Author: lmsage

Artichoke II

Dead-headed queen

crownless in a devastation of hay

inflorescence grounded

thick timber uprooted

your fibrous globes

from fresh leaves

cut loose from glaucous leaves

 

Wisdom’s rattling weight

Weight of bract and choke

cast down

overthrown by cultivation

sacrificed as life-blood

for budding usurpers

 

Your fallen head

Coarse crown disguarded

tragically close

mulching in nettles

watched by the spinney greenery

of the next generation

of your thistley children

The rook and the pigeon

They both knew it was wrong

but in the warm kiss

of a coming summer

it had to happen

 

The garden was empty

their clans briefly absent

only magpies kept sentinel

and pride dazzled them heedless

 

Two notes of

incongruent tongues

and it was decided

Now is the moment

 

The rook and the pigeon

left the garden

flew over basking roof-tiles

and went out into the world

Bench poems

I’ve been inspired to try a little experiment after a recent visit to a Frank Auerbach retrospective. Auerbach famously revisits the same subject matter time and again in his visual artwork. He draws, sculpts and paints the same models over the course of decades, he paints the same city views dozens, if not hundreds, of times over. In particular, he paints Camden (London). Even more specifically, he paints the view from his Camden studio, looking out over across rooftops of Mornington Crescent and towards what was once a cigar factory, but is now Greater London House.

The repeated return, especially to his studio window view, captured my imagination. It’s partly because it’s a scene I’ve seen from a different angle. I used to work in Greater London House, back in the days when I smoked like a chimney but refused to by fags. Every time I’d managed to nick one from Erica (sorry Rica!) we’d go out and smoke on the very spot Auerbach captures in so many of his works.

Seeing Auerbach’s depiction of colour and space, his interpretation of a place I occupied as part of my daily working life got me thinking about how much I don’t see when I enter the ‘work’ part of my day. But this is also part of Auerbach’s regular working day – he visits this view countless times, over decades, and yet, each time he describes it in paint, it is never the same. The light, the colour, the relationships of shape and space change even if nothing else has. And then, in the practice of revisiting this scene across months, years, decades, his work traces changes that in themselves mean very little but placed in the context of a wider series gain a shimmer of significance. A post box that seems to disappear. A shape that might be an aerial appearing on a rooftop. Small things that suddenly seem important as part of a bigger work.

It’s not something I’ve ever tried, depicting the same place at different moments. Or I thought I hadn’t, but I realised the other day I’ve sort of stumbled into trying it since spring has made it warm enough for me to eat lunch outside. When the weather is nice enough, this is where I go:

Bench

It’s a closed-in garden, surrounded by the building on all sides. It’s pretty wild, and quiet and sitting there, in the sun, listening to the birds, I’ve been inspired to scribble a few poems, all drawn from this spot. So while it’s not quite Auerbach’s repeated depiction of the same scene, I’m telling something that comes from experiencing this place in a particular moment.

I thought I’d turn it into a little experiment, across the next two months. A poem a week, from the bench. Good, bad, ugly, rough and ready, it doesn’t matter. They’re getting written and then I’ll see what I’ve got at the end.

 

 

The hump

The hump is always there.

It doesn’t matter how much I want to write. It doesn’t matter how much I love the process of writing. It doesn’t matter how hungry I’ve been to get to my desk and get pen to paper, finger tips to keys. Every time I want to write, I have to heave the baggage of my intentions over the hump first.

The hump is a hybrid creature. It’s a living, breathing thing that changes shape, size and consistency depending on my particular mood. Sometimes it’s a laziness, a desire to stay in bed that little bit longer rather than pull myself out of sleep and onto the page. Sometimes it’s a stack of More Important Things demanding my attention and insisting that I Must Complete These Tasks First before I can spare the twenty minutes of head-space I allow myself six days a week for writing.

But sometimes it’s something less solid, less obvious than these ploys to stay away from the page. When the hump is about choosing a ten-minute lie-in over an extra ten minutes with a pen in hand, I can judge the height, width and texture of what I’m doing battle with. When it’s a Papier-Mache mound of bills, emails and to-do lists, I can get my gait right and hurdle over its hollow shell. It’s when the hump is transparent that I have real problems, when it in fact denies its very existence.

