Developing a conscious writing practice

Around June-July for the last three years in a row, I’ve had a really productive writing time. In the space of a few weeks each summer, I seem to make more progress than I would usually do over 6 months, in terms of both ending up with a near-complete manuscript or two, and of improving and developing my writing. The second of these is less measurable, but still noticeable; I feel simultaneously tired and energised from being in my stretch zone, and I experience breakthrough moments, suddenly finding solutions to problems that I’ve been struggling with for years. From August through to October I have less creative energy, but I feel motivated when I look back on the progress made in June-July. I have another month of intensive writing towards the end of the year, usually in November. These three productive months of the year are a hugely exciting time to be writing. The rest of the year I carry on researching, making notes and editing, and looking forward to the next of these biennial writing bursts.

I share this for two connected reasons. The first is that after ten years of taking my writing seriously, I finally understand more about my working style and practice. This knowledge has snuck up on me over the years, and now that I have it I am able to start thinking more consciously about where my writing will take me next. The second reason is that in my experience as a writer, reader and producer of literature programmes, it can sometimes feel difficult to talk about writing in a pragmatic way. Being aware of the skills and working styles that writers have makes it easier to do the business and administrative side of a creative career, e.g. approaching agents and publishers, applying for funding or paid positions. Knowing your strengths, weaknesses and preferences also helps to maximise the time and effort you can devote to your writing, and suggests other approaches to experiment with.

For these reasons I find it increasingly valuable to discuss writing as a “practice” – something that requires action, that can be developed over time, and that changes as we change. Other creative disciplines and formal study of creative writing teach ways of reflecting on one’s writing, through presenting sketch- or notebooks for feedback, and writing critical reflections, artist statements and self-evaluations. But if, like me, you haven’t had such training, or if you feel outside or on the edges of a creative community or tradition, it can take time to find a way to articulate your practice, whether that’s talking about your broader concerns or themes, or the daily minutiae of balancing writing with earning a living and caring for ourselves and others.

At the same time, the mythology around writing persists in inviting us alternately to believe that it all comes down to “just sitting down and writing” or experiencing a sudden flash of “inspiration”. Media coverage of the latest bestsellers still deals in sensationalist stories like The Prodigal Young Author Who Has Achieved It All By The Age of 22, or The Established Author Who Wrote A Stunning New Book At The Very Same Time As Going Through A Momentous Life Event. The truth is that it’s usually a mix of hard work and inviting in ideas; that everyone’s development, circumstances and preferences are different, and that the unromantic stuff – like getting paid, remembering to put the bins out, and taking time off to avoid burnout – has as much impact on one’s writing as do talent, experience and training. And just as a book so often becomes its true self only during redrafting or editing, so too do we sometimes understand ourselves as writers only after the book is finished or the Momentous Life Event has passed.

I’m now at the stage where I can start to articulate my practice more usefully. While writing my artist statement has allowed me to put into words the ideas that grab me, the techniques and processes I use and which projects I’m working on now, I also want to share the quotidian elements of my practice. I used to enjoy those magazine articles about which items celebrities keep in their handbags, and now I love to hear about other writers’ ways of working, gleaning tips and things to try from conversations, interviews and events. So, in a spirit of reciprocity, I share that I have three good writing months in June, July and November each year; that I have self-imposed a social media ban on writing days, because I know from experience that if I scroll through Instagram before sitting down to write I will be stymied by a mixture of impostor syndrome, envy and self-doubt; that walking somewhere green always helps me come up with new ideas, and that I use the dictaphone app on my phone to record the ideas that arrive while I walk; that I am still learning from other writers and artists how to translate research into a narrative (events with Megan Bradbury and Michael Donkor have helped me here, as has reading Bhanu Kapil, Hannah Dawn Henderson and Sophie Collins) and how to balance personal and wider perspectives (for this I am reading Tessa McWatt, Meena Kandasamy, Han Kang in Deborah Smith’s translation, David Wojnarowicz); that I am still learning to take my time, to look back and realise how far I’ve come, to look ahead and put into words where I want to go.

