Tag Archives: Robert Macfarlane

In praise of … word hoards

Words are the building blocks of speech and writing used by all people to make meaning. The words we speak and write are what writers must work with. We can play around with them, import some from other languages or invent new ones as Lewis Carroll famously did. Think of the runcible spoon.

So writers should occasionally think words, just words, to sharpen their skills. We need skill to put them together convincingly, in ways that enthral, please, make a case. One way I enjoy focussing on words is to compile a word hoard. I am inspired in this by other writers.

Landmarks by Robert Macfarlane

Robert Macfarlane, in many of his books, examines the details and grand sweep of the natural world and their meanings for humans, and he does this in prose that continually delights. At last I have got round to dipping into Landmarks. In this book Robert Macfarlane draws on writers of the natural world, such as Nan Shepherd (The Living Mountain) and Roger Deakin (Notes from Walnut Tree Farm). And he has burrowed into the languages of the natural world. He gives us eleven glossaries of landscape. Many of these words of are in danger of being lost. The final list is a ‘gift glossary’ of words sent to him since the publication of the first edition in 2015.

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He describes his collections as word hoards. Many of them are local and precise words for phenomenon found in the landscape. I picked out some from Devon, where I live. I love the word ammil, which denotes a particular kind of frost, which edges leaves (p4).

ammil

ammil

My mother brought to my vocabulary clart and clarty, describing mud, and I use it for that which sticks to my walking boots. She learned it in Cumberland, and Robert Macfarlane includes clairt, a Scots variation (p285). Exmoor folk use claggy. Another Devonian word in his hoard is dimmity, used to describe twilight (p223).

Many of the words in Robert Macfarlane’s collections are specific to location and reflect the need for precision in vocabulary in the wild environment. Others are necessary for the pursuit of a craft or skill, such as fishing, farming, woodworking. Words also reveal connections with ancient languages, Scandinavian, Gaelic, Latin or more modern scientific studies and poetic imaginations.

He quotes the writer Henry Porter who lamented the disappearance from OUP children’s dictionaries of words related to the natural world in an article in the Observer in December 2008:

euphonious vocabulary of the natural world – words which do not simply label an object or action but in some mysterious and beautiful way become part of it. (4)

euphonious is going into my word hoard.

It pays to increase your word power

While Robert Macfarlane’s book speaks to the mutability of language I think of my father. In a dispute about the meaning of a word, or on meeting an unfamiliar one, he would produce one of his two volumes of the Shorter Oxford Dictionary to settle arguments. To him, a scientist, meaning was fixed within the word. No amount of argument convinced him that words could change meanings. Even telling him that ‘presently’ in Shakespearean times meant immediately (ie in the present) while today it means the opposite, even this cut no mustard with him. And yet my father introduced me to Alice in Wonderland.

And what about those people who use frequently when they mean regularly and vice versa? Now I’m straying into pedantry. More objectively I think you can see the changing meaning of words in that exchange of terms. In 50 years regularly will always mean frequently. In principle I like the ways in which words’ meanings evolve, are connected to the lives we lead, even if the pedant in me mutters aloud.

I have been known to invent a word or two myself: a prongadang is the implement with which I operated the gas lighter on my cooker for many years. It was the handle of a wooden spoon should you ask for a description. I thought I had invented spruancy to describe a particular kind of dressing up, mixing glamour and showing off, but Google tells me that it is a Jewish word invented by British Jews. It’s a great word whatever its origins.

Collecting words

I am busy compiling my own word-hoard. It’s an idea I owe to Barbara Baig and her book Spellbinding Sentences: a writer’s guide to achieving excellence and captivating readers.

Good writers are people who love language; one of the reasons they write is that it gives them the opportunity to spend a lot of time with words. So they notice and collect words all the time, exercising and strengthening their word minds in the process. (28)

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The writers I used to coach to improve their academic writing were always a little startled when I recommended a practice that might be called theft, except that words have no value if they are kept by just one person. Their value is in shared use. I pinched this from a professor of linguistics.

