Category: The Writing Life

Friday Writing Experiment No. 62: Receiving, and Giving

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A subject that comes up frequently in the world of writing is that of cultural appropriation: using other people’s voices, or taking stories that peoples claim as their own. People can be sensitive about cultural tourism, and rightly so, given the uneven balance of power through history.

But neither am I comfortable with limits on what we can or cannot write. Writers often bear witness to things they have observed, rather than things they have experienced directly, and the outsider account often has great value. And writers should be free to go beyond their immediate selves, anyway; the imagination is the greatest tool and purpose of writing – and reading.

There are no easy answers to some of the dilemmas that come up, and some of the views expressed can feel righteous and needlessly divisive. Among many pieces on the matter, the following are thought-provoking:

* Lionel Shriver’s speech on cultural appropriation at the Brisbane Writers Festival

* Whose Life Is It Anyway? – other writers responding to Shriver

* Who Gets To Write What? by Kaitlyn Greenidge

* Marlon James on why he’s done talking about diversity

* Marlon James on pandering (this needs to be said)

A few tips I gathered here: the need for humility (Hari Kunzru). ‘Don’t write what you know, write what you want to understand’ (Aminatta Forna). And, especially: ‘Fiction doesn’t appropriate, it creates’ (A.L. Kennedy).

I usually come down in favour of freedom of speech, but most of all I favour the freedom to do what your mother always told you: think before you speak. We live in times of quick reactions in the echo chambers and mirror pools of social media, and it’s good to make time for reflection. One of a writer’s primary duties is to listen.

For writers have to earn the right to write about something beyond their obvious reach. They have to do their homework: research, sounding out expert opinion, trying out work on readers, slowing down to hear the world they’re writing about.

Writers sometimes also have to accept that they don’t get things quite right first time, and take criticism on the chin, and try to do better next time (this applies in many instances). Good writing often asks that we are robust (as writers, as readers), and don’t make hasty responses.

It’s also worth thinking through the meaning of appropriation. Appropriating refers to the act of taking, and the idea of taking has unpleasant connotations – about colonialism, or theft, or stealing someone else’s identity. But most if not all writing is about taking. As Linda Grant says in the Guardian piece linked above: ‘In practical terms we are mostly appropriating, ruthlessly, the lives of our families and our friends, but that’s not the same as cultural appropriation because it has no political freight.’

Why not reconfigure this idea of taking, though, and think of writing as receiving something; it’s a subtly different gesture, a less aggressive exchange that has a greater sense of sharing.

Plus, perhaps anything that is taken can also be balanced out by the act of giving something back in return?

For this week’s writing experimentTake – or rather receive – something from the outside world that’s very different from your own experience, and write about it in a way that not only makes it your own but also gives something back to the world in the process.

Write with authority during this exchange: listen, do the research, test the work on readers, and all the time scrutinise your intention and be sure you are proceeding respectfully with the purpose of being authentic. Maybe even write yourself a memo first, addressing with honesty some of the ethics of taking (receiving) content from the world and getting down some ideas about giving something back. 

Many of these matters boil down to aspects of craft that help turn your writing into the best possible gift to the world: using a well-drawn point of view that (eventually) comes naturally, taking time really to think about a character’s yearnings, choosing the best verbs to power a sentence, pruning excessive adjectives wrapped around a noun.

‘A good novelist is a good observer – everything else is just style,’ says Chris Cleave in that Guardian piece. Be a good receiver, too, and then be a good giver: pay attention to what you observe and receive, and then how you present it and give it back. It’s good to share. 

 

Tomorrow Belongs To You

If you really care about things, practise what you preach.

If you are a writer or an agent or a publishing professional, are you working with people whose ethics align with yours at every stage of the chain of ownership, production and distribution?

Take time today to do what we have to do in the echo chambers of social media.

But if we really care about things, we have to practise what we preach out there in the world too.

Tomorrow belongs to us.

York Festival of Writing 2016

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Yesterday I returned from my fifth Festival of Writing. I’m tired, and overstimulated, and typing on three devices; I have email, Twitter, two Scrivener projects, three Word documents, and an infinity of Safari tabs on this very screen right now. (No Facebook, though. I’ve deactivated that. For now, for good?)

But I have to say I really love that buzz I get when I come back from York. Here is a quick wrap-up including links to various things I mentioned (perhaps to be updated as my monkey mind remembers bits and pieces).

DIY MA IN CREATIVE WRITING
Here is the post that inspired this workshop: Learning And Studying And Writing: A DIY MA In Creative Writing.

