Do You Think Writing Can Be Taught?

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How many times do we have to revisit this question of whether writing can be taught? Of course writing can be taught. Painters are taught how to use colour, or wash brushes, or draw a dog in motion or at rest. Gardeners are taught how to make acid soil more alkaline  or to adapt by planting acid-loving plants.

I have in my time frequently encountered the view that that writing can’t be taught, but I have little patience with dinosaurs and dullards who resist the idea of learning. I do however understand that sometimes the teaching of writing is uninspiring, clunky, or wrong-headed – or simply of a style unsuitable to what the writer needs right now.

The other day I read an interview with Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard where he answers the question ‘do you think writing can be taught?’ like this:

No. You have to learn it yourself. It’s like playing, you know? And you have to find your own way. So no, you can’t teach that. But there are so many other things you can teach.

This is what I believe. I’m a teacher, so I believe in the idea of teaching and learning and studying. I believe in the principle of improvement. Even the most experienced writers learn new things all the time, or learn to see things afresh (seeing things afresh is an important lesson for writers who are switching from, say, journalism to fiction, or vice versa).

I do think that writers need to take charge of their own learning. Sometimes writing students can seem to get a little locked into the idea of finding easy solutions, and some teachers or courses are perhaps a bit too tired or prescriptive in the expectations they create – that goes for publishers and agents too. And creative writing doesn’t really work like that. The imagination needs to find its own way.

Yet the best answers usually come through a process of searching, and there remain many things to learn (or be taught). Nowadays there are so many options available to writers: workshops, academic writing programmes, online courses, creative writing manuals, writers’ conferences, genre conventions, literary festivals,  manuscript critiques, writing groups.

I’m a big believer in writers and artists making their own way – and even if you’re following other ways (such as an MA or a PhD), they are rarely enough; a formal qualification usually needs extending in some way or other to become meaningful (to finish the manuscript; to get published).

I’ve discussed this in another blog post on the idea of a DIY MA in Creative Writing, and I shall be taking some of these ideas further in an afternoon-long course I’ll be teaching on the Friday afternoon of the 2016 York Festival of Writing, which runs from 9 to 11 September this year. I’ll be offering suggestions, guidance, and recommendations for writers who want to develop their own self-directed programme of studies, and I’ll be promoting ways in which writers can develop an instinct for what works in their writing, for what holds up, for what feeds their imaginations.

Also in attendance at York will be plenty of excellent teachers and writers (or teacher-writers?) offering their own perspectives too; the editors and agents who’ll be there looking for new talent will be there in some capacity as teachers too, with lessons to share for those listening.

I’m also teaching workshops on the related but distinct topics of voice and tone at York, and I’ll be book doctoring there too. Later in September in London I’m also hoping to teach a fuller, day-long workshop on voice, which will look more closely at aspects of craft such as point of view, narration, tone, and prose style, using examples from popular and classic books as the basis for discussion and spurring writers to try new things in their own work.

And before that I’m also leading a workshop on Showing & Telling & Storytelling at the Writers’ Workshop Literary Salon at Waterstones Piccadilly on Friday 27 May.

Can writing be taught? Of course it can!

Getting Published Day 2016

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Yesterday I book doctored at the Writers’ Workshop Getting Published Day at Regents College. It was a lot of fun. I met some really lovely people and read samples from some interesting works-in-progress. One in particular was very exciting for me: witty, intelligent, and a strong story concept. My enthusiasm had no bounds! (Though the said writer does now have the challenge of writing the second-best opening line in English literature.) I hope the rest of the manuscript is as strong as the opening chapter and synopsis, and I also hope others will soon feel the same. At this point, the prospect of getting published comes down to taste, and finding people who share your vision (agent, editor, readers).

And before taste dictates, it’s usually important to get the craft right. Things that came up in the book doctor surgeries included: bringing more of an edge into the narrative style; deciding what should be revealed when within a story; building the pacing and narrative tension around key moments within the story; the importance of setting; establishing mood; sharpening the prose style. I found myself asking various writers: what are you giving a reader? A good question for any writer who wants to be published (hope it doesn’t prompt an existential crisis).

I also led an hour-long workshop on prose style: Style Brings Substance. There’s never enough time to say all that could be said on such subjects. So it was a brisk romp.

I discussed how I break down my thinking about any piece of writing in terms of: its context; its narrative content (including its dramatic situation); its narrative style (including its structure); and most important of all its prose style, because that is where writing is ultimately experienced – and judged.

