A Review: A Far Cry From Kensington by Muriel Spark

 I’ve decided to stop referring to myself as someone who is learning to become a writer and, instead, to label myself as one who is working on becoming a better writer. After all, I can write, as in I can put pen to paper and produce readable fiction and non-fiction. What I am aiming for is to become a good writer and, hopefully, one who will eventually become published. 

So, as an improving writer, I am going to publish reviews of books which I feel are of particular use to an improving writer. Muriel Spark’s A Far Cry From Kensington definitely falls into this category. 

I loved this book: it is witty, warm and wise and eminently capable as is its protagonist, Mrs Hawkins. Spark’s prose hums along nicely. She reminds me a little of Austen in that she presents her reader with a seemingly cosy comedy of manners and then sneaks in some truly horrifying characters who represent the dark side of life. 

However, the real benefit of this book to any one wishing to improve their writing lies in two key areas: one being that as you read, you take on a subliminal lesson of the joy to the reader of a lightness of touch such as Spark’s; the other being the advice given ‘free of charge’ by the capable Mrs Hawkins to aspiring writers. I include them both below.

“You are writing a letter to a friend…this is a dear and close friend, real – ore better – invented in your mind like a fixation. Write privately, not publicly; without fear or timidity, right to the end of the letter, as if it was never going to be published, so that your true friend will read it over and over, and then want more enchanting letters from you.”

“some very good advice, that if you want to concentrate deeply on some problem, and especially some piece of writing or paper-work, you should acquire a cat. Alone with the cat in the room where you work,…the cat will invariably get up on your desk and settle placidly under the desk lamp. The light from a lamp, I explained, gives a cat great satisfaction. The cat will settle down and be serene, with a serenity that passes all understanding. And the tranquillity of the cat will gradually come to affect you, sitting there at your desk, so that all the excitable qualities that impede your concentration compose themselves and give your mind back the self command it has lost. You need not watch the cat all the time. Its presence alone is enough. The effect of a cat on your concentration is remarkable, very mysterious.” 
My advice is simple, if you haven’t read this book, do so immediately. 

The Best Advice a New Writer Can Get…

As I have been sharing in various posts, I want to become a writer. And that involves a number of things: practising writing in different forms at every opportunity; writing in my preferred form more consistently; taking writing courses and reading what other, successful, writers have to say about the craft. 

Some of the above were pretty obvious from the start, some not so much. The obvious was the practising and writing courses; the less obvious the reading what published writers have to say about writing. I don’t know why this wasn’t obvious at first but it just wasn’t. I didn’t really come to that realisation until I finally, after several years of stop/starting with my writing, decided that buying a writing magazine was quite a good idea. From this came the realisation that published writers can offer some very good advice and tips on writing and that a more formal writing course, such as an MA in creative writing would be a very good investment in my future. 

However, the really key advice that ran through every article and book on writing was to read, read, read as well as to write, write, write. 

This was an exciting moment for me as a trainee writer, because I’ve always felt a little guilty reading when I should be feverishly writing away. Now I realise that I can read guilt free as it will serve as an almost subliminal writing course in itself. So I have been reading: reading widely, voraciously and enjoying myself hugely. And what’s more, it seems that the more I read, the more I write. Who knew? 

I’ve also decided to post reviews of the books which have been particularly enjoyable as well as useful to me. But that’s just the kind of crazy chick I am. 🐣 

Creative Flow vs Careful Planning

I’ve recently set up a creative writing workshop for students at the school where I teach. There are about 10 students in total who attend and it’s great. After years of teaching schemes of work and having to stick to the limits that they impose, it is a truly joyful experience to throw away the rules and work however we please. One of the first casualties has been careful planning.

We discussed this as a group. I relayed the advice that I recently read in Stephen King’s ‘On Writing’ about plot and his preference for putting “characters … in some sort of predicament and then watch them try to work themselves free”. We agreed that, for the most part, we preferred this way of writing. Some of us said we liked to just write and then at some point map out key details but none of us said that we sat and planned a story out before we start to write. And then, do you know what we did? We just wrote. For 40 minutes, a long time for a teenager, we sat and wrote, all working on our own stories. It was bliss. 

Next week we’re going to continue the process of writing before we settle down to polishing and redrafting. I find that the more I just sit and write like this, the more I love it. And as a teacher, I find it really liberating; I can’t wait to try it in the classroom.