Category: The Writing Life

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 Remember Bobbie Louise Hawkins

I remember my friend Bobbie Louise Hawkins.

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

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

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

I remember she studied art in New Mexico.

I remember she was once married to a Danish architect.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I remember thinking that Bobbie must punctuate her spoken language.

I remember ‘connectives nearly always suck’.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I remember her stories of the other poet!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I remember Bobbie’s smile.

I remember her beautiful voice.

I remember Bobbie’s great beauty.

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

I remember so much more.

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

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

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

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

Bobbie Louise Hawkins, 1930-2018

 

www.bobbielouisehawkins.com

The Selected Prose of Bobbie Louise Hawkins UK

The Selected Prose of Bobbie Louise Hawkins US

A review of Selected Prose from HTML Giant

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

 

 

Everyday Magic Workshop, 18 November 2017

On Saturday I led a workshop called Everyday Magic: The Four Elements of Creativity in conjunction with Words Away. It was the first time that I had done this workshop as a day-long event, and I was also particularly excited to teach a Four Elements workshop in London for the first time; a peculiar and unexpected thrill came from teaching something that I am passionate about in the city that I love. Totally in my element! And maybe after all London is finally my home town.

I was very pleased with how the day went. A super bunch of writers came – many of them very experienced and published writers, and all of them passionate and engaged. Through readings and discussion, we freed up our writing by seeking out and activating the four elements of Fire, Water, Earth and Air. Much of the work involves making space for our Observing Minds, giving our Thinking Minds a rest and not worrying about judgment and outcome. I am a big believer in drafting, but the editing comes later. For now: create! Generate writing, and let sparks fly.

We put this into practice with some fun exercises too. The idea of play is important, which might involve some relearning, or unlearning. I especially enjoyed the pass-around stories, which proved how shiny and brilliant writing can be if we create conditions that let ourselves be spontaneous; the collaborative element also makes them good exercises in letting go of attachments.

London Bridge Hive was an excellent space for a class.

We all need our own writer’s shrine, and here was our impromptu one for the day.

We also all need our own Little Mys, or trickster spirit guides. (Though maybe not the sweater vest and scarf next time?! And maybe not clutch the back of that chair quite like Larry Grayson?! Shut that door!)

I produced a little pamphlet of exercises and inspirations …

… as well as some bookmarks. Maybe I’ll become a bookmark publisher.

Among others, that quote from John Keats and another from Zadie Smith came up in our discussion:

It was a long day, but we all kept going, and you know what they say about time flying … Thanks to everyone who came and made this such an enjoyable day.

And special thanks to the wonderful Kellie Jackson of Words Away for helping get this event off the ground. We hope to run this workshop again in the new year, and are thinking about holding some others. Contact Kellie via Words Away to express your interest – and also to take a look at some of the guests at their forthcoming salons. See you there!

(Update: we are running this workshop again on Saturday 21 April 2018 – more information here.)

Everyday Magic: Future Attractions!

Writing is often described as a form of magic – alchemy. Tor Udall spoke about writing in these terms just last weekend at the Festival of Writing. Something gets transformed, spun out of a few ingredients: pictures and sounds we hold in our mind, memories, yearnings, random happenings, pen and paper. The imagination is fed, and creates something. Yes, this really is magic.

Sometimes the imagination needs a spur, though, or to free itself of clutter or anxieties or other forms of self-consciousness, and this is why I have developed Four Elements workshops for writers keen to find fresh approaches in writing. Using Fire, Water, Earth, and Air for a framework of readings, reflections, and writing experiments, they are inspired by many things, such as mindfulness practices, tarot, and my practical understanding of publishing, but mostly they are fed by our love of books and stories and writing.

On Saturday 18 November, I am really excited to be collaborating with Kellie Jackson of Words Away to offer Everyday Magic: The Four Elements of Creativity as a one-day workshop at London Bridge Hive.

Kellie hosts, along with Emma Darwin, the very wonderful Words Away writers’ salons at the Teahouse Theatre in Vauxhall. This series has quickly established itself with engaging guests and a great crowd of regulars. Kellie is a lot of fun to work with, and we are excited about this workshop.

If you are in/near London, do think about coming along. We are hoping to get a good mix of people attending.

You can read some more about the inspirations for this workshop in this interview I did with Kellie.

And you can book a place here.

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