seek first to understand

28 September, 2009

It’s Monday night, and as of this week that means blogging night. But it’s also swing night; I went to my first class this evening, and we learnt the Charleston, so I hope you don’t mind if I practise my moves under the table…

We have our first workshop tomorrow. I’m rather relieved that I’m not up for dissection – sorry, discussion – first time round; I’ve got at least a couple of weeks to work up the four pieces I’m currently writing. And it’ll be good to get a feel for the way things work before it’s my turn. But I’m also keeping in mind our tutor’s direction last week: that in the workshop we seek first to understand what we’re looking at; only then do we evaluate it. That seems to me a deeply respectful and encouraging way of going about critiquing someone’s writing.

So, do you want to know my deep, dark, shameful secret?

It’s this: I find writing poetry really hard. That in itself isn’t such a bad thing (though it’s easy to feel inadequate, and to compare yourself with others who seem to find it so much easier), but I often find it so hard that I mostly – recently, anyway – don’t actually enjoy writing poetry; so hard that I can, and do, put it off for ages. In fact sometimes it feels like I’d rather do almost anything than sit down and write. And the really, really shameful secret: I haven’t written a poem since I found out I got a place on this course. Which is understandable in one sense, but mostly it makes me feel like a fraud. A writer who doesn’t write isn’t actually a writer.

I’ve been finding it quite a painful paradox, to be honest. On the one hand it’s not an exaggeration to say that a part of me is deeply convinced that poetry is the most important thing in the world. And so here I am, taking a whole year out (and spending thousands of pounds) to learn to write better poetry, to learn the craft. On the other hand: I just haven’t been writing. For the last couple of weeks, more than just the usual procrastination, it’s this rather shameful, confused feeling that’s had me rabbit-in-headlights-frozen, and meant I haven’t picked up my pen to write since I got here. Every day that I haven’t written the panic’s risen a little more, and I’ve felt a little more like I shouldn’t be doing this at all.

Thankfully a couple of good, honest conversations over the last week have helped to break the deadlock – that and a truly horrific anxiety dream on Sunday morning that had me reaching for pen and paper while still in bed, so I could at least say ‘I have now started’. And this morning I finally got some good writing time in – whether the writing was any good is another matter, and at this stage doesn’t actually matter I don’t think. So that’s a huge relief. Maybe I can do this after all.

Hopefully it’s not too uncommon to enjoy having written something rather than the actual process of writing. I’m sure I’ve heard writers say that before. Who was it that said the craft of writing is mostly about the application of the seat of one’s pants to one’s chair? They were right, I think. And Laura Riding (see my last post) writes this:

It is quite true that when someone sits down to write or read a poem the amount of inertia to be overcome is greater than with any other activity.

I agree, to be honest – and the fact that someone else experiences that too is hugely comforting. It’s so easy to assume that everyone else writes freely, joyously – that they just can’t help writing all the time, whenever, whatever. I’m sure that’s true for some people, and certainly reading Joe Klein’s biography of Woody Guthrie right now isn’t helping me in the insecurity stakes – but for lots of other people, writing is just hard work. I’ll never forget hearing Tom Paulin say that writing is like ‘digging ditches; it’s real Desperate Dan stuff; it’s like eating old bakelite plugs’. Preach it, brother!

Really, the main thing I need to do is forget all the myths that surround writing, and creativity in general, and simply write the way I write. Now I’ve definitely made things more stressful/panicked/rigid than they need to be, and one of the things I want to learn this year is how to write in a more relaxed, fluid manner (I’m talking process here rather than style). But at the same time, I do also need to learn to accept the fact that I’m not a midnight-oil type of livewire, and I likely never will be, bar the odd sudden visits from the muse (it has happened before, but only a couple of times). Mostly I need routine, I need solitude, I need time and space by myself, and mainly, I think, I need stability. And the last six months have been anything but stable, so I’m going to cut myself a huge swathe of slack and stop beating myself up for not having written any poetry during that time.

(Strangely I find the process of writing fiction much easier; since November last year I’ve been working on a very crappy first draft of a children’s story. I can and do write that quickly, and once I get going the sense of flow is almost addictive. It’s just a completely different kind of writing.)

Well I thought I was going to write about Poetics today, and in fact I photographed all the lovely books that I received from amazon this morning just so I could show you what I’m reading. But I guess I was in a confessional mood, and Poetics will just have to wait till Friday.

I’ll leave you with one of my own poems this time, as a reminder to myself that yes, I can write. And I’m going to learn to write better.

All the maps of Russia stop at Moscow

but home lies somewhere beyond, under
the blue bowl of sky, ceramic, unglazed.
I’ve heard of vast forests, immense fields,
black soil. But there are no maps, and
my only clue is a mustard seed wrapped
in cabbage-leaf complexities of skin
and heart. I must make my own way, collect
to myself the riches I hope to find:
a pinecone, a tug of sheep’s wool, a smooth
pebble, a paper seedcase, a sea shell.
I am a riffle in a stream, catching
particles of gold, of light. And if there is,
after all, a home to be found, I need
to see the shining thread, to feel its pull.

