“Poetry was coming true.”

This passage is Virginia Woolf writing about moments of intensity she experienced after her mother’s death:

“I remember going into Kensington Gardens about that time. It was a hot spring evening, and we lay down – Nessa and I – in the long grass behind the Flower Walk. I had taken The Golden Treasury with me. I opened it and began to read some poem (which it was I forget). It was as if it became altogether intelligible; I had a feeling of transparency in words when they cease to be words and become so intensified that one seems to experience them; to foretell them as if they developed what one is already feeling. I was so astonished that I tried to explain the feeling. “One seems to understand what it’s about”, I said awkwardly. I suppose Nessa has forgotten; no one could have understood from what I said the queer feeling I had in the hot grass, that poetry was coming true. Nor does that give the feeling. It matches what I have sometimes felt when I write. The pen gets on the scent.

My first memory of understanding a poem was a bit like this. It was either my first or second year of high school, so I would have been about 12 years old. The teacher read the poem aloud to the class; it was ambiguous and we couldn’t figure out the context. The classroom was a sea of mildly confused faces. Then she read it out a second time, and as she reached the end of the final line (I remember what it was: “I am first to go.”) the realisation hit me with an almost physical blow. I inhaled a little “oh!” of surprise and pressed a hand to my mouth and my eyes started watering.

The context was a hospital; the ‘I’ of the poem had finally decided to obey the wishes of their loved one, and leave them to die on their own and keep their memory intact.  I realised all of this in an instantaneous moment, like a magic-eye puzzle suddenly materialising in my brain. And yes, my reaction in the dead silent classroom and everyone’s baffled eyes swinging towards me were mildly embarrassing. But the teacher – I can’t even remember her name or what she looked like – as soon as I made a sound her eyes locked on to mine like bam, a shooting laser beam of empathy and connection. A wordless understanding forged through words.

Virginia Woolf speaks to me again:

“Behind the cotton wool is hidden a pattern; that we – I mean all human beings – are connected with this; that the whole world is a work of art; that we are parts of the work of art. Hamlet or a Beethoven quartet is the truth about this vast mass that we call the world. But there  is no Shakespeare, there is no Beethoven; certainly and emphatically there is no God; we are the words; we are the music; we are the thing itself.”

… And now I have an inkling of where my love of semi-colons has come from.


How Not To Write a Finale Episode

(Minor spoilers ahead for HIMYM)

I learned something today. Had a point driven home, hard.

As a creator, you have a huge responsibility to your readers/viewers. You owe them the courage to be truthful to your story and your characters. The dedication to create the best story you can, and not sell it short due to lack of time or ideas or money. This makes me want to go back and finish every story I ever left half-written on the internet, even if there was only one person out there who read it and enjoyed it. Because how could I do that to them?

How could they do that to us? How could they do that, after nine years?

How I Met Your Mother has ended after nine seasons and I only realised from this cutting sense of betrayal how much I had invested, and how much I was owed. Should have been owed.

I’m not talking about catering to your audience, writing to please a crowd, selling out. I’m talking about the fact that stories have their own integrity, and your audience will know and what’s more they will feel dirty and cheated if you tear that integrity up into little pieces. And then set it on fire. And then poop on the ashes.

I know it’s ‘just a story’, but stories are the things of life, and this one went for nine years, and I’m a little heartbroken. Because the story was broken. They broke it. And I had this whole celebratory blog post planned and everything! Which I may still write, if I can ever get over this disappointment.

Rage-texting in commiseration with my brother, I came to this realisation: It was supposed to be 500 Days of Summer. Instead, we got Friends.

This wasn’t what it was supposed to be.

Katherine Mansfield: “O you who come after me…”

I have only ever read one of Katherine Mansfield’s short stories – The Garden Party – and I read it almost a decade ago. All this time later, I can still remember the closing lines word-for-word, and the indescribable emotion that it raised in me.

While reading her journal recently, I have experienced another moment of literary haunting, from a writer who seems to speak to you directly through the ages.

