Learning Disabled Learning Troubled

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Learning Disabled Learning Troubled
by
Victor Hendricken
 

Like separate lives, they flow through our weekly meets.

The many speakers, special to their cause,

Marking trails with wise words and images

That surely we can follow through dense forest,

Where new growth, vibrant, verdant,

Fertilized by wisdoms, fed by lore,

Shines and sparkles to ever light our way.

They tell us who they are,

And hint at what we may become.

Guided by their telling,

Senses stir, touched by feelings

Long lost or never known

And yet we ask for more.

No stopping here, no rest from task.

Reflection does make wealth of all the learning,

So the last day is the first,

While still we reach, unending in our thirst.

 

Expectations of discovery:

Telling stories in old age,

Hoping to discover who we are,

Or who we might have been

Had we not been ourselves as we are now.

More than mental beings, physical too.

Bodies wracked by desire, not for human flesh,

But something sinister, demanding, unclean almost,

Liquid in form or hazy blue and drifting,

Wild in its ability to bring ecstacy

To crazed senses and convulsed parts.

We talk, confused by dialect

Long lost or perhaps newly made

That speaks of different times,

When different rivers ran and winds were not so cold.

And yet we tremble to recapture words

That tell our passing and the greatness that we might have been

But for our special needs.

 

Readers we are not, but thinkers and doers,

Now there shines a bright star.

But wild it is, yet tamed with nectar of the gods

In white coats with sealed bottles at their will,

And small round pebbles of human kindness to dispense.

Lethargic no; sleepless yes!

And still our thirst, never satisfied,

Coyly beckons to the spring.

Until at last, letters dancing

Like eggs, scrambled, with dots of pepper laced.

We close our eyes and listen

And hear the world conform, at last.

Though weary, we who hear so well,

Cannot raise the glass, or read the words

So simply carved upon our epitaph of stone.

 

Many have come calling,

None remained, none returned.

Yet through it all one stayed;

A beacon, to light the way through confusion,

Bringing us home through the darkness

Of our ignorance and of our bliss,

Where vision, too often blurred by regularity,

Sees not the forms that cast the shadows,

Nor the minds that hold the forms.

For we too are human, with needs,

Unique, special, and starving to be met.

 

How can we say without saying,

Do without doing?

What magic cleverly spins its charm

To turn the chore from task to deep desire,

So that, without seeming to accede,

Demands are met, and institutions no longer risk.

Answers are oft found in their own questions.

But questions must be disassembled,

Stripped, laid bare to each their naked parts;

Abundant clues that lead to hidden corridors of knowing

Reveal, upon examination, answers that flow

From the tips of fingers to places inside,

Where decisions are dreamed and voiced.

There, nestled in the gut, close by the heart,

Feelings are born, expressions lived.

 

Look to the question,

And, in the very asking find the answer.

Who educates?  Evaluates?  Decides?

Is it how well I did, or how good I am?

Did I get to play a part and why not?

Choosing is as real on the inside, as it is on the out.

Comment: I am posting some poems and texts by friends. This poem is the first on the list, written by my good friend Victor Hendricken. Congratulations, Victor: You’re #1 on the hit parade!

Day 23 CV-19

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Day 23 CV-19
Codes and Coding

“Languages: they say that to learn another language is to gain another soul and another set of eyes through which to view the world.” I wrote these words just yesterday [Day 22 CV-22]. The words are mine, but the idea belongs elsewhere. I have borrowed it and adopted it. I would willingly attribute it to a specific author, but I do not know who said it first. I offer my apologies to the to me unknown genius who first spoke these words.

Why codes and coding? A rhetorical question, of course. But codes and coding are the basic elements through which language transfers thought, our thoughts. What is a code? Well, we know all about Morse Code and the elaborate codes through which spies from all countries communicate their needs. A code is a way of converting language, changing it, making it available to those initiated in the code and unavailable to those who have not received such initiation. Sounds simple, doesn’t it?

When I was travelling regularly to Spain for research in Spanish libraries, my first port of call was always the local barber shop. I did this for several reasons. In the first place, my Canadian haircut gave me away as a foreigner. This is the hairdresser’s code. The barber’s shop was always the centre of local gossip. Here, buzz words changed hands, politicians were discussed, all the local news was immediately available. Each of these items was a code, a code that made an insider (acceptable) versus an outsider (not to be spoken to). I remember, one summer in Madrid, not getting served in any bar or restaurant. Check haircut: okay. Check shoes: bought new pair. Check shirt, jacket, tie: all up to date. Inspect lucky customers … ah … they are all wearing a shiny brass pin showing the symbol of Madrid: El Oso y el Madroño, the bear and the strawberry tree, as seen in La Puerta del Sol.

The next bar I entered saw me sporting El Oso y el Madroño in my lapel. Qué quiere el señor? Immediate service and with a smile. These are social codes, the codes that include the winks and nudges of the upper class, the secret handshakes and foot positions, the names dropped so gently and quietly that they never shatter when they hit the floor. There are also language codes. Northrop Frye wrote The Great Code: The Bible and Literature, a study of the mythology and structure of the Bible was published in 1982. In this wonderful study, Frye showed how themes and language from the bible have influenced the structure of Western Literature, particularly that written in English. Within this code, names, themes, miracles, parables, psalms form a body of are common knowledge available to all readers who are christian and whose first language is English.