I feel that the natural speaking voice is usually the best foundation for our writing, even if it sometimes needs adapting or embellishing. Mood is important in creating intimacy with the reader, and creating an impression relies on our use of style, moment by moment in a piece of writing. I suggested that style is as much about what we leave out of a piece of writing, and what we leave to the reader’s imagination, as what we explain.

Much is a matter of taste, again, but much too can be improved through a strong grasp of the craft, and I stressed the importance of understanding how the different parts of speech work. A few simple pointers:

* Verbs bring energy to a sentence, so aim to be energy-efficient. In fiction, sentences are often most effective when a strong and simple verb of action is used as the main verb of a sentence. A sentence such as ‘He realised he could easily identify at least seven enemy soldiers rapidly running in his direction’ has less force than ‘Half a dozen enemy soldiers were running at him’ or even ‘Half a dozen enemy soldiers ran at him’ – the realising and the easily being able to identify don’t add much, really, do they? They just get in the way. We often simply don’t need realise or remember or sense verbs (e.g., see, hear). Auxiliary verbs (e.g., can, must) can often be lost too.

(And while we were at it, we cleaned up that weirdly precise ‘at least seven’ – we usually want specificity, but I don’t think it works here.)

* Nouns serve as anchors, grounding the writing – which sometimes is necessary, and sometimes is not.

* Interrogate the need for every adjective and adverb in your writing. As Ursula Le Guin says: ‘Adjectives and adverbs are rich and good and fattening. The main thing is not to overindulge … The bakery shop of English is rich beyond belief, and narrative prose, particularly if it’s going a long distance, needs more muscle than fat.’

* Even prepositions have their moments, e.g., at in ‘Half a dozen soldiers were running at him’.

* Dependent clauses create, um, dependence within a sentence, and sometimes it makes sense to connect clauses in a simpler manner that creates self-contained action, e.g., by breaking the sentence down into separate sentences, or by using the simple conjunction ‘and’ between recast clauses. So (with a few other tweaks for tartness and economy): ‘When he glanced quickly over the top of the freestanding plexiglass partition of his cubicle, he realised he could easily identify at least seven enemy soldiers rapidly running in his direction’ could be improved as ‘He shot a glance over the partition. Half a dozen soldiers were running at him’. The edited version feels much less cluttered.

* It is usually good to let the idea or action within a sentence unfold chronologically.

* Think of the paragraph as a unit of thought or action.

We considered the use of parts of speech as we listened to the opening of Kent Haruf’s fantastic novel Our Souls At Night, whose plain style is beguiling. Here is a writer, I stressed, who gets out of his own way and lets a story simply tell itself.

Revision exercise: Take a piece of your own writing and reduce it to only those nouns it contains. Then the verbs. Then the adjectives, and then do the same for other parts of speech. (This reminds me of an article on reducing books to their marks of punctuation.) What does this tell you about the way in which words are working in your writing? Do you spot any words/habits that might need changing?

I also shared a couple of pages of the intense reading experience that is Garth Greenwell’s novel What Belongs To Me, (am very excited to see him read tomorrow). This book includes one section that is a 41-page paragraph – a stylistic choice that certainly pays off. As I also stressed: we don’t run marathons without lots of training! But it’s fun to try. And how about another writing experiment?

Revision exercise: Knock every paragraph break out of a piece of writing. How might what remains read differently? Does the new version suggest any changes? Then without referring back, add paragraph breaks back in.

I heartily recommended Constance Hale’s Sin and Syntax to anyone who wants a refresher on grammar and usage. And here is a clear explanation of parts of speech from the Purdue Online Writing Lab.

I also link lots of useful things for writers on this page: Resources.

Reading recommendations I made yesterday included: Ursula Le Guin’s Steering the Craft; Stephen King’s On Writing; Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey; and Ronald Tobias’s 20 Master Plots. I also suggested that people writing in that area take a look at Emma Darwin’s Get Started in Writing Historical Fiction from the Teach Yourself series, which comes out this week (I’ve not read it yet, but if it’s by Emma it must be excellent). In addition I recommended the Writers’ Workshop own online self-editing course, run by Debi Alper and Emma Darwin.

My fellow book doctor Shelley Harris also signed my copy of her book Vigilante – out this week in paperback.

Only sad note of the day: losing my lovely linen scarf on the way home 🙁 so in memory of that one of the great poems from one of the great poets: ‘One Art’ by Elizabeth Bishop.

Thanks again to the Writers’ Workshop for asking me. Their events are always the best – meeting old friends, and making new ones, all of us joined in our love of writing and books. Stories shared, secrets revealed, dreams inspired – and sometimes set on the road to success. I always come away thinking how writers and book folk are the most interesting people, and the best fun.

