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.’

https://writerswrite.co.za/quotable-shannon-hale/

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

 

 

 

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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:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_Had_a_Little_Lamb

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

 

 

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What Am I For?

Sometimes this blog stops dabbling in toasters and sofas, ceases to philosophise about contentment and end-gaining, halts the process of reviewing TV programmes and real ales and remembers what it was supposed to be about; namely, moments in the life of a self-underemployed writer.  I had such a moment yesterday when I found myself completely blocked in writing the novel.  I’d started a new chapter and managed to write a few pages but they weren’t leading anywhere: clearly, I needed new inspiration and a fresh direction but where were they going to come from?  When I’d been for a walk and watched a bit of a video and had a rest and nothing worked, where the hell was I going to find my mojo?

Today’s writing quote has this to say on the subject of moving on:

‘A good plan today is better than a perfect plan tomorrow.’

There’s something about starting a new project, whether it’s a book, a poem, a story or a new chapter, that is daunting.  You seem to feel the need to raise your game; to up things by a quantum level.  This new thing is bigger than you are and you need to grow in order to challenge it.  And there lie the roots of writer’s block: the feeling that you’re not good enough.  Maybe if you wait a little, do something else for a while, that stunning inspiration will come and you’ll be able to move on.

Nope.  Nuh-uh, ain’t gonna happen.  Not no way nohow, no sir.  I don’t know why these ideas get into the DNA of writing that don’t seem to occur in other fields, but they do: you wouldn’t find an athlete saying ‘I’m not ready to run a marathon yet; maybe if I wait a little the inspiration will come’; you don’t hear musicians saying ‘I can’t tackle Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in D minor yet but if I stop playing for a while I might.’

And yet there is a truth there.  Sometimes we need rest and change; sometimes there is a need to digest what has gone before in order to be ready.  But when you’ve done all that and it’s still not coming, it’s time to pick up the pen or stick the pen-drive in the slot again and just do it.

Ages ago I wrote some tips for overcoming writer’s block.  And did I remember them?  I did not; but eventually some memory went thunk in my brain and I recalled the first one: Set an alarm and write without stopping for five or ten minutes.  So instead of breaking my brain trying to write all afternoon or giving up and watching a video, I alternated: ten minutes writing, ten minutes video.  And guess what?  I wrote 1500 words and they’re actually not bad.

Wordsmith, heal thyself!

Kirk out

 

 

 

Treadmills, Victorian Punishments

In the course of my novel writing I had reason to look up Victorian prison punishments (just because I’m using one as a metaphor) and was once again reminded of the horrors of these dark satanic gaols.  But then I got to wondering whether they might be an improvement on their predecessors because, however forbidding the buildings and however self-righteously punitive the punishments, there was at least an attempt to deter and rehabilitate rather than merely to inflict pain.  Then again the sheer bureaucratic vindictiveness of a treadmill which is horribly hard work but produces nothing, or a handle which has to be turned a certain number of times a day to no purpose (and which can be tightened at will by the guards; hence the name ‘screws’) give the lie to that theory.

We’re all in a prison of some kind; and at the weekend I went to see the classic ’80’s film 9 to 5.  I hadn’t seen this when it came out and I was struck by how much things had changed, both for the better and also very much for the worse.  Three women work in the office of a corrupt and misogynistic boss: one a recent divorcee (Jane Fonda), one happily married but blonde and busty (Dolly Parton) and one a highly efficient single mother who really should be running the place (Lily Tomlin).  After a series of insults, power grabs, unwanted sexual advances and hourly put-downs, the women get together and decide to change things.  Rather than merely getting drunk and fantasising about it (though they do that too) they take action.  When one of them accidentally poisons the boss by putting rat poison in his coffee they kidnap him from the hospital and tie him up in his own home, holding him hostage while they take over the office.  Of course it unravels in the end but everything turns out for the best.  It’s a great feel-good movie and very funny.  So what’s changed?

Well, the acceptability of sexual harrassment has changed (though perhaps not its prevalence, where some men think they can get away with it).  The position of women has changed.  We now have laws about equal pay; there are more women in positions of power, and so on.  So far so good.  What’s not so good is the way people treat each other: in spite of the boss’s contempt for his female subordinates everyone was far more polite than we are nowadays.  And there was more time: back then the idea of nine-to-five was the epitome of slavery but nowadays people are doing ten or twelve-hour days and answering emails in their sleep.  Not so good.

So my question is this: is it inevitable that when some things get better other things will get worse?

Two of the three actors turn up decades later in the excellent Grace and Frankie.  I absolutely love this series and there’s so much to say about it that it’ll have to wait for its own blog post: suffice it to say that it’s a comedy of old age, a sort of geriatric Friends.  One of the creators of that classic series, Marta Kaufmann, is involved in this story of two octogenarian women whose husbands have been conducting a gay love-affair for decades and who have recently come out and set up house as a couple.  Thrown together by circumstances, Grace and Frankie rub along and fall out as often as you’d expect a work-driven WASP and an aged hippy to fall out.  The series is broad-based and while Grace and Frankie are the centre, we also follow the story of the two husbands (equally diverse but far more compatible) and the grown-up children.  There’s a lot of comedy about ageing which is neither patronising nor in denial and it’s worth seeing for the San Francisco beach house location alone, so if you have Netflix I urge you to watch it now.

Look, it didn’t need its own blog post after all!

Kirk out

New Year, Old You

This time of year the blogosphere bursts with projects, projections, plans, aims and objectives.  Weight will be lost.  Fitness regimes will be instantiated.  Old hobbies will be pursued and new ones taken up.  Ambitions will begin to be realised.  And so forth.  I don’t generally make new year’s resolutions but I do like to make plans for the year which embody a vision of where I want to go.  I don’t feel the need to start a fitness regime because I already do yoga – though more walking couldn’t hurt, so I’ve done a bit of that.

