Can I Be Novel?

From time to time I have what you might call a prosaic crisis, where I wonder if I’m actually cut out to write prose or whether I should stick to poetry.  Yes, I know that these blog posts are in prose, but writing an engaging post is a very different thing from constructing a novel; something which seems utterly to defeat me.

I don’t know where exactly the blockage lies; but maybe help is available, so when a special offer from Mslexia plonked into my inbox; a guide to novel-writing for only three quid, I felt a twinge of that old excitement.  I clicked on the link and read the blurb:

‘Starting with the early sifting of ideas, helping you decide what exactly your book will be about, it goes on to help you create engaging characters, to devise a plot and narrative voice that will keep your reader turning the pages, to work on description and dialogue (and the balance between them), on to editing your work: page by page, but also from a structural perspective.’

There is absolutely nothing wrong with this.  It’s perfectly standard stuff – and yet it somehow filled my insides with lead, because once again I felt ‘this isn’t where I’m at.’  I don’t mean I’m above all that, nor that I don’t need to structure a novel or have interesting characters or whatever, just that…

I don’t even know how to explain it.  I don’t know what I want, I just know what I don’t want.  And that is it.

When I write poetry I feel I’m on the edge of a cliff.  Not always, but often: there’s a sense of pleasurable vertigo, of the wind whipping through your brain and flinging your hair in bundles this way and that.  To be engaged – fully engaged – in the writing of poetry is to be on the high peak of living, a place where words flow through you and are shaped and ordered by your hand.  I experience an amazing thrill in working with words, chopping them up and exploring their sound and their sense.

So why can’t I do this with prose?  Well, when it comes to turning a phrase, I can – but there’s more to writing a story than having an instinctive feel for phrases.  And this is where my heart begins to sink, when I think about things like plot and character and action.  Whenever I consider plot, I begin to die inside.  I bimble along with my writing and then a little voice perks up and says, ‘Surely something ought to happen round about now?’ and then I cry ‘Must something happen?  Can’t I just carry on like this?’

I’m not so bad at dialogue; I’m pretty good at description and I think I can convey character and internal thought.  But plot?  Dear god – kill me.  Kill me now.

My prose bores me at the moment: I need something to get the pulse racing; like when I was writing my first novel about a woman trapped in a nuclear bunker and wanted the novel to go right back to the beginnings of life on earth, 300 million years ago.  I was really excited about this, but the novel took years to complete and came out at barely the length of a novella; a form that’s increasingly difficult to publish.  What excited me, though, was to try to get some idea of what three hundred million years is like, to which end I began this doomed exercise:

https://lizardyoga.wordpress.com/2014/05/22/three-hundred-million-years/

Sometimes I think I’d give my eye teeth to have a normal sort of idea; to be able to say to people ‘I’m writing a novel about a Bulgarian taxi-driver who … ‘ see?  I can’t even take that idea any further.  Instead of which, I’m writing a novel based on a series of Tapestries and the Fibonnaci series.  See what I mean?

‘Doomed exercise’ pretty much sums up my life right now…

Kirk out

 

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Oh Wow. A Whole Decade

I had a little notification in the corner of my page this morning.   ‘That’s odd,’ I thought, as I’m usually told of comments and followers via email and I had just checked my inbox.  I clicked on it and it informed me that it was TEN YEARS AGO TODAY!!! that I started this blog.  I won’t bore you with the details as regular readers have heard it all many times before, suffice it to say that Hanif Kureishi was partly responsible for setting me off on this path.  I suppose I really ought to do something deep and retrospective, like picking out my favourite posts or summarising my journey or selecting the best comments, but the very idea fills me with a reluctance so deep that I can barely move my fingers across the keyboard; so I shall just say Happy Anniversary to lizardyoga’s weblog and a particular shout-out to those readers who have been with me since the beginning.

Thinking about it, the last decade has seen my transition from teacher/part time writer to full-time author and performing poet, which is quite a big deal.  I was updating my CV the other week and it was quite startling how many things I’ve done, from the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square to Leicester Riverside Festival to Left Unity’s national conference and Quaker Yearly Meeting to Sing for Water at Leicester Riverside Festival.  Publications include poems in Mslexia, blogging for the same and short stories in Everyday Fiction.

Maybe soon I’ll get it together and find some retrospective links.  But right now I’m getting ready to go to Wales which includes checking the car tyres (am I the only one who hates doing this?  I think I have a subconscious fear of blowing up one of the tyres.)

So if you’ve been a reader of this blog since May 2008, please drop me a comment and let me know how the last ten years have been for you.

Kirk out

Tired of Brexit? Just Breathe – and Take Back Control!

It’s a long time since I’ve blogged about yoga.  Back in the day, I was posting about some yoga technique or philosophy on a weekly basis, but since I’ve stopped teaching the writing has taken over and now, when I’m asked to say what this blog is about, it’s hard to answer.  The tagline is ‘life and thoughts of a self-underemployed writer,’ and I guess that’s as good a description as any, though I’m not sure I’m ‘underemployed’ any more as I work basically office hours, 9-5-ish, Monday to Friday.  I’ve also got over the tendency to consider what I do as ‘not validated’ unless it is published: when you first start to write it’s very hard to justify the time spent doing it, and if years go by and you publish nothing that feeling can become almost unbearable.