A great day all round. I really love my job!

Syllabus, By Lynda Barry

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Lynda Barry sounds like one of those Americans I love to be around: a progressive hippie (I assume …) with a big heart and a boisterous laugh and depths of feeling in her work. She is well known in North America for her cartoons, which have appeared in indie newspapers since the 1970s. I first encountered her name when I was UK editor for the fantastic Life In Hell books of Simpsons creator Matt Groening – they became friends when he ran the student paper at Evergreen State College, where her first work appeared. Her name appears in his books’ increasingly teasing dedications, e.g., ‘Lynda Barry is still funk queen of the galaxy’.

More recently Lynda Barry has also created empowering workshops on creativity. Subtitled Notes From An Accidental Professor, her book Syllabus presents course materials she uses in an innovative class called The Unthinkable Mind that she teaches at the Image Lab of the Institute for Discovery at the University of Wisconsin-Madison:

Open to both graduate and undergraduate students from all academic disciplines, this writing and picture-making class is focused on learning about the basic physical structure of the brain and the particular kind of creative concentration that comes about when we are writing, drawing, or constructing something by hand.

A Lynda Barry syllabus differs from the usual document rattling over class aims and objectives in dreary Academicese in 12pt Times New Roman. They are full of questions and prompts and cheeky asides, and what’s more they are handwritten and illuminated in colour with her own sketches and doodles, which are works of art in themselves. As a Guardian profile says, her ‘collages are densely visionary compositions, as if William Blake had clipped out his cosmology from old magazines’. This graphic quality creates an enlivening and liberating experience from the moment you look at the cover then open the book. There’s a strong a sense of play, which is something Lynda Barry is all about.

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‘What is an image?’ asks a scary stick figure from the back cover. ‘How far can a pen, a composition notebook, and a burning question take you?’ The image, for Barry, refers to any thing, experience, or idea that is given form in the arts: ‘the formless thing which gives things form’, she says in one of her other books, What It Is. For any artist, the challenge lies in finding the form that expresses that thing, experience, or idea authentically. Drawing on research in cognitive science, Lynda Barry explains:

I was trying to understand how images travel between people, how they move through time, and if there is a way to use writing and picture making to figure out more how images work.

The creative tasks pursuing that aim in Syllabus feel commonsensical, rather than complex, tasking members of the class on ways to explore, free of inhibition, the sources of our images – our childhoods, our pasts, our everyday lives – and then to make the creation of art and writing ‘unthinkable’: instinctive, spontaneous, and true. The priority here is not about produced finished pieces of art, but about stimulating creativity – though I’d venture to say (if we are allowed to think that way) that such liberating approaches usually arrive at the most successful works of art anyway, however we define success.

The class includes tons of activities and assignments to foster ease and spontaneity in our artistic process. Keeping a Daily Diary with lists of things done, seen, and heard every day as well as a quick sketch of something you’ve seen. Timed drawing exercises based on the deceptively simple cartooning style of Ivan Brunetti. Memorising Emily Dickinson poems. Listening to Grimms fairytales while you draw. Spontaneous writing exercises using in-class prompts. Writing exercises based on memories. Collaborative drawing jams where your peers pass around a 4 x 4 grid and fill it with the names of occupations or types of people, and then you have a minute to draw each character.

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All writing for this class is handwritten: students are tasked on filling lined composition notebooks (Syllabus amounts to a facsimile of one). Students also trace and copy pictures. And there is colouring, lots of colouring, especially while you are, e.g., listening to music or socialising. Barry was well ahead of the current fashion on colouring, and she expects students’ Crayolas to get worn down to the stub.

Another important lesson comes in doodling spirals, as students do not give feedback round the table in the style of a conventional writing workshop, but simply draw spirals while their peers read out their writing. It’s a good contemplative practice, with the focus shifting from judgement to expression, listening, and understanding. (I think there is a time for judgement and engaging the critical faculties, but that comes later.)

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All the students in her classes are assigned nicknames, e.g., parts of the brain such as Cerebral Cortex or Amygdala. I also like this classroom guideline: ‘Friendly Reminder: No electronic devices are allowed in our classroom between 12:00 p.m. – 4:00 p.m. Please do not check your devices during our break.’ (I was only saying to someone the other day that it would be great if, maybe, we only used Twitter and Facebook between, say, the hours of 4 and 6 p.m. every day, and then for the rest of the time we could get on with our lives, rather than have it mediated.)

And how about these for Classroom Rules?