But there are other codes. Think Petracharism. Petrarch’s poetry, originally written in Italian, was widely imitated throughout Europe. Italian literature, Spanish, French, English, all dip into that code, as does Shakespeare among so many others. Think the Great Chain of Being. Shakespeare is incomprehensible in places unless you unlock this particular code. Think Platonism, Neo-Platonism, Stoicism, Existentialism … okay, so all this is academic, and I do not want to lose you in a sea of academia. So think NFL, think NBA, think NHL, think baseball, think cricket, think rugby, think darts, think all of the things we manipulate on a daily basis in our lives and think how they include some people (those who know and share our codes) and exclude others (those who are unaware of them). LBW, c&b,  c. A, b. B, st. A b. B, w, W, b, lb, dec., rsp …

This is a wonderful line of discussion. It follows along the lines of micro-language and macro-language. Macro-language is accessible to all who happen to speak that language. Micro-language in its multidinous forms incarnadine belongs ONLY to those who share the micro community, be it family, household, village, town, county, region … all that is closest and dearest to our micro-hearts.

Self-Isolation Day 20

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Self-Isolation Day 20
Novels of Action

Yesterday I wrote that “Wolfgang Kayser suggested, a long time ago, that there were three types of novels: novels of action (the easiest to write, if you have that calling).” I hope nobody took the second half of that statement “the easiest to write” too seriously. No novel worth its salt is easy to write and not everybody can write the sort of adventure story, filled with action, that drags the reader on from page to page. Part of the difficult lies in tying the end of one chapter to the beginning of the next and this is most certainly not all that easy to do. In my own case, I tend to bring closure at the end of each chapter, and that really the worst thing I can do. Why continue reading if you already have closure?

Let us look at how a master thriller writer closes his chapters. Prologue: “I will return to my Athens as soon as this mess resolves itself.” What mess? Why Athens? Where is the character now? What is happening? Read on. Chapter One: “As a double precaution, the keyboard and the door know were wiped cleaner than Petrescu’s account” What on earth has happened now? Why wipe clean the keyboard and the door knob? Which account? Why? What will happen next? Read on. Chapter Two: “Behind them, Edward Yorke’s lifeless eyes stared without comprehension at the foreman’s room and the splintered railing above him.” What has happened? Where is it all going to end? Read on. Chapter Three: “He had to move. So deciding, he opened the man’s wallet and found an address not far away?” An address? What address? Who lives there? Why is he going there? What will happen next? Read on. Chapter Four: [Summary] A crack in the wall behind a refuse bin … time for a shower … throw the victim’s pants and shirt out of the window for some bum to find … Who? What? Where? When? Why? Read on. And now for the last words of Chapter Five, the chapter that explains everything. “That hook is baited.” And this is the key … each chapter ends with a neatly baited hook that leads the reader, willy-nilly, into the next chapter. You want to know what happens next, what is on the hook, what the hook is exactly, to do that, you will have to buy the book and read it for yourselves. Look up Chuck Bowie: Three Wrongs. Muse It Up Press.

Alas, I have not yet finished with Chuck. In June, 2017, he drove to St. Andrews to visit me one afternoon while I was at KIRA. We sat by the sea-shore there and chatted about his latest novel, Body on the Underwater Road. He was working out all the details and we struggled here, and wriggled there, as we computed the many possibilities. Such good fun. So, here I am, a poet telling a story about a master story-teller-seller. How silly I am. I’ll offer up a poem instead.

Underwater Road
Chuck Bowie

We met at St. Andrews, at low tide, on
the underwater road. In secret we
shared the closed, coded envelopes of thought,
running fresh ideas through open minds.

Our words, brief vapor trails, gathering for
a moment over Passamaquoddy,
then drifting silently away. Canvas
sails flapped white sea-gull wings across the bay.

All seven seas rose before our eyes, brought
in on a breeze’s wing. The flow of cold
waters over warm sand cocooned us in
a cloak-and-dagger mystery of mist.

We spun our spider-web dreams word by word,
decking them out with the silver dew drops
proximity brings. Characters’ voices,
unattached to real people, floated by.

Verbal ghosts, shape-shifting, emerging from
shadows, revealed new attitudes and twists,
spoke briefly, filled us with visions of book
lives, unforgettable, doomed, swift to fail.

Soft waves ascended rock, sand, mud, washed
away footprints, clues, all the sandcastle
dreams we had constructed that afternoon,
though a few still survive upon the page.

And that, as the lion said, is the end of the gnus.

Comment: Three Wrongs is part of the Donovan: Thief for Hire series. Adventure series follow similar patterns: the problem, the solver (shining hero), the complication (dark arts adversary), further complications, resolution: problem solved. The Arthurian Romances set the pattern for linked adventure series back in the 12th and 13th Centuries. They were followed by the literary knights of the novels of chivalry. Perhaps the most famous of these, Amadis de Gaula / Amadis of Gaul, was imitated and parodied by Cervantes in Don Quixote. The numerous books of Amadis were followed by Son of Amadis, Nephew of Amadis, Cousin of Amadis. Perhaps nothing breeds success better than success. Think of the Sharpe series from the Peninsula War or the Hornblower books, or, more recently, Master and Captain and the recent Royal Navy series from similar times. Look out for Son of Donovan … a series coming to your bookstore soon.

