Blog Tour

I have been invited by the most excellent poet, performer, and facilitator Becky Cherriman to continue this writers’ Blog Tour. Becky’s own entry in the series can be found here. The idea is simple: each week a writer answers four questions about themselves, and passes the virtual baton to a recipient of their choosing. The four questions are these:

Here goes.

What am I working on?

Three strands I think: the academic, the creative, and the business-like.

At the moment I’m busy studying for an MA in Literature. I taught English and Creative Writing for a few years and fancied a change, so when the chance came up to go back to university for a while, I grabbed it. I’m looking mostly at aspects of space and place in medieval Arthurian texts.

If this implies the creative writing has taken a back seat for now, it needn’t. I’ve been drafting less new material in the past twelve months, true, but I’ve also been through a large backlog of older work that needed a damn good editing if it was going to go anywhere. The pressures of research and drafting lifted, editing pieces that had good intentions but were less than ideal has proved enormously fulfilling, and some of those pieces have now found homes in the outside world – and I’m pretty sure that starting the MA gave me the push to do all that revision, because otherwise I’d have just carried on planning fresh material and not dealing with all those neglected but perfectly valid pieces of writing. I’m still putting together new ideas, mostly for a themed collection of short stories based on ancient legends, a novel of 19th-century engineering, and a re-writing of old Arthurian narratives featuring Gawain. I can’t say too much about those right now, as they’re in the early stages of development, and I don’t like to talk too much about nascent matter.

As for business, I belong to a writing collective called Circa Works. We started out as members of the Yorkshire Arts Circus’ Writer Development Programme several years ago, and drifted apart – then we drifted back together again to perform at a couple of festivals. We’re now looking to expand our presence not only as a group of writers, but as a more actively engaged creative and productive team, and over time I’m looking to help steer this process as I believe very strongly in writing, writers, and doing it for yourself.

How does my work differ from others in its genre?

This is difficult. I don’t write to be different, I write because I have to. If what I write is different to something else, it’s because I have a voice that is not someone else’s. Everything we write comes from somewhere, and we absorb a great deal from other writers that may not come out again as we imbibed it (which, by the way, I think is a good thing). So despite being a mashup of everything coming in, filtered through a writer’s other experiences in life, I think a writer’s voice becomes its own. We don’t always have conscious control over it, perhaps. Perhaps sometimes we would like to be X or Y but end up Z. That’s fine. So long as we accept our own voices as valid, we can write what feels right to write, and not feel guilty about it.

For the record, I love Donald Barthelme’s precise and surprising short pieces, Angela Carter’s baroque and convoluted fairy tales, Thomas Pycnhon’s manic free-wheeling, JL Borges’ intellectual games – but I couldn’t write like any of them in a million years.

Why do I write what I do?

Force of habit; the brevity of life.

I mostly write short fiction. I hesitate to call them “stories”, though mostly they are, in the sense that they’re coherent narratives with what you might call a plot. But “story” also implies completeness of some kind, and I don’t think short fiction needs to be complete. I think it needs to be full enough, or empty enough, to provide a look into a space that may be familiar but not from this angle. I think it needs to be complete only in the sense there is nothing I would want to add in order for whatever it is to be satisfying on a simple level. I prefer my short fiction to be unsatisfying to some extent. I like gaps, ambiguities, strangenesses. Short pieces are a wonderful way to explore these things. They are no easier to write than long pieces, and often take a great deal of time to make, but their being more like miniatures in a locket than wall-filling vistas renders them no less valuable, no less worthy. Scale is not the same thing as strength.

Some of my pieces are more traditional than others, though I tend not to produce what I often call “stories about people doing things in places”, because that happens everywhere around us every day, and I feel no need to write about that. Writing, for me, and it is a very personal thing, writing, is about ways to explore the edges of what happens, ways of seeing, ways of experiencing or of filtering the world. Exploring form and style is one way to do this. It’s about playing with language, playing with words and the ways they fit together to suggest any number of things. I see a lot of “rules for writing” or “how to do X or Y writing thing”, and I mostly doubt their worth. Perhaps a beginner can find value in simple dogma, and when we begin to write, trying such stuff is good practice because it yields experience that will quickly push us beyond the simplistic. But beyond that, there are no rules. There are tactics. Ideas and the ways we express them are gameplay. Writing is a game. The aim of the game is to work out how to play the game, and when you work something out, the game changes.

I don’t write poetry. I’m a terrible poet. I have nothing to say in poetic form, except the occasional mildly amusing limerick. Poems are largely alien to me, and I rarely read them, though there are specific poets I admire, and I enjoy using poetic techniques within prose. I like poetry best when it’s from the ground up, not from the head down, which is the opposite of how I like my fiction.

How does my writing process work?

Who can say where ideas come from? They appear. I jot them down in a pocketbook with a pencil. Ideas sometimes gestate for years before they turn into pieces. Sometimes things come suddenly, seemingly from nowhere. Sometimes I fight them for a long time before they change (or I change) into something else. Often the draft is hard, but always the edit is hardest. I write on paper in pencil, or on a tablet with a small keyboard, or on a desktop computer using Scrivener, my favourite writing software. I wrote my novel Nothing’s Oblong entirely in fountain pen. I sometimes bang away on a manual typewriter. Technology (and all these things are technology) affects not how we think or dream our ideas, but about how we place them into the world. I type differently to how I scrawl with a pencil. I can be quicker on a computer, and it still be legible. Stream of consciousness is easier with a keyboard. Very careful writing is perhaps easier with paper. It’s one reason I almost exclusively edit on paper – any work I make on a screen ends up on paper for revision.

I edit thoroughly, intensely, and repetitively. Becky Cherriman called me “the King of the Edit”, at which I smile quietly. First drafts can be thrillingly fresh and even damn near the mark, but nothing escapes an edit or six. My first drafts are experimental, often very bad, and roughly shaped, and I think of them as an under-drawing, as an awkward maquette, as a wild and untutored intelligence. Editing is where I shape finely, balance elements, relocate the misplaced, add the missing, remove the unnecessary, and generally tighten and hone everything in detail. From the placement of punctuation, to the developmental paths of narrative elements, to the kinds of poetic resonances employed – all are shaped in the edit. Often the edit is where I find out what I have written. Often I have no idea what I am doing, and a kind of experiential intuition is the guiding principle. Often I have very clear ideas of what a piece will need to do, but I reserve a good deal of the conscious shaping of that till the edit. Drafts need to live and breathe, and I think they do that best when not over-planned. Drafts need freedom to explore; edits need control to inscribe and delimit that exploration.

There is much to say about writing. Much of it must go unsaid, except by the writing itself. If I knew what I was trying to say, I would not need to write it down.

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Next week, the questions will be answered by Alison Taft, author of the Lily Appleyard series.

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A small selection of Circa Works writers’ work can be purchased here.

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2 Responses to Blog Tour

  1. I’m fascinated by your take on stories – not about people doing things in places . I’m not sure why but I’m surprised to find that we have such a lot in common in terms of our approach to writing.

    • NJ Ramsden says:

      Thanks Becky. I have a lot to say about what people call “setting”, and a lot to say about what people call “character”. Mainly that I don’t believe in ’em. Fiction is made of symbols, not realities. But it depends on the kind of writing how you handle that. 🙂

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