Sometimes, you just have to get over yourself

There’s nothing like a high-five from a published poet, especially if it’s the gifted Clare Shaw, to help you get over yourself.

So, I’ve written this poem, I tell Clare and Jim Friel and the other writers gathered in the porch beneath the stars at the writers’ retreat where I work.

Yes? Clare says.

I’m not sure if it’s any good…I trail off to look at the moon, tugging my scarf a little tighter around my neck.

We’d been talking earlier about the value of feedback – how validating it can be; even the negative stuff. On a recent Arvon course, my tutor Jonathan Lee told me three things about my novel: he didn’t like it when the writing became over-earnest, or when I strayed from the specific into making general observations, but he loved the wry voice.

It was hard for me to judge, with this poem (because I’ve hardly written anything that resembles poetry), which side of wry, earnest and general I had fallen. But when Clare asked me what I was worried about I couldn’t articulate a response.

I think I used the word ‘dickwad’, which is what I thought people would think about me when they read it.

Get over it, she told me, before adding that she would read it.

I looked around at everyone sitting out, some of them smoking, some of them just here to join the conversation, and suggested I read it to them all.

When they nodded I hurried across the driveway into the darkness towards my house so that I could fetch my notebook. Behind me someone said: she’s skipping.

I was. I knew I was about to pass from that point of not knowing anything about my work to knowing something.

As I read, I felt which two words could become one, which sentence didn’t belong and where I could say more. And when I was brave enough to glimpse up at my unexpected audience I met with the radiance of Clare Shaw. She was listening. No, more than that – she was with me.

Afterwards she leant over and we high-fived.

Wait, Jim Friel said – Jim Friel genius novelist – let me take a photo.

You’re a wry poet, Clare told me.

Very specific, Jim added.

And not over-earnest, I asked.

No.

I cheered.

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No matter how much of a role discipline plays in my work, settling at my desk each day and making sure I write something, it’s always important to have some validation along the way: even if it’s just to remind me to get over myself. Friends can tell you that what you have written is really good. But when you are encouraged from the mouths of experts in their field, there’s nothing better.

Clare’s poems in Head On are superbly specific, so that even though the experiences within them may not be yours, they become yours. Her titles draw you in, so that you are immersed in the poem before you have a chance to feel nervous that ‘this is poetry’ ‘it might be over my head’. And the reading experience is interactive. She will draw an image, but leave a part of it out of sight so that your imagination does the rest. Clever. Powerful.

And Jim – although he has written a handful of novels – is a poet in his writing. His novel A Posthumous Affair is a world of his own making, where language is formed about under new rules, his rules. Often, if I read a work where the words are profuse I get a sense of a writer, trying to be a writer. But Jim doesn’t have to try. He has created a world where words are everything, so each sentence is part of that lush creation: abundant, necessary. Every sense is pulled in. I found myself giggling at times at the brilliance.

If you haven’t read either of them, you must. Order their books, go down to the bookshop tomorrow, but in the meantime you can read my poem!

 

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Whenever I come to do yoga I never want to

There’s always an excuse.

Normally:

I feel too stiff.

Not quite

Like a car wreck,

But like I don’t want to do much,

Other than lie around.

 

I think:

I’m doing yoga in bed today.

So,

I’ll follow my breath.

 

I’ll see I’m taut.

Not quite

Like a muscle in an arm-wrestle,

But like a contraction of the lungs

When you suck out of surprise,

And hold for what comes next.

 

I see I need to relax,

Which is tricky:

An achiever telling an achiever to relax.

‘Relax!’ I say.

‘I can’t.’

 

Excuses are mud patties in the hand, behind my back.

Always ready.

But who, or what, are they for?

 

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What’s the one word that describes how you feel?

Nobody says anything at first. I look at the faces around the room – fifteen, sixteen year olds who are expecting to stand in front of an audience in a few days and read some of their writing. I wait.

Excited? I hear from one of the elder boys.

All right, I say, acknowledging his ability to share, but careful not to hold up this feeling as something we should all aspire to.

A moment later I hear a small voice: numb?

I note the questioning tone and nod, saying, okay, as I look at the girl. My act is one of inching in – her open eyes a door ajar, which may or may not slam shut as I step towards it.

Gabriela Blandy

I rarely admitted anything when I was younger. I have a sense, when I imagine scenes in my past, of an area around my feelings. It is like the thick air between two magnets when they are not set to attract. One magnet is my heart, the other my head. The space between is frustrating. I work at the two, trying to force them together. All I feel is that energy of repulsion – the sense that my feelings themselves are pushing me away. But what if it’s the way I’m approaching? What if I turn myself around, try another route? Now, we draw together, the magnetism effortless.

Usually, when I felt that blank around my heart, I gave up. I jumped into my head and thought: right, well I’ll just have to call the shots from here. If someone had asked me how I felt, I wouldn’t have said numb. I would have been navigating my brain, confident in the cells there, my ability to string a sentence together, give a ‘good’ answer. But numb would have been exactly the right word to describe the area around my heart, which was repelling and repelled.