CV-19 Week 3 Day 2

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CV-19 Week 3 Day 2
Reading in Multiples

Legend tells us that Francisco de Quevedo possessed a revolving book stand-cum-lectern. He placed this on his table at meal times and he would have four books open at the same time, moving rapidly in his reading from one to another. I have always liked this idea. As a result, I am now doing something similar.

I began by taking out Don Quixote, which I am once again reading in Spanish. The adventures of our Ingenious Gentleman are a delight and this time, the slowness of my 28th reading of the 1605 text allows me to taste every word, to roll the syllables round the tongue, and to savor every word. With CV-19 on the loose, there are no deadlines, no use by dates, and nothing to prevent me from delaying the full enjoyment of each word of the text. Equally important, there is no class preparation, no waiting audience, just me, an old man now, following the thoughts and adventures of an old man as written by an old man, Miguel de Cervantes, way back when.

I have the Collected Poems of Phillip Larkin on the table beside me. What a different world. What depth of insight and observation. What a bearing of witness to the follies and foibles of an England that I left behind so long ago, much of it vanished now, along with the old choir stalls and the hedgerows, the cuckoos and the skylarks. I read and re-read The Old Fools and realize just how close I am to that cliff edge, that precipice, that Alpine peak, beneath which I shelter and seek succour. Then I turn to This be the Verse and I start to laugh at this portrayal of middle-class parental pretensions. This is Larkin’s open wit, but his sly wit, like that of Cervantes, but more bitter, creeps up on you and catches you unawares, unless you know how and where to look for it.

At my left elbow, Juan Ramón Jiménez’s Platero y yo awaits my attention. No children’s book this, but a wonderfully poetic recounting of a poet’s observations of Moguer, a small seaside town in Andalusia. This too is a book to read slowly, to savour, to taste each word, each story. This too is prose poetry at its best. Cervantes wrote that ‘epic poetry can be written in prose’ / la épica también puede escribirse en prosa‘. JRJ might equally well have written that ‘poetry can also be written in prose’ … an edict that I have tried to follow in my own writing.

For my more serious reading, I am dipping into the late Roger Scruton’s A Short History of Modern Philosophy (from Descartes to Wittgenstein). This is heavier reading, in some senses, yet the parallels between Descartes philosophical observations and Cervantes’s literary ones are well worth considering, for Cervantes often offers the practical where Descartes puts forward the theoretical.

I will be adding more titles to my reading as I progress. Needless to say, I am also wandering through the labyrinth of my own earlier writings, and they are so much fun to revisit too. I will add more on this topic, as our enforced enclosure progresses.

Comment: These visitors came to my garden last summer. It is a delight to offer my photographs of them as a counter to CV-19 for these butterflies symbolize the brevity and the beauty of our lives. Butterflies on a rock: poetry and literature in Canada, and even more fragile in these times of utmost fragility. Keep well, keep safe, and keep in touch with your loved ones by telephone, Skype, Messenger, e-mail, and keep everything safe.

Creating vs Revising

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Creating vs Revising

The introductory picture (above) shows revisions made to my painting by my three year old grandchild!

1. As I read my early morning messages, I realize that there are two very different processes involved in creative writing: creation and revision.

In terms of creation, I follow Graham Green and Steven King: write 500 words a day, regularly, about two pages. Then, next day, re-read them and revise them. Then continue with the next two pages. This allows a steady accumulation that is usually somewhat under the writer’s control. It also allows the writer to go back and revise while creating: an important step for both King and Green.

In terms of revision, once the book or story or manuscript is complete, different processes emerge. One is to leave some time for the manuscript to settle: this also works chapter by chapter during the writing process. The other is to start again and apply the revision process as outlined in the First Five Pages.

Each one of us will be on a different stage of what is, I hope, an enjoyable creative experience. Part of the fun is also finding out what works for us; and by us, I mean each one of us. And yes, we all need those words of encouragement … so hang in there… have confidence … and be creative …

As for revision, I started by reading The First Five pages and found that this made the revision of my own manuscript much easier. The First 5 Pages deals with items one by one and in order of priority; it also allows you, as a writer / reader / adviser to have a clear idea of where you are going with the revisions, what you are doing, and why you are doing it. I also perused other online links and found them quite useful, especially those that referred to the revision process. I recommend searching for such links, in particular, the one that tells us never to give up.

Burroway for me is an adventure. I find that when I am reading the theory, I have a tendency to get confused and lost. In addition, I do not always agree with her analyses of the chosen snippets of text. I understand what she is saying, but I do not always agree with what she has said.

Selected stories themselves are something different. Reading them allows me to gain a perspective on what I am doing and how I am doing it. Thus I can say: I can do that; or I’ve done that; or I wouldn’t want to do that. The stories then come over as a reflecting mirror in which I can see aspects of my own writing, however beautified or distorted. The theory, on its own, leaves me cold and often confused. Other people’s creativity is inspiring.

The secret, in my opinion, is to relax, to be yourself, and to continue writing as you want to write while paying attention to the small details of which I am becoming more and more aware of every day. We are all creative — or we wouldn’t be here, reading this, doing this course. The secret is to develop and polish our own creativity. We must also learn to develop our own voices and to have confidence in those creative sparks that dwell within us.

