Tuesday, April 25, 2017

The English Writing Festival: can anyone write a memoir?

This last Sunday, and for the third time since April 2016, we held a mini festival at the American Book Center in Den Haag dedicated to writing in English. It always amazes me how many people of different nationalities attend this event and do so because they like or want to write in English.

This April's event included attendees from India, China, French-speaking Africa, South Africa and eastern Europe, and the subject? Well, one after my own heart of course: memoir writing.

The panel of speakers
 I was not speaking at the event myself, but I acted as organiser, host and time keeper and thoroughly enjoyed listening to the experiences and tips that the terrific panel of speakers contributed to the afternoon. The main question being dealt with was 'can anyone write a memoir?'

Jo Parfitt answering questions
We started off with Jo Parfitt, who is a writing coach, editor and publisher. Jo gives workshops on non-fiction writing and with the main question in mind, she presented some valuable tips for those embarking on writing their life stories. She had fifteen points altogether, but those that struck me most were the questions: will your story a. inspire, b. support, c. inform and d. entertain? These are critical elements for a good memoir and it made me examine my own in this light. I shall certainly keep them consciously in mind for any future memoirs I may write, whether travelogues or life stories.

She also stressed the need for demonstrating your vulnerability when writing, a pertinent point if memoir writers hope to gain the empathy of their readers. For me this translates into self-deprecating humour; others might use candid honesty about fears and failings, but whatever technique we use, being vulnerable is an important aspect of memoir writing. Jo's presentation was a great start to the afternoon as she talked about the how to approach a memoir, as well as what to include (or not) and I have a feeling many of the participants will follow up her books and courses later on. Click here for her website and publishing and editing services.

Our next speaker was Carolyn Vines, whose memoir, Black and Abroad tells of her experiences and challenges in moving from the deep south in the US to the land of windmills and clogs. She spoke with eloquence on why not only can everyone (in principle) write their own life story, but should do so. By sharing the pain, feelings and experiences of traumatic, difficult and (conversely) inspiring periods in one's own life, we can find healing, hope and a positive way forward. However, she stressed, as did Jo, that not everything we do and feel should be included in the memoir; only that which is relevant to the story in question. This was the most important point for me: know your story, and be sure you have a focus.  As a life coach too, she suggested that writing is not the only medium with which to relate our stories; both art and photography can be valid media as well.

Carolyn answering the audience's questions
following her talk
After a short break with refreshments and some good interaction between speakers and participants, we started again with a talk by Niamh Ni Bhroin, whose memoir The Singing Warrior is published by Springtime Books and covers Niamh's transition from abused child and wife to a free, vibrant and independent woman following a meeting with a Masai warrior.

Niamh's talk began with a reading from the opening chapters of her book. It was a dramatic extract revealing the first emotional and physical abuse she suffered as a child and she used this to explain how important it is to be open and honest in revealing feelings and pain when writing such a personal memoir. For me, her use of dialogue and the visual descriptions were an arresting way to begin her story and emphasised the need for developing character, depth and even humour in what must have been a litany of horrific events. The dialogue involved the reader immediately in her experiences and showed us all how, whether completely authentic or not, it is such an important device in a personal memoir. There were, of course, questions from the audience regarding authenticity, but all the speakers agreed that a memoir is a personal truth and that is what matters more than complete accuracy of detail.

The last speaker of the day was Darya Danesh, a Canadian who has also transplanted herself by moving to the Netherlands. The link to her blog where she writes about her life in her new country is here.

Darya's cheerful personality showing through

Darya is in the process of collating thoughts, extracts and articles, and above all, a focus for writing her memoir. Her presentation showed us all how difficult it is to take that first step towards writing rather than thinking, reading and recording; in other words, procrastinating. Since this is a stage nearly all writers surely go through, it was a great way to move into the question and answer session which completed the afternoon. The panel of speakers, which included Olga Mecking, a former speaker on creative non-fiction, and myself, all shared our experiences on how to get started. Suggestions included making decisions on the story, writing blog stories focused on the eventual memoir, beginning with a trigger sentence, and taking part in a writing challenge (e.g. NaNoWriMo). It was an incredibly useful session and despite my own experience as a memoir writer, I learnt a great deal from listening to all the speakers and members of the audience.

Finally, at the end of the afternoon, we held a draw and three of the participants won a memoir to take home with them, a fitting close to an inspiring and rich event.

Other links readers might like to follow for the speakers are below:

The American Book Center events page with short biographies of each speaker
Carolyn Vines' Life Coach page
An interview with Niamh Ni Bhroin on the I am Expat page.
An overview webpage for Jo Parfitt

Now, of course I am looking forward to the next English Writing Festival!

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

First faring in fair wealther

I'm a bit late with posting these photos. I thought I'd be able to put them up last week, but life got in the way and so I can only add my somewhat belated report now of our first faring of the year. As with my last post, the photos tell their own story, and many of you will have seen these views before since we need to  travel quite a long way on the Ghent to Terneuzen Canal before we can branch off and go somewhere else. Thus it is that for a two hour 'spuddle', we can only see the same again...not that I mind! I love it, and I love seeing the great sea ships go past. I also enjoy faring past them. It feels so exciting even though it's probably the safest kind of faring we can do.

