Category: Inspirations

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.

Writing Experiment No. 65: An Archive Of Belonging

There are lots of theories about the number of stories there are: two, eight, twenty, sixty-four. But I have a hunch that most stories boil down to just one story, and that’s about the search for home.

I’m not sure quite when I decided on this. Maybe it was when I read Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, which at its end, after all the fuss and fatwas, is about people looking for home.

Which takes me to Rushdie’s brilliant essay, ‘Out of Kansas’, on The Wizard of Oz, which reminds us all that There’s no place like home.

Which takes me to all sorts of friends of Dorothy. The logical family that forms on Barbary Lane in Tales of the City. The home created by Sue and Maud in Fingersmith. Jeanette Winterson’s story of adoption in Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, and the even more extraordinary true story in Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal? The Moomins defending their home from comets or welcoming odd bods into the Moominhouse. When I was eight years old I was always drawing plans for my own Moominhouse. It had two verandahs.

The stranger in a strange land (the Durrells with their strawberry-pink, daffodil-yellow, and snow-white villas – which all had verandahs drawn by me too). Or: the stranger comes to town (Gatsby). A migration to a new home (My Antonia). Defending a homeland (Game of Thrones). And think of the grand narratives of the idea of home that infect public life today: ‘I want my country back,’ exclaimed the gammon-face on Question Time. Me too, love.

Even the story of someone staying in one place – say, Emma Bovary in provincial France, or Olive Kitteridge in her seaside town in Maine – can be a tale of building a home: maintaining it, facing your own reality, messing things up or holding things together. Recently, Amanda Berriman’s powerful novel Home is narrated by a homeless four-year-old who reminds us that home is not something we can take for granted.

In thinking about the idea of home, something else that comes to mind is the blog of Bhanu Kapil, where she talks about the experiences of coming from a migrant family and being a migrant herself. Please read this post, where Bhanu describes an astonishingly generous gesture made towards her family shortly after they arrived in London.

Lo: look at the light that shines out of that beautiful story. Bhanu calls this the first entry in an Archive of Belonging. In these fractious times of Brexit and Trump and school shootings, much public discourse bubbles over with rage and spite, and it’s too easy to dwell among the noises and disagreements and slurrings. So it’s lovely to read such a story of creation and celebration. It’s important, too. As Bhanu says: ‘This kindness and hospitality is somehow unimaginable in the era we have entered now, and yet, perhaps it is not.’

Home, belonging, security, the quest for wholeness, loving and being loved, acts of generosity and creation. I think of Ray Bradbury’s ‘Zen in the Art of Writing’, an inspirational essay on the work of the writer that concludes with ‘a new definition for Work‘: LOVE.

So: as a writing experiment, let yourself have a few moments of contemplation, and take yourself to a time when someone gave you something that made you feel that you BELONGED. Then write about that experience. It could be about someone else, if you prefer. It could be a true story, or it could be fictional. But fill it with people and places and telling details (such as Bhanu’s Aunty Catherine’s lily of the valley perfume). Fill it with LOVE as you CREATE something or some things that made you (or other people) feel at home.

Maybe creating entries in our own Archives of Belonging will make us kinder and more generous people too? The opposite of war isn’t peace, it’s creation, etc. (That’s from ‘La Vie Boheme’ in Rent – another story about creating home.)

Ongoing writing experiment: Continue to add to your Archive of Belonging.

Alternative exercise: Draw a plan of your own Moominhouse. (And don’t forget a library.)

And if you’d like to try some other writing: Writing Experiments.

Books of 2017

I read some good books this year. I also thought I had read a lot of books this year until I got a holiday round-robin from my auntie Ruth, who mentioned in passing the 188 books she’d read in 2017 (this was early December), including ones in the original Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, and French (she read some from German and Russian in translation, she said – though she speaks those languages, and another seven too). Not so pleased with myself now, am I?!

Some of the books I mention below as read in 2017 were published during this year, some were older ones that I finally got round to, some were rereads. Some books were overrated, overhyped, execrable. But my new year resolution is to try to be positive in the world (wishy-washy if well-meaning), so (for now at least) let’s leave it at that. There were plenty of books that lie unfinished, too – some not worth finishing, or perhaps I’m simply not ready for them yet. So many books!

