Can Writing be Taught?

This weekend I received an invitation to the  graduation ceremony for my writing course. I don’t really like such ceremonies and I’m not sure I’ll attend. But it got me thinking about the  question – can you really teach people to write?

Twenty five years ago, when I was an aspirational, rather than active, writer, I’d have probably said “No”. After all, there were never creative writing courses around in Shakespeare’s day. The great novelists of the 19th Century didn’t need lessons in their craft. Nor did Eliot, Auden or Larkin. Besides, back then there were few such courses around. The only one I really remember hearing about was the East Anglia MA, because its alumni included Ian McEwan and Rose Tremain, but it never crossed my mind to apply myself.

I think it would be true to say at that time, I believed that writers were born, not made and that if I plugged at it long enough, I’d get good enough.  I think I still believe that to a certain extent. But as the years passed, and I kept putting off my writing career, I noticed creative writing courses beginning to flourish. And then one, by one, everyone I knew who was a writer signed up for a course of some sort or another. They all found them helpful, and although I was a bit dubious, I began to consider doing one myself.  When I finally got a place on a course, it wasn’t my first choice, but  I decided that it was worth going for anyway. I couldn’t get a grant, and we don’t have much money, so in the end, I bit the bullet and took out a Career Development Loan.

So , was it worth it? I think on balance it was. There were certain aspects of my particular course that drove me absolutely crazy. It felt over academic to me – the constant grind of assignments wearing me down, and the Reading for Writers module being particularly obtuse. I’m fairly sure the marking system was fixed so that only a certain number could reach the higher grades – frustrating at the best of times, but the standard in our group was very high, and it felt like sometimes tutors were forced to give spurious reasons for their marking. There was an over-emphasis on the copy-editing function of critique, which often meant that artistic aims didn’t get a look in. All of this often made me despair and wonder what on earth I was achieving. Particularly, when I thought of the costs – balancing with my family life, heavy work commitments and paying back the loan we could barely afford.

But the course did bring me a number of benefits. From the best tutors, I learnt a range of techniques in drama, fiction and poetry that I can use interchangeably between different types of writing. I discovered, to my surprise, that dialogue (which I thought I wasn’t very good at) comes more naturally to me than description (which I know is important but stops me from getting on with the story). I learnt that I have a strong sense of narrative and a natural desire to work on a big canvas, fitting in with my aim to be novelist, but making the precision of poetry really difficult for me. I learnt that, even so, if I have a lot of time, I can occasionally produce a poem that’s worth something (even though I don’t intend to write poetry ever again). I learnt that  I have a better sense for drama than I thought, and that screenplay excites me. Most importantly, I realised that I’m the kind of writer who has to get something out first, however bad, and then I can work on it. That means it takes me several drafts, and a very long time before I get something right, which explains why so often my early attempts miss the mark (see this week’s Friday Flash) and why it’s taken me the best part of 6 years to get 2/3 of the way through a novel that will take a further year at least to complete.

The course also brought me into contact with some wonderful writers – Catherine Chanter, Rachel Crowther, Wendy Osgerby, Dan Stott, Roger Bannister, Janine Oliver, Adipat Virdi, Jing Lee, Gaby Crewe-Read, Jools Poore, Mary-Lucille Hindmarch , Joseph Nwokobia -all of whom have it in them to produce something wonderful some day (and some of them, like Catherine already are). They provided me with honest, supportive critique, and challenged me to be the best I can be. The highlight of the two years was the Summer School at the end of the first year, where we workshopped, wrote, talked in equal measure. And I realised the best way to BE a writer, is to be WITH writers – to share work and learn from each other.

So – do I think writing can be taught? No, not really. You’ve got it or you haven’t. But, can a writer attending a course be nurtured, prodded, challenged, pushed  todeliver their best work?  Absolutely. And the crunch question? Am I  better writer for having done a course? Undoubtedly.

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#FridayFlash A Day In The Life

So here’s my attempt to tell a story in tweets. Inspired partly by an, I’m sure, untrue story (which I won’t repeat. Also  by my lovely former classmate Catherine Chanter, who showed me you can do this sort of thing . (She’s brilliant at it, this is a pale imitation.)

Having seen a few comments, I seem to be baffling people. Not my intent. So, try reading this several times backwards and forwards. Think of it as someone’s Twitter page, which shows events in reverse… I’ve changed a few things, so will be intrigued if it becomes clearer now.

Home

misspiggy Brangelina to split? Do I want them to stay together for the kids or him to get back with Jen? Hmm… http://cli.gs/A59Y4
1 minute ago from Tweet Deck

