Knots

Back in late September, when I shared Ben Brooker’s blog, Kate’s Words, I suggested Ben give me a word and I’d try to ‘refresh my writing muscles’. The suggestion is I write for thirty minutes, musing on the word – which in this case is knots – and share what emerges. Okay, here goes …

… R D Laing published Knots in 1970. I tried but failed to read the book in the middle seventies, when I was first married. I failed because … well the text tied me in knots and my life then – as now – was rather knotty anyway, so I felt unable to see the book through to the end.

I wrote a poem a decade and a half later, titled, I think, ‘Rope’. It alluded to the ribald habit ropes have in snapping at your ankles and tripping you up. Maybe I’ll go back to it later this month and turn it into a Flash Fiction, which is something I’ve done with several of my old poems. This is cannibalising one’s writing and has little to do with knots, though it might explain why some of my Flash Fiction lacks a distinct narrative.

Free writing can get knotty too, because when you let the mind wander  – the purpose of free writing – the mind, like a rope, can turn in and around on itself, twisting neurons and crimping axons, leading to nowhere or worse, allowing it to form its own connections, risking aberrant, gratuitous or self-destructive thoughts, like ‘Why am I doing this, I am usually so structured and planned? I don’t like this …’

… See what I mean?

Have you ever tried to undo a knot in a gold or silver chain? It’s not easy (see what I did there?). When I cleaned out my mother’s jewellery drawer I found most of her chains tangled into a ball. The week I cleaned the house, the week my father joined my mother in the ‘Aged Care Facility’, was unseasonably hot at well over forty degrees Celsius. I remember sitting on their bed and looking at the tangled ball of gold and silver and wondering how on earth I could separate them. That the ball symbolised my often difficult relationship with my parents was not lost on me and perhaps I applied myself to the task  because of that; by separating the chains maybe I could prepare myself for my parents’ inevitable demise, something that happened only three years later, in my father’s case, and eight months after that, in my mother’s. I only ever managed to untangle the ball of chains, I could never address the disarray that was our relationship.

I kept some of those chains. I wear them occasionally and admit I am, like my mother, careless when I remove them and put them away. Will my children have to untangle my necklaces when it is time for me to move on?

From the knotted peculiarity of Laing, to my early poems, to the gnarled vagaries of my mind and on to my mother’s tangled, sometimes twisted hold on me I have come, perhaps inevitably, to my own demise, to the day when I must untie the knot that secures my hold on life. Maybe I should find a copy of Knots? Perhaps, at my current stage of life, I will understand it better than I did when I was a callous, untried girl?

Afterword: I could not help myself – I edited this piece but only so I could eliminate any convoluted sentences.

 

Time to Share

I don’t normally share or reblog posts but today I want to encourage you to have a look at my friend and colleague, Ben Brooker’s, new blog, Kate’s Words, and then go over to Brevity and see what they’re up to.

Ben is a respected critic, essayist, playwright and author of many published short stories and poems. Several of his reviews are featured on his original blog, Marginalia. Given his interests, Ben’s writing style is invariably precise, rigorously researched, and intellectually subtle and balanced. In Kate’s Words,  Ben plans to slough off scholarly strictures and relax his writing muscles. I’m eager to see what his blog produces and very tempted to follow his lead. I also like the premise – have a friend send you a word and free write on the word to see what emerges.

Because I cannot find a definition of  ‘free writing’ in my normally trusty Oxford English Dictionary (Grrr, OED) I have to resort to Wikipedia, which defines free writing as

a prewriting technique in which a person writes continuously for a set period of time without regard to spelling, grammar, or topic. It produces raw, often unusable material, but helps writers overcome blocks of apathy and self-criticism. It is used mainly by prose writers and writing teachers.

This article gives you a deeper idea of what freewriting is and the angst often connected with trying to do it in the classroom. I admire Ben’s willingness to share his free writing because I am usually a bit ‘precious’ about what I write. As Peter Elbow writes in his article,

I’m a bit ambivalent about shared or public freewriting. On the one hand
I tend to avoid it in favor of private writing. For I find most people’s writing has suffered because they have been led to think of writing as something they must always share with a reader; thus we need more private writing. On the other hand I love the sharing of freewriting – for the community of it and for the learning it produces. It’s so reassuring to discover that unplanned, unstudied writing is worth sharing.

Peter Elbow
‘Toward a Phenomenology
of Freewriting’, p 52.

So, Ben, if you’re reading this, send me a word and I’ll try to be brave enough to share one piece of unplanned, unedited, raw work.

This allows me to segue into the second blog I wish to share, Brevity,favourite of mine because it features (carefully edited) short creative nonfiction, sometimes known as narrative nonfiction. Brevity recently celebrated its 20th anniversary and it’s currently running a series of fascinating blogs where, as Shane Borrowman the editor of The <750> Project explains, four authors

return to a previous publication and take on the task of either shortening their piece or expanding it.

Asking writers to modify a previous article is a bold move, and the writers are to be admired because of their willingness to do so publicly. It is also a brilliant way to help beginning writers, indeed all writers, improve and enhance their practice. I hope you take the time to check it out. The first example can be found here.

In the meantime, over at Elixir’s sister blog Concise, I have stuck to my routine of writing and posting a piece of flash fiction every two days. I’ve posted five stories and there’s two more to go; I cannot continue the project indefinitely because running two blogs and sending other pieces to competitions is about as much as I can handle at the moment.  I have, however, really enjoyed the exercise and I hope you’ve enjoyed the stories.

