BWC Recommends – Sarah Wiecek

BWC Recommends is a segment asking our members to talk about their favourite literary meals. Those paragraphs that are so rich they take a while to digest, that packet of word crisps you put in the cupboard but keep going back for until the whole thing is empty, that comforting poetry soup you heat up when you’re not feeling well. What is it about these novels, plays or poems that makes them so delicious?

Sarah Wiecek

Sarah in cartoon format

This time, for something completely different, I will be interviewing myself. For a little introduction, my name’s Sarah Wiecek, I come from the land of Vegemite but am currently living in the land of chocolate. Apart from keeping the BWC blog tottering along, I write short stories and will be starting my first novel very soon.

What are your five favourite books (or poems or plays)?

  1. The Gormenghast Trilogy – Mervyn Peake
  2. If On A Winter’s Night a Traveller – Italo Calvino
  3. Cannery Row – John Steinbeck
  4. Smallcreep’s Day – Peter Currell Brown
  5. Huckleberry Finn – Mark Twain

Choosing one book (or poem or play) from the list above, tell us what you found tastiest about it. 

I’m always harping on about Gormenghast, so I think I’ll turn a different direction today and talk about If On A Winter’s Night a Traveller.

For me, Calvino is one of those rare successful writers who manages to inspire rather than intimidate. This isn’t to say that his writing doesn’t knock you down like bowling pins, but somehow even his best stuff always fills me with the urge to write more myself, rather than burn everything I’ve ever done. It just fills me with this incredible sense of openness, of possibility, a feeling that you can – and should – write about whatever the hell you want. Here’s a guy who wrote about people called ‘Qfwfq’ and ‘Xlthlx’ harvesting milk from the moon back in the day when it used to be so close to Earth you could climb up onto it with a ladder, for crying out loud.

Apparently some people absolutely loathe If On a Winter’s Night a Traveller, and it’s true it takes some rather bizarre turns, becoming more and more abstruse as it goes on. But for me, the first two chapters alone are reason enough to fall in love with it. They tickled me more than I’ve been tickled since I was a kid.

And what’s tastiest about those chapters? Why are they so delightful? Because Calvino doesn’t only write about whatever the hell he wants, he also writes about them in the way he wants. Which means: This would be practically impossible to film. I can’t see this as a movie. This could ONLY be written. And that’s something I always try to remember: when you’re writing, really take advantage of the fact that you’re writing, not describing everything in such a way that you can practically see the cameraman. When you’re writing, you can do things that they can’t do in the movies, you can do things that are only possible in the upper-most somersaulting realms of your imagination.

Of course I don’t mind when books turn into movies. It’s just that the stories that usually make the biggest impact on me are the ones that are delightfully impossible.

Who is your favourite writer? Why do you like him/her? 

Mervyn Peake. Because he wrote an entire trilogy that is delightfully impossible.

Eddie Murphy once said, “Anything you have to acquire a taste for was not meant to be eaten.” Have you ever forced yourself to read something because you were told it was ‘good for you’? If yes, what did you learn from this experience? If no, tell us about a book that you hated. 

I’d always heard this Hemingway name tossed about, so eventually I figured it was time for us to get acquainted. Unfortunately, at our first meeting in a London café, I quickly came to the conclusion that we had nothing in common. He spilled his drink on me and could only say, ‘I spilled my drink’, with no indication of how this might have affected the spillee. Generally I am quite patient with ‘the classics’, but I could only stand three chapters of The Sun Also Rises before I pronounced my literary relationship with the big H dead. After that I traipsed home to seek comfort from my old pal P.G. Wodehouse. Jeeves cleaned my dress and asked if there was anything else he could do to make me feel better.

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2013 International Short Story Competitions

Since we have plenty of short story writers here at the BWC, I thought I’d compile a list of international short story competitions for 2013. Well, from February onwards, anyway!

There are more writing competitions than you can shake a lemming at, so I narrowed my search to competitions that are (a) international, (b) include publication in either anthologies or magazines, and (c) preferably do not require the donation of one or more of your limbs in order to enter.

Most of the competitions listed below require that your submission has not been published elsewhere beforehand, but you can check each site individually for comprehensive entry rules. Some also include poetry and flash fiction categories, so I’ve indicated those ones where applicable.

