I Don’t Remember: Writing Experiment No. 67

Earlier today, Kellie Jackson directed me to this powerful photo essay on the stolen generations of Australia. The accompanying essay talks about ‘disremembering’ – the untold histories, the silenced voices, the highly selective nature of looking at colonial history.

It made us think about the I Remember exercises that are probably my favourite writing experiments – there’s no better way of establishing an easy voice in writing. I Remember can be a charming nostalgic trip, or a journey back into sad moments, but it tends to directly access lived experiences that bring a whole time and place to life.

I Don’t Remember, on the other hand, invites a degree of irony, or asks us to be more critical about received wisdoms. Don’t-Remembering is, of course, a means of remembering too, and it’s one that might require a little more work, a look aslant – recovering, revisiting, restoring the truth, whether it’s dealing with family secrets or fake news or the brushed-over abuses of history. I Don’t Remember confronts lies, and makes us bear witness.

For this writing experiment: Set a timer for fifteen minutes and write an I Don’t Remember … Start every line with I Don’t Remember, and see what comes next.

Interview on The Craft of Revising

Kellie Jackson of Words Away recently interviewed me on her blog for the workshop on revising and self-editing that we are holding in June, and I thought I’d copy it here as well. I know some of the people who’ve signed up already, and there are a few spots left. Do let us know if you have any questions – and I’ll look forward to seeing some of you on 23rd June.

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Kellie: We have an exciting new workshop, The Craft of Revising, all planned and ready for Saturday, 23rd June. I’m teaming up once again with experienced editor and writing teacher, Andrew Wille, who’ll be leading the workshop. There’s also a Q&A session arranged for the afternoon with Virago Press chair, Lennie Goodings. Our venue, the London Bridge Hive, is a recently renovated space located three minutes walk from London Bridge Station – close to Borough Market and the cafes of Bermondsey Street. I thought it would be interesting to interview Andrew about next month’s workshop to give you a flavour of what’s on offer – especially as we’re planning more craft oriented workshops later in the year.

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Kellie: Our first collaborative endeavour, Everyday Magic: The Four Elements of Creativity, had an emphasis on creativity and intuition rather than outcome. This new workshop is focusing on the ways in which we Create, Craft and Connect our writing – our approach will be intuitive and practical, challenging yet generous. Can you expand on this a little?

Andrew: It is certainly more outcome-oriented, in that we’ll be working towards the goals of a finished manuscript and a published book, which are practical aspects of writing we might relate to the left side of the brain in the Everyday Magic workshop. We’ll discuss aspects of form and technique essential to improving a draft (Craft), and also talk about the realities of the market (Connect).

I prefer to think about readership rather than marketplace, though: writers connect when their books are read, rather than when they are sold, so let’s think about relationships with readers instead. Writers connect especially when their books move readers, so what do we need to do to convey feeling in our work? Much relies on developing intuitive approaches: digging deeper with character, achieving the right voice and tone, remaining open to a book’s potential, experimenting.

And how do we sustain those initial sparks that bring your work to life (Create)? And what in fact were those initial sparks, and how might the work have shifted during the drafting?

I’m hoping this course will foster a creative and intuitive approach towards a practical outcome. Both/both, rather than either/or.

Kellie: How developed does a writer’s manuscript need to be in order to get the most out of this workshop?

Andrew: Writers who have a first (or an umpteenth) draft should find this useful, but so should writers who’ve embarked on a work-in-progress and completed some writing of substance: an outline, or a few chapters, maybe the 15,000 words of an MA dissertation. It’s about training yourself in approaches to revising, as well as the tasks that self-editing might involve.

The workshop should be helpful for novelists and writers of longer works, but also writers of short stories and essays. Some of the discussion might seem more obviously focused on the craft of fiction, but this can be just as relevant to nonfiction too. Voice, character and setting are vital in a novel, for example, but they are also needed in nonfiction, even if they crop up in more subtle ways.

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Kellie: Is editing a creative endeavour?

Andrew: Of course it is! Occasionally we generate pieces of writing that come out perfectly formed, but on the whole I’m with Anne Lamott: expect first drafts to be shitty, and improvement to come through the creativity of revising and editing.

Kellie: Are all first drafts shitty … ?

