Reading the South workshops at Worthing library offered participants the chance to explore local history archives and create illustrated poems about places or events – this one by Sarah Rogers about Parsonage Row in Tarring.
Reading the South workshops at Worthing library offered participants the chance to explore local history archives and create poems about places or events, illustrated with lino-cuts. Artist Zara Slattery was on hand to teach the technique, here executed to great effect by Mags Bradley, with her poem about the Coast Cafe in Worthing.
Worthing library was bright with balloons when I arrived for the final Reading the South creative writing workshop. It was the library’s 40th birthday, and there’d been celebrations throughout the day as staff and library users shared cake and memories. I would have been almost five years old when the building first opened, and I can well remember my excitement when I discovered the red bean bags dotted around the children’s section. A book and a bean bag – bliss!
Forty years on, I felt a different sense of anticipation as I walked into the library foyer. I was leading an extra workshop which had been organised in response to the great demand for Reading the South creative writing sessions. I wondered what kind of group this would be? How would they respond to the extracts and exercises I’d prepared? Age-wise we turned out to be a mixed bunch, from young students to retirees. Many were from Worthing, others had relocated to Sussex quite recently. Previous sessions had included writers at different levels (including some with MAs and published work on their CVs), however this group all described themselves as complete beginners. Is it wrong that the phrase ‘fresh meat’ flashed into my mind? Perhaps ‘blank slates’ would be more appropriate…
During this session, we focused on first person narrative as a way of developing character, looking at extracts from John Fowles (The Collector), Iris Murdoch (The Sea, The Sea) and Nathan Filer (The Shock of the Fall). I was impressed once again by the imaginative and original responses to the writing exercises, with some memorable Sussex characters and settings which participants will soon be sharing on this website. There was a lot of laughter during this session, as well as interesting discussion around the subject of character, for example how characters can – and arguably should – drive plot, rather than vice versa.
I might not have been clutching a balloon as I left the library that night, but my mood was definitely celebratory. Reading the South has been such an enjoyable and inspirational experience for me and, I hope, the many readers and writers who’ve attended the various workshops, reading groups and events. I’d like to thank Jackie, Lyndsey and Julie for organising the Worthing sessions – and special thanks also to my workshop groups for sharing their enthusiasm and their creativity.
In my reading group sessions at Worthing Library we explored the relationship between place, culture, role and identity. Throughout, I felt as if the gist of the matter always floated just beyond my understanding. Now, at the end of my involvement with Reading The South, I feel like things might finally be starting to crystallise.
For the last session I brought a new book to read from to contrast with my own: award-winning Albanian author Elvira Dones’ remarkable novel, Sworn Virgin.
Hana Doda, the protagonist of Dones’ book, occupies many selves during the story. She is a girl from a mountain village, then a university student, then a man. The decision to live as a man is a result of how bound Hana is to her native place and culture. It’s only when she finally tears herself away from the mountains and emigrates to America that she can re-emerge, become a woman again and reconnect with her authentic self. For Hana, her homeland, her roots, are both a refuge and a trap. In an earlier reading group session one of the participants had talked about how moving to a new place, rather than weakening our sense of self, can offer us instead the opportunity to reinvent ourselves. In Sworn Virgin, Hana’s departure from the place that has always defined her allows her to finally become herself.
For my own part, over the course of Reading the South I have started to feel differently about being in West Sussex, about being in Worthing. Since moving here I’ve often wondered at my sense of incongruity. It’s a feeling that’s been hard to define. I just don’t feel at home. I’ve often wondered if it’s just me or if it’s just about the difficulty of adapting London notions to a smaller town. Because it goes without saying that there is much less flux in a town like Worthing. In London new narratives arise as a matter of course. People arrive to study, to start work, to explore the big city, to catch their big break, to escape from their beginnings. There is a constant sense of potentiality. It does not feel so in Worthing. More usually this is where people move to when they want to slow down. Consequently it’s not unusual to come up against a certain kind of discomfort, even mistrust, around new ideas, a communal mind-set which can be creatively stifling. But I’ve gradually started to understand that there’s more to it than just that.