The weather was, as you can see, perfect, and my daughter joined us too. I particularly like the photos of her and Koos playing the fool. 

We headed north along the canal towards Terneuzen and then I got some manoeuvring practice in a side harbour. This was an interesting experience in how un-intuitive it all is for me...the wind didn't help either. I practised 'three point turns', but the wind only really let me reverse to the right. To achieve a left turn (with a left turning screw, which becomes right in reverse) is more difficult anyway, but with a strong wind blowing us broadsides, it was nigh on impossible. Add to that my lack of brain cells when it comes to how the steering behaves, and this didn't work all too well. At least I succeeded the other way!

Anyway, it was on the way back I suddenly had a light bulb moment. Driving a barge with a wheel is like driving a car. No one ever tells you this, but if you want to reverse to the right, you have to turn your wheel to the right...duh! I've spent years 'not getting' how to do it. If only someone had said how similar to a car it is I'd have been fine, but the books and instructors just don't make that connection. Odd, isn't it? Anyway, now I'll stop rabbiting and let the photos speak for themselves. Suffice to say we thoroughly enjoyed the first excursion of the year.

Heading out of the harbour

north...to Terneuzen

One of our routine sights - a cargo transporter

The whale to our minnow

My WOBs flag in full view too

Daughter and Koos seeking far horizons
And in more recent news, our sheeple have returned to the field next to the crumbly cottage. We love them for their characters and their company. Here are some close up pics. Don't you just love their expressions?

Have a great week, everyone. Have you had some good weather too?

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Picture Post: A dash up to Deventer

One of Deventer's very charming streets 

Every now and then, I take a trip to the east of Amsterdam to visit Saxion University in Deventer. It's work, so most of the two day trip is spent indoors, but in the evenings, I can stroll round this exceptionally pretty Duch town and if the weather is fine, I can walk along the river Ijssel. It is a beautiful stretch of water - much more natural than the river in Rotterdam and it is wonderful to stretch my eyes over the fields beyond. On Tuesday evening, the sky was clear, and the sun warm. Like many others who were either walking, eating picnics or simply gazing at the water, I loved being there. The photos speak for themselves, so I hope you like them.

A water authorities boat patrolling

Heading towards the lock

Still and peaceful in the lock

Evening light over the harbour

A lovely old clipper lies at rest

A sweet sign for dogs that there is always water for them there

The following morning in the main square

Tomorrow, I'll do a post about our first faring of the year!

Sunday, April 02, 2017

The meanness of cleanness

I know, I know. I mutter more than somewhat about cleaning the barges, but when you have one and a half boats to care for (don't ask), it can become a tad tedious. As I said elsewhere on social media, people who have boats and barges know that we do more scrubbing and scouring than a Victorian housemaid, and that's just for one.

Well to cut my mitherings short, since I posted last week about the new meaning of greening on the Vereeniging, I thought I'd tell you about the meanness of cleanness on the Hennie H this week. To clarify any confusion (if that's not a contradiction), my own barge is the Vereeniging in Rotterdam; it's where I live during the week when I'm at work. The Hennie H (pronounced Ha), which I share with Koos, is in a harbour at Sas van Gent on the Zeeuws Vlaanderen border with Belgium. Sas van Gent is about three and something kilometres from the crumbly cottage that I escape to at weekends. This is the holiday barge, the one that took us to France last year and will hopefully bear us east to Poland this year - although if we get that far remains to be seen. I only have three months, which is the absolute maximum time I can (not) afford not to work. That said, the Hennie H has been sitting twiddling its fenders since November, which was the last time we went out for a spuddle.

Our harbour at Sas
It will come as no surprise, then, that after such a long period of idle rest and despite a few wash downs throughout the colder months, the little barge was in much need of a spring clean. I started a couple of days ago, but I was dog-sitting and couldn't spend the time that I really needed as said pooch insisted on sitting on the hottest part of the deck. Not a good move for a small furry being. So since he went home, I've been able to spend more time on it and attack with some good Val verve and vigour. Fortunately, I don't have to climb any masts or hang myself over any precipitous sides with this one; it has those wonderful things called gunwales which allow me to walk with some dignity along the barge and mop down the sides rather than doing a fair impression of a vertically challenged spider as I do on the Vereeniging.

Factory backdrop
No the meanness of the cleanness on this barge is that everything visible is either white or cream. Add to that, the mooring is close to a number of factories that emit all sorts of noxious substances (well I might be exaggerating that a bit) that all end up as grime on my lovely gleaming roof (that part's true). And even worse, the fire brigade use the water next to us to clean out their tanks now and then. What I suspect strongly is that they also take gleeful pleasure in spraying all the surrounding boats and the Hennie H in particular with water dredged from the bottom of the canal when no one's there to catch them at it. The result is that now and then we arrive to find the barge covered in gritty black mud. Wonderful, isn't it? On a white barge. You can imagine how mean that makes me!

It's no wonder that barge skippers of yore always had brown sails and tarpaulins. It was probably in anticipation of this kind of meanness.

A nice clean HH

Anyway, after many hours graft today, this is how her roof looks! Doesn't that cleaning make it look gleaming ?

And just for fun, I've added a few extra photos of the surrounding countryside too. Have a great week everyone.

Looking over the fields on my walk

A fine old brick barn

Paddocks for the horses - there are a lot of them here

Spring in the trees