Quick thoughts on editing

From Warren Ellis’ excellent newsletter 1:

The trick is never to let yourself believe it is pouring fully formed from your fingers into a submittable file.  It’s all roughs.  It’s layering. It’s starting with the six lines you had, that you foolishly believe constitute “an idea,” and editing them and adding to them and sculpting them and building on them and then realising it’s shit and saving that version, renaming the file and starting again, going back to where you went wrong and rewriting, until you feel like you have the shape of something that might actually be useful.

I’ve been going over old writing and poems I did at the start of March and I remember none of it. Which is helpful, because then I can tear it apart and rebuild it.

More than ever, I consider this building and shaping as Warren Ellis calls it to be the actual craft of writing. A lot of joy comes from changing things as you go. Very few things start immediately perfect, but they usually have a germ of an idea within them. There’s a lot of fun in shifting and changing and altering to make that idea clearer or to get it to where you want to be. In the first draft, I find new images, but in subsequent ones I find a structure.

Inside my commonplace book

Recently on Twitter, I replied to this tweet about keeping a private anthology:

I got into a discussion about my commonplace book and why I keep one. I thought I’d follow that up with a larger discussion of why I find it useful and some examples from the book.

A commonplace book is an old tradition, with bits of knowledge stacked on top of each other. Ryan Holiday has a great explanation if you want to know further. I use it to note down quotes, photos I like and poems that speak to me.

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Accidental plagarism

I read a poem at an open mic a couple of months back. I was quite pleased with it. Only recently did I realise the central image was almost the same as another poet’s work who I had seen a couple of months before. Without realising it, I had completely ripped them off.

So I looked back at my writing, only to find the problem was more widespread than I thought. Other poems were similar to existing pieces from other poets. One had the same subject matter and even style as a poem I heard months ago. In each case, when I wrote it I thought I was being completely original. Of course, I felt very guilty and will probably remove them from future sets.

In a podcast I recently listened to 1, David Mitchell described inspiration as coming from the compost heap- everything you have read and experienced broken down over time. I like this way of thinking of inspiration because it highlights how ideas are not unique but made up of other ideas, how they grow from fragments.

These poems I had seen people perform had broken down enough that I had forgotten their origin, but not enough to change the original idea beyond what they had done. So the only solution is to be honest, check the origins of my work, then throw it back into the compost heap. Hopefully, these words will rot down more over time and emerge as something different. In the meantime, I’ll keep writing and making new work, drawn from deeper down.

Be quiet and listen

Open mic nights are wonderful spaces. They are brilliant places to try new work in front of audiences and get instant feedback. But more than that, they are places where you can listen to the voices of others and learn from them. It’s essential in these times to be in the same space as others and listen to their words.

Over the last year or so, I’ve been going to a lot of poetry nights in Bristol. I’ve barely scratched the surface of the different nights the city has to offer. I read, nervously at first, but then relaxing into having a space to speak. More than that though, I appreciate listening to varied voices in each night. The joy of open mics is everyone gets their turn to speak. So you hear a huge variety of people from all different backgrounds reading poetry. It can be hugely powerful to hear marginalised voices that you wouldn’t normally be exposed to.

There are people in all open mics who turn up, read their pieces and then disappear. I’d argue these people are missing the point. You read your stuff, yes, but the whole point of the night should be to listen to the other people around you. The nights are not only about you. It’s an exercise in quieting the ego and making sure you stay grounded.

Making art, especially writing, can be a lonely business, so it’s nights like these that link you to a community of people who are doing the same thing. It shows you are not alone in your endeavours and helps you carry on. By listening to others, it also exposes you to different stories, different references, different ways of seeing the world.

Politicians and reactionary tabloids often push simple narratives as a way of managing dissent. The world works like this. Those people are not like you. They exploit and perpetuate prejudice for power. Open mic nights dismantle these simple stories. They allow you to hear other people’s stories from all different backgrounds and empathise with them. It can be incredibly powerful to be in the same room as people and hear their poetry. In these days where we form so many of our opinions online, it is essential to have real-life spaces where marginalised voices can speak freely. It’s also important for privileged people like me to be quiet and listen. Listening becomes a revolutionary act because you are giving your attention to others. It would be a better world if we stopped shouting and allowed others to speak. So stay and linger a while, engage with voices that are not your own. It might be good for you and the world.

