Language as a writing prompt

Starting something ‘from scratches’? Not ‘from scratch’? For a split second, the sentence jarred. But its author, Iwona Fluda of Creative Switzerland (see her post, where she kindly mentions my writing retreats – thank you, Iwona!), had not made a mistake: perfectly aware of the correct idiomatic expression, she was being joyously playful with language.

That freedom to take apart idioms and clichés, to view them with new eyes, may come easier to non-native speakers of a language. Foreign students of English soon discover that ‘a pretty kettle of fish’ isn’t, actually, a good thing (no, not even if you love fish); that people can ‘fly off the handle’ (really? how?); and that you can ‘go Dutch’, whatever your nationality. You see what I’m getting at: taken literally, expressions we use every day can be a source of amusement, bemusement, discoveries, reflection… The same is true of single words: in my first novel, the protagonist deconstructs ‘nostalgia’, so that for him it means not the yearning to return home, but pain at that prospect.

The world around us offers countless sparks for our creativity. They’re everywhere: in landscapes, objects, fellow passengers on a train, overheard conversations in a café, a piece of music… And they’re ‘inside’ language(s), too, as Iwona highlighted. The trick is in spotting all these creative prompts hiding in plain sight, and transforming them into fruitful writing material. We can train our capacity to do that.

Flüeli-Ranft, Switzerland

But how? An effective way is to attend creative-writing workshops. In the ones I teach, I combine prompts with the transmission of specific skills, so that participants may continue practising and perfecting them autonomously afterwards. For example, I’ll show you how to extract ideas for a story from a small object, in the context of how to create a three-dimensional character; or how to develop an engaging plot structure from a photo. You can free up your creativity and cover key elements of writing (characterisation, sense of place, etc.) on the retreat I’m running from 9 to 15 October 2022. Click here if you’d like to find out more about the venue, schedule, etc.

If you’re curious about what writing retreats are, what to look for, and how they might benefit you, here’s an article I wrote for Writing.ie Resources.

Any questions? Just get in touch via this short contact form or email me on mvaleriavw [at] outlook [dot] com. 

Image credits:

‘Journaling over Coffee’ by Hannah Olinger on Unsplash.

Top 10 reasons to go on a writing retreat

Ever wondered what a writing retreat is all about and whether it would benefit you? There are at least 10 reasons why writing retreats are invaluable. You’ll find them in my article (FREE to read on this link) for Writing.ie, the magazine for writers and readers.

Image of Writing.ie Resources page

Click HERE for the full article (a 5-minute read) to find out:

  • what writing retreats consist of
  • at what stage they’re helpful
  • whether they’re expensive
  • the top 10 reasons why they enable significant leaps forward.
Image of Writing.ie article: Why Go on a Writing Retreat?

Below is a super-brief summary of the ten reasons:  

  1. Allow yourself time and space for you and your writing, away from daily responsibilities
  2. Stimulate inspiration and creativity
  3. Hone your craft with workshops and discussions
  4. Productivity: let full immersion boost the quantity and quality of your stories
  5. Feel supported and make friends
  6. Let quality feedback highlight your strengths and enable you to overcome weaknesses, in a supportive atmosphere
  7. Learn from each other’s work and experiences  
  8. Gain motivation and confidence
  9. Re-energise: through workshops, social occasions and time on your own, all in idyllic surroundings
  10. Meet writing buddies and mentors.

I hope you’ve found this post helpful (and the full article even more). My next writing retreat takes place in Switzerland from 9 to 15 October 2022: clicking here will take you to details of it and future writing events.

I’ve been teaching creative writing since 2013 to a variety of audiences: from secondary-school pupils to university BA and MA students and from Adult Education classes to individuals. I’m a novelist and the Literary Programme Director of the Hampstead Arts Festival in London.

Credits:

Images of Writing.ie website reproduced with kind permission.

THE ITALIAN RIVETER: CONTEMPORARY ITALIAN LITERATURE IN ENGLISH TRANSLATION

The European Literature Network has just released The Italian Riveter, an incredible resource for lovers of literature from Italy.

This is the tenth special issue of The Riveter, previous ones having focused on the literary output of Romania, Germany, Netherlands, Switzerland, the Baltics, queer authors, Russia, Poland and the Nordic countries. Click here to view them – they are free to download. Printed copies are available to order from newsstand.co.uk.

