Learning how to write, all over again

Our household has gone a bit China mad lately. For the two youngest children, China is their school topic this term. They have been drawing dragons, writing about the artist Ai Weiwei, making kites, and such like.

I’ve been involved, too. Alongside its China topic, their primary school is trying to get its children more interested in reading stories set in other cultures, as a way of understanding how life is different elsewhere on our planet. To combine this with their China work, they commissioned me to write a “traditional” Chinese folk tale, which they would then use to spark ideas in school.
I accepted the challenge and became utterly engrossed, quite possibly obsessed – but in a good way. After scratching around for a while, I took a story-form rooted in Yugur culture and put my own spin on it. My tale is about Sheep – one day she leaves her flock to live a new life on Heavenly Mountain, where the grass is sweet and green. Along the way she meets Wolf, with whom she strikes a bargain.
The school liked the story and asked me if I’d come in and read it to an assembly of all the children. I agreed, unsure what they would make of it. I thought the older children might enjoy it, but I worried that the smallest ones – some of whom are barely five – wouldn’t get it at all.

I needn’t have worried. It went down well, especially the parts where I leapt around wielding a bamboo cane in the air – something you’re not really allowed to do in school these days.

After the reading, I took a workshop with some of the older boys, trying to get them to write their own creative responses to the story. This was hard going at first, but once they realised that they were allowed to make stuff up and have fun with words, they really got into the idea. There was a beautiful moment, about half and hour in, when they all had their heads down and were scribbling away and I really felt like I’d achieved something.

I’m not sure that I taught them to become better writers – I was only with them for a few hours. But I think I helped them to realise that they could generate ideas, and that their ideas were as good as anyone’s. I hope they can keep that thought with them.

In the afternoon, I went to read my story to the school’s youngest children. Concerned that the full story – and its themes of naivety, selfishness and redemption – might be too much for them to grasp, I had written a shorter version of about half the length, with the language simplified and the narrative complexities removed.

Sitting down to read this to them, I asked a few questions about what they’d made of the morning’s reading. I was amazed at how perceptive they were. Most of them had a good recall of the main plot points and characters; several of them could quote back sections of dialogue – well, almost.

I quickly realised that the “dumbed down” version of the story wasn’t needed. I should have had greater respect for this young audience. There’s a lesson for me there.

Amid all this creative activity, I’ve been writing about China for a client – or trying to. I’m supposed to be writing about how the global economic downturn is making it harder for Chinese companies to raise finance. It’s interesting, but I’m struggling to find my way into it – after the Christmas and New Year break, I’ve lost some of my rhythm. I want the words to flow effortlessly, but they won’t.

Really, I ought to remember what I told the boys in school: if you find it hard to write, just start; if you find you want to stop, keep going.

I had no idea what to write about when I opened the Scrivener file that became this blog post, just one word: China. Now I have 670 words. That’s how writing works sometimes – and it’s as true for me in my study as it is for those boys in their classroom.

Apple, Siri and Found Poems

I was reading today about the Siri app on iPhone 4s. Basically, you can ask your phone a question, or give it a task to do, and it will understand what you mean and respond. It recognises natural language instructions, and apparently does a rather good job of it.
Googling around for information about how it works, I found an official Apple list of some of the stock phrases that Siri can understand.
I feel there is a strange poetry in these questions and commands. They seem to say something about the always-connected lives we lead. So, with no editing from me, apart from deleting an “s” and shortening the titles, here are a few “poems” from Apple….
Where’s Jason?
Where is my sister?
Is my wife at home?
Where are all my friends?
Who is here?
Who is near me?
Read my new message
Read it again
Reply that’s great news
Tell him I’ll be there in 10 minutes
Call her
Remind me to call mom
Remind me to call my mom when I get home
Remember to take an umbrella
Remind me take my medicine at 6am tomorrow
Remind me to pick up flowers when I leave here
“Friends” is my favourite, I think.