“O you who come after me…”

Hair raised on my arms and the back of my neck, as if I had been watching this long-dead woman in solitary work over her notebook, thinking myself an unseen observer, and she had suddenly lifted her head and looked me directly in the eye and somehow recognised me…

December 17th, 1919:

“I’d like to write my books and spend some happy time with J. … and see L. in a sunny place and pick violets – all kinds of flowers. I’d like to do heaps of things, really. But I don’t mind if I do not do them. … Honesty (why?) is the only thing one seems to prize beyond life, love, death, everything. It alone remaineth. O you who come after me, will you believe it? At the end truth is the only thing worth having: it’s more thrilling than love, more joyful and more passionate. It simply cannot fail. All else fails. I, at any rate, give the remainder of my life to it and it alone.”

February 1920:

“The waves, as I drove home this afternoon, and the high foam, how it was suspended in the air before it fell…. What is it that happens in that moment of suspension? It is timeless. In that moment (what do I mean?) the whole life of the soul is contained. One is flung up – out of life – one is ‘held’, and then, – down, bright, broken, glittering on to the rocks, tossed back, part of the ebb and flow.

I don’t want to be sentimental. But while one hangs, suspended in the air, held – while I watched the spray, I was conscious for life of the white sky with a web of torn grey over it; of the slipping, sliding, slithering sea; of the dark woods blotted against the cape; of the flowers on the tree I was passing; and more – of a huge cavern where my selves (who were like ancient sea-weed gatherers) mumbled, indifferent and intimate… and this other self apart in the carriage, grasping the cold knob of her umbrella, thinking of a ship, of ropes stiffened with white paint and the wet, flapping oilskins of sailors…. Shall one ever be at peace with oneself? Ever quiet and uninterrupted – without pain – with the one whom one loves under the same roof? Is it too much to ask?”

October 10th, 1922:

“Now, Katherine, what do you mean by health? And what do you want it for?

Answer: By health I mean the power to live a full, adult, living, breathing life in close contact with what I love – the earth and the wonders thereof – the sea – the sun. All that we mean when we speak of the external world. I want to enter into it, to be part of it, to live in it, to learn from it, to lose all that is superficial and acquired in me and to become a conscious direct human being. I want, by understanding myself, to understand others. I want to be all that I am capable of becoming so that I may be (and here I have stopped and waited and waited and it’s no good – there’s only one phrase that will do) a child of the sun.

[…] Then I want to work. At what? I want so to live that I work with my hands and my feeling and my brain. I want a garden, a small house, grass, animals, books, pictures, music. And out of this, the expression of this, I want to be writing.

[…] But warm, eager, living life – to be rooted in life – to learn, to desire to know, to feel, to think, to act. That is what I want. And nothing less. That is what I must try for.”


The Curse of the English Lit Major

I have just got home from work. I should be cleaning or cooking or doing any number of boring yet essential household tasks, but all I want to do is sit and read Virginia Woolf for hours and hours, neglecting food and sleep and general domesticity. I want to immerse myself in the words and thoughts of this woman from the best part of a century ago, this woman who seems to be able to wield language as if the there is no distance between Word and experience.

She writes of a Sussex evening, and I am there:

“… one’s perceptions blow out rapidly like air balls expanded by some rush of air, and then, when all seems blown to its fullest and tautest, with beauty and beauty and beauty, a pin pricks; it collapses. But what is the pin? So far as I could tell, the pin had something to do with one’s impotency. I cannot hold this – I cannot express this – I am overcome by it – I am mastered. Somewhere in that region one’s discontent lay; and it was allied with the idea that one’s nature demands mastery over all that it receives; and mastery here meant the power to convey what one saw now over Sussex so that another person could share it. And further, there was another prick of the pin: one was wasting one’s chance; for beauty spread at one’s right hand, at one’s left; at one’s back too; it was escaping all the time; one could only offer a thimble to a torrent that could fill baths, lakes.”

I wish I could travel back in time to tell her that she has not failed, she has spoken to me and shared her thoughts with me and she has filled lakes in my mind with her writing. But also I feel as if she must have already known this, on some level, or she never would have set pen to paper at all.

The Existential Transience of Magnetic Poetry

Why is magnetic poetry so damn satisfying? That’s the question I’ve been asking myself ever since I discovered the availability of the magnetic poetry app on my new HTC phone.

There is something addictive about the physicality of words, the way they move and squirm under your fingertips. They are never the same twice. We are never the same twice.

It is the realisation of words as tactile objects, like pebbles in a stream, constantly tumbled and re-shaped into new combinations.

