Category Archives: art practice

Moving your story forward, thoughts on editing-as-you-go

handwriting_LargeThe danger of editing as you go

If you keep going back to see what your characters did earlier in the piece you might succeed in ‘improving’ their behaviour, sharpening their dialogue, brightening a scene or shading it down … but you will not have moved the narrative forward one iota. Trust the story; you can always go back later and shoo the devils out of the details.

A lesson from the Surrealists

In 1936, Hugh Sykes-Davies, wrote In the stump of the old tree, and I’ve been reading the poem, loving it and holding it up to the light for more than forty years – but just today I see how it reflects on writing process, the going forward and the potential expense of looking backward.

Sykes-Davies is coming back into fashion now, and I am so glad of it.  Apart from his outspoken commitment to Communism, his networking abilities – friends included some avant garde giants of the time, for instance  David Gascoyne, Ludwig Wittgenstein and T. S. Eliot – Sykes-Davies also wrote an enduring textbook, ‘Grammar Without Tears’, an original copy of which I am saving to buy off Amazon.

I’m envious that Sykes-Davies, a by-the-book and wrote-the-book scholar of structural grammar, jumped the rails to become a Surrealist.  His poems helped deconstruct the entire grammarly pudding, poke fun at the rules and clearly open some of the gates to post-modernism and post-structuralism.  It’s the sort of bravery I adore.

hsd5

Hugh Sykes-Davies, English surrealist poet, Cambridge scholar, grammarian and outspoken Communist. At St John’s College, 1940’s – where he taught for nearly half a century.

On top of all this, Sykes-Davies was a swordsman of some repute. While he may have looked meek as milk, “He had many wives, four of them his own,” wrote George Watson in his essay, ‘Remembering Prufrock’.

I digress. As ever.
Here is the text of In the stump of the old tree – which I now see as a paean to the writer’s habit of editing as you go … sometimes at the peril of your story’s forward momentum:

In the stump of the old tree

In the stump of the old tree, where the heart has rotted out, there is a hole the length of a man’s arm, and a dank pool at the bottom of it where the rain gathers, and the old leaves turn into lacy skeletons. But do not put your hand down to see, because

in the stumps of old trees, where the hearts have rotted out, there are holes the length of a man’s arm, and dank pools at the bottom where the rain gathers and old leaves turn to lace, and the beak of a dead bird gapes like a trap. But do not put your hand down to see, because

in the stumps of old trees with rotten hearts, where the rain gathers and the laced leaves and the dead bird like a trap, there are holes the length of a man’s arm, and in every crevice of the rotten wood grow weasel’s eyes like molluscs, their lids open and shut with the tide. But do not put your hand down to see, because

in the stumps of old trees where the rain gathers and the trapped leaves and the beak and the laced weasel’s eyes, there are holes the length of a man’s arm, and at the bottom a sodden bible written in the language of rooks. But do not put your hand down to see, because

in the stumps of old trees where the hearts have rotted out there are holes the length of a man’s arm where the weasels are trapped and the letters of the rook language are laced on the sodden leaves, and at the bottom there is a man’s arm. But do not put your hand down to see, because

in the stumps of old trees where the hearts have rotted out there are deep holes and dank pools where the rain gathers, and if you ever put your hand down to see, you can wipe it in the sharp grass till it bleeds, but you’ll never want to eat with it again.
Poetry and Prose, 7 (Nov. 1936), 129.

* Sewannee Review, http://www.sewanee.edu/sreview/home.html, 2001
reprinted in Jacket magazine. (http://jacketmagazine.com/20/hsd-watson.html), 2002

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What’s not to Like? Less beige, Zuckerberg

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Last week I eavesdropped on two 30-somethings talking about their favourite skiing destinations. When they finally agreed on a snow field in Japan, the guy said, “Oh yes! Big Like! ”

Thank you Facebook, for doing away with hyperbole around the things we love, for flat-lining our great passions and worst fears into one beige syllable.

We need this conflation, don’t we, Mr Z?  The sort of pale pleasantness that Zuckers has decided will arbitrarily help us scale down nasty aggression and unbridled positivity.

Well, in line with a current FB meme currently, I am thinking of ‘doing something different’, of laying down ‘new neuronal pathways’, by going to live in Spain or Holland. I’ve dreamed of hanging out in both places while finishing my novel, and now there’s an even stronger incentive to do it: these are the two countries where FB is trialing alternatives to ‘Like’.

I forget the more nuanced expressions that FB mavens are considering, and I don’t know exactly what they’re testing for.

Perhaps they want to know how alternatives to Like are understood in other languages?  Will shades of emotion cause confusion? Yes.  But confusion of this sort helps make life experience so piercing, so puzzling, so enticing – and so unique to the individual.

