That’s certainly true in Bath where you can easily spend over £100 on a posh notebook and fountain pen and release your inner Jane Austen during the length of a single rainy day.
I write – as ever – of myself; and my inner Jane Austen who remains captive in spite of the deskloads of notepaper and must-have pens which I’ve bought over the years to no effect at all. Even a set of six French manufactured coloured inks failed to remove the large stone rolled in front of the creative sepulchre.
For a while I convinced myself that it was the sheer expense of these accessories that was holding me back and so I started writing on torn up sheets of absorbent lining paper. There you go! we all have our little rituals which – although they have no impact at all on what we write – are strangely enabling of the act itself. John Masefield apparently liked to write with a box of rotting apples under his chair and Stanley Spencer memorably enjoyed the smell of human poo which seemed to get his creative juices going. Not for me, thanks. The seaside, with its smells of tar, salt and suntan lotion usually does it for me but these days I eschew all the tics of the past and write on my Chromebook wherever I happen to be.
For ten years I taught creative writing in the Welsh Valleys and in a notorious outer urban fringe estate, and it was there I learned that absolutely anyone can write. If there’s a problem it doesn’t lay with the (worker) writers but with the education system and the publishing business that sets the parameters of what we’re allowed to experience, think or express in writing. Of course the greatest enemy of many writers is self-doubt, but again this has its good side. Words don’t often come easily and it’s no bad thing to hesitate before putting your turds of wisdom before the public at large.
My own approach to writing was developed by having to meet deadlines. When you’ve got a deadline – even a self imposed one – you can forget all the faff and self delusion about waiting to feel the creative flow before committing. Sit down, turn on the laptop, write something and as it emerges you can correct, revise and edit as you go along. Oh and although it’s a good idea to have some thoughts on your potential audience, don’t let that be a straightjacket. In a blog format like this you can write for more than one audience and hope that some readers will like a bit of green spirituality as well as gardening tips. Never be afraid of pissing your followers off by failing to pander to their prejudices. You win some. And don’t pay too much attention to blogging advice on how to monetize your pages or get more hits. If you make the audience king you’ll land up being a servant.
For years I’ve honed my technique to deliver around a thousand words of reasonably stimulating, challenging ideas, backed up by experience and a lot of hard reading. What I haven’t learned is the very different skill set of gathering and editing those ten minute pieces into a larger format. Developing the significant themes into theses requires a larger view and a longer focus than I’m used to working with.
So we’re taking a two week post-harvest break in the campervan near St Davids, overlooking Ramsey Sound, and with a weather forecast that only differs in the predicted intensity of the rain for the next fourteen days. What could be better than repurposing some of that reading time to try out a larger format – say 10,000 words long? Well, coincidentally I packed Robert Graves’ “The White Goddess” to re-read, and this morning I made a start on it. Apart from his poetry and the book I have a single point of contact with him because I took the funeral service for a woman in his Majorcan circle who typed up some of the draft copies of the “White Goddess”. By the time I got to meet her she was near to death and not going gentle into that good night. Not that she ever spoke, but she was passing restlessly into unconsciousness. I sat with her daughter as her mother lay dying and asked the obvious question – “Why don’t you read her some poetry?” She was aghast at the very thought. Her mother – who sounded like a real martinet had always hated and criticised the way that her daughter read poetry aloud. Cue for a lifetime of repressed longing for someone, anyone, to offer any small praise.
As I started to read the book again I couldn’t get that picture out of my mind. Graves comes across as a slightly paranoid, obsessive old monster; absolutely determined to have his say and drive his point home like a stake through the heart. It’s my way or the highway. Anyway I soldiered on through the introduction and eventually found an example of an old Welsh poetic form called Cynghanedd that Graves had written to illustrate what he calls a “burdensome obsession”. I thought it was an absolutely wonderful use of words:
Left one deadRobert Graves in a footnote in “The White Goddess”
That’s a wonderful encouragement to be bold with words; but the real takeaway point is that in his eagerness to press home every single obsessive point by wrestling it into the ground, Graves managed to write what even he thought was a difficult book that would be completely unintelligible to the “stupid and silly” people who would never be able to understand – because they weren’t proper poets. That should be a warning to anyone attempting to write in longer forms. Good writing flows like a river not a stream with prostate problems, and being right will in no way protect us from being bad.