Starting again

Towards the end of last year, I finished two major projects I had been working on for ages, a short story collection and a poetry collection. I finished them to a stage where only minor changes were needed. 1 These sprawling ideas I had been carrying around in my head, my notebook and several disparate files suddenly existed as completed manuscripts.

So I come again to a blank page, with little idea of how to fill it. Ihave nothing major on the horizon and no particularly significant ideas. But I’ve been before. I know my way around this territory. I’m putting my trust in a process and expecting results.

I’ve started writing again in short stretches, ten or fifteen-minute bursts. I start with a word or phrase and see if I can get anything of interest in that time. Writing prompts are especially helpful for this as the germ of an idea is already in the asking.2. The spark file 3 I keep in my documents and old notebooks provide slithers of speech and ideas, the merest specs. In these writing times, I try to expand on the idea and try to push it beyond the obvious. Once I’ve dedicated a tiny amount of time to it, I might want to continue it. I might not. A story might suggest itself to me in the words, a promise of something new. Those are the ones worth pursuing. If the idea starts to recur when I’m doing other things, then it’s probably worth expanding out further. Maybe into a full story.

Writing like this feels like casting hundreds of lines into an ocean and only getting a couple of bites. Or else it feels like scrabbling around in the dirt for hours to find a tiny speck of gold. But it’s the only way I know how to generate new projects that I’m excited about. You write around an idea, building and adding and expanding until suddenly it’s a book.

This is where ideas come from- other ideas. In my experience, there’s no short-cuts to this, you just have to write and experiment until you find something that feels right. I haven’t got there yet, but I’m enjoying the process. Without a set plan, I am entrusting my next writing moves to my subconscious.

Whenever I start again, I feel like a newbie. There are times when I feel like I’ve never wielded a pen before. That’s why this stage is so exciting, as there are infinite possibilities and directions to take writing. It’s good to be a newbie, because then you can explore and find out more.

So here’s to the next thing, whatever it may be.

Why Writers Should Exercise

The problem of writing is that you spend too much time in your own head. Even if you do it as a side hobby as I do, you can spend a lot of time imagining future plot twists or details for your characters and world. I’ve been editing short stories and poems recently, finally getting to the end of a couple of projects that have taken me years. During editing, I stare at words, cross them out, write another in, before crossing that out and going back to the original. It can be frustrating and maddening. That’s why I find it important to focus on exercise, at least a couple of times a week.

One of the benefits of exercise that doesn’t get talked about enough is the effect it has on your mental wellbeing. Typically, we talk about the physical benefits, the lower rate of disease, feeling fitter, losing weight etc. But it can really help your mental well-being as well. It gives you space to pause and think. If you get your body moving, it helps calm the brain. Focusing on the movement of the body instead of a screen or notebook is a great way to leave your worry behind you. Raising your heart rate is a simple way to feel better.

Exercise no only calms the worry and the anxiety, it helps the subconscious process ideas and help with blocks. By doing something physical, you take your focus off the work and onto your body. Meanwhile, the subconscious is whirring away, forging connections and helping you out. It’s like getting ideas in the shower- you are focusing on other things and it gives you time for your mind to whirr away in the background.

Giving something physically demanding your all for an hour helps you to focus when you come to write. I often think words are easier once I’ve been to the gym or been for a swim. It’s practising your attention and focus on your body and forcing it to do something precise and demanding. When you come back and write, you have not only worked out your body, you have practised being focused. The state of full attention is easier to get back into.

This isn’t a secret. Many writers through history have discovered this. Dickens was a famous walker, charging through the countryside for long walks that challenged him physically:

“Whether on his night walks through London, or tramping through the Kent countryside, Dickens clocked up a huge number of miles on foot. He is estimated to have walked twelve miles per day – Peter Ackroyd, in his biography of Dickens, says that he habitually walked twelve miles in two-and-a-half hours, with just a five-minute break. That’s 4.8mph, which is at the upper limit of human walking speed (Dickens himself estimates that his average walking speech was 4 mph), and Dickens maintained this in all weather”


Similarly, Stephen King and Haruki Murakami are well known runners, with Stephen King’s obsession showing in many of his books. Now, these are professional writers with a lot more time on their hand than most people, but even for those writing around day jobs it is immensely beneficial. In my experience, it helps to sharpen my time writing and allows me to focus.

