Monday 2 May 2011

The how and the why and the what I’m doing

If you’ve been watching my YouTube channel you’ll know that there have been no new videos for 2 or 3 weeks now. This is not because I’ve been idling my time away, or have abandoned things altogether. It’s a simple case of writer’s and reader’s block.

I’ve spent a long period of time searching for the inspiration to write something new, and at last have found such a thing and have begun to write again. Not daring to distract myself, just in case the tentative grip I had on my writing was lost, I’ve even neglected to update this blog, which of course was only recently launched.

Right now I’m making good progress with my new project, so I’ve decided that this would be a good time to write something about myself and how I approach my writing.

I currently write poetry, and only poetry, and find the challenge of doing so both enormously frustrating and, I’m pleased to say, extremely invigorating. I am a slow worker. When writing I literally just sit in front of the computer and grind it out one line at a time. After five hours, I may have done no more than two or three lines (as happened recently), but so long as they are good lines that’s all that matters. Such things are rare, however, and I almost invariably manage to pick up the pace later in the day.

I endlessly switch between my work, a thesaurus, and a rhyming dictionary, and have a trail of discarded lines or fragments which are slowly pushed down the page as I add more to the poem. It’s all trial and error. I know what I have to say, so have a general idea of what the next few lines will be. Can I find I suitable word with which to end the line? Of course it needs to rhyme with another line - is there an appropriate word for this? If not, the thesaurus can be used to change the word, then the rhyming dictionary can find a new rhyme, and so on.

In fact almost every word is analysed and considered, put through the thesaurus, checked against the rest of the poem (did I use this word earlier, do I need it later, am I using it too often, can I use an alternative, is the word too ordinary or indeed too pretentious?).

I love rarely used, even archaic words, which are particularly well-suited to the dark subject matter I prefer, but sometimes they are an impossible fit. Today I needed a word for someone who has studied something and memorised it, and it had to be no more than one or two syllables (so ‘memorised’ itself was out). The thesaurus gave me this:
verb ( conned , conning ) [ trans. ] archaic
study attentively or learn by heart (a piece of writing) : the girls conned their pages with a great show of industry.
Con really is the perfect word for my purpose, but for the fact that in modern usage it so forcefully means ‘to do or believe something, typically by use of a deception’ that it’s impossible to slip it into position. The search for another word continues!

I have tried to write book-length fiction before and have ALWAYS abandoned such projects because I feel unable to hold on to a story for so long. Or perhaps it’s because prose doesn’t have the rigid structure of fixed-form poetry - I enjoy writing poetry partly because I’m forced to find words which fit the rhyming scheme.

My main difficulty, though, seems to be in the starting of a project, and that of course is 100% writer’s block. I have a mountain of ideas, hundreds of them, some with quite extensive and detailed notes, but until the first few lines of the poem suggest themselves to me, it’s impossible to take them any further. I’m trying to convince myself to accept that that’s how it’s going to have to be, but because I know how much I love the writing process, it’s hard when I have the ideas and the time and yet the first lines are nowhere to be found.

I find inspiration and ideas from the DeviantArt web site because it contains such a wide variety of artists and styles that every day I know I’ll see something amazing. There are so many talented people in the world. Sometimes a piece of art will instantly suggest a story to me, which is how this, my latest poem, began. The original picture (link here) is one thing, but my mind jumped from that image to ‘genie in a bottle’, which in itself is quite an ordinary idea. But I then returned to the original image, which suggested something much, much darker than any traditional stereotype of a genie. Disney wouldn’t touch my version, that much is certain! Mine tells of how he became trapped in the bottle... but that’s all I can tell you until the poem is complete.

The stories in my poems are very vaguely outlined before I begin, but with few exceptions things change almost immediately and the plot seems to write itself as I go along. More often than not that’s determined by very minor things, such as choosing a particular word because I can’t find another rhyme. I actually like the way that turns out - the poem is dictating to me what it wants to do, while I in turn try to come up with more lines to fit the constantly changing framework. The ‘five hours for two lines’ I mentioned earlier came about when I put my foot down and refused to listen when the poem was telling me the rhyme wasn’t going to fit. I won, by the way!

When I wrote ‘Little Red Ruby’s Hood’ I wanted a rhyme for ‘lamp’, which was supposed to go on to reveal a room in a house. When all I could find was ‘ramp’, that opened up a whole new avenue for exploration in an underground world for which I had no plans at all. That kind of thing really doesn’t work when you’re writing novels. I’ve tried the ‘write it and see what happens’ method and it just leads off into rambling dead ends. Conversely, I’ve also planned in fine detail the whole plot of a novel, then felt too restricted by it when other ideas suggested themselves as I was writing. If I spend months developing a plot, then five chapters in realise that the writing of it is making me want to abandon the original and go off at a tangent, I end up throwing out the whole thing, knowing that my a great deal of my careful planning was all for nothing. Novels, at least for me, are too difficult, though of course my opinion may change one day. Poetry is also a lot of hard work, but I can always see an end to each project. Perhaps the certainty of knowing I can get to that end is what keeps me going.