@jollyjenny @laserlight @pirates_ofthecaribbean @second_handman Thanxs for the messages.
2 minutes ago from Tweet Deck

misspiggy So…I’m back…He’s gone…He’s really gone…How’s the Twitterverse?
3 minutes ago from Tweet Deck

misspiggy Got to go now. CU L8terxxx
about 9 hours ago from Tweet Deck

misspiggy RT @laserlight Alicia Keys snags fiancee Aah http://bit.ly/bR7XOJ
about 9 hours ago from Tweet Deck

misspiggy @jollyjenny. After scientific test, I admit you’re right. Chocolate spread IS better than honey on toast.
about 9 hours ago from Tweet Deck

misspiggy@ pirates_ofthecaribbean. It’s got to be Britney hasn’t it?
about 9 hours ago from Tweet Deck

misspiggy Really, really must go… but… a couple of burning questions need answering first…
about 9 hours ago from Tweet Dec

misspiggy Looks like flashing lights were necessary. Brother appears to need trip to casualty. Something cardiac (possibly). He could be joking of course.
about 9 hours ago from Tweet Deck

misspiggy Son is knocking VERY LOUDLY. Better go & see what he wants.
about 10 hours ago from Tweet Deck

misspiggy @laserlight. Aww, that’s sweet. Wish you were my brother.
about 10 hours ago from Tweet Deck

misspiggy Madonna to conceive one last time? http://bit.ly/cEUt9b  She wouldn’t would she?
about 10 hours ago from Tweet Deck

misspiggy Very strange. Can see flashing lights out there. What has Son done now?
about 10 hours ago from Tweet Deck

misspiggy @ pirates_ofthecaribbean. Absolutely. My Pop Princess of the 90’s? Let me think…
about 10 hours ago from Tweet Deck

misspiggy I’m gonna fight, fight, fight for this love… Perhaps if I sing loud enough, Brother will  Leave of his Own Accord. (Not a fan).
about 10 hours ago from Tweet Deck

misspiggy Listening to Cheryl Cole on my i-pod. This girl has suffered folks… She deserves better than Ashley…
about 10 hours ago from Tweet Deck

misspiggy Son has just got back from school. Does he come up here to kiss his old Mum?Not likely.
about 10 hours ago from Tweet Deck

misspiggy Currently testing important scientific theory. Chocolate spread V honey – which is best on toast?
about 10 hours ago from Tweet Deck

misspiggy Now if he were to buy me an iPad…
about 10 hours ago from Tweet Deck

misspiggy Fact. My brother is a lazy immature 40 something, who is hogging my sofa. In the middle of the afternoon! Why can’t he go and sleep on his own?
about 10 hours ago from Tweet Deck

misspiggy Just been downstairs for materials to test @jollyjenny’s theory of chocolate spread v honey on toast. Will report on research soon.
about 10 hours ago from Tweet Deck

misspiggy @jollyjenny All this talk of chocolate spread is making me hungry. I’m off for a snack and to check on Brother, who is suspiciously quiet…
about 11 hours ago from Tweet Deck

misspiggy @laserlight Yeah iPad looks cool. Will be getting one as soon as I’ve got some spare cash ie never…
about 11 hours ago from Tweet Deck

misspiggy  @second_handman Delighted there’s a man out there so enlightened. Why can’t Brother be more like you?
about 11 hours ago from Tweet Deck

misspiggy@jollyjenny I prefer honey myself.
about 12 hours ago from Tweet Deck

misspiggy Even Son is Better Than That. Though he did set the smoke alarm of at 3.30 the other night. Making toast. (So he says).about 12 hours ago from Tweet Deck

misspiggy …socks on the floor, toilet seat permanently up, football on. It’s like my childhood all over again.
about 12 hours ago from Tweet Deck

misspiggy 3 days and Brother is STILL HERE. He’s outstayed his welcome by about 35 hours…Time for him to GO HOME.
about 12 hours ago from Tweet Deck

Copyright c Virginia Moffatt 2010

Rave Review (2) "Oranges are not the only fruit" by Jeanette Winterson

“Oranges are not the only fruit” was published when I was 20, and made into a TV programme 4 years later. I honestly can’t remember whether I saw the programme first and read the book or vice versa, but this one of the few occasions of book & TV adaptation working in perfect harmony.  I loved both, and was hooked. Jeanette Winterson’s rites of passage story is so extraordinary that it sets her apart, and she remains one of my great inspirations. Winterson’s novels are always events for me, but, it all started with “Oranges” so I thought, as it reaches the silver anniversary of publication,  it is time to honour a modern classic.

It is common for novelists to use their life experiences in their first novel. And the rites-of-passage story is so well used, it easily becomes hackneyed. “Oranges” avoids such pitfalls, for three reasons. First, the quality of Winterson’s writing raises the book high above any other in the genre. Second, it teems with fabulous characters, set in a world that is so well drawn, you can almost smell the factory smoke, and feel the wind in your face. And thirdly, Winterson intersperses her storytellings with her narrator’s imaginary stories, which are inventive, funny and act as a subtle comment on the action.

The novel tells the story of Jeanette, a  young girl adopted by a zealous Evangelical mother, and put-upon father. But this is no ordinary adoption. Her mother has chosen her specially to be a child of God – a future missionary. As Jeanette grows up and begins to make sense of her world, she realises her mother’s fervent beliefs are somewhat unusual, and that she may not want to follow the path laid out for her. It is only as she enters her teens, and falls in love with Melanie, that she is understands that she will have to make a choice between the family of her church, and her own wishes and desires.