I came to exercise relatively late, only really starting when I was twenty five. I hated it in school, much preferring to bury my nose in a book. The annual cross-country race filled me with dread. I didn’t understand why anyone would want to push themselves physically when you could sit inside and learn instead. 2

But since I started it has helped me focus when I write and helped calm my mind at other times. I usually opt for swimming. Each stroke has to be precise, each breath measured. There’s no time to think or worry as you glide through the water. Swimming is physical meditation, the closest you can get to Zen exercise. It’s struggling to move through a hostile environment. The immediacy of the stoke and the coldness of the water practically shocks the worry out of you, while your thumping heart drowns out any stray thoughts. It’s calm under the water as you move through it. You can’t hear anything but the muffled voices of another realm up above.

Ryan Holliday argue that running is the key to good writing,  but I think this is too narrow a focus. Running is a solitary, difficult exercise that you may not enjoy. Instead of doing something you may not enjoy,  you need anything that will raise your heartbeat and force you to focus on your body and not the page. Any exercise will do as long as you enjoy it. As a writer, you need to step away from the desk and allow ideas to permeate in your mind. It gives you a break and helps connect you with your body. Any exercise you do is looking after yourself so you can get back to the page and give it your all again.

The Sound of Silence

A couple of weeks ago, I went to a Quaker wedding. 1 As part of the ceremony, we sat in silence for close to an hour, punctuated now and then by someone speaking briefly, then lapsing back into silence. It was an unusual ceremony. I felt uncomfortable in the silence. I had the urge to speak, to do something to break the quiet. Other people who weren’t Quakers found it difficult as well. Personally, I think I am not used to that amount of quiet contemplation. I was reminded of the famous Blaise Pascal quote: “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”

We rarely have silence in our lives. Or rather, we have moments of silence, but never moments of stillness as well. To sit for an hour, not doing anything apart from listening to your own thoughts is an intimidating process. Yet it’s something Quakers seek out in their practice. Other religious practices do the same thing, with silent prayer and long meditations. I’m not a religious man, but I have found smaller doses of silence an effective tool to clear out the noise and focus on the signal.

Generally, I think we need to seek out these still moments. It’s important for art and for your own health, even if it’s only for ten or so minutes. The world is only getting noisier and more frantic day by day. If you stop for a moment, you can hear what you actually think. You can hear all the nonsense that churns around in your head day by day. If you do it enough, you might actually realise what you want.

The only problem is that this process is hard and uncomfortable. We crave stimulation at all time and even ten minutes of silence can be too much. Added to the fact that true silence doesn’t really exist, unless you’re holding your breath in the void of space. It seems such an alien thing to do. I struggled with it in the wedding. The silence becomes oppressive and all-encompassing. Time moves slower. The temptation is to say or do something to break the silence.

This process of silence is essential for the creation of new work. You need to be able to listen to the world and listen to yourself as well. It’s often hard to figure out exactly what the interesting part of the work is. Focusing on the work is another issue, especially in the age of constant distraction. If I’m stuck on a piece of writing, I try to put it aside and either sit in silence for a bit or go for a walk without listening to any music. It allows me to figure out what I really want to communicate. By removing audio stimulation, I am able to focus easier.

Wendell Berry said it best in How to be a Poet:

Accept what comes from silence.
Make the best you can of it.
Of the little words that come
out of the silence, like prayers
prayed back to the one who prays,
make a poem that does not disturb
the silence from which it came.

Please read the whole poem, because it is masterful. I especially love these lines. It shows that poetry and the art of creation is a sacred practice. It should be treated with reverence, like a prayer. It’s communing with your subconscious in a way that doesn’t happen very often in modern life. In this way, we can create something new.

Like all this advice I give, I’m not brilliant at incorporating silence into my life.2 It’s hard to find the time. I feel guilty for not writing or reading in my limited spare time. But I’ve started walking home in silence, not listening to a podcast or music. It’s helped my mind roam and ruminate over thoughts and concepts. Occasionally I write down a line or two, but that’s not the purpose. It’s time to check in with myself and figure out what’s going on.

We need less stimulation than we think we do. We would all do well to sit quietly in a room alone.

The Power of Paper

There’s a magical tool that allows you to focus right in on any problem. Or you can broaden it out and use it to explore the inner workings of your mind. It has endless possibilities and applications. I’m talking about paper of course.