For years and years (and I still do it, you know) I used to read things not only because of the sort of stuff that was in it, so it wasn’t only reading for learning, but also for stealing stylistically. I ruthlessly exploited other people’s oeuvre as a source of inspiration for particular turns of phrase – especially in English, of course, which is my fourth language. But whenever I saw a beautifully worded argument or whenever I saw a nice turn of phrase or expression that I found appealing, I used to make a note of it. And I really collected it like a sort of butterfly collection – I still do, always with an explicit plan of, at some point, using it. I can say with confidence that I have used most of it. (89)

This is from an interview with Jan Blommaert, in Passion and Politics, academics reflect on writing for publication, (2008) edited by Eileen Carnell, Jacqui MacDonald, Bet McCallum and Mary Scott.

A writer who has consistently stretched my vocabulary is Virginia Woolf. I have enjoyed #Woolfalong in part because my contributions have required me to look closely at her use of language, her vocabulary in different books. Orlando, for example, revels in language.

My Word Hoard

I started with my hoard with:

Hoard, a noun and a verb, frequently found in relation to museum artefacts, and full of mystery. Hoarding implies secreting, storing, hiding. Why were these coins included in this hoard? Why were the items of value collected and hidden? What about the hack silver (another great word) found in a Viking hoard in Cuerdale, Lancs?

The Cuerdale Viking Hoard

The Cuerdale Viking Hoard

Runes, is another word in my hoard. It’s magical, as are all languages. Runes can conjure what is not there. It has a connection to the Vikings. The language of the runes is Old Norse, largely replaced by the Roman alphabet. Runes is a word that ripples on the page to connect with mystery, magic and olden times.

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Lapis lazuli is also in my hoard. I love its sound and I love small samples of the mineral. But it is on probation at the moment. My experience in The Hermitage in St Petersburg was of lapis lazuli used in excess. In two rooms there were gargantuan, vulgar, displays. In each room two huge tables with green or blue lapis lazuli veneers were flanked by the most enormous urns, also covered in veneer. I guess Catherine the Great was only hoarding the stuff.

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I have recently added euphonious (see above)

Words in my hoard have associations, and they need to be connected to meanings that carry integrity, or significance associated with the struggle for human rights, or with my other enthusiasms. So some place names sit, not happily, in my hoard: Nagasaki, Abervan, Gallipoli, Sharpeville, Chernobyl.

And I can’t get the surly bonds of earth out of my head, an earwig. John Gillespie Magee began his poem High Flight with these two lines:

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth,
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;

His poem captures the exhilaration of flying, and the phrase surly bonds reminds us of our roots, grounds us you might say.

Given the nature of hoards, and specifically their association with precious metals and stones, I need a special notebook to hold my hoard. Dear Santa …

Over to you

I think that’s enough of my hoarded words. How about a few suggestions from you?

Landmarks by Robert Macfarlane, published by Penguin in 2016 with an additional glossary. 434pp

Spellbinding Sentences: a writer’s guide to achieving excellence and captivating readers by Barbara Baig. Published by Writer’s Digest Books in 2015

Related posts

Four More Good Reads August 2015

Ten Books to make me think August 2013

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Steps to improve your Writing

What if it were true that by going on walks you could improve your creativity? What if someone told you that by walking you would become a better writer? Would you walk more often, for longer, or in different places? Or just put it all down to some new age piffle? Well this idea does have legs. Many great writers are or were practitioners and research confirms it.

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Writers who walked

Among the great writers of the past, who were also walkers, we can name Virginia Woolf, who frequently paced the streets of London as well as walking in the countryside around Monk’s House in Sussex. Several of her characters walk in London: Mrs Dalloway of course, and Helen at the start of The Voyage Out walks with her husband towards the Docks. Virginia Woolf published six articles in Good Housekeeping in 1932 called The London Scene.

273 VW London scene

Dickens was a great walker, again in the streets of London. WG Sebald walked in Europe and East Anglia. The Rings of Saturn (1995) is structured around a walk in Suffolk. Wordsworth was a great walker, yes wandering lonely as he did.