Andrew: Actually, maybe I’m not so much with Anne Lamott – maybe I don’t like the idea of anydraft being shitty? A first draft is just a first draft, after all – it’s about getting the material down, and sometimes we don’t really know what we have until we get to The End. And what’s shitty about that? It is what it is.

By contrast, Allen Ginsberg said: First Thought, Best Thought. Though I question that approach, too – I’m all for spontaneous bursts of genius, but a First Thought can often be revised into an Even Better Thought.

Kellie: You clearly think drafting is important, then?

Andrew: Yes! I’m surprised at how often beginning writers finish a first draft, give it a light dusting for typos, and then submit a manuscript for publication. I guess there must be occasions when such books do get published – though if anyone knows of an example, please let me know! It’s more likely that much of the real work begins once a first draft is complete.

The task of creation gains depth when, armed with the hindsight of reaching the end of a first draft (or even just its middle), you start to probe your intention: where on earth did that come from? Why did I write that? Should I follow that trail for a while …? Giving yourself permission to explore during the drafting can be very important.

Maybe the shittiness of a first draft is rich manure, and maybe what’s grown in it includes lots of seeds that need thinning out, and some dead wood or crossing branches that need pruning, and maybe a bush that needs some special attention so that its flowers bloom more brightly?!

Gardening presents many analogies for the work of self-editing and revising. You take what’s there, and see what’s needed and what’s not needed, and you plan accordingly. And: you can’t have everything! This is advice that my own garden is only finally heeding now. I’ve had to murder a few darlings, or at least give a few away, and the frost did some of the rest in. Likewise, focusing your energy on your strengths and resources will make your writing more effective.

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Kellie: You have a background in publishing and worked as an editor of fiction and nonfiction for many years: what do you hope to bring to this workshop that might be new to writers?

Andrew: I’ve worked with writers for decades now. I started working in publishing in 1987 as a trainee with the Maxwell Corporation. Later, I was part of the successful editorial team when Little, Brown won its first publisher of the year award, and subsequently I’ve freelanced for all of the major UK houses and many small presses and individual writers. I’ve worked with bestselling and award-winning writers, and also on books that were, sadly, published without trace. So I bring commercial experience, and my own instinct as an editor.

Kellie: And you write too? And teach, of course?

Andrew: Yes, I also write, though in a haphazard way. Mostly short fiction. So … I sympathise.

More than anything, I consider myself a reader, I think, which is one reason I love being an editor. I was always writing as a kid, but that seemed to stop sometime after I began work in publishing. Reading is very consuming when you work in-house.

Then I started writing in earnest as an adult when I studied and later taught at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University, which recently discovered it is the birthplace of the modern mindfulness movement. Working among poets and small press publishers and activists as both writer and teacher gave me many gifts, not least among them an understanding of contemplative traditions in the arts.

In my practice as a teacher and an editor, I try to bring together these two approaches: an indulgence of creativity for its own sake, but also an understanding of what it takes to get published. These are not mutually exclusive categories.

I also find similarities between my editor self, who’s always seeking to improve the work, and my teacher self, who’s always trying to make writers more curious about their potential.

Kellie: If a writer is struggling with a particular aspect of self-editing will there be an opportunity to explore this problem on the day?

Andrew: Absolutely. We’ll probably open with an overview of the types of editing done by both writers and publishers, and subsequent sessions will be focused on different aspects of craft: the bigger picture of character, setting, and storyline; choices in narrative style; and last but not least the nuts and bolts of prose style. There will be plenty of chance to raise questions throughout the day – specific examples will offer everyone valuable lessons.

The group will be relatively small, so even the shy ones will get a chance to speak. I’m hoping there will also be room for everyone to share some of their writing or maybe a rough outline with other writers, working as partner-editors or in small groups.

Kellie: And we‘re concluding the day with a Q&A with an editor?

Andrew: Lennie Goodings, the chair of Virago Press, is a good friend – I first met when we attended editorial meetings together at Little, Brown. I cannot think of any press more hallowed than Virago, and Lennie is, simply, one of the best publishers in the business. She’s passionate and engaged, and she understands the book trade, and she has a sense of humour (a requisite in any workplace). And she edits – yes, she edits! Contrary to scurrilous newspaper reports, editors do edit, and the list of authors that Lennie’s worked with speaks for itself.

