#ambarelywriting

“Just imagine how much worse you’ll feel if you don’t… .” Thus, my all-purpose metaphorical cattle-prod. It gets the job done but, as motivational strategies go, it doesn’t exactly have me aglow with inspiration. It’s been a difficult couple of months; the amount of effort needed to do the things I know make me feel better increases by the week. I am relying on staggering amounts of willpower, spiked with potent doses of shame and fear.

We finally got away for a week in a rented cottage in my beloved Pembrokeshire, a fifteen minute walk from a tiny cove. It was wonderful, but a week is not nearly enough: I was still should-ing myself throughout (not helped by a tight writing deadline to meet midweek). One morning after breakfast I sat alone on the beach and realised what I want right now is four weeks of solitude, a complete cycle of moon-soaked tide-watching. Books, good bread, tea. A logfire in the hearth. The sea. Sufficient respite from the usual human clamour.

Writing is barely happening. This is more than tiredness, or lack of inspiration: it feels like a refutation-tight veto issued from the depths of the depths. I skirt round it as best I can. (I am currently doing two courses with The Poetry School). To do so is exhausting! I cheated it last week by tuning into Joelle Taylor’s Zoom workshop, for Arvon and the Working Class Writers’ festival, on the body in poetry. She gave a fantastic performance and shared several timed exercises, which I could pretend were ‘just playing, really’. The two hours flew by!

As for my poetry pamphlet… I don’t want to think about it. Possibly because I have a bad conscience in its regard. I feel deflated, defeated, vaguely embarrassed. Perpetually simmering. I’m accumulating rejections of batches of poems, which is disappointing but by no means devastating. What I cannot endure at this time is the required jumping through social media hoops etc. apparently necessary for ‘profile-raising’ in order to make a success of the work. I love doing the work of writing poems, and the more it challenges me, the more I want to give to it. But the business of ‘being a poet’, what does that actually mean anymore? Is it something I’ll grit my teeth and do, for the sake of the writing? Dare I ask myself, at this point, how I really feel about the prospect of being published? Is it even something I truly want? Or is it something I am afraid to let go of after the years of effort and intention I have given to it?

Writing is for life, not just for Swanwick

“What do you do?”
“I write.”
“Oh! So you actually make a living from your writing?”
“I make a life from it.”
“But it puts food on the table.”
“Tea, perhaps. Ink.”

What do you do? Even at a writing school this is the question I am invariably asked by new acquaintances, before they ask my name. As if even here people must be sorted according to, and validated by, a recognised economic activity. If that is so, I am in-valid. Do I believe that? Sometimes, yes. (Keeping me hungry, sleep-deprived and in fear of the shared air we’re breathing certainly fosters that belief.) Amongst writers it’s beyond depressing: I mean, where’s the imagination? Where’s the curiosity?

What do you do?
I sit alone in a small room, gazing at the sky, muttering rags and tatters of phrases.
What do you do?
I spend hours in the company of people I know do not exist. (And, while we are on the subject, I struggle to accept the belief that the people in Tescos are more real.)
What do you do?
I am told “No” a lot. I wrestle constantly with the Great Doubt (and occasionally with the Great Faith.)
What do you do?
I walk the path of failure. Even the best poem is a muffled echo of what I originally heard, a distorted reflection of what I saw. And if it were any better, it would replace that “revelation” with itself; a small neat murder, the way a memory is supplanted by the story one makes of it afterwards.
What do you do?
I persevere.

***

From writing to reading. Perhaps it is the pull of the tide of the new school year, but I’ve been compelled to acquire a bilingual edition of Virgil’s Aeneid  thirty years after Book 2 was my Latin A-Level set text. I’m reading a handful of pages each day. It has rapidly become something I look forward to. Of course, it is gratifying to discover that I’ve “still got it” (with the help of a vocab. list and quick glances at the, distinctly archaic, English translation when I get stuck), but the necessity of reading slowly rather than racing along at my usual clip is leading to a richer experience of the story. Juno is angry and attempts to shipwreck Aeneas. Who cares, right? But Juno is really feckin’ pissed off over repeated slights upon emotional wounds and I don’t blame her. Aeneas has been through ten years of war, his homeland has been destroyed, his people murdered or forced into slavery; he would rather share their fate than be in this boat breaking apart in a storm in the Mediterranean.

What was I saying about people I know do not exist?

Actually, it is Dante’s doing. Last year I read his Divine Comedy (in translation) for the second time after a gap of thirty years. And less than a year later, I find myself reading him again, scribbling copious notes and responses. I do not pretend to understand what is driving me. I don’t especially need to know. I trust that it will become clear enough in time: for now I’m just following my nose.

The end of the beginning?

What a difference a few degrees’ drop in ambient temperature (and subsequent better sleep) make: I am still waking at half five in the morning; I am still cycling to the pool at ridiculous o’clock for a much-needed swim; but I am once again capable of joined-up thinking.

