Tasty Snack or Hasty Smack?

I’m back on the yoga philosophy trail again and I caught myself wondering this morning as I hovered on the edge of discipline looking into the chasm of dreariness, where does healthy self-control end and Professor Gradgrind take over? I know it happens but I can’t quite figure out how.

The yoga term for self-discipline – I was living in Spain when I discovered this and it seemed highly amusing – is tapas. This is an individual process rather than something imposed from outside, though external disciplines can help. When I was living in the yoga centre I learned a great deal about myself, particularly that I was not good at getting up at six a m. Then again, getting up at six did help me to push the boundaries of my life. That was a good discipline. On the other hand asana sessions always began with several rounds of sun salutations which at that time I found utterly crippling. Had I been given some modifications I might have found a way into this practice; as it is, even today I still have a mental block about it. That was not a good discipline.

Discipline from outside is a double-edged sword; you have to know what is enough and what is too much. Over the years I’ve learned to take what helps me and ignore the rest, because in the end what matters is self-discipline. If you can’t control yourself you’re in deep trouble – or everyone else is: look at Trump. But here’s the rub: how much discipline is enough?

When I began writing full-time like most people I had trouble getting into a routine. So I imposed one and made myself work from nine till five with timed breaks for tea and lunch. That was fine initially but after a while it exhausted me because that inflexible routine ignored the real patterns of creativity. Sometimes I need to sit in the garden and think. Sometimes I need to read or go for a walk; some days I must finish early or go mad. Then again there are afternoons when I write, oblivious of time, until I’m called for dinner (I know – lucky me not having to cook.)*

Routine is a good servant but a bad master; in the end you have to follow the river of art no matter where it leads.

Kirk out

*Every woman at some point has to stop writing and put the dinner on. That is her tragedy. No man does: that is his.


How To Fail Better

Sometimes it seems life conspires to discourage you. Not only are your blog stats in the doldrums but you keep hearing about people who are more successful than you are. Let’s face it, that wouldn’t be hard: yes, I’ve had some minor successes but compared to where I want to be, compared to what I feel I deserve for my efforts and talents, I’m basically in the wilderness.

Hang on – haven’t we been here before? Hm. It’s twinging a little memory in the hinterland of my consciousness. There’s a word emerging – san..san-something. It’s not English. Hang on, I’ll get it in a minute… ah yes. That was it.

The thing was, recently I met someone more successful than me. We were introduced to each other excitedly as ‘fellow-writers’ but it was evident that the other person did not experience much fellow-feeling towards me. With hindsight, perhaps that was because they feared I might be more successful than they; however the expectations of others – that we would have fruitful conversations, that this person might be able to help my career in some way, were not fulfilled. Nor did I expect them to be; I’ve had too many such encounters in the past to anticipate that anything will come from them: in my experience few established writers want to come to the aid of the unestablished. Unless, of course, you want to attend their workshops…

However, it brought back all the old gloomy sensations of failure and inadequacy: all the sensations that in terms of what most people think of as success, I am nowhere. Yet if we stop to deconstruct that word we can reconfigure it as ‘now here.’ I know that’s etymologically incoherent but it can be therapeutic: and that brings us back to santosh. Contentment; the practice of being where you are and accepting that this is where you need to be. contentment – as I have to keep reminding myself – does not mean resignation. It does not mean accepting that you will stay where you are. It’s more like GPS; finding your position and acknowledging that the journey has to start (or continue) from where you are: that much as you’d like to be over there on the headland, you must first navigate the swamp.

Besides, I’ve always found petty rivalry most unattractive: which is why I’m not at all envious that Brian has just cycled half-way round the world and is now contemplating another 36-hour fast. I am utterly serene and my teeth are not gritted!

Kirk out

Loss, Magma, Rejection…

I have just submitted three poems to Magma for their latest issue on the theme of loss.  At first I thought I didn’t have anything suitable but then I had a flip through and found poems on climate change, Brexit and stillbirth, all of which fit the theme.  I strongly suspect they won’t publish as Magma and I seem to inhabit different poetic universes, but hey – submitting is free, so what have I got to lose?  Only my confidence and sense of self-worth…

A propos of this, I’m in the midst of writing a poem on surviving rejection which considers now-famous works which were previously rejected.  I’ve blogged about this before so I won’t bore you with the details, but T S Eliot’s comment about Orwell’s Animal Farm, ‘you just need better-behaved pigs and all will be well,’ is a classic.  I’m still in the midst of considering Leavis (and wondering why I bother) so I’ll update you on that as and when.  In the meantime the novel progresses by fits and starts, but I’ve managed 7000 words of the final chapter, leaving only 28,000 to go, which means I’m a fifth of the way through that chapter and about two-thirds of the way through the novel as a whole.  Not too shabby.