Like when I watch yet another episode of The X-Files rather than picking up that novel I’ve been dying to read for months. Or when it’s composed of Big Questions about Who I Am and Why Am I Doing This. At its most insidious, the hump is made up of the crazy springs and snares of justification, reasonable explanations as to Why I Shouldn’t Write Today. It’s particularly nasty then. Brush up against the rust and jagged edges and justification is infectious, will run riot across you.

This time, the hump was perfectionism. I don’t like this post. Something in the imagery is not working for me. So I’ve sat on it for weeks. And let its draft-y presence stop me writing anything else.

Recognising that there is a hump, always a hump, has been the thing that’s starting to make a real difference. Now I know getting myself to the waiting page is a similar process to cycling up hill. I know when I crest that summit, the view from the top and the free-wheeling down the other side will not only make it all worthwhile, the rush will make me feel so alive I won’t even remember the slog to get to the top.

But that doesn’t stop the lactic acid making my muscles moan and the little demon on my shoulder insist that I really don’t need to put myself through this, so why don’t I just stop? Certain days, that demon barely gets a whisper in before I’m at the top, over the hump and letting gravity take the reins. Other days, he’s in full voice before I’ve even gotten to the base. Either way, when I’m really out on my bike, I’ve never once gotten off and pushed the bike back home. Nah, that promise, that distant memory of what’s over the other side is enough to keep my teeth gritted and my legs peddling.

I don’t even have to peddle to get over the writing hump. Just got to grit those teeth, keep breathing and pick up that pen. That’s it. Hump surmounted. Time to let the words free-wheel across the page.

The fallows

I’ve been floundering. It’s taken me a while to notice what’s going on, and I’ve still not managed to get my head above the waves far enough to see for certain where I am, but at least now I’ve noticed the waves. The reason it’s taken me a while to notice is because I’ve kept writing. Pretty much every day, I leave some kind of stain across a page, be it ink, tears or sweat. Something gets put down and recorded.

So it didn’t immediately sink in that I’m treading water, occasionally going under before bobbing up again. Previously, trouble has come raging in, a cavalry of panic and anxiety storming in under a banner of blank pages and sleeplessness. The trickle of words I’ve been leaving in my wake, the calm, steady practice of writing a little every day – this doesn’t look or feel like trouble. But I have been treading water rather than swimming, diving, moving through the ups and downs of writing. And now I’m getting tired.

There were some tell-tale signs. I’ve been doing a lot of ‘writing up’ rather than writing on recently, focusing on getting my scrawls typed up so I can share. Except now they’re all typed up and I still haven’t shared. Then the small part of the day I carve out for sitting at my desk and just getting words down has gradually become shorter and shorter. Somehow unloading the dishwasher or doing my (very short) hair expand into tasks that chisel away at those few minutes I try to keep for writing. And then there’s my blog, perched on my shoulder, singing out that I haven’t posted anything.

I admit, I started to panic last week when the truth finally reached me. Things had been unfolding at such a fluid pace that discovering I’d lost forward momentum was a shock. My first response, of course, was guilt. It’s because I’m not dedicated enough, because I’m not sacrificing enough to the writing gods – or worse, it’s because I’ve committed the sin of thinking that I had anything worthwhile to write in the first place.

Then comes the Voice of Truth, which tells me in loud ringing tones that real writers don’t have these problems, so just give the fuck up, because you are clearly not a writer. Chalk this one up as another one of your misadventures, your failed enthusiasm. Go back to the day job and embrace that as all you can possibly be.

Luckily, I’ve had it up to here with that fucking noise. That Voice of Truth, with its shoulds and don’ts has had all the attention from me it’s ever going to get. It took me to some very boring places. These days, I’d always take actually being in the water – albeit floundering – over standing on a barren shore looking longingly at the waves.

