Last week I was brave. I went along to a creative writing group, one where you read what you’ve written out loud. It’s the first time I’ve gone to anything like that, and I was bit nervous. I expected to be nervous reading out what I’d written, but actually the whole experience was a lot of fun. It’s an ekphrastic writing group. Sounds painful, doesn’t it?! But it just means that they use art as an inspiration for writing. Here’s a proper definition from Wikapedia:
“Ekphrasis or ecphrasis, from the Greek for the description of a work of art produced as a rhetorical exercise, often used in the adjectival form ekphrastic, is a graphic, often dramatic, verbal description of a visual work of art, either real or imagined.”
The group meets up at a different Edinburgh art gallery each month, and takes inspiration from whatever free exhibition is in place at the time. This month we were at the National Portrait Gallery for the landscape photography exhibition: ‘The View From Here’. The exhibition is divided into four bays, so we spent about half an hour in each one. Helen Boden, who leads the group, led us in a discussion about the particular photographs in each section, and then we took 10 minutes or so to find one that we liked and write about it. The different angles people took were fascinating. There are quite a few poets in the group, and I was in awe of their ability to write a poem so quickly!
The first part of the exhibition had me pondering what 19th Century Egyptians would’ve made of Francis Firth, as he disembarked with his cumbersome photography equipment to take photographs of the pyramids. Did the people in his photographs know what he was doing?
Another part had me writing about a walk through the countryside, and the final part let me consider the popular adage that the camera doesn’t lie. That’s definitely one for another blog post!
But one photograph in particular inspired me to write a story. When I shared it with the group I was a bit apprehensive. It’s the first time I’ve shared my fiction writing face to face with anyone other than the husband. But they really liked it. Helen suggested that I rework it to read in the first person, which I’ve done, and which I’m sharing here. I’m nervous about that too, but if I want to write fiction, I’m going to have to let people read it. Even if they think it sucks. And there has to be a first time for everything, right?! So here you go, you’re my pioneer reader!
The photograph that inspired this story is Mirror’d Depths by Alexander Wilson Hill, and you can see it by following this link.
You might think it’s taken me months to build, but really it’s taken almost my entire life. I can hardly quite believe that this day is here. That the dream is no longer just a vision in my head. But a boat on the water.
You see, I’ve watched the men of my village sailing their boats up and down and around the loch with a mixture of fascination and envy for as long as I can remember. When I was wee, really wee, some of the men used to take me out with them: it was the best of times. For a few hours I’d lose myself in a world where I was a merchant, or a pirate, or an explorer: just to feel that sensation of cutting through the water was enough to export me to another realm.
Then, as I got older, my father stepped in. “The time for playing is over.” he declared, “We’re not boat people.” And he put me to work on the croft in between my lessons.
There was no money for a boat, even if my father had wanted one, so I started saving bits of wood, and hiding them in a secret place in the forest. My hidey-hole was discovered a few times, and I’d have to find somewhere else and start again. But I didn’t care: dreams of that boat filled my head, day and night.
Eventually I left school, and got a job with the laird. For the first time ever I had pennies to spare and the choice of what to spend them on. The other boys would spend their money on dances and beer: I used mine to buy the materials I couldn’t scavenge. No wooing the lasses for me! What’s a dance anyway, compared to a trip on a boat! With maybe even a picnic thrown in?!
So here I am, almost about to set sail for the first time in my very own boat. My father was wrong, not that he’ll admit it, or even come down to see me set sail. Even though his own son has built a boat as good as any other on the loch. His loss. I’m not going to let thoughts of our last conversation spoil today; it’s time to launch my boat, that I built with my very own hands, that I’ve dreamt of all of my life, and I can hardly raise the sail, I’m that excited!
Nice work Sam! You create a great sense of place and character, and you encapsulate an entire lifetime in just a few paragraphs. I liked the insight we get into the narrator’s relationship with his father, as well as his own character and determination. I love how one art work has inspired you to create a story that totally stands on its own – you don’t need to see the original picture to appreciate your story. I really enjoyed reading it!
Thank you Jo! That means such a lot! I’m so happy you enjoyed it. I loved the writing group, and there were so many wonderful photographs. This one just spoke to me, and the feedback to rewrite it in the first person (and then there were a few more edits!) was great advice. 🙂
Lovely to meet you at the workshop- it was a very warm and inspiring group! So great that you’ve ‘built’ a whole story. I feel lucky to have been present for it’s birth – and to see it all grown up. Sandy.
Hi Sam, I love your story. And I’m thrilled to discover that I’ve unknowingly indulged in a bit of ekphrastic writing myself. Back in the mid-1990s, I joined a poetry group in London. Like you, I had to read my poems out loud to the group. I also went to art galleries and used the pictures as inspiration for my poetry. I used to love doing that, and your post has reminded me of this. I am now committing to returning to writing poetry and using art as inspiration. Thank you.
That’s brilliant, Deborah! How exciting! It’s fascinating how you can be inspired to write, even from an exhibition you don’t much enjoy. Have fun with your poetry, and ekphrastic writing! 🙂