The other side of my YouTube channel, the majority of the videos on there, constitutes the readings of other people’s works, and from that I really did discover a love for poetry that I’ve never had before, not even a year or two ago. I now read more poetry in a month than I’ve read in my whole life up to this point. I’m a bit of a Luddite, however, in that I only really enjoy rhyming poetry. Non-rhyming poetry, at least to me, seems to be just a collection of words put together to demonstrate someone’s vocabulary. That does sound terribly snobbish now I’ve read it, but I do prefer the rhythm of a rhyming scheme. Finding the right scheme for my own work is also a major hurdle, and another reason why I sometimes fail to develop my ideas into finished poems.

I do enjoy creating the videos of the works of others, but my voice isn’t suited to everything I enjoy reading, so I generally concentrate on what I call my ‘voice of doom’, which is why H P Lovecraft features so heavily. I love to discover new authors, or at least ones which are new to me - A C Swinburne is a good example, whose work was one of the most pleasing discoveries I made while casting about for new things to read. I have a ‘to do’ list for recordings, and his section of the list just keeps getting longer. Thomas Lovell Beddoes is another one. I almost always read poetry aloud, rarely in my head, and if I get to the end and enjoy the experience I’ll usually add it to my ‘to do’ list. I will probably never record everything, but the list also serves as a favourite poems list.

Sometimes I start to read a poem out loud and realise that I’m enjoying it so much that I have to break off and record it, without actually having read the whole thing before I do. That was the case with Swinburne’s ‘Dolores’ and if I’d known how long the poem was I probably wouldn’t have attempted it! Things can be deceptively long when they’re displayed on web pages.

Stories are much more challenging to record because of their length, and because I frequently stumble over my words when I read aloud. That’s not evident in the final videos because I edit out the mistakes, but the editing process is so very time consuming that I only infrequently attempt a long piece of work. Making the mistakes as I’m reading can also dishearten me, which isn’t so bad if the story is short - I can still push on towards the end. But if I know there’s a lot more to come, and my voice isn’t behaving itself, I’ll sometimes abandon the project.

Once I recorded quite a long story and realised I’d read it with completely the wrong (dull) tone of voice, which of course no amount of editing would change, so after a few weeks I went back and re-recorded it, simply by sitting in a different position and projecting my voice more forcefully.

I like the range of styles it’s possible to use when recording for a video, from the ‘voice of doom’(!) right down to almost a whisper. The poems I write do tend to be ‘dark’ but I’ve tried to add some emotional content too - in writing ‘Castles of Cardboard’ I’m surprised that my tear ducts didn’t go on strike because I’d been over-working them! That poem was inspired by Hans Anderson’s ‘The Little Match Girl’, which ALWAYS makes me cry, and I wanted to write a poem which had exactly the same effect on the reader or listener. If nothing else, it certainly worked on me!

I have no real ongoing plans for my YouTube channel, or indeed for this blog, other than simply to record things I enjoy, or to take a break when other things are happening. My recent gap (no video for 2 weeks is a long time) has been primarily the frustration of not finding the inspiration for a new poem (my last one was written 4 or 5 weeks ago), which eventually stopped me recording even the works of others, not wanting to ‘waste’ time while I could be writing... or while being unable to write!

There are some other things I’ve been looking at. I re-discovered an old 1960s British comedy show recently which is full of malapropisms, and I love that kind of wordplay, so it’s half in my mind to write something of that sort myself, in poetic form of course. And I come from a place which has a strong regional dialect, so I’m considering writing a poem in that dialect. I’ve had to re-train myself to speak in that way (although regular telephone calls to my heavily-accented mother certainly help!) because I moved away from the area long ago and lost much of the 'lingo', but it’s another challenge I think I’d enjoy.

I have a recording of ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’, which is one of the few older recordings I’ve never put back on my YouTube channel. Unfortunately it’s not as good as I’d like. It was done very early on, before I’d worked out how to put some drama into my voice (I’m not entirely sure I succeed even now!), which is why I’ve not uploaded it again. I think I might have to record it for a second time. That is one for the back-burner though - it’s a long, long poem and I need to be in the right mood for it.

When I write about myself I do tend to ramble on a bit, which is another reason I’ve not dared to put a blog post like this together - having made a tentative start on a new poem it was more important that I kept it in sharp focus. However, a change in pace at this stage will certainly not harm my work, given that I’m a long way into the project. But perhaps this is where I should, finally, bring my wanderings to a close, so that I can get back to work!