40before40 Archive

40before40, Novel Writing, Writing Blog

Talking about your work

A fair few months ago I had a conversation with a colleague about my novel. I’d just finished the piece for submission to the PhD, but was not happy with the final work. I was grumbling about it, when my colleague suggested I needed to find in it the things I still liked about it, because if I was now to not only finish a novel but become a professional and published novelist I would have to talk about the book, many times, over and over, to hundreds of audiences, online and offline, in bookshops and presentations.

In many ways this talk was the most useful piece of advice I’d had as a writer (one ‘for’ the Kureshi camp… more on this later). It showed me, rather starkly, that the book was not finished, not until I could find what in it really mattered to me. Really mattered.

But it was a lesson I thought about this week as I had the chance to speak to or hear other artists and writers talk about their work.

James-MaskreyFirst, I had the pleasure of meeting the glass artist James Maskrey. He works at the National Glass Centre, and makes glass works that tell the story of exploration, especially the early 20th century Antarctic explorations of Scott et al. His work takes images, motifs and a huge amount of research and creates, mainly pieces such as bottles, glasses, and pieces that evoke the materiality of the exploration, and that capture the bareness of the Antarctic, the simplicity of the attempts (and the kit they had to make those attempts), and the clarity of the hopes and ambitions of the men on the journeys.

What I enjoyed, most of all, however, was taking a back seat and listening to how James spoke about his work. He talked with a great deal of passion about the subject matter, and the research process. It’s a process that Maile Chapman and Joanna Skibsrud both write about with luscious delight in Karen Stevens’ new edited collection Writing a First Novel. Particularly for Chapman, whose essay comes in the ‘Research’ section of the book (Skibsrud’s essay is in ‘Inspiration’ but clearly they are linked). All three – Maskrey on glass, Chapman and Skibsrud on writing – talked about the research process as the work. As the playwright Ishy Din also does – it’s the research process, the asking questions, the ‘What If?’ scenarios, that are the work of the artist, the discovering of stories that are already there, says David Swann in the same book, rather than stories you are making up on your own.

What I enjoyed about Celia Bryce’s talk at the First Thursday event last week, hosted by NCLA, was her detailed knowledge and passion for the work itself, the finished book, and how all of her research went into and shaped the craft of her writing. What impressed me most was this energy and love she felt for the story even after eleven years of writing the book (between beginning and publishing). For Skibsrud it was about seven years. (Anne Enright, in the Radio 4 short on ‘Failure’ last week, bemoaned a friend who tried writing a novel but gave up after a year. A year! she exclaimed. That’s not even getting started.)

Bryce spoke with clarity about the process of writing her novel Anthem for Jackson Dawes, and the emotional impact of the novel, about young teens with cancer, felt very much alive in her relationship to her book. That’s the question I wanted to ask here, before time ran out: where had she kept the book, both physically and emotionally, to be able to maintain the passionate relationship she clearly had with the work, for such a long time? Because, in my quest to answer this question — how can we work better as writers? — this question of the huge amount of time it takes to create – ‘of love and longevity’, you might call it — is central to the ability to produce something original. It is the final failure of Clive Linsey in Ian McEwan’s Amsterdam, that he runs out of the passion and energy to complete his final masterpiece; the rest of the world, and his selfishness, anger and meanness with the rest of the world, get in the way, and he fails to complete.

So I’m hoping Celia Bryce might drop by here and respond. (It’s possible also why McEwan writes such short novels. No more than novellas, really).

How do I talk about my work? The actual pieces, as well as the process? I guess I talk about the process more easily–and it’s half the reason why I write these blog posts, because talking about the process is for me a passion, unearthing the mechanisms of mind and creativity, my own and others. Creativity is itself a subject matter, even if the process of process can feel, at times, self-involved and solipsistic.

How do I talk about the product, the output? I often talk about the pieces I write in thematic terms (about psychology, about emotion, about process). What I tend to do less is talk about characters, which is what Bryce did, as do the authors writing in Stevens’ Writing a First Novel. David Swann’s piece on his debut novel, about Mollie and Tom, is an excellent case in point — how does he combine the monologues of his two characters? Although the novel is about large themes, what Swann discusses are the voices of his characters. Bryce spoke about Kipper, Megan and Jackson, to tell us about cancer, loss and love as they occur in her novel.

And in Maskrey’s glasswork, he spoke about the characters–Shackleton, Scott, and the objects as colourful as characters, the bottles, the ships, the kava kava–as if these were his subjects.

It has come this week as a very powerful lesson about my writing, and how I work, that only on a few occasions do I get that close to character to be able to tell the story through my connection with them. It was in fact where my novel began–with Marine, my editor–but drifted off course while learning the crafts of plot, structure and storytelling. My supervisor was trying to bring me back to character, but there was something about my idealisation of writing, about the process of process, in fact, that made it easier for me to think about, and focus on, theme.

But even I now tell my students not to write about theme. And not, as Hemingway says, to write about characters either. There are no characters. There are people. Write about them. (Animals are people too, I need to tell myself, because I write a lot about animals.)

So: how you talk about your work says a lot about your relationship to that work, and about how fully realised that work is, perhaps.

A closing note as recommendation of Stevens’ new book, Writing a First Novel. Definitely recommended, except for the really disappointing decision to include a Hanif Kureshi extract from 2002 as the opening essay. Even before Kureshi-Gate hit the newspapers and blogs last week, I was wandering around thinking what an arrogant twat the man is–and has always been, in regards to other writers. His essay in the book of course makes some pertinent generalisations that remain true today for writers, but it is done with an arrogance and pithiness that is distasteful. Also, written in 2002, there is something in the tone or atmosphere of Kureshi’s argument that does not stand up to time, but feels very jaded and misplaced alongside the much more humble, insightful and personal essays. Read David Swann, David Vann, Jane Feaver, and listen to their wisdoms, and read Tim Clare’s excellent response about the power of good teaching in creative writing, but ignore Kureshi’s essay; he offers nothing new, and perhaps will never offer anything new again.

*

So it’s been a week where my challenge to complete a 40×40 list of tasks in creating a utopia of writer’s habits really has fed directly into my world of professional writing. I met James Maskrey in my goal to meet 40 new people, at the same time contributing to my aim of learning about 40 new pieces of art; and I rushed out of the house to see Celia Bryce talk as part of my goal of attending 40 talks/events. When I first posted the list a number of people felt it was overstretching myself, but so many of the tasks (listening to new music; watching short films) I’ve already adopted as new, and stimulating, habits into my everyday life, and which feel incredibly enriching for both peace of mind and the imaginative life. Long may the long list continue!

