Friday, February 22, 2008

Writing away from the desk

I'm pretty rubbish, really, at following my own advice. If you read my chapter in the Macmillan Palgrave Creative Writing Handbook you'll see that I suggest that if you're stuck when you're writing it's sometimes best just to give up and go and do something else.

Yes, well. I'm working on a new series of short stories - rather different from any I've written before - and today I intended to start on a new one. But I just couldn't find the way into it: I had the situation, I knew the theme (or as much of it as I need to at this stage), the story was already peopled in my mind, but I didn't have the essential thing: the mode of telling, and the voice.

The way I think of this is that I couldn't hear it. I sat at my desk all morning listening for it, the voice of the story, while in the distance, above the roofs opposite, planes came in one after the other towards the airport, right on each other's tails, and I never stopped seeing them because I never heard it and never started writing. Well, I wrote a few first sentences, but every one was wrong, fake, 'made up', not setting me off in the right direction or encapsulating the feel and essence of the story I want to write. (And screwed the pages up and binned them because as always I have to obliterate those wrong starts, get the wrong noise out of my head - one of my biggest ecological sins in life!)

And then it got to 11.45 and it was time to get dressed if I was going to make it to a lunchtime poetry reading at Central Library - Ian Pople and Chris Woods - as I had planned. But how could I leave my desk when I hadn't even started? I really ought to stay and crack that story.

I nearly didn't go. But in the end I did and, late because of my prevarication, I dashed into the shower and rushed to the bus stop, and the story went right out of my mind. Until I was sitting down on the bus and suddenly the voice of the story and the first sentence dropped as if from nowhere into my head!

The reading was extremely successful: Central Library Reading Room was crammed - standing room only - to hear the vivid poems which have emerged from Ian Pople's travels and the insights which Chris Woods' profession as a doctor have lent to his. In fact, I've been having a poetic couple of days: last night, due to illness Gwyneth Lewis failed to make it to Manchester to give MMU's first reading of the semester, and Michael Simmons Roberts and John McAuliff stood in at the last moment to give great readings, Michael treating us to a series of great new poems yet unpublished. I knew a lot of John's poems, but the great thing about good poems is that they get better each time you hear or read them.

On the way back from Central Library I called in at Blackwell's to see if they'd consider stocking my book, Balancing on the Edge of the World, but it turned out the person I had to see isn't there on Fridays, so that was a failure. Still, at least I got going on my story today, and reminded myself that the best writing is not always done at the desk.


Vanessa Gebbie said...

Great post. The best work always arrives with me when I am doing something else. Or away from my house, my desk, my study, where I 'ought' to be doing stuff.

Nietsche says something about it. Active forgetting, he calls it, I think. Where the mind is working on the connections without 'you' interfering.

I'm so glad you found the voice on the bus!

Elizabeth Baines said...

Yes, and I think those are the REAL connections - the ones that come in sideways, without self-conscious thought.

Rachel Fox said...

It's true - our minds know much more than we do (which is confusing and sometimes worrying...).
Buses are always helpful - is so many ways. Very undervalued in our car-crazy age.