Cards and Carpets: 2013 365 Challenge #46

Abstract Card Commission Complete! Hurrah

Abstract Card Commission Complete! Hurrah

Valentines Day is a bit different with kids in the house. I would try to describe it but it wouldn’t be better than the great post written by The Clothesline, so I’ll just shamelessly plug it here:

The First Valentines Day vs the Tenth Valentines Day

I’m not a big VDay person any more (maybe when I was sixteen) but it was nice to go to the coffee shop with my husband after dropping the kids off at nursery. Even if we did talk work before going to look at carpets.

I did manage to finish my cards commission by the skin of my teeth (my friend will be here to collect them in an hour) but I nearly forgot to walk the dog… All in all it was a normal day.

Claire’s post isn’t very romantic I’m afraid. It was the next thing on my list of topics to write about, it wasn’t meant to land on or near Valentines Day. That’s life I guess. It’s also quite long so I’ll keep my daily chit-chat to a minimum.


Claire chose a table in the corner of the coffee shop and sat down. The latte didn’t look up to Starbucks’ standard but the mug was warm and she’d tipped in sufficient sugar to mask any unwanted taste. Looking around the crowded room she felt the warmth spreading through her hands and down into her body. She let out a sigh and closed her eyes.

The phone rang for several seconds before she recognised the sound as hers. It rang so rarely she’d forgotten the brassy ringtone selected to be audible in bars. I should probably change it to birdsong or something. As she patted her coat pockets to find the source of the noise Claire noticed several blue-rinse grannies doing the same thing and let out a chuckle. Welcome to the twenty-first century.

“Hello?” Claire hoped it was a sales call she could ditch quickly. She hated trying to hold a personal conversation in a public space.

“Claire, it’s Ruth. Where are you? Robert said something about you losing your job and ruralising. I told him he’d finally gone senile.”

“I’m in a coffee shop Ruth. Can I call you back?” She heard an intake of breath down the phone and felt her happy mood drain away. “I’m not fobbing you off. It’s just hard to talk. I’m all pressed in with people.” She nearly said the blue-rinse brigade but realised her southern vowels were carrying rather too well above the northern hubbub. She drained the last of her coffee and pulled at her coat, all the while keeping the phone to her ear.

“Hang on Ruth, I’ll go outside. Do you want me to call you back, save your bill?”

Her sister agreed and Claire was able to put her coat on with two hands. She hesitated then pulled on her gloves and hat too. The Skoda was parked at the other end of town and she had no idea how long her sister would talk for. Even though the sun was shining it was still sub-zero by the lake.

The phone connected after one ring. “Thanks for calling back. I needed to talk to you. I already called Mum and Robert.”

Claire felt a heavy weight drop into her stomach. Ruth rang Robert; that could only mean major news. Hang on, she rang him before me? Shaking away the irrelevant thought Claire looked around for somewhere to sit down.

“What is it?”

“I got the test results back. They’ve seen something and they want to investigate further.”

“What do you mean something?” Claire took a sharp breath of icy air and began coughing. As the fit passed she processes the words. “Do you mean a lump? A tumour? Cancer?” Framing words around the thought made them too real.

“They don’t know. A lump, yes, but it could be benign. They won’t know until they do a biopsy.”

Claire had majored in arts at school, science was not her forte, but she had a feeling biopsies meant inserting needles where they didn’t belong. Ruth confirmed it.

“They said it will be done under anaesthetic so I won’t feel it.”

A shiver tore through Claire, chilling her from the inside out.



“Oh god.” The sunny street dimmed as the words took on sense. “Do you need anything? I’m in Cumbria but I can head down if you need me to take Sky.”

“It’s fine, Sky will be at school and Mum will pick her up. It’s not a complicated procedure. I just thought you should know.”

“Of course. I’ve been meaning to call and ask about your results. It’s just. Well.” What excuse was there? I’ve been swinging through the trees like Tarzan or following an Aussie I only just met up mountains I’ve only just heard of? Even by their family standards that was pretty lame.

“It’s okay, you don’t need to explain. It must be difficult, with your job and Michael.” Ruth trailed off, waiting. When Claire didn’t add anything she gave a small sigh. “You can tell us what happened you know. We won’t judge.”

