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.

The Many Surprising Sides of Poetry

When I started this blog, I thought I knew its purpose and intended content. What I didn’t expect was for poetry to play such a large role, least of all that I might find myself reading some in front of an audience! Yet of the 14 posts I have written so far, 5 are poems or are related to poetry.

First came a piece of fiction, Life at Sea, that embodies this whole process, writ small, and charts a gradual descent into verse. This was followed by the analysis of a haiku found quite unexpectedly in a book about classical music, the post Hidden Haiku, Hidden Depth. Further chance discoveries led to me downloading J. Fisher’s intriguing iOS poetry app What We Mean and reviewing it in Do I Say What I Mean?. After this, I found myself writing a poem, which through much effort and editing became Stitch Yellow Quilts, and soon thereafter came a haiku, Eutrophication. If I wished to bolster my argument through dishonest arithmetic, I could even include this article in the count. Make it 6 then.

So it has been a rapid inculcation into the beguiling discipline of poetry, a process that has continued apace; on Tuesday evening I attended, and performed at, my first open-mic poetry reading. The event, Poetry Unplugged – a name that could provoke many surreal fantasies of clockwork poetry robots – is held weekly, at the Poetry Cafe in Covent Garden, London.

Wander down the darkened street to inquire within – timidly in my case and continually on the verge of mumbling excuses and backing out – and you’ll be encouraged by all the staff to give it a go, on the assurance of meeting with a friendly reception.

Sure enough, I was greeted with raucous applause as promised, an equal treatment to the other performers, though ‘unplugged virgins’ are particularly are well taken care of, and afterwards received another helping of the same. But before you start fantasising of a world organised similarly to the one in Martin Amis’ short story Career Move – a world reversed, in which poets are treated like film stars and their poems eagerly anticipated and developed in a big-budget way, while screenwriters are left to languish in poverty and a state of eternal hope – let me stop you right there.

No, there aren’t any waiting agents, ready to sign you up with an enticing cash bonus and year-long tour of the world’s literary festivals. The biggest financial reward you’ll receive for performing is a £1 discount to the entry fee. Can I mark this as my first literary advance? So there are many incentives. To reference myself, referencing someone, referencing Chekhov, another motivation was the opportunity to acquire additional grist for the blogging mill.

As for my performance? Inevitably, if the one delivered in my head beforehand was a tour de force of emphasis and timing, the reality was a resounding and solid OK. Overall, I think I was a little flat, and missed several stresses that made the poem seem worse than it is. Sorry, poem! But that’s okay, as one of the “old” hands said to me afterwards, I should just come back and read it again but better. And why not, given how much effort went into writing it.

If any poets are reading this, and wondering whether they too should consider public readings of their work, then I would say to them, ‘yes, you should, you must!’ The prospect of reading aloud in front of others, first made me raise my game for fear of looking stupid, a much bigger risk than with a blog post, and secondly, forced me to consider the rhythm of the poem far more carefully. No longer could I let my brain glide serenely past the additional beat as though it weren’t there – the lips aren’t nearly so able to forgive. Equally, those same lips came to the end of a line and carried on moving, but there was nothing for them to say, only ghost words, and so I had to insert extra words here and there to give the rhythm its full space for expression.

You don’t have to take the word of neophyte though, talking to Unplugged’s congenial host Niall O’Sullivan at the end of the night, he revealed that the unconscious editing of poetry that can happen during a performance, particularly if speaking from memory, can be quite astonishing. Words, lines, and sometimes whole verses can disappear. They simply weren’t needed. So, if you’re struggling to edit a poem, maybe this is the answer: memorise, read, and record. Then play it back to discover what your brain has figured out, without you having to think at all. This is mere hypothesis though, has anyone tried this for themselves? Let us know below. Thanks!

Now that I’ve begun, I hope to write more poetry, and every now and again post the shorter ones as a midweek fillip, perhaps saving the longer works for the main, weekly post. And when I’ve got a few new poems stored away I will return to the Poetry Cafe, better prepared this time. Maybe see you there?

Don’t Only Think, Feel Too

What is the hardest thing to write about? Or to be seen to be writing about, if such a statement makes any sense?

