For the past few months, in a frankly indefensible violation of my own productivity principles (o hypocrisy! how bitter – albeit with a kind of karmic-justice, cosmic-balance sort of tang – thy fruit!), I’ve let my daily writing / weekly poem discipline slip.
It’s been grimly amusing to observe the effects of the lapse. The consequence has been something that you might call Displacement Hustle: a constant feverish churning of ideas for fresh “para-poetic” projects, new business schemes and worthy volunteer activities, all powered, I’m quite sure, by an underlying, re-channeled guilty anxiety about not writing.
In normal circumstances, it’s both fun and stimulating to dream up plans like these – and, indeed, to put some of them into action. The predominant effect of Displacement Hustle, however, is an irritable fretfulness, a sense of not being at ease but not actually achieving very much either. The mental churn produces (or compounds, in my own regrettably relaxation-incompetent case) an inability to switch off and recharge. A little while ago I saw a sign asking “What’s your guilty pleasure?” and found myself thinking “I don’t have one”, which was swiftly corrected to “Curling up and reading a book during the day” (guilty pleasure? For a writer??), and then immediately followed (possibly, I fear, out loud, such was my self-exasperation) by “For feck’s SAKE, have you learned NOTHING?”
Two weeks ago, (and mostly driven, I’m ashamed to say, not by the sagacious glory of my insight but by my desperation to escape the ceaseless machinations of my own suddenly hyper-entrepreneurial brain,) I resumed my weekly-poem practice. What do I have to show for those two weeks? No new grand schemes in play, no new business or community activities on the go – just two little poems. And you know what? That’s enough. That’s the baseline, the pulse, the required quantum of making-something-happen; it’s the modicum of fruitfulness that dispels the wheel-spinning, mind-hijacking fretfulness.
Maybe next week, or next month, or next year, I’ll get some other new projects going as well – but I hope I’ll remember that these things are extras; that as long as I can hold to the discipline of a creative baseline, then anything more, as Raymond Carver famously declared, will be all gravy.
One of the (ironically self-referential) insights that I’ve finally acquired is that life tends to keep re-presenting the same lessons until you – uh, you know – learn them. (Examples that spring to mind? That finishing the whole family-size bag of crisps is rarely so gratifying in aftermath as it is in prospect. That if you’re vaguely unhappy today, then you’ll almost certainly be vaguely unhappy tomorrow unless you DO SOMETHING DIFFERENT, FFS! That waiting to see who cracks first and actually cleans the bathroom generally results in a very dirty bathroom. Etc, etc, etc.) There are days, however, when I wonder if I’ve actually managed to learn this meta-lesson after all.
Something I’ve often spoken about when I’m teaching or giving a talk is my transformation from a self-declared “slow writer” to a productive one; I mention it, just for example, in this Scottish Poetry Library podcast from 2009. The sixty-four thousand dollar question is, of course, how? Simple: take one unproductive poet, commit that poet to a publicly-accessible Poem Of The Week blog, and lo – one productive poet results. [That'll be sixty-four thousand dollars, please. Ed.]
Given a deadline (however arbitrary and self-imposed) and an outsourced conscience (“the world at large”, who could see the blog and thus catch me shirking), I found that all my excuses for not writing were suddenly stripped away. I made the time to do it every day, because I’d committed to finishing something at the end of the week, and each week, I put in the hours until it was done. ( To a novelist, this making-the-time must seem obvious to the point of imminent brain-death, but we poets do have a terrible tendency to see ourselves as “inspiration-driven” and then bemoan the vile intermittency of our output…)
After more than three years of weekly poems (a creative abundance which at first I found astonishing, but soon came to see as pretty normal – for humans, not just for me), I decided to make my Poem Of The Week blog a private one. I’m abashed to admit that my motivation was mainly pecuniary: it’s bloody difficult to make a living as a poet, and precluding yourself from being able to enter the higher-value poetry competitions by publishing all your work online is a fairly obvious Bad Economic Plan. Nonetheless, I was keeping up the output behind the scenes – until, fool that I am, I cut myself too much slack.
