Tomorrow is the last day of the very lovely Moon Jar exhibition at the Korean Cultural Centre. If I were any sort of blogger I’d have given you a lot more notice than that, but I’m not so I didn’t. However, if you have the chance you should go and see it, especially since it’s forecast to rain all afternoon.
Last week my friend and I went to a creative writing workshop there. It was a nice thing to do, and a few years ago it would have been blissful to have permission to look at lovely objects and write for two hours. Nowadays I do that all the time. I’d intended to blog the piece of writing I started in the workshop, but actually I never coaxed out anything that engaged me much. The bit I found interesting was chatting about it all afterwards with my friend.
She told me that it was learning to make ceramics that taught her how to see projects through to the end. ‘One week you make the bowl,’ she said. ‘The next week you put it in the kiln. The next week it’s done, and you can’t ever go back and change it.’ It gave her the confidence to start a project, work on it until it was done, and then step away. Not just ceramics: art and writing too.
I thought this was brilliant. I’ve thought for a while that writing is a lot less rarefied than it’s made out to be. I don’t mean to be fatuous: it’s different from making bowls, in that we all know what a bowl looks like and therefore can roughly judge when it’s finished. A story is nebulous, and its beginning and middle and end are determined far more by personal judgement. Of course. But fiction is still a made thing like anything else: you haven’t failed to write a novel because the Muse hasn’t turned up yet, you’ve failed to write a novel because you haven’t sat at your desk and physically laid down every single letter of every single one of its 100,000 words. That is the hard bit, I’m sure of it. Writing is not something that happens in your head. That’s called an idea, and loads of people have loads of those, which is why there are so many aspiring authors in the world. Writing is getting a crampy hand trying to jot down notes on your commute; writing is a leaky biro, a blunt pencil, yet another paper jam. Writing is a corrupted file, a lost notebook, paying HOW MUCH?! for photocopying. Writing is a numb bum. Writing is just a physical act, and that is a very disappointing realisation to have to come to.
I am consoled by the fact that the great painters of the Renaissance were not seen as Artists but as artisans. It wasn’t a gift, it was a skill, and they knocked out amazing pictures in exchange for cold hard cash. It’s far more honest and rational to call them ‘craftsmen’: that at least acknowledges the perspiration:inspiration ratio. Stephen King, who is a very sensible man, says in On Writing: ‘This isn’t the Ouija board or the spirit world we’re talking about here, but just another job like laying pipe or driving long-haul trucks’.
I have got better at writing since I realised it is just an act of physical making. I don’t hesitate when it comes to drawing a birthday card or cooking a meal, and I reckon those things are more or less equal in terms of idea and effort as a 500-word mini-story. I understand the time-frame, the tools required, and also the fact that it might not quite turn out the way I expected it to. The fear that it might not turn out ‘perfect’ has never stopped me from making a birthday card or a meal, but it has certainly stopped me from writing a story. Loads of times. That’s why this blog has been so good for me: I wanted to get used to exactly how it feels to write a complete thing. Often they aren’t quite what I’d set out to write, and they definitely have their flaws. But I feel very comfortable accepting that they are finished. If they were bowls, I’d fire them.
I was a precocious child. Writing stories was my Thing and everybody said how good I was at it, and in the end that put me right off my stroke. I thought that being good at something meant that you didn’t have to try. When I wrote something that nobody thought was particularly marvellous it stung, and I decided I probably wasn’t any good after all, and so I wrote increasingly rarely. Obviously the less I wrote the worse I got at it, and the worse I got the less I wrote. I’d probably never have got back into it if I hadn’t suddenly been struck by a bolt of utter pragmatism. I graduated in the middle of the credit crunch and of course it turned out that every other graduate in London was as cookie-cutter as I was in terms of enthusiasm, nerdiness, voluntary work etc etc etc. The only thing I could do my way was write. I didn’t think it would get me anywhere, I just needed to feel that I was good at something, and at long last I’d realised that the way you get good at something is by putting in the work.
This blog is a great exercise. I reckon I write a better 500-word story now than I did when I started it. There’s still loads of stuff I don’t post – or don’t finish, or don’t even begin – because of that moment of doubt. But when I think of my posts as crafted things, whose oddnesses are as interesting as any other part of them, I find it easier to push on. That’s why I feel rather bad saying that I didn’t get much out of the session at the KCC, because it was such a good thing to have done. Every single aspiring writer needs excuses like that to frootle about and experiment, because the more sources of ideas you find the more likely you are to write, and a person who writes – who really does sit down and get the fucking words out – is a writer.
I’m quite pleased to be in this position as I go into my MA. I’ve got a decent sense for writing now, I think. I know what it feels like to write 500 words, 2,000, 5,000, 50,000. Those sizes don’t frighten me any more. I know what’s required of me, and it is just to sit down at my desk and build the thing up word by word by word. I don’t mean that it’s always easy, it’s just the only way to do it.