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.

Words, hunger and overwhelm

There is always a ‘psycho’ on the train. Once, coming home from Exeter, I had the company of a chap who’d absconded after his rehab class (he had a tin of still-warm sausage rolls in his lap) and thus set off the ankle bracelet he was obliged to wear after committing GBH.

A fortnight ago, I got the train to Derby for Swanwick Writers’ Summer School. It was a Saturday morning in the school holidays: the train was full. Perhaps a third of the passengers were wearing masks. I spent the first ten minutes resisting the urge to run up and down the aisle shrieking ‘let me out!’ I calmed down enough to fish out my headphones for some quality time with Jeff Buckley: banging tunes, the voice of an exiled angel, and sufficient melodic interest to hold my attention. What I forgot to take into account is that when I am listening to songs (as opposed to ‘desk music’) I am on my feet, either doing cardio or pushing the hoover round etc. In other words, when I listen to songs, I move. Twenty minutes in, I opened my eyes to discover I was being stared at. A middle-aged woman, moving to music no-one else can hear. Must be a total psycho!

By the time I’d reached Swanwick and found my room at The Hayes, it was time for the Chairman’s Welcome. For the past eighteen months I have been in a household of three, only encountering the crowds during efficient raids on Tescos. Suddenly I was in a conference hall with 200 people and no social distancing and barely a face-covering to be seen. The demographic was (predictably enough) white, predemoninantly female, middle-aged and upwards (with a small cohort of millenials who’d won their places in writing competitions), and middle class. It would be interesting to learn how many of those present were hobby writers on holiday, and how many were professional writers doing CPD.

The opening event set the tone for the week. In the following days I began to suspect that an edict had been passed demanding that anyone seen sitting quietly alone had to be ‘engaged with’. I was neither lost nor lonely: I am an introvert with limited capacity for social interaction. I was doing my best to manage constant overwhelm. Everyone I met was great. Individually. Successively and en masse I began to view them as an ordeal.

Mealtimes in particular were a source of ongoing stress. I was looking forward to a week of not having to think about food for a change. I was not expecting to be hungry for much of the time. I’d been assured that a plant-based diet was catered for as standard. ‘Standard’ evidently includes hastily reheated leftovers (served with an apology) from the previous day. Half a small baked potato with a splash of passata, two broccoli florets and a spoonful of peas is apparently a ‘standard’ evening meal. I am a creature of energy and appetite: it was miserable!

I didn’t take part in the many social activities, partly through disinclination, partly through Covid-caution and partly through physical and emotional exhaustion. I did attend as many classes and workshops as was feasible. The highlights were Roy McFarlane’s four-part course Eliciting the Past, Present and Future Through Poetry and Della Galton’s hour-long session The Magic of Characterisation.  Roy’s approach focuses on ‘habit, habit, habit’ as the means to get poems written. To my delight, he even set homework! I wrote three new poems and came away with the seeds of several more. Those sessions were an absolute tonic: they were vibrant and inclusive and on the final day he gave us a fifteen-minute set. Mercy, can that man perform a poem!

Several times a day I asked myself if I would like to come back next year. Several times a day my answer changed. Back home, and after a few good dinners, I realise I appreciated my time at Swanwick more in retrospect than while I was actually there. Given a nicely full belly, less Covid-related anxiety, and not so much bombardment by the new, I would have the resources to appreciate it more. I might go so far as to actually enjoy myself! I think I would like to go back.

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?