Tag Archives: writing

Jack of all trades

Yesterday’s post featured a rag rug, with a design drawn by my other half. I know three ways to make rag rugs. There are a great many other crafts I can do a bit, numerous musical instruments I can play passably, and a vast array of other things in which I have dabbled over the years. I like to dabble, I get excited learning new things, and I get bored if I spend too long doing all the same things. However, while I’m pro dabbling and experimenting, it’s not without hazards.

If all you end up doing is learning new stuff, you can find you don’t develop anything properly, never get beyond beginner stage, never learning to push and never doing anything for long enough to have it bear fruit. It can be a way of avoiding dealing with happens when you commit. As a dabbler, you may never finish anything, never really achieve anything but there’s always a new exciting project to wave at people. All the attention, none of the exposure of making something people can experience for themselves, and maybe judge.

Without a doubt, the best creative work comes from a mix of inspiration and dedication. It means building a skill set so that when you have a fire in your head, you can make best use of it. It takes a long time to become truly good at something – the general estimate seems to be about ten thousand hours. The more time a person spends dabbling, the less scope there is to get to that point with any given skill. But on the up side, you can become an expert in learning how to quickly learn things, and there are plenty of times in life when being a Jack of all trades is more useful than being the master of one.

I find that when I dabble, I deepen my appreciation for people who do the things well. When I know more, I am better equipped to enjoy and appreciate. I think this is because I’m pretty good at staying realistic about my own skills and insights. If you do a single course, or a brief session and you think you are then an expert, that can have some seriously distorting effects on how you see other people’s work.

Dabbling enriches my understanding of the world, and anything that teaches me feeds back into my writing. It keeps me fresh, and interested, and hauls me out of ruts and gloom. If something isn’t working for me I will eventually stop banging my head against it and pick up something else for a while. Dabbling is play, and fun and often what I do with my leisure time. I like making things, I like exploring.

As a creator I’m increasingly interested in what happens when disciplines collide. Not just putting words and images together, as with the graphic novel work, but putting music and images together, exploring stories through craft, how I can use my body more in spoken word performance… I love stories made out of fragments and ephemera, and that means I need to learn how to make more of the pieces.

So, I advocate dabbling, exploring, and playing. Know that’s what you’re doing, don’t mistake it for having the same depth and breadth of knowledge as someone has when they’ve worked on a skill for many years. Don’t use it as a substitute for seeing a project to conclusion. Don’t require yourself to achieve at the same standard as an expert when you’re only playing with something. Don’t lose sight of your personal goals, vision etc in the muddle of trying to learn to do ten thousand things. Sometimes a new skill is just a shiny distraction from the things you need to be doing. Pausing regularly to take stock helps make it all work.

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The courting of poems

Everyone who writes will have their own process, or more than one way of bringing words together. For some it’s all about jotting down notes, mapping out ideas, sketching, doodling, trying things and putting together the bits that work. It’s rare that a good piece of writing comes together fully formed and straight onto the page, even those of us who don’t do much development writing expect to have to edit and tidy up whatever emerged in the rush of inspiration.

For me, a poem usually begins with a seed idea. That can come from absolutely anywhere, so of course every single day is full of hundreds of things that might be poems. There’s an unconscious selection process that makes me latch onto some things and not others. A sense of possibility, of something I can follow and develop is usually part of this, and I notice it happening even though I’m not in deliberate control of it.

Once I’ve got that seed idea, I’ll hold it for as long as it takes. Usually a few days, but sometimes longer – months, in a recent case. I’ll think about the idea I’ve got, feel my way around it, see what it connects with. I won’t pick up a pen and risk catching it on paper before it is ready, and I’ve learned that it pays not to rush. I’ll play with word arrangements in my head, testing turns of phrase against the idea.