The Italian Riveter was launched at London Book Fair on 5 April and at the Italian Cultural Institute, London on 7 April 2022. The Italian Cultural Institutes of London, Dublin and Edinburgh sponsored its publication. ‘Why Italy? Why an Italian Riveter?’ Rosie Goldsmith, founder of the European Literature Network, answers those question in her introduction. Rosie, editor West Camel and design & production editor Anna Blasiak are indefatigable champions of literature in translation.

Contributors include many well-known novelists, poets, translators and critics from Italy, the UK and far beyond. So, The Italian Riveter offers the pleasure both of a superb read in its own right and of discovering new books to delve into. You’ll find exclusive interviews with the likes of Jhumpa Lahiri, Gianrico and Francesco Carofiglio and Tim Parks. Anna Blasiak delves into Italian poetry and Barry Forshaw into crime fiction. Paolo Grossi of New Italian Books talks about promotion abroad, and Diego Marani about the Italian ‘cultural mind’. Maria Teresa Carbone focuses on women’s writing, and Enrica Maria Ferrara specifically on Ferrante Studies. 

Distinguished translators from Italian provide overviews of different genres, as well as reviews and extracts of books. For example, Howard Curtis covers lost Italian classics ripe for re-discovery, while Clarissa Botsford writes about the ‘new Italians’, including Cristina Ali Farah, Igiaba Scego and Nadeesha Uyangoda; Shaun Whiteside tells us about translating from Italian, and Ann Goldstein about translating Elena Ferrante; Denise Muir and Antonella Ranieri discuss children’s literature and children’s picture books, respectively; Katherine Gregor explains what differentiates the Italian historical novel and curates the section on untranslated Italian fiction.

Every section includes different contributors’ reviews of works in the relevant genre. I was delighted to write about Lia Levi’s Tonight is Already Tomorrow, a work of historical fiction based on true events. The Italian Riveter is interspersed with pieces in the ‘Postcard from…’ series, to cover the literature of different regions, reflecting the diversity which characterises the peninsula. I was asked to write the ‘postcard’ from my native Puglia, and hugely enjoyed reading the ones from other parts of Italy.

Are you looking for great book recommendations? Or maybe researching contemporary Italian literature? Whatever your reason for landing on this post, you’ll enjoy and treasure The Italian Riveter.

Review of Veronica Raimo’s “The Girl at the Door” for EurolitNet’s #RivetingReviews

Image of review of The Girl at the Door

The July 2019 edition of the European Literature Network‘s #Riveting Reviews is out today. My review is of Veronica Raimo’s “The Girl at the Door” (4th Estate). Bold stylistic choices give a sharp edge to this novel. This is unsettling, thought-provoking work.

The Girl at the Door is in tune with the concerns of the #MeToo movement, but Raimo began writing the novel years before its rise. The book is relevant also to other burning issues. It highlights the question of the failure to see clearly and to seek dialogue not only at a personal level but at a societal one, especially in the age of social media, when views of history and the present seem to polarise around extremes.

This is a book which challenges you to work hard and which amply rewards you for it: a gripping read in its own right, and fiction that enhances our engagement with the world. Highly recommended.

Click here for free access to the full review.

 

Art in fiction: ‘high’ and ‘low’ art?

Extract from Jane Davis's series on art in fiction
Extract from Jane Davis’s series on art in fiction

Jane Davis today continues her inspiring series on Art in Fiction with contributions from three guests: Kate Rigby, Jenny Harper and me. I’m grateful to Jane for her invitation. I’ve long been fascinated by the uses and effects of art in creative writing – my research into them goes back years and continues, and my own fiction incorporates arts and artefacts – so it’s always a joy to be able to share that interest with others. Click here to read the article.

My contribution to Jane’s article focuses on the topic of ‘high’ and ‘low’ art: how helpful do I personally find that distinction? What purposes do art and artefacts serve in my fiction, especially in That Summer in Puglia?  Kate Rigby considers the related question of ‘art snobbery’, widening its scope from the visual arts to novels, and explaining why she doesn’t like strict genre classifications. Jenny Harper illustrates art’s redemptive power with an extract from People We Love.

For other articles in Jane Davis’s series, click here.

Happy reading!

