Arting About

I periodically remind people that I’m not a lifelong fiction writer nor poet. I started in 2010, when I was around 27 years old.

As such, I’ve now gained an decade of intensive experience that I reckon brings me up to a similar level compared to those who have been writing for far longer.

That said, I don’t ever want to be that writer who feels they’re too good to learn something new. When I took part in Imogen Stirling’s classes recently, I knew I could manage the work, yet I was still pushed in new directions that I wouldn’t have walked by myself, such as kennings and univocal poetry.

In the same spirit, I’ve been taking art lessons from my pal Ana Hine over the last couple of months, who is offering weekly classes via Patreon. This is a major deal for me because I’ve always had a mental block with art: I wouldn’t do it because my drawing wasn’t of a high standard, yet it wasn’t of a high standard because I wouldn’t draw.

I had a problem with the way I was taught at school. The focus was on making a finished work rather than going through the process or making a rough draft first. Yet that same criticism also applied to my poetry teaching. I should note that I’m talking about the 1990s, so their methods might have improved since then.

I have once before attempted drawing lessons with another pal, Jen Robson. Last year, she ran an afternoon class called Scared of the Paper, and my picture is still on her website. That was a great experience, and I learnt techniques that I’ve carried over to Ana’s lessons, such as correcting mistakes by adding lines rather than erasing them, and listening to music as I work.

However, I didn’t ride the wave of enjoyment and instead let the mental block build up again. Now, with being asked to stay indoors, I decided to give art another shot.

With six of Ana’s lessons under my belt, I’ve only once burst into tears and I’ve only once thrown away my eraser in frustration, so that’s progress. I’m still clouded by The Dread before I start, and it’s something I need to fight through.

When it comes to poetry, I no longer care whether people see my half-done work as I know I can go back and improve it. With art, by contrast, I sometimes can’t properly capture a particular scene and I don’t know how to fix it, so I’ve shown only Ana and my partner thus far.

Indeed, there’s only one drawing I’m willing to pull out in public just now. This is a drawing of a bus seat done while on the bus:

Sketch of bus seat
Sketch of bus seat

It’s a fluke that everything looks roughly the same here as it did in real life, so I need to work on achieving a decent image by skill rather than luck.

Be advised that today’s deviation from writing is a one-off event, and that this page will not turn into an art blog. Meanwhile, as I’m shining the spotlight on pals, Eilidh Morris is a visual artist who doing the opposite of me by including more spoken word in their practice.

Starting from the Bottom

I attended my first writing class in 2011. On a Saturday morning, we would meet in a craft shop.

For two hours, with a cup of tea in the middle, the leader would give us exercises to complete. She might provide a sentence, or five randomly-chosen words, or even a photograph. Our challenge was to write a passage inspired by that prompt and share it with the group. It’s understood that this is a draft, not a finished product.

Over the next few years, our class moved from the craft shop to different cafes in town. At one point, we were even able to use a private dining room in a four-star hotel.

The type of exercises, however, remained similar: here’s a prompt, go and pen something. It’s a format I enjoy because it encourages the writer to make decisions and solve problems quickly. I think this has made me a better writer, just as actors take part in improv classes to help their skills along.

I’ve recently taken the opportunity to revisit this type of practice. Under the banner Poetry in Turbulent Times, Imogen Stirling is running a weekly class via Zoom.

One particular area of focus is a concept I knew little about: the kenning, using two words where only one would normally appear. The run is currently scheduled for four weeks, but if it’s extended, I’m interested in still taking part.

Even though I’ve now had nearly a decade of experience since 2011, I find I’m still being challenged almost as much as when I was a beginner.

Ephemera

When I first started performing my work in public, I used to make sure my performances were caught on camera. I could then review the footage and discover how I appeared to the audience. I still have many of these videos, the earliest dating from 2014, although I’ve now undergone enough stage experience to gauge for myself.

With extreme movement restrictions worldwide at the moment, many writers and poets are turning to video to deliver performances and workshops. I’ve signed up for a workshop with Imogen Stirling via Zoom starting on Thursday, while Luke Wright is performing poetry on Twitter every evening at 8pm.

However, there’s one important difference between my camcorder videos and live-streaming, and that difference is that streams are not necessarily recorded for posterity.

In 2015, the vice president of Google warned of a ‘digital dark age’ where data saved in the present day might not survive the upgrade from one piece of handware to the next. I found this – and still find it – a little odd, considering we’re also told that whatever is posted to the Internet stays there indefinitely.

I’ve found that the video retention policy varies from platform to platform. On Zoom, a participant can record the feed by pressing a button, while Facebook Live allows viewers to access a recording of the content long after the event.

Then I came into Wright’s performances at episode 22, and I thought I could catch up with the rest by simply scrolling back. Unfortunately, their live streams are available only for a matter of hours after broadcast then permanently deleted.

On Saturday, I took part in a fundraiser with local artists using yet another platform: Instagram Live. I delivered an hour of prose and poetry via the host’s account; like Twitter, my set disappeared from Stories after a certain length of time.