In an interview with Michael Silverblatt of Bookworm, the late, great author David Foster Wallace (DFW) argued that, in his experience as college professor, it was sentiment that his students had the most difficulty producing in their work. To express weird, twisted and abnormal thoughts was nothing but the norm to them. Sentiment, however, was to be avoided at all costs, lest the student risk being perceived as naive, corny or soppy. I’m sure a desire to appear clever was another key motivation.

These observations of DFW were brought back to me by a recent conversation I had, in which a friend, commenting on my blog, said that they wanted to know what something made me feel and not only what it made me think. I accept the criticism gratefully.

First, let’s acknowledge that it is hard to write and talk about these things. Certainly in today’s postmodern world, where knowing-parody and the ironic are staples of our cultural diet, the straightforward emotion is often viewed as simplistic and unsophisticated, and displaying it almost impolite to the point of offence.

Further, a society that values the intellect and wealth perhaps sees a diminished role for emotion, except in the cynical exploitation of it that organisational behaviourists refer to as emotional labour. You’ve all experienced it, take the last time you bought a cup of coffee for instance – the forced-smile greeting and the exhortation to have a great day as you leave. Occasionally genuinely felt I’m sure, but that would just be a happy coincidence. This misuse of false emotion must surely colour our impressions of the genuine article, a Pavlovian training to be wary of it, lest that person harbour ulterior motives.

Perhaps it’s difficult to write about because the felt-emotion can be fleeting and difficult to reproduce, whereas the thought seems longer term, more permanent. The emotion only persists for about as long as we read the book, in the best cases perhaps a little longer. But its intangible nature makes it harder to record and to analyse, and so we don’t bestow upon it the same permanence.

A few days ago I watched the film 50/50, a loosely-autobiographical dark comedy-drama about Adam, a 27-year-old radio journalist who develops a rare form of cancer. The film charts his struggle, and those of his friends and family, to come to terms with the diagnosis and subsequent treatment of his condition. Certain elements of the film appear to be on the verge of becoming corny, but the writing and classy acting help it veer away from this, and the end result is a very good film. Although it is sad in parts, it isn’t unremittingly so, and even the sad moments are generally handled through humour, that is, apart from a scene near the end, which was played straight, and was enough to leave me weeping for several minutes.

That this happened, and the intensity of it, took me quite by surprise, and I’m not exactly certain why it affected me so strongly. The risk of what I think of as “narrative self-delusion” – the way we fool ourselves by telling neat Just So stories to explain our behaviour – is ever present here, but it’s reasonable to suspect the following factors: one of my relatives is unfortunately currently in hospital; the very similar ages of myself and the protagonist, and the sense of tragedy that accompanies his young age; finally, the brilliantly-subtle acting of Adam’s father, an Alzheimer’s sufferer, as he looks on confused, not quite understanding but still somehow touched, when his son tells him he loves him. Even remembering and writing about it now isn’t very easy, as sure a sign as any that it is necessary.

Maybe one explanation for our unwillingness to write about these things, is that they either seem too simple – base states of happy, sad or angry – to be worth the bother of writing about, or they are too complex – the reasons for feeling how we do, and the concurrent, paradoxical feelings we seem able to hold in a single moment – mean that it’s simply easier to talk about abstract thoughts, which can be logically connected and analysed.

Then consider that it’s possible, even probable, that the scene won’t have the same hold over me the next time I see it. The perfect storm of circumstance might no longer be present and, this time prepared for it, I’ll be able to watch it more calmly. This is another problem of putting emotional content in art; it’s difficult to control the response of the reader or viewer, there are too many variables at work.

The rejection of this, by a cynical culture, is a defence mechanism. A sign of our unwillingness to face pain because, by talking about what we feel we can induce in others similar sensations, we are at risk of a kind emotional infection. In everyday life, this might be an unwelcome imposition, but in art, in literature, surely it is what we desire. And if not desire it, we probably need it. In fact, we need both new, original thinking and strong feelings.

I had been previously persuaded by DFW’s interview that it was necessary and right to inject sentiment into writing, and wanted to do so, but in the main I suspect I had failed. The recent conversation, and watching the film 50/50, has reconfirmed this suspicion, and I am encouraged to try again.

That said, looking back over this piece it seems I’ve only partially succeeded in trying to talk about how I felt; inevitably a whole lot of thinking resulted. Still, it’s a better ratio than before, and no matter my level of success, I shouldn’t stop trying. And if I do, then readers, feel free to call me on it.

