T + 796 Writers' Toolkit Part One
Yesterday I attended a one day conference for writers and people involved with the creative writing profession entitled The Writers' Toolkit. This is the 3rd annual conference of its type run by Writing West Midlands.
It was a thoroughly enjoyable and well organised event held at the Digbeth campus of South Birmingham College and over the next few blog posts I'll be writing about what I saw and heard at the conference.
Beginnings - No Messages
After a witty and well delivered introduction to the day from the Chief Executive of Writing West Midlands , Jonathan Davidson, the opening keynote talk was delivered by the author Jim Crace.
In an entertaining and heartfelt talk entitled No Messages Jim Crace spoke to what it means to be a writer and how the reality of it differs from many people's perceptions.
He began by explaining how for Christmas one year at the age of 11 or 12 in about 1956 his father bought him a copy of the Everyman Roget's Thesaurus, a copy he still uses to this day and indeed he had in his hands as he spoke. Apparently his father had decided his son already "quite a little liar" might best put his talents to use as a writer.
This was not something Jim had ever considered before and he began to look at what being a writer meant. Thus it was he formed the romantic image of the writer as hero. From Jack London driving huskies in the arctic and Orwell in the trenches of the Spanish Civil War, through to Jack Kerouac, unbelievably cool and handsome pictured in Madmoizelle Magazine with his 120ft long continuous manuscript typed on telex paper in three weeks of "bop prosody." How could you fail to be excited by the prospect of such a life? Plus you can write a book in just three weeks.
Jim Crace's most enduring and contrasting image was that of Omar Sharif in the titular role of Dr. Zhivago, sweeping down the stairs of an elegant Siberian Dacha in luxuriant robes to sit at a Louis Quinze escritoire and pen, in a perfect hand with no mistakes, the love lyric to Lara.
Having painted this wonderful picture of the image of a writer he brought us all down to earth with a description of the reality that was probably very familiar to many working or aspiring writers in the room. Your desk, probably in some corner of a shared family space or if you are lucky a cramped shed, will not be an Louis Quinze escritoire but a cheap one from IKEA (indeed as I type this I am in my shared study seated at an IKEA table that cost about £25) Here you will be faced with the writer's worst nightmare the tyranny of a blank page or screen.
In expanding further on the modern writer's life he now also explained where the No Messages title of his talk came from. When his daughter was about five and had just learnt to do some joined up writing she also became passionate about stationery, a passion she now shared with her father and something that seemed to get a murmur of acknowledgement when he spoke about the pleasures in looking through stationery shops on foreign holidays for new and interesting notebooks. ( This is certainly one of those Irrational Pleasures I should add to my list I've expounded upon before).
Enthused with this passion his daughter bought him for one Christmas a note bloc, a 2.5" block of pastel coloured notes and after he had opened it and expressed genuine delight his daughter went and placed it with due ceremony in the middle of his desk. The next day when he went to his shed he found his daughter had written in her best hand on the top sheet of the bloc the words No Messages and so it was for several more days before his daughter's attention was taken elsewhere, each day he would find the new top sheet of the block had "no messages" written on it.
That is how it can be for a writer faced with the tyranny of the blank page. Jim Crace described his profession as a terrifying way to earn a living (notwithstanding people who did real work of course ). When he was a journalist he had no chance to have writers' block or say the muse had abandoned him . He had to get his words in on time but now he was doing creative writing there was no urgency. When his editor called and he would say, rather embarrassed, that he hadn't written much that day he would be met with a jovial, "Don't worry, take your time, take your time. It's the creative process."
So it is with writers. They are volunteers. There is no real need for any one person to write a book or play. The bookshops are full of books and there are no blank spaces in the Radio Times where they just don't have a programme. If you don't write a book then the world will not miss it.
You are a volunteer and if writing makes you unhappy then you should just stop. In a strong statement and in parellel to the statement by Enoch Powell that "all political lives....end in failure" he said the overwhelming sentiment for writers seemed often to be one of bitterness. From the bitterness of the new writer who can't get published through the single novel writer who can never repeat the success even up to writers he knew in their seventies and writing better than ever but to coin a phrase I heard the other day "couldn't get arrested".
With this in mind and all the distractions of a normal life including Cyril Connolly's famous "pram in the hallway" and the shame and anxiety of the blank page, how are writers to make any headway. The answer Crace said was that expressed by Flaubert, "Writing is in the re-writing." ( Something I personally struggle with a great deal).
You need to get words down, to splash on the undercoat so you can prepare for the gloss. You have to have something to respond to.
Finishing on an uplifting note he said that although in one sense writing is a solitary profession when you write you are not alone for you have the spirit of Narrative with you. He meant this in more than just a poetic sense for he said the fact that narrative and story telling had endured for so long meant, from an evolutionary point of view it must have some purpose. Indeed he said at the core of our being we are narrative creatures.
The process of writing becomes ecstatic when narrative itself is working through you. Then there was the balancing act of using your skills to stay in control like a child flying a kite which was part controlled and part left the vagaries of the wind.
When writing is at its best you write not for your own sake but for the sake of the thing itself you are writing.