In 1878 Robert Louis Stevenson bought a donkey, Modestine, and together they walked in the Cevennes area of South France. He walked without purpose, although he was suffering from a broken heart. He explained his attitude in Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes:

For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move; to feel the needs and hitches of our life more nearly; to come down off this feather bed of civilisation, and find the globe granite underfoot and strewn with cutting flints. Alas, as we get up in life, and are more preoccupied by our affairs, even a holiday is a thing that must be worked for. To hold a pack upon a pack-saddle against a gale out of the freezing north is no high industry, but it is one that serves to occupy and compose the mind. And when the present is so exacting, who can annoy himself about the future? (12)

Writers and the walking metaphor

To conjure up the process of writing the metaphor of a path, walking, a journey is frequently used. Annie Dillard, in A Writer’s Life is creative with her ideas.

When you write, you lay out a line of words. The line of words is a miner’s pick, a wood-carver’s gouge, a surgeon’s probe. You wield it, and it digs a path you follow. Soon you find yourself deep in new territory. Is it a dead end, or have you located the real subject? You will know tomorrow or this time next year.

You make the path boldly and follow it fearfully. You go where the path leads. At the end of the path, you find a box canyon. You hammer out reports and dispatch bulletins. (3)

Annie Dillard’s observations of the natural world are breath-taking. If you enjoy that kind of thing read Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974), which the author describes as a non-fiction narrative. You can find her own website here. Her collection of essays, The Abundance (2016), is nearing the top of my tbr pile.

Robert Macfarlane’s in The Old Ways (2012) explores some similarities between writing and walking, likening the creation of a path to writing in the landscape. He follows the paths of animals in the snow, or ancient ways such as the Icknield Way and the footsteps of Edward Thomas and other walkers. The Wild Places (2007) he records other adventures in the British Isles. Another book nearing the top of my tbr pile is Landmarks (2015). I have given away several copies of Holloway (2013), which is a joy of a book.

273 Wanderlust

Rebecca Solnit has lived the connections between writing and walking. Writer, historian and activist she wrote Wanderlust: a history of walking (2001). Brain Pickings captures the explorations of this book in her beautifully observed blogpost: Wanderlust. And the title of In The Faraway Nearby (2014) describes what can happen with your imagination when you walk.

The Research

Stanford University researchers have published an article called Give your Ideas some Legs: the positive effects of walking on creative thinking. Marily Oppezzo and Daniel L Schwartz conducted several experiments from which they made their case, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology.

Walking opens up the free flow of ideas, and it is a simple and robust solution to the goals of increasing creativity and increasing physical activity. (1142)

And by the way, it’s worth knowing that you get the best effects from walking outside and that it wont help improve your creativity if you walk with your face in your Twitter stream or with earphones linking you to a stream of sound. I can’t imagine why you would want to accompany your walk with other than natural sounds anyway.

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There may be a chemical explanation for the connection, or a psychological one, or simply a common-sense explanation that by walking your mind is freed of other considerations. Or perhaps it helps because walking organises the world around you, including any writing projects.

Walk on

So I walk on, hoping it encourages my writing. Walking certainly encourages my reading as you can see from this post. I am hoping to explore more writing-walking connections in the next few months, beginning with an account of my participation in a community walk/write project next month.

 

Related posts

Travels with Robert Louis Stevenson in the Cevennes in June on Bookword.

Why Walking Helps Us Think, by Ferris Jabr, in The New Yorker in September 2014.

The Slow Death of Purposeless Walking, by Finlo Rohrer, on the BBC news magazine in May 2014

On the Creative Penn blog, nine lessons learned about writing from walking 100km in a weekend. Makes sense.

Elizabeth Marro writes about walking and writing on Book by Women blog, step by step, word by word.

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Four more Good Reads

Here are four more books I have recently read and enjoyed:

  • The Meursault Investigation Kamel Daoud
  • The Good Son by Paul McVeigh
  • Wrinkles by Paco Roca
  • The Wild Places by Robert Macfarlane
  1. The Meursault Investigation by Kamel Daoud

197 Mersault coverThis novel is both homage and challenge to L’Etranger by Albert Camus, through its content and it s prose. It tells the story of the Arab, killed almost in passing by Meursault, the anti-hero of Camus ‘s novel. It references L’Etranger directly from its opening to its ending, as the victim’s brother tells his story in a series of late night meetings with an admirer of Camus’s novel in a bar. This framing recalls The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid, perhaps intentionally. Both place the reader within the novel.

