No More Workshops


Book event in lovely Grantown-on-Spey

Let me say up front that I love doing book events. I enjoy speaking about my books, and my writing and the research that goes into them. I love doing readings, and answering questions about the work and explaining as best I can how I write. There are always lots of questions, and audiences at book events are usually interested and interesting people.
But what I don't like doing, even though I've done lots of them, more or less successfully, are writing workshops where emerging writers learn about some aspect of creative writing, such as story structure or character or dialogue. And lately, I've begun to try to analyse why I don't like doing it. 

I've done a fair bit of adult teaching in my time: English as a Foreign Language in Finland and Poland and more recently helping students with their academic writing, as a Royal Literary Fund Writing Fellow. I loved all that Fellowship too - but it wasn't creative writing. It was far more about teaching young people how to structure an essay, how to choose the right words, how to say what they themselves wanted to say with clarity and simplicity. 

All of which, I hear you say, would be useful for creative writing too. And you would be right. 

I began my writing life as a poet, mutated into a playwright, but now work almost exclusively on fiction and non-fiction, which means that I could theoretically wear all kinds of workshop hats. In a sense, my career has been too varied for my own good. When I look back, I can see that I've always been faintly uncomfortable with the notion of a creative writing workshop. I was discussing this with an artist friend recently, both of us acknowledging that we've gone off the whole idea of teaching other people in our own disciplines  - although I have to stress that I do still enjoy the notion of 'sharing' how I work with people. 

Two little stories may help to explain this. One dates from many years ago when as a very young, aspiring writer I contacted a more experienced writer to ask for advice. 'The only way to learn how to write is to write' he said. Adding that it may seem a little harsh, (it did!) but it was the truth. The older I've grown, the more I've seen that he was right. You have to do it to do it.

The other story involves a conversation with a writer friend - a very successful one - who confessed that whenever he was asked about how he wrote, he realised that he 'just footered around for a while'. Footer or fouter is a good Scots word meaning fidget or fumble although like many words in another language that doesn't quite encompass it. Potter might be nearer the mark. Anyway - I just fouter around, he said, and do a bit here and a bit there, and quite suddenly, I look at it and there's a book. 

I identify with this. Which is not to say that - as time goes by and deadlines loom - I don't work very intensively indeed, because I do. Sometimes ten or twelve hours a day and waking in the night to think about it. I think we all do. And then spend days and weeks and months editing. 

Another example. I was once asked to do a workshop on writing dialogue. I've always been able to write dialogue - for radio, for theatre, and most certainly in novels. But when I sat down to plan a 'workshop' about it, I didn't have the foggiest notion about how I did it. Because what I really wanted to say was 'I just listen to what the characters are saying to me, and then I write it down'. Which is no help at all if somebody can't hear a word their characters are saying. 

It reminds me of whenever my woodcarver husband is asked how he goes about making something. He says that he looks at a piece of wood, and then cuts off everything that doesn't look like the idea in his head. 

Which is no help at all to impractical people like me - but it works just fine for him! 

Monkey, carved by Alan Lees for Kelburn Country Park 

A Traditional Polish Easter

I have a vivid memory of my father - when I was very young - sowing a little tray of grass-seed, a few weeks before Easter. When it grew long and green, he trimmed it back with scissors, and sat a white sugar lamb on the grass. He told me it was what people did in Poland when he was a little boy. 

Every Easter, even though he died in 1995, I miss my dad with a great pang of sadness, because here in the West of Scotland - apart from the consumption of industrial quantities of chocolate - nobody takes much notice of Easter as a festival.

I was born and brought up in Leeds, although we moved to Scotland when I was twelve. My best friend at primary school, Olenka Jankowska, was Polish too, and her parents celebrated Easter with as much enthusiasm as Christmas. We always marked the day in our house and followed a number of Polish customs, but I would also join in with Olenka's family over the holiday. The scent of yeast cookery takes me back to that particular time and place, with another little pang of sadness, because Olenka, or Sandra as she was called at school, died when she was in her early 30s. 

In the weeks before Easter, dad would also paint eggs, sometimes decorating them with pieces of coloured cloth. I have some of them still as you can see from the picture above. You can, of course, hard boil eggs, paint them and then eat them, but if you want to keep them from year to year, you have to prick a hole in both ends and 'blow' the contents out (to be used for your Easter cookery). It works, honestly!

In Poland, little baskets of produce, eggs, ham, bread, would be taken to church to be blessed by the priest. On Easter morning, people say 'Chrystus zmartwychwstał!' meaning 'Christ is risen!' to which the traditional response is 'Zaiste zmartwychstał!' - 'He is truly risen!'

Olenka's mum baked the best cakes I've ever tasted, especially at Easter: big trays of apple and plum yeast cakes, 'sernik' or baked cheesecake on a pastry base, dense and luscious .The Easter meal always involved heaps of hard boiled eggs, fat frankfurter sausages, rye bread with caraway seeds, big dill pickles, sauerkraut, soft cheese and salads of all kinds. It was probably my favourite meal of the whole year. Later, even when I was grown up, dad would make delicious pastries, called 'chrust' and 'favorki' (favours) like a cross between a doughnut and a biscuit.