I can’t stop the Voice having its say, but I can try and get some other voices to do battle with it. Reading other writers talk about their writing cycles has been hugely helpful. Seems that what I’m experiencing at the moment is a fallow, a time of rest after a time of plenty. It’s a time to take stock, read and think, perhaps edit and plot, perhaps work on something else before returning to the main project.

Hence there’s no panic, no anxiety – I’m recuperating, pooling my resources to take them in the next direction. It makes perfect sense. I’ve reached something close to 30,000 words of what will hopefully turn into my first novel. That’s a lot of work and words and ideas. Of course I need to pause, take a breath and survey the horizons I’m creating before I move on. And actually, the words that I’ve eeked out in the fallows are full of potential, my pen seems to be discovering a new aesthetic for me all by itself.

So I’m going to rest in the fallows for a while, get my strength again, let the ideas break over me and refresh these hard-working senses. No panic, no guilt, and definitely no bloody shoulds.

Write like you’re already dead

I’ve crashed smack into one of writing’s realities. A couple of people I know in the real world have looked at this blog. Which in itself is ok, I guess, although if I’m honest, part of me curls up into a ball and prays for non-existence each time I realise this. But then, even worse, some people have mentioned it to me, in real life, face to face.

I think the only other time I’ve wanted the ground to swallow me up that much was after I got so nervous at a work Christmas do, I got horrendously drunk and threw up in a plant pot in the hotel lobby, before being poured into a cab and sent home. At my boss’s expense.

Going into work the next day was not easy.

Knowing that people I know have read this blog is on a par with that.

But why? Why is it so awful to know you’re being read and being read by people you know? Aren’t I writing to be read? And why the hell else would I link this blog to Twitter if I didn’t want people to see what I’m doing?

These are questions I’m having to really think hard about. Because actually, I’m not sure being read is the main purpose behind my writing. In fact, it’s almost an accidental by-product of what it is I’m doing. I started these posts to help me write regularly, to try and write myself into a new life, and to maybe put something into the world that I wanted there but couldn’t find. For once in my life, it was all about me, not about my audience or what other people wanted.

Writing for myself and keeping it relatively anonymous gave me a freedom that was sorely missing elsewhere. It allowed me to say fuck it, what do you want to say, what do you want read, what do you want to think? And as I did so, I unbuttoned the straight-jacket I’d put on my life. It let me see how dead my world had become because I was letting the word ‘should’ and its evil twin ‘ought’ dictate everything I did. Killing off desire, suffocating even the most meagre dream. What a hygienic empty-headed vessel I aspired to be. What a willing malleable citizen I wanted to become – pristine, sensible, and utterly sane – everything, in fact, that I am not.

So I write what I know, or write what I need to see in the world, to keep writing myself into existence, to give myself legitimacy and a voice and a pulse. Which is fantastic. Until people you know start to read your stuff. Because now they can see my process of falling apart and putting myself together, again and again and again.

But then if that’s how it is for me, then why shouldn’t I write about my reality? And how much do people really read or care anyway?

I want to be honest. Not through bland statement of fact, but by using the lies of fiction to capture truths (that’s not my line by the way, I think I’ve nicked that from Doris Lessing or Iris Murdoch). But it’s so much easier to be honest when you don’t have to live with it, when you can hide behind words and anonymity. When your cover’s blown, it’s so tempting to tidy up your thoughts and your language and tone down your topics, keep things sane and safe and in line with the person you want to be day-to-day, because you know there’s a chance real life is going to throw your words back at you.

But how dead would that be? Patrolling your thoughts, policing your prose, stepping back from the brink because you should, because you ought to, because maybe . . . Before you know it, you’re buttoning up that straight-jacket again, settling in for maddeningly comfortable life without the discomfort of creativity.

Years ago, I came across a quote from Nadine Gordimer, which I’ve probably mentioned before because it’s stuck with me. She was talking about writing in South Africa under apartheid, where she continually caused controversy for exposing the flaws in the anti-apartheid movement alongside her relentless critique of apartheid itself. Just because the anti-apartheid cause was good didn’t make them saints and Gordimer’s commitment to representing what she saw as honestly as possible made her unpopular among the very people she was supporting. But challenging the temptation of sainthood, excoriating the polished surface and hygienic narrative of the ‘good guys’ was just as important for keeping people ‘good’ as crying out against the inhumanity of apartheid.

