Tag Archives: writing

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.


The Emperor’s new poetry book

Of all the things I try to review, poetry is the most problematic. For context, let me mention that I have a degree in English Literature. I’ve studied literary criticism, I’ve written degree level essays on poetry from the last couple of centuries. I’ve read a lot of poetry, historical and more modern. Compared to an academic working in the field of poetry, I’m a lightweight. Compared to the average reader, I’ve read and studied a lot of poetry. And yet, when I look at how other reviewers respond to some books, I can often be stumped.

I’ve just fallen out of a collection. I don’t think I can face reading it to the end. It felt like hitting and sliding down glass walls, with occasionally a sense of meaning implied, but always unavailable to me. Individual lines seemed well wrought, charming even, but added together to make… nothing I can figure out how to respond to. My only emotional response has been frustration.

And yet, other reviewers have heaped praise on it. “A gorgeous, brilliant book,” says one. “Complex sensuousness and deep intelligence.” “Unintrusive precision” – what does that mean, even? “Her almost painterly imagery implodes gracefully.” Ah, so that was what I was missing.

When other critics respond in this way, it’s hard not to feel that as the reader, I must be the problem. I’m too ignorant, no doubt. I couldn’t spot the graceful implosion of a poem if it splattered itself all over my face, I expect.

As an ordinary reader of poems, I’m basically looking for something I can connect with – images, moods, ideas… Some point of meaningful engagement between me and the text. I want something to happen, other than me feeling confused and dense. I can handle ee cummings and Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson and the metaphysical poets. I can cope with complexity, I think. I can cope with metaphor and surprising juxtapositions. In the realms of story and non-fiction, I feel confident saying when something doesn’t add up. The nature of such writing makes it easy to point at problems. We have some collective ideas about what stories and essays are. But what is a poem? What does a poem do? At what point can we safely say ‘this poem is not doing the things’?

A continuity error in a story is easily flagged up. A failure to resolve a plot in a satisfying way is easy to talk about. An argument that isn’t logical, or well founded can be taken apart. ‘I do not get this poem’ can be answered with ‘you didn’t read well enough’. I’m wary about picking holes in poems for this reason. Am I an insufficiently sensitive reader? Am I too old fashioned, too low-brow, insufficiently read and educated. I look at my qualifications, and my reading experience.

Back when I was writing Fast Food at the Centre of the World, I had a poet character. He’s a charlatan. Let me write you the kind of thing John Silver would write…

“In the withheld breathe, a moment of iniquity,

Longing becomes a windmill, exacerbated

By time, for the wind is change and I am the eye

Of a storm that caresses immortality.”

I can do this all day. It doesn’t mean anything. It’s designed to sound like poetry and that is the sum and total of what it is for. Sometimes, in matters of poetry, I am deeply suspicious that the Emperor has no clothes on.


The Pagan and The Pen

Druid Life started as a column on a wordpress blog for Pagan authors – https://thepaganandthepen.wordpress.com/ . When I started I half expected the Pagan Police to show up and tell me I wasn’t allowed to do it. Impostor syndrome is a bit of an ongoing issue for me. I angsted over the title, worrying that this would sound too definitive, too dogmatic. On the whole, I think I’ve got away with it. For various reasons, the column became and almost every day thing. I felt a bit out of kilter with some of what was happening at the site, and founder C.S. Scarlett left. I followed her a little while later and set this up instead. This was all about five years ago.

Then out of the blue this year, C.S. Scarlett got in touch with me. The Pagan and The Pen had fallen by the wayside. No one had posted to it for several years. Could I still get in? I could. We reclaimed it, and restarted it. There followed a lot of spring cleaning, removing the reams of book promo. It’s a problem with inexperienced authors – the temptation to use something successful as an easy way to flog books. What you end up with is wall to wall book promotions and no actual readers. It’s been great fun seeing who wanted to come back, and what could be re-thought.

I’m doing a few things. I’ll be putting up monthly book news – a single post for the releases of new Pagan titles. Contact me if you have something you’d like me to share. We’re doing one post a month, or so, of reviews – again all Pagan titles, picked out by in house reviewer Cosmic Dancer. I’m also looking after the monthly featured artist column, and for the first month of me doing this, I featured Jacqui Lovesey from Matlock the Hare – you can read that here – https://thepaganandthepen.wordpress.com/2016/05/15/jacqui-lovesey-artist-and-illustrator/

Also on The Pagan and the Pen – daily festivals from ancient calendars, herb lore, Sheena Cundy’s music column, Laura Perry writing about Minoan spirituality, and no doubt more as we get into the swing of it. I’ve wanted a project like this for a while – heavy on lifestyle, community and creativity, with multiple contributors. There are a few other collective Pagan sites out there – Patheos Pagan site, Witches and Pagans, Sage Woman… but I think this one has enough of its own style to contribute.


Fiction and Appropriation

A good writer should be able to write about anything. Cultural appropriation is something we talk about a fair bit around Paganism, but not so much around fiction. When is a story an act of appropriation? Are there things authors shouldn’t be writing about unless they have experienced them? Write what you know is common advice, and highly applicable in this case. At the same time, why should any subject, place, person or time be off-limits to any author based on the accident of their birth?

On one hand, there’s an important case to be made for including people who are often excluded, by putting them into stories. Authors are less likely to be disadvantaged people, and can champion those who are. Writing about the people who have no voices – both the living and the dead is important. Writing about people who are unable to speak for themselves. On the other hand, there’s theft, misrepresentation, and exploitation. How do you tell, as an author or as a reader what it is that you’ve got? What should we be celebrating in terms of good diversity in writing, and what should we be discouraging?

I’ve been giving this a lot of thought of late, and I don’t think I have anything like all the answers, but I may have a place to start.

Who does the story serve? If the author is writing beyond their experience, is that because they think it makes them seem cooler, more exotic? Is it to capitalise on a timely story? Is it to express their own assumptions and beliefs about the people they’re (mis)representing? If so, then I think there’s every reason to call it exploitation.

Imagining what you think it would be like to be trans, or disabled, or from another culture, and so forth, is not the same as knowing. Sure, imagining is a good thing, but its easy to cough up prejudice and assumptions. If an author wants to write outside their experience well, they have to do the research. Find out. Most essentially, listen to the people they want to write about, or those close to them. Find out how things really are for them. If we want to give a voice to someone else, we need to know what their authentic voice sounds like. Or could sound like. And of course people are individuals, and one voice is not a social grouping, and we should not be ok with one character being made to speak for a whole group of people, especially when the writer doesn’t have that background.

If the point of the story is to reveal something true, to support, to empathise, then its probably acceptable. It’s not acceptable to make a fetish item of the ‘other’. It’s also important to avoid indulgent redemption narratives that show people like the author saving people who are not like the author – all too often with ridiculously little effort. Rescue narratives often perpetrate myths, and power imbalances.

Respect for your subject matter is key. The author who respects what they’re writing about handles it very differently from the author who sees a cheap thrill to exploit for cash. Work based on genuine insight tends to have a lot more integrity. Imagination rooted in research tends to be a lot more engaging than people making inaccurate guesses based on assumptions.

Anyone who wants to argue with appropriation as a ‘PC’ issue, had better be prepared to defend their work on the basis of its inherent quality. It has to be said, people talking out of their arses seldom write good books.