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Barry offers many sassy insights and savvy aphorisms. E.g., on the ways that taste and judgement get in the way of creative production: ‘Liking and not liking can make us blind to what’s there.’ Much of what she proposes is about restoring the unself-conscious approaches to art and play that we enjoyed in childhood, and about establishing an easy and regular practice:

The only way to understand this is by making things. Thinking about it, theorizing about it, chatting about it will not get you there.

She passionately believes the arts are a matter of life and death, as she describes in a talk for Lynda.com (around 9:45) where she discusses the books or songs that change your world; the arts are ‘the corollary to our immune system’, or ‘our external organs’. One of my favourite Lynda quips comes later in that talk:

I hate art. I hate art galleries. They remind me of intensive care units. Doesn’t it seem like you don’t know what’s going on? Everything’s really expensive and clean.

That sums up her approach for me. Art is a living thing, and, at its best, like life art is messy.

And, importantly: art should be should be accessible to all.

One of my main aims in teaching and editorial coaching is helping writers to find ways to make good writing come instinctively. Syllabus is a real inspiration, and a book every writer and artist should read. Its lessons are deep, its method is fun, it is ground-breaking, mind-expanding, barrier-breaking. I could rave on and on, but it’s a book that is best experienced rather than described.

Lynda Barry is FOREVER the funk queen of the galaxy.

***

And don’t forget to read her other books too – I can HIGHLY recommend her graphic memoir One! Hundred! Demons! as well as What It Is (extract here) and Picture This. All are gorgeously produced by Canadian publisher Drawn & Quarterly.

More on Lynda Barry in these clips:

Lynda Barry’s Tumblr

Creativity and Learning: A Conversation With Lynda Barry – video from Lynda.com (ESSENTIAL VIEWING!)

Lynda Barry Will Make You Believe In Yourself – New York Times Magazine profile

Lynda Barry: What Is An Image? – Guardian profile

Join Lynda Barry For A University-Level Course On Doodling And Neuroscience – review of Syllabus from OpenCulture, with lots of sample pages

Lynda Barry’s Wonderfully Illustrated Syllabus and Homework Assignments From Her UW-Madison Course ‘The Unthinkable Mind’ – another OpenCulture review, with plenty more sample pages

The Rumpus Interview With Lynda Barry

 

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Learning From Poets

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I use poetry a lot in my teaching, but I don’t consider myself a poet and I don’t edit poetry as such (my frequent response to a poem has been, ‘Couldn’t you make it a bit shorter?’). A few things have recently set me to thinking about what I, as an editor and writer, have learned from poets and poetry.

This last week I read posts by Isabel Rogers and Isabel Costello on Isabel C’s Literary Sofa, as well as an article by Trevor Conway on the ways in which we encounter and consume poetry. They interrogate something of an assumption that many of us have inherited: the idea that poetry needs defending, or apologising for, or a gentle easing in. Because poetry is obscure, dense, intimidating. Poetry is hard.

There is a fear of poetry. What’s all that about?!

A lot goes back to how poetry is first encountered in formal settings. Even my beloved English teacher Mrs Blakemore thought poetry might be too much of a challenge for working-class kids from the Black Country studying for their O-level in English Literature, so she schooled us in My Family And Other Animals instead (which remains one of my favourite books EVER, along with two other fantastic texts we studied – Huckleberry Finn and The Woman In White – so I can’t complain).

Maybe never getting that education in poetry at an early age, when understanding can still become instinctive, accounts for why I’m still not great with knowing a dactyl from an anapaest (but then again, I never learned my times tables either). I regret not having strong skills in recitation, though Mrs B did make us learn a couple of monologues from The Merchant of Venice, and I’m still able to summon some of them up today. ‘The quality of mercy is not strained …’

I mostly skipped through/over poetry during my BA in American Studies and an MA in English Literature, and when I worked in-house for a publisher poetry tended to be filed away under ‘Doesn’t Sell’ (along with, back then, vampires and nature writing).

But in my twenty-first century incarnation, I’ve engaged with poetry in more meaningful ways. An early lesson has been deciding that poetry should not be hard. Like Shakespeare (who is, after all, mostly poetry), it’s there to be enjoyed and understood, and if I’m not enjoying and understanding, I can either 1. try to understand, or 2. read something else. Goes for all literature, really.

Another important lesson: ‘poetry’ is a vast definition, so vast it’s almost meaningless. It many ways it is, basically, all of writing as art. It covers verse and prose, story and lyric and incomprehensible gibberish, haiku and epics and limericks. Talking of: limericks makes me think of the first ditty I memorised, via my grandmother:

There was an old lady from Ealing,
Who had a peculiar feeling.
She lay on her back,
And opened her crack,
And piddled all over the ceiling.