It took a few days for it to sink in that the poetry mentoring program has now ended. I had my debrief session with Pascale on a sweltering Monday afternoon, with the window closed because my neighbour had the grandkids round and I had poems to record. I think it went ok (I’ve not heard the playback) but I was a little thrown by the extraordinary introduction Pascale gave me. And I am still stewing over the fact that I couldn’t share my best poems because they are out on submission elsewhere.

The next day I had a meeting with Juliette, and my fellow Dialect mentees. It was good to catch up and to share our experiences of the program and to acknowledge, not for the first time, that some of my peculiar difficulties and struggles are not in fact exclusively mine. We have now arranged to meet for afternoon tea in Stroud in September. Yes, I may indeed allow myself to be lured from my hermitage by the promise of tea and cake! (Throw in a free book and I’ll be the first to arrive.)

For ten days and more afterwards, I couldn’t get started on anything. I shied away from my desk like a Shetland pony in a puissance arena. Eventually I stopped fretting about it. I’ve worked hard. Not only have I written a folder full of poems, my attitude towards my writing and what is possible for it has undergone equal parts revelation and revolution. That being so, it is unreasonable to expect my daily writing routine to continue in undisturbed serenity. (And, to be fair, when have I ever been serene?!) I have learnt to say ‘yes’ to the work. Now I need to learn to say ‘no’ to it on those days when all that happens is I bedevil and exhaust myself with ‘should be writing’ rather than having a break and getting on with something else. I still need to learn how to rest.

I can always rely on other people to say ‘no’ to the work for me! Earlier this week, The Rialto declined a bunch of my best poems. I am deeply disappointed, but not devastated. I have not drawn the usual conclusion: rejection = bad writing = failure as a human being. And it helps that I have been too busy to dwell on it: I have now finished my pamphlet!

All being well and God willing (insert the caveat of your choice), at the weekend I will be going to Swanwick Writers’ Summer School. I booked it eighteen months ago but… things: now it’s only days away. I’ve not been before. I am so nervous but excited. The unknowns are legion, and one certainty is that there will be PEOPLE! Anxious as I am, my presiding fear currently is that my dear ones or I will get pinged or show symptoms and I won’t be able to go (it’s even a struggle to write the words). I’ve come up with a Plan B, in the event, but there’s no denying it’s second best. And so I challenge myself: have I the courage to want things?

Pamphlet purgatory

This past fortnight I have been in pamphlet purgatory. Many are the occasions I have stalled, in irons, flapping about uselessly and fretting this will never end. At other times, the wind has been blowing in the right direction and the just thirty minutes I have negotiated with my demons has become several hours.

At our previous session, Pascale suggested I might have a go at writing a cento, a poem comprised entirely of the words of other writers. Challenge accepted! I decided to browse my writing notebook for quotes jotted down from my reading over a couple of years. This clarified my ongoing preoccupations/obsessions and resulted in a five-stanza poem which helped to consolidate the themes of my pamphlet. I am now more nervous about it than ever! Pascale has seen every poem included, but she has not seen the meaning I have made of them, put together. What if she hates it? What if she thinks I have gone off in an entirely misguided direction? I find myself immersed in a whole new level of vulnerability.

Our meeting next week will be the last ‘big’ session, with just a wrap-up meeting to conclude. The Poetry Journalling workshops I have been attending with Dialect finished this week too. I am sad, but it is also a relief: these past few months have been a significant mental and emotional challenge. I am exhausted! Also, I am not a great finisher of projects. I think I learnt my curiosity from a backyard magpie. Having other people involved, with deadlines, has held me to an accountability that I cannot in good conscience let slip. In the process I am having to reframe my view of myself as someone who finishes what they start.

I am mindful also of the ‘goal beyond the goal’. Previously, when I have completed major projects, doing so has precipitated deep and prolonged episodes of depression. I am scared of this happening again. I cannot simply stop (I mean, I need a break but…). I need to keep writing, and with purpose. Of course, there is the finalising of the pamphlet and the doing something with it. There are poems to keep sending out. There is a full-length collection to think about. Without deadlines and accountability, though, I am liable to be driven by every wind that blows and… it will never be done. I need to commit to showing up! To that end I have signed up for two courses with the Poetry School. One is ‘Into the Dark Forest: transreading Dante’s Divine Comedy‘. (I re-read Dante at the end of last year, thirty years after first reading him. I am still not done with him. This course should keep the magpies occupied.) The other is a fortnightly feedback group on poems in progress. It’s a daunting prospect but doesn’t begin until the autumn so for now I’ll leave that for future-Kate to deal with!