At the start of Reading The South I had assumed that place informs, to a greater or lesser degree, some fundamental part of our identity. What I hadn’t considered was whether the converse might also be true. In the last few weeks I’ve been following the news about the London Garden Bridge project. It’s baffling to read the list of suggested prohibitions for users of this proposed new urban space: no running, no cycling, no picnics, no large groups. It strikes me that a garden, on a bridge or otherwise, is a space that demands inhabitation. It requires human narratives to be embroidered into it to make it fully the thing that it is meant to be. A garden bridge should have not just picnics and runners but also espresso carts and ice-cream vendors and communal Tai Chi sessions and buskers and pre-schoolers chalking multicoloured pavement art. Because without these things such a place will lack meaning, cannot achieve full place-hood. And place-hood, like self-hood, surely must continue to evolve, otherwise all that remains for it is to ossify.
The result of all these various threads of thought is that I‘ve been wondering whether, like Hana Doda, it’s time to re-emerge rather than reinvent. I’ve worked here for years as a doctor, but my heart is a writer’s heart. And so, lately, I’ve finally stopped thinking of myself as transient in Worthing and started wondering how I might now weave my most authentic narrative into the communal one. With a friend, I’ve started programming a series of literary events to bring new voices to Worthing. We are setting up after-school book-clubs for able readers and planning a children’s mini lit-fest with the hope that we might play our part in inspiring the next generation of writers here. The effect of doing these things feels to me like an act of affirmation but also, at long last, of re-connection.
My family moved to Worthing in the early 1970s when I was a toddler. From my bedroom window I had a view of the allotments opposite and the wide alley which ran along one side of the veg plots. As a young girl I would puzzle over the graffiti sprayed on the alley wall. Stiff Little Fingers. Sham 69. Fair to say punk passed me by.
We lived in St Andrew’s Road, a nice street of 1930s houses about a mile from the seafront. I’d like to claim that I was enchanted by the Sussex coastline from an early age, but in truth I have mixed memories of childhood trips to the beach. Clouds always seemed to gather, and the wind would whip up, and there were those weird little pink sand flies which would jump onto your goosepimply skin…
Outings to the countryside were better, and best of all was a trip to Bramber Castle. Here were hidden stone stairways and crumbling turrets, butterflies and blackberries – a landscape straight from the Famous Five stories I loved to read.
By the age of fourteen or fifteen Enid Blyton had become an embarrassing memory. I’d moved on to Shirley Conran via Stephen King and Virginia Andrews; X-rated novels we handed around and marvelled over at school. At home, furtively, I read poetry and books by George Orwell. My parents were never given the opportunity for further education, but fortunately for me they were both great readers. There were always books in the house, and we visited the library often.
We all thought Worthing was boring. ‘Costa del Geriatrica’ it was nicknamed. Still, the demographic provided the town’s teenagers with washing-up jobs in care homes. I had a part-time job at a nursing home in Tarring, and later I was promoted from washer-upper to cleaner. I liked this job and especially enjoyed cleaning the residents’ rooms, dusting their faded photographs and chatting to them about the sepia people in the pictures: Victorian matriarchs and young soldiers – fathers, brothers and husbands, many of whom had fought in the First or Second World Wars.
Our town was run-down and a little seedy – it lacked the vibe of nearby Brighton – but there were plenty of pubs and several nightclubs. By the age of sixteen we could get served in pretty much any pub, no ID required. When Morrissey released Everyday is Like Sunday the lyrics were a gift:
This is the coastal town
That they forgot to close down
Armageddon – come Armageddon!
Come, Armageddon, come!
…Perfect for sing-shouting while wheeling your mate home along Heene Road in a shopping trolley.
I hung out in the arcades and pubs but at heart I wasn’t much of a rebel. When my friends left school, I went on to sixth form college. My history teacher suggested I was bright enough for university, and my dad conceded that a degree wasn’t just a three-year-jolly-up after all. I applied to Cambridge, I got in and I couldn’t wait to leave Worthing behind.
Looking back I cannot believe how confident I was – what a brat! Of course I was punished for my hubris. During most of that first year at university I pined for my family and friends at home; for a gusty walk along the prom or a classic night at The Carioca, for gulls and seaweed and the shabby glamour of the Dome.
