Of chickens and beards. Writers Workshop at Swindon Festival of Literature

20 May
Chicken going about her business at Lower Shaw Farm ©Calyx Pictures

Chicken going about her business at Lower Shaw Farm ©Calyx Pictures

Aims of a lit fest:

  1. Meet writers
  2. Hear about writing
  3. Think about what’s been written about
  4. Do your own writing
  5. Work out what to do with your own writing so others can
  6. Go back to number 1.

I’d done numbers one to three (a lot) and written (a lot) about the experience. Now it was time to come up with my own composition. Which was, as it turns out, something to do with chickens and beards.

There were plenty of takers for the Writers’ Workshop with author Rebecca Lloyd. There wasn’t much opportunity to hear about the experiences of the other writers there, but I think there was a range from published authors to people who’d yet to tackle a short story.

There was a great deal of discussion of the myth of the writer. I thought it premature to begin dissecting writing myths before people had put pen to paper. Of the writers I know, there is a wide range of style and approach. Some enjoy writing new story after new story and hate revision. Others find it incredibly hard to finish their first draft (I’m in this category) but love rewriting. But everyone needs encouragement – writing, especially a novel, is a long old process and is far from finished at the end of the first write through. It is a labour of love and commitment, and writers need all the support they can find.

So what if 95 per cent of fiction writers earn less than £5,000 a year? Not everyone dreams of earning a living from their prose, most people want it as a fun hobby alongside their day job. A thick skin is useful if you do want a ‘proper’ publishing deal – expect rejections – but equally your book maybe the next best seller. (See Carole Blake’s advice for more on that).

About half way in we had a hour to try our hand at a short story. The stimulus was four categories of words and phrases: character, setting, conflict and…another one. I picked mine at random, which were:-

  • Man with a beard.
  • On a cliff edge.
  • Confident.
  • Kidnapped.

I sat and stared at these for a while out in the lovely sun at Lower Shaw Farm before giving up, and sitting in the shade. It could all add up to some kind of horribly cliched thriller. Don’t get me wrong – I’m a fan of thrillers but I do like them to break the mould.

So instead I applied my own brand of weird. How could I use all the elements but completely pervert them? I once read a piece of advice about writing (sorry, I can’t remember who) which said: the first idea you come up with, everyone thought it. The second idea: the clever kids thought of it. The third idea – that’s the original one.

Having dismissed the first, the second idea was to have a bearded lady called Cliff. But then I saw the lovely chickens mooching around, happily pecking away at the dirt. So Cliff became a rescue chicken whose soul is kidnapped. A man gives her a beard which gives her false confidence. She is saved by a small boy.

I was asked later to describe the conflict in my story. Probably reality wrestling with a logic-threatening fantasy. Or was it chicken v beard? Hmmm…whatever.

Later on I read my story to chroniclers Pete and Milo.
“What did you think?” I asked my son.
“Weird!” he replied.
“Good weird or bad?”
“Both.”
“Yet another insight into the mind of Louisa,” said Pete.

Well there you have it. I think.

The Writers’ Workshop was at Lower Shaw Farm, 17 May 2014.
Words by Louisa Davison.

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