Off the top of my head, two novels gave me most pleasure this year. One was The Green Road by Anne Enright. Among its many strengths, The Green Road has a structure I love – slabs of narrative that the reader is left to stitch together, and that cohere with force at the end. The characterisation is also disarming – these feel like real people, with all the points of affection or irritation you’d find in family members. You feel you are getting full lives, full stories here. I also loved the saltiness of the politics in this Anne Enright essay in the London Review of Books – potent, but not at all preachy.

The other novel I really loved was Days Without End by Sebastian Barry. I knew it was set during the American Civil War, but I didn’t know other things about it, and it surprised me to the end. Barry wears his research lightly, and his narrator’s voice is winning.

Increasingly I find the short story most consistently pleasurable as a literary form, and among many stories I read in 2017 two collections stick in my mind. Kanishk Tharoor’s Swimmer Among the Stars gave me elephants and emperors and explorers and spaceships – stories with real dash and imagination, unbounded by genre or categorisation. And Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Refugees gives us sharply drawn tales of migrants and families.

Arundhati Roy’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness was a big, baggy novel full of heart, and it was a pleasure to lose myself in it. And after that I read Zadie Smith’s Swing Time – another big novel with big themes that’s become my favourite among her books. A further summer read was one of Kent Haruf’s earlier novels The Ties That Bind – his stories of extraordinary ordinary lives in Colorado make him, for me, one of the great prose stylists. The North Water by Iain McGuire was a bloody tale of the whaling industry in the nineteenth century, and also an example of a novel that uses present tense most effectively (I have to collect examples of such things, given how often I tell people that using the past tense is probably easiest and most sensible in writing a novel).

A couple of books I loved for their strangeness. Set in the aftermath of the First World War, Xan Brooks’s The Clocks In The House All Tell Different Times takes something disturbing and makes something surprising out of it – an unflinching book. And Conor O’Callaghan’s Nothing On Earth has great mood and mystery.

Two works of nonfiction told powerful stories of gay history and current affairs: Cleve Jones’s When We Rise and Paul Flynn’s Good As You. I also gained much from Why Buddhism Is True by Ronald Wright and The Divided Brain and the Search for Meaning by Iain McGilchrist. The Best Minds of My Generation: A Literary History of the Beats is a collection of Allen Ginsberg’s lectures edited by Bill Morgan that took me back to Naropa, and it also made me think how much I enjoy the syllabus as a literary form (see also: Lynda Barry).

One of my most memorable book experiences of the year came from listening to the audiobook of Willa Cather’s My Antonia. I first read it over thirty years ago, and it was a real treat to have it read to me this time round, even if the playing fields of Twickenham, where I was often walking my dog at the time, lack the romance of the wide open spaces of Nebraska. What I particularly noticed is that it doesn’t really have a plot. It’s just very well observed. People are observed with heart, landscapes are observed with lyricism; everything changes, and everything stays the same – and there’s a point to that. I often recommend that writers listen to the audiobooks of favourites of their youth or childhood – I think we absorb a great deal when we soak up in this way a story that means so much to us. In the case of My Antonia, in fact, it had been so long that I had forgotten much of the story, though certain vivid images (a dead man in a freezing barn; a silhouette on the prairie) remained etched on my mind – or is it my heart? But I have always remembered the tone of the writing: warm, generous, wistful – a memorable experience of feeling in writing after most of the details were gone. The tone is perhaps even more alive in this audio version. (Much depends, of course, on the narrator chosen to read.)

Another great listening experience was the Mindful U podcast from my alma mater Naropa.

Coming in 2018 is Home by Amanda Berriman. What impresses me most of all: it uses not only the point of view but the voice of a four-year-old girl to tell the whole story. I know, I know – we don’t work with children or animals, but it’s wonderful when something so daring is so accomplished (plus: Watership Down – okay, books are not films in other ways too). What’s more, given its gritty subject matter, is that it has flashes of irony, even humour, dare I say. I know Mandy from various writing events, and know something of her application to learning the craft, so this makes this debut even more exciting – she deserves every success.

Another debut novelist I know professionally is Terri Fleming, whose Perception was published this year. It’s a sequel to Pride and Prejudice that focuses on the stories of Mary and Kitty, and it possesses real wit and economy, and some rich characterisation. I gave this as a gift to several Janeite friends during 2017, and everyone loved it. Some real raves.

