Filling in the blanks

An old way of writing yields new work; I feel a connection to a dear lost friend through her gift of a pen.

In this exhibition, ‘Thoughts on Paper’, artists and writers explore ways of working with this familiar material.

Some of the writers called on to respond to the work of artists in this exhibition faced a conundrum: the curator wanted our first drafts, the more crossings out the better. But these days not everyone begins with pen and paper.

Whereas in the past a blank sheet waited to be marked by pen or pencil, many of us now look at the screen and use a keyboard. It’s a different process and one that has speeded up the necessary drafting and redrafting. It’s been liberating and enabling. And it makes our work look finished – even when it’s not.

For me there were two choices: reverse engineer from screen to paper or try writing a first draft in the old way. I decided that the latter would be the most authentic method for this commission. I found it liberating, with surprising results.

I thought about my friend, Hilary Brown, who wrote beautifully, though she said she did not enjoy it. When we shared a house (mature students both of us), I would see her at her desk, painfully squeezing exquisite prose from the point of her fountain pen.

One of her last acts of kindness was to send me a beautiful fountain pen of my own. It arrived after she died and I didn’t really have a chance to thank her – not as a living person. But every time I pick it up, I think of her, though so far, I’ve mostly used it to write birthday and Christmas cards.

All the while I was considering what to do for ‘Thoughts on Paper’, I had thoughts of Hilary, and how she used to ponder before she could put down a word. Then there was the chance to look through the catalogue of artworks and see what triggered something. The pencil drawings of pebbles by Alan Salisbury brought out all kinds of ideas that mixed with my experiences of fossil hunting on the Dorset coast. The brief was to produce something that would fit on a sheet of A4. That was a help because I could more or less envisage the entire piece before I began to write.

That said, my first attempt was really about the act of writing with pen on paper and how it felt, not about the artwork. But with that out of the way, I gathered myself again and wrote what looks to me like a poem: ‘Rough Notes’.

In fact, although I don’t often write in this way, I love the feeling of drawing words on paper, and appreciate the connection between brain and hand and the tip of the pen.

There is a freedom in choosing where to end a line and begin another that made this spontaneously turn into a poem. I’ve rarely managed any kind of poetry that doesn’t sound like the lyrics to a spoof Country and Western song. I couldn’t take my own ambition seriously, I suppose, and made myself and my work into a joke before someone else could do it for me.

But somehow, this was different. I felt it was a chance to say thank you to Hilary and to honour her by trying to work in her way: the only way she could write, even though she found it hard.

Having tried it, I would do it again, if only for poetry, or very short fiction.

This exhibition and the work it generated put me in the company of friends: Donna-Louise Bishop was one of the brightest students I’ve had the pleasure to teach; Shauna Gilligan is a generous and talented post-graduate I’ve come to know. And I find myself alongside the artist Frances Woodley and the writer Sarah Klenbort.

Hilary Brown was one year above me at University and Sarah in the year below. These are two enduring friendships from my student days, for which I am forever grateful.

I just hope that, if Hilary could see my thoughts on paper, she’d approve of the way I’ve used her gift.

The exhibition run at the Gallery/Oriel y Bont at the University of South Wales until 25 February and includes work by Adéọlá Dewis, Penny Hallas, Richard Higlett, Sue Hunt, Maggie James, Kieran Lyons, Thomas Martin, Phil Nicol, Chris Nurse, Heather Parnell, Alan Salisbury, Stephanie Tuckwell, Tessa Waite and Frances Woodley together with responses from creative writers Judith Goldsmith, Sarah Klenbort, Kate Noakes, Shauna Gilligan, Malcolm Lewis, Samuel Mark Sargeant, Georgia Bolton, and Donna-Louise Bishop (and me, Maria Donovan – ‘that woman who likes sea glass’).

With special thanks to Barrie Llewelyn, who brings us all together.


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