Writers Who Are and Aren’t Themselves

Winner-winner Stephanus Muller’s Nagmusiek, published by Fourthwall Books, is winging its way to Greylingstad, home of Highveld Reading and Writing Studios. Nagmusiek won the 2015 kykNet-Rapport prize for nonfiction and the Jan Rabie-Rapport prize for fiction. And I won Nagmusiek in Fourthwall’s Facebook competition.

Stephanus Muller

Nagmusiek … sal lank onthou word as daardie-boek-wat-vir-fiksie-én-niefiksie-benoem-was … . Thys Human, beoordelaar van die Jan Rabie-Rapportprys, noem Nagmusiek … “’n uitdagende, grensoorskrydende teks …”. Herman Wasserman, beoordelaar van die niefiksieprys, sê weer in sy nabetragting … : “Nagmusiek is ‘n tegniese kragtoer en ‘n hoogs geslaagde eksperimentele waagstuk …”.

Fourthwall says:

Nagmusiek is … both a scholarly study of the Afrikaans composer Arnold van Wyk and a work of fiction in which the author/biographer – who is and is not Stephanus Muller – highjacks his own literary undertaking. … Muller sets out to explore Van Wyk’s work and in the process creates an epic and genre-defying work of his own. … a groundbreaking work of experimental fiction.

And Princeton University’s Rare Books and Special Collections says:

Is it a novel or a biography or an artists’ book hybrid? The three-volume set is from the wonderful South African publisher Fourthwall Books.

I am curious about Van Wyk. Here is an extract from a letter he wrote while at the Royal Academy, London, around 1940, in which he reflects on the stiff upper lip.

This evening after I had done some decent practicing, I played some of my earlier pieces—the “Nocturne,” the “Bagatelles,” the “Romanza” & “Mazurka” and this has put me in a nice, blue sentimental mood. It would be natural to write a blue letter, with purple moments & mauve cadences, but I’ll do my best not to inflict this on you. Contact with the English has taught me the indecency of emotion; has taught me that naked emotion is as unforgivable as walking down the street without one’s pants. I have as yet not decided whether I am a better man now that I have assimilated this philosophy.

arnold van wyk

Highveld’s 2016 Reading Studios will include Barley Patch by Australian Gerald Murnane.

gerald murnane
Murnane is well known for his virtuoso complications of genre and authorial identities and roles. This recent interview by 3:am Magazine (“Whatever it is, we’re against it”) will give you a sense of the writer – who is and is not Gerald Murnane.

Highveld will also be reading writers who are themselves, like Rosamond Lehmann, Ivy Compton-Burnett, Bessie Head, Virginia Woolf, Patrick Chamoiseau, Eleni Sikelianos, Henry Green, Clarice Lispector and Ivan Vladislavic. Or are they?



Imaginative Remembering: Experiment #1

After Another Explosion

You couldn’t see, but we heard the palaver at the bottom of our grounds. We were scared but not confused. My daughter collided into our verandah posts, she ran so hard, calling Daddy! Daddy! This is the nightmare. And I had been nowhere as usual, and the Melmans went on talking their trash in the following quiet. Over the suburb hung the odour of sulphur and burnt newspapers. It was like a Guy Fawkes night. The bitches that roam had taken to their burrows. All the neighbourhood fowls disappeared that night, too, the lot of them gone, into the night garden. November 2014

After Another Explosion was generated using some of the techniques of Imaginative Remembering with some writer friends at my Disturbing Immersions drop-in studio at Her Majesteas Salon, Heidelberg, South Africa, this weekend 21/22 November 2015. The process went something like this:

1. Choose 6 memories. Write them down in full, grammatical sentences, no more than 3 sentences per memory. Work fast but not frantically.

1. I am in the night garden and I am afraid.
2. My mother points out the almond tree in bloom.
3. Oupa is strolling across the fields like a landlord with his spaniels.
4. I am fascinated by the word Weimeraner.
5. Heather and Vanessa did something in the wendyhouse with Vikus.
6. Aunty Emily approves of me when I comply with her wishes.