At one level the novel is about a family’s grief, and what it means to define your life against an absent older brother. His disappearance was complete – no body was found and he was not even given a name by Camus. Daoud calls him Musa.

The Meursault Investigation is also a novel about colonial rule (of Algeria by the French) and the disappointment of Algeria since Independence. It is a story of betrayal and loss, of questioning and regrets.

At times the narrator elides Camus and Mersault, reminding us that Camus came from a French background. Other books by Camus are also referenced. He reserves particular bitterness for to the accolades given his brother’s murderer and ‘his’ book.

75 2 more CamusThe Meursault Investigation does not diminish Camus’s novel, rather provides a new perspective, and allows the reader/listener to bring Algerian experiences into the present day. (Daoud is a journalist who lives in Oran).

Annecdotalist liked much about this novel as she writes on her blog here.

Winner of several prizes including EnglishPEN award – see EnglishPEN’s World Bookshelf.

The Meursault Investigation Kamel Daoud (2014), published by Oneworld 143pp

Translated from the French by John Cullen.

  1. The Good Son by Paul McVeigh

9781784630232frcvr.inddI think this is a seriously good novel, told in a strong voice, and with plenty of tension and tenderness. The story unfolds in Belfast over the long weeks of the summer holidays, following eleven-year old Mickey Donnelly. It is the time of the Troubles. Written in the present tense, in Mickey’s voice, we are able to see the world from the perspective of a boy with much to be frightened of: big school, his brother and father, the Prods, the local bullies (girls and boys). He shows us the damaging wash of the Troubles – visits from IRA, fathers being in prison, mysterious visitors, no-go areas of the divided city – and to see the damage wrought by the culture of violence on families, children and communities.

Mickey is intelligent and not keen to be a big tough boy like his older brother. Much of the tension relates to the place he gained at the grammar school and his parents’ decision to send him to the tough local school for lack of money. He has the holidays to figure out how to survive despite the fearsome reputation of St Gabriel’s. He likes to play with Wee Maggie his younger sister and his dog Killer. He loves his Ma. His Da is a drunk and life is better without him, except that Ma loves him. His elder brother Paddy is involved with the IRA, hiding guns in the dog’s sleeping place.

During the summer holidays Mickey takes some family responsibility, learns a thing or two about growing up, and witnesses the worst of life in Belfast in the Troubles. The climax sees him deal with his drunken father and he finds himself ready for senior school.

The Good Son celebrates one boy, a misfit, and the strength of a mother’s determination to protect her family and her good son.

The Good Son by Paul McVeigh (2015), published by Salt 234pp

Shortlisted for the Guardian’s prize Not the Booker Prize (you can vote 6th October).

  1. Wrinkles by Paco Roca

197 Wrinkles coverWrinkles is a graphic novel, what the French call bandes dessinees. Following a review in The Guardian I requested a copy from the local library for research for my new book on ageing.

Wrinkles tells the story of Ernest, a retired bank manager who is increasingly disoriented and so is placed in a care home. He is befriended by his lightfingered roommate who shows him the ropes. The place none of them want to go is upstairs, according to Emile:

‘the upstairs floor is where you find the helpless. Those who can’t manage on their own anymore finish up there. Those who have lost their minds, dementia, schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s. Better to die than end up there.’ (20)

Ernest is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and in a bid to avoid an eventual move upstairs Emile encourages him to outwit the doctor’s tests and eventually Emile and Ernest make a bid for freedom, a Thelma and Louise kind of thing. But it ends badly, and the ‘big one’ marches on, until Emile is left alone and the story peters out … What endures are the strong emotions and ties between the old people.

The format lends itself to recreating sudden shifts in consciousness; for example showing Ernest’s introduction to the home as his first day at school; the interminable game of bingo, where no one can hear the number called and it has to be repeated ten times; and the stories people are telling themselves like being on a train to Istanbul, being afraid of kidnap by Martians.

Wrinkles by Paco Roca (2007), published by Knockabout 100pp.

Translated from the French by Nora Goldberg.

  1. The Wild Places by Robert Macfarlane

197 Wild Places coverI loved this profoundly moving, engaging and erudite tour of the wild places of Britain. Robert Macfarlane is sometimes on his own, sometimes with friends, and occasionally his experience is enlivened by chance encounters.