40before40, Writing Blog

Leave it in the drawer

What else do you leave in the drawer when you put away your manuscript for six months?

That’s the question I’ve been pondering this weekend as I keep considering the question: how can we work better as writers? It’s an essential and common piece of writerly advice. Once you’ve written a complete draft of a work, put it away. Leave it for as long as you can.

Although perhaps not for as long as Vivian Maier, who never developed a single photograph she took during the 1950s and 1960s, and whose work was discovered (not even re-discovered) by a historical hobbyist John Maloof, when he bought her negatives at an auction, and uncovered one of the great street-photography artists of the 20th century. I’ll come back to this later.

The manuscript of my novel was put away last June/July, after also sending the manuscript out to around a dozen agents (eight rejections, four non-replies).

I’d spent just short of seven years working on this one project. The idea for the novel that I have written and submitted as my PhD thesis came to me in July 2007, as I was working in a pressured editorial role in London. I was becoming fascinated with neuroscience, and what seemed to be an explosion of popular and mainstream news and ideas about what we were learning about psychology via the neurology of the brain.

The original novel idea was both more simple and complex than the book that I’ve ended up with. It began as a split narrative in the 1930s and the 2010s, a little like The Secret Scripture, by Sebastian Barry.

Over the next few years I was, in some way, was put off the idea of the split narrative. The Secret Scripture captures the woman’s historical voice so well, but fails so miserably to do the same with the modern doctor’s voice. (Perhaps I should have stuck with it. The film version of The Secret Scripture is now in production, starring Vanessa Redgrave.) But I was also deterred by the complexity of the narrative; also that Ian McEwan was writing about neuroscientists in Saturday, and also that the 1930s portion began speaking to me far more loudly. These were the characters I wanted to write about.

And so I did. For the next five or six years, and properly for the last three, I invested a great deal of time and effort in the book, through the PhD process. And then it was completed to PhD standard, a year and a half in advance of the deadline, and so I considered it ‘done enough’ (not quite ‘good enough’) but for this academic process, finished.

Having left it aside for six months now, I have returned to it to complete the very, very final copy edit for soft-submission to the initial examining team for my viva.

As I’ve written about before, the novel has not come out as I hoped—a combination of much to do with my own craft skills, and a little to do with the PhD process. And that was even clearer this weekend, as I copy edited. It was a hard task. I can see all the flaws, weaknesses, and flatness of the plot and development.

It’s bittersweet of course—only now, as I have developed so much as a writer, am I able to look back at this book and see its flaws, become aware of what it lacks. But it is hard to have invested for so long in something that remains relatively unfinished, and will not yet get published (even though it’s as competent as many other novels on the market, especially first novels published through small publishers, and vanity projects… oh, the bitterness!).

But what I realised—after getting down on the floor, certainly my best location for gaining perspective (‘this is as low as you get, Alex’)—is that this novel still matters a great deal to me. And that since tucking it away in the draw (with all of the previous drafts, notes, versions – I’d say around two million words of sheer effort over six years) the bursts of energy and enthusiasm I’ve had for the novel are not false dawns; they are real, and exciting. And that they explain to me, as part of the craft of being a writer, which is also the craft of listening to your body and unconscious about what it is that is important to you, that I will come back to this novel. That it is far from finished. That is was in fact not complete, only on schedule for a preliminary deadline that was laid down by the PhD process.

And so what I’m most intrigued by in this renewal of an engagement with this novel is the clarity on the importance of story. The writing of the novel is very good—technically my writing has always been very good. But in terms of both craft (story telling, structure, weaving) and imagination (opening doors, pushing further, saying what hurts) I can see how to improve the book’s story. It will probably mean a huge amount of what is there, and what is also there in the background of those two million words, will not make it into this book.

But that’s okay. That was just practising.

So back to the opening question. What else do you leave in the drawer when you put away your manuscript for six months?

What you leave there is, as Natalie Goldberg puts it, work that needs to compost, ferment, break down, and grow again. And there’s a companion drawer in the mind where the psychological imprint of that book is doing the same work: composting, breaking down, going over the ground to become fertile again.

But what you leave there is also a little part of your old self. And particularly the part that attaches your ego-driven wants to the book you’ve just written, and which, in the writing, are death for your book. It’s the desire to get it out and published before it’s ready. It’s the need for recognition after working on a project for five years without any public reaction. Joseph O’Neill writes well about this in relation to his novel Netherland, which took him seven years to write. What sustains you as a social creature when so much of your imaginative and emotional life is lived in a private world? This is when you need your loved ones and social calendar to compensate—if you are that type of social animal (or in degrees, which we all are, understand where your needs lie). It’s why Steinbeck, in Journal of a Novel, both curses but ultimately blesses the social engagements his wife organises for him. It pulls him up out of the den, gives him good cheer.

So leaving the manuscript in the drawer for as long as you can is an exercise in patience and good craft: I realise now what I have is a first draft. And what Hemingway said is true: all first drafts are shit.

But it is also an exercise in personhood, in freeing oneself from the social self and conscious ego’s needs, which can ruin writing, any art.

Vivian-Maier

Which is why it’s valuable to come back to Vivian Maier. Imagine taking thousands of pictures on an old film camera and never getting any of them developed. Not only not getting recognition for the art you are making, but never even seeing it yourself. There is something incredibly powerful in this story—which is why so many people have written about it, have dedicated blogs to Maier’s story, why it resonates with us, why so many stories of posthumous fame and success resonate with us.

Because posthumous fame is of absolutely no use to the social ego. And in that I think we sense a vital lesson for our own life and work. As Jung put it, the ego is useful for the first half of our lives when we need to establish boundaries, strategies for sustaining ourselves, relationships. The ego helps us build the containers that we then go on to fill with our life’s work. But the ego is not the container. And nor is the container our life’s work. Or should not be.

What Maier’s story, what putting a manuscript away in a drawer, is all about, is, I think, some sort of recognition that to do our life’s work will not be driven by, or even of much benefit, to the ego. There are higher, wider, deeper callings and powers we must listen to, to find and complete our life’s work. The recognition of others—and I know how much my novel was written with this goal in (some sneaky part of my) mind—as a stimulus to work will never result in great art. Not even for Warhol.