Kirk out


Today I Shall Be Mostly Practising…

Sometimes life can seem like a merry-go-round.  I don’t mean that it’s horribly busy, though it is for many people; what I mean is that insights which are very clear one moment can be lost in the next, and only recovered when you ‘come round’ to them again.  Life seems to swoop like a waltzer-ride, causing us to lurch from one reality to another, one set of people to another, one lot of viewpoints to another.  In a globalised world where values are relative and every second person you meet has a different outlook, it’s hard to know exactly what and where you are.  The temptation is to build a wall of prejudices and lob missiles over the top.

Enough with the metaphors.  It came to me today that since I blogged about it a few months ago, I haven’t really practised santosh much.  I’ve thought about it fleetingly, as a face glimpsed fleetingly from a bus (is that another metaphor?) but decided, for whatever reason, not to go there.  But today it has come to me that I need this more than ever.

So let’s skip the what and the why, since those are dealt with in that previous post, and go straight to the how.  How precisely is one supposed to practise this thing?  Can you download a course?  Are there exercises?  Well, perhaps; but my method is to begin by reminding myself of what I’m practising, often just by simply repeating mentally the word santosh.  It’s about noticing when the mind gets a little manic; when there’s a tendency to be perfectionist and to practise end-gaining, and telling yourself: Wait.  Practise santosh.  Be content.

In addition you can bring this awareness to everything you do.  For example, this morning I decided to vacuum the living-room.  There wasn’t time to do it ‘properly’ so instead of feeling dissatisfied and making a mental note to go over it again soon, I decided to be content.

But how do you be content?  If it doesn’t come easily to you this can seem like an inaccessible mountain.  There are some good suggestions in this blog including practising gratitude and not being judgmental.  As Paul McKenna points out in ‘I Can Make You Rich’ there’s no point in being a millionaire if it just makes you want even more money: he calls this ‘wealth dysmorphia’, a very apt phrase.  It’s a hard lesson to learn, particularly when there’s something you want very badly, but contentment doesn’t mean resignation.  It doesn’t mean accepting that you’ll never have whatever-it-is; just accepting that right here and now you don’t have it: it’s the spiritual equivalent of geo-positioning:* knowing where you are.  Because if you don’t start from here, where can you start from?  So every time I look at the garden and think about what’s left to be done; every time I look at the washing-up, every time I consider that I am still not celebrated as a writer, I tell myself ‘I am content.  I am content.  I am content.’

And for your own contemplation here’s an OM symbol inside a mandala:


I am going to get around to blogging about the McKenna book, I just haven’t got to it yet (I am very content with this…)

Kirk out

*I would call it ‘ego-positioning’ which would be nicely anagrammatical, except that it’s not about the ego.





Present (and Future?) Tense

Life as an artist is one headache after another.  Just when you think you’ve got things sorted, just when you have a plan, it all goes horribly wrong and like walking through treacle there comes a point where you Can’t Do It Any More.  I woke up this morning around five with a horrible headache and a Quasimodo shoulder up by my left ear (fortunately it was the left shoulder, not the right, ho ho: my left arm is my writing arm, so it’s logical.)  I took a couple of paracetamol and went back to sleep but the headache hovered over my pillow like a bad angel and clobbered me as soon as I woke.  It’s a mysterious thing how our muscles and joints express internal realities: I was talking the other day to someone who has a very tense working life and is now plagued by backache.  I rarely have backache: for me, tension is usually expressed in the neck and shoulders giving me headaches which I interpret as thoughts wanting to reach the brain but being prevented (if you think the brain is the only centre of awareness I would take issue with you: I think each part of the body is a centre of a particular kind of awareness.)  Only if I’m extra-specially tense do I get backaches and even more rarely, stomach aches.