2. Writing the introduction last is a standard procedure in academia. This is partly because it isn’t until the end of the research / study that the writer really understands the substance and the intent of what s/he has been studying. Also, it is only when the work is finalized that the appropriate conclusions can be drawn and the route that one has taken can be established.

As for the order in which revisions are made, there are many rules and circumstances can change. Even when there doesn’t appear to be a plot, as such, there is a chronology and chronology can be used as a substitute for plot. There is probably some form of evolution throughout the chronology, and that should be kept in mind, too. In addition, I would assume that as the learning process “bites” so we will be better able to make our own judgement calls. The art of good teaching is to eliminate the need for a teacher.

3. Changing the perspective: letters work: they can be found, sent, received, or discovered. The identity of the writer / receiver is also interesting.

In the 13th Story, the novel which I am currently reading, the principal narrator investigates / researches her subject in local libraries, the Who’s Who, a graveyard (reading the tombstones), and many different places. She also visits the local newspaper archives and interviews other characters in the novel, much as a newspaper reporter might.

Just read, think, learn, absorb, and, above all, remember to reject that which doesn’t suit you!

Self-Publishing

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Self-Publishing

Why do we write?

Before we talk about publishing, in any form, we must pose the question: why do we write? As a former academic, my writing was intimately tied to academia. At first, I wrote to pass my exams; then I wrote to pass my courses by handing in essays and potential papers; then, when I was a full-time academic, I wrote for the “publish or perish” world of academia, churning out articles (90) and reviews (70) on topics that were tied to my research projects. My writing, in other words, had a purpose and a direction. I knew why I was writing and I was conscious of the areas and places in which my publications would be acceptable and accepted.

At the same time as I wrote for the academic world, I indulged in creative writing. I have always written poetry. I have always been aware of my vocation as a poet. However, I was also aware that it was very difficult to earn a living as a poet. We’ll talk more about that later. The academy, research, and teaching gave me enough free time to indulge my dream of being a creative writer. It also permitted me to put food on the table and to keep my family warm and comfortable during our cold, Canadian winters.

So, the first question you must ask yourself is: why am I writing? What do I hope to achieve as a writer? Who do I want to read my works? Why do I want to be published? How do I want to be published? Your answer to these questions, and others like them, will determine your relationship to the publishing process.

Traditional Publishing

It isn’t easy to become published in the traditional fashion. In the first place, there are fewer major presses out there, and those that do exist are very large and powerful indeed. They want only the very best work. Not only that, they want the best work that will make them the most money. Good writing isn’t always guaranteed to sell well and thus to make the most money, remember that. In the second place, there are some excellent smaller presses, but they tend to be niche presses tied to a specialized corner of the market. Academia is a niche market. My own area of academia, Spanish Seventeenth Century Literature, is a very small niche market indeed. In order to get published in the traditional manner, a great deal of research into the niche area and the presses that publish therein is needed.

Most major presses will not look at up and coming writers unless they are represented by an agent. Few agents will take on an up and coming writer. This is a chicken and egg conundrum: how do we get the experience to be represented when we need the representation to help get the experience? All writers must solve this problem in their own fashion. There is no easy answer. Novels that have the potential to be turned into films: these will attract an agent and a big press, because that’s where the money is. How many of us are capable of writing them? Short story collections used to be a reasonably safe bet, but it appears that fewer presses and literary magazines are publishing them. Poetry generates little or no money, hence it also belongs to a highly specialized niche market with very small circulation figures. Once these realities are understood, then we can consider the alternatives.

Self-Publishing

 Self-publishing is no longer associated with the so-called Vanity Press, a term used to denigrate it. Not so long ago writers who paid for their writing to be published were considered by many to be ‘poor’ writers, ‘vanity’ writers. This is no longer true and The Writers’ Union of Canada (TWUC) now accepts self-published works as genuine works of literary merit, always provided that they are well-written. The advent of the computer revolution made all forms of writing, printing, and publishing so much easier. The ensuing advances in desk-top publishing allowed anyone to be a published writer and a writer’s life was suddenly that much simpler.

I published two poetry books with traditional presses in 1978 (Last Year in Paradise) and 1986 (Broken Ghosts). In 1990, following the death of my parents, I felt a deep desire to write and to be published once more. I had poems published in small literary reviews and magazines and I had a track record of wins and honorable mentions in writing competitions, but nobody wanted to publish another book of my poetry. I papered my walls with rejections … and I got nowhere. Therefore, in 1990, I started to self-publish.

My first six books were simple: I typed out the poems, ordered them the way I wanted, and took them to the local print shop where, for a small sum of money, the books were printed and saddle-stitched. This was a cheap means of production, so cheap, that I didn’t need to sell the copies so I just gave them away to my friends. Between 1990 and 1996 I published six of these little paperback chapbooks: Idlewood, In the Art Gallery, Daffodils, Secret Gardens, Iberian Interludes, and On Being Welsh. The runs were small, ranging between 100 and 200 copies, and very cheap per copy, often less than a toonie / twony (two dollar coins, after ‘loonies’ one dollar pieces with a loon on the coin).