The ultimate validation is to find your authentic voice.  I’m not saying publication doesn’t matter but I think it’s more likely to come once you discover your true voice rather than striving to be a copy of something else.  Still, it’s a loooooooooooong process: like Miles Davis said, it takes a long time to sound like yourself:

https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/783321-man-sometimes-it-takes-you-a-long-time-to-sound

None of which, I now realise, has much to do with the title; as I see that I’ve written several paragraphs very much not about breathing.  I have problems with breathing, as do a lot of people: I have asthma and rhinitis (like hay fever only not seasonal) and although I don’t often get a full-blown asthma attack I can feel short of breath sometimes.  The rhinitis is more of a pain really, consisting of a blocked and runny nose and frequent sneezing.  But hey ho – it could be worse.  I could have leprosy or syphilis.  I could be in a wheelchair having to prove to ATOS every couple of months that my amputated legs are still amputated and haven’t grown back.

So: what can I say about yoga breathing?  I have written essays on it; entire books have been devoted to the subject – but for me the most exciting thing about working with the breath is that it gives you control.  You want to take back control?  Learn to breathe and you can control your heart-rate and blood pressure.  You can slow down your thoughts and calm your emotions.  Stuck in a traffic jam?  Cut up by some arse in a BMW?  Been nice to someone who was rude in return?  All these things tend to raise the blood pressure and agitate the mind, and doing something so simple as merely focussing on the breath can really help.  Try some of these ideas:

https://lizardyoga.wordpress.com/2010/06/10/yoga-practice-of-the-day/

https://lizardyoga.wordpress.com/2010/07/11/yoga-practice-of-the-day-energising/

https://lizardyoga.wordpress.com/2010/07/16/yoga-practice-of-the-day-strength-and-serenity-when-feeling-under-attack/

Just breathe – it really is better than Brexit.

Kirk out

Lay Your Head on the Writer’s Block

I’m never quite sure what writer’s block is.  I know it refers to an inability to write, but what actually counts as writer’s block?  If you sit staring at a screen for hours without writing a word, does that count?  Or is that too short a time?  Does it have to last at least a few days or weeks before you can call it writer’s block?  And when I wasn’t writing at all between the ages of eight and twenty-four, was that writer’s block?  Or was it a crisis of identity?

Aside from the question of how long it lasts, what kind of thing is writer’s block?  Is it the complete inability to write a single word?  Or does it mean you don’t write anything you’re remotely satisfied with?  If it’s the latter, I’m in trouble – because ‘not remotely satisfied’ describes nearly every day’s work for me.  But if it’s the former I’m OK because most days I manage to write something, even if it’s only a blog post.  Which is why I’m so glad I have this blog, because on really bad days where I can’t string two morphemes together, I can at least manacle a blog post into position, run it up the flag and see if anyone salutes it.  A blog post is usually less than 500 words; it’s achievable and, with the click of a button, it’s published and ready to read.

OH has an interesting view on overcoming writer’s block.  In the same way that Michelangelo saw the sculpture as being hidden within the stone

https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/m/michelange386296.html

you could regard writing as ‘taking away’ everything which is not the story.  I’m not sure how cutting things away works when faced with a blank page rather than a lump of rock, but it’s worth thinking about. *

In ‘His Dark Materials’, Phillip Pullman wrote of the subtle knife which cuts windows between different worlds, ‘you may have intentions but the knife has its own intentions.’

http://www.kidsreads.com/reviews/the-subtle-knife

This is an idea I try to bear in mind when writing a poem; that when writing I may have intentions, but the poem has its own intentions too.  Nevertheless, the blank page can be a very intimidating thing to overcome, so when I have a bad day and think all my thoughts are worthless, I try just to write, believing that anything is better than nothing and reminding myself without a first draft there can be no second draft, no finished version.

I guess the process of writing is hard to fathom, else there would be no such thing as writer’s block.  But it’s clear that writing begins with thought.  Thoughts occur in the mind, and the writer selects which of them to commit to paper: so maybe writer’s block begins here, at the level of thought.  When the mind is a blank, the page will be a blank.  However, in my experience what is more likely going on is that the mind is not producing anything your critical self deems worthy of using; hence a good exercise when blocked is to write whatever comes into your mind, no matter how nonsensical or seemingly worthless.  James Joyce did this, and look what he managed to produce just listening to the babbling of his mind!

Interesting things happen when we let go of controlling our thoughts.  And out of this arises poetry.

And I know it’s not the day for linking to it, but I’m going to link here to the Insecure Writers Support Group because this post is relevant.

http://www.insecurewriterssupportgroup.com/

Kirk out

*Sounds like some bizarre version of scissors, paper, stone…

The Year of Sitting Comfortably

Are you sitting comfortably?  Then I’ll begin.

You will only recognise those words if you are a) Old Like Me or b) young and into cultural irony like my son: I continue to be amazed at how much stuff from my youth he recognises because it’s referenced in things he watches.  Anyway, are you sitting comfortably?