We were away for a couple of weeks at Christmas for a family holiday, and I thought (reasonably enough) that I’d give myself that time off. When I got back, I was deluged by catch-up – so I extended the break. Then life got silly with travelling, events, business admin and other commitments, and I extended it again. The unsurprising outcome? I’ve written almost nothing since last December, and I’m suitably demoralised – and, I hope, suitably chastened.
Discovering that I could write a poem every week, via the simple mind-hack of setting a weekly deadline, was not just a life-lesson – it was a revelation, and a gift. The past few months have reminded me that Not Writing makes me miserable. Fortunately, I know what to do – even if I’ve had to learn that damn lesson all over again.
Matthew Stewart was born in Farnham, Surrey, in 1973. Following a comprehensive school education, he took a degree in modern languages at St Peter’s College, Oxford. He has lived in Extremadura, Spain, for the past fifteen years, where he works as the export manager and blender for a local winery. His poems have been widely published in UK magazines and he blogs at Rogue Strands.
Matthew’s website: roguestrands.blogspot.com
• One thing that’s always worth getting out of bed for
A morning without work, without a clock to watch. Breakfast followed by poems. Reading, reading and eventually writing as if suspended in a bubble.
• One thing about myself that often obstructs me
I’m incapable of concentrating for long periods of time, working instead in intense bursts. The brevity of my poetry is probably a reflection of this. I’d love to write longer pieces, but my thought processes are too impatient to let me, needing to drive towards a core as quickly as possible.
• One thing I’ve learned the hard way
A sense of belonging can’t be earned or forced. It depends on the love that surrounds us.
• One thing that gets under my skin
• One thing I’d love to change
The cycle whereby outsiders complain about the establishment before going on to form a new establishment.
• One thing I hope for
The continued strength to find gaps in my frenetic life to read and write poetry.
One of the more perplexing quirks of human existence, especially for those of us habituated to dealing with computer programming and its one/zero, if/else, and/or logicality, is Homo Sapiens’ ability to contain polar opposites within one apparently unitary self. One person can be capable of great acts of physical courage, and yet utterly spineless when it comes to taking an unpopular moral stand; another can be overwhelmingly generous to friends and acquaintances, yet manipulative and withholding with their closest kin. (Of course, psychological intuition might suggest that such apparent contradictions are simply two separate loops of the same underlying knot in the psyche…)
In my own case, I’m increasingly aware of a weird dualism around the issue of seriousness. On the one hand, I still have a cod-adolescent tendency to cringe-inducing earnestness (ever a peril for the blogger, not to mention the poet) – and in this mode, I’m also hyper-sensitised to Not Being Taken Seriously. On the other, I notice an increasing tendency to act the larrikin in meetings and other social settings, as if too much seriousness is problematic and must be defused. (This latter tendency first became apparent when I was still employed as a software engineer; one day, I found myself opening the inevitably tedious, techie presentation I was obliged to give by telling a joke, and things escalated – or perhaps degenerated – from there into a general fondness for interjected wisecracks and the development of a self-piss-taking schtick.) It’s as if I can’t decide between having the world “take me seriously” and being the class clown.
Since this dualism doesn’t seem to be causing me too much trouble at the moment (though I can’t speak for the poor souls who have to attend meetings with me), I’m currently wondering if there’s a lesson in it when it comes to the writing life.
Anyone committed to writing knows that there’s a profound seriousness required to meet that commitment, because it piles up so many short-term burdens of discipline and effort onto the bone-thin, notoriously cranky little donkey of nebulous future reward. Additionally, the process itself can be deeply and wonderfully “serious”, in the brimming-with-meaning sense, especially in those almost-ecstatic moments of flow when the writing seems to be appearing through you rather than from you.
On the other hand, we all know writers who take themselves and their Important Writer status far too seriously (“Contribute to your trifling project? Don’t you know who I AM?” etc etc,) and what an enthusiasm-quelling, joy-killing pain in the arse they are. (Although perhaps we should spare a little sympathy, because an addiction to status is just that – an addiction, with all the concomitant unhappy implications for the sufferer.)