 *

And so a double report on my 40before40 utopia of writer’s habits, as I forgot to do it last week. And in some ways, it has become more difficult, now I’m a month or so into the challenge, because old patterns, energies, etc. are starting to take hold of my behaviours. For example, not going to a play I’d already paid for as my companion for the evening was ill, and I took the opportunity to be tired, and a little lethargic. My continued running injuries (spasms in my soleus and calf muscles now) are still getting me down… And yet I definitely see the benefits of challenging myself to create new habits, and how much easier now I can do things I feared before (even ‘wasting time’ watching films, for example).

So this past fortnight I read Coetzee’s mainly-disappointing The Child of Jesus (although not everyone agrees it’s that disappointing), and have nearly finished Bill Herbert’s excellent Omnesia (the remix), I spent an afternoon doing nothing (great!), entered my novel into the Dundee Book Prize, also entered the Fish Publishing Flash Fiction prize, listened to a couple of albums, Liquid Metal and Girls Names’, wrote a new poem based on learning about Picasso’s Minotaur, listened to a couple of podcasts, Our Hen House’s Episode 216 and the Animal Rights Zone 79, bought K a lamp, read two random journal articles ‘We all Kill Whales’ and ‘Environmental EMOs’, and committed at least three hours to pilates. Not bad going.

40before40, Writing Blog, Writing vs. The Ego

Learning how to work (better)

Sometimes, the only thing one can do is lie on the floor. If it’s outside on grass or sand, even better. It’s still a little too cold for that. So indoors is fine. I had a presentiment, not totally disconnected to knowing that Carl Jung, on splitting with Freud, returned to childhood play to re-find his way back into what was for him ‘meaningful work’, that to lie on the floor as I worked through a writing problem would resolve at least half the problem.

Lying on the floor feels wholly unprofessional, and as such, much more fun and relaxed than how one normally works out problems. I only wish we could introduce it to conference proceedings.

Anyway. I’ve been fiddling with this question for a few weeks now: how can I work better? There are subtexts of efficiency and productivity in this, but truthfully, the question is more soulful and grounded than this (and why lying on the floor helps). I’ve peeled back a few layers over the last few weeks (and posts here, on practising, on omnivorous reading, on finding writing models) that are about craft, inspiration, technique.

But what it comes down to is this. I have a 10-page document culled from somewhere of provocative, audacious anonymous aphorisms, and in the very centre of it, it says this:

“Address the objects that are at the centre of you.” There are only a few of them, of these truly vital objects of yours. Turn to them, speak to them, speak of them. Speak from your centre of gravity.

Clearing the desk space, filing the journal articles, organising the piles of scraps of newspapers and stories for stimulation, only go so far in helping make you a writer. What you need to do is make an address to yourself. Find your centre of gravity.

And so I went to the floor.

I went to the floor after sitting for a while, after editing a piece of flash fiction and entering it into a competition, and then finding I didn’t know where else to begin. So I went to the floor, and took with me this 10-pager filled with provocation. “Kick Shakespeare in the balls and shove Homer down the stairs. Writing is easy—it costs you no less than your life.”

I’d sat in the chair for a while and burnt out the first thoughts, as advised by Natalie Goldberg, and got through to a place where I could address myself to this question: how can I work better? Because I’d realised it is not ‘how to write’ or ‘what should I write about’ that needed addressing. It is simply this: how to work. What does it mean to work as a writer? What does it take?

The presentiment I had was of drawing out the problem—literally. So I got out the big pad of paper and a pen and I began to draw some islands. (And make lists). I wanted to think of bodies of work. My body, but also the body of the writing. My body as the work, the writing, but also the writing, the vital object, that is my body’s centre of gravity. What would this be? So I drew some islands of work in a body of water, around a central question, one of great gravitas for how to work: ‘Say for example I spent 2014 working on a body of work around…’ and then drew in the islands.

islands

They are the Island of Love and Relationships; Conservation Isle, the animal reserve; The Island of Running through Place; the Critical Tower; Vegania; the Island of the Craft.

The problem, which is also the same for many creative people, is that I’m an island hopper. I find it difficult to settle in any one community of expertise for long enough to get to know the earth, dig my feet into the soil. Make a home for my writing. My centre of gravity, perhaps, is not in any of these places, but in the journey around them.

Which may be fine, in the long term. But when hopping becomes spinning, when the feet barely touch the ground, when there is no opportunity or time to lay down, what becomes of the body of work, the work of the body?

For me, what was interesting, was that this question came out of the question not of writing, but of reading. Reading is invaluable, essential, such a part of writing that there is no suture between them, no divisible line, no mark, or re-mark, as Derrida might say, to make a definition. My reading felt scattergun. I began from my reading, and saw that, indeed, I was not spending long enough on any of these islands for my reading to compost into writing. To nurture the seeds of the idea that might grow into the body of the work, and ripen.

And then (still on the floor, still drawing, mapping, writing, like a child) I recalled a phrase I’d read on a writer’s website (I stalk, I stalk, but only to learn) about their ‘current writing projects’ and I thought, okay, so, what are mine? And I listed 13. Woeful! Unlucky! Overwhelming! As the Jungian analyst James Hollis rightly identifies, overwhelming is a wounding, a not-dealing with the world, “a manifestation of our sensed powerlessness to alter the course of the outer world.” Or as my friend K quotes to me, “as above / so below.” We create in our outer world the fears that we cannot face in the inner world. And so in my attempts to alter the outer world, through gaining knowledge, by doing things, what I am doing (still doing) is overwhelming myself innerly.

how to write

So back to the question. How can I work better? It’s a question of responsibility, of soul-activism, in the psychotherapist Steve Thorp’s terminology, to become, as Rob McNamara says of us, our most elegant self.

This. And recalling the poet Abi Curtis’s words said to me a decade ago on West Drive, Brighton. “You’re working on six projects? I can only manage two, at maximum.”

And it has served her very well.

So not 13 projects. Two. Two. My current writing projects are…

later, later

(Those empty boxes… Don’t make me choose! Later. Later.)

