Tag Archives: Kathryn Heyman

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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10 things to do when you don’t know what to write.

‘I don’t know how to start.’ How many times have I heard that? When I was working with my students on their written assessments they would often wail (or email) in frustration.

Or, ‘I don’t know where to start,’ they might say.

Or (if they had launched out and begun to work on the essay or dissertation, but ground to a halt) ‘I don’t’ know what to do’. Their writing wasn’t working for them.

I had a range of suggestions I would give them, subsequently brought together in a hand-out for a writing summer school. I am indebted to colleagues for many of these ideas. They were originally intended for academic writers, but they have been adjusted to be relevant to writers of all genres.

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1. WRITE 2000 WORDS. Write anything. One advantage of word processing is that you can discard any rubbish, even 2000 words of rubbish. But this tactic gets you writing. (Thank you, Professor Dennis Lawton, former director of the Institute of Education, in the University of London).

2. BRAINSTORM to gather as many good and bad ideas, suggestions, examples, sentences, false starts etc, as you can. Include material you are sure you will throw out.

3. FIND A FRESH METAPHOR OR ANALOGY for your main theme in order to open up a fresh set of ideas, using the word LIKE: for example, if you are writing about violence on TV you might develop the idea that it is like clowns fighting in a circus act (that is, we know that no one is really getting hurt).

4. TELL someone (even the cat) in three or four sentences what you are writing about. Then write it.

5. Write a 200 word (MAX) SUMMARY or description of your story, poem, book, blog … Try including why it’s important to you and why it should be important to anyone else.

6. DO A WIRMI if you can’t find the right word or you are getting lost in what you are writing. A WIRMI is when you look away from the text and keyboard and say (out loud if it helps) What I Really Mean Is … (Thanks Chris Watkins! See CARNELL, E., MACDONALD, J., MCCALLUM, B. & SCOTT, M. (2008) Passion and Politics: academics reflect on writing for publication, London, Institute of Education, University of London).

7. READ ALOUD – to the cat again if necessary – to see where you need to improve a draft. It is better if there is an audience who will respond, but not essential. I know of people who have read to their dog, their new-born baby, their teddy bear, a mirror, a tape recorder. They all helped!

8. USE A CRITICAL FRIEND. Show a draft to a friend and hear their responses and questions. It is probably not a good idea to give a raw first draft to comment on. Use your friend when you have got as far as you can and your writing might first benefit from a pause.

9. REMEMBER that just about everyone finds writing hard, including published and experienced writers. It usually involves head scratching, deleting, false starts, lightbulb moments, redrafting, polishing, checking … Who said ‘writing is rewriting’?

10. READ A LOT AND WRITE A LOT. “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.” ( KING, S. (2000) On Writing, London, Hodder & Stoughton.) p164

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This suggestion might also work for you: How to battle the blank page, defeat distraction and get started writing. It’s from from Kathryn Heyman, of the Faber Academy, and author of the delightful Captain Starlight’s Apprentice.

 Do you have any techniques to suggest. Please add them in the comment box.

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