Monday, 4 May 2009

Inspiration, mainly

First of all, many congratulations to Carol Ann Duffy on becoming the new Poet Laureate. If you haven't read her work before, check out 'The World's Wife' where the poems are written from the perspective of the consorts of famous characters from history and mythology. Try 'Mrs Icarus', 'Mrs Darwin', 'Mrs Aesop', 'Euridice', 'The Kray Sisters'. And the choice of Carol Ann for Laureate is one in the eye for Mrs Schofield, who, you may remember, complained about the inclusion of 'Education for Leisure' on the GSCE English syllabus, whereupon the craven exam board removed it. (See my post on this at )Whereupon Ms Duffy replied with a poem called 'Mrs Schofield's GCSE': Google it and have a chortle.

Secondly, two of my fellow bloggers, Karen at and Denise at, have been talking about setting themselves wordcounts in order to get novels well underway or completed as soon as possible. This is a technique that's worked well for me in the past, especially, I find, if you set yourself a daily or weekly target which is just a bit below what you can reasonably achieve. If you set the target too high and fall short, demoralisation kicks in, just as if you start a really rigid diet, two fingers of Kit-Kat make you jack the whole thing in and binge on a whole box of Lindors (I'm speaking hypothetically, of course. Ahem.) If you set the target at, say 500 words, and find you've written 732, then high glee results and you start to believe in yourself as a proper writer. Then you find yourself wanting to break that barrier every time you write, so you might raise the stakes to 750 words and blow me if you don't come close to 1,000! Try this out: if you're new or lacking in confidence, start with 200 or so - you may surprise yourself.

Finally, here are the two sides of the coin, composition-wise. So many of us exist in a love-hate relationship with our writing. You feel pressurised, dissatisfied, you want to break it off because it's not perfect - but you can't. There's the constant presence of your writing self at your shoulder, in your brain, your heart, your gut. You dream stories, you practise phrases, you think think think like a writer all the time. It's a burden. It's a source of despair. It's also a joy, a revelation, a triumph. Here are two examples of the Janus-headed nature of writing as a calling: a few weeks ago Colm Toibin, in The Guardian, talked of the wretchedness of his craft: see I tell you, it makes grim reading. He says writing is 'never fun or anything' and that what he likes best is 'The money'. 'I write with a sort of grim determination to deal with things that are hidden and difficult and this means, I think, that pleasure is out of the question. I would associate this with narcissism anyway and I would disapprove of it.'

Now, God knows, writing can be a complete bugger sometimes: plots need to be wrestled with, descriptions morph into cliche, self-belief is elusive, publishing deals even more so - but his is just such a cheerless, humourless, Eeyorish view! Writing can be rewarding in far more than the financial sense (just as well, eh?): it can make you feel proud and fulfilled, it can lead to friendships, it challenges and frustrates and delights. There's so much to be said for coming across a passage you wrote some time ago and feeling a glow of pride in knowing you wrote that, in that way, at that time, and it worked! In answer to Colm Toibin, A.L. Kennedy said 'The joy of writing for a living is that you get to do it all the time. The misery is that you have to, whether you're in the mood or not. ... Then again, making something out of nothing, overturning the laws of time and space, building something for strangers just because you think they might like it and hours of absence from self - that's fantastic.' Hari Kunzru and John Banville both point out that as a writer you can never, except fleetingly, get it totally right. All you can do is, as Beckett says, 'Fail better'.

In the midst of the angst and the daily struggle and the words that won't come out right, remember this: there will be occasions when, miraculously, it all does come together. Where you're in the flow, in the zone, when your pen can't keep up with your brain, where there's sureness and confidence, utter joy in the words you produce, a rhythm and flow to the sequences of thought, when you - for a few minutes or half an hour - totally believe in yourself as a writer. You revel. You're inspired. You even believe you can come back to the desk the next day and recapture that fine rapture. Probably you won't: but keep coming back to the desk and one morning or one midnight, you'll be inspired again. It's moments like those that make it all worthwhile.

One of my favourite passages about the process of writing - and it even makes it successfully and movingly to the silver screen - is the episode in 'Doctor Zhivago' where Yury writes his poems to Lara, poems which will be famous. He writes them in the severe stillness of a Russian winter and the process is a holy one to him. Under political threat, with wolves congregating out on the midnight snow, he seizes preciousness and encapsulates it: 'his work took possession of him and he experienced the approach of what is called inspiration. At such moments the correlation of the forces controlling the artist is, as it were, stood on its head. The ascendancy is no longer with the artist or the state of mind which he is trying to express, but with language, his instrument of expression. Language, the home and dwelling of beauty and meaning, itself begins to think and speak for man and turns wholly into music, not in the sense of outward, audible sounds but by virtue of the power and momentum of its inward flow. Then, like the current of a mighty river polishing stones and turning wheels by its very movement, the flow of speech creates in passing, by the force of its own laws, rhyme and rhythm and countless other forms and formations, still more important and until now undiscovered, unconsidered and unnamed. At such moments Yury felt that the main part of his work was not being done by him but by something which was above him and controlling him: the thought and the poetry of the world as it was at that moment and as it would be in the future. ... This feeling relieved him for a time of self-reproach, of dissatisfaction with himself, of the sense of his own nothingness.'

When Yury pauses, the wolves have gathered on the edge of the snowfield. Lara, soon to be lost forever, sleeps. Worries encroach: he 'was no longer in the mood to write.'

The moment of grace is gone. But it was there and it cannot be lost. He reached out and seized it. So can you.


Denise said...

I wonder if it gave him any pleasure to talk about how miserable writing makes him? He's not bitter at all is he!

I agree with your word count theory. I seem to have spent most of the weekend getting cross with myself because I'm trying to achieve the impossible...

Lane said...

He's not exactly a little ray of sunshine is he. The whole piece makes for quite depressing reading although I expect that was his intention.

Your post however, is inspiring reading. In a week in which I've struggled to get any words 'right', your thoughts on the writing process have given me the nudge to just keep going.

'Fail better'. Isn't that brilliant?:-)

Lorna F said...

Denise - it's tricky to know how to set the bar high but not too high. If you set it too high, then frustration results and it's tempting to jack the whole thing in. Keep going, good luck!

Lane - I'm so pleased you liked this post and I hope this week's writing has gone better for you. Yes, 'fail better' is fantastic, isn't it! We should market a fridge magnet with that on it! By the way, if you see this, maybe you can help me out: I've tried to joine 'Who Links to Me' as I saw it on your blog and thought it might be useful, but I can't get past the verification section: it says to copy and paste a section of code onto my blog between the body (in chevrons) and the /body (in chevrons) tags - now, where the bleedin' hell would that be?! Any advice welcome!

Karen said...

I confess I hadn't read any Carol Ann Duffy until my teens had to study her for English, but I'm glad I did :o)

The word count deadline is going well, and I definitely don't feel that the process is 'never fun.' How sad that Colm Toibin likes the money the best. I've read and enjoyed a couple of his novels, but I might not bother with any more!

I loved Dr Zhivago and your wonderful post has made me want to watch it again :o))