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

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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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I Love Deadlines

I know this is not a phrase you hear from many writers but I love deadlines – and not merely for the whooshing noise they make which so entertained Douglas Adams.  I love deadlines because they focus me.  If I have years and years to complete a project I do not, as some sensible folk do, plan it out, break down the work into chunks and do a certain amount per month.  I suspect that isn’t how most writers work either; to judge by the jokes on the subject, a two-year project would consist of eighteen months procrastination, five months fiddling and one month pure panic.  I, on the other hand, need an incentive to get me going and a deadline provides that incentive.  If the end of a project is two years away I’m likely to get bored, but give me a deadline in two months and I’m on it, even if I have no chance of getting finished within that time.  It’s a little like the crisis inducer in The Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy which brings on a crisis to sharpen your wits when needed.  So what I need is basically a Deadline Inducer to bring on a deadline and sharpen my desire to work: some button I can press which makes a voice in my head say, ‘the deadline’s next Monday!  This has to be in by next Monday!  You need to complete this by the 4th!’ and so on.  Come to think of it, Douglas Adams should have had one of those…

Having said that, the deadline for the radio play has whooshed by without my play being submitted as it became increasingly obvious that the thing was mushrooming and could not be wrestled into shape any time soon.  On the other hand I have sent one short story, three pieces of flash fiction and three poems to various magazines well within their respective deadlines.  So brownie points to me.

Where do I go to get brownie points?

Kirk out

 

And Finally, Cyril

Sometimes the universe hates me.  This is not just a perception of mine, nor is it connected to the fact that I definitely got out of bed the wrong side this morning: it is an actual fact.  The universe hates me and wants to thwart my every effort.  First, the laptop started playing up again and wouldn’t let me do the crossword (except in the sense of being cross about the words I couldn’t fill in.)  Then when I needed to edit a story and send it off, I couldn’t.  Nope, not one s

Here’s an example: you see the text below?  No?  No, neither do I because the effing laptop just deleted it!   Then before you can say ‘no deal Brexit’ (I’m trying so hard not to think about that) it decided I didn’t need to blog any more and closed the tab.  I swear to God…

OK.  Deep calming breaths because I may – just may – have learned something here.  I’ll get to that in a minute.  Meanwhile, pausing only to save this draft at the end of every sentence, I shall continue.  Where was I?  Oh yes, not one s-

Yes.  Not one s-entence, not one word, not a single apostrophe or hair on the head, would it let me change.  OK then, I’ll send it off as it is.  After a great deal of juggling and cursing I managed to copy and paste the text.  Whew.  But my ordeal was not over: first I had to confirm that ‘I am not a robot.’  Most sites are content to simply let you tick the box and confirm your humanity, not oh no – not this one.  It was one of those captcha things I absolutely dread.  You know the ones.  You’ve got eight or ten pictures of various indecipherable scenes and it asks you to ‘check’ (ie tick) all the ones with store fronts.  How the hell are you supposed to tell whether a bunch of blurry bricks constitute a store front?  I tried about six of these (I never get them right and it really annoys me) before finally realising that because it was one of those sites which rejects everything you’ve done until you get one small detail right, the problem was in fact with my ‘website’ address.  Most people are happy with lizardyoga.wordpress.com but not this one: they wanted the full complement of https’s and colons and backslashes.  Anyway the thing’s sent off now, albeit in very rough form.

But if there’s a silver lining here it’s this: I have a sneaking suspicion that sometimes my first thoughts are my best thoughts.  Sometimes I feel that in editing and re-editing I’m actually spoiling the original vision.  Certainly the few things I’ve done recently which were just off the top of my head seem to work quite well.  So that’s a bit of a puzzler, if it’s true.

Anyway, the thing I sent off today was a 500-word piece based on a cartoon.  It’s a prompt I get monthly from Visual Verse:

https://visualverse.org

Kirk out

Writing Tips – Make Friends with Serendipity

I’m going to tell you a story.  Actually I’m going to tell you two stories – a tale of two tales, if you will – and it goes like this.