2. Choose the memory you love best, the one you cherish. Draw a heart around your words.

2. My mother points out the almond tree in bloom.

3. Choose a memory you’d rather not have. Draw lines through it.

5. Heather and Vanessa did something in the wendyhouse with Vikus.

4. Choose a memory in which there is more than one person. Write the memory from the point of view of any person that isn’t you. Or the person whom the memory didn’t happen to. Write 10 full, grammatical sentences, in a neutral tone, exploring the memory. Don’t write more or less than 10 sentences. Give the work a title. Number the sentences and write each one on a new line.

The Night Garden
1. Tonight the little girls disappeared into the stand next door in the dark.
2. It was Guy Fawkes and after the fireworks.
3. The smell of sulphur and burnt paper hung over the neighbourhood.
4. The dogs had gone, gone quiet.
5. The Melmans were talking rubbish as usual and I would rather be somewhere else.
6. This is not the dream.
7. Julia came running onto the stoep: Daddy! Daddy!
8. What’s going on? I said.
9. We’re scared at the bottom of the garden.
10. We heard noises and you can’t see.
11. There are moths and it’s too quiet.

5. Rewrite the sentences starting with 10 and working your way down to 1.

1.We heard noises and you can’t see.
2. We’re scared at the bottom of the garden.
3. What’s going on? I said.
4. Julia came running onto the stoep: Daddy! Daddy!
5. This is not the dream.
6. The Melmans were talking rubbish as usual and I would rather be somewhere else.
7. The dogs had gone, gone quiet.
8. The smell of sulphur and burnt paper hung over the neighbourhood.
9. It was Guy Fawkes and after the fireworks.
10. Tonight the little girls disappeared into the stand next door in the dark.
The Night Garden

6. Identify the concrete nouns in all the sentences. Choose synonyms, or opposites or associations for these nouns.

noises -palaver, racket, silence
garden – park
somewhere – nowhere, anywhere, a placedogs – hounds, brakke, bitches
smell – pong, odour, clunk
stoep – verandah, porch, patio
dream – mystery, longing, nightmare
sulphur – swael
paper – newspaper
rubbish – trash, junk, garbage, vrotgoed
fireworks – explosions
neighbourhood – suburb
girls – chicks
stand next door – empty lot
dark – night, black

7. Replace the nouns in your 10 reordered sentences with the new words you’ve found for them.

1. We heard the palaver, and you can’t see.
2. We’re scared at the bottom of the park.
3. What’s going on?
4. Vanessa came running onto the verandah.
5. This is not the nightmare.
6. The Melmans were talking trash as usual and I would rather be nowhere.
7. The bitches have gone, gone quiet.
8.The odour of the geyser and burnt newspapers hung over the suburb.9. It was Guy Fawkes and after the explosion.
10 Tonight the chicks disappeared into this lot in the night.

8. Find a way to invert each sentence. Swop clauses, turn a negative statement into a positive, etc. Provide some kind of flipping around for each sentence.

1. You can’t see, and we heard the palaver.
2. At the bottom of the park, we’re scared.3. What’s going on?
4. The verandah came running onto Julia.
5. This is the nightmare.
6. I would rather be nowhere as usual and the Melmans were talking trash.
7. Quiet, the bitches have gone, gone.
8. The suburb hung over the odour of the geyser and burnt newspapers.
9. After the explosion, it was Guy Fawkes.
10. The chicks disappeared tonight into the night of this lot.

9. Write the sentences in one long line without any punctuation, just word after word, and add the original title at the end.

You can’t see and we heard the palaver at the bottom of the park we’re scared what’s going on the verandah came running onto Julia this is the nightmare I would rather be nowhere as usual and the Melmans were talking trash quiet the bitches have gone gone the suburb hung over the odour of the geyser and burnt newspapers after the explosion it was Guy Fawkes the chicks disappeared tonight into the night of this lot the night garden.

10. Look for new groupings of words and phrases, new sentences, now that the individual words are free. Craft a short piece of prose that is grammatical, although it may or may not make perfect sense.

11. You will have a piece of evocative raw material. It may be a prose poem. It may be the kick off for a piece of fiction you didn’t know you had waiting. Perhaps you will want to recover some of the facts of your memory but use some of the images Imaginative Remembering has given you. Maybe you hate the piece. And that is a good reason to keep it. Or burn it.

