Charlotte's Web

Blogging my world since 2006


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More on Voice

While reading to the creative writing students about voice this weekend, I found myself getting a little choked up. It’s embarrassing at the best of times to cry in public, but to well up and start snuffling while teaching is a bit much.

It was these words of Holly’s about fear that did it:

If your heart is beating fast and your palms are sweating and your mouth is dry, you’re writing from the part of yourself that has something to say that will be worth hearing. Persevere. I’ve never written anything that I’ve really loved that didn’t have me, during many portions of the manuscript, on the edge of my seat from nerves, certain that I couldn’t carry off what I was trying to do, certain that if I did I would so embarrass myself that I’d never be able to show my face in public again — and I kept writing anyway.

At the heart of everything that you’ve ever read that moved you, touched you, changed your life, there was a writer’s fear. And a writer’s determination to say what he had to say in spite of that fear.

So be afraid. Be very afraid. And then thank your fear for telling you that what you’re doing, you’re doing right.

Voice is born from a lot of words and a lot of work — but not just any words or any work will do. You have to bleed a little. You have to shiver a little. You have to love a lot — love your writing, love your failures, love your courage in going on in spite of them, love every small triumph that points toward eventual success. You already have a voice. It’s beautiful, it’s unique, it’s the voice of a best-seller. Your job is to lead it from the darkest of the dark places and the deepest of the deep waters into the light of day.

I know that fear. Only too well. When I first started blogging, I used to shake. When I first started writing, it was as terrifying for me as it is for a novice skier pushing off down a black slope. It was scary because I was putting myself on the line, because I was saying the things I’d always wanted to say, because I was finally self-identifying as a “writer”.

And I credit blogging with getting me there. All the posts I’ve written here, all the playing around with memes and lists and making friends and writing about writing, have helped me develop confidence  as a writer and a voice. It’s been my playground.

What I so wanted to impress on the creative writers at the weekend workshop is that our voices – the part that makes us all unique – are already right there. Voice is not something to fight or search for. It’s a matter of being oneself. There was an amazing moment during the workshop when the individual voices really shone out. We did an exercise on point of view and they had to rewrite Cinderella in third person from the point of view of one of the Ugly Sisters, or Snow White from the POV of one of the dwarves. Plot was a given. The outline was already there. The characters were fully formed. All the writers had to do was give them a voice. And they did it brilliantly. Even though nine of them chose to write Grumpy’s story, each Grumpy was fabulous and unique.

As Holly says, it’s just a matter of harnessing that voice and leading it out into the light of day.

No matter how damn scary that can be.

P.S. Although I’m deep in revisions, I’m joining my friend Melissa from The Book or Bust in her Month of Making Things Up. Let us know if you want to play.

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When in Doubt, Craft

One of the prerequisites of being a parent in Germany is the ability to craft (basteln). It is one of the givens of society along with the hot lunch, no noise on Sundays and goal-oriented neighbour observation. A birthday party is never a birthday party without a crafting corner, kindergartens frequently require parental attendance at craft evenings (Bastelabenden) and crafting is one of the subjects in junior school. While I completely support the notion that a homemade gift can be a wonderful thing (especially if it is a homemade cake), and I cherish the fact that my kids are learning to craft, I am rubbish at it. All those little pieces of paper that flutter messily to the floor, the guiding of shaky hands as they try to cut out complicated shapes and fail so you have to draw the shape again, and the arguments as you try to work out how best to render a birdie out of paper. Not for me.

So when Lily brought home a Bastelprojekt – to make a car – I did the obvious. I handed the project over. To my husband. He grew up watching Blue Peter, so he is not scared of making a giraffe out of a shoe-box and three wine corks. He gave Saturday  over to crafting the car. Which was so successful that he had to make a car for Ollie and a plane for Daisy, turning the last couple of days into a Bastelwochenende, and the dining-room table into a Bastelwerkstatt. He made all three objects with found materials around the house, and only needed to purchase straws, kebab sticks, pin tacks and some glue.

Here are the results:

img_43141Bastelprojekt 1: Lily’s car

Please note sun-roof and sliding-door. Also important to note: this car goes!