For example, I recently posted a poem called ‘The Use of Cauldrons’. It was a response to the OBOD work I did with Taliesin more than a decade ago, and to Lorna Smithers’ The Broken Cauldron, which I read last year, so I’d been gestating unconsciously for a long time. I simply woke up with a sense of how to write about cauldrons. It then took several days of just letting that wash around in my brain, and then I was able to sit down and write a decent first draft fairly quickly. I left it alone for a couple of days and then tidied it up. A second poem written recently was sparked back in the winter, I knew what I wanted to do but not how to do it. Again, there were unconscious processes, and then an invitation to read locally, and things fell into place.

For me, the process of creating a poem begins long before pen meets paper. I can’t manufacture those little seeds of inspiration that stand out, and have the potential to become something. They are a consequence of richness in my life – that can come from time spent outside, time with friends, time being inspired by other people’s creativity and anything else with that kind of depth and intensity. If I don’t deliberately make room for that kind of experience, then there won’t be the ‘ping’ moments that give me something to write about.


Notes on creativity

Those of you who have followed this blog for a while will know I’ve had ongoing struggles with creative work. The creative industries are a mess, austerity means many people can’t afford books, art or music. It’s really hard making a living at the moment. There’s only so much time and energy available to me. However, over the last six months or so I’ve learned a lot of useful things about staying creative, so, here’s what’s been helping me get moving again.

  1. Not using writing to pay the bills. It’s incredibly stressful and requires a rapid output, which I have found depressing and exhausting every time I’ve tried it. I am more likely to make money from writing if I write the things I want to write and then try to find a home for it, and not have making it pay be my primary concern. If I’ve got my responsibilities to my family covered, I feel freer in my writing, and other forms of creativity too.
  2. Peer support. Knowing it’s not just me, it’s not my failing but an industry-wide issue. Feeling recognised and respected by creative people I admire and respect helps maintain morale.
  3. People to create for. For me an art is only complete when it encounters someone else. A book no one reads is unfinished. People to write for give me a sense of hope and purpose. This blog helps me keep going, I’ve also felt really inspired as a consequence of support for my Patreon. It’s more about people wanting my work than the money, but the money helps.
  4. Making headspace. I can do the disciplined churning out of words, but to really create I need time to daydream, wonder, question and whatnot. I need time when I’m not directly using my brain for other things. I need to be ok with apparently doing nothing in order to make a space for inspiration to come in.
  5. Time to study. I need raw material to use creatively. This means reading, experiencing, learning. I need time to take workshops or lessons, time to pick up courses – not all of it directly about writing, either!
  6. Opportunities to be inspired. Other people’s books, live music, theatre, film, walks, good food, nights spent dancing, conversations with friends, beautiful landscapes… If I don’t feed my soul, all the time, then I can’t create. Get this right and I’m much more likely to be inspired.

Put that together and what you get are creative friends I can spend time with, whose creativity I can be inspired by and who are up for reading my stuff as well. People to walk with, cook with, hang out with, go to gigs with… and as there’s been a lot of that in my life in recent months, it turned out all I had to do was start making better spaces for myself, and putting down things that don’t serve me, and creativity becomes a good deal more feasible.


The people who sneak into your home

Modern technology means we’re letting a lot of people into our homes, into intimate spaces where they can talk to us without interruption and we can’t question them or answer back.

If you give a poem, one person to another, on a card, in an email, it becomes personal. It hardly matters what the poem says it will seem like there must be some kind of personal message in it. At the same time you can put a more personal poem in a public space and unless you’ve made some unmistakable references, most readers will not assume it’s about them. People don’t tend to take it personally if you give them poetry collections, also, unless perhaps it’s all handwritten and manifestly about them.

Poetry itself is a delivery method which suggests the personal – something I’ve blogged about before.

