On the process of writing
The Philadelphia Museum of Art has an incredible collection and, when I lived there, I used to like to take advantage of the free admissions on Sundays. In particular, I was mesmerised by this painting by Giorgio de Chirico, The Poet and His Muse. I still have a postcard of it on my desk, alongside postcards of Carlo Crivelli’s The Dead Christ supported by Two Angels, two postcards of Henry Miller, one of Brian from the Magic Roundabout, and a giant badge which says ‘BE NICE, it’s catching!’ whose advice I only sometimes take.
There is lots to love about this painting, but what I tend to get stuck on, is the size of the muse compared to the poet. It feels right to me that the muse towers over the poet as if it were the poet’s progenitor; but more, the muse feels protective of the poet as well as infinitely more wise. All of these are truths to me.
At some point last year, I decided that this phase of my life was the one where I put writing first, and on New Year’s Eve, I finished the first draft of my first book. This was my third attempt at writing this particular story and it is now in a format I am close to happy with. I have four other book ideas: two of which I have started writing; the other two are simply ideas that are gently growing in size.
In discussing my first book with my reader, I have been thinking a lot about the process of writing and the different voices I have access to. I thought it might be interesting to some people if I were to share my thoughts around my writing process. It is not that I think they are particularly unusual thoughts, and perhaps some might think me full of hubris to even have the audacity to write on this subject, but I don’t think you need to be published to know the things I have come to understand through more than forty years of writing.
I think of writing as my first language or my mother tongue. I have stories I wrote well before starting school: the spelling and writing attest to how young I was. But honestly, as strange as this might sound, the style of one of my voices was already there: magical realism. I think that in many ways, this is my native voice and when it comes, it often expresses the most remarkable of truths. Nowadays, when I am able to catch this voice, I am often genuinely shocked by what it conveys. It is this voice, more than anything, which makes me feel like writing is a gift given to me by the muse, and that my primary purpose in life is to pass it on.
When I catch this voice, it causes a tangible shimmering in my body, and my other eyes, the ones which are underneath or within my visible eyes, roll back in my head so as not to pollute the story. This voice comes to me through a fleeting and transient opening, and often carries things of beauty for me to transcribe. These are the openings through which, I feel, madness lies; if, that is, I were to pursue them, or believe they are the only way to achieve the most ‘authentic’ or ‘true’ writing. I strongly believe that the sublime can never be sought, it can only be accepted with grace. These shimmering, rolling moments are the writings where I cease to exist in order to produce them.
It is this voice, and these openings, which enable me to know that when writers/artists talk about ‘finding’, ‘catching’, or ‘transcribing’ their work, or of being conduits for something bigger or outside of themselves, they are not talking metaphorically. Quite literally, to be a writer/artist is to be a portal through which something other manifests. Whilst the story caught is filtered through the particularity of the individual writer, it is not of the writer. To write, I feel, is a process of opening up parts of yourself in different ways in order to hear different voices.
These kinds of openings come to me on the wind: I smell them as they pass underneath my nose and I fall into a kind of reverie or ecstasy as I write. Other times, they reach down and gently attach themselves to my skin with atom-thin strings, as they float above me like balloons. Sometimes they are pictures on the top and back of my head that press down into my brain, until their emotive content comes out through the end of my fingertips and form as words on the screen. Others feel like gossamer scarves around my neck which somehow seep into my chest and wind around my circulatory system like the gentlest of snakes, until they too, emerge before me in my notebook.
What I am trying to get at here, is the physicality of these writings: they start as a bodily sensation, which becomes an emotion, which becomes words which feel wiser than me. Sometimes they startle me once I have ‘come to’ and re-read what ‘I’ have written. I will literally have no idea how they got there or how I knew to say whatever is written before me. The other thing I am trying to get at, is that I have no control over this voice or opening – I cannot write like this whenever I want, even though I would like to. I am careful not to place demands on this kind of writing, because to do so feels dangerous. It feels to me like these are the moments the addict pursues and in doing so, ensures they will never catch them again. This is why I say these openings can never be sought, they can only be accepted.
Writing like that is unsustainable for long-form writing: both for me and for the reader. When I used to catch that voice, I would write ‘prose-poems’: maybe a page or two of writing. I used to believe that I was not a novelist or could not write long-form creative writing because of how what I believe to be ‘my’ most powerful writing comes out. I spent a long time avoiding creative writing because of this belief, as I didn’t know where my writing sat. In the interim, I wrote academically and developed a different kind of public voice.
This academic or critical voice is the writing where I dig in, dissect, chop up the world before me. This is the kind of writing where I am present, where I am thinking my own voice into existence. This is the kind of writing I used for my PhD, and it is where I feel most solid and real as a person. But it is not a thing of beauty. It is not a dream: it is a creation. It is an important voice because it is my voice, and I am as important as any other, but it does not transcend me; it is me. A part of the fabric of my humanity, and for that reason, transient and insubstantial.
Last year, I came to terms with the fact that, despite passing my viva with no corrections, I was never going to be able to get anything other than a bullshit job. After literally hundreds of applications, the research work I would love to do just hasn’t happened for me for a variety of reasons. This led to a decision to double down on my writing, as it is, frankly, all I have left; and what I have left is a lot. So I went back to the book I knew I had to write first and stuck with it: 1.5hrs every weekday, no matter what.
What this experience taught me, is that sometimes it’s best not to have a ‘goal’. Or at least, not a tightly defined one. Sometimes it’s best just to say, and then come back tomorrow and say again, and again, until you have finished saying. What I discovered was that this deeper wisdom with which I connect through writing would show me how to link the sayings, and the different voices, until they were woven into a coherent whole and all of my sayings had been said.
I am resting the book before going back to it, and in the interim, working on a second book. This experience is very different to the first book, and entirely as Stephen King describes in On Writing. For this book (and the dystopia I started during the pandemic), writing is an archaeological dig, a process of excavation. Here, I may find a door to a whole new world is revealed to me through the very act of asking a question. In these times, I am attached to the worlds my question has revealed by way of a fairly sturdy jute rope tied around my middle.
For these writings, I find that I must climb the rope, go through the door, and slowly brush away the earth, inch by inch, until I see the thing I am describing. Then the rope turns into a tube and pours whole sections of the story down into my corporeal self. When the words dry up, I must slowly go back to brushing away the dirt until I find another thing to describe. Honestly, these stories are coming out piecemeal, and it is a very strange experience compared to the one I have just first-draft finished. I have a hyper logical and organised mind, so I do sometimes feel like I am fighting myself a little: conscious me wants to impose an order that unconscious me is not ready for. I am therefore finding Scrivener a very useful tool as it allows me to store fragments which I can later organise and link.
To close, I believe-feel-think that creative writing is a gift given to the writer by the muse. What a creative writer does is not write but transcribe. The best writing is when we surrender to the process and get our egos and conscious minds out of the way. The gift a writer has is not the ability to put words together in ways that others cannot; rather, the gift of the writer is the same gift as any artist: it is the gift of being able to let go of the self long enough to have space for divination. The gift of the artist/writer is that they are able to become a shell of a person, an empty vessel to be filled by the muse. Or, perhaps another way of saying this is that any gift a writer may possess is something given to them, and something they must pass on.
The more I return to my writing, the more I remember that the other side of this world is abundance, and if you let yourself get out of focus, you can see and taste and touch it. The other side of hearing is an inaudible chant which is waiting for transcription. The gift of the writer/artist, is not whatever skill they might have, it is simply that they are adept at disappearing. I hope then, that for this new phase of my life, I am able to continue spending hours of every day slowly erasing myself out of existence.