time for any collaboration with him on online projects or domestic issues, or if we don’t have anything pressing, we’ll both return to our computers until 10pm (well, we always say 10pm, but inevitably end up only getting into bed by 11 or later because he’s a night owl).

I deal with household admin and finances – property, banking, insurance, investment issues, etc. for at least an hour a day. Most of this is online or call centre work which I dislike intensely, and some letter-writing, and it usually goes better if I do it in the morning, but I often leave it until late in the afternoon.

Unfortunately, I don’t function well on less than 8 hours’ sleep, or if I get to bed any later than 11pm. I would so love to be one who could manage on 6 hours!

Sometimes, when I’m deeply engaged in a project or piece of writing, none of the above applies. I’ve been known to spend 12 to 18 hours solid at my computer, only drinking or eating when my other half realizes that I’m shrivelling up and brings me something.

So, that’s my reality, which doesn’t really work for me. One possible improved schedule would be:

06:00 Yoga, self-care, planning
07:00 Light breakfast; read
07.30 Write, study
11:00 Online chores
12:00 Lunch (main meal); read or walk
13:00 Write, study, work
17:00 Housework, dinner prep with music
18:00 Walk or read
19:00 Light dinner and clearing up with music
20:00 Read, play games, collaborate, dance, singing, drawing or music practice
09:00 Prep for sleep
09:30 Read in bed
10:15 Sleep

Seems so simple…. why is it so hard to make this happen regularly?

One answer: Csikszentmihalyi talks of the “activation energy” needed to transition into activities that produce flow, and of the dangers of the lure of passive activities like TV that require very little activation energy. TV is a big problem for me because it’s easier than all the other things. If I could, I would throw it out, but hubby won’t hear of it. Although, recently, I’m glad to report, I’ve been so interested in what I’m learning and doing on the course that I’ve been watching a lot less.

I’d be happy to hear what routines others have or have tried in the past, and especially what motivates you to stick to them.

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et cetera