It’s worth thinking about the things that we allow into our homes to speak to us personally and directly. Who gets to stand in your living room (on a screen) of an evening and tell you how it all works? Who is on your phone, in your hands, talking directly to you? Do you feel like their message is for you? One of the things many broadcasters seem to do on radio (I don’t watch TV, I can only speculate) is create a sense of intimacy, it’s just you and them in a small, dark cupboard (maybe that’s just me!). Having dabbled in making youtube videos myself, I know how to do it, how you talk to the camera as though it was a good friend. It’s also how I write the blog, aiming for a specific kind of tone, a feeling of closeness and complicity…

Now, if a person presses a handwritten poem into your hand, that’s a rare event and it stands out. The people who come to whisper to us in our own homes are there more days than not, and familiarity can have us paying less attention. It’s worth paying attention to how these curious guests make you feel, and if they make you feel uncomfortable, turfing them out and not inviting them back is always an option. I don’t have a television because there are too many people I don’t want to invite round of an evening.

Every book imagines its reader. Every speech imagines its audience. In part because it is hard to communicate well without imagining you are talking to someone. It helps to know your audience and to pitch the language accordingly. But at the same time, anyone who has studied writing, or speech making or any other kind of presentation soon learns things about how to make the recipient complicit. How to make them feel involved, and like this is very much for them and about them. This blog, it’s just between you and me, dear reader. When you read it, you read it alone, and sometimes I strike a chord and you may feel I wrote it just for you, and maybe… I did.

Like any tool set, these skills can be used well or badly. Communicating in a way that develops insight and understanding has to be a good thing, but I don’t think that’s what mostly happens at the moment. If the glimpses I get of mainstream media are indicative, then the intimacy of the voices we let into our homes is not doing us much good, collectively. It’s discouraging empathy, feeding feelings of powerlessness, making us wary of each other, and inclined to blame each other and not looking for who or what is moving on the other side of the curtain. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain…


Getting beyond myself

Recently when I wrote about finding a voice for performance, Lorna Smithers raised the issue of finding voices that are not your own. I think this is a really important developmental stage for anyone working with words, and that it merited a follow up.

I’ve worked in publishing for about twenty years now, which has given me a broad perspective on what authors do. New authors tend to write autobiographically. This is one of the reasons first novels are often best left in a drawer! Write what you know is perfectly good advice for getting started, but it’s rarely enough to give you a great book. New authors will dramatise their own hopes and fears, revisit their own experiences and cast themselves as the unlikely hero.

Some authors never move past the autobiography stage. Some find they can’t, and drift away from writing as a consequence. The authors who will go on to do really good work will start to find things other than themselves interesting. They’ll wonder and ask questions, and start writing about things they did not know. Research and experimentation may replace casual experience. They may visit locations, swot up on subjects, observe others, and use this to fuel their imaginations.

In fairness, I have read some really good semi-autobiographical first novels. They tend to come about because the author has learned something from personal experience that they want to share. It’s not a form of wish fulfilment, but a desire to express something significant.

These days when I’m developing ideas for a novel, I spend time exploring the first person voices of many of the main characters. I try to get in their skin and see it all from their perspective. I’ll usually put that down to write in third person, but it helps to individualise characters and establish what makes them tick. It’s a bit like sketching.

Making art is often a curious balance of things. Imagination coming from within, inspiration coming from without. Working with what we know and feel, and with what is unknown and can only be speculated about. Grounding in known things and letting fly into realms of speculation. It’s in the tensions between these things that it becomes possible to create something original and exciting.


In search of a voice

Finding your voice is a key part of development for any creator working with language. In non-linguistic arts, finding your own style is just as relevant, so all of this can be applied more widely.

Give me a keyboard or a pen, and voice is not an issue for me. I started looking for my voice some twenty years ago. It has changed over time, as I have changed, but it’s not something I have to reach for any more. I know what I sound like on paper. That holds even if I’m working in first person and using a voice not strictly my own.

When it comes to performance, voice is something I’ve not sorted out. I can sing – in the most literal sense of having a voice, that’s been fine for nearly as long as the writing. I used to MC, without much confidence, I do talks and workshops at events and I now spend a lot of time in the company of performance poets and storytellers. It has become apparent to me this year that in terms of performing, I haven’t found my voice. I don’t have my own style.