It is the nature of all good books that they draw us in from the outset and Winterson’s first paragraph is a corker, including one of my favourite lines, “My father liked to watch the wrestling, my mother liked to wrestle; it didn’t matter what. She was in the white corner and that was that.” which tells us all we need to know about both of them. From that moment we know we are in the hands of a skilful writer, who can move us from the comic (the mother’s pet hates, the “Sacrificial Lamb” that is eaten on Sundays) to the poignant (the description of the town as Jeanette and her mother walk up the hill) and the fantastical  (Jeanette’s story of the princess and the moth), with consummate ease. Her writing is wonderfully fluid, weaving between Jeanette’s stories of people, the church, her mother’s religious rituals, to the conversations that perfectly pitch her character’s voices and quirks. By the end of the first chapter, we are already immersed in this world and want to find out more.

This is a book about women, and it is the female characters that stand out. Jeanette, herself, is a wonderful creation. Part innocence, and wide-eyed, we spot her rebellious streak from the first. In an early scene she uses the Biblical fuzzy felt to have Daniel being eaten by the lions, but has an immediate explanation for the grown up who notices. Going to school and being an obvious outsider, she is prone to being bullied, till she turns the table and scares her bullies rigid with threats of immersion in water after school. She’s  a dreamer. Whenever things get difficult, she’s off in her vivid imagination – the life of snails on TV horrifies her mother, but Jeanette pictures the snail family at home worrying about their son not coming out of his shell; a tetrahedron becomes an emperor with many faces; a prince seeks the perfect wife, but is not happy with what he finds. She’s fiercely loyal to her mother, and struggles in the early part of the book, to understand why their religious beliefs are considered to be so outlandish by other people. But, as she grows up and begins to understand the wider world, and as she comes to realise her mother will never accept her true nature, she has to develop the strength to make a difficult choice.

Jeanette’s mother is a marvellous character. She spends much of the book being comic. The first page lists her enemies and friends – enemies include “slugs”,  friends, “slug pellets”. She is “bitter” that the Virgin Mary “got their first”. She listens to the World Service each week to map the progress of Missionaries preaching to ludicrously described tribes. She is “Old Testament through and through” – quick to judge, to name the sinners, but not much given to believing in redemption. She’s a snob too. The family is working class but they don’t live at “Factory Bottom”, they would never buy cheap clothes from “Maxi Balls” where the poorest people go. At first, we laugh at her. Then, we realise her rigid religious beliefs are potentially destructive. When Jeanette goes deaf due to her adenoids, her mother ignores it for three months, thinking she is overcome with the Holy Spirit,. It is not until another grown up interferes that Jeanette is given the treatment that she needs. Later still, she is monstrous to her daughter, and yet Winterson always shows us  that beneath the hard exterior, there is love and affection too.

Another strength of the novel is the sense of time and place. Winterson describes a world and a community that is long gone. An industrial northern town that in the 1960’s  that is struggling with  extreme poverty. Jeanette’s house doesn’t have a separate bedroom or outdoor toilet. The posh kids live on the Avenue and don’t have school dinners. Yet there are poorer people than Jeanette’s family, the Factory Bottoms community in the back to back houses. The community enjoy gipsy fairs but despise the gipsies. People still have to fight cockroaches and silver fishes. Raspberry ripple and sherry trifle are great treats. It’s a closed world that Jeanette will have to escape if she is to survive, yet there is tremendous warmth and community too.

Winterson is a genius at weaving religion and fantasy throughout the novel. Thus each section is given a title from the Old Testament, Genesis, describing  her arrival in the family, Exodus, as she goes to school and so on. The stories of the bible permeate the text in the early sections and then as Jeanette turns away from her church, the absence is firmly felt. Each section of the story breaks off from time to time, into Jeanette’s fables that make sense of her life.  A prince searches for the perfect princess, but does not recognise her when he finds her. A princess chooses not to fall in love and is punished for it.  King Arthur’s Court is disrupted by the search for the Holy Grail.  Jeanette dreams of marrying pigs and  hallucinates about doing a deal with a demon. These digressions are written with a lightness of touch, and are a superb commentary on the main action. It is no surprise to find that many of Winterson’s later novels (particularly the fabulous “Gut Symmetries”) are clearly novels of ideas, and yet somehow have a strong narrative at their heart.

It is usual for a rites-of-passage book for the central character to make a startling revelation that enables them to grow up. In this novel, Jeanette has three. She finds out she is intelligent, and could go to university. She realises she doesn’t want to follow her mother’s path. And she discovers she is gay. Each one of these would be a strong story, but the three together entwine to make her journey both complex and deeply satisfying. Much has been made of the lesbian elements, but I’m inclined to agree with the author, love is love, and what’s most important here, is that Jeanette learns to be who she must be. That was a very satisfying and encouraging resolution for me as a young woman, and is why I thought it one of the finest pieces of feminist fiction around. Twenty five years later I still do.

#FridayFlash – The Snow Queen.

Fridayflash is making me remember half thought of pieces. This is from some time ago, and may be a little melodramatic now. Recent weather seems to have permeated somewhat…

As ever, I would welcome helpful critique. I always write in a hurry, so know this may not be perfectly paced or punctuated!

I can hear you calling me through the house. There is a longing in your voice I’d love to answer. I wish I could give you what you want. But here in the dark, I  have lost the way.

We had a summer once, but that was long  ago. It plays in my mind like an old home movie – flickering images of a picnic blanket, me in a red and yellow dress, you in  green shorts and white T shirt. A river bank. Blue skies. Champagne. In the film in my head, you kiss me over and over again, and I look like I’m enjoying it. Perhaps I did, but now, I cannot remember what it felt like. That was the time before the Snow Queen came, bringing her perpetual winter. She’s gone now, but I’m left with a heart full of ice. I don’t think it will ever thaw.

