big problems

30 April, 2010

Don’t worry, nothing bad’s happened. I’ve just been thinking a lot about procrastination this week, as that’s (mostly) what I’ve been doing. Actually to be fair to myself I’ve got some stuff done, and anyway everything feels a bit in between stages at the moment: I’m not yet ready to embark on the dissertation before we have our meeting about it next week, and can’t put the fiction to bed until I’ve handed in my coursework.

During a long procrastinatory online chat a quantum physicist friend (yes, really) suggested a few different ways of thinking about the art of putting things off. Is it possible, for example, that in some sense I might be working while I think  I’m procrastinating – letting my subconscious have a good go at whatever it is I’m currently writing while I’m messing about doing something else? Maybe. Definitely I find that things need time to mull and develop. Though as Sean himself said there’s every possibility one’s subconscious could just be thinking about football (though probably not specifically football in my case).

Anyway he sent me a couple of really interesting links about procrastination. This one, which is from a computer geek, suggests that the key to successful procrastination is to make sure you’re putting off the boring stuff no one wants to do (ie errands) in order to do other, more important stuff. So, finishing my book and writing poetry rather than tidying my room (all things I’m equally happy to put off for days on end). Easier said than done, of course, but good to think about.

And then we come to the big problems. I’ve copied out these questions and stuck them to the wall above my desk:

1.  What are the most important problems in your field?
2. Are you working on one of them?
3. Why not?

What’s the best thing you could be working on, and why aren’t you?

Obviously these are phrased for someone working in research, rather than creative writing, but to go beyond ‘important problems’ = ‘important stuff’ (ie the poetry, the book), it got me thinking a bit wider, about how I might be more ambitious in my writing itself. What are the most important ‘problems’ in poetry, right now? This feels sort of pertinent with the dissertation just about to kick off – the chance to explore something in detail, to really push at it with my writing. What should I be aiming for over the next couple of months? And if I were to do a creative-critical PhD (something I realised I haven’t yet posted about, but have been thinking about since February), what would my research element be?

Of course big problems are even harder to get down to than annoying errands. I love how he writes about them. This is pretty much exactly how I feel about writing poetry 90% of the time:

Big problems are terrifying. There’s an almost physical pain in facing them. It’s like having a vacuum cleaner hooked up to your imagination. All your initial ideas get sucked out immediately, and you don’t have any more, and yet the vacuum cleaner is still sucking.

And I love his advice, too:

You can’t look a big problem too directly in the eye. You have to approach it somewhat obliquely. But you have to adjust the angle just right: you have to be facing the big problem directly enough that you catch some of the excitement radiating from it, but not so much that it paralyzes you. You can tighten the angle once you get going, just as a sailboat can sail closer to the wind once it gets underway.

Now all I need to do is work out how that might look when I’m writing…

This post brought to you by the sound of the Bam Bam sound’s election special, home-made burgers, very long and very silly conversations with Sean, and the worrying realisation that most of this blog consists of me whining about writing. Poems (still) by Rilke.

true eloquence

26 April, 2010

… is ‘expressing precisely what you have to say and how you feel about it in precisely your own tone of voice, just as you do by inflection and rhythm when you speak.’ – Al Alvarez, The Writer’s Voice

Last week I finally finished reading Al Alvarez’s brilliant book on finding your voice (which I originally mentioned here). Highly recommended. The third chapter is a bit of a departure from the first two, but I’d recommend it on the strength of that alone – he gives a great potted history of poetry’s movement from the Romantics to the Moderns to the Beats via the New Criticism, up to today, and it gave me a lot of insight and ideas into what I’m doing and why. Great stuff. I particularly like his quote above, and I suppose on one level that’s what this year/course has been all about – learning to express precisely what it is I want to say.

(But what is it I want to say? I had an interesting phone call with my dad this morning, who reckons what I’m writing is both deepening and broadening, which is heartening. But then of course he’s biased.)

Next week we have a dissertation meeting with our tutors where we’ll discuss what’s expected of us and how this term is going to work. I’m looking forward to it, especially as last week’s intensity has left me feeling like I’d rather not think about poetry for a little while at least, so I need something to get me going. I have a whole list of ideas and images to write about that at one stage I thought were interesting, but looking at them now I can’t quite be bothered with any of them. I’m sure that’ll change, though. I certainly hope so, otherwise I’m in trouble.