Disclaimer: I cannot speak for the legitimacy of any of these competitions. Entry is at your own risk. Please do not pelt me with rotten aubergines if it turns out you enter something dodgy.

MARCH DEADLINES

The Nelligan Prize for Short Fiction

Theme: Open
Word limit: Under 50 pages
Entry fee: $15USD
Prizes: 1st prize £2000USD
Deadline: March 14, 2013
Multiple entries permitted: Yes
Publication: Fall/Winter 2013 edition of Colorado Review
Website: http://coloradoreview.colostate.edu/nelligan-prize

The Pinch Literary Awards

Theme: Open
Word limit: 5000 words max
Entry fee: $20USD
Prizes: 1st prize $1000USD
Deadline: March 15, 2013
Multiple entries permitted: Yes
Publication: Spring edition of The Pinch Journal (University of Memphis)
Website: http://www.thepinchjournal.com/contest/

Mslexia 2013 Women’s Short Story Competition

Theme: Open
Word limit: 2,200 words max
Entry fee: £10 per entry
Prizes: 1st prize £2000, 2nd prize £500, 3rd prize £250
Deadline: March 18, 2013
Multiple entries permitted: Yes
Publication: Issue 58, Mslexia Magazine
Extra information: Women writers only
Website: http://mslexia.co.uk/whatson/msbusiness/scomp_active.php

The Bath Short Story Award

Theme: Open
Word limit: 2,200 words max
Entry fee: £5 per entry
Prizes: 1st prize £500, 2nd prize £50, 3rd prize £50
Deadline: March 30, 2013
Multiple entries permitted: Yes
Publication: E-book anthology
Website: http://bathshortstoryaward.co.uk

Love on the Road 2013

Theme: Stories about making connections
Word limit: 5000 words max
Entry fee: $10 (unclear from website which kind of dollars they want!)
Prizes: 1st prize $200, 2nd prize $100, 3rd prize $50
Deadline: March 31, 2013
Multiple entries permitted: Yes
Publication: Love on the Road 2013 (Anthology)
Website: http://loveontheroad2013.com/

Exeter Writers Short Story Competition

Theme: Open (but no children’s stories)
Word limit: 3000 words max
Entry fee: £5 per entry
Prizes: 1st prize £500, 2nd prize £250, 3rd prize £100
Deadline: March 31, 2013
Multiple entries permitted: Yes
Publication: Exeter Writers website
Website: http://www.exeterwriters.org.uk/p/competition.html

Five Stop Story 2013 Quarterly Short Story Competitions

Theme: Open
Word limit: 3,000 words max
Entry fee: £5 (gets cheaper with multiple entries)
Prizes: 1st prize £100, two runners up £10
Deadline: March 31, June 30, September 30, December 31 (quarterly competition)
Multiple entries permitted: Yes
Publication: On Five Stop Story website, and Five Stop Story iPhone and iPad app.
Extra information: ‘Five Stop Story’ means the story can be read within 5 stops on the London Underground. Cool idea!
Website: http://www.fivestopstory.com

APRIL DEADLINES

Inkhead Short Story Competition

Theme: Stories must be written under one of five possible titles (listed on their website)
Word limit: 1000 words max
Entry fee: £5 per entry
Prizes: 1st prize £150, 2nd prize £60, 3rd prize £40
Deadline: April 1, 2013
Multiple entries permitted: Yes
Publication: Inkhead Winners Anthology
Website: http://www.inkhead.co.uk/pages/competition-2013

Bristol Short Story Prize

Theme: Open
Word limit: 4,000 words max
Entry fee: £8 per entry
Prizes: 1st prize £1000, 2nd prize £700, 3rd prize £400
Deadline: April 30, 2013
Multiple entries permitted: Yes
Publication: Bristol Short Story Prize Anthology (Volume 6)
Website: http://www.bristolprize.co.uk

The Flying Elephants Short Story Prize

Theme: ‘Hunger’
Word limit: 2500-5000 words (but judges are flexible)
Entry fee: FREE
Prizes: 1st prize $2000, three finalists £1000
Deadline: April 30, 2013
Multiple entries permitted: Two stories maximum
Publication: Online (AndWeWereHungry website)
Website: http://andwewerehungry.org/short-story-contest-at-a-glance