PS What about the memory you love with all your heart and the one you wish you didn’t have? Let the first one go. And the second, recite to yourself as though the words were sacred.

The Sonnet Machine: Experiment #1

Arthur Woolf

I was bending over slowly to adjust my white and perfect ankle sock lined
up in the corridor for maths.
Arthur Woolf was what we called a big boy: smudge of moustache, and
smoked alone in the toilets.
Arthur Woolf did not take maths.
He took woodwork. His school shorts were tight around his thighs. His

Hips strolled past our right neat line of clever girls and boys on his big
boy’s way to the woodwork workshop.
I was bending over to adjust my little sock. I was taking my own sweet
Time. Arthur Woolf stopped his saunter to the woodwork workshop.
He had his hands in his tight shorts pockets. And he found me

Wanting. He shook his head. No not like this, he said, and bent down from
his waist to his shoes as I was. His ropy arms were hairy, dark silky hairs
I could see.
Arthur Woolf looked upside down at me. You must do it like this, he said,
and knelt down on the tiles on his one bare knee, rolling down his long
boy’s sock with his dirty
Big boy’s fingers. I could see.
And his woodworking shoulders like slow skinless animals alive in his

I took in Arthur Woolf’s demonstration.
I could immediately gather how the girl way would lose me my chances to
display the dainty edges of my soft white panties at the soft white edges
of my bottom. September 2013

In Arthur Woolf, I was mainly concerned with rhyming – end rhymes and internal rhymes; cheat rhymes (repeating the exact same word or words): maths/maths, woodwork workshop/woodwork workshop and I could see/I could see; and slant rhymes (words that only just rhyme): toilets/coiling, sweet/me, dirty/shirt and demonstration/bottom. It was fun and sometimes difficult to consider words for their sound rather than using the first – perhaps the most efficient? – word that came to me.

I didn’t make use of iambic pentameter. (The Sonnet Machine is a forgiving machine.) But I did use the basic Shakespearean structure of three quatrains and a final couplet.

My raw material was a childhood memory of being told how to be a proper girl. The space of the three quatrains gave me the opportunity to explore the details of the encounter – social and sensory. The couplet pushed me to sum up, and that summing up came as a surprise.

The Sonnet Machine delivered the complexities of an experience which as an adult I had fossilised into that of a sexually innocent little girl, the victim of gender normative behaviour training. Now I can see the little girl’s sexual desire, including her desire for gendered power, among other difficult truths.

My sonnet Arthur Woolf is excavated material from my unconscious and my imagination, and from various seams of my culture. It may contribute to a piece of memoir, or perhaps become a short story. Maybe I’ll make it a flash. I will probably use some of the techniques of Imaginative Remembering to develop what The Sonnet Machine gave me.

Imaginative Remembering is one of the online writing studios offered by Highveld Reading and Writing.

Our memories – social, familial, cultural, personal – are coded: by those who share them, and by ourselves as we turn “what happened” into the stories that suit us. In Imaginative Remembering, we will tell our lies. And they will lead us like a trail of pebbles to a new remembered truth. We will imagine “what happened” rather then replay it. We will make things up, exaggerate, change the endings. We will generate fiction that is true.

The Sonnet Machine: How It Works

One of my favourite exercises for exploring an idea or enlivening a piece of dull writing is to put myself through The Sonnet Machine. Here’s how it works.

In one end go the raw materials: our glorious visions, that one luminous word we adore, the brilliant opening line of the novel we can’t write, junk, a dream, a moment, the crucial scene in our short story, the shape of a cloud, someone else’s brilliant idea, the poem you wrote when you were 15 and heartbroken, whatever …

… and The Sonnet Machine delivers a piece of writing with an aesthetic form and language-rich content.

The Machine’s primary function is to find patterns: of images, sounds, feelings, rhythms. It also illuminates shadow material: characters who may have been hiding, emotions you’ve suppressed, opinions your super ego censors.

Your sonnet won’t be a finished piece of work. Indeed, it’s likely to be clunky and not make sense. But it will be bulging with images, throbbing with a beat. It will want you to work out what it wants you to say. It’s like your pattern-loving brain and Shakespeare and Petrach and a few other geniuses went into a bosberaad and came out with some suggestions.

