Category: The Writing Life

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 …).

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.