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.

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

Anyone for some “innovative fiction”?

So far, I’ve posted essays, reviews and poems on my blog. Now it’s time for some fiction! There is one catch. First of all, it’s not quite finished. And secondly – two catches then – I’ll be entering it into a competition, and so I won’t be uploading it here for a few months. However, I will gladly email the story to anyone who wishes to read it. If you would like to take a look, just “like” this post (if you have contact information in your Gravatar profile) or send me an email here, and I’ll send you the pdf just as soon as I finish it (31st March at the very latest).

However, if you wish to know more before deciding, and who could blame you, then read on… The competition in question is run by the American literary magazine Diagram, and this particular brief is for “Innovative Fiction“. Apart from a limit of 10,000 words, that is the only instruction. Hardly much of a constraint. My response has been to write a somewhat intellectual, detective story, containing multiple levels of narration, each of which raises philosophical questions about the effectiveness of those narratives and the limits of language itself.

In an earlier draft of the story I had also included an element which questioned the very possibility of writing innovative fiction (since removed to accommodate other plot developments). The question this previous version raised was this: what is innovation in fiction? More specifically, if one introduced an innovative form in a story, could its reuse ever be considered innovative? Or is the fact that it has been used once before enough to rob it of all claims to innovation, even if it were very far from the literary norms.

In one sense, any good book is innovative, if by that we mean, it contains original characters, plot, ideas etc. Trashy genre fiction aside, all books can be considered to be prototypes that break some sort of new ground. And to what extent is this merely a question of fashion or timing? One very innovative novel, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne, was published from 1759 onwards, but for a long while after this the form of novels became more conservative. At some point in the past, a return to Sterne’s form and style would have been considered a break with the norm, even innovative, except for the fact that it had already been done. Therefore, for how long does an idea need to remain dormant before its reactivation is considered novel?

Perhaps it’s a fools errand to worry excessively about this. Given the vast quantity of literature – too much for even an army of men to read, and in many languages at that, so too much even for a multi-national peacekeeping force – it might be impossible to make any definitive pronouncements. One culture’s innovation could be another’s standard, if not, cliched form.

An inherent problem with attempting to create these kind of groundbreaking artworks is that they are more difficult to write, principally due to a lack of training data. Conversely, they are also harder to judge for quality. An even greater quantity of good fortune then is required to meet with a positive reception.

And so back to my own innovative fiction; who knows if it is actually, truly innovative. I think many aspects of it are certainly creative and original, but whether overall it is innovative, I’m not sure. Maybe you can tell me? Then again, probably it doesn’t matter; if it’s interesting to read, then maybe that’s enough. Innovation be damned.

So, what do you think makes a book innovative? Have you read any that seemed particularly innovative to you, and did you feel that this helped or hindered the story-telling? And, once again, do let me know if you are interested in reading my story. Thanks!

Five Ice Cream Vans

A frosted sky makes gentle diffuse sun,
that soothes this politicians’ bridge.

And there five ice cream vans idle,
tune nothing but a childhood hum.

Above, the dandelion Eye looks on,
and each of us circles around one thought:

where have all the people gone?

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?