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

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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.

New Projects

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New Projects

 … how do you choose them, these new projects? Simple answer: I really don’t know. So much depends on you and your work habits. In my own case I have a back log of projects. I have been writing and creating for years. As a result I have a whole set of files that I can turn to and select from. Two novels, about fifty short stories organized into two or three as yet unpublished manuscripts, a couple of hundred poems, organized into three separate thematically organized manuscripts, a set of writings on facilitating creative writing …

Projects … do the work and then choose the order in which you will publish it. I look at the hollyhock that suddenly appeared last year in my garden. Do the work: the birds (in all probability) seeded it. The hard work: the hollyhock grew itself. I should add that my beloved nearly tore it out on the grounds that she didn’t recognize it and it looked like a weed. But she left it, and it grew into what it was meant to be: a hollyhock. One stalk. So many buds. We didn’t know which would blossom first. And it didn’t matter. One after anther they all blossomed. The hollyhock knew what it was doing [we didn’t]. It had belief and faith [we didn’t]. But we had hope.

The Hollyhock Project: This year the hollyhock has eight [yes, eight] different shoots. It’s no longer a single flower, it’s become a bush! It has also shed seeds further afield [I should really write abed, since they’re all in the same flower bed.] I wonder in what order they will blossom. It doesn’t matter really: I am just confident they will bloom. And the sunflowers have rooted below the bird feeders. They have their own projects and I know they will grow as and how they will. And the yucca has four shoots that will flower, how and why I just don’t know. But each flower has its project(s) and I am confident they will all flower and flourish.

My own projects: When June came in, I didn’t know what to do, nor did I know in what order to do it. Then Time-spirits came together. Geoff gave me some drawings and I chose one for the cover. I took the manuscript to the printers, got an estimate, and received a mock-up. The text had shifted in the transfer from computer to computer. My 70 page text had grown to 132 pages. I spent the next 72 hours rewriting everything, eliminating words, lines, poems, dropping the text back down to 70 pages. It is now published. I wondered what to do with the McAdam Railway Station poems. Geoff came to see me on Sunday, 23 June, and told me that he would be celebrating his birthday the following Friday. He also told me that the McAdam Railway Station would be unveiling his mural the following Sunday (June 30). The McAdam railway poems were published on Saturday, 29 June, and I took them to McAdam in time for the ceremony.

Trust: Trust yourself, trust your projects, trust the universal spirit [Northrup Frye’s Spiritus Mundi], under whichever name you acknowledge it). And remember, genius is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration. Put in the mileage, put in he hard work, believe, and trust. ¡Qué será, será! Whatever will be, will be.

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Comment: another golden oldie. I am trying to choose what new projects to start and which old projects to finish. A pleasant problem. Meanwhile, I am enjoying the prospect of a nice, snowy Canadian winter day. Best wishes and happy writing to all.

Writers’ Block

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Writer’s Block
(For Kentucky Blue Angel)

This is a golden oldie that I am re-posting. Today, several people talked to me abut writers’ block. Here are my thoughts on the topic.

Every day, well, almost every day, I meet people who tell me that they cannot write anymore. They have abandoned their current project. They sit in their work space and stare at blank screens or empty walls. They have come face to face with the dreaded Writer’s Block.

While some consider Writer’s Block to be an actual illness, others flaunt it like a flag or a badge of honor:

“Don’t touch me — I’ve got Writer’s Block: I wouldn’t want you to catch it.”

“I’m having a bad week: I’ve got Writer’s Block.”

“Sorry, I can’t make the writer’s meeting, I’ve got Writer’s Block.”

According to Wikipedia, “Writer’s block is a condition, primarily associated with writing, in which an author loses the ability to produce new work or experiences a creative slowdown. The condition ranges in difficulty from coming up with original ideas to being unable to produce a work for years. Throughout history, writer’s block has been a documented problem.”

We have probably all experienced the sensation of being unable to write, unable to think, unable to continue. As an academic, I found that something similar happens frequently in examinations with young students whose minds suddenly go blank when faced by a white page and an awkward question. This form of Writer’s Block comes at the most unfortunate times. Students need to be switched on just when their minds switch off. And something similar happens to writers.

Examination Block can be overcome. In many cases careful preparation for an exam will reduce or eliminate examination block. These preparations may well include correct note-taking and relevant revision procedures. There should be no last minute all-night study the night before the exam and a good night’s sleep, proper food, and water are essentials. Appropriate physical exercises before the exam starts are also useful as these make the heart beat and the blood flow. All these things prepare both body and mind and free the student for that most important task: the struggle with the blank page and the awkward question.

Will a similar set of preparations work for those who suffer from Writer’s Block?

In order to answer this question, I would rather take a different approach. Instead of seeing Writer’s Block as a physical / mental presence that stops us writing, why not look at it as an absence that can be overcome? What can we call that absence? Personally, I look upon it as an absence of creativity. If the creativity isn’t there, then writing creatively won’t happen. So what do we do?

Let us define creativity. For me, creativity is the expression of the creative principle that dwells within all of us. It is there, within us. We may suppress it or we may let it be suppressed. We may ignore it or we may deny it: but it is still there. It is always there. Sometimes it is beaten out of us; or we think it is. But it is still there, beneath the surface, waiting to be called on. The Roman poets spoke of it as Deus est in nobis … the god that dwells within us.

Creativity, for me, is like a river that vanishes underground and then reappears: it will be back.

The most important thing in my opinion is what you do when you’re not writing, what you do when you’re faced with that wall of blackness, what you do when you stare at that blank screen and nothing makes your fingers dance on the key board.

