I’m impressed by so many people that I don’t mention enough: teachers, firefighters, midwives, doctors and nurses and the amazing people who drive lorries, fix mechanical things, build houses and deliver parcels and packages. And kind people who readily give their time to others. I’m impressed too by libraries, audio books, thinkers, narrators, editors. And, I want to mention another group of people who inspire me in a big way today: writing groups. I’m a huge fan of them.
I experienced writing groups big time at Falmouth, when I was surrounded by so much talent, inquisitiveness, honesty; people writing in a range of genres that blew my mind. We recorded our writing, acted it out, blogged it, critiqued each other. It was an incredible opportunity.
Then I joined a writing group in Totnes with a really enabling tutor and such kind, able writers. I met people there who changed the way I looked at writing, who entertained me and made me feel very much part of a fantastic group. They’ve recently published an awesome antholoogy. I’ll love them forever.
I moved house and became part of a small local group with the most generous-spirited and amazing people. Once a month, I meet other writers who share their poetry and prose and listen to each other’s new ideas. It’s a great atmosphere, supportive and positive, and it moves us all forward, makes us better writers. There is a woman who writes so beautifully it makes me cry; another who is working on a dual time-line story that I believe is so good that it could change the world. There’s a man who writes fantasy fiction that blows my mind. Another man who is super-talented y performs poignant, witty monologues that are hilariously entertaining. He really is as good as Alan Bennett, and should perform his work on Radio Four. The group is organised by a man who can turn his hand to painting, writing, making music. He is gifted teacher too: an incredible inspiration.
During the last lockdown, I was part of a zoom group of women writers who published an anthology. Led by a talented and experienced local writer, we chatted each week and shared our own work. It was not only a pleasure to meet such fantastic writers, but it was a lifesaver in times where socialising with clever, like-minded people was difficult.
I can’t recommend writing groups enough – there is something in the sharing of each other’s work, listening to each other, the process of trying out different styles, developing skills. Everyone is there for the same reason, because they love writng and enjoy reading, they want to improve and to help each other; because creating stories and poems and playing with the written word is fun.
Last week, I was discussing with my son what I should write for the next group session, and we were talking about ‘Julia’ by Sandra Newman, a book that will be out next year. It’s a fascinating look at Orwell’s ‘1984’ from the point of view of Julia, who is Winston Smith’s unlikely partner: there are so many unanswered questions about the character in Orwell’s book: what happened to her after she was arrested and tortured, and why she was Winston’s girlfriend at all, as they don’t appear to have anything in common from the outset.
I love books that investigate unexplored characters in literature: examples include ‘The Wide Sargasso Sea’ by Jean Rhys, which is Bertha Mason’s story; ‘Hamnet’ by Maggie O’Farrell, which never mentions Shakespeare by name. I’d love to write a book about a ‘hidden’ character myself.
So, below, here’s a piece of character exploration I wrote from the viewpoint of a famous person from history or myth whose point of view is seldom explored. This was my recent, hurriedly-scribbled and unedited contribution to the monthly writers’ group.
If you know of a local writers’ group, I’d hugely recommend giving it a try. It’s something I find myself looking forward to, and enjoying even more than I thought I would. Or you could always come to the one I go to – you’d be made very welcome.
It vexes me that no one wants to hear the truth. History has always been about the men, telling their tales of war and courage, of treachery and tricks. They never spared a moment to think of me, although I am the person they cite as the catalyst for their combat, she who must be blamed for the blood spilled, for the hacked and heaped bodies. I have been silent, the only woman in a story of heroes and rogues. I am the passive one, the one who caused the world to change and men to die by doing nothing more than glance in a mirror.
A synecdoche. Now there’s a good Greek word. You’ll be familiar with it – all hands on deck, means all the men on deck. It’s a figure of speech in which a part represents the whole. And I’m simply a synecdoche. It’s all about my face, that represents all of me. The rest, my voice, my brain, my heart, my soul, nothing else matters, only my face.
Of course, I’ve been aware of my face for a long time. I know the power it has, particularly over weak men. It is an arresting face; there’s something about the shining eyes, the curve of the lips, the appealing tilt of the chin, the combination of all parts making a perfect whole. My face stops me sometimes when I look at it in the mirror. I forget just how striking it is, then I remember. But I am not my face. I am someone else.
Isn’t it interesting that women with beautiful faces are seen as worth little more, validated only by their beauty? My husband was the first to teach me this. He was a man split in two: he loved to wear me on his arm like a bright jewel, but he detested anyone who gazed upon me. I was young when I married him. I’d never known love. Instead, I knew the fear of being in his brawny arms; I loathed his bad breath and the spittle in his beard. Some men spoke of me as scheming, lustful, treacherous, weak. Others have painted me as a goddess, the daughter of Zeus and Leda. In truth I was a woman living in someone else’s life, an accessory, nothing more than a face.
Then it happened, and again it was my fault or, more accurately, the fault of my face. All those ships were launched, ships full of men swearing loudly to fulfil their oaths and bring me back. The rumours began: I had left Menelaus because I had been seduced by Paris. I could not possibly have made the choice by myself. Others said I was abducted: my husband preferred this story, as it made him the wronged one, the vengeful one, my rescuer. I had not betrayed him; I had simply given him a valid reason to go to war with another man, with thousands of men. I had justified his desire to shed blood. What could be more of a prop to his manhood?
And once I was in Troy, with boats full of shouting men pursuing me, the wind failing and lifting again, I was no longer important; only their need for victory and revenge mattered. When Menelaus called upon Priam to hand me back, where was I? Regretful, weeping on my knees? Drinking wine on a couch with my lover? Fearing for my life, begging sanctuary? No-one thought of me: it was more important to scheme, to build a wooden horse, to feel smug and sly with a sword in their hands.
Then, when it was all over, as hot steam rose from the bloodied bodies on the sand, they remembered me again. I was brought out before Menelaus, the crowd revelling in the sight of a victorious king who was betrayed by his treacherous, unfaithful wife. The story goes that he raised his sword to cleave me in two, but I let my robe fall from my shoulders, and the sight of my beauty caused it to drop from his hand.
Of course, this is all untrue. But my story is written in rhyme and painted on canvas by so many men, so it will be believed. It is only the story that survives, the tale of the beauty of one woman’s face and how the curve of a mouth and the sparkle of eyes and the tilt of a chin can bring men to their knees. But in this myth, there is no mention of the woman’s brain or her voice or her heart or her soul. It was written by men, those who love to fight and rape and slaughter, so how can it be true?
Nobody ever asked me for my version of the story. It is not important. It is all about my face.