All the initial work for these books was done by me: writing, selection, typing, and editing. The printers did the rest: copying and binding. In the case of these first self-published books, the covers contained typed titles and the author’s name and nothing more. In 2000, I was very fortunate. I met a genuine editor who agreed to work with me to publish my poetry via a small university print-shop. I wrote the poems and typed the text. My editor, a wonderful lady, then edited the text and prepared it for printing. My beloved (aka my wife) designed the covers for these books. Between 2000 and 2012 we (self-) published six of them: Sun and Moon, Though Lovers Be Lost, Fundy Lines, At the Edge of Obsidian, Obsidian 22, and Monkey Temple. These were genuine paperback books, with an ISBN. They were all limited editions and again I gave them away to my friends.

2008 saw Nashwaak Editions, the book division of the Nashwaak Review, publish Land of Rocks and Saints, a book of poetry that I wrote while in Avila (Spain). Again I funded this printing myself and again I gave it away to my friends and colleagues. I was devastated on several occasions to find signed copies of these books in second hand bookstores, that which I had given away for free had been sold for money. The receivers of free gifts had gained more cash than the books’ writer.

I continued writing and now had several manuscripts that I thought well worth publishing. Armed with a genuine list of publications and prizes and with excellent letters of recommendation from established writers, I again tried the traditional approach. Alas, I got the traditional results. Two small trade presses who agreed to publish my work both went out of business before they could do so. Agents, if they bothered to reply (and most of them didn’t), turned me down. I got to final judging with a famous niche press, but their marketing department said the book wouldn’t sell and they refused to market it … I didn’t know where to turn.

I had for some time been getting e-mails from houses that, for a large sum of money, would publish my new works for me. However, I was by now retired, and didn’t have those ‘large sums of money’. Publishing costs varied from $1500 US to $3500 US to £3000 (sterling). Well, I wasn’t that desperate, especially when I was suddenly subjected to regular e-mails, constant phone calls, and targeted advertising. I got tired of sales reps ringing me up and asking “are you read to go to press now?” There had to be easier and cheaper ways to get published.

2016 saw a major change in my self-publishing. A new friend, now a very close friend, suggested I try CreateSpace on Amazon. He came over one afternoon to give me a demonstration and we had a manuscript up and running that same day. It cost me nothing. I still haven’t sold a copy of that particular book. But it is up and available on Amazon. I buy copies at a relatively cheap rate and, you guessed it, I still give them to my friends. I now have nine titles on Amazon, two new titles* and seven rewrites and expansions. These include Monkey Temple, Bistro*, Though Lovers Be Lost, Sun and Moon, Obsidian’s Edge, Empress of Ireland, All About Angels, Iberian Interludes, and Avila* (my first book of poetry in Spanish).

Marketing is still a problem partly because I just don’t have (nor do I want to have) what it takes to be a salesman. I still give copies of my books to my friends. I guess I’ll never make any money worth speaking about from my creative writing. But that has never worried me: I have never written for money, only for love. I write because I love writing. I publish so I can give copies of my books to those friends who ask for them. I am a poet, whether I want to be or not. I am also condemned to my fate: I am an academic, a writer of poetry and books, and a book self-publisher. I guess I’ll never be a businessman.

Is it all worth the effort? Yes, I think it is. Can (other) people make money from self-publishing? Yes, they can, especially if they are willing to advertise, market, and sell their books at every opportunity. This is something that I just cannot bring myself to do although I know several writers who have been very successful with this aspect of the trade.

Quality Control

Are self-published books capable of being genuine works of art? Indeed they can. Bistro, although being self-published, has just been confirmed as one of three finalists in the New Brunswick Book of the Year Competition (2016-2017). Several of the stories in Bistro were either published separately in literary magazines or were part of larger manuscripts that received recognition in one way or another for the quality of their writing. Parts of several of my other books on Amazon have been published or awarded prizes or honorable mentions in competitions and this gives my creative work a track record of respectability.

I am an academic, trained to assess written work and to maintain quality control on my own written work as well as that of other people. Not everyone is born to be an editor, let alone a self-editor. How do we get to the level of self-editing necessary to be confident in our own quality control? Enter your work in competitions. Submit your work to literary magazines. Take writing workshops online and in person. Consult with other writers and join a good writing group or form one yourself. Be careful of submitting your work to the opinions of your best friends and your family: they will only tell you how good you are. Remember that your granny may be your favorite person, but she is not necessarily your best critic. Seek always the objectivity that allows you to stand back and criticize your own writing from a distance. Seek the opinions of others who are objective and will do the same.

Summary

  1. Think about why you are writing and what you want to achieve with your writing.
  2. Consider the different ways in which you can publish or self-publish and decide which is better for you.
  3. Research your market / niche market as carefully as you can and target the area in which you wish to work.
  4. Writing is a long-term commitment: you must make that commitment and stick with it.
  5. Remember that there is no substitute for high quality writing.
  6. Remember the words of Dewi Sant, St. David, the Patron Saint of Wales: “Keep the faith.”
  7. Don’t give up. Keep moving forward. If you stop writing, you will never achieve your goals or finish that book.

Writing: Task or Multi-Task?

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Writing: Task or Multi-Task?

“To task or multi-task? That is the question.”

In the lonely world of creative writing, be it in poetry or in prose, is it better to continue with one text until the task of writing it is thoroughly finished? Or should we flit from text to text, developing several at once and thus multi-tasking in the best sense of the word? This is a key question in the revision process and relates directly to the concepts of write, re-write, revision, revisionism, and the creative process, all of which have been mentioned both in this blog and in the comments to this blog. However, there is no single answer to this seemingly either / or question as many factors must be considered.