Who do I want to be when I’m performing? What do I want to sound like? What impression do I want to create? I notice that some people have pronounced performance voices that are different from their personal voice, and some don’t. Some people use their everyday language, and some take on a very different vocabulary for the stage. How words are paced, the tones used, the physical movement or absence thereof all goes into creating an overall effect.

Part of what makes my written voice the way it is, is that I pause to consider my phrasing. I’m not the sort of person who has to sweat out each line, but I don’t rush, either. Then I read it back and check that it does what I want it to do. I care about exact phrasing, because I want to convey specific meanings. I also want to avoid dogma, authority, accidentally excluding people, and unnecessary verbal aggression. When I’m speaking, I can’t edit. I can of course write ahead of time and commit it to memory, but that can result in a more stilted performance unconnected from what’s going on around me.

The only way forward is to experiment. I need to try out different ways of doing things, and see what happens. I need to be willing to make mistakes, change direction, and feel uncomfortable. I cannot expect to magically have my speaking voice turn up and function at a professional level and I am going to have to learn how to do a decent job in the company of people whose experience and ability far exceeds mine. There is no scope for development without some risk taking. While I’ve no great enthusiasm for falling flat on my face in public, I also have no desire to stay put. Overcoming the fear of looking like a prat in front of people I respect has not been easy, but I think I’m there now.

I know that my main aims are to be more relaxed about the whole thing and more able to trust my spoken voice. I’d like to be a better public speaker. Beyond that, I don’t know – which is also why the process is so important. There are many things I can’t figure out by wondering, but will come to understand by doing.


Colouring for poetry

One of the things about illustration work, is that the spark of inspiration tends to come from somewhere else. When I’ve got my colouring hat on, I’m several stages down the chain of inspiration. Writing inspires a black and white drawing, which Tom then passes to me, and I do my best to make colour-sense of. What I do is very much led by what’s already been done. On the plus side, this means I can often work on colouring when I’m feeling short of personal inspiration.

 

This is one of our more recent pieces – a cover for a poetry collection by Adam Horovitz.

Working on the convolvulus had me thinking that I could perhaps go back to drawing plants in detail – something I’ve not done since my late teens.


Writing a view of the land

You’d think, that as a lover of landscape and a fiction enthusiast, I’d appreciate nothing more than a long, descriptive sections about a place, in a novel. Often I find the reverse is true, and these passages make me unhappy. For a long time, I’d not poked into that to make sense of the mechanics, but a recent reading juxtaposition has made it all make sense.

I’ve been reading David Abram’s Becoming Animal, and a great deal of work by Kevan Manwaring. I noticed over the winter that I greatly enjoy Kevan’s landscape writing, and that this is unusual for me. David Abram talks about how we treat landscape as scenery, and this helped me realise how much I struggle when descriptions of a landscape are largely, or purely visual. Often what happens when a writer describes a scene, is that you the reader are positioned as an observer. You’re stood outside, looking in, and the landscape is scenery. It’s the backdrop for the action.

Where Kevan Manwaring noticeably differs, is that his writing of landscape is immersive. He doesn’t position the reader as an outsider, but as someone actively engaged in the process of being in that landscape. The landscape is not scenery. It impacts of the experiences, thoughts, feelings and inner landscapes of characters. The human is permeated by the bigger picture. As a reader, I experience this much more intensely. I have a feeling experience of what it’s like to be in a place, even in the kinds of places I have no personal experience to bring to bear.

As a walker, I’ve long been interested in what happens to bodies in a landscape. How we experience the land varies, and depends in no small part on our expectation. The person who is waiting for the view is not immersed in the same way as the person who is excited by every turn of the path. The person who goes out to be in the landscape has a different experience from the person who is just going somewhere specific. How a person is in the landscape must therefore inform how they write about it. Too often we’re consumers and observers of the land, not participants in it. It’s a self-propagating cycle, because if we only read about scenery, we’re in a mindset that won’t help us appreciate being present, and if we’re not present, we’ll only ever notice scenery, we won’t immerse. It is possible to break out, but you have to think breaking out might be possible.