Dark Angels: What I learned in Scotland

I’ve earned a living as a business writer for over twenty years and written fiction for almost eight. But throughout that time, a dividing wall has kept my “corporate” writing separate from my “creative” work. The former pays the bills, the latter nourishes the soul, and never the twain shall meet. That used to be my attitude.


Two years ago an event in my life put a crack in that wall. A depressed friend killed himself. His action was a reminder that life is precious and must not be wasted.  It made me reflect on my own trajectory. Was I being true to myself, leading an authentic life, making choices that I was proud of? Or was I denying an important part of who I wanted to be – not just a writer for money but a creative artist, a phrase I still type with trepidation?

I decided that the wall that kept my writing personas separate needed to go. It was built, I think, out of fear. But fear of what? Embarrassment? Failure? Was I worried that business clients who heard I wrote short stories might think I was some kind of oddball? Probably. And did I suspect fiction editors would take me less seriously if they thought I sold words by the yard? Yes. It’s not rational, but fears often aren’t.

Whatever my concerns were, I needn’t have worried. When I’ve let slip to business clients over the last year or so that I write fiction, they’ve always been impressed – if not with the results then at least with the ambition. And whenever I’ve discussed the difficulty of earning a writing income with my fiction friends, they’ve congratulated me on my commercial acumen. “Coming out” in this way has been good for me.

But it has remained a tentative process. Even as I’ve chipped away at that public wall, in my mind these two areas of writing activity – corporate and creative – have remained separate. They required different skills, had different objectives – they were ineffably apart.

Moniack Mohr

Now, I’m exaggerating a little for effect here. One reason why I’ve been successful as a business writer is that I do sometimes use the tricks of the fiction trade to help with the “day job”. I know that a sprinkling of personal anecdote here, a dash of metaphor there, can liven up the dullest corporate assignment. I know, too, that finding ways to “muck about” with words can make the work more enjoyable, and that when I’m enjoying myself I write better and faster. Most importantly, I know that when I dip into the fiction toolbox I produce writing that makes a better connection with readers – and that, of course, is what it’s all about.

The dividing wall has been a real one nonetheless, and the chinks I knocked out of it were only small. So at the start of the summer I decided to demolish it for good. My chosen wrecking ball was a course called Dark Angels, run by two writers whom I admire greatly: John Simmons and Jamie Jauncey.

I first heard about Dark Angels in, I think, 2004. John has written a book of the same name, which was published in that year. His book talks about the need to bring creativity into business writing. Not because it makes the chore of grinding out business copy more bearable for the writer, or because it makes their words more effective – although it achieves both.

No. The real benefit is that writers who try to be more creative often have to rebel against corporate jargon, marketing mumbo-jumbo and organisational double-speak. They have to change the way people think about the world of work. They have to insist on the value, the necessity, of writing that treats its readers as thinking, feeling human beings – not constituents of a stakeholder group or marketing category. They have to become rebels. I like rebels. I liked the idea of becoming one.

Chapter five, Recreation and Retreat, tells the story of how John and his colleague, Stuart Delves, held a week-long workshop at Totleigh Barton, in Devon, where they helped fifteen other writers to work in the spirit celebrated in the book. The workshop was also called Dark Angels; it sounded, to me, like a week in heaven. Seven years after reading about it, I finally decided to go.

The view from my window in Scotland

So what did I learn from my week in Scotland, at Moniack Mohr? I can get extraordinary amounts of work done if I turn off my Blackberry and shut down the WiFi. I can chant in Latin and find it enjoyable. I can drink vast quantities of whisky without getting a hangover, but only if it’s Aberlour a’Bunadh and has a dash of water. People are like books, you can’t judge them by their covers. Polyphonic harmony sounds lovely. Some people can’t bear listening to praise. You can learn a lot from crumbling a stone between your fingers. Bird-spotting guidebooks are strangely reductive. Beatles songs can be more musically complex than they seem. I am a better writer than I realised. Everyone is a better writer than they realise.

Did I get what I wanted from the course? Other participants said the experience had transformed them: “I’m not the person I was on Monday,” one reported. That didn’t happen to me; I was a little envious. I left for the airport feeling that I too had learned a deep lesson, but I wasn’t sure what is was yet.