Ha! Not judge? It’s practically the family motto. Claire forced the thought away. “Sorry sis, there have been a lot of changes. I’m not being coy about Michael, there’s nothing to say. He wanted something I couldn’t give him so it needed to end now before it imploded later. And I haven’t lost my job but I am fighting to keep it, using a skill-set I didn’t possess last week. But none of that matters if you need me in Cambridge.”

There was silence. Claire wondered if Ruth was even still listening or whether she’d gone to see to Sky. She waited, unsure what to do. Her bum was freezing to the bench and she’d lost the feeling in her nose. Do I hang up and call back? Then she heard an rush of breath and what sounded like sobbing. Must be Sky.

It took a moment to realise the crying was coming from her sister. “Ruth? Are you okay?”

The sobbing intensified and Claire listened helplessly, feeling awkward at witnessing her sister’s grief. She got up and walked along the street to get her blood moving. Eventually the sobs gulped to a halt and her sister’s voice wavered in apology.

“Don’t be silly. You cry if you need to. I can’t imagine how scary it all is.”

“It’s not that. Well, I am terrified. More about how it’s going to affect Sky. No, it’s just you had everything. The flat, the job, the fit bloke. If it didn’t work for you, who does it work for? What is there to live for? Where’s the hope?”

Claire’s heart pounded loudly, thrumming in her wind-frozen ears. A lump formed in her throat and she grasped for words. “You have Sky. She’s your hope, surely?” As she said the words Claire felt the falseness. She couldn’t imagine living her future for a child who would be ever ungrateful. At the same time it rang true and she knew it was the right thing to give Ruth hope.

“You’re right. I’m being silly. It’s just, you and Michael, you clicked. He adored you. We all hoped he’d be the one.”

We? Claire didn’t like the idea that her family had been discussing her love life in her absence. If she thought they talked about her at all she hoped it was to envy her new car or latest work achievement. Did Michael adore me? Images flashed through her brain like a movie on fast forward. They were good pictures, full of laughter and understanding. It made her ache with emptiness.

She heard a loud noise coming from Ruth’s end of the phone and for once was relieved to have their conversation cut short by her niece.

“You give Sky a hug from me, Ruth, and let me know how it goes tomorrow. I can be in Cambridge if you need me. Just call.”

Her sister murmured her assent and hung up, leaving Claire motionless and alone on an unfamiliar high street.


Skiddaw, Varnish Disaster and 2013 365 Challenge #43

Image courtesy of

Image courtesy of

Today is all about hiking. I can only do the hiking posts when I have the energy because I need to put in a lot more research. It is worth it though. I have done a bit of hiking in the UK including in the Lake District (in the days when I lived in Manchester and the Lakes weren’t so far away!). I haven’t done Skiddaw but my first ever hike was Striding Edge at Helvellen so I can appreciate some of what Claire might experience.

Can I just add, I love this photo of Skiddaw! It is so atmospheric, perfect for putting me in the right mood for Claire’s day-hike. I really appreciate sites like that let me look for images without worrying about copyright.

I need something to smile about today as I just lost 8 new abstract-art cards (meant for a commission with a deadline of this Thursday) because the varnish didn’t go down right. It happens sometimes but it still means four or five hours’ work lost and is always frustrating. Especially as I’m running out of time to start again as we get the kids in half an hour! 🙂 I try not to do painting in acrylic with little ones around…

Update: turns out Dettol Surface Cleaner doesn’t get varnish off acrylic paint but Vaseline (petroleum jelly) does. Which begs the question what does the stuff do to a little one’s bottom? At least the 7 out of 8 of the pictures were saved (one was scrubbed a bit too hard…) It does mean yet another nursery day has gone by without me getting ahead with Claire’s story. Child collection time and hiking research not yet started. Oops. Going to be a light post again today. Sigh.


“How are the boots?”

“Better than the Helly Hansens although it pains me to admit it. It’s nice not to be wearing jeans too. I’m glad I stopped by Cotswolds before we left Carlisle.”

“Well done.”

Claire beamed at Josh as if she had passed a test by getting the right gear. Even though he hadn’t been on the Pennine Walk he had read the blog post and seen the pictures.