The conclusion seems to me that to make a life in writing, one must take being a writer – one who engages in the act of writing – very seriously indeed, but that the peripheral act of Being A Writer – in the public-facing sense – should be treated with skepticism, or better yet, a spadeful of salty wit.
About WN Herbert
WN Herbert was born in Dundee in 1961. He’s published numerous books of poetry, mostly with Bloodaxe, and edited several anthologies. He is also a critic and (with a great deal of help) a translator. He lives in North Shields on the mouth of the River Tyne, and teaches Creative Writing at Newcastle University. Forthcoming books include Jade Ladder, an anthology of contemporary Chinese poetry, and his next collection, Omnesia.
WN Herbert’s website: wnherbert.wordpress.com
• One thing that’s always worth getting out of bed for
The sheer number of things waiting to be done, some of which are waiting to be done by me in particular. Whether creatively or in terms of other responsibilities, whether driven by gut instinct, guilt or eternal excitement, the possibilities crowd the brain to its horizon.
For instance (1), we have not, despite the now-decrepit protestations of modernism, begun to exhaust what poetic form can do. Or the book of poems. Or the book. Or the book about such things.
For instance (2), I’m a Cancer on a Gemini cusp, so whether horoscopy is crap or not, I could try answering this in triplicate: once as a poet, once as a professor, and once as the cartoon character Blll.
For instance (3), scrambled egg.
My robot butler fox: a mass of limbs, levers and oily tentacles emitting from this giant steel periwinkle shell on casters with inbuilt sock drawers and fridge components.
When you squeeze past the claws there's an interior shower unit, the curtain for which depicts key physicists working on the problem of time, and a Corbie newspaper press (manufactured by real crows) that perfectly straightens and flattens The Dundee Courier and Advertiser until it is one molecule thick.
Also on the outside is that big Jewish clockface from Prague which tells the hours backwards, the direction in which (it sometimes feels) we are actually pointed, though if we were our teeth would be able to sculpt perfect meals from a throatful of undigested pap. In the smaller convolutes are placed an ant orchestra, the egg-scrambling device he constructed himself before I could explain what eggs were and now refuses to update, and what surely can't be a real fox's head in a bubble.
He wakes me with one freshly-baked fortune cookie and a cup of peppermint tea, its leaves gathered from the Cretan hills with a sugar cube in it which he carves himself (sometimes it's a sugar pyramid). My fortune this morning was 'You will meet a river cobbler.'
• One thing about myself that often obstructs me
BILL: Too much choice. As you may have suspected, I don’t have a particularly unified self, and so I’ve always been diverse in what I can do, and things (poems, projects, theories) always go in so many directions for me I don’t develop some of them as methodically as I should. There are generalists of creativity as well as generalissimos, speculators as well as specialists, and I’ve always been happy working across the board. But it means I often need collaborators to enable me to do the range of things I’d like to: translation, libretti and text-based public art come to mind.
And therefore I have tended to prefer the punk aesthetic of one take, warts and all (what the Chinese call chàbudūo (差不多) ‘that’ll do’; what Ginsberg called ‘first thought best thought’; what MacCaig called the ‘two fag’ method) to the perfectionist’s demand his orders be obeyed coz he’s better. But, as with those exemplars, I suppose I’ve really favoured the appearance of the punk aesthetic, however achieved, to the appearance of perfection, however respectable the perfecter.
THE SAD PROFESSOR: My procrastinating attitude toward admin and the marking. Apparently I’m not allowed to do it on a beach while drinking rum, so I get caught between the stick and the stick with no carrot in sight:
The Parable of the Donkey with Two Sticks
When I have two things I need to get done – or rather two things which other people need me to get done – I can never decide between them, I just stand there.
You know how they say if you offer a donkey two carrots it can’t decide between them, and you have to move one carrot nearer than the other? Well, I’m like that with sticks. I know I’m going to get beaten by both masters, as it were, but I still can’t decide which task to do first, so just stand there till one of them beats me harder.
