She Turned Her Head Away by Patricia Moffat. Subtitled “An Adoption Memoir”, this book is in fact so much more than that. Sometimes it reads like an intelligent whodunit (as the author pursues the trail of her birth-mother), sometimes like an insightful psychological novel. And on every page, it provides what I think I primarily read for: a fully engrossing immersion in another person’s life.
But adoption is, after all, the book’s raison d’etre, and I often thought as I read it, “This book should be provided as a case study in how to stay ‘on topic’.” I don’t think Moffat gives single detail that doesn’t pertain directly to her subject, which in her hands becomes an absolutely fascinating one.
In her Acknowledgements, Moffat mentions that “Taking a Freefall writing course in 1991 from Barbara Turner-Vesselago spurred my interest in returning to this manuscript after almost two decades of neglect.” I am delighted to think that Freefall played a part in the creation of this excellent book.
To be open to writing is to be open to all the familiar parts of the writing process: the elation, the discouragement, and all that lies between. Welcome discouragement. Without it, you’ll get nowhere, even though it can be the hardest of your old friends to love.
You must hold your quiet center,
where you do what only you can do.
If others call you a maniac or a fool,
just let them wag their tongues.
If some praise your perseverance,
don't feel too happy about it —
only solitude is a lasting friend.
You must hold your distant center.
Don't move even if earth and heaven quake.
If others think you are insignificant,
that's because you haven't held on long enough.
As long as you stay put year after year,
eventually you will find a world
beginning to revolve around you.
Zillah Bowes was one of four poets shortlisted for the £10,000 Manchester Poetry Prize (2018). Her poems, and those of the other finalists, can be read on The Manchester Poetry Prize Website. (No prize for guessing whose poems I think should have won!).
Marie-Elsa Bragg has had a second book, Sleeping Letters, begun at Freefall, accepted by Chatto & Windus. It’s an innovative prose-poem of unique and memorable beauty.
Susan Smith’s poem “African Drum”, won third prize in The Banister Competition of the Niagara Poetry Group, which included a cash prize, a reading, and inclusion on the 2018 edition of The Banister. Marie Lauzier’s poem,“Not Again” was published in Another Dysfunctional Cancer Poem Anthology, from Mansfield Press.
Heidi Croot’s flash fiction piece, “The House Fire” (written at a Freefall workshop in Portugal) has been accepted by LINEA, a journal of previously unpublished paragraphs of fiction (Simian Press).
The Go-Between by L.P. Hartley. I think I’ve written before about this jewel of a novel, written in the 1950s, when the novel had aspirations for itself that are only a distant memory now. It’s as intimate as it is rich in metaphor: a beautifully written book that no amount of time or the making of a film version should obscure. I’m reading it now for the third time in about 30 years, with pleasure.
The Victorian and the Romantic by Nell Stevens. So many memoirs these days seek uniqueness by bringing two unlikely things together. Here, a fictionalized love affair between Victorian novelist, Mrs. Gaskell, and American writer, Charles Elliot Norton, is paired with the author’s mysterious, on-again, off-again relationship with Max, her present-day lover. Amazingly, Stevens pulls this off very well, with fiction (about Gaskell) that feels real and memoir sections that have all the drama of fiction. I read it because a reviewer claimed it rivaled My Life in Middlemarch, as the remarkable expression of a reader’s love for a particular writer. And so it does.
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee. This sprawling family saga explores the world of Korean immigrants living in Japan (who currently number 700,000). Many jobs are closed to these “resident aliens”, but the “pachinko” (pinball) emporiums they run gross over $200 billion annually, or 30 times the annual revenue of Las Vegas (who knew?). Tenderly and with compassion, Lee evokes this fascinating society through 4 generations of a single family, where the long arm of pachinko makes its presence felt on a number of levels and in a variety of ways. It’s a book I found well worth reading.
Most of us are aware of the oft-cited truth that the passive voice (‘The ball was hit by the boy.’) does not work as well, when you’re writing creatively, as the active voice (‘The boy hit the ball.’) You can immediately see that there’s more energy in the latter. But I’m often surprised by how typically people resort to other passive constructions to convey the world in which their story is set: “The chair was by the window,” or the ubiquitous “There was a chair by the window.” It’s as if the chair is sleeping there, just waiting for someone to come in and give it a shake.
At the final, copy-editing stage, when such considerations come into view, wake up your settings. Use active verbs, rather than citing passive states: “The chair stood by the window” or “waited by the window”. You’ll find your writing gets a sudden burst of life.
I can be alone,
I know how to be alone.
There is a tacit understanding
Between my pencils
And the trees outside:
Between the rain
And my luminous hair.
The tea is boiling:
My golden zone,
My pure burning amber.
I can be alone,
I know how to be alone. By tea-light
I’m afraid that in the current flurry of online workshops, I haven’t been tracking news of Freefall participants’ recent publications as I should, and I welcome all reminders.
But I do know that my friend and former student, Patricia Moffat, has published the memoir about adoption that was begun in a Freefall workshop more than twenty years ago, with Crowsnest Books, entitled She Turned Her Head Away. It is the thoughtful and well-written story of what can happen when an adopted child decides to look for – and finds – her birth mother. It’s an absorbing book that I hope will also serve as an inspiration to everyone who has a manuscript tucked away somewhere, along with a thousand reasons not to send it out.
In England, Charlie Morris, a former Financial Times sports editor, has published a football memoir, Generation Game, last year to good reviews, after attending a Freefall Writing Workshop at Poulstone Court in 2013.
And Australia’s Deborah Huff-Horwood reports “a small but joyful success”: having had her story, “The Suitcase”, cited as Highly Commended among entries for the AAWP—Ubud Writers and Readers Emerging Writers’ Prize.