I couldn’t let this moment pass without a tip of the hat towards National Poetry Day.
I have found giving myself a limited 20 minutes on the clock, writing to a prompt, really helps me to focus and can give pleasing results … see/hear below:
There’s this pebble that makes me feel small
But I can hold it in my palm
Broken, sheerly like a miniature cliff
Inlaid with lines, pencil fine
By spirit-level silty seas, advancing, retiring, layering
Then squeezed, tectonic tight
Then baked in earth’s belly and uncovered
By archaeologist’s brushes of
Wind and water
Shorn by ice and rolled in the tide
It’s just those lines, no thicker than a fingernail
Each a few thousand years deep
That make me feel
In accents deep set or bulging, narrow or wide, turned up or down
With lumen whites for a larynx, elastic lids for vocal cords
Blinking like a cursor
Pupil and iris for tongue and teeth
Punctuation marks, up or down at the end of sentences
Or hovering for emphasis
In accents fine or rough, round and knobbled, flecked like bark
Or medieval tones of lily white
They have ten inflections, each topped by a nail
Their salute is mightier than the sword
Speaking without boundaries of language
Forceful words seldom misinterpreted
They even vote and carry on political campaigns
With the whole entourage of body
All at once achatter
Basically, it’s a writer’s pyramid scheme, blog-based chain letter, tasteful tag-fest thing. I’m one of three writers Rob’s asked to answer four questions about writing and the writing process.
It is hoped that this will entendril the blogging writersphere ecosystem with fruitful vines of interconnection, lead readers to discover new and lovely writers and give others an insight into what makes some of us tick.
Not only because Rob’s said nice things about me in his post but also because, in my opinion, he’s “one to watch” as he climbs steadily the ladder of latter-day bards, I really hope you hop back up the vine and check out his writing. I think it speaks for itself in a unique voice and it takes a lot make me think, as I do, “when that book comes out I’m buying it” whether the author is my friend or not.
1) What am I working on?
When I’m not writing for others, I’m mapping the terrain between my subconscious and conscious realities, my dreaming and waking worlds, and dredging up short stories as I go. These are broadcast semi-regularly as a podcast at Stories from the Borders of Sleep. They are stories for hearing rather than reading, so any book that may come from them in the future will be more of a spin-off than a substantial target met.
This is a long-term project. I intend to continue it until the twelfth of never and would be quite happy to let it be my life’s work. It provides a creative discipline through the need to continually bring out new material and is immensely satisfying as I know it goes straight to an audience that, my stats tell me, downloads on average a hundred stories a day.
Alongside that, and not a million miles removed from it, I’m working on a book that probably sits in the ‘self help’ section. Broadly, it’s about using different parts of the body as a way of connecting inner reflection with outward action. If that sounds too wooky, then it could alternatively be described as a book about anthropology and time management.
2) How does my work differ from others of its genre?
I honestly don’t know because, with perhaps one exception, I don’t really read the stuff that might be similar. The exception is that I have derived a lot from the works of George MacDonald. He occupies the high points of mythopoeic romance to which I can only aspire.
To feed myself, I study literary classics, folklore and history, watch TED talks and look for books in brooks and sermons in stones. I should probably be reading Paul Coehlo, Haruki Murakami, Susanna Clarke and Neil Gaiman, but I don’t have time.
3) Why do I write what I do?
It has always been the same motivation for me, that simple line from the screenplay of the film about CS Lewis, Shadowlands:
We read to know we are not alone.
Books have been my greatest comforters and companions in helping me make sense of this way between earth and heaven where we all have the temporary use of a body, a mind and some words. Therefore, put simply, “I write to let others know they are not alone either.”
4) How does my writing process work?
I need to work in long stretches of time so it only really happens when I have a few uninterrupted hours in the dead of night or the wee small hours. Saturday mornings are good, too.
I write standing up because I constantly need to fidget or walk away to calm down or let the kinks work out in my head.
Actually starting something is Mount Everest, everything after that is Cool Runnings (apart from editing, which is K2). Finishing something is a serious hit on my dopamine receptors.
I usually only need one or two ideas, the rest takes shape as I go along. So I might start just knowing I want to write about a couple of trees I saw with intertwined limbs. Then it’s just a case of letting my imagination play out and making sure I take notes and keep up.
That sounds easy but it takes quite a toll on me. I think I write in a trance – it’s a bit like getting drunk. I get elated, then I get hung over. Maybe a better answer to the previous question is just that I’m an addict.
And on to …
This is the bit where I tell you who to hop on to next … I’m still recruiting victims, but here’s my first:
When Justin first appeared in my life, I felt an immediate connection – although I suspect he has a gift for making most people feel like that. In spite of our very different backgrounds, our few conversations have got straight to the heart of the things that most interest me. We’re both multi-instrumentalists and we both love writing. We both see our creative calling as not fitting the box of one particular medium or art form although writing seems to be the brightest thread. We’re both gnawed by the great question of ‘where is home?’ as people who have been geographically adrift among cultures from an early age. We’re both intrigued by Japanese culture – although he has more of an inside track on that. He introduces himself very well and explains why he’s a ‘Vagabond at Peace’ in this blog post.