Lennie is also writing a book for Oxford University Press called The Idealistic Publisher. I think the world needs some idealism right now.

We’ll probably have a couple of questions ourselves to ask Lennie to get things started. But I’m hoping that the delegates will bring lots of questions of their own, and we can have a lively discussion about books and writing and editing. There might even be gossip. (Where publishers gather, there is always gossip.)

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Kellie: Can you elaborate about your idea of a DIY MA? What’s the ethos behind your idea? How would this work and who would it be aimed at?

Andrew: There are so many resources out there: workshops, masterclasses, writing groups, mentoring, retreats, online courses, festivals, genre conventions … I’m interested in helping writers to develop their own programme of studies in the craft and process of writing. I have blogged in more detail about this here: Learning and Studying and Writing: A DIY MA in Creative Writing.

Kellie: Incidentally, I’m testing out some new cake recipes to bring along for morning and afternoon tea. Besides your editing expertise, what are you bringing?

Andrew: I have a sweet tooth, so biscuits might be involved, but I can’t swear they’ll be homemade. I’ll also bring lots of handouts and worksheets. We can’t possibly cover everything about revising and self-editing in a day, but we can send everyone home fired up, and equipped with a set of exercises to try out on their work-in-progress.

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Hope to see some of you at the workshop if not before!

Kellie

 Andrew leading an Everyday Magic workshop last Autumn at The Hive
Andrew leading an Everyday Magic workshop last Autumn at The Hive

I Remember Bobbie Louise Hawkins

I remember my friend Bobbie Louise Hawkins.

I remember Bobbie as one of the great teachers, and one of the great storytellers, and one of the great prose stylists.

I remember Bobbie led a long and well-travelled life: West Texas, New Mexico, Japan, Belize, Guatemala, Bolinas, England, Boulder.

I remember stories of a tough childhood in the Great Depression.

I remember she studied art in New Mexico.

I remember she was once married to a Danish architect.

I remember she studied art at the Slade. This was the 1940s. She wore old Levi’s. She must have been way ahead of her time. I bet she looked amazing.

I remember she was once married to a well-known poet who was clearly the love of her life, and the love who informed much of her most gorgeous writing.

I remember she was a mother and a daughter and a grandmother.

I remember Bobbie was a great talker, one of the great talkers. She had so many stories.

I remember that her workshops were some of the most fun we’ve ever had.

I remember her giving us exercises in acquiring overheard dialogue. We started every class by sharing the week’s haul with the rest of the group. Sometimes we went for an hour, reading aloud what we’d eavesdropped in cafes or while walking along the street. How we laughed! How we learned.

I will forever remember how Bobbie told writers to use their natural speaking voices. Such a clear and simple foundation for writing.

I remember thinking that I’d never heard anyone utter such articulate sentences in everyday life.

I remember Bobbie as a remarkable editor. She devoted time to meeting with every student, and then would ‘go in’ on your work, reading it aloud and editing as she went. You ended up with a manuscript covered with a spider trail of edits and a real understanding of the worth of revision. I’ve worked in publishing a long time now, and I’ve never met a better editor.

I remember Bobbie loved Alan Bennett, Colette, Richard Brautigan, Fielding Dawson, Camille Paglia, Lucia Berlin.

I remember she loved writers who possessed a feeling tone in their work.

I remember being her teaching assistant for the online class called The Feeling Tone.

I remember she loved a writer who wrote in order to use the semi-colon, but right now I don’t remember which writer that was.

I remember thinking that Bobbie must punctuate her spoken language.

I remember ‘connectives nearly always suck’.

I remember her saying that men in workshops often talked over their writing – reading it bombastically, and apparently disproportionately so.

And I remember her saying that women often talked under their writing, reading it aloud sheepishly and in a slump, not doing their work credit.

And I remember she recommended that such women take themselves up to the Canyon, to the top of a cliff, where they could read their writing aloud, free to shout it to the universe.

I remember her saying we should lock ourselves in our bedrooms and practise reading our work aloud.

I remember Bobbie so often said that reading aloud created a chemical shift in the body. She often talked about the chemistry and science of writing and the brain.

I remember Bobbie adored Alfred North Whitehead, and would read aloud from his work.