The day after I got home, we drove down to Devon for a holiday, renting a house in the South Hams with another family, old friends. One morning we visited the famous craft centre at Dartington Hall. Outside, in a small wooden shed, a man in faded jeans and a grey t-shirt was giving a glass-blowing demonstration. I stopped to watch. He put the finishing touches to a small shot glass and then started to make another, talking to his small audience as he worked.

His name was Ian Hankey. He has worked with glass for twenty years, he explained. I noticed the parallel immediately: I have worked with words for the same length of time. “How long did it take to learn?” asked one of the spectators. “I’m still learning,” he said with a smile.

I meant to stop for a few minutes only, but I watched Ian work for an hour and a half. Listening to him talk about his craft was like looking into a mirror. He made a wine glass next, moulding, stretching and reheating the glass, always changing it, adjusting it. Like a writer working on a first draft, everything was provisional. He was controlling the glass, but allowing it to find its own flow, the shape it needed to be. He was never quite sure how the piece he was making would turn out, but that didn’t seem to worry him.

Ian Hankey at work


At one point the wine glass cracked. There was a palpable sense of tension. Ian was worried that an hour’s work was lost. But he found a way of rescuing it.

I peppered Ian with questions, as I am wont to do. Do you ever burn yourself, I asked? He laughed and pointed to several burns on his hands and on his arms. But these are all from cooking at home, he said. The kitchen is a dangerous place, anything could happen. But in the workshop, he is in command. There are no accidents.

Indeed, as Ian chatted to us and worked the glass, it became clear he had other senses at work. He just knew, at one point, that the furnace had become too hot. He could tell when the glass was about to break. Skill like this can only come from working with raw materials, from hours of practice and experimentation and failure; from trying to make something, understanding why it is going wrong, and working out how to fix it. This is what I do all day, but with words.

These are tacit skills, he believes, and they are hard to learn because they are hard to articulate. You can’t record them in any book of instructions. He teaches glass work to college students, but tacit skills can’t be taught in a classroom, he said. They can only be assimilated by working alongside an unforgiving taskmaster, an opportunity few young glassmakers have now that production has moved overseas. But that’s exactly how I started to write, I thought, hammering away at a knackered typewriter with a ball-breaking editor breathing down my neck – and that old editor’s industry, newspapers, is dying too.

As Ian worked there were sometimes bubbles, tool marks or other “flaws” in the glass. These can be removed, he said, but nowadays he leaves them be. They are evidence, he explained, that the piece has been made by hand – only an industrial factory produces perfect work. These human traces are not only testament to the provenance of a piece, they add to its quality: you never get bored of looking at something “flawed”, he said: it has individuality, it is unique.

And here I had another “ah ha!” moment. This, of course, is what I had been learning to do in Scotland: writing in a way that allowed for individuality, understanding how the “flaws” that the overseers of a writing factory might want to eliminate – those metaphors, memories and other traces of humanity – were actually what made a piece work, what gave it enduring appeal and fascination, what enabled it to connect with readers.

Listening to one man talk about his craft told me so much about my own. So I asked him the question that I had taken with me to Scotland: if you enjoy working with glass so much, and are so skilled and experienced, how can you be content making simple wineglasses? (I expressed it in more polite terms: which do you prefer making: functional objects or art pieces?)

Ian’s answer was a wise one. Expressing your creativity through glass is a wonderful thing to do, he said, but function also has its beauty. Producing a well-made, attractive, functional wineglass, and then making five the same so the customer can buy a set, is a very challenging and satisfying activity, he said. And I knew this to be true, because I’d just watch him do it.

The students Ian teaches at college can all make glass sculpture, he explained, but ask them to blow a simple Christmas bauble and they struggle. They don’t have the craft skills, the technique, to make anything that someone would actually pay to use, they can’t sustain themselves as working craftsmen. So if they want to have a life working with glass, they need to connect with both art and craft – the two are not separate. Likewise with me and my words. That is the lesson I learned with the Dark Angels.