MAY DEADLINES

The Bridport Prize

Theme: Open
Word limit: 5000 words max
Entry fee: £8 per entry
Prizes: 1st prize £5000, 2nd prize £1000, 3rd prize £500
Deadline: 31st May, 2013
Multiple entries permitted: Yes
Publication: Bridport Prize 2013 Anthology
Extra information: Also includes poetry and flash fiction categories
Website: http://www.bridportprize.org.uk

Barbara Pym Centenary Short Story Competition

Theme: Stories must be written in a ‘Barbara Pym-esque’ style
Word limit: 2,200 words max
Entry fee: £7
Prizes: 1st prize £150, 2nd prize £100, 3rd prize £50
Deadline: 30th May, 2013
Multiple entries permitted: Yes
Publication: Green Leaves (journal), and online
Website: http://www.barbara-pym.org/Homepage.html

JUNE DEADLINES

Cinnamon Press Writing Awards

Theme: Open
Word limit: Short stories 2000-4000 words, first novels/novellas up to 10,000 words (can be longer, but they accept only the first 10,000 words)
Entry fee: £12
Prizes: Short stories: 1st prize £150; Novels/novellas: £400)
Deadline: June 30, 2013 and November 30, 2013 (twice yearly competition)
Multiple entries permitted: Not stated
Publication: Short stories published in Cinnamon Press winners’ anthology, novels/novellas published by Cinnamon Press
Extra information: Also includes a poetry category, and monthly writing competitions
Website: http://www.cinnamonpress.com/competitions/major-awards

JULY DEADLINES

Wyrd Books Short Story Competition

Theme: Open
Word limit: 2000 words max
Entry fee: Free (as far as I can tell!)
Prizes: Publication only
Deadline: July 31, 2013
Multiple entries permitted: Not stated
Publication: Non-profit paperback ‘Wyrd Stories’
Extra information: Entries that do not make it into the collection may be published on the website
Website: http://www.wyrdbooks.co.uk/Wyrd_Stories.html

Highlands and Islands Short Story Competition

Theme: Open (no link with Scotland necessary. Unconventional story lines encouraged)
Word limit: 4000 words max
Entry fee: £5 (or 3 stories for £12)
Prizes: 1st prize £400, 2nd and 3rd prizes £50
Deadline: July 31, 2013
Multiple entries permitted: Not stated
Publication: Online only (HISSAC website)
Website: http://www.hissac.co.uk/CompetitionDetails

OCTOBER DEADLINES

The Scott Prize (for short story collections)

Theme: Open
Word limit: Short story collection between 30,000 – 75,000 words
Entry Fee: £20
Prizes: First prize £1000
Deadline: October 31, 2013
Multiple entries permitted: N/A
Publication: Publication and contract with Salt Publishing
Extra information: Individual short stories that may have already been published can be included within your collection
Website: http://thescottprize.co.uk

NOVEMBER DEADLINES

The New Writer Annual Prose and Poetry Prizes

Theme: Open (but must reflect ‘writing today’, whatever that means!)
Word limit: 500-3000 words
Entry fee: £5 per entry
Prizes: 1st prize £300, 2nd prize £200, 3rd prize £100
Deadline: November 30, 2013
Multiple entries permitted: Yes
Publication: The New Writer Annual Collection (anthology)
Extra information: Also includes a poetry category
Website: http://www.thenewwriter.com/prose-and-poetry-prize

Writers’ Village Short Story Competition

Theme: Open
Word limit: 3000 words max
Entry fee: £15
Prizes: 1st prize £1000, 2nd prize £250, 3rd prize £50
Deadline: November 30, 2013
Multiple entries permitted:
Publication: Writers’ Village website
Extra information: This competition guarantees feedback from judges for all entries received
Website: http://www.writers-village.org

ROLLING DEADLINES

Writers’ Forum Short Story Competition

Theme: Open
Word limit: 1000-3000 words
Entry fee: £5 (or £3 for subscribers)
Prizes: 1st prize £300, 2nd prize £150, 3rd prize £100
Deadline: Rolling
Multiple entries permitted: Yes
Publication: Published in Writers’ Forum Magazine
Extra information: Also includes a poetry competition
Website: http://www.writers-forum.com/comps.html

Okay, so that’s where I got up to before getting tired. For a more comprehensive, but seemingly mainly Canadian-based list, you can visit this website. For details of competitions predating February, you can visit the UK’s Booktrust website, which is where I found plenty of the competitions listed above.

