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September 18, 2005

Super Essay: Contents

A little background… I did the "Modes of Writing" module last year, which required a good deal of work to be submitted at the end of the year: a portfolio of creative work, and the so called Super Essay . I've posted pretty much all of it here. I had no idea what I was going to write, and was highly surprised to find out about my own philosophy of creative writing. It should give you an idea of how I approach writing nowadays.

  1. Poetry
  2. Imagination
  3. Experience

Super Essay: Experience

If imagination is a process of transforming experience, we might ask what “experience” is. Experience is fuel for the imagination. It is also the vehicle of inspiration, which I also intend to define.

Inspiration is a curious thing. Many writers will feel embarrassed to admit their belief in inspiration, as it has the air of the religious about it. To inspire can also mean to breathe in, which is a clue. In religion, breath is associated with creation, as when in Genesis Adam is animated by God’s breath. But to breathe in is to take in something from the surrounding world, to taste the air and its quality of coldness or dustiness or heat, and to absorb some of its oxygen. Inspiration is the element of the creative process that comes from outside you, from other people or from the natural world, the alien element in one's writing that gives the work its own mysterious impetus and animation.

I do not think that the creative attitude is one of passivity, of sitting around and waiting for a muse to strike. As much as one can be inspired, one can inspire, can deliberately take a deep breath of air. But an element of passivity is involved in this approach. An approach of active openness and attention to the world allows a writer to best use his or her mind flexibly.

The appreciation of nature provides us with an idea of what this approach might mean. Robert Macfarlane, in an article on writers and landscapes, writes about the concept of “attention”,

Iris Murdoch, unexpectedly, can be of help here. Murdoch's ethical vision was based upon a concept which she, after Simone Weil, called “attention”... When we exercise a care of attention towards a person, we note their gestures, their tones of voice, their facial expressions, their turns of phrase and thought… this attention, she memorably wrote, “teaches us how real things can be looked at and loved without being seized and used.”
Murdoch's ideal of “attention”, of a compelling particularity of vision, obtains to landscapes as well as to people… The best landscape writers have been attentive, in the sense that Murdoch and Weil meant that word, to the terrains through which they have moved.
“Only Connect”. Guardian Review 26 Mar. 2005

I have found that all of my best writing begins with this state of openness, this process of paying attention to experience. It is a question of going into the world and noticing what jumps out at you, recognising ideas as they form, and letting them grow.

It is often the case that, when paying attention in this way, something will leap out at me that I know I have to include in my writing, even if it is incongruous as a symbol with the rest of the work. It is beneficial to allow these incongruous elements in one’s work. Doing so frustrates the control you have over your work, but also imbues the work with a certain unpredictability and openness. If, to paraphrase Barthes, to give a work an author is to close that work, then allowing these rogue elements to act in your creative process is to allow the work to stay open.

Macfarlane sees attention as an active state of mind that can be applied both to the social and the natural world. I would propose that this state of attention is not only applicable to others and to the world of nature, but also to the inner world of thought and emotion. Becoming aware of one’s own psychological and emotional processes facilitates a sort of emotional honesty. And one’s knowledge of oneself is bound to affect the process of writing.

Turning this attention inwards, one also faces a certain paradox, of how it is even possible for the observer to observe itself. The boundaries between inner and outer worlds, between self and other, are challenged. Here, we can relate the state of attention to practices of meditation, spiritual, religious and otherwise, which seek to dissolve the ego into a state of intimacy or even union with the natural world. It would be going too far to suggest that this state of oneness is the goal of a writer. Not all writers are Zen Buddhists, after all, and I’m not suggesting they should be. But Zen and other meditative practices have ramifications for writing, for the ideas of inspiration, spontaneity and control especially. Alan Watts highlights these in the chapter “Zen in the Arts” from “The Way of Zen”.

Watts looks at the Japanese art forms most closely associated with Zen – sumi-e painting and traditional haiku poetry – and concludes that “the arts of Zen are not merely or primarily representational” (193). Like William Carlos Williams’ poetry, the Zen-influenced tradition of haiku attempts to evoke rather than represent, and to cause the reader to directly experience the poem. “Good haiku is a pebble thrown into the pool of the listener’s mind, evoking associations out of the richness of his own memory.” (Watts 202).