Turning the words into physical building blocks makes us remember the playful aspects of language. ‘Playing’ with language brings us back to a time when words were new and exciting, shiny baubles to roll around and lift up to catch the light.

Magnetic poetry also brings with it the advantages of having a limited wordset; the boundaries spur our creativity, just as writing in a strict form like a haiku or a sonnet forces us to think creatively  and build upon the frame.

Writing magnetic poetry is a bit like carving the sculpture from the block of marble. Chipping away at the flotsam of words until you reveal the poem at its core, the poem that was there all along.

… The poem that will disappear from your fridge door in half a week when your brother’s mates come around and pick out all of the ‘naughty’ words to string together into laughably erotic sentences. But it’s this transience, fleetingness, ephemerality, that makes magnetic poetry so intoxicating.

You can play magnetic poetry online here, and please feel free to post your experiments and results in all their glory in the comments section below.

Feminism in the literary world

Statistics can be so disheartening sometimes.

Sophie Cunningham writes about the plight of the female author in the literary world. Read the article here.

I’ve always been uncomfortable with the idea of quotas. Mainly because I know that it shouldn’t be necessary for equality to be enforced – it should come naturally. The current numbers indicate otherwise, though.

As a hopeful writer, how does one go about Changing The System? Where do we start?

Why do we write? A growing collection of excuses, reasons, and passions.

It was my very first university English lecture, before I’d even developed my student addiction to coffee. I crowded into the large lecture theatre with a few hundred other first year students and sat towards the middle, a perfect model of uncaffeinated attention and focus. Fresh notebooks, new pens, a bottle of water. Our lecturer arrived, stood at the lectern, and began to talk about the general outline of the course and how everything would work.

And then he spoke to us about why the study of English was important. One arm anchoring himself on each side of the lectern, he looked up from his notes and seemed to stare me right in the eye. Slowly, and with a certain weight in his words, he said:

 “It’s not worthless to love literature. It’s not worthless to love ideas.”

A silent and invisible ripple went through his whole audience, a wave of electricity, validation, relief. It’s okay, he was saying. You’re not mad and it’s not just you. Your gut feeling was right; this stuff really is important. We were hooked. Years later, I still haven’t forgotten that moment.

Most readers and writers seem to know instinctively that literature and stories are important. But why do we write? What makes us do it? It’s a question that I’m sure all authors and scribblers have asked themselves at one time or another, whether out of an idle curiosity or in a pen-throwing, paper-crumpling moment of despair. Here’s the collection of answers that I’ve accumulated for myself so far:

  • To ‘photograph’ life, so moments don’t fade under the erosion of time and memory. Writing allows us to capture flights of fancy before they float away. Lines on the page form the bars of a cage, with words trapped in between. (Their servitude means our freedom).
  • Because we want to. Because we can’t help it. Because there is an undeniable compulsion to write. (This leads to the absolute necessity of notebooks). We have to siphon off our bulging imaginations if for no other reason than to function more effectively in our day to day lives. I can get lost in the strange wilderness of fictionland, and it sometimes gets to the point where I have to exorcise it from my system. Writing is the release valve.
  • Because it’s fun. We get to play God. We get to save the world. We get to be the heroine and the villain. There’s a freedom in writing that you can’t quite obtain in the real world – at least, not without violating some criminal codes. (See: playing the villain, above).
  • We write for the pure exhilaration of it. There’s nothing like that sudden spark of inspiration, tricky plot points abruptly falling into place, or your own characters making sense in ways you’d never even dreamed of.
  • For some people, writing is an escape. Personally I prefer to think of it as an exploration. (If I want an escape, I’ll let another author do all the hard work for me and then I’ll go and read their book). It depends partly on what genre you’re writing in. It can take you away to a world without tax return paperwork and dirty dishes in the sink; alternatively, it can take you deeper into that world, and remind you why it’s worth living there in the first place.
  • As cliché as it may sound, we write to make sense of life. Language is the tool that we use to organise our experience. Without words (without art), we’re trapped inside our own heads with no way out. Writing is a form of self-exploration, excavation, and sometimes a weird kind of therapy. When we write, we uncover the things that really matter. We figure out what’s important.
  • Because it’s not worthless.
  •  Because it can change the world.

(You might think I’m just being whimsical, but that last point was serious.)