Stitch Yellow Quilts

Today’s post was inspired by a conversation I had recently with a fellow writer. I hope that they, and all other writers who read this blog, find some encouragement in it (and if so, please share with others). First though, a disclaimer. This poem is, apart from a couple of verses at the end of Life at Sea, the first I’ve ever written, and certainly the first time I’ve tried to express myself wholly through verse. With that in mind I must stoop ungracefully to some special pleading. Please read with a generous heart, and let my good intentions compensate for any lack of flair or technical sophistication. To reiterate, this poem was not designed merely to be decorative; I hope it fulfils its intended function. So here it is:

Stitch Yellow Quilts

You told me that you
once wrote,
some chapters of a book.
Now set aside,
they lay half-hidden,
closed echoes of ideas.

And so today, begin again.
Put pen to paper,
record your pain,
transfigured
now through laughs,
darkly uttered.

Write your reality,
bright future, or sad past.
Breathe epic novel,
or brief haikus.
Collect the small moments,
put them to good use.

Reclaim the night and
with distant focus,
stare.
Animate your dreams,
take to the street and write,
hoarse voice upon blank air.

Peel post-it notes,
and stitch yellow quilts;
patchwork stories
stuck piece by piece.

Spill one word,
let ten more drop.
Set to rest
now and then,
what should we call them:
a writer’s dozen?

But in the end,
write because
you can,
for fun.
Write, now,
and don’t ever stop.

As I mentioned before, this is really the first poem that I’ve written, and done so mainly from gut instinct about what sounds good and not. I would therefore welcome any useful feedback and advice from those better versed in the ways of poetry than I. Thank you!

Andrew.

Why I Write

So far in my posts on this blog I have only hinted at the reasons for writing them. In one sense, no justification is necessary; this blog is not being written under duress, and, intentional fallacies aside, there are no coded messages hidden in the text that implore the reader to send for help. No, I do it, of course, because I want to, but why do I want to?

There are the obvious motivations: I want to practice my writing; to generate additional impetus to help with writing the novel; to receive feedback; etc; etc. Case closed.

But still this is avoiding the question: why write anything at all? Simply put, I have ideas, and ones which I thought were interesting, and wanted to record them. But is that sufficient explanation?

Sometime ago I came across the following quote from Nassim Taleb.

Most people write so they can remember things, I write to forget.

The Bed of Procrustes: Philosophical and Practical Aphorisms

At the time I thought this was the typically-contrary type of statement in which Taleb seems to specialise, a sign of his wilful individualism, but I’m beginning to be convinced.

For years, intermittent thoughts bubbled up, occasionally recurring, and which I thought might make a good plot for a story, or perhaps a humorous set-piece, or simply an insightful observation. Even the ideas that I thought would be interesting to others were ignored; at most they were occasionally jotted down on a tiny scrap of paper only to be tossed away later. Over time though a feeling grew in me that this wasn’t a sufficient response, that something more permanent should be constructed from them. It was a discomfort that these ideas were being lost forever, with no guarantees that I could ever regenerate them on demand in future.

Despite this reasoning, I suspect I feel similarly to Taleb. I might write down the ideas so that they are remembered, sure, but they won’t need to be remembered by me. Once the initial documenting is completed I can simply forget about them, and be guilt-free in my forgetfulness. The instinct to hoard is sated.

The problem is that writing down an idea isn’t as simple a task as it sounds. Sometimes the idea is actually just the suspicion of one, the hint of its existence, a sense that there is something there, but it’s inchoate and inarticulate. It needs a physical medium in which to assume a form and to permit its boundaries to be shaped and discovered with any precision.

What they don’t seem to tell you, or perhaps they do and we ignore it, is that the cure is as harmful as the disease. In the writing of thoughts already had, are spawned many more; writing is dangerous.

Moreover, once started, there is no way to quit. It is no cure, merely a palliative. There is only temporary respite until the calls of the newly-discovered ideas become too strong to ignore. Nothing to be done but wait until the ideas stop coming. But who would wish for such a thing? Not I, never, quite the opposite.