It’s no use me thinking about which task is more important, or needs to be done sooner – it’s not even any good looking beyond the two sticks to the nice carrot of doing my own thing, which I know I can only get to if I get on with the two tasks, one after the other.
The bit of me that’s a donkey can’t decide between two carrots, let alone juggle two sticks and a carrot, and the bit of me that’s beating me on behalf of my two masters, my conscience, knows that he can’t move the carrot any closer until the tasks are done.
So I just stand there, while the blows rain down on me, waiting to see who has the stronger arm or the bigger stick.
BLLL: I am perfectly happy. But I speak at a frequency that dogs and bats find disturbing, so my wisdom often goes unheard. A certain portion of the population fears, dislikes and ignores the vigorous bumpy music of language, and therefore experience poetry as a kind of carnivorous snail infesting the fleshy cabbage of their frontal lobes, and therefore do not appreciate my heroes...
(who form at least two football teams, the international side: MES, Beefheart, Björk, Lynch, Svankmajer, O'Hara, Milligan, Gaillard, Carrington, Carroll and Pu Songling; and the domestic: Morgan, WSG, MacDiarmid, Davidson, Thomson, Hogg, Burns, Fergusson, Urquhart, Wedderburn and Dunbar)
...or the conviction that we need to sabotage our egos and undermine our authority at every turn in order to escape the ideology. They allow themselves to be bullied by sententious broadsheets of paper and gripping crime drama. In fact they rather like it, the kinky fuckers.
• One thing I’ve learned the hard way
BILL: If you’re lucky you have a way of writing that’s unique to you, but you won’t know much about it at first, and, while you don’t need to know everything about it (in fact it’s crippling to do so), you have to learn the art of being as self-aware as possible about your writing without becoming self-conscious.
Once you’ve heard that music, you have to do what the muse says, and go with those most unlikely of urges even when you see it’s taking you outside your or indeed poetry’s comfort zones. Comfort is about excluding the cold complexities of weather and strangers, whereas creativity is about discovering those weathers, those others, were always already inside you.
THE SAD PROFESSOR: Do what I never do: make sure you get the credit. Academe is even more shameless than the literary world about appropriating ‘your’ ideas – perhaps because they really believe they’re more important than you, perhaps because they suspect no-one is looking.
BLLL: Concepts are not sturdy enough to equal 'one thing'. Also, the past is not recoverable in a literal sense, and certainly not by staring at linoleum. The animal cannot learn this, and sleep-deprivation will not help. When your dead grandfather who never kissed you when he was alive kisses you in a dream you should be grateful.
• One thing that gets under my skin
BILL: Positively? Repetitive music, which can but doesn’t have to be minimalist, which can be electronic or more organically-produced, gets under my skin in a Pictish tattoo-like way. I’m a huge fan of Kraftwerk, Can, The Stooges/Iggy, Neu, Sun Ra, The Ramones, The Fall – as long as it goes on for a long time and if it could also have strange lyrics I gurgle and shake like a kitten drowning in glue.
THE SAD PROFESSOR: Negatively? People who think that learning about a subject (let’s just say, Creative Writing) is the same as learning how to teach that subject. Some of these are the same people as those who think they can teach how to write without having gone through the business of writing books and doing readings which mean they must engage with listeners and readers and publishers and reviewers. And some of those are the same people who began by thinking they didn’t need to read anyone else’s writing before they embarked on their own. And some of those (regrettably we’re still not down to just one egomaniac in Ballater, because then we could just descend upon his house and devour him like literate zombies) are the very people who believe they don’t need to read any of that previous stuff by people who are dead or just difficult which is sometimes written in other languages.
Recapitulating that paragraph backwards, they do, they do, they have to, and it isn’t.