She stole up on us one January, in the middle of the worst snowfall in forty years. The salt had long run out, grinding the iced-up roads to a halt. Drifts of snow blocked doorways, even in our small town. Food supplies were running low, and there were riots at the supermarkets. The government’s assurances grew weaker and weaker, with each forecast of the blizzards to come. It was time, she said, in her first broadcast, for something to be done. This was a situation that only the army could deal with. It was a temporary measure – to ensure society didn’t fall in chaos. Once the snow had receded, she would call an election. We were cold, and hungry, with no end in sight. We watched the army trucks clearing the roads, the tanks patrolling the supermarkets as food was rationed out. We were grateful that someone, anyone, was doing something.

The cold spell ended in late spring. The snow melted slowly, exposing flashes of green, a welcome change from the perpetual white. As the sun warmed us, the patches of grass and pavement increased, leaving piles of cleared snow, snow men and igloos. Till at last, they too were gone. But the tanks and the soldiers never left. The election never came.

Some people liked it. At last, they said, a leader to deal with the unruly young. Curfews, and boot camps rather than asbos and electronic tags. A rigorous approach to immigration. And a firm hand with dissent. It soon became dangerous to express a different opinion, so we went underground. We moved from place to place, trusting only each other, working with those we could find.  We did the little we could. Leafletting houses in the dark. Graffiti in shopping mall. Printing pamphlets and distributing them among a chain of sympathisers. Low level stuff, hardly likely to bring down her regime, but dangerous nonetheless.

It didn’t pay to be careless. I should have checked the street properly. But I was tired, and hungry. I wanted to get home to the warmth of our bed. I missed the footpatrol in the shadows and was caught. Worse still, I  hadn’t ditched the remaining leaflets. I couldn’t claim innocence. That I’d lost my way in the dark.

They grilled me for hours. I said nothing. They left me in a cell. They pulled me out a few hours later. I’d barely slept. I said nothing. They threw me back. The pattern of my days. They began to try other methods, less pleasant. I hoped you’d moved on. Our friends too. But I was cold. I was hungry. It became hard to see your face. To remember why silence was important. One night they left me outside, as the snow was falling. My hands lost all their sensation. My feet throbbed. My body froze. When they pulled me back in. I could think of nothing but the  food and warmth they promised. My reward for speaking. I spoke. I named everyone. Of course I did. I was cold, I was hungry, so I named you.  I told myself  it didn’t matter – you were long gone – but the truth was, I no longer cared.  They brought me near the kitchen. I could hear the soup bubbling, smell the freshly baked bread. I was desperate to eat, so I told them everything. They kept their promise, but when the food came, the bread was dry, and the soup tasted of salt and vinegar. I remained hungry. And though they brought me clean clothes, and turned the heating on – my veins were filled of ice.

I never saw them again. I presumed they’d arrested you and the others. And that I’d be in jail for good. I lost count of the days I stayed in the dark cell.  One night, the prison officers woke me up, without a word, blindfolded me and drove me to a street. They left me in a doorway. I tried to get up but my legs were so weak I sank back. I took off the blindfold to the surprise of sunrise. I’d been so long in the shadows, that, at first, I couldn’t think why the clouds were turning pink and red.  I enjoyed the sight, but though the day became warm, my body was still stiff with cold. Perhaps I’d have died there, if a stranger hadn’t spotted me and called an ambulance.

The hospital welcomed me. They warmed me up, did tests, gave me medicine. Cleaned my wounds without comment. Declared me an elective mute, and let me stay till someone collected me. I couldn’t imagine that happening, but suddenly, there you were. You took me in your arms.  You said all the right things. But I didn’t respond.  I didn’t know how.

You took me home anyway.  Back to your home and bed, to take care of me. You do it well. Every day you cook for me –  nutritious soups, home-made bread.  I know that you have worked hard, that the food will do me good. But it is dry in my mouth, and I struggle not to choke on it. You tell me stories, show me photos of the time before. I hear the words, see the pictures, but they make no sense – your stories belong to someone else.

I hear you calling through the house. I want to come. I want to find my way back. But the Snow Queen’s icy touch has never left me. I cannot. I do not know how.

It is warm in this cupboard.  The dark comforts me.  You call and call for me, knowing  this is where I am, that you’ll have to come for me again. I hear it in your voice, the longing, that this time, I’ll make it out on my own.

I think I’ll stay for a little while longer.

#FridayFlash. Before Dark

Emboldened by promises that there are no rules on FridayFlash, I’ve condensed a story that is a lot longer, but unfinished. Not sure if it works, particularly the end. So, let me know (I can take critique!)

The children come to me at sunset. Their chores done for the day, they rest at my feet, the younger ones tussling to sit on my lap. I am always scrupulously fair, I monitor lap usage closely: noone is ever cheated out of their turn. When they are all settled, they beg me, “Tell us a story, Grandma”, and, remembering how my own grandmother used to do the same for me, I am happy to oblige.