How to engage with society is a big problem for most artists.  Some, like C P Snow, are lucky enough to fit in quite nicely and be able not only to hold down a job and write but also to write about that job (Snow was by turns a barrister, an academic and a civil servant who gave us the phrases ‘corridors of power’ and ‘the two cultures’.)  Then again, he never had to vacuum the sitting-room or run to Sainsbury’s for more marge.*  But for most of us fitting in – which means at the very least the financial imperative to work, and therefore to tick whatever educational and social boxes will persuade someone to hire you – is as problematic as it was for Larkin; ** and even when you are able to write full-time, there’s the problem of getting published.  And that’s a whole-nother way of fitting in (or not.)  When you write full-time the question is refined.  No longer do I ask myself which jobs I am suited for and would be able to do without going off my chump: now, the question is, how far do I write what publishers want (insofar as I know what that is) and how far do I write like myself (insofar as I can tell what that is)?  It’s a constant juggle: if you go too far in the direction of publishers you may be successful but at the cost of ignoring your own uniqueness; if you go too far the other way you risk never being published.  But maybe, just maybe – there’s a third option, which is that in truly being yourself you may produce something publishers didn’t know they wanted but actually really do.

I’ve blogged about C P Snow a few times.  Here’s one of the posts.

*They probably had butter anyway

** For me the problem was not only getting work but keeping it: I’ve had jobs which nearly sent me off my chump with boredom and other jobs where the work wasn’t so bad but I couldn’t fit in socially – and that seemed to be just as important.

Kirk out

Shovelling Sand into a Box

I found today’s writing quote very helpful.  Yesterday I got through a fair amount of work, including 1400 words of the novel, not a bad word-count for an afternoon – but was I happy?  No.  The last thing I wrote in my diary was: ‘Why is writing so horrible, why don’t I enjoy it more?’

I guess when I write a first draft, particularly of a novel (this is not so true of short stories and not at all true of poetry where the beginnings are the most exciting part) I have no clue where I’m going.  I simply write what comes – and often, what comes seems either irrelevant or completely mad.  I was once compelled to write a scene where Father Christmas turns out to be a convict in disguise.  He meets Jack and Jill and gives them presents of ice and snow; eventually Jill penetrates his disguise and the scene ends with Father Christmas saying ‘Ho ho ho!’ in an evil and yet hopeless way.  I wrote that scene twenty years ago and I still have no idea what it means.  Maybe one day it’ll come to me.

One thing that is particularly scary, especially for the new writer, is the thought that you may reveal yourself in ways you are not aware of but which the reader will notice.  For example, at a writers’ group I once attended there was a male writer of crime fiction.  He read his stories out regularly and they made us all very uncomfortable as in every one a woman was horribly murdered or mutilated.  Eventually when this was  pointed out to him, that all his female characters came to a very sticky end at the hands of the men, it was a real tumbleweed moment: there was a horrible silence as it dawned on him that he was acting out revenge fantasies in his fiction.

So today’s writing quote was this: ‘I’m writing a first draft and reminding myself that I’m simply shovelling sand into a box so that I can make a sand-castle later.’


This is very helpful when you are writing a novel based on the Fibonacci sequence of numbers where every chapter is as long as the previous two added together and you have no clue what you’re doing.

Kirk out




Why Write Poetry?

This is a question which occurs to me often, though perhaps not so often as it occurs to other minds.  What is the point of poetry? they seem to say; or even more damningly, Is poetry even a Thing?  Isn’t it just chopped-up prose?  My acid test for the latter is to suggest they write out a poem in sentences and see if it reads exactly like prose: results have yet to come in on this exercise as I strongly suspect they can’t be arsed.  Once on Thorpe Cloud a man was heard to quote Wordsworth’s Daffodils and bleat: How is that different from ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb?’  How?  In the moment I was stumped because on the surface, it’s not that different; it’s a little like asking how a Joan Miro is different from a child’s daubs: on the surface, they aren’t.

I’m always stumped in the face of such scepticism because to see poetry for what it is demands a degree of openness; it’s not something you can persuade people of by showing evidence.  The earth is flat – no it isn’t, you can see the curvature in a plane, you can see the horizon at sea and you can view the whole sphere from space.  QED.

I’d be the first to admit that Wordsworth’s language is simple; it’s deliberately so because he was emphasising the simplicity of a life lived in harmony with nature.  Some of his ideas seem risible today but he had a strong belief in the tendency of the natural world to produce virtue in human beings.  So given that, let us compare and contrast Daffodils and Mary Had a Little Lamb.