Acute homesickness passed but the pull of the south coast never disappeared. After a spell in London I moved back to West Sussex, half an hour’s drive from Worthing. Family and friends still live in the town and I visit often. One day I hope to persuade my (northern) husband to move even closer to the coast.
How has my Sussex childhood influenced my writing? The first short story I wrote was set in a nursing home, my debut novel Before the Fall explores family tragedy during the First World War, and my second book (almost finished) is set partly by the Sussex seaside. I’ve never thought of my writing as autobiographical but on reflection the connections are evident. No shopping trollies as yet, but there’s always book three…
During our second creative writing session at Worthing library we attempted to unpick the meaning of ‘voice’ in fiction. It’s a slippery concept much loved by agents, editors and competition judges. When asked what they’re looking for in a manuscript, the reply is often: ‘A strong voice’. They can’t explain exactly what’s meant by this – it’s not a magic formula, they say – but somehow they just know it when they see it.
How can beginner writers learn to develop a strong voice when there’s no accepted definition? One way of looking at voice is to see it as a marriage of two elements – the writer’s own distinctive prose style combined with the voices of strong, believable characters. Of course, even these elements can overlap. See? Slippery.
We looked at the openings of two novels to illustrate ways in which voice can be established from the very first page. In The Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield’s casual first person narrative is instantly engaging:
If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.
As readers, we know we’re in safe hands. We sense that this is Holden Caulfield speaking: it’s as if J D Salinger is a vessel through which the character’s thoughts and experiences are set down.
Next we discussed Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice – a very different book but one which also sings from the outset, establishing character and tone through a mixture of third person narration and virtuoso dialogue.
Clearly, voice can be summoned in a myriad of ways. First person narration might seem like a short-cut (immediate, intimate, etc etc), but writing in the third person can be equally powerful. What links the novels are their brilliantly-drawn, memorable characters. The authors know their characters, believe in them, and this in turn lends a confidence to their writing – gives them a voice.
Our first practical task was to write a diary entry in the voice of an imagined character, with the date October 31st for those who might wish to experiment with a Halloween theme. This produced some excellent short pieces – sinister and edgy, with intriguing and original voices which left a strong impression.
In the second half of the workshop we looked at a more literal interpretation of voice, focusing on the use of dialogue in fiction, and how this can be used to further character development. Extracts from Ernest Hemingway and Sussex-based novelist Isabel Ashdown illustrated the possibilities.
What of our overall theme, The South? Much of the work written during the exercises was set within the Sussex landscape, including Highdown Hill, a seafront hotel and the bar at Worthing’s Connaught Theatre. I can’t make any link between Salinger and Sussex, but there is an Austen connection; the author stayed in Worthing in the autumn of 1805, and her final unfinished novel, Sanditon, is believed to have been inspired by her visit to the town.
Did we manage to nail the meaning of ‘voice’ in fiction? We didn’t devise a magic formula, but by studying some of the components we came a little closer to understanding this elusive concept. In any case, perhaps we shouldn’t search too hard for a catch-all definition. The joy of writing is in the journey, the sense of discovery. Who wants to colour by numbers?
I must confess to feeling slightly fraudulent before my first Reading the South session at Worthing Library. Technically, I have only been a Sussex writer for 9 years. Before that I was a Londoner. So what, I wondered, would I really have to say on the subject of what ‘the South’ means to me or to my work?
My novel, Esperanza Street, was described by Kirkus Reviews as a ‘study of the connection between person and place’, a theme which I wasn’t even conscious of when writing it. The first draft of Esperanza Street was written in St Albans, a commuter-belt town just north of London . We hadn’t been there long. We were renting a home and St Albans , though lovely, was never intended to be where we took root. The preceding years had been restless. I’d traveled overseas or worked away from London for substantial periods, but somehow always gravitated back to the Big Smoke. I was a Londoner through and through. I wrote the first draft of Esperanza Street while pregnant with my daughter and shortly before she was born, having barely thought it through, we tore ourselves free from London ’s orbit and moved lock, stock and barrel to West Sussex . The idea was conceived and executed in a few short weeks. At the time, I had no idea what an impact this move would have on me personally, specifically on my sense of who I was. Suddenly I could no longer claim to be a Londoner even though I’d been born and raised there, studied there, worked there and everyone I knew still lived there. Worst of all, I didn’t feel remotely like a Sussex or Worthing-ite, whatever that was supposed to feel like. After moving, I spent the next six and a half years redrafting Esperanza Street . Now, when I look back, I see quite clearly how the process of refining it became my way of ‘writing myself back’, not back to London , but back to myself.