 Gabriela Blandy

Numb is a good place to start, I tell the girl in the second row. The door of her eyes has not closed; in fact, it opens a little wider. I see surprise.

I wish someone had told me, when I was fifteen, that what I was feeling was a decent place to start, whatever it was.

I wish I had been able to tell someone how I was feeling when I was fifteen. If I had, I’d been an expert in it now!

What I am, is an expert in reacting to my feelings – oh god; not this again; so bored; why me; why now…

This used to be an endless cycle. I would spin and spin and spin, until I fell over and threw up; then I would begin all over again. Charge through life, faster and faster, get drunk, get drunker, pass out, wake up on Sunday morning completely banjaxed and finally say: ugh, I’m exhausted, I’m not doing anything today; but come Monday morning I begin again.

Gabriela Blandy

Do these kids want to read their work to people? Some of them do – one of them is excited. This is Freddie, who took my workshops last year. I watched him during each exercise, giving his all – fearless – turning up in red braces for the final performance. Nothing got in the way for him. Or, if it did, he got over it. When I have us standing, rocking from side to side, lifting each foot, laying it down again, his movements are large, his boundaries outside the confines of his skinny frame so that he can move clear of himself. He has the capacity to learn beyond that which he already knows.

I wake up most morning with a stiff shoulder. I have realised that I can stay fenced in by that, tired jammed, or I can be brave and stretch upwards, breath in, breath out. I can put some music on and swing around. The shoulder still feels odd, but I have moved it beyond that which it is trying to tell me it wants to stay: a comfort zone that isn’t that comfortable.

Nerves can become an uncomfortable comfort zone – this acceptance of feeling awful in front of an audience. Well, that’s just how I am; I’m just not confident; my work isn’t good enough.

You’re the only one putting yourself there by these thoughts. Through these thoughts you are training the perception that you don’t deserve to feel any better.

What about saying that you do?

But I don’t.

Only if that’s what you say.

Decide on a place to trust. Accept that this place will feel strange at first. It is like that space between the magnets. Nobody has ever gone there before.

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Start with your feet, I tell the girl who is numb.

We have stopped rocking and now stand with our legs a little distance apart.

How do they feel?

I don’t know, she says.

Good, I tell her, and again her eyes open with that surprise. If she tells me that she doesn’t know, she has thought about it for long enough to feel there is no answer.

Lift one up and put it down again. She does. Now the other.

We are all lifting and plonking. All the kids here, looking at our shoes. Some of us have laces flapping, some of us aren’t wearing socks.

Now try and be still again, I say.

I can feel the calm around me, this silence, this immobility. I take a deep breath and sigh, and invite everyone to do the same.

You breath will tell you how you feel, I say. You can listen to it, see if it shudders, sputters. You can see how long it is, and perhaps sense how big or small your lungs feel. Through this investigation you can notice if your mind wants to think about other things: a movie you went to see, a boy you love, a memory you can’t forget, a conversation you wish you didn’t have. Perhaps you are thinking that you can’t follow your breath – you don’t know how. This is all information.

Gabriela Blandy

For over a year, trying to follow my breath, I would think: I clearly can’t do this like everyone else can because there isn’t anything to follow.

One day, I realised that this was a feeling I carried with me in life – always thinking that I was the odd one out, that everyone else was able and I was not.

The breath never lies. But we can lie to ourselves.

If you feel numb it’s because your magnets are negotiating. If you come to the conclusion that you are crap, or unable, or bored – then this is your information, your deception; the pattern of how you react to life.

Sometimes, when I try to follow my breath, I think: this feels quite weird. And then I see how I have a similar thought about myself: that I am made strangely, put together a bit abnormally. And then I get back to the breath, because I know that everything else is just a concept in my mind, it doesn’t grow in the soil, I can’t pick it and eat it – so why cultivate it?

If you hold an ice-cube in your hand for over twenty years, like I did, it’s not surprising your hand feels numb. But if you decide to put the cube down and you wait long enough you’ll notice that when the feeling comes it’s kind of interesting, even if only for the fact that it is finally something different to feeling nothing.

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Something to think about other than how crap you are

Jonathan Lee told me he can’t write in that beginning to end way we used to have to do in exams. He likes to cut and paste. I take a lot of guidance from those school essay writing days: sheets of lined paper, a fountain pen; intense pressure.

Exams tied my stomach in knots, but it was rare I was frozen. There was the moment when, reading the questions, I felt my mind begin to respond – an unfurling. I would grab for a piece of paper, start scribbling words, phrases; quotes I didn’t even remember memorising. Although I was aware I was in an exam, there was a part of my brain that wasn’t thinking – worrying – just reacting, as if in a trance.

Those are good writing days: where there has been no need to force yourself to work, where the impulse has come like a thread in your heart, drawing you on. Such days can have consequences though: waking the following morning, you wait for the same effortless flow of words, but this time they do not come; there is no surer way to deflate the muse than the pinprick of expectation.

