Below is a sample of essays and blog posts I’ve written on the subject of writing. Enjoy, but please do NOT copy without my permission. Thanks! Carolyn x

ADDING THE EGG (2009)

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Forget homemade cake. Betty Crocker cake mix produces the best cake in the world. No need for a flour tornado and mounds of butter: just add an egg, splash of oil and water, give it a stir, and after half an hour in the oven, you’ve got Nirvana in a dish.

Interestingly enough, there’s no need for anyone to have to add more than water, but the Betty Crocker company found that early sales were bombing. Why? People wanted to contribute to the cake. Yeah, they wanted a short cut, but not too much of a short cut. They wanted the ‘I made this’ factor. Hence, the egg. Once people could start adding an egg or two to the mix, sales rocketed. And so, nearly a century since the company started, we still have Betty Crocker on our shelves at Tesco.

There’s an important analogy for writers here: let the reader add their egg. Let them get involved, contribute, work stuff out, make their own connections. Don’t tell them too much. Give them a way to put their hands around the dough of the plot, give it a good knead, feel its texture. Let them make shapes with it before rolling it out. Don’t roll it flat for them. Let the reader pummel the dough with their own life experience, emotions, interpretations. Allow the work to breathe, expand, cool, set.

As a writer, it’s important to think of the reader. Not necessarily in the commercial sense. That comes later. But good writing involves the reader; it gives the reader a way in, a chance to contribute, a feeling that they belong.

You might say that a good piece of writing is a soft, spongey cake. Not a burnt offering. Forget homemade cake. Betty Crocker cake mix produces the best cake in the world. No need for a flour tornado and mounds of butter: just add an egg, splash of oil and water, give it a stir, and after half an hour in the oven, you’ve got Nirvana in a dish.

Interestingly enough, there’s no need for anyone to have to add more than water, but the Betty Crocker company found that early sales were bombing. Why? People wanted to contribute to the cake. Yeah, they wanted a short cut, but not too much of a short cut. They wanted the ‘I made this’ factor. Hence, the egg. Once people could start adding an egg or two to the mix, sales rocketed. And so, nearly a century since the company started, we still have Betty Crocker on our shelves at Tesco.

There’s an important analogy for writers here: let the reader add their egg. Let them get involved, contribute, work stuff out, make their own connections. Don’t tell them too much. Give them a way to put their hands around the dough of the plot, give it a good knead, feel its texture. Let them make shapes with it before rolling it out. Don’t roll it flat for them. Let the reader pummel the dough with their own life experience, emotions, interpretations. Allow the work to breathe, expand, cool, set.

As a writer, it’s important to think of the reader. Not necessarily in the commercial sense. That comes later. But good writing involves the reader; it gives the reader a way in, a chance to contribute, a feeling that they belong.

ON WRITING COMMISSIONS (2011)

I thought it might be useful to read about my most recent public art commission, which involves writing a poem which is to be carved into a new site development at the Maltings Theatre and Cinema at Berwick-upon Tweed. Back when I dreamed of being a writer, it never dawned on me that part of my time – and, indeed, my income – would consist of chatting amiably with stonecutters over a slab of granite about the vicissitudes of Helvetica. Or hearing my dialogue chimed out by a cello accompanied by a counter-tenor in a sound environment of recordings made during an archery contest. This is the best part of being a writer – diversity.My latest project has me working with Michelle de Bruin, a fabulous stonecutter based near Berwick upon Tweed, to produce text that she will cut into a circular piece of Doddington stone that will be laid into the front of the Maltings Theatre. Now, the first rule about public textual art is that it’s, ya know, PUBLIC. A poem I write for publication in a book or magazine is different from a poem that will be carved into an open public space which many hundreds of people occupy on a regular basis. People will feel a sense of belonging to that space, a sense of personal interpretation and ownership. The text that I produce should not encroach on that – ultimately, I aim to write something that engages the public, makes them feel a part of it, and enhances their sense of belonging. My writing should provide an interpretive context for the space that articulates the relationship between public users and the site itself.In the case of the Maltings, I held a series of workshops with some young people aged between 4 and 20. They were amazing. What struck me most was how important the Maltings was to them, and so this is what I aim to capture in the text.After my workshops, I met with Michelle. I visited her on site at Hutton Stone – a quarry – where she showed me her exhibition ‘The Broom Cupboard’, currently on display at the Gymnasium Gallery. When you look at her spectacular octopus, the detail of her armadillo, you expect a machine to have played a part in their intricate crafting – nope, Michelle produces these babies BY HAND. Michelle’s stone-carved platypus, star-nosed mole and flying fish are accompanied by slate slabs – think Rosetta Stone – with quotations from stunned naturalists laying eyes for the first time on God’s most bizarre creations. Just look at the detail here:
Isn’t this gorgeous? I fell in love with her octopus. Check it out:
Even more impressive is Michelle’s ethos behind the creations. She calls this piece ‘The Other Tiger”, because it was seen by the naturalists as a predatory creature without claws or teeth, and a great example of an alien amongst us. The title refers to the poem by Jorges Borges also ‘The Other Tiger’ in which he laments the failure of language to adequately describe the real creature.

The thing about stone carvings is that you cannot help but touch them – they feed the eye and the hand. Incredible.

Michelle’s idea is to alternate the kinds of font in relation to the way the text is to be read. Additionally, I want the text to spiral around the circular piece of stone, so that readers have to physically move in order to read it – the stone is envisaged as a ‘performance’ space, and so I want the public to use it accordingly. Adults might feel awkward doing anything other than glancing at text carved into the floorscape of the Maltings – unless, of course, they have to do a bit of a spin to engage with the text. Kids, hopefully, will fly with the ethos of the piece more freely. But you see where I’m coming from – the text doesn’t exist on its own, as it does when published on a page. In public textual art, there are all sorts of relationships and marriages and arrangements between text, environment, public, culture, materials and aesthetics. The interplay of these requires a slightly different set of skills than when I’m working on a blog or novel or poem.

So the next step is for me to produce a piece of text that will get people all revved up about the space and thinking about what the Maltings means to them. Foremost in my mind is that I am writing something for people who may not list poetry amongst their hobbies, and who will be engaging with this piece while rushing to the theatre. In other words, I want to write something that won’t take up much of their time, that will, in fact, make them glad that they bothered to stop and read it.

But here’s the cool part: although I’m writing here about commissions and public textual art, there’s soooo much here that applies to normal, day-to-day, pen and paper kind of writing. When I’m working on a novel or poem, I’m still writing for a reader. I’m still glad when people take the time to read my stuff, and I am still representing the world or a set of experiences and characters, much as I do when writing for public space. And I still want the reader to interact with the piece (maybe not to the extent that I want them to do a little twirl – although that would be cool).

There are restrictions involved, however. I touched upon these very briefly in my piece about the Roseberry Park project. A poem that has to accommodate manholes, gates, and the mental health of the people likely to encounter it doesn’t happen very often when one is writing for a magazine. Challenging as it was, this piece pushed me to the crumbling cliff edge of creativity, which can only ever be a good thing 🙂 Other challenges arose in the form of creative differences, technological hiccups or, on one occasion, the possibility that I might actually give birth during the performance.

Finally, I should mention how I started doing these cool little gigs. In this case, the commissioner knew me through a friend of a literature organisation. The only reason said literature organisation knew me in the first place is cos I applied for (and won) one of their poetry prizes a while back. So it’s absolutely true: if you’re not in, you can’t win. Once you start getting involved in various literary events and organisations, you are essentially networking. It doesn’t guarantee work – but it’s a step in the direction of work.