Esperanza Street is about a community in the grip of change. It is, amongst other things, about people displaced by gentrification. Displacement of people whether from economic migration, gentrification or conflict, is very much the story of our times. In fact these kinds of interrupted human narratives have become commonplace. I find myself increasingly wondering, if moving from London to Worthing had such a profound effect on me, what was it like for my parents to move from India to England ? Or for refugees from Syria , migrants from Albania ?
I wanted to explore this connection between place and person, between place and self, in the reading group. I had chosen a second book to read from to contrast with mine: Maggie Gee’s book, The White Family. Gee spent time in Sussex before ending up in London , a journey that is, from the outside, the opposite of mine. The White Family is an interesting mirror for a book like mine. In Esperanza Street a community is dismantled by developers, its people forced to move away from what has always been their home. In The White Family the protagonists stay put only to find that their community changes inexorably around them, from gentrification and from immigration.
I was surprised to discover that, like me, none of the reading group participants were indigenous Worthing-ites. All had their own stories of change, of relocation and of the necessity of building new lives which they were willing to share with the group. It became an illuminating and lively discussion about shared experiences which it was a genuine pleasure to have been a part of.
An ageing Mod. A view from Cissbury Ring. A large plastic ice cream planted outside a pavement café. These were some of the photographs I’d taken in preparation for the first Reading the South creative writing workshop at Worthing library. I can’t make any claims as a photographer, but I hoped that the snapshots might prompt some interesting Sussex-inspired writing. Nothing polished. The germ of an idea, perhaps. A leaping-off point.
The class was full, eighteen of us in all, a mixture of complete beginners and some who’d been writing for a while. We began with introductions, and each of us talked briefly about a book we’d enjoyed. A friendly and generous spirit infused the room: we could have chatted about books for the whole two hours, but I had my notes to get through, and of course there were those photographs to hand out.
The theme of our workshop was ‘Beginnings’. We talked about strong openings, and how to convey atmosphere and tension from the very first line of a story or poem, reading extracts to illustrate the point. Finally I handed out the photographs. For fifteen minutes we were silent, heads down as we wrote our responses.
When the time was up, I took a deep breath and asked whether anyone was willing to share their work. No pressure, of course. I was prepared for silence and the shame of reading out my own scribblings (six sentences. One half-decent.). But a group member to my right put up his hand, apologising in advance for what we were about to hear. He proceeded to read a wonderfully tense, staccato piece about a driver stuck at a red traffic light on an A27 roundabout. More readings followed. I won’t list all the pieces, but the quality of responses was truly impressive. We heard writing that was in turn poignant, comic, quirky and inventive: imagine a girl lying on a railway crossing, a first date at a crazy golf course, a refugee gazing out at a hostile pebble beach . . . The South, it seems, harbours no end of hidden stories.
After a short break for coffee we began the second half of the workshop. We discussed familiar landscapes. How do writers describe the familiar without descending into cliché or those long descriptive passages which might be pleasing to read, but tell us little in terms of character or plot? One technique is to take the point of view of an outsider looking in, to describe a stranger’s skewed perspective. The ‘outsider’ might even be a local – someone who, for whatever reason, now questions their own sense of identity in a town they call home. I gave the group a first line as a prompt: ‘S/he gripped the pier railings and stared into the sea.’
Again, the quality of the responses was terrific, including a vivid verse about a child who goes to sea in a pink plastic mac, a girls’ boozy weekend gone wrong, and finally our last reading from a woman who said this was her first attempt at creative writing. She blew us away with her Birdman story. So much for leaping off: these writers had already begun to fly.