“I can’t imagine how you didn’t get frost bite or at least torn muscles hiking in the snow in jeans. Idiot.”

“Thanks.” Claire paused to catch her breath. “Let’s say I’m learning on the job.” She turned to take in the view of Derwentwater nestled below amidst hills and woodland. Even on a bitter winter day it was quite a sight. “It must be impressive in the summer with a blue sky and a bit more green.”

Josh turned and walked back to where she stood. He reached over and held his hand to her forehead. “Are you ill?”

“No I feel great, why?”

“You’re being complimentary about the scenery and the nearest city is miles away. Are you sure you’re not crook?”

“Ha bloody ha. I was brought up in the countryside. Just because I don’t choose to live there doesn’t mean I don’t occasionally think it’s pretty. I think Cath Kidston tea-towels are pretty but I wouldn’t give them houseroom.”

Josh smiled and gestured up the zig-zagging track. “Come on, there isn’t much daylight this far north at this time of year. If you want your precious picture for Carl we need to get to the summit before it gets dark.”

“Lead on, McDuff.”

“What?” Josh twisted round as he walked.

“Oh, nothing. It’s from Shakespeare. I think. Uncle Jim used to say it when we were younger. He probably had it wrong, he was always misquoting things.”

“You’ve never mentioned any of your family before.”

It was on Claire’s lips to say You haven’t either, but she didn’t want the smile to leave Josh’s face. Instead she forced out a low chuckle. “With my family there isn’t much to say. Uncle Jim was easily the best of them.”


“He died. Heart attack. Crazy really. Dad’s always been the one with the high-profile job, bad diet, too much wine. Uncle Jim loved sailing, spent half his life in the great outdoors. Much good it did him.”

“I’m sorry to hear that. I guess we all gotta go at some point.”

Silence fell between them and they followed the line of cairns that lead to Skiddaw.

“Brrrr.” Claire pulled her jacket in tighter and huddled against the wind as they reached the ridge. She looked around her in surprise, wondering when the sky had filled with ominous-looking clouds.

“Bugger, looks like it’s going to rain.”

“And some, I should think. Best pick up the pace. Right gear or not, it won’t be pleasant up on the ridge in a hail storm.”

The words were whisked from Josh’s mouth as a gust of wind tore through them. Claire stumbled and reached out instinctively for Josh’s arm.

“Sorry, caught me by surprise.”

“No worries. Come on, let’s do this, now we’re here.” He linked his arm through Claire’s and they strode on towards the top of Skiddaw, determined not to be beaten by the weather.

“Ow.” A lump of ice hit Claire on the shoulder, followed swiftly by another. “Damn, that hurt.”

“Sook. It was just a bit of hail. Here, pass me your phone, let’s get this photo taken while you’ll still be distinguishable in it.”

Claire plastered her best approximation of a smile on her face as Josh pointed the iPhone in her direction. She snatched the phone as soon as he indicated the picture was taken and turned back the way they had come.

“Aren’t you going to come to the top? We’re so close.”

“What for? I did what I came to do. I want a hot shower and a mug of Earl Grey.”

“Come on. You can’t chicken out now. Come bag a munro or whatever the English equivalent is.”

“Bag a what?” Claire glared at Josh and then looked back down the path. Even though it was clearly marked she wasn’t happy hiking solo. With a heavy sigh that was swept away before it could reach Josh she turned and followed him up the hill.

“Whose stupid idea was this?”


“Bugger, it was, you’re right. Well, that’s it. The next extreme sport I’m doing is extreme cocktail drinking followed by extreme shopping.”

“Well on that adventure you’re on your own. I told you, cities give me soul-ache.” Josh’s shouted words were said without emphasis but Claire could hear the goodbye in them. The thought caused a stab of pain under her ribs. Having been fine to start the adventure on her own it now seemed impossibly hard to travel on without someone beside her.

“Where will you go?”

They had reached the top and peered through the sleet to try and see Bassenthwaite. Claire thought she could just about distinguish the lake in the distance although everything was blending into matching hues of grey so it was hard to be sure.

“I’ll stay in Keswick. Seems a bonzer place. Might try for some work.”

“I thought you wanted to head south. The city was your idea.”

“I did what I needed to do yesterday in Carlisle, she’s sweet.”