See: I had poetry in my blood from the very start.

My greatest gratitude for understanding poets and poetry came from the MFA in Writing & Poetics that I took at Naropa University. I had the opportunity to study at a couple of perfectly respectable and conventional (dull) English departments in Colorado, but I had already done that once before (dull English department); how could I resist a Buddhist university whose English department was founded by Allen Ginsberg and is called the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics?

I was in the prose track, but it was probably from the poets that I gained most. I hadn’t quite expected this, but I was immersed in a world where poetry was the dominant form of writing. I had brilliant fiction teachers in Bobbie Louise Hawkins, Laird Hunt, and Keith Abbott, but they all write poetry as well, and in some instances they are/were married to poets. Everyone at Naropa is married to poetry.

I discovered that Gertrude Stein is not difficult to grasp if read aloud or listened to, rather than consumed in silence. I took a semester-long seminar on Ezra Pound in which we read The Cantos in its entirety. I studied William Blake; I treasure the memory of a class discussing Songs of Innocence and Experience during a Boulder snowstorm, gobs of white swirling against a vast black sky.

I also took a seminar in Critical Theory, and one day next to a grade on a response paper received some of the most valuable feedback: ‘An essay is like a poem: every word counts.’ (A blog is like a poem, too, but it doesn’t stop me.)

Poetry remains a living thing for me today. My friend Mary Kite, whose haiku from Santa Fe I read most days on Facebook. Memories of Anne Waldman’s fierce performances at Summer Writing Programs. Jack Collom’s The Old Woods. Workshops where I use Carolyn Forché’s The Colonel (poetry? prose? do we care?). Rereading Patsy Alford’s magical Mrs God poems. (I think Patsy is my favourite poet from my days at Naropa.)

Something else that took me back to Naropa this week was reading a couple of wonderful pieces in the New York Times on Eileen Myles: such a funny and clever contrarian, and a wonderful stylist who writes heartbreakingly beautiful poetry to defy her slightly scary image. I feel very lucky to have seen her read: mesmerising.

The poetry world can be a supportive community; this is often the case in certain circles of genre and YA/children’s writing, too, but there is something quite captivating about the dynamics of eccentrics and weirdos in poetry circles. So I grew excited about the idea Eileen Myles mentions in one of those articles of a tv show about poets, which set me to dreaming of something in the vein of Looking or Transparent. Of course, any tv show about poets could not be written by a poet, hahaha! The poetry world can also be a bitchy clattering of egos (takes one to know one) that might seem best experienced from the fringes, though maybe that’s true for any community when it looks like cliques, and maybe it’s also true that any closed world is best observed from its fringes.

When I was (a student) at Naropa I used to joke with a few (fiction-writing) friends that poets were wankers (this was behind the poets’ backs, of course, and I contained myself when I became a teacher there). Maybe it was the fact that poets are writing in a shorter form (sometimes …) that they seem to have so many words left over for talking, and so often those so many words are about themselves?! Oh my – the introductions at poetry readings! We used to take bets on how long they’d run. Many of them were longer than the poems, and the a/c in the Performing Arts Centre was chilly when we were on the fifth slot of the night (plus intervals). I also never forget the gulping noises that came from a handbag the night its owner brought her pet guinea pig to a reading. Or the night a friend wanked her boyfriend off in the back row: now, did that really happen? Yes, I’m sure it did. That’s what I meant by wankers (too).

Some self-described experimental poetry – or maybe I mean experimental poets – can, for me, shift into the pretentious a little too quickly. I find a lot of the chatter about, e.g., language poetry or new narrative dry and reedy. Shut up with the theory, and transport me with the spell of your words, or tell me a story, okay? Just don’t theorise about it yourself. Or use the word body in your poems … nooooooo, total turn-off. Though I try to be kind, I think I’ve probably heard more than my share of what Isabel R calls ‘heartfelt, non-scanned, non-rhyming nonsense’. I know that poetry often needs to be unpicked and deciphered, and maybe I just don’t get it. But I also know that I don’t need to be patronised by gibberish.

I do find a lot of the contemporary British poetry I’ve been exposed to thin, stiff, and dull, though maybe I just need to get out more. When I studied poetry at a prestigious English department, most of the discussion was thin, stiff, and dull, even when we were talking about my favourite poet-to-be, Elizabeth Bishop. Maybe it’s a British thing. But then I read someone like Toby Martinez de las Rivas, and I remember poetry is a broad church, and I probably do need to get out more.