The most powerful thing this narrowing down does is guide my reading and working hours. Rather than focus on those big questions “how to write”, or “in what genre”, or “what to write at all”, a renewed focus on the process identifies the problems with the process, and so clears away the obstructions. “How to work” is the question, and it is a question of the body, perhaps first, and the mind only later, after. That’s why I needed to get down onto the floor. And perhaps why, in a bizarre admission to this post, I spent last night not hoovering, but going over the carpet a thin strip at a time with masking tape, cleaning it of its imperfections and cat hair and dirt. I knew already I would be lying on it this morning. That was the presentiment. That was the gift of gravity at the centre of this morning’s contribution to the growing body of work. (Soon to become nothing more than a bed for Misha, anyway.)

misha gets in

40before40, Novel Writing, Writing Blog

Modelling the books

I am in love with words and books and stories. One of the greatest frustrations is a bad book, or a book I cannot connect with, that steals not only time but the hope of experience, gives me only disappointment, lets me down.*

old penguinsI learn so much from books. I have an idea floating around for a book loosely based on life-coaching from some of my favourite authors, such as Marion Milner, Franz Kafka, Henry Miller, and it’s a craving for a book I want to read that is not satisfied by the disappointing The Novel Cure, which tackles 751 different life problems, but does so as wry compendium and lacks emotion and narrative, within individual entries and the book overall. As Shakespeare and the Greeks well knew, you cannot captivate a heart without narrative. It is how Sinon fools the Trojans; how Othello convinces the Senate. Why did the authors of The Novel Cure, who obviously love literature, not spot the weakness in their structure?

It is, however, an impressive guide to writer-guides. The list of writers who I turn to, who have given me so much, is written in a similar way to Alice Walker’s list at the end of her essay ‘Saving the life that is your own’. She notes and gives thanks to Zora Hurston, Jean Toomer, Colette, Anaïs Nin, Tillie Olson, Virginia Woolf, for providing her with the models for how to write, and how to live. The end of her list reads like this:

 Tillie Olson—a writer of such generosity and honesty, she literally saves lives;
Virginia Woolf—who has saved so many of us.

It is, in the end, the saving of lives that we writers are about. Whether we are “minority” writers or “majority”. It is simply in our power to do this. We do it because we care […] We care because we know this: the life we save is our own.

It has taken some time and some re-reading to understand what Walker is saying. Because the saving of lives is not in the physical sense.

But it is in the psychological and political sense: books do save, change lives. The psychologist (or rather un-psychologist) Steve Thorp calls Alice Walker ‘an “integral” practitioner: an activist, a novelist, a poet, essayist – her work combines psychological and political understanding with a poetic and ecological sensibility.’ The saving of a life can be the saving of this thing you are living, rather than the body you’re living it with. To save one from sleepwalking, from attachments to ways of living that are bad for you (e.g. fantasies of ‘the good life’, ‘the American dream’). As Lauren Berlant puts it, the route to the ‘good life’ sold to us is often a rut, but between the routinized rut and the cracks that drop into nowhere, you stay in your rut. The saving of a life that Walker talks about is the life of the imagination. It is about taking us out of the rut, and imagining better worlds (for ourselves, others).

How do we do this if not with imagination? If not with art?

It is why, in her essay, when asked the question what is the difference between white and black writers, she sees black writers always aiming towards a larger freedom. It is a political and psychological freedom that white writers, says Walker, having never been enslaved or oppressed, need not chase. Or as the African-American writer Terry McMillan puts it: ‘This writing stuff saved me. Writing is my shelter.’

Writing books to be read. What got Jonathan Franzen ‘back on track as a writer’ after struggling with the realisation that his books had failed to ‘culturally engage’ an audience and that, he was coming to see, the novel no longer played an important role in the cultural life of Americans, was reading. Or, to be precise, readers, of which he was also one.

Franzen quotes the work of Shirley Brice Heath,whose work is now very out of date as she researched enforced transit zones, such as airports, where people had no access to popular culture such as TV or much music, which is a time forever gone to us now, with the smart phone; she also got it wrong that ‘the computer will never replace a book’ now we have the I-Pad and Kindle, which gives to the computer the ‘substance’ that book readers crave.

For Heath, there are two kinds of readers, those who modelled themselves on at least one parent, and those who are ‘social isolates’ who become, in fact, hypersocial (hyper sensitive to sociality, rather than antisocial) and who find in books the people, characters, and world with which they can communicate. Reading, then, is an act of imaginary communication. And these types are much more likely to become writers. As Heath said to Franzen: “you are a socially isolated individual who desperately wants to communicate with a substantive imaginary world.”

For Franzen this is no stinging criticism. It is exhilarating. “Simply to be recognised for what I was, simply not to be misunderstood: these had revealed themselves, suddenly, as reasons to write.”

I want to take Walker’s words from her essay and look for how they could work as a model for my own writing, and life. Walker explores the works of black women, and from these writers (not only these, also men, also white women) begins to create a body of work that helps her understand her role as a writer, and as an integral practitioner of what it means to be human. She writes about the experiences of black women because these are her experiences. But she also writes about universal human experiences, and nonhuman relations.

I am trying to work out that model for being someone who is being pressed to write, or think about, or work in the field of animal / nonhuman suffering and oppression. But I am not a cow, or a pig, or a chicken, or a dolphin or orca taken from the wild and held captive. I cannot write ‘as’ one of them. So how can I write? Two things to think about:

  • What or who can I write ‘as’ – what is my personal story that, as Jonathan Franzen urges us to do, connects to the collective and social?
  • Who are the models I can draw upon who write about and for animals, either as novelists, poets, anthropologists, ethologists, essayists…

In the margins of my Alice Walker book I’ve written down a couple of things, scratched out of letters in the urgency of wanting to say something. I’ve written ‘Earthlings’ – it’s the 2005 film narrated by Joaquin Phoenix. It is also the collective for what we all are—animals, living beings, connected by this one planet. So this is one thing I can write ‘as’. Another is as a person who feels empathy for those nonhuman animals who suffer through living hells for our taste preferences, our meat and dairy addictions. Does it matter if I write in forms other than fiction to tell these stories? Can I also tell them through fiction and literature (which might include poetry, plays, essays)?

There’s a third question to add to that list. As Jonathan Franzen puts its in his essay collection How to Be Alone, ‘Why Bother?’ with writing? Why write at all, if it changes nothing? If it does not culturally engage in a time of rapid gratification and shallow narrative? (And if you just want to see a really powerful ripping up and annotation of a book, visit this Vice article.)

Alice Walker answers that question—or rather, puts forward Toni Morrison’s answer—in her essay. Write to bring into the world the books you want to read. Or, as Walker takes it a little further, she writes the books that ‘I should have been able to read.’ She is talking about the books of black women, of black history, of black anthropology. As she was striking out to write a story (inspired by her mother) on black women’s experience and voodoo, the only books she could find on this rich experience of religion and the mystical in black women’s lives were written by white men. Until she found Zora Hurston, that is. And when she found Zora, she found that other critically important thing for a writer (for anyone): a model.