Justin describes himself as an ‘aspiring author’. That’s brave and honest. The title brackets him with millions of others who ‘hope to write a book some day’. The thing is, I think he just might be one of those who actually does. I dream with him that he’ll one day write the great Japanese novel. In the meantime he shows a flair for flash fiction, writes prolifically in search of his voice, studies English Literature at Durham University, has an eye for well-turned prose and an ear for a lyrical song.
Justin has recently restarted blogging (prompted by this post, in fact), and although there’s not a lot there yet, he’s definitely one to watch. You can literally watch him on YouTube and hear him on SoundCloud – but seriously … check him out!
I have an app that seems to be permanently open in my brain; maybe it is a monkey on a typewriter. Strings of letters constantly rearrange themselves and every so often a combination sticks and I have a new word in my head. I’ve tried to figure out what to do with these words.
Some of them have ended up in a story I wrote, about a “jellyfarglemarsh”, which you can listen to over at Stories from the Borders of Sleep. Others are being collected in a document on Draft (superb tool for distraction-free writing and collaboration invented by Nathan Kontny) until I find a use for them. As a writer, you always need new words for things.
The typewriting-monkey app goes crazy, though, when I play Scrabble. In the last month, I would have scored a lot better in Scrabble if I could have played some of the following non-words:
I’m not complaining for a minute; this is the life I have chosen for myself and I love it. As in any job, though, there are good days and bad days.
I am often asked for advice by people who are considering going self employed in creative fields and my first line is a reality check. If I had known all this when I started three and a half years ago, I don’t think it would have changed anything, but this is my second attempt to “go it alone” after I learned some hard lessons the first time round, which was about ten years ago.
Shuffling to your PC in your pyjamas with a cup of coffee at 11am to start work
Getting up at 6am and sometimes working ‘til midnight to meet a deadline.
Lunching with friends
Skipping meals because you are “in the zone” and don’t want to lose the flow
Being your own boss and beholden to nobody
Working for a string of “bosses” in succession and often simultaneously
Never having to fill in another job application
Being on a permanent job hunt to line up the next month of work
Never having to go through another annual performance review
Trying to stay on top of your game and develop your skills with virtually no guidance
Holidays when you want them
No paid leave and the laptop comes on holiday with you because it’s impossible to “abandon the baby”
Extended amounts of time in your own little world
Missing the banter and mutual support of a work environment
Doing what you love every day
Tax returns, accounts, marketing, pitching and admin at least 30% of the time
Time to work on your “big idea”
Shelving the “big idea” until things calm down a bit
Having control over your working environment
Moving to the kitchen because the desk is too cluttered, tripping over the laundry pile and the dog/cat who is doing everything in its power to distract you
“My office is a coffee shop”
Spending half an hour trying to get access to their unfeasibly slow WiFi, getting the shakes by lunch time (after your 4th espresso), going outside to take a phone call that you don’t want to be overheard
Practice the guitar in your “lunch break”
Twitter, Pinterest, Facebook and Stumbleupon in your “lunch break”
Grammar was never invented to separate people “in the know” from the rest of us or to keep teachers and proofreaders in a work. In fact it, was never “invented”. It is intrinsic to language and fundamental for communication.
A new piece of research, published in the May 8 issue of the Journal of Neuroscience, suggests that bad grammar is not only noticed by the English teacher or the pedant in the office but also at a neurological level by your bog-standard brain – yes, YOUR brain (and mine).
Participants in a study were presented with short sentences, one word at a time, and their brain activity was monitored using a non-invasive technique. A mixture of good and bad sentences were used and the participants were asked to mark them correct or incorrect as well as to respond to an auditory tone that was played at some point while they were reading each sentence. Thus their awareness (of errors and tones) could be checked against actual brain activity.
When it was all shuggled out, the results showed brains responding to errors even when the participants did not register their awareness of them. The brain appears to pick up and correct errors of syntax without us noticing. However, this unconscious process demands neurological resources.
Helen J. Neville, one of the paper’s co-authors from the University of Oregon, points out that children often pick up grammar rules implicitly through routine daily interactions with parents or peers, simply hearing and processing new words and their usage before any formal instruction. This has implications for second language acquisition; grammar should be taught implicitly, without semantics. In other words, she suggests that nonsense poems, such as Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky”, are ideal material for this approach – syntactically sound, yet virtually meaningless.
For me, this research underlines the importance of syntax, and word order in particular. The logical flow of a sentence should be such that the reader does not have to re-read it (consciously or unconsciously). I find that about 30% of my editorial tweaking tackles this issue.
I often recommend that people who want to improve their writing read as much good copy as they can, in order to internalise the language; read their own writing out loud, to hear how it works; lead the reader by the hand, making sure that the meaning stands out from the surrounding qualifiers; and assume that if their meaning can possibly be misconstrued, then it will be.