Structured round a series of visits to different kinds of places – island, valley, moor, forest and so on – The Wild Places follows a year’s journey, as Robert Macfarlane reflects on friendship, humans’ relationship to the earth, history, cruelty, what is known about certain animals or birds, grief, and above all a love of the wild places. He learns more about what makes them wild, and what wild means (not the absence of people’s influence, as he thought when he set out, like the untouched wildernesses of New Zealand) but a kind of ascendancy of nature’s processes: like the work of the sea on the shingle beaches of East Anglia, or the wind shaping the peaks of the mountains.

He introduces us to animals (wild hares), birds (peregrines), and people (his friend Roger Deakin who died while Macfarlane was making his journeys, but had accompanied him on one or two), as well as giving us his descriptions of landscape, presenting researched information about phenomenon, and all in an assured and erudite prose. Writing about the experiences that people have of encounters with the wild places – people brought to sudden states of awe … ‘encounters whose power to move us was beyond expression but also beyond denial’. ‘It is hard to put language to such experiences,’ (236) he explains, but reading this made me see Macfarlane’s talent with language as well as wild sleeping.

Also recommended is The Wild Ways by Robert Macfarlane which I mentioned in my very first post Reading in 2012.

And another supreme writer about the natural world appears in this book briefly and drew the map: Helen Macdonald who wrote H is for Hawk.

The Wild Places by Robert Macfarlane (2007), published by Granta 321pp

 

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H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

129 Sin the St coverOn Sunday evenings the headteacher would read a book aloud to the youngest boarders. We jostled our way into his sitting room after supper and arranged ourselves on the sofa, the window seat, the chairs, the footstools, the rugs, anywhere a twelve-year old of any shape and size could fit. When we were settled Hector Jacks would start to read from The Sword in the Stone. I was reminded of this pleasure – of being read to, of the head’s warm voice, as kindly as Merlin himself – by H is for Hawk.

Wart was an outsider, and at boarding school it was easy to feel like outsiders from our families, sent to live in the strange community of a ‘60s coeducational boarding school. For Wart it came good in the end, after his strange education, transformed into a series of animals, learning from the creatures of a vanished landscape (even in the early ‘60s I knew that the countryside he described had disappeared). Wart withdrew the sword and he was King Arthur. We could all draw out the sword one day.

Arthur Pyle: How Arthur drew forth ye sword from The Story of King Arthur and His Knights (1903) via WikiCommons

Arthur Pyle: How Arthur drew forth ye sword from The Story of King Arthur and His Knights (1903) via WikiCommons

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

One of the themes of H is for Hawk is the troubled relationship between TH White and his goshawk. TH White wrote The Sword in the Stone and one of the animals Wart turns into is a merlin.

129 Hawk coverI could not easily leave off reading this book, it lived with me while I was doing other things – washing up, walking, checking emails. I was caught by the intensity of the writing, the wisdom revealed in the dissection of the author’s relationships with death and with a goshawk and the intermingling of her three themes.

First theme: the training of the goshawk Mabel.

I loved the descriptions of the training, (called ‘manning’ huh?) especially when they were outdoors, the slow progress, mistakes, set backs and successes. The passage about her delight in the play that she and the goshawk unexpectedly share is an example. We get minutely observed descriptions of appearance and behaviour, without it ever becoming soppy or anthropomorphic. Here is an example of her writing, describing an early hunting trip.

The next day out on the hill Mabel learns, I suppose, what she is for. She chases a pheasant. It crashes beneath a tall hedge. She lands on top of the hedge, peering down, her plumage bright against the dark earth of the further slope. I start running. I think I remember where the pheasant has gone. I convince myself it was never there at all. I know it is there. Clay sticks to my heels and slows me down. I’m in a world of freezing mud, and even the air seems to be getting harder to run through. Mabel is waiting for me to flush out the pheasant, if only I knew where it was. Now I am at the hedge, constructing what will happen next scenarios in my head, and at this point they’re narrowing fast, towards point zero, when the pheasant will fly. … I’m crashing through brambles and sticks, dimly aware of the catch and rip of thorns in my flesh. Now I cannot see the hawk because I am searching for the pheasant, so I have to work out what she is doing by putting myself in her mind – and so I become both the hawk in the branches and the human below. The strangeness of this splitting makes me feel I am walking under myself, and sometimes away from myself. (182-3)

She uses the beautiful language of hawking: muting, bating, creances. And she uses it to show us step by step about hawking.