I hope I didn’t sound too biased in my advocacy of the self-help model over educracy (or crookademia, as we called it on a train heading home). But looking at the cost of an MA should really give anyone pause, and in this class I wanted to give practical suggestions and resources for writers who wanted to build their own programme of studies.

We all agreed that doing the necessary studying then drafting and completing a book is probably going to take longer than the usual year of an MA. We thought three to five years was reasonable, maybe seven or eight.

I brought into our discussion a couple of case studies where I had asked two writer friends (one published, one about to be published) how they would put to good use a budget of about half the cost of an MA.

Both said they would spread the learning and writing across three to five years (which seems pretty accurate), and they included things such as: courses, writing retreats, the services of a freelance editor who can also give some market advice, a writing conference where they could pitch to agents, and membership of genre organisations and attending their conventions. Both writers also stressed the importance of networking and building community through such activities – and especially the joy of making like-minded and lifelong friends. Childcare is an additional expense that can be worth the investment at key times.

One came to £4,200, and the other to £3,600. (Gym memberships can cost more!) This is significantly cheaper than most MA courses, which anyway would probably need to be supplemented with other courses or input as the writer extends what is usually a 15,000-word dissertation, give or take, into a book.

And while we are talking about costs, here is a clip that might give further thought on a subject that came up in the class: ‘Fame costs, and right here’s where you start paying’. What is writing going to cost you? How are you going to pay for wherever you want to get in terms of making time, and making space? Time and space are going to be more important than money. (One of my case studies also built a very lovely writing shed, but this is shared with writer’s partner and would blow any MA budget. At least visitors can be slept there at Christmas.)

I mentioned the highly practical and very brilliant self-editing course run for the Writers’ Workshop by Debi Alper and Emma Darwin as a sensible investment too; I always feel a bit sheepish touting the house wares, but I did point out that, among people who have taken it, this course seems to be more highly rated than any other I know, and it turned out that several of its graduates were in the room to back me up.

When signing up for any course, check out the tutors (and note not all the best are famous writers either … or have even published books – at least in that sense). Personal recommendations are always good.

I also suggested an exercise based on the Lynda Barry diary. Here she is in action: Creativity & Learning: A Conversation With Lynda Barry.

I also recommend highly David Gaughran for his wisdom and fire about self-publishing, and his generosity with resources for the writer. His book Let’s Get Digital is free to download right now (and perhaps you can buy one of his novels in exchange).

Back to the course: we did a few brainstormy exercises on the fly, and I used one to challenge writers to produce a short story, and offered to read and comment on any sent my way by Monday morning. And I got one story first thing this morning, and it’s really good! The constraint within that exercise worked really well.

Many other resources, including stuff from the handouts and plenty more, can be found in the Resources pages on my site.

The better you are, the more sweat I’m gonna demand.
Lydia Grant
of the New York City High School for the Performing Arts

TRUSTING YOUR VOICE
This workshop focused on trusting your natural speaking voice as the foundation of your writing. It’s natural, it’s easy, it’s how we’ve been telling stories all our lives. My friend and teacher Bobbie Louise Hawkins from Boulder has been a great influence on my sense of using the speaking voice.

We discussed how different types of writing have different purposes (informing, selling, arguing a case, telling a story, creating an atmosphere). And this creates different needs in the syntax. Fiction needs mood, as do many forms of narrative nonfiction, and sometimes, if we’ve grown used to writing in other forms (academic writing, journalism, business writing) we need to adapt and perhaps return to the simplicity of getting the natural speaking voice on to the page.

We discussed how fronted adverbials can be bad for the health of your fiction, and enjoyed the delightful right-branching syntax of Joe Brainard’s ‘I Remember’. Here is my I Remember from York a few years ago (I remember getting affirmation that we needed a whippet of our own …), and here is an exercise: Variations On The Theme Of I Remember.

Related to voice, I also gave a mention to narration, the narrator, and the persona. We also looked at ways to adapt and extend your natural speaking voice and using dialect in writing. How much can we get away with? Not much is needed, probably. As in many things, sufficiency is a useful principle in writing.

Here is a useful piece by Annabel Pitcher: Me, Myself And I: The Secrets Of Writing In The First Person.

Here are some more exercises on voice from this blog:

Voice 1: Listening
Voice 2: Tone
Voice 3: Passion and Purpose
Voice 4: Other Voices

I’ll end on a quote about a voice’s distinctive qualities from Stephen King:

A novel’s voice is something like a singer’s — think of singers like Mick Jagger and Bob Dylan, who have no musical training but are instantly recognizable. When people pick up a Rolling Stones record, it’s because they want access to that distinctive quality. They know that voice, they love that voice, and something in them connects profoundly with it.

Something to aim for.

RAISING THE TONE
Here are a few examples of logos, ethos and pathos in action.