  1. Deadlines:

Anyone who has worked with strict deadlines knows that they matter more than anything else. “I want this work on my desk by 4:00 pm today,” says the manager rubbing the magic bottle in which the genie is kept. “Yes, ma’am,” says the genie bowing before vanishing back into his bottle. Only one thing matters, the task in hand, and there can be no multi-tasking.

  1. Novellas and Novels:

With longer texts, while there might be room for manoeuver, provided no deadline is in sight, it is better by far to focus on the task in hand — the extended narrative — and to dedicate all tasking and multi-tasking to that prime task. The majority of writers who have written on the art of writing, including Stephen King, Graham Green, and E. M. Forster, emphasize the necessity of sticking at it, maintaining focus, and getting on with the task. Graham Green’s recommended approach is to write four to five pages a day, re-reading them and revising them the next day, before writing another four pages. That way the events, the action, the characters, are kept well in mind. In addition, Joan Clark and Norman Levine, in their workshops, advise writers to get to know their characters intimately, to think about them, and to write and rewrite until they come living from the page. Anyone who has taken a longish break and then returned to the writing of a novel knows just how difficult it is to get back into the mind of those characters. With an extended narrative, a dialog abandoned is a dialog lost. And one must learn to listen to one’s characters and to never forget what they have said, mustn’t one?

  1. Poems, Prose Poems, and Flash Fiction:

This is where multi-tasking can truly take place. The brevity of these pieces, and I classify epic and extended poetry with narrative rather than with poetry, allows the writer time to pick the pieces up and put them down again, to play around, to abandon the text and to return to it later. Being shorter pieces by definition, one can re-read them with ease, correct them at leisure, and research around them with impunity. In an extended narrative, or when writing to a deadline, focus is necessary. With shorter pieces, easily recalled, procrastination is a pleasure, not a crime. With poetry, focus is sharper but for shorter periods.

  1. From Poem to Poetry Book:

As the poems accumulate and the writing, or rather the putting together, of the collection becomes more important, so the need to concentrate and single-task, rather than to procrastinate and multi-task becomes paramount.

These are my initial thoughts on Task or Multi-Task. What happens when we apply them in real life to real questions?

  1. On Revision (Chuck):

Will this exercise (revision of older texts) provide you more gratification than starting new ones that may or may not be so important to you?

The question of revision is key. While I would like to avoid revisionism (Al: There is value in showing poetry as a snapshot in time (if only to avoid endless revisionism), the question of how to revise a text is of maximum importance. The text to be revised may be old or it may be recent, but the act of revision — how and why and what to revise — is one that must concern us as writers if we are to eschew automatic writing in a search for le mot et la phrase justes. If I can learn from the revision of older texts what I need to look for in order to revise newer texts, then my search for a way in which to recognize and achieve better form of writing can be justified, for the techniques discovered can surely be applied to future texts as well as to past ones.

  1. The young Roger who was once you is no more (Kevin):

This is a beautiful thought: thank you, Kevin. Much of that earlier writing must stand as it is (and was) as a monument to what and who I was back then. However, some thoughts and phrasings may well be weak and need revision. The recognition of weakness and the realization of how to strengthen and how to renew is surely a part of our ongoing growing writing process. That is what I would argue, anyway. I would argue further that revision is NOT multi-tasking, but is single-tasking in the sense that I, as reviser, am teaching myself how to revise: an ongoing process in the act of creativity.

  1. Conclusion:

In my current situation, I have five creative works (Echoes …, Waiting, Bistro, Stars … , People … ) lying fallow and waiting for their final touches. As I look back on what I have previously written and how I have written it, I am, in my opinion, multi-tasking. That is to say, I am working with many texts rather than concentrating on a single text. However, at the same time, I am working hard on a single task: that of teaching myself, once again, how to revise and how to rewrite. Hopefully I will put a little, objective distance between my current self and my recent texts. Then, when I return to them, I will be able to take them, one at a time, and revise them properly. That is my hope and my intention.

To task or to multi-task … writing or re-writing … each has its place in the creative process. To conclude: I thank all of you who contributed to this conversation (mentioned or not!), and I wish you joy in your (re-)creativity.

Comment: These questions are as relevant to my writing now as they were when I first posted them several years ago. The text names change, but the multi-tasking continues. There are about five manuscripts / typescripts on my desk right now, each one clamoring for attention. In a couple of cases, there are deadlines that I must meet. In others, overnight thought means an early morning return with new ideas. Most important of all, is to write, and to continue writing. And yes: unless there is an imminent deadline, I multi-task!

Why I Write

 

Time-Spirits

Why I Write

In the online creative writing course that I took last year, we were invited to read two articles on why I write, one written by George Orwell and the other by Joan Didion.  Both articles set me thinking: why do I write? My response to these articles, borrowed from my course notes and suitably doctored for my blog, follows.

George Orwell … where do I begin?