And if there aren’t that many models out there? Be as Toni Morrison—as Walker says of her, “She must do the work of two. She must be her own model as well as the artist attending, creating, learning from, realizing the model, which is to say, herself.”

As Walker explains, finding a model is how you learn ‘to be alone’ (‘be a writer’); by realising that, when you write well, you’re not alone at all: “I had that wonderful feeling writers get sometimes, not very often, of being with a great many people, ancient spirits, all very happy to see me consulting and acknowledging them, and eager to let me know, through the joy of their presence, that, indeed, I am not alone.”

*

And so what was achieved in my week for the 40×40 utopia of writer’s habits? A whole day yesterday feeling overwhelmed and excited with the success of being awarded a Winston Churchill Travel Scholarship. But I still this week found time to meet someone new (Bev, a poet, from the PhD), listen to Hammock’s Departure Songs, watch two short films, The Heat and The Poodle Trainer, I also made two table arrangements for my friend A’s wedding, saw the great poet Douglas Dunn perform at NCLA, sent two valentine’s cards, bought a present (a DVD writer) for my friend K, and committed two hours practice to my newfound love for Pilates.

Already, for a writer, I am feeling the benefits of this ‘practice of doing things’, developing this utopia of ordinary habit, as Ann Cvetkovich calls it. Especially in two areas where I’ve always avoided giving my time—in listening to music and watching film. I’ve always seen both as a waste of my time before, or at least something I don’t find much pleasure in. But it’s not true—and it’s only ‘true’ because of early patterns as a kid of not wanting to be like my sister, who spent all her time watching films and listening to music. I wanted to be different, and so ruled out so many pleasurable acts and moments to find my own path.

Isn’t it funny, as the Jungian analyst James Hollis puts it, that the preferences we are so convinced are ours are often not ours at all? And then what do we do? As Steve Thorp put it just this weekend in his new five-minute read:

The aim must be for each of us to develop into elegant, radiant selves, and join to build communities of love, mutuality and connection. The way we can do this is to wake up, to remove the reductionist shackles of our culture’s psychology, to set out on our own path – however mad and wild we might seem to others – and trust that the journey will, in time, be one we can all share.

 *As a note, these ‘disappointing books’ are often award-winning or shortlisted, such as Cynthia Ozick’s Foreign Bodies. I really don’t care about the characters in that book at all, and yet it was shortlisted for the Orange Prize, possibly for its faux Woolf style. And Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, a very well written book, but short of depth, for all its plotting and emphasis on the astrological archetypes, which barely play a role in the novel at all. What begins as a wonderfully told story peters out into nothing but plot. By the end, we’re left with a hundred pages where we already know everything that’s happened, a clichéd resolution—the fallen woman saved by love (h/t to the writer Viccy Adams for pointing that out. Maybe the disappointment with these books has something to do with raised expectations due to the award/shortlisting? Perhaps.

Image of old Penguins (cc) Beat Ink

40before40, Writing Blog

Practicing

When I was 12 or 13 my parents bought me a keyboard. It was a small Casio, but large enough to learn how to play properly. I’d had music lessons at the secondary school and was going through a phase of wanting to try lots of new things.

One night a week a tutor would come round and teach me how to play. He felt like an old man, although he was probably only in his forties or fifties. I cannot remember his face, because I was afraid to look him in the eye. The tutor assumed I was right-handed and, shy and self-conscious as I was, I didn’t correct him. So he taught me to play right-handed, and so being left-handed I of course struggled. He never quite guessed there was something wrong, and so I began to cancel his visits. Not, unfortunately, until he turned up, meaning my parents had to pay for the tutorial anyway.

I can still see myself at the top of the stairs, looking down as my mum struggles to understand why I am refusing the tutor to come in. Why she has been forced to pay for him again; why I am unable to tell her in advance, put her in this position. The tutor loiters outside the roughly painted red door. I still cannot see his face. This happened a couple of times, until they took the hint, and the lessons stopped completely. Not long after, the Casio got slid under the bed. I don’t know what happened to it afterwards.

I began, and gave up, a lot of things this way. An initial burst of excitement, a fearful obstacle involving other people, and quitting. One of the reasons why writing stuck was that it didn’t (seem to) need any external involvement. And when there was someone who took an interest, it was generally positive (after setting me a detention-exercise of 500 words on “Why I shouldn’t be facetious in class”, my French teacher Mr Battson asked if I’d written anything else? I had, a first (fantasy) novel).

Those music lessons became, after just the first couple, too painful to continue. For me it was out of fear of saying what it is I wanted, who I was. At the time, I was struggling with being a teenager, for sure, but also dealing with learning how to be with my unpredictable, alcoholic father and my harsh step-mother. When we visited their house on Saturdays, my sister and I absorbed the feeling that we couldn’t ask for anything. We were terrified to communicate our thirst, if thirsty. Hunger, if hungry. We had to wait until asked.

And the piano tutor never asked me if i was right- or left-handed, and so I said nothing, and I gave up the lessons before I even began.

But writing stuck. There was no need to ask permission. I already knew how to write. I could do joined-up writing before most of my class (Red Class, Mrs Cloak, Heaver’s Farm, 1980). When I was 10 or so I asked my mum for a typewriter, and I began to teach myself how to type. She helped, being a secretary. I wrote most nights, in fact probably nearly every night between the ages of 10 and 14, or roughly when I got my first computer, and discovered football manager games.

I wonder who he was, that pianist? I wonder what his dreams were — if he had practiced piano through his youth, had dreams of artistry, if he still played, if he was, or had been, famous? If he was a teacher at a school or making his own freelance tutoring career. If he played classical or jazz. What he thought of me, that young boy who barely said a word, who didn’t really have the fingers to play a keyboard. And I wonder what looks passed between him and my mother at the bottom of the stairs, standing at the door, her explaining to him that I wasn’t well, or wasn’t able to see him that night. And if he went away with his money satisfied, or if he felt he was being cast away, judged, somehow.

The thoughts come back to me this evening as I finish Glenn Kurtz’s memoir Practicing, the story of his childhood and youth playing and practicing the Spanish guitar, before giving up the “artist’s dream” in his early twenties, working soullessly in publishing, before studying for a PhD in comparative literature, and not even listening to music for 10 years. He went to one of America’s top conservatories, and then on to Vienna, before losing all faith in the story of his artistic ideal. When the reality of the limits to his talent and of his immature vision (and perhaps poor choices) led him to realise that perhaps he was never going to achieve the ideal he had of the life he wanted as a touring classical guitarist.