Although my writing is about instinct, desire, imagination – some constraints are essential. Somehow, they loosen the bindings that nerves can create. I know this because nothing had me feeling so tongue tied as the thought of an exam, yet sitting at the wooden desk amongst rows of my classmates the clock ticking, I wrote.

There’s something stimulating in the simplicity of: just do it.

The idea of constraints comes up a lot when we are holding poetry courses at the centre here – how writing to form can be liberating. It gives you something to think about other than how crap you think you are. It also takes the edge off the result. You can judge the work by its adherence to the form rather in the more abstract way of how you feel about it, about yourself.

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Many of us who write do not have the luxury of writing full time. We fit our secret life in between the hours of our real lives. Because of this, it’s important to have a system that enables us to get straight to it. I have wasted collective months trying to uncover the secret of creativity so that I can tap into it when I need. There is no greater waste of time than to spend it thinking about elusive things. Start with the tangible. I knew that in all of my exams – whether I wrote nonsense or not – I still wrote. It was the combination of the fact that here I was for an hour with a specific task to carry out, and here were a set of questions that gave me direction for that task.

Now I know how much a question can inspire me, I always start with something – usually one word – when I sit down to write each day. Sometimes the word appears while I am in the shower, sometimes I use an App to give me the word. Today, it was ‘title’.

Because it was a technical word I felt nervous at first. Was I going to say anything worthwhile?

The more I follow my writing practice, the more I am able to discern between concern about writing, and simply writing, and how the first can prevent the second from happening. There’s something in this practice, which is a little like sitting and trying to have a clear mind. My breath is the one word prompt and though my mind wants to take me in a million directions of concern, fear, meaningless thought, I have to remain aware enough to spot this and bring myself back to the breath.

Title – that was the word. Really think about it, I said as I saw my concern appear.

Allow yourself to.

Sometimes our fear of inadequacy can prevent us from even contemplating the task ahead.

What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think of title?

It was Jonathan Lee in the kitchen at Lumb Bank – the two of us posing for a photo in front of dozens of empty wine bottles. I don’t know if this was where he actually told me about his inability to write from beginning to end, and if that’s what he actually said, but something he did say to me, about his method, made me think about the lost art of exam essay writing. It’s a discipline that serves me well.

When I began to write, I worried about the phrasing because it was mine not Jonathan’s. Should I get his permission before mentioning him in my blog? I reminded myself the task is to sit down and write on a word for ten minutes don’t stop, so that’s all I had to do. I didn’t need to know what Jonathan would think of my account of a conversation that may or may not have taken place in order to take part in my exercise; I just take part in the exercise – observing everything I think or feel, whilst continuing to write.

Every time I worry – do people really need to hear about this? I say – again – it doesn’t matter: all you are doing is writing for ten minutes, no end, no readership.

None of my thoughts are justifiable objections for not writing. And often, when you are able to observe them – rather than being caught up in them – you realise that they are not your concerns anyway, but the opinions of others that aim to do no good.

Continuing to write despite these ‘concerns’, reminds me that writing is the act of putting words down. Nobody says they have to be brilliant or interesting. That comes later.

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The one word prompt is the train arriving for you. Are you ready to be a writer? it asks. Nothing more. Not: get on board only if you are amazing.

Make a commitment to take this train – don’t wait for another. This is the one. You are ready to be a writer now.

There are infinite routes you can take while on this train, and you can become so overwhelmed by the possibilities that you cannot leave the station.

Or, your mind travels ahead of the train, imagining obstacles on all the available tracks, deciding none of them are appropriate. But there are no obstacles – no real ones, only those of your mind’s making. Any route is worth taking. Even if it doesn’t turn out to be a particularly satisfying one, the most important thing is that you took it, and that you continue to take it.

The only thing is to start and keep going. You are training your mind to write – not to reject ideas, or to spend ten minutes thinking how worthless you are. Even if you are in agony for the whole ten minutes, for every word you put on the page, you have taught yourself that nothing will stop you – even agony – and afterwards if you think what you have written is total trash, you can at least be pleased that you have achieved an act of discipline. That’s all the matters with writing. If there is no discipline there is no regular practice, without which you will never become worthwhile. And through this writing practice you finally learn how you like to write: from beginning to end, or listing images with the aim that once you finish you can go through and instil some order; perhaps you just put everything down, thoughts, fears, lines of dialogue, until the panic gives way to calm and you finally find a line that feels clear.

Cut and paste, go from beginning to end, it doesn’t matter, but at least give yourself the opportunity to discover the kind of writer that you are by actually writing.

 

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For those of you who haven’t read Jonathan Lee, um, why?

There is an extract from his forthcoming book, which I was lucky enough to hear at a recent reading, published here in the beautiful magazine A Public Space. You’ll have to subscribe, but I can’t think of a better way to spend a bit of cash. The passage had me drooling. Read Jonathan’s books those of you who like to see a writer zoom in, lay plot aside for the time being, and take you on a sensual journey with just enough current to wash you into the novel’s next moment.

