Permission To Write

As we now move through the penumbra cast by the 1st January – that collective witching hour that grips people and allows them to slip into a deeper self-delusion than usual – I thought it time to write about New Year’s Resolutions before the disillusionment currently circling them engulfs them entirely and this whole blog post is rendered sterile before it’s even uploaded. Which would say it all in both a very real and meta way.

But it’s not too late, read on and you’ll see that I believe there are reasons to be cheerful yet! Is it your New Year’s resolution to try a new creative pursuit? Perhaps it’s painting or sculpture, or learning a musical instrument or new language? Or maybe even something sporty, such as a martial art or dancing.

Just over three years ago I had the urge to do some creative writing. I had ideas and the inkling that some of them were valuable, but no real sense of what to do with them or that I should even try. Instead, it seemed almost that I should just leave them until they gradually faded from memory. But why? There was no real barrier to entry; I knew how to write English, and I had pen, paper, and laptop. Still I did nothing.

As with writing, most of the creative pursuits I mentioned earlier can be done by oneself, and be self-taught at that. Buy a sketchbook and pencils; start drawing. But have you?

Perhaps like I did three years ago, you’re thinking that it’s a waste of time? That sitting down to write or draw, and to do so badly (because it will be, at first), is self-indulgent, an unjustifiable waste of your time and energy, and plain discouraging.

But you’re reading this blog now, so what changed my mind? What made me start to write after all?

The answer is simple: I enrolled on an evening-course for creative writing, which I attended for one year altogether. Quite apart from anything about the craft of writing that I have may have learnt on the course, the key point is that it gave me time and space in which to write, both in the classroom and as homework. In the classroom one has no choice, and at home, well, the fact that it was homework allowed me to trick myself into thinking it was mandatory. Any justification for sitting down to write for a couple of hours a week was now prêt-à-porter: I’m not wasting time, I’m doing my homework like a good boy should.

In short, the course gave me permission to write. And that was all I needed.

Whether it’s writing or any other creative enterprise I believe that booking a class or a series of lessons will give you the space, motivation and permission to get through those beginning, inevitably-difficult stages. After which you’ll feel capable of carrying on by yourself.

If you think this might apply to you, go do it, whatever it is and, if you like, please do share your creative plans for 2014 below! Let me know how you get on.

It’s a Wave

Today’s poem was “found” in the music of Radiohead, and is followed by some details of the writing process should you wish to find your own poem. I hope you enjoy it!

It’s a Wave

It’s a wave,
it is full up,
such names are here –
all eyes up,
here for you.

More!

What answers, there?
How old am I?
It’s our hate – if I must –
it will save us fast,
it will ensnare us,
or see through,
as if we lose.

What is happening?

For your women,
where you sneak up on us:
tomb.

It’s not here anymore,
it’s more evil,
it’s more evil.
It’s more evil,
more.
No good winner.

Lick your lips,
silent!
Well, next time I
will eat
you.

You were there,
you good men,
you all wavered,
stood in the road.
End.
No Moses…

Remember it,
no excuses
if you find suffering in it.

It’s more evil,
it’s more evil.
More evil voices,
they send me down.

The following video is of Thom Yorke singing the beautiful Radiohead song Videotape from their album In Rainbows, with one crucial difference – the recording is reversed.

Listening to this reversed Videotape/epatoediV, I attempted to find a poem by trying to “understand” the garbled audio. Some of the mirrored lyrics seemed to leap out quite naturally and I formed new interpretations almost automatically. Other sections of the song appeared impenetrable but taking a phrase as a whole it evoked a feeling or an idea, which could be translated into verse. The caveat implied in this is that any efforts to compare the audio with my words will almost certainly bring about contrary opinions and disagreement.

For proof of this, note that the finished poem contains far less of the structure and repetition of the original song. This creative process is apparently not entirely reproducible, even with the same writer, the same sounds, or perhaps sounds only slightly changed, will evoke a different thought at a different time. It’s clear then that everybody will find their own unique poem in this music, and there’s something quite pleasing about that.