There didn’t seem to be any more words so they turned and walked together back down the hill.


Bribery and hurrah for Funny Blogs – 2013 365 Challenge #39

Magazine-craft Aliens (made with Daddy)

Amber’s Magazine-craft Aliens (made with Daddy)

I managed to bribe my son into nursery today with promises of a buying a new magazine tomorrow (the kids love getting magazines, but they’re so expensive!).

He still didn’t quite manage not to cry. Poor wee man, my heart went out to him. We’re all so poorly at the moment none of us know where we are. (Turns out they’ve had Scarlet Fever at nursery and I suspect that might be what Amber had last week. Maybe even Aaron. Poor buttons.)

Luckily his big sister was there to help him settle today – goodness only knows how he’ll cope when she starts school in September. Hopefully by then he’ll be more confident, having survived the terrible twos. (I find the threes are the tiresome threes but that might just be me!)

Aaron's magazine-craft artwork

Aaron’s magazine-craft artwork

Talking of terrible twos I stumbled across a new blog today that had me laughing so hard I wept. I love those moments when you just can’t stop laughing and every new gem makes you laugh harder.

I only found the blog because the author liked yesterday’s post (and I lost the ‘like’ when I had to replace the post with the full one. I got caught out by scheduling a half-finished post and then not having internet access.) Anyway the blog is and these are my favourite posts (though I loved many more)

Things I am Banning from My House

I’m a Survivor – the Highs and Lows of Parenting a Two-Year-Old

Painting for a card commission

Painting for a card commission

Today has been about catching up with the blog, painting card stock and learning about Smashwords. I really want to get January’s posts up for free but I don’t think I’ve had enough sleep to read the style guide without nodding off (that is not an aspersion on the quality of the guide but due to my cold-drenched state!)

For once I’m actually looking forward to sitting down with the children tomorrow to do craft. I think that’s about the limit of my current mental powers.

Update: I did manage to plough through the Smashwords style guide and – hurrah! – the first volume of instalments is now available FREE on Smashwords. Just follow the link in the margin. It wasn’t a bump-free road. The style guide you can download is essential and easy to follow. However despite my very best efforts I still have a persistent blank page between instalments 23 and 24 which will probably stop the book being accepted into Smashword’s premium catalogue. I don’t really mind, it’s free after all so it’s not about making money, it’s just bugging me. I’ve uploaded five new versions but can’t seem to fix it.

Walk. Away. Walk. Away. Now.



“Get me down!”

Josh grinned up at Claire from the gorge below and cupped his hands to his mouth. “That’s the general idea. Just do what the man tells you, you’ll be fine.”

His words were barely audible over the sound of rushing water and the thudding of Claire’s heart beneath the harness.

“Okay Claire, there is nothing to be scared of. You’ve seen the others do it and they’ve all been fine, haven’t they?”

Claire dragged her eyes away from the yawning space beneath her and looked at the owner of the voice. He seemed to expect something from her so she nodded, not trusting herself to speak without swearing or sobbing.

“So, what we’re going to do is talk you through it one step at a time. You trust me, don’t you Claire?”

His voice was safe, like a kind GP or a favourite Uncle. His rich Cumbrian accent washed over her and she found she could breathe again. Then her eyes were pulled to the drop beneath her feet and her lungs once more emptied of air.

“This is no different to the drop you did at the training centre. You just need to turn around and lower yourself backwards. You don’t even need to look down.”

“I don’t need to look,” Claire bit out through clenched teeth. “I can hear the sound of the damn waterfall smashing on the rocks fifty feet below me.”

Part of Claire’s brain wondered at what point Dave’s patience would snap and he would either push her over the edge or give in to her demands to be freed from the harness. The pep talk before they left the centre to walk down had informed them all that even those terrified of heights would be encouraged to descend the 17m drop into the gorge and that the thrill of abseiling down the side of one of The North Pennines’ highest waterfalls always encourages cheers and applause. Claire glanced down at the group of faces peering up at her from below.

I don’t want a sodding clap I want a drink.

She picked out Josh’s face from the crowd. He is not going to let me hear the end of it if I chicken out now. It’s his fault I’m here in the first place. Him and sodding Carl.