In particular, The Sonnet Machine does not deliver narrative. Telling a story is not what a sonnet does best. As Mark Strand and Eavan Boland describe it in The Making of a Poem, the sonnet engages an emotional or intellectual question, captures mood and tone, and allows a fairly free association of images to develop lyrically toward a conclusion.

And now you, the prose writer, must do the work.

Highveld Reading and Writing Studios offers The Sonnet Machine as an 8-week online studio.

In The Sonnet Machine, we use the strictures of form to release us from the strictures of our habits. We all make creative moves that come easily to us: perhaps they’ve been successful in past work, perhaps we admire them in other writers, perhaps we’ve just been making them for years. They can become so familiar that they feel natural, and we forget that once it was a choice to use that particular voice, or punctuation style, or way of ending a story. Included in these comfortable moves are our imaginative associations. One idea reliably generates another idea we love. The Sonnet Machine forces us to make moves we may not want to or like, and takes us beyond our creative defences into the danger zone of our untamed imagination. This intensive studio begins with a brief introduction to the sonnet forms, then moves to a sonnet writing hazing out of the familiar and into the wild of your writer’s mind. You will forge new neural pathways to the images, stories – the words – that your habits have been protecting you from. In the final session of the studio, I will guide you to begin a new piece of work with the stamina and freedom you will have acquired.

I also use it as an element of other studios, such as Disturbing Immersions.

Disturbing Immersions: Drop in!

Disturbing Immersions at Her Majesteas Salon will be a drop-in studio. And free. You don’t have to book, and you can come any time. I’ll be there: from 10am to 3pm on Saturday 21 November and Sunday 22.

IMG_2720 IMG_2723 IMG_2719

Map and directions to Her Majesteas: 67 Verwoerd Street, Heidelberg, Gauteng.
Her Majesteas menu.

You’ll find me writing, drinking tea, reading on a couch. And available to chat. Or if you’d like to try one of the Disturbing Immersions exercises, we can.

There’ll be information on my other studios, including December’s online Write Sex and the online Reading Studios that I’ll begin in February next year.

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Welcome to Disturbing Immersions at Her Majesteas!

About Karen Martin

DSC_0009 - CopyWriter
I graduated in 2014 from Syracuse University’s top-ranking creative writing MFA programme, where I worked with poets Michael Burkard, Christopher Kennedy, Brooks Haxton and Bruce Smith, novella expert Brian Evenson, novelists Arthur Flowers, Rivka Galchen and Dana Spiotta, visual artist Juan Juarez, memoirist and poet Mary Karr, writer-activist Minnie-Bruce Pratt and short story writer George Saunders. Jonathan Franzen and Zadie Smith visited. I have also worked with veteran writing teacher Lesley Cowling in Johannesburg. And online with short-short writer and poet Barbara Henning and personal narratives teacher extraordinaire Anja Achtenberg. The gifts to me of these devoted teachers, inspiring artists and high order human beings are what I want to share in my Highveld Reading and Writing Studios.

My fiction won me a fellowship at the Norman Mailer Writers Colony, where I worked with Jeffery Renard Allen. I also won an artist’s residency at the Woodstock Byrdcliffe Guild. Caine Prize winner EC Osondu awarded my 2013 short story “Re-Enactments” the Stone Canoe prize for an emerging fiction writer in Upstate New York. My first work was published in ITCH in 2010. In 2010, I was also ITCH’s e-intern.

Writing Teacher
At Syracuse University, I taught critical reading and academic writing to undergraduates, as well as a literature appreciation class. I taught fiction to a summer class for high school students. My MFA in Creative Writing required participation in three semester-long workshops, which included written and verbal presentations on my fellow writers’ work, and focused group discussions on aspects of literary craft. I took classes in the short story, memoir, Proust, Ulysses, the novella, contemporary American fiction, Western poetry, the visual arts, music and writing, and literary hoodoo, among others. These seminars required close reading, and written and verbal presentations.

The anthology I developed and co-edited, Queer Africa: New and Selected Fiction, won the prestigious 2014 Lambda Literary Award for a fiction anthology, the first African book to win a “Lammy”. Queer Africa 2 is in the making.