Here is the Garrison Keillor essay that shows a certain ironic take towards its subject: When This Is Over, You Will Have Nothing That You Want.

And here is a profile of Kit De Waal, whose most sincere My Name Is Leon we listened to.

Can’t go without mentioning George Orwell’s ‘Politics and the English Language’.

And here are a couple of older posts on related matters: Ding. Dong! Right Speech and What Words Can You Use?

BOOK DOCTORING
The manuscripts I read were a good bunch. One was outstanding, and made me wish I was a publisher again, or even (scary) an agent. A couple of others showed a lot of potential. Actually, quite a lot of them did.

In fact, is it too pollyanna of me to think everyone has potential? I had a meeting with someone I’d first met at the Getting Published day in the spring, and he’d gone away and studied the books I recommended and taken Debi and Emma’s course and (most importantly) done lots of writing, and his prose style had truly come on leaps and bounds. Improvement comes through application.

In general, tweaks for mood and pacing are often the things I was paying attention to – things that bring a distinctive style out in the voice and help build an emotional connection. With content, there was sometimes a need for a clearer narrative focus: what’s at stake in the story as a whole? And by extension: on every page? I told one writer I chatted to in passing that every page should offer a gift to the reader. It is helpful to think of writing as an act of giving.

I had to see a few people at short notice – if any of those good folk are reading this and need any points clarifying, drop me a line via my contact form.

Further to that, though, I want to recommend this post for anyone who’s figuring out what to do after meeting with agents and editors: Working With Feedback On Your Writing.

(To come: a post on choosing an agent or publisher.)

TILL THE NEXT TIME
As ever, the Festival of Writing was great fun. A real meeting of minds and especially hearts – there are a lot of good-hearted people at the festival, and that is because writing is fundamentally a good-hearted practice. Group hugs all round! (Man hugs especially.)

Thanks to everyone at the Writers’ Workshop for having me along, and to everyone I spoke with: it made for a very enjoyable weekend.

And a special thanks to those left behind …

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PS for anyone in or near London: I’m joining Kellie Jackson and Emma Darwin at the Words Away Salon at the Tea House Theatre in Vauxhall next week. We’re going to be talking about editing your writing. And networking and building community (see above).

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.

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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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Enchantments

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It’s been a while since I posted (I had to pause to remember my login). I have been busy with other things. I did make time for a couple of fantastic outings this last week.

Last night I saw Edna O’Brien in conversation. She was warm, funny, and erudite, and without a shred of pretentiousness or preciousness. It was a profound evening, and despite a large audience intimate; it was well hosted by Alex Clark, too, who simply let her subject do the talking with a few choice prompts. Part of me wished I’d taken notes about the many things Edna touched upon, but maybe I just needed to be present, listening and soaking up the magic: attentive to those moments. But I do remember her talking about love, and the need for feeling in writing. And I also remember her describing writing – and reading – as enchantment. The spell of language.

I’m ashamed to say that I have never read a book by Edna O’Brien before, but on the other hand I now have many treats in store: more magic to come. Here’s a profile from the Guardian and here’s an interview from the Paris Review. And the new book sounds great. Much to look forward to. Thanks to Alice for bringing me along.

And then on Friday I went to the British Museum to see the exhibition Celts: Art and Identity. Thanks to Jenny for bringing me along. I can’t remember when I saw an exhibition so gorgeous, so respectfully provocative, and so intelligently assembled. It cuts through many of the clichés to present a more diverse and pluralistic view. Celtic art has long been a matter of give and take, of cultural exchange and fusion. I did not realise that the fine interlacing common to much Celtic art shows influence from both Germanic and Mediterranean traditions, for example. Several of the most striking finds on show came from the Thames – I shall no longer be able to cross the river from Waterloo without thinking of the Celts who went before.

And such treasures! They took me back to a time when I thought seriously about reading archaeology at university. We got to handle the goodies in the photo above (bronze is so dense!), and there were coins and flagons and bucket handles and hefty arm-rings and chariot linch-pins: the material objects that bear witness. We ogled torc after torc in gold and silver and bronze, spoilt for choice in picking our favourites. And maybe the highlight of many highlights was stepping up for a closer look at the strange beasts lining the remarkable Gundestrup cauldron from Denmark: were those creatures elephants and unicorns?

Celts also has an excellent catalogue that I’m already reading; this one won’t be left gathering dust on the coffee table. I’m particularly intrigued by the idea of Celtic art as a ‘technology of enchantment’ – ‘able to beguile and dazzle the uninitiated viewer through its highly skilled manufacture and complexity’.

Here we are again: learning the craft, making things, weaving spells.