I ended the year reading the diary bits of Alan Bennett’s Keeping On Keeping On and then Jeanette Winterson’s Christmas Days. Both have distinct voices, and both are uncompromising in their politics – sometimes directly, sometimes more subtly. Jeanette’s Christmas book was recommended to me after last Christmas, and I’m glad I saved it until this one. It’s charming.

I also reread Moominland Midwinter, and was very excited to see the Tove Jansson exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery.

Beyond books, the revival of Angels in America in June was magical! We saw it first time round, and we loved every bit of it this year: funny, fantastic, gutsy, fierce. The Angel in this version was not what I expected, but I very much liked.

I very much enjoyed seeing George Saunders talk about writing and read from his work (along with a troupe of performers at Goldsmith’s) this year; he is a funny and generous man. Words Away salons with Monica Ali and Tessa Hadley were other highlights among events, as was the Polari tenth-anniversary reading at the Southbank Centre.

On TV I loved Big Little Lies. Christmas was a bit thin on TV offerings, though I did love the hammy Crooked House on Channel 5, which I thought was more fun (less pretentious) than the recent BBC adaptations of Agatha Christie. No one chews scenery better than Glenn Close. And we did catch up on a lot of Larry David in December too.

So: put on the spot, I guess my books of 2017 were The Green Road, Days Without End, and My Antonia.

Happy New Year!

Jack Collom, Force of Nature

Jack Collom, poet, teacher, friend and lover of nature, died last month. His memorial is held at Naropa today, and I’m sorry not to be there in person. I am sure many will be in attendance, and also there in spirit. Jack was a much loved and profoundly good teacher, one of the best I ever had, and his influence is felt far and wide and with great affection.

My first experience of teaching in fact came when I took Jack’s Project Outreach class at Naropa in the fall of 2002. I volunteered one morning a week in a Language Arts class at Fairview High School (which was every bit the archetype of the American school that I hoped it would be). Then every Friday at 4p.m. our Outreach class would reconvene in one of the Upaya classrooms and compare notes from the week, listen to Jack’s guidance, and do some writing exercises of our own. And with Jack, there were always tons of writing exercises: acrostics, sestinas, recipe poems, odes, Q&A poems, I Remembers, pass-arounds – lots of pass-arounds.

One form I was introduced to was the haiku-like lune. The variant the Collom lune is even named for Jack. Counting words rather than syllables suits makes this poetic form more robust and suitable than the haiku itself for the English language, I reckon. Like many good things, it was an accidental (but naturally arising) invention; Jack had no embarrassment in describing how he had misremembered the form as a verse of 3-5-3 words rather than syllables.

Over two weekends I also took the weekend practicum Designing A Writing Workshop that Jack co-taught with Lee Christopher. It offered tons of practical advice as well as some of the most fun I ever had in a classroom. We did lots more writing exercises too. The lack of self-consciousness that Jack fostered among writers was shown in his classes when, in response to the prompt ‘How I Write’, I penned a day-in-the-life poem about my tendency towards procrastination, which included rather Too Much Information about certain activities other than writing. And it must have been a classroom wholly lacking in self-consciousness that Jack fostered, because I then read this TMI piece out loud. And then, once I’d read it, I blushed, and laughed a lot with everyone else. I laugh again as I remember this, and think that doing what comes naturally and what feels like fun is so often (always?) a requisite of the best writing.

It is ironic that we often need to learn how to do what comes naturally, though. Fostering an instinctive approach to writing (and learning in general) was at the heart of Jack’s teachings. He worked a great deal in the school system, especially with the Poets in the Schools programme, and he often shared his particular joy at writing poetry with elementary schoolchildren.

Poetry Everywhere, the book on teaching poetry Jack co-wrote with Sheryl Noethe, is one of the richest resources a teacher might have. Among the hundreds of poems it uses as examples, poems by William Carlos Williams and Pablo Neruda sit beside poems by first grader Lacy Wiley and twelfth grader Ann Jankowski and many of the thousands of other students whose work Jack published in class anthologies at the end of every semester.