If any BWC members or random site visitors know of a competition that fits our bill (i.e., it’s international, includes publication, and doesn’t cost a kidney to enter), just email us at brusselswriterscircle at gmail.com and I’ll see about adding it to the list.

I hope this is useful for some of you! And remember, no rotten aubergines for dodgy listings…

Put Away the Hourglass

In a recent Radiolab podcast, I learned about how Oliver Sacks overcame his writer’s block back in 1968. He was struggling to complete his first book, Migraine, and eventually reached a point of such desperation that he decided to set himself a deadline. Okay, so that in itself is nothing unusual – most writers try this at some point or another when they’re feeling stuck – but what adds a dash of drama to this scenario is that his was a literal deadline. He told himself that if he didn’t finish the book in 10 days, he’d have to commit suicide.

You might sneer, but Sacks was apparently very serious about it. So serious that he ended up completing the book in 9 days.

It’s doubtful that Sacks was the first writer to use self-bribery as a way of getting the thing done, but considering that this was 44 years ago, it’s possible that he was before his time when it came to the ludicrously short timeframe he set for himself.

The podcast is really great (as Radiolab podcasts always are), and if you want to listen to the rest of it you can do so here. For now though, I’m going to leave Sacks’s rashness behind and dance with this idea of ludicrously short timeframes instead.

Now I’m not sure about you, but sometimes I feel a degree of pressure to write not only prolifically, but quickly. I get the impression that the old saying, ‘To be a writer you must write’ has been reinterpreted as, ‘To prove that you are a writer you must write as much as you can, as fast as you can.’

The pressure doesn’t come from other writers alone, either. It seems to come from everywhere. Friends ask what kind of writing schedule I set for myself, people have questions like, ‘How many words do you usually write per day/per week/per month?’ or ‘How many words have you written on your novel so far?’, as if quantity is everything.

I even found an article recently which talks about the proliferation of ‘productivity’ applications for writers. If you’ll allow me the slight diversion (it’ll slow us up, but hopefully you’ll see the point of it), I’ll describe some of them for you now:

Write or Die is a new iPad application that “forces you to write by providing consequences for distraction and procrastination”. You can set the application to three different levels of strictness. The ‘Normal Mode’ sounds harsh enough – if you stop writing, the application plays an ear-shattering noise until you start again – but in ‘Kamikaze Mode’, if you stop writing for a certain period of time, the despotic thing starts killing off the words you’ve already written.

Then there’s Pomodoro, an application that claims to help you focus and obliterate procrastination. You set a timer for yourself, writing in intervals of say, 25 minutes, with 5 minute breaks in between, sort of like what you might do at the gym.

The next one in line – Written? Kitten! – is a little softer than the others: you set a word goal for yourself, and every time you reach it, you are sent a picture of a kitten. If you’re lucky, you might even get two kittens in a barrel.

Apart from the applications, there’s also National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo for short), where participants bust a gut to complete a 50,000 word novel in 30 days. According to the website, “Because of the limited writing window, the ONLY thing that matters in NaNoWriMo is output. It’s all about quantity, not quality. This approach forces you to lower your expectations, take risks, and write on the fly.”

Now don’t get ahead of me. I’m not going to say that these things are evil, ridiculous (well, the kitten one is pretty silly) and don’t work for anybody. Of course different techniques work for different people, and you do need to write a lot so that you can sift out the good from the bad. It’s just that the development of these applications shows a sort of social expectation, or social understanding, that these days, writers are supposed to be fast.

I just think it’d be useful to pull back a bit and ask ourselves whether this drive to be prolific Road Runners will help us to produce our best work. As Jenny Diski, the writer of the article on productivity applications, put it, we should “consider the possibility that writing is not just about writing, it’s also (and maybe mainly) about the space in between the writing, when nothing seems to be happening, or random stuff is having an incoherent party inside your head.”

Writing is about daydreaming. It’s about taking a walk. It’s about listening to music. It’s about buying muffins. It’s about eating. It’s about hula-hooping and cleaning out your fridge and watching five X-Files episodes in a row.

“My ideas usually come not at my desk writing, but in the midst of living,” said the famous diarist, Anaïs Nin.