Snail experiments

Over the last few weeks I’ve been revisiting a project that I undertook in 2014, in which I collaborated with snails.

I noticed that after periods of summer rain, the gravelled front garden of the house where I was living with friends would come alive with snails. I remember that summer as one of warm rain, grass flowers, and slow mornings drinking lots of black coffee with my friend Meg.

At that time, I had just started keeping a notebook again after a few years of being without a daily writing practice. It occurred to me to try bringing literature and snails together to see what would happen. I did this by taking my notebook outside, and placing snails upon it, and then repeating the experiment indoors, to see if anything changed.

It was fascinating to observe them – they way they moved around, towards and away from one another; the variations in colour and pattern on their shells; the patterns they formed on the page. Most interesting to me was the way they interacted with the paper itself. Outside, almost all of the snails slid off the page and away into the gardenafter a short while, leaving very little trace that they had ever been there. The couple that I brought indoors started to chew the paper, and their munching was surprisingly loud and powerful. These snails did leave the marks of their presence, either biting through a few layers but leaving the page intact, or creating a hole in my ink-scribbled pages. After a while, I removed the snails and replaced them in the garden to go about their days as if nothing much had happened.

To document this process I took photos on my phone. They weren’t of fantastic quality, but gave a nice sense of the snails interacting with the paper, capturing their tentacles fully extended and the translucency of their bodies. Later, I would go on to use one of these images in my poem “Song for a lisp” (a version has been published in The Interpreter’s House, along with two of the photos from 2014). I’ve also referred back to this experiment as part of my ongoing “Compost poems” project.

In “Song for a lisp” I call this experiment “an ecoliterary intervention”, with a wink and a nudge. Having trained myself out of lisping over many years, I had wanted to write myself a tongue-twister that would undo that training and release my voice as it was/is, without the internalised social pressures and shame that too often accompany having a speech impediment. The visual experiment with the snails eventually connected with my writing about tongues (both physical and as languages). Initially wanting to explore physical similarities in texture of the tongue and the snail’s foot, I realised that the snails also helped me to employ a certain faux-academic, formally observant register in the poem, which is about mistakes, slippages and speech impediments. Using a mock-serious, verbose and procedural register allowed me to sit the poem in that space of training/being taught whilst also undermining it, letting out something freeing, uninhibited, and “incorrect”. My hope is that the effect would enact mistakes and impediments as a valid means of aquiring and communicating knowledge, and one that opens up the potential for play, irreverence, trying things out, and collaboration (even with other life forms).

Now that my first pamphlet will be published in 2021, and is currently being typeset and possibly illustrated, it has been fun to repeat the experiment in the hopes of getting some photos of higher, printable quality. I’m still working through this process, making plenty of mistakes and slip-ups, but am enjoying it and wanted to share a few of the new photos.

Vessel: Open call for issue 1

The submissions window for issue 1 of new, independent poetry magazine Vessel is now open until 23:59 on 28th August 2020.

Poets can send up to 4 poems and/or images for consideration to vesselpoetry@gmail.com. Full submissions guidelines and more about the editorial process can be found here.

Issue 1 is edited by Flo Reynolds and Cat Woodward.

Adventures in Reading: Waves of histories, parallel stories

The fifth instalment of my Adventures in Reading newsletter has gone live today. This month’s essay looks at These Bones Will Rise Again by Panashe Chigumadzi, and Exquisite Cadavers by Meena Kandasamy. Taking in the waves of history, questions of fiction and documentary, and questions of complicity, I hope you’ll enjoy the essay and be interested to read these two extraordinary books, if you haven’t already. You can read the essay here, and subscribe and view the archive for more of my Adventures in Reading.

Vessel

After a couple of years of thinking about it, I have launched Vessel, a new independent magazine exploring the ideas of poems as vessels.

Inspired in part by an interest in material culture and by Ursula K. Le Guin’s “Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction”, Vessel will explore, both formally and thematically, what a poem might hold, what might slip through it, and how it might contain.