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Inside view, of steering wheel, seats and people

img_4316Rear view, with straws for exhaust pipes

Here is Bastelprojekt 2, a racing car for Ollie:

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And the cars, along with Bastelprojekt 3, Daisy’s plane:

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So now I know, next time kindergarten requires parents’ attendance for a craft evening, who I will be sending along.

Although he still insists on calling it engineering.


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Towards the End of the Season, Limply

In the novels of Jane Austen there is usually some reference to The Season – where the gentry head to Town, attend balls, horse-races, the ballet, parties and dinners, and try, to the best of their ability to marry off their marriagable daughters to young men of good fortune and pleasant personality. Today the season still exists, and, according to Wikipedia lasts from April to August, and includes events such as Glyndebourne, Royal Ascot, Chelsea Flower Show, Henley Royal Regatta and Wimbledon. Afterwards, today’s gentry head back to their country piles or to France while their children go to Ibiza, where they club senselessly, get photographed for Heat magazine with no knickers on or topless on the beach, and try to return without a husband.

The only season event I ever attended was the Henley Royal Regatta, to which I was invited by my totally lovely and rather posh cousins. I was doing my gap year of waitressing and partying and having inappropriate relationships in London and they took me under their wing, allowing me to arrive at their beautiful Surrey home, where I would warm my bottom on the Aga, be cossetted, fed and then sent back for another few weeks’ wildness in the capital. Thanks to them I am a whizz at croquet. These were the same people who took me to the ballet at Covent Garden (which I would never have been able to afford), and, despite having had a theatre supper beforehand, produced a picnic hamper full of delicious salmon sandwiches and champagne for afterwards, which we sat down and enjoyed at midnight on the Covent Garden cobblestones. They liked to do things in style. Henley was just the same – we cruised there in their Bentley with its cream leather and walnut interior. I was outfitted in a borrowed dress and a small and very cheap hat that I bought at Brick Lane (dress and hat being the appropriate outfit for ladies at the Regatta) and enjoyed an excess of champagne and watching strong men row boats in the rain.

Less glamorous, but equally demanding, is the Charlotte’s Web Family Season. It is six months long, and lasts from October to the end of March. I am relieved to announce that it is now drawing to a close. Since October we have celebrated the following:

  • One wedding anniversary
    • Cleverly planned for 1 October, so that’s it hard to forget. Thus far, we haven’t done so. We don’t go large but the occasion is marked and thusly the season opened.
  • Five birthdays
    • Two of these require full parties, with guests, cake, games, crafts and dressing-up. Since it is winter they are always, regrettably, indoors. The grown-up birthdays usually also require a party but we bailed this season and gave dinner parties instead.
  • Sundry German festivals, requiring the crafting of objects, the sourcing of costumes, the turning-up at and participating in parades, the eating of festival related baked goods, the singing of festival songs and the smiling and conversing with other festival participants. These include the Laternefest and Fasching (Carnival).
  • Sankt Nicolaustag
  • Christmas: the usual insane cookfest and eatfest and giftfest, plus assorted houseguests
  • New Year: ditto except minus the gifts
  • A week of skiing. One of the reasons we are in Europe is to offer our children chances to do things we which didn’t do growing up in Africa. Hence skiing. Last year, I found this such an exhausting experience, that I have avoided it this time, but my saint of a husband has taken his daughters off with a bunch of friends and they are turning into ski bunnies. Less of the snow eating this year, which is a good thing, both for their digestive systems and for the ski resorts. They need all the snow they can get.
  • Easter – two years ago, Ollie was born on 27 March, which was an Easter Sunday, so we include it in our Season. We celebrated his first birthday while skiing (ie he had a cake) but this year we will have to mark it with a party, a home-made cake and by inviting some of his little friends around. If we are very, very lucky they could play outside.

After Ollie’s birthday, we have six months off. No birthdays, no parties, no festivals for which we are required to craft anything. There will be no need to fashion pirate or Thomas the Tank Engine birthday cakes and no requirements for eyepatches or spangly crowns at the eleventh hour. I am looking forward to it – and summer – enormously. If you are looking for me in the six months starting April, this is where I hope you will find me, physically, spiritually, emotionally. Gin and tonic, anyone?