Claire let her mind drift back to the email she had received from Carl that morning, just after check-in at Alston YHA.

Claire, we feel your blog needs to be spiced up a bit. Coca Cola are concerned that you are not promoting the outdoors enough. Hiking and biking is all well and good but they want to see more adrenalin. Try for some rock climbing, abseiling, maybe a sky dive. Make sure you post pictures. Carl.

The swearing had gone on for some time but when she had shown Josh the cause of her expletives, he’d merely laughed and said “Good on him.”

She wondered now whether Carl and Josh were in secret collusion to maximise her humiliation.

“If you set Carl up to this Josh you can kiss goodbye to your free ride.” Claire’s words were lost in the spray from the falls. She turned back to face Dave and caught him exchanging grimaces with a colleague. He quickly smoothed his face back into a mask of patient concern but it was too late.

Roll your eyes at me will you, you silly old man? We’ll see about that.

Claire took a short step to the edge of the gorge, threw a glance at Dave’s mate to make sure he was gripping the rope, and tipped herself backwards. Her feet skidded on the slippery wall and all plans of walking slowly down the gorge vanished. Her stomach shot up to her chin as she fell down the cliff-face until she felt the harness catch under her bottom. The motion caused her to spin and her vision filled with alternate views of white water and dark gorge. Freezing spray drenched her and the roar of the rushing water rang through her head.

The world stumbled to a halt as Claire hung suspended from the bright yellow rope; the only primary colour in a field of muted greens and greys. The few seconds it took to lower her to the ground dragged by but eventually Claire felt her boots touch rock. Traitorous knees failed to support her and she landed in an ungainly heap on the wet stone as the rest of her group whooped and clapped.

“Good on yer, Claire.” Josh rapped his knuckles on Claire’s helmet and beamed at her.

She glared up at him for a moment before reaching up her hand. “The least you can do is help me up, you bastard.”

“Hey, it wasn’t my idea. You said you needed high-adrenalin stuff for Blog Fodder. Well, how’s your heart rate? Is she pounding?” He pulled Claire to her feet and leaned in close. “Nice arse by the way. Great view.”

Claire felt the blood heating her frozen cheeks. She considered pushing him into the water but decided she’d save her vengeance for later.

“I hope you got a picture of something other than my rear, I’m not putting that on the blog.”

“Aw, go on, that’ll get the punters coming for sure.” He winked. “No pun intended.”

It was only once she had trudged all the way back to the centre and handed in her gear that Claire realised what he had said.

“I’ll get you, Josh. Just you wait.”


Birthdays and (dare I say it) boredom… and 2013 365 Challenge #29

Card painting: the first painting I've done in over a year

Card painting: the first abstract painting I’ve done in over a year

As you read this it is (finally) my daughter’s fourth birthday. I’m writing the night before, as usual, and I have no words again. It’s been a long week.

Granddad came over for dinner this evening, so Amber had more gifts to open.She was overwhelmed after a long day at nursery and my poor son was bereft, even though I wrapped a few toys so he also had something to open. He didn’t even register what was under the wrapping so, after he went to bed, I wrapped a few more things from the playroom. Hopefully that will help tomorrow when Amber opens her final gifts. This birthday has lasted longer than Christmas! Although, as her labour lasted 32 hours, I guess that’s fairly appropriate.

I’ve also been painting today, for the first time since my solo exhibition over a year ago. It felt odd. It also reminded me why I haven’t painted in more than twelve months: I was cooking lunch for hubbie and it went cold while I tried to fix something that had gone wrong in the first painting. That’s the thing with the style of work I do – once you start you have to keep going until it’s finished or the acrylic dries funny. In the end hubbie had to tear the brush from my hand because I’d used some old paint which was full of dry bits and the painting was never going to come good. I finally managed to complete a batch ready to be cut up and stuck to card stock tomorrow. I have until Friday to get some Valentines Day cards to the Gallery. Nothing like a deadline!