This isn’t about encouraging laziness, or lack of discipline. It’s simply about reminding ourselves to slow down once in a while. As the great Sir John Cleese said in his talk about creativity, giving yourself plenty of time to meander around different possibilities means that you’re more likely to come up with an original idea than if you had forced yourself to make a quick decision.

It’s an idea that would most definitely be shared by the Canadian journalist Carl Honoré. His book, In Praise of Slow, describes a growing resistance to this ‘Cult of Speed’ we seem to be living in, and tells us that we’d all do well to get in touch with our inner tortoise. Just as Carl began to get more enjoyment out of reading bedtime stories to his son by slowing down, perhaps we’d get more enjoyment out of writing if we weren’t always burdened by the sense of time running out.

In the end I think it’s one of those paradoxes, like how exercising actually gives you more energy rather than less. Maybe if we slow down we’d feel like we have more time rather than less. So instead of setting ourselves ludicrously short timeframes to work within like Sacks did, maybe we should be like the Grandpa in the slow lane of the swimming pool. He’s not in any hurry, he’s still doing a good job, and – most importantly – he gets there in the end.

By Sarah Wiecek

How to Be Creative, with John Cleese

We all know what it’s like. You sit down to write something, but within seconds your mind has drifted. The badger needs feeding, the chandelier needs dusting, you need to call Frank to remind him about the quiche. No matter how trivial the things on your ‘to do’ list may be, somehow they are terribly distracting. You might even decide to reach for the box of Weasel Chow, the feather duster or the telephone before getting on with writing, on the supposed premise of ‘clearing your head’.

What is going on here? Why does this happen when you’re trying to be creative? And more importantly, how can you get past it?

In a not-so-recent but nonetheless useful talk given by John Cleese, Civil Servant at the Ministry of Silly Walks, we can find answers to all of these questions, along with a substantial amount of light-bulb jokes.

Sir Cleese (he’s not knighted, but he should be, so the title stays) suggests that being overcome by distractions indicates that you are simply trying to be creative in the wrong ‘mode’. Creativity, he says, is simply a ‘mode of operating’. More specifically, an ‘open’ mode of operating. It has nothing to do with talent or IQ.

No matter what kind of work you do, Sir Cleese explains, there are two different modes you can do it in: the ‘closed’ mode or the ‘open’ mode.

The ‘closed’ mode is the one we operate in most of the time when we’re working. It’s a mode in which we feel like we have a lot to do and not much time to do it in. It makes us slightly impatient with ourselves, and when we’re in this mode we can be quite serious and tense. It’s not all negative, of course: the ‘closed’ mode makes us more purposeful and goal-oriented, and adrenaline can help us to get a lot done.

The ‘open’ mode, in contrast, is less time-specific. In this mode we’re more contemplative, more inclined to humour, and consequently more playful. We can be curious and try things for the sake of it, because we’re not under any pressure to get things done.

Here’s the thing. To be at our most efficient we must be able to switch between the two modes, but to be at our most creative, we must be able to switch off the ‘closed’ mode entirely. Instead, we must spend time dancing and playing and crocheting strange ideas together in the ‘open’ mode.

Okay, so maybe you already knew that. Most of us are aware that playfulness and creativity go hand in hand. What you’re probably more interested in is how to get into that mode, how to suppress the badgery distractions that crowd in on you when you’re trying to write.

Sir Cleese can help you with that, too. It’s quite easy, really. Just get a tall glass, and fill it with:

–       Port
–       Banana syrup
–       Paprika
–       6 ½ egg whites
–       Monosodium glutamate
–       Chocolate coated peanuts
–       Red dye no. 2

 

 

Stir all the ingredients together with one of those long spoons, drink up, and then the open mode should come to you like a well-trained Labrador.  If it doesn’t, then you probably didn’t use enough banana syrup.

Alright, alright, that isn’t Sir Cleese’s recipe. In fact, there isn’t really a fail-safe way of getting into the open mode. But there are certain conditions you can set up which will make it more likely for the open mode to open. According to John, these are:

1. Space
2. Time
3. Time
4. Confidence
5. A 22-inch waist

Wait, that last one was his joke. That’s actually meant to be

5. Humour

So, let’s have a closer look at each of these areas (and yes, ‘Time’ is meant to be there twice):

Space

This is a pretty straightforward one. You need to set up a quiet space for yourself away from your usual pressures. Coping with your usual pressures is something you do in the ‘closed’ mode, so to get into the ‘open’ mode you need to seal yourself off from them.

