Figuring it out
I was lucky enough to spend 2020 at home writing, after a long period of not writing. A long period of not writing poems and essays, specifically. Did I still know how to write a poem? I wasn’t sure. What brought me back into the fold, paradoxically for a poet, was routine. Or perhaps habit is a better word. My personal favourite piece of writing advice, from the second of two widely shared Guardian columns in which fiction writers share their top ten tips (and which sparked Ashleigh Young’s poem ‘The Rest is Easy’ in her book Magnificent Moon), has always been this one, from Colm Tóibín: ‘Stay in your mental pyjamas all day.’ In my version, actual pyjamas are good, too. Get out of bed, pyjamas on, cup of coffee (no breakfast, definitely no breakfast), then straight to the couch (shut the door behind you) and start reading. A poetry collection, essays, perhaps the London Review of Books, or a mixture of all three: at some point, a phrase or sentence will announce itself and the writing begins. It’s not, or not usually, imitation or appropriation. It’s more like ignition, the result of words or phrases knocking against each other and producing a spark that catches the dry kindling of the unconscious.
Having or making time to read is crucial. At the IIML, where I convene the poetry and creative nonfiction workshop, we tell our MA students that there are no great writers who are not also great readers, and we ask all students to keep a reading journal. Sarah Waters’ Guardian tip number 1: ‘Read like mad. But try to do it analytically – which can be hard, because the better and more compelling a novel is, the less conscious you will be of its devices. It’s worth trying to figure those devices out, however: they might come in useful in your own work.’ Read like mad is creative writing 101 — to the extent that some writers seem to feel slightly embarrassed to be caught trotting it out like a cliché. But clichés are born out of truths, and there’s no getting past this one.
Time to read was a great luxury of 2020, and Wayne Koestenbaum’s essay collection Figure It Out was one of my essential books of the year. Koestenbaum’s commitment to pleasure and play results in essays that seem to be discovering what they’re about as they go, as if each sentence or section is as much a surprise to the author as the reader, as if the language is manufacturing thought, rather than vice versa. It’s a poetic approach, and Koestenbaum’s example released me into my own essays. The first person in these essays is a double exposure: partly me, but just as much a device or conduit for the language, a ‘supposed person’ (in Emily Dickinson’s useful formulation) whose real identity is made of words.
This kind of play is undoubtedly a privilege, and it’s one that writers engaged with the many urgencies of life — climate change and extinction, structural racism, poverty and inequality, war in all of its visible and invisible forms — might see as optional, inessential, even frivolous. They have a point. But this is just one writing mode of the many that are available to me, and to all of us. In The Lobster’s Tale, a braided essay with photographs by Bruce Foster coming out in Massey University Press’s kōrero series of ‘picture books for adults’ later this year, I’m thinking through questions of creative ambition and failure against the background of the far larger and more consequential failures of imagination that have led us to the point of environmental collapse — although that’s putting it far too baldly for my taste. Top tip from Jenny Bornholdt: ‘Poetry is not self-expression with line breaks. It’s also mostly best when poets don’t “say the thing”.’ Having crossed over from poetry into essays, I’ve brought that resistance to ‘saying the thing’ with me.
One of art’s jobs is to hold the space of play and pleasure open for everyone, because like bread, health and housing, it’s something we all have a right to. Sometimes it’s the only place of consolation and pleasure available when the world seems impossible: not an avoidance of or escape from responsibility, but a restorative that helps us remember the full range of human possibility, a place where everyone can go, not just a privileged few.
If you’re trying to finish a book, try Tóibín’s tips 9 and 10: ‘Don’t go to London’ and ‘Don’t go anywhere.’ Like many people, I had travel plans for 2020 cancelled by Covid. Mine were writing-related, but there are many worse things than being made to stay home and write. Don’t go anywhere is advice we’ve also been getting from climate change experts. Whether or not we have the luxury of going overseas, we can all protect and draw on what used to be called our inner resources and broaden the mind through that kind of travel. No matter who we are, how constrained our material resources, language can fly us to those islands when we need it to.
Top tip: no writing tip is universally applicable. There’s always somebody somewhere breaking the so-called rules and making great work. At the back of poet Ocean Vuong’s novel On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is this beautiful acknowledgement to the poet Ben Lerner: ‘Thank you for always reminding me that rules are not truths, only tendencies, and genre boundaries only as real as our imaginations small.’ That’s one reason why I love convening a writing workshop that brings poets and essayists together: the boundaries between them have become increasingly porous, and not as important as you might think. Writing alongside one another, the students may stage raids across the boundaries, straddle them, or set up camp on the other side.
In 1997 John D’Agata invented a name for the kind of boundary-straddling I enjoy: lyric essay. Once a certain tendency of writing acquires a name, it risks being codified, not only by critics but also by the teachers of creative writing. For me the usefulness of the term ‘lyric essay’ is that it’s more opportunity than genre: it suggests many ways to travel. Whatever else ‘Crackling Synapses’ is, it’s serious play. As I write this, it’s nearly lunchtime, I’m in pyjamas on the couch, and on the airwaves Kim Hill is talking with the artist Reuben Paterson, who is well known for using glitter in his work. They’re discussing his extraordinary crystal waka, 'Guide Kaiārahi', which has just been installed at the entrance to Auckland Art Gallery. ‘I feel so happy when you can have both: substance and glitter,’ she says. Me too, Kim, me too.