I suspect Claire will have another quiet day today. This is the first time since the beginning of January that I’ve sat down at my laptop and thought bugger Claire I want to go watch TV. I have a fairly short attention span and I am finding it hard to think up a new situation for Claire every single day. Normally (for me) a first draft of a novel propels itself forward by its own momentum once I’ve got past the first ten or fifteen thousand words. Even though I have written 25,00 words about Claire so far this month, the challenge is starting to feel like writing a short story everyday. I loathe writing short stories.  If it only takes 30 days to build a habit this should be second nature by now. Some people say it take 60 days in which case I’m half way there. Just keep typing, just keep typing…

I did manage to get some research done this morning but not enough for a detailed post so I think it’s time Claire met someone to talk to. I am enjoying travelling around the North East via my laptop (even if I’m not enjoying thinking what to write about every twenty-four hours) but it’s almost as time-consuming as going there in person! Whose crazy idea was this postaday lark?


“G’day, you need a hand?”

Claire ducked out from under the bonnet to find a tanned face full of teeth grinning at her.

“Car bust?”

“What?” Claire looked bewildered for a moment before realisation dawned. “Oh, no, I haven’t broken down. The engine’s at the other end. I’m just getting my boots out. They were wet so I put them in here instead of in the car. The carpets might be old and mouldy but I don’t want them stinking of damp or getting my bag soggy.”

She stopped speaking as she realised the words were rushing out in a torrent. As it was only half an hour’s drive from Byrness to Kielder Claire had decided to take a detour to the nearest town in search of coffee. She had arrived in Hawick in time for lunch and had lost a pleasant hour or two in Turnbulls. As she knew the Kielder Hostel reception wouldn’t open until 5pm she went on to another café bookshop and happily immersed herself in other people’s lives until it was late enough to head to Kielder. As a result she hadn’t spoken to anyone since her phone-call to Julia that morning. It seemed words built up like water behind a fallen tree if you didn’t use them.

Claire looked at the man to judge his reaction to her verbal diarrhoea. He didn’t seem fazed by it. He wandered closer and peered under the bonnet as if to confirm that there was, in fact, no engine there.

“I might be a girl but I do know what an engine looks like.” Claire’s voice came out sharper than intended. The man looked up and smiled again, and Claire was struck by how attractive he was. Something throbbed inside her and she looked down at her boots as if hoping they would fill the awkward gap in conversation. Brushing her hair behind her ears Claire reached in and retrieved the still-wet snow-boots. She tied the laces together and threw them over her shoulder where her rucksack was already in place.

The stranger stood up and dug his hands into his pockets. “You staying here?”

Claire swallowed a giggle and looked around the emptiness that surrounded them. “Oh have I missed the five-star spa resort?”

The man grinned as if to acknowledge his obvious question. “Name’s Josh. I’ve been here a while, you want me to show you around?”

Is he hitting on me? Claire couldn’t tell. It had been a long time since anyone had chatted her up. Apart from Mike from Accounts and that didn’t really count as she had initiated that particular conversation, more fool her. Deciding it didn’t really matter if Josh was interested or not Claire slammed the bonnet down and followed her new Aussie friend into the hostel.

Claire had been prepared for the remoteness of the hostel, after reading the information on the website. She knew, for example, that the nearest shop was 17 miles away. What she hadn’t noticed was that, all covered in snow, the place resembled a ski resort. It was comforting even though they weren’t in the mountains. Maybe I can pretend it is a five-star hotel, especially if it looks as smart on the inside as Byrness did.

After she had been shown to her dorm and had a chance to take in the wooden bunks and multi-coloured duvets Claire dismissed the similarities to a ski chalet. Never mind. Josh has promised to take care of me. She took out her least-creased top and her make-up bag. A dab of mascara, a spritz of perfume and she was ready.

Back in the lobby she looked at Josh askance. He was wrapped up in winter woollies including a giant hand-knitted bobble hat and scarf set that looked like it was a Christmas gift from his Gran.

“Um, are we going out? I thought there was nothing to do round here?”

“Have you looked out at the night’s sky? It’s a beaut. Be criminal not to get ourselves to the observatory on a night like this. Skedaddle back to your room for your coat or you’ll freeze.”

“What observatory?” Claire’s mind struggled to catch up. She was tired and hungry and wanted dinner and maybe a gin and tonic if that was possible.

“It’s about a mile away. Come on. Public viewing is from 8pm and it’ll take a while to walk there.”