Time

Set aside a specific amount of time for yourself in which to be creative. It can’t be too open-ended or your everyday concerns and pressures will start creeping in. The point is to have a starting point and an end point so that you know when your ‘normal life’ will begin again. You will also need to be patient, and wait for your ‘closed’ mode brain to quieten down with its seemingly urgent demands. As Sir Cleese says:

It’s easier to do trivial things that are urgent than it is to do important things that are not urgent, like thinking. It’s also easier to do little things we know we can do, than to start on big things that we’re not so sure about.

Time

Something familiar to most writers (and creative people in general) is setting aside a particular amount of time and then feeling that you have to be immediately productive and decisive within that time. Sir Cleese says that this is all wrong, and that’s why he mentions ‘time’ twice. It’s not enough to set aside time; you also need to use it effectively, and this is not necessarily about being fast. He recommends that we give ourselves maximum pondering time. Although it might be slightly uncomfortable to leave problems unresolved, he says that if we’re too quick to solve them, we might not be coming up with the best solution. Rather, the more time you spend meandering around possible solutions, the more original you’re likely to be.

Confidence

Nothing strangles creativity like the fear of making a mistake. Remember playing when you were a kid? You weren’t worried about whether things were right or wrong; you were just testing, and were open to all sorts of possibilities. Whatever happened, it would be okay, because you were just playing. Sir Cleese says that the best way to be confident is to remember that, when you’re being creative, nothing is wrong. Be silly, be illogical, be as wrong as you want. Sometimes it’s silliness that leads to breakthroughs.

Humour

Humour gets us into the open mode faster than anything else. Here’s Sir Cleese again:

I think we all know that laughter brings relaxation, and that humour makes us playful, yet how many times have important discussions been held where original and creative ideas were desperately needed to solve important problems, but where humour was taboo because the subject being discussed was “so serious”?

According to Sir Cleese, people too often confuse seriousness with solemnity. He says that it’s entirely possible to talk about serious topics and yet still laugh along the way. Being too ‘solemn’ about your creative work only serves pomposity: that what you’re doing is terribly important, and therefore nobody should be laughing about it.

No, humour is an essential part of spontaneity, of playfulness, of creativity, no matter how ‘serious’ the thing you’re working on may be. So in short, you can (and should) laugh all you want.

So there you have it. To get into the open mode, you need space, time, more time, confidence and humour. The last two in particular are things that creative people cannot be reminded of enough.

If we ceased thinking about our ideas or creative work as something we could feasibly get ‘wrong’, and remembered that even the most serious of topics can often benefit from an injection of humour, perhaps we’d be less distracted by our hungry badgers, our dust-bearded chandeliers or the razorblades we forgot to tell Frank that we hid in that quiche.

Thank you very much, Sir Cleese.

***

The crux of John Cleese’s talk has been outlined above, but if you’re interested in the frills and light-bulb jokes around the crux, you can see it all here:

Then and Now: The History of the Brussels Writers’ Circle

The first time I came along to the Brussels Writers’ Circle, I was greeted by a full room of faces. That evening I heard a chapter of a novel, a prologue for a nonfiction book, the beginning of a screenplay and a handful of poems.

It has not always been this way. According to David Ellard, current Chairperson of the BWC and one of the group’s longest-standing members, in the beginning you could never be sure that anyone would turn up at all. He recalls a time when one lone member sat at the table waiting in vain for someone else to come along. On other occasions there would be a decent gathering of people, but no work to critique.

The Brussels Writers’ Group, now known as the Brussels Writers’ Circle, was created in 1997 by Alice Jolly and Melissa Watkins, two aspiring British writers based in Brussels. Now a published author, playwright and creative writing teacher at Oxford University, Alice explains that the BWC was born as a splinter from a pre-existing writing group. The convenor of the original group was quite strict with who could come and who could not, imposing rules that were difficult to dodge since the meetings were held in her house.

Increasingly frustrated with the restrictive nature of the meetings, Alice says, “We decided to move the group and make it open to a wider group of people”.