 

Riveting reads

 

The European Literature Network champions international literature – if you aren’t already aware of its activity, do check out its website.

Every month, its Riveting Reviews section features reviews of (mainly) European literature – mostly of works recently translated into English. It also offers a Riveting Reads section, consisting of brief (only a few lines long) recommendations of a wider range of books, including fiction and non-fiction not yet available in English translation, as well as texts published years ago.

My recent full-length ‘Riveting Review’ was of Antoine Laurain’s ‘Smoking Kills’ (see here). My July ‘Riveting Reads’ are focused on works by Italian authors: ‘The Little Virtues’ by Natalia Ginzburg; ‘Nessuno Puo’ Volare’ by Simonetta Agnello Hornby; and ‘Le 10 Parole Latine che Raccontano il Nostro Mondo’ by Nicola Gardini. I hope you’ll enjoy reading about them and about all the other intriguing titles chosen by my fellow contributors.

Image credits:

Image of ‘Riveting Reads’ from the European Literature Network website.

 

 

 

 

Writing as a second career?

A Haig-Davies, G Keegan, V Vescina (1)
Panel on career change, Sloan Summit 2018

Following the publication of my debut novel, That Summer in Puglia, I’m regularly asked how I made the transition from a career in management to one in writing. The question may come from a reader at a book signing or in a message via social media; those asking it typically work in a business role and tell me they’ve always loved to write.

This post is not an attempt at an exhaustive answer, which would defeat me. Instead, I hope it will provide some helpful points to consider. My reflections have been sparked by a recent event, the Sloan Summit at London Business School to celebrate 50 years of the Sloan MSc Programme there. At the Summit, leadership and change expert Alison Haig-Davies interviewed Gillian Keegan MP and me about our paths to career transformation. All three of us are graduates of the Sloan MSc in Management at London Business School (the course is also available at MIT and Stanford), though from different years. While my fellow speaker’s activity is not in the arts, the points below about self-knowledge, humility, serendipity, resilience and gratitude were vital to both of us, so I hope they’ll be valuable to others.

A Haig-Davies, G Keegan, V Vescina (2)
Alison Haig-Davies, Gillian Keegan MP, Valeria Vescina

  • Career or vocation?

With writing, are we talking of a career at all? Most published writers do not earn enough from their books for that to be their only activity. Many hold other jobs: as teachers and critics, for example, but also in very different areas. I write literary fiction and for me that has the compelling nature of the vocation. I’m also a literary and opera reviewer, a creative-writing teacher and a board member of an arts festival.

  • Self-knowledge

Consider what the true constants in your life are: the ones which feel ‘deeply you’. For me these include a combination of artistic creativity and structured thinking, and a lifelong love of the arts. My roles in management involved mostly strategy and organisational behaviour work (both disciplines require more creative thinking than many realise, and lots of writing); and I grew up in a family steeped in the arts (my mother an art historian, my father an art dealer), so they always remained an active passion.

  • Humility

I’m one of countless people who have always read voraciously and ‘written well’. But I was conscious that there was much to learn, to be able to write novels: every profession takes years of study and practice. So I started out by attending a no-pressure creative writing course once a week for some months. The feedback was encouraging and I continued drafting short stories and taking part in a writing group. Eventually, I had a portfolio of fiction, on the strength of which I was admitted to the Goldsmiths MA in Creative & Life Writing. I felt that an MA was the most effective way for me to move up the learning curve. At that point I had no expectations about where it would lead – I embarked on it because I really loved writing stories and wanted to be able to communicate what I deeply care about to the best of my ability. I also trusted in the power of serendipity: you do your utmost to be good at what you’ve chosen and when opportunities present themselves you’ll be ready to embrace them.

  • Resilience

I accepted from the outset that it’s difficult to get traditionally published and that rejections of my manuscript were to be expected in the process of finding ‘a home’ for it – and that it was quite possible it wouldn’t. But even before then – in the course of writing the novel – I had to be open to others’ constructive criticism: being defensive about your work (whatever your field) doesn’t do much to improve it. I also assumed that writing the kind of literary novels I had in mind, and getting published, would take years – and it did.

