In an earlier blog, I wrote about my time as writer-in-residence aboard the glorious canal barge library, Furor Scribendi. Here, I’ll share a bit about writing during the residency. I’d love this to be in conversation with you. As a writer and/or reader, do you find that often, the focus is on the finished work? That the process of getting there is marginalised or entirely ignored? It’s often messy and complicated and perhaps there is a desire to suppose the work arrived wholesale, simply dropping word by word onto the paper or screen. Perhaps like the long-winded and variably challenging process of giving birth to, or adopting or fostering a child. Your editor is there supporting you the whole way, like a midwife or social worker, but all other eyes, somewhat understandably, are on the end result.
We write to entertain, or offer escapism or reflection (and a whole lot of other things) for the reader and the assumption is that they only want the finished product. But I know many writers and readers do like to glimpse the journey – I love hearing about other writer’s process as it’s often so different to my own, inspiring me to try new approaches or giving another dimension to the reading of the final work. Do get into conversation with me about this if you would like. I’m on Twitter – @saraheschofield.
I spent a lot of time onboard Furor Scribendi considering writing process. This is something I wrote in my journal during the residency:
Things get messy before they get sorted – my process. In the past I’ve tried to be a writer who writes in straight lines, who knows what they’re doing and gets on with it. But I don’t think I’ve ever comfortably written like that. The end product I’ve always aimed for is neat, tight and considered, but I don’t think I want to write like that anymore. My story ‘Safely Gathered In’ is not written like that. The title is quite ironic. And my collection, which is probably going to take the same name, will mark a transition to a new writing process – not trying to be neat, or beautiful. Not aiming for perfect in a traditional sense.
I have two thoughts that I’ve been chewing over since my residency.
1. I met someone when I was on the boat. This person lived near where Scribendi was moored. They would surface around 11am and join me for a chat and a cup of tea on the open-air back of the boat. This person gradually unfolded parts of their story to me over the week of the residency. This person had endured some of the most difficult experiences imaginable. Their story wasn’t neat or structured. They told it in fragments. I, the listener, was gifted the pieces – there was an unspoken trust that, as listener, I would respect and collate those pieces. The fragility of this contract was important. This is the only story I will ever tell about this person – any other details are absolutely not mine to share. But this person’s narrative moved me in all its unfinished fragmentation. They taught me to trust the listener to put the pieces together and that the fragility in the trust contract between storyteller and listener is worth so much.
2. I sing sometimes as a backing vocalist. My voice is not fantastic, so a year or so ago, I went for some singing lessons. My teacher was wonderful (apart from the fact that she hadn’t really heard of Fleetwood Mac and I just want to learn Stevie Nicks songs!) But she taught me something I’ve been considering recently; ‘stop trying to sing prettily,’ she said. ‘Don’t try to sound nice. Just make a louder noise. Use your lungs and breath. Make ugly sounds.’ I keep returning to this idea. It’s okay to make ugly sounds. I wonder if I’ve been focused on attempting pretty sounds with my writing. Perhaps on occasion aiming for too neat, functional and unobtrusive. Maybe fearful of producing something misshapen and ugly, crude or challenging to the ear. More recently I have been transitioning to new writing approaches. Less tidy and pretty. More open. The residency was an opportunity to stop and look forwards and backwards and think about this more closely.
Here are some extracts from a story I began while I was onboard. I want to write a site-specific piece that is an invitation to the reader to create their own narrative. This piece draws together a harvesting of imagery from along the stretch of canal from where the boat was moored through several bridges and then through Gannow’s Tunnel, which, as it has no towpath, is only navigable by boat (unless you fancy swimming it, which isn’t recommended!) I’ve used the canal bridges as a structural device, finding the narrative between them.
This is first draft where I’m approaching ideas and shaping the story. I am going to present a few little bits of it here, in its rawest form – unedited. This is me singing ugly. This is unfinished, messy and complicated. I trust you, the reader, in the fragility of this act. Please feel free to reciprocate.
Don’t worry – this isn’t the Styx and I’m not the ferryman. Make yourself at home. Coffee? It’s strong. It will blow your socks off. What? Yes – there is fine. No – you’re not in the way.
Oh – you feel that too? It’s the canal bottom. This stretch is like pea and ham. It’s the Cheshire canals you need if you were after consommé.
Please sit, and pick up a book. Any book. Can you multitask?
A floating library – discoveries between the pages. Are you an open book? Are you an unfinished story? Have you got it all plotted out and each page numbered? Do you see the perfection in imperfection? What have you thrown away that you could retrieve, clean up… see the finely wrought lampshades on board, see this vase and the vessels from which you drink your tea?
Folks, may we stop briefly here to detangle the prop. We have here, a massive knife and what is here wrapped around the prop…? oh look – a shirt. Does this belong to you? A past you passing through? No? It’s quite fine and almost complete.
Maden Fold Bridge 127
Here, let me list all the plants we can see: Cow parsley, nettles and dock leaves, buttercups (you like butter?) and sticky bobs (remember the fun.) No we can’t stop here. What do you see –
The content of someone’s pocket
The content of someone’s stomach
A curl of dog turd
A factory – baked bean school dinner smell wafting delicious from the generators
Gannow Green North Bridge127B
127B and C
On the entrance way, ferns feather from unlikely places between the sandstone walls and a rash of moss. Brambles dip their tendrils into the murky water. The sun shimmers through the elder along the bank. Unkempt limbs stretch blessings over the water.
The instant cool of the tunnel – light shimmering onto the roof. Curves and hard edges.
Towpath Diversion / Gannow Tunnel 559yds 128 / Whittlefield Bridge, 129A, Mitre Bridge129B, 129C, Sandygate Bridge 130
And so what if you take the journey in reverse?
Willow seeds drift like snow through the perfect blue. It is the hottest day of the year so far. My shoulders quietly burn.
Things that float past:
A crumpled lucozade bottle
A bright yellow fender
A polysterene cup ghost
We stop over the motorway and there is strangeness of double suspension – within the water, across the highway. We are a bright pink blood platelet floating through a capillary, lying over a main artery… it feels flimsy.
Here and there, the boat grazes the bottom and my mind ducks under the water, imagines the shape of the silt walls, the gentle tugging of the reeds. The webbed feet and rays of sunlight sparkling through touching on abandoned shopping trolleys and rusting bike frames. Right to the bottom, where pikes pluck morsels from the layers there.
All this in one and a half inches square of a Waterways map. The history in one pinch of silt. The bite of grit.
Sarah Schofield’s stories have been published in Lemistry, Bio-Punk, Thought X, Beta Life, Spindles, Conradology and The New Abject (all Comma Press), Wall: Nine Stories from Edge Hill Writers (EHUP), Best of British Short Stories 2020 (Salt) Spilling Ink Flash Fiction Anthology, Back and Beyond Arts Publication, Litfest’s The Language of Footprints, Synaesthesia Magazine, Lakeview International Journal, Woman’s Weekly and others. She has been shortlisted on the Bridport and the Guardian Travel Writing Competition and won the Orange New Voices Prize, Writer’s Inc and The Calderdale Fiction Prize. Sarah is an Associate Tutor of Creative Writing at Edge Hill University and runs writing courses and workshops in a variety of community settings. Her debut short story collection, Safely Gathered In, will be published by Comma Press in 2021.