Technical Editor
I have 20 years’ experience as a freelance technical editor. Among my specialities is Plain English, and I am highly regarded for my interpretive skills. My clients include the South African National Treasury and other government departments, civil society organisations, research institutes, museums, and individual writers. I have international accreditation in copy editing, and I am a member of the UK Society for Editors and Proofreaders and the South African Professional Editors’ Guild.

September 2015

Disturbing Immersions: What to Expect

IMG_2688Day 1: Disturbing Immersions

In the Victorian comfort of Her Majesteas, on Day 1, Saturday, you will write, write, write. And write some more. I will introduce you to some superb exercises for both your imagination and your writing craft. There will be tea and cake. There will be lunch. There will be tea and cake again. But mainly there will be writing. The exercises are short, intense and fascinating. You will emerge from your work with technical and expressive options significantly beyond the limits of your present habits and taste. We’ll churn through The Sonnet Machine. We’ll Strange the Familiar. I’ll show you the basics of Imaginative Remembering and how to swing between The Microscope and the Stars. We’ll bring home our Fantastic Tales from the Hinterland. And we’ll end by reflecting on our Literary Heritage and honouring the writers who’ve made our own work possible by their genius and devotion.


Immersion generates amazing material. You will fall in love with some of your efforts. You’ll be wildly curious about others. Ideas will be welling up in your creative fountain and flowing. Solutions to problems you might have with one of your current projects will present themselves, as will inspiration for new projects.


Day 2: Integration

On Day 2, Slow Sunday, you’ll integrate your new insights and approaches. We’ll start with a reading of the shocking, exquisite, freaky, intriguing, original, authentic, fantabulous, sacred, disastrous, sparkling, brilliant, sublime, insane and lovely writing that our immersion in our craft will have brought us. From there, you’ll be free to make your own best slow use of the studio.

IMG_2741IMG_2743The watchword is “slow”. Musing is encouraged. You can lie on a couch and dream. You can cloud watch. Writing by hand is always good. So is sleeping. You may want to take yourself back into The Sonnet Machine, this time with a more conscious agenda. Or use Imaginative Remembering to start a new piece of memoir. Maybe you’ll just want to rest in the presence of your Literary Ancestors, having become aware of their ever encouraging presence. You may want to read. Maybe you’ll doodle a map of your Hinterland. Some of you may want to talk in pairs or small groups. Or to yourself. There will be an all-morning breakfast and an elegant boerekos lunch to support the slow mood. I’ll consult with each of you on your immersion experience. And at 3pm, you’ll head back into your writing life invigorated and renewed.

Disturbing Immersions
Date: 21 and 22 November 2015
Venue: Her Majesteas Salon, Heidelberg, Gauteng
Studio fee: R2,700
Contact: highveldreadingandwriting@gmail.com
Website: www.highveldreadingandwritingstudios.com

Opening Studio: Disturbing Immersions

Disturbing Immersions is a two-day studio for experienced writers who want to hone and extend their skills. Writers in any prose forms will benefit from it: novelists, short story writers, journalists, bloggers, memoirists, essayists, copywriters and others. Poets will also find it useful, as will dramatists and scriptwriters. You needn’t be published to be experienced, but you do need to have been writing for some time.

21 and 22 November 2015 at Her Majesteas Salon, Heidelberg, Gauteng

Day 1 is an intensive and intense writing immersion in a series of exercises designed to challenge your imaginative and technical habits. The profound, hilarious and mysterious truth of your creativity will become more accessible to you, and you will increase your literary inventiveness. Day 2 is slow, designed for integrating the creative disturbances Day 1 will have brought you.

We will have exclusive use of one of the private salons at Her Majesteas Salon, and access to the restaurant, small salon, courtyard and gardens. Heidelberg is an easy one-hour drive on the N3 from Johannesburg. You may decide to stay over on Saturday night in one of Heidelberg’s many guesthouses, or drive in and out. We will be working from 10am to 6pm on Saturday, and from 10am to 3pm on Sunday.

The studio fee for Disturbing Immersions is R2,700. Expect to pay around R50 in addition for a superlative pot of tea or coffee and a slice of gorgeous cake, and around R100 for Her Majesteas’ excellent breakfasts and lunches, a la carte or from the buffet.

Contact me on highveldreadingandwriting@gmail.com for more information and to book.