  • Gratitude

The process I’ve described requires being sustained by others at different junctures and in a variety of ways. I’m sure that writers convinced of their own genius must exist somewhere – lucky them…! Most of us might instead give up along the way, were it not for the belief in us by those whose judgement we trust: in my case, a couple of friends well versed in literature and philosophy, tutors on the MA, fellow MA students… My writing group, composed of other Goldsmiths graduates, has been and is invaluable: we workshop our pieces in an atmosphere of mutual trust, and have become close friends. And what to say of the generosity of the writers and film director who endorsed the novel? And how about the friends and family whose support takes many forms? And the publisher who made the book ‘happen’? And the authors and journalists who compèred the debut events? This might give you a sense of how many people an author is grateful to and for…! At the same time, when you think about it, that holds true for most lives.

I hope the sharing of these thoughts will be helpful to you and to others you may know who are considering a new career – whether in writing or in other realms. To you all, my warmest wishes.

Valeria Vescina, Sloan Summit 2018
Valeria Vescina, Sloan Summit 2018, London Business School

Image credits:

Images courtesy of Sloan Summit 2018 and Mike Pearce of Mike Pearce Photography. Reproduced with kind permission.

Review of Antoine Laurain’s “Smoking Kills”

ELNet review of A. Laurain

My latest piece for The European Literature Network‘s #RivetingReviews is on Antoine Laurain’s “Smoking Kills”, recently translated into English by Louise Rogers-Lalaurie for Gallic Books.

This short novel grips the reader with sharp satire and with a plot hovering between the realistic and the hilariously bizarre. French humour noir at its best.

Click here to read the review.

Riveting literature from the Baltics

The Baltics Riveter

In April, the European Literature Network published The Baltics Riveter, a compendium of writing about contemporary fiction from Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Publication coincided with this year’s country focus on the Baltics at London Book Fair, where the magazine was widely distributed and enthusiastically received. It contains historical notes, reviews and extracts of some very exciting literature.

The Baltics Riveter is now available also in digital form here. This is the fourth of the European Literature Network’s Riveters. The first was devoted to literature from Poland, on the occasion of the 2017 London Book Fair’s Polish focus. The second, on literature from Russia, coincided with ELNet’s Russian events at the British Library. In The Nordic Riveter of October 2017, five countries were represented: Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland and Iceland.

Review of Burning Cities

 

I normally review English-language editions of novels originally written in Italian, German and French, the languages and cultures I grew up with. But the editor of The Riveter asked whether I might review Estonian author Kai Aareleid’s Burning Cities, translated by Adam Cullen (Peter Owen Publishers, 2018). I’m very grateful for the suggestion: the novel weaves a powerful domestic tale within the larger tapestry of seven decades of Estonian history; most of the story unfolds in the years during which the country was part of the Soviet Union. You can find my article on pp. 58 and 59 of the magazine, or here. I hope it will encourage you to discover Kai Aareleid’s work and more of the riveting literature from the region.

Image credits:

Images courtesy of The European Literature Network.

 

The latest ‘Riveter’ is here!

THE NORDIC RIVETER - Cover

In October this year, the European Literature Network published The Nordic Riveter, a compendium of writing about contemporary Nordic fiction in English translation. It’s available in bookshops, embassies, universities, libraries and arts organisations – and now also for download from http://www.eurolitnetwork.com/the-nordic-riveter-to-download/ . Whether you are a ‘Nordic Noir’ addict, a newbie to literature from the region, or are curious to discover its different strands and what they offer, you’ll find much to inspire and inform your reading.

This is the third of the European Literature Network’s Riveters. The first was devoted to literature from Poland, on the occasion of the 2017 London Book Fair’s Polish focus. The second, on literature from Russia, coincided with ELNet’s Russian events at the British Library. This time, five countries are represented: Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland and Iceland.

I normally review English-language editions of novels originally written in Italian, German and French, the languages and cultures I grew up with. But the editor of The Nordic Riveter asked whether I might take a look at Finnish author Johanna Sinisalo’s The Core of the Sun, which had come highly recommended. I’m very grateful for his suggestion: the book is highly engaging and thought-provoking. You can find my review here: http://www.eurolitnetwork.com/rivetingreviews-valeria-vescina-reviews-the-core-of-the-sun-by-johanna-sinisalo/. I hope it will intrigue you and encourage you to discover this and more of the literature discussed in The Nordic Riveter.

the-core-of-the-sun-682x1024

 

Image credits:

All images from the European Literature Network website.