Writing Process Blog Tour

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Something a little different this time (or not so …) Big thanks to Jeppe Graugaard for inviting me to take part in the writing process blog tour. This asks writers who blog to share something about their current works and creative process, and to invite others to take up the baton and do the same.

1) What am I working on?

It’s funny, I’m just starting to come back to writing after a long hiatus over this past winter, which I spent immersed in an intensive visual arts course in northwest Scotland. In the initial excitement that came from discovering fresh media to play with, and from giving myself permission to take up visual art seriously, I became quite distanced from what I felt to be the fixity and abstraction of words. There were also practical reasons to do with time, and not having fast reliable internet constantly on tap at home, that made me disinclined to write. Yet writing is now finding its way back to me, and so I’m pondering how to travel between, and combine, visual art and writing. Currently I’m playing with a visual art project inspired by ash trees, and suspect that words will find their way into that. I’m also gradually returning to some of the inklings and ideas explored elsewhere in this blog, ‘The Place Between Stories’: taking them deeper, refining and clarifying, and making further connections with others for whom those explorations resonate.

2) How does my work differ from others of its genre?

I don’t approach my writing in terms of genre; my heart sinks when writing or any other kind of creative activity starts being slotted into some category or pigeonhole or another – especially when I catch myself compromising and doing exactly that! For the last few years I’ve mostly written short essays with a poetic bent, accompanied by photographs, and I’m interested in probing edges, what lies between stories and definitions, those inklings or textures of experience that arise somewhere in the wilds beyond what passes for normal, straight-up, culturally-defined and enclosed reality. My writing certainly isn’t unique in this respect – most of the writing, making and doing that excites and inspires me these days is coming from edge-probers of one stripe or another. But I guess (to anticipate the next question), I write to articulate something that I need to find words for myself, and that makes the difference.

3) Why do I write what I do?

As well as writing because of a need to articulate certain things for myself, I do it to connect with readers who might share similar patterns of experience or resonance. My writing comes most to life for me when I find the right metaphor (or, rather, when it finds me), to give form to something that someone else has been sensing or pondering, without having the words for it. The best fulfilment of all comes when that recognition triggers or nourishes a reader’s capacity to describe and express things their own way, whether in writing, a drawing or photograph, as music … Because I’m interested in things on the edges, between stories, fallen down the cracks in whatever the official (or unofficial) version is, I feel both responsibility towards, and affinity with, others who are provoked by similar insights, urges and questions, the kind that don’t have ready-made shapes and answers.

4) How does your writing process work?

I write when the germ of a piece of writing takes hold of me, and work at it until it’s done. From time to time my ego decides that I ought to have some kind of regular writing habit, regardless of inspiration, but this invariably collapses after a day or so. Writing only when inspired goes completely against the grain of all wise advice about becoming a writer, I know; my excuse is that I worked as a university academic for 20-odd years, and that was my writing apprenticeship. So  much of that work involved writing, for different audiences and in different registers, whether I felt like it or not, from the published fruits of my research to lectures, grant applications and feedback on student assignments. Although the writing I do now is about breaking away from the constraints of academic style and mindset, it’s still rooted in that ground of experience and basic confidence that I know (approximately) what I’m doing.

My actual writing process is up-and-down, unwieldy and ruminative, because I edit, process and push my writing as I go along. This makes me the kind of writer who’ll effortlessly knock out 1,000 words one day, then the next day spend five hours re-reading and re-writing a single sentence. As soon as I hit a problem, or reach an edge where I sense that the writing needs me to take a leap and do something fresh, I have to grapple with it until a solution or breakthrough comes,  before I can go any further. So I generally work best by creating enough space and open-ended time to resolve a whole piece of writing, because if I have to stop and turn my attention to something else in the midst of a messy patch, I risk losing the whole thread and getting so discouraged that I give up.

For next week, I’m bending the blog tour rules somewhat, firstly by having just one other writer to take up the baton, and secondly by widening the creative process remit, as next up from here is someone who works across visual art, gardening and community-tending alongside writing.

I’m delighted to hand on to Sarah Zoutewelle-Morris, born in Ireland and raised in the USA, and now living with her husband and their fox terrier Lucy in northern Holland. Sarah has had a long and varied career in fine art, calligraphy, period instrument decoration and as an art healthcare practitioner: she is the author of Chocolate Rain, 100 ideas for a creative approach to activities in dementia care, (Hawker Publications, 2011). Sarah is currently focusing on her oil painting, gardening, walking and local community, taking time for a path away from the pressures of the commercial gallery system.  Visit Sarah’s blog Art Calling next Monday, for her reflections on creative process.

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A Line In Water

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Six months and four days since last I posted something here. A span of my life that in just under two weeks will draw to a close, as a new horizon comes into view.

I’ve spent the past winter in Ullapool, in the far north west of Scotland, as a student on the Bridge House Art Portfolio Course. A journey out and back towards inner and outer edges, to pick up a long-discarded dream of going to art school, and allow it to unfold me where it would. A journey through short, cold, windswept northern days; the classic darkness of incubation. A journey I did not have words for while I was on it. The depths sunk out of view, the surface of my mind railed at everything and nothing to compensate. In practical terms, my time was given to structured days in the studio and regular homework projects, making visual art without written attachments. Also, I didn’t have reliable fast home wifi to sustain easy blogging.

Now the course is over, and come the end of March I will be packing up and driving south, to a new home in Glastonbury. In this spring interlude of beginnings wrapped around endings (which in this year 2014 seem all sharpened, intensified), I find the impulse to write coming back. Words that want to be both tentative and decisive in touching, drawing out, the contours of some of what I’ve experienced and learned this past winter; the shapes of a transformation as it comes to my attention, and becomes what remains.

Draw a line in water and it starts disappearing as soon as it is made; yet the water is stirred, and will remember.

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Taking the Portfolio Course, I learned to discern, trust and pursue my own impulses as an artist, however unfashionable / childlike / weird / unpredictable they seemed to my hyper-critical ego self. To recognise in my body the signs of an edge, an excitement (often in the guise of an initially-furious aversion or discomfort), that beckoned me to follow it. That I was seeking things that already knew how to find me. That the fruits of seeking turned me inside out, and brought me back to a truth I half-believed in but didn’t really know – that it isn’t the artist who makes art, but art that makes itself through the artist. If nothing else, that’s a far kinder belief to sustain the work of being an artist than the former – as Elizabeth Gilbert’s famous TED talk on creativity, and its huge popularity, together attest.

Fresh edges around a new space that is emerging for me – nascent, awaiting. In the latest issue (number 8) of Earthlines, Charlotte du Cann writes:

“We learn to wait because we don’t know the answer yet. It is not where you think it is. Some of it is embedded in the apples in the room, and some in the spark that reignites the relationships we once had by virtue of being human on this planet. One thing I know: it’s the artist who hosts the space in which that reconnection happens.”

She’s describing those alchemical moments when the world suddenly constellates around us in ways we can’t plan for or predict, moments in which interconnection and affinity, past, present and future, roiling water and late afternoon light and wind shifting the ash trees, exactly the right question and exactly the needed insight are all there together. Holding / hosting the space and learning how to wait are how the seeking happens, how the alchemical moments know to find us – and how they change everything.

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