Thinking about it now, I could have filmed myself with my own camcorder or used third party software to capture the screen and audio output. On the other hand, I also rather enjoy that my set was done only for the people who were there to witness it at the time.

Remote Control

Regular readers will know I run Hotchpotch, an open-mike night for writers.

Earlier this month, we not only celebrated ten years as a group, but we managed to have our last gig before all the pubs were ordered to close on Monday 23 March. This attracted a sizeable crowd under the circumstances.

We’d planned to reconvene on Monday 13 April, but that’s almost definitely off the table. I’d always half-joked that if we ever had no venue, we’d meet up in the street. It’s not something we’ve ever needed to do, and – considering the nature of the threat – wouldn’t be appropriate.

So if we want this night to continue, we need to move temporarily online, as many poets and musicians have done. Our challenge is somewhat larger: we don’t just have one or two writers, but easily 30 or 40.

While mulling over the problem, I remembered we use a GMail account and that Google gives us a YouTube profile with that. So over the next two weeks, we’ll invite members to send in videos of themselves reading their work and post it to the channel.

It won’t be a patch on the vibe that happens when we all assemble, but it’ll keep us going until this lockdown is eased.

I also run a separate writing group every Tuesday evening as part of National Novel Writing Month; this also can’t meet because of the restrictions.

In this case, we’d already set up a Discord server where members can chat via text. Last week, we set up a voice channel alongside the text, and we were able to speak to each other, almost as if we were in the same room.

Say It Like You Mean It

If you know anything about the town of Falkirk, you’ll probably have heard about one of its landmarks: giant statues of two horse heads known as the Kelpies. I visited the statues a couple of years ago, led by a tour guide.

Most guides would give a factual description of when the statues were built, how high they are, how many tons of metal were involved in the construction, and so forth. Instead, this one was a great storyteller, reeling us all in with a tale about the mythology of the Kelpies in Scottish culture, weaving in the facts and figures as he went along.

It’s this type of passion that makes for a good performer. Most writers and poets do infuse that into their stage presence – but I have seen a few who recite their words with little emotion. It’s particularly jarring when an event host flatly reads from a piece of paper that they are ‘very excited to welcome’ their guest.

I understand it can be difficult to stir up as much enthusiasm for a piece you’ve read a hundred times. Yet it might only be the first or second time the audience has heard it, so it needs to sound fresh. The best technique is to try to think about the meaning of the words as you read, and to make a conscious effort to pace and emphasise them.

Off the top of my head, I can’t think of another tour guide who was so memorable, but because he was so engaging, I’ll always remember the one who took me around the Kelpies.

The Go-To Person

On this blog, I’ve previously discussed the theory that 10,000 hours of practice makes someone an expert in a given field. In particular, I raised the topic first in December, but held off from defining what an expert is in relation to writing.

As there is no objectively good way to write, it’s awkward to apply the word ‘expert’ to anyone. I think it more accurate to use a term such as ‘go-to person’.

Every so often, one friend or another will ask me for writing advice. I’ve recently been asked me to look over a poetry chapbook by one person, while another wanted help to create a workshop about how to perform on stage.

I always feel privileged to be the go-to person in any given matter, even if I make clear that my advice is made up of subjective suggestions and that the writer can implement or reject each one.

This also works the other way around. I have a roster of folks I can ask for help. One might be the go-to person for playwriting, for 19th-century poetry, or for academic writing.

I’m an expert by no means, even if I have a lot of experience in a given area, and neither are the people I rely on. Instead, we are mutual go-to people. None of us know all the answers; instead, we work together to find the answers.

Time and Motion

I’ve recently been placing a lot of effort into my Fun a Day project, which I talked about last month. It’s now been dubbed Junkuary, as it makes use of recycled materials.

This means that my writing has taken a back seat as I’ve made an effort to step away from using words and focus on visual art. However, this is only temporary, and I’ll go back to writing shortly.

Head over to my Instagram page to see what’s happening, and I’ll catch you here next week for more talk of prose and poetry.

One Poem, Three Audiences

A couple of weeks ago, I was invited to a fundraising event featuring open-mike slots. I’d gone along under the assumption that the stage was reserved solely for musicians, and there were a number of talented ones there. But after a chat with the organisers, I discovered it was open to anybody.

If you know me, you’ll know I’m always willing to perform. This, however, would be a tough crowd because a music audience is different from a poetry audience.

Your average pub rock group expects to encounter some external noise, like audience chatter or the noise of the till, but three or four instruments with amplification can easily compete against that. By contrast, a poetry audience knows to be silent because the performer has only words to convey; even with amplification, it can be hard to talk over a noisy audience.

I drew upon my experience to pick two suitable poems, and they received a better response than I could have hoped for, even with a lot of background chat. One of the poems was a humorous and surreal piece about personified biscuits; I’d picked it because it seems to appeal equally to poets and non-poets.