The other thing we might glean from the Zen approach to art is the notion of art as something natural, rather than a controlled artificial construction,

the work of art is considered not only as representing nature but as being itself a work of nature. For the very technique involves the art of artlessness, or what Sabro Hasegawa has called the ‘controlled accident’, so that paintings are formed as naturally as the rocks and grasses which they depict. (Watts 193)

This is an extension of the state of attention. In being attuned to the outside world, one can participate in it, such that there is really no separation between the writer and the world in which he or she writes. They are all part of the same process. In this way, writing becomes a human, worldly activity, in the same category as eating, walking and conversing. Seen like this, we can free writing from the ideas of meticulous control and genius that are the unfortunate legacy of high modernism.

It is a pernicious myth that every element of a text has been placed there by the author deliberately and for a purpose. This is how we are taught to critique texts from GCSE level onwards. It is true that contemporary literary theory, from Barthes, has rejected the idea of authorial intent, but it still lingers on. The adjunct to this is the notion of the author as someone of superhuman intelligence and skill, a genius. To T. S. Eliot, the best writers moved from personal expression to the “expression of significant emotion”, emotion that supposedly transcends history and self, but seems more like a convenient justification for literary elitism. It is these ideas of meticulous authorial control and genius that cause writing to be viewed as an esoteric and elitist pursuit.

The notion of the “controlled accident” goes some way to ameliorate this view. The grain of inspiration in writing is an “accident” that appears to the writer from the outside world, which must then be formed under the writer’s faculty of artistic control, as a pearl is developed from a grain. But the creative process, no matter how seemingly controlled and artificial, must be seen as one process with the original inspiration. “… for Zen there is no duality, no conflict between the natural element of chance and the human element of control.” (Watts 193). Here, there is no room for the genius-figure who produces great literature ex nihilo from his own intellect. The writer’s role is a more humble one, one of collaboration with the spontaneity of nature.


In this essay I have outlined in some detail the philosophy that informs my approach to writing and to living. It seems to me that a full-hearted approach to writing will necessarily come to comment on one’s approach to life in general. In spite of the references to Blake, Zen, the imagination, etc, I do not want to suggest that writing is an exclusively spiritual pursuit. My intention is not to conflate all my ideas about writing into a religious worldview.

I’m afraid this essay might not have ranged broadly enough. I have not talked specifically about writing fiction, and I have learnt a lot about that this year: but my general comments on the processes of writing are all relevant to how I write prose fiction. Equally, I have not touched upon nonfiction writing, and the differences between personal and formal essays, as was suggested. I only hope that the style of this essay demonstrates my preferred style of informal writing.

I no longer find it a contradiction to think of myself as a writer, because this year has demystified to me the nature of writing. It is, as this essay outlines, an uncomplicated and very human activity; a case of paying attention to the world and seeing with the imagination. I plan to keep at it.

September 13, 2005

Super Essay: Imagination

Imagination has always been central to creative literature. [Boring digression into history deleted]. Philip Sydney wrote, “Only the poet… lifted up with the vigor of his own invention, doth grow in effect another nature, in making things either better than nature bringeth forth, or, quite anew, forms such as never were in nature…” (936) His point, I think, is that poetry can transcend the mundane and flawed material world, and rise to imitate the divine. I’m not convinced that the world is as mundane or flawed as the Renaissance writers thought it to be. But what I will agree to is that poetry, and art in general, can transform reality and enhance it, by perceiving the world with the eye of the imagination. Enhancing reality – this is what I mean when I write about “colouring in the gaps of my experiences”.