On Easter Monday, known as 'Wet Monday' in Poland, dad would usually manage to get up early so that he could drench us in water. We would always forget what day it was. Back in the late 1970s, when I was teaching English conversation at Wroclaw University, it wasn't just water that you had to avoid. If you weren't careful, you would be drenched in cheap perfume, which would stay with you for days.

I try to replicate some of these celebrations each year and to some extent, I'm successful. I bring in greenery and put out my painted eggs. I do some yeast cookery. I've even invited some friends to an  Easter tea in the past  - but it's never quite the same and I just finish up by being faintly sad.

I've decided that the missing ingredient which I can't supply is belief. I myself can embrace the season and celebrate it. I can go along with the magic of it all. It still gives me a little thrill of excitement.
But nobody around me can. So I'm fighting a bit of a losing battle.

In Search of Danuta

As anyone who has done any kind of historical research knows, it generally throws up more questions than answers. I don't write historical fiction exclusively, but I've certainly written a lot of it, and I love disappearing down the rabbit hole of research. Sometimes, though, it's more personal. My last book, a Proper Person to be Detained, was mostly about my Irish forebears, about a murder in the family and the terrible repercussions. 

Now, I'm embarking on a book about my Polish grandfather. And there are lots of questions to which I'm slowly but surely discovering answers. But one question that is exercising me right now is 'what really happened to Danuta?' 

Many years ago, while my father, Julian Wladyslaw Czerkawski, was still alive, I started researching the Polish side of my family. This was before the internet, but even so, I managed to find out all kinds of things. My dad wrote extensive memoirs for me, and translated other material from Polish. I even wrote a couple of Polish themed radio plays.

Then, occupied with other writing, I set it aside for a while, but last year, I decided that the time had come to pick up the threads of my Polish research again, especially since I'd written about the Irish side of the family. Now I really wanted to tackle my Polish grandfather’s story. 

Wladyslaw Czerkawski had estates called Dziedzilow and Meryszczow, now Didyliv and Mereshchiv in the Western Ukraine. He was imprisoned in the USSR, sent to a Gulag, was released when Stalin changed sides, but died in 1942. His son, Julian, my father, came to England at the end of the war, via Italy, with General Anders’ Army. I was born in Leeds, but we moved to Scotland when I was twelve years old.

During lockdown, sorting through a huge box of old material, I found a letter in Polish from one Jerzy Hanakowski, buried among a great many other much older papers. This letter was dated 2002, and to my shame, I realised I had filed it away and forgotten all about it. One of the reasons why I couldn’t write back to him was that he hadn’t included a return address in Lviv and I simply couldn't find him! But I was intrigued, because I had learned more in the intervening years and quite suddenly the letter seemed very important indeed.

I now know that my great grandmother Anna Brudzewska von Brause of Meryszczow, (previously of Korabniki - and I've blogged about her here) had been married twice: first to my great grandfather Wladyslaw Czerkawski, and then after his death, to a man called Jan Hanakowski. I know that my grandfather inherited Dziedzilow from his great uncle Julian, a rather famous politician and surgeon. I know that eventually, Anna and Jan moved close to Dziedzilow, to a place called Feliksa, (now Velyki Pidylsky), and that they had a daughter called Danuta. Although Danuta was essentially my father’s aunt, she was only a few years older than he was. Anna died in 1925, and is buried in the cemetery at Dziedzilow. After her mother’s death, Danuta spent a great deal of her time with my grandfather’s family, where – after he was born in 1926 - she was treated very much as my father’s older sister. She went away to school, but spent holidays at Dziedzilow. 

I had never heard of Jerzy. And my late father always believed that Danuta had been working as a nurse, and had been killed by the Nazis, during the war. That was what the whole family believed. It was what I grew up believing. 

This year, a Polish friend very kindly translated the letter for me, and I was astonished to discover that the writer, Jerzy, back in 2002, had been Danuta’s younger brother, born to Jan and his new wife whose name I don’t know. When he was a little boy, Jerzy – still living at Feliksa - had also spent time with my grandfather, and had loved him very much. He too had been sent to Siberia, had spent 18 years there.

The extraordinary revelation was that contrary to everything we thought we knew, Jerzy’s older sister, Danuta Hanakowska Czerkawska, had survived the war, had escaped to the US, and had become a surgeon before returning to Poland. How sad that my father never knew!

I was also intrigued to learn from this same letter, that she had two sons, Romek and Witek (Roman and Witold?) but sadly, Jerzy didn’t give me Danuta’s married name, and without that surname, it is very hard for me to find them. I only know that in 2002, they were living and working in Gdansk, Roman in customs, and Witek in computing.

My father came to the UK with a tiny handful of pictures from Dziedzilow but none of Danuta. Back in the 1970s, I visited my great aunt Wanda and her husband Karol Kossak in Ciechocinek, and saw many old Czerkawski family photographs. Some of them would almost certainly have been of Danuta, but unfortunately I don’t know what became of them - although above is a picture of Danuta’s mother as a young woman, Anna Czerkawska who became Anna Hanakowska. 

I would love to contact her children or grandchildren. She seems to have been an amazing woman, and I would love to know more about her.