But the Isabels’ pieces made me think about other lessons. There are lessons in sound: rhythm, rhyme, the music of words. Lessons in precision (again: every word counts).

There are also lessons in mood. Not everything has to be explained in every sort of writing; a significant weakness in a lot of the prose I read is that it tries to explain too much, at the expense of suggestion and impression. Fiction isn’t like academic writing, or technical writing, or journalism, which needs to clarify and ass-cover comprehensively. Much in writing – and reading – can and should work through the act of interpretation.

Poetry also helps you see the world anew, as in the inadvertent yet compelling performance poetry of Sarah Palin. Poetry keeps us on our toes.

The greatest lesson I take from poets, though, is not so much from their work but from their ethos. They are writing it for the love of it. Poets embark on their writing fully aware that their writing is unlikely to sell. It might deserve wider circulation, but they know it’s highly unlikely they can make a living or even a pittance from it. But they write their poems anyway.

I guess writers in other genres write their writing anyway, but sometimes I wonder if beginning writers of fiction are grasping towards the idea of publishing a little too, um, prematurely, and the very idea of publishing is getting in the way. And the hard facts of our material economy mean that unless you are writing something that other people will want to read (and that really is a gamble), it’s going to be tough to make a living selling your own books. And there are plenty of other things out there vying for our readers’ time: gym memberships, Netflix, Pizza Express, blogs. Some of us do our best to help writers do their best to get their work out there, but no one owes you a living, and even an agent or a publisher will only owe you what you agreed with them when you signed on the dotted line. And I am sure most agents and publishers are only hoping for the best too.

Meanwhile the poets are there, in the coffeeshops, at the microphones, in the libraries, on the bus, scratching out their poems regardless.

Lesson: Write because you love it. That sounds corny and simple, but sometimes I think that core idea gets lost. And we always have to come back to that thing we love, because that is probably where the writing will come alive, free of anxieties (about pitching our books, about Amazon rankings). And maybe, maybe that is the writing that will attract readers, and get published, and then attract more readers …

Part of me is slightly embarrassed that I wrote this post, because it might be read by some of my poet friends. You’re not all wankers! And also because it seems a bit silly to behold poets as objects, and explain why poetry is good for writers. But then I tell myself that many writers do in fact resist the idea of poetry, and there is much to be gained from it. So go on: make the next book you read a work of poetry.

Two of the three books I’ve finished so far this year (with many others in progress …) are works of poetry: Citizen by Claudia Rankine, and Physical by Andrew McMillan. And this set me to deciding on a belated new year resolution of reading or rereading a book of poetry a week. My third is Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s Coney Island Of The Mind. My fourth will come from the stack in the photo above.

It’s a good resolution, because it’s probably one of the easiest to stick to if you love books and reading. There are plenty of short poetry books, after all, and maybe, maybe you can also fit in someone’s Complete Works, or some Homer too? (God knows I tried and failed with Moby-Dick – again – last year.)

Poetry is not just a means, but an end in itself.

Here are a few resources for writing as well as reading poetry, should you want to explore some more. Lot of free poems too – poets are generous souls.

Poetry For Dummies – a fun intro, especially for the fearful and the uninitiated, and the people who wrote it from the San Francisco Poetry Center are certainly not dummies

* Jack Collom and Sheryl Noethe, Poetry Everywhere – a super book for establishing a poetry practice using different forms

* Jack Collom’s brilliant Ecosystem of Writing Ideas

* Bernadette Mayer’s Writing Experiments

Poetry Society

Poetry Foundation

Academy of American Poets

* Electronic Poetry Center and its Library and Charles Bernstein’s Experiments

 

Books Of 2015

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I tend to shy away from judgements on published works on this blog (though not elsewhere!), but I thought I’d do my own year-end list of books: books I’ve enjoyed, books that left an impression, books I gained something from. Not all were published this year, and I’m sure I’ve forgotten other books I read in 2015, and this could be a slightly different list were I to write it yesterday or tomorrow.

Edna O’Brien’s memoir Country Girl is perhaps my favourite book of the year. 2015 could go down in literary history as the year I discovered Edna O’Brien. Yay! Love her.  A couple of months after reading, what I remember most: the lyrical prose, the stories of her family and her marriage, the celebs she describes (could be namedroppy in lesser hands, but here they just come naturally and deservedly). I was taken into another world with this book, which is one of my measurements of what a great book should do for me. What a star.