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Perhaps we touch, my muse and I

My first sexual fantasies, age thirteen, were set in a boys’ school. I was the housemaster’s daughter, visiting on a stormy weekend, where an overnight dump of snow had left us without telephone or roads. I had started a fever. One of the boys was sent to attend to me – chosen for this role because of his aptitude in Biology.

In a feverish reverie, I was able to behave without embarrassment. He put his hand on my brow, my cheeks, my neck. I felt the stethoscope, pressing down on my chest, its cold foreignness. The fingertips around the edge would linger, which was the moment the fantasy became undoubtable. Up until then, I could have innocently denied it to myself as just playing out a soap opera, but as I felt the rough of his fingerprint on my skin, I knew that this contact of flesh, this as yet unknowable, was what I desired.

I turn and the hands move down my back – my hands, of course, but also those of the boy whose looks I never imagined, only that they were perfect, which to me was a sense of his strong decorum, and yearning.

There always came the point where the hands had no further to go.

The pleasure had lain beyond us: the point of subtlety where the dance was one of uncertainty – was I really feverish; did he mean to touch me like that?

As the touching continued, doubt was obliterated. It became something more reciprocal. This was a part I didn’t know – I had followed my instincts thus far, but now it became about mechanics: what the hands did, where they ended up.

This was where films and books I knew always stopped, so the only thing to do was go back and start over.

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There’s something in this search, the subsequent milking for pleasure, that has me in mind of the act of creativity. First, it comes to your bedside as you lie there beside yourself – such is the fever of being without creativity and wanting to write, draw, live. We toss and turn, until it appears to save us.

Though, actually, the fever is part of the imagination – induced. It is the lure for the muse.

The fever was important because I had to be beyond sense: freed from constraint. My desires to be sexual with a boy would have shocked my parents. The fever was my get out clause in case guilt wanted to grab me. I guess that’s why drugs are such an alluring option at times. I’ve certainly done things high or drunk that I wouldn’t have done sober – but I’ve also done enough wild things sober, like pulling down my trousers and pants in front of a live studio audience, to know that freedom is really a state of mind. We choose the muse – it doesn’t only come as a gift though a pill, a drink or pure random luck, bestowed inexplicably.

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I wonder if that is why real life muses are so desirable, giving us a way into creativity, because inspiration has a mystery about it – only the worthy can find it.

But what defines the worthy? What if it was as simple as those who know how to seek satisfaction? Freud said that we can only laugh when a joke has come to our help. This leaves us a little powerless. Can’t we go in search of laughter; passion? The trouble is, some of us have a passion for obstacles. Satisfaction for Rousseau was the death of possibility – therefore he needed not to master his impediments, but nurture them: the forbidding stare of the next door neighbour as he gazes at the sweets on offer in the market, disabling him so that he cannot buy any; though he has the money and goes home quite fretful.

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It’s easy to mistake pain for love – to spend hours in the dance of withdrawal, constantly denied, thinking this is our lot. Not an easy thing to decide to actively summon pleasure; choose happiness.

Deciding to be creative, to sit and write, is a little like my schoolgirl fantasy. I knew it worked: the storm, the isolation – I knew how to pace myself. Some imaginings went better than others, but they always gave a few moments distraction.

Joyce Carol Oates says the perfect state of mind for writing arrives when one starts to write – although what we often want is for it to arrive sooner, to enable us to get arse on chair and begin. I want to write, but I’m not in the mood. So, we mope around, make a strong cup of coffee, a phonecall, a sandwich – none of which will work, because none are actual writing.

I try, at least once a week, to sit down for half an hour and write: three words, ten minutes on each word. Then I’m done. The rest follows, blogging, working on my novella, but I don’t force that part. I don’t need to – three words, half an hour and the rest follows. If your response is to think – easy for you! I have to say that I’ve also thought that, and other ‘excuses’: exercises are not for me, I don’t like them, they don’t work for me, it won’t be interesting…

Excuses, excuses, excuses.

By sitting down for half an hour and writing, you show yourself, regularly, that what the mind decides is ultimately what it does. If you don’t sit, then ‘no point’, ‘can’t be bothered’, ‘don’t have time’, are thoughts that have power over your actions. What if you were to think: wow – look at all these excuses I am trying to come up with!

Being honest like that enables you to take another step of bravery and say: I’m going to do it – eleven o’clock, half an hour, three words, I’m going to do it.

This is the point you prove to yourself that your mind is the true muse – not dependent on anything other than knowing your desires.

What then?

Three words, half an hour – where do I begin?

Panic!

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Well, here goes – first ten minutes, one word: MUSE

Go!

What is a muse? Often a person. A woman for a man. Sexual perhaps? But there is also something about beauty, a connection for the mind. Do we need a muse? Do we need to need? Is need constructive or destructive?