I remember Bobbie’s politics, her realism, her scorn for -isms and -ists and people who voted for Ralph Nader.

I remember Bobbie’s stories of living in London when she was in a relationship with another poet. She used to have lunch at the Chelsea Arts Club, then drop into the Hammersmith Library every day, starting with books shelved under A, and working her way around.

I remember her stories of the other poet!

I remember her tales of the department, and I remember the way her eyebrows raised.

I remember Bobbie’s love of gossip. And boy, how we gossiped.

I remember Bobbie’s gardens. I remember benches, and wicker chairs, and metal chairs, and tea. I remember shady spots where you could drink tea and talk for hours (and we did). I remember her telling me about a fox that came to visit.

I remember Bobbie’s houses. She was a canny investor. She always advised making sure to buy a house that looks good from the street.

I remember the garage she converted into a theatre that she named the Bijou. She used it as a classroom, when Naropa needed one. She used it as a tv room, where she adored Jon Stewart. She used it as a studio, where she made otherworldly collages from pages torn from magazines that she shaped into landscapes and abstractions.

I remember books, and bookshelves, and piles of books, and boxes of books.

I just remembered Bobbie teaching me how to make dirty martinis when I reread the inscription in my copy of The Sanguine Breast of Margaret: ‘friend, co-conspirator and drinking buddy’. She wrote the loveliest inscriptions in the books she gave me.

I remember later remembering The Sanguine Breast of Margaret was published by a small press in the UK. And I remember checking where it was based, and discovering that North and South Press was based in Egerton Road in Twickenham, which is the road at the end of my road. And I remember thinking about all the full circles and synchronicities of our lives.

And I remember Bobbie every day when I walk my dog down Egerton Road.

I remember her telling us always to align ourselves with the most intelligent person in the room.

I remember her saying that when writing about emotions ‘nobody gives a shit about your feelings’. But the feeling clearly had to be there in other ways.

I remember Bobbie’s monologues: wistful, funny, intelligent. Listen to this one.

I remember Bobbie’s smile.

I remember her beautiful voice.

I remember Bobbie’s great beauty.

I remember Bobbie was much loved – the most loved among her students.

I remember so much more.

You live in a place for a while, and you make it a home, and then you leave, and then people there die.

And then – because you’re not there, at the event of their dying – death becomes something you hear about. It’s just another form of absence.

And you have all those memories, and gratitudes – things you carry forever, things that never die. And great writers never die, and neither do great teachers, so on two accounts Bobbie Louise Hawkins is immortal.

Thank you, Bobbie, for giving us so much, and for gracing our lives with so much. You will always be remembered.

Bobbie Louise Hawkins, 1930-2018

 

www.bobbielouisehawkins.com

The Selected Prose of Bobbie Louise Hawkins UK

The Selected Prose of Bobbie Louise Hawkins US

A review of Selected Prose from HTML Giant

Recordings of Bobbie reading some of her work in Albuquerque in 1986

 

 

Writing Experiment No. 66: Copyist

On Saturday I again taught my workshop Everyday Magic: The Four Elements of Writing. We started the day by introducing ourselves with a favourite book, telling the group how and why it’s left an impression on us. Much-loved books came up: The Underground Railroad, Cloudstreet, Ladder of Years, Station Eleven, My Name Is Lucy Barton, Home (twice!), Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, Palace Walk, Pride and Prejudice, A Song For Issy Bradley, This Is How You Lose Her, East of Eden, Tirra Lirra by the River, Finn Family Moomintroll.

What was evident was that all of these books had in some way evoked feeling for their readers: these books are loved. One writer talked about the book she chose simply leaving her in awe, and it’s often hard to sum up how and why the simple fact of words on a page have spun their magic.

As writers we have to read books critically as well as for pleasure, unpicking the workings of craft and identifying techniques that have, however invisibly, had an impact on the reader.

Such analysis usually requires the sort of critical thinking we might have done in a literature class, e.g., looking at the effects of word choice and sentence length on tone, or identifying actions that define a character, or finding symbols layered within the work. Francine Prose’s book Reading Like A Writer is a super guide in exactly that.