I find walking on my own a very contemplative activity, particularly if it takes me away from my usual environment.  Hence I went for a drive the other day with only the vaguest idea of where I would end up; and where I ended up was Cropston village at the top of the reservoir.  Knowing that the reservoir backs onto Bradgate Park, I formed a scheme: I would walk down to the park and all the way round its perimeter.  Which I did; this being a walk of about six miles all told.  Then yesterday morning, inspired by OH’s new regime which is to go for a run every day at six am (yes, I know) I drove up to Beacon Hill and went for a short but very brisk, cold walk before Quaker meeting.

But the main part of my vision is of course writing; and so I’ve formulated plans for the year involving where I want to be in December and working back from there.  I found a really good idea in Paul McKenna’s book ‘I Can Make You Rich’ which I mentioned a few weeks ago in which he uses visualisations to create a picture of the future.

First on one side you draw a big picture (either on paper or in  your mind) of where you want to be at the end of the year.  On the other side you draw a much smaller picture illustrating where you are now.  Then in between you create pictures which get larger each time creating a timeline between now and the future and illustrating your progress.  I’ve found these to be very powerful.

My aims for this year are to publish (or have accepted) a full-length work; either a novel or a collection of poetry, and to get an agent.  To this end I will send off one thing every month and I will find out the best way to approach agents.  And as far as this blog’s concerned, I’m aiming for 1000 readers.  I know it’s been a bit quiet over Christmas but that’s only to be expected, but we’re back now.  And don’t forget that my 500th follower will receive a FREE volume of my poetry.

So if you’ve enjoyed this blog, tell others.  If you haven’t, tell me (but tell me nicely please.)  And let me know how you’re getting on with your writing projects.

Happy New Year!

Kirk out

 

Blockhead: My Top Tips For Overcoming Writer’s Block

I have previously tried to analyse what writer’s block actually is:

https://lizardyoga.wordpress.com/2017/06/27/lay-your-head-on-the-writers-block/

and now it’s time to share some of my top tips for dealing with it.  No matter whether it lasts for an afternoon or a year (or longer) writer’s block is painful, debilitating, numbing and horribly frustrating.  Where does it come from?  Where does it go?  It seems to arrive like the wind, out of nowhere, and to disappear equally mysteriously.  Whatever your particular brand of writer’s block, some of these may help:

  1.  Set an alarm and write for 10 minutes without thinking, revising or stopping.  Any old junk that comes into your head is fine.  Don’t even worry about sentences.
  2. Sign up to writing prompts such as writerswrite.co.za
  3. Describe what you can see from your window.  I can see a quiet street with several vehicles parked, one of which has ‘Integrated Building Solutions’ on the side.  I might choose to write about what the hell that means and why everything is a ‘solution’ nowadays instead of saying exactly what it is ie ‘builders.’
  4. Go through old notebooks for any ideas you can harvest.  If you haven’t got any notebooks go out and buy one; there’s nothing like a new notebook for stimulating ideas.
  5. Take one item on your desk and write about its history.  At this moment apart from a laptop, I have two digestive biscuits on my desk.  I could, if I chose, write one of those stories they used to give us at school – The Life-Cycle of the Chocolate Digestive (‘I was made in a factory from flour and sugar…)
  6. Do something else.  Dig the garden, go for a walk, do the washing-up.  The unconscious mind will keep working while the conscious mind is occupied with something else
  7. If all these ideas bore you to tears, recognise that sometimes boredom is necessary and, like land lying fallow, can prove fertile ground for new seeds.

Kirk out

Up to Here

I’ve been thinking about a post on Remembrance Sunday which this year fell with almost supernatural precision exactly on Armistice day, one hundred years after the ending of the First World War.  I sat in Quaker Meeting while outside people processed, banged drums, shouted orders, prayed and stood in respectful silence.  And I wanted to try to disentangle all the complex feelings I had about it but they proved too matted to be unravelled so I’m leaving it for another time (I did get up in Meeting and speak about Conscientious Objectors though.)

So in the meantime, where am I up to?  A rather fractured night’s sleep led to a morning assailed by a welter of ideas (a bit like being inside a meteor shower) all supplemented by the arrival of the first of my daily writing prompts.   Inspired by my son doing Inktober and producing a drawing every day (today’s is fabulous) I signed up for Writers Write Daily Prompts and my first suggestion was ‘Looking at Life Through Rose-Tinted Spectacles.’  I decided to write a hundred words; this centenary may or may not turn into something else but if not it doesn’t matter as the main point is to get the suggestive juices going (see what I did there?)

Apart from that I do my usual vocal exercises and trawl through my poems reciting them out loud to an imaginary audience.  I do this most mornings and it’s very useful; not only can I perform any poem at the drop of a hat but with the newer poems reading them aloud shows up any flaws in the writing.  (I do this with stories too; it’s amazing how you can type type the same word twice and not notice until you come to read aloud*.)

Mornings are usually dedicated to poetry but after doing my hundred words on the writing prompt I decided to polish up another hundred words I’m doing for Mslexia (this time the prompt is a photograph) then some ideas came for the novel and I wrote those up, so it’s been a bit of a mixed morning.

This afternoon I plan to tackle a totally new project.  The BBC’s Writersroom window is coming up in a couple of months and I intend to embark on a radio play.  It’s a horrendously tall order to write a radio play in two months but I work quite well in short bursts so we’ll see.  In any case a lot of the material is already to hand albeit in the form of short dialogues and stories.

Here’s Daniel’s picture:

Kirk out

* see what I did there?