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.

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The Five Best Things About Having a Blog

WordPress has just informed me that it’s eleven years ago today that I started this blog; which means it’s eleven years ago yesterday that I attended a workshop run by Hanif Kureishi and asked his advice on what aspiring authors should do to help the process along. ‘Start a blog,’ he said; and having conducted extensive research (well, I asked OH) I set up an account on WordPress and Bob was most definitely my uncle.

Eleven years, eh? You’d think I’d want to embark on some sort of retrospective; high points and nadirs, most popular posts, top comments, that sort of thing, but frankly I’ve no appetite for that. I would like, though, to think about what this blog has meant to me and what benefits it has brought to my life and writing. So here, for your delectation and entertainment, are my five best things about blogging.

Number One: Readers. As a writer (unless you are writing only for yourself) you need readers, otherwise you’re like an actor without an audience or a priest without a congregation. True, one of the best things about writing for me is that no-one can stop you doing it. I may be ignored by the whole world but as long as there’s breath in my body and sparks in my brain, I will carry on writing; and a blog has the potential to find you readers even if they don’t immediately hook up. Sometimes I get comments on posts I don’t even recognise because they’re so old. Once a post is out there, anyone can find it: I’ll never forget that early thrill of finishing a post and clicking ‘publish.’ At that time I’d hardly published anything in print, so that felt really good.

Number Two: Interaction. Most days I have some interaction with readers either ‘liking’ or following me, and I love getting comments. Reading and responding to comments can spark dialogues and often takes me to other blogs where I can like and comment and follow, and so it goes on. Even though OH is just a shout away, writing is essentially a solitary activity, so this interaction is valuable.

Number Three: Expression. For decades I wrote all my poems, ideas and stories in a series of A4 notebooks but now, if an idea is sufficiently developed, it can go on the blog. I used to suffer a lot from not having outlets and now I have one. It also encourages me to find new and more interesting ways to express myself.

Number Four: Development. A blog gives me practice in writing about all sorts of subjects: it’s primarily about a writer’s life but any topic which occurs to me can be the subject of a post. I’ve developed ideas about politics, I’ve described walking holidays, I’ve reviewed films, books and TV series; I’ve delved into philosophy and religion and I’ve transcribed dialogues between myself and OH for your delectation and amusement.

And finally, Cyril… Number Five: Routine. This may sound horribly worthy and dull, but it’s very important. Practice makes permanent, as they say; and as anyone knows who has suddenly retired from a 9-5 job, it’s hard to motivate yourself without structure. As it happens my working day has evolved over the years to mimic office hours. No fevered early-dawn scribblings or midday doldrums for me: I get to my desk at around 8.30 and work till lunch (12-1-ish). After lunch is usually a ‘dead’ time so I’ll do some gardening or walk to the shops; then it’s back to work between 2 and 3. Finishing time really depends on how it’s going: on a good day I’ll work till six but it’s usually around five as mornings are the most productive time. I don’t work evenings or weekends and I take Bank Holidays off, as I do the whole month of August. This doesn’t mean I don’t write anything – in some ways these are the most productive times – just that I don’t work at writing. There’s a big difference. But it can be hard to establish a routine, and in those early days, writing a daily blog post was an important discipline for me. Nowadays I don’t necessarily blog every day but I don’t like to leave it too long otherwise readers can drift away.

So there we are; eleven years of bloggy wisdom. Enjoy. Oh, and the picture is a rather gap-toothed version of me doing a victory dance after performing poems on the Fourth Plinth.

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

 

Where Was I Again?

Every day along with my daily writing prompts I get interesting or inspirational quotes from established writers.  Sometimes these are good, sometimes they’re predictable and some days they just Do Not Compute.  Take today’s, from A S Byatt:

‘Don’t start writing until you know where you’re going.’ 

Immediately I thought, ‘well, that wouldn’t work for me at all because I never know where I’m going; not until I get there, and sometimes not even then.’  Some of the best stuff I’ve done has been written completely cluelessly with no plan, no concept and no destination.  If I’d planned a novel and knew each chapter in detail I’d be so bored I wouldn’t want to write the damned thing at all.  I can have a vague idea but the thing has to unfold for me just as it does for the reader.

Not that I don’t wish it otherwise.  Sometimes I’d give my eye teeth to have a plot idea I could send off to a publisher, like: ‘A Bulgarian milkman moves to Germany after unification and discovers that his father was a war criminal.’  That sort of thing.  Instead of which, what have I got?  ‘I’m writing a novel based on the Fibonacci sequence and the concept of spirals.’  What?  What?  So what happens?  ‘Well, I don’t know yet.  There’s a lot of stuff about Brexit – but I won’t know what happens until it’s finished.  Maybe not even then…’  It’s hardly the stuff that gets three-figure advances….