As a final piece of trivia, fans of Radiohead will know that the band themselves have played around with reversed audio on the song Like Spinning Plates, its genesis in the reversal of another of their songs, I Will. If you want to listen to the original, correctly-oriented version of Videotape, and I recommend that you do, as it’s a fantastic, moving song, then here it is:

Which Artwork Should You Be Creating?

The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality. His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pounds of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot — albeit a perfect one — to get an “A”. Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work-and learning from their mistakes — the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.

Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking, David Bayles & Ted Orland

This was the first of three pieces of advice that I’ve encountered recently on the topic of artistic creation. They’ve conspired to accumulate and in synergistic fashion approach the same question, albeit from different angles. I suspect that they will be equally valuable to other writers and artists, but as you’ll see, even knowing these things, doesn’t mean that we will always and reliably follow them – external prompting helps.

Now, I could almost quote every other sentence of Art & Fear, but rather than doing that, I recommend that you buy yourself a copy. I can guarantee you’ll read and then re-read it, particularly if, like me, you’ve never been to art school or equivalently taken a degree in creative writing. This book can in part form a surrogate for that missed experience. The book explains what it is to be an artist (in whatever medium – paint, musical notes, words), and how to continue to create art in the face of doubts and external indifference.

The second piece of advice was given by the Irish novelist Colm Tóibín, in an interview with the Guardian. When asked, what advice would he give a young writer, he answered:

Finish everything you start. Often, you don’t know where you’re going for a while; then halfway through, something comes and you know. If you abandon things, you never find that out.

If it’s true for writing, it’ll almost certainly be true for other artistic disciplines as well. That’s two pieces of worthy advice then, but without personal intervention they are easy enough to ignore.

In a recent post, Anyone For Some Innovative Fiction?, I mentioned a piece of work that I was going to submit to a writing competition, with the brief of “innovative fiction”. As of now this story is just over 9000 words in length. But in no way was it conceived as a whole. In fact, it all sprung from a tiny idea based on a piece of grammatical wordplay, nothing more than a single sentence. This pun only forms a small part of the finished story, but without it the rest of the story would never have emerged. However, it took four different stories before it finally found a natural and finished home. Colm Tóibín was right.

I say it’s finished, but that’s no longer true. The story was finished, then submitted, put aside, finally hands washed and back to the keyboard to commence the next project. A project which has been stewing in my mind for some time, and which I believed to be the perfect one, my own single perfect pot.

What’s strange is that in that being so open-minded as to avoid, for the most part, conventional narrative prose, I had become quite closed as to the larger possibilities of the work – an artistic myopia. Feedback on this work, graciously provided by Mark Nelkin of BeautifulOrange, suggested that the story could easily be extended into a novella or novel. My immediate reaction was somewhat sceptical, allowing only that perhaps a novella could be a possibility. Perhaps.

He was right though, as within a week I had two sides of A4 of jotted ideas for new plot lines and the elaboration of existing ones, not to mention a host of innovative narrative structures and devices. Certainly enough new ideas to fill out, at the very least, a short novel. And with Colm Tóibín’s advice having held true thus far, I can hardly begin to ignore it now. Nor will I ignore Bayles & Orland; I’ll write many stories and explore many ideas, rather than fixating on creating a single, perfect one.

If anyone wants to read the aforementioned innovative fiction, just send me a message here or simply “like” this post if you have contact info on your blog/gravatar profile, and I’ll be in touch. Thanks!

Hail to the Haiku

Today is National Haiku Poetry Day in the US, an occasion on which to celebrate all things wonderful about haiku, particularly that written in English. The day is organised by The Haiku Foundation, so why not get involved by downloading their free haiku app and put a delightful selection of poetry in your hands, which you can take with you (almost) everywhere you go!

To give you a taste of what to expect, one of my favourites in the app, though I haven’t yet read them all, is this hard-hitting and stunning haiku by Raymond Roseliep. Enjoy!

the space
between the deer
and the shot