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.
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.
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.
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.