Such an honouring of children’s voices is not only an exercise in democracy in the classroom, but a reminder that writers often need to rediscover things we have lost: our true natures. In On Sound and Rhthym, an essay that shines brilliantly not only on the teaching of poetry but on the whole idea of learning, Jack describes how children:

have the potential for art right on the tips of their tongues. It is important that we recognize this “little genius” for poetry that children have—and not try to “muscle” them into adult standards of poetic discourse. Yes, they should develop mature language skills—but gradually, organically, while as much as possible maintaining (and developing and transforming) their own fresh poetic talents.

Good writing comes naturally. Second Nature is the title of the book of poems and essays of Jack’s that won the Colorado Book Award in 2013.

Jack taught us that an important way to develop this instinct for writing was in having fun. He sometimes taught summer workshops on comedy and writing. And his good-humoured and graceful presence in any classroom was the ultimate lesson in how to be a teacher: funny, inquiring, big-hearted, listening, patient, unafraid to challenge, praising occasionally, sharing always. And Jack always (always) joined in the writing exercises himself, scribing away at a yellow notepad with a ballpoint pen. Theories of education seem dry when set against such an example.

Keeping with that theme of nature, Jack also taught Eco-Lit, a pioneering Naropa course that was one of the first (if not the first) to focus at college level on writing about the environment and nature in such a way. The reading list amounts to an artfully curated anthology of poetry, science writing, oral history, essays, creative prose, and other forms, ranging from Stephen Jay Gould to Rachel Carson to Elizabeth Bishop to Herman Melville to Aztec poetry. I hope someone is carrying on that lineage at the Kerouac School.

Another memory: during readings of his work, Jack would indicate quoted matter by drawing bunny ears in the air with his index and middle fingers.

I don’t think Jack was a Buddhist, and (other than birdwatching?) I am not sure if he had an obvious contemplative practice. Yet he was one of the few I encountered at this Buddhist-inspired school who genuinely seemed able to put his ego to one side to get down to the work in hand. He was serious about the Big Issues in writing, but he never took himself too seriously.

Beyond his work as a union organiser, Jack did not strike me as overtly political either. Unlike many activist writers, Jack was never patronising or carping in his writing. But his poems often possess careful acts of observation, and when you are observing the truths of nature and everyday life there is little that is more political.

And how many other poets have had their hometown honour them with a specially named day, as Boulder did with Jack Collom Day in 2001?

Poet, birder, veteran, yodeller, environmentalist, father, husband, teacher: Jack Collom was a force of nature. No, is a force of nature. Because the best teachers never die. We ‘watch them grow from was to will be and will be to was’: like the Old Woods of Jack’s poem, their teachings will last.

 

Poetry Everywhere by Jack Collom and Sheryl Noethe

From Nature to Nurture: Ecology and Pegagogy Inform Two Long-Running Writing & Poetics Courses from Naropa University

An Ecosystem of Writing Ideas by Jack Collom (every writing teacher should read this)

On Sound and Rhthym, by Jack Collom

Jack Collom (1931-2017) from the Allen Ginsberg Project  (includes video links)

Jack Collom, Boulder Poet and Educator, remembered in the Daily Camera

I Wouldn’t Be Here If It Weren’t For Jack Collom by Jonathan Montgomery

Interview with Jack Collom by Elizabeth Robinson

And my favourite poem of Jack’s (one of my favourite poems): The Old Woods

George Saunders And The Intuitive Swerve

I was very lucky to see George Saunders talking about his first novel Lincoln in the Bardo this week. The man is a true inspiration. His writing is hard to categorise  – good, we say! He’s not a conventional realist, and his stories are these great shots of something we can’t predict – they have strands of the surreal, the hyperreal, the dystopian, the fantastic, the satirical, the gonzo and oddball and geek. Even more impressive is the fact he’s made himself a successful career as a published writer and a highly regarded teacher of creative writing (at Syracuse) on the basis of not publishing a novel, at least till now. Yay for not writing novels yet! If only we all were so patient.

And this novel: worth the wait! It’s quite a feat of the imagination. Many screen inches have been devoted to it already, so I shan’t repeat any of that, but what I shall say is that it contains many of my favourite things in writing: ghosts, the American Civil War, voices, intelligence, daring, swearing, exquisitely carved sentences, great liberties with history, great truths, a big heart.