This is where I get to invoke William Blake. Imagination was of vital importance to Blake’s writing. Rather than being a mere faculty of the mind, Blake saw it as an explicitly spiritual way of seeing, a “fourfold vision”. Blake “distinguished between the various degrees of imaginative insight… twofold vision he associated with creative energy… threefold vision… is a place of visions between this material world and the world of the spirit. The final fourfold vision has a fullness which may only be caught very rarely in moments of supreme inspiration.” (Willmott 98–99). All of these degrees of the imagination are set against “single vision”, a narrow materialism that he associated with empiricists like Newton and Locke. “Single vision” is a very literalistic way of seeing the world, while the various other degrees of vision correspond to me with how the imagination may colour and elevate experience. The most important facet of Blake’s viewpoint is his appreciation that the imagination is an approach to seeing the world, and thus as an approach to life, rather than being related only to the artistic process.

We could think of the imagination as a place, a spiritual space to explore, as primitive religions did. Or we could think of it as a faculty of the mind, as we tend to nowadays, some flighty part of the brain separated from reason. I like to think of the imagination as Blake did, as a way of seeing, an enlightened approach to the world. And I see creative writing as a process, whereby raw experience is transformed into the “second nature” that Sydney wrote of.

The topic of imagination also hints at literature’s practical and social end. “Good art should make you think” is an oft-repeated mantra, and is no less true for being simplistic. But the reading of literature in particular can provoke the reader’s imagination. The imaginative process of the reader is at least as important as that of the writer in literature. It is, in fact, entirely necessary to have a good imaginative mind to enjoy literature, simply to be able to visualise the scenes and empathise with characters and personae. The implications of this for the education of children are prescient, especially in a time where children’s heads are seen as convenient receptacles for scores upon scores of exam-friendly facts. But the exercise of imagination that literature provides can be of great value to adults, too – in helping them to imagine ways to overcome the emotional and material quagmires faced by individuals each day.

[more to come!]

September 07, 2005

Super Essay: Poetry

I have had certain conversations with Timo - concerning the possibility that poetry is useless and has defined itself into obscurity. Further to that, I will post this excerpt from my "Super Essay" for Modes of Writing last year. Your thoughts please.


I remain attracted to poetry, inclined to read it and write it, fascinated by its possibilities. I feel, though, that I have to justify this attraction, especially when poetry is increasingly seen as either useless or irrelevant. Pointless, even. My response to this is that poetry can do things that no other kind of literature can. The capacity of language to question and undermine itself, to explore not only form but the very meaning and basis of form, is only fully realised when language is distilled to its simplest state.

When this happens, poetry stops describing and representing, and starts to evoke. Somehow, this element of self-questioning allows the poem to have a more direct and visceral evocative effect on the reader. Poetry, I have found, works by pushing buttons in the reader, by drawing on their own emotions and impressions. I am not sure why this is, but I can best demonstrate it by referring to William Carlos Williams.

Williams is like a magician who breaks the magician's code. His poetry lays bare the techniques of representation that constitute the functioning of poetry, and indeed of language itself. However, even when this sense of representation is revealed as an illusion, and you are freed of the notion that there is something to which the poem refers, the sense of wonder remains. “The New Clouds” appeared in the last of my lectures this year, read by Jeremy Treglown, who said that the pertinent thing about the poem was its resistance to paraphrasing. With that in mind, I'll reproduce the whole thing here.

The New Clouds
The morning that I first loved you
had a quality of fine division about it
a lightness and a light full of
words upon a paper sky, each a meaning
and all a meaning jointly. It was a
quiet speech, at ease but reminiscent
and of praise – with a disturbance
of waiting. Yes! a page that glowed
by all that it was not, a meaning more
of meaning than the text whose
separate edges were the edges of the sky.

The ostensible topic of the poem, “the morning that I first loved you”, turns out to have no substance – it does not constitute an event, even though it is the poem's subject. The real subject of the poem seems to be the poem itself, as “words on a paper sky” would suggest. The part of the poem that stuck me on my first reading was “a quality of fine division”. A phrase so nebulous, a phrase that does not refer to anything in particular, and that describes its invisible subject in the most vague terms, ought not to constitute good poetry, but this line remains evocative. Not evocative of any one thing, but rather having the effect of inducing a reaction in the your mind, a visceral feeling of that fine quality.