Much of my Everyday Magic workshops is, however, about not thinking about writing, i.e., not so much engaging our thinking gear (Air in the four elements), but also working with the energy (Fire), emotions (Water), or physicality (Earth) of writing in order to develop and expand our instincts and experiences as writers.

There are many ways to do this. A couple of methods that I often recommend (and that we did on Saturday) are reading a text aloud, and listening to it, e.g., listening to an audiobook, or to a writing partner reading some of your own work back to you. I’m also thinking of friends in Boulder who have a reading group where, rather than reading a book for discussion, the members gather simply to read books aloud in a group, taking it in turns to read sections or chapters. They’ve read large amounts of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf that way – and in both instances I can’t help but feel that reading aloud or listening are perhaps the ideal ways to experience certain writers.

In both instances, my old teacher Bobbie Louise Hawkins would say that the sheer acts of utterance and listening have a chemical effect on the body, and that affects how you write. The physical act of listening can slow us down and make us more thoughtful, more attentive. I certainly feel that being immersed in a good audiobook can shift my mood for the better. Reading and writing are, after all, physical acts too, so it’s worth paying attention to their somatic qualities.

This sets me thinking to another somatic exercise that I sometimes suggest: copying out text.

For this writing experiment:

* Find a memorable passage in a favourite book, and copy it out by hand on to the left hand page of a notebook – see my example of copying out ‘The Werewolf’ by Angela Carter above. When you reach the bottom of the page, continue it on the next left-hand page, until the scene is done. (Two or three pages should be fine.) As you are writing, pay attention: to word choices, to sentence length, to verbs, to punctuation, to the introduction of content, to beats within the action – but perhaps try not to think about this as you’re doing it. Just: pay attention through the physical act of copying.

* Then perhaps take things further by using the writing you’ve just copied out as a model for some writing of your own: on the right-hand pages of your notebook, write a passage that physically emulates the writing you have just copied out, roughly line by line. Write paragraphs and sentences of a similar length, e.g., using verbs in the same places as the original, adding description or dialogue where the original had description or dialogue, introducing new characters or aspects of content at similar points.

* You could also try copying this out using keyboard and screen – a different physical experience.

This is, of course, just an experiment, and I don’t necessary recommend writing a whole book this way … Not least, there might be the matter of plagiarism, though probably not if the content is different – there are ethics in acknowledging influences and models, but there are many shades of grey here too; lots of poetry uses found materials from other writing, after all.

Copying out writing is a known practice. Hunter S. Thompson apparently used to copy out The Great Gatsby and A Farewell to Arms so that he could understand what it felt like to write a masterpiece; his biographer describes it as an ‘unusual method for learning prose rhythm’. This exercise in the somatics of writing might be a good way of shifting gear in your writing process, letting you experience in a fresh way a book that has inspired you. Think of it as echoing as a writing practice, and an exercise in listening to your body.

Workshops Spring and Summer 2018: Everyday Magic / The Craft of Revising

I’m excited to be running workshops with Kellie Jackson of Words Away again: one we ran before, and a new one.

On 21 April 2018, we’ll run Everyday Magic: The Four Elements of Creativity, which sold out when we ran it in November – here’s a link about that day, and here’s an interview I did with Kellie about its approach. It’s designed to help writers work intuitively by using the four elements: fire, water, earth, and air. I love introducing these ideas – it’s such a straightforward concept, but one that can really help writing come to life.

On 23 June 2018, The Craft of Revising is a workshop devoted to self-editing for writers. Focusing on the ways in which we Create, Craft and Connect our writing, our approach will be intuitive and practical, challenging yet generous. We’ll start with an overview of how editors edit, talking briefly about developmental editing, structural editing, line editing, copyediting and proofreading. During the rest of the day, we’ll discuss matters of craft and intention, conduct some experiments on our own work, and in small groups share and edit samples of writing. You’ll leave with a revision plan that includes plenty of tools and inspirations for refining a work-in-progress, whether that’s a novel, a novella, or short stories; it should also be useful for writers of memoirs or other narrative forms too. We’ll conclude the day with a Q&A with Lennie Goodings, Chair of Virago Press and an award-winning editor who’s worked with many much-loved authors.

Follow the link below to booking pages and further information:

* Words Away workshops

The events will again be held at London Bridge Hive1 Melior Place, London SE1 3SZ.