BLLL: Randomly? Personalised number plates. Not only are these prime idioglossia, but, under the guise of being some blurk's incoherent assertion of ego - something we are all lumbered with rather than any kind of personal achievement - they manhandle language in order to assert the possession of and by extension the existence of money, even though we all know that can't be true. There is no such thing as money, children, and I don’t care if that ruins Christmas. Pretending as the world does that there is promptly summons the inner minotaur. (The same goes for the apparition of companies’ words on your clothing). Sit, Asterion, sit.
• One thing I’d love to change
BILL: My grandmother’s decision not to let my father buy her flat in the first series of council house sales in the 80s – it wasn’t a huge amount at that point, but she was a singularly self-effacing woman and saw it as getting above herself. It was and remains a central imaginative locus and I can’t believe I wouldn’t have returned to live in Dundee like a real person if we’d had it. There’s another universe or novel in which that happened. Mebbe that’s where Blll lives – or mebbe that’s why Blll exists.
Or that time in the basement when, despite being off my head and wearing a saffron dress, and despite having a full band of housemates and a drumkit, I could not be persuaded to sing ‘Jeane’ because I wasn’t sure I knew all the words even though I knew I could make them up. That unnecessary inner restraint.
THE SAD PROFESSOR: My work work/creative work/real life balance. I don’t think any writer should work full time in any job – especially in a university. And (and only if it’s a secondary vocation) I don’t think they should work in such a part-time manner that they don’t connect with their work environment, either. Somewhere between half and three-quarter contracts seems about right – you get to know everyone and what’s required to such an extent as to be able to theorise intelligently about what needs done beyond your own immediate situation. But you’re free enough to pick up the freelance work which will feed both your own writing and, paradoxically (at least to the academic mind-set), the institution.
BLLL: I'd like to change my pillow for a large natural sponge, but with a compartment carved out of it - a sponge aumrie, if you will - in which I can leave messages for my dream-self, and he can leave messages for me. First message: 'Do not sack Constantinople, Dandolo.' First reply: 'Remember the antibiotics for Montaigne.'
• One thing I hope for
BILL: That contemporary writing can get out of its Western high art mind-set without simply appropriating other genres or cultures, ie that it might actually learn something from the rest of everybody. I travel and consume like any other passive customer/tourist, but it always seems to turn out wrong. Which is good: I’m hoping I can turn that wrongth into something distinctive.
(Toward which end I’d quite like an art form or possibly just an app which pulls together the poem, visual imagery and sound, and can still be held in the hand: something more than comic, and more than iPod, but at the service of the book. I dream about it but as yet I can’t buy it.)
THE SAD PROFESSOR: The live campus: a space in which creative performance is an ordinary daily occurrence fully integrated into the curriculum, and is used as a means of encouraging dialogue between academic schools and between research and practice; where all kinds of essays, meaning attempts and experiments as well as simply different discourses (and instead of formulaic responses) are understood to be part of as many courses as possible.
BLLL: Time: if we could just prove that it all exists, we'd be able to accomplish so much. But for the moment there just appears to be the present, and it's only a few seconds long. If there's a future, I'm hoping that its technicians can eventually extend the present to cover large areas of what will become the former past so I can check out my childhood and the other zones where all the dead people live. Also that we might make further inroads into mythic time so I can meet Odysseus and the gang, Dracula and his crew, and also Iggy Pop. In the meantime it's just me, my inner minotaur and this oversized robot butler fox. At mealtimes, fortunately, my family turns up too.
A long time ago (ok, seven or eight years) in a galaxy far far away (ok, Cambridge – so a parallel universe, really), I wrote a list. Back then, as now, I was wrestling with the question of how to live, and what I really wanted from this whole existence business. My husband, no doubt vexed with the faint odor of Burning Martyr that wafts around a person who doesn’t know what she wants, told me to go and write a Want List. “Write down what you want,” he said. “In big letters. Now.”
I went away, thought a bit, and duly came up with a list of everything I could think of that I really wanted – the important, necessary things, not the “nice-to-haves”. Most of the items on this List of Wants were intangibles: things like “I want to be creative in a variety of spheres”, “I want our kids to feel completely loved and secure” and “I want a lifestyle minimally controlled by the clock”. Of the eleven “wants” I came up with, only two referred to concrete, real-world entities.