I always have to begin the same way, I am not allowed to get a word wrong: The way out of Eden was dusty, the road was stony as the darkness fell around them. They turned back for one last look at the garden they had left behind, to see a brilliant flame of white that dazzled their eyes. There was no way back: an angel guarded the path… Their eyes are round with anticipation, they huddle closer to each other. I don’t know why I tell them these old tales, but somehow I find it comforting to link them to my past, and they always seem appreciative. Sometimes, though they don’t want a story, but to hear about when I was small. So I get out the faded photographs and show them the pictures of my grandmother, older than I am now, looking half my age. There I am with my mother, a little girl in a pink dress. I tell them of the cities that stayed awake all night, the stars blotted out by the yellow and orange lights, the silence shattered by the noise of cars and people shouting. I tell them of the sweet shops of my childhood, where I could choose from twenty different types of confectionary. How you could type into a computer and be in contact with the whole world. How, once, people even went to the moon. But they, who have known only this small farming community – white crofter’s cottages, nestling between grey-green mountains and brown cliffs – cannot imagine such miracles. I can see in their eyes, that my past is as mythical to them as Adam and Eve.

Their mothers come and collect them at bedtime, leaving me to the encroaching darkness. Our generator has enough energy to give us an hour’s grace before nightfall. On warm nights I’ll  sit out on my porch just gazing at the sky, the stars visible in their millions. Out here it has always been possible to see them: white flickering flames from long dead supernovas, each one reminding me of the people I’ve left behind. It is overwhelming sometimes, but I have had to get used to feeling this alone. What has gone, has been gone thirty years.

I’m one of the lucky ones, I know. To have survived. To have found my way here. To have married a good man and had his children. To have the satisfaction of knowing that one day my descendants may be numbered like the stars. And yet, on these starlit nights, I can’t help but long for the sensation of silk sheets on my bed. For a day at the spa to soothe my weary bones. For the touch of the lover I still dream of at night. I stay outside till the chill seeps under my skin, sending me shivering indoors to my itchy hemp-sheeted bed. I will sleep till dawn and another day’s work. Once, that meant a ride on the tube to an open-plan air-conditioned office. Days creating persuasive designs to sell junk to eager buyers, interspersed with latte and long lunches. Now, though my curved back excuses me of the heavier duties,  I am required to look after little ones, cook for the workers, draw the water from the pump.

This place is hard in the winter. The food is scarce and each year my body fails me a little bit more. There cannot be many years left to me. I should count each one as a blessing and enjoy the pleasures that are left: the brightness of children, the wind in my hair, the stars in the sky. And yet, sitting here in the darkness, it seems too much to ask. All, I can do,then, is survive, as I have always done. To prepare myself for another day.

There is no way back: an angel guards the path.

Sublime Screenplay – ER

Our TV company has just put up 10 of the best episodes of ER ever, which gave us the opportunity to see a double episode I hadn’t seen since it aired here in 2001. I was at my mum’s at the time whilst lovely husband was at home and I remember ringing him at the halfway point so we could rave about it. At the end we were both almost speechless with emotion, much to my mother’s amusement. It was great to see the episodes again and that they had lost none of their punch over the years. Of course the reason I remembered these two above the 200 or so episodes I’ve ever watched is because of the quality of the writing, which brought the best out of the fine ER actors and directors. So having recovered from the emotional rollercoaster, here is my tribute to another example of sublime screenplay.

Part 1 – Be Still My Heart by Lydia Woodward

Interlocking stories.
One of the great strength of ER is it’s multi-story format, which allows us to see the central characters grappling with similar issues but in different ways. Be Still My Heart is a great example of this, where the central title is replayed in every story, from the dramatic, to the comic. The episode opens on Valentine’s Day (of course) and a recurring motif throughout is the number of hearts around, paper hearts, heart shaped cards etc, as the staff plan to end the shift with a party.

The major storyline is Carter & Lucy. Carter is one of ER’s heroes. A young idealistic student in Season 1, he has matured through changing direction from surgery to ER doctor, suffered any number of traumatic incidents, to be a resident at this point (Season 6). One of his duties as a resident is to mentor young students like himself, and Lucy has been his student for a while. Carter’s relationship with Lucy is a mirror of his relationship with his mentor Benton. Benton was a tough supervisor, arrogant, clever, who nevertheless respected Carter’s integrity and humanity. Carter is a tough supervisor to Lucy, who he recognises is much cleverer than him, but he mistrusts her value base. By this episode they have reached a truce, but Carter has never quite supported her in the way Benton supported him. When she comes to him at the beginning with a request to help with a patient, he is busy, and dismisses her, setting in motion events that will lead to tragedy.

Storyline 2 involves Carter and a new student Abby. Abby is a former ante-natal nurse who has switched to a career in medicine. She is confronted with a typical ER scenario of the elderly patient who doesn’t want too much intervention. Carter and Abby are more natural allies, she is empathetic, warm and caring. Consequently, Carter is a kinder and more supportive supervisor  & this story acts as a counterpoint to Storyline 1.

Storyline 3 starts about a third of the way in, and centres on Carol Hathaway, the head nurse and one of the emotional centres of the show, and Luka Kovac, the new Doctor from Serbia, who is still finding his way around. Each of them is involved in treating parents injured in a car crash which in turn becomes a bonding moment for them.