To write this honestly, Gordimer said that you have to write like you’re already dead, to put yourself beyond embarrassment. You have to pretend that you’ve passed beyond the realm of friends and family, and so forget that you’re capable of embarrassing or bringing shame on them as well as yourself. It’s only by writing like you’ve got nothing to lose that you’ll ever be able to write anything worth a damn.

I’m not Nadine Gordimer. I’m not battling apartheid. I’m just trying not to curl up into silence – or even worse, disappear into pretty prose. So here I am, putting myself out there again, learning to write like I’m already dead.

Step 0

Never seen the waves so high

 

eating at the pebbled shore

sinking salty teeth down

and pulling, heaving

the haplessly loose out and away

 

Gulls mass, those little anarchists

stringless kites in the roar

unflapping in their pursuit

of risky but effortless air

 

and I’m standing here

 

I am standing here

 

planting my feet in sea-licked stones

to become a place

where the wind and the water

and the rattling land meet

 

Useless and useful emotion

I haven’t done much writing in the past ten days. Unexpected things have taken me unexpected places, and any scrap of routine has had to be abandoned in the face of rapidly changing circumstances. When I have had moments to myself, I’ve been exhausted, drained and not really capable of speaking, let alone writing.

But now things are starting to settle again, I’ve found myself curiously resistant to putting my butt on the chair in front of my desk where my pen and paper are waiting for me (laying out the tools on my desk the night before has been really useful for making me write in the morning). I’ve been finding ‘more important things to do’, like, empty the dishwasher, stay in bed for half an hour longer, faff around choosing what to wear (which is ridiculous when you realise my wardrobe is entirely one colour – another tip from other writers – limit life’s less important decisions). Given that I only have a small portion of the day I can dedicate to writing, I am appalled at myself even as I’m doing these ‘more important things’ for giving up my precious sliver of creative space so readily.

What’s keeping me from settling down and entering the frame of mind that I fantasise about the rest of the day?

Guilt.

I feel guilty that life took me away from my writing for a few days, and so now writing has morphed into something I ‘should’ be doing, rather than something I want to do, am compelled to do, am hungry to do.

The moment ‘should’ comes into the equation, I can hear doors slamming and horizons narrowing. And my writing creaks along under the weight of the burdens that have been placed upon it.

‘Should’ was the reason I walked away from the way I was working before.

Guilt about writing – or any creative enterprise – is not a useful emotion.

That’s not to say guilt isn’t useful for creativity. Those things that gnaw at the edges of your being, fraying your present with your past. That flood of adrenaline and elation and pain that rises when you’re in the wrong and aren’t going to do anything about it. The battles we have with ourselves as part of us tries to put down a weight that another part insists we continue to carry as penance. There’s sparks of potential in this kind of suffering. But this guilt, not guilt about creativity.

Anxiety is an interesting contrast to guilt in terms of its usefulness. I used to think anxiety was the most unpleasant, least productive state of being possible, but it’s come to my attention recently that I might not have understood the nature of the beast. Lauren Berlant’s Cruel Optimism is particularly illuminating in opening up the nuances and possibilities buried in the twitchy, breathless, fluttery states I get in. She points out, for instance, that anxiety can be seen as a form of excitement, anticipation that isn’t necessarily unpleasant.

Reading that opened up the whole experience of anxiety for me, made me recognise that sometimes I’m confusing fearful anxiety with the moments when I’m exhilarated by the challenge I’m about to face. That’s been really useful for recognising when I’m ready to write – getting anxious about writing isn’t a sign that I don’t know what I’m doing, but rather that I’m feeling ready to take on something big, take on the challenge. And once I’ve got my arse in the chair and my pen in my hand, the anxiety very quickly transforms into a focused concentration. For me now, getting the jitters is a useful sign, a sign that I’m ready to get writing.