It’s a very good book. I picked it up over the weekend in a bookshop in Falmouth, mooching with friends. It reminds me, again, of the lesson learnt later in life by Marion Milner in her work On Not Being Able to Paint, that those who find artistic fulfillment are those able to bridge the gap between inner imagination and external reality–what forms you find in the world for the experiences you want to record, create, how satisfied you can be with those forms. It is what Ira Glass talks about in the now famous video-meme of his, Taste.

Near the end of the book Kurtz describes the realisation that the gap, for him, is too wide. He and his friend Marcus have been invited to play their new form of improvised, rebellious classical-pop-jazz at a bar in Vienna, as they both struggle to find their way beyond education into the world of performance. They’ve just been ripped off by the bar-owner, who promised them $100 but pays $10 because the customers didn’t drink enough. But it’s not this that bothers Kurtz:

Something much deeper was wrong with the life I was leading. I had an idea of what I wanted, an image of great music, exalted experience, inspired performances. This ideal glowed so vividly in me that I needed only close my eyes to live in it. But when I opened my eyes, I saw a barroom full of scruffy people getting drunk and a squat, deceitful impresario calculating his take. In this equation Marcus and I were incidental, mere entertainment. And even if the audience loved us, the scene was too small, too finite, too ordinary to feel like success. I enjoyed the music we were playing, and I knew we had just begun to perform. But the dissonance between this and my ideal was eviscerating; it wasn’t at all the life that I had imagined.

I recognise this disillusion; in a way I praise Kurtz for beginning to perform, and for the self-awareness of realising the gap between the inner ideal and the external reality. But I feel for the the young man he was, who had dedicated so much of his youth to playing the guitar, with obvious talent (he won a number of competitions, was accepted into the leading conservatory, acted with such passion as to go against his parents’ wishes for a more stable life), and am saddened that such a realisation came to him too soon (or too late).

Our stories are not the same. Only last week I was talking to my best friend here, K, discussing my PhD. I am glad it is over — glad that I have the freedom to take on new projects. And also that the PhD was not a very creative experience, although a very useful one. What I regret is not the PhD, but that I was not a better writer before I began it. I did not, as Kurtz had, dedicate my youth and young adulthood to writing. I sort of put it off, too afraid, like that shy and self-conscious boy at the Casio piano, to speak out for what I wanted. To take my writing, and myself, seriously enough. I skirted around writing, keeping it as hobby; rather, holding it afar as an ideal, one that I would never have to test, as Kurtz did, even though it broke him.

Although as Kurtz says, “My first time through, I practiced badly, chasing an ideal that ruined music for me, turning what I had loved the most into torture. Now I’m pursuing not an ideal but the reality of my own experience. I began to practice again because I felt I could do it better this time.”

Being broken, heartbroken, and having, most importantly, the ideal–the fantasy–broken, is what allows those of us driven by the inner imagination to actually become writers, musicians, artists. Does everyone have to go through this process? Yes, according to Milner, and to Jung, but also just to common sense. We need to see the reality of our ideas in the world. To do so, we have to let it become something other than the inner fantasy. It will never be as good. We have to be okay with that.

The novel I have written for my PhD is my fall from grace, as the storyteller Geoff Mead might put it. It is not as good as I hoped for. It is not the ideal I held in my head for so long. And yet, I tested it. I finished it, put it out in the world, and held it up for measure. My life has not changed. The rejections from agents have landed on the doormat. In my heart, I know it is flawed and is not what I hoped to write.

But I understand my own experience more now than before. As Kurtz says of his music, it is fear of being nothing without the thing we love and hope for most (our ideals of ‘music’, ‘writing’, ‘partnership’, ‘art’, ‘running’) that leads us to timidity; not being brave enough to let it all go, to experience “in” the loved form itself all that we fear losing:

Being seen seems dangerous, and we hide ourselves; we protect what is most valuable and offer up only what we aren’t afraid to lose. I’d thought I knew what the music should mean. So I held on to the notes instead of releasing them, trying to control them after they’d sounded, to shape how the audience heard me. As a consequence, however, instead of performing, instead of creating something living, what I held was stillborn.

This is a good description of my novel. I describe it as deadened. I have produced something lacking in life by trying to control it, rather than letting it go. Or as Kurtz puts it: “It takes courage to play new music; it takes courage to be a musician at all. But it takes more, so much more, to remain a musician, to let yourself be shaped by music however it speaks to you.”

It takes courage, that is, to let go of the plans, the projects, the ideals, the control. “We’re always planning, protecting, wishing and wanting, as if we could spend our whole lives practicing… The horizon collapses, and now your career is a day-to-day question, even if you’re not ready to answer it. Instead of practicing your art or probing your imagination, you rack your brains for some ambitious plan to put the question off.”

I still do this. Yesterday morning, rather than write, I wasted my writing time on wondering what genre I should write in, if I am wasting my time writing fiction if I am better at poetry (as my friend K suggested) or if I have more success at non-fiction and academic work (as my urgency to contribute to the flourishing of nonhuman others suggests I should).

And yet where is my courage? Where is my courage now the novel is tested and found to be wanting, to remain a writer? To let myself be shaped by writing however it speaks to me.

When I was 23, when Kurtz gave up music, I didn’t have the courage to even test whether I could give it up or not. But I have it. Now, I have it.

There is so much more in Kurtz’s book, so many more riches. His “quitting” music and then coming back to it 10 years later has allowed him to learn that “I wasn’t practicing to learn to play the guitar, but playing the guitar to learn about practicing.”

Because practicing is the story we tell ourselves about what it is we most love doing. Whether that is music, writing, or running, or any other passion. It is our story of how we practice, what we practice, that makes sense of our lives, as much as our story of how we love others. If we practice well, if we practice in the moment, and make of our experience all we can, here, now, today, honestly, without either fearing or giving up completely on the fantasy, the inner imagination, then we will have lived well.

*

And so what did I practice this week in my 40×40 utopia of writer’s habits? I finished Atwood’s Year of the Flood (not great, glad it’s done with) and Kurtz’s Practicing, and am near the end of Donna Haraway’s When Species Meet. I learnt how to cook potatoes and rice Pakistani style, from my friend’s mother–it was like being on a very homely expert cookery show, and I was constantly panicked that her sari was going to catch fire on the gas hob, but clearly decades of cooking experience meant that didn’t happen.