If that book has a contender for my fave, it’s probably Don’t Let’s Go To The Dogs Tonight by Alexandra Fuller, which I finally read back in February. A powerful family story, with a strong setting in time and place (Rhodesia in the 70s and 80s) and great political purpose. Searingly good, and so rich and so intense I eked it out a couple of chapters at a time.

Bill Clegg’s Did You Ever Have A Family is perhaps the novel that consumed me most this year. I can’t quite put my finger on why, as at times I found its central character and a couple of other players a little grating. But then there were other characters who really got under my skin, which makes me think that sometimes we have to set up certain things (grating characters) for other things to work better (characters who get under the skin). They certainly felt real as a result, and worked their magic – the voice and the tone really took hold of me at certain points.

I also enjoyed a reading where Bill Clegg described his process in writing this book: on returning to his hometown after a long time away, he started writing about it. He had a line – She will go – that would end up as the opening sentence of Chapter Two, in fact, but it took four years of accruing many pages in the voices and points of view of an extended community before he landed on the narrative device that would be placed at the start of his book and drive his plot. It took another three years to refine what went in the book (much went out). I think this shows in the deeply felt portraiture of people and place: this was instinctively assembled, bottom upwards, and we really experience a slice of these characters’ lives.

I’d been gripped by Bill Clegg’s first memoir Portrait Of The Addict As A Young Man when it first came out, and, having been impressed by his novel, this year I caught up on his second memoir, Ninety Days, which is about his recovery: whoa! Economical writing, and very powerful in its frankness. A very New York book, too, I thought.

Another economical read was Kent Haruf’s Our Souls At Night. It has a pretty simple setup (oldsters seeking company), and unfolds with a beguiling humour and depth of characterisation, and also a certain darkness. It took me back to the small towns on the plains of Colorado. This is the author’s last novel (he died a year ago), but I still have a few other books of his to catch up on. A lovely feature by him here: ‘The Making Of A Writer’.

Nina Stibbe’s Man At The Helm was probably the novel that charmed me most this year: her characters, her setting (a gossipy Midlands village), and especially her voice. We are there with her and her family in what turns out to be a funny and clever and bittersweet book. Funny is hard to pull off: funny is the mark of a clever writer, and when it’s combined with feeling it’s a powerful thing. And I love that she uses all the words (the effs and the cees), like a good writer should.

Damon Galgut’s In A Strange Room is a strange and unsettling book that held my attention with pretty ordinary events that delivered unexpected turns of suspense. Again, it is the style that wins my praise. He is unafraid to experiment or be something other than obvious, and he does so unpretentiously in a way that seems effortless.

I read a few dreadful (published) books too. I’m usually hesitant about parading harsh judgements on this blog, or even entertaining the idea of dreadful, because my job is about encouraging writers to find their way in the world of writing, and taste is so subjective, anyway – many books I enjoy might in fact be subject to others’ snootiness.

But: I hated A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. It started off so well, and I did admire the book’s management of time – compressing, looping back, opening out as it went along – but I knew things had really gone irretrievably badly when [spoiler!] a character in a wheelchair got pushed down a stairwell by his violent boyfriend, and my visceral reaction was to laugh out loud. I found this book manipulative without being moving, and could not help but compare the misfortunes it melodramatises with any number of real-life stories (e.g., see Alexandra Fuller, above). The book is said to aim for a heightened reality, which sounds like the bold sort of deviation from representative realism that I usually love, but I’m afraid I was not persuaded, perhaps as its fans seem to have identified in very literal and mawkish ways with its cast of cartoonish characters.

It was its reception that probably confounded me most, especially on Twitter, where it sometimes felt as if emotional cripples – stunted by the limits of 140 characters, and craving reaction – were live-tweeting their readings. (Later, I imagined some of these readers were the same people tweeting that London Spy was the best and most heartbreaking thing on telly, even after that last – that word again – dreadful episode; it too had started so well …) So many publishing successes nowadays seem to be twysterically generated.

Maybe I’d not have felt so strongly about A Little Life had I not read the quote from the Atlantic saying this might be the ‘great gay novel’. Ultimately it felt to me like misery-porn for self-hating homos, a ghoulish fantasy for faghags who prefer their gay men as victims, abusers, consumers, or pastry chefs. Eventually I saw sense prevailing among some readers, such as discussion with Scott Pack on his blog. Daniel Mendelsohn’s exacting review in the New York Review of Books (as well as his even more exacting response to a letter from the book’s editor) must rank as one of the most thoughtful pieces of criticism I read in 2015 (and not just because I heartily agree with it). In a year in which personal attacks and trolling have continued to pollute social media, I resisted sharing my own negative responses so publicly. But eventually I thought that it felt pollyanna-ish not to speak about something I felt strongly about, and I note I’ve written more about it here than any of the books that I enjoyed; perhaps this is in fact my book of the year?! Much can be formed in provocation and opposition. And I did at least end up loving-to-hate this book, I guess!