Second theme: Helen Macdonald’s grief at her father’s death.

She is knocked sideways by her father’s sudden death and partly sees the acquisition of the goshawk as a means to heal herself. Instead it takes her deeply inside herself, too deeply. But she emerges on the other side as she comes to see the need for social interaction as well as valuing the introspection that her time with Mabel encourages. The solitariness of the hawk, the immersion in nature and the countryside will not cure her without the community of hawkers and her own family and friends.

Third theme: TH White and Gos

The book also explores the life of another outsider, TH White, who was a homosexual. After a miserable time at boarding school, he tried to become a good teacher at Stowe but left just before the Second World War. Helen Macdonald reveals that his training of Gos was cruel, despite his intentions. It arose from his attitude to education (as a teacher and a miserable school boy) not out of knowledge of the hawk. White believed that you need to face up to things, including the challenge of his goshawk. It is also the message of The Sword in the Stone, a comfort to a homesick child, but ultimately judgement is required about when to stop toughing it out, and do something else.

H is for Hawk has been highly praised in blog and newspaper reviews and is shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize for non-fiction (winner to be announced on 4th November). I would not be surprised if it won for the quality of its descriptive writing. I have only recently begun reading nature writing. The Old Ways by Robert Macfarlane is another good read. Perhaps there is a new type of nature writing.

Links to other reviews:

Vulpes Libris in which the reviewer, Hilary, said ‘it knocked me sideways’

Emily found it ‘a staggeringly good read’, despite the fuss. Read her comments on Emily Books.

Rachel Cooke in the Guardian

Any different views? Any recommendations along the lines of people who liked H is for Hawk also liked … ?

 

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Hammering out reports, dispatching bulletins

I could have called this blogpost ‘keeping going’ because that’s what it’s about. Keeping going when you have come to an impasse. Some people find it hard to get started, others to keep going. There may be some who find it hard to do either, but there may be no hope for them. Writers, as well as everyone else I imagine, seem to have the capacity to find unlimited displacement activities, strategies to avoid what they intend to do.

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Annie Dillard writes with sharp wisdom about the writing process in her short but very acute book, The Writing Life.  She uses a strong image of the writer carving out a path that may lead to a box canyon.

You make the path boldly and follow it fearfully. You go where the path leads. At the end of the path, you find a box canyon.

I had to look up the meaning of the phrase ‘box canyon’, which is American. It’s a good image: a canyon with three sides, in which you can coral your cattle overnight. We might say cul-de-sac or dead end.

But it is her next observation that seemed particularly familiar: while stuck in the box canyon

You hammer out reports, dispatch bulletins.

So I wrestle with the revisions of my novel and my failure to do what I planned, and from that place I hammer out reports, dispatch bulletins. They appear in this blog, in replies to enquiries from my friends, in my Morning Pages. It gives the impression of activity. Well, it is activity. And I am writing. But …

Annie Dillard opened The Writing Life with these lines:

When you write, you lay out a line of words. The line of words is a miner’s pick, a woodcarver’s gouge, a surgeon’s probe. You wield it, and it digs a path you follow. Soon you find yourself deep in new territory. Is it a dead end, or have you located a real subject? You will know tomorrow, or this time next year.

91. The-Old-Ways-A-Journey-on-FoI find this a powerful image, digging out one’s meaning, carving it laboriously into a path, making your mark. I am reminded of Robert Macfarlane’s wonderful book The Old Ways in which he muses on the similarities between writing and walking, likening the creation of a path to writing in the landscape. But the metaphor of the writer’s path contains a danger as Annie Dillard warns us.  It is not the path, not the route that is important.

Process is nothing: erase your tracks. The path is not the work. I hope your tracks have grown over; I hope birds ate the crumbs; I hope you will toss it all and not look back.