Storyline 4 provides the comedy. Dr Romano the Chief of Staff and most unpleasant character in the show, pages his Head Surgeon, Elizabeth Corday for an urgent operation, which turns out to be for his dog.

Storyline 5 centres round Elizabeth and her boyfriend Mark Greene one of  the ER’s attending physicians (consultant)  and another person at the heart of the progamme, and their relationships with their parents, Mark’s widowed father and Elizabeth’s divorced mother.

Story 1 is the most dramatic and leads directly into the events of Episode 2. Lucy’s patient is presenting in an odd way. She tries to ask Carter for help and her rebuffs her, because he is dealing with Abby’s patient. Then Lucy’s patient becomes a bit aggressive. Lucy is looking for Carter to assist but the patient leaves the room, causes a scene and Dr Greene notices. He lambasts Carter for not supporting Lucy, who then shouts at Lucy for not calling him. As the programme unfolds, Lucy’s patient becomes increasingly problematic and likely to need psychiatric care.When he is given a spinal tap to check for meningitis, he fights Lucy and Carter and we realise he is potentially dangerous. We can see that Lucy is trying her best, but this is over her head. He leaves the treatment room again and is found in the staff room where there food is out ready for the party. Lucy gets him back, but Carter is cross that she hasn’t managed to get the psychiatric consultation so she can get on with medical cases. He tells her to sort it out.

Carter is also being called on to help Abby deal with the events of Story 2. Her patient has breathing difficulties and limited options. Abby begins to bond with her when she shows her a Valentine’s card she is carrying from the year before, from her husband, who has since died. The card says, “Be still my heart” as in, always be my heart. But the alternative meaning is literally, let my heart be still ie let me die. When her patient suffers cardiac arrest, Abby tries everything to revive her till Carter intervenes and tells her that this is not what she wants. Reluctantly, Abby lets the patient die, but afterwards she is devastated. Later, Carter finds Abby on the roof, where she acknowledges how different this is from the maternity ward. Carter is everything a boss should be, sympathetic, supportive, a marked contrast to his behaviour with Lucy and Abby is reassured.

Story 3 is much shorter, and in typical ER fashion rushes through at breakneck speed. A couple and their young children are brought in after a road traffic accident. Luka is treating one, Carol the other. Their children are stunned but OK and are taken to the paedatric unit down the corridor. The little girl breaks away and wanders up to the treatment rooms, but is pulled away before she can see what’s going on. The action switches between the treatment rooms as the doctors and nurses work furiously trying to save the patients. But within seconds,  both parents die, and it is left to Luka and Carol to go and tell the children, a moment that is both painful for them (how do you give children such terrible news) but also brings Luka and Carol closer. We know that Luka has some mystery about him, and that Carol has lost the love of her life, Doug Ross, so we are left wondering if these two will now become lovers.

Story 4 is simpler still. Dr Romano abuses his surgery privileges to operate on his dog, Gretel. This being ER we have all the usual complications and difficulties, and the pet nearly dies. But thanks to Elizabeth’s fine skills, she survives. The point of the story is both to reflect the main action in a humorous way, but also to highlight Romano’s humanity. He is usual cold &calculating – to discover he cares about any living creature, even if it is just a dog, is a revelation, and we can see that behind her laughter, Elizabeth is deeply moved.

Story 5 is classic ER example of personal lives intruding on work. Mark’s mother has recently died, his dad has emphysema. The men love each other, but until now have found it difficult to relate, but Mark has invited his dad  home to care for him. Elizabeth’s mother is a scientist, clever, cool, critical. She’s passing through Chicago for a night and wants to see Elizabeth at work. Elizabeth, normally very confident, is defensive with her mother, and embarrassed when her first sight of Elizabeth in the hospital is with Romano’s dog. But later, her mother sees her operating and is impressed, and we can see this has an impact. By the end of the episode, Elizabeth’s mother has arranged for Mark, Elizabeth and Mark’s father to all go out for the evening. And although the pair are dreading it, it starts off well, with their parents vying to boast of their offspring’s medical exploits, and Mark’s father singing at the open mic.

As all the story lines pull together, the Valentine’s party is in full swing, though noone can find the cake knife. Mark and Elizabeth leave for their evening with their parents. Carol goes  home to her twin girls, so postponing any possible romance with Luka. Carter & Abby wander in. Things have quietened down workwise, though the party music is deafening, and Carter remembers to go and find Lucy. In a normal episode, this would be the moment for him to apologise for his bad behaviour, and for them to move forward in their always rather delicate relationship. But this is not a normal episode, and he can’t find her. He opens the door to a treatment room, and notices a card on the floor, the very same one that Abby’s patient had. He stoops to pick it up, and we see Lucy’s patient behind the door. Before he has time to turn round, Lucy’s patient stabs him, and  he collapses on the floor. The last shot shows him looking under a trolley to see Lucy, who has also been stabbed. He calls her name and the credits roll.

The real skill of this episode is making these disparate stories connect without us feeling anything is forced. The whole thing is beautifully paced so that we weave between the highs and lows of each tale, giving us time to catch our breath as the tension builds in the Lucy/Carter story. Which allows for 2 minutes of the most nail-biting television that literally left me reeling first time round and still caused me to catch my breath when I saw it this week. It really is a piece of fine writing and hats off to Lydia Woodward for pulling it off so well.