First, the nursery rhyme:

Mary had a little lamb

its fleece was white as snow

and everywhere that Mary went

the lamb was sure to go.

It’s not great poetry and it’s not meant to be; it’s a rhyme for children which according to wikipedia was based on an actual incident:


The simile is cliched: white as snow offers no surprise or insight and the rest of the rhyme simply tells a story.  I can’t think of anything else to say about it.

Now Daffodils:

I wandered lonely as a cloud

that floats on high o’er vales and hills

when all at once I saw a crowd

a host of golden daffodils

beside the lake, beneath the trees

fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

We are so familiar with this verse that its impact has faded but I would suggest Wordsworth offers us two things here.  If we stop for one minute to consider the image lonely as a cloud it will probably strike us as strong and original; it places the writer (or narrator) as part of the natural scene and yet separate from it.  As a ‘cloud’ he is looking down on the scene below, floating ‘on high o’er vales and hills’: the cloud is also animated, given feelings.  The second idea is the image of daffodils as a ‘crowd, a host’.  Anyone who’s ever looked at great swathes of daffodils swaying in a breeze can’t have failed to notice their resemblance to a crowd of people.  Wordsworth continues with that metaphor in lines to come, so not only is he part of the natural world but the natural world resembles a crowd of people, thus signalling his major theme of connectedness between people and nature.

One may disagree profoundly with Wordsworth’s thesis but I don’t think we can fail to ascribe greatness to his work.

And while we’re on the theme of simplicity, let’s consider another Romantic poet, William Blake.  There’s no tricksiness with words here, no verbal gymnastics or stunning erudition, but consider the power of these couplets:

A robin redbreast in a cage

puts all heaven in a rage.

Or this:

A truth that’s told with bad intent

beats all the lies you can invent.

And we are just as familiar with The Tyger as with Wordsworth’s blooms but I hope no-one would dare compare this to a nursery rhyme:

Tyger, Tyger, burning bright

in the forests of the night

what immortal hand or eye

could frame thy fearful symmetry?

And if you can read these lines without a lump in your throat, there’s no hope for you:

I wonder, by my troth, what thou and I

did, till we loved?  Were we not weaned till then?…

and now good morrow to our waking souls…

My face in thine eye, thine in thine appears

and true plain hearts do in the faces rest…

(from John Donne, The Good Morrow)


So much for other people’s poetry: now, for my own.  Why do I write poetry?  Like most people I suspect I do it because I must.  I do it because there are times when prose, much as I love it, just doesn’t cut it.  As C S Lewis wrote in his introduction to the Narnia books, you do it because ‘it is the best art form for something you want to say.’

I also do it because poetry connects strongly to the oral tradition.  When I first started to write I assumed I’d write novels and didn’t see myself as a poet at all.  But having found the novel too huge a thing to begin with, I turned to the short story.  Even these didn’t seem quite right, but I still didn’t think of myself as a poet and it wasn’t until I went to Word! poetry performance group in Leicester that I realised spoken word was what I’d been looking for.  I had to travel all the way back to our oral traditions before I could really discover what I was about as a writer.  This seems to me entirely logical.

The oral tradition is key: nowadays I never write a poem without speaking it.  As soon as I have a rough draft I stand up (poetry must always be spoken standing) and read it aloud.  Inevitably there will be bum notes and often fresh words will occur to me as I speak – and so the editing process goes on, sometimes speaking sometimes writing, until I have the finished poem by heart (though I agree wholeheartedly with Auden’s comment that a poem is never finished, only abandoned.)  To me, writing a poem without speaking it aloud is like writing music without playing it: impossible.

I’m going to get on my hobby-horse here because one of my bugbears is poets who kill their work in the reading of it.  Of course not every poet is able to read well, I understand that, but what offends me is the all-too-common attitude that it’s the page which matters and the reading aloud is just some throwaway act; something writers do.  It’s as if the very fact of it being the author’s voice gives some authority and mesmerism to the reading.  It doesn’t.

I don’t get this.  It shows a disrespect for the oral tradition, for a start, and for another thing why would you?  Why would you spend all that time and effort getting the right words in the right order on the page and then destroy them in the reading?  It really bugs me.  I work on my poems all the time, honing each word and phrase in the speaking just as I do in the writing.  I work on my voice too – but now I think I’ve wandered long enough o’er the vales and hills of poetry so I shall come to rest and tell you about that another day.

Kirk out