(I wrote this quite a long time ago, as a new year poem, and over the years it’s meant a lot to me; when I wrote it I was navigating a particularly turbulent time, and it really felt both that everything was up for grabs – all the old maps I’d relied on didn’t take me where I needed them to, after all – and also that there was still, somehow, a security somewhere – a home to be found. I hope you like it. It’s probably my favourite of my own pieces, and I’m delighted that it was highly commended in the Duino International Poetry Competition this year, and as such will be published in their anthology next month. So it’ll be my first published poem, which feels about right.)

This post brought to you with thanks to Anna and Louisa for the encouragement, Marky for the music, Richer Sounds for the new tuner, and a raised glass to the Workshop, my new favourite Norwich pub

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week one

26 September, 2009

Well, here I am. Around ten months after first thinking about it, seven months after applying and five months after finding out I had a place on the course, I’m in Norwich, embarking on the creative writing masters at UEA. Some days it still doesn’t quite feel real; it’s as though I’ve been transported out of my old life and set down in someone else’s – like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. Is it really that easy to give up your job, your life as you know it, and move to a city where you know precisely one and a half people? Apparently so. (Although my long-suffering friends, family and colleagues know that the last few months have hardly been an easy ride.)

So, week one. I got here last week, and spent it unpacking, settling in and doing all those jobs you have to do when you move house. This week it all kicked off – I enrolled on Monday, and throughout the week there were various meetings and meet-ups: an introduction to the faculty, the school, the course, our lecture module for this term, and a big old scrum on the Monday night for all the postgraduates starting in the school of literature and creative writing.

It was great to get onto campus on Monday; I’d spent the previous week oscillating between enjoying the simple pleasures of nesting (I’m sharing a lovely house in Norwich’s ‘golden triangle’) and feeling rather lost and lonely, with all my familiar points of reference gone. For the last few months before leaving London I’d been so focused (can you focus while essentially procrastinating about everything?) on the actual logistics of moving, constantly telling myself that as soon as I got here it would all be all right, that it was almost a bit of a shock when I actually got here to find that I was lonely, homesick and quite scared about the whole thing. Speaking to my London-based sister one evening and hearing sirens in the background down the phone I was suddenly hugely nostalgic for Brixton, even though I’ve always had a bit of a love/hate relationship with London and was looking forward to somewhere a bit smaller and prettier and leafier.

So finally getting stuck in and being reminded of why I’d moved here was a relief. UEA has a lovely campus and a very friendly vibe – staff, students and faculty included. It was carnage for the first few days, with all the new undergraduates arriving en masse; I felt very glad to not be eighteen/nineteen any more, with so much to prove (though they did look like they were having  a lot of fun). Strange to think of myself as a ‘mature’ student – the freshers must look at me in the same way that I did older graduates when I first started at university…

Teaching starts next week, so this week was just about meeting our course tutors and fellow course-mates, getting an overview of the way the course is taught and assessed (more on that next week) and getting the reading list for this semester’s lecture module, which is Poetics, writing, language. All very exciting, as well as daunting. We have two tutors for the workshop element of the course (one this term, one next), both of whom I’ve long admired as poets, so it’s going to be a huge privilege to be taught by them. I’m not entirely sure exactly how many of us there are doing the poetry strand of the MA, but we’re definitely five full-time, with another five or so part-time. But in any case workshops are definitely going to be a more intimate affair than I’d imagined.

Getting the reading list for the poetics module was perhaps the most exciting element of the week for me; I’d forgotten just how much I love thinking and talking about ideas, and how much I’d enjoyed studying critical theory as an undergraduate. I’ve ordered all my set texts and done some preliminary reading, and can’t wait to get my teeth stuck into the rest of it next week when all my shiny new books arrive. Just knowing I’m a student again feels deliciously exciting. There’s so much to learn…

More next week. I’ll end with a fantastic poem by Laura Riding, a poet I’d not heard of before this week, who features on week one of the Poetics module.

The Troubles of a Book

The trouble of a book is first to be
No thoughts to nobody,
Then to lie as long unwritten
As it will lie unread,
Then to build word for word an author
And occupy his head
Until the head declares vacancy
To make full publication
Of running empty.

The trouble of a book is secondly
To keep awake and ready
And listening like an innkeeper,
Wishing, not wishing for a guest,
Torn between hope of no rest
And hope of rest.
Uncertainly the pages doze
And blink open to passing fingers
With landlord smile, then close.

The trouble of a book is thirdly
to speak its sermon, then look the other way,
Arouse commotion in the margin,
Where tongue meets the eye,
But claim no experience of panic,
No complicity in the outcry.
The ordeal of a book is to give no hint
Of ordeal, to be flat and witless
Of the upright sense of print.

The trouble of a book is chiefly
To be nothing but book outwardly;
To wear binding like binding,
Bury itself in book-death,
Yet to feel all but book;
To breathe live words, yet with the breath
Of letters; to address liveliness
In reading eyes, he answered with
Letters and bookishness.

This post brought to you by the letters U, E and A, books by Granny, music by Basement Jaxx, with the assistance of much rooibos tea, runs in the park, and my ever-loving parents (kind sponsors of the shiny new laptop)