The first of these object-wants was simple: “I want a really comfy bed with a rustly duvet”. While this might seem an odd life-priority, even for somebody who loves sleep as much as I do, it made good sense at the time. With five humans, two cats and a business packed into our nine-foot-wide, two-bedroomed terrace house, we had been forced to make various space-saving innovations. A key micro-design flourish involved creating a “bedroom” for our baby daughter by filling our own tiny, low-ceilinged bedroom with a double loft bed – a platform on stilts – and installing her cot, wardrobe and general vast assemblages of infant pruck underneath it. This left our bed with about two feet of head-room, so I presumably wrote my List of Wants on one of those mornings when I’d sat up and smacked my head on the ceiling again.
The other item on the list was more challenging: “I want a study/office/workshop with space, airiness, good organisation and scope for privacy”. I hadn’t had a “room of my own” since 2001, and I really felt the lack of it. I’ve lived on my own quite a few times, in situations ranging from tiny bedsits to three bedroom flats, and I’ve always enjoyed it. In particular, I’ve relished the sense of having a “defensible space”, a little corner of the world that’s all my own and that I can organise as I like. Being an introvert, I need a good deal of solitude, and my creative practice seems to rely on it – I find it harder to get “into flow” when I might be interrupted at any moment. In other words, if we’re talking Capital-W Wants, then having a self-contained space of my own has always been a bit of a no-brainer.
As soon as we moved to Scotland, we acquired the comfy bed and the rustly duvet. (Actually, we acquired the most ecstatically comfortable posh “memory foam” mattress, but my husband found it inadequately bran-and-bed-of-nails-austere for his post-Protestant asceticism, and it was duly exchanged for a suitably lumpy-porridge futon – but the duvet at least still rustles). The study/office/workshop was more problematic.
Our new house had only just enough bedrooms for its inhabitants (which was admittedly a big improvement on having only half-enough bedrooms in Cambridge). Claiming one for myself as a study would mean forcing some subset of the children (with widely different ages, temperaments and standards of tidiness, not to mention hygiene) to bunk in together, which was clearly going to be burdensome for them. Even though the eldest eventually left for Uni, she still needed “her room” over the holidays, and we didn’t have space, budget or indeed inclination for an extension. I figured I’d eventually get to take over one of the bedrooms once all the kids were living independent lives, and I decided to put all thought of a study out of my head until then.
What changed my mind was two things: seeing the garden cabin that a friend had built by a local firm, and receiving a lovely poetry commission from the Human Race project. Suddenly I could see a way to have an affordable study, one that I’d “earned” by honest craft, and that involved sacrificing a corner of swampy lawn rather than somebody else’s personal space. Perfect! Plans were drawn up, planning permissions laboriously obtained (ah, conservation zones! – purple paintwork was definitely out), and by early January I was in proud possession of The Shed.
It’s clear from my old Want List that I always knew I needed a space of my own, and yet it’s surprising me now just how much I evidently needed it. I feel almost transformed by having this simple little cabin; in a sense, it really does make life feel “complete”, and that I truly do have everything I need.
I realise now that the lack of a private space continually gnawed at me, and exaggerated some of my worst character traits: that sense, which always made me feel profoundly guilty, of “competing for resources” within the family, and a related and egregious tendency towards meanness and over-control of money. The most noticeable change, since getting my shed, is how much easier I now find it to be generous, and to express a sense of abundance through small but transformative acts. I’ve even started buying flowers for the dining table each week. I have a shed, and I am truly grateful.
This Christmas, I spent two weeks back in Melbourne, the home-town I hadn’t visited in over fifteen years, re-discovering old haunts, re-encountering long-lost extended family and eating an entirely absurd number of mangoes.
Having come back and launched into habitual busyness, I haven’t really processed the experience yet – of which more anon, I’m sure – but in case you missed it, here’s what I had to say before I left over at Michelle McGrane‘s Peony Moon).