Dialogue.

The other stunning feature of this episode is the brilliant use of dialogue. A lot of the scenes described could be really clunky. But the strongest emotional moments – Abby speaking to her patient about her husband, Luka telling the children about their parents, Abby and Carter talking about death – are pitched just right, so it never sinks to melodrama. When Elizabeth’s mother sees her actually work on an operation, she is stunned, and all she says is “I never knew”, but we know that for her, this is high praise indeed. Such poignancy is nicely contrasted with the comedy of Elizabeth preparing for surgery  whilst Romano describes the symptoms of her patient. He rushes her to the table where she’s shocked by what she sees –  “Robert this is a dog” / “Correction Lizzie, this is my dog” – you can see the whole story condensed here.

There are many references to hearts, the “Be Still My Heart”, heart attacks, hearts stopping beating, Robert’s dog is a hearty dog. And there are other lines that link stories for example after the parents die in the car crash, another character says that two squabbling medical students, are like children arguing in the back of the car, an image that now has a huge jolt for the audience. Visual images are used to link scenes as well, thus one scene ends with a character giving an injection, as we move to the operating theatre where someone is injecting Romano’s dog. And of course, there is the vital moment when someone mentions a missing knife…

Complex characterisation.

Another thing that I love about this episode is that none of the characters are black and white. We have seen Lucy be an irritant to Carter, but here she is simply trying to do the best for her patient. He really is intolerant of her, and all our sympathies are with her, particularly when he is so nice to Abby. Seeing Carter at his worst like this is quite shocking, because we’ve invested so many episodes in rooting for him.

Equally, Robert Romano is a consistently vile character. He’s a brilliant surgeon but dismissive of patients and staff alike. He is sexist, racist, homophobic, says the most outrageous things to people and frequently belittles them. So to see him have such strong feelings for his dog, is a complete eye-opener and helps us all see another side of him.

Part 2 – All in the Family – by Jack Orman.

It would be hard to top that, you’d think,  but Jack Orman’s concluding episode at least equals the power of the first. If the theme of the first episode is  love, life and death in the ER, the theme of the second is work as family, as we switch from the complexity of stories in the first, to the aftermath of the stabbings in the second. This is all about Lucy and Carter now, will they survive, and how does this affect their colleagues?

Single Story.

Now the story is a single one, how the ER treats two of their own. As Dr Carrie Weaver, Head of ER arrives and winds down the party, she notices some blood and discovers what happens. Everyone is into over-drive and we are into a typical 20 minutes of ER’s high adrenaline. The two of them are rushed into  the treatment rooms as their colleagues run around to help. Luka, Carrie, Abby, and two other doctors Chen and Malucci are on the scene. Elizabeth and Mark are simultaneously paged from the bar where they have enthusiastically joined in the open mic and are singing badly. Peter Benton, Carter’s old mentor rushes down from surgery and is visibly shocked to see Carter on the trolley. As Mark arrives, Carrie is unable to continue with the procedure she is attempting on Lucy and Mark takes over, but not before she has berated everyone for being in a party.

Here the story-telling does something quite common in ER, shifting between patients, as things go wrong, heart rates rise, breathing is awkward, there are problems with kidneys. We’ve often seen it before, and regular viewers know that it is likely that one of the two will die, and possibly the one with whom we have most sympathy. This has much more of an impact than in a normal episode, because we know and love both characters and therefore the audience’s sympathies are much more engaged than normal. Meanwhile the assailant has disappeared, and the police have arrived. As a shaken Abby rushes out to get some equipment, she discovers the bloodstained knife. She has no time do anymore than give it to the police before she hurries back. The assailant’s wife arrives at the ER, confused and unable to believe her husband has done that. Both Lucy and Carter suffer blood loss and life threatening situations. The team have to crack Lucy’s chest open but she comes round enough to speak briefly to the police, and it is the injury to Carter’s kidney that seems more serious.As this section ends with them they are both taken off to surgery.

Again this is a typical ER scenario, the doctors treat as far as they can, then the surgeons take over. It allows the pace to slow a bit, but whereas usually, other patients arrive, in this situation, the ER doctors and nurses are left wondering what’s happened. Carrie rages at Mark for not supervising Carter and Lucy adequately, he rages back, possibly from guilt. Staff gradually drift off duty and gather at Doc Magoo’s the cafe across the way, as the surgeons begin to operate. The assailant is brought in after being hit by a car, and the ER staff have to treat him and get him the psychiatric evaluation. His wife is devastated.

Meanwhile Benton is helping Dr Anspaugh (former Chief of Staff) operate on Carter. Benton has promised Carter he’ll take care of him, and like Abby is visibly upset. As the surgery develops there is a lot of blood, Benton panics and wants to whisk out Carter’s kidney, but Anspaugh persuades him to wait. Anspaugh proves to be right and Carter’s kidney is saved. But next door, a new surgical case requires Benton’s skills. Benton is reluctant to leave Carter till Anspaugh sends him out. He visits the other person judges it can wait, and leaves his junior, Cleo, to hold on to the situation till Carter’s surgery is complete. Complications ensue, Cleo is forced to take drastic measures, and when Benton returns he berates her.