Unsettled

Last week I had another mentoring session with Pascale. Every time I go through the steps of the same tiresome dance beforehand. I get jittery and snappish with anyone who tries to talk to me. The Whisperer turns surly, to the tune of “why to goodness are you even putting yourself through this? whose bright idea was it? why the hell blah, blah, blah… .” Without fail the printer gets jammed or takes off on some kind of electronic fugue state or the broadband has an existential crisis and questions the whole meaning and value of connecting and… and… at the last minute everything pulls into focus, it is three o’clock, I’m clicking on “join meeting” and we’re off.

It does not get any easier. If anything, it was worse this time as I was unhappy with the poems I’d sent. (And I had been sleeping poorly. And my little back room was sweltering while the neighbours were splashing about beneath my window in their new patio-pool whose jacuzzi motor whined like an ignored child all afternoon and well into the evening.) But I know by now that I can be honest with Pascale and that I can deal with her comments on my work. She is never unkind. She is never dismissive. But neither does she say something is good when it is not. She tells me when I have wandered off into abstraction again. She tells me when I am losing the thread (and the reader with it). She tells me when things simply need fine-tuning, or re-ordering, or a thorough overhaul. I trust her professional judgement. I trust her as a person.

Throughout this mentoring process, I have sent her over sixty poems; many of them new, others substantial reworkings of existing pieces. I have done more work in these three months than in the previous three years. It has been difficult, occasionally miserable, sometimes exhilarating. And it has become not ordinary exactly (I don’t think writing poetry and sharing it with others will ever feel ordinary) but it is something that is done. Somewhere along the way I have lost the conviction that I must justify it to others as a valid way of spending my time and energies.

In the beginning I had a block, to the point of phobia, of showing my work, even my best pieces. As for sharing works in progress: not on your life! I also had a misguided notion, which I even recognised as nonsense at the time, that I had to do everything by myself, that to accept advice or suggestions from a “proper poet” was somehow cheating. My word, I had so many powerful strategies for making things unnecessarily difficult for myself!

I still have a lot of resistance towards sending work to magazines etc. I need to get over that, for the sake of doing my poetry justice, but also I owe it to Pascale, and to Dialect for giving me the opportunity in the first place.

Three months ago, if I had thought to ask myself what kind of feedback I really wanted, I’d probably have said I’d love someone to say my work was really good (not great: don’t think I could have handled that much!) and that I just needed to keep on doing what I was doing. I’d have been happy with sixty promising-to-good poems. No, not happy: I’d have settled. Amongst this session’s poems was one I had written as homework for the Poetry and Journalling workshop I am attending. Looking back afterwards through the scans of Pascale’s notes, I read “good but not special”. This is possibly my favourite piece of feedback! It offers a whole other order of possibility and potential. And so from these sixty poems I am now putting together a pamphlet of twenty. And they are better than good. I still can’t bring myself to think them special, but I recognise my voice in them. They are mine.

Work or much punish

Do you remember Tenko? (Are you old enough to remember?) It was an ongoing drama series about a women’s PoW camp. Mum tuned in every week, as much for the location as for the story; it was filmed in the far from far-flung locale of south Dorset, not five miles from where we lived. I was too young for it really: little remains besides a memory of the Japanese guards constantly admonishing the women: work or much punish!

My husband asked me recently how I encourage myself. Well, that stumped me! Thinking about it, I discovered that I do not: what I do is push myself through unpleasant or challenging tasks or situations and, when they are done, I give myself some kind of reward for good behaviour. (It’s usually book-related.) I am aware of the reasons behind this but still it rattled me to be faced with it. Like many another, I have an exhausting habit of constant striving. There is never enough time to do everything that needs to be done and no matter how hard I work, it is not sufficient. I do not know how to stop, how to rest.

Last week I sent a second batch of twenty poems to Pascale ahead of our next mentoring session this weekend. My story “The Blue in the Black of His Wing”, for Stroud Short Stories, was on YouTube. (Here is the link : I made myself watch it. Lockdown hair aside, it’s not too terrible.) There were more notifications on Twitter than I have ever had and… I wanted to run away from it all! I do not know what to do with encouragement. It’s not that I think people are reverse-trolling me in some fashion (is that even a thing?!). It’s not even that I think they’re displaying a lapse of good judgement. I simply do not know how to handle encouragement.

I catch myself daydreaming about the cottage in Pembrokeshire we rented for a week a couple of years back. I walked to the small beach every morning before breakfast. There was never anybody else there. Several times I swam. Then I’d soak in the bath in the greenish underwater light that filtered through the shrubs around the window and, when I’d stopped shivering, I’d make a pot of tea and eat golden turmeric porridge from a blue bowl and, turn it whichever way I liked, there was no escaping the realisation that I was happy.

I am having a difficult week. I am tired. I am so far beyond ‘peopled-out’. I can’t remember when I last took time off. Come Sunday, I will switch off all my devices for the day. I will shut the door. I will have a lovely indecisive time choosing which of my new books to read first (thank you, Waterstones!) and drink endless cups of tea.