In the mean time though I’m concentrating on two rather pressing matters: firstly the deadline for the anthology submission (here‘s a link to last year’s) is tomorrow, so I need to hurry up and decide which six pieces I’m going to send off. It’s a bit scary, really; I doubt the poetry anthology is paid as much attention as the prose fiction one, but it’s still a chance to be noticed, as it were. And then of course there’s the opportunity to read at one of the launches, either in Norwich or in London. I feel like my writing is constantly changing – will I like what I’ve written in even two months’ time, let alone six? And then there’s the pressure of actually choosing my six ‘best’ pieces. So much of what I’ve written I don’t feel has quite got there. Really I’d like someone else to pick their favourites of my work so far…

(Maybe that’s part of finding your voice, too – having the courage to nail your colours to the mast and decide for yourself what, if any, of your work is most meaningful/successful, by your own terms.)

The other thing I need to be working on is my fiction coursework, which is due in a couple of weeks. It’s around 4–5,000 words of fiction, alongside a critical commentary discussing some element of the theory that we discussed last term, and how it relates to your work. I’m going to use something from my two-thirds-written children’s book – working it up of course, as at the moment it’s just a very crappy first draft – and look at mind style, I think. I won’t go into any more detail just here, but maybe next week. Though I’m not sure I want to give any of my secrets away…

This post brought to you by April showers, the most relaxing weekend in a long while, small children and friendly black cats. Flowers by Julia.

Well, the summer term’s just started this week, so it’s time to start blogging again. Actually there’s a lot of stuff I’d like to have written about over the last few weeks, but it was nice to have a break from it all.

I’ve just handed in my second piece of coursework – last term’s offerings, edited – and to be honest I’m still feeling a bit exhausted from the mental sprint at the end. Actually, less of a sprint, more like digging ditches, just at very high speed. As usual I didn’t really plan my time brilliantly (having a bit too much fun/relaxation over the holidays rather than faithfully plodding on with the writing/editing), so the last week has been fairly intense. To put it mildly. And I’m afraid that, as with last term’s coursework, I didn’t really feel I’d got there with quite a few of the pieces.

But maybe that’s always the way? And maybe that’s the mark of becoming a better writer, at this stage – being less easily satisfied with your work.

That said I did find the editing process much less mysterious this time round. I think approaching it in terms of looking at image/imperative was really helpful; certainly I did feel like I was pushing much deeper into my work than I did with the previous term’s writing. Of course when you’re working really closely on something it can be hard to step back with any objectivity and say whether it’s better or not, but I did feel that at least I was working in a way that was both logical and intuitive.

Still, it’s a daunting task: going back to that idea that’s solidified into a poem, which you haven’t thought about for a while, and looking at your heavily annotated copy, and then trying to decipher your coursemates’ and tutor’s comments too, and working out which of their comments/criticisms/questions have most hit home. And then asking yourself those questions – what am I really trying to say here? Why is saying this important to me? Have I retreated from it just when it was about to take off, or am I hammering it home in the most prosy, cliched way?

Post-workshop annotation of last term's villanelle (since renamed)

And then – trying to make it better. Not just tinkering, but getting back into its skin. Turning it from a rabbit into a fish, if necessary.

It’s been a pretty draining process, to be honest; when you’re writing something new, it can feel hard getting those first few lines down, but at least you’ve been grabbed by this idea, this image. When you’re editing you’re just face to face with your own inadequacies as a writer, staring glumly at the page, asking yourself ridiculous questions like ‘does the shift in point of view here complicate the poem in a way that can be used more decisively?’ And as our tutor said at the end of a discussion of one of my pieces, completely deadpan, ‘there are no formulae, there are no solutions, there is no rest.’ I really felt the truth of those words this week.

Anyway, I’m having a bit of a rest now. It’s handed in, and for the next couple of weeks I’ll be focusing on the coursework for the fiction module. Easy! (That was a joke, fiction friends.)

This post brought to you by encouragement/bullying from Mum, cupcakes from Karen, and Future Funk from Marky