There will be two DIY-printed issues per year, with a rolling co-editorship model. My longterm collaborator Cat Woodward will be joining me to co-edit the first issue.

Vessel will be seeking submissions of poems and images from 1st July 2020. You can find out more here, and read the submissions guidelines here. All enquiries and submissions can be sent to vesselpoetry@gmail.com.

Adventures in reading: the writing of containment to the gift of the hard-won word

My latest Adventure in reading is now available to read here. Drawing on Sara Baume, Lorina Bulwer, and Marilyn Robinson via Ellah P. Wakatama, I consider how my relationship to words has changed during lockdown, and how tangible making can be both comfort and political necessity in such times as these.

The essay has been hard to write because I have more questions than answers, and the pull between word and making has been a vexed one for my practice of late. But I’m lucky to have such wonderful writers to shape, add to, guide and provoke my thinking, and as ever it’s a pleasure to share my adventures. Click here to take a look, and you can subscribe here.

Neighbourliness

While we’ve all been staying in our flats and houses during the past ten weeks of lockdown, I have been getting to know my neighbours.

This is an unusual pastime for me. During the day I’m normally at work, and in the evenings – even warm, outdoorsy sort of summer evenings – I’m either working or keeping to myself.

Lockdown has changed this, and I have been brought into neighbourliness. Though I still haven’t been in much contact with my neighbours, working from home, having all three meals in my handkerchief-sized garden each day, and looking out of my study window while I’m thinking, have all helped me to be part of my street’s communal rhythm.

At least twice a day, Euan the Toddler makes a break for it and runs down the loke between my house and the students’. Each time, his mummy runs after him, sometimes chasing him with her tickle guns, sometimes shouting for him to stop before he makes it to the road. I’ve never met them, and don’t know their faces, but still I know that Euan has a vocation as an escape artist, and that his other hobbies include sitting off-limits in his mum’s prized flowerbed. As I eat my lunch outside, I quietly cheer Euan on or will him to stop, as the situation demands.

Dusky-blue butterflies dance and then are gone. I fail to photograph the tiniest butterfly I’ve ever seen, its wingspan only a centimetre and decorated with an elegant pattern of yellow eyes.

Most weekdays the Senegalese man a couple of doors down runs his personal training sessions outside in his garden. I hear him demonstrating leg-lifts, squats, press-ups, how to use garden furniture as a home gym. I hear him helping his children with their homework – “ah, bey, sey, dey, euh, eff, zhey…” – and his Skype sessions with relatives. Sometimes it sounds like he’s training his mum, too: “Maman, en devant. Non, en devant le genou.” I know that he is quickly irritated, but quicker to laugh. His laugh is infectious, his voice a higher pitch than when he gives instructions. In the evenings he goes indoors, and his children come out to play pirates.

I track the progress of the houseplants in the window facing mine. The young professionals who live there do a great job of stopping their dog, a small, reddish-gold little gremlin with tufted ears, from knocking the plants off the windowsill whenever the low-bellied long-haired black cat mooches past.

The little girl who lives opposite resolutely keeps hold of her My Little Pony while going through her karate routines. I haven’t yet seen her dad persuade her to put the pony down.

The cats scheme under the cars.

The students next door are exuberant as they reach the end of term. They have all their doors and windows open, so I hear every shriek of laughter, every wobbly rendition of Unchained Melody, every argument about how much to water the basil. One night, one of the boys admits how frightened he is about job prospects after graduation. This is one of the few times that his housemates don’t have a smart rejoinder. For just a few minutes, that is, until they resume competitive belching.

