This post is going to be a little bit odd, but bear with me, because something really amazing just happened! I got halfway through what was going to be a rant about how we are never properly taught about the writing process, when I opened up a book of poems I hadn’t looked at for a while, to find an example to illustrate a point I wanted to make, and I found a poem I’d written. I have no clue when I wrote it, and no idea what or who it is about, but… I think it’s actually not bad! I know I wrote it, it’s definitely my scrawl, in pencil, which is the only way I can write poetry, for some reason. Anyway, it is an example of what I wanted to say at that point so I’ve used it halfway though the post, hope it doesn’t make it too disjointed!
Writing. Seems simple enough; you have an idea in your head, your brain helpfully converts it into words, sends those words through electrical impulses to the muscles in your hands and fingers, and you tap them out on some sort of machine which records your ideas in a digital format, which can be revised and edited over and over again; so handier than having to carve symbols into the stone walls of caves, for example. I would never have made it in the stone age, being as I seem unable to get to the end of a sentence without rewriting it at least 8 times. I would have spent the whole day chiseling off what I’d previously carved and would thus have starved to death. In fact, I still come pretty close to starvation when I’m writing; there’s no way I can get up and make a sandwich if there’s a slightly awkward expression or a misplaced adjective in the last phrase I’ve written. I have to sit there until it sounds just right.
Some might mistake this for perfectionism, which in itself can be a paralysing disease. But in truth, I have never been a perfectionist, I am more a ‘do it now and get it finished’ sort of person. I like closure. Clearly then, this inner voice telling me that I could try harder isn’t coming from me. I’m pretty sure it’s the voice of my first English teacher Mrs Brown (I loved her, she looked like Debbie Harry, smoked like a chimney, was the biggest fan of my stories and yet always understood when I said I didn’t want her to read them out in class), that constantly chimes in to remind me that I could always do better. Knowing that I’m a bit lazy and need to be pushed, I’ve done a good job of internalizing that voice, which is why, as much as I love to write, it can be an excruciating process.
Once or twice I have made the error of taking ‘creative writing’ courses, which I thought might force me to loosen up a bit and be less self-critical. It only made things worse. One teacher advised me to choose an author and use them as my ‘mentor’, i.e. find out what their process was and try to emulate that. He suggested Nabokov – ha! Oh yeah, I’ll just go for a 15 mile hike, press a few rare butterflies, compose a chess problem or two and I’m sure the words will start flowing like the Volga! Can’t believe I actually handed over my hard-earned cash for that. The irony was, I was an English teacher at the time, ostensibly imparting wisdom, skills and knowledge about the craft of writing to my students. The thing is though, everything the National Curriculum has to say about writing is almost a guide to how to write very badly indeed.
For example, children are taught that they will get higher marks for using abstract nouns, whereas every good writer understands that for a piece of description to work, it has to be solid, tangible, concrete. It’s shocking, I used to get so upset at having to mark poems entitled ‘Love’, ‘Anguish’ or ‘Happiness’. If I’d written a poem called ‘Passion’ and filled it with other pointless abstractions like ‘love’, ‘fear’ and ‘desire’ I would be in the A* bracket, whereas the following poem would struggle to hit a C grade:
Fire and Clay
Your eyes are deep, dark, melting chocolate;
A warm heat, like a summer night
But turning, burning, becoming molten, barely holding back a fiery eruption from your soul!
Flames that caress, threaten to leap out and brand me –
Proximity is dangerous;
Any soft thing will be seared and scorched.
But I am Earth!
Only you can melt me, mould me,
Until I harden in your fire like clay;
Jeez, I wish I could remember who that was about! But anyway, you get the point. And goodness knows how long that must have taken me to commit to paper. I had to resist the urge even now to edit and revise it, but if I started that I would never get this post written!
Another devastating aspect of having to teach writing at GSCE was telling students to stuff their writing with adjectives. Ugh; what value can be added to the noun ‘lion’ by sticking an adjective like ‘fierce’ in front of it? Fierce is already implicit, it’s a lion!! My favourite piece of writing advice comes from Basil Bunting, and although he is referring to writing poetry, it applies equally to prose:
1. Compose aloud; poetry is a sound.
2. Vary rhythm enough to stir the emotion you want but not so as to lose impetus.
3. Use spoken words and syntax.
4. Fear adjective; they bleed nouns. Hate the passive.
5. Jettison ornament gaily but keep shape
Put your poem away till you forget it, then:
6. Cut out every word you dare.
7. Do it again a week later, and again.
Never explain – your reader is as smart as you.
I think it would be better to tell students that ultimately, you are on your own as a writer. You have to find your voice, go with your instincts and ignore the ‘rules’ you’re given by some teacher who has probably paid a hundred quid to be told to try to write like Nabokov.