Claire weighed up the merits of eating dinner alone or accompanying her handsome new friend to look at dots of burning gas in the sky. She looked at her watch. “It’s only 7pm. Why don’t we eat first then I’ll drive us up to your observatory thing if it’s so important. It’s too bloody cold to walk.”

“You beaut, that’s a bonza idea!” He pulled off his hat and beckoned Claire to follow him to the dining room.

Claire felt like a leaf that had just been blown by a gust of wind into a swollen river.


P.S. Apologies to any Australians – it’s a terrible mimicry of an Aussie speaking. What can I say, I’m tired!

Art, Literature and Authorial Intention

Do you see a donkey’s head (upside down) a gladiator (tilt head right) or a tiny ballerina?

Apologies, this is a whopper-post about some stuff that’s been whirling in my brain!

This week I had the amazing opportunity to take some of my paintings into a new gallery that has opened in Peterborough, called Art in the Heart. The gallery is a grand eclectic mix of artwork produced by artists who live within a 20-mile radius (preferably within the city but thankfully the Director, Dawn, makes exceptions as I fall in the 20-mile bracket).

The lovely Dawn generously gave me half an hour of her time to look through my abstract paintings, desk art and cards, as well as the marketing literature I have produced since I left work four years ago to become a full-time artist. It is the first time I have had the chance to speak properly to a gallery owner (which probably explains why I gave up my dreams of being a full-time artist fairly quickly) and it was an enlightening experience.

It seems that Art is all about the artist’s intention.

Now I’m the first to confess I know very little about art. I’m more or less self-taught in acrylics and have only had a few classes in watercolours since I did GCSE art twenty years ago. For me there has never been much in the way of meaning. I paint because I love colour (my one solo exhibition was called It’s All About Colour).

It’s All About Colour – Exhibition Flyer

I choose my palette of two or three colours, squirt them on the canvas, and then let my subconscious, or the paintbrush, or the paint, or whatever, take over. I push and pull at the paint to create texture, I follow what seems to be needed and I keep going (usually past the point where it’s at its best!)

When the painting is dry I ask other people to have a look and see what they can see. Often there is something to be seen: a skeleton, a tiger’s eye, an emu, a dancing ballerina, a skull. These are all things that have appeared in my paintings. Not everyone can see them but, like those pictures of dots where you see the image if you go slightly cross-eyed, once you have seen something in my pictures it’s hard to see anything else. My husband’s favourite piece hangs in our dining room: a 4ft x 3ft dark red, black and gold painting that he stared at for weeks when he was really sick once. It is so personal to him now because he sees a gladiator fighting a lion.

Me, I see a donkey’s head.

It annoys me.

I daren’t show him where the darn donkey is or that’s all he’ll ever see, thus ruining his appreciation of the picture forever. (That’s partly why I don’t read book / film reviews. It’s too easily to be shown something that spoils your favourite book/film forever).

So for me there is no intention in my artwork, but I don’t think it makes it any less artistic. If anything, I think a picture is more profound, affects people more deeply, because they have decided what it means to them. They have invested their time and energy in interpreting it. I haven’t tried to push them in any given direction. Okay the pictures have titles, but usually they’re added afterwards.

Do you see a carnival mask?

I might be motivated by the colour of river weed in sunlight or the bark of a Tibetan cherry tree but that isn’t necessarily what I’ve painted. If someone else sees a carnival mask or a desert landscape, then that is what the picture is to them.  In writing that would come under Reader Response Theory: the author and reader create the text between them and it is recreated new – and different – for every reader. Much nicer than being told what to think by the author, surely?

When I spoke to Dawn at Art in the Heart I got the impression that wasn’t enough. To be taken seriously in Art circles it seems I need to have profound thoughts before I began to paint. I need to want to say something, or to shock or question or promote thought. I like to think my paintings do that, if you give them enough time. But I can’t lie and say I’m trying to make people question their inner being or their religion or what it means to be a celebrity.

I just want to bring pleasure.

It’s hard to remember to keep the freedom of a child

Somebody bought one of the paintings at my exhibition because she said it was an exact representation of the inside of her head. It doesn’t get more personal than that! Yet some of the feedback I got when I had my exhibition was the usual ‘My two-year-old could do better.’ Actually, when I watch my two-year-old painting, I think that’s actually a compliment. We have a freedom when we’re young, a disregard for what others think, that allows us to be completely uninhibited. My artwork got safer, more boring, less exciting, as I started to care what people thought. I lost some of the freedom of just painting for me, because it made me high on adrenalin to take a blank canvas and turn it into something vibrant and alive.