I am afraid of hearing more and more people say “Oh, big LIKE!”
I want to hurry to places where you can pick through a cornucopia of synonyms for warm feeling … weakness for example, or soft spot, partiality, bent, leaning, proclivity, inclination, disposition; enjoy, appreciation of, taste for, delight in, relish, passion, zeal, appetite, zest for, enthusiasm for, keenness around, predilection toward, penchant, and in the most beige moments, perhaps simple fondness?

What is wrong with ‘fond’? Such a lovely last-century word? So Scott-Fitzgerald, or even earlier, so Austen, so Elliot. Think Zuckers ever read Austen or Elliot? Possibly. But they clearly didn’t work for him. Because we have ended up at this anodine ‘LIke’.

I can see this young woman and man, clearly attracted, heading off for the incredible, six-meter powders on the Japanese slopes, pumping their funny skiing things and flexing their fine, powerful young bodies along the pistes and chutes and so on (I don’t ski).
They feel the blood powering through their cells, wind chewing their earlobes, the one-off sensations of being young, strong and happy … and, through the fizz of adrenaline and roaring pheromones, they’re yelling to each other:  “Oh, like, like, like, like.”

The universe provides … with practice

Spring 2015 BestOne of the most misunderstood syllogisms of our time has to be: ‘the universe provides’.   Those who accept it as a special exchange with the Great Provider take up a more challenging deal where we are trying for a constant  relationship with the cosmos.  Those who accept the journey also eschew magical thinking, or a knowing wink at the dole, or the myth of natural talent.
In exchange, the universe provides enough glimpses of our goals met and scored to keep us hurrying along, trying and re-trying, for another glimpse of mastery.

Here’s the rub: if you want that engagement and you choose what Julia Cameron calls ‘the artist’s way’, can you do it without expectation?  This doubles your dharma and makes the journey even more provocative: you may have to go for extended periods with the existential mud dragging on your heels, and still stick to your practice.

If practice starts to make you feel low – and it can do that because it is so slow, demanding, and only occasionally yields a noticeable reward – you can reflect on this small sweetener: persistence deepens understanding and all along the way bright, heartening insights can occur. (You can also try this, by the way: shake your head briskly, give your scalp a good, rough scratch (scrambling your brains, I call it), stre-e-e-e-tch your whole self – now smile and return to your practice and see if your atomic being is jingling again.)

Of course, if persistence feels too boring, you can at any time throw the whole process away and do something else … but then you may deprive yourself of the chance to see what would have happened if you’d only kept on keeping on.

To ‘keep on keeping on’ means holding faith with Jung’s insight: “Change takes place at glacial speed” … but it rest assured, it does take place – change is still the only constant.

As an example, a woman I met a couple of years ago was suddenly widowed and then discovered her late partner had mismanaged their joint funds, leaving her virtually penniless.

She’d been born with artistic talent, but “reality always got in the way of the dream”.  She had followed the pragmatic journey of a working wife and mother, always imagining – as we do – that one day she’d have the space and financial security to develop her gift.  Now she was over fifty, standing alone on very shaky ground.

The next couple of years were challenging, sometimes frightening, but she gradually righted her ship.  On the voyage, she discovered she now had one precious, wholly-owned asset: her time.

Never in her adult life had she had so much of time to spare – nor been so aware of how finite it is – it seems for reasons both biological and cultural, that the gods do not permit us this insight until we reach a certain age.

At first the woman struggled to manage this abundance of extra time.  All to often, loneliness came to fill the space, and with it a loss of faith in the singular miracle of life.  Then one Saturday afternoon a friend invited her to a life-drawing class in the city.  She felt the charcoal’s grittiness on paper, her eyes began talking to her hand about lines, light, shade … two hours later she ‘came to’, as if she had woken from an hypnotic trance.  Twelve drawings she had executed, tentative and rough, and the time had whipped through her, charged with extraordinary energy.  That night, looking at her work, she made a pact between Self and Universe – she vowed that for one solid year she would do a drawing every day.

I met this woman at the end of her 365-day drawing practice, and at the start of her Master’s Degree in Visual Art.  After so much consistent focus on her internal and external universe, she had produced an extraordinary body of work.  Not only because the final pieces were so strong and persuasive – but because you could track, from the first tentative sketches, the gathering of her energy.  She was a storm of productivity, a living evocation of “energy out, energy in”.

“I will never be comfortable again,” she told me, “From now until I die, I will have to acknowledge the stone in my shoe and let it drive me forward. And be at peace with that.”

As we practice breathing, we can understand the foundation value of practice itself: with each new breath, nothing special happens … except the miraculous provision of the next inhale.  With each new breath, another chance to express your gift, and gradually we build, expression upon expression, until we understand:

the only provision the universe makes for us is the next breath, and we have no other choice but to keep taking it.