Writing with wu-shih


I ran a workshop at the Wise Words festival in Canterbury a couple of weeks ago. This is an excellent community arts event with an ambition to “inspire wonder and engage curiosity.”

People were certainly curious about my writing with constraints session. I’d hoped that maybe eight people might turn up. Two minutes before start time I had just one. But then a stream of people flooded in. There were so many that I joked about how we might want to barricade the doors. And then when even more came I thought I might have to start turning them away.

In the end, I counted 23 writers, which was great. Many of them had never been to a writing workshop before, which was lovely.

I read a book about Zen philosophy over the summer – Alan Watts’ The Way of Zen – and some of the ideas I encountered there bubbled up when we started to write some Haiku. Watts has a wonderful chapter about Zen arts, where he discusses archery, kendo and bonseki, as well as poetry. Haiku, he says, quoting the great Japanese master Basho, should be written in the spirit of “wu-shih” – the thought that the poem is “nothing special”.

If you call yourself a poet – never mind a writer – you take on a weighty burden of cultural baggage. I’m inspired by Basho’s belief that poetry – and Haiku in particular – can be written by ordinary people, for ordinary people. Yes, some people are gifted writers, but that shouldn’t discourage other people from having a go and using a form like Haiku to examine their experience of the world. As Watts says:

“The point of these [Zen] arts is the doing of them rather than the accomplishments. But more than this, the real joy of them lies in what turns up unintentionally in the course of practice, just as the joy of travel is not nearly so much in getting where one wants to go as in the unsought surprises which occur on the journey.”

Yep, that kind of sums up the approach I’m trying to encourage with these workshops. Watts also says: “A good Haiku … invites the listener to participate instead of leaving him dumb with admiration while the poet shows off.” People in the workshop participated, wrote words and shared them with each other, if they felt like it. That makes me very happy.


In my tent, I reside

I’ve wanted to be a writer in residence for ages. Next weekend I finally get my chance, though not in the circumstances I imagined.

What I had in mind, I think, was an august yet innovative institution – maybe a university or an arts organisation, a theatre. I would have a comfy office, a grand title, a small but welcome stipend. I would “say a few words” when called upon, and graciously accept whatever plaudits came my way. I might potter about in slippers and be a little eccentric.*

Instead, I will be in a field, sleeping in a tent. My great wish is that it doesn’t rain. Actually, rain is inevitable; I just hope it won’t rain too hard or too persistently.

I will be at the Lounge on the Farm music festival in Kent, just outside Canterbury (July 6-8). I’m a member of the LoungeStories team. There will be five of us working shifts. My task is to wander around the festival site, talking to people, eavesdropping on occasion, taking in the experience and then using it all as inspiration for fiction – stories, poems or maybe just an interesting line or an arresting image.

We’ll be publishing and even performing our work on the spot, for festival-goers to read and enjoy. They might even recognise themselves in writing they inspired.

To get the words out, we’ll be using a wide range of social media – Facebook, Instagram, Audioboo, Tumblr and others. There’ll be old media in the mix too, I hope, even if it’s just the odd haiku on a Post-It note.

The idea is to experiment – with how we find inspiration, what we write and how we make it available. I have no big plan for how I’ll use my time, just a willingness – perhaps a determination, even – to make a bit of an arse of myself.

It should be fun. I will report back.

* On reflection, this sounds like the kind of writer I might be in 40 years’ time, but not just yet

The weather will be like this, won’t it?

Why I love my typewriter

I am writing the first draft of this blog post on my new typewriter. It is a Brother AX-100. Later, when I write the second draft on my very lovely MacBook Pro, I will add a photo of my typewriter, and perhaps some links to some information about it, and where I bought it. But not now. Now I am just focusing on writing down some words.

And that, of course, is the reason why I love my typewriter. It does what it does, and nothing else. It has no means of distracting me. There are a few functions that I might tinker with one day. I can write in single-spaced lines or double. I can change the “pitch” from 10 to 12, whatever that means (I’ve tried it and can’t see any difference). There are a few other controls to do with tabs, I think, and margins. They hold little interest.

I’ve wanted a typewriter for such a long time. I don’t know why I’ve not bought one sooner. Partly, I think, it’s because it seems such a step backwards. I love technology. My iPhone, iPad and MacBook give me great pleasure. They are the kind of devices that I dreamed of owning as a child. When I ask Siri questions, I am Captain Kirk.

Like many writers, I hate Microsoft Word with a passion. Every new version of it seems worse than the one before. My laptop, with all its gigabytes and megahertz, takes as long to open a simple document as my Mac Classic did 15 years ago. And when I work in Word, it crashes just as often. I use Scrivener as much as I can. It is simple and aimed at writers. But it still invites me to fiddle with fonts, window arrangements and such like. And anyway, it’s not just the simplicity of a distraction-free writing environment that I crave.

A typed manuscript is a beautiful thing. Words bashed out mechanically onto a scrolling sheet of paper, the criss-crossing of edits, additions, deletions – ideally in different colours. I find the result of typing aesthetically pleasing. And when I am done, when I reach the end of the page, I have made something physical, an object that did not existing in the world previously. I have not simply rearranged bytes of data. I like that.

I like to write with pen and paper for the same reason. I will continue to do so. The typewriter is not meant to replace another writing technology, it is just another tool weapon in my armoury.

Oh, and I just love the noise it makes: whirr, clack, clack. By contrast, the near-silent hum of my MacBook’s whispering fans, the click and shuffle of its hard drive, I find infuriating. No, the noise of the typewriter is a good noise. I can sit here now, at my desk, with the window open, a brisk breeze bending the sycamore trees and barging its way through the tilting fields of rape seed and feel connected to it all in a way that I wasn’t previously.

Ah, I’ve reached the end of the page.

What a beauty