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From the Heart

Back in the days when I wore suits, was known to give a presentation or write a report, and even enjoyed some business class travel, I was deeply, thoroughly, scathingly mocking of women who stayed at home and made stuff. To me, crafting and baking and – God forbid – knitting were tragic signs of averageness, for why make something when you can buy something shinier and prettier, why bake something when you can buy something tastier and why knit, period. To me, hand and homemade objects were sad and tatty versions of the lovely objects found in the temples of joy known as The Shops, and spending time making them was wasting hours that could be spent in restaurants, watching films or reading books.

Perhaps it was a partial rejection of where I was from, for most of the women of my family were practioners of genteel arts. My British grandmother was a milliner in Thirties London until she met her dashing young South African lawyer and, on the eve of the war, left her flourishing business to raise children and dogs in humid Pietermaritzburg. While she made herself the odd hat, for the races or for a wedding, she channelled her creativity into sewing, embroidery and cooking. She made entire wardrobes of dolls’ clothes for me and my cousins. My maternal grandmother was a talented seamstress, but a truly wonderful watercolourist. My mother’s home is filled with her beautiful paintings. As children, we would arrive in her home and the painting things would all be set up on the floor ready for us to splatter our artistic energy everywhere. All the women of my family were painters, embroiderers, bakers.

Somehow, though, when I was in my twenties, that was something to mock. I was too busy fighting racism, sexism and the over-arching patriarchy to waste my time with twee handicrafts that were too redolent of the Women’s Institute and getting third prize for the marmelade. There were bigger things to grapple with. Once I started working, I was too busy dealing with temperamental bosses and sleeping off the stress at weekends to do anything creative. When we moved to Germany to work, I made one friend who, puzzlingly, quilted and another who sewed herself clothes. While shopping with the latter (who went on to sew her own beautiful wedding-dress) in London one weekend, we ended up on the fourth floor of Liberty’s and, without knowing how or why, I found myself buying an embroidery kit. Perhaps Liberty’s reminded me of my English granny, who always kept her latest creative project in one of their lovely dark blue shopping bags, or maybe I was connecting to the young, glamorous milliner who had once had London at her feet, but there I was, fighter of the patriarchy, buying some violets to embroider.

Clumsily, lovingly, over many months, I turned those violets into a cushion and, when I next visited South Africa, presented it to my mother, who has a room decorated with pictures of violets and violet-decorated porcelain. She was so stunned she had to sit down, and I think I cried. There was something in that gift that said not only I love you, but I love your love of beauty, and I love the traditions of our family. I think it said fighting the patriarchy and having a great career on another continent is all very well, but my family and where I come from is also important to me.

And now that I am a mother, and have a family of my own, I’m starting to look at handicrafts and the skills that women pass to each other through the generations with new eyes. For me, there’s something about connecting with the women of my family who cooked, baked and sewed for me. There’s something about love, about beauty, about thriftiness and about the pure joy of making something good, whether it’s a pretty muffin or a scarf. I’m finding new levels of friendship with friends who’ve crafted and made things far longer – and far better – than me. While staying at home with my children is my choice, making something for them is my outlet for that energy that I used to give to my career or fighting the patriarchy.

People who’ve known me for a long time are still stunned that I might bake a cake. My husband is terrified that I might start sewing for him, and rightly so, because I’ve knitted everyone in the family a scarf and he’s up next. I expect my produce to be eaten or worn, and he may have to complement his chic working gear with a ratty homemade scarf, but he can always take it off in the car. My mother-in-law almost fainted when I made her a birthday cake last year. My girlfriends in South Africa, who may or may not be reading this, will laugh hysterically at my paean to handicrafts. As I fire up the knitting needles, I do enjoy a postmodernist cackle on my own behalf, because a little bit of irony goes a long way during a not-so-desperate housewife’s day.

However, between finishing one scarf and starting the next, I had the pleasure of teaching Lily to knit. Despite being left-handed, she picked it up quickly and made a scarf for one of Daisy’s dolls. There it was: her satisfaction in learning well and fast, in making something lovely, in giving it away for someone else’s pleasure. And I had taught her a skill that my mother taught me, from the heart. It felt good.