Envy, too, used to be a real destructive and paralysing experience for me, in writing as well as in life in general. Reading work that left me wishing that I’d written it would make me stop reading and stop writing. I’d hate the author, resent the work and be overwhelmed by the utter futility of putting even one word onto the page – all of which only served to deprive my world of colour and pleasure and inspiration. And god forbid it was a friend who’d dared to write something I admired. Then, I’d could barely look at them, let alone recognise their success.

Susan Cain’s Quiet opened my eyes to the possibilities contained within envy. It’s a moment where two parts of yourself collide with one another, where your workaday self gets a smack round the face from your largely mute and submerged fantasy self. Envy tells you where your day-to-day existence isn’t delivering, what you aren’t doing for yourself in your life. This is incredibly useful when it comes to creativity – envy gives you signposts for where it is you want to be heading. Which now means, perversely, I quite enjoy getting envious now – it’s when I start taking note.

But guilt, I can’t see the purpose of it. I’ve got to come to the page with a willing abandon – be it joyful or reckless or mad or angry – and feeling guilty before you begin is just too civilising.

Less time, more writing?

My latest experiment in writing is now underway, and so far it’s been yielding up some surprising results. Yep, after years of working freelance or taking on limited time contracts in the hopes that these jobs would give me enough money and time to write, I’ve now got a full-time job.

Freelancing and contracts might have given me some control over my time, but in terms of giving me time to write, it was a manifest failure. Worrying about how I was going afford food and shelter if I didn’t get paid on time and having to hunt for new work every three months ate up any mental space that the money – when it did come in – might have given me. It was exhausting. I was exhausted. And then despite all that energy spent worrying and working and not writing, I lost everything anyway. Time for a new plan.

The latest plan started back in August, when I was lucky enough to win a grant to on an Arvon writing retreat. I cannot recommend them highly enough – it was a life-changing week. One of the main things I learnt from spending time with 15 other writers and actually getting to live with myself as a writer for a week was that routine is writing’s best friend. I sort of knew this anyway, as a professional copywriter and researcher, but I’d never really taken it seriously in terms of my creative work. Which told me that I wasn’t treating my creative work with the same respect as I was my other writing. Which is crazy when you consider that I’d been trying to arrange my whole life around the idea that writing was the most important thing for me. Suddenly, it was obvious why it all went tits up before – I wasn’t actually making time for my writing because I wasn’t taking it seriously.

It’s strange how different taking it seriously feels from what I thought it would feel like. It’s as simple as setting aside some time each day to write. When I say some time, that can be anything from 25 minutes through to an afternoon. The key thing is to set the time aside in the first place and then actually use that time for writing and nothing else. Make writing part of the routine.

I had visions of what it would feel like to be a serious writer – very intense, all-consuming, anxiety ridden and sleepless. In other words, I thought it would be difficult.

And yes, it is difficult, but not in the ways I expected. The difficultly is pleasurable, absorbing in a good way, demanding and exhilarating at the same time. But all that comes from something as straightforward as sitting down at my desk once a day and getting the words on the page. Some days they stream out of the pen as if they were already written and were just waiting to emerge. Other days, the page is littered with as a many crossings out as actual words. But the ink is there. The work is happening. And it is such a rush.

The full time job has been the other part of embracing routine for serious writing. No more freelancing, no more contracts, no more working odd hours and all hours. Strictly 9-5, with (a heart-breaking) 24 days of holiday a year.

I’ve got to admit, it’s been a month and it’s chaffing a little. I can’t just saunter off for a long lunch or do my shopping on a weekday when everyone else is at work. I can’t escape to the beach for a rejuvenating wander when work is getting too intense. People expect me to show up and stay put for set times every working day. It’s quite an adjustment.

It seems contradictory that having less time to myself would mean I have more time to write, but after all these years, the writing is happening. In fact, a large chunk of a novel has happened since August. Just in the moments I make before I head into work. So I guess so far, the routine is freeing up the head space and the time for the writing to happen.

I always thought creativity and chaos went together, but maybe the routine is what give us the anchor we need to go and explore the chaos through our creativity. As for strolling on the beach at lunch, I got to write this instead, a mental saunter in my lunch break. I’ll let you know how it goes.