Marion Milner Archive

Blog, Novel Writing, Writing

Working with outlines, doing away with time

6896054295_22c4a258fc_zThe other day I said I’d go and meet H at 1230. We arranged this a couple of hours earlier. There was no fixed reason why 1230, other than I thought it would be a good time, and I’d be hungry for lunch.

When the time came around, I was not quite finished what I was working on, or had done the chores I’d wanted to do–reactivate my library card, borrow Tim Birkhead’s Bird Sense–but the 1230 deadline loomed over me to the point where I began to get uptight about it. H was going nowhere. She was in her studio making stuff. There was nothing we had to be at or go to afterwards. 1230 was not precious. And yet I’d made it so–a strict appointment that it would be awful to miss.

For some reason, that day, I began to question why this was. Perhaps because we’d talked earlier in the week about what irked us more, someone being late or someone running an event, giving a talk, etc, overunning at the end into your time. (Note: for me, the latter.) Or perhaps it was because we’d set the time to meet only two hours ahead, and so its complete arbitrariness was more apparent. But essentially it dawned on me, as it has not before, that this was an ingrained pattern, nothing to do with my conscious or rational understanding of what in fact was in front of us. It was something highly emotional, charged, and hidden. That is: something from my childhood.

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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


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.

Writing Blog

Read your work out, listen to who you are

It’s Susan Orlean’s number one tip for editing. It’s Joanna Penn’s must do for final review. And Hugh Howey (author of Wool) doesn’t think you’re taking yourself seriously as a writer unless you have done this on each finished piece (it’s not finished until you’ve done this).

And I do this now. I read my work out loud.

I used to read it out on paper print, edit with a pencil, and then later go back  to the screen. But I’ve found that editing on-screen while reading is actually much more efficient. It’s because as I read out loud I hear the sound of the sentence, its inner structural rhythm (or arhythmia), and have the words reverberating as I edit. If you edit on paper and then make the changes later, you can’t hear the words so clearly. The memory is weaker. It’s no longer an echo.

Kate Kiefer Lee says it helps her sound like a human. I’d go further. It helps you hear who you are as that human. Perhaps that’s especially because at the moment I’m writing creative non-fiction, and it’s autobiographical, and so I’m listening to myself tell myself who I was when I made certain decisions in the past, and who I am now reflecting upon it.

Perhaps this is also how therapy, especially ‘the talking cure’ of psychoanalysis works. So many of us interior people have narratives of who we are and what we can achieve (or can’t) running around in our heads. Perhaps hearing the actual words, rather than thinking them, changes their energy, their hold over us. And if it does that for us, it does it for our characters too, for our writing. When our characters are us, it changes us. (for simple things: winning gold medals; more complex achievements: peace of mind).

Writing is a formulation of the imagination. Reading that writing out loud tests the imagination in the crucible of the real world. It makes me think of Marion Milner’s hypotheses in On Not Being Able to Paint, regarding those who are best able to bridge the gap between inner imagination and outward reality, to create things we are happy with, proud of. Those of us who can manage and live with the chaos and the fear of never producing in reality what we can imagine, will always produce more, and better, than those who cannot handle those fears.

Perhaps reading work out loud, hearing one’s voice, listening to your own imagination as it is read back to you, is part of that bridging process. (I wonder how many of us do this for our blog posts?!)