I watched Night Shift, a short documentary about privilege and inequality, about the labour of bodies. I had a really great conversation with old friends, and new. I submitted 3 poems to Butcher’s Dog magazine, listened to Qualia’s Everything Is Going To Be Fine, committed an hour to pilates, as well as toured Cornwall for my god-daughter’s first birthday. And I wrote for 12 hours.

40before40, Writing Blog

Writing a bible for the wrongness

February already. Life can be frittered away, S was saying on the phone last night, and as I was saying to H in my letter earlier yesterday. We need to challenge ourselves not to rest too long with the container we create in the first half of life, and think about what it is we want to fill that container with. The largeness of our actions is created not by the ego but by the soul. I realised speaking to S that I want to am challenging myself: to progress as a professional writer, to be an animal advocate. Not everything needs to be a challenge; but I am not content with having lived a passive life.

Passively curious. Passively engaged. The narrator in my most recent novel is passive. There is a great difference between passive and active curiosity/living. The narrator in my new novel is active. He wants something. And yet what he wants and what he needs are not the same thing. What he gets, something else entirely.

A friend asked me an interesting question yesterday. In the new novel I’m currently sketching out, my main character, David, is writing a secular bible for the future. What does this bible in the novel mean to me, my friend asks?

For my protagonist David, it means he is being active—actively writing, actively not giving up on the future. He writes in the hope (and sometimes despair) that words can change things. He writes because, like most writers, there is a compulsion to do so. But he writes as well because in his world, words are the posts of a fence that he is trying to put up around a safe space where he, his partner, and their animals can find safety. It is perhaps one of the reasons why people have always told stories and, later on, marked those stories down. What he discovers is the unpredictable nature of written words. They are never secure in themselves, not good as fence posts. They  always mean something else, there is always a gap in the border you want them to make. They  always make something other than you’d hoped for happen. Greater, lesser. You can follow a line, but that does not mean it is solid stone. That’s the alchemy.

For me, the author, I want to interrogate this idea. Because I’m often torn between beliefs that to write is to act, and to write is not enough. Not now. And yet writing is the only thing I do, as Gloria Steinem said, that “when I do it, I don’t feel I should be doing something else.”

It doesn’t mean one can’t be an advocate or activist. But then what one writes about is body, and writing is host.

The bible in the book. It is not so much about the religious connotations of it being a bible; that in the Beginning was the Word. And yet I am also interested in the power of ritual; as a secular society one of the things we have lost are the rituals that are so important to indigenous cultures and which mark and help us through the passages of life. Both Richard Rohr and Geoff Mead, if I read them correctly, believe we are a much poorer culture for the loss of meaningful ritual to help guide our souls towards largeness. Don’t become lethargic, as James Hollis says. Honour the rituals you have inherited, and keep your ancestors close.

The bible is also a means for my character David to work out what went wrong (the “wrongness,” as Margaret Atwood has put it in The Year of the Flood) with the world, and to think about how it could be better, how it could be put right.

For me it is about words as activism, words as change. Writing as an act of enough-belief. I do not want to create a parody, without any real meaning, as Atwood has done. I am not keen on her sci-fi books at all—certainly in comparison to Le Guin.

And yet I continue to struggle with this idea that writing will change things; that it is a valuable thing to do; I suppose I need David to wrestle with that idea so he can teach me something about it, the struggle. He writes out of… faith? Perhaps. And yet in the collapsed future he inhabits, what good will it do. ‘No cities,’ says Apollo in the very last episode of Battle Star Galactica when the wanderers, the refugees, finally find Earth. What he means is no civilisation, no institutionalising of beliefs. No books. No rules, no guides. They are always co-opted, always bureaucratized. But David has a compulsion to write, to do this. As I do. It is a risk that your words will engulf you.

And yet the calling to write won’t get any louder than this. This is the act; this is the calling. I write everyday, and so does David. It feels good (not always easy). To write feels to be in service to what I hope for the world. A world with less suffering, and a world where the Great Mistake of humankind—to think we are apart from and above nature—to think only with our egos—is overcome. To be a New Nature writer. To be an advocate for animals. To write stories that charge people to think of the present moment. Writing as beacon. David believes it is, and Esther believes in David, and together their animals and homestead trust them. So they must be doing something right.

*

And so how did I do this week, in the utopia of writer’s habits that is my 40before40 challenge? I realise that documenting the whole process will be rather boring for readers; hence why it may generally come at the end of something that seems to me far more interesting.

In commitment to active writing, I found pleasure in writing by hand, as I wrote letters to H (x2), Nish for her birthday, and to my friend Jill Clough, while also having an afternoon doing nothing. I submitted three pieces of work to competitions and submissions: a flash fiction ‘Soil’ to the Tube Flash project, and two extracts from the novel, noted above, to Myriad Editions and Unpsychology magazine.

In commitment to what one of my favourite authors, David Mitchell, refers to as omnivorous inspiration (the only thing omnivorous in my life), I thought about sentinels, inspired by Stevie Ronnie and Susannah Pickering’s poetry launch, and saw John Challis’ debut as a playwright with The Next Train to Depart. I also listened to two new albums, William Basinski’s Garden of Brokenness and Jonsi and Alex’s Riceboy Sleeps, without distraction, while seeing the RIFF/T exhibition at Baltic 39 with my friend K.

I finished two books on the mid-life (Richard Rohr’s Falling Upward and Geoff Mead’s Coming Home to Story)—reviews to follow. And I read two poetry collections, The Point of Waking by Cora Greenhill, and the as yet unpublished manuscript What Things Are by Agnieszka Studzinska, coming out this April/May, I hope. Oh, and I’ve watched three short films – Aisha’s Song, Minka, and the work of Toronto Pig Save on their channel.

In commitment to my social self, I met a new person, a 74-year-old Pete Doherty, who’s a runner, and whose story that he’s going to run the Newcastle Park run on his 75th birthday has inspired a new piece of flash fiction. I’ve had three proper conversations, with my friend E on her plans to do a PhD, with K, and with my friend S on not frittering away your life. And I’ve removed one thing (old towels) from my home. I’ve also given five presents: a book on insomnia to a suffering friend, the found poem for Nish, candles for my neighbours to apologise for a noisy dinner party, and the collected short stories of John Updike for H’s birthday (belated). And a picture frame for K’s art.

In commitment to others, I donated $5 to the fund to pay for Bonny the dog’s medicine, to Sea Shepherd and Toronto Pig Save. And I had five friends round for a new vegan recipe (black bean burgers from Isa Moscowitz’s Isa Does It), made a present (a found poem, ‘Dolabella’) for my friend Nish’s birthday.