Here’s what I do. I make up my mind not to force myself to be creative. Forget about writing. Do something else. Ignore all idea of Writer’s Block, or the End of the World, or the Imminent Disaster of not being able to write. It may take a mental effort, but forget about it.

Now do something else, something positive. Different people respond to different stimuli. Here’s what I do.

(1) I read books
I read other people in their creative moments. I love reading people who write in other languages that I speak and read, because my own mind tries to recreate their images, their stories. This re-creation is a form of creation in itself. New words, new ideas, new combinations, rise to the surface of the mind, like bubbles on a river.

(2) I color and draw
As any who have seen my drawings know, I cannot draw. However, I can take a line for a walk. And that’s what I do. Then I color the spaces I create. My friends thought I was wasting my time and I believed them until I read one of Matisse’s sayings: “My ambition: to liberate color, to make it serve both as form and content.” Voilà: I have my raison d’être. Nature abhors a vacuum. When you create a space, color and meaning rush in.

(3) I take photos
The capturing of a moment: a sunset, a new bird at the feeder, deer wandering through the garden, a black bear visiting, rain on a spider web, sunlight through a prism, a cat made out of cherry stones … the re-creation of the moment is the creation of the memory. More bubbles flow on the surface of the stream.

(4) I go for a walk, look at nature and the world around me, people too
It is incredibly important to do this. A visit to the local coffee shop, a walk around the super-market or corner store, a seat in the park on a sunny day … just be yourself, believe in your existence, watch things as they happen, relax, look and listen, empty yourself, let the world flow back in … look at the ducks on the lake or the goldfish in the tank … more bubbles on the water, more ideas floating down the stream …

(5) I listen to music
De gustibus non disputandum … we can’t argue about taste. Where music goes, each person must make their own choices. The music I like fills my mind, relaxes me, flows out when it ends, takes my mind for a walk and leaves … a vacuum … into which dreams and colors, words and ideas, build like clouds …

(6) I cook
Cooking has always relaxed me. Sometimes the repeating of an old recipe helps clear my mind. Sometimes I have a need to invent something new. Hands and mind occupied, the secret, sacred underground river of creativity flows on …

(7) I sew
Last summer, an unexpected event led me to join a quilting group … oh what fun … a man quilting among a dozen women … I learned so many things … so many different ways of looking at the world … so many concepts that I would never have dreamed of on my own … Sewing runs in the family: I still have my grandfather’s sewing kit … darning and sewing needles that served him for two years before the mast … that darned his socks as he survived in the trenches of the First World War … it bears his name and I use it with pride … and what memories arise in my mind as I choose the needle … his needle … the one that will lead me into the next adventure, be it quilt, button or patch …

(8) I keep a journal
… and come hell or high water, I write in it every day and have done so since 1985. That’s 31 years during which I have scarcely missed a day. The writing maybe banal, it may be nothing but a note on the weather or a comment on a sporting event … but it’s there … a vital challenge to the idea that Writer’s Block can take me over and stop me writing. This journal is 95% drivel … maybe more … but bobbing along the stream of words are ideas, verses, rhyme schemes, choruses, stories, flashes of inspiration, jokes, memories, magic moments, falling stars, … the secret is to catch these falling stars, to recognize these rough diamonds and to return to them and polish when the moment is ripe … and it will be, sooner or later … for bubbles are buoyant and will lift you to the stars.

(9) Free Writing and the Creation of Metaphors
I also use the journal for free writing and automatic writing. These techniques, drawn from the Surrealists, allow the mind to wander at random. While wandering, the mind creates an interior monologue or a stream of consciousness that in fact turns up a series of delightful metaphors that can be polished and re-used at will. When I use this style of writing, I am reminded of Dalí’s saying (again and as always, from memory): “I don’t know what it means, but I know it means something.” My own theory of metaphor is that the metaphor is defined by two (sometimes more) points and rather than settling on one or the other (as in a simile), the mind moves and flickers sub-consciously between the two extremes so that meaning is sensed, but rarely can be grasped or stated in definitive terms. Thus, the marvelous line from André Breton, quoted by Mr. Cake,  “The wolves are clothed in mirrors of snow” has, according to my theory of metaphor, four defining points, namely, wolves … clothed … mirrors … snow. All four of these defining points creates an image, a very personal image, in the reader’s mind. The mind moves quickly between each defining point and meaning is lost in the rapid shift from image to image. Quite simply, “the hand cannot grasp it, nor the mind exceed it.” This means we have to return, as readers, to the unconscious level where the metaphors were first created. Then: “when we no longer seek it, it is with us.” This same analytical exercise can be performed for each line of Breton’s poem. When we indulge in free writing, much of what we write can be abandoned. The secret is to recognize and rescue the little gems we so often find.

(10) I believe
Through all this runs a thread of belief … belief that the black cloud of despair will not win. The Writer’s Block will go. Creativity will never be not lost. It is there, beneath the surface, always ready to be contacted, waiting to rise and take you over again. And all too soon and quite unexpectedly, one form of creativity slips into another and the creative writing (it never really went away because of the journal) comes back.

Writer’s Block: it does exist. It’s how we deal with it that’s important. Creativity rules: forget Writer’s Block and let creativity and the multiple ways back to creativity grow and flow. Sooner or later the clouds will lift, the sun will return, the block will unblock and the words will flow again.

Remember the words on the Roman sundial: Horas non numero nisi serenas … I count only the happy hours. And remember: the clouds will lift, the sun will return.

Trust me.
And believe.