His talk at Goldsmiths, where he was expertly interviewed by Erica Wagner, featured an enactment of several chapters with himself and several speakers. And, of course, it also featured many nuggets of his teaching and editorial genius, delivered with great wit and warmth and purpose. George Saunders must be a strong candidate for the writers’ writer.

Something I enjoyed in particular in his discussion of writing was this sense of a great writerly intuition uncluttered by self-consciousness or overthinking. As has been reported, this was a book that was a long time in the coming, and it seems to be a book that emerged instinctively. ‘When I wanted to outline, I didn’t,’ he said. He specifically talked about writers cultivating their ‘intuitive swerve’, discussing writing as improv, and letting the ghosts speak – his ghost characters in this book, but too I think that applies to the ghost that is any character we create.

Discussing historical fiction, he said emphatically that he doesn’t care what life was like in 1862. That’s my kinda historical fiction.

He also talked about the differences for him between writing a short story and writing a novel. This novel, of serious matters (war, a parent’s grief), required earnest writing, and his short form comes with a ‘tic of humour’ that’s pretty much a hallmark. It makes me think how some of my own short stories, written for workshops and for reading aloud at events, perhaps play a little too easily to the gallery, at the expense of digging deep. I think it’s quite an achievement to have combined humour and earnestness in Lincoln in the Bardo.

George Saunders also stressed the importance of revision – important in so many ways. First (and I think he quoted Einstein here?), he talked about problems needing solutions beyond the plateau of their conception. Of course our first drafts need work, and maybe lots of it! And revision offers so many chances to rework and fix and tweak and polish –  ‘the little move is what distinguishes you’, he said. He parsed the sentence ‘Frank came into the room and sat on the brown couch’, showing how many of those words, or those sorts of words, are superfluous (we ended up with just ‘Frank’). Through pruning away and leaving some work for the reader, we grow a respect for the reader, which creates intimacy.

George Saunders also advocates empathy more broadly as a cure for the tensions of these politically divided times. He describes Trump voters, for example, as including the sort of ordinary people he grew up among, and he met many too in reporting from the 2016 campaign trail, describing them as nice, affable, not angry. ‘How much compassion can you give? An infinite amount.’ And this gets embodied, of course, in the shining example of Lincoln in his book, as he told the Washington Post:

The main thing that I feel is — whatever you want to say about Lincoln — his empathy expanded as he lived. He was probably a typically racist Indiana boy. And then those last three years, his pot of empathy went out to include everybody: his soldiers, of course, these millions of Americans who were being enslaved, even the South. So that’s why we love him, I think because with all that pressure on him and all that hatred coming toward him, he didn’t turn to the haters and disabuse them; he actually tried to include them in his love.

Though too he cautioned about the enabling dangers of what the Tibetan Buddhists call ‘idiot compassion’, something that we perhaps need to hear more often. (I am sick of all the pandering, and I want my country back.)

Finally, Saunders also warned all writers against ego. ‘Don’t get ambitious. Don’t get elated.’

All round, a very brilliant and engaging evening. I am so lazy nowadays, one of those lazy home-working Londoners, and I don’t go out that much. But it was only the next day that I realised I’d schlepped all the way to SE and back (left the house at 4.30, got back at 10.30) without hesitating to think about it, because if you are serious about writing you don’t miss up the chance to listen to someone as brilliant and much loved as George Saunders speak.

A few Saunders links here:

* What Writers Really Do When They Write, by George Saunders – sterling advice

* Powell’s interview with George Saunders, February 2017

George Saunders interviewed in Vanity Fair, March 2017

* Who Are All These Trump Supporters? by George Saunders, from the New Yorker, July 2016

* The Anton Chekhov-George Saunders Humanity Kit: An Introduction – a real treat for syllabus geeks in the form of course paraphernalia from one of the great teacher’s courses at Syracuse

PS Sadly, I didn’t get my book signed. There were a ton of people in the queue, over a hundred surely, and it moved maybe one spot in the fifteen minutes I did wait. But I had a train to catch, and a city to cross! I did of course enter my own imagined space of how to commune with the great man among so many fanboys and -girls, and puzzled about the least smarmy way to ask if, given his interest in Tibetan Buddhism, he’d visited Naropa University during his time at the Colorado School of Mines, where he was an undergraduate. But I’d probably have only got tongue-tied and blushed and blabbed, anyway. Here’s the front of the adoring queue on my way out.