In commitment to my soul self, I gave up one fantasy of a different life, handing back some goods from a friend who lent them to me which were talismans for that misplaced life. I took one walk with the ecological self around the Newcastle Town Moor, I’ve gone eight days without alcohol, and begun meditating, and committed an hour to Steve Thorp’s 21 Soul process.

21 Soul Activism, 40before40, Projects, Writing Blog

The 40 x 40 list; a writer’s utopia of habits

I have a small silver box full of post-it notes. Written on those post-it notes are ideas I’ve had over the past five years while completing my PhD in Creative Writing at Newcastle University, the creative element of which is my novel Obélisque. Both are all but finished (the PhD just waiting for the viva; the novel finished enough for now to pass that viva; I’ve also had an idea for what I need to do next with it).

The box was a helpful idea for how to deal with all those ideas that arrive as exciting distractions, bundles of energy to ‘do stuff’, while already committed to a major project. I’d have the idea, write it down, put it in the box, and put the lid back on the box. Suffer a little of the sadness of not being able to jump into that new idea right away, and get back to the discipline of, as Neil Gaiman says, finishing things.

So one of the reasons for looking at a list of 40 things to do for my 40th year was about, now those two big projects are all but ended, taking that lid off, literally and metaphorically. It feels so good to have an idea for something new and be able to act upon it. Rather than diverting it onto a post-it note and putting it away.

So that’s Reason One for my 40×40 project, which began officially this week (forty weeks until my 40th).

Reason Two is because none of these things are bad things to do. In fact, they are the easy habits that I want my life to be filled with (as Aristotle said, we are what we repeatedly do…). And over half of them are all to do with honouring my commitment to write; either writing itself, or gaining inspiration to write about. A few friends have looked at what I’m proposing and warned me of not taking on too much. But these are all small, everyday things, rather than the large challenges some people set themselves (which are amazing and worthwhile in themselves, such as this XL challenge).

These are the things I sometimes fill my life with, and sometimes am too tired and lethargic to see through. Lethargy, as the Jungian analyst James Hollis suggests, is often the result of not grappling with the potential largeness of our life. To become is painful, and challenging, because it means change from the routizined life. So we often sink backwards away from even easy actions. It’s too easy to be overwhelmed.

Somehow, turning all of this into an aesthetic project feels a useful way to develop good rituals to replenish energy, rather than suck it away. It’s what the cultural theorist Ann Cvetkovich calls “the utopia of ordinary habit” that forms the ground from which energy for life can grow rather than become depressed. Heart-opening practices that will feed my writing and creative life.

Naming and visualising my actions also helps me commit to them. I have a very large 70cmx100m piece of art paper taped onto a piece of hardboard on which I am recording the activities as I do them. I’ll also do a weekly update for myself here about the most interesting things to come out of the project.

And there’s one last thing. When a friend questioned me on the size of the list, I replied by saying it was okay, I’m not being hard on myself, if I fail to do some of these things, so what? And yet I’ve wondered about that statement. I’ve wondered what it is about these everyday habits I’m okay with not doing, when so many of them are connected to the soulful sense of what I can achieve as a best self: as a writer, a vegan, a runner, a friend, a human being.

So I’m not okay with not doing these things. They are important, grounding, creative. And, as I’ve pointed out to a few people, “40 afternoons doing nothing” is high on the list.

So here is the list. With a couple of gaps still. There are a few ideas that, like all important challenges to one’s comfort and old habits, keep slipping away from my consciousness each time I think them. I’m sure I will pin them down at some point. And just creating this list has been an act of creative self-awareness, rewarding in that so many of the things I thought I wanted for myself—my professional career as a writer, my animal advocacy, my social networks—figure as central activities.

And finally, the sensation I feel when I read this list, or look at the board, which I have also begun to decorate with collage, is one of opportunity and energy. That tells me it’s a good thing to have done. And to see through.

Reading, Writing, Inspiration

  1. Read 40 books from my shelves
  2. Write 40 letters
  3. Spend 40 afternoons doing nothing
  4. See 40 performances
  5. Learn 40 Koans or prayers
  6. Plant 40 plants (and learn their names)
  7. Make 40 things
  8. Submit 40 pieces of creative writing
  9. Finish 40 bits of existing writing
  10. Listen to 40 albums without distractions
  11. See 40 exhibitions
  12. Write 40 new flash fictions or poems
  13. Review 40 books on the mid-life
  14. Contribute to 40 collaborative projects
  15. Read 40 random journal articles
  16. Learn 40 yoga poses
  17. Write 40 posts about being/going vegan
  18. Read 40 poetry collections
  19. Review 40 animal rights/ethics books
  20. Learn about 40 pieces of art

Feeding my social self

21. Help 40 animals
22. Friends over for 40 dinners
23. Run 40 races
24. Learn 40 new vegan recipes
25. Have 40 proper conversations
26. Remove 40 things from my home
27. Give 40 presents
28. Spend 40 hours learning French
29. Meet 40 new people
30.
31.

Looking after the self

32. Meditate 40 days in a row
33. Be alcohol free for 40 days
34. Be chocolate free for 40 days
35. Do a 40-mile run
36. Commit 40 hours to Steve Thorp’s 21 Soul activism programme
37. Let go of 40 things
38. Take 40 walks with the ecological self
39.
40.

Thanks to Viccy Adams, Ceri, Jill Clough, Susan Tonkin, Jo Montgomery, Rachel Fay, Steve Thorp and others for some stimulating conversations and ideas for things to go on the list.

40before40, Projects, Writing Blog

Filling the wobbly vase at 40

potteryHello. Happy New Year.

I’m working on a fun idea for my 40th year. A few months ago, while engaged in conversation with a student, we spoke about time-limited-oriented blogs, such as ‘400 Days until 40’, which is one that my student used to read. It freaked me out a little that he mentioned this on the exact day that I had 400 days until I was 40. Anyway, after a few weeks of pure fear of aging and dying, I then went on a friend’s 40th birthday, we spoke about it, and I got over it.

And now I’m starting to see other friends, acquaintances, bloggers, all with their excellent ’40 before 40′ lists (going up in balloons, singing in public etc). Other people have lists or acts that are more closely linked to their everyday. A poet I know is learning 40 poems off-by-heart before she’s 40. (She’s a wonderful performance poet.) I liked that idea. In fact, I liked both the wild and the everyday.

Read the rest of this entry