Williams' poetry demonstrates the capacity of poetry to evoke experience. The very basis of his poetry is experience. The lecture in which I discovered “The New Clouds” was on the topic of “Writing Writing”, set in the context of discussing how literature can reflect on its own creation. The writer's creative process is the first sort of experience that poetry makes us consider. But a poem is given life in the experience of the reader. Poetry like Williams', that can question its own function and stability, in doing so puts the experience of the reader to the fore.

The reading of poetry, for me, is changed completely by the act of writing it. I cannot imagine gaining pleasure from the reading of poetry and not, in the same moment, wanting to express myself in a similar way. I have found, though, that studying poetry closely, as opposed to just reading it, has afforded me a different way of seeing poetry: a more critical eye, which is aware of poetry as a continuous tradition and will register how a particular poem stands in relation to its predecessors. The close study of poetry has also influenced how I write. I find myself incorporating the sort of language that undermines its own validity and meaning, as Williams did.

I do not think the aim of my poetry is to collapse in on itself and leave the reader with nothing. This is somewhat of a foolish aim. I do not think that Williams had this aim: even in the most obviously self-referential poems you are left with a very real, evoked feeling, and you are able to appreciate the poem as an object in itself, like a work of art or music. Jeremy Treglown pointed out how the vowel sounds in “The New Clouds” are the basis of the poem’s linguistic beauty – they rarely repeat within a line, and the lines in which they do are thus immediately noticeable. Indeed, the best poetry can be compared to music in its ability to stand alone as effective and affecting art, whilst meaning nothing.

This new element to my poetry is not a theme, and does not constitute a postmodern agenda or message to my work. It simply comes from an understanding of how language works, its limits, its capacity to distort and obscure. I feel, in a sense, honour bound to acknowledge to my reader that I am involving them in a gross deception. Also, including this fallible, self-referential language is another technique, another trick. For the reader to realise that she is not passively absorbing meaning but actively creating it, and that the author was party to the same process of mutual creation, is exhilarating – as I have found in the reading of William Carlos Williams, e e cummings, and other poets. Self-aware poetry can trick the reader into participation in the creative act.


I should explain my approach to this as a writer with some particular reference to my own poetry. When I began writing, my poetry was about romantic admiration and obsession, about expressing emotion. Even then, I was very concerned about the capacity to distort with words, as the last verse from this song lyric attests:

A hologram you,
transparent and bright,
is made out of light from the stars,
but you are in motion
and you are not here,
you live in the daylight.

I was obsessed for a long time with the idea of the hologram – a representation of a person, made of light, convincing and three-dimensional but also unreal, translucent in its brightness, immaterial. I concluded that relating to another person necessitates building such a hologram image of that person, which reflects your own views more than it represents that person. And when you are in love, or at least in some way infatuated, the image of your beloved becomes exponentially more vivid – more real and at the same time less real. It is this sort of infatuation that first fired my poetic imagination.

To write is also to create a hologram, as my song lyric suggests. The lyric itself describes a inner space, a dreamlike place of darkness under stars, and the subject of the song – obviously absent – is yet present in the creative imagination of the persona, who sees her face in constellations (constellations being arbitrary patterns recognised between stars, having no real substance or constant nature, unlike the stars themselves). The lyric deflates these imaginings in the last three lines, which basically assert that the artist cannot capture reality.

I felt the need for these final lines as a sort of disclaimer, an apology on my part to those unfortunate enough to be made holograms of. I do not feel the need to apologise any longer. This is not to reflect on the personal ramifications of writing a poem about someone you know, concerns that are often overstated anyway. It is to say that for a poet to undermine poetry completely, asserting that reality cannot be captured in words and therefore their poems are as good as useless, is no way to go. It is no way to carry on writing poetry.

In my more recent poetry, I attempt to do quite the opposite, unapologetically. I will evoke all that I can of a person, in full knowledge that it is a distortion, but gleefully anyway: colouring in the gaps of my experiences with my very own felt tip pens. I have found that, if poetry attempts this full-hearted, imaginative evocation, it naturally comes to acknowledge its own limits, its own inability to accurately evoke. So my poetry nowadays does not include the all-pervading disclaimer, but instead has scatterings of paradoxes and ambiguities that gently suggest the limits of language.

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