Homage to Catalonia is, in my opinion, one of the great personal memoirs written about the Spanish Civil War. Orwell fought on the side of the Republic, the legally-elected government, but fell foul of the Russian-backed Communists as they tried to unify the left under a banner of total Communism. The other side in the Spanish Civil War was, of course, the solidified right of the Spanish Falange and the Fascist Party. Orwell was targeted by the Communists and, wounded at the front, escaped across the French border with falsified papers. As he himself says in Why I Write, the political realization of the nature of totalitarianism led him to his stance as a writer. Animal Farm borrowed heavily from his Spanish experience, as did 1984.

Orwell sets out four reasons for writing. (1) Sheer egoism; (2) aesthetic enthusiasm; (3) historical impulse; and (4) political purpose. I personally identify most strongly with #2. Above all, in my case, I write my poetry in praise of nature and in sorrow for how I see us failing the natural world around us. However, I must admit that I also write out of sheer egoism (#1) and yes, I enjoy thumbing my nose at all those who have in one way or another slighted me and upon whom I want literary revenge, even if it be posthumous. Several of my older friends also write this way, though many of the younger ones seem to be more interested in writing for money than in art for art’s sake. I guess retirement and a small but relatively reliable pension added to the gradual onset of a blighting old age make me realize that there is not much time left in which to amass a fortune. This in turn also makes my professed credo of art for art and not for money more acceptable.

Having come to the conclusion that I never have, and never will, make any money through my writing, although publish or perish has walked side by side with me throughout my academic career, I now embrace the fact that I do not write for money. In fact, I usually give my independently published books away to my friends. Nor do I want the sort of fame that causes the paparazzi, with their microphones and videos, and camerasto flock to my doorstep, like starving sparrows or winter’s chickadees, in search of the breadcrumbs that fail to sufficiently nourish. To be appreciated, in my own small corner, like a well-loved local cheese or a craft beer, welcomed on a warm summer night for its fragrance and body … that is enough for me, although I must admit, that for one of my metaphors or images to be sniffed at, as if it were a glass of rare liqueur or a suitably aged port or a welcome Castillo de Monserans, also has its attractions.

This doesn’t mean that I am satisfied with who I am and how I write … I am not. I hope I never will be. I do want to be the very best that I can be. That’s why I keep writing and why I keep taking courses and workshops on writing. It’s also why I read and re-read, and why I keep reaching out to you and my other friends, and why I am so over-joyed when you, in your turn, reach out to me with the occasional word of praise for one of my stories or one of my poems.

However, warm as is the friendship of the beginning, failed and faltering writers’ support groups to which I belong,  most, if not all, writing is done in isolation: me and my memories, me and my invention, me and my keyboard, me and my blank page, me and my pen, me and a-penny-for-my thoughts as I refill that pen with Royal Blue ink in the hopes that something regal will actually fall from the nib and grace one of my pages, even though I am really wondering yet again whether, like the budding author in Camus’s La Peste,  I should start that first paragraph all over, yet again, just once more.

Alas, me and the cat and the keyboard do not share a healthy working relationship, especially when she walks across the keys, sticks her kitty-littered rear end in my face, scratches her itchy chin against the computer’s sharp edge, and purrs wildly for kibble while adding oft-repeated letters and deleting so many of the wonderful words that I have so carefully accumulated. Last month, incidentally, she also unfriended a dozen of my Facebook friends. Unfortunately, I do not know which ones and none of them have got back to me. Oh dear.

One of the students in my current course asked me when I started to write. The answer is that I do not know. I have always written. I guess I have written from a deep inner urge to understand myself and the world in which I live. Going to a series of boarding schools was also a key part in the relationship between me and my writing. I was six or seven when I first went to boarding school and every Sunday I was plonked down on a wooden bench and ordered to write a Sunday letter home to my parents. Oh the wails and the take-me-aways that issued from my pen only to be deleted by the school censors. As a result, from early on, I shaped letters for the censoring audience. I also wrote other letters and they became a part of my writing style and my need for self-expression.

Mikhail Bakhtin, in his theory of Chronotopos, speaks of ‘man’s dialog with his time and place’ and that is exactly what I do. I hold a dialog with the things happening around me in the particular place I find myself.  Why do I write? To better understand my time, my place, and my own interactions with the world around me. Writing then is a means to an end and that end, for me, is self-understanding, self-betterment, and the better understanding of the world in which we all live.

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Intertextuality

Zeitgeist 1-10

Intertextuality

Intertextuality is the dialog that takes place between texts or as Merriam-Webster explains it: “the complex interrelationship between a text and other texts taken as a basic to the creation or interpretation of the text.”

Often we write from an intertextual perspective when we respond to other writers and their thoughts and imagery. This is why, in the creative process, reading can be as important as writing. Reading expands our vocabulary. It reinforces some of our own opinions and challenges others. Without reading, we are lonely rocks in sunless seas.

To be creative, we need to be aware of what others are writing and how they view the world we inhabit. When we read creatively we read with an eye to improving our creativity and our structures. We look for new ideas, new images, new words, new ways of expressing our thoughts.

Often we think we are being original when in fact we are re-processing, just as I am now, the ideas of other people. Given the nature of modern media, we are not always aware of all the multiple sources of our material: telephone, twitter, blogs, radio, television, newspapers (less and less), books, chapbooks, magazines, e-sources, lectures, chat groups, Facebook, and general conversations with other people who are also unaware of their sources. Thus ideas abound, float in the air, circulate and recirculate, submerge and resurface, shift their shapes and colors.

