Tag Archives: language

Learning curve

Brandenburg Gate, Berlin

Brandenburg Gate, Berlin

For someone who loves words, I’m finding it incredibly difficult to learn another language. I always try to learn at least enough to greet people, say please and thank you, and order food and drink, in the native language of any country I visit. That’s just simple courtesy.

I learned French at school and, although I hated the subject, it’s the only foreign language that’s really stuck. I even remember gender and grammar rules. The rest came back very quickly on a three-week meander through France.

Italian I learned at evening classes, and got plenty of practice in Tuscany, staying in rural areas where English wasn’t widely spoken.

The problem is, as I cross the channel when the holidays are over, foreign languages, at least at the level I speak them, are redundant. It’s not as if I can pop into the butcher’s shop and ask for a pound of sausages in French. Any skill unused becomes rusty. Vocabulary is forgotten, even the sounds and cadences of sentences, so familiar just a short time ago, become alien and awkward, the shapes more difficult for the mouth to form.

Now I’m struggling with German. With only a couple of weeks’ notice, I can’t learn very much, but I did think I could pick up a few words of greeting and some useful phrases. I’m not doing very well. I read the words, I listen to the online pronunciation, I repeat the phrases. What I do not do is remember much of it a couple of hours later. I have got to the point where I can greet my husband in German as he comes home from work, but time is short, and I need more confidence before I air my few words publicly in the country of their origin.

I refuse to contemplate the thought that this is yet another symptom of getting older. I retain other information, why should language be any different? Perhaps there are just too many words already floating round in my head? All the story ideas, the scenes that characters play out in my mind, the planning and plotting. Maybe they are squeezing out the small voice that says Guten tag, pushing the words into a corner where I won’t find them. That’s the excuse I’m sticking to, anyway.

Back to the lessons….


Forcing the focus


Focus is a wonderful thing. I’m an ‘all or nothing’ kind of person, so I’m either totally focused or there are enough butterflies in my head to trigger a fair-sized tropical storm. I’m realising that focus is definitely a double-edged sword. It can be my best friend¬† (when I’ve got a deadline to meet), or my worst enemy (when I can’t see the wood for the trees).

Forcing a sense of focus isn’t that hard – like most things it’s a learned skill, similar in process to a meditative state, a narrowing down of thought processes – a funnel through which concentration, ideas, some skill and sheer bloody-mindedness somehow fuse together to produce a half-worthwhile first draft.

I can sit at my laptop, induce a sense of focus and write a few hundred words.¬† If the words are non-fiction – the bread and butter stuff that actually earns me something – there isn’t a problem. But if I want to write good prose, something original and potentially mind-blowing ( I live in hopes of this happening) then forcing the focus is counter productive. I’m writing the first draft of this in a noisy bar, in a proper notebook with a pen in my hand and a glass of Sauvignon Blanc close by. I had no intention of putting pen to paper here, and I certainly didn’t feel the need to focus on anything but lunch. Then I had something of a lightbulb moment….

All my writing life I’ve beaten myself with the stick of discipline. Daily word targets and schedules, on the days when I’m free to write, have been the drivers of my industry. I think I’ve got it wrong.

I took out my pad and pen to write a list of all the little research tasks I want to accomplish in the next couple of weeks. Read some fairy tales (unusual stories in a lovely slender book with tissue-thin pages that I found in a flea market). Research minor Victorian cults and goddess images. I caught myself thinking about the time I would need to do all this as a guilty pleasure. Fire burning in the hearth, cups of coffee, feet up on the sofa, tucked under a blanket, books and notebooks all around. And I realised I needed to embrace this part of my work, to dive into it and swim through other writers’ words without guilt, without rushing through the experience.

Research, just reading, thinking, living – just being – these things aren’t a distraction from the writing, from the focus. They are the writing. Without them, words are sterile. Good fiction comes from interpreted experience, and life isn’t a sideshow that happens when I’m not writing. Life IS the writing.

My ‘focus’ is a contradiction – a distraction from what really matters. I need to take my time, spend some days in unproductive endeavours. It is from here, not from some imposed discipline, that my best writing will emerge. A couple of posts back, I wrote about ‘true words’. I had no idea how to find them. Perhaps,after all, they will find me.

The allure of gaslight


I don’t know what it is about gaslight fiction. I love reading it, and I love writing it. I think it goes back to when I read Jekyll and Hyde at uni. I peeled back the layers of the story through the social history of Victorian Britain and I was hooked. I think its got something to do with the duality of a society that covered up the legs on pianos and at the same time enabled, if not encouraged, a debauched under-society of prostitution, opium dens and every kind of depravity imaginable. That was for the men, of course. The women lived a life apart, on the whole, tied to house and family duty, either unaware, or deliberately ignorant of, the darker world beyond their front doors, just around the corner.

Edinburgh, where Robert Louis Stevenson was born, epitomised this duality, with its facade of wealthy, respectable houses masking all kinds of nastiness just a street or two distant. It’s this grey area, where the two worlds meet, that I’m drawn to. I am fascinated by liminal places, doorways, portals (real or imagined) and hidden entrances to ‘other’ places. There’s also the age-old battle between good and evil, an evergreen source of inspiration for writers. But again, the murky greyness is far more interesting. The flawed hero, the gentle woman who ends up as the mad woman in the attic.

But why gaslight particularly? For me, there’s a feeling that goes with either reading, writing or watching gaslight. It’s like eating a Belgian truffle rather than a dry biscuit, or handling velvet rather than sackcloth. There’s a sumptuous indulgence, almost a forbidden pleasure, in the language and the atmosphere.

Of course, there’s the esoteric side to it, especially when writing. The chance to bring the spirit world into the real, to hint at mysteries long buried, evils that rear their heads again to claim new victims. Wonderful stuff like that. In a gaslight story it seems natural to include ghosts and ghouls and things that go bump in the night. The Woman in Black was totally believable to me, because of the setting; the grey, drab, atmosphere. The same story wouldn’t have worked for me in a modern setting.

I am addicted to Lovecraftian language. I try not to use it, but I love reading it. It’s language you can swim in, it has deep texture and rolls like waves across the page. It undulates and pulses with barely described horrors. (See how easy it is to slip in to the mindset?)

Creaks and groans, things that slither and slide in the darkness. Un-nameable things from a dark past, conjured by some mad necromancer. The stuff of nightmares? Maybe. But let me dream on.