I’m trying to avoid the same thing happening with my writing. As I read books and blogs on writing craft I sense a danger of trying to conform to expectations, of shoe-horning myself into a genre or a three-act structure or what I am told makes good literature. I’m forcing myself to accept that, through writing what I like to read, I might be writing something that will sell without being too safe.

At least when it comes to authorial intention it doesn’t seem to matter so much in literature as it apparently does in Art. It doesn’t seem unforgivable to start writing without an intention, to not know where the story is going when you tap out the first sentence. I am sure there are as many authors who set out to teach, shock, thrill, amaze, tease or terrify as there are authors who start merely hoping they’ll get to the end of 100,000 words and have a story that works.

It was never my intention to paint a skeleton (right hand side) it just appeared!

Thinking about it reminded me of a section of my English Masters course about Authorial Intention. At the time I hadn’t written anything creative since GCSE English, ten years earlier. So, when I read that an author’s work could (should) be separated from the author’s intention, I thought What rubbish. Surely an author is always in control of their own writing? You can’t read into a character’s depth without accepting that the author meant for them to be like that. You can’t debate whether Hamlet is mad without accepting that Shakespeare knew very well whether he was or not. He must have had an intention.

Now, as an author with five novels and dozens of unruly characters under my belt I understand what baloney my old opinion was. Characters are sneaky: they do things we don’t expect or intend them to do. Their motivations can turn out to be nasty when we meant them to be good. They go off at tangents and fall for the wrong man. Somewhere in our subconscious we probably know why, but I don’t think it’s always a result of our intention.

I’ve found myself analysing my characters after I’ve finished a book, looking for their motivations, their flaws and strengths. To begin with that felt as fraudulent as adding words to my paintings after they’re finished, saying they’re about death or anger or whatever. The difference I guess is that people are easy to analyse by their thoughts and actions, presented there on the page. Paintings aren’t. And it isn’t fraudulent to look at Leah at the end of Dragon Wraiths and say she has suffered from growing up without a father figure. It’s there in the text, if you look for it. And it’s something I’ve been told is true about me. So I’ve written it into my character subconsciously because I understand it as a concept and because it fitted with my character and story. It wasn’t my intention but it’s still there.

One of the texts I studied on Literary Criticism during my MA is the one quoted below (borrowed from Wikipedia)

W.K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley wrote in their essay The Intentional Fallacy: “the design or intention of the author is neither available nor desirable as a standard for judging the success of a work of literary art.”[1] The author, they argue, cannot be reconstructed from a writing – the text is the only source of meaning, and any details of the author’s desires or life are purely extraneous.

I can’t remember how I viewed this during my MA – those years are thankfully a blur – but I know how I view it now. True and not true (actually that’s exactly what I would have said then. My academic answers were always neatly balanced, me being a Libran and all.) I believe my books can be judged separate from me – as my paintings can – but you could use details of my life to help understand them better. My own relationship with my father, for example. Fathers, living or dead, feature quite often in my work. (In my NaNoWriMo this year the father has just had a heart-attack). Whether you could use that information to better understand my characters I’m not sure. My characters are not me. They draw on my experiences, they live lives I might have lived, or would want to live, or am glad I never lived. They often have red hair and green eyes (which I have always wanted!) or grey eyes (like a Georgette Heyer heroine) but they’re not me.

Wikipedia do a lovely summary of the different approaches to authorial intent in literary criticism (which made me quite nostalgic!) here. It was fascinating to remind myself of it all having now written some novels. It makes me want to go back and review my course through new eyes. Maybe it should be a requirement that every literary critic has written at least one novel (preferably a deadline-driven NaNoWriMo one, when your characters are most likely to wander off by themselves.)

Anyway, if you’ve read this far, thank you so much! Having scanned back through my post it isn’t always lucidly written. My academic days are long gone I’m afraid. But it’s been fun revisiting all those ideas and it was good to have your company. I would love to hear what you think!