Settling on an Irish pub called the Sin É, in the early days it seems that the group was marred by its consistent choice of Irish watering holes as meeting venues. The Sin É’s ceiling had fallen in just before the group came to meet there, and although it was repaired, Alice says that the members were frightened of being electrocuted by the new and unreliable wiring. “I think we once met by candlelight.”

The Sin É closed down overnight, prompting the group to move to a second Irish pub*. It’s a venue that Jeannette Cook, member since 2001, recalls less than fondly. “We had to pay a flat rate for the use of an upstairs room which was never heated in the winter, and was never aired or dusted, period. It would have been a nice room as it had a huge conference table and floor-to-ceiling windows but it had crap lighting and heavy, ugly, floor-to-ceiling curtains.”

The hideous curtains of the second Irish pub necessitated the move to the present day Cercle des Voyageurs. It was not the delicate aesthetic sense of the writers towards the curtains that provoked the change in venue, however, but the manager of the pub, who claimed that they had damaged them somehow. Nearly 10 years later, Alice Jolly is still a little bitter about it: “They were curtains you couldn’t have given away.”

Of course the story of the BWC involves more than just the badly upholstered locations in which it has met. Members have reflected on the diverse range of writers to have come and gone over the years. EU civil servants, UN diplomats, journalists, language teachers, social workers, scientists, translators, tour guides, retirees, documentary filmmakers and ‘trailing spouses’: multicultural Brussels has always provided the group with an assorted candy bag of people, speaking a variety of native languages.

The international nature of the group has consistently made the weekly gatherings interesting not only from a literary point of view, but from a cultural one as well. “We’re constantly immersed in another place and time, one week transported to the Code Noir years in the Seychelles, the next seeing life through the eyes of a foreign intern in Japan,” says Stephen Lawson, chair of the BWC from 2005 to 2009.

“There has been a core group of writers but mostly people have come and gone over the years, although they remain with us through their words,” Stephen says. He recalls Lucy Elliott, a now deceased member of Australian-Polish origin, whose autobiographical book, Dead at Twenty, “still haunts us with its message of a woman refusing to get beaten down despite all the adversity in her life.”

From the beginning, the BWC aimed to be friendly and all-inclusive. Although bad and ugly members are inevitable features of writers’ groups the world over, for the BWC these have luckily been scarce. David Ellard remembers a particularly pedantic and aggressive member who gave 20-minute tirades about grammar and punctuation, constantly interrupted and contradicted other members, and was unforgiving with non-native English speakers. David says, “He was the one and only member ever to have been politely asked to leave.”

The group has helped plenty of successfully published authors, poets and memoirists on their journeys. British thriller writer Jeremy Duns read out extracts from his now published first novel, Free Agent, at the BWC in around 2002. Other famous alumni include Australian Murray Andrew Gunn (known to the group as ‘MAG’) whose memoir about life in Bhutan, Dragon Bones, was published in 2011; American John Lash, who has published a handful of books on spirituality and comparative mythology; Reesom Haile, the former poet laureate of Eritrea; and of course Alice Jolly, one of the BWC’s founding members.

Of course it’s not always serious business at the BWC. Although most of the writers are aiming at eventual publication, Stephen Lawson points out that the group has never liked to miss an opportunity for a good time when it presents itself, like when “[former member] Helen threw a poetry jam as an excuse to use up her copious supplies of booze before she left for the States. Yes, we’re nothing if not practical in the group.” Likewise, the annual BWC retreat in Tremelo (Flanders) is almost as much about socialising, eating and drinking as it is about writing.

From the time when one lone writer sat dejectedly waiting for a friend, the BWC has now expanded to the point where two weekly meetings are possible. As ever, although some members attend intermittently, on the whole you can rely on a core of familiar faces to be there every week (including the silent but friendly member who hides under the table**). Consequently, after a while you grow accustomed to the style of particular writers, you shake hands with their creations, and you can almost predict the advice that certain members are going to give.

It’s a productive, ambitious and friendly group, equally keen to offer feedback on the characters and plotlines they’re familiar with as the stories and poems that come along once and then disappear.

As Stephen Lawson says, “Some of us are still hankering for our first publishing commission but we’re definitely having a great time trying in the process.”

*Purposefully left unnamed, as the pub is still operating today
**Kathleen’s Scottish Terrier, Jules