The thing is, most people start with a plot.  They sketch it out, then in come some characters and start interacting.  A setting suggests itself; then some dialogue.  Finally, if at all, comes the philosophy.  But me?  I get it completely backwards: first the philosophical concept, then the characters and setting and finally – if at all – the plot.  Such as it is.

*Sigh*

Mind you, I thought I’d come up with a brilliant plot the other day.  I rushed in to tell OH about it:

‘How’s this for a short story idea?  You have some women who do exactly what men want, who flatter them and obey their every whim – and in the end they turn out to be robots.’  As I was outlining this the smile on OH’s face was becoming more and more fixed.  ‘So what do you think?’ I finished up.

‘Well…’

Turned out I’d described exactly the plot of The Stepford Wives(In my defence I haven’t actually seen the film but I should have known all the same.)

*Sigh*

Hope you all had a good Easter. Yesterday Daniel and I went to visit my parents’ graves and on the way back we had a Grimbister.

Kirk out

How Many Cultures Was It Now?

One of my valued readers, Taskerdunham, has gone and started me off on the whole C P Snow/F R Leavis debate again.  To recap quickly, Snow presented a lecture in 1959 (I was two at the time and had very little culture at all) suggesting that there was a gap between the arts and the sciences in both academia and popular culture.  The advantage, he said, was generally on the side of the scientists because although most of them had read the usual books * most people on the arts side couldn’t even tell you the first law of thermodynamics which, he suggests, is equivalent to asking ‘have you read a book?’

*it was of course much easier to say which were ‘the usual books’ in those days, as indeed Leavis did, at great length (see below.)

Hm.  Let me think: I know the second law of thermodynamics is ‘heat cannot of itself travel from a cooler to a hotter body,’ but the first?  I seem to think it’s something like, ‘whatever temperature a thing is at, that’s how hot it is.’  Yeah, that was it… I have consulted the Oracle and It says the first law is, ‘heat is work and work is heat’ which means energy can’t be created or destroyed.  So there.

Aaaanyway, long story short, dear old F R L who had already written what many see as an elitist account of what constitutes Great Literature, takes huge exception to this and slags Snow off in no uncertain terms.  I have yet to read the full lecture (I’ve gone all scholarly on this and ordered both books, which are due to arrive within a few days) but his criticisms of Snow personally are uncalled-for* and his strictures on the novels somewhat unfair.  I’ll get back to this when I’ve read both lectures but meanwhile Snow’s novels are something I can talk about as I’ve read them a number of times.

*possibly the only thing Thatcher ever said that I agree with is: ‘If they criticise you personally they have shown they do not have a single argument left.’

I first came across Snow by accident.  It was my habit, not really knowing what to read, to browse library shelves and open books at random to see if anything grabbed me.  By chance one day I opened a book called The Masters and read a sentence that said something like: ‘he apologised too much for a man who was often so easy.’  And I thought, ‘here’s a man who understands me’ (I was eighteen at the time.)  Well, he wasn’t – at least not in the way that I thought – and yet he did understand diffident people, so I checked out ‘The Masters’ and read it avidly even though I had no idea that university colleges had Masters or what manner of man these might be.  Nevertheless it engaged me (which ought to say something about Snow’s powers as a writer) and this set me off on the whole ‘Strangers and Brothers‘ series.  (Shortly afterwards in my interview for Nottingham University the panel were very impressed by the inclusion of Snow on my reading list.)

Many people have since pointed out his shortcomings as a novelist.  Yes, he can be sententious; his prose style can be heavy and his characters speak wordily.  But I know of no-one who could begin to make committee meetings exciting or indeed to elicit any interest whatsoever in the election of a Master to an obscure Cambridge college in an eighteen-year-old woman; but Snow does.  His involvement in every nuance, every balance and shift of power and his insight into what each character wants; all these draw us in without the need to resort to grand dramas or intrigues – which means that when an affair does come such as in ‘Corridors of Power’ the drama is all the more effective for being understated.

The world Snow wrote about has gone: it was a world with men at its heart and women round the periphery; in fact the word ‘men’ resounds like a gong through the books.  His is a world we would now call ‘pale, stale and male’ – the world between and after the wars (the novels run from the ‘twenties to the ‘sixties) and although his women are rounded, even powerful characters in their own right, they very much inhabit their own sphere and Snow, both as narrator Lewis Elliott and as author, exhibits an attitude best described as Olympian.  You’d never know there were any women in the professions: when he comes across a young woman with meticulous observation skills he remarks that she would ‘make a good nurse’ and he once disparages a woman scientist as ‘not as good as her husband.’  The world will not forgive him for this and neither will I, but nor will I forget the insights his books offered me.

Next exciting instalment on the – ahem – 55-year-old Two Cultures debate coming up… and I won’t even have a rant this time on how the city of Leicester has forgotten him.

Or will I?  By the way, did anyone at all spot the carefully-concealed April Fool on Monday?

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.’

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

 

 

 

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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