We Are A Muse: Writing Experiment No. 69

I recently went to the excellent exhibition Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up at the Victoria & Albert Museum. I was captivated! And I am still working out exactly why it beguiled me so much.

I’ve liked her work, though I’m not sure I have really loved it, and I can’t be sure I’d have gone to the exhibition until someone told me how good she thought it was, and then someone else I’d not seen in ages told me that she’d love for us to meet there. And I went, and I loved it.

Something funny though: a publisher friend had also seen and she did not enjoy it in quite the same way. We usually have similar tastes , and we tried to work out this difference: she said she wanted more of the art and less of what might be seen as an objectification of the artist, while I realised that this embodiment of the artist was what I found so enticing. So much there – so many details of the artist’s life. Perfume bottles, Frida’s illuminated false leg, beads spattered with green paint, the retablos (devotional artworks), and the clothes – remarkable in their bright colours after being locked up in a bathroom in the Casa Azul for fifty years. And in fact there is quite a lot of the art – enough to make me want to take a more serious look at the paintings. The life on show is in fact giving me a further route back into her work. 

I also recently read Barbara Kingsolver’s novel The Lacuna (where Frida plays a significant role), and watched Selma Hayek’s film Frida, and I’ve spent a few hours looking at the gorgeous V&A exhibition catalogue (exquisite bit of publishing). What a life: it’s impossible to separate her everyday life from her creations from her friends from her lovers from her family from her politics.

This immersion into so many things Frida set me to thinking about the ways in which the life of the artist and the art itself are enmeshed. The world of creative writing involves itself with serious matters of mastering the craft and pitching and publishing, but sometimes (often) there’s room for things that might seem silly or indulgent but are inspiring and sustaining, or simply feed your soul in some indescribable way. I have a hunch that sometimes writers (and especially British writers?) don’t indulge themselves as artists as frequently as they could; they might even be embarrassed to think of themselves as artists, or to regard what they create as art. Someone might be writing the pulpiest fiction, but it’s still art, I say. 

I am also inspired by the award-winning poet Anne Waldman – beyond her writing, she lives and breathes Art in every way, whether in a grand hundred-year project, such as cofounding an alternative university (Naropa, where I got my MFA), or in something more personal, such as her flamboyant choice of scarves. 

In her book Vow to Poetry (the clue is in the title), Anne includes an essay called ‘Creative Writing Life’ that starts ‘Be in the mind/perspective of a writer twenty-four hours a day’, and then continues for nine pages with a manifesto listing things to feed your creative energies, ranging from carry writing material at all times, to organising sessions to exchange work, to recording your dreams, to writing a radio play, to proposing a question before you sleep (‘See what happens. Keep a notebook that will “worry” the questions).

So, inspired by Frida’s mantra ‘I am my own muse’ and Anne’s ‘Creative Writing Life’, write a manifesto for yourself as your own muse. You might include:

  • Activities to add to your routine (maybe something nonverbal – a sport, or yoga, or gardening, or chess)
  • A class you can take in some field other than writing (oil painting, or singing, or dance, or astrology)
  • A class you could take in writing (come to one of our masterclasses!)
  • Things to wear (scarves! beads! flowers in your hair!)
  • Things to put in a shrine on your writing desk or a bookshelf (little Aztec figurines, if only from a museum gift shop? a pretty coaster for the mug of tea that sustains you while you write?)
  • Expertise and resources you can share with others and, e.g., put into a workshop offering of your own or offer as consultancy (this can become a whole other purpose to develop for your artistic self)
  • Blogging, or careful tending of some presence on social media (I hesitate to suggest Twitter or Facebook, because I’m not wild about either, but I know others use them very well indeed)
  • Routines and rituals you’ll create for yourself
  • Artist Dates (as inspired by Julia Cameron)
  • Buying a new journal (any excuse for new stationery)
  • Also think of people to be around – a company of fellows. Maybe arrange to see them in some regular way, and not just as a writing group, e.g., outings to exhibitions, or a book club: a salon of sorts.
  • Getting a dog, or borrowing one (or another animal – I am a dog person, much more than a person person, I suspect), because company that speaks in nonverbal ways can be ever so important
  • Like Frida, you could even take an artist-lover and have a wild affair

Then start doing these things – give yourself deadlines and targets, perhaps.

I think of the following as people who in some way serve as examples for me: the artist and writer Austin Kleon (I always look forward to his inspiring Friday newsletters), my friend Bhanu Kapil and her blog, my friend the curator and writer Jennifer Heath, the all-round shiny brilliance of teacher and writer and cartoonist Lynda Barry. And RuPaul, of course: ‘We’re all born naked and the rest is drag’ – a relevant analogy for self-creation and finding the muse within.