I increasingly think that volumes of short stories should not be read all at once, and I’ve continued to read the short stories in Battleborn by Claire Vaye Watkins, which I started in 2014. I’m bowled over by her voice and style and sense of place. And in a year where so much discourse in identity politics has been marked by righteousness, I particularly liked how Watkins’s essay ‘On Pandering’ raised questions rather than sought offence.

I’m still working through the most excellent catalogue for the most excellent Celts exhibition at the British Museum, and I’m also a few chapters into Steve Silberman’s Neurotribes (I often read nonfiction in fits and starts). I also enjoyed many pieces I read on or via Literary Hub.

Another great discovery was Lynda Barry. I’d read about her before, but not read any of her books. Syllabus, which gathers together her classroom notes for a course she teaches on creativity at the University of Wisconsin, is called life-changing by its publisher, and I think the hyperbole is warranted. It was also refreshing for me to read something where so much of its energy came through illustration rather than words, and it prompted me to read others of her books: What It Is, Picture This, and One! Hundred! Demons! I should write a review for Syllabus on this blog sometime. Yay! All hail Queen Lynda! I also want to read more widely in graphic novels and memoirs.

While discussing books on writing and creativity, I should mention The Story Grid by Shawn Coyne, which I’m still working through (on pause till I finish my close reading of Silence of the Lambs, which it will discuss in detail as a case study). And I am also pleased that Ursula Le Guin’s Steering The Craft is now more widely available in a new edition.

Further special mentions go to two debut novels coming in 2016 that I was lucky to read as advance proofs: Joanna Cannon’s The Trouble With Goats And Sheep and Kit De Waal’s My Name Is Leon. Both have children as protagonists, and each delivers a certain unexpected bite, but they work their wonders in different ways. Both, I now realise, also have period settings in the Midlands (70s and 80s), which I think is very good indeed: we need more strong Midlands voices in contemporary fiction (okay, Nina Stibbe is another one too – yes, maybe I’m biased). I’d not be surprised to see either of these engrossing novels as prizewinners or book club selections, and I look forward to seeing what comes next from their authors.

There were a number of books I did not get to. I hope in the near future to read Sanjeev Sahota’s Year Of The Runaways and Marlon James’s Brief History Of Seven Killings and Chigozie Obioma’s The Fishermen; this was a good year for the Booker, it seems. Also Oliver Sacks’s memoir On The Move; his column in the New York Times was another moving read. And maybe sometime soon I’ll get to Elena Ferrante – I confess to starting the first volume several times now, and finding the translation a bit stiff.

I’d also hoped to finish Moby-Dick this year, nay this summer, but other things came along (not least, its mid-Victorian style of rambling and musing, which has its moments, but I’m wanting me some STORY). I’m 40 per cent of the way in, and finally (FINALLY) we’ve met Ahab and had a mention of the whale. More anon (I hope), though for now I think I’m going to take a breather with Anne Tyler’s newest book A Spool Of Blue Thread.

And I realise I still (after three serious goes) have not finished The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro; I was really looking forward to this, and thought it sounded like the sort of literary fantasy I should have enjoyed, but what I did read just didn’t grab me (and I only have sixty pages left to go – which says a lot): sometimes a bit heavy-handed, often a bit lacking (in spark? in magic?). Plus I am tired of the patronising conversations about genre fiction by literary authors and their readers.

The novels I’ve listed as enjoying here have been on the whole pretty straightforward works of realism. People and places and voices were what seemed to count in my reading. No plot-rich pageturners this year, or historical blockbusters, or escapes into fantasy: no Goldfinch, no Burial Rites, no new George R.R. Martin.

Despite my love of novels and short stories, I think the works of fiction I enjoyed the most in 2015 all appeared on television. Game of Thrones continued to entertain and surprise, and I’m looking forward to see how it departs further from the books in 2016. I’m currently watching the second season of Transparent, whose characters at first irritated the hell out of me, until I really fell for them. So Jewish and so Californian, and so many of the joys and misunderstandings of relationships and family life are drawn with truth. And The Bridge also gave surprises, especially beyond the usual resolutions of a police procedural drama – the last hour of the third series was the best hour of telly (and fiction) this year.

Happy New Year!