Need can be painful. Lead to anxiety. In wanting the pain to end you are desperate for the thing you desire – you need it to end the pain. Your focus is the thing, rather than how to get it. Your focus is the pain. In pain how can you feel capable of achieving anything? Nasty vicious circle.

What if need were not a starvation, but the anticipation.

Should creativity have to be an accurate line, drawn between specific points, otherwise the outcome is agony? Sometimes it feels like that! But surely to try to navigate a path, elude pain, collision, is only going to mean you are living with your focus on avoiding potential disaster, rather than following the breath of your heart in the moment?

That’s the muse. That inner endlessness, which admittedly I’ve only ever felt for a millisecond. But I suppose when you travel into space, at speed, in the tenth of a second you experience eternity. There’s no judgement, no fear, no: I can’t get my head around this, what does this mean; no god, no science. There isn’t a single word. It’s a pump, a heartbeat, or the moment in between. A push, a release. It’s all physical, the tiniest moment in a ripple, yet in that moment you come to understand the motion that precedes and proceeds.

When my muse arrives, I imagine a great love of my life – how they may, one day, turn up at my house for a visit. I don’t know them that well; am beginning to know them.

I long to hear a knock at the door, and experience the rush of feeling that will come – like any moment that I’ve prepared for: when my name is called and I have to take the stage, enter the doctor’s office, walk to into an interview. There is a rush of sensations, which I may want to be rid of, so I speed up to get it over and done with. But what if I stay with these feelings; don’t rush? What if I sit and take a few breaths?

What if I trust the person on the other side of the door?

They are in no rush, and will leave it a while before they knock again.

I come to the door and open it. I am able to look at them, and not worry how I appear, or how they appear, knowing they’re not worrying either, but standing, observing, like I am observing them.

I leave the door open and make room for them to come into the house; if that is what they wish to do.

Perhaps they don’t, just yet. Perhaps they wish to stand in the street for a while.

I leave them, not questioning – because to want to know why is more about my need than their behaviour. Oh, I ache for them, I feel like wrapping my arms around them. But I back off – the moment of satisfaction is better prolonged. I explore my appetite. Sated too soon, it will disappear before I’ve learnt from it. Savour it for its endlessness, I tell myself.

The muse, my new love, comes into the house with an overnight bag. They wander through the rooms, upstairs, outside. Like this, the two of us move, in space, knowing the other is there, excited for the rest of the day ahead, but taking as much time in each moment as possible. Time is rich when expanded like this.

Every second becomes infinite and there is that chance that in one of those infinitesimal moments you get to experience that feeling of space, eternity.

Although I’m interacting with someone, there is no sucking to receive, or smothering, or asking, or gripping or grappling – just moving, orbiting, gauging, observing. All the thoughts that come through my head are mine. Not put there. The desire to talk, to laugh, to end it, to giggle, to say: oh, this is weird, let’s stop! Those are all mine and can be passed through, by not acting them out.

Though the moment will come, when I have to act upon something, when it becomes unbearable.

Perhaps we touch, my muse and I.

The moment will come.

But, for now, I let off it, explore it: for it will always be there.

When you walk towards your muse, it doesn’t move, it doesn’t shape-shift and hide, if you are following the feeling in your heart. If you chase the pain in your past, or the desire of your future – false muses – they disappear, leave you in black, sightless, ashamed. But if you follow the feeling in your heart, the love for the moment, for what is around you – a love of how it feels to feel – then your muse will be there; you need never grab hold of it, because you’ve already got it. You are living, breathing and enjoying it already.

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The delicious, talented Jeremy Page – author of ‘The Collector of Lost Things’, ‘The Wake’ and ‘Salt’ – is going to be joining me for my next writing practice: three words, half an hour. The results will be going on the blog, and I can honestly say – I’m nervous!

 

 

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The Dance of Avoidance

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Go outside, find something – bring it back indoors, put it on your desk, write about it. I’ve done writing classes like this. Responses to this task rupture out of each other – each one, bringing two more, which in turn set off their own excruciating reactions. Worse, is the fact that piled on top is the feeling I’m terribly boring. Or, a nervousness breaks out, convincing me I’m not going to find anything to write about, and in my delusion I’ve no chance of even remembering how to go about the simple act of looking. Besides, what am I supposed to find?

I’m not much of a question asker in these situations, which tends to make me notice people that are.

How long have we got?

How much do you want us to write?

Can it be made up?

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I was recently talking to George Saunders about the creative process and as he spoke I realised that whatever our reaction to writing, and more specifically to the beginning of an idea, the best way to continue is on the page.

I’ve just been given this completely dumb writing exercise that I don’t feel like doing because frankly I don’t know how long we are supposed to write, and whether we’re supposed to use our imagination or record accurately from life…

Often there is a final response of: just write! by the tutor when the questions refuse to abate. Hands thrown in the air: just write, it doesn’t matter.

And really, aren’t these questions – or endless internal thoughts that I’m not going to find something, and even if I do I won’t be able to write about it – just our dance of avoidance?