This isn’t just about their work, but about who they are: the artistic fire, intelligence, and generosity that comes across in all that they do. For them, writing is not something done to a schedule to get a book deal (though it can be too); it’s whole, it’s consuming, it defines their all.

Thinking about the lifestyle of an artist may not seem to involve the hard graft that’s needed for developing the craft (that comes elsewhere), but these are the artefacts and activities that get documented in exhibitions years after we’re gone. Or maybe these things just make life better, or raise our spirits when other things aren’t working out, or they lead us into new communities? Success in writing comes in many forms, and not just through publishing – lead a life as a joyful artist, rather than a struggling one.

Also, if you get chance:

  • Visit Frida at the V&A (runs till 4 November – and I’m actually going again tomorrow …).

Masterclasses on Plotting and Voice: 29 September and 24 November 2018

A quick break from my summer break to say that we’re now taking bookings for the craft masterclasses that I’m running this autumn with Kellie Jackson of Words Away. These are one-day courses held on Saturdays at London Bridge Hive:

* The Craft of Plotting, including guest speaker Nick Ross, production director of Little, Brown, on Saturday 29 September 2018

* The Craft of Voice, including guest speaker Jenny Savill, director and agent at Andrew Nurnberg Associates, on Saturday 24 November 2018

More info on my Events page or via the links above, where you can also book, and Kellie and I will do a Q&A giving a few more details shortly, but in brief: these masterclasses are designed as overviews of important aspects of craft that will make your writing stronger. I’d like to think that they could be made into part of your own personally assembled and self-paced DIY MA in creative writing, or maybe used as a refresher or extension for some course you’ve already done.

Places are already being booked – over half the spaces for the plotting workshop have already been taken. We are thinking of others for 2019 – maybe prose style, character and setting, and once again revising. I’m also planning some other workshops of a different type at another location – more on that soon, I hope.

Hope your summer is going well. Have been loving the heatwave, even if the garden is a bit singed. Hot tip, if you’re in London: go and see Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up at the V&A. It’s one of the most well-curated exhibitions I’ve seen in some time, and Frida herself is so inspiring. We are our own muses, et cetera. Related to that, my big fat summer read is The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver, which is turning out to be everything I want in a big fat summer read: engrossing, taking me into other worlds and other lives. A big thank you to Barbara Kingsolver.

Back to my break – and to my reading!

Putting It Through The Typewriter Again: Writing Experiment No. 68

One of the most useful tasks that writers can give themselves during revising is retyping the whole text all over again.

I’ve actually met gasps of horror when I’ve suggested this in workshops. To which I usually say: lazy bastards! In fact, for many heavily changed drafts this work is not really a duplication of labour, and it’s probably more efficient to retype than scratching around in your own leavings, getting confused and failing to see what’s in front of you.

Also, don’t forget those poor Macless authors of yore scratching away with their quill pens or tapping at their typewriters; back in the day, producing a revision was even called ‘putting it through the typewriter again’. Imagine yourself as Ernest Hemingway or Truman Capote (now there’s a choice) or Dorothy Parker, clattering out a new draft.

And, too, this is a physical act: your body (and mind and soul) will be energised. I’m always keen to find intuitive approaches back into writing and looking at your work afresh. Liberate yourself from attachments! And from being locked into the downward scroll of the screen, looking for edits on your last draft with a frown on your brow. Start afresh.

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So: try either of these writing experiments at the appropriate stage in your drafting:

* Allow your first draft to be a Zero Draft, and then embark on a Page One Rewrite for the next draft. Let that initial draft lay out your content and reveal your story matter – as Terry Pratchett apparently said (please tell me where!): the first draft is just a writer telling herself the story. Let the story drift, find a few dead ends perhaps. But too it’s fine to follow an outline.

Then print it out. You might want to make it look like a book or page proofs, i.e., single-spaced and justified, two columns or pages per A4 sheet, and using a bookish font such as Garamond or Baskerville. (And with page numbers, of course.)

Then read it. Maybe read it aloud. As you go, resist editing the text (refuse to engage in that way), but write any notes for the writer (yourself) in a separate notebook. You might even want to create a chapter and/or scene summary based entirely on what is in that draft, or to identify the gift given to the reader on every page.

Then put that draft away – in a drawer, in a safe. There is a good chance you might refer to it again, but there is a good chance too that you might not. I know of some writers who know they are never going to look at their zero draft ever again – simply surfacing their content this way was the important task.

Then, using your notes, or perhaps drawing on your inner resources (for the book is inside you, after all), start your next draft in a new document: effectively, a rewrite. You might want to write a new outline or treatment at this stage, or even several different outlines to help you explore variations.