Children, an English teacher told our writing group, often believe that writers simply write and create their finished product in one continuous process, stopping, perhaps, for lunch. I sometimes feel that a first splurge of writing is important, holds an essence, should be preserved, but I have come to see that sometimes I need to face another way, start in a different place, take a different route, and preserving the path is not the answer. It is good to notice that essence, however, and try to include an echo in the next draft.

So step one?

To keep going, stop tidying up the path, sweeping off the leaves and rubbish, no more reports and dispatches. Toss it all and don’t look back.

And step two?

Well I go back to an activity I recommended by writer Kathryn Heyman in a previous blogpost: Ten things to do when you don’t know what to write. Ask yourself why you are not getting on with it. What’s getting in the way? And go on asking until you get an answer and a solution.

  • In December I tried this and here are some answers to my question – why have you not been getting on with the novel?
  • I have been too busy sorting out my new house.
  • I must meet the deadline to complete my Income Tax Return.
  • I’m still revising Retiring with Attitude for the editor (the book is scheduled for publication in July)
  • I want to enjoy the revisions of the novel and I’m not sure I will.
  • I’m afraid the revisions wont be as good as I want them to be if I do start them.
  • Because I am lazy and pathetic.

And on and on, including a lot more self-flagellating, until at last I came to the conclusion – I didn’t know how to do it. I don’t know what to do.

Step three?

91 jsb revisionGet help and take some action. In my case I bought a book to help, called Revision and Self-Editing by James Scott Bell and, following his advice, began to work on improving characterisation. I wrote an autobiography in the words of the protagonist, Lorna, and tried to understand more about her relationships with the other people in the novel and … I’m away.

And then I stop and find myself in another box canyon. And so it goes on.

I throw away my plan, and ask myself Kathryn Heyman’s questions and take action again. And again. And soon I hope I will be ‘deep in new territory’.

This is, I suppose, a continuation of my previous post, about how one learns creative writing. And this post is my salute to Annie Dillard, Robert Macfarlane, Kathryn Heyman, James Scott Bell and all the other writers who tell us about their experiences. We learn slowly from them.

 

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Reading in 2012

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So many good books read in 2012. I keep a record, a brief commentary, publication details and date finished. I’ve been reading so much more in the last few years. Most of it I am pleased to have picked up. There are a few books with which I did not persist, I wasn’t interested in what happened to the characters. I wasn’t convinced that I would get anything out of it. I can’t even remember their titles and I don’t record these. I can’t see anything especially satisfying about finishing everything one starts. Too much to enjoy to waste time on some.

Some books have taken quite a time to finish. The chapters of Sarah Bakewell’s book How to live: A life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer varied in length. I enjoyed reading them, one at a time, between short stories and novels.

Then there were the Elizabeths: Taylor, Bowen and Jenkins. We looked at extracts from the first two in a writing class. This sent me back to In a Summer Season, and The Heat of the Day. And Elizabeth Jenkins’s Harriet and The Tortoise and the Hare show how one writer’s style can vary. Harriet is a fictionalised version of a murder, an account of selfishness and disregard. It was a disturbing read. Beautifully produced Persephone Book publication.

I caught up with Diego Mariani’s New Finnish Grammar. The author is a linguist, and tells a bleak tale of a man cut off from everything because he looses his language. He has no history, no social engagement, no conversation, no communication, no love, no belonging, no identity. Even his name isn’t his name. It’s about words, grammar, images, letters, stories, myths, history blended with insights into the fiendishly difficult Finnish language.

Newly published in 2012: Canada by Richard Ford. Unsettling to read, an insight into boundaries, crossing boundaries of all kinds, written in that flat compelling style of Ford’s. Hilary Mantel brought us the second of her trilogy about Thomas Cromwell in Bring up the Bodies. She’s a worthy Man Booker prize winner.

And finally, life changing possibly, Robert Macfarlane, writing about walking in The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot. Such a generous book, there is always space on the path alongside him, and he’s an informed and interesting companion. He introduced me to Edward Thomas, so next year I’ll read Matthew Hollis’s biography.

No room for Persephone’s 30 Short Stories, published to celebrate 100 volumes, or Anne Enright, Edmund de Waal, Malcolm Bradbury, Ali Smith, or the scores of other books I enjoyed.

Now I’m off to curl up with Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behaviour.

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