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‘What kind of obstacles does one find oneself making, what is one’s vocabulary of impediments?’ Adam Phillips asks in ‘Worrying and its Discontents’.

According to Phillips, the obstacle is used to conceal unconscious desire.

If I say: no one’s going to be interested in what I have to say, aren’t I desiring – more than anything – for someone to be? And isn’t the pain of that desire – or that desire unmet – then transferred to the belief that it might be true, so that it does become true because of the supposed authenticity of my feelings? But what if this was the ache of not writing, rather than the ache of not being good enough to write?

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What would you write if you could?

How easy do you to find it to answer that question? Do you have a very articulated answer – like a groove well worn – as to why just at this moment you can’t say.

Ah, well, it’s not that simple…

But it is simple if you allow yourself to write – and allowing it doesn’t mean having an articulated response, it’s beginning with: one thing I can’t quite get my head around is that I have this excruciating desire to write and yet no idea what to write about.

Surely, in writing this one line, you have at least begun?

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I’m always better when I’ve got something on the page. A lot of the time I use a dictaphone – that way I don’t even have to look at what I’m thinking. Seeing sentences can often begin a whole new stage of self-criticism: once I get past the barrier in my mind, and allow the words out, there is the barrier of the page – the almost instantaneous ‘this is crap’ – at which point I get up and go and do something else, like dance, read a short story, or find someone to whinge to: choosing a topic that has absolutely nothing to do with writing, and everything to do with everyone but myself.

On the page, there is also the discomfort of facing my idea, and the possible subsequent feeling that I haven’t quite ‘got it’. So I spend ages on that first line, thinking if I can just get this right, everything else will flow. But how can you get it right, if you don’t allow yourself to explore it?

Of course there is a place for editing and George Saunders explained his system in that he starts with: Bob was sitting down on the blue couch. He might look at it with the sense that something isn’t right. This is the crucial moment for any writer. Rather than start up Phillip’s ‘vocabulary of impediments’ – this is such boring writing! – you could employ Saunders’ Buddhist art of observation without judgement. For example – do you need sitting and down? In fact, do you need either because was on the blue couch says enough. And while we’re at it – does the couch need to be blue? And really, is there even a couch?

By managing to hang on to this idea for all this time you suddenly find that it’s just you and Bob – no unnecessary language or objects. All you see is Bob. You realise the language and the couch were obstacles – to cover up the fact you were scared Bob would have nothing to say for himself: he needed to be sitting in an overly complex way in order to be interesting. Now the room is empty, Bob begins to open out, becoming appealing in his multitudinous options. With nothing to impede him, Bob is infinite.

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I was out in the forest, scrambling across the scrub, jumping up on fallen trunks to photo a passage between the trees, waiting for clouds to shift to try and catch a paw print of light that had caught my attention. I noticed wooden bird houses with painted numbers, a red bug on a tree stump. The air carried warmed pine and the buttery pollen of rape. It had a thick quality to it so that I felt it catch on the hairs in my nose.

Alone like this, I expand. The world becomes mine. I am buttressed by my senses – safe. Thoughts come from a central place – not looking down, judging. Ideas radiate outwards, and I follow – like I might watch a bee, until the backdrop of burning yellow fields down the valley takes my fancy, until…

I become aware of a man ahead of me on the path. He has on hiking boots, a backpack. He is using those poles, taking great strides. I can hear the swish of his waterproof trousers – its efficient, purposeful rhythm. I feel a bit of an amateur – hopping about in corduroys with an Ipad. I want to hide it – imagining his disapproval of such business in the vast outdoors. And then I realise I’m drifting through the endlessness of someone else’s mind. I throw out an anchor, reminding myself of the impossibility of ever knowing a complete stranger’s opinion.

I feel jittery as I walk past him, but keep steadying myself, consoling myself with the peace that no matter what I’m feeling right now, at least I know what that is, which is the best starting point for anything, surely?

 Silhouette

It struck me that this experience was a little like the process of ideas and obstacles: the mind’s course from unselfconscious roaming through to the moment that it doubles back on itself, stops looking at the world around, and focuses on every fleck within, which under such scrutiny is of course going to feel uncomfortable. Ah ha! I feel uncomfortable – there must be something wrong with this idea.

The discomfort becomes not only the obstacle, but also the justification: if I was interesting I wouldn’t be nervous about writing.

Perhaps I set off outside to find my object and tell myself – whatever I am feeling, thank god I am having a response: I am alive, my brain is working.

I am with myself – no need to compare – to worry about other people who might do this exercise a lot better. I am buttressed by my mind – by the fact that it is private until the moment I decide to make it otherwise.

Any doubt I may feel as I search for my object, is like the sudden appearance of the experienced hiker to my haphazard stroll. In wanting to write, I am suddenly aware of all that is written – all the prose that had seduced me. My ideas seem ill-equipped, soppy.