* Polishing Through Retyping: This approach is also useful for a later draft, e.g., when you are doing a line edit on your prose, smoothing out glitches and clunkiness, spotting repetitions, and dealing with redundancy and overwriting.

Again, read a print-out of the previous draft, making edits on a hard copy: this time, it perhaps makes sense to go with regular double-spaced unjustified manuscript pages in clear, open fonts such as Times or Georgia (though maybe again experiment with a font you don’t usually use?). And you can even give yourself wide margins for adding notes and additions by hand.

Then reread, adding edits on the manuscript in pencil.

Then, sitting comfortably at your computer, and perhaps using a page holder or stand, rekey the edited text in a fresh (and clearly identified) new document.

It’s amazing what comes up, and also how easily you can start to see (and feel) things anew: simple word repetitions, or slips of the keyboard. Or garbled syntax. And yes – maybe your beta readers were right in saying that phrase was too cute, now you come to type it again. And you know – that scene is in fact too boring to retype, so maybe it’s just too boring?! There – a darling murdered more easily than you imagined. (Don’t be too brutal for its own sake, though.)

*

This is something we discussed in the Craft of Revising workshop on Saturday, where a number of people were enthusiastic about the idea.

Some writers, of course, write very deliberately: John Updike, Marilynne Robinson, Cynthia Ozick, Eliot Weinberger. Or they write spontaneously: Jack Kerouac, apparently (though we know that is a bit of a myth). They are planners, or process each word emphatically as they come out, or they are geniuses. And good luck to them! But not everyone works that way – or can work that way, or wants to work that way.

You could even consider starting each major revision in an entirely fresh document.

Rewriting has negative associations – as if we’ve done something wrong in the earlier drafts. But it’s remarkably liberating to actively incorporate it into your process. Free yourself! Embrace rewriting, and freshen your writing in the process.

And of course if you are one of those writers who already write your drafts by hand you can just turn to the rest of us and say: Told you so.

The Craft of Revising, 23 June 2018

I really enjoyed Saturday’s workshop on The Craft of Revising – a lovely group of writers came along, and we left energised and enthusiastic to return to writing projects, seeing them in new ways and ready to try out fresh things with them.

We talked about Buddhism and drag queens and different types of editing, and taste and technique, and intention. We asked ourselves what genres we are writing in, and how our books might be positioned to readers by publishers. We thought about our characters and their yearnings, and discussed how specific slants or perspectives on our material can not only create a stronger focus for our stories but also lift their telling. I stressed the importance of not only verbs but also paginating your manuscripts, and we sought gifts and questions in each other’s writing. We talked about shitty first drafts, and I suggested lots of practical tips for self-editing and looking at your work in a fresh light. We also discussed working with feedback.

A serious aim for the day: the idea of listening to your writing. Listen by reading it aloud, listen by hearing it read aloud, and most of all listen with your eyes: hear what’s there on the page or the screen. Let your material make itself known.

We were lucky to have novelist Michelle Lovric come along to give an inspiring talk on tackling ambitious and challenging projects, and also provide useful and most intelligent guidance on creating voices for your narrators.

I think it’s important that the publishing business is demystified for writers, and we ended the day with a Q&A with Lennie Goodings, Chair of Virago Press, who gave many practical insights into the work of editors and what happens within a publishing house: when to stop editing, being an advocate for your authors with your colleagues, the importance of good booksellers. Lennie brought further inspiration with her good humour and absolute passion for books and writers.

Given I was the only man in the room, it also seemed relevant to touch on the subject of gender in the crowd at creative writing events. Do women writers like coming to workshops, while men writers prefer to attend masterclasses?! Or maybe they just go it alone?! ‘Discuss …’

As usually happens when energetic writers get together, we had far more content to share than we had time to cover. (I want a time-turner!) Everyone in the group had skills and expertise of their own, and there’s so much to learn from each other.

Follow-up notes are being emailed, and lots of handouts were provided (unpaginated … but they are individual, one-page handouts … though please please add page numbers to your own manuscripts!).

Kellie and I hope to run further workshops-slash-masterclasses in the autumn on voice and plotting (dates to come, maybe along with some men?!), and I am planning other workshops in other places too. Do register your interest by contacting me or Kellie.

Thanks to Kellie for a wonderful day, and to Michelle and Lennie for their generosity in joining in, and to everyone for coming.

* Interview on The Craft of Revising

* A post on feedback

* A post on being declined (aka rejection!)

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Listen to your writing!

Thanks to Kellie and Rebecca for photos.

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.