Once Bitten Twice Sigh: Dealing with Rejection

I’m taking a leaf out of Beetleypete’s book and reblogging a few golden oldies as it’s holiday time and I’m basically Not At My Desk Very Much.  Here’s one from a while back.

*Sigh*.  Another day, another rejection – this time in the form of a competition shortlist which unaccountably did not have my name on it.  It’s very hard to keep going during these times: you feel a blow to the stomach like a sucker-punch which takes all the air out of your lungs.  You start to feel a bit sick: then the inevitable thoughts come in.  Why did I think that story was any good?  Of course they didn’t choose it!  What makes you think you’ll make a writer?  And so on.  But along with that there’s a stony stubbornness which won’t let me stop: and that’s a good thing – but right now it doesn’t feel good.  Right now that stubbornness feels like your doom.  It seems there’s no escape from your own nature – or fate, or whatever it is – and you start to feel like Sisyphus, condemned to push a rock up a mountain only to see it roll to the bottom.  Every time.

Maybe I should write a story about that….

Because yes, in the end that is the only response; to turn your experiences into art.  And thankfully nowadays the sucker-punch doesn’t last too long: I bounce back from it relatively quickly.  But it’s very hard to find a place in a world which doesn’t seem to have any time for your work.  My problem with stories is, I think, that they don’t have a strong plot.  I’m not good with strong plots: my strengths lie in ideas and characters; moments in a life.  Although I have had some success with surreal plots, such as Mem Mat, the one about the memory mattress which stores your actual memories.  I have also – as is only fair – had some success with writing about trans issues: first with the Mslexia blog and before that, a story called DIVORK where a woman thinks her husband is having an affair because of a lip-print on a glass, only to discover that the lipstick is his.

As far as poetry goes I think my problem is that I write a lot of rhyming verse and there seems to be a mindset that serious poets write free verse.  Hence I’ve had more success with comic verse.  Interestingly this mirrors the process when I began to write: unable at first to take myself seriously as a poet, I started with parodies and comic rhymes, assuming like everyone else that the serious poet did not rhyme (or only sporadically) and that therefore I was not a Serious Poet.  It took a long while for me to be persuaded otherwise – and now it seems to be taking a long while for publishers to be persuaded, too.

*Sigh!*

So here’s the rub: do you carry on doing what you do even though no-one seems to like it, or do you try to alter what you do to fit in?

Answers below please…

Kirk out

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Enabler or Gatekeeper? Choosing a Good Writing Course

Sometimes it seems that people who run writing courses are more like bouncers than ushers, taking your money and keeping you out of the club whilst claiming to ‘show you the way in’*. Some courses seem to promise much but leave you with little more than an overwhelming impression of how hard it all is.

(*this reminds me of an idea I once had. I used to suffer a lot from spam emails so I devised a special place in hell for spammers where every day someone comes along claiming to show them the way out of hell. They are compelled to believe these people but every one of them is a scammer.)

I don’t entirely blame them; it’s hard to make money from writing alone and you gotta do something. On the other hand if all you’re doing is taking people’s money and telling them how impossible it is to get where you are, that’s called ‘pulling the ladder up behind you’ and you’re doing them a disservice.

I do run the odd poetry workshop in which I try to help people release their creativity; however I don’t offer workshops oriented at success. This is for two reasons – 1, not having been ‘successful’ to any great degree myself, why would anyone take me seriously? and 2, it’s not what I’m good at (see point 1). What I’d like to do is offer more workshops on releasing and exploring creativity. But do people want that? I have a horrible suspicion that I’d give them my best stuff and then a voice would pipe up saying plaintively ‘this is all very well, but can you tell us how to get published?’ Such is the society we live in.

So here’s my advice when choosing writing courses:

1.Look for as many free courses as you can find. Free doesn’t necessarily mean worthless and you may pick up some valuable stuff as well as making contacts.

2. If you’re being asked to shell out money, check out the profile of the person organising it. If they’re offering a route to success but haven’t achieved much themselves, does that add up?

3. Does the course seem to offer a lot? Might it be offering too much? Check out user reviews from previous courses.

4. Is this what you really need right now? Call me arrogant but in terms of finding my voice I’ve always thought I was my own best teacher. There’s no substitute for reading as widely as possible and just writing as much as you can. No amount of courses can compensate for the lack of a writing habit. Equally, if you’re not at the publishing stage yet you don’t need a course on how to get an agent.