The following night, I performed the biscuit poem at a dedicated poetry night with an open-mike element. While the audience did hold a respectful silence, they were harder to excite than the pub group crowd, perhaps because many of them had heard it before.

While drafting this entry about the two aforementioned evenings, I was then unexpectedly invited to perform at another gig.

I sing in the church choir on a Sunday, and the organist was organising the music to entertain their Wednesday Club. Most of the choir performed solo songs, but I was asked to perform a couple of poems. I turned again to – you guessed it – the biscuits.

This time, I was uncertain how it would be received. I knew the audience would lend me their silence, but not whether they would consider it appropriate for the event. But I needn’t have worried, as I heard some great feedback both on the night and at the next Sunday performance.

There is no foolproof way to tell how an audience will react. However, by performing often enough, it’s possible to gauge which pieces to perform – and sometimes it pays off incredibly well.

Making Time for Editing

Beginner writers sometimes fall into a common trap after finishing a piece. That trap is reading over a freshly-written piece once or twice, correcting any obvious mistakes, then sending it out into the world. As a result, editors and competition judges routinely receive work that is littered with careless mistakes. Most of them are not inclined to read beyond the first few errors.

By contrast, more experienced writers know that creating a satisfactory piece of writing is not something that can be rushed. Editing work is a very distinct process from writing it, and the mind therefore needs time to switch between the two.

As such, it’s essential to leave an interval between writing a piece and looking at it again with a critical eye. That means leaving your work in a drawer – either physical or virtual is fine – and returning to it at a later time.

In just about every piece I’ve written, the passage of time has alerted me to spelling and grammar errors, sentences that are too unwieldy, or plot points that aren’t clear to the reader.

But how long should you leave that work in a drawer? This is a question I’ve previously considered on this blog, but I’ve returned to the issue as I consider how much breathing space is necessary once I finish my current long-form piece.

In an entry from three years ago, I proposed a minimum period of one minute per word or at least 24 hours if the length was under 1,500 words . Three years is more than enough time to revisit that entry and to tweak the formula I proposed.

My new recommendation is to leave at least three minutes per word, or at least 72 hours if the word count is 1,440 or below. The slight adjustment from 1,500 to 1,440 is merely a pedantic tweak to reflect the number of minutes in one day.

If you don’t have the luxury of time, cut those figures to two minutes per word, or 48 hours for 1,440 words. And whatever deadline is absolutely looming, I still strongly recommend one minute per word or – you guessed it – 24 hours at the lower end.

This works out at between one and three days for most poetry and flash fiction, while a 20,000-word novella would be left between roughly two and four weeks.

When you open the drawer after that time, one of the best ways to spot mistakes is to read it out loud without an audience, as any blips are more difficult to ignore. It’s also a good idea to read it at different times of day, when you’re in different moods, and so forth, and see how you react to it then.

If you still have the time, there’s nothing wrong with leaving it aside again and coming back to it at an even later date.

With these blog entries, there often isn’t a lot of time as I want to publish by 6pm every Tuesday. But I always aim to make sure it’s typed up early, and I go back to iron out the inevitable mistakes.

After these periods of resting and editing, that’s the time to send your work out. Naturally, there is still no guarantee of success, but there is a higher likelihood that editors and competition judges will read more of the work you send them and take it more seriously.

Two Festivals

There are two major festivals happening concurrently this week.

The first is the popular Book Week Scotland, an annual festival of books and reading across the nation. The organisers produce a promotional paperback containing short stories from contemporary writers that are given away at literary events. As such, I ordered a box for my open-mike night Hotchpotch, and we had just enough for each member to take one.

What is less well-known is the Being Human festival, a commemoration of the humanities across the UK, and it’s that one I’d like to focus on in this entry. Until Saturday 23 November, there will be events held in Lincoln, London, Sheffield and Swansea – as well as in my native Dundee.

I’ve previously mentioned my poetry circle, the Wyverns. In 2018, we created our first booklet as part of Being Human. This was inspired by the 200th anniversary of the novel Frankenstein, all the more appropriate since Mary Shelley was living in Dundee when she started to write it. The booklet was then launched at the University of Dundee.

We’ve now been given an opportunity to do the same with this year’s theme: discoveries and secrets. Our circle took inspiration from the nearby River Tay, more than a mile and a half wide at its mouth, with plenty of physical and metaphorical space for secrets waiting to be discovered. Incidentally, only one poet wrote about the obvious connection with the RRS Discovery, which was built in Dundee and visited Antarctica in the early 20th century.

To me, it’s lamentable that Book Week Scotland tends to grab the headlines and overshadow Being Human, as there are so many potential connections to be made between the two that they deserve an equal footing.

For instance, my friends Erin Farley and James Barrowman have been temporarily resurrecting The Poets’ Box in the Wellgate shopping centre. The original Box opened in the 1870s and stayed open for more than 70 years, albeit in different locations around the city. It not only sold poetry and sheet music, but had a printing press on the premises to distribute work by local writers.

Despite the overshadowing, I’m looking forward to taking part in Being Human this year, and if all other factors remain equal, in years to come.