Inevitably though, the flow will cease, and what better comfort for that moment than documentary evidence? I can show my sceptical, older self that the younger manifestation did indeed once possess ideas, and with them produced something original, even interesting. Geoffrey Wellum had it right when he said he wrote to convince himself that, at some point in his life he had been of use.

At the very least, and even if nobody ever reads it, writing is reassurance.
For any readers who also write: what drives you? Please do share your thoughts below…

New Finnish Motivation

For a while now I’ve been preoccupied by thoughts of language, the preservation of language, and identity, sure that the kernel of an idea that I had for a novel could be made to work. But I worried that it would be an idea that only I would find interesting. Even though advice is given to not write for a specific audience and to write only for oneself, for a project that might be 100,000 words long and occupy several years, it becomes hard to put these worries from your mind completely.

And so I was very grateful to receive for Christmas New Finnish Grammar by Diego Marani (translated from the Italian by Judith Landry), which in many ways was a gift of more than just a book, it was a gift of inspiration, of reassurance and motivation.

New Finnish Grammar became somewhat popular in the UK eighteen months ago, when, after an 11 year exile, it was finally published in English. It was a particular favourite of Nicholas Lezard, whose excellent review of it can be found in the Guardian, and was in fact quoted on the cover.

Set during the Second World War it tells the story of Sampo Karjalainen, a soldier who is found unconscious in the street, apparently the victim of a vicious assault. His head injuries are so severe that an almost total amnesia has overcome him, including the loss of his language. With the few clues about him pointing to a Finnish identity, the neurologist caring for him encourages Sampo to work hard at relearning his Finnish, with the eventual aim of him returning to Helsinki. The doctor believes that both his Finnish language and identity will re-emerge once he’s embedded in a familiar environment.

The central mystery of Sampo’s true identity, and the foreboding introduced in the prologue, provides the narrative foundation to the novel, allowing Marani to build atop it a discussion of the Finnish language and its inherent relationship to the Finnish book of epic mythic poetry, The Kalevala. The experiences of Sampo mirror the struggle of Finland to determine its own national identity and language, an issue that was forced by the Kalevala. In fact, so compelling is the novel’s narrative drive, that I had to actively slow down so as not to miss all the details. I’m sure I was unsuccessful, but at least it gives me an excuse to read this fascinating book a second time.

After having spent some time relearning Finnish Sampo is asked to name his favourite Finnish word or phrase, and replies that it’s the abessive case, and after reading his reasons perhaps you might be inclined to agree.

Yes, a declension for things we haven’t got: koskenkorvatta, toivatta, no koskenkorva, no hope, both are declined in the abessive. It’s beautiful, it’s like poetry! And also very useful, because there are more things we haven’t got than that we have.

This reference to absence could be applied to many things in the book, to all the things for which Sampo is searching. The key hypothesis of the neurologist is that both the Finnish experience and the recovery of his language would help Sampo in this search for his old personality and memories, and that developing each would reinforce the others. A pastor who instructs Sampo in the Kalevala seems to agree:

When you can read the Kalevala you will be a real Finn; when you can feel the rhythm of its songs, your hair will stand on end and you will truly be one of us!

With words like these, and similar from rest of the book, from all the persuasion and instruction that is delivered to Sampo, and that could equally well be being delivered to the reader,

So the shortest words are also the oldest, the most worn away by time. In Finnish, the word for war is sota, and these two syllables are eloquent pointers to how many we have indeed waged.

you might find yourself wanting to learn Finnish! The author certainly seems to possess a fondness for it, a language which is almost without relatives, Estonian and Hungarian being the only two.

However, the intellectual, linguistic side of the novel slowly gives way to sadness, when Sampo, despite his efforts to regain his identity, and no matter how much his Finnish improves, never really regains a feeling of inner peace. And I will leave things at that for fear of revealing too much. To find out more, I recommend that you read the book!

And yet, perhaps a little selfishly, as sad as I felt for Sampo, at the end of the novel I was heartened and encouraged. If a novel like this, which is rooted so heavily in the topics around language, can be so interesting and likeable, then perhaps there is hope yet. I can tackle once more my own idea, not with expectation, but at least with a little confidence. That said, the final lesson to take from the novel is cautionary, as, just like Sampo, I shouldn’t count on any certainties; there can be no guarantees that anyone will like my novel when it is finished, myself included.