My garden thrums with bees who are visiting next door’s Ceanothus, which overhangs the fence, and my Knautia macedonica and foxgloves “Sutton’s Apricot”. I can sit for hours watching them. I note their difference species: the tens of great big bumblebees with white bottoms; the fewer but no less charming smaller bumbles with peachy orange bottoms; the raised yellow abdomen of a leafcutter bee, and Apis mellifera mellifera in all her modest beauty. Locating them by their insistent buzzing, I am a voyeur as Narcissus bulb flies mate. I admire bright hoverflies, the pale blue damsel fly who comes to visit – someone nearby must have a pond – and am outraged by some sort of scavenger fly, who tries (unsuccessfully) to bully the bumblebees into dropping their forage.

The family whose garden backs onto mine dine al fresco long into the night. They sound less worried now when talking about friends and family back in Italy than they did a few weeks ago. They laugh more.

Clusters of pearly snails’ eggs are too pretty to destroy, casting the light like miniature crystal balls. Under the luminous purple of a rogue orach leaf, I find tiny lime green eggs. The colour combination almost tricks my eyes, so closely does it verge on fluorescence. A close second to these colours is the honeywort, which glows with a glaucous power, demanding attention even as it recedes into the shade. I’m amazed again and again at how nature knows just which colours go together.

I hear the woman with the slight drawl to her voice check in on her elderly neighbour through the window, twice a day and without fail. Each evening they spend a long time chatting as the woman’s little girl rides up and down, up and down, on her bicycle with stabilisers. Her bicycle has the same sort of handlebar tassles that I coveted as a child. The old lady shows a gruff kindness to the little girl, and I like her for addressing the girl directly. I can hear that she knows that children too are people.  

Mr and Mrs Blackbird’s children have now left the nest. They’ve yet to learn to be scared of me, or perhaps they just take after Mr Blackbird more than they do their mother. Mr Blackbird will fly down and look for worms or drink from the birdbath even when I’m in the garden, if I stay very still. Mrs Blackbird however watches from afar, and then flies off with her disapproving clucking sound. Mr Blackbird flies after her, calling “Come on, dear, don’t be like that!” I hope the fledglings learn to be more scared for their own safety, but I enjoy their company as they watch me from the top of the fence.

Though I don’t join in with the clapping, I hear it each Thursday night at 8pm, just as I settle down to video call far-off friends. Next door’s children are quite musical – even when we’re not locked down, I hear the Star Wars theme tune on cello through the walls at 8am fairly regularly – and it turns out that they are also talented saucepan beaters.

Once a week I check on the wormery. I put a handful of wilted, diced leaves in the corner, and give a sprinkle of the watering can. The worms mostly hide, but a small scratch at the surface of the compost shows that they’re still there. The slugs haven’t taken over, thankfully. Everyone seems to have found an accord, or at least an equilibrium.

I track each new addition to the neighbourhood scarecrow trail. A few doors down a rather lumpy Spiderman started the week with two smart, Velcro-fastening school shoes on his feet. He has since become a double amputee, his trousers tied off just below the knee. 

The swifts play above the garden during the day, and move down to the bottom of the hill in the evening, where the insects congregate in greater number. Each rzeeee, rzeeee lifts my heart.

I eavesdrop on people shouting greetings, where to buy flour, how to treat rose blackspot to each other from a safe distance.

Each moment spent observing and listening brings me more into the neighbourly web of this place. There are nuisances, there were burglaries earlier in the year, there are noises and smells, there are rats, cats shit in my flowers, people spend their energy arguing about whose wheelie bin is whose. We are very different. We live cheek by jowl. We must love each other anyway. Even without meeting, talking, physical closeness, I am part of this neighbourhood. We look out for each other.

Copyright (C) Flo Reynolds, 2020.

NCW Book Club: A Line Made by Walking

It’s been a pleasure to curate and produce the second NCW Book Club. This time our chosen book is A Line Made by Walking by Sara Baume. Through a combination of podcasts, Zoom discussions and a Discord community, we’ve been discussing the book with readers from around the world and hearing from Sara herself about her practice as a writer and artist.

To compliment the Book Club, I’ve curated two lists for the NCW blog: questions and activities for readers and recommended reads for fans of Sara Baume.

There’s still time to get involved with the Book Club – find out how you can join in here – and in July we’ll announce our next selected book.