As writers we dip into that enormous moving mass of current and past culture and creativity and we choose our narrative lines, our characters, our structures, our images, our metaphors. As Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, better known as Molière, once wrote, “Mes idées? Je les prends où je les trouve.” My ideas? I take them from wherever I find them.

Imitation is the best form of flattery. Indeed it is. We cannot, however, borrow wholesale and just copy. Miguel de Cervantes borrowed the first five chapters of Don Quixote (the first sortie) from an earlier entremés entitled El Entremés de los romances. For a very long time, critics thought that Cervantes was the author of both pieces: they are very similar. However, even a quick analysis also shows that they are very different. The language of the entremés is much older while the conversion of theatre into narrative distinguishes them at a very basic level. Cervantes borrowed: but in borrowing, he adapted, he changed, he took the old form and converted it into something new and completely original. Nevertheless, we are still aware of the origins of the great novel that has many other borrowings woven into its fabric.

So, we indulge in intertextuality when we engage in a dialog with other texts and ‘borrow’ from other authors. To be original, we have to take that borrowing and turn it into something entirely different, something that becomes a part of ourselves and no longer exists as a part of that other text. Intertextuality is not copying. If we take a text in its entirety, if we ‘copy’, then we must acknowledge the source. However, when we indulge in a dialog with a text, when we transform a text, when we are ourselves transformed by a text, then that is a totally different situation. Think of the links between Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 film, The Seven Samurai, and its offspring, the 1960 western entitled The Magnificent Seven. They are very similar in so many ways … and yet they are so very different.

While intertextuality refers more to the larger elements of character and narrative structure, it also exists at the level of metaphor and image. Sometimes, without thinking, we use metaphors that we have heard before. Often we like the sound of a group of words, shuffle them around, and come up with a new meaning for them, a new metaphoric reality. This too is intertextuality.

At its best it is a very valuable addition to our creative tool kit.

While on the topic of creativity, let us spare a thought for our needs for creative time and space. We cannot create when we lack the blessings of time and space. Creativity is greatly hindered when we go hungry and need to complete back-breaking work just to sustain our lives and feed our families. Our relative wealth and leisure is a blessing: without them, we would be floundering in the pre-industrial world of subsistence farming, working at manual labor from dawn to dusk.

Let us spare a thought too for those oral societies that existed when people could not write. Or those early societies in which only the few, the happy few, were educated to the level at which they could actually read and write.

Intertextuality is a blessing, not a curse. Use it wisely, use it well.

Comment: I would like to thank Meg Sorick who suggested that I expand an earlier conversation that we had on the topic of Intertextuality.

Codification

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Codification

For me, it is vital to see how others read and interpret my work … what comes across, what doesn’t, how things are understood and read, sometimes in the same way, sometimes in different ways. It is always easy to pick out some favorite phrases. However, deciphering, interpreting, and then reacting to, a poem’s inner code, is a very different matter.

I love the cut and thrust of dialog … I was at our Tuesday night writing group meeting last night from 7-9:30 pm and we had a great time, back and forth across the table pecking, like wild birds perched on a literary feeder, at each others’ texts. My own texts are thickly layered and highly codified and I have become very interested in the theory of literary codification.

My own ideas are a development of those of Northrop Frye as he expressed them in The Great Code. When we lose our common code, to what extent do we need to explain a private one? This is of great import to Frye’s studies on William Blake, perhaps (in spite of his seeming simplicity in certain poems) one of the most difficult of English poets.

Perhaps the answer lies in Karl Jung’s theories on the racial subconscious: that we all share deep, (human) racial symbols that transcend words and often appear as symbols and images. If this is true, then we communicate, at a non-speech level, through metaphor and symbol, and that is more powerful and outreaching than linear language, however well and clearly codified it may be.

This emphasis on symbol, image, and metaphor leads us, of course, into surrealism, free writing, concrete poetry, sound poetry, and all those efforts to abandon the linear and reach into the subconscious roots of ‘that which binds us together as human beings’ … in my humanistic theories, to find the links that behind is more productive than the reinforce the fears and misbeliefs that separate. Alas, not everyone thinks that way in the literary world, and private codes can easily be used as wedges to force people apart.

We need codes, preferably codes that we can share. The question is, how explicit would we be, as writers, in explaining those codes? How closely should we imitate the writing codes of other people?

The eternal mystery of Aladdin’s Lamp: “New codes for old.” And don’t forget the magic words “Open Sesame.”

Ah, the joys of codification.

Commentary
This is a golden oldie, a repeat of an earlier post.  I am creating furiously at present and cannot always spend the time to create for the blog. Hence the repetitions and the golden oldies. Codification is something that has interested me for some time: the Biblical Code, The Western Tradition, Courtly Love, the Icy Fires of Petrarchism, Romanticism,  Impressionism, Expressionsim, Surrealism, Existentialism, Modernism, Post-Modernism … the -isms, once started, are apparently endless. All of these -isms spiral round the ideas of verbal codes. In codification, I would like to start a discussion on what these codes are, how they affect us, what do they mean, especially when they can be so totally personal. By all means, join the discussion: what do you mean by codes? How do you use them? How do you interpret the codes of other people? By all means post here, but better by far, rech out and discuss these things with your friends and your writing or art groups.