Hull Literature Festival 2001 8th - 18th November
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The Mslexia Roadshow
Mslexia Writing Workshop and
Mslexia Reading: Anne Fine
Central Library
Saturday 17th November

I'm ashamed to say my arrival at the Mslexia writing workshop was delayed. ( Heavy traffic and a slight altercation at home concerning a white Gap T-shirt that had been in a coloured wash. Has anyone ever correlated successful women writers and the number of teenagers in residence? ) Although only 10 minutes late, the workshop was well underway, led by Margaret Wilkinson, lecturer on the MA in Creative Writing at the University of Northumbria. This time factor is worth mentioning. I've attended a lot of similar workshops over the years and so many are marked by a rather laissez-faire approach to time. They start late, people waffle on about how they've come to write their piece and suddenly, almost without realising it, there you are participating in group therapy. The workshop leader will talk about her/his own work, favourite authors are discussed and slowly but inevitably the session drifts away down a number of meandering, albeit interesting, paths. One can often come away having enjoyed the activity and having met some very nice people but with no sense that one's writing skills, such as they are, have progressed.

However, on Saturday afternoon this was most definitely not the case. Margaret led the fifteen participants through a very highly structured exercise which started with a childhood journey and finished, with some pieces being very near complete short stories. Although the focus of the workshop was on children's writing, the exercise could be helpful for any kind of prose. Through a process of retelling other people's stories, of writing sentences that answered a series of very specific questions, of changing from first person to third and playing around with tenses, I felt that I was in effect undergoing a complete fitness session for my flabby and underused writing muscles. Indeed, such was my concentration that at the break I almost missed out on the tasty chocolate brownies, had not sisterhood asserted itself with my neighbour pointing them out.

The workshop was tremendously disciplined and therefore very rewarding. The two hours ( OK, one hour and fifty minutes ) passed in a flash and there was just time for a can of Diet Coke ( cf chocolate brownies above ) before the reading by Anne Fine. In actual fact, there was very little reading from Anne. The session was more an hour's stand up routine by an incredibly interesting, if slightly manic, writer. Anne started writing for older children, switched to writing for a younger audience because there was more money in it and has more latterly written for adults - a total of 47 books. Her presentation was a mixture of the provocative " I ignore children completely" the profound - she quoted Larkin's adage to "treat your own temperament as if it were a technical difficulty" to the anecdotal. As you'd expect, some books such as Flour Babies were close to her heart, with others there was more of a distance. She confessed to needing a technical hurdle with each book. Taking the Devil's Advice, one of her adult texts, had a complex time scheme which she felt had been overlooked by the critics. I agree that the book's black humour and almost hysterical tone did probably mask its sophisticated narrative techniques. However, learning from Anne the circumstances surrounding its writing: her removal to the USA because of her husband's job and her subsequent homesickness and that the fictional husband was based on her ex-husband added that other layer of understanding which is one of the reasons these kind of ' meet the Author' sessions are so fascinating.

I'm always interested in the actual conditions of writing that women experience. I got the impression that Anne Fine wrote when her children were small but that she wasn't at the time working outside the home. There's a long tradition of this happening - Margaret Drabble and Beryl Bainbridge are two names that spring to mind. But for a lot of us, who of necessity are the main breadwinners, it's not so much Virginia Woolfe's Room of One's Own that is needed so much as the time to occupy it, mentally as well as literally. Having children, in my experience anyway, is no problem as regards writing. Combining them with a full time job and doing the writing as well can be difficult. But maybe I'm just making excuses. At the end of the day if you want to do it enough you do and Anne Fine does it very well.

Congratulations to Mslexia on the event - I'm a subscriber anyway and it's so refreshing to have found a magazine that's serious about women's writing without being po-faced. Given the healthy rate at which the magazine's circulation is increasing many other women obviously share my view.

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