Next door, Lucy has come round  but she needs surgery as she has a clot in her blood system that is potentially dangerous (a pulmonary embolism). Elizabeth and Romano are going to operate and are able to speak and joke to her. Lucy whispers her thanks to Elizabeth. Just as Elizabeth is reassuring her all is well, she begins to shake, and they discover multiple clots. We see the terror on Lucy’s face as she realises what is happening, and watch as Elizabeth and Romano are  unable to save her.

After the dramatic beginning, the episode becomes a slow lament, as one by one, characters discover Lucy’s fate. First, Elizabeth and Romano, then Benton, as he apologises to Cleo for his behaviour, then the collected staff sitting in Dr Magoo’s as they have been telling stories about Carter and Lucy. Till finally, Carter, as he wakes up from surgery. Elizabeth staggers home where she can’t speak to her mother. Mark stays on duty as Carol returns to work, shocked by what she’s heard.

The episode ends with with Romano and Carrie tidying Lucy’s body, a tender moment from two of the hardest characters and a nice echo of  Romano’s love for his dog. It seems that in the end, he really does care, something we’ve never seen from him before.

Dramatic irony.

The episode starts with the party which is soaked in dramatic irony for the viewers. We know Carter and Lucy are bleeding to death, while their friends have the music up loud and are having fun. It is inevitable they will be found, but every time someone mentions their names we wince.Carrie Weaver, the strict Head of ER arrives, and everyone is quick to say it is quiet and they’ll finish soon. She tells them to wind down in 5 minutes & asks where Dr Carter is. The party begins to wind down and people start getting on with their jobs. Carrie picks up a chart and gets to work, and then she sees the blood trail and the victims are discovered.

The other key moment of dramatic irony is Lucy waking up only to recognise the peril she is in. The moment she whispers “PE?” to Elizabeth, and Elizabeth nods, is one of the most charged of the episode. Lucy is an intelligent medical student, she has been around long enough to know exactly what this means. It is rapidly followed by the realisation by both of them that she has multiple clots and her chances are pretty slim.

Dialogue and visuals.

As with the first part, the dialogue is very understated. As Lucy and Carter are rushed into the ER, a doctor barks an order that doesn’t need finishing, the nurse understands completely. Carrie’s accusation to her staff, this happened while you were partying, bites. The moment Carrie can’t cope with what’s going on, she nods to Mark who takes over. When Lucy dies, the look between Mark and Carrie is unbearable. Elizabeth arrives home and her mother asks “Do you want to talk about it?” and Elizabeth simply says “No”.
Everyone is laughing at a hilarious story about Lucy at Doc Magoo’s when Chuny walks in says “Lucy” and they all fall silent. Carter asks Benton about Lucy and realises what has happened by Benton’s silence. As Carol arrives for work she asks Mark how he is doing. He says “later” and we watch him swallow, gather himself together and go off to treat the next patient.

The final scene is beautifully paced. Carrie enters as Romano is finishing stitching Lucy’s body, and cuts the thread. As she pulls the cover up, he tells her it is a nurse’s job.All she says is “I know” .What she really knows is that, as the Chief of ER, this job is hers.

That’s a bit of a gallop through two amazing episodes. All credit to the actors and Laura Innes’ direction (she also plays Carrie Weaver) for making the most of the material. But without Lydia Woodward and Jack Orman, they’d have nothing. So thanks to both, for 2 hours brilliant, brilliant drama that stayed with me for 9 years and was well worth seeing again. I can’t recommend this enough.

FlashFriday – Alive, alive-o

Hope this is not cheating – it came out of the fabulous Faber Academy weekend I attended in October, from one of Sarah Hall’s great workshops. I think it stands alone, but am aware the character belongs to my second novel. If I ever finish the current one I may well use this as part of something bigger.

Tell yourself. You’re pleased Cassie got the promotion. Really. Now you can live in the white house on the hill. The one you both dreamed of when you were kids on the beach. Large. Clean. Warm. Not like the fucking boxes the army gave you. The walls so thin,you heard every word of the neighbour’s domestics. As they heard yours.

Tell yourself. You’re fucking lucky mate. She took you back didn’t she?  Again. After everything you’ve done. You didn’t deserve a second chance, and she’s given you a fifth. Anyone else would have walked away long ago. Not Cassie. She’s a diamond. One in a million. You’re lucky, mate, you really are.

Tell  yourself. You don’t care about the way the girls look at you. That they don’t speak to you. Or mind you, unless their mother says. Whose fucking fault is that? Besides, teenage girls never speak to their fathers. Somewhere, under the piles of mascara and eyeshadow, they still love you. They’ll come round. Eventually.

Tell yourself. It doesn’t matter that the job stinks. That you stink. Of cockles and mussels alive-a-fucking-o. It’s a start isn’t it? At least you  have money of your own again. Don’t have to rely on Cassie’s wage. With your track record, it’s a miracle anyone would ever employ you. It’ll do for now. Till something better comes along.

Tell  yourself. As you pass the tourists packing out the pubs and avoid the offie on the way home from work. As  you sit in the evening watching crap on TV. As you lie awake, in the middle of the night, wondering what the fuck happened to your life. Tell yourself. Like they told you in the clinic: I don’t need a drink.

Perhaps, one day, it will be true.

Copyright c Virginia Moffatt 2009