You can find Kevan Manwaring here – https://thebardicacademic.wordpress.com


The unconscious plotter

I’ve had a bit of a revelation this autumn in terms of how my creativity works. For the majority of my creative life, I’ve resisted doing much planning of stories, and avoided too much time pressure. I did once write a novel in 6 weeks (for money) but it took so long to recover afterwards, it wasn’t worth it. The whole ‘write a book in a month’ thing that is NaNoWriMo leaves me cold. This, I have realised, is because plotting is better for me when I do it less consciously.

If I sit down and lay out a plot, the odds are it will take a fairly obvious shape. I’ll think about beginning, middle, end, action, tension and resolution. I’ve tried doing it this way and there’s a very high risk I’ll get bored and never finish the first draft.

If I go the other way, the slow way, something else happens. I usually spend a lot of time before I start writing just thinking about the setting and the main characters. I get to know them. I explore their first person voices in my head until I know how those voices work and what sort of people I’m crafting/summoning/channelling. Then I let it go from there. It’s not a smooth process, it takes as long as it takes, and sometimes there are gaps. I don’t always know why I’ve written things. However, if I let go and trust the process, what invariably happens is that apparently random things will slowly weave into a coherent-ish sort of story, where the narrative emerges and has an odd shape of its own.

I wouldn’t get to that kind of story if I tried to plan it.

The human mind is a complicated thing, and much of our thinking isn’t done at a level where we can see it. Our ability to calculate, to find patterns, and to experience inspiration, all happens beneath our own radar. To do something in a fully conscious way is to only use a part of what we’ve got at our disposal.

I use the second draft as the time for conscious, deliberate crafting and the application of skills and knowledge. I find it works better that way, shaping the raw clay my unconscious mind generates. There’s no point, I have finally realised, trying to make my creativity flow at a predictable rate in tidy ways. If I want to be inspired, I have to go with what works, and my inspiration goes at its own pace, or not at all.


Authoring and inspiration

I generally avoid writing about writing because it’s dull, and the internet is awash with it, but there’s an issue I think needs tackling. One frequently offered piece of advice on blogs about writing, is that you should do it every day, or often. The impression given is that waiting around for inspiration is unprofessional, it’s the approach of the self indulgent hobbiest. I read the opening to an interview with Hilary Mantel a bit back in which she said of course she writes every day, she wouldn’t want anyone to think she was one of those people who just does it for fun (I paraphrase). I did not feel inspired to read any further.

Call me old fashioned, but I think there’s a role for ideas, imagination and creativity in books. I’ve tried it the other way, and I can reliably grind out words to meet both word counts and deadlines, but it’s rare these are my best words. I’m not at all sure the world will greatly benefit from more books that were written in a disciplined, professional way, without any inspiration in the mix. I have a suspicion this is how a fair amount of fiction is written, and I know the majority readership picks up books that conform to predictable shapes. It’s certainly what we’re telling each other to do. Books are more perspiration than inspiration, of course, but without inspiration, what are they? Painting by numbers?

For the person who wants to be An Author – published, recognised, and with decent sales figures, it makes sense to go after the markets that pay, and the dependable readerships. Give them what they want. As a reader I’ve never been attracted to those books (give me Matlock the Hare, give me Sheena Cundy and Carol Lovekin…). More than anything I want to be surprised, I want to be caught up in the imagination and vision of the author.

No doubt one of the (many) reasons I’m not very successful is that I was always more interested in the creativity than in being An Author. I wanted to write books that weren’t like anything else out there. I wanted to have ideas that would surprise, delight, blow other people away. I wanted to say something of substance about life and the human experience, but do it in a way that is readable and doesn’t require a degree in English Literature. I live in hope of achieving some of this one day.

I can’t do that without having ideas. I can’t manufacture ideas, I have to wait for them to turn up. I need time to reflect, to research, to experience, to gather material, gather wool, weave something in my head. At the moment, the balances in my life aren’t delivering the space to think creatively very often. I can and do sit down and write pretty much every day – I write this blog – but I wouldn’t create a novel this way.