If you’re unsure what’s out there I recommend signing up to writers’ groups and websites. The Insecure Writers Support Group has a presence on Facebook and Writers Write gives daily writing prompts as well as running courses. You can also subscribe to the email lists of publishers and magazines without having to buy anything (I subscribe to the newsletters of Room magazine, the Royal Society of Literature – which produces the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook – and other local literary fora.) These will tell you of upcoming competitions and submission opportunities. And if you’re a woman there’s no better magazine to subscribe to than Mslexia: as well as offering opportunities within the magazine there are comprehensive listings in the back. I’m also subscribed to Granta magazine, if it ever arrives…but that’s more for reading than submitting to.

It’s amazing what you can get for free, but whatever course you go on there’s no substitute for a good writing habit.

Now, apropos of which, here’s my upcoming course on ‘Developing a Good Writing Habit.’

LOL. Though actually I could totally do that…

Kirk out

Pl*n is a Four-Letter Word

Other writers do things properly. Other writers plan; in fact more than one writer has put in their guidelines ‘plan, plan and plan again.’ I don’t even plan once. Sure, I throw a few random ideas into a notebook; perhaps a few diagrams, maybe even a paragraph or two. A tablespoon of characters, maybe a slew of dominant colours – but that’s all. If I were to plan a novel so that I knew what was going to be in each chapter I’d be so bored by the end of it that I’d lose all interest in writing the damned thing. A novel has to come as a surprise to me otherwise I can’t be bothered.

None of this means I don’t have a broad outline or an overarching idea. All of my novels have begun with a concept: a woman trapped in a nuclear bunker (Seven Days) gender dysphoria (The Trans Woman’s Wife) or the one I’m working on now which is based on the Fibonacci sequence of numbers.

I have an idea about writing, taken from Philip Pullman’s The Subtle Knife (or it might be The Amber Spyglass). There’s a knife which cuts between worlds and someone tells Will, the knife-bearer, ‘when you cut you have intentions. But the knife has intentions too.’ And I think writing’s like that: you start out with intentions (this poem is about…) but the poem has intentions too – and if you are wise you’ll follow those.

‘Following the Intentions of the Novel’ – that sounds like a good title for a writing course, doesn’t it? And here, just for fun, is a quote on writing:

(from Writers write – image removed on request)

Kirk out

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

 

The Voice

Well, today is another day and it’s time for me to share with you the ways I work on my speaking voice in order to make my spoken poetry the best it can be.

As I said the other day I not only learn my poems by heart, the speaking is an important part of composition.  How do you know whether a line is right unless you say it aloud?  To me, writing without speaking is like composing music without playing it – you need to know what it sounds like.

For me the voice is key and I work on it like a singer.  I start with some vocal exercises (having done breathing exercises earlier as part of my yoga) which include going through all the sounds in the English language and practising some tongue-twisters.  Then at the moment I’m adding some overtone singing to the mix.  I just came across it and it’s amazing; you find a point in your voice where it actually starts singing in harmony with itself.  If you don’t understand what I mean neither do I really, but it’s a little bit like singing and running a wet finger round a glass at the same time.  Here’s a video about it:

I’ve been doing this for a week or two now and I think I can hear my own overtones but I’m not quite sure.  She recommends doing this in the shower as a bit of background noise helps you to hear it apparently.

When I’ve done my vocal exercises I turn to the actual poems.  It’s important that I refresh my oeuvre every so often because otherwise some poems will drop off the radar and I will forget them.  My aim is to have every poem ready for performance so that I have something for any occasion.  Usually I go through the whole book of recent poems and choose a few from my earlier book, either at random or following a theme, according to how I feel.

It’s hard to pursue the objective of absolute equality between page and verbal performance as people tend to put you in one category or another; like the publishers who returned my poems which I’d sent with the brief bio they requested.  The bio mentioned my performances and their comment was that the rhythm didn’t come across on the page.  I looked at those poems again as dispassionately as I could and I think they read the bio and made up their minds from there.

I have yet to encounter anyone who marries the page and stage with equal expertise: a case in point was a group I saw on Saturday night.  I ought to say at once that they were great; thoroughly entertaining and original (imagine the Sensational Alex Harvey Band doing poetry and you’ll get an idea.)  Led by poet Mark Gwynne Jones they were called Psychic Bread and were unlike any poets I’d ever seen.  And I feel very churlish saying this but in the light of today’s blog post I wonder how the poems come off on the page?  I’ve had a look but can’t find any in the public domain, so without buying a collection I can’t tell you.  But I wonder.

So there it is: there’s a huge gulf between those who write for the page and those who perform on the stage and it’s a very foolish person who tries to bridge it.

That must be my cue to enter…

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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