Then I’ll begin: because today’s post is about the lost art of storytelling – by which I mean the old oral tradition of face-to-face narration (I realise plenty of stories are being told in print or on film.  Incidentally, remind me to post a review of La La Land.  I saw it on Friday and it is beyond description, but I’ll try.)

What started me off on this was – well, first of all it was because the title came to me and secondly because there is in Loughborough library a storytelling chair.  It’s large enough for one adult and one child, and it’s decorated with ladybirds.  Lovely, I thought, just right for a parent to read to a child.  And then I discovered that it’s actually an electronic chair: you sit in it and it tells you stories – and that seemed sad to me.  It seemed alienating and distancing – and moreover, a waste of money, especially as the funds had been raised by Friends of the Library and could have been spent on an ordinary comfy chair destined for face-to-face storytelling.

One of the first TV programmes I ever watched after we got our first black-and-white set was ‘Jackanory.’  This was a storytelling programme and as with all TV programmes, sitting comfortably was a prerequisite.  Jackanory went on for years and featured famous actors and actresses reading from a book, interspersed with pictures.  It was a simple but effective format.  Nowadays we have to turn to the radio for storytelling, but once every two months I go with Ruth to a group called Telling Tales.  The Leicestershire Guild of Storytellers puts on this event in Leicester and it features a mix of traditional and modern tales from a huge variety of cultures.  Last week we had stories from India, Norway, Germany and Iran, as well as my own largely descriptive account of the garden of the vicarage where I grew up.  I love telling stories and hearing them, and it is my firm belief that we need a return to our oral traditions; to go back to face-to-face storytelling.

And poetry, of course.

Kirk out

Honey I Spent the Voucher

Yesterday I went ahead and spent the Waterstones voucher (no apostrophe is intended, for the apostrophe has gone) which Daniel got me for Christmas.  With it I bought both light and life, which I will explain in a moment.  But first the apostrophe.

I’m sure I’ve blogged about this before *, but the saga of the Waterstones apostrophe reminds me of a pub in Northampton which went from sensible to silly and then just plain absurd.  I have mixed feelings about apostrophes: when they are used I like them to be used correctly, but they are in general so poorly understood that I think we should abolish them altogether.  However, this pub in Northampton started out as a perfectly respectable establishment called the King William IV.  It then being the eighties, it reincarnated as a silly fun-pub catering for yuppies and styled itself King Billy’s.  But over the ensuing months bits of the name dropped off, leaving the name as King Billy’ (losing the ‘s’ but keeping the apostrophe) and then as King Billy with half an apostrophe, something wordpress is unable to reproduce.  So that the failure of punctuation mapped the downfall of this once respectable pub.

Here it is, apparently now closed but due to reopen; if the brewery can be believed (and who could doubt the word of a brewery?)

http://www.northamptonchron.co.uk/news/owners-hope-to-have-closed-northampton-pub-reopen-as-soon-as-possible-1-7232033

So with this voucher, as I said, I bought a light.  It’s a very useful light as it clips onto the pages of the book you are reading enabling you to read in bed without needing to get up and turn the light off afterwards.  And I also elected to buy a book of short stories.  I prefer novels but the problem with a good novel is I devour it in a matter of days (I’m already on my second reading of the Rebus I got for Christmas) whereas short stories last me a lot longer.  They also have the merit of introducing me to authors I may never have read.  There is much to say about this particular volume of short stories, but I’ll save it for another post, except to comment that the introduction laments the lack of outlets for writers of the form – a view with which I concur utterly.

So as I come to the end of this post I notice another year has begun.  I wish you all – what do I wish you all?  Everything you wish yourselves, unless what you wish is like this (go to minute 32):

Kirk out

*I did – it’s here:

https://wordpress.com/post/lizardyoga.wordpress.com/4501

Insecure Wednesday

Yes, it’s the first Wednesday of the month and time to be insecure again – and this month the question we insecure writers are asked to consider is, ‘What is your favourite aspect of being a writer?’

http://www.insecurewriterssupportgroup.com

Well I guess for me, my favourite aspect is the tremendous sense of liberation which comes from ‘unpacking the heart.’  That phrase is used rather disparagingly by Hamlet, but for me it’s an opening, a freedom; not so much a road as a river that you follow, never knowing where it may lead you.  Each day is a surprise and although it is often hard, just as following the course of a river is hard and can lead you into ravines and over rugged rocks; when you finally break through, the experience is stunning.

I never know where I’m going and I like it that way.  Looking back you find a sense of rhythm and purpose but at the time it often makes no sense: all you can do is pursue that infuriating river that twists and winds, falls and rises, expands to a sea and contracts almost to nothing.  It’s like Leonard Cohen once said: it starts off easy but then you’re on your hands and knees at 3 am trying to pursue a lyric.

OK so now I realise I’m getting away from the good stuff and talking about the difficulties.  But you can’t have one without the other folks!

Speaking of Hamlet, there was a guy on the radio the other day who claimed that the supposed universality of Shakespeare was all down to a conspiracy by the RSC.  Sounds a bit far-fetched to me…

Happy (and hard) writing!

Kirk out