A couple of years ago I wrote a short story about a jumper, in which I used knitting as a metaphor for writing.  You can see the idea: each stitch is a letter, every row a line of prose, every colour a plot-line, and so on.  The story touched on the themes of miscarriage and Greenham Common and I was quite pleased with it at the time, but when I found it again I felt dissatisfied with it.  Something was missing.  I rewrote and rewrote but it still wasn’t right.  But what happened next was pure serendipity…

Image result for serendipity

image removed on request

As you know, I’ve been getting daily writing prompts in my inbox.  I set a timer for five minutes and just write without planning or forethought until the timer goes off, when I stop.  I’m allowed to finish the word I’m writing but not the sentence, and I’m allowed to read it through once but no more.

So here’s the thing.  Today’s prompt was ‘Where Did They Find the Lost Doctors?’ by which they presumably meant the lost episodes of Dr Who.  Then again, how you interpret the prompt is up to you, so I chose instead to imagine all the previous incarnations of the Doctor and to wonder where they are now.  I decided – or rather, my subconscious decided, since there’s no time for conscious thought – that they are all gathered on Gallifrey; all except Tom Baker who is wandering Earth in search of enlightenment.  The older Doctors are teasing Peter Capaldi about being replaced by a woman, and it’s beginning to make him grumpy.  They spend their time reminiscing and playing uber-pool with models of various solar systems.  When I was finished I thought maybe OH would like to read it and so I typed it up. 

Now, when I type up new stories I use a story template so I don’t have to set the font, spacing and margins all over again.  And sometimes it happens that another story is still lurking on the template instead of having been deleted after saving to the Short Stories folder.  No problem, I thought, I’ll just delete it once I’m  finished.  But I forgot; so OH received what he thought was one story but which was in fact two.

This is where serendipity comes in – because he actually thought it worked!  He said the first ‘Doctors’ bit seemed to fit in perfectly with the second part.  So maybe I’ve found the missing bit of my knitting story.

Serendipity!  Learn to recognise it when it comes: just because something is a mistake, doesn’t mean it won’t work.  Some accidents are happy, after all.

Some, on the other hand, aren’t; like spilling water on my laptop.  So while it dries out I’m using OH’s model.

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?

Living My Best Life

I was inspired after reading Hadley Freeman in the Guardian to share with you, my voracious readers, a day in my life.

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/nov/10/four-hours-sleep-yoga-dawn-todays-influencers-best-lives

I do not wake; I am woken, usually before 7 am by an overenthusiastic spouse who always thinks that unlocking the front door and making a pot of tea takes half an hour instead of five minutes.  That’s on a good day.  On a bad day (most days are bad days) I wake at between four-thirty and six-thirty; sometimes I go back to sleep and sometimes I don’t.  Sometimes I think I don’t sleep but I do – so OH tells me, anyway.  If I’m awake around six-thirty I’ll sit up and meditate for ten or fifteen minutes while OH does the business; then begins our shared morning time.  I check emails and Facebook, we tut and sigh over the news; I read my daily inspirational readings:

https://cac.org/category/daily-meditations/

and begin the Guardian crossword.  Around ten to eight after Thought for the Day I nip to the bathroom: if I leave it too late I will lose my yoga window downstairs (I aim for half an hour of yoga and usually miss.)  Breakfast is either boiled egg and soldiers or muesli or toast and jam (are you still reading?  Not asleep yet?) which I take upstairs and eat while finishing the crossword.

After that it’s writing: usually poetry in the mornings and prose in the afternoons.  After lunch is often a dead time so I’ll do something else for a while; go for a walk, do some washing, dig the garden; read.  Then it’s prose all the way to dinner-time around six (usually some combination of veg and carbs) followed by my treat of the day, chocolate biscuits dunked in roibos.  Evenings are usually slumped in front of the iplayer unless I have a meeting or social event: last night it was the folk club (this featured songs from the First World War and was excellent.)

As I don’t sleep enough I’m usually tired by 9.30 and in bed by ten.  And that’s my rock-n-roll life.

Inspirational, ain’t it?

Kirk out