But where am I now? I am not alongside my thoughts, my observation a kindly chaperone. I have sprung up to some far hillside, from which I look at myself, disappointed to be so far down below. Embarrassed by an inexplicable urge to pick up a stick and write about it, I abandon myself.

If I could just moor alongside my idea, explore it, then it might stand a chance. Inside our heads, our thoughts are vulnerable to our frame of mind, to our becoming someone else’s frame of mind, but on the page they can gain an independence of sorts. They can be free of delusion.

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The stick comes back with me. On my desk it becomes a branch, broken from above.

I see the storm the night before. First the leaves taken by the wind, shaking, until the rhythm builds and the whole bough is going. The tree holds, but the storm thuds, pounding, pounding until a branch gives and falls, snapping on the ground. A raw underarm of wood is left, vulnerable – so that a reluctant relinquishing becomes my words, which if kept within a closed mind would simply have composted down like that stick, to be dug up centuries later, no longer recognisable as wood.

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Worthwhile Reads

A huge thank you to Karen for nominating me for the Inner Peace Award. You can reach Karen here and find out exciting things like the fact that she once lusted after a career in embalming.

This week I have been reading the gorgeous Miranda FranceDon Quixote’s Delusions is a stunning piece of non-fiction. Miranda has a knack of tracing a point from here to there, packing it full of detail, keeping the whole thing effortless and then shrugging it all off when you ask her how she does it.

Equally breathless is the madcap Horatio Clare whose memoir Truant is a perfect example of his gift for observation. A storyteller in the flesh as well as on the page – the perfect antidote to a listless afternoon.

 

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That tightrope moment in writing when stories either plummet or remain

Any story that’s going to be any good is usually going to change.

Seesaw

I’ve been reading Alice Munro again. There was a point when I suddenly became afraid of the day I’d read all her stories and no more were going to come, so I stopped buying her collections and tried to leave it. But you can’t leave Alice Munro, which is odd because at the beginning I couldn’t get on with her writing at all. This was when I was starting out myself, submitting stories to competitions – reading as much advice as I could about how to create a winning entry: opening with a bang, giving your characters conflict. But that’s not how to write a real short story, something that drifts through your brain so that the sense of reading it is more like an experience than any actual awareness of words being involved, which is why I realise Alice Munro has such a gift.

Trees

Comma Press have some guidelines on their website: ‘short stories are all about their endings. A short story IS an ending. If that’s not in place, there’s nothing there.’

Their advice about the stories they don’t want manages to give a healthy, necessary education as well as suggesting the way a writer might find a way through rules to their own voice.

This is what Alice Munro did for me. It was ‘Walker Brothers Cowboy’ and I remember a blood transfusion of relief, replacing the hemmed-in sensation that the formulaic ways to write a short story had left me with. The grey of denial has been lifted. I could now love Alice Munro’s work and at the same time admit my own limitations – allowing myself a possible chance to finally write the kind of stories I’d always wanted.

I have a feeling of how I want these pieces to be – though I still spend a great deal of time, waiting for the words to come. It feels like skimming off that frothy junk when boiling jam, knowing there is no shortcut or fast forward – you simply have to wait by the pan, watching what comes to the surface, discarding, watching, discarding, watching until finally you can put it in a jar. But, even then, you may have to wait a few months to give the jam its first tasting, and you may discover there’s too much lemon rind, but at least the next time you know to be a little lighter when adding zest.

As Alice Munro says in an interview with the Paris Review:

I could be writing away one day and think I’ve done very well; I’ve done more pages than I usually do. Then I get up the next morning and realize I don’t want to work on it anymore. When I have a terrible reluctance to go near it, when I would have to push myself to continue, I generally know that something is badly wrong. Often, in about three quarters of what I do, I reach a point somewhere, fairly early on, when I think I’m going to abandon this story. I get myself through a day or two of bad depression, grouching around. And I think of something else I can write. It’s sort of like a love affair: you’re getting out of all the disappointment and misery by going out with some new man you don’t really like at all, but you haven’t noticed that yet. Then, I will suddenly come up with something about the story that I abandoned; I will see how to do it. But that only seems to happen after I’ve said, No, this isn’t going to work, forget it.

 Broken down van

Last year, I went in search of Alice Munro. It was a pilgrimage of sorts – I hoped to connect with the spirit of her stories and thus find a way of understanding mine. Walking through Goderich, along the snowy Meneseteung trail (past the salt mines), I journeyed through the landscape, which possibly bore ‘Meneseteung’. This is a story that looks back at the life of Victorian poet Almeda Roth, but also allows Alice Munro a presence as well, giving a sense of a writer’s urge to discover, create – and even a glimpse into that tightrope moment in writing when decisions are made, and stories either plummet or remain.

All notion of form falls away when I’m reading Alice Munro. I’m not looking at a certain way of portraying life, techniques – spotting a use of suspense, or a trick to lure my heart into the story. I am simply looking, passing through. There’s nothing to snag on, no cheap tactics. ‘An editor who thought nothing happened in William Maxwell’s stories, for example, would be of no use to me,’ Alice Munro said. ‘There also has to be a very sharp eye for the ways that I could be deceiving myself.