Your Comments:

What do you think of Ben’s method for loosening up his writing? What is your favourite writing prompt or activity? What do you think of Brevity’s <750> Project? Have you ever tried to shorten or lengthen a piece of writing? How did it feel and what did you learn?

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Stop Talking About It!

One of my friends, a woman several years younger than me, is mulling over the idea of writing about and sharing her professional life and how it relates to her art. She has some big ideas she believes need to be refined and processed but she’s not sure what approach to take. She’s trying to see the various approaches as an advantage but maybe there are too many of them and she is starting to feel frustrated. This friend, let’s call her ‘Juniper’ is an intelligent, hardworking business woman contemplating entering what is mostly, for her, unchartered territory. She’s understandably finding it hard to let go of her, and others, expectations, her fear of judgement, the possibility of professional censure that might result if she publicly shares her professional life and her artistic endeavours.

While I understand her situation is unique, my initial reaction to her musings is, and forgive the shouting, ‘STOP TALKING ABOUT DOING IT AND DO IT!’ I won’t, of course, say this to her and if I did I would never shout at her. What I want to do is share why my reaction to her musings is so strong.

I can hear my younger self in everything she says. As a young wanna-be, I was terrified of sharing my dreams of being a writer, let alone share anything I wrote. I was tied to a profession that demanded a lot of my time and energy. I was also raising a family and I let these things stop me from satisfying an unrelenting craving to write. In other words, I was as uncertain as my young friend and I waited until I was in my late fifties to commit to my dream. That was in 2004, when I enrolled in a writing course at my local university. I occasionally wonder, as I sit in my writing room working on my short stories or this blog, if I should have stopped at the Honors degree in Creative Writing and not enrolled in a PhD. Don’t get me wrong, I’m proud of the work I did in my thesis, but I am beginning to believe I used the PhD as another way to put off what I really wanted to do, which was to just write.

I’ll be 64 in October. I figure I have ten, maybe fifteen years to have some stories published, maybe my themed set of stories if I work really hard, or even a novel or two. If I look after my health I might have twenty good years. Then again, if I don’t get one piece of work published I am finally doing what I love; just writing.

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Because I don’t want Juniper to be calculating those odds in twenty years’ time here’s what else I’d like to tell her:

  • Those social media posts you’ve been writing, the ones about wanting to do the work but not sure how to start? Copy them into a word processing file (or a spiral bound notebook) titled ‘My Project’ or whatever you want to call it and label those anxious jottings your first entry.
  • Every day for the next two weeks spend (as a minimum!) ten to thirty minutes writing about your project. Write whatever comes into your head, write dot points, phrases, questions, lists, or poems: free write an angry rant; get it all off your chest. Write a letter to your profession. Write a letter to your creative outlet. Write a letter to your fear but whatever you do, don’t stop writing for at least ten minutes. Draw pictures if you wish, but don’t stop until the time is up.
  • Don’t read back over those notes, not yet anyway.
  • Don’t make excuses. What’s ten minutes? What’s thirty minutes? Write during a coffee break, write between business appointments. Write before you go to sleep, write … you get the picture, Juniper. Just write! If you miss a day don’t give yourself a hard time, get back into it the next day.
  • At the end of two weeks you may read what you have written. Do not judge your writing. Do not correct or criticise it, not yet anyway. Try to find the sections that speak to you, make you think, intrigue you, or make you cringe, especially those because they might be more important than you’re willing to allow. Read through each list, false start, crazy insight, poetic passage, symbolic meandering. What are they trying to say to you? Write a reflection; focus on what feels right to you, dig deeper into the fears. Can one main fear become the theme, the core, of the piece? Contrast this fear with the positive things you’ve written. Think about how you can deepen and strengthen your insights and turn them into a story, script or monologue. Write the story. Write the monologue. Write two monologues. Write three scripts.
  • Repeat the process, then repeat, then repeat. You’ll get better at it every day. You’ll start to enjoy it, you’ll learn about yourself, your profession, your art, the project you want to work on and you’ll learn about writing. In about six to ten weeks you’ll have something to work with. Maybe it won’t be a first draft but it might be a road map to the first draft. If it is a first draft then correct the spelling errors, put the commas where they ought to go, sharpen up the grammar, let the metaphors and alliteration have full reign and then show what you have to someone: a colleague; your mother; brother; best friend. Hmm, maybe not. Family and friends love you too much to say, ‘This needs work …, I don’t get it …, I’m not sure you’re saying what you want to say … Why did you put it this way, would it sound better if …?’ You need, at this stage, constructive, informed criticism, not praise. Show it to me.

You have, dear Juniper, nothing to lose and everything to gain, but if you don’t start writing today you risk losing everything. I know this because it nearly happened to me.

Your project is worthy and I know you can do it. I also know the crippling fear that accompanies you as you move out of your comfort zone. Every writer experiences it, and every writer, I believe, has done what I just advised you to do. Maybe they’ve done it differently, but each of us have had to stop saying, ‘I want …, I wish …, one day I will …, when I get through this I’ll … when I decide what approach I’ll take … ’, and pick up a pen (or open a file) and start writing. If you really want to share what it feels like to be a professional woman and an artist, you have, like the rest of us, to stop talking about it and do it.

Comment: What would you tell Juniper about getting started? How did you face your fears about creating something for public consumption? Have you tried to combine your professional and artistic/creative interests? What happened?