Recently, I have found myself using paper and pen more to work out first drafts and even second and third. In my opinion, there is no finer tool for getting your thoughts down and exploring them. In this increasingly digital world, paper has not died off as many have predicted but has stuck around and even got stronger. A modern office will still have notepads and biros as well as computers, despite the apparent redundancy. A paperless office is rare and probably not desirable. Continue reading

Creative Anxieties: Fear of not writing enough

This blog post is late. I was meant to write it last week, but life got it the way, as it always seems to do. It’s not just this week’s though; the self-imposed schedule I imposed at the start of the year has slowly slipped away. This, inevitably, leads to guilt and worry. More specifically, I always feel like I’m not writing enough. I need to produce more. When I do write, it never feels like enough.

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Advice to Myself: Writing and Resolutions

At the start of the year, we tend to set goals and resolutions. This year is going to be the year I start eating healthy, the year I finally learn guitar or the year I start running. Then, inevitably, around this time every year, most of the resolutions are discarded or broken. Maybe they never even started.

I’m by no means immune to this. I tell myself I’m going to Do Things Better. I might even do the thing for a week or two. But by the third week in, its often forgotten about until I decide to Do Things Better months later. That’s the downside of habits, it can be easy to fall out of them as it can to fall into them. That’s why I’m writing this blog post, mostly to remind myself of the power of habits. Continue reading

Suspend the outside world for a while: Thoughts on Glastonbury Festival

Posts on this blog have been a bit scarce for the last couple of weeks, mostly because I spent a several days in a field in Somerset. I listened to music, watched comedy and saw the odd politician1 I was lucky enough to attend Glastonbury Festival, a cornucopia of delights that I have gone to since I was fifteen.  This was my seventh time at the festival. I have been to others in the meantime, but it remains the original and the best. It is a marvellous tent town where the outside world is put on hold for a while, where the normal rules no longer apply and where art and hope rules above everything else.  I thought I’d write about why it remains so special to me and many others.

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My accidental novel: Thoughts on first drafts

I accidentally wrote a novel. Well, it certainly started that way. I started working on a short story in December, setting out a really basic outline and running with it. After about ten thousand words, I realised I had barely scratched the surface. Clearly, this short story was something more expansive. The story demanded a larger setting. So I continued on until finally, last weekend, I typed THE END. What was a short story has now turned into something approaching short novel length. I had very little idea what I was doing and even less of an idea on how I was doing it.

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Distraction by Design: Observations on Television

Over three years ago, I stopped watching TV. I didn’t have one in the house I was in, so I just stopped. At first, it was strange to not constantly have noise and visual distraction. But soon, I didn’t miss it. I preferred the silence and space to think, giving myself time to immerse myself in reading and writing. Television felt mind-numbing in comparison. I did not miss switching my brain off. In the same way as I occasionally need to disconnect from the internet to improve my attention, I never got another television because I found myself more attentive and more engaged with the world around me. As these things usually go, it soon became a pledge. I didn’t need television and I could no longer understand the obsession with it. Sure, this removed me out of a lot of conversations, but I preferred the space and time not watching the box gave me.

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Step Away from the Internet

Every few months or so, an article comes around that reminds me I’m spending too much time on the internet, looking at pointless things and wasting time. This time, it was this article by Craig Mod that caught my attention. It made me realise that I was once again endlessly flicking between the same sites, watching Twitter refresh and reading the same articles over and over. It was an eloquently argued wake-up call.

I spend a lot of time on the computer at work as well as when I’m when writing. There’s an internet connection constantly. If I’m not on a computer, I have a tiny connected device in my pocket. The tech future of It’s all too easy to jump onto Twitter or facebook, even just for a second. Craig talks about this in his article, saying:

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Enduring art (Same as it ever was)

I was listening to the rather excellent Book Shambles podcast the other day. It is a rambling discussion about books and literature, usually with a guest to guide the discussion. One of the hosts, Robin Ince, mentioned The Great Gatsby, saying that every time he reads it he finds new insight in its pages. It’s my experience that despite being a relatively slim novella, the complex characters and removed perspective provides a wealth of wisdom and observations. It got me thinking about art that endures throughout your life, that helps to shape you at different moments. I think this is one of the qualities of the best art, that each time you go back to it it is richer and more in-depth than before. Re-readings and re-watchings allow for greater emotional impact, instead of diminishing returns. The art endures throughout your life.
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