Her stories are rather like dreams. There is often something significant about the last part because it’s the moment you most often remember – but there is also a strong sense that there is more. Even if you wake at that final second, you are unable to stop thinking about the dream, during the day, about what might have happened – what might still be happening. And just as the way dreams start, so do Alice’s stories: in the middle of an underwater breath: you are working towards surfacing, but are also aware that there was the whole, taking a breath and coming under in the first place.

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The stories mentioned in this review can all be found in ‘Selected Stories‘ – a gorgeous  collection that is published by Vintage Books.

Many thanks to Eric M. Vogt for awarding my short story ‘The Soft Haze of Mystery‘ the First Cup award. His blog is well worth a look.

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Write of things you love

Three years ago, I spent a week in Shropshire and finally began to write of things I loved. These were memories of the farm I grew up on. For years, they’d been fidgeting as I sat down to work on my fiction, so that it was hard to ignore them. But up until this point, only fragments had slipped into my stories. I wasn’t sure if it was confidence that stopped these glimpses taking centre stage – the thought that my childhood couldn’t be interesting to anyone but myself – or that I wasn’t sure how to work with autobiographical material. What was clear, however, was how happy it made me to return there once more.

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In the years after we left the farm, I dreamt about it most nights. I still do, though not as often, and the dreams have a murky air about them: gone is the childhood belief that if I wish hard enough I will live there once more; often, I find myself as an adult, standing by the house, which has been ravaged by fire, or discovering that the surrounding fields have now become a housing estate.

Writing about the farm, I’m more in control about how I want it to appear. I can walk across the bathroom’s cork tiles, calling to my older brother who can’t be more than nine or ten. The heat of the day is all around me – a layer I can’t penetrate, which has left me slow-moving.

Let’s put our swimsuits on and wobble in the bath, I say as his head appears round the door, knowing that the two of us have made a world for ourselves in this isolated place, never rejecting the other or sneering at suggestions.

The avocado-green tub was tiny, and yet on those blistering days it became all we needed. I recall the sense of swimming breaststroke for miles and miles, cool and free.

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Last year, I felt hemmed in, living in Oxford – a cramped terrace, my garden overlooked by the whole street. The farm was where I could escape, but the feeling became like viewing happiness down a telescope. I wanted to reach my fingers out and touch something, but my hand, my Self, belonged to another plane.

That week I spent in Shropshire allowed those two parallel worlds to merge. I was on an Arvon Writing retreat, learning all about how to turn life’s journey into prose. I spent an afternoon, wandering through a pine plantation. The ground was cushioned with a thick layer of needles that had dried all summer and left the air clean; not the synthetic fresh of a disinfected kitchen, but the cleansing fresh of air that’s free of man’s trace – full of the scent of the earth alone. The happiness I’d been unable to touch, which had been a too different perspective to my reality, had appeared outside my window. There was no need for the telescope.

 Silhouette

The name for this blog came from my writing group. We were workshopping a short story of mine. My pieces were finally becoming fully autobiographical – writing them, I had a feeling of fascination, a sense of being lucky. There was no panic as I wrote about events of my life, no boastful pride, I was simply travelling through for the pleasure.

After a few moments discussion of the parts of the story that had stayed with the group, the moments they felt were not necessary, or heavy-handed, one of the women reached out her hand. Her fingers moved like minnows in a stream.

There’s a real sense of a journey here, she said.

But it wasn’t just the journey of my eleven year old sense in the story, it was also the journey of the writer, making her way into these memories, investigating, almost testing.

I knew then that I wanted to start a blog. I felt it would be a place of no expectation – not like my short stories where a voice in the back of my mind wonders: will this one be published?

My blog would be a place to simply write about my experience of passing through life, and watching it as I go – not judging, but allowing it to be as it is.

Moss

Now, I find myself back in Shropshire, back at that Writers’ Centre. But this is not another retreat – I am here for good, as the Assistant Centre Director.

For a long time I was angry with the child of my past – I blamed her for my grief at no longer having the bravery and lack of restraint that she’d had, running through fields all day long, wobbling in the bath. I had lost faith in her – having wished to be back at the farm for so many years without fulfilment, and even finding the gift of it in my dreams to have shifted.

But now I can smile at my child, and feel content that I am living a life I have dreamt of for a very long time. On my days off, I walk that pine plantation, which takes me up into the hills. I then descend into an enormous basin where a lake lies silver beneath the sky – a jewel amongst cushions of grass, and not a house, not a soul. In this silence my heart feels able to grow, so much space, so much stillness. Words come now, not in an attempt to recreate a life I am mourning, but as a salute to what lies around.

 Clouds

For a link to The Hurst – Arvon’s wonderful writing centre in Shropshire – and details of all the courses click here

I also write for the Arvon blog…click here

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